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An IEP is a written plan specifically designed to meet a child’s learning needs. Before a child can get an IEP, a group of people, referred to as the IEP Team, must first determine that the child needs special education services. The law states that any child between the ages of three and 21 who meets the definition of a “child with a disability” and because of that disability needs “special education and related services” is eligible for an IEP.

Essentially, an IEP is indicated if the child has a diagnosed disability that impacts his or her performance at school.

A Child with a Disability

13 Qualifying Categories
1. autism
2. deaf-blindness
3. deafness
4. emotionaldisturbance
5. orthopedic impairment
6. other health impairment
7. specific learning disability
8. speech or language impairment
9. traumatic brain injury
10. hearing impairment
11. intellectual disability
12. visual impairment (including blindness)
13. Multiple disabilities


It is important to note that it is not enough for your child to have one of the above disabilities to qualify for an IEP. Their disability must also be having a negative impact on their educational performance which causes them to need special education and related services.

Special Education Related Services

A child is entitled to a special education process and specific rights which are codified in the federal law Individuals with Disabilities Act or IDEA (see 34 CFR Section 1400, et seq). The law defines “special education” as specially designed instruction, at no cost to parents to meet the unique needs of a child with a disability. This means that there are specifically designed programs for children who are mentally, physically, emotionally, or socially delayed. Schools are required to provide all children with a “free and appropriate public education.” Therefore, these services are available to children at no cost to their parents and are available to them until they reach the age of 21. “Related services” help a child with a disability benefit from special education. Some examples of these services are counseling, audiology, occupational therapy, physical therapy, speech-language therapy, transportation, and school nurse support. Your child can receive these “related services” without being in separate special education classes. In fact, the law requires that children who are receiving special education services do so in the “least restrictive environment.” This means they must be included as much as possible with children in the general education classroom.

Getting an IEP

If you think your child might need an IEP, make a special education referral to the school principal. Make this referral in writing and tell the principal the reasons why your child should be evaluated for special education. You will also want to send a copy of your letter to the special education coordinator for the school district. You can look in your child’s student handbook or ask the principal for the special education coordinator’s name. Also, be sure to keep a copy for your records. A copy of a sample referral is attached to this fact sheet. You should also submit a copy of any recent evaluations, hearing tests, or samples of your child’s work along with the referral that shows that your child needs an IEP.

Once you make the referral, the school district must schedule a referral conference within seven days. The conference must be held no later than 21 days from the date you made the referral.

If your child is struggling in school, their teacher may also make a referral for special education.

Referral Conferences

The following three people must attend a referral conference: the principal or their designee, the teacher directly involved with the child’s education, and the parent. You can also invite other people to the conference who might have relevant information about your child. At the conference, you will review all existing information related to your child to decide if your child needs a special education evaluation.

If Your Child...

Should Be Evaluated

If the school agrees that your child might qualify for special education services, then they may provide a temporary placement for your child until they have finished all of their evaluations. You child will get special education and related services through a temporary IEP until the school district finishes your child’s evaluations and drafts a final IEP. The temporary placement will only last 60 days.

After the IEP Team decides to evaluate your child, the school district must complete the evaluation within 60 calendar days. You will have another conference with the IEP Team to draft the IEP and to discuss what services your child needs to be successful in school. This conference must take place within 30 days from the completion of the evaluation.

Does Not Qualify

If the IEP Team does not think your child is eligible for special education, then an IEP will not be drafted. The IEP Team will discuss this with you at the conference held within 30 days of the completion of the evaluation.

If you disagree with this decision, then you have the right to request an Independent Educational Evaluation (IEE) at no cost to you. If you request an IEE, the school must give you information about how to get this evaluation. You are only entitled to one IEE at no cost. If there is still disagreement between you and the school as to whether your child should receive special education services, then you might also file a due process complaint. At that time, you should contact the Legal Aid Helpline for further assistance.

Important Tips

If the school agrees that your child needs special education services and drafts an IEP, then the school will schedule an IEP Team meeting at least once a year to review the IEP and to plan the IEP for the next school year. You will be notified before each meeting is scheduled. You have a right to participate at this meeting and any other IEP meetings.

The school district is required by law to reevaluate your child every three years to see if they are still eligible for special education services.

If you have any concerns about your child’s IEP at any time, you can request an IEP Team meeting by writing a letter to the school principal, telling them why you want the meeting. Send a copy to the special education coordinator for the school district and keep a copy for your records.

The school must follow the IEP. If you believe the school is not following the IEP, call the Helpline for further assistance. You can always bring up these concerns by asking for an IEP meeting at any time.

Be sure to keep a copy of the IEP in a safe place.