The Special Education Process in 6 Steps

Special Education From Referral to Services in Just 6 Steps

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The goal of special education is to provide equal access to education for children through age 21 by providing specialized services that help them experience success in the classroom and beyond. If you, your child's doctor, or their teacher suspect that they may qualify for special education services, it's helpful to know what to expect.

But if you're unfamiliar with special education, the process can seem like a bewildering maze of bureaucratic red tape. We have taken the confusion out of the process by providing insight into the six crucial steps that occur in the special education process.

Identifying Learning Issues

The first step in the special education process is determining if your child has a learning problem and needs help. Typically, children with developmental delays or physical disabilities are diagnosed by their pediatrician or another medical provider. Because they are diagnosed before entering the school system, these children enter school with special education plans already in place.

But for students with learning disabilities, they often look and act just like their peers. They may even perform well during preschool and even in kindergarten without any recognizable difficulties. But as the schoolwork becomes more challenging, they may begin to struggle more than their peers.

The key to identifying potential learning disabilities is to be in tune with how your child is faring in school and to know what challenges they are experiencing.

If you're concerned your student is struggling more than normal, don't be afraid to ask for help. In fact, according to the Learning Disabilities Association of America, if kids who are struggling with reading in first grade receive intervention early, 90% of them will achieve normal reading ability. But, if assistance is delayed until third grade, 75% will struggle with reading throughout their lives.

Although recognizing that your child is struggling does not automatically mean they have a learning disability or that they need special education, it does at least warrant a conversation with the teacher. Clearly, there are ongoing problems with learning that require additional assistance.

Initially, schools will provide academic assistance or intervention strategies prior to going further with the special education process. In many cases, this type of intervention will resolve the problem, and no further action is needed. For children who continue to struggle, though, schools will move to evaluate the student.

Referring for Evaluation

When a parent or the child's teachers feel it's necessary to evaluate a child to determine how severe their learning problems are and whether a disability exists, the decision to evaluate is made during a special education meeting. During this meeting, parents are advised of their rights and are asked to sign a formal consent for evaluation.

All special education meetings must be held at a mutually agreeable time and place for the parents and committee members. Parents also must be given adequate notice that enables them to attend and they must be informed of who will be there as well as the purpose of each special education meeting.

Know Your Rights

Parents always have the right to bring a support person with them to a meeting or an advocate to represent them.

If the committee agrees, and the parent gives consent, the child is then evaluated in a process that involves several types of tests. The school has 60 days to complete the evaluation and implement a special education placement if the child qualifies. If the parents disagree with the results of the evaluation, they may request a full, independent educational evaluation at the school's expense.

As a parent, it's important to remember that this assessment will involve the use of diagnostic tools that provide an overview of your child's school performance, their strengths and weaknesses, their hearing and vision, as well as their cognitive functioning.

Assessments are valuable tools that provide insight into your child's struggles. They also are useful because they allow you the opportunity to set goals and request services. But assessments are not able to predict your child's future performance or ability. So, it's important to view them realistically.

Determining Eligibility

Once the evaluation is complete, the child's special education team, including the parent, will have a meeting to review the results of the evaluation and determine whether the child meets the state's regulatory guidelines for diagnosis with a disability. Not every child who receives an assessment will have a learning disability, but many do.

In fact, according to the National Center for Education Statistics, 7.1 million students received special education services under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) during the 2018-19 school year and 33% of those students had specific learning disabilities.

For kids who are identified with a learning disability and who qualify for special education services, the next step is an IEP meeting (individualized education program). If your child does not have a learning disability and doesn't qualify for special education, keep looking for solutions to your child's educational struggles.

Work with your child's teachers and other service providers to draft an action plan designed to help your child meet their education goals. If you do not agree with the decision of the committee, you may request mediation, file a formal complaint, or request a due process hearing.

Developing an IEP

If your child meets the eligibility criteria, and the committee agrees they have a disability, the school must develop an IEP. Under IDEA, the school district has 30 days from the documentation of the disability to complete the IEP.

To develop an IEP, the special education team will consider your child's needs and assessment data in order to determine what type of services, interventions, and accommodations your child might need in order to be successful.

For parents, it's important to remember that your child is entitled to receive services in an environment as close to the general education setting as possible.

If you don't understand why a recommendation is being made, you should ask for clarification. It's important that everyone have a clear understanding of what's being recommended and why. You also can make requests if you feel an area of concern is not being addressed.

For instance, if your child's assessments show that they struggle with reading comprehension, you can use that data to request speech and language support. You can even request classroom accommodations, such as extra time to complete reading and writing assignments and tests.

Discussing the IEP

The committee, including the parent, meets to develop the IEP. Schools may develop a draft IEP and bring it to the meeting, but the IEP is not finalized until the meeting is held and the committee members have input into the document. During this meeting, the team will use data such as test scores, work samples, and behavioral charts to support any recommendations that they make.

If you are uncomfortable with a placement recommendation, it's important to work with the IEP team to come up with a better solution or alternative.

Keep in mind that by law, decisions are made by consensus. So while you have considerable influence, you don't have the right to veto decisions the committee recommends.

You can involve an advocate, but you will need to use conflict resolution strategies to come to an agreement. Try to use the data gathered during the assessment along with verifiable research to support your requests.

In most cases, the team is able to come to an agreeable solution. After all, everyone in the meeting wants to see your child succeed.

Finalizing the IEP and Placement

Once an agreement on the content of the IEP is reached, the committee finalizes the most appropriate placement for the child. Placement can range from a fully inclusive program in the regular classroom to pull-out services in a special education program. In rare cases, students may be served in special schools or hospitals. The parent is asked to sign consent for the agreed-upon services to be provided.

After the IEP is finalized, you will meet with the IEP team annually to discuss your child's progress. During those meetings, the team will evaluate the effectiveness of the IEP and modify it as needed.

You also can request an IEP meeting anytime throughout the school year if you feel something isn't working or that a change needs to be made.

Every three years, your child will be assessed to determine if they still require special education. You will be presented with this information in a triennial meeting.

In addition to these formal meetings, you should be in regular communication with your child's teachers. Together, you should be monitoring how your child is doing academically and whether or not they are meeting their educational goals.

A Word From Verywell

It's not easy to hear about your child's struggles and learning disabilities. Yet, on an intellectual level, you know this issue is one you need to hear about and address. While it's important to recognize and accept your feelings, whatever they may be, you also need to work toward acceptance of the challenges your child is facing.

By learning as much as you can about your child's disability and by taking an active role in your child's education, including the IEP process, you will be able to help your student not only get the services and help they need, but also meet their goals and be successful.

2 Sources
Verywell Family uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Learning Disabilities Association of America. New to LD.

  2. National Center for Education Statistics. Students with disabilities.

Additional Reading

By Ann Logsdon
Ann Logsdon is a school psychologist specializing in helping parents and teachers support students with a range of educational and developmental disabilities.