What is an IEP?

The Individuals With Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) is a federal law that entitles all children with learning disabilities a free, appropriate education. Children who are beset with a disability or otherwise qualify for special education must be provided with an education that will address their unique needs, provides access to the education curriculum being taught other children, and that strives to meet state grade-level standards.

The legal document that clearly articulates the school’s plan to meet a disabled child’s unique educational needs is called an IEP. IEP stands for Individualized Education Program. The IEP is essentially the blueprint of the child’s special education program.

Every IEP has two distinct goals: to establish reasonable, measurable goals for the child as well as to identify the services the school will provide to reach those goals. The IEP is the product of a team effort, which is reviewed and, perhaps, modified at least once a year.

Who Needs an IEP?

IDEA has identified 13 categories of special education. Each child who qualifies for services must fall into one of these categories. What’s more, the disability must adversely affect the child’s educational performance. These categories are:

  • Autism Spectrum Disorder: a developmental disability that primarily impacts a child’s social and communication skills, and sometimes behavior

  • Deafness: a hearing impairment that is severe enough to prevent a child from processing language through hearing

  • Deaf-Blindness: the combination of both a hearing and a visual impairment.

  • Hearing Impairment: a hearing impairment not as severe as deafness

  • Intellectual Disability: impaired intellectual ability

  • Multiple Disabilities: a child beset with more than one condition covered by IDEA

  • Orthopedic Impairment: an impairment to a child’s body, irrespective of the cause

  • Other Health Impairment (OHI) : any condition that limits a child’s energy, alertness, or strength

  • Specific Learning Disability: any learning issue that impacts a child’s ability to speak, listen, write, or reason

  • Speech or Language Impairment: covers a broad range of communication problems such as impaired articulation, stuttering, etc.

  • Traumatic Brain Injury: any brain injury that was caused by some physical force or accident

  • Blindness or other significant visual impairment: any complete or partial sight loss unable to be corrected by eyeglasses or the equivalent

  • Emotional Disturbance: various mental health issues, some of which may also be covered under “OHI”

Who Creates an IEP?

Creating the IEP is a joint effort involving personnel from the school, the child’s parents, and at times the child as well. School personnel may include any of the teachers working with the child, including special ed teachers, and experts, such as psychologists who can interpret and explain results from the assessment.

What’s in an IEP?

The various documents that comprise the IEP may be challenging for the uninitiated to decipher. They cover numerous areas, refer to information, and utilize terms that some find unfamiliar. Yet when all of these pieces are combined, from testing results to goals set for the child’s progress, they create a picture of the optimal program for the child’s success, and how the child will receive support throughout the process.

The IEP should offer a deeper and more comprehensive understanding of the child’s challenges and his/her strengths and abilities that can be marshaled to meet and overcome those challenges. And it should lay out in considerable detail how the school, together with adjunct personnel, will proceed in building the requisite skills to be successful.

While there is no precise template that must be followed, at a bare minimum every IEP must include these pieces of information:

Current Performance Levels

This initial section will contain information provided by the parents, teachers, and supplementary staff, and those who performed the evaluation. A central feature of this section is comprised of comments regarding how the child is faring in the classroom.

Also, results of standardized tests, including any observations, are presented as well to be reviewed in the context of anecdotal Information. Aside from an analysis of academic needs, other areas of concern, such as behavior, social skills, and language development and comprehension, will be included here as well.


The next step is to set measurable goals that the child can reasonably be expected to accomplish within the year. Goals must be aligned with what has been documented regarding the child’s current performance level, and focus on needs directly related to the disability.

Goals need to be broken down into doable segments that will, as best possible, ensure continuous involvement and progress in the general curriculum together with the other children. These goals can be in any number of areas including but not limited to academic, social, and behavioral.

And finally, the goals section of the IEP includes a description as to how the school will measure and evaluate the child’s progress towards meeting those annual goals. Often the frequency of educators issuing progress reports will be listed here as well; these are typically issued quarterly.

Special Education and Other Services

The IEP delineates the particular special education supports and services the child will be receiving, for example, occupational or speech-language therapy. It is essential to remember that Special Education is a set of services needed by the child to realize his/her goals and objectives and how they’ll be delivered, rather than a precise location for the child to go on a regular basis.

After the IEP is written, the child’s team will determine how best to implement it. School districts are obligated to provide a free appropriate public education (FAPE) in the least restrictive environment (LRE). So the IEP team will seek the way — to the greatest extent possible — for the child to be educated amongst their non-disabled peers.

Most of the time, the regular classroom is the preferred setting, but other options are available, including special day classes depending on the school district.

Additional components of the IEP may include:

  • To what extent the child will participate with non-disabled kids in other school activities outside of the classroom

  • When services begin and their duration

  • The transition from services (beginning by age 16)

Unique factors that are addressed in the IEP, depending on the child’s needs:

  • Behavior management strategies and supports, if the behavior will interfere with this child’s learning or the learning of others

  • Language related issues if English proficiency is subpar

  • Assistive services or technology devices required to fulfill FAPE

  • Needed accommodations to function in the regular classroom