Questions About Special Education
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), about 1 in 6 children in the US has a developmental disability, ranging from mild disabilities such as speech and language impairments to severe developmental disabilities such as autism, cerebral palsy and intellectual disability. With the recent dramatic incidence of autism (1 in 68) and ADHD (1 in 10), and the decline in school funding, there is inevitable tension between families seeking special education services for their children and school districts trying to work within their budgets. Too often, children are the casualties of this conflict.
In this article, I aim to educate and empower you to be your child’s best advocate, protecting educational rights and building a brighter future.
I. Answers to the Who, What, When, Where, Why, and How Questions
1. Who qualifies for special education?
The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) defines the disabling conditions for purposes of special education as follows: Intellectual Disability, Hearing, Vision, Orthopedic, and Speech and Language Impairment, Emotional Disturbance, Autism, Specific Learning Disability, and Other Health Impairments – a catch all category, including conditions such as ADHD and epilepsy.
Having a disability does not necessarily qualify a child for special education. The disability must impair the child’s ability to learn or benefit from their education.
2. What is Special Education?
Special education provides appropriate services and accommodations reasonably calculated to enable a child to receive educational benefit. An appropriate education does not mean the best education, but one that provides some meaningful benefit.
Many special education services can pre provided in the general education classroom, or as pull out for portions of the day from the general education classroom. Some children may need to be placed in a special education class separated from the general education population for all or most of the school day, or in special schools. But each child is entitled under the law to the least restrictive environment, with mainstreaming being the priority.
Under IDEA, every child that is eligible for special education must have an Individualized Education Plan (IEP). An IEP may include services such as speech, occupational, physical, or behavior modification therapies. Resources might also include counseling, special classes, adapted physical education, social skills, nursing services, an aide, or assistive technology. Related services may include transportation and parent training. Accommodations can be smaller class sizes, reduced or modified work, or additional time to complete assignments and tests.
Some children who do not qualify for an IEP may qualify for a 504 plan under the Rehabilitation Act of 1974. Section 504 plans do not provide comparable procedural safeguards and typically only provide accommodations, not services.
3. Why would I want special education for my child?
When children fall behind without explanation, cannot meet grade level standards, constantly get into trouble, or are overly anxious about school, you may want to have your child assessed to see if they qualify for special education services.
Your child’s school records, including special education, are confidential under the Family Education Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA). No one other than the IEP team should know your child is being assessed or qualifies for special education.
When children are failing or constantly getting in trouble in school, they often feel insecure, anxious and act out. Then they may be labeled as unmotivated or troublemakers. The stigma of such a label is far worse then the perceived stigma of being a special education student. In my experience, children who do not have their special needs met develop secondary problems, like depression, anxiety, and low self-esteem. That can lead to: drop-outs, drugs, alcohol, criminal behavior, even suicide. Worrying about any stigma should be low down on the list of concerns.
If the cause of the problem is discovered, and the appropriate services and placement are provided, children should be able to learn, get along in their school environment, and benefit from their education.
4. When can my child receive special education?
Your school district is responsible to provide special education to children who qualify from the age of 3 to 18 years old, and in some cases to the age of 22. (Regional Center covers eligible children under 3 and into adulthood.)
5. Where is special education offered?
Districts usually offer special education services and resources at your local public school. However, depending on the individual needs of each child, your child may require placement in a designated special education public school in the district, or a specialized non-public school in the county (at district expense). If your child is home schooled, or attending a private school, you may still qualify for services, but you will likely have to go to the public school for services.
6. How do I initiate the process for special education assessments and services?
In order to start the process, all you have to do is request in writing an assessment for your child, listing your concerns and reasons why you think your child may need special education. Send it to your school principal or the director of special education in your school district. Within 15 days of receiving your written request, the school must provide you with their assessment plan outlining the areas in which the school thinks your child should be tested. After you consent to the plan, the district has 60 days to complete the assessment at no cost to you and hold an IEP meeting to discuss the results.
In sum, as parents, you are your child’s best advocate. So educate, empower and advocate.