Many readers have questions about special education issues – accommodations and modifications, advocacy, damages, discipline, due process hearings, progress, reading, parent-school relations, high-stakes testing, retention, and other topics. You will find answers to many of your questions here.
Questions and Answers
- What is special education?
Special education is instruction that is specially designed to meet the unique needs of children who have disabilities. Special education and related services are provided in public schools at no cost to the parents and can include special instruction in the classroom, at home, in hospitals or institutions, or in other settings. This definition of special education comes from IDEA, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. This law gives eligible children with disabilities the right to receive special services and assistance in school.
- Who is eligible for special education?
Children with disabilities are eligible for special education and related services when they meet IDEA’s definition of a “child with a disability” in combination with state and local policies. IDEA’s definition of a “child with a disability” lists 13 different disability categories under which a child may be found eligible for special education and related services. IDEA’s Categories of Disability are:
- Hearing impairment
- Intellectual disabilities
- Multiple disabilities
- Orthopedic impairment
- Other health impairment
- Serious emotional disturbance
- Specific learning disability
- Speech or language impairment
- Traumatic brain injury
- Visual impairment, including blindness
States and school districts must follow IDEA’s definitions, but they also may add details to guide decision making about children’s eligibility. That’s why it’s important to know what your state and local policies are.
- How do I find out if my child is eligible?
You can ask the school to evaluate your child. Call or write the director of special education or the principal of your child’s school. Describe your concerns with your child’s educational performance and request in writing an evaluation under IDEA, to see if a disability is involved.
The public school may also be concerned about how your child is learning and developing. If the school thinks that your child may have a disability, then it must evaluate your child at no cost to you. The school must ask your permission and receive your written consent before it may evaluate your child. Once you provide that consent, the eligibility committee (parent included) will meet within 80 days to review all evaluations and determine if your child is a child in need of special education services.
However, the school does not have to evaluate your child just because you have asked. The school may not think your child has a disability or needs special education. In this case, the school may refuse to evaluate your child. It must let you know this decision in writing, as well as why it has refused. This is called giving you prior written notice.
- What happens during an evaluation?
Evaluating your child means more than the school just giving your child a test. The school must evaluate your child in all the areas where your child may be affected by the possible disability. This may include looking at your child’s health, vision, hearing, social and emotional well-being, general intelligence, performance in school, and how well your child communicates with others and uses his or her body.
The evaluation must be individualized (just your child) and full and comprehensive enough to determine if your child has a disability and to identify all of your child’s needs for special education and related services if it is determined that your child has a disability.
The evaluation process involves several steps. These are listed below.
- Reviewing existing information:
A team of people, including you, begins by looking at the information the school already has about your child. You may have information about your child you wish to share as well. The team will look at information such as:
- your child’s scores on tests given in the classroom or to all students in your child’s grade;
- the opinions and observations of your child’s teachers and other school staff who know your child; and
- your feelings, concerns, and ideas about how your child is doing in school.
- Deciding if more information is still needed:
- The information collected above will help the group decide:
- if your son or daughter has a particular type of disability;
- how your child is currently doing in school;
- whether your child needs special education and related services; and
- what your child’s educational needs are.
If the information the team collects doesn’t answer these questions, then the school must collect more information about your child.
- Collecting more information about your child:
Your informed written permission is required before the school may collect additional information about your son or daughter. The school must also describe how it will collect the information. This includes describing the tests that will be used and the other ways the school will gather information about your child. After you give your consent, the school will go ahead as described. The information it gathers will give the evaluation team the information it needs to make the types of decisions listed above.
- Reviewing existing information:
- How does the school collect this information?
The school collects information about your child from many different people and in many different ways. Tests are an important part of an evaluation, but they are only a part. The evaluation should also include:
- the observations and opinions of professionals who have worked with your child;
- your child’s medical history, when it relates to his or her performance in school; and
- your ideas about your child’s school experiences, abilities, needs, and behavior outside of school, and his or her feelings about school.
- The following people will be part of the team evaluating your child:
- You, as parents;
- At least one regular education teacher, if your child is or may be participating in the regular educational environment;
- At least one of your child’s special education teachers or service providers;
- A school administrator who knows about policies for special education, about children with disabilities,
about the general education curriculum (the curriculum used by students who do not have disabilities),
and about available resources;
- Someone who can interpret the evaluation results and talk about what instruction may be necessary for your child;
- Individuals (invited by you or the school) who have knowledge or special expertise about your child;
- Your child, if appropriate;
Representatives from any other agencies that may be responsible for paying for or providing transition services (if your child is age 16 or, if appropriate, younger and will be planning for life after high school);
and Other qualified professionals.
These other qualified professionals may be responsible for collecting specific kinds of information about your child. They may include:
- a school psychologist and/or an occupational therapist;
- a speech and language pathologist (sometimes called a speech therapist);
- a physical therapist and/or adaptive physical education therapist or teacher;
- a medical specialist; and others.
Professionals will observe your child. They may give your child written tests or talk personally with your child. They are trying to get a picture of the “whole child.” For example, they want to understand such aspects as:
- how well your child speaks and understands language;
- how your child thinks and behaves;
- how well your child adapts to changes in his or her environment;
- how well your child has done academically;
- how well your child functions in a number of areas, such as moving, thinking, learning, seeing, and hearing; and
- your child’s job-related and other post-school interests and abilities.
IDEA states that schools may not decide a child’s eligibility for special education based on the results of only one procedure such as a test or an observation. More than one procedure is needed to see where your child may be having difficulty and to identify his or her strengths and needs.
In some cases, schools will be able to conduct a child’s entire evaluation within the school. In other cases, schools may not have the staff to do all of the evaluations needed. These schools will have to hire outside people or agencies to do some or all of the evaluation. If your child is evaluated outside of the school, the school must make the arrangements. The school will say in writing exactly what type of testing is to be done. All of these evaluation procedures are done at no cost to parents.
- How is my child’s eligibility for special education decided?
As was said earlier, the decision about your child’s eligibility for services is based on whether your son or daughter has a disability that fits into one of the IDEA’s 13 disability categories (see question #3) and meets any additional state or local criteria for eligibility. This decision will be made when the evaluation has been completed, and the results are available.
Parents are part of the team that decides a child’s eligibility for special education. This team will look at all of the information gathered during the evaluation and decide if your child meets the definition of a “child with a disability.” If so, your child will be eligible for special education and related services.
- What’s an IEP?
The acronym IEP stands for Individualized Education Program. This is a written document that describes the educational program designed to meet a child’s individual needs. Every child who receives special education must have an IEP.
The IEP has two general purposes: (1) to set learning goals for your child; and (2) to state the supports and services that the school district will provide for your child.
- What type of information is included in an IEP?
According to IDEA, your child’s IEP must include specific statements.
Your child’s IEP will contain the following statements:
- Present levels of academic achievement and functional performance. This statement describes how your child is currently achieving in school. This includes how your child’s disability affects his or her participation and progress in the general education curriculum.
- Annual goals. The IEP must state annual goals for your child, what you and the school team think he or she can reasonably accomplish in a year. The goals must relate to meeting the needs that result from your child’s disability. They must also help your son or daughter participate in and progress in the general education curriculum.
- Special education and related services to be provided. The IEP must list the special education and related services to be provided to your child. This includes supplementary aids and services (e.g., preferential seating, a communication device, one-on-one tutor) that can increase your child’s access to learning and his or her participation in school activities. It also includes changes to the program or supports for school personnel that will be provided for your child.
- Participation with children without disabilities. The IEP must include an explanation that answers this question: How much of the school day will your child be educated separately from children without disabilities or not participate in extracurricular or other nonacademic activities such as lunch or clubs?
- Dates and location. The IEP must state (a) when special education and related and supplementary aids and services will begin; (b) how often they will be provided; (c) where they will be provided; and (d) how long they will last.
- Participation in state and district-wide assessments. Your state and district probably give tests of student achievement to children in certain grades or age groups. In order to participate in these tests, your child may need individual accommodations or changes in how the tests are administered. The IEP team must decide what accommodations your child needs and list them in the IEP. If your child will not be taking these tests, the IEP must include a statement as to why the tests are not appropriate for your child, how your child will be tested instead, and why the alternate assessment selected is appropriate for your child.
- Transition services. By the time your child is 16 (or younger, if the IEP team finds it appropriate for your child), the IEP must include measurable postsecondary goals related to your child’s training, education, employment, and (when appropriate) independent living skills. The IEP must also include the transition services needed to help your child reach those goals, including what your child should study.
- Measuring progress. The IEP must state how school personnel will measure your child’s progress toward the annual goals. It must also state when it will give you periodic reports on your child’s progress.
It is very important that children who receive special education participate in the general education curriculum as much as possible. That is, they should learn the same curriculum as children without disabilities-for example, reading, math, science, social studies, and physical education. In some cases, this curriculum may need to be adapted for your child to learn, but it should not be omitted. Participation in extracurricular activities and other nonacademic activities is also important. Your child’s IEP needs to be written with this in mind.
For example, what special education and related services will help your child participate in the general education curriculum-in other words, to study what other students are studying? What special education, related services, or supports will help your child take part in extracurricular activities such as school clubs or sports? When your child’s IEP is developed, an important part of the discussion will be how to support your child in regular education classes and activities in the school.
- Who develops my child’s IEP?
Many people come together to develop your child’s IEP. This group is called the IEP team and includes most of the same types of individuals who were involved in your child’s evaluation. Team members will include:
- You, the parents
- At least one regular education teacher, if your child is (or may be) participating in the regular education environment
- At least one of your child’s special education teachers or special education providers
- A representative of the school system who (a) is qualified to provide or supervise the provision of special education, (b) knows about the general education curriculum; and (c) knows about the resources the school system has available
- An individual who can interpret the evaluation results and talk about what instruction may be necessary for your child
- Your child, when appropriate
- Other individuals (invited by you or the school) who have knowledge or special expertise about your child. For example, you may wish to invite a relative who is close to your child or a child care provider. The school may wish to invite a related services provider such as a speech therapist or a physical therapist.
- With your consent, the school must also invite representatives from any other agencies that are likely to be responsible for paying for or providing transition services (if your child is 16 years old or, if appropriate, younger).
- Can the meeting be held without the parents participating?
Yes. IDEA’s regulations state that the school may hold the IEP meeting without you if it is unable to convince you that you, as parents, should attend. If neither parent can attend the IEP meeting, the school must use other methods to ensure your participation, including video conferences and
individual or conference telephone calls. If, however, you still can’t attend or participate in the IEP meeting, the school may hold the IEP meeting without you-as long as it keeps a record of its efforts to arrange a mutually agreed-on time and place and the results of those efforts. This can be accomplished by keeping detailed records of:
- telephone calls made or attempted and the results of those calls;
- copies of correspondence sent to you and any responses received; and
- detailed records of visits made to your home or work and the results of those visits.
If the school does hold the meeting without you, it must keep you informed about the meeting and any decisions made there. The school must also ask for (and receive) your written permission before special education and related services may be provided to your child for the first time.
- What are Related Services?
The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) defines as:
Related services means transportation and any other developmental, corrective or other
supportive services that a child needs to benefit from special education. Some children need related services in order to meet the goals in their Individualized Education Program (IEP).
Related services may include:
- Early identification and assessment of disabilities in children
- Speech-language pathology and audiology services
- Parent counseling and training
- Interpreting services
- Psychological services
- Physical and occupational therapy
- Recreation, including therapeutic recreation
- Social work services
- School health services
- School nurse services
- Counseling services, including rehabilitation counseling
- Orientation and mobility services
- Medical services (only to diagnose or evaluate a child’s disability)
Related services are not limited to the ones outlined above. If a service is necessary for the child to benefit from his or her special education program, the service must be provided, even if it is not included in this list.
- Who decides which related services are right for a child?
A child’s Individualized Education Program (IEP) team decides which related services are necessary. Parents are important members of the IEP team. Qualified related service providers may also be members of the IEP team. The team gathers information from an evaluation and uses this information to determine a child’s needs. The IEP team will discuss the child’s needs and decide whether
a related service is needed to help the child accomplish an instructional goal on the IEP.
- What if the related services in a child’s IEP are not being provided because there are staff shortages?
The school district must provide the related services in the child’s IEP. The district may contract with providers outside the school district if there are personnel shortages in the school.
- What do parents need to know about transportation?
The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) includes transportation within its definition of “related services.” This means that students with Individualized Education Programs (IEPs) have the right to receive special transportation services if it is needed.
Transportation and assistance may be provided to a child whose disability requires the child to:
- go to and from school;
- travel between schools; or
- move around inside of school buildings or around the school grounds.
Some students with disabilities need special equipment such as separate or adapted buses, lifts and ramps.
- Who decides if a child needs transportation services?
A child’s IEP team, which includes the parents, decides whether a child needs transportation services. This is based on assessment. The school will arrange transportation if the IEP
team decides that a child’s disability prevents him or her from:
- using the same transportation as children who don’t have disabilities
- going to and from school in the same way as children who do not have disabilities.
- Do most children with disabilities need special transportation?
No. Most children with disabilities are able to use the same transportation system as their classmates who don’t have disabilities. Sometimes just adding special equipment or aides to school buses is all that is required for a student with a disability.
- Why use a Positive Student Profile?
A Positive Student Profile is an excellent way to “introduce” your child to new teachers and others that will be working with him/her. The profile provides you with the opportunity to present your child’s strengths and challenges in a new light so that others can have a clearer understanding of who the child is and become better prepared to develop his/her Individualized Education Plan.
Positive Student Profile
This form is to be filled out by the parent /professional to provide a “snapshot” of the child which should be reflected in his/her IEP.
- Who is _______? (Describe your child, including information such as place in family, personality, likes and dislikes.)
- What are ________’s strengths? (Highlight all areas in which your child does well, including educational and social environments.)
- What are ________’s successes? (List all successes, no matter how small.)
- What are ________’s greatest challenges? (List the areas in which your child has the greatest difficulties.)
- What supports are needed for ________? (List supports that will help your child achieve his/her potential.)
- What are our dreams for ________? (Describe your vision for your child’s future, including both short-term and long-term goals.)
- Other helpful information. (List any pertinent information, including health care needs, that has not been detailed elsewhere on the form.)
Adapted from: Collaborative Teams for Students with Severe Disabilities: Integrating Therapy and Educational Services, Beverly Rainforth, Ph.D., P.T., Jennifer York, Ph.D., P.T., Cathy Macdonald, M.A., C.C.C./S.L.P