Understanding the Special Education Process and Feeling Positive About Support Received in a School

A new school year can bring feelings of excitement, but for some families it can also bring anxiety and stress.

As parents, we are always asking ourselves these types of questions and worrying about each step in our children’s lives. Each child learns differently, which may mean that additional support in school is needed in certain areas. If this is the case, your child’s teacher or a school administrator may discuss having your child evaluated for special education services with you. At the first mention of these words, you may feel nervous, overwhelmed, or even angry as a parent; however, special education services were created to help children succeed in school and should not be considered a negative or scary experience. By knowing what to expect, it can help to minimize these confusing or negative feelings when it comes to special education services in school.

What are special education services in schools?

The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) is the law that ensures all children receive free appropriate public education (FAPE). Special education services are provided under IDEA and are required to be individualized. Special education is created to be specific to each student’s needs and is not a “one size fits all” type of program. A child qualifies for special education services when he or she has a disability that impacts their ability to access the school curriculum or environment. If your child qualifies for special education, an individualized education plan (IEP) will be created in order to implement goals and accommodations to help your child succeed.

What are the first steps?

You will receive a consent form from your child’s school asking for your permission for the school staff to complete a formal evaluation in one or more areas to help determine if your child is eligible for special education services. Once you return your signed consent forms to the school district, the specialists in the school will schedule their assessments and proceed with testing. The specialists will complete reports summarizing the results of the evaluations as well as provide recommendations in each specific area. Based on the results of the initial evaluations, you will meet with the school district to discuss the results and determine if services, accommodations, or interventions should be provided to ensure your child has the best possible opportunity to succeed in school.

What areas will be evaluated?

The school district will propose specific areas for evaluation to assess your child’s needs and guide their recommendations for support. Educational assessments completed by the classroom teacher, special education team, school psychologist, or reading specialists will give the team information regarding your child’s academic performance and participation in the school day. Related services, such as Speech and Language Pathology, Occupational Therapy, Physical Therapy, Vision, or Applied Behavior Analysis may be included in the evaluation plan depending on your child’s individual need.

What happens with the results of the evaluations?

Once all assessments have been completed, you will be sent an invitation for a team meeting by the school district where you will sit down with your child’s teacher, the specialists who completed evaluations for your child, and special education or school district staff. During the meeting, you will discuss as a team the results of the evaluations. As a parent, you are a full member of the team and you will have the opportunity to provide input, ask questions, and share your child’s strengths. Your participation in the team meeting is incredibly important. As a parent, you can provide information to the school team that is necessary for your child’s success. Together, it will be determined if your child has a disability that is impacting their ability to make progress with the school curriculum and if specially designed instruction is needed for success. If it is determined that your child qualifies for special education services, the group will work together during the team meeting to develop an IEP.

What is an IEP?

The IEP is a document that outlines the specific program created for your child during the team meeting. The IEP document will contain information regarding your child’s strengths, current performance in school, placement information, and specific recommendations regarding goals and objectives to be addressed for a period of one year. The IEP will outline the frequency and duration in which the special education services will be provided. The team will also include information regarding any necessary accommodations and modifications to the school or classroom environment in order to ensure that your child has the ability to successfully participate in the school curriculum.

What happens next?

Based on the outcome of the team meeting, an IEP will be developed by the school district. The document will be sent to you within 10 days for your review. If you agree with all of the information and recommendations included in the IEP, you will sign that you accept the document and return it to the school district. The IEP will then be implemented by the educational team once it is received. If you do not agree with the IEP or feel that changes need to be made, you are able to reject a specific portion or the IEP in its entirety. In this case, the team would reconvene to establish a plan that all members of the team support. Once the IEP is finalized and accepted, it will be your child’s specialized plan for one full year. The team will then meet again annually to update the document.

As parents, we want our children to succeed in every way possible. When our children struggle in school, it can often feel overwhelming and discouraging. Working with the school district to support your child’s individual needs can help alleviate some of these feelings. Special education services are meant to ensure that your child will receive the tools and support needed to be successful and empower your child to achieve their greatest potential. Remember that you are a vital member of your child’s educational team and will be included in the process from beginning to end.

Written by:

Andrea Freeman, PT, DPT & Tiffany Palenscar, PT, DPT
Doctors of Physical Therapy and Mothers of Two

Easterseals Special Needs Special Needs Guide