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The Go-To Guide for Getting Your Child the Right Special Education Plan

Updated: Nov 16, 2018

The months of August and September bring a lot of excitement to the bus stop when children board the school buses to begin a new school year! Every parent experiences joy at seeing his/her child move on to the next grade level because it’s a milestone that means new skills, challenges, and growth. But when your child has special needs, there are additional considerations that accompany the transition to a new grade, classroom, teacher, school, or district. Whether you’re navigating this world for the first time, or as a seasoned parent of a child with special needs, there is much to know!

As your children are learning lessons in school, here are the top “lessons” for parents to understand about navigating the many educational systems with your child with special learning needs.

Intervention starts in the General Ed classroom

Lesson #1: “General education” = students who participate in the regular education setting

When general education students are not making sufficient progress in order to meet grade-level expectations, school districts are mandated to follow regular education intervention frameworks to ensure that every child makes progress. While they may vary in titles, such as Scientific Research-Based Intervention - SRBI, Response to Intervention - RTI, Multi-Tier System of Supports - MTSS, these processes are tiered approaches to making sure that students receive the differentiated, individualized instruction that he/she needs to make progress. These processes happen under the guise of “general education” so students do not need to qualify for special education services in order to benefit from these strategies and interventions.

Services can range from in-class supplemental strategies and/or instruction (core support), small-group reading/writing/math instruction (targeted support), or 1:1, intensive instruction outside of the classroom. These regular education, short-term (8-20 weeks) intervention plans are reviewed as often as twice per week, based on student data. Occasionally, if a student does not make sufficient progress with the SRBI interventions or if a disability is suspected, a referral may be made to special education for educational testing.

Where does the Special Education process start?

Lesson #2: IDEA, IEP, FAPE, LRE oh my! It’s a good idea to make a cheat-sheet to keep straight all of the important acronyms in special education.

When a child has an identified disability that impacts his or her ability to access the general education curriculum, he/she qualifies for specialized instruction and related services under the umbrella of ‘special education’. Under the federal law, Individuals with Disability Education Improvement Act (IDEA), students ages 3-21 years old with recognized disabilities (see below) qualify to receive special education services through an Individualized Education Program (IEP).

There are 14 disabilities that are defined under IDEA:

  • Autism

  • Deaf-blindness

  • Deafness

  • Developmental delay

  • Emotional disturbance

  • Hearing impairment

  • Intellectual disability

  • Multiple disabilities

  • Orthopedic impairment

  • Other Health Impairment

  • Specific learning disability

  • Speech and language impairment

  • Traumatic brain injury

  • Visual impairment (including blindness)

If your child has a disability that is recognized under IDEA, his/her school team will develop an Individualized Education Program (IEP) to meet his/her learning needs. The IEP is a legal document that is developed by a student’s educational team annually. The document outlines learning goals specific to the needs and strengths of the individual student and these goals are marked for progress quarterly (or by semester), similar to the progress periods that the school district follows. These goals then drive the specialized instruction and related services (OT, PT, Speech, Behavior support, Counseling, etc) that a school district must provide in order to help the student make progress towards these goals.

Under IDEA, perhaps the most important acronym to remember is your child’s legal right to FAPE: a Free and Appropriate Public Education. This provision ensures the rights that your child has to a ‘reasonably appropriate’ education at the expense of the school district, with specialized instruction and services, in the Least Restrictive Environment (LRE) that is necessary to meet your child’s needs.

What Does an Evaluation for Special Education Look Like?

Lesson #3: You can refer your child for a special education evaluation if you suspect he/she has a disability.

Unfortunately, many parents don’t realize that they can make a referral to special education if they are concerned about their child’s progress in school. School districts have many safeguards in place to ensure student progress, but if at any point you or they suspect that more information is needed to truly understand a student’s learning profile, a referral to special education should be made. This would constitute thorough evaluations to rule out a disability.

Typically, a special education evaluation consists of a number of professionals who test a student within their area of expertise, to get a holistic view of a child’s strengths and weaknesses. Clinicians who may conduct evaluations as part of this initial referral process are:

  • School psychologists

  • Special education teachers

  • Speech and Language Pathologists

  • Occupational therapists

  • Physical therapists

Special education evaluations assess the following areas:

  • Achievement

  • Cognitive

  • Communication

  • Developmental skills

  • Adaptive skills

  • Motor skills

  • Social Emotional Behavioral skills

In addition to formal evaluation measures, there are classroom observations, parent and teacher questionnaires, and a review of records. Once all of that information is gathered, the educational team will meet to discuss whether the evaluation results warrant a student’s eligibility for special education under one of the 14 qualifying diagnoses under IDEA. If the student does qualify for special education services, the team will draft an Individualized Education Program (IEP) to address the student’s needs.

A Page by Page Overview of the IEP document

At first glance, your child’s Individualized Education Program (IEP) can look quite daunting with it’s small text, numerous check boxes, and grid-like design. Each state may use a variation on IEP software that results in a slightly different appearance depending on where your child lives or attends school.

Here are the basics contained in the fine print of all IEP documents that you should pay close attention to:

Page 1: Cover Page - This is the cover page to the IEP. You’ll be tempted to skim over the familiar details of name, school, date of birth, and contact information, but there is critical information on this page that parents need to highlight. For example, the “Annual Review date” indicates the next time your child’s plan will be up for a full review. This happens once each year, although the IEP document can be revised more often. Students are re-evaluated every three years to determine continued eligibility for special education, so this should be noted in the sections that say “Most Recent Evaluation Date” and “Next Re-evaluation Date”. Lastly, check out the “Reasons for Meeting” & “Primary Disability” sections to make sure the information matches your understanding of the meeting that took place, and what your child’s qualifying disability is.

Page 2: Recommendations & Summary - The recommendations that resulted from the meeting, as well as the meeting summary are located on page 2. Districts may choose to include very detailed meeting notes here, or more concise information that outlines the items discussed. Whatever the format, check for clarity and accuracy within these notes. You have the option to provide feedback on the IEP document once you receive it, so if your recollection of the IEP meeting does not match the changes noted in your child’s IEP document in this section, you’ll want to identify that.

Page 3: Prior Written Notice - This page is referred to as the Prior Written Notice and contains any changes (actions) proposed and/or refused that were discussed at the meeting. If either the school district or the parents suggest, recommend, request, or propose an addition/reduction of service hours, new evaluation, change in service location, change in primary disability -- basically any change to the program -- this is the page that needs to reflect why the final decision to agree or reject that proposed action was made. Depending on the nature and outcome of the IEP meeting, you may find that your child’s IEP has multiple copies of the Prior Written Notice - for each action discussed, accepted, and/or refused.

Pages 4 & 5: Present Levels - These grid-like pages are entitled: Present Levels of Academic Achievement and Functional Performance. They offer insight into your child’s areas of strength and needs, as well as the impact of the disability on your student’s ability to make progress in the general education setting or curriculum. Your child may be “age appropriate” in one or more of these areas of performance,