Teacher with child in classroom Parents and caregivers have a big influence on how well their children do in school. Providing a healthy breakfast, helping with homework, and staying in touch with teachers are just three ways a parent can set a child up for success. But some children need additional help. That’s where the Individualized Educational Program (IEP) comes in.

An IEP is a document that lays out a plan to address a specific child’s special educational needs. A child with hearing loss may be seated close to the teacher, for example. Or a child with attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) may be given extra time to complete tests.

Public schools must create an IEP for each child who receives special education services, according to the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). The law guarantees a free appropriate public education to eligible children with disabilities.

“If a child qualifies, a public school is legally bound to provide the services the child needs,” says Scott C. Tomaine, DO, a pediatrician at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia (CHOP) Primary Care, Flourtown.

Identifying a child’s eligibility for an IEP

Every IEP begins with an evaluation to determine if a child has a learning disability or other special need. Children who start kindergarten with a known disability are automatically identified for an IEP evaluation. When a special need or learning disability emerges later, a teacher, other school professionals or parents may refer the child for an IEP evaluation.

A referral for an IEP sets in motion a series of steps to determine whether a child is eligible for an IEP, and if so, what services, accommodations or modifications it will contain.

The IEP evaluation

Step 1

Notifying the parents

When a child is identified as having a possible special need, the school system will send the parents a letter requesting permission to evaluate the child for an IEP. The evaluation must be completed within a reasonable time after parents give their consent.

Step 2

Conducting the evaluation

The evaluation will be carried out by a team of school professionals led by the district’s school psychologist or a special education professional. The team’s makeup will depend on the focus of the evaluation. For example, a speech and language pathologist may be included on the team if a child has a speech delay.

Step 3

Making a determination

If a child is found eligible for special education and related services, an IEP must be written within 30 days.

If the team determines a child is not eligible for services and the parents disagree, the parents may challenge the decision. Parents have the right to have their child evaluated by a professional outside of the school system and bring those results back to the school for reconsideration.

The IEP meeting

When a child has been found to need special education services, the team will meet with the child’s parents to write the child’s IEP. The parents, the child’s teacher, and those who will provide the special education services will each be given copies of the IEP. The child will receive the services as soon as possible after the meeting.

When parents don’t agree with the services outlined in the IEP, they have the right to ask for mediation, a process in which a neutral third party brings the school and parents together to work out a resolution. Parents can also file a due process complaint with the school system. The complaint triggers a resolution process between parents and IEP team members. If that fails, the case is brought before a hearing officer who will resolve the dispute.

Measuring progress

Throughout the year, parents are notified regularly of the child’s progress on the IEP. The IEP team reviews the child’s IEP at least once a year. The child is re-evaluated for services every three years. 

The role of a child’s pediatrician

When a pediatrician diagnoses a child with a condition that affects learning, such as ADHD, parents may submit that finding to the IEP evaluation team.

“Your pediatrician can’t say this child qualifies for an IEP, but can provide documentation of a condition. The school will take that into account when considering whether to formulate an IEP,” says Dr. Tomaine.

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