Special Education is the most individualized type of support a struggling child can receive. The Special Ed staff is comprised of specialists with specific training on how to work with students with disabilities that significantly affect learning. Special Education is designed to provide modifications to the educational program so that children with disabilities can have a “Free and Appropriate Education” (FAPE) in the “Least Restrictive Environment” (LRE).
In other words, if your child is struggling to learn in the regular classroom, Special Ed will find a way to make sure they still get access to an education that is both free of cost and appropriate for them. All children in this country have a right to an education.
How to Get Special Ed
In every school, there is a process for requesting Special Education services. This process protects your child from being unfairly or inaccurately labeled and ensures that they get the right type of support in the fastest way possible.
For information about this process in Private Schools, please click here.
- Talk to your child’s teacher to see if they share your concerns. If you have an opportunity for a parent-teacher conference – take it. The teacher can be your child’s best advocate when they have needs that aren’t being met.
- Request a Student Study Team (SST) meeting. This team – which includes you, the parents – will discuss the strengths and challenges of your child and come up with some possible interventions. This may or may not include an evaluation for Special Ed depending on the situations. The team may wish to try some classroom interventions first to see if your child responds and improves.
- Request a follow-up meeting 6-8 weeks later to learn about your child’s progress towards the goals set at the previous meeting. The team is likely to offer higher levels of intervention if your child is not responding or improving.
For most students, this process is sufficient to get the support they need to be successful in school. In many schools, your child may participate in a process called Response to Intervention (RTI), which is designed to ameliorate difficulties before they become disabilities, though this is not a requirement.
However, if you have met with the school, implemented supports and interventions, and your child continues to struggle, it may be time to request a higher level of support. Continue with the following steps:
- Write a letter requesting an assessment for Special Ed. Give a copy of this letter to the principal as well as a member of the Special Education staff (ask the school’s Office Manager how to reach them). Click here for a sample template letter.
- Know the timelines. Once the Special Education process is initiated, a number of legally mandated timelines apply.
- Within 15 days of your request, you will receive a response. This response may be (1) a meeting with you to talk about your child’s challenges, (2) an Assessment Plan to complete the assessment, or (3) a letter refusing to complete the assessment with specific reasons why it is not appropriate at this time.
- Within 60 days of signing the Assessment Plan, you will be asked to attend a meeting with the Special Education team to review the assessment results and determine the best next steps.
Note: Many people believe that writing a letter will force the school to assess the child; this is not completely true. However, your letter does obligate the school to review your child’s file and determine if an assessment is necessary. If you submit this letter before going through steps 1-3 your request may be rejected.
- Finally, your child must meet eligibility criteria. There are two important considerations to be eligible for Special Education:
- The student must have a disability.
- The disability must be adversely affecting their education at this point in time.
Both must be true for the child to be eligible for Special Education services.
This means that there are some students with diagnosed disabilities that will not qualify because they are able to learn in the regular classroom. Unfortunately, this does not mean “learn to their highest potential”: the word adverse specifically means that they are achieving far below the “average” student.
This also means that there are some children who are failing who will not qualify. If the child’s education is “adversely affected” due to an issue that is not directly related to a disability, they may not meet criteria. For example, if a child is failing because they are truant from school, they may not qualify.
Often, it can be confusing when the doctor says your child should be eligible for Special Education but the school says no. Additional information on this topic is available here..
Understanding Your IEP
If your child is diagnosed with a disability that does adversely affect their education, the team will create an Individualized Education Plan, or IEP. This document contains the specific accommodations and modifications to instruction that your child will need to access their education. Here are some important things to look out for:
- The IEP is based on two important principles:
- Free and Appropriate Public Education (FAPE): Every student in the United States is entitled to a “free and appropriate public education”. This means that every child has a right to an education in a public school that is appropriate to his or her needs. The word “appropriate” specifically means that the child is able to access the curriculum and achieve at the average expected level for his or her age (nationally, not specific to the school).
- Least Restrictive Environment (LRE): Every student in the United States has a right to be educated in an environment that is as close to a general education classroom as possible and still be FAPE. This is a very important protection: this is what prevents schools from simply isolating students with special needs, or refusing them an education. The IEP team will work hard to serve your child’s needs in an environment that is as close to general education as possible.
- The IEP will contain specific goals with measurable outcomes. These goals are often written in a “special-ed” language. Ask your team to explain what these goals might look like in the classroom:
“If you were working on this goal with my child, what would I see happening in the classroom?”
- You may also see testing accommodations for classroom as well as State testing. These may include additional time, questions read allowed, or a private room for testing.
- Your child may have a Behavior Support Plan as part of their IEP. This document is meant to support children with difficult behaviors learn the skills they need to communicate in a more effective way.
There are many parts to an IEP and this list is not exhaustive. Please let me know if there is another part of the document that you would like explained.
Know Your Rights
You have many rights as a parent when your child has an IEP. You will be handed a booklet with your rights at every IEP meeting. The meeting facilitator will briefly review your rights. Here are a few that sometimes are glossed over:
- You can bring a friend. You have a right to bring anyone you wish to the meeting. The IEP team will consist of Special Ed staff, a general education teacher, parents, and the principal. Please let them know if you would like anyone else present.
- You do not have to sign. The IEP process is long and confusing. You do not have to sign the IEP right then. You can bring it home, think about it, review it with a friend, and decide later.
- You can request a follow-up IEP meeting at any time. The team will convene once each year to review the IEP goals. However, you have a right to request a meeting at any time to review your child’s progress. You must receive a response within 30 days.
- You can disagree. There are a few scenarios where this may apply:
- If you disagree with the assessment, you can request an Independent Educational Evaluation (IEE). If granted, your child will be evaluated by an outside professional of your choosing (within certain requirements) and another meeting will be held to consider the new results.
- You can agree to parts of the IEP but disagree with others. In this scenario, you may sign the IEP and indicate exactly which parts you agree with and where you disagree. For example, you may agree to the goals, but disagree with the diagnosis, or vice versa.
- At a Glance: Your Rights in the Special Education Process from Understood.org
- Understanding Special Education from Understood.org
The information included in this article is not meant to be comprehensive. Rather, it is meant to answer many commonly asked questions. Please contact me with specific questions or consultation needs!