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Frequently Asked Questions About Special Education Services

By: National Dissemination Center for Children with Disabilities (NICHCY)
Parents who have a child they suspect has a disability are likely to have many questions about special education. Find answers to commonly asked questions about special education eligibility, IEP's, and re-evaluation in this guide for parents.

My child's eligibility

How is a decision made about my child's eligibility for special education?

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 and whether that disability affects how your child does in school. This decision will be made when the evaluation has been completed, and the results are in.

In the past, parents were not involved under IDEA in making the decision about their child's eligibility for special education and related services. Now, under the newest changes to IDEA (passed in 1997), parents are included in the group that decides a child's eligibility for special education services.

This group 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." (This definition will come from the IDEA and from the policies your state or district uses.) If so, your child will be eligible for special education and related services.

Under the IDEA, a child may not be found eligible for services if the determining reason for thinking the child is eligible is that:

  • the child has limited English proficiency, or
  • the child has a lack of instruction in math or reading.

If your child is found eligible, you and the school will work together to design an educational program for your child.

As parents, you have the right to receive a copy of the evaluation report on your child and the paperwork about your child's eligibility for special education and related services.

IDEA's Categories of Disability

  • Autism
  • Deafness
  • Deaf-blindness
  • Hearing impairment
  • Mental retardation
  • Multiple disabilities
  • Orthopedic impairment
  • Other health impairment
  • Serious emotional disturbance
  • Specific learning disability
  • Speech or language impairment
  • Traumatic brain injury
  • Visual impairment, including blindness

To find out more about these disabilities and how IDEA defines them, contact NICHCY.

What happens if my child is not eligible for services?

If the group decides that your child is not eligible for special education services, the school system must tell you this in writing and explain why your child has been found "not eligible." Under the IDEA, you must also be given information about what you can do if you disagree with this decision.

Read the information the school system gives you. Make sure it includes information about how to challenge the school system's decision. If that information is not in the materials the school gives you, ask the school for it.

Also get in touch with your state's Parent Training and Information (PTI) center. The PTI can tell you what steps to take next.

So my child has been found eligible for special education. What next?

The next step is to write what is known as an Individualized Education Program – usually called an IEP. After a child is found eligible, a meeting must be held within 30 days to develop to the IEP.

Writing an Individualized Education Program

What is an Individualized Education Program?

An Individualized Education Program (IEP) is a written statement of the educational program designed to meet a child's individual needs. Every child who receives special education services must have an IEP.

The IEP has two general purposes:

  1. to set reasonable learning goals for your child
  2. to state the services that the school district will provide for your child

What should I do before the IEP meeting?

The purpose of the IEP meeting is to develop your child's Individualized Education Program. You can prepare for this meeting by:

  • making a list of your child's strengths and weaknesses
  • talking to teachers and/or therapists and getting their thoughts about your child
  • visiting your child's class and perhaps other classes that may be helpful to him or her
  • talking to your child about his or her feelings toward school

It is a good idea to write down what you think your child can accomplish during the school year. It also helps to make notes about what you would like to say during the meeting.

What happens during an IEP meeting?

During the IEP meeting, the different members of the IEP team share their thoughts and suggestions. If this is the first IEP meeting after your child's evaluation, the team may go over the evaluation results, so your child's strengths and needs will be clear. These results will help the team decide what special help your child needs in school.

Remember that you are a very important part of the IEP team. You know your child better than anyone. Don't be shy about speaking up, even though there may be a lot of other people at the meeting. Share what you know about your child and what you wish others to know.

After the various team members (including you, the parent) have shared their thoughts and concerns about your child, the group will have a better idea of your child's strengths and needs. This will allow the team to discuss and decide on:

  • the educational and other goals that are appropriate for your child; and
  • the type of special education services your child needs.

The IEP team will also talk about the related services your child may need to benefit from his or her special education. The IDEA lists many related services that schools must provide if eligible children need them. The related services listed in IDEA are presented in the box on the right. This list does not include every related service a child might need or that a school system may offer.

Depending on the needs of your child and the services to be provided, your child's IEP could be carried out:

  • in regular classes
  • in special classes (where all the students are receiving special education services)
  • in special schools
  • at home
  • in hospitals and institutions
  • in other settings

Which of these placements is best suited for your child? Can he or she be educated in the regular classroom, with supplementary aids and services? (The IDEA prefers this placement.) If not, then the placement group will look at other placements for your child. Before the school system can provide your child with special education for the first time, you, as parents, must give your written consent.

Related services, as listed in IDEA

  • Transportation
  • Speech-language pathology
  • Audiology services
  • Psychological services
  • Physical therapy
  • Occupational therapy
  • Recreation (including therapeutic recreation)
  • Early identification and assessment of disabilities in children
  • Counseling services (including rehabilitation counseling)
  • Orientation & mobility services
  • Medical services for diagnostic or evaluation purposes
  • School health services
  • Social work services in schools
  • Parent counseling & training

Can my child's IEP be changed?

Yes. At least once a year a meeting must be scheduled with you to review your child's progress and develop your child's next IEP. The meeting will be similar to the IEP meeting described above. The team will talk about:

  • your child's progress toward the goals in the current IEP
  • what new goals should be added
  • whether any changes need to be made to the special education and related services your child receives

This annual IEP meeting allows you and the school to review your child's educational program and change it as necessary. But you don't have to wait for this annual review. You (or any other team member) may ask to have your child's IEP reviewed or revised at any time.

For example, you may feel that your child is not making good progress toward his or her annual goals. Or you may want to write new goals, because your son or daughter has made such great progress! Call the principal of the school, or the special education director or your child's teacher, and express your concerns. If necessary, they will call the IEP team together to talk about changing your child's IEP.

Re-evaluation

Will my child be re-evaluated?

Yes. Under the IDEA, your child must be re-evaluated at least every three years. The purpose of this re-evaluation is to find out:

  • your child's educational needs
  • if your child continues to be a "child with a disability," as defined within the law

The re-evaluation is similar to the initial evaluation. It begins by looking at the information already available about your child. More information is collected only if it's needed.

If the group decides that additional assessments are needed, you must give your informed written permission before the school system may collect that information. The school system may only go ahead without your informed written permission if they have tried to get your permission and you did not respond.

Although the law requires that children with disabilities be re-evaluated at least every three years, your child may be re-evaluated more often if you or your child's teacher(s) request it.

Excerpted from: Questions Often Asked by Parents about Special Education Services. (September, 1999). NICHCY Briefing Paper. National Information Center for Children and Youth with Disabilities.

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