How I navigated my son's IEP evaluations & eligibility meetings

May 3, 2018

This post is by Kate Cortelyou who resides in Nashville with her husband and two young children. She is a retired giraffe keeper turned stay-at-home mom.

I went into my son’s IEP evaluation and eligibility meeting more unprepared than I care to admit. We were just weeks off his autism diagnosis and my mind was overloaded with everything that was going on. I am one of countless parents who were treated unfairly and talked down to during these initial meetings. I left the meetings frustrated, confused and angry. Today, I am here to help you navigate your child’s first few IEP meetings so the same thing doesn’t happen to you.

Before the Evaluation

I cannot recommend the book, From Emotions to Advocacy enough. IEP meetings can be very frustrating and confusing. Knowledge is power and this book is full of useful information. It is also in your best interest to familiarize yourself with special education law. Wrightslaw Special Education Law Second Edition is a good book to have on hand. Read both beforehand. Every state has some sort of a parent advocate organization. Find it. Let them know your child is waiting on an IEP evaluation and you would like their assistance in navigating the meetings.

Plan to bring a notebook and take notes during meetings. Make note of the date and who was there. If it wasn’t written down, it didn’t happen. Keep notes of everything. If you make a request, write it down. If a team member belittles you and your ideas, document it.

Plan to bring reinforcements. If your child already has a speech therapist, ABA therapist, etc, ask one of them to come with to help advocate. Bring your spouse, bring anyone who knows your child so you don’t have to sit alone. The law states that you can bring anyone to the meeting who knows your child and has knowledge on their behaviors. Be a good team member and let the school know beforehand if you plan to bring these people. 

The Evaluation Meeting

The IEP team will consist of a handful of men or women- special education teachers, school psychologist, speech language pathologist, etc depending on the needs of your child. The most important person on the IEP team is you. Yes, you are on the team.The education professionals will interact with your child while performing a series of tests. You will answer questions and fill out paperwork.

Know this! If you bring an outside evaluation of any kind, a list of your concerns, etc, the school must consider it during their evaluation. Don’t assume they read anything. If there is something in the evaluation that you feel is important-show it to them. Better yet, read it out loud. Tell them to add it to their file. After the evaluation, the team will agree on a time to meet next to go over the results and discuss eligibility.

The Evaluation Results and Eligibility

A few weeks later you will come in again with your child to go over the results of all the paperwork and tests. The team will discuss their evaluation results and as a team decide if your child is eligible for special education services. The school may try to get you to sign that you agree to their evaluation then and there- DO NOT DO THIS. Take it home. Read it over. Look up the tests they did and what the scores mean. I highly recommend you have an advocate look over every word of the document first. There is no law that says you have to sign an agreement the day of your meeting. In fact, most states say you have 30 days. You also have the right to obtain a separate evaluation of your child if you disagree with the evaluation from your school district. This must be provided at no cost to you. Determining whether or not your child qualifies for special education should be made as a team. It is against the law for them to make this decision without you.

Developing the IEP

If eligible for special education, the next step is to develop your child’s IEP. The law clearly states the the parent should help develop the IEP. Don’t let anyone make you think otherwise. 

The IEP should include at minimum the following:
    •    The child’s disability
    •    The child’s strengths and weaknesses: go into detail here! 
    •    How the disability adversely impacts the child’s education
    •    Present levels of academic performance: include test scores, evaluations, etc. Be specific!
    •    Goals and objectives
    •    Long term goals

Feel free to take time between this meeting and developing the IEP. This will give you a chance to talk to other parents and pick their brains about IEP goals that may also suit your child. You play a very important role in developing your child’s IEP! Do not let them make this without your input. Does your child need a visual schedule to help him get through the day? Write that into their IEP. Sensory breaks? Request it. Do they need an aide to help them with conversation with peers during lunch? Write it in.

All goals should be measurable and include benchmarks and short term objectives. The goals should focus on reducing the child’s problems. The short term objectives should provide you and the teacher ways to measure educational progress. If a teacher tells you, “they are making great progress!”- this is just an opinion, but if you measure your child’s progress using objective measures, you know whether they are actually learning and benefiting from the IEP. If your child is not learning and making progress-measured objectively- then the IEP needs to be revised. Goals are fluid. They can be adjusted and changed at any time by simply calling for another IEP meeting. At minimum, goals need to be addressed every year, but do not let an entire year go by without revisiting them. This isn’t fair to your child. I suggest getting a detailed progress report at least every 9 weeks. I called a meeting halfway through the school year to revise his goals, celebrate ones he had met and set new ones that were appropriate.

Remember: an IEP shouldn’t just help your child “keep up”. It should work with their strengths, build on and expand those strengths to help overcome their weaknesses.


The IEP team (again, you are part of this team) then decides placement.  LRE (least restrictive environment) is part of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). IDEA says that children who receive special education should learn in the LRE. This means they should spend as much time as possible with peers who do not receive special education. The school district cannot use a “one size fits all” approach to educating children who have disabilities. Placement looks different for different children. Every classroom will reflect the style of the teacher as well as the needs of the students in it so ask to visit different classes so you can decide if it would be a good fit for your child.

Placement decisions must be visited annually and should be as close to the child’s home as possible. It may not be based on the location of staff, on the funds that are available, or on the convenience of the school district. The law clearly states all of this. You are part of your child’s IEP team and should have say in your child’s placement.

The law is on your side and there to protect your child! It gives you the right to make educational decisions for your child. Use this power! If you don’t agree with the evaluation they wrote up, say so. Doesn’t sound like your child? Say so. If the school decides your child is eligible for X service but you feel they need Y, say so.

The depth of your knowledge and expertise about your child can never be matched by someone evaluating your child. Never, ever let anyone make you think otherwise. 

If you need some assistance with navigating the IEP process, download the Autism Speaks Guide to Individualized Education Programs (IEP).

Additional Resources & Tools

Autism Speaks does not provide medical or legal advice or services. Rather, Autism Speaks provides general information about autism as a service to the community. The information provided on our website is not a recommendation, referral or endorsement of any resource, therapeutic method, or service provider and does not replace the advice of medical, legal or educational professionals. Autism Speaks has not validated and is not responsible for any information, events, or services provided by third parties.

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