The Special Education Process: A Simple Guide for Parents

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Parents are their child’s number one advocate. Being involved with your child’s education will not only encourage success, but it will give you the knowledge and power when your child needs additional help.

The special education process can be daunting and confusing, and understanding it helps parents be the best advocate they can be for their children.

A simple guide to understand the special education process so your child can thrive at school.

The Special Education Process: Birth to Age Three

Up to the age of three, special education services are provided by the Department of Health of the state in which you live through early intervention services.

If you suspect an issue with your child, the first step would be to speak to your child’s pediatrician. They can help you better understand any issues you may be seeing and guide you to the next step.

However, keep in mind YOU, as the parent, can make a direct referral for an evaluation by your state’s Department of Health.

Transition to the School System

Once the child is three, the home district (school district where you live) is responsible for special education services.

For families with a child who has been receiving services from birth to three, the transition to public school support can be scary. There is now a whole new set of people taking on your child’s case, and you may feel that you have to start over.

But this isn’t the case.

To make the transition to school more seamless, you must have an organized file with all related information about the disability and needs of your child. Ask questions, stay informed and listen to your instincts. You know your child best.

The Special Education Process: Kindergarten Through Highschool

If you have a child in grade school or later and are concerned about their progress, some steps need to be taken to ensure they are being properly monitored and supported.

The first step is identifying that there may be a problem. However, do understand that not all struggles equate to a disability. Children are all different, and while standards indicate general guidelines of where a child should be academically and when there is a wide range of acceptable milestones.

There must be communication between you and the school about how your child is doing and what concerns you’re having.

General education supports are available. These supports need to be exhausted before a referral to the special education department can be made.

If these supports have been tried, with fidelity, and there are still issues, then a referral can be made for special education support.

Step by Step Guide for the Special Education Referral Process

Below is a general guideline that parents can expect once a referral is made.

Step One: Referral

A referral may be made by parents or guardians, school personnel or outside agency (physician, social worker) with parental consent. This is the starting point for all special education services. You must receive written notice of referral within five school days of the referral being made.

Step Two: Planning and Placement Team (PPT)

Once the referral is received, a group of school personnel and parents or guardians will meet to discuss concerns and the reason for the referral.

If it is deemed that your child needs initial testing, this team will discuss what types, and the process will continue.

Suppose the team determines that your child’s needs can be met with general education services. In that case, you still maintain the right to request a referral in the future if you feel your child is not making adequate progress with the general education supports being provided.

Make sure you know your rights.

Step Three: Testing

If the PPT determines that your child needs to be tested for special education services, a team will be identified. That team will then test, interview (both child and parent), and discuss the child’s needs.

These tests will be done by any, or all, of the following service providers;

  • School Psychologist
  • School Social Worker
  • Special Education teacher
  • Speech Pathologist
  • Occupational Therapist
  • Physical Therapist

All of these specialists will conduct testing in their area of expertise and determine the strengths and weaknesses of the child. The information will be gathered to make an informed decision about what the child needs.

Step Four: IEP Meeting

Once all the testing is done, another meeting will be called. You must be a part of this meeting, as all reports will be discussed, and school personnel will make their suggestions and give their impressions of the students and their needs.

Parents are an integral part of this process. They are considered committee members and not just spectators. Parents are permitted to bring anyone they feel will help support them through this process, which could be a friend, family member, or professional advocate.

If it is determined that a child meets the criteria for special education services, an Individual Education Plan (IEP) will be developed, and the classification of a disability will be identified. If the committee determines that a child does not meet the criteria for an IEP, the committee will find that child ineligible for services through special education.

It is important to note that the parents maintain the right to request a referral in the future if they feel their child is not making adequate progress and the process will start over.

Schools have 45 days from the day of referral to implement the IEP.

Step Five: Annual Review

Every year an IEP meeting will be scheduled to review the IEP. The meeting will consist of all parties involved in servicing the child, including the parent or guardian.

It is a meeting to discuss progress and make changes where they may be needed.

Parents should be prepared to discuss how they feel their child is doing. They are also free to make suggestions for IEP changes. If a child is mature enough (usually middle school and up), they are encouraged to be a part of the meeting and have a voice at the table.

There is nothing more powerful than a child taking charge of their education and verbalizing what they feel has worked and what hasn’t. 

Step Six: Reevaluation

Every three years (or earlier if deemed necessary), the child will undergo testing to determine if they are still eligible to receive services.

Another PPT meeting will be held, and changes can be made to the child’s program.

This meeting can also determine that a student no longer needs special education services and will be declassified.

Advocating For Your Child

Parents are the most important advocates for their children.

Your voice is the one that should be heard the loudest, and your concerns are the most important. You know your child best and staying involved will allow you to see the gains and notice any areas of concern quickly.

Keep a line of communication open with your child’s teacher(s). A partnership between teacher and parent is the best way to ensure your child is getting what he/she needs.

If you feel you need more support and one-on-one coaching through the process, please reach out to a special education advocate–they are there to help you navigate this very complex process!

For more specific information related to your state, check your state's education department website.

**This article was reviewed by a certified Special Education teacher who has been working with special education students for more than 24 years. She has taught every subject in grades K-8 in many different settings.

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