What Determines if a Child has Special Education Needs?

Just as a parent is typically the first to recognize when their child is in need of special attention, when it comes to education, the parent plays one of the most important roles in determining if the child should be eligible for an Individualized Education Program (IEP).

Nothing can begin in addressing the special needs of a child without the input of a teacher, physician, and parent/s initiating the IEP. This involves a parent requesting that the school evaluate their child. The school must have a parent’s written consent to perform this evaluation as it also sets the 60 day timer or the state’s time-frame constraint.

The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA)

IDEA 2004 and its preceding statute, the Education for All Handicapped Children Act, are responsible for the national funding legislation established to protect the rights of children who are eligible for the special education services outlined in their individualized program. IDEA 2004 specifically guarantees a child’s right to what is referred to as a Free Appropriate Public Education, or FAPE, within the least restrictive environment, or LRE. What all of that simply means is that funding and protections exist for children of special needs to help prepare them for the furthering of education leading to employment and ultimately, independent living.

What Defines a Child with a Disability

IDEA 2004 identifies 13 different disability categories to help define a child’s eligibility for special education and the related services available to them. IDEA 2004 goes into detailed description of the categories listed here:

  • Autism
  • Deafness
  • Deaf-blindness
  • Hearing impairment
  • Intellectual disabilities
  • Multiple disabilities
  • Orthopedic impairment
  • Other health impairment
  • Serious emotional disturbance
  • Specific learning disability
  • Speech or language impairment
  • Traumatic brain injury
  • Visual impairment, including blindness
  • The Evaluation Process

    In addressing special needs, the child may certainly be able to articulate some level of struggling, but the effort put to discovering the subtle and sophisticated symptoms needs to follow a thorough protocol. These can best be identified through a series of tests, not just a single test. This includes taking a closer look at the child’s overall health, covering vision and hearing as well as general intelligence and performance within the school environment. Observing how the child communicates within the social environment gives an opportunity to evaluate emotional well-being and the child’s use of his or her body in this process. Determining a child’s disability must be a full and comprehensive process in order to be fair to the individual needs of the child. This includes the parent’s right to appeal the school system’s finding a child is “not eligible.”

    Parents must receive this finding in writing along with information regarding how to appeal and the various mechanisms available through which to resolve disagreements, including mediation. In addition, each state’s Parent Training and Information (PTI) center is one of the many resources available to help parents learn what next steps to take. Similarly, a parent may decline services that have been approved at any time. Suffice it to say, a parent has the right to change their mind about whether their child receives special education and related services. Reestablishing services is possible and may include another evaluation, again, in fairness to ensuring the child is receiving what is needed for them individually.

    The Evaluation Team

    It is important to have the right input both in evaluating the child and developing his or her IEP. Number one in this effort are the parents. In addition, there must be at least one teacher from the regular education curriculum and one special education teacher. Also on the team is a special education supervisor from the school system familiar with the regular education environment who brings knowledge of the available school resources. There must also be someone capable of interpreting the results of the evaluation and communicating those results to the rest of the team.

    When it is appropriate, the child may be able to contribute. Parents may invite other knowledgeable individuals or those of special expertise, a relative or a child care provider. The school can contribute specialists of their own, such as a physical or speech therapist. The school may also invite any other agency representatives that may be responsible for either paying for or providing services and only with the parent’s consent.

    The Individualized Education Program (IEP)

    Once it has been determined a child is eligible for special education and related services, a meeting to develop an IEP must be held within 30 days. IDEA 2004 clearly allows for parents to contribute as equal partners on the team both in writing and implementing their child’s IEP. This plan will include the child’s present levels of academic and functional performance and in what ways the child’s disability affects this performance. Goals will be established for the upcoming year and what the team agrees upon that the child can reasonably be expected to accomplish. These goals are intended to accommodate the child’s disability while still being able to progress in the general education curriculum including the subjects of math, science, reading, social studies and physical education, among others.

    The Special Aspects of Special Education

    The IEP must also include the provision of supplementary aids and services such as a one-on-one tutor, preferential seating or devices that aid in communication. Accessibility makes it easier for a child with a disability to better take part in school activities. The IEP also details any changes to school programs or the school personnel support that will be provided. Further, the IEP must also explain how much of the school day will have the child educated separately from other children without disabilities and whether this interaction includes extracurricular activities such as lunch time or clubs.

    Reevaluation of the child’s needs are performed at least once every three years or as determined by the IEP team when there is a need for additional data. Again, there is a time clock started on this reevaluation 90 days from the IEP team meeting. It is helpful to know that IDEA 2004 provisions also apply to private or religious elementary or secondary schools in which the child is placed.