What is special education? Special education is providing children the resources and/or supports they need to compete with other developing children their age. If there is something that impedes a child’s learning that child may qualify for special education services. The determination of a “child with a disability” has to adversely affect the child ‘s performance educationally, for the child to qualify to receive special education services or related services. The determination is made in a team approach method with the parents and educational professionals. It is important to definitely have the parents as part of the team.

Children with disabilities identified under IDEA from 3-21 ages had 7.1 million or 14 percent of public-school children represented in the school year 2018-2019 (NCES, 2020).

The largest overall category was specific learning disability with 33 percent of children within the original 14 percent. Specific Learning Disabilities means a disorder in more than one of the basic psychological processes (34 CFR 300.8). It involves the understanding or using language spoken or written that may be revealed with difficulty to listen, think, speak, read, write, spell or to do math calculations. Learning Disabilities includes conditions such as perceptual disabilities, brain injury, minimal brain dysfunction, dyslexia, and developmental aphasia (34 CFR 300.8).


The next following disability with 19 percent was speech or language impairment which means a communication disorder (NCES, 2020). It can include stuttering, impaired articulation, a language impairment or voice impairment that affects the child’s educational performance (34 CFR 300.8). The next disability has 15 percent which is other health impairment (NCES,2020). Other health impaired means having a limited strength, vitality or alertness including heightened alertness to environment stimuli (34 CFR 300.8). It can be a chronic or acute health problem such as asthma, attention deficit disorder or attention deficit disorder hyperactivity disorder, diabetes, epilepsy, a heart condition, hemophilia, lead poisoning, leukemia, nephritis, rheumatic fever, sickle cell anemia , and Tourette syndrome and it adversely affects the child’s educational performance (34 CFR 300.8).

The rest of the disabilities categories are as follows; autism (11%), developmental delays (7%) intellectual disabilities (6%), emotional disturbances (5%), multiple disabilities (2%), hearing impaired (1%), orthopedic impaired (1%), visual impairment (0.5%), traumatic brain injury (0.5%) and deaf-blindness (0.5%) (NCES,2020). Autism has constantly increased over time in the number of children identified with that disability.

Autism is on a continuum.

Autism’s is a developmental disability that significantly affects verbal and nonverbal communication and social interaction, generally evident before age three that adversely affects a child’s educational performance (34 CFR 300.8). Some other characteristics that often associate with autism are engagement in repetitive activities and stereotyped movement, resistance to environment change or change in daily routines and unusual responses to sensory experiences. (34 CFR 300.8).


A child with developmental delays are children from 3 to 9 experience developmental delays that is defined by the state in the following areas physical development, cognitive development, communication development, social or emotional development or adaptive development that is in need of special education or related services (34 CFR 300.8).


A child that has an intellectual disability means a significantly subaverage general intellectual functioning, existing concurrently with deficits in adaptive behaviors and manifested during the developmental period and that affects a child’s educational performance (34 CFR 300.8). A child with emotional disturbance means a condition exhibiting one or more of the following characteristics over a long period of time and to a marked degree that adversely affects a child’s education performance: an inability to learn that cannot be explained by intellectual, sensory or health factors. An inability to build or maintain satisfactory interpersonal relationships with peer or teachers. Inappropriate types of behavior or feelings under normal circumstances. A general pervasive mood or unhappiness or depression. A tendency to develop physical symptoms or fears associated with personal or school problems. Emotional disturbance includes schizophrenia. The term does not apply to children who are socially maladjusted unless it is determined that they have an emotional disturbance. (34 CFR 300.8).

Multiple disability is defined as concomitant impairments that the combination of which causes severe educational needs so that they cannot be classified in any one of the impairments (34 CFR 300.8). It does not include deaf blindness since there is a specific category for that disability. The rest of the categories are less than 1 percent and with low incidents. To review the definition please find in IDEA section 300.8.


Parents if you are concerned that your child is in need of special services and would like the child to be tested for “a child with a disability “there are several things you can do.

The first you can talk to your pediatrician and s/he may be able to give you a referral to a specialist and or resources. If you are still in need contact the “Child Find” system in your state. “Child Find” is part B of the IDEA which is to find children from birth through 21 in need of special services even if the child is homeschooled or in a private school (Lee, 2020). Children that are infants and toddlers are governed by the Early Intervention Regulations (34 CFR. 303.321) part C of IDEA.


The main purpose of Individuals with Disabilities Education Act is to ensure all children receive a free and appropriate public education. In addition, “Child Find” requires school districts to locate, identify and evaluate all children with disabilities from birth through 21 and that applies to all children in the state. All children that qualifies for services younger than three will have a plan called an Individualized Family Service Plan (IFSP). It is a written plan that has detail goals and processes to reach the goals and what services are needed for the child. Many times, the services are provided in the child’s home to support the development of the child and for the parents and care givers may also be given some strategies to use to assist with the child’s development.


Parents you can also make a request for evaluation for your child to see if they have a disability the best is to put it writing and contact the school administrator or the child find office. Under IDEA the evaluation needs to be completed within 60 days however states may have a shorter timeline and the state will follow its timeline (Center for Parent Information and Resources, 2017). The child is evaluated, and the assessments needs to be individualized for that child alone. All the assessments are used to determine if the child is eligible for special services. If the parents disagree with the evaluation, they have a right to take their child for an Independent Educational Evaluation and they can ask the school system to pay for it. The school district has 45 days to do the evaluations and conduct an eligibility meeting.

If the child is found to be eligible for services the system has 30 days to hold a meeting to write the Individualized Education Program (IEP) (Center for Parent Information and Resources, 2017). Remember that for an IEP meeting the system must schedule the meeting at a time and place that is agreeable to the parents and the school. Many schools like to dictate the time and place and parents you have a right to provide times that are reasonable. Many times, with the IEP meeting the team has a draft of an IEP and the services that are required. So, parents if you think your child can benefit from services speak up. For example, the team is deciding that the child needs Occupational Therapy for 2 times a week for in class support for 30 minutes. You want individual therapy state that you want induvial therapy and why. This is the time to state what you want and what you disagree with about the services. Parents may require a due process hearing or mediation if they disagree with the proposed services.


If it is decided that your child has a disability, they are now eligible for special services provided to the child free of charge.

The school district or early intervention system provides the parents with parental rights procedures and that will determine the steps to acquire mediation or due process. After the IEP is written the parents get a copy and the service must be provided to the child (Center for Parent Information and Resources, 2017). Now the child has an IEP you will receive progress reports usually with the report cards or at least that often following as non-disabled children progress. The IEP is reviewed yearly and if the IEP needs to be revised it is done during that time.

Additionally, every three years the child is reevaluated to determine if the child is still in need of special education services. Parents if at any time during the process you do not agree with something it is your right to request for mediation of due process hearing. Each state may have slightly different timelines, but all states need to follow the federal law of Individuals with Disability Education Act (IDEA). It is a big process that can be hard to understand all the needs of your child and it can be overwhelming. There are many resources online and support groups to help you through the process.


Center for Parents Information and Resources, (2017), 10 Basic steps in special education. Retrieved from: https://www.parentcenterhub.org/steps/

Gavin, M.L., (2018). Special education: Getting help for your child. Retrieved from: https://kidshealth.org/en/parents/special-ed-support.html

Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) of 2004 – 34 CFR §300.8

Lee, A. M.I., (2020) Understood.org, Child find: What it is and how it works. Retrieved from https://www.understood.org/en/school-learning/your-childs-rights/basics-about-childs-rights/child-find-what-it-is-and-how-it-works

National Center for Education Statistics, 2020 Students with disabilities. Retrieved from https://nces.ed.gov/programs/coe/indicator_cgg.asp

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Lynn Hartman

Dr. Lynn Hartman has been an educator for over 25 years. She has a doctorate in Educational Leadership from Kean University, a Master’s Degree in Special Education from Slippery Rock University and a Bachelor’s Degree in Elementary Education from Edinboro University of Pennsylvania. She has been a teacher of both regular and special education from PreK – 8th grade, principal, director, vice president and president of for-profit and non-profit educational institutions and organizations with local and national reach. She has built and managed elementary, middle and high schools.