What do I need to know about special education services for my child?

Some sections adapted from a May 2010 commentary by Neel Soares, MD

What is a "Section 504 plan?"

Section 504 is a civil rights law that prohibits discrimination against individuals with disabilities. Section 504 ensures that the child with a disability has equal access to an education. The child may receive accommodations and modifications depending on his/her needs, such as:

  • Tailoring homework assignments
  • Extra time for testing
  • Preferential seating
  • Supplementing verbal instructions with visual instructions
  • Organizational assistance
  • Using behavioral management techniques
  • Modifying test delivery

What is an IEP?

An Individualized Education Plan (IEP)is an individualized plan for a public school child who receives special education and related services. It's developed as a team effort between the teacher, principal, special education teacher, school psychologist, and the family. It is implemented when the parents sign it. Progress toward specific goals are measured and reported to parents. The IEP is reviewed every year, and is re-evaluated every three years (or sooner if needed.)

What's the difference between a 504 plan and an IEP, and how do I know which one my child should get?

The 504 plan is considered a modification of regular education, while the IEP is part of receiving special education services. A 504 can be implemented faster and more simply, while an IEP is more comprehensive. An IEP permits broader, more comprehensive, and more expensive services not available in a 504. It is also monitored more formally and requires more parental participation. Some children can be best served by a 504 plan and others are best served by an IEP: it depends on the child and his disability.

What is RTI (Response to Intervention) ?

RTI refers to methods of providing assistance to kids who are struggling in school without (and/or before) referring them to special ed services.   RTI is beneficial because it allows the child to get extra/different services before he/she fails.  There are generally three "tiers" or "levels" to RTI.

See How Can Parents Be Involved in the RTI Process? at Response to Intervention (RTI): A Primer for Parents for important questions to ask if the school recommends RTI for your child.

Note that according to federal law, RTI cannot be used to delay or deny special ed services.   As Wrightslaw says,
"Response to Intervention (RTI) and an educational evaluation to determine eligibility for special education run concurrently. They are two different trains running on two different tracks at the same time."

The school said my child needs a diagnosis in order to continue getting services. Can you give me one now?

The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) does not require a child to be "diagnosed" before receiving special education. Disability classification (1 of 13 classes including speech-language, specific learning disability, autism, and emotional behavior disability) and medical diagnoses are not the same. The IEP team determines whether the child has an eligible disability, and a medical diagnosis is not necessary to obtain or continue getting IEP-driven services. The exception is "developmental delay," which ages out when the child turns 9. At this time, a more specific diagnosis must be given for the child to continue to receive services.

My child has been denied services.  I don't think the reason is a good one.  What should I do?

Understood.org has a great article addressing this question.

My child has ADHD, and the teacher told me if he doesn't get on medication, he can't stay in class. Is the school allowed to do that?

No. The IDEA 2004 revision prohibits personnel from requiring a child to be medicated to attend school, be evaluated, or get services. The school is obligated to consider a behavior plan.

My child is going to be held back this year. What should I do?

The IEP team can make the determination for grade retention ("holding back a year.") However, parents can challenge the retention decision, especially if they feel retention was the result of the student not receiving the services specified in the IEP.

On the other hand, if your child is being retained, but no one has discussed evaluation for special ed services, you should ask questions!   As many as 38.2% of K/1 retainees, who continued to demonstrate substantial academic difficulties and almost surely would have qualified for an IEP, did not receive one (Arch Pediatr Adolesc Med. 2009;163(6):547-553).

If the school recommends retention without suggesting special ed service evaluation, they anticipate the child will do better the second time without being taught differently.  While this may be appropriate in some cases (like children who are being retained because of excessive absences or behavioral problems), it will not help kids who have learning challenges.

Many times parents get contradictory messages from the school, such as "Your child did "too well" in RTI to get special ed," but "Your child did not do well enough in school this year to go to the next grade."  Ask questions: If RTI was truly successful, then why did the child not pass the grade?

Where can I find out more about my child's rights to special education services?

Wrightslaw.com is an excellent resource for giving you information about how to effectively advocate for your child's educational needs in the school system.

For more information regarding how to access services through the school system visit LD Navigator.