What is an Individualized Education Plan?

  (Updated May 26, 2022)
Andrew C. McMillan
Andrew C. McMillan
High school principal; Ed.D. in Educational Administration
Block letters spelling ‘IEP’ on top of painted table.

Education in the 21st century has become very personalized and individually tailored to the student, moving away from traditional teaching methods to new and more modern approaches, mainly coming out of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Although the landscape of education has changed tremendously, certain protections still exist for students who receive special education and related services. One of these cornerstones is the Individualized Education Plan or IEP.

What is an Individualized Education Plan? 

Created from the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), Individualized Education Programs are a part of IDEA, and are designed for children with disabilities, including preschool-aged children.

An IEP or individualized program is developed to ensure that a child with an identified disability who attends an elementary or secondary school institution receives specialized instruction and related services. This legal contract between schools and parents helps set direction, goals, and an outline of the special education services provided.

Which Students Need an IEP?

Students who are eligible for special education services need an IEP. Although there may be multiple reasons students could be eligible, some common conditions include:

These are not all-encompassing disabilities but are typically the most common ones seen when Individualized Education Plans are created.

Who is Involved in the IEP Process?

Individualized Education Plans are very student and parent-friendly. First and foremost, integral pieces of the plan and critical input come from both student and parent. The IEP is developed by several team members, including key school personnel and the child’s parents.

Examples of team members can include:

As a principal, I have participated in hundreds of IEP meetings, serving as a school representative. School staff and parent communication is critical when creating these plans. Constant communication between all parties involved is vital to the student’s success. By law, an IEP is rewritten each year, and the student must be reevaluated every three years to determine eligibility.

The eligibility meetings are critical for students as they determine postsecondary plans. Additionally, as schools see more growth and enrollment numbers rise to pre-pandemic figures, students new to a school or new to special education must be evaluated within 30 school days.

Main Components of an IEP

Ultimately, an Individual Education Plan will look different for each and every student, hence the term “individualized.” However, most IEP plans have the same standard components at its core.

Curriculum Progress

First, an IEP will include the involvement and progress of the student with a disability in the general curriculum. This could consist of various progress monitoring benchmarks, assessments, etc. This piece is incredibly critical to the success of the plan. The student’s present levels of academic achievement and performance and how the disability affects their involvement and progress is what drives the IEP.


Next, all related services which the student qualifies for are included. For example, a student could be receiving accommodations within the general curriculum and receiving speech and language services through the speech pathologist.

Additionally, this would include any supplementary aids and services. These could be hearing or visual aids like large-print textbooks, microphone or amplifying devices for teachers and students, or other items. Next, appropriate educational accommodations are included, which are necessary for the student to be successful. Also, the student’s present levels of performance and measurable annual goals and objectives for the student’s education are included.

Least Restrictive Environment

The IEP is written with the student’s least restrictive environment in mind. This is based on how much of the school day the student will be separated from nondisabled children or not participate in extracurricular activities. Additional components of the IEP can include how, if, and when the student will participate in any state or district assessments.

What Challenges Did COVID Present to Fulfilling IEP Requirements? 

Providing individualized education to students with disabilities will always come with unique challenges and hurdles for each student.

Structured Routines Disappeared

Unfortunately, during the COVID-19 pandemic, providing these educational services to students with disabilities was downright impossible. In the platform of special education, with clearly written language and laws in IDEA, there was (and is still) no rulebook for educating during COVID.

The very structured routine of IEP’s was taken away very abruptly, and there have been many challenges with trying new ideas and routines through virtual education, with some of them working and some not.

Much Left to Parents

For example, parents of students receiving special education services were left to try and develop their strategies for student success during remote learning. This protocol put more emphasis and onus on the parents, and left many of them struggling and searching for answers on how best to help their child.

Although presented with challenges, educators, and parents alike took on the challenges of remote learning head-on, often creating and delivering new and creative ways to engage their learners.

The field of special education will always face difficult challenges for parents, students, teachers, related service providers, and school systems. Only when we all work together collaboratively and think creatively can we secure the appropriate services for each student.

In its most basic form, an IEP serves two purposes. First, it establishes reasonable learning goals for the student. Next, it states the service that the school district will provide for the student.

Although they take on many different forms and include various aspects, an IEP is there to protect the student and offer them the same learning opportunities as other students. Parents of students with disabilities want the best for their students. The IEP process blends all parties and puts the student first, which is ultimately our goal as educators.

Interested in advancing your career or stepping into the world of special education? Check out our available special education graduate programs and get started today!

 *Updated May 2022
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