The purpose of special education is to provide equal access to education for children ages birth through 21 by providing specialized services that will lead to school success in the general curriculum. If your child’s health care provider, teacher, other interested party or you suspect that your child may be eligible for special education services, it is helpful to know what to expect and where to begin. The following information is an outline of the special education process and brief descriptions of its elements.
The First Step: Identifying a Need
When, Where and How are Disabilities Diagnosed?
Children may be diagnosed with a disability by a medical provider or by the school district. However, one must understand that being simply diagnosed with a disability is not a guarantee of services under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). Having a disability is the first question when determining if a student qualifies. The evaluation team must also answer two additional questions:
- Does the disability impact the child’s educational progress?
- Does the child need specially designed instruction (which is the IDEA definition of special education)?
Students who have physical disabilities or developmental delays are often identified early by a pediatrician or other medical provider. These students may have a wide range of academic difficulties depending on the severity of the delay, and some may have no difficulties at all. Fortunately, because they are often diagnosed before entering the school system, most children with physical disabilities or developmental delays enter school with special education structures in place. If your child has been diagnosed with a developmental delay or disability by his or her pediatrician, ask your medical provider for a list of local resources. Regional centers, state programs and public schools all provide early identification, called Child Find, and early intervention services. The earlier your child receives these services, the better.
Students with learning disabilities often face a different scenario. They may struggle through the first years of their education before their disabilities are identified. Part of the reason for this is the local school district’s dependence upon the discrepancy method for identification. (This is explained in The Importance of the Assessment Process.) In addition, students with learning disabilities often lack the physical or social differences that identify students with physical impairments or developmental delays; that is, they look and act just like their peers without disabilities. Also, much of the instruction delivered in the lowest grade levels is skills-based. This means that your child is learning skills such as reading, writing and basic arithmetic. If he or she can read a word or solve a basic math problem, he or she will have relatively few problems in these grades. Starting around the third grade, however, students are expected to apply those skills to learn more information, and those with previously undetected disabilities may begin to struggle.
Regardless of his or her ability or diagnosed disability, your student will find that school becomes much more difficult once he or she needs to build upon previously mastered skills to gather new information. This is especially true if your child was not able to master some of the foundational skills. For instance, your child may have been a B student in reading throughout first and second grade, earning an average of 80 percent on reading and spelling tests. However, if he or she is only able to read 80 percent of the words taught in first and second grade, how is he or she supposed to read and comprehend a textbook written at a fourth grade level? It is next to impossible and your child will continue to fall behind in all subjects. This is referred to as a “widening gap”: the gap between what a child with a disability knows and what his or her peers know only widens as he or she advances to higher grades.
Response to Intervention (RTI)
RTI stands for “Response to Intervention” and is used to identify students with learning disabilities or other academic delays. In the past, students with learning or other disabilities were not given any specialized assistance until their academic performance was significantly lower than their ability (IQ) indicated it should be. In other words, smart kids had to consistently fail before they received help. Even worse, those students had to wait so long for assistance that, as they waited, they fell further and further behind their peers (remember that widening gap?), making it much more difficult for them to catch up. Does this seem unfair? Teachers thought so, too.
When the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act was reauthorized in 2004, the legislators, with the assistance of the Office of Special Programs recommended the use of a better way of identifying students with disabilities that also provided immediate assistance to struggling students. It is based on the idea that a student needs to master each skill that he or she learns. This means that he or she must be able to demonstrate the use of a skill with mastery, and be able to do so consistently. If a student does not master a skill the first time around, the teacher will then give the student more intensive support (known as an intervention) until the student can demonstrate mastery. The support becomes increasingly intensive (which usually means that more time is dedicated to working on a single skill) until the student can show that he or she has mastered the skill.
If a child continues to fail to respond to interventions, he or she may have a learning disability or an undiagnosed developmental impairment. If this is the case, the teacher will likely refer the student for assessment. It is important to note that the purpose of RTI is to prevent school districts from relying wholly on what’s called the discrepancy method (comparing a student’s testing data against that of his or her peers) for identification of specific learning disabilities. Most school districts use RTI to provide interventions for struggling students but the districts do not use the results of the interventions as the data that the law requires to identify a student as having a disability. Instead, schools refer a student who has not responded to interventions student for more assessments to get the data. For very young students (kindergarteners through third graders) who are struggling this can be a problem because they have not learned enough to show a real discrepancy in test results. Many experts consider overlooking the data that can be derived from interventions to be a missed opportunity to identify students earlier in the process. For parents, if your school district evaluation team is asking to refer your child for testing after he or she has failed a number of increasing intense interventions, it may be worthwhile to ask them why they don’t have adequate data already to qualify your child for a disability.
Step Two: Formal Assessment
If your child has not responded to intensive interventions, it may be time to evaluate for a learning disability or other delay. More detailed information regarding assessments and referral for services can be found in The Importance of the Assessment Process and The IEP Process: Explained, but to begin, there are a few basic things you should know before your child undergoes academic, behavioral and/or cognitive assessments. (See the previous paragraph about the discrepancy method for identifying specific learning disability).
Assessments are diagnostic tools; they do not contain answers or solutions. These tests are designed to provide an overview of your child’s academic performance, basic cognitive functioning and/or his or her current strengths or weaknesses; they can also test hearing and vision. Assessment are not able to predict your child’s future performance, nor his or her ability. That said, they are excellent tools because they break your child’s academic performance down into subsets, such as reading comprehension, spelling and basic arithmetic. They can also rule out simple problems, such as hearing or vision impairments, which may be affecting learning. This information is invaluable because it guides the educational process. Teachers can write goals for your child and you can request services based on information found within these assessments.
It is important to remember that not every child who struggles academically will qualify for special education services. Assessments might show that your child does not have a learning disability or other impairment that qualifies him or her for these services; however, that does not mean that your child is lazy, stupid or not trying. If your child is struggling but does not qualify for special education, it is imperative that you keep looking for solutions. Work with you child’s teacher and other school service providers to draft an action plan that will address your child’s individual needs.
Step Three: The Individualized Education Program and Meeting
If your child is diagnosed with a learning disability or other qualifying impairment, the next step is to draft an individualized education program (IEP) for him or her. The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) gives the school district 30 days from the documentation of the disability to complete an IEP. Parents must give permission for placement as a part of the initial IEP. A guide to IEPs can be found in The IEP Process: Explained but here is some general information regarding IEPs to get you started.
Once your child’s learning disability is identified, you will attend an IEP meeting every year until he or she graduates or stops receiving special education. It is imperative that you attend these meetings. It is here that the team will review your child’s academic progress, write new academic goals, and discuss placement and transition plans, as well as accommodations and modifications. It is a forum for exchanging ideas and the IEP team members can offer you invaluable support. If you cannot attend these meetings in person, find a way to participate. IEP teams are eager to consider options, such as your attendance via speaker phone or Skype. You are the one who knows your child the best; the IEP team members need your input.
Do not be surprised by how many people attend IEP meetings. The law requires that five positions are represented at each IEP team meeting. Those five positions that need representation are the parent, the special education teacher, the general education teacher, a person who can interpret test information, and a district representative. That does not always mean five different people will attend the meeting; in some cases one person can play two roles. For example the special education teacher often is qualified to interpret test data. You may also consider encouraging your child to attend and be an active member of the team. After all, it is his or her education that the team is discussing. At age 16 and older, each student is required to participate in the process. Students are invited to attend the meetings; if they do not or cannot, then the team will find another way to allow participation, usually by going over the document prior to the meeting.
Step Four: Placement, Accommodations and Specialized Services
During the very first IEP meeting, and during all that follow, your child’s placement will be discussed. This means that the team will determine the most appropriate environment for your child. Remember that your child is entitled to receive services in an environment that is as close to the general education setting as possible.
It is important that you know why the team recommends one placement over another. Remember that the IEP team should be able to use data such as test scores, work samples and behavioral charts to support any placement recommendations. If the team is recommending a change of placement, arrange a tour of the new classroom. If you are ever uncomfortable with a placement recommendation, try to work with the IEP team to come up with a better alternative. The team makes decisions about every part of the IEP, including placement by what the law calls consensus, which means that a strong majority of the team members must agree. While parents have considerable influence, they do not have the right of veto. If the majority of a team agrees to something and the parents disagree, their options are to change their minds or work through conflict resolution solutions. Some educators believe that the parent signature is required on all IEPs before the document can be implemented, but this is not true in most states (California does require a parent signature for new goals and services). The only time a parent signature is required is for the initial placement; starting with the second IEP, consensus is the method used.
The IEP team will also discuss classroom accommodations and specialized services, such as speech therapy, occupational therapy and adaptive physical education. It is important to understand your child’s needs so that you can help the team make informed decisions that continue to help your child. For example, if an academic test indicates that your child struggles with reading comprehension, you can use that data to request speech and language support or classroom accommodations, such as extra time to complete reading and writing tasks.
Step Five: Annual and Triennial Reviews and Progress Monitoring
After the initial IEP meeting, you will meet with your child’s IEP team on an annual basis to review your child’s progress and modify the plan as needed. You can also request an IEP meeting at any time throughout the school year if you feel there is an issue that must be resolved by the IEP team.
Every three years, your child will undergo a new round of assessments to determine his or her continuing eligibility for special education services. You will be presented with this information at the triennial meeting. Often there is enough existing data, thus allowing the team to simply review that data and determine that eligibility should continue.
In addition to formal meetings, you should also be in constant communication with your child’s special education teacher. He or she should be monitoring your child’s progress on academic and other goals, and be prepared to present you with updates regularly.