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What's an IEP, and Does Your Child Need One?

It's important to pay attention to your child's learning curve, but that's easier said than done when you're not there at school. You have to rely on the teacher for help. If your child has a disability or trouble learning, you and the teacher can create an Individualized Education Program, or IEP.

Does your child need an IEP?

An IEP is a custom educational plan tailored to a student's specific learning ability. IEPs were made possible in public schools by the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act of 1975. According to the U.S. Department of Education, the law says all children are "guaranteed access to a free, appropriate, public education ... in the least restrictive environment to every child with a disability."

To qualify for an IEP, a child must demonstrate at least one of the five "special factors" described in the 1975 law. Those factors: behavior that impedes learning; limited English proficiency; blindness or visual impairment; communication problems, including deafness; and a need for assistive technology.

Jim Shriner, an associate professor at the University of Illinois and the creator of the IEP Quality Project, says a public school is obligated to identify children with disabilities.

"The program is reserved for students who need specifically designed instructions," Shriner says.

The first step in determining whether your child requires an IEP is to talk with his teachers and listen to their concerns about his academic progress. If they believe his overall learning is being affected, the child will then go through evaluations to see whether he qualifies for services and in which of the five areas he needs help.

According to Child Trends Data Bank, male students with special needs are more than twice as likely as females to receive special services through an IEP. In 2007, 42 percent of boys with special needs in kindergarten through third grade had an IEP, compared with 17 percent of girls with special needs in the same grades.

Although the timeline can vary, students who need an IEP are usually identified in elementary school. Their IEP can then be revised and continued through high school. In some cases, students can get to a point during their education where they can "graduate" from their IEP if it is determined that they no longer need it. If you feel the IEP no longer meets your child's needs, you can request a meeting to review it.

Writing the IEP

Every public school student who receives special education must have an IEP in place. Many variables need to be considered when constructing an IEP, which is why parents, teachers and students are heavily involved in the creation and execution of the program.

"It's an agreed-upon program that has to be followed for a whole school year," Shriner says.

The program itself is drawn up by an "IEP team," which usually consists of parents or guardians, the teacher that identified the student's needs, special education teachers and school officials, such as a principal or member of the school district. The child is also involved in the process, and his input on his own learning is a vital part in making sure the IEP will be successful, Shriner says.

Once the team is in place, it must schedule a meeting to discuss the IEP within 30 days of a child's special education needs being identified. According to the National Center for Learning Disabilities, the team will begin writing the IEP after the child has been tested to determine his eligibility. The team will look at how the student is doing in school and how that performance can be improved. It then sets annual goals to review and to determine how the IEP is helping the child.

The program can include accommodations and modifications. An example of an accommodation would be giving a child with delayed reading skills an audio book in place of a novel so he can still participate in class discussions. A modification usually involves changing the curriculum or instructions for a child with disabilities.

The finished IEP must include:

  • Information about the child and the program that has been designed for him or her
  • Discussion of current performance
  • Annual goals
  • Special education and any related services
  • Accommodations
  • State and district test results
  • List of needed transition services
  • Measured progress of the child

Shriner says the program should be written in so much detail that even someone who doesn't know the child would be able to read it and understand the program.

Further information

For more information about determining whether your child qualifies for an IEP, visit the National Center for Learning Disabilities' website.