What You'll Learn
- What is an independent educational evaluation (IEE)?
- Should my child get an IEE?
- How does I request an IEE for my child?
Parents of children with behavioral and learning challenges often have trouble getting their kid’s support at school. In many schools, there aren’t enough school psychologists to meet all students’ needs. And even the most helpful classroom teacher can’t double as a trained behavioral health professional. Some students will need more support than their schools can provide.
If your child is struggling in school and you’ve already tried an IEP or 504 plan, the next step is an independent educational evaluation (IEE). An IEE is a comprehensive neuropsychological assessment identifying a child’s strengths and weaknesses. This assessment identifies what is causing a child to struggle, allowing schools and parents to create a plan to help the child succeed.
Neuropsychological evaluations are expensive but can be paid for by the school. The process can feel tedious. You will likely need to request, in writing, that the school pay for an IEE. That request will trigger a hearing that can take anywhere from one to two and a half months to occur. The hearing is your chance to show why the school’s existing services aren’t sufficient. You may start by asking your child’s teacher, but if they cannot help request a hearing, take it to a higher level.
Remember that just because you and the school have the neuropsychological evaluation results doesn’t mean the school will change to help your child immediately. However, the IEE results are the first step in understanding and helping your child.
Parents of children contending with behavioral and learning challenges can face daunting odds when it comes to getting support for them at school. According to data from the National Association of School Psychologists, the ratio of students to school psychologists for the 2021–’22 school year was 1,127 to 1. And even the most attuned classroom teacher can’t double as a trained behavioral health professional. Invariably, some students will need more support than their schools can readily provide.
If your child is struggling in school, the first course of action is often to get them services under Section 504 of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) or through an individual education program (IEP). But if your child already has an IEP or 504 plan and you still see them struggling, the next step is an independent educational evaluation (IEE).
What is an independent educational evaluation (IEE)?
An IEE is, in the IDEA’s wording, an “evaluation conducted by a qualified examiner who is not employed by the public agency responsible for the education of the child in question.” Typically, that evaluation is a comprehensive neuropsychological workup that identifies the child’s strengths and weaknesses, ultimately proposing actionable interventions that both schools and parents can pursue to nurture more successful academic outcomes.
Since these IEEs can cost thousands of dollars and often aren’t covered by insurance, you may want to initiate a process that compels your school district to cover the costs. This can be a contentious process, one that varies across states and municipalities. Here is what you need to know if you’re considering undertaking this process.
How do I know when my child needs an independent neuropsychological evaluation?
A neuropsychological evaluation can reveal a lot about how your child’s brain works and what is causing their struggles in school. And most schools don’t have the capacity to thoroughly assess students’ needs and abilities.
“I have seen IEPs with kids that have certain related services on them [where] there’s no evaluation and assessment to figure out what the deficits are and what needs to be done,” says Bonnie Schinagle, a Long Island-based New York State special education attorney. “That’s like me saying, “Oh, your throat is red, I think you have strep throat; let’s give you some antibiotics. Anyone knows you’ve got to do the [strep] test because it might be something else.” In effect, an evaluation is largely about ruling out what isn’t at issue. “For example,” Schinagle continues, “if a child is having social problems, a speech-language evaluation should be done — so you can evaluate whether the child understands what they’re listening to and whether they can express themselves.”
In other words, if you’ve taken the steps of petitioning for 504 support and completed an IEP and still don’t feel like the school’s report reflects what you know to be true about your child’s struggles, stay the course of advocacy. As Robbie Woliver, author of Alphabet Kids: From ADD to Zellweger Syndrome, puts it: “Parents inherently know what is helping their child and what isn’t, and whether their child is thriving or suffering. A teacher or the school speech therapist, or the occupational therapist might not even know. That’s why a full workup is necessary.”
How do I initiate the process?
You will need to put your request for the school to pay for an independent neuropsychological evaluation in writing (a good template is offered by the Center for Parent Information & Resources). In most states, this will trigger a due process hearing that can take anywhere from one to two and a half months to reach a resolution. These hearings put some burden of proof on the parents to demonstrate why the school’s existing services aren’t sufficient. (Massachusetts stands alone in funding independent evaluations in nearly all cases.)
Unfortunately, initiating the process of getting an evaluation can feel like navigating a customer service maze. Jodi Musoff, MA, MEd, an educational specialist at the Child Mind Institute, advises beginning your journey at the classroom level. “I would always start with the teacher,” she says. “Ask if you should be putting your concerns in writing and who you should be sharing that with. Typically, that could be the school-based support team if they have one. It could be the principal or assistant principal. If you’re not getting the answers at the school level, then you take it to the district.” Bottom line, in Musoff’s view: “If you’re not getting the support and answers that you think you deserve, take it to the next level.”
Do I need a lawyer to represent me in a due process hearing?
It can be intimidating to argue for your child’s rights in front of an impartial hearing officer (IHO). Though an IHO cannot be employed by the district and must have demonstrable knowledge of IDEA and its interpretations, they are typically recommended by the district from a list of qualified professionals in the area. Having your own attorney in the room can preserve a sense of fairness, help you make your case effectively, and also prevent your relationship with the school from turning adversarial, which is counterproductive for everyone in the long run.
“You have to realize this little darling that you’re looking at is not just a child; this is a little legal problem,” cautions Schinagle, the special education attorney. “This whole thing is driven by a statute, so you have just stepped into a very large pile of law.”
The IDEA does feature a provision outlining how families can — in some instances — recoup attorneys’ fees from these hearings, but another option is to hire a non-attorney parent advocate. This is essentially an individual who has been through this with their own family and now offers to assist other parents in the same position. “Advocates may cost less than attorneys, so that’s one factor that figures into how parents perceive this,” explains Ellen Saideman, a Rhode Island-based attorney who specializes in special education and disability rights law and is a board member for the Maryland-based nonprofit Council of Parent Attorneys and Advocates, Inc. She adds, however, that parents may actually want to consult with an attorney about the best non-attorney advocate to represent them.
The hearing was successful, so now what?
Once your child is set to receive their neuropsychological evaluation, it’s important to remember that while the evaluation will give you the whole picture of your child’s behavioral health, it doesn’t guarantee that their school will overhaul their learning program overnight.
The school is, however, legally bound to consider the neuropsychologist’s recommendations. And your efforts in enduring the due process hearing won’t be for naught, as schools are much more apt to heed an independent evaluator’s recommendations if they paid for the workup. “I have had many clients over the years who’ve been very frustrated because they spend a lot of money on these independent educational evaluations,” Saideman notes. “They take them to the school district, and the school district is like, ‘We’ve considered it. We’re still not going to do anything different just because you found some expert who’s willing to say something different than what we think.’”
What are my options if it’s clear the school district can’t or won’t follow the evaluation’s recommendations?
If you’ve received an independent neuropsychological evaluation (whether or not the school paid for it), but your child continues to fall behind, or you still feel their school is falling short of providing appropriate accommodations, one option is considering private schools that may be better able to meet your child’s needs. You can trigger a separate due process hearing for private-school reimbursement.
Another option that might seem drastic (and, for some, impractical) is relocating. “Parents move,” says Woliver matter-of-factly. “I mean, you do whatever you can to help your child.” He also encourages parents to seek out support groups online or in person whose members can refer them to pro bono services that might bridge the child’s learning gap.
No matter what course you decide to pursue, having that feedback from an independent neuropsychological evaluation is powerful knowledge you can take with you wherever you go to help find solutions that put your child on a level playing field. Because as the Child Mind Institute’s Musoff says, “That big-picture understanding of the way a child is functioning is so important to understand.”