From Both Sides of the Table – Part 2: The Beginning of the Special Education Process

From Both Sides of the Table is a series of blogs dedicated to presenting different points of view about the special education process. In case you missed the first part – here is the link.

Special education is filled with tons of terms and acronyms- often confusing to professionals and parents alike. In an effort to help decipher the “special education code” I am going to focus this blog on basic terms, what they mean, and the most often asked questions at the beginning stage of this process. Also – what is the difference between an IEP and 504 Plan?

What is Special Education?

Special education is based on the Individual With Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). In essence, public schools need to offer special education services (instruction and ancillary programs) if a child meets the criteria of at least one of the eligibility categories. (See below for these categories). Keep in mind that your child being behind in reading may not result in him or her receiving entry to special education. There are many steps that need to be checked off before the first scheduled special education assessment can be conducted.

An interesting side note: The Department of Education reported that during the 2020-21 school year, 14. 5% of all students between the ages of 3-21 years of age received special education.

IDEA: Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). A common definition for IDEA is as follows: The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act is a piece of American legislation that ensures students with a disability are provided with a Free Appropriate Public Education that is tailored to their individual needs. IDEA was previously known as the Education for All Handicapped Children Act from 1975 to 1990. (Wikipedia)

SST meetings (Student Study Team) – This is a formal meeting where concerns and information are shared about a child’s abilities and current status in education. Parent’s often are the ones who make a request for the SST meeting.

FAPE | Free appropriate public education – The legal right of a child with a disability who has qualified for special education services to receive intervention as determined by federal law.

IEP – Individualized Education Plan– A plan of instruction (with or without related services) created for a child who has been identified as eligible for special education.

IFSP-  Individualized Family Service Plan: An intervention plan, that includes the family, of a child who has been identified for special education before the age of three.

LRE – Least Restrictive Environment – Another legal statute where a child must receive special education services in an environment that is determined to be the least restrictive. The goal is to start with services within the general education classroom setting, if possible. If not the setting for the child’s education can then become “more restrictive”. The most restrictive would be a child who is in residential care for their educational needs.

Related Services – Services ancillary to instruction. Examples of related services could be mental health counseling, occupational therapy, speech and language therapy, and/or physical therapy.

Transition Services – Services afforded to a child in special education to help with the transition from school to adult or post-secondary life. Sometimes, it refers to a child who is transitioning from an IFSP to an IEP program.

Due Process: When there are disagreements with special education eligibility or how services may or may not be delivered, the parents and school district have the right to conduct a “due process hearing”. This is a very long and involved procedure that is best explained by Wrights Law – an excellent resource for “all things about the legal aspects with special education”.


How does the special education process begin? Usually, a referral for special education consideration starts in one of three ways:

  1. A child has been referred to the special education team for early childhood programs. Each state or region may have a different name for these programs but they usually share many of the same elements that I will elaborate on a little later. The referral is commonly through an agency or program like “Child Find”. (This video discusses the Child Find program in Virginia. The information shared is pretty much standard throughout the United States.)
  2. Your child has entered the public (or private) school and the teacher has referred the child for special education consideration due to concerns with the child’s learning abilities or speech/ language skills, for example.
  3. A parent or parents are concerned that their child is lagging with development, such as not reading like others their age or having challenges with math skills. Sometimes they are concerned with behaviors that they feel may be atypical – maybe even alarming.

Commonly asked questions about the special education process (Click on the box to see the response)

How do I start the process for my child to be considered for special education help if they are younger than the age of three?

The process can be started by contacting your local Child Find or Early Intervention Team. A phone call, email, or personal request at your local elementary school or school district office can get the process started. Also, you can ask your pediatrician for information or to help make the referral.

How do I start the process for my child to be considered for special education help if they are older than the age of three?

Again, reaching out to the local school district, your child’s teacher, and/or the school administrator in writing (or by email) would be the first step. Sometimes, you can make the request verbally (such as at a parent-teacher conference) – but please follow up with a written request.

What are the steps of the special education process?

The process starts with a referral. The referral leads to an initial meeting – called an SST or another term such as ARD. This also starts the timeline – a legal punching of the “clock” for how efficiently and quickly the process must be completed. There are a specific number of days/ weeks for each portion of the process. From the initial referral to any signatures needed for an IEP (if one is offered).

What does the term “psychoeducational evaluation” mean?

A psychoeducational evaluation is comprised of a very comprehensive set of assessments, observations, surveys, interviews, and more that gather much information about the way a child is developing. The most common elements of this portfolio of tests include cognitive or general developmental assessments and the processes that are involved with learning (such as memory or auditory processing). We also use tests that measure achievement (reading, written language, math). Furthermore, visual perceptual motor skills are assessed, too. Then there are rating scales/measures that look at the social-emotional development and adaptive behavior of a student. These tests are the “basics” and often the standard for most psychoeducational evaluations.

What is an IFSP?

This is the Federal program afforded to children birth to three who are in need of intervention due to developmental delays, medical disorders, or sensory deficits (such as blindness or deafness).

What is an IEP?

An IEP is an acronym for Individualized Educational Plan. It is a legal document. The IEP is a very lengthy document that has many purposes. First, it documents the current educational status of the child and measurable goals on how the child will receive assistance. This assistance must be in the least restrictive environment and be given in good faith. For example, a child may receive instruction within their regular education classroom but with a special education teacher providing resources and support. Or they may be invited to another classroom for part of the day to hone in on skill development for a specific subject or set of subjects – such as reading and written language. Ancillary services also are part of the IEP – such as any behavioral goals or programs that will be employed. Check back for another article that takes a deeper dive about creating and implementing an IEP.

Who decides if my child receives an IEP (or not)?

The IEP team consists of many people, including the parents if they are they have educational rights to the child and the student, if appropriate. Also, the team may include the classroom teacher(s), a special education teacher, a school administrator (or designee), a school psychologist (if requested), an occupational therapist (if requested), a speech and language therapist (if requested), a physical therapist (if requested), and other providers – such as a mental health counselor. Read more here.

What is a 504 plan? How does it differ from an IEP?

The 504 Plan is technically… “Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, is American legislation that guarantees certain rights to people with disabilities. It was one of the first U.S. federal civil rights laws offering protection for people with disabilities.”.* It basically allows your child to receive accommodations to their program in the general education program – such as preferential seating or extended time while taking a test.

Many parents (and professionals) often confuse the 504 Plan with an IEP. They are not the same, but share many of the same “ingredients”. Both are legal documents. And, both are meant to support the student in the least restrictive manner possible. There are subtle and not-so-subtle differences, however. This author spells out the parts of both the IEP and 504 by comparing them here.

*wikipedia

What happens if your child is in private school, including parochial school? Are they eligible for special education? The short answer is that a child in a private school environment is not covered by IDEA law. However, if a public school has asked a private school for a student to be placed in their environment – then the child is covered by IDEA. But wait – it is even a wee bit more complicated as Section 504 of the Americans with Disabilities Act does not exclude private schools from providing reasonable accommodations for people who need them – such as, building a ramp for students who use a wheelchair or providing an interpreter for Deaf pupils.

I am going to take a bet that if you are new to education, let alone special education, then the information I just presented might feel very overwhelming. Even I felt overwhelmed when we entered the special education process. In fact, let me share our very personal experience in an effort to let you know – if you are starting your special education journey – you are not alone.

—–

Fall 1993

I remembered making the call to start “the process” going. 

 I carried around the district phone number for the developmental “child find” office for weeks before I had the guts to call.  Crazy, right?! 

I knew the person who would answer.  I knew the drill of what came next.  But I didn’t want to find anything wrong with our precious baby – just wanted some reassurance that he would be OK.

It was a gamble.  Make the call and get some support and potential help for your child.  Don’t make the call and try to “do it on your own”.   

I made the call and that is when the reality started to sink in. 

Rich, my colleague, and the kind voice on the other end of the phone call listened to me unwrap the story of our son’s birth and first year of development.  He then started to speak, using his well-known empathetic tone.  

He quietly said, “You know what comes next?   Our Child Find team will evaluate Bubba over the next month or so.  Then we will convene with the results and go from there.

“And go from there… “  

It would have been somewhat helpful for my nerves if I didn’t know what “there” meant.  Would this be the beginning of me going through the stages of grief?  In some respect, I already was “there”.  

After several weeks of evaluations with an assortment of service providers – the meeting was scheduled for “the results”. 

So, we arrived at the meeting and as parents, we took our places on the “other side of the table’.  It would appear that not only were we now in “Holland”, but, hubby and I also were parents at the threshold of the world of special education.  Bubba was their newest member. 


PHEW! So much to learn – so stay tuned for the next installment of FROM BOTH SIDES OF THE TABLE?

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