Once you learn that your child has a health problem or disability that could affect learning, the usual schooling guides are not enough. Your child's milestones will be different, and he or she might need more help to reach them. Because of this, you will start thinking about your child's education long before parents on the playground start asking, "So which pre-K did you choose?"
That's why experts advise that parents of children with special needs get an educational assessment as early as possible. This will help get the proper supports in place to help your child reach his or her full potential.
Here's a guide to navigating the education system if your child has special needs.
As soon as you think that your child might be missing important developmental milestones, or if your pediatrician raises a red flag, don't wait. Your pediatrician can refer you to a local early intervention program for infants, toddlers, and preschoolers. Or search The Early Childhood Technical Assistance Center's website to look for programs in your state. In many cases, the earlier a delay is identified, the more options there are for treatment.
Sometimes, learning disabilities are not caught until later in a child's development, such as the teen years. Even then, it's never too late to get your child the services needed to improve and succeed in school. If this is the case, talk with teachers, the principal, or a school counselor or school psychologist about setting up an evaluation to determine your child's educational needs.
Know Your Rights
The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), a federal law passed in 1975, requires that children with disabilities be given the same access as typically developing children to free and appropriate education. Portions of the law cover children from birth to age 21, so don't delay in seeking services.
Also, section 504 of the U.S. Rehabilitation Act of 1973 entitles students with physical or mental impairments in public schools, or publicly funded private schools, to customized educational plans. These plans legally ensure that students will be treated fairly at school.
Request an Evaluation
Your community's early intervention program will evaluate your child free of charge. To be eligible for this service, a child must show delays in one or more areas of development or be at risk for delays due to a condition that affects physical or behavioral skills.
Each state has its own definition of a developmental delay, but for the most part, delays include problems with:
- speaking and communication
- motor skills (such as rolling over or self-feeding)
- social-emotional development, which can reveal itself through lack of interest in play or interacting with others
Once the evaluation is complete, you will receive an Individualized Family Service Plan (IFSP) that indicates your child's developmental needs, the services he or she should receive, and when and where those services will take place.
The early intervention program is required to complete the evaluation and IFSP within 45 days of your child being referred for screening. So keep physical copies of all correspondence and follow up as needed.
Support for Babies & Toddlers: Stimulation Programs
After the evaluation, your baby or toddler might be referred for early intervention programs that include physical therapy, speech therapy, and occupational therapy. These services can help your child work on goals related to developmental milestones like rolling over, feeding himself or herself, and saying a first word. These services usually are delivered by therapists who come to your home.
Support for Preschoolers: Early Intervention
After age 3, children receive most services outside the home and in preschools or other educational centers run by the local school district. Kids continue to get the services detailed in their evaluation report. They're also exposed to a typical preschool curriculum, such as reading and language development, early math concepts, art, and music, and will benefit from peer and adult interaction.
Many preschool programs for kids with special needs have opportunities for parents to make connections with other families through support groups or other programs.
Support for School-Age Kids: 504 Plans & IEPs
When your child enters kindergarten, he or she will be re-evaluated to see where educational needs lie. The resulting report is called an Evaluation Report (or Re-Evaluation Report) and it will serve as a guide for your child's academic future.
This report looks at a child's strengths and needs and checks for learning disabilities that may include attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD); emotional disorders; cognitive challenges; autism; developmental delays; and hearing, vision, or speech and language impairment.
Recommendations from the evaluation team are used to develop a 504 education plan and/or an individualized education program (IEP):
- 504 plans. These education plans help ensure that students can be educated in regular classrooms alongside their peers, but with the addition of services, accommodations, or educational aids that they might need. Examples of this include preferential seating; extended time on tests and assignments; reduced homework or class work; and verbal, visual, or technology aids.
The 504 planning team usually includes parents, the principal, classroom teachers, and other school personnel (such as the school nurse, guidance counselor, psychologist, or social worker). If these accommodations don't help students achieve satisfactory academic success, as determined by the school, then alternative settings in the school or private or residential programs can be considered.
- IEP. An individualized education program includes goals, objectives, and specially designed instruction for a child, including yearly planning and progress assessments. It establishes a child's current academic level, creates realistic annual goals, and forms a plan for how the school district will help the child achieve them.
The IEP planning team must include parents and a certified teacher and also can include a vision specialist, hearing specialist, physical therapist, occupational therapist, speech therapist, social worker, and other professionals. For example, a child with a learning disability might remain in a mainstream classroom environment while receiving one-on-one tutoring with a reading specialist. A child with cerebral palsy or other physical disability might receive physical therapy, occupational therapy, and/or speech therapy as part of the learning program.
Students with needs that go beyond what the school district can provide through local or district programs might be referred for placement in a specialized school or program. Students who have an IEP and are receiving special education services are entitled to remain in school through the school year that they turn 21.
These educational plans might seem similar, but they are different. The main difference is that a 504 plan modifies a student's regular education program in a regular classroom setting, whereas an IEP usually outlines educational services in a special educational setting, depending on a student's need.
Appealing the IEP or 504 Plan
IEPs and 504 plans are reviewed, rewritten, and agreed upon annually by those involved in their creation. As a parent, you are a critical part of this process. If significant changes are necessary within the year, you (or anyone one else on your child's planning team) can request a review and a change to these plans.
Every IEP comes with what's called "procedural safeguards," which are established by the IDEA. These rules guarantee a parent's right to participate in the IEP meeting, inspect and review educational records, and to disagree and/or appeal the educational strategy outlined in the IEP.
If you disagree with your child's IEP, the first step is to request a meeting with your child's IEP team to discuss your concerns. If that does not yield the results you feel are needed to meet your child's needs, the IDEA allows for mediation; a complaint through your state education agency; or, as a last resort, a "due process" hearing between you, your school district, and a hearing officer. The procedural safeguards document lists resources to help you through this process.
A 504 plan can be terminated if the planning team determines that a student is no longer disabled, no longer needs any special accommodations or services to meet the identified needs, or can be appropriately instructed in a general education setting.
Support for Teens: Transition Planning
At age 14, your child will be evaluated to see what he or she needs to transition to adult life. This is called "transition planning." Transition planning focuses on what your teen wants to do after graduation — such as continuing education, working or volunteering, and recreational activities — and the skills needed to reach those goals.
The transition plan also includes where a young adult might live, whether he or she will need help with activities of daily living (ADLs) (such as eating, bathing, and dressing) and how that support will be provided. It addresses life-skills education (like money management, job seeking, and living independently) and sets a plan for transitioning to adult health care services.
As a parent, you are part of the planning team and should be closely involved in this evaluation and ongoing planning with and for your teen.
Support for Parents
Your child's educational journey will be unique. It may sometimes feel like an overwhelming process. Remember that you do not need to go through it alone. It's important to find support. School and community resources are available to tap into along the way — including other parents who have been through it before you. Support groups for families of children with special needs are a great place to meet others with similar challenges and learn from them.
The end goal for everyone is for your child to grow into a happy, productive adult who achieves his or her full potential.
Reviewed by: Christina R. Coia, MEd, and Nancy Hale, MSS, LSW
Date reviewed: June 2015