Individualized Education Program (IEP)

One of the most important aspects of the special education process is creating a plan for your child’s education. This plan is called an Individualized Educational Program or IEP. This plan is the foundation of your child’s education and specifies the unique services and supports to meet their needs.  

As a parent, your role as an advocate is critical, especially during the IEP meeting. Below is an overview of the IEP process. If you have any questions, contact the Arc of Whatcom County at 360.715.0170 for support.

Federal law entitles and protects a child with disabilities in accessing education through the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA).  The information presented here is gathered from the Center for Parent Information & Resources and Understood and provides information about special education services. Visit the Whatcom Taking Action website to learn about how to request your child be evaluated for special education, or other services available.

If your child is under 5 and has a delay or disability, see this resource on services.

Developing an IEP requires:

  • An IEP meeting, where you and school staff decide together on an education program that is best for your child
  • And IEP document, formalizes the decisions and plans of the meeting and lists the services and supports your child will receive.

The IEP meeting is somewhat formal with legal requirements. There can be a lot to process. You can request to have support through The Arc of Whatcom County by calling 360.715.0170.

Expectations of an IEP meeting:

  • The school must hold the meeting to develop your child’s IEP within 30 calendar days of when your child is found eligible for special education services.
  • You must agree to the program in writing before the school may carry out your child’s first IEP.
  • The IEP must be reviewed at least once every 12 months and revised as necessary.

You may ask for an IEP meeting at any time if you feel that changes need to be made to your child’s educational program.

Who is at the IEP meeting

Under IDEA, certain people must be part of the IEP meeting. School staff that know and work with your child will be there. But, you know your child the best. Each person will bring a different perspective and work together to develop a plan that best supports your child. At the IEP, you can share your child’s strengths and weaknesses and what makes them unique. Your knowledge can help the team develop an IEP that will work best for your child, ensuring their success in school and into adult life. Your child can have whatever role in the IEP meeting makes sense for their age and ability. Often, having the child in the meeting can enliven the process and support a child’s advocacy and communication skills.  

The goal of the meeting is to develop the IEP.

Among other things, the IEP includes

  • Academic and functional performance
  • Annual goals
  • Progress measures and how to communicate progress with family
  • Special education, services, and supplementary aids including program modifications or supports for school staff;
  • Modifications for school assessments;
  • Service specifics: dates, frequency, location
  • By age 16, postsecondary goals and the transition services

Students with disabilities can continue to receive school services until age 21.  It is generally a good idea to keep students enrolled until this time, because many adult services do not begin until educational services end at 21.  In addition to the IEP placement, some districts have Community Transitions or other vocational & community living preparation programs.


As a parent, you have a right to advocate for the best placement for your child. In deciding your child’s placement, the IEP team must ensure that your child has the maximum opportunity appropriate to learn with children who do not have disabilities—in academic, nonacademic, and extracurricular activities. This part of the law is called Least Restrictive Environment or LRE.

Placement can be:

  • a general education class;
  • a special education class;
  • a special education school;
  • at home; or
  • in a hospital or other institution.

What to do before an IEP meeting:

Get Organized: Pull and review your records

Bring any information that will help give a fuller picture of your child and show specific concerns or insights you have, including school work, videos, report cards. You can use an IEP binder to organize and keep track of documents. Whatcom Taking Action has some great tools for parents and providers communicating with schools , and identifying areas of need.

Get Support: Invite a guest or advocate

It can be helpful to have someone by your side through the IEP process and beyond. To find an advocate contact the Arc of Whatcom at 360.715.0170.

Get Ready: Write down your suggestions and questions beforehand

There can be a lot to process. Take some time, before the meeting, to write our your questions and suggestions. What kinds of supports or services might your child need to be successful? Here are some advocacy terms that will be helpful in your conversation.

Communicate: Talk to your child

Ask your child what they need and share with them the IEP process. Talk with them about sharing their feelings about what is being proposed and advocating for their needs.

Relax: focus on your child

Once you have everything ready for the meeting, try to relax and focus on your child’s strengths, interests, and challenges. It may be helpful to complete a positive profile to share with the IEP team.
More from Understood

During an IEP meeting:

  • Be Present
    Being in a school building with a team of ‘experts’ can be overwhelming. You are needed in this conversation. Breathe. You have got this.
  • Stay Focused
    Talk about your child, their strengths, and needs. Be clear about what they need and in creating a plan that leads to their success and connection with others.
  • Focus on the outcome
    Make sure the team understands your expectations and goals for your child. Ask questions about what the team proposes and suggest changes. Make sure you don’t accept or reject a goal for your child based on incomplete information.
  • Speak up for your child’s rights–and yours
    You know your child best, and you know the situations that support them.

After an IEP Meeting

  • Review the IEP and Sign
  • Connect with (and hug) your child
  • Schedule a follow up with the school to check-in
  • Update documents at home

Remember, if you ever feel that the IEP needs to be changed, you can request an IEP meeting.

To learn more, visit the Center for Parent Information & Resources and The Center for Children for Special Health Caren Needs

504 Plan

Section 504 provides services and accommodations if a child has a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits a major life activity.  The definition of disability under Section 504 is much broader than under the IDEA, so many students who are not eligible for an IEP may qualify for extra support under Section 504.  504 plans can make provisions for modifications or accommodations to the classroom or curriculum or additional support for the student. You can find your school district’s 504 coordinator here.

Click here to learn how to refer your child for an evaluation to qualify for special education services.

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