A Parent's Dictionary

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Definitions to commonly used terms in special education that will help you navigate the special education process.


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Academic Intervention Services: Student support services which supplement instruction provided in the general curriculum and are designed to assist students in meeting State learning standards. AIS are available to students with special needs and shall be provided consistent with the student's Individualized Education Plan (IEP).

ADD/ADHD: Attention deficit disorder and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder are medical conditions characterized by a child's inability to focus, while possessing impulsivity, fidgeting and inattention.

Accommodations: Changes that allow a person with a disability to participate fully in an activity. Examples include extended time, different test format and alterations to a classroom.

Adapted Physical Education (APE): Specially designed physical education program, using accommodations designed to fit the needs of students who require developmental or corrective instruction.

Annual Review: An evaluation, conducted at least one time per year, for each child with a disability for the purposes of recommending the continuation, modification or termination of the special education program.

Assessment: Evaluation procedures used to identify a child’s needs and the family’s concerns and priorities about their child’s development.

Assistive Technology Devices and Services: Equipment and services that are approved to be used to improve or maintain the abilities of a child to function including such activities as playing, communicating or eating.

Autism: A developmental disability significantly affecting verbal and nonverbal communication and social interaction, generally evident before age three  that adversely affects a child’s educational performance. Other characteristics often associated with autism are engaging in repetitive activities and stereotyped movements, resistance to environmental change or change in daily routines and unusual responses to sensory experiences.

Behavior Intervention Plan (BIP): Special education term used to describe the written plan used to address problem behavior that includes positive behavioral interventions, strategies and support. This may include program modifications and supplementary aids and services.

Cognitive: A term that describes the process used for remembering, reasoning, understanding and making decisions.

Community Advisory Committee (CAC): A committee whose membership includes parents of school children, school personnel and representatives of the public. This committee advises school administration and local school boards regarding the plan for special education, assists with parent education and promotes public awareness of individuals with special needs.

Complaint Procedure: A formal complaint filed with the County or State Board of Education if a district violates a legal duty or fails to follow a requirement under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA).

Consent: The written approval a parent gives to the Committee on Special Education to have their child evaluated and receive services. Consent is always voluntary and a parent may revoke it at any time.

Cumulative File: The records maintained by the local school district for any child enrolled in school. The file may contain evaluations and information about a child’s disability and placement. It also contains grades and the results of standardized assessments. Parents have the right to inspect these files at any time.

Deaf-Blindness: Concomitant (simultaneous) hearing and visual impairments, the combination of which causes such severe communication and other developmental and educational needs that they cannot be accommodated in special education programs solely for children with deafness or children with blindness.

Deafness: A hearing impairment so severe that a child is impaired in processing linguistic information through hearing, with or without amplification, and adversely affects a child’s educational performance.

Designated Instructional Services (DIS): Also called Related Services. Instruction and services not normally provided by regular classes, resource specialist programs or special day classes. There are 16 DIS services available for students:

  • Speech and Language
  • Occupational and Physical Therapy (OT)
  • Adapted Physical Education (APE)
  • Hearing Services (HH)
  • Interpreting Services
  • Vision Services (VI)
  • Orientation and Mobility (OM)
  • Behavior Intervention Services (ABA)
  • Counseling and Guidance
  • Parent Counseling and Training
  • Psychological Services
  • Social Worker Services
  • Specially Designed Vocational Education
  • Recreation Services
  • Heath and Nursing Services
  • Mental Health Services
  • Counseling/Therapy—Individual, Group & Family
  • Parent Counseling and Training
  • Psychological Services

Developmental Delay: For children from birth to age 3 (under IDEA Part C) and children from ages three through nine (under IDEA Part B), the term developmental delay, as defined by each State, means a delay in one or more of the following areas: physical development, cognitive development, communication, social or emotional development or adaptive [behavioral] development.

Developmental History: Steps or stages of a child’s growth in such skills as sitting, walking and talking. This information is gathered as part of the social history requirements.

Dominant Language: The language or other mode of communication that the family normally uses. Evaluations of your child are required to be administered in the child’s dominant language.

Due Process: Procedures designed to protect a person’s rights. This includes requirements for confidentiality, consent and complaint mechanisms.

Educationally Related Support Services (ERSS): Services intended for students who are not eligible for special education services yet eligible to receive speech and counseling services.

Emotional Disturbance: 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 educational 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 peers and teachers.
  • Inappropriate types of behavior or feelings under normal circumstances.
  • A general pervasive mood of unhappiness or depression.
  • A tendency to develop physical symptoms or fears associated with personal or school problems.

The term includes schizophrenia. The term does not apply to children who are socially maladjusted, unless it is determined that they have an emotional disturbance.

Hearing Impairment: An impairment in hearing, whether permanent or fluctuating, that adversely affects a child’s educational performance but is not included under the definition of “deafness.”

Impartial Hearing: A formal process at which a family’s complaints can be heard by an impartial hearing officer who will resolve the dispute or complaint regarding the child’s evaluation, IEP or certain other issues.

Intellectual Disability: Significantly sub-average general intellectual functioning, existing concurrently (at the same time) with deficits in adaptive behavior and manifested during the developmental period, that adversely affects a child’s educational performance. Until October 2010, the law used the term “mental retardation.” In October 2010, Rosa’s Law was signed into law by President Obama, which changed the name of the term to “intellectual disability.”

Individualized Education Program (IEP): A written plan developed by the CSE which specifies the appropriate level of special education programs and services to be provided to meet the unique educational needs of a student with a disability.

Least Restrictive Environment (LRE): Placement of students with disabilities in special classes, separate schools or other removal from the regular educational environment occurs only when the nature or severity of the disability is such that even with the use of supplementary aids and services, education cannot be satisfactorily achieved.

Mediation: A method for solving a problem that uses persons trained in helping people resolve their own problems. In mediation, the school district and parent will try to reach an agreement with which both parties are satisfied.

Multiple Disabilities: Concomitant (simultaneous) impairments (such as intellectual disability-blindness, intellectual disability-orthopedic impairment, etc.), the combination of which causes such severe educational needs that they cannot be accommodated in a special education program solely for one of the impairments. The term does not include deaf-blindness.

Orthopedic Impairment: A severe orthopedic impairment that adversely affects a child’s educational performance. The term includes impairments caused by a congenital anomaly, impairments caused by disease (e.g., poliomyelitis, bone tuberculosis), and impairments from other causes (e.g. cerebral palsy, amputations and fractures or burns that cause contractures).

Occupational Therapy (OT): Services delivered by an Occupational Therapist that relate to self-help skills, adaptive behavior and play and sensory and motor and postural development.

Other Health Impairment: Having limited strength, vitality or alertness, including a heightened alertness to environmental stimuli, that results in limited alertness with respect to the educational environment, that:

  • Is due to chronic or acute health problems such as asthma, attention deficit disorder or attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, diabetes, epilepsy, a heart condition, hemophilia, lead poisoning, leukemia, nephritis, rheumatic fever, sickle cell anemia and Tourette syndrome.
  • Adversely affects a child’s educational performance.

Parent Support Group: Discussion and information-sharing meetings for parents of children with disabilities.

Pendency: A due process right that the parent and child have that allows the child and family to continue to receive services as described on the current IEP while the parent works to resolve a dispute.

Physical Therapy (PT): Services provided by a Physical Therapist that relate to large movement difficulties and related functional problems.

Reevaluation Review: A reassessment of the child’s ability and achievement within a three-year period.

Related Services: See Designated Instructional Services.

Response to Intervention (RtI): Integrates assessment and intervention within a multi-level prevention system to maximize student achievement and to reduce behavioral problems. Schools use data to identify students at risk for poor learning outcomes, monitor student progress, provide evidence-based interventions and adjust the intensity and nature of those interventions depending on a student’s responsiveness, and identify students with learning disabilities or other disabilities. This is similar to Positive Behavioral Interventions and Support (PBIS).

Section 504 Accommodation Plan: An educational plan or modifications for a student suspected of a disability that may not require special education services.

Special Education: Specially designed instruction that includes special services or programs.

Special Education Itinerant Teacher (SEIT): A preschool special education teacher who provides direct and indirect service in regular programs or a child’s home for students ages three and four.

Specific Learning Disability: A disorder in one or more of the basic psychological processes involved in understanding or in using language, spoken or written, that may manifest itself in the imperfect ability to listen, think, speak, read, write, spell or to do mathematical calculations. The term includes such conditions as perceptual disabilities, brain injury, minimal brain dysfunction, dyslexia and developmental aphasia. The term does not include learning problems that are primarily the result of visual, hearing, or motor disabilities, of intellectual disability, of emotional disturbance, or of environmental, cultural or economic disadvantage.

Speech or Language Impairment: A communication disorder such as stuttering, impaired articulation, language impairment or a voice impairment that adversely affects a child’s educational performance.

Speech Therapy (SP or ST): Services provided by a Speech and Language Pathologist that relate to delays in speech development and communication.

State Education Department (SED): Refers to the state agency that establishes education regulations and provides support to counties and school districts.

Traumatic Brain Injury: Means an acquired injury to the brain caused by an external physical force, resulting in total or partial functional disability or psychosocial impairment, or both, that adversely affects a child’s educational performance. The term applies to open or closed head injuries resulting in impairments in one or more areas, such as cognition, language, memory, attention, reasoning, abstract thinking, judgment, problem-solving, sensory, perceptual and motor abilities, psychosocial behavior, physical functions, information processing and speech. The term does not apply to brain injuries that are congenital or degenerative, or to brain injuries induced by birth trauma.

Visual Impairment Including Blindness: An impairment in vision that, even with correction, adversely affects a child’s educational performance. The term includes both partial sight and blindness.