Parent guide: Getting special education services

Concerned about your son or daughter’s development? Find out here how to have your child evaluated (at no cost to you) to see why he or she is having difficulty in school, along with information about the special education evaluation process, and how you can contribute.

We also have information about how special education can support your child’s learning (if he or she is found eligible for services), how your child’s eligibility is determined, and your right to participate in making that decision.
Why is my child struggling in school?

What parents want to know about special education servicesWhen children are struggling in school, it’s important to find out why. It may be that a disability is affecting your child’s educational performance. If so, your child may be eligible for special education and related services that can help. To learn more about special education, keep reading. This publication will help you learn how you and the school can work together to help your child.

As a first step, the school may need to try sufficient interventions in the regular education classroom and modify instructional practices before referring your child for special education evaluation.

What is special education?

Special education is instruction that is specially designed to meet the unique needs of children who have disabilities. Special education and related services are provided in public schools at no cost to the parents and can include special instruction in the classroom, at home, in hospitals or institutions, or in other settings. This definition of special education comes from IDEA, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. This law gives eligible children with disabilities the right to receive special services and assistance in school.

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More than 6.8 million children ages 3 through 21 receive special education and related services each year in the United States. Each of these children receives instruction that is specially designed:

  • to meet his or her unique needs (that result from having a disability); and
  • to help the child learn the information and skills that other children are learning in the general education curriculum.
Who is eligible for special education?

Children with disabilities are eligible for special education and related services when they meet IDEA’s definition of a “child with a disability” in combination with state and local policies. IDEA’s definition of a “child with a disability” lists 13 different disability categories under which a child may be found eligible for special education and related services. These categories are listed below. IDEA describes what each of these disability categories means.

IDEA’s categories of disability

  • Autism
  • Deafness
  • Deaf-blindness
  • Hearing impairment
  • Intellectual disabilities
  • Multiple disabilities
  • Orthopedic impairment
  • Other health impairment
  • Serious emotional disturbance
  • Specific learning disability
  • Speech or language impairment
  • Traumatic brain injury
  • Visual impairment, including blindness

States and school districts must follow IDEA’s definitions, but they also may add details to guide decision making about children’s eligibility. That’s why it’s important to know what your state and local policies are.

Services to very young children

Infants and toddlers can have disabilities, too. Services to children under three years of age are also part of IDEA. These services are called “early intervention services,” and can be very important in helping young children develop and learn.

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How do I find out if my child is eligible?

You can ask the school to evaluate your child. Call or write the director of special education or the principal of your child’s school. Describe your concerns with your child’s educational performance and request an evaluation under IDEA, to see if a disability is involved.

The public school may also be concerned about how your child is learning and developing. If the school thinks that your child may have a disability, then it must evaluate your child at no cost to you. The school must ask your permission and receive your written consent before it may evaluate your child. Once you provide that consent, the evaluation must be conducted within 60 days (or within the timeframe the state has established).

However, the school does not have to evaluate your child just because you have asked. The school may not think your child has a disability or needs special education. In this case, the school may refuse to evaluate your child. It must let you know this decision in writing, as well as why it has refused. This is called giving you prior written notice.

If the school refuses to evaluate your child, there are two things you can do immediately:

  • Ask the school system for information about its special education policies, as well as parent rights to disagree with decisions made by the school system. These materials should describe the steps parents can take to appeal a school system’s decision.
  • Get in touch with your state’s Parent Training and Information (PTI) center. The PTI is an excellent resource for parents to learn more about special education, their rights and responsibilities, and the law. The PTI can tell you what steps to take next to find help for your child. Visit NICHCY’s website to identify how to contact your PTI. This information appears on the State Resource Sheet for your state, under “Organizations Especially for Parents.” You’ll find state sheets online at
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