FAQs about Special Education   - Action for Healthy Kids
Open Search

FAQs about Special Education  

This guide provides answers to common parent and caregiver questions about special education services.

1. What is an IEP?

An IEP is a legal document developed for students with disabilities eligible for special education services. An IEP is a personalized plan that includes the student’s educational goals, services, accommodations, and modifications needed to support the student’s learning and address their unique needs.  The main parts of an IEP include:

  • Present Levels of Achievement and Functional Performance (PLAAFP): The PLAAFP is a snapshot of a student’s current academic achievement and functional performance in reading, writing, math, social skills, and more. It helps to determine what services and supports a student needs.
  • Annual Goals: These are goals that are worked on over a one-year period.
  • Accommodations and Modifications: These are the strategies and supports that are put in place so that students with disabilities can access and participate in educational activities with their peers.
  • Programs and Services: This refers to the specialized educational supports, interventions, and resources a student will receive to help them access the general education curriculum.

2. Who is eligible for an IEP?

Students with disabilities may be eligible for special education services if they meet certain criteria. Eligibility is determined through a comprehensive evaluation process conducted by a team of professionals including educators, psychologists, and other specialists. To be eligible for special education services, a student must have one of 13 disabilities recognized by the IDEA (Individuals with Disabilities Education Act) and must demonstrate that the disability negatively impacts their educational performance and requires specially designed instruction to make progress in school. For more details about eligibility criteria, you can learn more about the IDEA here.

3. What is the difference between a 504 and an IEP?

A 504 plan helps children who need additional accommodations and/modifications, but do not qualify for an IEP. A 504 plan is tailored to meet each individual child’s needs and may include things like a certain seating arrangement or extra time for tests.

An IEP is a more comprehensive plan developed for students who require specialized instruction due to their disabilities. An IEP includes specific academic goals, services, and accommodations tailored to meet the student’s needs.

While both 504 plans and IEPs aim to support students with disabilities, the main difference lies in the level of support and services provided. A 504 plan focuses on accommodations to ensure equal access, while an IEP involves specialized instruction and more comprehensive support for academic success.

4. How often are IEP meetings held?

An IEP meeting must be held at least once a year to review and revise the student’s IEP. During this meeting, the team discusses the student’s progress, reviews the student’s goals, evaluates current services and accommodations, and updates the IEP for the upcoming year.

A reevaluation meeting occurs every three years. During the reevaluation, the student takes part in various evaluations to determine if they are still eligible for special education services.

At any point during the year, parents or team members can also ask for an IEP meeting to review the IEP, adjust the goals, or discuss concerns.

5. What happens during an IEP meeting?

An IEP meeting agenda usually includes these items:

  • Introductions
  • Discuss student strengths and parent input/concerns
  • Determine which eligibility category student is qualifying under
  • Review of Present Levels of Achievement and Performance (PLAAFP)
  • Discuss Goals and Objectives
  • Discuss Accommodations and Modifications needed
  • Discuss Related Services (i.e. time in the resource room, occupational therapy, social work)
  • Transition Planning (depending on the student’s age, this may include a discussion of post-secondary plans and independent living skills)
  • Communication Considerations: determining how to the family and team can best keep in contact about the student’s needs and progress

 6. If my child has an outside diagnosis, do they still need a school evaluation?

Schools typically require their own evaluations to determine if a student is eligible for special education. An educational evaluation is not the same as a diagnosis by a medical professional.  However, schools will generally review the testing information from outside professionals and may take the outside diagnosis into consideration when determining what is best for the student.

 7. How do I request a special education evaluation if I think my child is struggling?

Requesting a special education evaluation for your child is an important step in ensuring they receive the support they need to succeed academically. To request an evaluation, you should contact your child’s teacher to express your concerns about their academic performance and request an evaluation for special education. The request can be given verbally or in writing, but either way be sure to clearly state your concerns and that you are requesting a formal evaluation for special education services.

Once an evaluation has been requested by a parent or legal guardian, the law states that evaluations must be conducted within a reasonable timeframe, typically within 60 days of receiving parental consent for the evaluation. However, each state has their own specific timelines, which may be shorter or longer than the federal requirement.

For more information about navigating concerns, see [What to do – Parent Concerns resource].

8. Who is part of the evaluation and IEP processes?

The IEP team generally consists of you (the parents or guardians), a general  education teacher, a special education teacher, and school support staff, like a social worker, speech therapist, occupational therapist, and/or physical therapist. A school psychologist typically joins after the initial evaluation has been completed, or if the team is meeting for reevaluation.

9. Can the IEP be changed after the IEP meeting?

Yes! An IEP meeting will be held every year to review your child’s progress and develop a new IEP for the upcoming school year.

If you feel you need to meet before the annual IEP, you may ask to have your child’s IEP reviewed or revised at any time. IEPs may also be reviewed prior to the scheduled annual IEP. For example, the student achieved their goals and new goals need to be added, or there are changes to the student’s services that need to be made.

 10. Will my child be in special education forever?

This depends on many factors including the nature of their disability, their individual progress, and their ongoing educational needs over time. For some students, special education services may be temporary, serving as a bridge to help them develop the skills needed to succeed in the general education classroom.

For other students, special education may be a long-term need. Ultimately, the goal of special education is to provide the appropriate level of support to help students make progress and achieve their educational and developmental goals. Therefore, the duration of special education services can vary from one student to another.

Additional Resources

Who’s Who in a School: Guide to School Staff Acronyms in Special Education


This project on Improving Mental, Behavioral and Academic Supports to Students and Families, Part 2 is supported by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) as part of a financial assistance award totaling $434,555 with 100 percent funded by CDC/HHS. The contents are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily represent the official views of, nor an endorsement, by CDC/HHS, or the U.S. Government.