Updated: May 30
Does your child need more help in school than they are currently getting?
Do you suspect a disability is affecting their school progress or access to grade-level curriculum?
Do they require special services such as writing support?
Do they need accommodations or modifications in the classroom?
If the answer to any of these questions is yes, then your child may require an Individual Education Plan (IEP).
Navigating the world of special education can be an overwhelming process. This article will guide you through the three steps necessary to gain an evaluation and potential IEP for your child. Let's dive in to empower you with the tools and necessary steps to secure an IEP.
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What is an IEP?
An IEP is a protected document detailing the specifics of your child’s specific educational needs and what the school district will provide to address them.
3 Steps to get an IEP
1. Written Request - A written request/referral for an IEP Assessment starts the process. A referral can be made by a teacher or anyone who works in the school. A written request can be made by a parent at any time and submitted to the school.
2. School Assessment - Once parent consent for the assessment is obtained, the school district will conduct a free educational assessment. They will document your child’s current academic levels and areas of need.
3. Initial IEP to determine eligibility - The school will determine if your child demonstrates significant educational needs and has a qualifying disability. If YES, then they qualify for an IEP!
If your child qualifies for an IEP, the team will work together to determine goals and services. Individual goals are tailored specifically for your child to help them make progress in their education. The IEP will detail educational services which the school will implement to help them meet their goals.
If you disagree with all or part of the school’s assessment results, you can ask for an Independent Education Evaluation (more on this later).
We will explore each of the three steps in more detail below!
Note: This article was written with steps of how to get an IEP in California. It is important to note that every state may have slightly different procedures for the special education process. However, these steps provide a general overview of what you can expect when starting the process of obtaining special education services for your child.
What qualifies as a disability?
Federal law documents 13 different qualifying disabilities. In order to qualify for an IEP, the team must determine eligibility in one of the 13 categories. It can be helpful to know the categories the school will be considering during the assessment. The school is required to assess any and all areas of suspected disability. If you suspect an area of disability, notify the school when requesting assessment.
Specific Learning Disability (SLD)
SLD is the most common disability category and includes learning differences in reading (dyslexia), writing (dysgraphia) and math (dyscalculia). The Department of Education shows 33% of students with IEPs are categorized as having specific learning disabilities (2020-21 school year). These students have average intelligence and often show a discrepancy, or gap, between their academic achievement and cognitive abilities. This means they score high on some cognitive tests, for example IQ, but have low academic scores. A learning disability accounts for the difference between these scores. California Ed Code also requires that students with a learning disability have a processing deficit in one or more areas including: “attention, visual processing, auditory processing, sensory-motor skills or cognitive abilities (5 CCR § 3030).”
Speech and Language Impairment (SLI)
SLI is the second most common disability category with 19% of students with IEPs qualifying in this area. Speech disorders include articulation challenges (challenges making certain sounds and being understood), persistent abnormal voice or fluency disorder (stuttering). Language impairments include language development scores below the 7th percentile in the following areas: morphology, syntax, semantics, or pragmatics. Expressive or receptive language are also impacted.
Other Health Impairment (OHI)
OHI is the third most common disability category nationally at 15% of IEPs. This category requires an additional diagnosis from a doctor or psychologist and is commonly used for students with ADHD. In addition to a medical diagnosis, students are required to show that the diagnosis affects or limits strength, alertness or vitality, and also negatively affects educational performance.
A diagnosis for autism is determined by specified assessments conducted by a psychologist. To meet the criteria in a public school, a student exhibits challenges in verbal and nonverbal expression and social skills, and also shows adverse affects on academic performance. Often the student’s challenges will be evident by the age of three.
Emotional Disturbance (ED)
Emotional disabilities are characterized by a pervasive mood of unhappiness or feelings of despair and inability to form social relationships. These symptoms must be shown over a long period of time and adversely affect educational performance. They are typically diagnosed by a psychologist.
Intellectual Disability (ID)
Students show deficits in adaptive skills in combination with low cognitive scores in testing. This means a student may have trouble with life skills and self care as well as school-based challenges.
Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI)
TBI may be diagnosed if a student experiences an injury to the brain that interferes with educational progress. This does not apply for congenital or birth disabilities.
Severe hearing deficits impair processing linguistic information.
Experiencing both visual and hearing impairments.
Full or partial vision impairment that interferes with education even when corrected.
Permanent or intermittent hearing impairment not covered by the deafness category.
Any orthopedic impairment that interferes with progress including congenital or acquired (for example cerebral palsy or spina bifida).
When a combination of any of the previous disability categories is present.
Is there a downside to having an IEP?
Making the decision to give a child a disability label should be given consideration. Identifying a student’s need for support and targeted instruction can have significant positive impacts for their education and development.
Downsides to having a disability label could include impacts on self esteem, teacher expectations or peer relationships. Talk to your child about any concerns they have about getting an IEP. Help explain to them the power of recognizing our own unique learning styles and taking ownership of how we learn best.
The IEP team is tasked with helping to mitigate the learning differences of individual students and support them in making educational progress. The goal is for the benefits of an IEP to outweigh any potential harms. Talk to the IEP team about any concerns you have about possible downsides to having an IEP.
Step 1: Written Request
Requesting an IEP in writing is necessary to begin the process of a free evaluation provided by the school. When you send your request in writing, it ensures the school will follow the special education timeline shown above.
For a simple letter template to follow, and more specific details of the process, see our article: How do I write a letter requesting a special education evaluation?
The school may ask you to attend a Student Study Team (SST) meeting to discuss your assessment request. However, this does not alter any of the timelines shown above and cannot be used to delay the school district’s obligation to assess.
Under the federal rule “Child Find”, school districts are required to find and identify all students with disabilities and provide services.
Who do I send my request to?
Your school's principal
Your student’s counselor
Your student’s general education teacher
The special education department at your child’s school
This letter should include:
Specific concerns about your child’s academic or social/emotional abilities
Statement of any diagnoses or known disabilities
Direct reference to your parental rights as noted in the Procedural Safeguards
Specific areas of concern you can request to be assessed:
Academics: Reading, writing & math
Attention/ADHD (you must specifically ask for this testing)
Study skills/Task completion
Behavior & social/emotional skills
Physical/motor or occupational therapy (Occupational therapy services cannot be offered without an academic area of concern).
Vision & hearing
Should be considered if unknown or no recent testing
Speech, language and/or pragmatics/social communication
What do I do if the school denies my request for an evaluation?
The school can deny your request if there’s no evidence of disability. Even if a disability is present, they may state that data shows that their disability is not impacting their education.
However, if there is not enough data to support their response, the school should begin taking data through their Response To Intervention (RTI) process. This will show if general education academic instruction and intervention is effective to address areas of concern. This data-collection period cannot delay an evaluation.
Just as your letter is in writing, the school must also respond in writing if your request is denied.
If you feel their response is not adequate, take a look at these articles for next steps: 9 steps to take if your request for evaluation is denied & why your child’s school can deny your evaluation request.
Step 2: School Assessment to Determine Eligibility
So you have provided a written request, signed the assessment plan and now the assessment is underway. What should you expect?
The school district has 60 days to complete the assessment. This will consist of cognitive testing conducted by a School Psychologist and academic testing most often completed by a Special Education teacher. School Psychologists may also test for social-emotional issues or executive functioning, per your request. Your assessment plan should indicate the specific areas that will be tested as well as the additional professionals who will assess your child such as Language/Speech/Communication Development or Motor Development.
The bulk of special education testing is conducted directly with the student during the school day. Let the school know if there are certain subjects or activities you would not like your child to be pulled from during testing.
The assessment process usually gathers information from parents and teachers through questionnaires, observations or interviews. Students are also tested for vision and hearing by a school nurse. Student's current school work, grades and work samples will be considered.
Step 3: Initial IEP
School districts should ask you to meet for the initial assessment IEP Meeting within the 60-day timeline. Parents have a legal right to meaningful participation in the IEP meeting.
Accordingly, we highly recommend you request the Assessment Report be provided to you in advance of the meeting so you have a chance to review it beforehand.
Don’t be afraid to ask questions! The most helpful people for explaining the reports are the professionals who wrote them, so ask lots of questions throughout the Initial IEP meeting.
You have a right for the assessment report and IEP documents to be provided to you in your native language. An interpreter must be provided during the meeting if needed.
Additionally, you are allowed to invite whoever you want to the meeting. You can also request a specific teacher attend (may not be granted). You may consider inviting:
Executive function coaches
Anyone who knows your child well and can advocate on their behalf
In your meeting notice, be sure to include who will be attending and their role.
What if I disagree with the school’s assessment findings?
In the event that you feel the assessment provided by the school is inadequate or missed important information, you may request an Independent Educational Evaluation (IEE) at the school's expense.
Under federal law, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) holds that parents have a legal right to independent evaluations paid for by the school. The school has certain criteria for choosing an assessor, but it is the parent's decision who to select for the IEE assessment. Be aware you have the right to only one IEE for a given school assessment that you do not agree with.
The school may oppose your IEE request, but under the law they cannot deny your request without filing a due process hearing to prove why their assessment is appropriate. This is often an expensive process, meaning is is less costly for the district to grant the IEE.
Once the IEE is conducted, the school is required to consider the results in an effort to provide your child with a Free and Appropriate Public Education (FAPE). For more information and a template letter to request an IEE, see our article: How do I obtain an IEE for my child.
Should I get a private assessment done first?
No. While this is one way to get an ADHD diagnosis, talking to your child’s pediatrician is the first course of action. The school requires demonstrated educational need to provide an IEP, not just a diagnosis.
Will the school assess every academic subject or consider different disabilities?
No. They will only provide assessments in the areas of concern or potential disability. You must directly request specific assessments.
Do the assessments cost me money?
No. School-based assessments are completely free to families and provided through government funding.
Will I know what days my child is being assessed?
Not always. Professionals will assess students during a 60-day time frame. Ask the special education team to provide you with a schedule or notification of assessment days.
Can my student qualify for an IEP due to ADHD without already having the diagnosis?
Yes. A school psychologist can assess symptoms of ADHD and provide a school-based diagnosis that can allow qualification under Other Health Impairment, Specific Learning Disability, or Emotional Disturbance.
Can a school psychologist diagnose learning disabilities such as dyslexia?
A school psychologist and assessment team can identify learning disabilities by identifying a discrepency between intellectual ability and specific academic ability (reading, writing, mathematics) and may show a probable case of dyslexia or other learning disability. The student can then receive services under SLD. However, formal testing for an official diagnosis of dyslexia is done by a licensed educational psychologist, neurologist or other medical professional.
What do I do if my school violates special education timelines?
You can file an IEP compliance complaint with your school district or county office of education. You may also consider filing a complaint with the California Department of Education (more information here).
Do all schools do the same assessments?
All government-funded schools are required to assess appropriate areas for suspected disability using formal, valid and reliable assessments. These specific assessments may vary, but they should each address the same areas of ability and performance.
As discussed, obtaining an Individual Education Plan in California involves three main steps:
1. Submitting a written request for an assessment
2. School assessments to determine eligibility
3. Initial eligibility/IEP meeting & development
If you think your child needs an IEP, don’t wait - send the school an assessment request! It can be a lengthy process, especially when school breaks happen, which will extend the timeline. Remember, parents are their child’s biggest advocates and allies in getting an IEP.
If your child qualifies for an IEP, specific goals and services will be determined to support their education. It's important to communicate any concerns and collaborate with the IEP team throughout the process, especially if you disagree with their rejection of or findings from an evaluation.
Navigating the special education process can be overwhelming for parents. However, you don't have to do it alone. Our team of EF Specialists is here to help. Many of our team members have special education credentials and are experienced in guiding families through the IEP process.
We understand the importance of individualized support for students with special needs and are committed to working with you and your child's school to create an effective IEP. Don't hesitate to reach out to us for help and support. Together, we can help ensure that your child receives the education and support they need to succeed.
If you feel your child could benefit from executive function coaching once qualification for an IEP is received, and wonder if services may be included in the IEP, read our article here: How to advocate for executive function coaching services (as part of the IEP).
About the authors
Seanessy Gavin is an executive function coach, credentialed special education teacher and education specialist at EF Specialists. Parent of two rowdy boys, she loves the outdoors and anything that helps get energy out and playtime in. Seanessy practices mindfulness meditation and executive function strategies and believes they help you in all areas of life. In her leisure time, she enjoys playing music and singing, reading and camping under the stars.
Kelsey Sinclair is an executive function specialist with EFS. She was a special educator for over 10 years in public school settings. She specializes in social/emotional skill development and provides interventions to those with learning disabilities such as dyslexia, dyspraxia and dyscalculia. Kelsey utilizes a strengths-based approach to coaching, supporting her students toward independence and a positive self-concept.
Cal. Code Regs. Tit. 5, § 3030