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A Parent's Guide To Special Education And Related Services: Communicating Through Letterwriting

by Susan Ferguson and Suzanne Ripley



National Information Center
for Children and Youth with Disabilities


Some Background Information

Requesting Services: A Guide To Letter Writing

The Special Education Process

Additional Resources Available From NICHCY


Learning and Other Disabilities

Related Articles

Questions Often Asked About Special Education Services

A Parent's Guide to Accessing Programs for Infants, Toddlers, and Preschoolers with Disabilities

This Parent's Guide presents a general overview of how a child becomes eligible for special education and related services, parents' rights and responsibilities, and a school's rights and responsibilities. Because the focus of this issue is on communicating through letter writing, we have identified points in the process when writing a letter is necessary or useful. The term "parent" is used throughout this Parent's Guide to include foster parents, legal guardians, or any primary caregiver who is functioning as a parent.

Throughout your child's school years, there is always a need to communicate with school: teachers, administrators, and others concerned with your child's education. There are also times when the school needs to communicate with you, as the parent. Some of this communication is informal, such as phone calls, comments in your child's notebook, a chat at the bus stop or at a school function. Other forms of communication are more formal and will need to be written.

Letters provide both you and the school staff with a record of ideas, concerns, and suggestions. Putting your thoughts on paper gives you the opportunity to take as long as you need to state your concerns specifically, to think over what you've written, to make changes, and perhaps to have someone else read over the letter and make suggestions. Letters also give people the opportunity to go over what's been "said" several times. A lot of confusion and misunderstanding can be avoided by writing down thoughts and ideas.

However, writing letters is a skill. Each letter will differ according to the situation, the person to whom you are writing, and the issues you are discussing. This Parent's Guide will help you in writing to professionals involved in your child's education.

Sample letters are shown for when you want to:

  1. Discuss a problem.
  2. Request an initial evaluation for special education services.
  3. Request a meeting to review the IEP.
  4. Request a change of placement.
  5. Request records.
  6. Request an independent evaluation.
  7. Request a due process hearing.
  8. Write a follow-up letter.
  9. Give positive feedback.

Some Background Information

The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, (IDEA), Public Law (P.L.) 101-476 (formerly known as the Education of the Handicapped Act, [EHA], P.L. 94-142 and its amendments), mandates minimum requirements for a free appropriate public education for children and youth with disabilities, including early intervention services, and defines these children's rights. Each state, using this law as a guideline, develops specific policies for the special education and related services of children with disabilities in that state. Each local public school district follows these guidelines and will base its policies on the federal laws and regulations, as well as on the laws and policies developed by the state. Copies of each state's special education and early intervention policies are available to parents.

Q: How does this really work?

A: A flow chart is provided at the end of this Parent's Guide to show how the process works, beginning with "I think my child may have a problem" and leading to the provision of special education and related services. The process of identifying that a child may be in need of special education and related services can begin with the parent or a professional. The attached NICHCY State Resource Sheet lists many of the people involved in special education and disability issues in your state.

Q: What are my rights as a parent?

A: Your rights begin with your child's right to a Free and Appropriate Public Education. This is often referred to as FAPE. Free means that your child's education is at public expense and at no cost to you. Appropriate means that the educational program for your child will be tailored to his or her individual needs. Any change in the provision of FAPE to your child should be in writing.

You, as a parent, have the right to be fully informed by the school of all rights that are guaranteed to you under the law. Each state, county, and school system has written policies and guidelines that are available to you. Ask your child's school to send you copies.

Your rights also include:

  1. The right to be notified, whenever the school wants to evaluate your child, either to identify a possible disability or to measure changes in your child's needs; the school wants to change your child's educational placement; or the school refuses your request for an evaluation or a change of placement. The school must notify you in writing for all of the above.

  2. The right to request an evaluation of your child if you think your child may need special education and/or related services. It is best that you put this request in writing.

  3. The right to informed consent. For example, if the school is suggesting that your child be evaluated for a possible disability, then this means that you sign a form which says you understand and agree with the proposed plan to evaluate your child. There are other occasions when a family's written consent will be required.

  4. The right to obtain an independent evaluation from professionals outside the school system. The results of these evaluations must be considered in any educational decisions made for your child. You also have the right to request that the school system pay for an independent evaluation if you believe the school's evaluation was not appropriate.

  5. The right to request a re-evaluation to determine if your child's educational needs have changed. Depending on the results of this re-evaluation, a new Individualized Education Program (IEP) may be developed and a change in placement may be recommended.

  6. The right to have your child tested in the language he or she knows best. For example, if your child's primary language is Spanish, and he or she is not fluent in English, then you have the right to request that your child be tested in Spanish. If your child is deaf, he or she has the right to an interpreter during testing.

  7. The right to review all your child's records. You may also obtain copies of these records, although the school may charge you a reasonable fee for making copies. If you feel that any of the information contained in your child's records is inaccurate or misleading or violates the privacy or other rights of your child, you may request that the information be changed. If the school refuses your request, you have the right to request a hearing to question the school's refusal.

  8. The right to participate in the development of your child's IEP. The school must make every effort to notify you of the IEP meeting and to arrange it at a time and place that is convenient for everyone who will attend.

  9. The right to the least restrictive educational environment for your child. Whenever possible, students should be educated in their neighborhood school with other children their age. The specifics of how this will be accomplished is part of the IEP.

  10. The right to a yearly review. The school must review your child's IEP at least once a year and must re-evaluate your child at least once every three years. But you, as parents, can request an IEP review at any time you feel that your child's needs have changed.

  11. The right to a due process hearing. If the school and family cannot come to an agreement on the needs, placement, or program of a student, both parties have the right to request a due process hearing to resolve their differences.

Q: What are the parents' responsibilities?

A: The special education team includes education specialists, therapists, medical personnel, the parent(s) or person(s) who have custody of the child, and the child when appropriate. As a full member of this team, the parent has responsibilities. These may not be as clearly defined as your rights, but they are just as important. Your most basic responsibility is to be an active team member, to establish effective communication between home and school, and to share information about your child's education and development with other members of the team.

Your specific responsibilities include:

  1. After finding that your child is eligible for special education and after an IEP has been written, but before placement is determined, try to visit the proposed classes/schools and any alternatives which are being considered for your child. This will help you become familiar with the programs under consideration. Talking to other parents is very useful, but seeing programs for yourself is also important.

  2. Before going to visit a school to look at a program, call ahead and ask the principal to schedule a time for you to visit. This is not only polite, but will assure that your visit comes during a regularly scheduled activity. If you also want to talk to the teacher, let the people arranging the observation time know, so that they can schedule a meeting.

  3. Once your child is settled in his or her school class, find time to visit at least once or twice a year to see how your child is doing. Often volunteering to help with school or classroom activities is an effective way to get involved. Teachers appreciate the help, and it gives you the opportunity to see your child in a school situation.

  4. Notify your child's school, teacher, therapist(s), or nurse of any changes which would affect your child's participation in school. Examples include: changes in your child's medical condition or medication; extreme difficulty with homework; boredom with school work; social difficulties; or any other related difficulties the school personnel should be aware of.

  5. Provide the school staff with any relevant information from outside evaluations. Have copies of these reports sent to your child's school.

  6. If problems arise, you should communicate your concerns about your child's special education program to the school. Talk to the principal, teachers, therapist(s) etc. to allow everyone involved in your child's schooling to informally observe the situation and make adjustments before minor problems become major difficulties.

  7. Let school staff know when you observe signs that your child's current program may need to be changed. The more time the school has to arrange for re-evaluations, the better.

  8. If your child needs any special arrangements for testing, such as assistive technology, an interpreter, or foreign language tester, let the school know right away. Even if your child's teacher knows about his or her unique needs, the evaluation staff may not be aware of them and will need time to make the proper arrangements.

  9. If you would like to review and/or obtain copies of your child's records, make this request, in writing, several weeks before you need to have these records. School secretarial staff may be quite busy, especially at certain times of the year. Also, records from previous years may be kept somewhere other than in the school building, making access more complicated than just opening a file drawer.

  10. It is very important that you attend IEP meetings. These meetings generally occur only once a year and are usually held during the day. If you have a job, talk to your employer or make any necessary child care arrangements so that you will be able to attend during the work day. If you have difficulties getting away during these hours, inform your child's teacher and ask if the school can be of assistance. Sometimes the school can work out child care needs or talk to an employer to help you find the time to attend the IEP meeting.

  11. Any time you have scheduling difficulties with school meetings, tell the school people involved in that meeting. They will want to know that you are interested in your child's schooling and that you want to be actively involved. There are always situations in which people cannot coordinate their schedules; the more information the school has about your schedule, the more they can work to arrange meetings and school functions at more convenient times for you. All too often, educators interpret poor attendance as lack of interest.

  12. If you are in disagreement with the school on any aspect of your child's program, try to work out the disagreement before resorting to a due process hearing. Many schools now have formalized methods for mediation or can make such arrangements. Mediation can often bring solutions to light and is less negative than more formal or legal action. In any discussion of rights and responsibilities, it is important to remember the spirit of the law. The goal should always be the same: to provide the best opportunities for success for all children, including those who have differing needs and abilities. To achieve this goal it is important that all people involved in special education planning work together. It's even part of the law. As team members you will each need to communicate your opinions and concerns constructively. It is not always clear what opportunities are needed for a student with special needs and which will be best. Thus, arriving at a solution to disagreements may require some trial and error and some compromising.

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Project Staff
Project Director: Carol Valdivieso
Deputy Director: Suzanne Ripley
Editor: Richard Horne
Authors: Sue Ferguson and Suzanne Ripley
September, 1991
Resources Updated, 1995

This document was originally developed in 1991 by Interstate Research Associates, Inc., pursuant to Cooperative Agreement #H030A00002 with the Office of Special Education Programs of the United States Department of Education. The contents of this document do not necessarily reflect the views or policies of the Department of Education, nor does mention of trade names, commercial products, or organizations imply endorsement by the U.S. Government.

The updating of resources listed in this document and the document's availability via the Internet are made possible through Cooperative Agreement #H030A30003 between the Academy for Educational Development and the Office of Special Education Programs of the U.S. Department of Education.

The Academy for Educational Development, founded in 1961, is an independent, nonprofit service organization committed to addressing human development needs in the United States and throughout the world. In partnership with its clients, the Academy seeks to meet today's social, economic, and environmental challenges through education and human resource development; to apply state-of-the-art education, training, research, technology, management, behavioral analysis, and social marketing techniques to solve problems; and to improve knowledge and skills throughout the world as the most effective means for stimulating growth, reducing poverty, and promoting democratic and humanitarian ideals.

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