What images come to mind when you hear the phrase “special education”? There are a lot of common misconceptions. Some people believe that kids who are in special education will be labeled. Others think that they have to learn separately from other kids. While some may believe, that special education is only for kids with severe physical or mental challenges. Or it could be that they feel that special education doesn’t mean a good education.

Special education serves a wide variety of children from preschoolers with developmental delays to first graders with speech challenges. It also serves kids with autism and students with severe disabilities. Kids in special education receive services in a wide range of settings – general education classrooms, designated classrooms in neighborhood schools, and specialized magnet programs.

What is Special Education?

Special education is based on the Education of Handicapped Children Act, a federal law which was originally passed in 1975. The law was updated in 1990 and 2004, and it’s now referred to as the Individuals with Disabilities in Education Act (IDEA). The IDEA guarantees that a child with a disability is provided an individualized, free, appropriate public education (FAPE) facilitated by an individualized education plan (IEP). There are variations in how special education works because each state is required to develop its own implementation of IDEA, but there are common aspects to the process.

A student must meet the criteria for one of 13 different disability categories and require specialized instruction to be eligible for special education. The categories are:

  • Intellectual disability – Significantly below-average intellectual functioning (usually as measured on a standardized intelligence test) and deficits in adaptive behavior. Adaptive behaviors include conceptual skills (e.g. language and number concepts), social skills, and practical skills (e.g. activities of daily living).
  • Speech-language impairment – A communication disorder such as stuttering, articulation errors, or difficulties with expressive language (communicating wants and needs) or receptive language (comprehending what other people say).
  • Visual impairment – Issues with a child’s vision that affect learning and cannot be corrected with eyewear. This includes blindness.
  • Emotional disturbance – A variety of mental health disorders may fall under this category, including anxiety, bipolar disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder, and depression. The condition needs to occur over a long period of time and adversely affect the child’s educational performance by causing difficulty establishing or maintaining interpersonal relationships; inappropriate types of behavior or feelings under normal circumstances; or personal problems that cause physical symptoms or intense fear.
  • Orthopedic impairment – A physical condition which may be caused by a congenital condition, disease, or other causes. The condition must impair educational performance.
  • Autism – A developmental disability that impacts verbal and nonverbal communication and socialization that appears before age 3. Children with autism may be resistant to changes in routine and exhibit repetitive behaviors, self-stimulating behaviors, and atypical reactions to sensory experiences. 
  • Traumatic brain injury – A brain injury caused by an external force that triggers a significant change in functioning academically, socially, or emotionally. 
  • Other health impairment – A chronic or acute health problem that impacts a child’s education (e.g. ADHD, sickle cell anemia, or hemophilia).
  • Specific learning disability – Learning difficulties that significantly impair a child’s ability to read, write, do math, or reason. This could include dyslexia, dyscalculia, or dysgraphia. 
  • Deafness – An inability to process language through hearing.
  • Deaf-blindness – A combination of hearing and visual impairments that causes severe communication, development, and other needs
  • Multiple disabilities – (combinations of the above) A combination of disabilities where the child’s needs cannot be met in a program for just one category of a disability (e.g. intellectual disability and orthopedic impairment).
  • Developmental delay – Specifically for children below the age of 9 who have delays in physical, cognitive, communication, social-emotional, and/or adaptive development and needs specialized supports. Specific criteria are defined at the state level.

Eligible kids receive an IEP that helps them get a FAPE in the least restrictive environment (LRE). This LRE can be their neighborhood school (or the school closest to it) that can provide the services and accommodations they need. 

How Do Kids Get Referrals for Special Education?

Tips for the special education process
If you don’t understand something, ask questions.
If you are uncomfortable signing a document, don’t sign it.
If you need someone else to support you at a meeting, bring them.

The first step in the special education process is getting a referral. Parents can make referrals by sending a note to the school stating that you would like to refer your child for special education. Follow up to make sure your note is getting to the right person. 

Bonus tip: Per the IDEA, every school district in the United States has an obligation called child find – Schools are responsible for seeking out children with disabilities and referring them for special education.

Know Your Special Education Rights

At each step of the way, the school should offer you a copy of your procedural safeguards. This is usually a packet that explains your rights as the process evolves and how to file a complaint. The procedural safeguards, sometimes called due process rights, vary from state to state.

General Tips

If you…

  • don’t understand something, ask questions.
  • are uncomfortable signing a document, don’t sign it. (Note: You’ll often need to sign a document stating that you attended a meeting).
  • need support at a meeting, whether it is emotional or informational, you can bring a support person with you to any meeting.

Bonus tip: Each state has its own timeline for completing the special education eligibility process. Pay attention to due dates and deadlines.

I’ve Referred My Kid. What Happens Next?

Once you have referred your child for special education, the school arranges a meeting to discuss the referral with the child’s parent(s). Bring any notes that you have or examples of your child’s work to help demonstrate why you think your child might need special education services. Next, the school will ask you to consent to a special education evaluation. Be sure you understand the evaluation process – ask lots of questions.

Special education evaluations may consist of the following types of assessments:

  • Psychological – usually conducted by a school psychologist and will look at cognitive, social-emotional, and behavioral functioning
  • Educational – often conducted by a teacher or educational diagnostician, but sometimes by the school psychologist, and looks at how your child is performing in each area of academics that there is a concern
  • Communication – conducted by a speech-language pathologist for children with concerns about speech production or receptive or expressive language.
  • Occupational – conducted by an occupational therapist for children with fine motor or sensory concerns
  • Gross motor – conducted by a physical therapist for children with difficulty with muscle tone or coordination

Ask questions about what will happen during each assessment. Some of the assessors will ask you to fill out rating forms or answer questions about your child’s health and development. Complete the surveys and provide the requested information.

How will I know if my child is eligible?

Once the assessments are complete, the school will provide you with copies of each report written by the evaluation team. You should receive these reports prior to any meeting that you attend. Read them carefully and bring a list of questions for any parts of the report you don’t understand.

At the meeting, the school staff will review their reports and you’ll have an opportunity to ask any questions. Then, the school will decide whether your child meets one of the 13 disability categories and requires specialized instruction. The school should offer you recommendations to help address the concerns you shared about your child if they determine that your child isn’t eligible for special education. They may suggest an alternative support plan or things you can do at home to help your child. If you still have concerns after trying the recommendations, you can re-refer your child for special education at any time.

If your child is found eligible for special education, the school will draft an IEP for your child. You should have the opportunity to review the IEP prior to consenting to its implementation. The IEP has a number of sections that summarize your child’s present levels of educational performance, the issues the IEP will address, educational goals, plus services and accommodations to help your child succeed.

Great, I have an IEP. Now what?

First, it’s important to remember that special education is a process, not a destination. Each year that your child is in special education, you and the school will meet to discuss your child’s progress with the IEP goals and make updates to the plan. You should also receive quarterly progress updates. Every three years, the IEP team will meet with you to consider whether your child is still eligible for special education. They may suggest additional assessments to provide more information.

This timeline is the minimum. As a parent, you have the right to ask for IEP meetings more often than once a year or request a re-evaluation of your child sooner than the three year mark if you have new concerns.

Bonus Tip: Who is a part of the IEP team?

Depending upon your child’s needs there will be different members of the IEP team, but the first team member is always you – the parent! The local education agency (LEA) representative, a regular education teacher, a special education teacher, and someone qualified to interpret the educational implications of the evaluation results (which could be one of the other people on the team) are also members of the IEP team. Older children are encouraged to participate when their parents consider it to be appropriate. Digging a little deeper, here are descriptions of each of the roles I shared above:

  • LEA representative – a school district employee who knows the general education curriculum, can supervise instruction for children with disabilities and knows the resources that the school district has available. Generally, this person is a school administrator (e.g. principal or assistant principal), a special education department chair, or a central office employee that has the authority to commit resources to support the child based upon what is written in the IEP.
  • General education teacher – usually a current teacher of your child who is familiar with your child’s educational progress.
  • Special education teacher – a teacher who provides specialized instruction to currently identified special education students. Each state has specific requirements for teachers to earn a special education credential.
  • Staff qualified to interpret evaluation results – This will depend on the kinds of assessments requested as part of the evaluation and there may be some variation in titles from state to state. Generally, they speak only to the areas that they assessed. They include school psychologists, occupational therapists, physical therapists, speech-language pathologists, educational diagnosticians, audiologists, and/or teacher of the hearing or visually impaired.

Bringing it all Together

Special education is a multifaceted and ongoing process. Key parts of navigating it are… knowing your rights, asking questions, and remembering that it’s all about your child’s educational progress. Remember – you are your child’s advocate and their voice in the special education process and you can do this.