Overview of Special Education

Shelves containing old school books

Overview of Special Education: Photo courtesy of Muffet

It is very common for parents to feel overwhelmed and confused by special education law, processes, and paperwork. Always remember that even if you don’t understand everything about special education, you know your child best. The information you bring to the table is incredibly valuable in developing the right plan for your child. However, it is important that you understand special education in order to be a strong advocate for your child. While members of the IEP team generally want the best for your child, they do not have as much invested in the outcome as you do. YOU are your child’s strongest advocate!

What is special education?

Special education refers to specially designed instruction developed to meet the unique learning needs of a child with a disability. These services are provided by the public school at no cost to the parent (34 CFR § 300.39).

What is specially designed instruction?

Specially designed instruction refers to adapting the content, methodology, or delivery of instruction to meet the needs of a child with a disability. The purpose of specially designed instruction is to allow a child with a disability access to general education curriculum (34 CFR § 300.39).

What are the laws regulating special education?

The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) is the federal law that governs special education in our nation. IDEA sets forth specifications for how early intervention, special education, and related services are provided to students with disabilities.

Throughout this website, whenever federal regulations from IDEA are referenced, you will see them in parentheses like this (34 CFR § 300.XX). The 34 stands for Title 34—Education and CFR stands for Code of Federal Regulations. This symbol, §, means “section” and the numbers after the symbol are where the regulation is found. That’s probably more than you ever wanted to know about special education law!

Individual states have their own statutes that interpret IDEA. States can have different criteria for determining eligibility and how services are provided. However, they cannot offer less protection than what is established under IDEA.

How do I get the process started?

If you are concerned about your child’s progress in school, it is best to first meet with your child’s teacher. Your child’s teacher may have suggestions for additional interventions and things that you can try at home. You or the teacher may also refer the concern to the school’s pre-referral team.

Parents have the right to request an evaluation for special education at any time (34 CFR §300.301(b)). However, a request for an evaluation does not necessarily mean that the school must complete the evaluation. Federal regulations indicate that the school must review the parent’s request and provide written notice if the decision is made not to evaluate (34 CFR §300.503(a)(2)). You should make your request in writing and provide a copy to the school psychologist. Generally, you will receive contact from the school within about 10 days after making the request. However, this timeline is not specified in the federal regulations. The regulations state that a response must be given within a reasonable amount of time.

How does a child qualify for special education?

There are 13 categories of eligibility outlined in IDEA (34 CFR § 300.8). A child is eligible for special education if, after an evaluation, it is determined that the child has an identified disability AND is in need of special education and related services. The “and” is emphasized because a child could be evaluated and found to have a disability that is not significantly impacting educational performance. Both criteria must be met in order for a child to qualify for special education.

Below is a brief description of the areas of eligibility (34 CFR § 300.8).

Autism- A developmental disability, generally recognized before the age of three, that significantly impacts a child’s verbal and nonverbal communication and social interaction. There must be an adverse affect on the child’s educational performance in order to require specially designed instruction.

Deaf-Blindness- Hearing and visual impairments occurring together that cause severe communication and educational needs.

Deafness- A hearing impairment that is so severe it limits the process of linguistic information through hearing, with or without amplification, and adversely affects a child’s educational performance.

Emotional disturbance- A condition where one or more of the following characteristics are exhibited over a long period of time and to a marked degree. Emotional Disturbance applies to schizophrenia, but does not apply to children who are socially maladjusted.

  • An inability to learn that cannot be explained by sensory, intellectual, or health factors
  • An inability to build and maintain satisfactory relationships with peers and teachers
  • Inappropriate behaviors or feelings under normal circumstances
  • A general mood of unhappiness or depression
  • A tendency to develop physical symptoms or fears associated with personal or school problems

Hearing impairment- An impairment in hearing, whether permanent or fluctuating, that adversely impacts a child’s educational performance.

Mental retardation- Deficits in general intellectual functioning concurrent with deficits in adaptive behavior that began during development and have an adverse educational impact.

Multiple disabilities- A combination of impairments (such as mental retardation-blindness) causing severe educational needs that cannot be met in a special education program solely focusing on one impairment.

Orthopedic impairment- A severe orthopedic impairment that adversely affects a child’s educational performance.

Other health impairment- A health condition that limits a child’s vitality, strength, or alertness, including a heightened alertness to environmental factors, that adversely affects a child’s educational performance.

Specific learning disability- A disorder in one or more of the basic psychological processes that may cause difficulties in the ability to listen, think, speak, read, write, spell, or to do mathematical calculations. A specific learning disability includes conditions such as perceptual disabilities, brain injury, minimal brain dysfunction, dyslexia, and developmental aphasia.

Speech or language impairment- A communication disorder, such as stuttering, impaired articulation, language impairment, or voice impairment, which adversely affects a child’s educational performance.

Traumatic brain injury- An acquired injury to the brain caused by an external physical force resulting in a functional disability and/or psychosocial impairment. Traumatic brain injury applies to open or closed head injuries resulting in impairments in one or more areas- cognition, language, memory, attention, reasoning, abstract thinking, judgment, problem-solving, sensory, perceptual and motor abilities, psychosocial behavior, physical functions, information processing, and speech. Traumatic brain injury does not apply to brain injuries that are congenital or degenerative, or to brain injuries induced by birth trauma.

Visual Impairment including blindness- An impairment in vision, even with correction, that adversely affects a child’s educational performance.

What is an IEP?

An IEP is an Individual Education Plan written for a child determined to have a disability that is negatively impacting his or her educational performance. The IEP contains specific goals in each area of eligibility as well as a detailed plan for how the team will work on these goals. The goals are the meat of the IEP. The IEP should be developed, reviewed, and revised in accordance with IDEA §§300.320 through 300.324. (Please see Understanding My Child’s IEP for more detailed information.)

What if I disagree with the team?

If you disagree with the evaluation of your child, you have the right to request an Independent Education Evaluation (IEE) at no cost to you. The evaluation team will then review the new data and make a decision taking the new information into consideration. Obtaining an IEE does not necessarily mean that the outcome will change. It does, however, provide unbiased information to the team if you are unable to reach a consensus. A request for an IEE should be made in writing and delivered to the Special Education Director in your child’s school district.

If you disagree with your child’s IEP, you have several options. It is always best to try and work out differences directly with the team. Generally, the team has a vested interest in coming to a resolution and working out differences with you. However, if this is not possible, you can request mediation to try and resolve differences. Mediation involves a neutral third party who will listen to both sides and make recommendations based on the information shared. If both parties agree to these recommendations, they are binding and generally a compromise is reached. Mediation is voluntary. If you do not want to try mediation first, or mediation is unsuccessful in resolving the issue, you should be familiar with due process and your legal rights outlined in the Procedural Safeguards. Most issues can be resolved by collaborating and working together as a team.


Visit http://idea.ed.gov/explore/home for more detailed information on federal regulations governing special education.

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