When I am getting to know a family for the first time, I will invariably ask the question “does your child have an IEP?” and they will almost always give me one of two answers: “What’s an IEP?” or “Ugh, yes. Yes they do.” I can identify with both these answers, because not only have I attended dozens of IEPs to support and advocate for my clients, I have also done so as a father for my own child.
So what is an Individualized Education Program (IEP) and how can it impact my child? An IEP, at its most basic form, is a document and a plan to address a child’s specific need. If a child is inattentive or impulsive due to his ADHD, an IEP may provide a distraction-free environment during tests or movement breaks for him to get his wiggles out and pay better attention in class. Perhaps a child is extremely anxious and she freezes during tests and gets overwhelmed walking between classes from class to class. An IEP could provide untimed tests and a hall pass that allows her to move between classes before or after the other students.
Ultimately, an IEP is a document that identifies an educational or behavioral need that gets in the way of a child learning, an identification of a reasonable educational or behavioral goal for the coming year, and services and/or accommodations that the school will provide to the child in the least-restrictive placement warranted. The district is required by law to make an offer of FAPE (Free and Appropriate Public Education) as part of the IEP process.
It starts with an IDEA . . .
The governing law that currently guides the IEP process is the Individuals with Disabilities Education Improvement Act of 2004 (IDEA) and spells out the criteria, steps, services, rights and protections afforded a child who is eligible to receive specialized instruction and accommodations. These specialized instructions and accommodations will ideally allow a child to appropriately demonstrate their knowledge on a subject, or provide instruction at an appropriately identified level to allow the student to make progress toward their goals. There are additional laws that govern different aspects of education for children with disabilities, such as the Americans with Disabilities Act and section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act.
“How can I get this magical IEP?”
In order to receive an IEP, you must have diagnoses, assessments, evaluations or observed behavior in the school setting which provide data to support your child’s need for special education services. In order to get this information, a parent can bring it in from outside the school district in the form of a letter of diagnosis from a doctor, independent evaluator, or mental health professional. Also, any information gathered by observation at camp, home, community, daycare, or other school settings can be provided in written form. Finally, and most importantly, a parent can request evaluations from the school district. This request MUST be given to the school or school district in writing.
Evaluations: Data is your friend
So now that we have a little history and the criteria under our belts, let’s put some numbers to it so we can map out where the child is and where they “should” be.
Evaluations can be scary. We all want our kids to be great at everything, because we have high hopes for their future. If we see something in writing that says they have some areas that need work, our gut instinct is to become defensive or angry at some stranger judging our child. As a dad who has been through this, all I can say is “breathe.” Evaluations are not personal, they typically inspect a very narrow slice of a child’s skillset, knowledge, or ability. A speech and language assessment will not capture how your kid says “I love you” before bed, or how he helps other children when they fall, or their infectious laugh at cat videos on YouTube. It will be looking at their process of communication – vocabulary, volume, articulation, stutter/stammer, etc.
There are many different kinds of evaluations that a school district can perform. Typically, these evaluations will be either referred internally due to a child’s academic behavior, or as a written request by the parent/guardian/caregiver.
Different types of evaluations include (but are not limited to):
- Academic, formal and informal – looks at the child’s ability to perform reading, writing, and arithmetic (etc.) in relation to neuro-typical peers of the same age/grade
- For example, Ally is in 4th She is able to do math at a 4th grade level, and can read and discuss what she has read at a 6th grade level, but her written expression is only at a 1st grade level. This may indicate a specific learning disability.
- Occupational Therapy (OT) – looks at activities of daily living, fine and gross motor coordination, sensory integration, vestibular and proprioception issues, and feeding issues
- For example, Jason is in 1st He can read and communicate as well as his fellow 1st-graders, but he has difficulty tying his shoes, holding a pencil, using zippers and buttons, and has difficulty listening to instructions while walking.
- Speech/Language – looks at any expressive speech issues
- For example, vocabulary, articulation, volume, specific language sounds, addition or deletion of sounds, specific language impairments such as lisps, stutters, and stammers
- Adapted Physical Education (APE) – examines fundamental motor skills and processes in relation to neuro-typical peers, such as strength, fitness, coordination, hitting/kicking/throwing balls, walking/running gait, etc.
- Intelligence Quotient (IQ) – Measures a child’s ability to do well and thrive in an academic setting, usually conducted as part of a more robust set of evaluations. In general, two-thirds of the population has an IQ score of 85-115. A score below 85 may indicate an intellectual disability, and scores above 115 may indicate a “gifted” child (though this is not always true and is much more complex that a score alone).
- Psychoeducational Assessment – these tests can vary greatly, but are primarily focused on identifying developmental delays, such as autism spectrum disorders and pervasive developmental delays, identifying sensory or attention disorders, such as ADHD or sensory integration disorders, and will often include evaluations of concrete and abstract thinking, verbal/non-verbal communication, IQ, cognitive and sensory processing, working memory, interpersonal relationships, and spatial relationships.
- Functional Behavior Analysis (FBA) – These evaluations measure a child’s behaviors (in the classroom, during lunch/recess) and interactions (with adults, peers, staff) to identify specific areas of need for the child.
There are many types of evaluations and measures to identify strengths and deficits in a child which impact his ability to learn. Evaluations are key in the beginning of the IEP process because it provides data about the child which will be key in the next phases of the IEP.
Not all evaluations are equal, and the school district may follow the letter of the law in assessing a child, but there may be different evaluations that more accurately capture the needs of your child. If you do not agree with an assessment, you can bring in other evaluations performed by an educational, psychological, speech/OT, or medical professional, a diagnosis with suggested accommodations provided by a physical or mental health professional.
Additional evaluations must, by law, be considered by the IEP team when identifying needs/accommodations/services/placement. If you do not have additional evaluations you can request that the school district fund an Independent Educational Evaluations (IEE) by a professional unconnected to the school district, at no cost to the family. If the district objects, they may begin Due Process.
Now that my child has been evaluated, how do I know if they qualify for those services?
It is not enough to simply have an evaluation stating that the child has a deficit, there must also be an impact on the child’s ability to learn, function in the school environment, and/or socialize appropriately with peers and school staff. In order to receive special education services, the child must meet one or more of the 13 different criteria listed below. They are:
• Autism • Orthopedic Impairment
• Deaf-Blindness • Other Health Impairment
• Deafness • Specific Learning Disability
• Emotional Disturbance • Speech or Language Impairment
• Hard of Hearing • Traumatic Brain Injury
• Intellectual Disabilities • Visual Impairment
• Multiple Disabilities
A child may meet multiple criteria for receiving special education, and the district will usually choose the most pervasive and impactful criteria. When dealing with mental health services for a child, the two most common criteria met are Emotional Disturbance (ED) and Other Health Impairment (OHI).
Emotional Disturbance (ED) can basically be categorized as trouble with intense thoughts or feelings over a long period of time, which include (but are not limited to) anxiety (worries or fears), depression (unhappiness or a pervasive low mood), psychosis (delusions and/or hallucinations), or inappropriate behaviors or feelings under normal circumstances (such as a boy on a field trip who runs into a busy street because he sees a dead squirrel, or a girl who screams and hits other students who wear the color red). The child’s struggle with his thoughts and feelings must directly impact his educational performance and/or ability to maintain satisfactory relationships with peers, teachers, and staff.
Please note that a mental health diagnosis such as Major Depression or a Panic Disorder does not itself guarantee meeting ED criteria, nor does getting an IEP with ED necessarily mean a child has a mental health diagnosis, but rather, it is the functional impairment in academic functioning that determines ED criteria.
Other Health Impairment (OHI) is a catch-all category that is designed to provide special instruction services to children that do not fall squarely in one of the other categories of eligibility. The key component of OHI is that the child has an acute (severe, short-term) or chronic (long-term) mental or physical health problem that causes “limited strength, vitality or alertness (also heightened alertness)” that adversely affects the child’s educational performance.
Yikes. What does all that mean? This one is a little trickier than ED because the key phrase is “limited strength, vitality, or alertness.” A physical or mental health diagnosis does not by itself qualify a child for special education under OHI, it only does so if it impacts strength, vitality, or alertness. For instance, a child may have an ADHD diagnosis which impacts a child’s ability to pay attention to a teacher (alertness) or a child who struggles with severe depression who does not meet the ED criteria, but displays a lack of strength and vitality that adversely affects her educational performance.
Once you have evaluations which provide evidence of a child’s needs, and those needs meet criteria for special education services, then the next step is to move on to creating an Independent Education Program for that child.
Please note: This article is meant to be informational and does not constitute legal or educational advice or expertise. Should you have any questions about your legal or educational rights, please contact your local school district and/or legal resources specializing in special education law.
Steven D’Antoni is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist in The Guidance Center’s Long Beach Outpatient Program, where he helps guide children and families struggling with mental health conditions or abuse toward positive and productive futures. Before D’Antoni joined The Guidance Center team in 2017, he worked with children and adults with severe and chronic mental health conditions, as well as in a county-wide pilot program to identify and treat youth with prodromal psychosis. D’Antoni earned a Master of Arts degree in Clinical Psychology at Pepperdine University.