At a glance
Understanding what happens at an IEP eligibility determination meeting can make the special education process easier.
At the meeting, you’ll review all the evaluation results and other information to determine if your child is eligible.
You’re an equal participant in the decision-making process.
Your child’s evaluation is done. The next step is to meet with the school to determine if your child qualifies for special education. This is called an eligibility determination meeting. You may also hear it called an eligibility meeting.
This meeting can be stressful for families. Does the testing show their child is eligible for special education? Will the child get the supports and services they need? Who makes that decision and how?
Knowing what to expect at an eligibility determination meeting can help you be an informed and active participant.
The goal of an eligibility determination meeting
The goal of the meeting is to decide if your child needs special education services. The criteria can vary from state to state. But no matter what standards your child’s school uses, it can’t make the decision ahead of time. That’s called “pre-determination,” and the special education law IDEA doesn’t allow for that. The decision should be made together by the entire team.
At the meeting, the team will all talk about the evaluation and other information about your child. You’ll also have a chance to share your concerns and any information you have. You might have outside evaluation results that you’d like the school to consider. If so, be sure to provide copies of the report.
It’s important to know that you have the right to see the evaluation results before the eligibility meeting.
Who comes to an eligibility determination meeting
Before the meeting, the school should send you a written notice (prior written notice). It should list the names or roles of all the people who are invited to the meeting.
The meeting should start with introductions. Everyone should give their name, their title, and their relationship to your child. If this doesn’t happen, speak up and ask that introductions be made.
Remember that you’re a crucial part of the team. So when you introduce yourself, add something like, “I’m Kevin’s mother. I’m looking forward to working with all of you.”
IDEA requires certain people to be at this meeting. They include:
- You. Parents and caregivers have the right to take an active role in this meeting and all IEP meetings. (If you don’t go, however, the meetings can take place without you.)
- Your child’s general education teacher(s). If your child doesn’t yet have an assigned teacher, a general education teacher who teaches kids of the same age will attend. (This can happen when you transfer schools.)
- A special education teacher. Read about the role of special education teachers.
- A school administrator who knows about general and special education. The meeting must include a person who has the power to make decisions about school resources.
- The professional(s) who evaluated your child. Sometimes, an evaluator can’t be at the meeting. In that case, another professional needs to fill in. That person must be qualified to interpret the testing. (The same is true if you’ll be going over a private evaluation.)
- Anyone else that you or the school district invite. For instance, you might want to invite an educational therapist who works with your child. Or a professional advocate. A family member or friend can also be helpful by listening and taking notes. Let the team know who you’ve invited, so that person can be added to the attendance sheet.
The conversation about IEP eligibility
This conversation can be complicated. Keep in mind the two main requirements for getting special education services:
- Your child has to have a “disabling condition” that fits into one of the 13 categories of disabilities defined by IDEA and your state’s regulations.
- The disability has to have an “adverse effect” on your child’s education.
Some cases are clear. The child has a or trouble with attention that’s getting in the way of learning. The team agrees the child is eligible. Other cases aren’t that simple.
Even though IDEA clearly outlines the 13 categories, it doesn’t list all the issues that fall into each one. It also doesn’t provide definitions for some key terms, like adverse effect. Even the word education is open to interpretation.
Often, the discussion comes down to a few questions:
- What category do your child’s challenges best fit in?
- What is considered to be a part of a child’s education?
- What does an adverse effect look like in real life?
Understanding category: Some kids have more than one learning and thinking difference. So there may be a conversation about which category is the best fit. Let’s say a child has both ADHD and dyslexia. ADHD falls under “other health impairment.” Dyslexia falls under “specific learning disability.” Which category should the team use?
Keep in mind that it’s a child’s needs that determine services, not the category or diagnosis. The category should match the challenge that most impacts learning.
Understanding what’s part of education and “adverse effect”: These two questions come up a lot for kids with learning and thinking differences. That’s because some kids do well in some classes and not others. Or they might mainly have trouble with things like self-control or social skills.
It’s not just about academic performance. If getting good grades comes at the cost of taking hours to do short homework assignments or needing a lot of support from parents, that’s also adverse effect.
And the U.S. Department of Education has made it clear that education includes behavior, attention, and social skills. When kids have trouble with self-control, organization, attention, or social skills, that gets in the way of learning, too.
It can also help to be familiar with some other terms you may hear. These include patterns of strengths and weaknesses (a model for evaluating a student for special education), functional skills (skills needed to function at school, like holding and using a pencil), and academic skills (skills needed to perform at school, like reading and writing).
Making the decision: Eligible or not eligible
IDEA requires that the eligibility decision be made by the whole team at the meeting. Usually the team is able to decide without having to dive too deeply into these issues. All the members have the same task: to help your child thrive.
Sometimes the team won’t find a child eligible. If that happens and you disagree, follow these steps. You may also want to talk about whether a 504 plan is right for your child.
If the team finds your child is eligible, the next step is creating an IEP. Some schools have joint eligibility and IEP development meetings. But if time is running short or you haven’t planned on combining these steps, an IEP meeting will be scheduled.
Having some time between meetings isn’t always a bad thing. It gives you more time to get ready. Learn about the difference between supports and services. And read other parents’ stories about their IEP experiences.
Your child must have a disabling condition that affects learning to be eligible for special education.
Learning includes more than academics — social skills, behavior, or trouble with attention need to be considered, too.
IDEA requires that the eligibility decision be made by the whole team at the meeting.
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About the author
About the author
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.