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A Parent's Guide to Special Ed / Special Needs

Part I - The Process (when all goes well)

Identifying a Child with Special Needs

If you think a child is having a problem learning, you can:

  • regardless of child's age, call Look What I Can Do/Child Find at (800) 323-GROW or (800) 851-6197 to get information on free testing as well as early intervention and special education programs, OR
  • if child is 2 years, 9 months to 21 years old and not attending school, take the child's birth certificate, and any documentation you have of the child's disability to the public school closest to where the child lives and make a written request (keep a copy) to sign the child up as a "child with a disability needing special education services," OR
  • if child is 2 years, 9 months to 21 years old, take the child's birth certificate, and any documentation you have of the child's disability to the public school the child is attending and submit a written request (keep a copy) for a case study evaluation. (Sample letter, here.)

School district must obtain written consent from child's parent, guardian, or surrogate parent before conducting case study evaluation or reevaluation (done at least every three years), or providing initial special education services. (NOTE: In cases where a surrogate parent has been appointed, and that person is not also the child's foster parent, it is the surrogate parent who must sign consent and release forms.)

Regardless of whether a child with a disability is eligible for special education services, Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 provides him/her with protections and reasonable accommodations to ensure s/he receives a free, appropriate public education. (e.g. child with athsma or diabetes who needs to take medication or have his/her blood sugar level tested during school hours.) For additional information, see Appendix.

Special Education Services According to Age

Birth to 3 years: "Early Intervention" - child's needs, developmental goals for child, and services to be provided documented in Individualized Family Service Plan (IFSP).

3 to 5 years: "Early Childhood Education" - child's needs, school readiness goals for child, and services to be provided documented in Individualized Education Plan (IEP).

5 to 21 years: "Special Education" - child's special educational needs, annual goals and objectives for child during school year, and services to be provided documented in Individualized Education Plan (IEP).

Case Study Evaluation (CSE)

The case study evaluation (CSE) is the initial step in determining whether a child is eligible for special education. A CSE may be requested or recommended when it is suspected that a child is having difficulty learning because of a disability. (See sample letter requesting CSE in Appendix). The child's vision and hearing must be screened within six months before any other CSE testing can be done to rule out vision or hearing problems.

A CSE includes:

  • meeting with child
  • meeting with parent/guardian or surrogate parent
  • social development study
  • review of child's medical history
  • report on vision and hearing screenings
  • school performance, if child has been attending school, including observation of child in learning environment
  • achievement testing
  • cognitive testing (i.e. IQ tests, memory assessments, etc.)
  • home visit, if child is younger than school-age or is not attending school and disability is suspected
  • other specialized tests as needed, such as psychological evaluations, speech/language assessment, learning disability assessment, social work report

If the child's primary language is not English or the child uses a non-speaking mode of communication (i.e. sign language, picture board, etc.), s/he has the legal right to be evaluated by a qualified person in his/her primary language or mode of communication.

Access to Educational Records

A child's parent/guardian/surrogate parent, or his/her representative has the right to inspect, review, and copy any educational records relating to the child that are maintained or used by the school district. The parent/guardian/surrogate parent may consent to the release of the child's educational records to others, such as a psychologist for an independent evaluation of the child, or an attorney advocating for the child's educational rights. NOTE: In cases where a surrogate parent has been appointed, and that person is not also the child's foster parent, it is the surrogate parent who must sign consent and release forms.

As an educational advocate for a child, to prepare effectively for the multidisciplinary conference and individual education plan that will follow the case study evaluation, you should obtain and review the child's temporary school record. Generally, the most important documents to review are:

  • summary report from the last multidisciplinary conference and any supporting documents, such as
  • reports from specialized assessments,
  • most current and previous individual education plans, and
  • child's report cards from the past two years

Other documents may also be relevant, such as anecdotals of child's behavioral problems at school, independent evaluations or assessments, etc.

Multidisciplinary Conference (MDC)

The local school district has 60 school days (days the school's administrative office is open) from the day a CSE is requested to complete the CSE and convene a multidisciplinary conference (MDC). Written notice of the MDC must be given to the parent/guardian/ surrogate parent at least 10 days before the day of the meeting (often referred to as a "staffing"). Meeting must be held "at a mutually agreed upon time and date," so if you or someone you want to have at the MDC cannot make it at the time given in the notice, write to the school immediately to reschedule.

Those who may attend the MDC:

  • child's parent/guardian/surrogate parent
  • child's teacher, if child is attending school
  • school district representative
  • director of special education
  • everyone involved in testing child
  • people who provide services to child (therapist, social worker, DCFS caseworker, foster parents, doctors, etc.)
  • child, as appropriate
  • other school personnel familiar with child
  • other people who have information to share about child
  • attorney or non-attorney advocates representing child at school meetings
  • other persons you wish to bring for support or to observe

What happens at the MDC:

  • those who tested the child will present their test results
  • child's problems and special needs are described
  • recommendations made as to whether the child needs special education services
  • school writes a multidisciplinary summary report listing child's test results and the special education services for which s/he is eligible. The parent/guardian/surrogate parent receives a copy at the end of the MDC.
  • dissenting opinions may be documented with multidisciplinary summary report

See listing and description of disabilities covered under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), which provides federal funding to schools for special education services. Also see the definition of "disability" under Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, which prohibits public schools from discriminating against students with disabilities, but does not provide funding for special education services or other accommodations.

Independent Educational Evaluation

If a parent/guardian/surrogate parent does not agree with the conclusions made at the MDC regarding the child's needs, s/he may submit a written request to the school district superintendent for an independent educational evaluation. (Sample letter, here.)

School district superintendent has 5 school days to answer request if district agrees to independent evaluation, child will be retested, at public expense, by people who do not work for school district within 30 school days if district denies request, it must state reasons why and request due process hearing to determine if its CSE is appropriate if hearing officer rules in favor of parent/guardian/surrogate parent, independent evaluation will be done at public expense if hearing officer rules in district's favor, parent/ guardian/surrogate parent may obtain independent evaluation at own expense. If parent/guardian/surrogate parent chooses to give school test results from an independent evaluation, school must consider them at new MDC. (NOTE: Parent/guardian/surrogate parent may obtain independent evaluation at any time and submit it to the school district, and school district must consider it.)

Individualized Education Plan (IEP)

"IEP" refers to both a written document as well as the mandated process of writing it. After the MDC the initial "individualized education plan" (IEP) is developed on the basis of the child's special needs, then reviewed at least annually. The IEP lays out the goals and objectives the child and school staff will work to achieve at school during the school year. The IEP can be written after the MDC or within 30 days after the MDC, but no more than 60 school days after the request for CSE.

An IEP should include:

  • statement of child's present level of educational performance
  • annual goals for school year
  • short-term objectives to meet annual goals
  • materials and methods to be used
  • how often objectives will be worked on
  • extent child will be included in regular education programs and any accommodations needed for such participation
  • eligibility for extended school year program objective criteria and evaluation procedures for determining whether annual goals and objectives have been met
  • specific related or support services to be provided (see list of related services): dates service will begin and end , how many times per week and how many minutes per session service will be provided, whether service will be provided to child directly (individually or in a group) or by consultation with his/her classroom teacher, whether child will receive service in classroom or at another location, who will provide service (i.e. physical therapist, etc.).

Depending on the child's age and needs, the IEP may also be required to include:

  • transition services and goals - for children 14-1/2 years and older who need help preparing for life after school
  • transportation services - for children who are, due to their special needs, unable to walk or ride the bus with students without disabilities
  • parent counseling and training - for parents/guardians of students with disabilities to teach them how to help their children with schoolwork and learn more about their child's special needs
  • bilingual and English as a Second Language program (ESL) may need to be adjusted according to child's abilities
  • adaptive physical education
  • behavior management plan
  • vocational education
  • graduation planning - begins at least four years before child is scheduled to graduate

The IEP must be reviewed annually. In addition, a complete case study reevaluation must be done at least every three years. Notice must be provided and consent obtained in the same manner as for the initial IEP. At the annual review, the parent/guardian/surrogate parent will meet with school personnel to discuss and determine:

  • child's performance at school
  • whether child has met IEP goals and objectives
  • whether child still needs special education services placement for following school year
  • IEP goals and objectives for following school year

A parent/guardian/surrogate parent or the school may request an IEP meeting at any time to change the IEP or write a new one. If the request is made by the parent/guardian/surrogate parent, a meeting must be held within 30 calendar days. (Sample letter, here.)


Children with special needs must go to school in the "least restrictive environment" that can meet all the needs and provide all the services as required by the MDC/IEP. This means they must be with children who do not have disabilities as much as possible during school for:

  • general education (regular classrooms with or without special equipment or aides)
  • nonacademic activities (homeroom, lunch, recess, etc.)
  • extracurricular activities (school clubs, band, sports, dances, parties, and other events before or after school)

...but not at the expense of provision of services. By law the school must first try to accommodate the child's special needs at his/her local school. Possible options in regular, local school settings for children with special needs are, from least to most restrictive:

  • regular class in a regular school with no extra help
  • regular class in a regular school with extra help, i.e., support and related services
  • special education class in a regular school for part of school day (resource room); child goes to regular class for rest of day with extra help
  • special education class in a regular school for whole day (self-contained classroom)

A child may be "tuitioned-out" to a private or public school, out-of-district or out-of-state, if appropriate for implementing the child's IEP, and if the school district and the parent/guardian/ surrogate parent agree. When a child's IEP cannot be implemented at the local school, the following more restrictive environments may be considered:

  • special education public day school; all children at school have special educational needs
  • private day school; all children at school have special educational needs
  • residential program in a state facility
  • private residential school
  • special educational class in a hospital (medical or psychiatric) or special tutoring at home or in a hospital for children who are hospitalized or home-bound for more than 2 weeks

Once the IEP has been developed, the child should start receiving the services listed in the IEP as soon as possible, but no later than the beginning of the next school semester. If this is not possible, interim services must be provided.

Council for Disability Rights

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