What is IDEA – Individuals With Disabilities Education Act

If you’re a parent, teacher, or administrator with questions about the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), keep reading. This guide will help you understand what IDEA is, what its main principles are, and how the act is structured. It will cover the legal requirements of the act and how they apply to school districts and students with disabilities. 

IDEA: What You Need to Know

To fully grasp what IDEA is all about, it’s important to know what it is, what its principles are, and how it’s set up. 

  • What is IDEA?
  • IDEA Main Principles
  • IDEA Structure

What is IDEA?

Before the IDEA, children with disabilities were typically separated from peers and placed into different schools. Funding and expectations were often low, and students didn’t get the education they deserved. 

This law was created to give students with disabilities a free appropriate public education (FAPE) and give parents a voice in decision making. 

The IDEA was created by the federal government in 1975 under its original name, the Education of Handicapped Children Act. The name was changed in 1990 when amendments were passed, and the act received additional amendments in 1997 and 2004.

IDEA Main Principles

The main principles of the IDEA are meant to address public school responsibilities regarding disabled students’ rights. 

Free Appropriate Public Education (FAPE)

FAPE ensures kids with disabilities receive special education designed for their specific needs. It also makes sure children with disabilities are prepared for further education, independent living, and employment. 

Students with disabilities are entitled to a “meaningful educational benefit” that raises expectations and tracks student progress. FAPE enforcement is the responsibility of local school boards and public schools. 

Least Restrictive Environment (LRE)

The Least Restrictive Environment (LRE) rule is an inclusion guideline that is meant to encourage students with disabilities to be included in the general education classroom. This may involve classroom modifications, alternate instructions, supplemental services, and more.

The general education classroom is the least restrictive environment, while homeschooling is the most restrictive. Students with disabilities that are separated from the general classroom should be the exception, not the rule. 

School districts create their own LRE rules, and students are evaluated on a case-by-case basis. If it’s determined that a student needs to be separated into a more restrictive classroom setting, this is still allowed. 

Appropriate Evaluation

To classify each student, schools must practice appropriate evaluation methods. This involves non-discriminatory and sound evaluation procedures. Evaluations must be conducted by trained and competent evaluators. 

To request a free school evaluation, you can start by finding out who to send the request to. Contact the school district’s main office or ask your child’s teacher. 

Next, you’ll have to write a formal letter to request the evaluation. Make sure to include exact details on what you’re requesting. For example, you could write, “I want my child to be evaluated for ADHD because he struggles to focus.” A school district does not evaluate for specific disabilities only educational needs.

Clearly write that you’re giving consent for your child to be evaluated. You can also request a “consent to evaluate” form to make sure it goes through. 

Follow up if you haven’t back from your school after one week. You can do this by sending emails or calling them. Most evaluation requests are approved, so you should be good to go once you send it in.

Evaluations should be focused on each student’s education, and students should not be required to take unnecessary tests. After the evaluation is completed, students should receive a recommendation in a timely manner.

Student evaluations are part of the Child Find initiative. It requires public schools to search for, find, and evaluate students in need of special education. 

It applies to all students including public school students, private school students, homeschooled students, migrant students, and homeless students. The initiative applies to all children from birth to age 21.

Not all parents are aware of the help that can be provided for their disabled children. Schools and state governments use different methods to increase awareness and find students with disabilities. 

They can alert health care providers to watch out for children with disabilities, and they can have staff search the community for disabled students. They can also post public notices or run local media campaigns. 

For students to qualify for special education, they must have one of 13 listed conditions. Also, their condition must prevent them from progressing in the general classroom. The 13 categories of conditions are:

  • Autism
  • Deafness
  • Deaf-blindness
  • Emotional disturbance
  • Intellectual disability
  • Hearing impairment
  • Orthopedic impairment
  • Multiple disabilities
  • Other health impairment (like ADHD)
  • Language or speech impairment
  • Specific learning disability (like dysgraphia, dyscalculia, dyslexia, and others)
  • Traumatic brain injury
  • Visual impairment, including blindness

Individualized Education Plan (IEP)

Before I cover individualized education plans (IEPs), it’s important to explain what a student’s IEP team is. A student’s IEP team is a task force made up of outside professionals and schoolteachers. 

First, a parent or guardian is required to be on the team to give input on the child’s strengths and goals. At least one of the student’s general education teachers is on the team to give regular classroom feedback. 

The student’s special education teacher should be included too. He or she can give insightful recommendations on how the general classroom can be adjusted to fit the student’s needs. An IEP team should also include a school district representative to approve school resources. 

The team should include an expert who can interpret the student’s evaluation results. This can be a psychologist or someone already on the team. It should also include a translator if needed. 

Finally, the IEP team should include the student once he or she reaches 16 years old. By this age, the student can provide helpful insights on his or her education plan. 

If desired, parents also have the option to invite parent advocates or friends to the IEP team. 

The IEP team comes together to create a written document called an IEP. IEP stands for Individualized Education Program. An IEP document is created to ensure that free appropriate public education is available to the student.

An IEP must contain an explanation of when and why a student doesn’t participate in a general classroom setting. The document must also contain required supplementary services for a student, yearly goals and milestones, and a student’s current performance in the classroom. 

The IEP needs to contain functional, developmental, and academic needs of each student, along with the strengths and weaknesses of the student. An IEP also needs to address parent concerns and transitional strategies for the student’s life after school. 

Procedural Safeguards

Procedural safeguards are the full explanation of rights available to parents/guardians of a student who is eligible for special services. Procedural safeguards can also be used to handle disagreements between schools and parents. These conflicts often occur when the two parties disagree on the placement of a student.

During conflicts, parents can send a request to state-level education agencies for a due process hearing or mediation. If this doesn’t solve the issue, parents can appeal in state or federal court. 

Parent Participation

Regarding procedural safeguards, parents of children with disabilities have the right to be involved in placement decisions. Parents must be invited to all IEP meetings, be involved in all relevant meetings, and have access to evaluation and planning materials. Parents have the right to be equal participants in the student placement decision process.

IDEA Structure

The IDEA is broken down into four sections:

Part A

Part A lays the foundation for the IDEA. It establishes the Office of Special Education Programs, a task force in charge of administering IDEA terms. 

This section protects both parent and disabled student rights, and it introduces FAPE. It also measures the effectiveness of special education practices and helps federal agencies, educational service agencies, localities, and states improve them. 

Part B

Part B of the IDEA covers educational guidelines for students from three to 21 years old. This section covers the six principles mentioned in the previous section and ensures school districts are correctly following them. The IDEA gives school districts the opportunity to receive funding if they follow these six principles. 

Part C

Part C of the IDEA is intended to address very young children with disabilities. Very young children are classified as those from birth to age two. 

This section gives parents the right to consent to and participate in the design of an Individualized Family Service Plan (IFSP). This plan outlines a child’s services and goals and creates a strategy to transition them into formal education. It also addresses parent concerns, resources, and priorities. 

The section covers funding guidelines for very young children and ensures parents receive evaluation conflict resolutions in a timely manner. 

Part D

Finally, Part D is a general overview of how special education should be improved on a national level. The section includes resources for activities, projects, and programs that enhance special education. It also addresses grants used to improve transitional services and special education. 


The federal government created the IDEA to help students with disabilities get the education they need. With principles like FAPE and LRE, students are obligated to receive specific help and are encouraged to be included in the general classroom. 

The act is broken down into four parts which cover the basics, main principles, very young children rights, and special education nationally. The act includes six main principles that address the needs of both parents and students. IDEA ensures students with disabilities receive an IEP team to create a plan for their education and life after school.

Feel free to leave a comment or question below! Email me if you need help or support!

About the author

Emily Cummings

I am a mom of two crazy, amazing, independent, little feminists. They bring so much light to my life and a lot less sleep. Since becoming a mother and increasingly in the last year, I have witnessed parents struggling to connect with their child's special education team with no success. I have become more aware of the gaps in our public school system and how parents may benefit from empowerment and advocacy tools.

My work experiences range from a juvenile detention center to an autism specialist in the Issaquah School District and a special education teacher in a self-contained program in the Lake Washington School District. My master's in teaching focused on special education and behavioral disorders from Seattle Pacific University. I completed my BCBA coursework from Montana State University.

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I'm happy to help however I can. Email me at hello at behaviorist .com.

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