ABCs of IEPs
What’s an IEP? And why are there so many confusing acronyms in special education?
In this episode, host Gretchen Vierstra gets answers to common questions about Individualized Education Programs (IEPs) from co-host Amanda Morin and their colleague Andrew Lee, a special education legal expert. Andrew and Amanda explain the basics of IEPs — starting with “How do kids even get one?” They also break down the meanings of special education terms like PLOP, and answer questions about IEPs from the Understood community.
Amanda: This episode of "In It" is dedicated to the memory of Melody Musgrove, who died in September. Melody was an Understood expert and led the U.S. Department of Education's Office of Special Education Programs from 2010 to 2015. Melody was a true champion for inclusion and for students with disabilities. She was also gracious, kind, and generous with her knowledge and time. Thanks to Melody for always having been in it with us.
Amanda: Hi, I'm Amanda Morin. I'm the director of thought leadership for Understood.org and a parent to kids who learn differently.
Gretchen: I'm Gretchen Vierstra, a former classroom teacher and an editor here at Understood. And this is "In It."
Amanda: "In It" is a podcast from the Understood Podcast Network. On this show, we talk to parents, caregivers, teachers, experts, and sometimes even kids. We offer perspective, stories, and advice for, from, and by people who have challenges with reading, math, focus, and other types of learning differences.
Gretchen: And today we are going back to the basics to offer what we're calling the ABCs of IEPs.
Amanda: An IEP stands for Individualized Education Program. It's both a legal document and kind of a roadmap. The IEP document is a written plan, and the program is the special education instruction, supports, and services your child needs to make progress and thrive in school.
Gretchen: An IEP is often a parent's formal introduction into what's going on with their kid and how the school is supposed to support their learning. So, it's a pretty important document. But it can also be confusing.
Amanda: And so, to help you break it down, we've got two experts. One is me.
Amanda: And the other is another member of the Understood team, Andrew Lee.
Gretchen: Andrew works with us on editorial content and is also an attorney who has written a lot about special education and the legal rights of kids. Andrew, welcome to "In It."
Andrew: Thanks for having me, guys. I'm super excited to be here.
Gretchen: So, to get things started, let's tackle some of the intro-level questions about IEPs we get a lot, starting with: How do you get one, and who initiates the process?
Andrew: Should I take that one on, Amanda?
Amanda: Yeah, absolutely.
Andrew: The way to get an IEP is to start with a school evaluation. So, asking or requesting that the public school that your child is in conduct an evaluation of your child.
You know, most experts will say you should do this in writing. It doesn't have to be fancy. It doesn't have to be, you know, 20 pages long. It's just, "I'm really concerned because I think that there are some things going on with my child. I feel they may need some services, some special education, and I really want an evaluation."
And that gets the ball rolling. Once that happens, the school has an obligation to sort of do this evaluation, and the evaluation is basically a way to collect information about where your child is at. It can involve watching them in class, looking at report cards, it can involve some more involved types of tests. But the purpose is really to understand where your child is at, their needs, you know, their strengths or weaknesses.
Once that happens, there's a step that comes after that, which is eligibility. And that's where they decide, well, based on everything they found in the evaluation, does your child qualify for an IEP?
Amanda: And I think I'm going to jump in and say, around initiating the process, it's — one of the reasons we suggest you put it in writing is because there's a timeline, and that putting it in writing gives a date where that timeline starts.
Sometimes the school will initiate the process, but they'll usually talk to the parent first, before they initiate the process. As to getting an IEP, I think it's important to realize, like, there are certain things around that, that a child has to have a disability that's covered under one of the categories of disability, and it has to affect their education.
Andrew: Those are really good points, Amanda. If you look at special education law, you have to fit into one of these 13 defined categories of disability. And it's not just that. Your child has to have one of those disabilities and then also, because of that disability, really need those services to sort of make progress in school.
Amanda: And Andrew and I have written a lot about this for Understood, so we'll drop some of the pertinent links into the show notes so people have things to refer back to as well.
Gretchen: That was a really clear explanation, and so let's move on to another question. Do you have to be a legal U.S. resident to get an IEP?
Andrew: The answer to this is absolutely not. You do not have to be a legal U.S. resident to get an IEP. In general, kids have the right to an education in public schools in the United States, regardless of their immigration status, regardless of the immigration status of their parents. So, it doesn't matter whether or not you are a legal U.S. resident or not, or anybody in your family is or is not. You have a right to public education. And that right actually includes the right to special education. Now I know that saying that you have a right to an education, to special education, to an IEP, regardless of immigration status, that's one thing. But as a practical matter, I know a lot of families or parents or caregivers, they can be concerned because they walk in and, you know, perhaps jeopardize or perhaps, uh, you don't know what's going to happen. And I just want to acknowledge that's a real concern. But at the same time, it's important to know that you have that right and that the children have that right regardless of their immigration status. And that my feeling is that the vast, vast, vast majority of schools take that seriously because they know how they have that legal obligation.
Amanda: This is why we bring on the legal expert. This is awesome.
Gretchen: Exactly. Kind of related, another perhaps barrier some people might think of. Does an IEP cost money?
Andrew: Yeah. No, an IEP does not cost any money. It's completely free. I used to think that this was pretty widely known, but it's actually a really common misconception. And the place that it comes from is, you know, when we send our kids to school, we pay sometimes with their school supplies, we pay for their clubs, they're going on a field trip, we might pay a little bit there, you know, school lunch. And so we think of certain things in school as costing money. But it's really important to know that the IEP, the evaluation process, the services, technology — everything in that that comes with special education is completely free.
Amanda: I think it's a good time to add, too, that an IEP is a public school document from kindergarten through 12th grade. And the reason I mention that is because the law under which an IEP is governed applies to any school that takes federal money, that has federal money that comes into that school district to provide education. So, to Andrew's point about it being free, education in public schools is free, and that's part of education. So, just wanted to make that point too.
Gretchen: And can I ask a related question, then, because you all spoke earlier of an evaluation, right, setting off the process. So, is the evaluation free?
Andrew: Anything that relates to the IEP, to the special education process, is free. So, that evaluation does not cost a penny. And that's one reason why it's great to ask. You have nothing to lose. If you think something is going on with your child, if you think that they could benefit or they need these special education services, they need that IEP, there's no downside to making that request, because it doesn't cost anything.
Gretchen: Great. We asked some of our community members to submit some questions. And so, one parent had asked, "Will my child be looked down upon if she gets an IEP?"
Amanda: I love that this parent asked that, because it's such a common question. Having been a parent of two children now who have had IEPs from the time they walked into a school until the time they graduated, I can say I understand that concern. I think that "looked down upon" is not going to happen from a school perspective. All schools want to make sure that kids have what they need to learn successfully, right? An IEP provides that outline of what that child needs to be a successful learner in the classroom. The other component of this is more around, how do you talk to your child about having an IEP and making sure that they understand this is in place to support them, so they feel empowered by it and don't feel embarrassed by it. That's a tall order. I just want to say that, like, really up front; it's a tall order. But making sure a child understands what that IEP is for, and knowing that there are rights that go with it for both parent and child matter a lot. It's a process, and parents themselves need to get comfortable with understanding that there's nothing wrong with a little help, and that there are a lot of other kids who have IEPs.
So, I think it's important to know your child is definitely not the only one in that classroom, in that school, in your district, who has an IEP.
Andrew: One thing, if you are concerned about it, you can always talk to the school and the IEP team. That's the educators and people at the school that are sort of in charge, along with you as the parent, of making sure this IEP is working.
There are ways to make sure that your child doesn't stick out when they need to maybe receive a service, or if there is an accommodation, like, or some sort of tool that your child's using on their computer, everybody's computer looks the same. Or, you know, there are ways to make it much more comfortable for kids, because we know how kids, not all kids love to feel different. But there are ways to make sure that everybody is sort of in one classroom and is included in the learning there.
Gretchen: So, I'm looking at a sample IEP, and although way back when, as a teacher, I was trained in how to read one of these, I can see how it's totally overwhelming and confusing when you look at it for the first time. And in part, because there's just so many acronyms.
Amanda: It is an alphabet soup, isn't it?
Gretchen: It really is.
Andrew: The thing to remember, I think, if you are getting confused by them, is that everybody does. Even people who have been in this field for a while are, like, "Oh, what was that term?" Um, so you can, there's no shame in asking questions, and actually as a parent, you have a right to ask questions about these terms.
Amanda: I think I would add to that, that the forms have the same sort of fields to them, right?
So, there are things that need to be in an IEP regardless of whether you're in Nebraska or California or New York or Maine or wherever you are, they all have to have certain goals and they have to have levels of performance. They have to have all the same kinds of things.
But the forms don't always look the same. So, as somebody who is a trained special ed advocate, has done this with my own kids, I might pick up a form from a different state and have to really dig through and find where that information is. So, they don't always look the same, but the information in them should be the same. There's standardized types of information, and then there may be additional commentary and things like that.
One of the things that I think I want parents to know is that you have the right to add commentary. Like, you have the right to have input into this whole process. So, your written commentary can be added to that IEP as well.
Gretchen: OK. So, back to all those fun acronyms — we're going to do a little lightning round of "What the heck are these acronyms, and what do they mean?" So, Andrew and Amanda, you get to take turns answering these questions. You ready? Let's go. OK. So, here's the first one you might see: It's F A P E, or FAPE. What is it?
Andrew: Yeah, FAPE is the right to FAPE: free appropriate public education. This is probably the most important right for kids with disabilities, for kids with learning and thinking differences who qualify for an IEP.
And I want to break it down letter by letter. So, F A P E. F is for free. We already talked about the IEP process, special education as being free. So, it's really important: This is free. A is for appropriate. This is the letter that probably gives people the most difficulty. Appropriate is what's right or appropriate for this child's learning and thinking difference. You know, what's right or appropriate for a child with dyslexia might be different from what's right or appropriate for a child with ADHD or autism or a mobility issue.
And the next letter is public. And the meaning of that is that it's directed by the public. It's up to the standards of the state in which you live. It's something that's part of what the school is doing with you. And the last is education, that it's related to school, how a child is doing in school. Now that doesn't mean it only has to be about academics. A lot of behavior issues impact education. But this right to FAPE traces itself back to school — so, free appropriate public education.
Gretchen: All right, let's move on to another one. FERPA, or F E R P A.
Amanda: Oh, that's one for the lawyer.
Andrew: I'll take that one as well. So, for the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act, wow. Now, this is a law that has two goals to it. The first one is educational rights. So, that is your right as a parent to see your child's educational records, to see what's in their file. And that's really important because maybe you want to see, how did that evaluation go? Or what is the teacher collecting about your child, and you have a right to do that.
The other part of FERPA is the right to privacy, and that means that you have the right to see that but you also have the right to prevent certain people from seeing it.
There are some exceptions to that privacy. For example, if there are educators in the school that need to see your child's records, obviously they would be able to see that. But in general, it's your sort of right to keep your child's records private. Now, FERPA, I just want to mention that it applies to all kids, not just kids who receive special education or IEPs. It applies to all children.
And another thing to know is that, actually, if your child does have an IEP, you actually have a few more rights beyond FERPA around your child's disability, how long information is kept. But instead of knowing all those details, what I think I want parents to remember is that this law gives you those two big rights: One is to see what's in the files, and also to prevent those files from going beyond where they should.
Gretchen: Got it. All right. What about L R E? What's that?
Amanda: Ooh, I've got that one. So, LRE stands for least restrictive environment. And what the least restrictive environment is, is one of these really big landmark pieces of special education rights for children.
They have the right to be educated with what's known as their nondisabled peers as much as possible. A lot of people think of special education and think that students are going to be taken out and put into a different classroom. LRE, the right to LRE, says that that happens as little as possible, and that you need to try whatever you can to make sure a child stays in the same classroom as their peers as much as possible.
One of the cool things is students who learn and think differently, ADHD, learning disabilities, we know that those are students who spend 80 percent of their time in the general education classroom. So, if you're worried that your child's not going to be in the classroom with the rest of their peers, LRE is the thing that you want to be paying attention to.
Gretchen: All right. Is this IDEA or I D E A?
Andrew: It's I D E A. But, yes, it's so funny because we say FAPE as FAPE, and we don't go F A P E, but then we get down to IDEA, and we say I D E A, not IDEA.
Amanda: But it's a good idea.
Andrew: It is a good idea! Um, so, IDEA, this is the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. The way that I think about this is this is our nation's special education law.
So, everything we're talking about, all the terms — FAPE, LRE, or most of the things we're talking about — come from this law. And this is really the fundamental piece of legislation or law that gives rise to all these rights. And so, it's really important just to know that. I don't think anybody walks around and says "IDEA, IDEA" when they're, you know, in an IEP meeting. But it's important to know that these are where many of these rights are coming from.
Gretchen: Here's some others I'm wondering about, and I'm not sure I'm going to say these acronyms correctly: plop, plep, or is it plath, plafth? What? What is it?
Andrew: It's like potty humor, right?
Amanda: It does sound like that. So, Gretchen is saying PLAAFP, PLOP, or PLEP, and PLAAFP is P L A A F P: present levels of academic and adaptive functional performance. PLOP is present level of performance. PLEP is present level of educational performance.
Basically, they mean the same thing, right? They're looking at skills. It's the way a child is doing right now. What is their skill level and all of these different kinds of skills that you've looked at in the evaluation? The reason they're said differently is because educational performance is like academic skills. The level of adaptive functioning is things like life skills and behavior; present level of performance, PLOP, is the one I love. I mean, it's the one — Andrew, you're right, it sounds like potty humor — but present level of performance means you're looking at all those skills together. And it is one of those things that has to be in every IEP.
Gretchen: OK, so, Andrew, one more. What is PWN?
Andrew: OK, so, PWN is prior written notice. So, one of your most important rights when you're involved in the evaluation or IEP process, when you get this, you know, the IEP, is just your right as a parent or a caregiver to be involved. And prior written notice, it basically stands for the notice that the school has to give you whenever it's making a change, whenever it's doing something, it's going to give you a piece of paper that's going to say to you what's happening. So, if they're going to place your child in a certain service or change of service, whenever something happens, you'll get that form. And it's really important to know and to ask for, if you haven't gotten it, if something happens, you didn't know about it, you should say, "Where was my prior written notice? Where's my PWN?"
Gretchen: Where is my PWN?
Andrew: Though I would say they will probably refer to it as prior written notice, not PWN.
Amanda: Sounds like an airport code now. Where are you flying out of today? PWN.
Gretchen: OK, so, one more we want to cover, and we're moving from letters to numbers because this is important, too — um, what is a 504?
Amanda: OK, so, 504 is usually not said just as 504, you usually hear "504 plan." And a 504 plan, a lot of people think it's a special education plan also, but it's not. It is a plan that provides accommodations for students who need them but don't need specialized instruction, and it's provided under a different law. Andrew, do you want to name the law? Because I'm going to leave something out of it.
Andrew: Yeah. It's Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act, and don't worry about that so much, as 504 plan is everything Amanda said. But that's the law; it comes from Section 504.
Amanda: Which is a civil rights law, not an education law, and I think that's important to know. And some kids who may not qualify or be eligible for an IEP, they have a 504 plan. The one thing I would add for parents here is a lot of parents worry that it's not "as good as," right? And I want to make sure that we're saying that's not actually the case. If a 504 plan provides all the accommodations and support your child needs to get the education they need, that's great.
Andrew: Totally agree with that. I mean, it's what's appropriate for their child, what's right for the child. Some kids need more support. Some kids who don't have any learning or thinking differences, any disability, they don't need a 504 plan or an IEP, and that's completely fine. And so, these are just different levels of support or different types of support for the different needs that kids have.
Gretchen: Andrew, this has been so much fun. I mean, fun in, like, the wonkiest way. Do you have last thoughts that you want to talk about before we —
Andrew: Sure. Just like a quick note is, like, we've gone through this really quickly, and you can keep diving into this stuff and getting deeper and deeper. But if you ever are confused about these terms, just remember as a parent, you know, if you're ever in those, you're ever in the meeting room with the school, you can stop everything and say, "Please explain that to me again."
You have that right. You have the right to be informed, to know what's going on, to be involved in the process. And how can you be involved if they don't explain to you what some of these terms are? So, don't worry about taking notes or memorizing them right now. Just know that they will come up and that you have the right to ask about them.
Amanda: That's such good advice. And somebody else in the room is going to want you to ask, too, because they're not going to know.
Gretchen: Exactly. I mean, there could be a teacher there thinking, "Gosh, what was that again? I'm supposed to know this." Go ahead and ask.
Amanda: Andrew, thank you so much for joining us. What fun.
Andrew: Yeah, this was awesome. Thanks for having me. It was really a pleasure.
Gretchen: Before we go, Amanda, I think we have time for just a few more questions from folks in the Understood community, and these questions get at some of the more sticky or maybe just frustrating aspects of how IEPs work.
Amanda: Sure. Ask away.
Gretchen: OK. Here's the first one. This person writes, "I don't understand needing to retest a student every three years in order to continue to qualify for student support and their IEP. Dyslexia doesn't just go away. Our insurance doesn't cover it. It costs a lot of money. Why do schools require retesting?"
Amanda: That one is tricky, Gretchen, because it's asking sort of three things in one question. It's asking the question of why do students need to be retested every three years? And the answer varies. And sometimes the answer is, if the IEP team agrees that the goals and information that they have is sufficient, there's no need for retesting and they don't have to do it. But it actually gives you updated and accurate information to make sure that the goals and services that you have in place for the student are really the appropriate ones, and it helps you see progress.
The second question in here is do I have to pay for the retesting? And the answer is no. Triennial testing, that three-year testing, is done by the school at public expense, just like initial evaluation. And you and the rest of the IEP team sit down and figure out what's the best testing you need to do to get a better picture of what's happening with your student.
And then the third question is, basically, is this retesting being done to prove that my child still has a disability? And the answer is no. It's not trying to prove or disprove that your child still has dyslexia. It's really just trying to look at what the continued academic impact is and what that looks like in a classroom so the student can have what they need to continue to thrive. Nobody's questioning whether or not your child still has dyslexia.
Gretchen: Here's another one, which maybe has to do with prior written notice, our friend PWN. Let me read it to you, Amanda. "My son was recently evaluated by the school psychologist and a special education teacher at school. I have a meeting with the evaluation eligibility team next week to discuss his assessment results. Am I entitled to get the results before the meeting?"
Amanda: Oh, that's a really good question, because I think it comes up a lot. It does go back to prior written notice and it goes back to the rights that Andrew talked about when we talked about the rights under IDEA. And what IDEA, the federal law, says is that you have the right to see those evaluation results three business days prior to the meeting. That's really specific, right? But I think the word in there is "see," because I think that's important. Most of the time, if you request them, the school will send you a copy of the report so you can look at it ahead of time, and it's a good idea to have it so you can make notes and you can see where you have questions, and those kinds of things.
And some schools will even send that report without being asked, so that's great. But knowing that the law says you get to see that report three business days before is important because, in some cases, what that means is you may have to go into the school, sit down in a conference room or something like that, and look over the report and not have a copy to take home. But you do have the right to see it before, so you're not going into that meeting without having any information in front of you.
Gretchen: All right. That was a lot. We covered a lot of ground. Any last thoughts?
Amanda: It was a lot. I want to note a few things. First of all, you do not need to go into a meeting armed with all of this information. You just need to know that you're entitled to everything that's going on with — and have some say in — your child's education program.
Secondly, you are not alone. If you are worried about your child having an IEP, 14 percent of all students in kindergarten through 12th grade have an IEP. That's a lot of kids. And, lastly, at Understood we have so many excellent resources to help you navigate all of this. So, you don't need to remember today; you can always go to Understood and look at some of that information.
Gretchen: Absolutely. To get started, just take a look at the show notes for this episode in your podcast app or at understood.org/podcast/init.
Amanda: All right, parents? I know this can feel really overwhelming, but you've got it. And we're here to help.
Amanda: You've been listening to "In It," part of the Understood Podcast Network.
Gretchen: You can listen and subscribe to "In It" wherever you get your podcasts.
Amanda: And if you like what you heard today, please tell somebody about it.
Gretchen: Share it with the parents you know.
Amanda: Share it with somebody else who might have a child who learns differently and is getting an IEP.
Gretchen: Or just send a link to your child's teacher.
Amanda: "In It" is for you. So we want to make sure that you're getting what you need.
Gretchen: Go to u.org/init and find resources from every episode.
Amanda: That's the letter U, as in Understood dot O R G slash in it. You can also email us at firstname.lastname@example.org. We would love to hear from you.
Gretchen: As a nonprofit and social impact organization, Understood relies on the help of listeners like you to create podcasts like this one to reach and support more people in more places. We have an ambitious mission to shape the world for difference, and we welcome you to join us in achieving our goals. Learn more at understood.org/mission.
Amanda: “In It” is produced by Julie Subrin. Justin D. Wright mixes the show. Mike Errico wrote our theme music. Laura Key is our editorial director at Understood. Scott Cocchiere is our creative director, and Seth Melnick and Briana Berry are our production directors. Thanks for listening, everyone. And thanks for always being in it with us.
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is the director of thought leadership at Understood and author of “The Everything Parent’s Guide to Special Education.” She worked as a classroom teacher and early intervention specialist for more than a decade.
Gretchen Vierstra, MA
is the managing editor at Understood and co-host of the In It podcast. She’s a former educator with experience teaching and designing programs in schools, organizations, and online learning spaces.
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