Beginning the special education process can feel overwhelming at times. Paperwork, evaluations, and meetings—it can be a lot! Hang in there, though. It’s a thorough process for a reason. Once the evaluations are complete, the next step is to gather a multidisciplinary team to hold an IEP eligibility meeting. Sometimes these are called initial eligibility meetings or simply eligibility meetings.

The purpose of an IEP eligibility meeting is to determine whether or not your child qualifies for special education services and an Individualized Education Program (IEP). An IEP is a legal document that describes the specific education plan for your child with a disability. It includes in-depth and data-based information about your child’s strengths and challenges. The IEP should also be clear about the school’s plan for addressing your child’s needs. It covers topics like academic goals, testing accommodations, therapy hours, transportation services, and much more. Of course, not every service is relevant to every child. The IEP is individualized to your child’s unique learning needs.

The eligibility and IEP processes may seem confusing, especially if you’re new to special education. There are many technical terms to learn and specific rules that the school must follow. And it will take some time and a little practice to become familiar with the layout of the IEP document and evaluation reports. But you can totally do this! Becoming an informed parent is key to supporting your child. Knowing what to expect will go a long way toward easing your nerves and boosting your confidence as your child’s best advocate.

Before the Meeting

Before the meeting, you should receive something called Prior Written Notice (PWN), which is exactly what its name suggests—written notification of the meeting before it is scheduled to take place. The PWN will include the names or positions of people who will attend the meeting. The school is obligated to give it to parents “a reasonable amount of time” before the meeting, which is usually 5 to 7 days.

It’s helpful to write down specific questions or ideas you have before you come to the meeting so you don’t forget to mention them. If it’s relevant to your child, bring copies of medical notes, independent evaluations, or other pertinent data to share with the team.

Who Attends the IEP Eligibility Meeting?

On the day of the meeting, plan to arrive a few minutes early to ensure you have plenty of time to park, sign in with the front desk, and get settled. It is common for the meeting facilitator—usually the IEP case manager or special education coordinator—to walk you to the meeting room. As you enter, there will likely be several people at the table. The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) requires certain people to be at IEP eligibility meetings. These people are:

  • You! The parent or guardian plays an important role in the evaluation process and all future IEP meetings.
  • A general education teacher. If your child is new to a school, a general education teacher who teaches children of the same age may attend.
  • A special education teacher for your child.
  • A school administrator who is knowledgeable about special education and the general education curriculum. This person must also have the ability to make decisions about school resources.
  • The professional(s) who completed the evaluations for your child, or another professional who is qualified to interpret the results of the evaluations. Examples are the school psychologist, speech-language pathologist, occupational therapist, physical therapist, or school nurse.
  • Others invited by you or the school. You may choose to invite a family member or friend to help you listen and take notes, or a professional advocate* or healthcare provider. If you do invite someone, be sure to let the school know in advance.
  • Your child, who may also participate in the meeting, when appropriate.

*Note: if you invite a professional advocate, the school will likely also invite its legal representation.

Other individuals who may attend an eligibility or IEP meeting can include a translator/interpreter if you need one, a transportation representative if your child qualifies for specialized transportation services, a court-appointed special advocate, or a behavioral consultant, for example.

First Things First

The first two things to happen at an IEP eligibility meeting are:

1. Introductions

The meeting facilitator will ask everyone to introduce themselves (including you). Remember that you are a critically important part of the team!

2. Procedural Safeguards

The meeting facilitator will provide you with a copy of procedural safeguards. This is a long document that explains your rights as a parent. It reviews things like your right to participate in the meeting and view all educational records. It also explains what to do if there’s a dispute about the team’s decision.

What Will the Team Discuss?

The goal of an IEP eligibility meeting is to decide if your child is eligible for special education services and an IEP. To make this decision, the team will hear from the professional qualified to review the formal evaluation. This might mean listening to a psychologist review their psychological and educational evaluations or a speech-language pathologist explain their assessment. You should be given a copy of these reports.

The team will also consider student work, behavioral data, teacher observations, and your important insight and concerns as the parent. The IEP eligibility team must consider a variety of sources and several different types of information throughout its conversation about eligibility.

The meeting facilitator will then guide the team to look at the two main requirements for eligibility:

1. A ‘disabling condition’ in one of the 14 categories described in IDEA

The 14 categories are:

  • Autism
  • Deaf-Blindness
  • Deafness
  • Developmental Delay
  • Emotional Disturbance
  • Hearing Impairment
  • Intellectual Disability
  • Multiple Disabilities
  • Orthopedic Impairment
  • Other Health Impairment
  • Specific Learning Disability
  • Speech or Language Impairment
  • Traumatic Brain Injury
  • Visual Impairment (including Blindness)

Sometimes, the results of the evaluation are straightforward, and the team will easily agree that your child fits into a certain category of disability.

Other times, the discussion is more complicated. IDEA does not list every single condition that may fit within each category, and there are some cases where a medical condition may be captured by more than one category. For example, a child with a traumatic brain injury may be considered eligible under Traumatic Brain Injury, Other Health Impairment, or Speech and Language Impairment.

The overarching goal should be to determine the category that best describes your child’s condition as it relates to their educational needs. The meeting facilitator will explain the exact eligibility criteria for the category in question.

2. The disability must have an adverse effect on your child’s educational performance

IDEA does not specifically define what constitutes an adverse effect or just how adverse the effect must be to qualify for special education services. At the meeting, the team will talk about how the disability is impacting your child’s education. You will discuss grades, behavior, attention, organization, and social interaction. A child doesn’t have to be failing all classes (or any, actually) for their disability to be having an adverse effect.

It is important to know that a medical diagnosis in itself does not guarantee eligibility for special education services. While many medical conditions do have an adverse impact on education, this is not always the case. Some children with sickle cell anemia are served by a 504 plan instead of an IEP, for example. Some who get sick with an illness that requires hospitalization are able to recover fully after a period of rehabilitation and rest, and they return to school to resume their education. Some medical conditions, such as Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), create an adverse impact for some but not others. The key thing to remember is that the data must show that the disability causes an adverse impact on your child’s education.

Making the Decision

After the team has reviewed the evaluations and discussed the eligibility criteria, it will be time to make the decision—is your child eligible for special education services? Everyone at the table contributes to this decision.

The decision is not based solely on academic performance. The team should take into consideration the whole child, including their behavior and social-emotional skills. Often (but not always), the team agrees on the eligibility status after a thorough discussion. Though conversations can sometimes get heated, it’s important to remember that everyone is working for the best interest of your child. Feeling passionate about how to meet his or her needs is a good thing!

If your child is found eligible, the next step is to create the initial IEP. Sometimes, this step happens in the same meeting as the eligibility meeting, but it is often scheduled for a later date.

If your child is not found eligible for special education services, you may inquire about other ways to get support:

  • Is a 504 plan a possibility?
  • Are there tutors, “teacher office hours,” extra practice worksheets, or home-based remediation resources?
  • Does the school offer counseling services for students without IEPs? Would your child benefit from this service?
  • Can a school staff member make a recommendation or a referral for another type of support that meets your child’s needs?

If you disagree with the team’s decision, consult your procedural safeguards for the next steps in resolving this dispute.

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About the Author
Kelley Spainhour is a special education professional with a decade of teaching and leadership experience. She is passionate about the unique needs of children with medical needs and enjoys collaborating in multidisciplinary contexts. Kelley currently serves as a special education consultant and writer.