The Ultimate Guide to the IEP

by Shea Brogren, MOT, OTR/L March 22, 2019

Ultimate Guide to the IEP blog post

If you are a parent to a child with special needs, there is a good chance you have heard of an IEP, or Individualized Education Program. Your child may even be receiving services in their school setting through an IEP plan.

Ensuring your child is receiving the educational services they need can be a daunting and overwhelming task, and often parents encounter barriers during this process.

In this article, we will review what an IEP is, differentiate between IEPs, IFSPs, and 504 plans, give an overview of the process for establishing an IEP, and take a look at the types of services your child may receive through an IEP.

What is an IEP?

The term IEP stands for Individualized Education Program. IEPs were established under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, which is a federal law that guarantees specific rights to children with disabilities in the school setting.

Student in classroom

It is a legal document that summarizes a child’s needs in the school setting and outlines the specific steps and services needed to help the child reach their educational goals.

A child will complete a formal evaluation to determine whether or not they qualify for services through an IEP.

The process of qualifying for an IEP typically includes several steps. We will outline these steps below: 

  1. If a child is referred for an IEP assessment, they will have a formal assessment scheduled. The formal assessment will evaluate all areas related to the suspected disability. This may include fine motor skills, gross motor skills, emotion regulation, etc. The results of this assessment are used to determine a child’s eligibility for an IEP.
  2. If a child is found eligible for an IEP, based upon their assessment results, then an educational group is formed to represent the child. An IEP team is generally made up of the child’s parents, the child’s general education teacher, special education providers, and if appropriate, the child is also included on the team.
  3. Within 30 days of the team determining the child’s eligibility, an IEP must be developed. The child’s team will consider the child’s current functioning in the school setting and determine what the overarching goals are for the child’s education. Once these general goals are identified, the team works to develop specific, measurable goals and objectives are developed. These goals are reviewed by the team annually.

Here are some examples of goals and objectives:

GOAL: Child will improve grasp/release pattern in order to adequately use classroom materials 50% of the time as measured by (evaluation tool).

Potential objectives: Child will grasp an object with the dominant hand, the child will grasp an object with the non-dominant hand, the child will pick up an object from a flat surface, etc.

GOAL: Child will develop social understanding skills as measured by (evaluation tool):

Potential objectives: Child will raise their hand to be called on before talking in group settings in 4 out of 5 opportunities, child will engage in appropriate cooperative play initiated by others in 4 out of 5 opportunities, child will identify appropriate social rules for various social situations in 4 out of 5 opportunities, etc.

GOAL: Child will increase basic eye-hand coordination skills needed to produce 75% of a written assignment as measured by (evaluation tool).

Potential objectives: Child will copy assignments from desk level, child will be able to copy assignments from the whiteboard, child will be able to write with correct spacing and line orientation.

What are the differences between IEPs, IFSPs, and 504 plans in the school setting?


If your child began receiving special education services before the age of 3, an Individualized Family Service Plan (IFSP) was developed.

This plan is put in place to provide services to children with developmental delays. IFSPs also include specific objectives, goals, and plans to carry these goals out.

The interventions are provided in the child’s natural environment, such as their home or daycare setting and there is a strong emphasis placed on including the family in the interventions to support carry-over of skills. Once a child turns 3, they are transitioned to an IEP.

In the school setting, there are two primary ways special education services may be delivered. The first is an IEP and the second is called a 504 plan. Both outline plans to provide services for children with special needs in the school setting and with both, services are provided to the child at no cost to the family.

There are some key differences between an IEP and 504 plan.

To qualify for an IEP, a child must have one or more of the 13 diagnosable categories listed in the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.

The categories include:

  1. Specific Learning Disability (ex: dyslexia)
  2. Other Health Impairment (ex: ADHD)
  3. Autism Spectrum Disorder
  4. Emotional Disturbance (ex: anxiety, depression, bipolar disorder)
  5. Speech or language impairment (ex: stuttering, articulation difficulties)
  6. Visual impairment (ex: blindness)
  7. Deafness
  8. Hearing Impairment
  9. Deaf-blindness
  10. Orthopedic Impairment (ex: juvenile arthritis)
  11. Intellectual Disability (ex: Down Syndrome)
  12. Traumatic Brain Injury
  13. Multiple Disabilities (child has one or more condition covered by IDEA)

The child’s diagnosis or diagnoses are determined by the results of the formalized assessment process.

A 504 plan differs from an IEP in that it includes a broader definition of disability. Specifically, a child can have any disability that interferes with the child’s ability to learn in the general education classroom to qualify for a 504 plan.

The assessment process is also less defined, with data typically gathered from many different sources. Many times, if a child does not qualify for an IEP, a 504 plan is considered in order to help the child succeed in the school setting. Also, unlike an IEP, a 504 plan does not always contain specific learning goals or objectives.

Typically, a 504 plan will list specific accommodations or supports for the child in the classroom setting and it will outline who is to help the child carry out these services (ex: general education teacher, occupational therapist, etc).

What types of services will my child receive through their IEP?

student with IEP

One of the most important parts of an IEP are the accommodations that are outlined for the child. These accommodations are developed during the IEP team meetings, along with the measurable goals and objectives, and are updated at least annually. Below are some examples of areas that a child may need assistance with and some potential accommodations to help that student be successful in the school setting.

Time Management

Potential Accommodations: use a visual schedule/picture schedule, use a timer to assist with transitions, use a folder system or other management system for homework

Test-taking Adaptations

Potential Accommodations: receive extra time to complete tests, complete tests in a separate classroom, have instructions read to the child, modify the format of the test (ex: multiple choice instead of short answer)


Potential Accommodations: Provide typed copies of notes for the student, allow the child to re-submit work when handwriting is hard to read


Potential Accommodations: Provide the child with preferred fidget during desk activities, allow the child to use sensory supports such as a weighted lap pad during scheduled time periods, use cooperative learning when possible to promote social skills, allow child 5-minute break in a designated area of the room if they identify feeling frustrated


Potential Accommodations: allow short breaks between classroom activities, allow number line or calculator as appropriate, allow the student to stand to complete work.

The listed accommodations are just potential solutions, it is important to remember that each child is unique and the IEP team will work together to develop accommodations specific to the child to support their success.

Closing Thoughts

The special education world can at times feel overwhelming. From the use of different acronyms to the often multi-step processes needed to ensure your child is receiving the services they need. It is important for parents to have a general understanding of IEPs, what the IEP process involves, and the services that can be provided to a child in the school setting. The hope is that this article provided a helpful overview of this process so that you can feel comfortable advocating and helping your child receive the services they need to be successful.



Canja, D., & Igafo-Teo, J. (2004). IEP goals and objectives bank. Retrieved from

Christle, C., & Yell, M. (2010). Individualized education programs: Legal requirements and research findings. Exceptionality, 18 (3), 109-123.

Lynch,S., & Adams, P. (2008). Developing standards-based individualized education program objectives for students with significant needs. Teaching Exceptional Children, 40 (3).

Shea Brogren, MOT, OTR/L
Shea Brogren, MOT, OTR/L

Shea Brogren, MOT, OTR/L, is an occupational therapist with over three years of experience in pediatrics and child/adolescent mental health and has also worked as an adjunct lecturer at the University of North Dakota. Shea has a special interest in program development and developed and implemented occupational therapy programming at a residential treatment center for children. She now practices in an outpatient setting.

Her primary area of interest involves working with children who have experienced developmental trauma. Shea has advanced training in SMART treatment (Sensorimotor Arousal Regulation Treatment), the Zones of Regulation, using sensory-based interventions to address trauma, infant mental health, attachment, and arousal regulation related to trauma disorders.

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