There are many ideas and
misconceptions about special education and what it means for children. And although
schools and school systems have different ways of serving children based on
state and local laws, this article provides a general overview of what special
education is and how families can advocate for their children.  

What Is Special Education?

In its simplest form,
special education is a system of individualized support designed to help
students make meaningful progress in school. It is not available to every child
and is specifically for students who have an educational disability. Check out this
for information about the
educational disability categories recognized by federal law.  If you have further questions about these
categories, contact your child’s principal or assistant principal. 

How Do I Know if My Child
Needs Special Education?

Regardless of the state in
which you live, receiving special education support generally depends on three

  1. The presence of a condition or disorder;
  2. Significant educational impact; and
  3. The need for specially designed instruction (special
    education) to ensure access to the curriculum

If all these conditions are
met, typically after children have been evaluated by a team of professionals
(e.g., school psychologists, speech pathologists), they are eligible to receive
special education and, as a result, an individualized education program (IEP)
is developed. An IEP is a legally binding document that provides specific
details about what students will receive at school (e.g., specialized reading
instruction, behavior or emotional support, social skills intervention, having
their tests read aloud) to ensure they will make progress. The beauty of IEPs
is that they are tailored to meet students’ unique needs and can be updated as those
needs change.

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Having evaluated many
students, we believe some children have educational disabilities and require
special education. On the other hand, most students have weaknesses that can be
appropriately supported without an IEP. It is also worth noting that if a child
has been diagnosed with a condition (e.g., attention deficit hyperactivity disorder,
commonly referred to as ADHD) by their pediatrician or another community-based clinician,
this does not automatically mean that the child needs special education
services. This is often very confusing for families. As we mentioned earlier, the
key is significant educational impact and the student’s need for specialized
services to access the curriculum. These decisions are not always easy to make and
require schools and families to work together as educational partners in the
best interest of children.

One of the biggest myths is
that special education is the only way to help young people in school. Whether
it’s teachers who think IEPs are necessary to meet their students’ needs or
families who are reluctant to believe their children will be adequately served without
special education support, these feelings are excellent opportunities for
schools to explain the range of services that are available to all students.
For example, teachers are trained to adapt their instruction and behavior
management practices to meet their students’ needs. Because public school classrooms
often have students with a range of skills and abilities, effective teachers
naturally make adjustments so all children have the opportunity to make
progress. These modifications might include working with children in small
groups, using visuals to support concepts, breaking assignments into smaller
sections or allowing their pupils to take frequent breaks. Although these accommodations
typically do not require an IEP, students’ needs are still being met.

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When families know what is
available to their children, not only will they be more informed advocates, but
they will also be in a better position to work collaboratively with teachers
and other educators. In fact, more than having their children identified with a
disability, parents and caregivers simply want them to receive the help that
they deserve.

What Should Families Do?

Although families have the
legal right to request an evaluation to determine if their child has an
educational disability, consider the ideas below if you have concerns about
your child’s performance in school.

  1. Communicate with your child’s teacher. Open and honest dialogue is always the best way to approach situations concerning your child’s education. These discussions can help teachers understand your child and make adjustments to meet their needs.
  2. Request a meeting with your child’s teacher and other school-based professionals. After sharing your concerns with your child’s teacher, it may be appropriate to meet with a team of school-based specialists (e.g., school psychologist, school counselor, school social worker, reading specialist). Problem-solving teams are very common and extremely valuable to help determine what is in the child’s best interest. By gathering information from those who know children best, problem-solving teams can brainstorm additional ways to help children that may not require an IEP.
  3. Ask the problem-solving team about other ways to support their needs. After teachers and other professionals have tried to assist your child using a variety of strategies and progress continues to be slow, it may be appropriate to discuss other options. By carefully considering each child’s unique characteristics, problem-solving teams can recommend what should happen next, including an evaluation to determine if the student has an educational disability and requires special education services.
  4. Ask questions, and don’t feel
    pressured to sign anything until you are comfortable with what your child’s
    school is recommending
    . As a parent or guardian, nothing
    happens to your child without your permission. Take as much time as you need to
    fully understand the pros and cons of what your child’s school is proposing.
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Knowing that there are multiple ways to help your child
succeed and that each child may need different resources to ensure success is
important. Although special education is one path to success, it is definitely
not the only route.

Charles Barrett, Ph.D., NCSP, is lead school psychologist with Loudoun County Public Schools and an adjunct lecturer in the Graduate School of Education at Howard University.  Follow him on Twitter @_charlesbarrett and Instagram @charlesabarrett using #itsalwaysaboutthechildren.

Desiree Vyas, Ph.D., NCSP, is a school psychologist and faculty member with Loudoun County (Virginia) Public Schools’ APA-accredited doctoral internship program in Health Service Psychology. Follow her on Twitter @DesireeVyas and Instagram @desiree_vyas.

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