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IEPs: Does my child need an IEP?

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If your child has been struggling in school, you might be wondering if they need special education. And once you start exploring special education, you’re going to run into the term IEP, which stands for Individualized Education Program.

But what exactly is an IEP, anyway? 

On this episode of Understood Explains, host Juliana Urtubey will cover IEP basics and how to figure out if your child needs this kind of support. 


[00:57] What is the purpose of an IEP?

[03:27] What’s in an IEP?

[05:42] Does my child need an IEP?

[07:42] Should I wait to get my child an IEP?

[10:05] What if my child is learning English? 

[11:36] Key takeaways

Related resources

Episode transcript

Juliana: So, your child is having some struggles in school and you're wondering if they might need an IEP. But what does this mean? On this episode of "Understood Explains," we'll cover IEP basics and how to figure out if your child needs this kind of support. 

From the Understood Podcast Network, this is "Understood Explains IEPs." My name is Juliana Urtubey and I'm the 2021 National Teacher of the Year. I'm also an expert in special education for multilingual learners, and I'm so excited to be your host for this season of "Understood Explains."

Quick note about how we're going to structure the season: Most of the episodes focus on information that's important for all parents or guardians to know. But we also have a few episodes that are tailored for different groups of families: families with younger kids, older kids, and multilingual learners. And all the episodes are available in English y en español.

OK, let's get started. 

[00:57] What is the purpose of an IEP?

So, what's the purpose of an IEP? Before we answer that question, I want to quickly explain what an IEP is. IEP stands for Individualized Education Program. It's a formal plan that details the special education instruction, supports, and services that are designed to help a student with a disability make progress in school. 

IEPs are covered by a federal law called the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, or IDEA. This law applies to all public schools in the U.S., including charter schools. If your child qualifies for an IEP, you'll work with the school to develop annual goals and monitor your child's progress throughout the year.

So the purpose of an IEP is basically to be a road map, showing how the school will help your child catch up with their peers. 

It might surprise you to know that IEPs are very common. Nearly 1 in 6 public school students has an IEP. That means millions and millions of kids have Individualized Education Programs. And each IEP is customized to a student's needs. 

So if your child has dyslexia, the IEP might specify an hour of special reading instruction a few times a week. Or let's say your child has ADHD and autism. Maybe you and the school think your child needs to be in a smaller classroom to get more individualized instruction throughout the day. These are the kinds of details that get spelled out in an IEP.

And it's important to know that most kids who have IEPs spend most of their day in general education classrooms. By law, IEPs need to keep kids with their peers as much as possible.

There's one other really important thing that all parents need to know. Having an IEP is not a sign of low intelligence. I've taught many, many kids, and all of my students have unique strengths and needs. But sometimes, people's strengths can be overlooked if they have a learning difference. 

For example, during my first year of teaching, I had a student named Abelardo, who really struggled with reading and writing. The most I had ever seen him write was "Yes," "No," and his name. But one day, we discovered that Abelardo was selling candy and fun school supplies out of his backpack. And he was so good at it. He even had charts to keep track of his inventory and charts to show what was the most popular. And his charts were even color-coded. 

It was clear to me that Abelardo had incredible math, reasoning, and entrepreneurial skills. But he needed formal supports to help him with reading and writing. So remember, kids can do really well in some areas and still need an IEP to help them thrive in school. 

[03:27] What's in an IEP?

Let's get into a bit more detail and talk about what's in an IEP. There are lots of important parts, but I want to give you an overview of four key things in an IEP.

First, there will be a section detailing your child's present level of educational performance. This is the jargony term for how your child is doing in school. You might hear the school use acronyms for this, like "PLOP," or "PLP," or "PLAAFP," which is short for "Present Level of Academic Achievement and Functional Performance." 

This part of the IEP outlines the student's strengths, challenges, and how their classroom scores compare to their peers. This section may also mention some of your child's behaviors or interests, like the subjects they enjoy and how they get along with other kids. 

Next, there will be an "Annual Goals" section. This describes what progress the IEP team is hoping to accomplish. It will list each goal and break down shorter-term objectives to reach along the way. And later this season, we'll have a whole episode on how you can help the school come up with these goals. 

The third main part of an IEP is the "Services" section. This part details how the IEP will help your child meet the annual goals. This section lists any services your child will get and for how long, such as 30 minutes of speech therapy twice a week.

There are also a gazillion different kinds of services that can go into an IEP. Anything from mental health counseling to physical therapy to training in things like social skills or time management. Remember that “I” in IEP is short for "Individualized," which means the IEP can include whatever special services your child needs to make progress in school.

And last but not least, is the section that details the accommodations, which are changes in how your child does things at school. This section of the IEP is often called "Supplementary Aids and Services." It could include things like more time on tests and a seat at the front of the classroom to help your child pay attention. 

It could also include assistive technology like text-to-speech software or audiobooks. The other important thing to note is that an IEP is a legal document. And later this season, we'll have an episode about your rights during the special education process. 

[05:42] Does my child need an IEP?

All right, here we go. One of the biggest questions: Does my child need an IEP?

Sometimes the answer to this question is very clear: "My child is blind and needs to be taught how to read Braille."

But sometimes the question is harder to answer. Here's an example: "My child has ADHD and needs a lot of support to get organized and follow directions. Will classroom accommodations be enough to help my child make progress in school? Or does my child need specialized instruction?" 

Schools look at a bunch of different kinds of data to figure out which kids qualify for an IEP. And to help you understand this process, I recommend you listen to the first season of "Understood Explains," which is all about evaluations for special education. We'll include a link in the show notes.

But the school cannot evaluate your child for special education unless you give permission first. So you play a very important role here. 

If your child is struggling in school and you're wondering if these struggles are serious enough to need an IEP, I want you to ask yourself a few questions:

Why an IEP now? What got you thinking about this? Was it something a teacher said or that your child brought up? Are your concerns new or have you been worried for a while? Thinking about what prompted your concerns can help you talk about them with your child's school or health care provider. 

How are your child's struggles getting in the way at school? Is your child having trouble with a certain subject like reading or math? Is your child struggling socially or with things like concentrating in class? Try to write down a few examples, even if you don't know the root cause. 

What are you observing at home? Does homework take hours and hours and often end in tears? How often is your child worried about school? How intense are these worries? Is your child wanting to stay home from school because it's too hard?

These are the kinds of questions that can help you get ready to talk to the school about giving your child more support. 

[07:42] Should I wait to get my child an IEP?

Should I wait to get my child an IEP? OK, so you've noticed your child is struggling and you think school supports might help. There's a very common question that parents ask themselves next: Is now the right time, or should I wait?

I've worked with a lot of parents who wanted to wait because they were hoping their child would grow out of their challenges. But I found that the sooner we meet children's needs, the better. Being proactive can help kids in many different ways: academically, socially, emotionally.

So if you're wondering if your child needs an IEP now or if you can wait, I want you to do three key things:

First, ask the school what kind of interventions they've tried with your child and for how long. Interventions are much more formal than simply giving a student some extra help. They typically take place over several weeks, and during that time the school keeps track of your child's progress.

If you think your child's skills are improving with the intervention, you may decide to wait to ask for a special education evaluation. But you don't have to wait. You can ask for an evaluation at any time. 

The second thing I want you to do is find an ally at your child's school, whether it's a teacher or an aide or another staff member. Sometimes schools have family liaisons. You can ask the front office to guide you to one. Having a relationship with someone you trust at the school will help you understand the process, ask questions, and get help for your child. 

And the last thing I want you to think about is time of year. Remember, you have the right to request an evaluation at any time, but practically speaking, it's better to avoid asking during the first few weeks of the school year unless you had concerns from the previous year. And likewise, it's better to avoid asking for an IEP at the very end of the school year, when school's winding down for the summer. 

So, those are a few concrete things you can do to help you think about whether now is the right time to talk about an IEP, or if you want to wait.

As a general note, I know many families may be reluctant to speak up or be seen as the squeaky wheel at school. And in particular, I know some Latino families may not feel like it's their place to tell the school how to educate their child. 

But I want to be really clear here. Schools in the U.S. want families to tell teachers when they're worried about their child's progress. And teachers want to partner with families. So I encourage you to talk with your child's teacher and share your concerns — whether you're asking for an IEP or not. 

[10:05] What if my child is learning English? 

So, this next question is near and dear to my heart: What if my child is learning English?

Before we dig into this, I want to note that schools use different terms to describe students who speak languages at home, in addition to, or other than English. Many educators use the term "English language learners." I prefer the term "multilingual," and better yet, "linguistically gifted."

The important thing to keep in mind is that all children learn languages at different rates, and that's OK. It can be hard to become fluent in English while also learning to read, write, and do math in that new language. But there are ways to tell if a child's struggles are due to a language barrier or something else, like a learning difference, such as dyslexia. 

We're going to talk more about this later this season, but for now, I'm going to put a link in the show notes to an Understood article to read if your multilingual learner is struggling in school. It includes lots of good questions to help think about whether your child might need an IEP. 

And there's one more thing I want to mention while we're on this topic. Learning more than one language cannot cause a learning difference or disability. All children, even children with learning and thinking differences, can be multilingual. 

Families often ask me if they should stop speaking to their child in their native language because they worry it's causing harm. That's just not true. In fact, educational experts recommend that families keep using their home languages. Speaking multiple languages is good for a child's learning and brain development. 

[11:36] Key takeaways 

OK, we've covered a lot of information in this episode, so I want to wrap up with a few key takeaways to help you think about whether your child needs an IEP:

  • Think about how much or how often your child is struggling.

  • Being proactive can help your child in the long run, not just academically, but also socially and emotionally.

  • Kids can do really well in some areas and still need an IEP to thrive in school. 

All right. That's it for this episode of "Understood Explains." Tune in for the next episode to learn the difference between IEPs and 504 plans, which is another common type of school support. 

You've been listening to "Understood Explains IEPs." This season was developed in partnership with UnidosUS, which is the nation's largest Hispanic civil rights and advocacy organization. Gracias, Unidos! 

If you want to learn more about the topics we covered today, check out the show notes for this episode. We include more resources as well as links to anything we've mentioned in the episode. Understood is a nonprofit organization dedicated to helping people who learn and think differently discover their potential and thrive. Learn more at


Understood Explains IEPs was produced by Julie Rawe and Cody Nelson, with editing support by Daniella Tello-Garzon.

Video was produced by Calvin Knie and Christoph Manuel with support from Denver Milord.

Mixing and music by Justin D. Wright.

Ilana Millner was our production director. Margie DeSantis provided editorial support, and Whitney Reynolds was our web producer. 

For the Understood Podcast Network, Laura Key is our editorial director, Scott Cocchiere is our creative director, and Seth Melnick is our executive producer.

Special thanks to the team of expert advisors who helped shape this season: Shivohn García, Claudia Rinaldi, and Julian Saavedra.


  • Juliana Urtubey, NBCT, MA

    is the 2021 National Teacher of the Year. As a special educator, she believes all kids have a right to be included and celebrated in what she calls a “joyous and just education.”

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