How to Get Special Education Services for Your Child

For parents interested in how to get special education services, also know as the IEP (Individualized Educational Plan) process, started for their child and then what to do once it’s implemented, Julie Hagy-Hancock was a wealth of information at our September HillTOPICS forum.

In order for a student to qualify for an IEP they must have a disability that negatively impacts their education. In the case of students with dyslexia, that disability is called a Specific Learning Disability and to qualify for services a student must perform at the 12th percentile or below. (For ADHD, the disability is called “Other Health Impairment” which among other things, refers to alertness).

If a parent suspects that their child may qualify for an IEP, they can make a referral IN WRITING (on paper, not email, and deliver it by hand or certified mail) to the principal of their child’s school. Teachers or other educational professionals may also start this process. Once your referral is received you will be asked to sign a Consent for Evaluation. Make sure you understand what assessments will be performed before signing this document. After you have signed, the school has 60 calendar days to conduct the evaluation and gather information.

Parents may also give the school an evaluation that they obtained from a private educational assessment service or provider. The school must consider this data, but does not have to accept it. However, Julie stated that most of the time the school will accept the information from the private evaluation into the eligibility determination.

One of the benefits of obtaining a private evaluation is that they are usually much more comprehensive and thorough than what the school performs.

Once the evaluation is completed an IEP eligibility meeting is held where the team (including teachers, administrators, other educational professionals, and parents) decides whether or not the child qualifies for special education services. Parents are welcome to bring friends to this meeting and can also bring consultants, such as Julie, or request that specific teachers, who might have a different perspective on their child, attend.

Parents should know that they are allowed to disagree at any time during this process, and if they do, they should put their disagreement in writing, including if they disagree with the recommendation of the IEP team.

If the team decides that your child meets criteria for eligibility for special education services, they have 30 days to put together an IEP. Components of the plan include accommodations and modifications, goals, special education services, and related services such as occupational therapy, speech and language therapy, and mental health services when applicable. Julie encourages parents to review the IEP after the meeting with a spouse, friend, or consultant. You do not have to finalize the plan at the meeting.

An alternative to an IEP is a 504 plan. Children who do NOT qualify for an IEP, are eligible for this type of plan if they have a disability which significantly affects one or more life functions, including learning. Students who qualify for a 504 do not receive special education services, but do qualify for accommodations allowing them equal access to a free appropriate public education (FAPE). For students who do not require special education services, but could benefit from accommodations, the 504 plan is most appropriate.

If your child receives accommodations, either through an IEP or 504 plan, Julie recommends that these accommodations be mandatory, not “as needed” or “when necessary” since this type of language makes the accommodations arbitrary and the student may lose access to them if they don’t use them. The school should also document when the the accommodations are used since this becomes crucial when applying for accommodations for college entrance exams such as the SAT and ACT.

For students receiving special education services via an IEP, progress reports and reviews are conducted regularly to indicate whether or not the student has made progress toward their goals. Goals should be “SMART”, specific, measurable, action oriented, realistic, and time-limited. So instead of saying “improve reading skills” the goal should address how many words per minute at a specific reading level, and/or specific achievements in fluency rate, decoding skill, or comprehension. Baseline data should be included so that improvement can be measured. Julie recommends making sure that your child’s goals are robust, but to remember that the school only has to show progress. They don’t have to help your child reach their potential.

Parents do not have to accept progress reports that do not show sufficient progress and/or have the data to backup their claims. Julie encourages parents to document their disagreements and to request a meeting based on a progress report if the parent has concerns or questions.

Before any meeting regarding your child’s IEP or 504, request a copy of all the test results, evaluations, and other data that the team will be presenting so that you can review it beforehand and clarify any questions you may have. Write down your thoughts before the meeting since these meetings can be emotional and it’s easy to forget to address important points.

During the meeting ask questions of the team members. You have a right to understand everything they are discussing. Ask them to explain special education terminology and acronyms. Also, feel free to offer suggestions. You have a unique knowledge of your child and your insights and experiences can help the team build effective supports within the IEP. Don’t hesitate to bring in outside support. You do not have to inform the team that you are bringing a friend or consultant.

Also, include your child! He or she may have helpful suggestions that will improve the plan. Oftentimes students attend part or all of their IEP meeting, depending on their age, maturity, and ability.

Finally, professional advocates, such as Julie, can be very effective in helping parents through this entire process. Advocates can suggest appropriate serves, accommodations or modifications to meet each student’s individual needs. They can help interpret the meaning of assessments and reports to parents and explain their significance to the child’s educational needs. They can help parents prepare for IEP or 504 meetings and accompany them if requested. Advocates empower and educate both parents and students and help them strengthen their own advocacy skills.

Two non-profit advocacy resources in Colorado include:
Peak Parent Center
Thrive Center

You can also contact Julie Hagy-Hancock at Success By Design Education

Additional resources about special education, IEP’s and 504’s are also available on our Resources page.