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John Bair
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Individualized Education Programs: Eligibility & Requirements


In education, there’s no one-size-fits-all solution. Every child’s needs are different. Public schools have to create individualized learning programs for children who need special education services. These programs, along with details on how a child’s progress will be tracked, are all described in an “Individualized Education Program,” or IEP. It’s a binding legal document, that spells out your child’s specific needs and how the school will meet those needs.

Who’s Eligible To Receive An IEP?

Many children struggle in school, but receiving an IEP isn’t automatic. Fundamentally, though, kids who qualify for special education services will:

  • have a disability that has an adverse effect on the student’s ability to access the general curriculum and,
  • as a result of that disability, require specialized education services in order to succeed in school

Under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, thirteen different types of disability are recognized:

  1. Autism spectrum disorders
  2. Speech or language impairments
  3. Visual impairments, including blindness
  4. Hearing impairments
  5. Deafness
  6. Deaf-blindness
  7. Emotional disturbances
  8. Intellectual disabilities
  9. Orthopedic impairments
  10. Traumatic brain injuries
  11. Specific learning disabilities, a category that includes dyslexia and dysgraphia
  12. Other health impairments, a category that has come to include Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD)
  13. Multiple disabilities

Understood, a wonderful resource for parents of children with special needs, says that around 5.8 million children received special education services through the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act in 2012. Over 40% of them were identified as having “specific learning disabilities,” which IDEA defines as

“a disorder in one or more of the basic psychological processes involved in understanding or in using language, spoken or written, that may manifest itself in the imperfect ability to listen, think, speak, read, write, spell or do mathematical calculations, including conditions such as perceptual disabilities, brain injury, minimal brain dysfunction, dyslexia and developmental aphasia.”


Receiving the special education services that could benefit your child begins with the evaluation process. This is when psychologists, medical professionals and teachers review your child’s past educational performance. They’ll also administer new tests, trying to figure out how your child thinks, identifying weaknesses and strengths and gathering information that can point to effective strategies. Psychologists or special education teachers will observe your child in the classroom. Of course, they’ll also reach out to you and your child’s teacher for input, all with the aim of determining whether or not your child has a learning issue that warrants special education services.

Usually, evaluations are initiated by parents, although some schools may reach out to you about the idea of evaluating your child. Evaluation doesn’t cost anything and, if you and the evaluators believe that your child is a candidate for special education services, you’ll begin developing an IEP with the team at your child’s school.

10 Things Every Individualized Education Program Should Include

Every IEP is unique. That’s the point of special education services, after all. But here are 10 things that every IEP has to cover:

  1. Present Level Of Educational Performance (PLOP) – an extensive summary of your child’s strengths, skills and weaknesses, based on observational reports and objective data, like test results. This section explains how your child’s learning issues impact their ability to learn and, specifically, learn the general education curriculum at their school.
  2. Evaluations & Tests – the results of any state or school district testing should be included here.
  3. Special Education Services To Be Provided – here the IEP will outline what sorts of services and support your child will receive. It should be specific, for example, listing the amount of time your child will receive speech therapy. In crafting an IEP, schools aren’t allowed to consider the availability of current resources. If your child needs a certain service, but the school doesn’t feel like that need can be accommodated, that fact shouldn’t enter the equation. Your school has the duty to go out and find the services that your child needs.
  4. Accommodations & Modifications – this is the how and what of your child’s education. Modifications describe how what is taught to or expected of a child will change. Accommodations describe how the way your child demonstrates his or her learning will change.
  5. Supplementary Aids & Services – Most children with an IEP will remain in the general education classroom, but might need some additional supports, like a one-on-one aide or assistive technology.
  6. Education Goals – You and your IEP team will define the academic and functional skills that you believe your child can attain on an annual basis. These should be realistic and quantifiable, measurable. For children with severe disabilities, short-term goals are required.
  7. Progress Measurement & Reporting – a concrete plan for how your child’s progress will be tracked, and how those measurements will be reported to you.
  8. General Education & Extracurriculars – Federal law requires that children with disabilities be educated in the “least restrictive environment.” That means they should participate in general education classes as much as possible. This section will describe what measures are being taken to make that a reality.
  9. Date - when does the IEP go into effect? Some states have requirements, while others don’t.
  10. Transition – when a child turns 16, their IEP will begin to include services designed to help them graduate and achieve post-graduation goals.

How Did We Get Here?

IEPs aren’t new. They’ve been federal law since the Individuals With Disabilities Education Act, or IDEA, was passed in 1990. IDEA is a revised version of an earlier law, the “Education for All Handicapped Children Act,” itself signed into law in 1975. Before 1975, children with disabilities weren’t just under-served in our nation’s public schools; they were explicitly excluded from receiving quality educations. Many children were barred from attending public schools entirely by a set of discriminatory state laws. Others were “warehoused,” segregated from school populations in separate buildings where they received little to no actual instruction.

The Education for All Handicapped Children Act changed that. Instead of withholding the right to, and benefits of, a quality education from children with disabilities, the law required that every public school in the US open its doors to these kids. But more than simply educating, or attempting to educate, children with disabilities, schools had to evaluate the specific learning requirements of students with disabilities individually, creating personalized programs to help them succeed. One of the pillars of this concept is that schools must strive to offer students with disabilities a learning experience similar to the one received by students without disabilities.

Parents Are Fundamental To The Process

Parents have always have been an essential component in this program. One of the Act’s main innovations was creating an avenue for parents to fight back against school policies they feel work against their child’s best interests. In fact, parents are considered equal partners in the Individualized Education Program process by law, and the creation of any one IEP is a collaborative effort, bringing together school staff members, counselors, doctors and, of course, parents.

Under federal law, parents have the right to:

  • attend each of your child’s IEP meetings and be an active member in the process
  • be notified in writing prior to every proposed change to your child’s IEP
  • dispute a decision that isn’t in your child’s best interests

Speak up if something doesn’t seem right to you. Your child’s school has to go out of their way to help your child succeed. It’s not about stretching existing resources, but about seeking out the resources that will best help your child. Everything begins with your child’s individual needs. Creating and following an IEP should be about fitting the school around your child, not fitting your child into the school.


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  1. Yvonne Maey says:
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    Thanks for the great breakdown of how & what each section covers! My 10yo is going into the 4th gr & we got his done right before the end of school last yr w/ECOT. He has Aspergers, ADHD, OCD & severe anxiety & does several different types of therapies at Natiowide Children’s Hospital in Col Ohio. He’s in all regular classes & does extremely well in school in all areas except spelling. He does math at a 7-8th dr level but spells at a K-1st gr level. His 5yo brother (in traditional school w/no dx) is gifted & can spell better than Caden can. Ecot’s psychiatrist said that of thousands of tests administered; Caden is the only student he’s ever had that’s an EXCELLENT reader & is way above ave in comprehension & cognitive skills yet can’t spell. I was pleased w/the overall experience & Altho we got it in place w/only 4wks left of school; he was able to make some progress in spelling bc they could get him to FINALLY sound out words out loud compared to externally as he does everything. So I’m very hopeful he’ll catch up!

  2. Shari Setter says:
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    Dyslexia and dysgraphia are not, independently, qualifying conditions. SLD has very specific criteria. The other thing is that a diagnosis does not automatically insure qualification. There are 3 requirements 1) an eligible disability, which are listed in the article, 2) the disability must have an adverse affect on the student’s ability to access the general education curriculum, an 3) the student must need specially designed instruction. If accommodations will adequately support the student, no IEP is warranted, but a 504 plan could be implemented.

    • John Bair says:
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      Thanks for your clarification, Shari! We’ve updated the post with IDEA’s definition of “specific learning disabilities” and plan on doing a more thorough treatment of the topic soon.