Beginning the IEP Process

Part 1 on Navigating the Individual Education Plan (IEP) Process

Article at a Glance

  • An IEP differs from a 504 plan and requires progress tracking.
  • In Utah, your pediatrician may be able to help speed the evaluation process with a letter of diagnosis.
  • It’s important to learn your rights under your state’s laws before your IEP meeting.

The Path to an IEP

When your child shows signs of physical, emotional or developmental delays, it is often hard to know where to go or how to start the process of getting the services your child needs. Most often, a discussion with a medical provider or educational professional can help confirm or validate your concerns about your child’s growth and development, but the burden and stress of what to do next can be overwhelming.

When my son, Joshua, was diagnosed with speech and developmental delays as a toddler, there was so much to process outside of the news that something was different with my child, and it was quickly apparent that he would need extra services to help him develop those missing skills.

When Joshua qualified to attend a special education preschool through our public school district, I was excited at the prospect of having services such as speech and occupational therapy available to him at school on a regular basis. Even though I had very positive discussions with Joshua’s teachers about his need for an individualized educational program (IEP), I soon learned that certain steps needed to be completed before his teachers could officially provide for his needs and accommodations in the classroom.

Here are five important things I learned while going through the process that have not only served us through his special education preschool years but through his mainstream public school education too. It may seem like a lot of paperwork and protocol at first, but the steps are really quite easy, and the end result sets up an IEP meeting where you and educational professionals can guarantee your child the best personalized educational experience.

1. The difference between a 504 Plan and an IEP

At first glance, a 504 Plan and an IEP may seem similar; however, there are some important differences.

While a 504 Plan is an official document that provides accommodations for academic success, it does not require special education instruction for your child or provide documentation measuring your child’s progress.

An IEP is an official document outlining and guaranteeing the services that will be provided for your child through the school district. It tracks progress and is reviewed and determined annually. It also ensures that, despite your child’s disabilities or delays, your child is guaranteed the equal opportunity for education as every child in the public-school system from ages 3 to 21.

Your child will qualify for either a 504 Plan or an IEP, depending on academic needs (learning or attention issues) or medical diagnoses (including mental or emotional conditions).

For a better description of a 504, see:

For a more detailed description of an IEP, see:

Important Tip: While your child’s pediatrician cannot initiate a 504 or an IEP, they can help by offering guidance on the accommodations that might benefit your child. Your pediatrician can also offer a letter of diagnosis which can sometimes speed up the evaluation process outlined below.

2. Screenings and evaluations

For your child to qualify for an IEP, he or she will need to be evaluated for eligibility. After discussing your concerns with your child’s teacher, you should receive an official notice from that teacher within one week requesting your consent to an evaluation. After you have given consent for evaluation, the school has 60 days to assign an evaluator from your child’s school district to assess your child, look for signs of delay or disability and determine if there is a need for special education instruction. In addition to the screenings and evaluations the school district performs, it may be necessary for you to bring immunization records and hearing and vision screenings provided by your doctor. If, for some reason, you are unhappy with the school district’s screenings and evaluations or your child’s placement, you can request an Independent Educational Evaluation (an IEE) at the expense of the district.

3. Determining eligibility

After your child has been evaluated, you will receive a Notice of Meeting to review and determine your child’s eligibility. In this meeting, the evaluator focuses on the observations and recommendations for an IEP. Once again, if you do not agree with the district’s assessment, you have the right to ask for a hearing to challenge the decision through an IEE.

4. Notice of meeting

After the required evaluations, screenings and determination for eligibility, you will receive an official letter requesting your presence for an IEP meeting. At the meeting, the education professionals will discuss with you the IEP for your child they have drafted. This meeting must take place 30 calendar days after your child is determined to be eligible for an IEP.

5. Handbook of rights

You should receive a copy of your state’s handbook of rights prior to your meeting. If, for some reason, you have not received a copy of the handbook, make sure to request a copy from your child’s case manager, or go to your state’s special education services website. Educating you about your rights and the process of your child’s IEP is part of the school district’s procedure for ensuring the right education for your child. Make sure you make yourself familiar with the handbook before your meeting.

Since the federal government instituted the Individuals with Disabilities Act in 1975, children with disabilities have been guaranteed the same educational rights as their peers. For the last 12 years, Joshua’s individual education program has helped him grow and learn in ways his disabilities and delays would otherwise not allow, all while in the public school setting. The process may seem paperwork-heavy at times, but the results and opportunities his IEP brings are well worth it.

Sarah Beck and familyAbout the writer:
Sarah Beck lives in Fargo, ND, and is a writer, blogger, wife, and mom of two great kids: an 11-year-old daughter and a 13-year-old son who has autism.

You can read about her autism-meets-middle school adventures and the challenges, victories, and learning curves that happen along the way at

Read part two of this three part series:
Understanding an IEP





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