If your child is having trouble in school but has not yet been diagnosed with a learning disability, or if you think that your child's special needs may require help at school, it is never too early to request an evaluation to determine if the child is eligible for special education services provided by the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). Drafted in response to a lack of educational services for children with special needs, IDEA guarantees that every child receives a free and appropriate education. However, due to shortages of educational funding, many districts are not willing to provide special education services to children with demonstrated difficulties learning. In these cases, parents must take the lead to ensure that their children receive all the services they are entitled to.
If you believe that your child may be eligible for special education services, the first step is to request that your school district conduct an "initial evaluation" to determine if the child should receive benefits. (Parents are not the only people who can request an evaluation -- often teachers or other school officials will notice that a child is having difficulties in class and will request the evaluation.) Once a request has been made, the school district, at its own expense, must conduct a thorough evaluation of a child to determine if special education services are needed. The evaluation could include behavioral testing, physical and psychological evaluations, and classroom observation (with parental consent). If, after this initial evaluation, the district concludes that a child requires special education, the school district and the child's parents will put together an Individual Education Plan that addresses the child's specific special needs.
An Individual Education Plan is designed to provide special education for a child with special needs in the least restrictive setting possible. These flexible plans establish achievable educational targets for the child and lay out the best path towards obtaining those goals utilizing both educational and social services. The Individual Education Plan gets reviewed and updated, with input from the school district and parents, at least annually, and services increase or decrease depending on the student's needs.
In practice, this process is not as easy as it may appear on paper. Often school officials who are performing the initial evaluation at a parent's request may determine that a child does not require special education, despite the parent's belief to the contrary. In other cases, the school district may request the evaluation and the child's parents may disagree with the determination that their child requires special education. In either case, parents have the right to request an Independent Educational Evaluation by an expert who is not employed by the school district. The school district is required to provide this service at its own expense. If the independent assessment confirms the school district's findings, then the parents can proceed to challenge the findings administratively, and, eventually, in court.
If you think that your child needs additional assistance with his or her education, a qualified special needs planner can assist you in beginning the process. To find a special needs planner near you, click here.
Families and Advocates Partnership for Education has a detailed flowchart explaining the special needs application process here.
The U.S. Department of Education has a wealth of information on IDEA on its Web site.Article Last Modified: 03/24/2014