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Special Education: Getting Help for Your Child

Medically reviewed by: Colleen O'Shea, M.Ed

What Is Special Education?

Many students qualify for extra help and support in school. This is called “special education.” Kids are eligible for special education if learning is impacted by a physical, cognitive, behavioral, or emotional condition. 

Special education ensures that all students who are eligible receive a free appropriate public education alongside their peers who are not disabled, as much as possible. Services can include:

If you have a concern about your child’s ability to learn, ask your child’s daycare or school for an educational evaluation. This sooner kids get the help that’s needed, the more successful they can be in school.

What's the Law?

The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) makes sure that people with disabilities from birth to age 21 receive a free public education that’s tailored to their needs.

Children who qualify for extra help can receive a plan that sets learning goals and includes accommodations (supports to help with a general education) and modifications (changes to the general education) that promote success. Parents, teachers, therapists, school psychologists, and others work as a team to create the plan. Plans are offered based on ability and age:

  • individualized family service plan (IFSP): This is given to infants and toddlers up to age 3 who have developmental delays or medical problems that can lead to delays (such as hearing loss, being born early, or genetic conditions like Down syndrome).
  • individualized education program (IEP). This outlines a student’s present achievement levels and plots out reachable learning goals. It also includes any accommodations or modifications and related services (like therapy), plus a transition plan for life after high school if a student is 14 or above. The IEP includes yearly review and quarterly progress reports.

What Do I Do First?

Talk to your doctor. If your child has special needs that make it harder to learn or seems behind in development, tell your doctor. The doctor can see if your child could benefit from an evaluation or should be seen by a specialist (like a speech therapist or psychologist).

Request or agree to an evaluation. A child who may need extra help to reach milestones will be referred for evaluation. This can happen through your state's early intervention program or your local school district. Evaluations use tests find a child’s strengths and challenges. You can request a free evaluation, even without a referral from your doctor. Here's how:

  • If your child is under age 3, call your state's early intervention program.
  • If your child is age 3 or older, call your local school district.
  • If your child is older and struggling in school, ask for an evaluation at any time. Talk with teachers, the principal, a school guidance counselor, or psychologist to set up testing.

How Will My Child Be Tested?

The kind of tests given depend on your concerns and the needs of your child. Tests can check for language skills, motor skills, development, behavior problems, IQ, and achievement.

What Services Are Offered?

Babies & Toddlers

Babies and toddlers are enrolled in their state's early intervention programs. Most services are given in the home and include help learning to walk, talk, play, and develop other skills. Families and caregivers learn how to help kids reach their goals and may get support managing problem behaviors or other concerns.

Before kids turn 3 years old, they are tested again to see if they need to continue with special education. If a child qualifies, a plan is put in place for preschool.


After age 3, children usually get services outside the home. Preschoolers learn best when around their peers, and teachers help prepare them for kindergarten. This happens in special education preschools or other learning centers. If needed, a child may get extra services — such as speech therapy — to help meet learning goals.

After preschool ends, children can be evaluated again to see if they need to continue with special education services in elementary school.

School-Age Kids

Depending on the need, students from kindergarten age through age 21 may qualify for either an IEP or a 504 education plan. Students must be determined eligible by a multi-disciplinary team.

While the IEP provides special education services, including any modifications, and outlines goals, the 504 plan helps a child with a disability succeed with behavioral and/or environmental accommodations in a general classroom. 

The two plans might sound the same but a 504 plan is different from IEP. The main difference is that a 504 plan modifies a student's regular education program in a regular classroom setting. A 504 plan is monitored by classroom teachers. A student with an IEP may receive different educational services in a special or regular educational setting, depending on the student's need. IEP programs are delivered and monitored by additional school support staff.

Also, parental approval and involvement is required for an IEP, but not for a 504 plan. Full parental participation in the 504 plan process, however, is important for the student's academic success.

Students with needs that go beyond what the school district can offer may be placed in an alternate school or program. These students will also require an IEP.


The IEP will start to prepare a child at age 14 for adult life. This is called "transition planning." Transition planning focuses on what a teen wants to do after graduation — such as college or vocational school, working, or volunteering — and the skills needed to reach those goals.

The transition plan also includes where a young adult might live and whether he or she can live independently. It addresses life-skills education (like money management, transportation, personal care, and household chores), and sets a plan for switching to adult health care services.

How Often Are Plans Reviewed?

IEPs and 504 plans are reviewed every year. A major review, which can include a re-evaluation, happens every 3 years.

Can I Change My Child's Plan?

You (or anyone one else on your child's planning team) can ask for a review at any time. If you disagree with your child's IEP, request a meeting with the IEP team to discuss your concerns. Guardians have the right to be in all IEP planning meetings, to look over school records, and to disagree with the plan and/or ask to change it. An IEP is considered to be a draft until the IEP team agrees to the plan and signs the document. 

If this effort does not get the results wanted, you can work with a mediator or make a "due process" complaint to help resolve the issues between you and the school district. You also can file a complaint through your state education agency or file a lawsuit.

Your child will continue with services while you go through the resolution process.

What Else Should I Know?

Your child's pathway to learning may be different from what you expected. It may sometimes feel like an overwhelming process. But remember that you do not need to go through it alone.

Find support at school and in the community. Talk to other parents who have been through it before you. Join a support group, either online or in person.

With careful planning and patience, working together with the school, you can help your child learn and reach their full potential.

Medically reviewed by: Colleen O'Shea, M.Ed
Date reviewed: March 2022