What an IEP Is and How to Know if Your Child Needs One

When will an IEP help a child?. Jamie Grill via Getty Images

 

iIf your child has been struggling in school, you may be wondering what you can do to support them to get back on track. If you have been exploring different options for struggling learners, an IEP or Special Education Services may have come up. But how do you know when an IEP is the right thing to ask for to help your child in school?

If your child is struggling or underperforming in school, then it is important that you intervene early to keep problems from snowballing into something larger.

School years go by quickly, and a child can fall behind in a matter of weeks without the right support. 

In order to understand when to ask for an IEP, it is important to understand what an IEP is and who can get one. Then you can decide if it is time to ask for an IEP or try a different option for support.

What Is An IEP (Individualized Education Plan)?

IEP is an acronym standing for an Individualized Education Plan. It is a technical term for a legal document that details the personalized learning needs and goals for a child with a disability as defined by law, when the child attends a k-12 grade educational institution that receives public funding.

IEPs are required under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) for every child receiving special education services. In order for a child or teen to get an IEP they must have one of thirteen disabilities listed in the IDEA, and have been evaluated and identified as needing special accommodations in order to learn the general school curriculum.

Having one of the thirteen disabilities listed alone doesn't qualify your child for an IEP. The disability must cause a significant interference with your child's ability to learn the standard curriculum. Five factors are used to evaluate how a child's disability and learning are impacted. The five factors of impact include:

  • behavior problems
  • limited English speaking ability
  • visual impairment
  • hearing or communication impairment
  • and a need for assistive technology or services.

In other words, IEP's are for kids who have a disability that affects their learning. These kids cannot keep up with the regular classroom learning requirements without having some sort of extra help – or even a change to the curriculum. The IEP is the document that details a learning plan that is custom designed to the child's learning needs.

How Do Kids Get an IEP?

A request for Special Ed services, or an IEP, is made at the school. This leads to the child being evaluated. The evaluation may include observations from teachers, parents, school counselors, and even your child's doctor or other professionals.  If your child has been attending school for a few years, then their school work and performance may also be reviewed. 

This information will be combined and included in an "eligibility determination." This step is where the information about the child is reviewed to see if your child needs special accommodations in order to learn the regular curriculum.

Why Sometimes People Don't Mention Disability As a Requirement For An IEP

 If you have read this far and are wondering why this is the first time you have read that IEP's are for children with disabilities, please know you are not the first person who was not aware of the connection.

It is my own opinion that the misunderstanding about what an IEP is and who can get one actually comes from well-meaning school administrators. In an effort to keep any stigmas about learning disabilities from developing or perpetuating administrators may answer questions about IEPs and disabilities with vague answers.

Rather than blatantly state that IEP's are for school-age children with disabilities, administrators give explanations like "IEP's are for struggling students who need a little extra help."  The response makes it sound like an IEP is a simple educational intervention – which it is not.

This leads to parents of children whose child who is having a brief, temporary issue keeping up with schoolwork to ask for an IEP.  

Who Can Ask For An IEP?

Parents should also be aware that any parent or school personnel may request to have their child evaluated for Special education. If your child has any real possibility of having a disability that is causing their schoolwork struggles, then you should have your child evaluated. If you have no reason to suspect a disability, asking for an IEP will not help, and may even prolong bringing the right help to your struggling child.

Special Education evaluations take up school resources. Evaluations require time to administer tests to your child, gather information from teachers, observe your child in the classroom, and having meetings with parents over the findings.  If your child doesn't have a disability, then the whole process can be a huge waste of the school's time, and frustrate finding a solution that works for the problem.  

How can you tell if your child's school problems are caused by a disability? Sometimes it isn't initially obvious.  Children may go to great lengths to cover up their disability before anyone else finds out they are different.  Here are some thoughts to consider before requesting an IEP or an evaluation for disability:

The Teacher Has Already Tried Alternate Strategies

Teachers who notice that a student is struggling to keep up with workload or learn material will try a variety of different "interventions" to help that child. This could be giving the child extra time to complete assignments, pairing the student with a peer who is succeeding, temporarily modifying or reducing the workload, and anything else the teacher can do that would seem to help the struggling child. If you know that the teacher has tried different interventions and nothing seems to help, that could be an indication of an underlying disability.

If you were getting concerned that your child would not be able to receive help without an IEP,  hopefully that last paragraph helped to settle that concern. There are several different strategies teachers can try that do not require getting an IEP.  This is another reason why it is wise to contact your child's teachers if you are concerned about your child's school performance.

The Problem Isn't Really New  

Maybe your child has always had trouble with reading or math.  Maybe they always had problems completing assignments or staying on task, and it has been getting worse as the years pass and the grade level work becomes more difficult.  

Sometimes disabilities become more obvious when the school work increases in difficulty in higher grade levels. If you can look back and see that your child has always found a particular task or subject challenging, and now it is impossible, you have more cause to suspect a disability.

One of the 13 IDEA Categories Seems To Fit

If you look over the list and descriptions of the thirteen categories and one really seems to fit your child, that should be a clear indicator of a possible disability.

You Have Ruled Out Every Other Cause

When you have tried everything and nothing seems to work, then perhaps disability is a possibility. Have you talked to the teacher about interventions? Have you tried eliminating distractions, providing extra help, or even trying to motivate a child who might not see the value of doing work?  If you have really tried everything else then it might be that your child isn't being obstinate, but really can't do the work.  

If you think a disability may be the cause of your child's school challenges, talk with your child's teacher about your concerns. You can make a request in writing to the school for special education evaluation to begin the process towards testing.

What Options Exist If You Decide Not to Ask for an IEP?

If you think your child has a disability but does not meet one the thirteen categories, then try looking into a 504 plan. 504 refers to a piece of federal law – Section 504– that more broadly defines disability. Section 504 defines disability as a mental or physical impairment that limits one or more life activities, or has a history of an impairment, or is regarded as having an impairment. 

This broad definition that includes having a history of impairment or being regarded as having an impairment may cover a child or teen that does not meet the more stringent IEP standards of disability. For example, a child may have several autism-like behaviors that affect their day to day lives, without formally meeting the full diagnostic criteria of being the autism spectrum. 

If your child is struggling but ​you do not think your child may have a disability you will want to begin by thinking back to when your child first began to struggle in school. Think about when your child struggles - is it with a particular type of assignment? particular times of day? are other events happening at the same time? 

Next, set up a time to talk with your child's teacher about what you are noticing. You can work with your child's teacher to come up with a plan to help your child become successful again in school.

Lastly, Be Prepared To Revise Any Plans You Create 

Your child is growing and maturing. you may have to try more than one strategy before your find what works. Staying persistent and supportive will help you and your child to overcome challenges.

 

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