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Author: Melinda Gillinger, Advocacy Consultant


2 questions from the field – same answer:

“My child was just diagnosed with hearing loss. How and where do I even start the process of getting services with our school district?”

“ Our child was attending a private school when we found out about his hearing loss. We have never worked with the public school system. How do we start, and are we too late?”

The entire process/journey of navigating the Special Education system can be overwhelming to both families as well as many professionals. Teachers and therapists often know their role and their unique piece of the IFSP and IEP puzzle, but they do not always have the full picture of what the family needs to do to get started or what they need to do in the case of a disagreement. The purpose of this article is to share, for both families and educators, the steps to getting started depending on the age of the child.

Depending on when your child has been diagnosed you will be initiating one of two plans, either the Individualized Family Service Plan (IFSP) or the Individual Education Plan (IEP). While the IEP is the responsibility of your local school district, the IFSP may be the responsibility of your school district or your state’s Early Intervention or early childhood disability services program (not all states use the term “early intervention”)1 Either way, everything starts with a request in writing and comprehensive assessments.

The IFSP is a written treatment plan for children from birth to 3 years old that maps out the Early Intervention services a child will receive as well as how and when these services will be administered. It details a child’s current levels of functioning in all domains, specific areas of need, and goals for treatment, referred to as outcomes1.

The IEP is a plan developed to ensure that children from 3 to 22 years old, or when they graduate from high school, who meet one of the 13 qualifying eligibilities identified under special education law (IDEA) receives appropriate placement, specialized instruction, and related services in the least restrictive environment (LRE) so that the child can receive a free and appropriate public education (FAPE).

Neither the IFSP meeting nor the IEP meeting is the end of the process in initiating services and supports for your child with hearing loss. This is just the beginning of your journey.


Step by Step Guide:

In most states when your child has been diagnosed, the clinical audiologist will send a referral to the local education agency which should trigger the school district or regionalized education office to reach out to the family and begin the process. That being said, the family can also initiate the process by submitting a written request for the assessment to determine eligibility for special education services.

Under the Individuals with Education Act (IDEA) Part C, which governs early intervention services, an IFSP is developed for children from birth to 3 who meet eligibility criteria1. Services for children who have solely low incidence disabilities, such as hearing loss, may receive services through a path that is different from the majority of children with early delays in development.



  1. 1. Request for assessment is provided in writing or referral is made from clinical audiologist
  2. 2. Assessment Plan generated for all developmental domains
  3. 3. Assessments are conducted and reports are written
  4. 4. Team meets to discuss assessment results and document the following components:
    1. 1. Parent Priorities and Concerns
    2. 2. Results of assessments and the child’s present levels of performance
    3. 3. Contact information for all additional providers serving the family
    4. 4. Outcomes to meet the needs for both the child and the family
    5. 5. How these outcomes will be measured and who will be responsible
    6. 6. Offer of services for the child and the family
  5. 5. Parent Signature – “Parent signature” does not equal agreement*

For the IFSP, the team must take into consideration and address the family’s priorities and concerns as a means to develop the plan. These priorities and concerns drive the IFSP, so parents should plan to be as specific as possible in order to assist the team in the process. *Note, once the offer of services has been made, the family has the right to sign in agreement to implementation of the parts of the offer to which they agree and to sign in disagreement with the portions of the offer to which they disagree. There are avenues in place to support families and districts to work collaboratively in order to resolve these disagreements.

For children with developmental delays in addition to a low incidence disability such as hearing loss, the steps are all the same in the process however the EI program may be the agency responsible for managing the IFSP until they refer the child to the school district for an IEP prior to the 3rd birthday. Just because the school district is not the lead agency responsible for the IFSP does not preclude the district from serving children with hearing loss. School districts may, but are not required by IDEA to, provide early intervention services. The team is to be multidisciplinary and is to address all of the needs of the entire family.


  1. 1. Written request for a full evaluation of your child
  2. 2. Assessment Plan generated for all areas of suspected need within 15 days of request
  3. 3. Assessment Plan signed by family within 15 days of parent signature
  4. 4. Parent may put request in writing to relieve draft copies of reports and proposed goals*
  5. 5. Assessments are conducted and reports are written
  6. 6. Draft documents provided to the family prior to the IEP meeting
  7. 7. Meet as a team to discuss assessment results and develop the IEP document within 60 days of parent signature on assessment plan
  8. 8. Develop each required component of the IEP document as a team, which includes parents
  9. 9. Offer of Free Appropriate Public Education (FAPE)
  10. 10. Signatures

Just as in the IFSP process, the family has the right to agree or disagree in part or in whole with the IEP document and the district’s offer of FAPE. Just as with the IFSP, there are procedures in place in the IDEA that guide families and districts to resolve these differences.

Each step of the process should be documented in writing from the initial request for assessments to and including the IEP signature. It is important for each request to be in writing as this triggers the timelines. It is also important for parents to understand that their signature does not equal agreement. The parent signature is documentation of the components of the plan and the offer in the IFSP or the IEP to which the family both agrees and disagrees.

Many families will misunderstand the signature process in a couple of different ways. I have met families who disagree with the offer and therefore decline to sign the IFSP/IEP thinking that not signing is how to disagree. However, if there is no signature, then nothing can move forward – including the services with which you may agree as well as resolution to any differences. Everything comes to a standstill without signatures and documentation of parent input.

The other misunderstanding is when families or teams believe that the IFSP/IEP must be signed in full (i.e., all or nothing). This is not accurate. The family may sign in agreement to the portions of the offer with which they agree as well as documenting any areas of disagreement. This will actually move the process along much more quickly as the district then has permission to implement what was agreed to as well as to begin working with the family to resolve areas of disagreement.


Melinda Gillinger, M. A.

Special Education Consultant