According to the U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics, during the school year 2012-2013, almost 13 percent of children enrolled in public school received some form of specialized education. These include children who have been identified as having a disability that is interfering with their education; where there are many more students with informal behavior plans or accommodations that have been agreed upon by the teacher and parent.

What is IDEA? The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) is a law that has been amended several times, most recently in 1990, that includes six major principles to assure that all children with disabilities are provided free and appropriate public education which meet their needs.
1. Every and all children between the ages of 6 and 17 with disabilities must be served by the local public school district; if education is provided to ages before or after these ages, then the state must provide education services to children with disabilities within those age ranges.
2. Testing and evaluation must be free from discrimination or bias based on race, culture, language, or disability. The testing must be comprehensive and determine whether special education is appropriate for the child.
3. The education provided is at no cost to the family and provided at public expense. An individualized education plan is to be set forth explaining the nature of the disability.
4. This education is also to be provided in the least restrictive environment possible, meaning that students with disabilities should participate to the most extent with nondisabled peers in academic, elective, and other activities during the school day.

5. Safeguards must be put into effect to protect the child and their family’s rights during the evaluation process.  Consent must be obtained by the legal guardian prior to beginning the evaluation and for all decisions impacting the educational needs of the child. Parents have the right to disagree with the school’s evaluation and have an  independent evaluation completed.
6. Parents and students with disabilities are to be part of the evaluation process and implementation of special education services.

PRE-REFERRAL INTERVENTIONS: Prior to requesting a formal evaluation for your child, there may be meetings with the teacher, principal, and/or counselor in an informal problem solving process. These meetings are designed to provide academic or behavioral interventions that can be put into place immediately to assist the child and teacher. This decreases the chances that a child is identified as requiring special education services when they may not be disabled. These pre-referral evaluations are not to be used in replacement of a formal evaluation, yet to create an environment where the child and teacher can be successful with the least amount of restrictions in their environment.

When it is reasonable to request an evaluation for your child from their school?
• Your child is consistently struggling to keep up with grade level academics
• Your child is having difficulty in one specific area (math, reading)
• Interventions in the classroom or at home have not improved child’s performance
• Your child has received a mental health or medical diagnosis from a provider outside of the school

EVALUATIONS: Either the teacher, principal, counselor, or parent can request for a student to be formally tested and evaluated for special education services. The parent must be notified of the request and consent to the testing procedures. Or, if the parent is requesting an evaluation, the request has to be made in writing to the school administration. School psychologists are unable to diagnose certain mental health or medical conditions and may refer you to your primary care physician. An example of a sample letter for requesting an evaluation is available at

The evaluation will consist of multiple testing tools that assess cognitive, behavioral, developmental, and physical domains. These tests are then scored and reviewed by the evaluation team to determine strengths, weaknesses, and if the child has a disability that is requiring special education services.

INDIVIDUALIZED EDUCATION PROGRAM (IEP): If the evaluation reveals that the student does have a disability that is interfering with their educational performance and there is a need for special education services, an individualized education program (IEP) is created to determine what services are needed, who is involved in the education plan, and when these accommodations will be provided to the student. There are specific disabilities that are required for a student to receive services under IDEA; these include autism, blindness, deafness, emotional disturbance, hearing impairment, intellectual disability, multiple disabilities, orthopedic impairment, other health impairment, specific learning disability, speech or language impairment, traumatic brain injury, and/or visual impairment.

Important notes about an IEP:
• The IEP team meets within 30 days of the student being determined eligible for services.
• Participation includes parents and student as appropriate.
• The team must include the student’s parent, general education teacher, and the school’s special education teacher.  There might be additional members present such as speech teacher, therapist, counselor, or principal.
• It is uniquely tailored to the student’s needs including instruction, related services (occupational therapy, physical therapy, speech), any assistive technology needs (iPad, keyboard), and any other services to meet the student’s needs related to their disability.
• Measurable yearly goals, including current benchmark and short term goals.
• Goals must be specific, measurable, achievable, and time limited.
• Services which will allow the student to be included in the general academic curriculum, extracurricular, and other nonacademic time (recess, lunch).
• If, when, and how the student will participate in state and district testing standards.
• A behavior plan needs to be in place, if necessary.
• At the age of 14, the child’s plan must have inclusion of transition services.
• The cost and availability of these interventions will not determine eligibility. If child is eligible for specific interventions, they must be provided by the school district at no cost, even if provided at alternative locations.
• The IEP must be formally reviewed annually to determine if the goals set forth have been met, any modifications in academic, placement, or services need to be arranged, or if the student’s disability continues to impact their education.

504 PLAN: Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 (504 Plan) is a federal civil rights law that prohibits  discrimination based on disability. If a student has a disability but does not require an IEP, they might receive a 504 plan instead that addresses how their disability impacts their ability to learn and function in the educational environment. The 504 plan includes details of any accommodations in the social, organizational, or academic aspects of the student’s education and can be used in a wider variety of situations that are not covered by an IEP. The school can put together a team for a 504 plan, but the members might vary. An informal written document of one to two pages is usually representative of a 504 plan and will include accommodations provided by the school, who is providing the services, and the responsible person who will follow through on implementation of the services. Achievable goals do not have to be included in a 504 plan.

WORKING TOWARDS THE SAME GOAL: Keep in mind that everyone on the team should be working towards the goal of creating the most effective learning environment for your child to meet their educational goals. Constant and consistent communication between parent and teacher should be emphasized and should be supportive for the student. •
Jennifer Woodworth is a licensed clinical psychologist in private practice in Vista, CA. She has worked in the mental health field for seven years. Her husband is retired from the Marine Corps and she has three children ages six, eight, and ten.

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