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School and Special-Needs Children


What are special needs?

The term "special needs" includes many disabilities and conditions. All public schools in the US offer special services for children with:

  • developmental delays such as mental retardation
  • severe emotional and behavioral problems
  • speech and language problems
  • vision problems such as blindness
  • hearing problems such as deafness
  • physical problems such as cerebral palsy
  • traumatic brain injury
  • learning disabilities
  • attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder

Most states also provide special services for gifted and talented students. This is not required by federal law. School districts provide services for children ages 3 through 21, or through high school graduation, whichever comes first. There are special programs to evaluate children who need services before kindergarten. Services for preschool children are almost always called the "Child Find Program" (for example, in the telephone book listings for your school district).

What services do schools provide?

There are many types of services that schools offer through special education. These include:

  • evaluation and assessment of the child's abilities and needs
  • special classes and specially trained teachers and aides
  • classroom accommodations (such as books in large print for a visually impaired child or a special desk for a child with a physical disability)
  • assistive technologies (such as having a computer with a spell checker for a high school learning disabled student)
  • necessary special transportation (such as a special bus to pick up blind children)
  • speech and language therapy
  • occupational therapy (for problems with movement and senses such as touch, body awareness, sight, sound)
  • physical therapy (for children with bone, muscle, and joint problems)

Services can be provided in several ways. Common methods are:

  • Consultation: A specialist consults with the regular classroom teacher on how to best serve the child
  • Inclusion: A special teacher or aide comes into the regular classroom to help the child
  • Pull out: The child leaves the classroom to attend a special service like speech and language therapy or physical therapy
  • Special classrooms: The child goes to a different classroom for part or all of the day.

Schools are required to offer services in the least restrictive environment. That means services are to be provided in the regular classroom whenever possible.

What is the process for a child to receive special services?

The Special Education Department within each school district usually follows certain steps to evaluate a child with special needs. These steps may include:

  • A family member or school staff member refers a child for possible services.
  • A team of school professionals reviews the referral. They decide if the child needs special services or whether the child's needs can be met by changes in the regular classroom.
  • If a child seems to need special services, a formal evaluation is done. This usually includes several hours of testing and assessment by specialists at the school. Teachers, the school psychologist, speech-language specialist, and others may be involved. A child with suspected learning disabilities, for example, will be tested to assess IQ, vision and hearing, and basic reading, writing, spelling, and math skills.
  • The school staff then meets with the parents to go over the results of the evaluation. Together you will decide what services will be provided. This meeting is almost always called an IEP Meeting. IEP stands for Individual Education Program. At the meeting any special services to be provided are outlined in detail and written in the IEP document. The IEP document is a contract in which the school commits to exactly what services will be provided. A parent's approval is needed in most cases for the IEP plan to go into effect. Make sure that you get a copy of your child’s IEP.
  • At least once per school year, usually in the spring, the school must call an IEP Meeting. This meeting is to discuss with parents what progress has been made and decide what services the child will need for the next school year. If you feel that an IEP Meeting is needed sooner, you may ask for one.
  • At least every 3 years the school must retest your child to determine what services he or she continues to need.
  • If parents believe that the school has not properly assessed their child or has not provided the right services, they may ask for a special hearing. Parents can also ask for an independent evaluation of their child by a professional outside of the school.

What laws govern special services in schools?

There are 3 primary laws which apply to schools:

  • Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA)
  • Rehabilitation Act
  • Vocational Education Act

IDEA is a federal law. It defines the disabilities that are eligible for special services. It also outlines the process to identify children in need. There may also be state laws that apply. Many states offer more services than what is required by IDEA.

Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act states that no agency that gets federal money can discriminate against disabled people. In schools this means that special-needs children must receive equal services to children without special needs.

The Vocational Education Act, often called the Carl Perkins Act, provides for job training skills to older children.

The No Child Left Behind federal law requires each state to test every public school student's progress in reading and math in grades 3 through 8 and at least once during grades 10 through 12. If children with special needs have trouble taking tests due to their disabilities, they may not be required to take the national tests. Parents of children in underachieving schools are given the option of sending children to a different school. They also may qualify for services such as private tutoring for their children.

The Americans with Disabilities Act does not apply to schools. It only applies to jobs and employers.

What can I do to help my child?

  • If you have a preschool child who you think may have a special need, contact your school district. It is very important to get help early. Young children who get help early may need less help when they are older.
  • If you have school age child who you think may have a special need, talk with your child's teacher. Ask how to refer your child for evaluation.
  • Learn about the laws and regulations in your state. This helps you make sure that your child gets all the services he or she needs or deserves.
  • Look for local resources to help you and your child. Most cities and states have parent organizations designed to help parents with special education issues. There are almost always parent groups for common specific disabilities such as autism, mental retardation, and learning disabilities.
  • Children and parents often worry about a child being labeled different because they get special services. Remind your child that children don't always learn the same things at the same rate. Praise your child's efforts at reading and writing. Give encouragement for trying. Getting some help can reduce frustration and a sense of failure for your child.
  • Help your child gain a sense of success through a hobby or other activity in an area of strength. This can greatly help your child's self esteem.

Written by Gayle Zieman, PhD.
Published by RelayHealth.
Last modified: 2011-02-11
Last reviewed: 2010-12-02

This content is reviewed periodically and is subject to change as new health information becomes available. The information is intended to inform and educate and is not a replacement for medical evaluation, advice, diagnosis or treatment by a health care professional.

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