Special Education

Advice for families and caregivers

Any child who has a qualifying special need that impairs the child's ability to learn is eligible to receive Special Education services from age 3 to age 22. Depending on the child's special need, Special Education services can include tutoring, physical therapy, occupational therapy, psychological therapy, and speech and language therapy.
Q&A for Special Needs and Special Education
General information about Special Education
According to the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA)  of 2004, any child who has a qualifying special need that impairs the child's ability to learn is eligible to receive Early Intervention services from birth to age 3, and then Special Education services from age 3 to age 22. Depending on the child's special need, Special Education services can include tutoring, physical therapy, occupational therapy, psychological therapy, and speech and language therapy.

Conditions that impair a child's ability to learn qualify for Special Education. These include physical disabilities such as deafness and blindness; cognitive disabilities such as Down syndrome and autism; medical conditions such as brain injuries; learning issues such as dyslexia and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD); and others. In general, to be eligible for Special Education the child must have a diagnosed disability which "adversely affects educational performance" and requires special services in order to learn.

Special Education begins with a full screening and diagnosis preformed by a multi-disciplinary team. Parents must consent to this testing and the resulting placement, and can appeal if they disagree with the testing results. The parents and the team will work together to create a yearly Individualized Education Plan (IEP). People who help create this plan usually include:

  • One or both of the child's parents
  • The child's teacher or prospective teacher
  • A representative of the local education department, other than the child's teacher, who is qualified to provide or supervise the provision of special education
  • The child, if appropriate
  • Other individuals at the discretion of the parent or agency (which can include a physician, advocate, or therapist).

The IDEA states that children receiving Special Education are entitled to a "free and appropriate public education" in the "least restrictive environment possible." 

The least restrictive environment clause usually means that, if possible, a child will be taught in a classroom with other children who aren't disabled. This may mean your child will be mainstreamed for part of the school day with other children and spend the rest of the time learning in a special classroom. If you or the school feel that your child would benefit more from a different educational setting, options include home schooling, an alternative school that works with disabled children, a private school with Special Education services, a day program in a mental health facility, or tutoring in a hospital. You'll have to negoiate these options with your public school system.

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What's included in an IEP?
The Individualized Education Plan (IEP) should include:
  • A current assessment of the child's abilities, based on a variety of tests.
  • Specific goals, both academic and behavioral, for the short and long term.
  • Specific services provided to achieve those goals and a schedule of how often they will be provided.
  • A means of evaluating these services, and a specification of how frequently evaluations will be performed.
  • Disciplinary methods to be used, if necessary, especially if the child has emotional and/or behavioral issues.
  • An individualized healthcare plan (IHP) for students requiring medication or special medical attention.
  • A plan for post-high school goals once a students turns 16, along with a plan for helping the student make a successful transition out of the public school system.
  • Parental input.
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What if a parent isn't happy with the IEP?
Parents have the legal right to challenge any recommendations made by school staff. They can hire lawyers or advocates, request hearings, and arrange for independent evaluations from outside experts
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How should I prepare for my child's IEP meeting?
It is helpful to keep copies of all your child's evaluations as well as notes on all past therapy sessions. You can then include your own assessments of what has helped your child (and also what hasn't been effective). You should also have a list of your goals, both cognitive and behavioral, for the coming year and what could help your child achieve these goals. This can be the basis of the IEP meeting and eventual IEP. Be prepared to negotiate and discuss all your assessments, which may differ from those of the school department.
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How should I work with the school system to develop an IEP?
As the parent of a child with special needs, you have a legal right to:
  • Be involved in developing your child's IEP from start to finish.
  • Disagree with the school system's recommendations.
  • Seek an outside evaluation for your child.
  • Invite anyone you want -- from a relative to your child's doctor -- to be on the IEP team.
  • Request an IEP meeting at any time if you feel your child's needs are not being met.
  • Receive free or low-cost legal representation if you can't come to an agreement with the school.
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How does the school system generally handle children with autism?
Children with ASD are usually placed in small groups with other developmentally delayed kids. That way they can receive more individual attention and specialized instruction. Depending on where they are on the autism spectrum, they may also participate in a regular classroom for some activities. The goal is to place kids in the least restrictive environment possible where they are still able to learn.
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What kind of Special Education is there for children with cerebral palsy?
What a child with cerebral palsy needs in terms of Special Education varies. If the child is only slightly impaired, then mainstreaming with only minimal extra attention is possible. Other students can be mainstreamed with a personal aide, who helps with communication and physical tasks, such as writing, that may be impossible for the child to perform alone. At the other end of the scale, students who are severely impaired may do best in an alternative setting where they can get as much attention as possible. In general, though, Special Education services for cerebral palsy include tutoring, physical therapy, occupational therapy, and speech and language therapy.
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What helps Special Education be effective for children with Fragile X?
Transitions have to be planned carefully for those kids with FXS who don't like changes. 
  • One helpful option is to place pictures of the schedule for the day on a board, or on a card.
  • Changes, such as an assembly, can be written out or pictured and inserted in the proper sequence. 
  • If you know that one of the activities will be disturbing to your child, see if it can be followed up with a calming activity. An example is a loud assembly, which would disturb your child, followed by time on a beanbag chair, or another activity that your child finds soothing.

Interventions that work for children with ADHD can also help those with FXS. These include:

  • Seating your child near the teacher and far from distractions.
  • Allowing your child to use a private work area at times.
  • Giving your child brief tasks.
  • Offering visual cues for sequences of events.
  • Implementing active interactive lessons, in which your child doesn't need to just sit still and listen. 
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How does Special Education help children with Down syndrome?
Here is what one mother found helpful:
  • When her child was very young, physical therapy every week helped build up muscle tone and coordination.
  • Later on, speech and occupational therapy -- which helped with issues such as language skills, hand-eye coordination, and social skills -- were also helpful.
  • Gradually, this family replaced physical therapy, which their child disliked, with dance class, which helped integrate her into the community. She began with ballet, jazz and tap, though she ultimately had to drop the tap because it was too difficult to move quickly enough. But she continues to enjoy ballet.
  • This child also played some sports with other kids when she was young, such as t-ball and soccer (for socialization) but she stopped when they became too competitive.
  • This family gave up speech therapy when they found that their daughter learned more from interacting with other children in a regular preschool. Earlier, a speech therapist helped her with feeding, social skills, speech, and hand-eye coordination.
  • Hippotherapy (horseback riding) helped with balance.
  • Educational therapy (tutoring) helped in public school.
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How can I find someone to care for my child with special needs?
Care.com is a website that lists caregivers throughout the United States who provide assistance to people with special needs. You can search for caregivers near you and review caregiver profiles including photos, references and background checks, and work history. For specific listings of special needs caregivers, go to Care.com.
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