What is a disability?
A disability is an impairment that interferes with a child's ability to learn. In general, the term "disabled" is used to describe a child who has mental, physical or emotional impairments that affect his or her ability to learn. To qualify for special education services in school, a student's impairment must also meet the definition of a disability under special education laws. It is important to recognize that having a disability does not mean that a child isn't smart or can't learn. It simply means that he or she needs special instruction or extra help in certain areas.
What is Special Education?
Some children have a mental, physical or emotional disability that makes it difficult for them to learn in the traditional public school settings offered in their communities. The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) is the federal law that holds school districts legally responsible for providing special education programs to ensure that these children are given an opportunity to access the free and appropriate public education they are entitled to by law. Special education programs known as Individualized Education Programs (IEPs) include a wide range of accommodations to meet the child's needs, from timed tests to a one-on-one aide to special schools.
Who is eligible for Special Education?
The child you are caring for may already have an IEP. If that is the case, it is important for you to understand the disability the child has and the support services the school has in place to meet the child's needs and ensure that he or she is able to access the school curriculum. There are 13 eligibility categories under IDEA. If the child you are caring for does not have an IEP but you believe he or she may need one, you, or anyone who knows the child well, can initiate the assessment process.
How to Initiate a Special Education Assessment
Step 1: Request that the child be assessed for a disability.
Anyone who knows the child well can request that he or she be evaluated for a disability. These requests are best made in writing with some specific reasons why you believe the child should be evaluated. Often, school districts prefer to hold Student Study Team (SST) meetings prior to assessing a child. An SST is a meeting where teachers, caregivers, and others can discuss the challenges (and successes) the child is having and propose some regular education resources that may alleviate the problems. SSTs can be productive; however there is no legal requirement to hold an SST before assessing a child.
Step 2: The district sends an assessment plan to the holder of educational rights (more on educational decision making below).
Once an assessment request is made, the school district has 15 days to either provide an assessment plan or deny the request. If the district denies the request, you have the right to challenge the decision.
Step 3: The educational decision maker consents to the district's assessment plan.
The assessment plan will include a number of evaluation areas (for example, Language/Speech Development and Social/Emotional/Adaptive/Behavior). The district will only evaluate the areas which have a check in the corresponding box. If you believe that the district has not identified all of the appropriate evaluation areas, contact the district representative who sent the assessment plan. If you are satisfied with the proposed assessment plan, sign it and fax or send it back to the district representative. The district will have 60 days to complete the assessment and hold a meeting to discuss the results of the assessment. If the child is found to be eligible for special education, the district will present, at this initial meeting, an outline of what your child's Individualized Education Plan (IEP) will consist of - in other words, what modifications they are proposing to better serve your child in light of their newly identified disability. Their proposed plan is not final, and this initial IEP meeting will give you an opportunity to shape your child's IEP. The IEP will not be implemented until the holder of educational rights signs the document. Once they do, the IEP should go into effect immediately. If, after the assessment, the district determines that the child is not eligible for special education, they will discuss this finding. You may disagree with this finding, and you do have recourse.
What is an Individualized Education Program (IEP)?
An IEP is a document that spells out the specific services a child with a disability needs in order to access the free public education they are entitled to by law. An IEP is legally binding, which means that the contents of the program must be followed by the school. The IEP is developed at the child's initial IEP meeting, and annually thereafter, by a team that includes, at minimum, a child's parent or educational representative, a general education teacher, a special education teacher, a district representative, and anyone else who the parent or district thinks would contribute to the meeting. In many circumstances, the student should be in attendance, but it may be wise to hold part of the meeting with only the adults in the room. An IEP can only be implemented when the holder of educational rights agrees to the content of the IEP and signs it. There are many components of an IEP but here are some of the most important that will be described in the IEP document:
- The student's present level of educational performance, including how the child's disability affects their involvement and progress in a regular education setting.
- Measurable annual goals (and short-term objectives) related to a child's disability-related needs and methods of evaluating whether the goals are being met.
- Specific education services, supports, aids, and modifications that the school will provide to the child to reach their goals and progress in the general education setting.
- The type of school placement needed to implement the IEP in the "least restrictive environment" possible.
When are IEP meetings held?
A meeting to review and update a child's IEP must be held annually and a child is to be reassessed every three years. The holder of a child's education rights can request an IEP meeting whenever they feel one is necessary, to review goals, to modify the IEP, and so on. The district can either hold one or respond in writing why they don't feel one is not necessary. When a child is moved to a new school, the new school is bound by law to implement the program described in the child's previous IEP. While it is wise to set up a meeting soon after any child's enrollment in a new school, it is particularly important for children in special education to ensure that the new school understands the child's disability and history and implements the child's IEP immediately.