Navigating the Special Education Process
By Kate Hardin, MS, CFY/SLP
Many parents are concerned about what happens when their children are experiencing difficulties in the classroom. It is not uncommon for parents to have little to no idea about the inner workings of the Special Education process as it pertains to their child.
The purpose of this article is to define terminology, introduce team members that may be involved, provide a basic overview of the identification process, provide basic timelines of expectations, and answer some of the most frequently asked questions. A brief explanation of the Initial ARD (Admission, Review, and Dismissal) meeting is included to provide clarification on what the aforementioned actions look like in practice.
A frequently heard question from parents is, “My child’s school wants to test them for Special Education services, what does that mean?” This can be a difficult question to answer because the answer is different for every child and every school district. The school or you may request a meeting to discuss your student’s progress. At that time, either party may ask for a formal evaluation to be completed.
The school must ask for your permission to test your child for special education services. If they are asking for your permission, it is because your child’s teacher, you, and/or other educational professionals have concerns that your child may have specific weaknesses affecting their ability to fully participate and benefit in the classroom. This could be due to a range of concerns, in a variety of areas, ranging from mild to severe. It is important to remain calm and remember that you are part of a team that is looking out for the best interests of your child.
What’s the first step?
You or your child’s teacher may be the first to express concerns. Depending on your child’s grade level, as well as the nature and severity of the concerns presented, the teacher may ask for a meeting to discuss some interventions that may be appropriate for your child on a temporary basis to determine how well they respond to treatment. This type of service is called Response to Intervention (RtI). During this time, classroom teachers will coordinate with support personnel to incorporate strategies within the classroom that may benefit the student. It can take several weeks before an additional meeting is called to review the results.
Depending on the results of RtI, an additional round of intervention may be requested, or, the team involved in making educational decisions (including yourself) may ask to conduct a Full and Individual Evaluation (FIE). This evaluation would be conducted by a team of professionals in order to determine your child’s strengths and weaknesses using norm and criterion referenced assessments, as well as determine any additional services, accommodations, or modifications that may be necessary in order for your child to be successful. In order to evaluate your child, the team must make decisions on which areas need to be evaluated further and you must sign permission for the testing to begin.
During the first meetings, you will be provided with copies of documents that outline the Special Education process and your rights throughout the process. These documents are specific to each Independent School District and change along with the laws and regulations of the state and federal government. Though dense and full of technical information, they can be invaluable in helping you to understand the process, and provide guidance on how to handle grievances should any arise. These documents should be provided to you at each Annual ARD meeting and any time the documents are updated. Discuss any questions regarding the information provided with your campus team.
The team agreed to further testing - what does that mean?
Once you have signed your consent for the testing to begin, each professional involved in the evaluation will conduct their assessment(s). The number and types of areas being evaluated will determine the types of professionals needed for your child’s case. Each person on the team represents a specific skill set focused on broad and specific areas of development. Some areas can only be evaluated using a specific skill set; for instance, articulation skills can only be evaluated by a trained speech-language pathologist, whereas some cognitive tasks may be assessed by a number of professionals. Depending on your child’s individual case, many people may be involved in evaluating your child and in the academic decision-making process. Campus Team Members are listed below with a brief description of the types of information they can help provide to the team.
Campus Team Members
Parent/Guardian - You are the most important part of the assessment process! Without your full cooperation, assessing your child would be very difficult. You know your child best and because of this you will be asked to fill out a number of documents including, but not limited to: home questionnaires, interviews/ parent surveys, caregiver reports, etc. You may be asked to provide your child’s developmental history, habits, likes/ dislikes, your concerns and the length of those concerns, and any previous attempts at intervention. The more information you are able to provide, the more specific the evaluators can be in their assessments. A complete history allows the evaluators a more complete picture of your child; one with details and connections, as opposed to just an overview based on scores of an assessment.
Teacher (depending on age/grade, one for every subject) - Your child’s teacher(s) will be asked to provide information on your child’s daily and long term progress, behaviors within the classroom, documentation of any previous attempts at intervention, provide work samples indicative of your student’s abilities, and provide grade level curriculum standards.
Educational Diagnostician - Specially trained in administering and interpreting assessments in school-age populations in order to determine whether a disability is present that significantly impacts the child’s ability to make progress in the classroom. The diagnostician administers a battery (comprehensive selection) of assessments depending on the concerns noted and all information provided. The diagnostician can assess students over a range of skills to determine the presence of disabilities, such as specific learning disabilities, dyslexia, IQ/ achievement disabilities, cognitive differences, etc.
School Psychologist (LSSP) - Specially trained in child psychology as it applies in the academic setting, the LSSP administers and interprets a battery of assessments regarding behavior, behavior management, personal skills, cognitive skills, social skills, and emotional skills. The LSSP can provide information on emotional and cognitive developmental norms, address concerns presented, and provide resources to the child and their family.
Counselor - Specially trained in guiding children toward healthy behaviors, or during difficult times, school counselors can provide additional information regarding the student’s activities at school, any challenging behaviors if present, and any interventions tried. The counselor may also provide suggestions to improve the child’s behavior in the school environment (a Behavior Intervention Plan (BIP), for example). They may also provide information about additional resources available in the community.
Occupational Therapist (OT) - Specially trained in body movement and development, occupational therapists assess children’s gross and fine motor abilities, as well as their sensory abilities. OTs provide information on developmental milestones for gross and fine motor skills, including but not limited to crawling, eating, dressing, sitting, walking, running, writing, participating in physical education activities, and/ or maintaining safety while maneuvering throughout the school day.
Speech-Language Pathologist (SLP) - Specially trained to assess and interpret a battery of assessments addressing speech (articulation/ phonology) skills, language (expressive and receptive) skills, pragmatic (social) skills, voice, resonance, fluency, swallowing, and feeding skills. The SLP can determine if a speech or language impairment is impeding the child’s ability to understand or respond to what is happening in the classroom environment. Articulation skills refers to how sounds are made; pragmatic skills refers to the child’s ability to interact with others in the environment, for social purposes or to get their needs known and met. Assessment of voice includes pitch, nasality, resonance, and quality of voice. Fluency refers to instances of stuttering or dysfluent speech.
Reading Specialist -Specially trained in literacy development, assessment, and intervention. The reading specialist can administer and interpret a battery of assessments to determine if your child has reading difficulties, in what areas, and to what extent. They provide information about developmental literacy norms and resources on programs and strategies that may be effective for your child in the classroom and at home.
Special Education Teacher - Specially trained in adapting and modifying curriculum in order to suit the needs of children with disabilities. The Special Education teacher can provide information about the student’s level of functioning, types of accommodations and modifications needed for the student to be successful, and provide information about available services.
Campus Administrator (usually the Principal or Vice Principal) - The administrator can provide input about any behavior issues requiring visits to the office, including frequency and reasons, as well as previous attempts at and results of behavior interventions. May provide information on programs offered at the campus, or within the district.
When will I find out the results of the evaluation?
It generally takes several weeks to complete all assessments and observations, and interpret the findings, before a meeting can be called to discuss the results. There are specific guidelines about how long the assessment process can take. School districts generally have 45 school days to finish evaluating your child, with some exceptions.
It is important that your child miss as little school as possible during this period so that all assessments may be completed in a timely fashion. Once the results are in, the campus team will contact you to schedule an Admission, Review, and Dismissal (ARD) meeting to discuss the results and decide on a plan of action.
The testing is complete - It’s time for the initial ARD meeting
An ARD meeting has been scheduled and you've received the written notice from your child’s school. You have options on how you would like to participate. Depending on your circumstances, you may participate in person or by phone. Participating in person allows more opportunities to ask questions and get to know the professionals who evaluated your child. However, teams understand that not all parents have the ability or means to miss work or find childcare. Make your team aware of your circumstances so that they may accommodate you as best they can.
When the meeting begins, introductions will be made and everyone’s role will be noted. A statement of confidentiality is read which ensures your child’s information will only be discussed with those that have a legitimate educational interest in your child. The purpose of the ARD will be stated, typically with a statement similar to “The purpose of this ARD is to: review the results of assessment and determine an appropriate plan of action based on the results.” If the meeting is being recorded, this will also be stated. If you need a translator for meetings, make the school aware as soon as possible. They can make arrangements for translation services to be available during the meeting.
Next, the student profile will be discussed. This profile is a collaborative effort from the team describing the child’s overall abilities throughout the school environment. The teacher may discuss how the child is doing in the classroom, and provide background knowledge previously provided by the parent. Grades, test scores, and overall successes and challenges in the classroom will be discussed. Each evaluator may offer additional input about how the student is performing in the classroom environment within the context of a certain skill set. It is important to know both the strengths and weaknesses of a child to know how best to support them from where they are currently.
Then, the results and interpretations of the evaluations will be discussed. Depending on the number of evaluators and their schedules, it may not be possible for every evaluator to attend. However, each evaluator is required to provide the results and interpretations to the educational diagnostician before the meeting so that they may still be reviewed during the meeting. Generally, if the evaluator is present, they will provide the results of their testing, as well as interpretations/ implications, and provide answers to any questions you may have.
Feel free to ask as many questions as you need to! Many parents say they understand what is being said, but then have lots of unanswered questions afterwards because they didn't ask any questions in the moment. The team is there to help you and your child succeed- if you need help understanding the technical terms, that’s ok. It's easy for professionals to get carried away with technical terms, shortened words and acronyms, and forget that this is new to you.
Remind the team as needed that you are new to the process and need help understanding certain aspects, including the terminology. Make reflective statements to verify understanding (“If I’m understanding you correctly, Joe struggles in class because his attention skills are not as developed as other children his age. He also has trouble expressing himself due to poor sound production. Is that correct?”). This allows for clarification in the moment, as it’s needed, instead of allowing confusion to snowball.
Once the results of the evaluations have been reviewed, recommendations will be made about the types of services for which your child qualifies. There are many services that can be provided, and this is not an all-or-nothing ruling, your child may qualify for some services and not others. Your child may qualify for only one service or for several. None of the services provided will cost you any money and the services will be provided at your child’s home school or a school closest to the child’s home that provides the necessary service(s).
When considering services it is important to remember that the team’s main goal is to keep your child in their Least Restrictive Environment (LRE) while maintaining successful outcomes. Some services can be provided within the classroom. These services are sometimes called ‘push in services’ and can include a special education teacher going in to the general education classroom to teach or co-teach the whole class; or they may only work in small groups, or with certain individuals. When determining each child’s LRE, the importance is placed on the child remaining inside the general education classroom interacting with their same age peers and grade level curriculum, maintaining close contact with their highly qualified teacher.
Sometimes, however, it may be necessary for your child to be removed from the classroom in order to benefit from the service provided (‘pull-out services’). For instance, some students attend pull-out speech sessions in order to drill sounds in repetition to build muscle memory and correct production skills. These children, if in the general classroom, could pose distractions to other students who are working which would restrict the learning environment, the opposite of the intended goal. Other focused interventions, such as occupational therapy services, and children with more severe disabilities may also be better served outside of the general education classroom for more in-depth interventions and to maintain confidentiality.
Your child may qualify for accommodations or modifications to the curriculum. Accommodations are structures and strategies that can be individually adapted in the classroom environment to help a child be more successful. Some of these can include close proximity to the teacher, frequent reminders of the rules, extended time for oral or written responses, or the use of math manipulatives. Modifications refers to a change in the way the student is evaluated on skills.
Modifications could include the student being given the chance to correct missed items to earn additional points on a test, or spelling mistakes may not lose points on a written task. Decisions regarding standardized state and local testing will be made. Your child may qualify to take an alternate version of the standardized and curriculum referenced tests provided to students in their grade. These options will be discussed as they are appropriate for your child’s grade level.
Next, the team will determine the services to be provided, along with duration, and the goals to be targeted. The goals should be written in a way that states clearly what the outcome will be, how progress will be measured, and in what time frame it can be expected. There is no standard number of minutes that services are provided, each student’s unique profile of strengths and weaknesses will determine the amount and duration of services needed.
Some children attend speech sessions for 30 minutes per week, some 60 minutes; some students receive services in the classroom, and some benefit from pull out small group intervention. The number of minutes and setting may vary for each service that your child qualifies for.
Once the services and goals have been agreed upon, the team will discuss assurances that the school district has taken to ensure the safety and success of your child. The deliberations will be read or summarized giving a brief overview of everything discussed and agreed upon in the meeting. When all questions have been answered, all parties will be asked if they agree or disagree with the findings. If all are in agreement, everyone signs the closing document and marks that they agree.
If you do not agree, do not feel obligated to say you do. You may take up to 5 school days to review the information before you make a decision. It can be a lot of information to process, particularly if your child has multiple disabilities.
During this time, you may ask any additional questions you have, and try to learn more about the services being offered or why they were recommended. You have the right to air any concerns about the process as well, if you have any. If you take time to think about the decision and agree within the 5 day period, you will sign the documents and return them as soon as possible.
If you continue to disagree, you must let the team know immediately so a satisfactory resolution can be made. If you cannot come to an agreement, you do have the right to refuse services. Unfortunately, this means that your child may not receive any of the services previously discussed. This rarely occurs as many services are flexible, and the campus team’s ultimate goal is to help your child be educationally successful. Most issues that arise can be discussed and worked out. Do not hold back from expressing any concerns you may have.
Once all signatures are obtained, in agreement or otherwise, there is a five school day waiting period until services go into effect. If you agree to services, you may choose to waive this grace period and have services begin immediately in many cases.
CONGRATULATIONS! You made it through your first ARD meeting! An ARD meeting will be held at least once per school year for the duration of your child’s services. Evaluations are typically completed once per three years, unless a member of the team (that includes you) requests additional testing to evaluate or reevaluate your child’s skills and abilities.
You should expect to remain in contact with your child’s team and expect progress reports with every report card. If you have any questions that arise, your child’s teacher is your first resource, followed by the rest of your child’s educational support team.