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Questions Often Asked About Special Education Services



National Information Center
for Children and Youth with Disabilities


Learning and Other Disabilities

Education and Kids

  1. Where do I begin if I believe my child needs special education services?
  2. What are the purposes of the IDEA?
  3. Are services available to very young children?
  4. What is the first step toward obtaining special education services?
  5. What is included in an evaluation?
  6. How can my child receive an evaluation?
  7. What is done with the results of my child's evaluation?
  8. What is an Individualized Education Program?
  9. Who develops my child's IEP?
  10. What type of information is included in an IEP?
  11. Is it the school's responsibility to ensure that my child reaches all the goals in his or her IEP?
  12. When is the IEP meeting held and may I attend?
  13. What should I do before an IEP meeting?
  14. What occurs during an IEP meeting?
  15. What if I disagree with the school about what is appropriate for my child?
  16. How can I get services for my child increased?
  17. How can I support my child's learning?
  18. What if I still have questions and need more information?
  19. Additional Resources Available

1) Where do I begin if I believe my child needs special education services?

Begin by asking questions and developing a better understanding of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), Public Law 102-119. This law guarantees a free appropriate public education to children with disabilities. The tips and suggestions on the following pages will help you obtain special education and related services for your child.

You may also want to talk to parents of children who are already receiving special education services. Local parent organizations can assist you. For information about parent groups or statewide disability organizations, check the enclosed NICHCY State Resource Sheet for your state.

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2) What are the purposes of the IDEA?

The major purposes of the IDEA are to: (1) guarantee the availability of special education programs to eligible children and youth with disabilities; (2) assure that decisions made about providing special education to children and youth with disabilities are fair and appropriate; and (3) financially assist the efforts of state and local governments to educate children with special needs through the use of Federal funds.

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3) Are services available to very young children?

Services to very young children are also covered under the IDEA. Through Part H, the Program for Infants and Toddlers with Disabilities, states may make early intervention services available to eligible infants and toddlers (birth through two years). Under the IDEA, states must provide special education and related services to eligible preschool children (ages 3-5).

Services for these young children are provided in different ways than are services for school-aged children. For more information about early intervention and preschool programs, contact NICHCY for a copy of Accessing Programs for Infants, Toddlers, and Preschoolers with Disabilities: Parent's Guide.

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4) What is the first step toward obtaining special education services?

The first step is to arrange for your child to receive an evaluation. The term "evaluation" refers to the total process of gathering and using information to determine whether a child has a disability and the nature and extent of the special education and related services that the child needs. The public schools are required to conduct this evaluation of your child at no cost to you.

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5) What is included in an evaluation?

The evaluation process should look at the "whole child" and include information about your child's total environment. Tests are an important part of an evaluation, but the family's input is also important. Additionally, the evaluation process should include:

  • observations by professionals who have worked with your child;

  • your child's medical history, when it is relevant to his or her performance in school;

  • information and observations from the family about your child's school experiences, abilities, needs, and behavior outside of school, and his or her feelings about school.

A multidisciplinary team should be involved in performing the evaluation. The team conducting the evaluation may include the following professionals, as appropriate:

  • school psychologist;

  • speech and language pathologist;

  • occupational therapist;

  • physical therapist and/or adaptive physical education therapist;

  • medical specialist(s);

  • educational diagnostician(s);

  • classroom teacher(s); and

  • others.

Professionals will observe your child and may administer tests and use other procedures such as interviews that examine your child's:

  • speech and language functioning;

  • personality and adaptive behavior patterns; academic achievement;

  • potential or aptitude (intelligence);

  • functioning levels;

  • perceptual ability; and

  • vocational interest and aptitude.

All tests and interviews must be conducted individually in your child's primary language. The tests must also be given in a way that does not discriminate on the basis of disability or racial/cultural background.

The law states that schools may not place children into special education programs based on the results of only one test. Many tests are needed to measure areas that might be problematic. However, the law does not mention the specific tests to be used. There are many tests that measure the same thing. A specialist may choose to use a certain test as long as the test is considered to be nondiscriminatory and measures what the specialist says it will measure. For detailed information about the evaluation process, contact NICHCY and request a free copy of Assessing Children for the Presence of a Disability.

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6) How can my child receive an evaluation?

There are at least three ways in which your child may be selected to receive an evaluation:

  1. You can request an evaluation. You can call or write the Director of Special Education or the principal of your child's school. If the school refuses to evaluate your child, you must be given a written notice that explains the reasons for refusal. This notice must also give you a full explanation of your rights under the IDEA. It is very important that you keep a copy of this letter, as well as all other correspondence that you have received or sent concerning your child.

  2. The school may ask permission to evaluate your child. A school may recommend a child for evaluation based on observations or results from tests given to all children in a grade. If your child is thought to need further testing, the school must tell you. You, as a parent, must give written permission before the school can evaluate your child.

  3. A teacher or doctor may suggest that your child he evaluated. Your child's teacher may recommend that your child have an evaluation. Again, you must give permission in writing before the school can conduct the evaluation.

Some schools will be able to conduct a child's entire evaluation within the school. Other schools may not have sufficient personnel to conduct all of the testing needed and will have to contract with outside persons or agencies to conduct some or all of the testing. If your child is evaluated by a specialist outside of the school, the school must make the arrangements and will state in writing exactly what type of testing is to be conducted. All of the evaluation procedures arranged for or conducted by the school system are to be done at no cost to you.

In some cases, once the evaluation has begun, the outside specialist may recommend further testing. Because this additional testing will go beyond what the school originally requested, it is important that the school be contacted to agree to any additional testing and any additional costs which may be incurred.

Here are two more considerations to keep in mind: (1) It is generally a good idea to ask any professional working with or evaluating your child about his or her credentials and prior experience working with children like yours; (2) If, for any reason, you will be having your child retested, be aware that when the same tests are repeated in a short time period, the validity of the results will be seriously weakened. Be sure to talk to all evaluators about any previous testing that has taken place.

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7) What is done with the results of my child's evaluation?

Information gathered from the evaluation procedures will be used to determine whether or not your child is eligible for special education and related services. If your child is found to be eligible, the evaluation results will form the basis for developing your child's Individualized Education Program (IEP).

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8) What is an Individualized Education Program?

An Individualized Education Program (IEP) is a written statement of the educational program designed to meet a child's special needs. Your child's IEP should include statements of your child's strengths and weaknesses and should describe the instructional program developed specifically for your child. The IEP has two purposes: (1) to establish the learning goals for your child: and (2) to state the services that the school district will provide for your child.

The IDEA requires that every child receiving special education services have an IEP, that parents be included in the development of this IEP, and that the child's parents are entitled to receive their own copy of the IEP (upon request) in order to keep track of progress and to maintain home records.

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9) Who develops my child's IEP?

The IEP should be developed at the IEP meeting, by the following participants:

  • Your child's teacher(s): If your child has more than one teacher, your state may specify in its law which teacher(s) should participate;

  • A representative of the public agency (school system) other than your child's teacher;

  • You, the parents, one or both;

  • Your child, when appropriate; and

  • Other individuals, at your discretion or at the discretion of your child's school.

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10) What type of information is included in an IEP?

According to the law, an IEP must include the following statements regarding your child:

  • His or her present level of educational performance, which could include information concerning: academic achievement, social
    adaptation, prevocational and vocational skills, sensory and motor
    skills, self-help skills, and speech and language skills;

  • Specific special education and related services to be provided and who will provide them;

  • Dates for when the services will begin and how long they will continue;

  • Percentage of the school day in which your child will participate in regular education and special education programs;

  • Annual goals;

  • Short-term instructional objectives (individual steps which make up the goals);

  • Transition plan, when applicable; and

  • Appropriate objective criteria and evaluation procedures to be used to measure your child's progress toward these goals on at least an annual basis.

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11) Is it the school's responsibility to ensure that my child reaches all the goals in his or her IEP?

No. The IEP sets out the individualized instruction to be provided to your child, but it is not a contract. The school is responsible for providing the instructional services listed in an IEP.

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12) When is the IEP meeting held and may I attend?

The law is very clear that parents have the right to participate in the meeting where their child's IEP is developed. The school staff will try to schedule the IEP meeting at a time that is convenient for parents (and other team members) to attend. If the school suggests a time that makes it impossible for you to attend, explain your schedule and needs to the person who is making the arrangements. Often, an alternative time or date can be arranged. However, if no mutually agreeable time can be set, the school may hold the IEP meeting without you. In this event, the school must keep you informed by telephone or mail.

The law makes provisions for the changing needs and growth of children. At least once a year, whether you request it or not, a meeting must be scheduled with you to review your child's progress and to develop your child's next IEP. A full reevaluation must be conducted every three years. A reevaluation may occur more frequently if you or your child's teacher(s) request it.

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13) What should I do before an IEP meeting?

The IEP meeting is scheduled for the purpose of developing your child's Individualized Education Program. You can prepare for this meeting by looking realistically at your child's strengths and weaknesses, talking to teachers and/or therapists, visiting your child's class or other classes which may be appropriate for him or her, and talking to your child about his or her feelings about school. It is a good idea to write down what you feel your child will be able to accomplish during the school year. It also helps to make notes about what you would like to say during the meeting.

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14) What occurs during an IEP meeting?

The IEP meeting takes place after the specialists have tested your child and recorded the test results. In most cases, the school will have held a meeting to look at your child's test results and determine whether or not he or she is eligible for services. You may or may not have been invited to attend the eligibility meeting. If you were not at the eligibility meeting, then the results of the tests will usually be discussed with you at the IEP meeting. The specialists who evaluated your child will explain what they did, why they used the tests they administered, the results of your child's tests, and what your child's scores mean.

As you listen to the results of the tests (either eligibility tests or measures of progress), make sure that you understand what the tests are meant to measure and how the performance of your child compares to other children who are the same age. Take notes on what you hear, and ask questions if you do not understand.

During the IEP meeting, you will be asked to share the special things you know about your child, including how your child behaves and gets along with others outside of school. You will also be asked about your child's school experiences and personal life. After this discussion, everyone involved will have a better idea of your child's needs. This will allow the team to discuss and determine:

  • what educational goals and objectives are appropriate for your child;

  • what type of special education your child needs;

  • which related services are necessary to ensure your child benefits from his or her special education;

  • what assistive technology devices or services your child needs to benefit from special education; and

  • what placement alternatives exist, and which is most appropriate for your child.

As a parent, you should understand why the school proposes certain special education services and/or related services (such as therapy) for your child, and you should be comfortable with these ideas before listing them in the IEP. If you hear something about your child which is surprising to you, or different from the way you perceive your child, you will want to bring this to the attention of the other members of the team. In order to design the most appropriate program for your child, it is important to work closely with the other team members and share your feelings about your child's educational needs.

Before you sign the IEP, ask any questions you have, so you are sure you understand what is being said. Signing the IEP means that you agree to the services, goals, and other matters listed in the IEP.

It is helpful to remember that the IEP can be changed. If you are unsure about some of the ideas being presented, set a date for evaluating progress and a time to get together again to discuss the results of the evaluation. You may request a review or revision of the IEP at any time.

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15) What if I disagree with the school about what is appropriate for my child?

It is important to know that before the school system can place your child in a special education program for the first time, you, as parents, must give your written consent. School districts can only override your lack of consent through the use of certain procedures specified in federal and/or state law.

Even if your child has been receiving special education services for some time, you have the right to disagree with the school's decisions concerning new IEPs or educational placements for your child. If you do not agree with what has been proposed in your child's IEP, then you should not sign the IEP.

However, in all cases where family and school disagree, it is important for both sides to be able to discuss their concerns and come to a compromise, at least temporarily. It is usually possible to agree on a particular plan of instruction or classroom placement and then establish a time frame for trying this out. At the end of the prearranged time, agree on a time for (and the type of) evaluation to be conducted to measure progress. Set a time to meet again to discuss the results of the evaluation and decide what to do next. The trial period may be very helpful in coming to a comfortable agreement on how to help your child, and it allows everyone involved to be part of the decision-making process.

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16) How can I get services for my child increased?

Suppose your child gets speech therapy two times a week, and you think he or she needs therapy three times a week. What do you do?

First, you can talk with your child's speech pathologist and request an IEP review meeting with the purpose of increasing speech therapy. Discuss your child's needs and ask to see the evaluation of his or her progress. If your child is not making progress with the current schedule, talk to the IEP team about the need for making changes in the IEP. The school personnel will either agree with you and change the IEP, or they will disagree with you.

With any disagreement, you can appeal the decision of the IEP team. You may wish to seek advice from the Parent Information and Training Project in your state; it is listed on the NICHCY State Resource Sheet. Appealing a decision can mean bringing in a third party to mediate your concerns, or it may mean requesting a due process hearing. Your local department of special education can provide you with your state's guidelines for providing services in your state and for appealing decisions. If this is not available locally, contact the state department to request a copy; their address and phone number are also listed on the NICHCY State Resource Sheet.

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17) How can I support my child's learning?

Here are some suggestions that can help you support your child's learning and maintain a good working relationship with school professionals:

  • Let your child's teacher(s) know that you are interested in playing an active part in your child's educational program. Plan and schedule times to talk with the teacher(s) and, if possible, visit the classroom.

  • Offer to explain any special equipment, medication, or medical problem your child has.

  • Inform the teacher(s) of any activities or significant events that may influence your child's performance in school.

  • Ask that samples of your child's work be sent home. If you have questions, make an appointment with the teacher(s) to discuss new strategies for meeting your child's goals.

  • Ask for suggestions of how you can continue, expand, and reinforce your child's school activities at home.

  • Volunteer to help in the classroom or school. This will give you the opportunity to see how things work in the school and how your child interacts with others.

  • Let the school know that you may be contacted if you are needed.

  • Remember that you and the school want success for your child. Working together can make this happen.

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18) What if I still have questions and need more information?

You can read some of the books and articles listed on the next page. You can also contact NICHCY again. We have information on all aspects of the IEP process, as well as on other issues of importance to families with a child who has a disability. NICHCY staff can send you additional publications as listed on the NICHCY Publications List, respond to specific questions, and refer you to local organizations who can work with you and your family.

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19) Additional Resources Available

Resources Available from NICHCY

Ferguson, S., & Ripley, S. (1991). Special education and related services: Communicating through letter writing. A Parent's Guide, II(1), 1-20.

Horne, R.L. (1991). The education of children and youth with special needs: What do the laws say? NICHCY News Digest, I(1), 1-16.

Kupper, L. (Ed.). (1994). Accessing programs for infants, toddlers, and preschoolers with disabilities. A Parents Guide, 1-20.

Kupper, L. (Ed.). (1993). Questions and answers about the IDEA. NICHCY News Digest, 3(2), 1-16.

Smith-Davis, J., & Littlejohn, W.R. (1991). Related services for school-aged children with disabilities. NICHCY News Digest, I(2), 1-24.

Additional Resources

Anderson, W., Chitwood, S., & Hayden, D. (1990). Negotiating the special education maze: A guide for parents and teachers (2nd ed.). Rockville, MD: Woodbine House. [Available from Woodbine House, 5615 Fishers Lane, Rockville, MD 20852. Telephone: 1-800-843-7323 (outside DC area); (301) 468-8800 (in DC area).]

Arena, J. (1989). How to write an I.E.P. (rev. ed.). Novato, CA: Academic Therapy Publications. (Available from Academic Therapy Publications, 20 Commercial Boulevard, Novato, CA 94949. Telephone: (415) 883-3314.)

Children's Defense Fund. (1989). 94-142 and 504: Numbers that add up to educational rights for children with disabilities. Washington, DC: Author. (Available from the Children's Defense Fund, 25 E Street N.W., Washington, DC 20001. Telephone: (202) 628-8787.)

Cutler, B.C. (1993). You, your child, and "special" education: A guide to making the system work. Baltimore, MD: Paul H. Brookes. (Available from Paul H. Brookes Publishing Company, P.O. Box 10624, Baltimore, MD 21285-0624. Telephone: 1-800-638-3775.)

Des Jardins, C. (1993). How to get services by being assertive. Chicago, IL: Family Resource Center on Disabilities. (Available from Family Resource Center on Disabilities, 20 East Jackson Boulevard, Room 900, Chicago, IL 60604. Telephone: (312) 939-3513; 1-800-952-4199.)

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NICHCY Briefing Papers are published in response to questions from individuals and organizations that contact the Clearinghouse; single copies are provided free of charge. In addition, NICHCY disseminates other materials and can respond to individual requests for information. All services and publications are free. For further information and assistance, or to receive a NICHCY Publications List, contact NICHCY, P.O. Box 1492, Washington, DC 20013. Telephone: 1-800-695-0285 (Voice/TT) and (202) 884-8200 (Voice/TT).

NICHCY thanks our Project Officer, Dr. Sara Conlon, at the Office of Special Education Programs, U.S. Department of Education, for her time in reading and reviewing this document and, as always, for her commitment to the Clearinghouse.

Project Staff

Project Director.............................................................Suzanne Ripley
Deputy Director..................................................Richard L. Horne, Ed.D.
Editor...........................................................................Lisa Kupper

AED (Academy for Educational Development)

This document was developed by the Academy for Educational Development (AED) under Cooperative Agreement #H030A30003 with the Office of Special Education Programs, U.S. 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 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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