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

Step 4: Attend the IEP meeting

Within 30 calendar days from the time it is determined your child is eligible, an IEP meeting must take place to write the IEP. The school system will schedule the meeting and notify parents of the date, time and location. It's very important that you attend this meeting. You are also welcome to invite other people (such as private therapists) to attend. During the meeting, the IEP will be written -- placement, services, goals and other details to be decided upon.

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Step 5: Speak up if you disagree

If you don't agree with the IEP, talk to the IEP team and voice your concerns. If the issues are not resolved to your satisfaction, you can request mediation or file a complaint with the state education agency.

Step 6: Make sure the IEP is carried out

You will given a copy of your child's IEP. Remember that this is a legal document. It's the school's responsibility to make sure the IEP is followed. The parent will receive the child's progress reports on a regular basis. All accommodations, modifications and services must be provided to the child as stated in the IEP. If at any point you believe the IEP is not being followed, you should voice your concern to the teacher and other school officials.

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Step 7: Follow up as necessary

Every IEP is reviewed at least once a year. If you (or the school) believe the IEP needs revised, you can request a meeting to review it at any time. Additionally, the child must be evaluated every three years to determine if he/she is still a "child with a disability" as defined by IDEA. Parents or teachers can also request a new evaluation at any time.

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Originally published April 2012. Updated July 2016.