When, Where and How are Disabilities Diagnosed?

Children may be diagnosed with a disability by a medical provider or by the school district. However, one must understand that being simply diagnosed with a disability is not a guarantee of services under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). Having a disability is the first question when determining if a student qualifies. The evaluation team must also answer two additional questions:

  • Does the disability impact the child’s educational progress?
  • Does the child need specially designed instruction (which is the IDEA definition of special education)?

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How Do I Get Special Education Services for My Child with Special Needs?

When children are struggling in school, it is important to determine whether a learning, cognitive, and/or physical disability is affecting your child’s educational performance. If this is the case, your child may be eligible for special education services and related services that can help your child to succeed. This article from the Friendship Circle Blog discusses the evaluation process and your child’s legal rights in the classroom setting. Special education law is expansive and thorough. This article will serve as only a brief summary of the pertinent laws.

What is Special Education?

The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (“IDEA”) is the governing statute for the delivery of special education services, giving eligible children with disabilities the right to receive special services and assistance in school. IDEA defines special education as, “specifically designed instruction at no cost to the parents, to meet the unique needs of a child with a disability”.

Special education refers to education for students who may require additional support to be successful students in a general education classroom. Special education also refers to education for those students who will not be able to compete in a general education classroom setting.

Thus, some special education services may involve separate classrooms for students unable or unready to be in a mainstream course. Other times, special education services may help children with a particular issue. For example, students with speech delays may have speech therapy and students with physical problems might take special occupational therapy courses. This is often done on a pullout basis. A student will attend his or her regular classes but will be called out of the classroom to receive needed services.

Occasionally, students with ongoing disabilities like autism may work with a special aide in the classroom so that all work can be mainstreamed. Special education does not necessarily imply that a child’s cognitive abilities are poor. In many cases, very intelligent children receive services to help them better handle the school environment.

Who Is Eligible for Special Education Services?

Children with disabilities are eligible for special education and related services when they meet IDEA’s definition of a “child with a disability” after a full and individual evaluation by the school. There are 13 categories of eligibility which include:

1. Intellectual disabilities
2. Hearing impairment (including deafness)
3. Speech of language impairment
4. Visual impairment (including blindness)
5. Serious emotional disturbance
6. Orthopedic impairment
7. Autism
8. Traumatic brain injury
9. Other health impairment (commonly referred to as “OHI”)
10. A specific learning disability
11. Deaf-blindness
12. Multiple disabilities.

The specific criteria for each category and can be found in your specific state’s guidelines and the federal implementing regulations, 34 CFR Parts 300 and 30.

How Do I Request a Determination by the School?

A parent or guardian of a child simply needs to put into a simple letter that they are requesting their child be evaluated for special education services. In the initial letter, you may want to list the struggles your child is having or evidence of a specific disability manifesting itself.

Each school district, and typically each school, has a point person that would handle the receipt of such a request. If you do not know whom to address the request, ask your child’s teacher, counselor, or principal.

Refusal to Evaluate

Just a warning, the school does not have to evaluate your child just because you have requested it. The school may believe that your child has a disability or needs special education or related services. In that case, the school may refuse to evaluate your child. The decision not to evaluate must be given to you in writing with the reasons why the school has refused to evaluate. This is called giving you “prior written notice.” If you disagree with the decision not to evaluate, the school should provide you with materials on how to appeal the decision.

The Evaluation Process

Once the school agrees to evaluate and you have consented to the evaluation, the school must conduct the initial evaluation within 60 days of receiving parental consent. The initial evaluation must consist of procedures to determine if the child is a child with a disability and to determine the educational needs of the child.

Using Assessment Tools

The school is required to use a variety of assessment tools and strategies to gather relevant functional, developmental, and academic information about the child, including information provided by the parent(s) that may assist in determining whether the child is a child with a disability and what the content of the child’s IEP should include. The child is to be assessed in all areas related to the suspected disability, including, if appropriate, health, vision, hearing, social and emotional status, general intelligence, academic performance, communicative status, and motor abilities.

Reviewing Current Information

Further more, the evaluating team and other qualified professionals as part of an initial evaluation must review existing evaluation data on the child including evaluations and information provided by the parent(s) of the child (this would include your own observations and reports from treating physicians, psychologists and therapists); current classroom-based, local, or state assessments, and classroom-based observations, and observations by teachers and related service providers.

Upon Completion

Upon completion of the administration of the assessments and other evaluation measures, team members and the parent(s) of the child determine whether the child is a child with a disability as defined by state and federal law. The school must provide a copy of the evaluation reports and documentation of determination. Read up on the state-based eligibility requirements for the specific disability or disabilities that you believe your child has before attending this final meeting.

If your child is found to be eligible for special education services, you and the school will work together to develop an IEP.

What Happens if After Evaluation, My Child is not Deemed Eligible?

If the evaluating team decides that your child is not eligible for special education services after evaluating him or her, the school must tell you this in writing and explain why your child has been found to not be eligible to receive special education services. Under IDEA, the school must give you information about what you can do if you disagree with the decision. This includes mediation and due process. IDEA includes these mechanisms and the school is required to give you the information on how to appeal.


Entry into the world of special education can be very daunting. Acronyms and legal terms are abounding. If you believe your child has a disability that qualifies for special education services, research the issue. Come in prepared to describe and sell your child’s needs. There are many different agencies, advocates, and attorneys that can also help guide you through the process. You don’t have to do it alone. Advocating for your child in the school setting is one of the greatest gifts a parent can give a child.

Written by Michael Dorfman, an attorney and partner at Nykanen Dorfman, PLLC in Farmington Hills, Michigan. In his special education law practice, Michael represents students and their families when there is a conflict with the school district or when an appropriate education is not being provided.

Is My Child Making Progress towards IEP Goals?

By the time “Mrs. Bailey” contacted a professional to evaluate her son, she had been receiving quarterly progress reports from his public school for five years, telling her that Kevin was making progress toward achieving the academic goals listed in his Individualized Education Program (IEP). However, her observations of Kevin’s homework and the graded school work that came home didn’t match the school’s evaluation, and she wanted a psychologist to provide a “second opinion.” The outside evaluation confirmed his mother’s concerns — he had deficits in math calculation and written expression skills. In fact, Kevin’s written expression skills were severely delayed and fell in the first percentile — meaning that 99 percent of students his age performed better on the test. Naturally, Mrs. Bailey felt astonished, frustrated, and guilty about not realizing Kevin’s lack of progress sooner in his schooling.

Parents of children with learning disabilities (LD) who are receiving special education services receive regular reports of progress on their children’s IEP goals, as mandated by the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act of 2004 (IDEA). Often these progress reports don’t really provide parents specific information, based on assessment data, as to whether their child is making progress or not.

There are several key factors that can have a positive impact on determining whether or not a child makes real, measurable progress. These include:

  •  a comprehensive evaluation that identifies a child’s strengths and weaknesses; and appropriately identifies a child’s educational needs
  •  explicitly stated present levels of performance
  •  appropriate and measurable goals/objectives
  •  effective instructional methods, and
  • continuous progress monitoring

Ask a parent how their child’s progress toward goals and objectives is being monitored and reported to them, and most often the response is “I’m not sure” or “I don’t know.” As in Mrs. Bailey’s case, it can be years before parents realize that their child is not making progress — or that the achievement gap between their child and his peers has actually widened while receiving special education services. So, how can you really know if your child is making progress? What should you do if you don’t think your child is “making expected progress” toward IEP goals and objectives?
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9 Things Every Parent Should Know About the “10 Day Rule”

Sometimes, a little knowledge is a dangerous thing. Consider, for example, the widespread belief that there is a ten day limit on the number of days that a child with disabilities can be suspended from school. As with many widespread beliefs, the common version of the rule is only partially true. Here are nine things that every parent should know about the so-called “ten-day” rule and the laws governing the suspension of children with disabilities who are entitled to services under IDEA:

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Writing IEP Goals

Creating an IEP with a team of people who are all there to design a good educational program for one unique child can be a pleasure. It can also be very productive. When the whole team has the same level of understanding about IEPs, it is even better. Sounds like crazy talk? Just ask those who have seen it happen. The big winner here is the child.

A Lesson in Writing IEP Goals

An IEP is good educational programming. Good IEPs set the standard for good education. Each part of the IEP addresses an important part of educational planning. The IEP team focuses on the unique educational needs of an individual student. The goals reflect the child’s needs. Designing well-formed goals is an important part of writing an IEP.

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5 Common Techniques for Helping Struggling Students

Teachers know that students walk into their classrooms with a wide range of abilities. But teachers try to find ways to meet the needs of all students, including those with learning and attention issues. Here are five common teaching methods.

1. Differentiated Instruction

With this approach, teachers change and switch around what students need to learn, how they’ll learn it, and how to get the material across to them. When a student struggles in one area, the teacher creates a plan that includes extra practice, step-by-step directions, and special homework. Find out more about differentiated instruction.
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Protections for Students Not Yet Identified as Eligible for Special Education

The parent may assert any of the IDEA protections (i.e. manifestation determination, due process hearing, mediation, complaint, and functional behavior assessment) if the LEA has knowledge that the student is a student with a disability before the behavior that precipitated the disciplinary action occurs. When a parent asserts IDEA protections, the LEA must determine if it has a basis of knowledge or not.
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Identifying Struggling Students

Early and accurate identification of learning disabilities and ADHD in schools can set struggling students on a path for success. But identification can be influenced by many factors—and too often is not happening early enough.

Not all children with learning and attention issues are identified in school as having a disability.

Students who are identified by schools as having a disability may qualify for one of two types of assistance. An Individualized Education Program (IEP) provides specially designed instruction, accommodations, modifications and related services such as speech-language therapy to students who qualify for special education. A 504 plan provides accommodations and related services to general education students who are identified with a disability but who do not need special education.

Students with IEPs or 504 plans are protected from discrimination. Schools are also required to report certain data on students who are identified as having disabilities, such as how many repeat a grade, receive out-of-school suspensions or graduate on time.

But many of the 1 in 5 children with learning and attention issues are not formally identified with a disability. When these children receive the right interventions and informal supports, many can succeed in general education. Without enough support, however, children with unidentified disabilities may not reach their full potential and risk falling behind and having to repeat a grade. This could lead to other problems, including dislike of school, absenteeism and dropping out.

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Inadequate IEPs and a Child’s Placement in the Least Restrictive Environment (LRE)

PRN note: While this was written for New Jersey parents, the basic concepts apply in all states. The second factor listed is from a fifth Circuit Court case against a Texas school.

An inadequate IEP will make it difficult to consider any child’s placement in an organized way. To assist schools and parents, the department has developed and widely distributed a model form that addresses all the required IEP components.

Next, each placement option is examined not only as it currently exists, but also as it might be modified. Then, each educational placement option is examined in sequence from least restrictive to most restrictive.

Regular class placement is examined as the first option. In New Jersey, the decision-making process must include the three factors of the Oberti decision now incorporated into code and begins with consideration of placement in the regular classroom. Does this mean that each child must be placed in the regular classroom before other placement options are considered? The answer is no. The requirement for a continuum of placement options reinforces the importance of an individualized inquiry, not a “one size fits all” approach, in determining what placement is the least restrictive environment for each student with disabilities.

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Using the School Years to the Max!

Public school is the last mandated service that a student with a disability can access. After graduation, a person must apply to get services and supports and prove eligibility through income as well as disability. Public school is the last opportunity for free education, with a wide range of modifications and a requirement for parent input. Make the most of public school services as you plan for your youth’s transition to adulthood. Here are a few ideas to consider while you and your youth plan in the school setting:

Create a vision for the future. Ask for a planning session at school to discuss your youth’s future. Many districts have planning tools and interest/vocational inventories in place to help with this process. Invite your youth, family and friends, as well as relevant school staff, to your planning meeting. Be sure that you are clear on when your youth will graduate (ask staff to explain graduation options) and that your youth has a voice at the meeting.

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