Individualized Education Programs, or IEPs as they are commonly called, are an integral part of the U.S. education system. They are the written documents that direct the provision of special education services to students with disabilities who need them. Increasing numbers of students in U.S. public schools have been deemed to need special education services, in a wider variety of categories, including learning disabilities, speech-language impairments, other health impairments, mental retardation, emotional disturbance, autism, visual impairments, hearing impairments, and others, totaling 13 separate categories in 2004. IEPs are considered a centerpiece of the special education process and, thus, necessary to understand for obtaining a perspective on special education as a whole.


The Individualized Education Program (IEP) is a written document required for each child who is eligible to receive special education services. It is provided to a student who has been determined first to have a disability and, second, to need special education services because of that disability. The IEP, the team that develops it, and what it must contain are governed by Part B of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) and amendments to it. The IEP provides information on children's current levels of performance and directs the special services and supports that are provided to students who have IEPs. It includes provisions for defining annual goals, evaluating progress, and formalizing what is to be a free and appropriate public education (FAPE) for the student with the disability.

IEPs have several required components. Among the information that is to be included in IEPs are the following: (1) present levels of academic achievement and functional performance, (2) measurable annual goals, (3) special education, related services, and supplementary aids and services, (4) amount of time students will not participate in general education classes, (5) participation in state or district-wide academic assessments (including accommodations to be provided and reasons for using an alternate assessment if the child will not participate in the regular assessment), (6) initiation date and projected duration of IEP, (7) transition services, and (8) how student progress toward annual goals will be measured and when periodic reports will be provided to parents. Access to and participation in the general curriculum and use of research-based procedures are emphasized in the preparation of IEPs (Yell, Shriner, & Katsiyannis, 2006). States or districts may add to the basic components as they see appropriate, but failure to include all required components has been a source of litigation (Yell, 2006).


The passage of the 1975 Education of the All Handicapped Children's Act (EHA), also commonly known as Public Law 94–142, contained the first requirement for the development of the Individualized Education Program (IEP) for a child with a disability requiring the provision of special education services. Subsequent to the 1975 EHA, reautho-rizations of the law refined and adjusted the IEP requirements. Public Law 99–457 (EHA Amendments of 1986) added requirements for early intervention services for infants and toddlers. Public Law 101–476 (EHA Amendments of 1990) renamed the law as the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). Public Law 105–017 (IDEA Amendments of 1997) initiated alignment of IDEA with the Elementary and Secondary Education Act and required participation of students with disabilities in state and district-wide assessments. Public Law 108–446 (IDEA Amendments of 2004) adjusted the name of the law to the Individuals with Disabilities Education Improvement Act and further aligned its requirements to those of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, particularly its accountability requirements.

With each reauthorization, IEP requirements were adjusted to address the new focus and challenges or needs that were identified during the time since the previous reauthorization. The IDEA amendments in 2004 introduced several adjustments to the IEP, with the intention of addressing the need for increased accountability in line with the requirements of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, known as No Child Left Behind. The 2004 reauthorization also introduced an easier IEP process, including less paperwork and the need for fewer meetings (President's Commission on Excellence in Special Education, 2002; Yell, 2006).

Among the 2004 provisions were the ability to excuse from required IEP team membership anyone deemed to be unnecessary if agreed to by both school personnel and the child's parents, dropping the requirements to have short-term objectives (except for those students participating in the state alternate assessment) and allowing IEPs to be changed without reconvening the IEP team between annual meetings, as long as the IEP team and the parents agreed. In an attempt to study the idea of having IEP teams meet only every three years rather than the required annual meetings, a pilot program for up to 15 states was initiated in 2004 to test the implementation and consequences of three-year IEPs.


The legal requirements for the Individualized Education Program (including the IEP team and the document itself) encompass not only what must be included in the IEP (see Definition) but also specifics of the process. The IEP team must meet to write the IEP within 30 calendar days of the date that the child was determined to be eligible for special education services. The team must include the child's parents (or guardians), a special education teacher, a general education teacher, a school or local education agency administrator, a person who is able to interpret evaluation results, and, if appropriate, the child. An individual may fill more than one role. The child's participation is required when the IEP includes a focus on transition services, which must start by age 16. Other individuals may be members of the team, as desired by the parents or school.

Each year, at a minimum, the IEP must be reviewed and revised as needed (unless there is participation in the three-year IEP pilot program; see Legislative History). Attention is paid especially to the IEP goals, progress toward them, and whether they need to be revised, and the placement of the child (where and for how long the child is in specific settings within the school, such as the general education classroom, special education room, or other placements). Every three years, the IEP team must meet to examine reevaluation results, used to determine whether the child continues to meet criteria to be designated as having a disability that requires special education services.


The actual processes and procedures used in schools and districts to ensure that IEP teams carry out the letter and intent of the law vary and have been the subject of relatively little research. Concerns about the legal requirements have arisen because of perceptions that they have compromised the quality of IEPs (Beattie, Jordan, & Algozzine, 2006). At the same time, the 2004 reauthori-zation of the law focused on ways to make the process of developing and revising the IEP more efficient and on ways to reduce paperwork in developing IEPs. In practice, states or local education agencies often require or recommend a form to use in developing the IEP so that it meets federal and state requirements. Computer-based IEP development software gained popularity with the perception of increasingly complex IEP requirements. With improvements over time in technology and programming, computer-based IEPs came to be viewed as having the potential to aid in the production of well-thought through IEPs (Wilson, Michaels, & Margolis, 2005).

IEPs are implemented by carrying out the directives of the IEP. Ideally, everyone responsible for implementing the IEP for an individual child has access to a copy of the IEP, and each person knows which responsibilities to implement (Beattie et al., 2006). Along with providing the designated services, supports, and accommodations that are described in the IEP, the IEP defines how the child's progress toward meeting the goals stated in the IEP will be measured. Progress reports designed to indicate the extent to which the child is making sufficient progress to reach goals by the end of the year are given to parents. These progress reports on IEP goals are to be made as often as the parents of children without disabilities are informed of their children's progress.

Despite their importance to the special education process, IEPs often have been inaccessible to those who should use them. Some educators and administrators have treated them as though they define the curriculum for the child with disabilities who requires special education services, rather than as the delineation of the services, supports, and framework for access to the general curriculum provided in the least restrictive environment for each child. In the early 2000s the IEP continued to be the subject of revisions each time IDEA is reauthorized, all the while retaining its central position in the special education process.


Beattie, J., Jordan, L., & Algozzine, B. (2006). Making inclusion work: Effective practices for all teachers. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press.

President's Commission on Excellence in Special Education. (2002). A new era: Revitalizing special education for children and their families. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Education, Office of Special Education and Rehabilitative Services.

Wilson, G. L., Michaels, G. A., & Margolis, H. (2005). Form versus function: Using technology to develop Individualized Education Programs for students with disabilities. Journal of Special Education Technology, 20(2), 37–48.

Yell, M. L. (2006). The law and special education (2nd ed.). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson.

Yell, M. L., Shriner, J. G., & Katsiyannis, A. (2006). Individuals with Disabilities Education Improvement Act of 2004 and IDEA regulations of 2006: Implications for educators, administrators, and teacher trainers. Focus on Exceptional Children, 39(1), 1–24.