Kids with delayed skills or other disabilities might be eligible for special services
that provide individualized education programs in public schools, free of charge to
families. Understanding how to access these services can help parents be effective
advocates for their kids.
The passage of the updated version of the Individuals with Disabilities Education
Act (IDEA 2004) made parents of kids with special needs even more crucial members
of their child's education team.
Parents can now work with educators to develop a plan — the individualized
education program (IEP) — to help kids succeed in school. The IEP describes
the goals the team sets for a child during the school year, as well as any special
support needed to help achieve them.
Who Needs an IEP?
A child who has difficulty learning and functioning and has been identified as
a special needs student is the perfect candidate for an IEP.
Kids struggling in school may qualify for support services, allowing them to be
taught in a special way, for reasons such as:
In most cases, the services and goals outlined in an IEP can be provided in a standard
school environment. This can be done in the regular classroom (for example, a reading
teacher helping a small group of children who need extra assistance while the other
kids in the class work on reading with the regular teacher) or in a special resource
room in the regular school. The resource room can serve a group of kids with similar
needs who are brought together for help.
However, kids who need intense intervention may be taught in a special school environment.
These classes have fewer students per teacher, allowing for more individualized attention.
In addition, the teacher usually has specific training in helping kids with special
educational needs. The children spend most of their day in a special classroom and
join the regular classes for nonacademic activities (like music and gym) or in academic
activities in which they don't need extra help.
Because the goal of IDEA is to ensure that each child is educated in the least
restrictive environment possible, effort is made to help kids stay in a regular classroom.
However, when needs are best met in a special class, then kids might be placed in
The Referral and Evaluation Process
The referral process generally begins when a teacher, parent, or doctor is concerned
that a child may be having trouble in the classroom, and the teacher notifies the
school counselor or psychologist.
The first step is to gather specific data regarding the student's progress or academic
problems. This may be done through:
analysis of the student's performance (attention, behavior, work completion, tests,
classwork, homework, etc.)
This information helps school personnel determine the next step. At this point,
strategies specific to the student could be used to help the child become more successful
in school. If this doesn't work, the child would be tested for a specific learning
disability or other impairment to help determine qualification for special services.
It's important to note, though, that the presence of a disability doesn't automatically
guarantee a child will receive services. To be eligible, the disability must affect
functioning at school.
To determine eligibility, a multidisciplinary team of professionals will evaluate
the child based on their observations; the child's performance on standardized tests;
and daily work such as tests, quizzes, classwork, and homework.
Who's On the Team?
The professionals on the evaluation team can include:
As a parent, you can decide whether to have your child assessed. If you choose
to do so, you'll be asked to sign a permission form that will detail who is involved
in the process and the types of tests they use. These tests might include measures
of specific school skills, such as reading or math, as well as more general developmental
skills, such as speech and language. Testing does not necessarily mean that a child
will receive services.
Once the team members complete their individual assessments, they develop a comprehensive
evaluation report (CER) that compiles their findings, offers an educational classification,
and outlines the skills and support the child will need.
The parents then have a chance to review the report before the IEP is developed.
Some parents will disagree with the report, and they will have the opportunity to
work together with the school to come up with a plan that best meets the child's needs.
Developing an IEP
The next step is an IEP meeting at which the team and parents decide what will
go into the plan. In addition to the evaluation team, a regular teacher should be
present to offer suggestions about how the plan can help the child's progress in the
standard education curriculum.
At the meeting, the team will discuss your child's educational needs — as
described in the CER — and come up with specific, measurable short-term and
annual goals for each of those needs. If you attend this meeting, you can take an
active role in developing the goals and determining which skills or areas will receive
the most attention.
The cover page of the IEP outlines the support services your child will receive
and how often they will be provided (for example, occupational therapy twice a week).
Support services might include special education, speech therapy, occupational or
physical therapy, counseling, audiology, medical services, nursing, and vision or
hearing therapy. They might also include transportation; the extent of participation
in programs for students without disabilities; what, if any, modifications are needed
in the administration of statewide assessment of student achievement; and, beginning
at age 14, the inclusion of transition planning as a part of the process.
If the team recommends several services, the amount
of time they take in the child's school schedule can seem overwhelming. To ease that
load, some services may be provided on a consultative basis. In these cases, the professional
consults with the teacher to come up with strategies to help the child but doesn't
offer any hands-on instruction. For instance, an occupational therapist may suggest
accommodations for a child with fine-motor problems that affect handwriting, and the
classroom teacher would incorporate these suggestions into the handwriting lessons
taught to the entire class.
Other services can be delivered right in the classroom, so the child's day isn't
interrupted by therapy. The child who has difficulty with handwriting might work one
on one with an occupational therapist while everyone else practices their handwriting
skills. When deciding how and where services are offered, the child's comfort and
dignity should be a top priority.
The IEP should be reviewed annually to update the goals and make sure the levels
of service meet your child's needs. However, IEPs can be changed at any time on an
as-needed basis. If you think your child needs more, fewer, or different services,
you can request a meeting and bring the team together to discuss your concerns.
Your Legal Rights
Specific timelines ensure that the development of an IEP moves from referral to
providing services as quickly as possible. Be sure to ask about this timeframe and
get a copy of your parents' rights when your child is referred. These guidelines (sometimes
called procedural safeguards) outline your rights as a parent to control what happens
to your child during each step of the process.
The parents' rights also describe how you can proceed if you disagree with any
part of the CER or the IEP — mediation and hearings both are options. You can
get information about low-cost or free legal representation from the school district
or, if your child is in Early Intervention (for kids up to age 3), through that program.
Attorneys and paid advocates familiar with the IEP process will provide representation
if you need it. You also may invite anyone who knows or works with your child whose
input you feel would be helpful to join the IEP team. Federally supported programs
in each state support parent-to-parent information and training activities for parents
of children with special needs. The Parent Training and Information Projects conduct
workshops, publish newsletters, and answer questions by phone or by mail about parent-to-parent
A Final Word
Parents have the right to choose where their kids will be educated. This choice
includes public or private elementary schools and secondary schools, including religious
schools. It also includes charter schools and home schools.
However, it is important to understand that the rights of children with disabilities
who are placed by their parents in private elementary schools and secondary schools
are not the same as those of kids with disabilities who are enrolled in public schools
or placed by public agencies in private schools when the public school is unable to
provide a free appropriate public education (FAPE).
Two major differences that parents, teachers, other school staff, private school
representatives, and the kids need to know about are:
Children with disabilities who are placed by their parents in private schools
may not get the same services they would receive in a public school.
Not all kids with disabilities placed by their parents in private schools will
The IEP process is complex, but it's also an effective way to address how your
child learns and functions. If you have concerns, don't hesitate to ask questions
about the evaluation findings or the goals recommended by the team. You know your
child best and should play a central role in creating a learning plan tailored to
his or her specific needs.