Inside: What qualifies a child for an IEP? Learn about the categories of eligibility, plus what IDEA says about a child qualifying for an IEP.

You think your child or your student needs an IEP. You want your child evaluated for an IEP. Or, you want to refer a child for IEP evaluations.

But, how can you do so that will help push them in that direction? What qualifies a child for an IEP?

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A child may qualify for an Individualized Education Program (IEP) if they have a disability or condition that significantly impacts their ability to learn and make progress in school.

iep is the same as special education
An IEP and Special Education are the same thing.

In order to qualify for an IEP, the child must meet the eligibility criteria outlined in the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), the federal law that mandates special education services for eligible students.

Specifically, the child must meet two criteria:

  1. They must have a disability: The IDEA defines a disability as a physical, mental, or developmental impairment that affects one or more major life activities, such as learning, communication, or behavior. Examples of disabilities that may qualify for an IEP include but are not limited to: autism, learning disabilities, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), intellectual disability, speech or language impairments, hearing or vision impairments, and emotional disturbance.
  2. The disability must adversely affect their educational performance: The child’s disability must have a significant impact on their ability to learn and make progress in the general education curriculum. This means that they are not able to succeed in school without specialized instruction and support.

If a child meets both of these criteria, then they may be eligible for an IEP.

Now, if you’re a parent reading this, or a new teacher who is gen ed, not special ed, you might be thinking, “thanks for nothing!”

IDEA is intentionally vague, in the spirit of “individualized” and leaving implementation up to the states.

An IEP is the same as special education.

chart explaining specially designed instruction
The terms are often used interchangeably.

Before I move on, let’s take a peek at IDEA.

Who is eligible for an IEP?

Specifically, this is what IDEA says about eligiblity.

300.306 Determination of eligibility.

(a) General. Upon completion of the administration of assessments and other evaluation measures—

(1) A group of qualified professionals and the parent of the child determines whether the child is a child with a disability, as defined in §300.8, in accordance with paragraph (c) of this section and the educational needs of the child; and

(2) The public agency provides a copy of the evaluation report and the documentation of determination of eligibility at no cost to the parent.

(b) Special rule for eligibility determination. A child must not be determined to be a child with a disability under this part—

(1) If the determinant factor for that determination is—

(i) Lack of appropriate instruction in reading, including the essential components of reading instruction (as defined in section 1208(3) of the ESEA as such section was in effect on the day before the date of enactment of the Every Student Succeeds Act (December 9, 2015));

(ii) Lack of appropriate instruction in math; or

(iii) Limited English proficiency; and

(2) If the child does not otherwise meet the eligibility criteria under §300.8(a).

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(c) Procedures for determining eligibility and educational need.

(1) In interpreting evaluation data for the purpose of determining if a child is a child with a disability under §300.8, and the educational needs of the child, each public agency must—

(i) Draw upon information from a variety of sources, including aptitude and achievement tests, parent input, and teacher recommendations, as well as information about the child’s physical condition, social or cultural background, and adaptive behavior; and

(ii) Ensure that information obtained from all of these sources is documented and carefully considered.

Sec. 300.306 Determination of eligibility

So, to clarify.

IEP Eligibility is determined by IEP evaluations.

Those evaluations will either find or not find the 2 points listed above–a disability, and one that affects the child’s education.

What is an IEP student?

I’m generally not a fan of attaching labels to students, but if you are new to this, you may hear the term “IEP student.” It is just what is says–a student with an IEP.

The fact is–providing individualized education, SDIs and all that…it takes more time. It takes more people and paraprofessionals. And as a society, we don’t adequately fund our schools, and especially IEPs.

I understand teachers’ frustration with this and it’s why I spend as much time lobbying for school funding as I do. But where I disagree and get really angry is when teachers take that frustration out on the students, or appear to.

Complaining in front of students with statements like “And I have 8 IEP students in my class!” only serves to insult and harm an already marginalized group. Lodge your complaints appropriately.

Ok, I digress. Let’s get back to qualifying for an IEP and who is eligible for an IEP.

How Does a Student Qualify for an IEP?

The first step to get an IEP is to get the evaluations and assessments mentioned above.

That will give you everything you need to get started including some letter templates.

Once your child has the evaluations done, you will have an IEP eligibility meeting. At that meeting, the evaluations should be explained to you, as well as if your child qualifies for an IEP.

There are 14 IEP eligibility categories. You can read that article to see all of them and a description of each.

Along this journey, someone should give you a copy of your IEP procedural safeguards or IEP parents’ rights. Many parents never read them, but it essential that you do.

Mind you, I get it. It’ s not light or fun reading. But it’s necessary, especially if you disagree with your school at any point in the process.

I also have another article and amazing spreadsheet for you: IEP Laws and IDEA Regulations, Explained: IDEA Laws for all 50 States.

You may want to read up on what your state specifically does, as far as whether or not a student qualifies for an IEP.

Because it’s not as simple as it would seem in IDEA. There are different ways that states do this, such as the severe discrepancy model or RTI method to determine IEP eligibility.

If you got this far, let me apologize. I try to get parents started on the right path, but sometimes I ask you to drink from the firehose, and I may have done that here.

Slow down, take your time, and you can ask your specific IEP questions in our chat forums.

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