IEPs, or Individualized Education Programs, are designed to help children with special education needs succeed in academic environments. They were made possible by the 2004 update to the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). Since then, they’ve become a crucial part of helping children with unusual needs or circumstances attend and flourish in an educational environment. 1 2
However, IEPs aren’t for everyone. In fact, there are fairly strict standards for who can – and how to – obtain an IEP. So, in this article, we’re going to take a brief dive into IEPs, their qualifiers, and some alternatives. We’ll also look more studiously at when an IEP for anxiety is possible.
What is an IEP?
An IEP is a legal document that outlines goals and actionable steps that a school will take to help a child with disabilities function in an educational setting. Additionally, they cover any supports the child may need, such as extra time on activities, one-on-one with teachers, or time with teachers who have special education training. 2
How is an IEP Put in Place?
The process for obtaining an IEP is thankfully hastened by legally defined timelines to ensure speedy action. But it still requires a fair amount of time, energy, and resources to determine a child’s rights and needs in a school setting.
To initiate the IEP process, a parent, teacher, doctor, or counselor must petition the school administration on behalf of a student. Then, the school, parents, and qualified professionals will form an IEP team to examine the student’s needs and disabilities. Legally, this process must include at least one of each: 1 2 3
- Parent or caregiver
- Psychologist or relevant specialist
- District representative with authority in the special education department
- Special education teacher
- General education teacher
The IEP team often enlists the help of other professionals – such as occupational or speech therapists, doctors, and others – to create a CER, or comprehensive evaluation report. This document details a child’s grades, classroom behavior, academic or learning struggles, and potential for progress. Then, the parents are brought in to review and address concerns or changes to the report.
Upon receiving their stamp of approval, the IEP team can move forward to create the Individualized Educational Program. In the course of this process, the team will decide on: 1 2 3
- Support services for the child in question (therapy, counseling, medical services, etc)
- Transportation opportunities to and from school
- In-classroom assistance, such as with handwriting, reading, or other academic milestones
- Modifications to testing procedures
- Transitioning between grades and out of school upon graduation
Who Qualifies for an IEP?
IEPs are only available within the public pre-K through grade 12 education system. Private schools, charter schools, homeschools, private and public universities, and other non-public institutions do not receive IEP funding. (However, many of these schools offer their own service plans or disability accommodations. We won’t cover those options here). Furthermore, as all rules are set in place by the IDEA, there are strict guidelines as to who can and cannot receive IEP services. 2 3
There are two conditions that must be met to receive an IEP (aside from attending a public school).
Firstly, the child must have a diagnosed disability that affects their ability to participate in and benefit from the general education curriculum. This includes a need for special instruction, additional assistance, or assistive devices and technologies. 2 3
Secondly, the disability must fall under one of these umbrellas: 4
- SLD, or specific learning disability, including processing disorders, dyslexia, or dyscalculia
- Emotional disturbances, such as severe anxiety, bipolar, or schizophrenic disorders
- Speech or language impairments
- Visual or auditory impairments, including blindness, deafness, and deaf-blindness
- Orthopedic impairment, such as cerebral palsy
- Intellectual disabilities
- TBI, or traumatic brain injuries
- Multiple disabilities
- “Other health impairment,” such as ADHD, OCD, and anxiety
Can You Get an IEP for Anxiety?
It is possible to get an IEP for anxiety, as we mentioned above. Certain phobias can also qualify for IEPs, such as social anxiety. While children with these types of emotional or “other health impairment” disorders may not need independent classrooms, they may receive provisions such as: 3 5
- Extra time to settle in and pack up at the start and end of the day
- Safe, quiet spaces for moments of high anxiety
- Relaxation techniques or toys during times of stress
- Focusing on small group or single activities
- Providing extra time or a private place to take tests
However, it’s important to note that receiving an IEP is contingent upon two provisions: having a diagnosed disability and suffering in a school setting as a result. Unfortunately, this means that many children with anxiety don’t qualify for IEP-based supports in a public-school setting.
But that doesn’t mean there’s no hope. For those with generalized or social anxiety disorders who don’t quite make the cutoff, there are a couple of alternatives. These can be just as effective – if not more so – in addressing an anxious child’s needs. 3 5
Alternatives to an IEP
The primary alternative to an IEP for anxiety is a 504 plan. These free plans provide services and changes to learning environments to help children learn in-classroom with their peers. 504 plans are possible through section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, a federal law that prohibits disability discrimination. A child qualifies for a 504 plan if they: 3
- Have any diagnosed disability
- Struggle in a general education classroom as a result of their disability
Because of the laxer rules for which disabilities count, as well as the severity of the disability, children with anxiety can qualify for 504 services much more easily.
Another alternative to an IEP is a BIP, or behavioral intervention plan, which can be either a standalone plan or an addition to an IEP or 504. These are put in place for children who experience behavioral problems in educational settings. And, while anxiety does not always cause behavioral concerns, in some children it can be severe enough to affect their ability to learn or function in a classroom environment. For these children, BIPs don’t merely outline appropriate punishments but attempt to curb and prevent the bad behavior in the first place. 6
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