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Frequently Asked Questions about IEPs

Updated: Jun 25, 2021

By Amanda Morin,

There’s a lot to know when your child has an Individualized Education Program (IEP). From the legal to the logistical, here’s a look at five common questions parents have about IEPs and, more importantly, some answers to help.

I don’t think everybody uses IEP the same way. What exactly is an IEP?

IEP stands for an individualized education program, which is the blueprint for your child’s special education experience. But sometimes people also use “IEP” to refer to the legal written document that that contains all the information about your child’s program. Technically, that document is an IEP plan.

People may also use IEP to refer to the team who helps puts the program into place (“she’s on my child’s IEP”) or the meetings held to review the program, (“we have an IEP this afternoon”). But those references are shorthand for “IEP team” or “IEP meeting.”

I heard my child’s IEP is supposed to be standards-based. What does that mean and how do I know if it is?

Each state has standards that lay out what students are expected to learn in math, reading, science and other subjects by the end of each year. A standards-based IEP means the program aligns your child’s learning needs and goals with the academic standards for your state.

Schools haven’t always tied IEPs to grade-level standards. But a 2015 guidance letter from the U.S. Department of Education made it clear that all IEPs must be tied to state academic standards. If your child’s IEP isn’t tied to state standards, it violates her legal right to a free and appropriate education (FAPE).

You may wonder how your child will meet grade-level standards if she’s behind. Every IEP has a few key parts:

  1. Your child’s present level of performance

  2. Annual goals for your child

  3. Special education supports and services to help him reach the goals

  4. Accommodations and modifications to help your child progress

  5. Measurements for your child’s progress toward goals

In a standards-based IEP, those are all aligned with state academic standards. If, for example, your child has dyslexia, her present level of reading performance will be measured by what grade level she’s reading at.

Her annual goals will be written to meet standards for her grade. And any services, supports, and accommodations she receives are intended to get her to meet those grade-level standards. She may not reach that goal, but it’s important that her educational experience is aiming to get her there.

I keep hearing about “smart goals.” What makes a goal “smart?”?

SMART isn’t referring to whether or not a goal is clever or not, although SMART goals are very well-written. SMART stands for the key components of a well-written goal:

  1. Specific: This means the goal is specific in naming the skill or subject area and how your child will achieve the targeted goal.

  2. Measurable: This means the goal states the way your child’s progress will be measured. That can be done using standardized tests, curriculum-based measurements or screening.

  3. Attainable: This means the goal represents progress that may be ambitious, but still realistic for your child.

  4. Results-oriented: This means the goal clearly lays out what your child will do to accomplish it and explains what she’ll be able to do once the goal is met.

  5. Time-bound: This means the goal includes a time frame in which your child will achieve it, given appropriate supports and services. It also explains when and how often progress will be measured.

We just had an IEP meeting and I feel good about the accommodations for my child, but how will I know if they’re working?

You can begin by talking to each teacher to make sure he understands the accommodations and when to use them. Ask him to give you an example of how it would look in a normal class period to see if you’re on the same page. And check with your child to see if she knows what her accommodations are when they’ll be used and how she can access them.

If you’re not comfortable that the teachers or your child are using the accommodations appropriately (or at all!), ask that an IEP team member makes it a priority to follow up. After that, you can keep track of your child’s progress in general and special education via homework, progress reports and by how she’s acting and reacting to school. If it’s not going as well as you expected, it’s a good idea to revisit the accommodations.

What do I do if I don’t agree with a decision the rest of the team makes during the meeting?

You don’t have to agree to the entire plan, but you need to make that clear in writing. In most states, there isn’t a section for you to sign and approve the IEP because the federal law doesn’t require a parent to sign. When the very first IEP is finalized, you do have to sign to provide permission to provide services, but after that, the law doesn’t require your signature.

Once the IEP plan is completed, the school will send you a prior written notice explaining what actions were taken and the decisions that were made. When you get the prior written notice, it will provide a date on which the new IEP will begin.

If you disagree with any of the services or background information, it’s best to write a letter explaining what you disagree with or the services you are declining. You may want to call another meeting to discuss the issue again. If the team still doesn’t agree, you have to decide if you want to pursue the issue through due process.

There’s a lot to learn about IEPs, and it can be tricky to track. With a better understanding of how the program works, what the IEP plan should include, an understanding of your legal rights and the school’s responsibilities, you’re off to a good start!


During her years as an early childhood educator, she taught kindergarten and worked with infants, toddlers and preschoolers with disabilities. She provided education and training to parents of children with disabilities and led multidisciplinary teams in developing and implementing Individual Family Service Plans.

Morin received a bachelor’s degree in education from the University of Maine and special education advocacy training from the Council of Parent Attorneys and Advocates.

She is the author of three books: The Everything Parent’s Guide to Special Education, The Everything Kids’ Learning Activities Book and On-the-Go Fun for Kids: More Than 250 Activities to Keep Little Ones Busy and Happy—Anytime, Anywhere! She also writes for


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