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What Is Special Education and What Do Parents Need to Know? Assessment Procedures and Eligibility Information

Updated on August 9, 2013

What is Special Education?

Special education is in place to help children with special needs obtain a free and appropriate public education (FAPE). Special education is governed by the federal government under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). IDEA defines special education as,

"Specially designed instruction, at no cost to parents, to meet the unique needs of a child with a disability."

Under IDEA there are thirteen categories of disabilities that can be served in special education:

  1. Autism
  2. Deaf-Blindness
  3. Developmental Delay
  4. Emotional Disturbance
  5. Hearing Impairment
  6. Intellectual Disability
  7. Multiple Disabilities
  8. Orthopedic Impairment
  9. Other Health Impairment
  10. Specific Learning Disability
  11. Speech and Language Impairment
  12. Traumatic Brain Injury
  13. Visual Impairment

Classifications of Students in Special Education 2006-2007

Specific Learning Disability
Speech/Language Impairment
Other Health Impairment
Intellectual Disability
Emotional Disturbance
Multiple Disabilities
Developmental Delay
Hearing Impairment
Orthopedic Impairment
Visual Impairment
Traumatic Brain Injury
Deaf & Blindness

Percentages of classifications for students in the U.S. aged 6 to 21 who received special education in 2006-2007. Source: Data Accountability Center

What Do Special Education Services Look Like?

Students who receive special education services are placed in services depending on their needs. All these services are written in a plan called an Individualized Education Plan or IEP (we love abbreviations in special education). IEPs are discussed in more detail below.

In elementary schools services are often pull-out times from the regular classroom to a small group with a special education teacher. For example, a student struggling in writing may be pulled out of the classroom during a spelling test and work with a small group of students and the special education teacher on writing skills.

In secondary schools, special education may take place in a class specifically for students in special education. It may also take place in a co-taught class. These are classes with a mix of students in special education and those who are not. The classroom has a general education teacher, as well as a special education teacher, in order to meet the needs of students that may need specialized instruction.

Students with more severe difficulties may be placed in a classroom specifically for students with similar challenges. For example, some districts may have classroom for students with autism or a classroom for students with intellectual disabilities. Often these classrooms are still in schools with mainstreamed students and students with disabilities may participate in some activities with them.

Legally, students are required to be placed in the Least Restrictive Environment (LRE). This means that if a student could function and learn in a mainstream classroom with just an hour of pull-out services each day, then this is more appropriate (and less restrictive) than an all day classroom of students with learning difficulties.

What is Special Education?

Referral for Special Education

Students of the ages of 3 to 21 with a disability are potentially eligible for special education services. Parents who are concerned about their student may refer their student for special education testing to determine eligibility. If you are concerned that your student may have a disability that is affecting their learning, you will need to contact your child's school. Be prepared with any medical diagnoses and information about your child's medical history.

IDEA requires that states "identify, locate, and evaluate all children with disabilities, aged birth to 21, who are in need of early intervention or special education services." This process is called Child Find. As a result of Child Find, many school districts will have testing for preschoolers to determine if early interventions are needed. Teachers and administrators monitor test scores for students who do not appear to be making adequate progress despite interventions. Your child's teacher may refer your child for special education assessment to determine if your child would qualify. However, testing and placement does not take place without your consent.

Special Education Assessment and Eligibility Meeting

After a child is referred for special education assessment, you will be asked to consent to areas for assessment. The "special education team" (generally a special education teacher, an administrator, your child's general education teacher, a school psychologist, and other service providers as needed such as speech therapists or occupational therapists) have 45 school days to complete all testing needed.

Areas of assessment depend on the areas that you and/or your child's teacher have concerns in. Testing can include an intelligence test, academic testing, testing of adaptive skills, behavioral testing, classroom observations, social skills testing, speech assessment, motor assessment, and more. Generally, the team will want information about your child's medical history and developmental history. The team may have you sign a medical release for them to obtain medical documents.

After assessment is complete, the team (including you as a parent) will meet to determine if your child meets the legal requirements for special education eligibility. They will be looking to see if your child fits under one of the 13 categories and if your child's disability affects educational performance.

In many areas there are parent advocates who volunteer to go to meetings with parents to help them navigate the process. Parents are always able to request testing results for their own records or to take to a doctor. Parents should know that they are considered part of the team that determines special education eligibility. They have some input as to what happens in an eligibility meeting. However, there are requirements that must be meet for a student to qualify for services.

If a student qualifies for special education, the team will review data and meet every three years to determine if a student continues to qualify. As a parent, you can request testing sooner than this if you feel there is a need. You should be able to help determine which tests are needed when the data is reviewed.

Individualized Education Plan - IEP

Once it has been determined that your child meets eligibility requirements, the team will meet a second time to make a plan. This plan is called the Individualized Education Plan or IEP. The IEP will have a statement describing your child's current levels. The IEP then has goals that the team will be helping your child to work on for the next year. Accommodations are also included on the IEP. These can include extended time, reduced assignments, minimal distractions, adjusting grouping, etc.

The plan should also include the amount of time your child will be receiving services. The special education teacher or other providers should be able to describe to you what these services will look like. Services like speech or occupational therapy make take place during class time and your child may have to miss some things in class.

As a parent, you can provide input on what the goals and service times will look like. Don't be afraid to ask questions or to ask to change something. The IEP team will meet once every year to set new goals and review progress. You may request additional meetings as you feel they are needed.

You should also receive updates on your child's progress on IEP goals throughout the year. Some schools do this by sending special education progress reports home in addition to report cards. Changes to the IEP should only be done with your permission and usually only with the team in attendance.

Important Things to Know

Any time you meet with your IEP team, they should offer you Procedural Safeguards. These are your child's rights under special education law. They also tell you how to proceed if you need to make a complaint.

At anytime you can call a meeting of the IEP team, you can ask that testing be reviewed, and you can even revoke special education services for your child. As the parent, you have a say in what the team does and how your child's needs are meet.

Special education records are kept separately from your child's other school records. As the parent, you can access these special education records or request copies for eligibility into other services.

You will want to keep a copy of your child's IEP and Eligibility documentation. These can be helpful for applying for other services including vocational rehabilitation and even taking to university disability centers.

Special education is for students who require specialized instruction. If you feel that your child may just need some accommodations, like extra time on tests or having a test read out loud, then you may want to look at a 504.

Parent Resources

Every state and every school district has different rules and regulations for special education. The process can be very confusing and overwhelming especially when there are so many different rules and laws to keep track of. Here are some resources to help:

Links to each state's Special Education Department:

Parent Information Center on Special Education:

U.S. Department of Education - Special Education:


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