Navigating the Special Education System

When your child isn’t getting the education they need and deserve in a regular classroom due to a disability, it can be both frustrating and confusing. Schools are quick to tell you that “something needs to be done” but many stop there, not giving you any idea which direction you need to proceed or even what is available.

In some cases, the school itself may not be the one that notices there is a problem and you as the parent or guardian are left to figure out what you can do to give your child the best chance possible.

This guide is intended to help you know what rights you and your child have in regards to special education and how to go about getting through the steps it will take.

IDEA, What it Means

When you get past the legal wording of IDEA what it boils down to is that every child, regardless of disability, has the same right to a free, appropriate public education. This education must take place in the least restrictive environment possible. So, what does this mean/

If your child has difficulty learning because of a developmental, physical or emotional disability, a school needs to figure out what will enable that child to learn at a level as close to his peers as possible. This means that the child may need to have special conditions put into place to make this happen.

For example, a child who does not see may need to have books on tape included, another child may need special instructions in academic classes because he doesn’t process information as quickly as the rest of the kids in his class, or a child who becomes overwhelmed easily and goes into a meltdown may need to have permission to leave the room and go to a predetermined safe place until she can gain control again. Even these simple adjustments can make a big difference, and are often difficult to get put into place. That is why a system had to be put into place.

Next, this law says these accommodations must be available in the public school setting because a parent or guardian should not have to remove a child and place them in a private school or institution to ensure the proper education. This helped eliminate the placing of children with problems like hearing loss, vision problems, or emotional issues where they were not given the opportunity to excel where they could in an environment among peers without disabilities. It is believed that being able to interact with those on the same age level who don’t have the same disabilities gives children with issues the best chance of excelling in life after school.

Finally, any accommodations that are deemed necessary must allow the child to be in the “least restrictive environment” possible. This means that if making some changes will allow your child to stay in a regular education classroom for all or most of the day, then that is where they need to be placed.

Only when a regular classroom is completely out of the question are alternative arrangements, such as Emotional Support (ES) classrooms or Academic Support (AS) classrooms allowed. Placing a child outside the regular school system and into an alternative program is to be considered the last resort and only done when everything else has been attempted.

Some Problems That Still Need Addressing

Parents or guardians need to be their child’s strongest advocate when special education is involved and that is why it is important to know what rights your child has. While the federal allow is in place, many of the details on how to carry out special education programs are given to the state or local level to implement. This means that variations are many from one state to the next, especially where “appropriate education” is defined.

The “No Child Left Behind” laws say a school must test every student to make sure they are learning. They can make any adjustments that fit into the guidelines. They also do not have to make passing these tests a requirement for passing onto the next grade or graduating. Many schools will do everything they can to show that all students in their school are learning so they do not lose federal funding. In the meantime, the children in special education may end up getting short-changed.

In districts where it has been decided these tests are a requisite for moving onward, a child that is learning but not as quickly as others his age, may find himself being held back. With some of these children, this may happen several times, placing them with a group of much younger children and ending up creating a situation where the child leaves school entirely when he reaches the age to do so.

In schools where moving forward a grade or graduation isn’t dependent upon passing the national tests, other things can be problematic. In Pennsylvania, for example, a child in special education is not allowed to be held back even if they are not progressing. This means that you have some kids receiving diplomas who can’t do basic math or read. This also makes it possible to have instructors who basically allow kids in emotional or academic support full-time simply attempt to keep the kids busy throughout the day.

This variation in how appropriate education is defined is the biggest reason children in special education need someone at home to make sure they are indeed learning as best they can.

Getting Your Child Special Education

You have noticed there is a problem with your child’s education. Maybe you see them struggling and not being able to keep up with others in their grade or maybe a teacher has expressed concern that something is wrong. Maybe you are entering a new school and have a child with a physical disability.

Whatever the case is, you know that in order to achieve at their greatest ability, your child needs special help. The procedure you follow is: Learn more by reading our articles on How to Determine if Traditional Education Isn’t Working for Your Child and Normal? Or Developmentally Delayed?

Ask for an evaluation

The first step is to submit a written letter to the school requesting an evaluation for your child. While a school member may also think your child needs to be evaluated, you have to agree to it. In most cases, it is the parent or guardian who makes this initial request. The school must then provide you with a plan for evaluation within 15 days.

This plan must also inform you of the procedure you can follow should you disagree with the evaluation. Some school districts have their own timelines in place, but the longest time between this initial letter and an IEP meeting is sixty days.

If the evaluation determines your child is not in need of special education, you have the right to take your request to the school board or ask for an outside evaluator to be involved. Keep in mind that while the school must cover the cost of the initial evaluation, you will most likely be responsible for any outside evaluations you have done.

The evaluation process involves gathering information from all those involved with your child if it has an impact upon their learning. This includes medical doctors, mental health counselors, and any therapists involved in services for your child.

IEP Meeting

Once a need is found, there will be an IEP meeting scheduled. The IEP is an Individualized Education Plan that, once created and agreed upon, the school must follow. There are several things that need to be included in an IEP.

a. The problem areas need to be stated. Your child’s current performance will be described and a statement on what the problems may be can be included.

b. A listing of the goals everyone agrees needs to be accomplished. This can be a short or long list but it is better to make it as specific as possible.

c. Details on how progress towards these goals will be assessed. Will there be certain tests? Will a professional, such as a physical therapist, be needed? Who will be responsible for the evaluation?

d. Next, will be a listing of the special services that will be required. Make sure when this is being done that the IEP mentions not only what accommodations will be implemented but also who is responsible for seeing that they are. You will also want it stated how often, or when, accommodations will be used and who will cover the cost of anything that is not currently available at the school, such as text-to-speech software or other devices. Sometimes allowing a child extra time to complete work or giving them only one page to work on at a time will be enough. Another child may need a quiet place to work and a third child may need lectures accompanied by sign language. Try to consider everything that will help your child be successful based on their individual disability.

e. Lastly, there needs to be information on where your child will be placed. Will she be in a regular classroom full-time? Will he go to special remedial classes for one or two classes but attend regular classes the rest of the day? Will she be given ways to prevent meltdowns or deal with sensory overload, such as being allowed to visit a different classroom or move to a quieter part of the room? Will he need to spend most of the day in an emotional support classroom but be allowed to join his regular class for art, lunch, and gym? Make sure all of this is in writing.

Once all of these things are in writing and everyone agrees, then you can sign the IEP. This particular IEP will be considered the one to follow for a year, when it will need to be revisited and either reapproved or rewritten to make it more effective. Keep in mind, however, that should you see the agreed upon accommodations aren’t working, you may request an IEP meeting at any time. Every three years, your child will need to undergo another evaluation in order to determine their eligibility for special services.

Who Attends the Meetings

The IEP meeting is set up so that everyone who has an interest in your child’s success is present. Children are often included when they are older and able to offer input. Younger children are legally allowed to be present but many parents don’t include them in the proceedings because it can be overwhelming.

Besides the child and parents or guardians, there must be your child’s regular teacher, a special education representative from the district who has authority to make these decisions, and a special education teacher. Parents often attend without representation but if you feel the school isn’t being totally cooperative or they may team up in a way that makes you feel intimidated, you have the right to have a parent advocate or someone who can help explain everything to you.

If the disability involved is a physical one, a medical doctor may also attend the meeting if it helps to explain what is needed and why. At the initial and every other IEP meeting, the school is required to work with the parents in regards to the best time to hold the meeting.

What If We Can’t Agree?

There are options available if you have gone through the entire process and still don’t feel that the school is willing to cooperate. You can ask for an impartial mediator to hear the case and intervene.

You can also take legal action as a last resort and ask the courts to intervene on behalf of your child. In most cases, the school would rather settle than go to court but there have been cases when going this route has been necessary. In the majority of cases, however, the school wants your child to succeed also and will work with you if they see you are willing to put in the effort it takes to know yours and your child’s rights and fight to see your child gets the education they deserve. Here’s a 10-step checklist on how the special education evaluation process works.

Your Rights For Determination of Eligibility

We have briefly covered some of your legal rights regarding determining eligibility for special education but here is a list to include the major ones as a handy reference.

  1. You have a right to request an evaluation in writing and have the school gather ALL relevant information.
  2. The school can not charge you for an evaluation if they agree it is necessary.
  3. If you are not the one to request an evaluation, it can’t be done without your written permission.
  4. If the school does not agree an evaluation is necessary, they must explain why. This must be done in writing and they must provide you with a way to challenge their decision.
  5. All tests and interviews must be conducted in your child’s native language. A child also cannot be considered in need of special education only because they are not proficient in English or have not had the advantage of being instructed in math or reading.
  6. You have the right to be part of any evaluation team involved with your child.
  7. It is your right to be given a physical copy of every evaluation report.
  8. You have the right to go outside the district and obtain your own evaluation that meets the legal standards but you will also be responsible for any cost involved.
  9. If there is no local time period given, you have the right to have this evaluation concluded within 60 calendar days of your written request.

A Word on Behavioral Disabilities

Special education for children who are experiencing psychological or behavioral issues can be the most difficult to situations. Many schools do not have the facilities or the trained staff to handle these issues. This will prompt many schools to consider the child as simply being rebellious and you may see them suspending him, isolating him from the general classroom, or suggesting she be placed in a school specifically catering to children with behavioral or mental health issues.

While there may be some cases where alternate placement is best, the school can’t legally refuse an evaluation and an attempt to provide these children with the same education as their peers.

First, isolating a child on a regular basis is against the law. They can’t have their desk moved to the hallway or be required to sit away from their peers at all times. If this is happening, legal action may be necessary. That said, what are your options to help your child receive the education they are guaranteed?

Start by asking for an evaluation. You will want to include information from any counselors or social work agencies involved with your child. You will also want a representative present at all meetings. Most children who fall into these categories have triggering events or exhibit behavior that forewarns of a meltdown.

Teachers can be trained to recognize these things and many times a situation can be prevented from getting out of hand with certain actions in place. Quiet retreats, less stimulation, and attention to warning signs may all be implemented to allow the child and the classroom to proceed in an acceptable manner.

If a full-time placement in either an emotional support classroom or an alternative school are deemed necessary, you will need to be even more vigilant in seeing that your child is learning what needs to be learned.

The ES classrooms in public schools are often overcrowded and have only one teacher who is often dealing with as many as 20 children with emotional or psychological issues.

At any given moment the class can be subject to disruption and it is often necessary for the teacher to give full attention to the disruption. This may result in the rest of the students being given “busy work” to keep them occupied or having them leave the classroom for the gym until the situation is resolved. Not much learning can get done with these constant interruptions.

Schools that are considered a partial hospital/partial academic environment are not always receiving government funding. This means they do not have to comply with IDEA or other regulations regarding educational standards. Often these schools are focused mainly on counseling and other activities to modify behavior and they neglect the academic side of schooling. If alternative placement is the only option, make sure to inquire about whether they are IDEA-compliant or not.

Homeschooling and Special Education

Many parents opt to homeschool their children with special needs. This does not have to be an all-or-nothing thing. Many school districts will work with parents to provide a dual enrollment program where your child can be schooled at home part-time and still attend regular classes with their peers part-time. This is especially productive during the high-school years when some advanced classes may be available for the child or they want to participate in extracurricular activities. If dual-enrollment is an option and you feel that may be the best option, work with including information in the IEP that will make it possible for the combined efforts to work well.

Private School

If all else fails and you can’t get the school to provide acceptable accommodations to meet your child’s special needs, it may be necessary to seek out a private school that is willing to meet these needs. In this case, you may be eligible to have the tuition refunded if you meet three requirements.

  1. You must show you made a reasonable effort to work with the school district. This includes going through all the necessary steps.
  2. You enrolled your child in a school that does provide the necessary accommodations that are needed for your child to learn.
  3. You submit a written request detailing your efforts and asking for reimbursement of tuition.

In this case, it will be up to the school to prove it did everything possible. If it fails to do so, you will be granted your request.


Navigating the special education system isn’t as difficult as it appears once you are aware of your rights and know the proper steps to take. It is important to become familiar with the laws within your individual state in addition to the federal laws because they vary greatly. Once armed with this information, you are your child’s greatest advocate for receiving the best possible education they are able to receive.

Don’t allow the school district to intimidate you or give you excuses such as lack of funding. Each child is just as worthy of a good, free education, regardless of the challenges they may face. Don’t give up.

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