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:
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:
Special education teachers
Speech and Language Pathologists
Special education evaluations assess the following areas:
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, in which case specialized instruction is not needed in those areas. If your child’s IEP identifies a concern or need in a performance area, the IEP goals will address these skills and a special education service will be recommended to make progress towards that goal/skill.
Think of these pages as the overview or outline of skills your child’s IEP will target for that year. While these strengths and concerns often come from the skilled evaluators, teachers, clinicians, and specialists on your child’s educational team, there is a section entirely dedicated to the purpose of parent input and it is important that you express any concerns, praise, or family goals for your child here. Some parents choose to provide a written family statement that can be attached to the IEP or copied into the section available on page 4.
Page 6: Transition Plan - The transition planning page applies to students aged 15+. Transition planning is a complex process, so check out this resource for more in-depth considerations.
Page 7: Goals & Objectives - The goals of your child’s IEP are the skills that he/she needs to make progress on in order to increase participation and independence within the educational setting. There will be multiple page 7s because there are typically multiple goals addressed by the IEP. These goals are reported on during progress periods and progress is measured by evaluation procedures that are all identified on this document. Not to get too technical, but the goal numbers will correspond to specific professionals and instructional services (i.e. OT, PT, Speech, Special Education Teacher) who will be working on those goals during their interventions.
Page 8: Accommodations - The Program Accommodations and Modifications are the supports that your child will be provided throughout curricular activities, educational settings, materials, and instruction. These supports can include specific instructional strategies, assistive technology tools, notes about environmental modifications, and much more.
Page 9: Testing Accommodations - This page applies to students in select grades, when educational testing at the state and/or district levels is conducted and students require accommodations and modifications to testing conditions.
Page 10: Special Factors, Progress Reporting, Exit Criteria - There are a few different sections within this one page that address behavioral intervention plans, English proficiency, vision and hearing impairments, and related accommodations. Recognition of a student’s bill of rights, progress reporting expectations, and criteria to exit special education services are all included on this page.
Page 11 - The “Services” page of the IEP outlines the who, what, where, when, and how-often details of your child’s special education plan. This is where all specialized instruction and related services are listed, corresponding goals are identified, responsible staff are listed, and the frequency and duration of services are specified. There is much more content on this page to pay attention, so check out this resource for more information.
When your special needs child doesn’t need an IEP
Lesson #4: Not every student with a disability needs special education services.
Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act provides for students with a disability to receive accommodations and modifications by way of a 504 Plan. If a student has a disability that impacts his/her ability to access education, the accommodations outlined in their 504 Plan would allow for greater access to physical environments, tasks, and academic curricula.
A 504 Plan ensures all students’ equal access to public education, thereby protecting a student with a disability from discrimination by providing accommodations and modifications to physical learning environments and/or tasks based on a person’s needs.
This resource from Understood.org highlights the differences between an IEP and 504 Plan.
Working With Your Child’s School Team
Lesson #5: You are a key member of your child’s school team.
Whether your child is a regular education student receiving intervention support, a special education student with an IEP, or a student with a 504 plan, it is critical to familiarize yourself with the teachers and service providers that will be part of your child’s success everyday!
There are many clinicians and specialists that may be part of your child’s “school team”:
Regular education teacher
Special education teacher
School counselor or Social Worker
Speech and Language Therapist
Board-Certified Behavior Analyst or Behavior Therapist
Teacher of the Visually Impaired
Teacher of the Hearing Impaired
School administration - Principal, Assistant Principal
Each member of your child’s school team holds valuable insight and expertise into your child’s learning strengths and weaknesses, but you are also a key member of your child’s team! Communication throughout the intervention process, IEP development meetings, or 504 Planning is critical to ensuring that the goals align with your family’s expectations for your child.
Think of the image of students transitioning to a new school year - and the changes in school team members that go along with a new classroom or new school too. These team members may change throughout the course of your child’s school career so your job as a parent is to be the constant, consistent advocate for your child’s individualized educational needs.
Could a Special Education Advocate help you?
Lesson #6: When in doubt, don’t be afraid to ask for help.
Admittedly, there is a lot to know when navigating the world of special education and disability services. It’s easy to get overwhelmed by all of the nuances of services, labels, and measurable goals that make up these plans. To further complicate matters, each state has its own variation of terminology for what they call their processes (SRBI vs. RTI) and even their meetings (PPT vs Child Study Meeting).
Occasionally, parents and school districts may disagree on what educational goals, specialized services, or school accommodations are necessary. Along with your child’s special education and 504 plans come booklets of legal rights in very small, condensed font that is nearly impossible to read in one sitting!
Some parents find it helpful to employ a special education advocate who can help them through the processes and work with school districts to craft appropriate programs for students. It is entirely the right of the parent to work privately (behind-the-scenes) and/or to bring these advocates to IEP or 504 meetings to help you better understand your parental rights and procedural safeguards.
Special education advocates can be referred to as: educational advocates, child advocates, family or parent advocates. While advocates may have training in special education law, they are not required to be lawyers or certified, licensed specialists. Advocacy services can be quite costly and are paid by the parents/families employing their services, so it’s always a good idea to ask around for recommendations to make sure that your investment is a worthwhile one. If you’re searching for a place to start looking for a special education advocate, check out these resources:
The Council of Parent Attorneys and Advocates is one organization that offers professional training and a member listserv for parents to search for advocates in their area.
The National Disability Rights Network offers links to disability advocacy organizations in each state
Remember to consider your child’s individual needs and your own advocacy goals as you’re interviewing advocates. This way, you’ll be better able to identify when an advocate has a skillset or personality that matches what you’re looking for. The role of a special education advocate can be to:
Explain the special education process to families
Assist parents in drafting letters to the school district
Assist parents in developing appropriate IEPs
Attain special education services for a student from a school district
Help parents understand their special education legal rights (without offering legal advice)
If you anticipate needing legal support beyond what a special education advocate is equipped or licensed to advise, be sure to consult this resource on the differences between an education lawyer and an advocate.
There is a lot to know about what happens during your child’s school day. Whether you have a typical child who is struggling to make progress, a child with a disability in need of specialized instruction, or a child whose disability necessitates some accommodations to his/her learning environment, there are safeguards in place to make sure all students succeed.
The IEP document is a cumbersome one, and easy to overlook important details. Take the time to educate yourself, and create an IEP binder that will serve as a collection for those evaluation reports, progress updates, and home-school communications that inevitably clutter your kitchen table!
If you find yourself overwhelmed by the processes, procedures, acronyms, and legal language of it all, help can be found in the form of educational advocates and non-profit disability advocacy centers.