What is an IEP? Making sense of an individualized education plan

There are few documents crafted by man as hard to understand as an Individualized Education Program, or IEP. How can so many pages say so little? Or say the same things over and over in confusing terms? 

The first time I saw an IEP, I was certain that I was in the wrong place, and this was clearly a contract law class. Alas, it was not.

Are IEPs difficult to understand? Absolutely. Can they be intimidating and impenetrable? You bet. They are not without usefulness though.

This week we’re going on a quick tour of the IEP. Let’s demystify it and help it guide you in your practice, rather than frustrate you endlessly.

We’ll help you “crack the code”, so you can confidently breeze through IEPs and reveal their most valuable secrets: essential information about your student and how to help them use their strengths to be successful.

Let’s start with the basics



An Individualized Education Program is a legal document. They are intended to help students access the education that is appropriate to their needs and abilities.

They are not a suggestion. They are not negotiable (unless it’s the IEP meeting, then negotiation and collaboration are the names of the game).


Only students who qualify as students with a disability under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) qualify for one.

When/ Where

Every year a review of the student’s progress and needs is conducted. Every person that student works with in an educational capacity is involved. There is a meeting, and a new document that reflects the changes to that student’s needs is created.


Students with disabilities have needs that other students don’t. That may be anything from wheelchair-accessible desks, braille books, or just extended time on assignments.

The wheelchair desk is a good illustration of their use. You would never dream of neglecting that necessary seating for a student. Everything in the IEP is like that, even if you can’t see the struggle.

Some disabilities/differences appear more invisible and hidden than others. All the recommendations that an IEP makes for a kid are as necessary for them as the wheelchair desk is for a student who is paralyzed.

Let’s go on the tour!


Cover page

This is usually a pretty helpful page. It includes information like name, date of the meeting, age of the student and who attended the last IEP. It usually also includes how that student qualifies for special education services.

States use different codes but here are some common ones:

  • LD/ SLD/ LI- learning disability/ specific learning disability/learning impaired. This usually includes processing disorders (dyslexia, dyscalculia etc). It is the most common disability category.
  • ED/ EI- Emotional disability/ Emotional Impairment. These are students who have an emotional condition such as depression, anxiety or PTSD.
  • VI/ VD- Visual impairment/ visual disability. This is a student who is blind or otherwise has a visual limitation.
  • HI/DHH- Hearing Impairment or Deaf/ Hard of Hearing. These are students who have hearing limitations up to total deafness.
  • ID/ ID/ MI- Intellectual Impairment/ intellectual disability/ mental impairment. Most states are cleaning up their language in this category. When I first started teaching it was still “mentally retarded”. Luckily, that is starting to be a thing of the past. This category includes those students with delays in obtaining information and skills.
  • ASD/ AI- Autism spectrum disability/ Autism impairment. These are students who have been diagnosed as being somewhere on the Autism spectrum
  • TBI- Traumatic brain injury. Students who have sustained a traumatic brain injury.
  • OHI- Other Health Impaired. This is a catch-all for anything that impairs a student’s ability to learn. It includes students with ADHD. 

There are many more categories than these, but in most school settings these will be the most common.

Any of these disabilities could be anywhere on a continuum from mild to severe in impacting a student’s education. Knowing how much a disability impacts a student and what you can do to help is what the rest of the document is for.

Transition Plan


The point of school for most people is to learn what you need to for the future you want. Students with disabilities are no different. In order for them to be able to achieve those dreams, they may need extra help.

Due to this, at age 14, IEPs include a transition section.  This is where the team helps that student prepare and plan for what comes after graduation.

This section of the IEP is often overlooked, or glossed over but it is actually a gold mine.

A well-written transition section can help you find a well of motivation for this student.

This section should include what the student wants to do after school for a job. It should also include what education they will need to get that job. There are activities included that will help them to meet their goals. Some students have adult living needs they will also need to work on.

This section is a good starting point for knowing what gets this student up and to school every day. It helps you make connections between their day-to-day learning and their goals.

It’s worth a look for sure!

Present Levels


This is the section of the IEP where the most helpful classroom information is housed.

It will include academic strengths and needs. If it is well-written it may tell you what impact a student’s accommodations have on their output. It will have testing data. It is a good snapshot of where a student is functioning at the time of the writing of this document.

It will also include how a student is functioning in the areas of behavior, emotion, social skills, communication, and self-help. There may also be physical therapy, occupational therapy, or other services. It will also include if a student is a language learner, and if so, how that is going.

Present levels can be an invaluable source of information on how that student is doing.

Other Considerations


This is a section where the team just summarizes specific needs like vision and hearing. It’s only here to make sure the team discussed the need for this stuff. If the present levels are well written it can be a little redundant.


Once we know where students have needs, we make goals for them to start to gain the skills required to cover those needs.

Students will have goals for all of the areas that they show needs related to their disabilities.

Accommodations/ Modifications


For classroom teachers, this is the most important information in the document. The words accommodation and modification are often used interchangeably. They do differ though.

An accommodation is a change to the delivery, time, or location of content. They are things that help students without changing what is being taught to them. From our earlier example, a wheelchair desk is an accommodation that changes nothing about the class content. Other often-used accommodations you will see are:

  • extended time on tests/ assignments
  • use of technology like a calculator or word processor
  • testing in a separate location
  • Use of notes on tests/ assignments

A modification is something that changes the content of the class. Examples of this vary but they are when something else is expected of the student. Examples of a modification are:

  • alternative testing/ assignments
  • reduced output expectations
  • different rubrics for grading

An easy way to remember the difference between accommodations and modifications: an accommodation changes HOW a student does something, a modification changes WHAT the student does. 

Whatever is written in this document is what is expected of those who work with this student. If it says a student gets double time on tests, then that’s how much time you are legally required to give.

You should know this information for all the students you work with. As noted above, this is what they need to make the same progress as everyone else. Not knowing that a student needs something will lead to them struggling in your class. Not all students (especially younger ones) know what their accommodations are. They probably won’t remind you.

So, accommodations and modifications: learn them, and love them!



Services are those things that a student needs to be successful outside of the general education classroom. There are tons of services a student could have but here are a few of the most common:

  • Direct instruction- These are special education classes with modified curriculums. They are taught by special education teachers. They usually take the place of general ed class, like English or math.
  • Resource- This goes by a different name pretty much at every school I have ever taught. It is access to more help at the heart of it. It may be a special education co-teacher in a class, it may be access to a learning center. It is just access to extra assistance at school.
  • Speech/ Language Therapy- This is time with a speech therapist that helps a student to communicate. It also helps them to understand others and make themselves understood. 
  • Occupational Therapy- This service can help students with a ton of different areas. It can help them with anything from organization to planning to keyboarding.
  • Counseling- This can be individually or in groups and helps a student with social, behavioral or emotional skills.

In addition to these, there are vision-related services, hearing services, or physical therapy.

These usually occur during the school day and because of that, they require time to be taken from classes. This can be upsetting to some teachers, but remember, services help students with crucial skills. Without them, progress in school would be almost impossible for them.

Everything Else


IEPs can include a ton of other pages. There is a signature page where all participants sign that they were in attendance. There can be alternative testing forms. There can be behavior plans. If it can be imagined, I am sure there is a form for it. Don’t worry too much about these things right away.

Once you have a good grasp on where information can be found in the IEP, it will usually steer you to anything else.

Let’s recap


An IEP can be a daunting document but it is also there to help!

On the cover, you can find information about what disability (or disabilities) a student qualifies as having.

The transition plan tells you what they want to do in the future.

The present levels tell you how they are doing in school now (or at least when the IEP was written).

Goals are written to help students make progress on having the skills to overcome their areas of weakness related to their eligibility.

The accommodations and modifications tell you what classroom teachers need to do to help that student in their classes.

The services tell you what everyone else is doing to help that student.

Under all the jargon, they’re actually quite simple.

I hope you can now navigate through them with a little less terror in your heart!


  • Marta Karnes

    This is terrific. The extra support for resource needs more explanation. I would love to see examples of the extra support that a resource room teacher can provide. It seems as if resource teachers are expected to simply help students complete assignments.

    • A
      Courtnay Hough

      That’s a great idea! We just wanted to keep this post short enough to be approachable as a primer. We actually wrote a whole blog of its own on running a resource room. I’ll definitely add an additional explainer blog on Resource teacher services to our list of blogs yet to do. Thanks for your feedback!

  • Sandy Fisher

    Nice job explaining an IEP

    • A
      Courtnay Hough

      Thanks! We’re really hoping to increase understanding.

Leave your comment