What to do when your child does not qualify for an IEP


I had this client one time who has a phenomenal memory. I mean it, like nothing you’ve ever seen. His memory and recall were almost savant-like. In fact, he could memorize and recall so much information, he was tested and labeled as gifted at a young age. His grades were near-perfect. No matter what test or evaluation you put in front of him, if he had previously encountered that information, he could recall it and do well on tests.

But memory only takes you so far. Academic and social demands change as we age. And, other skills become important. Like all those executive functioning skills. And critical thinking and problem-solving. At some point, schools will expect kids to not just recall and recite information, but to apply it. And when that happened, ooomph. It was ugly. He was already socially awkward and now the one thing he had been good at (school) was not going well.

Mom had asked for help and an IEP and was made to think that she was an over-protective worrisome mother. “His grades are fine!” she was told over and over. But I find that a mother’s instinct is usually correct.

By the time Mom contacted me, things were quickly spiraling out of control. This student was exhibiting many negative behaviors at school due to his frustrations. But the district already had him pegged as Gifted, and couldn’t really see him any other way. Therefore, they felt that his negative behaviors were all surely by choice and due to defiance. Certainly not due to any unsupported learning disabilities.

Guess what? We got the student a full neuropsych eval and his IQ is average. Sure, there are certainly some areas where his skill set is off the charts. Scattered skill sets are not uncommon for kids with learning disabilities. But by and large, this kid is just average, not gifted. And has numerous learning disabilities. This story has a happy ending. We got him an out of district placement where he thrived, graduated and now is trying some community college.

But whether you’re asking for IEP evaluations or just some support, it’s a very common retort. “His grades are fine!”

Here are the steps to take if you’ve asked for help from the school and have been told this same thing. And know that you’re not alone!

Getting started with an IEP

This is a complex topic with a lot of layers. And I have hundreds of related blog posts. One of them may be where you need to start.

First, have you formally requested that your child receive evaluations for special education? If not, that is your starting point. You can’t be told no until they’ve either evaluated him or refused to evaluate the child.

The school has to evaluate in every area of suspected disability. So in your request letter, define it for them. Be thorough. Give specific examples of what you are seeing and what your child is telling you. This is not a letter you take 15 minutes and boom, done. Devote time and energy to this so that it only has to be done once.

I go over that in these two blog posts:

Grades, homework and the IEP

That is your starting point. However, if you have casually asked the teacher or school for support, and were brushed off with the “his grades are fine!” then I would ask for a meeting. There are a few things you need to find out. First, remember that grades are subjective. A teacher can just as easily hand out an A as she can hand out an F. It breaks my heart when I hear stories of a kid being pushed through and ‘given’ passing grades without truly earning them (because they do not have the ability to earn them without supports). And it breaks my heart even more when a child is repeatedly allowed to fail (how incredibly soul-crushing for a kid!) and no one suggests that he be tested for learning disabilities. But you want to find out what the grades are measuring and what the purpose of the homework is. I have written extensively about both of those topics as well.

And the one big reminder that I repeat almost daily: Teachers only see the homework that is presented to them. They do not see the tears, frustration and parent effort that went into that perfect homework project. I’m not saying let your child fail. What I am saying is this: If you help your child with homework, the teacher needs to know this. At the top of the assignment, you need to write things like “This took us 90 minutes to do with blah blah blah….” or send an email.

IEPs are not just for academics

Repeat it after me: IEPs are not just for academics.

And pro tip: Not all school staff got the memo. If they insist on this, send an email to the Special Education Director. “Dear Director, I have asked for evals, blah blah blah…I was told that IEPs are only for academics. However, I have read IDEA extensively and cannot find where it says this anywhere. Can you point me to it? Thanks.”

‘Cause it’s true. IEPs are not just for academics, and case law has upheld this philosophy many times.

Ok, but enough about the background of this issue, you need action steps, right?

What to do when you’re told your child doesn’t qualify for an IEP.

First, you need to formally request IEP evaluations if you have not already done so. If they refuse to evaluate or they have evaluated and found the child not eligible, you have a few options.

  • Ask for that information/decision on a PWN and use your Procedural Safeguards. This will mean it’s decision time: either Mediation or Due Process.
  • You can ask for an IEE, an Independent Education Evaluation. Criteria for IEEs is in that link.
  • You can pursue an IEE at your own expense. Know that in either scenario (you pay or the district pays) the school district still only has to ‘consider’ the information. Still, it will make your case stronger if you need to go to Mediation or Due Process.
  • Ask for RTI.
  • If the child has identified and documented issues from a physician or another professional, you can ask for a 504.
  • Your child can be in RTI or have a 504 Plan while you pursue the other options.
  • Pay for private tutoring or services yourself.
  • You can do nothing. “Wait and see.” I don’t recommend this, but it’s an option. We’re all at different spots on our life journey, and you may not have the energy and cognitive horsepower to deal with this right now.
  • Other options include moving to a different district or enrolling in a private or charter school. I’ve heard many success stories and just as many horror stories from parents who chose those options.

As always, free free to join our Facebook group to get more assistance.


Lisa Lightner is a Chester County, PA mom of two. This post  is adapted from the blog A Day in Our Shoes, which she co-authors. It provides support, resources and advocacy services for parents of children with special needs.


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