How to Know If Your Child Needs an IEP

When will an IEP help a child?. Jamie Grill via Getty Images

If your child has been struggling in school, you may be wondering what you can do to support them to get back on track. If you have been exploring different options for struggling learners, an individualized education plan (IEP) or special education services may have come up. But how do you know when an IEP is the right thing to ask for to help your child in school?

If your child is struggling or underperforming in school, then it is important that you intervene early to keep problems from snowballing. School years go by quickly, and a child can fall behind in a matter of weeks without the right support. 

In order to understand when to ask for an IEP, it is important to understand what an IEP is and who can get one. Then you can decide if it is time to ask for an IEP or try a different option for support.

What Is an IEP?

An individualized education plan, or IEP, is a legal document that details the personalized learning needs and goals for a child with a disability as defined by law when the child attends a K-12 grade educational institution that receives public funding. IEPs are required under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) for every child receiving special education services.

In order for a child or teen to get an IEP, they must have one of 13 disabilities listed in the IDEA and have been evaluated and identified as needing special accommodations in order to learn the general school curriculum. Having one of the 13 disabilities alone doesn't qualify your child for an IEP. The disability must cause significant interference with your child's ability to learn the standard curriculum.

Factors Considered

Five factors are used to evaluate how a child's disability and learning are affected:

  • Behavior problems
  • Limited English-speaking ability
  • Visual impairment
  • Hearing or communication impairment
  • A need for assistive technology or services

In other words, IEPs are for kids who have a disability that affects their learning. These kids cannot keep up with the regular classroom learning requirements without having some sort of extra help—or even a change to the curriculum. The IEP is the document that details a learning plan that is custom-designed to the child's learning needs.

How Do Kids Get an IEP?

A request for special ed services, or an IEP, is made at the school. This leads to the child being evaluated. The evaluation may include observations from teachers, parents, school counselors, and even your child's doctor or other professionals. If your child has been attending school for a few years, then their school work and performance may also be reviewed. 

This information will be combined and included in an "eligibility determination." This step is where the information about the child is reviewed to see if your child needs special accommodations in order to learn the regular curriculum.

Why Disability Isn't Mentioned

If you are wondering why this is the first time you have read that IEPs are for children with disabilities, you are not the first person who was not aware of the connection. This misunderstanding may come from well-meaning school administrators. In an effort to avoid stigmas about learning disabilities, administrators may respond to questions about IEPs and disabilities with vague answers.

Rather than blatantly state that IEPs are for school-age children with disabilities, administrators give explanations like "IEPs are for struggling students who need a little extra help." The response makes it sound like an IEP is a simple educational intervention—which it is not. This leads to parents of children whose child who is having a brief, temporary issue keeping up with schoolwork to ask for an IEP. 

Who Can Ask for an IEP?

Any parent or school staff member may request to have a child evaluated for special education. If your child has any real possibility of having a disability that is causing their schoolwork struggles, then you should have your child evaluated.

If you have no reason to suspect a disability, asking for an IEP will not help, and may even prolong bringing the right help to your struggling child.

Special education evaluations take up school resources. Evaluations require time to administer tests to your child, gather information from teachers, observe your child in the classroom, and have meetings to discuss the the findings. If your child doesn't have a disability, then the whole process can be a huge waste of the school's time, and delay a resolution to the problem.

Does Your Child Have a Disability?

How can you tell if your child's school problems are caused by a disability? Sometimes it isn't initially obvious. Children may go to great lengths to cover up their disability before anyone else finds out they are different. Your child is likely to need an IEP or at least an evaluation if:

The Teacher Has Tried Alternate Strategies

Teachers who notice that a student is struggling to keep up with workload or learn the material will try a variety of different interventions to help. This could mean giving the child extra time to complete assignments, pairing the student with a peer who is succeeding, or temporarily modifying or reducing the workload. 

If you know that the teacher has tried different interventions and nothing seems to help, that could be an indication of an underlying disability. This is another reason why it is wise to contact your child's teachers if you are concerned about your child's school performance.

The Problem Isn't Really New 

Maybe your child has always had trouble with reading or math. Maybe they always had problems completing assignments or staying on task, and it has been getting worse as the years pass and the grade-level work becomes more difficult. 

Sometimes disabilities become more obvious when the school work increases in difficulty in higher grade levels. If you can look back and see that your child has always found a particular task or subject challenging, and now it is impossible, you have more cause to suspect a disability.

One of the 13 IDEA Categories Fits

If you look over the list and descriptions of the 13 categories and one really seems to fit your child, that should be an indicator of a possible disability.

You Have Ruled Out Other Causes

When you have tried everything and nothing seems to work, then perhaps disability is a possibility. Have you talked to the teacher about interventions? Have you tried eliminating distractions, providing extra help, or even trying to motivate a child who might not see the value of doing work? If you have really tried everything else, then it might be that your child isn't being obstinate, but really can't do the work. 

If you think a disability may be the cause of your child's school challenges, talk with your child's teacher about your concerns. You can make a request in writing to the school for special education evaluation to begin the process towards testing.

Additional Options

If you think your child has a disability but does not meet one of the thirteen categories, then try looking into a 504 plan. A 504 refers to a piece of federal law — Section 504 — that more broadly defines disability. Section 504 defines disability as a mental or physical impairment that limits one or more life activities, or has a history of an impairment, or is regarded as having an impairment.

This broad definition that includes having a history of impairment or being regarded as having an impairment may cover a child or teen that does not meet the more stringent IEP standards of disability. For example, a child may have several autism-like behaviors that affect their day to day lives, without formally meeting the full diagnostic criteria of being the autism spectrum.

If your child is struggling but ​you do not think your child may have a disability you will want to begin by thinking back to when your child first began to struggle in school.

Think about when your child struggles - is it with a particular type of assignment? particular times of the day? are other events happening at the same time? 

Next, set up a time to talk with your child's teacher about what you are noticing. You can work with your child's teacher to come up with a plan to help your child become successful again in school.

Be Prepared to Revise Plans 

Your child is growing and maturing. you may have to try more than one strategy before you find what works. Staying persistent and supportive will help you and your child to overcome challenges.

3 Sources
Verywell Family uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. U.S. Department of Education. Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). Sec. 300.8 child with a disability.

  2. U.S. Department of Education. A Guide to the Individualized Education Program.

  3. U.S. Department of Education. Office for Civil Rights. The Civil Rights of Students with Hidden Disabilities Under Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973.

By Lisa Linnell-Olsen
Lisa Linnell-Olsen has worked as a support staff educator, and is well-versed in issues of education policy and parenting issues.