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 website 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 factors:

  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.

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.

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.

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.