Special Education - Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) : C. The Steps In The Education Process

The descriptions below are a very basic summary of the major steps in the special education process.  For more detailed information, please click on the other topics under the Special Education heading on this website or see the resources listed under the "Forms and Education" tab.

Step 1 - Identification

What is identification?

The first step in the special education process is identification. Identification is the process by which a school district identifies children with disabilities who might qualify for special education services.  Anyone can "identify" a child with a disability, including a parent, teacher, or any person who thinks the child might benefit from special education services.

The parent and the school must agree that the child might need special education before going to step two. If you are a parent and someone from your child's school identifies your child as potentially needing special education services, the school must get your permission before doing an evaluation. Similarly, you may ask the school to do an evaluation to determine whether your child qualifies for special education services. Sometimes the school can evaluate a child without parental permission, but the school must follow certain procedures to do so.  See the Identification section of this website for more information.

To request an evaluation for your child, you should write a letter to your child's principal requesting a multi-factored evaluation.  Date the letter and keep a copy for your file.

NOTE: The school must respond to a parent's request for an evaluation within 30 days.  This includes the summer months.

Step 2 - Evaluation

What is an evaluation?

The second step in the special education process is the multi-factored evaluation (sometimes called the initial evaluation).  This is the process by which the school determines:

  • whether your child has a disability that qualifies him or her to receive special education services under the IDEA, and
  • your child's current performance and academic and other needs. 

The evaluation should be multi-factored, multi-disciplinary, unbiased (fair), comprehensive, and in the child's native language.  All this information is put together into an Evaluation Team Report (ETR).

NOTE: The evaluation must be completed within 60 days after the parent gives consent for the school to perform the evaluation.  This includes the summer months.

Step 3 - Evaluation Team Report

What is the Evaluation Team Report?

The third step in the special education process is the Evaluation Team Report (ETR). The ETR is very important because it summarizes the multi-factored evaluation data and gives the school and parents a guide for writing the child's Individualized Education Program (IEP).  Parents have a right to participate in writing the ETR, to receive a copy of the ETR, and to challenge the school if they disagree with the school on the ETR.  Parents also have a right to request that the school district pay for an independent educational evaluation (IEE) if they disagree with the school district's evaluation.

If you disagree with the ETR, you can express your disagreement in writing on the report.  You can, but are not required, to list the reasons for your disagreement on the report.

The school must get the parents' permission to move to the next step of the special education process. You give permission for the school to write an IEP by signing the report. Do not sign the report if you do not agree with it.

Again, if you do not agree with the school’s evaluation, you can ask them to pay for an independent evaluation. You can read more about evaluations and the ETR at the Understanding Special Education Evaluations section of this website.

Step 4 - Individualized Education Program (IEP)

What is an Individualized Education Program (IEP)?

The last step of the special education process is writing an individualized education program, or IEP. The IEP is a written plan that serves as the foundation for the child's special education services.  The IEP summarizes the child's current academic performance, as detailed in the ETR, sets academic and social goals for the academic year, and details exactly what services and accomodations the child will receive to achieve adequate educational progress.  The IEP is a written document. It is important to know that the school district is not requires to provide any services or accomodations that are not written in the IEP.  All children that need special education must have an IEP.

A team of people - called the "IEP team" write the IEP at a meeting. Parents are a part of the IEP team. School districts must invite parents to the IEP meeting and must make reasonable efforts to accomodate parents' schedules.  The IEP team will decide as a group what services your child needs to receive a "free appropriate public education" (FAPE) in the "least restrictive environment" (LRE).  This means that the IEP should help your child make adequate educational progress in the regular education classroom, if possible.  Only if it is not possible to education your child in the regular classroom, even with extra services and supports, can the IEP team decide to place your child in a separate classroom or program.

The school district must get the parents' permission before the school can begin providing the special education services set out in the IEP. Parents give permission by signing the IEP. Do not sign the IEP if you do not agree with it.  It is okay to ask lots of questions and to ask to take a few days to review the IEP before signing it.  Parents can agree to parts of the IEP and not others. Write the parts that you agree with clearly on the IEP.

Whatever services the team agrees on should begin immediately after the IEP meeting. If they do not, contact the school in writing and ask for an explanation. If services still do not start, you can contact an advocate or an attorney for help.

NOTE: The IEP must be written within 30 days after the ETR is completed.  This includes summer months.

You can also contact any one of the following organizations:


See also the Forms & Education tab in this section for more information.

The information in this site is not intended as legal advice.
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