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How to get an IEP for your child without pulling your hair out

Getting an IEP for your kid is about to get a whole lot easier

These days, there's no shame in children of different ability levels needing extra help at school. That's the purpose of an IEP, or a written Individualized Education Program document needed to determine what special education services a child will receive. As we learn to better identify and normalize disabilities in our kids — with the number of students in special education increasing 5 percent over a 30-year span — the IEP becomes more commonplace.

The good news is, if you're navigating the IEP road for your child for the first time, you're in good company. The process can be complicated, but we're here to help most of the hurdles make sense:

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Step 1: Understand what an IEP is

IEP stands for "individualized education program." It's often also called an individual education plan. An IEP is a legal document that is tailored to your child's specific special needs. It spells out exactly what services your child is to receive and why. The document features the child's classification, placement, services, goals, percentage of time in a mainstreamed classroom, a behavior plan if necessary, and other important information. The IEP is created at an IEP meeting by the parents, along with the Child Study Team -- your child's teachers, therapists, a learning specialist, psychologist and social worker.

Step 2: Request an evaluation

The first step in getting an IEP is requesting an evaluation to determine if your child has a disability. You can make the request through your child's teacher, a school administrator or the school district office. Though a teacher may also ask for your child to be evaluated, parental consent is necessary for the evaluation. Your child will be evaluated by professionals provided by the school district to determine whether the child has a disability. If you disagree with the results of the evaluation, you can take your child for an independent evaluation and request that the school system pay for this evaluation.

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Step 3: Find out if your child is eligible for services

The results of the evaluation will be used to determine your child's eligibility for special education services and to help develop an appropriate education plan. The parents, along with a group of professionals, will go over the evaluation results and determine if yours is a "child with a disability" as defined by IDEA. If your child is determined ineligible for services, you can request a hearing to challenge the decision.

Next Up: Attend the IEP meeting

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