I frequently speak to parents whose children have been struggling in school for years. Many times they suspect that this is due to learning or attention issues. Often they have brought this up to a teacher at school and have not received any clear direction on what to do or how to move forward. They feel frustrated watching their child continue to struggle and wonder if he or she may qualify for special education services. However, they do not know how to initiate this process or how to find out if their student has a learning issue such as dyslexia or dysgraphia or an attention issue like attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).
Step 1- Request an Evaluation
Not every child with learning and attention issues qualifies for special education services. In order to determine whether a child qualifies for special education services, the school has to do an evaluation. If you wish for your child to be evaluated, you can request an evaluation to determine whether they qualify for special education services. This request should be made in writing to your child’s teacher and copied to the school principal and special education administrator. A written request documents the referral and starts the timeline. If you do not receive a response within three business days of making a written request to the school, you can also copy your written request to the person who is in charge of special education services for the county. Within three business days (in Virginia), the school’s special education administrator must decide whether to evaluate the child, request a review by a school-based team, or deny the request.
Step 2- Set up a Meeting
If the special education administrator sends the referral to a school-based team, the team has ten business days to decide whether to evaluate. Some of the people who will attend the meeting will be the school principal or designee, the person who made the referral, your child’s teacher, at least one specialist like a special education teacher, and a person who is aware of alternative interventions and the process to access programs and services for children, such as the school psychologist. Regardless of whether the request to evaluate a student is made by the parent, a teacher, or a specialist, the school has to obtain your permission to evaluate your child.
A primary purpose of this team meeting is to determine if an evaluation is necessary. The first step of this process usually includes classroom observations and trial interventions in order to make a decision about whether to move forward with testing. It is important to understand that these interventions do not extend the ten-day timeline where a decision must be made. If classroom interventions are not successful, the team will usually decide to move forward with psycho-educational testing. If the school suspects that your child may have a learning issue, they must evaluate your child at no cost to you. However, the school does not have to evaluate your child just because you request it if they do not suspect learning or attention issues. If the school refuses to evaluate, you should receive this decision in writing along with an explanation of why the decision was made. This is called Prior Written Notice.
If the school refuses to evaluate your student and you disagree with their decision, you can:
- Set up a meeting to discuss on the record why the decision was made and ask for a written document outlining your legal rights. For Virginia, this procedural safeguards document is also on the Virginia Department of Education site and available in many languages.
- If you disagree with a decision you have three options: mediation, complaints, and due process. These options for students who attend Virginia Schools are outlined here.
Step 3- Evaluation
If the school decides to move forward with an evaluation, they can do so with your permission. You will be included as a member of the team that reviews the evaluation data and decides whether more information is needed. In Virginia, the evaluation has to be completed within 65 business days after the referral is received by the special education administrator. This timeline no longer applies if you fail to make your child available for the evaluation or if you move to a new district within the evaluation period.
The school will begin by determining what information they already have on your child. If you have had testing of your child done outside of school, you can present it at this time. The requirements about what must be included in the evaluation for special education in Virginia are outlined here. Your child may be tested in the following areas: health, vision, hearing, social and emotional status, general intelligence, academic performance, adaptive behavior, motor abilities, and communication. A written copy of the evaluation report must be made available to you at least two business days before the eligibility meeting. If you disagree with the evaluation, you can request an independent educational evaluation (IEE) conducted by a person who does not work for the school system. You can also request that the school pay for the IEE. However, the school may request a due process hearing to determine whether the school’s evaluation is appropriate or an independent evaluation is needed.
Step 4- Eligibility
Once the evaluation is complete, a team makes a decision about whether your child qualifies for special education services. This team should include: you, the special education administrator, your child’s general education teacher, a special education teacher, school personnel who conducted the assessments, and a person qualified to conduct diagnostic examinations of children (i.e the school psychologist). In order to qualify as a child with a disability, your student must be evaluated and determined to meet specific criteria for one or more of the following:
- Developmental delay
- Emotional disability
- Hearing impairment
- Intellectual disability
- Multiple disabilities
- Orthopedic impairment
- Other health impairment
- Specific learning disability
- Speech or language impairment
- Traumatic brain injury
- Visual impairment
The team also must determine that your child’s disability affects his or her educational performance. At this time, the team may also decide that your child qualifies for related services such as counseling, physical or occupational therapy, or speech and language pathology. If your child is found eligible for special education, the group sends a summary of those findings to an IEP team who will create an individualized education program.
Your child may be found not eligible if they fail to meet the eligibility criteria or if it is determined that their disability is not affecting their educational performance. A child who meets the eligibility criteria can be found not eligible if the reason that they met the eligibility criteria is because they have not had appropriate access to instruction in reading and math or because they use a language other than English. If your child is not found eligible for special education, this decision should be given through a prior written notice. Your child may still qualify for additional support through a 504 plan.
Step 5- Developing an IEP
In Virginia, if your child is found eligible, the IEP team must meet within 30 calendar days to develop an individualized education program. An IEP is a written document that outlines the ways the school plans to meet your child’s unique learning needs. An IEP needs to be written in order for your child to access special education and related services and is created by the IEP team. The IEP team will meet at least once a year to review and revise your child’s IEP, but you may request a meeting to review the IEP at any time. The school should notify you in advance of a meeting to create or revise your child’s IEP, and you have the right to invite any individual with knowledge or expertise about your child to attend with you. After the IEP is developed, your school should provide you with a copy of the IEP within ten days.
There are several places to look for information if you find that you need additional resources. Most states offer detailed information about their procedures on their department of education website. The Individuals with Disabilities Education ACT (IDEA) is the national legislation that gives states and school systems guidance on how to educate students with disabilities. This site and The United States Department of Education, Office of Special Education Programs can be excellent primary sources of additional information and clarification as you navigate the IEP process. Although the process of determining eligibility for special education services can be long, it is designed to be thorough. This helps to ensure that your child receives an education that is appropriate for them and meets their individual needs.
-Nina Parrish, M.Ed.
Owner | Parrish Learning Zone, LLC
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