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Special Education Process 101 by Michelle Givan

Alex is a 10-year-old 5th grade student who has been medically diagnosed with ADHD. He takes medication to manage symptoms, but they still interfere with his and his peer’s ability to learn in the classroom. He is referred to the principal or counselor at least once weekly for disruptive and sometimes aggressive behavior, and he misses out on valuable instruction while waiting for the principal or counselor to meet with him. Sometimes his behavior is so off task that the principal calls his parents to take him home for the remainder of the school day, which again causes him to miss out on instruction and fall behind in math and reading. Alex’s parents are at their wit’s end and are becoming frustrated. They know that Alex is bright and capable, but they don’t know what to do. By the time Alex gets home he is distracted and struggles with completing his homework assignments. Is Alex a bad child or does ADHD have something to do with these problem behaviors? Alex’s pediatrician instructs his parent to speak to the school about the possibility that Alex needs special education. When his parents address the matter with his teacher, she explains that Alex needs to put more effort into managing his behavior, and he is not failing. In her opinion, all he needs are strict rules with explicit consequences both at home and at school.

This is a common scenario for parents seeking special education services for their children. Often parents will receive a medical diagnosis of a disability and assume that it automatically qualifies the child for services, but this is not the case. The Individual with Disabilities Education Act Part B, or IDEA, is the law that governs evaluation and provision of special education services for students ages 3-21. It also provides procedural safeguards or parental rights. IDEA has a list of 13 qualifying disabilities and their criteria. Those disabilities are autism, deaf-blindness, developmental delay (ages 3-9) emotional disability, hearing impairment (including deafness), intellectual disability, multiple disabilities, orthopedic impairment, other health impairment, specific learning disability, speech-language impairment, traumatic brain injury, and visual impairment (including blindness).

The educational criteria for these disabilities sometimes do not match medical criteria, and this can be a tremendous source of confusion and frustration for parents. In order for a child to meet the definition of a “child with a disability” for one of these categories, the child’s disability must adversely affect his educational performance. Being a “child with a disability” does not mean that the child has to be making failing grades to receive special education and related services. According to IDEA, states must make a free appropriate public education available to “any individual child with a disability who needs special education and related services, even if the child has not failed or been retained in a course or grade, and is advancing from grade to grade.”

What needs to happen to determine whether Alex and children like him need services? The first step is evaluation. Once a parent has made a written request to have their child evaluated, a team has to meet to determine whether or not evaluations are necessary. If the evaluation team agrees the child needs to be evaluated, the parent must sign a consent form identifying all areas of suspected disability to be evaluated. A common phrase among advocates for special education is, “if it isn’t in writing, it didn’t happen.” Written notification is as simple as sending an email to the person responsible for special education in your district. Date the letter and set out the reasons why you believe your child has a disability which is interfering with her ability to learn or conduct himself appropriately in school. Once you have met with appropriate school system personnel, the IEP (Individualized Education Program) team, you have to give written permission for your child to be evaluated. The school has 60 calendar days to evaluate your child. Once the evaluation is complete, the IEP team has 30 days to meet you and review the evaluation. If it is determined that your child is a child with a disability under one of the 13 disability categories, the team, including you, will develop a plan based on the needs identified during the evaluation process within the next 30 calendar days. This is a long timeline for getting special education services for child, so it is best to begin the process as soon as you suspect a problem.

So based on this information, should Alex be evaluated for special education services? Absolutely. He meets the definition of a child with a disability because it is believed that ADHD is interfering with his school performance. His evaluation should include a hearing and vision test, IQ test, achievement assessments in reading and math since those are problem areas for him, a behavior assessment, and an assessment for ADHD.

When seeking special education and related services for their children, it is imperative that parents understand this IEP process. Only certain disability categories qualify for special education, and the child’s disability must interfere with his educational performance. There are timelines in place to protect you and your child against delays in the evaluation and IEP program development process, and you have the right to provide parental consent and participate during this entire process.


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