It can be a surprise when we get the news that our child might need special education services. We want to learn as much as possible about this process.
There are myths and facts about special education in public schools. The most important fact is this: Special education is not a place but an umbrella of services with many ways to give our children the best education possible. It might mean learning in a general education classroom with special education services given right there, or learning with other peers who have disabilities, or a mixture of both. You can learn more on our Kinds of Educational Placements page.
Getting the Right Special Education Services for Your Child
First, if your child is between 3 and 5 years old, call your school district’s special education department. You will find their phone number by going to your school district’s website. By making this connection, you can ask for an evaluation for your child to see if they have a disability and need special education services. If you are currently getting services through Early Childhood Intervention (ECI), then a staff member there can help you connect with the school district’s special education department.
If the evaluation doesn’t show that your child needs special education services, you can ask for an Independent Educational Evaluation (IEE). The school district must help your child get an IEE at no cost to your family or file a due process hearing to defend the evaluation that has been provided.
If your child’s evaluation shows they need special education services, you will be asked to attend an Admission, Review, and Dismissal (ARD) committee meeting. The best thing you can do for your child at this meeting is to speak up about their development – including skills, abilities, and challenges. This isn’t a time to hold back on details, because you want the school staff to know as much as possible about your child so you and the school can develop a good plan together. Learn more on our ARD page.
Once you and the school agree on an Individualized Education Program (IEP), you will be given a copy. This is a blueprint of your child’s schedule, including time with therapists, classroom time, teaching methods, social time, and inclusion (time spent with children in general education during the day). Learn more on our IEP page.
Common Special Education Terms
You will probably run into many terms that are new and confusing as you learn about the special education process. This is how most parents feel, so here are some of the common terms you are likely to see. Keeping a glossary of terms on hand is helpful for school meetings and reviewing paperwork.
ECSE: “Early Childhood Special Education” is a public school service for children with disabilities between 3 and 5 years old who are approved to get special education services. See our ECSE page. (The program used to be called PPCD.)
ARD: The “Admission, Review, and Dismissal” committee is made up of a child’s parents, teachers, and therapists as well as other school or district support staff. ARD committees make educational decisions for students with disabilities. You and the ARD committee develop the IEP for your child. Sometimes it helps to bring a friend or advocate to the meeting to give a second opinion and remember what was said. It’s important to remember that parents can ask for an ARD meeting during the school year to discuss problems or changes in educational or social needs. Learn more on our ARD page.
IEP: The “Individualized Education Program” (sometimes called the Individualized Education Plan) is a document that is created during the ARD meeting. It outlines the special education and related services that must be provided to your child. It includes all the academic and non-academic needs your child might have during a school day. See our IEP page.
Section 504: Section 504 is a federal law that protects your child from being discriminated against because of a disability. This lets your child get accommodations from the school that help with learning. Your child does not have to be approved to get special education services in order to get 504 services. See our Section 504 page.
Accommodations: These change how the content is taught, made accessible, and / or tested. These accommodations may include assistive technology, sitting in the front of the class, reading materials printed in Braille or with large print fonts, and many more.
Modifications: These are changes in what the student is expected to learn or master.
Basic Legal Rights and Terms
Teachers and parents usually work together to make sure the school follows your child’s IEP, but sometimes concerns or problems come up. Depending on how serious the disagreement is, you might be able to settle it with an informal meeting, or you might need to call an ARD meeting. You may choose to bring along your spouse, a friend, or another advocate who has been to your ARD committee meetings before and is a good troubleshooter. Your child has rights and protections under federal laws. We’ve outlined some here, and you can learn more on our Your Child’s Right to a Public Education page.
IDEA: The “Individuals with Disabilities Education Act” is a federal law that makes sure all students with disabilities receive a Free Appropriate Public Education (FAPE). The ultimate purpose of IDEA is to prepare students with disabilities for independent living. The ARC of Texas has helpful information on IDEA.
FAPE: This stands for “Free Appropriate Public Education” and is the part of IDEA that ensures access to general and specialized educational services free of charge.
LRE: This means “Least Restrictive Environment” and is a part of IDEA that ensures your child the right to be in school or class with peers who do not have disabilities as much as possible.
There are specific steps to follow if you do not feel that the school is meeting your child’s educational goals and needs. Each of these has their own legal terms and processes. To learn more, visit our Your Child’s Right to a Public Education page.