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Families are children's best advocates, but getting started with the special education process can be daunting. The right resources and support can help make it a little easier.


Special Education Guide

This guide provides information and tips for families new to the special education system.

What is Special Education?

Children with special needs have rights to services in school under federal and state laws. Special education is a set of services, rather than a specific “place” for your child to go. The general education classroom is considered the least restrictive environment (LRE) for most kids. Almost six million students in the U.S. receive special education services under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). Most special education students spend the majority of the day in general education classrooms.

How do I determine if my child has special needs?

As a parent, you may request an evaluation of your child to determine his or her needs for special education and/or related services. The result of the evaluation determines your child's eligibility to receive a range of services under applicable laws. Your child’s evaluation must be conducted by a trained and knowledgeable individual. The evaluation must cover all areas related to the suspected disability, offered in your child's native language and conducted at no cost to you. If you disagree with the evaluation, you have the right to take your child for an Independent Educational Evaluation (IEE) and you may request that the school system pay for this IEE.

What are the types of services available to my special needs child?

There are several different settings that a student can receive the services that he/she will need:

  • Restrictive-Supportive-Self Contained Class: A Special Day Class (SDC) which is quite small with no more than 8-10 students based on the age in which the students are in that classroom all day with a credentialed special education teacher and usually there are paraprofessionals also in that class.
  • Resource (RSP): Classes that a student will need some extra help in a subject matter and they will attend that class a certain number of minutes and days per week.
  • Special Day (SDC): Classes that do not require the student to be self-contained all day but a certain number of minutes and days per week.
  • Push In: Classes that the student is in a general education class with added support for a certain number of minutes and days per week.
  • Push Out: Classes where the student is pulled out for the added support for a certain number of minutes and days per week.
  • Small group: Service given in a small group for the students to have interaction with each other.
  • Designated instructional services (DIS) are usually pull-out individual and small group services.
  • Supplementary services on an IEP are to help the student with:
    • Use of large print
    • Use of calculator
    • More time for testing
    • Read instructions out loud
    • Consult time with teacher
    • Needs to sit in the front of the room, etc.

What is a school psychologist’s role?

School psychologists collaborate with educators, parents and other professionals to create safe, healthy and supportive learning environments. Their job is to help children and youth succeed academically, socially, behaviorally and emotionally, and they work to strengthen connections between home, school and the community for all students.

For a more detailed explanation of the role of a school psychologist and how they can help your student and family, visit the National Association of School Psychologist’s webpage, “What is a School Psychologist?

How do I begin the special education process?

The first process is the teacher requests a Student Study Team (SST) meeting to discuss concerns with a student. The SST may decide to move forward on an assessment. The second process is a parent request, outlined below:

  • Parent/guardian writes a letter requesting assessment for child. In the request, include the child’s name, birthdate, grade level and why you are requesting an assessment. Also include contact numbers for staff to contact. Parent takes letter to school. The school has 15 days to contact parent.
  • Once contacted by school, an assessment consent form is sent home to parent/guardian for signature. Parents then send back assessment form immediately, as there is then 60 days from date signed to complete the assessment and hold an IEP meeting.
  • The assessment team is usually the school nurse, special education teacher, school psychologist, speech and language therapist (if needed) along with the general education teacher.
  • A notice of meeting will be sent home to set up the IEP meeting between the parents/guardians and the IEP team.
  • At the IEP meeting, introductions are made, Procedural Safeguards: Parents’ Rights should be gone over and the purpose of the meeting should be discussed. The different reports of the assessment team will be gone over with the parents. The team should also discuss the child’s present levels of cognition and academic performance.
  • A discussion of goals, team members concerns, services and placement will take place. Once everyone is in agreement, the IEP should be signed by all parties. If a member of the team was unable to make the meeting there should be an Excusal Form for the parent to sign and it should be attached to the IEP.
  • A copy of the IEP and all of the reports should be given to the parents.
  • At any time, if a parent is concerned about services or goals, they may request a meeting and an amendment to alter services may be written.

What is an Individual Education Program (IEP)?

IDEA requires children to have an Individualized Education Program (IEP) in order to receive special education services under the law. The IEP includes information about a child’s present levels of performance on various tests and measures and includes information about goals and objectives, specifically how your child’s educational problems will be addressed. The purpose of the IEP is to set reasonable learning goals for your child and to state the services that the school district will provide.

What do I bring to my child’s IEP meeting?

Parents may want to prepare a binder of materials for their child’s IEP meeting. Depending on how much material you have, parents should organize the material into sections or tabs for ease of use. The binder or folder should contain:

  • All assessments and/or evaluations on your child.
  • Copies of all previous IEP meetings.
  • Work samples from your child.
  • Any letters from the teacher and/or school board.
  • Report cards and test results from previous terms and years.
  • Any negative or positive feedback in writing from a teacher.
  • If your child is reading and/or writing, samples of the level of reading and examples of writing.
  • Medical reports.

Who attends the IEP meeting?

The IEP must be developed with input from the following IEP team members:

  • At least one of the child’s parents
  • At least one regular education teacher
  • At least one of the child’s special education teachers or providers
  • A representative of the school district who is qualified, knowledgeable and authorized to commit the district to the delivery of resources to the child
  • A qualified professional who can interpret the evaluation of child
  • Others at the discretion of the parent or the school district and, where appropriate, the child with a disability

What questions should parents ask about special education instruction and assessment?

  • What kinds of assessments are offered in my state?
  • What kinds of responses does each assessment require (e.g., multiple choice, short answers)?
  • What kind of instruction has my child had?
  • Has my child received instruction in grade-level academic content?
  • Was the instruction evidence-based and of high quality?

What are parent rights in special education?

There are several provisions within IDEA safeguarding parental involvement in education. Parents have the right to be actively involved in the development of their child’s IEP. Parents have the right to be notified of the IEP meeting early enough to ensure that one or both of the child’s parents have an opportunity to attend. Parents also have the right to have the IEP meeting scheduled at a mutually agreed time and the right to an interpreter if their native language is not English. IDEA also includes language that allows parents and the Local Education Agency (LEA) to agree to use alternative means of meeting participation such as video conferences or conference calls.

What are the procedural safeguards for parents?

The Notice of Procedural Safeguards is required under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act and must be provided to you:

  • When you ask for a copy of an IEP
  • The first time your child is referred for a special education assessment
  • Each time you are given an assessment plan to evaluate your child
  • Upon receipt of the first state or due process complaint in a school year
  • When the decision is made to make a removal that constitutes a change of placement

How Do I establish a Special Needs Committee for my PTA unit?

  • Discuss the idea with your local PTA president, executive board and school principal 
  • If the PTA board decides to form a special needs committee, the president should select a committee chairman who:  
    • Is knowledgeable about and sensitive to children with special needs
    • Works in a constructive way with school staff and parents
    • Is a PTA member

Can my child participate in physical education classes?

Adaptive physical education (APE) is a federally mandated component of special education services [U.S.C.A. 1402 (25)] and ensures that physical education is provided to the student with a disability as part of the child's special education services. This modified, physical education program is designed to meet the individualized gross motor needs, or other disability-related challenges, of an identified student. The program can be provided one-on-one, in a small group, or within the general physical education setting. The APE instructor needs to be trained in assessing and working with special needs children. Lesson plans, rubrics, and worksheets need to be adapted for the needs of the children. The APE teacher is a direct service provider, as contrasted with physical or occupational therapists. These therapies are considered related services and are provided to the child with disabilities only if he/she needs them to benefit from instruction.

Is there a special artist category in the PTA Reflections Program?

The National PTA has launched a fifth division of the Reflections program—the Special Artist Division. This is a non-graded division limited to students whose physical, cognitive or mental health challenges meet the guidelines set forth in the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).