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Special Education: An Overview

What parents should know

As a parent, it is your role to advocate for a learning environment that meets the needs of your child so that she can succeed in the classroom. If it has been determined that your child has a learning disability or if you suspect that she might, it is important that you as a parent know how the special education system works, because you are an important part of your child’s special education team. Special education law in Massachusetts mirrors the federal law called the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). The following information is a brief overview of how the special education process works and how you as a parent fit into it. There are many rules and regulations that can be confusing at times. However, there is information to help you understand the process and how it works.

Special education basics for parents

Your role as a parent. As a parent, you should be involved every step of the way in the special education process. If your child is over 14 years of age, she can and should be a part of her special education team. However, until this time, you are your child’s voice, and you should not be afraid to express both your and her goals and dreams for the future, and work with the professionals at the school and in the community to help your child achieve academic success. For more information on advocating for your child, see Wright’s Law: Advocating for Your Child.

Where to start. If your child is having trouble in school, start by initiating a conversation with his teacher. There are a variety of things that could be affecting his performance. He might have a learning disability, or, a problem at home may affect his concentration, he may have a hearing or vision problem, or something in the classroom may be bothering him. You may be able to come up with solutions to address these, such as changing seats, communicating more frequently with your child’s teacher, or give the teacher some pointers on what you do at home to get your child to listen. Or, your child may simply need some extra help in certain areas. Follow up with the teacher in a few weeks to see if there your child is showing improvement. If there is no improvement or if the problem seems severe, then it might be time to talk to the school about initiating the special education process. As a parent, you can ask for a special education evaluation at any time. If the school suggests holding your child back in the same grade for another year, you should still request an evaluation to diagnose the problem. According to the National Association of School Psychologists, there are few situations in which grade retention is helpful, and this is not an appropriate substitute for addressing your child’s struggles.

Special education evaluation. You, a teacher, or other school personnel may make a referral for a special education evaluation. Regardless of who makes the referral, parental consent is always required before the evaluation can proceed. The evaluation will determine if your child has a disability, what type, if she can to learn effectively in a regular classroom environment, and if she requires special services to facilitate learning. Before the evaluation, you can ask to speak with the appropriate school professional about what it will entail so you can prepare yourself and your child. Evaluations may include parent input, teacher observation, an interview with your child, and assessments in area such as reading and math skills, language, and behavioral/emotional development. Within 30 working days of your consent, the evaluation must be completed, and within 45 days after the evaluation, a Team meeting must be held to discuss the results. The Team will include you, at least one of your child’s regular teachers (and at least one special education teachers if applicable), someone to interpret the results and explain the services needed, someone who knows the services/resources available locally, and anyone else that you or the school invite. You mat bring a friend or an advocate. If you need an interpreter, you should request the school to provide you with one for this and any subsequent meetings. At this meeting, it will be decided whether your child is eligible for special education services. If your child is not eligible for special education services, you may still be able to provide help for him in other ways, like hiring a tutor or seeking some behavioral counseling. You also have the right to appeal the school’s finding that your child is not eligible.

The ABC's of an IEP. If your child is deemed eligible for special education services, the Team will hold a meeting to develop an Individualized Education Plan (IEP) for her. An IEP is contract between you and the school about the special education help an/or accommodations they will provide for your child. The IEP is reviewed and revised if needed by the Team at least once a year. The IEP includes the following information:

  • Your vision for your child's future
  • Summary of your child's evaluation resuls
  • Necessary accommodations for your child to access the general education curriculum
  • The educational needs of your child beyond the general curriculum (including communication needs, behavioral intervention, and other assistance)
  • Annual goals, objectives towards achieving these, and benchmarks to measure progress
  • Service delivery – what services your child needs to achieve the goals

No later than 45 days after you consent to an evaluation, you will be provided with a copy of the IEP which you have 30 days to review and sign. You may accept or reject the IEP, and must sign in either case. If you agree with the findings and services described in the IEP and you choose to accept it, your child can begin receiving the services right away. If you do not agree with the IEP, services will not be provided until the IEP is agreed upon. You can also reject certain portions of the IEP but reject other portions, in which case the accepted portions will go into effect immediately. You have the right to get your child independently evaluated if you disagree with the evaluation results. If you are income eligible, the school district may be required to pay for all or part of the cost. After the independent evaluation, the team must meet again to discuss the new results and consider all results together to make a decision.

If your child is still found ineligible and you choose to appeal this decision, you might first proceed my meeting with the school or district special education administrator. You may also choose to file a complaint which will be reviewed by the Program Quality Assurance staff at the Department of Education. Or, you may contact the Bureau of Special Education Appeals (BSEA). The BSEA is notified of all rejected IEP’s, and offers parents options including mediation or a hearing.

Once your child begins receiving special education services, you must receive a progress report as often as the school distributes report cards. The school may still provide grades and report cards so you can see your child’s progress in the regular curriculum. How your child will be evaluated should be discussed during the development of the IEP.

Your child's basic rights. According to Federal laws, even children who need special education services are entitled to a Free and Appropriate Public Education (FAPE). This means that any child is entitled to public education at no cost to the family, even if he has a learning disability, physical impairment, or any other condition that could interfere with his education. Most children with disabilities are entitled to participate in the same academic and extracurricular opportunities as other children. Along with FAPE, federal law mandates that a child with a disability should be educated in the Least Restrictive Environment (LRE) in which she can make satisfactory progress. This means that a student with any disability should be educated with peers in the same setting as he would if non-disabled if and when possible, even if certain accommodations are required. If it is determined that the student would not succeed in that setting, then the least restrictive environment in which to provide education with the necessary services must be chosen. For a detailed overview of the special education process and your involvement, take a look at A Parent’s Guide to Special Education, a publication of the Massachusetts Department of Education (DOE) and the Federation for Children with Special Needs (FCSN).

For more information and resources, visit http://www.doe.mass.edu/sped/.

This article has been reviewed by Dr. Betsy Busch, MD


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