What Is an IEP in Education?

What is an IEP? Whether you are familiar with an Individualized Education Plan (IEP) may depend on a variety of factors.  Does your child struggle in school and has potentially been evaluated for special education services?  Have you heard your child mention that another student in class has an IEP?  Regardless of what you already know about the IEP, this guide will help make that information a little clearer so you are aware of how much these plans help support children who learn and think differently.

You may have seen the example of a monkey and an elephant being told to climb the tree as part of an assessment.  Obviously, the monkey will be able to fly through the task while the elephant gets left behind.  Does the elephant have other skills?  Yes!  It is just that to even remotely think about doing this task, some type of assistance would be required.  Now, I know there is no logical way to get an elephant to climb a tree, but there is a way to even the playing field when that analogy matches what children may be facing in the classroom.  

What is an IEP?

This written document is a legally binding plan between your child’s school, you, and the child.  It provides a map that lays out the special education program and specific services provided to help your child succeed.  The goal is to provide accommodations, modifications, and services that will help your child reach their full potential. The likelihood of your child having the same Individualized Education Plan as another student even at the same grade level would be unlikely, since they may receive similar modifications but have different goals.  A special education law, otherwise known as Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), covers these written plans. 

Who Should Have an IEP? 

As a part of public education, school provide IEPs. Eligible students who attend public schools will have an IEP written for them if they are going to receive special education services. If your child has one of the 13 disabilities listed in IDEA (shown below), your child may qualify for an IEP if their disability is hindering their academic success and they would benefit from special education services. However, private schools normally do not offer IEPs; instead, it may be possible to obtain a service plan.  Depending on your child’s unique situation, IEPs can be written for children as young as three years old. That way, they can start receiving speech, occupational therapy, or other services through a local public school district.  

  1. Specific learning disability (SLD)
  2. Other health impairment (OHI)
  3. Autism spectrum disorder (ASD)
  4. Emotional disturbance
  5. Speech or language impairment
  6. Visual impairment
  7. Deafness
  8. Hearing impairment
  9. Deaf-blindness
  10. Orthopedic impairment
  11. Intellectual disability
  12. Traumatic brain injury 
  13. Multiple disabilities 

What are the Benefits of an Individualized Education Plan?

Following diagnosis of one of the thirteen disabilities listed under IDEA, a full evaluation will be conducted by trained special education teachers.  Following the evaluation, you will receive a detailed report about your child’s strengths and challenges.  These results allow teachers and families to work together to create a tailored plan to address those needs.  From there, your child will benefit from individualized instruction to improve specific skills. At times, these services occur in the general education setting, but they also take place in a smaller setting in a special education teacher’s classroom.  Regardless of what teacher is working with your child, they will have access to your child’s IEP and should make sure they are following the plan to provide accommodations (i. e. extended time, assistive technology, modified assessments, scribes, etc.).  


Individualized Education Plan meetings will be held to allow for conversations between you and your child’s teachers.  The IEP committee usually consists of a special education teacher, the school’s Special Education Director, at least one general education teacher, and the child’s parents/guardians.  Together, everyone will draft the child’s plan and sign showing their approval for the IEP. 

Are 504 plans the same as IEPs?  

IEPs and 504 plans are not the same thing. A 504 plan may provide students with accommodations and assistive technology similar to an IEP, but it is not part of special education.  Rather than working through the special education department to meet a child’s needs, the 504 plan provides a support system for helping students learn alongside their peers in the general education classroom.  Instead of being limited to the 13 disabilities listed in IDEA, 504 plans can be written for a wider range of disabilities.  Also, instead of the disability limiting academic performance, a 504 plan can be written for any disability that substantially limits one or more basic live activities.  If your child does not qualify for an IEP, they may still qualify for a 504 plan.