Delving into the world of special education can feel a bit like falling down the rabbit hole.
There are so many papers to sign, meetings to attend, and numbers to sort through. It can be easy to get lost in all that procedure. The most important objective for the entire team — parents, teachers, and administrators — is to get the child what she needs to be successful in school. Here’s a rundown of what you need to know as you begin the special education evaluation process.
Anyone can request an evaluation — including you — but the school is mostly likely to agree to one if your child is in the bottom 15 percent of her class. Most schools will have already begun some interventions — like giving more time or altering assignments — and found that the student continues to struggle, even with this assistance.
In some states, schools use a Response to Intervention system, according to which a child can’t be evaluated until such interventions have been tried. This is a beneficial system in some ways, but it also presents certain challenges. For example, if a child is several grade levels behind in reading and needs specialized instruction, there is no “fast track" to getting her those services. If a school doesn’t use this system, then it probably uses the Deficit Model, which requires that the student be evaluated in order to compare scores and provide proof of a deficit. If there is a significant deficit in reading, then the child could qualify for services.
If the school agrees to conduct an evaluation, there is no cost to you as the parent. It is the school’s responsibility to provide a free and appropriate public education — “appropriate" being the key word. If the general classroom is not appropriate for your child, the school has to find out what is appropriate — and that means paying for the necessary testing. The school also arranges for the necessary doctors, puts together a report, and makes recommendations based on the information ascertained.
School administrators will have you attend a meeting to discuss your concerns and theirs. They may have some idea about what the problem may be, and they will go over the game plan with you. They will explain the different tests to be conducted and what they may be looking for. The school should review your rights as a parent and offer you a printed copy of those rights. It cannot proceed with the evaluation without signed consent from you.
The tests given to your child will depend on the school’s hypothesis about your child’s deficit. If a child struggles in math alone — and no other subject — the school may guess that the problem is a learning disability in math, and accordingly conduct mainly academic tests with an IQ test. If the problem is sitting still and completing work, the school may guess that the issue is an attentional problem. In this case, the school would test for academic achievement, cognitive abilities (IQ), and executive functioning to determine the student's ability to focus, plan, and organize.
The information gathered will come from you, as well. You may have to complete an interview, which is likely to include a discussion about your child’s developmental history; this can feel very personal. Questions often include whether the pregnancy was normal and whether the child has ever experienced a trauma. The school will probably send you some homework, such as checklists, which you should complete quickly and to the best of your ability.
Once the testing has been completed, another meeting will be called — legally, no more than 60 calendar days after consent has been signed — to review the evaluation results and decide whether your child qualifies for specialized services. Looking at the data, the team may take the following three steps:
Teachers do not diagnose; they can only use data from evaluations to decide whether a child fits into a certain category of need. These include Learning Disabilities, Speech and Language Disabilities, Emotional Disturbances, Autism Spectrum Disorders, or Other Health Impairments — a broad category that includes Attention Deficit Disorders.
Demonstrating adverse effect means showing that the disability has significantly affected your child’s ability to participate in school.
This is the key difference between general education and special education — any child can get accommodations, like more time on a test or the use of a pencil grip. Some children with disabilities can improve their performance with accommodations, and they are put on 504 plans because they don’t need different instruction. The 504 plan ensures that children get the accommodations they need to be successful with the same instruction as everyone else.
Kids who qualify for special education need specialized instruction that is different from that provided in a typical classroom — such as a more hands-on approach to math that targets holes the student may have in her foundational skills. If the team ascertains that there is a need for a more individualized intervention, they will give your child an IEP, or Individualized Education Plan, which lays out the services and goals that the team has for your child’s education.
Learn more about how an IEP works by reading What Services Are Public Schools Required to Provide to Children With Learning Disabilities?
If you don’t feel that the testing really reflects your child’s abilities, or if the testing was not complete, you can request an outside evaluation at the school’s expense — as long as you submit the request prior to beginning the evaluation.
You also have 10 days to reflect on the team’s decision before the school implements the IEP (unless you’ve waived your right to that time). If, later, you feel that you were pressured into agreeing to an IEP with which you disagree, you can revoke consent. In fact, you have the right to revoke consent at any time. If you decide you don’t want the specialized services anymore, you can halt them.
You don’t have the right to tell teachers how to deliver those services, because their job is to use their professional knowledge and experience to decide what best meets your child’s needs. If you're not comfortable with something, most teachers will be flexible to a certain extent — but legally, they have the final say.
Learn how to support your child further by reading My Child Was Diagnosed With A Learning Disability: What Next?