At a glance
The terms used in and about special education can be unfamiliar.
You may not hear all of these terms.
Learning these terms early in the special education process can help you in the long run.
When it comes to special education, you may run into terms and jargon that you’re not familiar with. Here are key IEP and special education terms and abbreviations you may see and hear.
504 plan: A blueprint for supporting a student with a disability by removing barriers. It gives the student equal access to learning in the general education classroom. Students with 504 plans tend not to need specialized instruction (special education).
accommodation: This is a change to or in a student’s learning environment. Accommodations help students learn and show what they’ve learned by removing barriers. For instance, students who take longer to answer questions because of learning differences might be allowed extra time to take a test. Even with accommodations, students are expected to learn the same content as their peers.
annual goals: The IEP document lists the academic and functional (everyday) skills the IEP team thinks a student can achieve by the end of a school year. These goals are geared toward helping students take part in the general education curriculum. IEP goals need to be realistic and measurable. Many schools write SMART goals. (SMART stands for Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Results-oriented and Time-bound.)
assistive technology (AT): Any device, equipment, or software that helps students learn, communicate, and function better in school. AT ranges from simple tools (like highlighters) to high-tech software (like apps that read text aloud).
behavior intervention plan (BIP): A plan designed to proactively teach and reinforce positive behavior. Typically, the plan uses strategies to prevent and address behavior that gets in the way of learning. It may also have supports and aids for the student. A BIP is often included as part of an IEP. To get a BIP, a student must have a functional behavioral assessment.
disability: A condition recognized by the law. To qualify for an IEP, students must have a disability that falls under one of the 13 categories listed in the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. Many students who learn and think differently are eligible in one of three categories: (1) specific learning disability; (2) other health impairment; and (3) speech or language impairment.
due process: A formal process for resolving disputes about special education and IEPs. Due process isn’t the only way to resolve a dispute. There are other options, like mediation and filing a state complaint.
extended school year services (ESY): Special education services provided outside of the regular school year, such as during the summer or, less commonly, during extended breaks like winter break.
general education curriculum: This is the knowledge and skills that all students throughout a state are expected to master. The curriculum varies from state to state.
Individualized Education Program (IEP): An IEP outlines the program of special education instruction, supports, and services kids need to make progress and thrive in school. Some people refer to the written document that outlines this as the IEP (in which case p can stand for plan).
Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA): The nation’s special education law. IDEA is a federal law that guarantees all students with disabilities access to a free, appropriate public education.
least restrictive environment (LRE): Students with documented disabilities must be taught in the least restrictive environment. This means they must be taught as much as possible in the same setting as peers who don’t have disabilities. In most circumstances, schools must offer services and supports to help students with an IEP thrive in a general education classroom.
modification: A modification is a change in what a student is expected to learn and demonstrate. For example, a teacher might ask the class to write an essay that analyzes three major battles during a war. A student with a modification may only be asked to write about the basic facts of those battles. Modifications are different from accommodations.
parent report: This is a letter families write to document their child’s strengths, struggles, and success at school, at home, and in the community. Sharing the report with the IEP team gives a more complete view of the student.
positive behavior interventions and supports (PBIS): PBIS is a proactive, schoolwide approach used to promote positive behavior and improve school safety. PBIS creates a school culture in which all students learn about behavior and use a common language to talk about it.
progress reporting: How a school reports on student progress on annual goals. This is specified in the IEP. Progress reporting needs to be provided as often as a school reports on progress in general education for all students.
present level of performance (PLOP, PLP, PLAFF, PLAAFP): A description of a student’s current abilities, skills, challenges, and strengths at the time the IEP is written. PLOP describes academic skills (like reading level) and functional skills (like making conversation or writing with a pencil). This is the starting point for setting annual IEP goals.
standards-based IEP: A standards-based IEP measures a student’s academic performance against what the state expects of other students in the same grade.
special education: Specially designed instruction to meet the unique needs of a student. It should be designed to give access to the general education curriculum. The instruction is provided at no cost to families.
supplementary aids and services: These are supports to help students learn in the general education classroom. They can include equipment or assistive technology, like audiobooks or highlighted classroom notes. They may also include training for staff members to help them learn how to work with students based on their specific needs.
related services: Any support services a student needs to benefit from special education. One possible example is transportation. Another is occupational therapy.
response to intervention (RTI): RTI is a systematic way of identifying struggling students and providing extra help. Teachers assess the skills of everyone in the class to see which students need evidence-based instructional interventions. Progress is monitored frequently to make sure students are getting the right support and intervention.
transition plan: This part of the IEP lays out what a teen will learn and do in high school in order to thrive as a young adult. The IEP team and the student develop the plan together before it kicks in at age 16. The transition plan includes goals and activities that are academic and functional. But they extend beyond school to practical life skills and job training.
Keep this list of terms handy for future reference. You may also want to learn key terms that describe special education rights.
Review this list of terms before special education meetings to refresh your memory.
Not all of these terms will apply to all students.
Ask the IEP team to explain any terms you don’t understand.
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About the author
About the author
The Understood Team is made up of passionate writers and editors. Many of them have kids who learn and think differently.
Amanda Morin is the author of “The Everything Parent’s Guide to Special Education” and the former director of thought leadership at Understood. As an expert and writer, she helped build Understood from its earliest days.