The IEP Cycle

1. Referral

The first step in the special education process is referral. Some children are referred for special education because they already have a diagnosed disability, while others may be experiencing unexplained academic or behavioral difficulties at school. A child’s parent or teacher can make a written referral to the school district asking that the process begin to determine whether or not the child qualifies for special education.

It is important for California residents to know that a formal referral for special education supercedes the student study team process. It is illegal for schools to require a student to go through the student study team before being referred for special education. As soon as a formal request for assessment is made, the IEP timelines begin regardless of involvement in the student study team.

Sample Letter-Referral for Special Education

2. Assessment

In order to determine whether a child qualifies for special education, assessments must be completed to determine the individual needs of the student. The assessments will determine what, if any, services and supports are needed to provide the child with a free appropriate public education. The assessments should cover all areas related to the suspected disability, including cognitive, social/emotional, psychomotor, self-help, speech and language, and vocational needs and abilities. Parental permission is required before assessments may be administered. It is also important for parents to request copies of the written assessment reports so they can review them before the IEP meeting.

Types of Assessments: This page provides the names of some common educational tests and what type of skills they measure.

Sample Letter — Requesting Assessment

3. Eligibility

The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) lists 13 categories under which a student can qualify for special education services:

  • Autism
  • Deaf-Blindness
  • Deafness
  • Hearing Impairment
  • Mental Retardation
  • Multiple Disabilities
  • Orthopedic Impairment
  • Other Health Impairment
  • Serious Emotional Disturbance
  • Specific Learning Disability
  • Speech or Language Impairment
  • Traumatic Brain Injury
  • Visual impairment, including Blindness

Resource: National Dissemination Center for Children with Disabilities (NICHCY) Guide to Eligibility Categories

4. Individualized Education Program (IEP)

When a student is found to be eligible for special education services, an IEP team meets to develop an educational plan based on the child’s specific needs. The team includes the child’s parents, teachers, and other personnel responsible for implementing the IEP. The IEP is a written document that describes any accommodations, modifications, or related services a student needs in order to receive an appropriate education. It also lists goals and objectives, which are used to measure a student’s progress and determine whether the program and placement are appropriate.

What an IEP must contain

National Dissemination Center for Children with Disabilities (NICHCY) Brief on Individualized Education Programs

Office of Special Education Programs (OSEP) Guide to the Individualized Education Program

5. Placement

After the IEP is developed, the team must decide what type of placement will enable the child to meet his or her goals and objectives. The IDEA requires that special education students be educated in the least restrictive environment (LRE) that can provide the appropriate program and also maximize contact with nondisabled peers. School districts must offer a range of placement options along a continuum from a regular classroom setting to residential facilities.

LRE sheet for parents.

Planning for Inclusion.

6. Annual Review

At least once a year, the IEP team must reconvene to review and update the IEP to ensure that it is appropriate. Every three years the student receives a more thorough evaluation (triennial) to review special education eligibility.

General Tips for Parents on Navigating the Special Education Process:

  1. Put it in writing!

    All requests concerning a student’s special education should be put in writing. Most letters should be sent to the director of special education for your child’s school district, although sometimes it may be appropriate to send them to program specialists or other staff at your child’s school. If you do have phone calls with school personnel, follow them up with a letter summarizing what was discussed.

    NICHCY’s “Communicating With Your Child’s School Through Letter Writing“.

    Wrightslaw’s The Art of Writing Letters

  2. Bring an agenda to the IEP meeting

    Having an agenda will ensure that all concerns and questions you have will be discussed at the meeting.

  3. You don’t have to sign the IEP at the meeting!

    The IEP does not need to be signed at the IEP meeting. If there are parts that you disagree with or think more needs to be included, you do not need to sign the document. You can also ask to have a copy to take home with you to review. You can also consent to parts of the IEP that you do agree with so those services can start.