Special education overview
Federal law protects disabled children’s education rights. If you think your child has a disability, you should ask the school to evaluate your child.
The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) is an important law that protects disabled children’s rights. The IDEA law:
- Lists disabilities. The IDEA law lists fourteen disability categories:
- Developmental Delay (3-5 years)
- Emotional Disturbance
- Hearing Impairment
- Intellectual Disability
- Multiple Disabilities
- Orthopedic Impairment
- Other Health Impairment
- Specific Learning Disability
- Speech or Language Impairment
- Traumatic Brain Injury
- Visual Impairment
- Requires schools to offer free special services. School districts must offer free and appropriate public education to students with the listed disabilities.
- Offers students an Individualized Education Program (IEP). A child with an eligible disability will get an IEP. An IEP:
- Includes goals and specialized instruction or services tailored to your child’s specific needs
- Creates a team of people, including parents, who review the plan yearly
- Requires the school to invite the parents to the yearly meeting
If your child’s disability is not listed in IDEA, then your child may be eligible for a Section 504 Plan. A Section 504 Plan is different than an IEP. 504 plans:
- Provide changes in the general education classroom to overcome barriers to learning.
- Requires that the child have a disability, but it does not have to fall into one of the 14 IDEA categories.
- Does not require a yearly review.
- A parent does not have to be invited to the meeting when it is reviewed, but a parent can ask to be invited.
To request a disability evaluation, write a letter or email to your school’s special education coordinator. You can use this form assistant to create your letter requesting a disability evaluation. In your letter, you should:
- Request an evaluation. Ask for an evaluation. You should make your request in writing.
- Include specific information about your child’s needs. Describe examples of your child’s behaviors and difficulty in school. Explain why the school should evaluate your child.
- Include important documents. Attach copies of any important documents (like medical evaluations, psychological evaluations or performance tests that support your request).
After you send the letter, the school must respond within 30 days. If the school denies your request, you can appeal the decision.
If your disability evaluation request is approved, the school will schedule an evaluation planning meeting.
At the evaluation planning meeting you:
- Meet with school staff. The meeting includes your child’s teacher, a school administrator and other staff. You can also include your child at the meeting.
- Share available evidence. Bring any available documents that help the team understand your child’s needs. Helpful documents may include medical records, outside testing results, samples of your child’s schoolwork or discipline reports. Read more on preparing to meet with school staff.
- Suggest any categories of disability your child may have. The team can decide to evaluate multiple categories.
After the meeting, the school must perform the evaluation within 60 days.
At the evaluation, a team evaluates your child. The team includes teachers and school staff. The team focuses on the categories chosen at the planning meeting. Different members of the team will likely evaluate your child at different times.
After the evaluation, the team creates an Evaluation Team Report that states your child’s IEP eligibility.
NOTE: If the team decides that your child is not eligible for an IEP, your child maybe be eligible for a Section 504 plan instead. Read below about requesting Section 504 services.
The IEP is a document that lists strategies and services to help your child succeed in school. It includes an assessment of your child’s current performance behavior and annual goals. If your child is old enough, it may include post-high-school goals.
If your child is eligible for an IEP, the school must create an IEP within 30 days of the evaluation. You must be invited to the IEP creation meeting. The meeting may also include your child.
The law says that students with disabilities must be in the least restrictive environment possible. This means disabled students should stay in the general education classroom when they can. For example, an IEP may place a disabled student in the general education classroom with an aide to help them.
If you have questions or concerns about the IEP, you should feel comfortable sharing them at the meeting. An IEP should be tailored for your child. As a parent, you have important insight about your child’s needs.
Monitoring your child’s progress under an IEP
It is important to monitor your child’s progress because:
- The usefulness of accommodations and services can be different for each child. Some IEP services and accommodations may be more helpful than others.
- Your child’s needs may change over time.
On your child’s report cards, the school must give a progress report for each IEP goal. If you do not receive IEP progress updates, you can write to the school to request updates.
The school must meet with you:
- At least once a year to review the IEP. The school must invite you to all IEP meetings.
- At least once every three years for a new Evaluation Team Report. If both you and the school agree that your child does not require reevaluation, you may skip the re-evaluation.
- Any time you feel IEP changes should be made. You may request an IEP meeting any time you think IEP changes should be made to help your child succeed.
If your child’s needs do not qualify for an IEP, they may be eligible for a 504 plan instead. Your child is eligible for a 504 plan if they have a mental or physical impairment that substantially limits learning or another life activity.
Often, children who go through the Evaluation Team Report process but are found not to be eligible for an IEP will be offered a 504 plan. If the school does not offer a 504 plan, you can request that the school evaluate your child for a 504 plan. Use this form assistant to create a letter requesting evaluation for a 504 plan.
The school is not required to invite you to the 504 service planning meeting, but you should request in writing to join the meeting. Learn more about what to do at school meetings.
Sometimes, you may disagree with the school’s response to your requests or with the school’s evaluation.
If the school denies your request for evaluation, you can appeal.
- Carefully read the school’s letter explaining why it will not evaluate your child.
- Write another letter explaining why you think your child has a disability, why they should be tested and remind the school that your child does not need to be diagnosed with a disability in order to have the school evaluate them.
- Contact legal aid or a private lawyer for help.
If you disagree with the school’s evaluation of your child, you can take additional action. Examples of reasons parents may disagree with the evaluation include: A child did not qualify for an IEP, or a child qualified under a category that does not accurately reflect the child’s needs or disability. If this happens to you, you can: