Individual Education Plans

Individual Education Plans (IEPs) are legally binding documents intended to help support students with disabilities. Usually crafted by a team that includes teachers, school administrators, and parents, the goal is to ensure students with qualified disabilities receive the support they need.

IEPs apply only to students in grades K-12. Once a student goes to college, schools are under no legal obligation to provide an IEP. IEPs can still be useful for students with disabilities when they begin a post-high school program.

What Is an IEP?

IEPs are based on federal law, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). They apply to students in public and charter schools.

IDEA requires that a school district provide an IEP for any child in its jurisdiction. The exception is if a parent chooses to place their child in a private school. Private schools are not required to follow an IEP.

To qualify for an IEP, students must have a disability covered by the program that is severe enough to require special education services. IDEA includes the following as qualifying disabilities:

  • Intellectual disabilities
  • Hearing impairments, such as deafness
  • Speech or language impairments
  • Visual impairments, including blindness
  • Serious emotional disturbance
  • Orthopedic impairments
  • Autism
  • Traumatic brain injury
  • Other health impairments
  • Other learning disabilities

Although teachers and parents identify most students who need an IEP in elementary school, any K-12 student is eligible. For example, a student in an accident may require an IEP if the accident results in mobility issues.

The final two categories are open-ended and, depending on the school district, may be the most difficult to use to qualify for an IEP. If you believe a student needs an IEP but does not fall into one of the categories, a legal team knowledgeable about IEPs can help you build a stronger case for why that student falls into the ‘other' categories.

Crafting an IEP

Once a school district determines that a student requires an IEP, they, along with a student's parents or guardians, will develop an individualized IEP for that student. IEPs should be tailored to each individual student and not determined by a generic approach. Even if students have the same disability, they may require different support. An IEP should be crafted for the student and not the disability.

For example, two students both suffer from visual impairments. One student only requires a larger font on assignments, whereas the other needs a spoken version of assignments.

As much as possible, students should be involved in IEP planning. How much a child is involved may depend on their age and specific disability. When possible, parents and teachers should include the student. This allows the student to have a say, including what programs and support options will best suit them.

Involving students also helps lay the groundwork for later in their lives when they have to advocate for themselves. By allowing them to participate early, they can begin to take ownership and learn how to ask for help and accommodations for their disability.

IEPs are legally binding roadmaps that lay out how the school will support the student and/or offer guidance. IEPs should include annual goals and the specifics of the plan. These goals should mention, when possible, whether a student plans to attend college. Specificity and details matter: The plan should be comprehensive, enabling anyone who reads it to understand what support a student needs and benchmarks for progress.

Revising and Subsequent Meetings

IDEA requires an annual meeting and possible revision of each student's IEP. These meetings are an opportunity to see if improvements can be made or if some services should be added or removed.

These meetings can be especially beneficial for students who may have been unable to participate in the initial IEP meeting. As students get older, some will become better able to explain how or why a program is or is not working for them.

Even if a student is meeting an IEP's current goals and making satisfactory progress, the annual meeting is a good opportunity to assess whether the IEP is maximizing the student's potential. In some situations, more ambitious benchmarks may be necessary.

Parents or guardians can request an IEP meeting at any time. These meetings can be especially important if a child is falling behind. Similarly, if a parent no longer feels that a program or service is benefiting a student, they may wish to remove it from an IEP plan.

An IEP is only as useful as it benefits students. If a school is denying accommodations a student or parent believes would be beneficial to the student's education, working with an experienced legal team may be necessary.

Updates and Research

Education and support for students with disabilities are not static issues. Additional research can result in an improved understanding of conditions and how to treat them. Therapies and technology are constantly evolving, and with them, more options and avenues to support students with disabilities.

Schools may not always use the most efficient programs or may refuse to adapt to new technology. On the flip side, they may rush into untested programs or therapies when a previous option is better for your specific student.

Parents, guardians, and students should not rely on a school to determine the best practices and support services for each student. They should stay abreast of changes in education, technology, and therapy programs. That something is new doesn't mean it will be better or more efficient. Likewise, a refusal to adapt to emerging research can limit students.

No single approach will yield the best results. Some students will benefit from older, more established therapies, and others from cutting-edge support programs. Some parents and students may want to test out early-stage developments, while others may prefer to wait until more research and data are collected. The key for parents and students is to ensure an IEP is the best choice for the specific student.

State Law

States and individual school districts may have additional requirements or support opportunities.

Here are some rules that may vary by state:

  • If parental consent is required beyond the initial IEP
  • How long before a school district must begin the initial IEP evaluation
  • Whether a state has IEPs for gifted students
  • Which students must have benchmarks and short-term goals

States or school districts may have other programs or offer assistance above and beyond what IDEA requires. Before your child begins school or if you move, inquiring about how local schools handle disabilities can help improve a student's chances of getting the individualized support they need.


Once a student enters college, IEPs no longer apply. One reason for this change in policy is that students, rather than parents or guardians, are now expected to be the primary advocate. As the majority of college students are over 18, their parents and guardians no longer have access to their academic records.

This advocacy is another reason why parents and guardians, as much as possible, should encourage students to take an active goal in IEP design and meetings. Participation will help students learn how to advocate, ask questions, and know their options. Students who have not been involved in IEPs before college are likely to be at a disadvantage.

College students are expected to take charge of their education, including requesting any needed accommodations. An elementary-aged student would be unlikely to know how to ask for help and requires adults to support and guide them. College students, in comparison, are assumed to be mature enough to speak up when they need assistance or support.

IEPs do still have use for college students and should not be discarded once you get a high school diploma. Some ways that an IEP can be beneficial:

  • School selection
  • Course selection
  • Use as part of documentation for reasonable accommodations

School Selection

When determining the best college for you, your IEP may help you narrow down your choices. When visiting campuses and meeting with admissions counselors, find out if a college or university offers services similar to those included on your IEP.

Some schools offer dedicated programs for students with disabilities. The University of Iowa has UI Reach, a program specifically designed to support students with disabilities. The goal of the program is to provide the structure and support that students with disabilities need in order to make the most out of their college careers.

Even if a college or university does not have a dedicated program, most will have an office or other department to work with students who have disabilities. Students should find out whether a college or university offers certain services or support systems either before applying or enrolling to make sure the school can provide needed support as quickly as possible.

Course Selection

Federal law requires that colleges and universities provide reasonable accommodations for students with qualifying disabilities. One exception to this rule is if an accommodation would fundamentally alter a course.

Before choosing a course, similar to your college selection, you should make sure the course is able to provide your needed accommodations or a feasible alternative. If a college's geology major requires that students spend four months hiking the backwoods of Yosemite and you have mobility issues, that program might not be the best option. An interested student should, before enrolling, speak with the geology department to find out if that backdoors time is considered fundamental to the program or if alternatives exist.

Whether choosing a college or a specific course of study, your IEP can be beneficial because it can provide you with a guide for the support you will need in college. You can ask colleges and universities specific questions instead of simply asking general questions about accommodations.

Reasonable Accommodations and IEPs

As stated above, schools must provide reasonable accommodations to students with qualifying disabilities. Before a student can request a reasonable accommodation, they must file documentation about their disability and needed support.

One document a student could include is a copy of their most recent IEP plan. By including an IEP plan, a student can show a college or university what support they've been receiving. While a college or university may provide different services than a high school, the IEP can still act as a template.

IEPs can also be beneficial if services or accommodations were unsuccessful in high school. Think of an IEP as a foundational document that can be built on to increase both a student's enjoyment of and success in college.

Similar to IEPs, reasonable accommodations at a college or university are individual to the person. Providing guidance on what works best for you is yet another advantage to bringing your IEP to college. Without that IEP, you could waste precious time as a college student trying to determine what support and accommodations work best for you. While some adjustment between high school and college may be necessary, carrying over an IEP can help smooth the transition.

In addition to requiring that accommodations not fundamentally alter a course, they must also not place an undue burden on a college or university. A student who brings an IEP to college can show that a high school was able to implement certain support systems.

Same Requirements

A student with a disability must still meet the listed prerequisites in order to gain admission to a program or school. An IEP should have no bearing on their admission.

Supporting Students With Disabilities

Federal law mandates that school districts provide services for students with disabilities. The law does not require that school districts keep up with current research on the subject. School districts may disagree on what constitutes the best support for a student or offer the minimal support required by law.

Students with disabilities and their parents need to be proactive, both in pushing for an IEP and ensuring the student receives the best support for them. What works for one student may not work for another. What was considered best practice twenty years ago may not be the best option today. New programs and technologies may sound like a good idea but not be effective overall or for an individual student.

Involving students in IEP meetings can provide them with crucial skills for both college and their adult life. Encouraging student participation will help them learn how to advocate for themselves and improve the likelihood of getting the best possible accommodations for them.

The individualized nature of IEPs means that, even with a well-established framework, the process is constantly evolving and can vary between school districts. Determining the best choices for a student can be overwhelming.

Hiring a law firm with experience in disability rights is one way to assist your student. The Lento Law Firm works with parents, guardians, and students nationwide, and we use that knowledge to assist our clients. Contact the Lento Law Firm at 888-535-3686 or online.

Contact Us Today!

If you, or your student, are facing any kind of disciplinary action, or other negative academic sanction, and are having feelings of uncertainty and anxiety for what the future may hold, contact the Lento Law Firm today, and let us help secure your academic career.

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