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IEPs: How do kids qualify for IEPs?

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Kids don’t just get an IEP all of a sudden.

Schools have an evaluation process to decide if a child qualifies for special education services. This includes getting an IEP. 

On this episode of Understood Explains, join host Juliana Urtubey as she discusses the evaluation process and requirements for getting an IEP. She’ll also share what to do if the school says your child doesn’t qualify for an IEP and more. 


[00:37] How do kids qualify for IEPs?

[03:14] Does my child need a diagnosis to get an IEP?

[04:45] How do I request an evaluation?

[06:12] What if the school wants to wait to evaluate my child?

[08:10] What if the school says my child doesn’t qualify for an IEP?

[08:49] Key takeaways 

Related resources 

Episode transcript

Juliana: Kids don't get an IEP all of a sudden. The school needs to do an evaluation and decide if your child qualifies for special education. I'm going to explain how this process works. 

From the Understood Podcast Network, this is "Understood Explains IEPs." On this episode, we'll talk about how to get an IEP and what to do if the school says your child isn't eligible. 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 your host for this season of "Understood Explains," which is available in English y en español. Let's get started.

[00:37] How do kids qualify for IEPs?

How do kids qualify for IEPs? There are two big things that need to happen to qualify for an Individualized Education Program, or IEP. The first thing is, your child needs to get an evaluation. Public schools have a whole process for evaluating kids using a team of professionals. It's free for families, and I'm going to talk more about this in a minute. The second big thing is called eligibility determination. This is what happens at the end of the evaluation process. 

To qualify for an IEP, the school needs to determine that your child has a disability and that the disability negatively impacts how your child is doing in school. There's a jargony phrase that schools use for this. "The disability needs to adversely affect your child's educational performance." And by the way, educational performance can be viewed very broadly. It's not limited to academics. Kids can qualify for IEPs because they have a disability that affects their attention, behavior, social skills, etc.

So to recap, to get an IEP, your child needs to get evaluated by the school and the evaluation team needs to find that your child has a disability that adversely affects your child's education.

OK, so where did these requirements come from? They're part of a federal law called the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. or IDEA. And there are three things that I want to highlight about this part of the law. 

First, public schools have a big responsibility. They must identify and evaluate any kids who may need special education. This is called Child Find, and it's the first step towards getting kids the support they need to thrive in school.

Second, not all kids with disabilities will qualify for IEPs. Maybe your child doesn't need specially designed instruction or services. Maybe all your child needs is some assistive technology or classroom accommodations. If so, the school may recommend a 504 plan, which we talked a little bit about in Episode 2.

Third, to qualify for an IEP, the school needs to determine that your child has a disability that falls into one of the 13 categories in IDEA. Now, this doesn't mean the law only covers 13 disabilities. It means that there are 13 really big buckets of disabilities. For example, ADHD is covered under the category called Other Health Impairments.

This season we're going to have a whole episode about disability categories. But, for now I'll just say that even if your child has a really rare disability, they can still qualify for an IEP. The key thing is that the disability needs to adversely impact your child's education. 

[03:14] Does my child need a diagnosis to get an IEP?

Does my child need a diagnosis to get an IEP? This is a very common question, and the official answer is no, or at least no in the way most families think about having to go to a doctor to get a medical diagnosis.

Schools don't diagnose kids. They do something a little different, which is identify a child as having a disability. So no, you don't need to get a diagnosis from your health care provider. But if you want to, you can share a diagnosis with the school evaluation team. 

OK, so what does an evaluation look like? Schools do special education evaluations for free. And they have to complete them within a certain time frame, usually within 60 days. But this can vary a bit from state to state. The team will use this time to gather data from a bunch of sources to help decide if your child qualifies for an IEP. 

Evaluations often include special tests, observations in your child's classroom, and interviews with family members and teachers. And if your child is learning English, their language instructor will help with the evaluation too.

As a parent or guardian, your participation is really important. The team cannot evaluate your child without your permission. And the more you work together, the more you can help keep the evaluation centered on your child's strengths as well as your child's needs.

If you want to learn more about evaluations, check out the first season of "Understood Explains," which is all about getting evaluated for special education. 

[04:45] How do I request an evaluation?

How do I request an evaluation? So, before we get into this, I want to mention that there are two ways to start the evaluation process. Either the school can reach out to you in what's called a referral, or you can request an evaluation. Season 1 of "Understood Explains" has a whole episode about this exact topic. 

Here are some highlights. The first step in requesting an evaluation is finding out who you should send the request to. Your child's teacher should know. But this is also a good time to ask the school's front office if there's a community liaison or a family support provider. Lots of school districts have this type of person who can help you navigate the system. 

The next step is to put your request in writing. Write an email or a letter that includes the month and day you sent it, because that date is important. By law, schools must respond within a certain time frame, which varies from state to state. As you're writing your letter, be sure to describe why you're requesting an evaluation. Try to be as specific as possible. 

You can say things like, "My child has a lot of trouble with spelling. He studies hard, but he can't remember how to spell even the most basic words. And I'm concerned he may have a learning difference or disability. He may need more support at school."

If you need help getting started on your letter, we have some templates on I'll put a link in the show notes. 

[06:12] What if the school wants to wait to evaluate my child?

What if the school wants to wait to evaluate my child? This can be a tough situation to be in. I know a lot of parents don't want to be seen as the squeaky wheel, or maybe feel like it's not their role to tell the school what to do. But you know your child best. So, if you think it's time to evaluate your child, advocate for it. And remember, special education law says that schools need to be actively looking for kids who may have a disability. 

Now, I want to be clear. Schools don't have to say yes to every request for an evaluation. But sometimes schools want to wait for reasons that aren't allowed. And I want to give you two examples.

If your child is struggling, the school may try an instructional intervention. But here's the thing about interventions. They're designed to take several weeks so the school can see how your child responds to this kind of intensive instruction. The goal is to give the child effective support and time to show progress. 

But let's say you're pretty confident that you're seeing signs of dyslexia or ADHD or whatever you think might be going on with your child. You don't have to wait until the end of the intervention to ask for an evaluation. You can wait if you want to. Or you can remind the school that an intervention is not a valid reason to delay or deny your evaluation request. 

Another example is if your child is an English language learner, or what I prefer to call a multilingual learner. It's not uncommon for multilingual kids to fall behind their peers while they learn formal academic English skills. So, the school might just think your child needs more language instruction and not special education. But that's not a valid reason for delaying an evaluation. 

You can request an evaluation for special education even if your child is still learning English. One thing that can be a big help is to let the school know if your child is struggling with things like reading or speaking in your home language. Understood has an article about some common reasons why a school might deny your request and how you can respond. We'll put a link in the show notes. 

[08:10] What if the school says my child doesn’t qualify for an IEP?

What if the school says my child doesn't qualify for an IEP? So, if this happens, you have some important rights. Schools have to explain in writing how they made their decision. If you disagree, you can get something called an independent educational evaluation. And in some cases, the school may even be required to pay for this private evaluation for you. 

You can also ask for mediation with a neutral third party or a due process hearing, which is kind of like a mini trial. And we're going to talk more about your dispute resolution options later in the season. 

[08:49] Key takeaways 

OK, before we go, let's sum up what we've learned with a few key takeaways. 

First, your child doesn't need a medical diagnosis to get an IEP. The school needs to do an evaluation and find that your child has a disability that negatively impacts their learning. You can ask the school to evaluate your child, but the team cannot get started until you give your consent. And lastly, you have a lot of legal rights in this process. Remember, you know your child best. And you can be a powerful advocate to help your child thrive. 

All right. That's it for this episode of "Understood Explains." Next time we're talking about IEP disability categories.

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-Garzón. 

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 Garcia, 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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