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Definition of Special Education

5 Jun

Special education is individualized instruction and services given to students that have a disability or condition that prevents them from being able to do the same school work and school activities as “typical” children, so that they can reach their individual potential.   Special education is provided at no additional costs to the parents and is confidential.  

There are 7 types of disabilities that children can receive services for while at school.  These disabilities are: developmental delay, intellectual impairment, sensory impairment, hearing-vision-deaf-blind, neurological impairment, emotional impairment, communication impairment, physical impairment, health impairment, specific learning disability.

Special education is a right that is protected by a federal act called the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). The law protects a parents’ rights to make decisions about their child’s special education, guarantees an appropriate evaluation of your child, ensures that an individual education plan (IEP) will be written and carried out in the least restrictive environment, and outlines how parents and schools can resolve any disagreements they have. An individual education plan or IEP, is a written document that outlines what special education services, accommodations, and modifications will be given to your child.  It also states where the services will be carried out.  Some children will receive services in the classroom (inclusion), while other students will receive services outside of the classroom (pull-out services).  In some instances, students will be educated in a separate classroom or school.  However, the law says that students must be educated with their peers to the maximum extent possible.  Therefore, placing students in separate classrooms or schools is done only after serious consideration about the benefits and drawbacks of doing so.

Leveling the Playing Field with Accommodations

3 Jun

In order to be successful in school, many children need accommodations.  An accommodation is a change to an assignment or test, making it accessible to the disabled student.  It is not a different assignment or test, just a change to the format, timing, setting, response, or presentation.  If your child qualified for SPED services, then accommodations will be written into part A (General Curriculum) of their IEP.  If your child has a disability (such as ADHD, anxiety disorder, or dyslexia) but did not qualify, you can ask for a 504 plan.  A 504 plan is another type of document written for children that outlines the accommodations they can have in the general education classroom.  Both IEPs and 504 plans are legally binding documents and are confidential (meaning they are not part of your child’s official school records).  As their parent, you have the right to ask for a 504 plan and to take part in writing it.

In order to guarantee that your child gets the accommodations that they have a right to, a written document is highly recommended.  You should ask for one if your child has a documented disability, even if they’re not receiving failing grades.  Some schools will insist that they give all students accommodations or will say their teachers differentiate their instruction for all students.  This may be true, but unless your child has an IEP or 504 plan, the teachers are not obligated to make accommodations for your child’s disability.  Having them written will benefit your child and you because you can refer back to the plan if your child begins to struggle.

Examples of some common classroom accommodations are:  extended time for assignments and tests, allowing students to use a computer for writing assignments, not marking down for spelling errors, having a student take a test in a private setting, providing books on CDs or MP3, having the teacher give the directions in writing and orally, minimize punishment and use positive reinforcement instead, allowing students to use a reference sheet, give student a study guide, give the student a peer role model, and provide students with breaks or allow to leave the classroom for short breaks.

For more examples of accommodations you can ask for your child, go to or search for “classroom accommodations.”

What is LRE? (Least Restrictive Environment)

2 Jun

Text from the Massachusetts DOE/FCSP publication “A parent’s guide to Special Education”


The federal law, IDEA, mandates that students with disabilities must be educated with their non-disabled peers to the maximum extent appropriate based on the student’s needs. This is known as the Least Restrictive Environment (LRE). The Team (including the parent) determines the placement that the student needs to provide the services on the student’s IEP and the Team must choose the least restrictive environment able to provide those services. This means that the student should attend the school he or she would attend if non-disabled, unless the Team determines that the nature of the student’s disability will not allow that student to have a successful educational experience in that environment.

FAPE and LRE are closely tied together. Both federal and Massachusetts special education laws require that a Team consider appropriate education in the least restrictive environment. In order to help your child be successful, the Team must carefully consider whether supplemental aids and services and specialized instruction could make it possible for your child to be educated with non-disabled peers. If services can be appropriately provided in a less restrictive setting, the Team must choose that type of program and setting. If the student’s program requires a more restrictive setting to be successful, then the Team may consider other settings. The Team should look class by class, activity by activity, and only remove your child from the general education classrooms if, and only if, supplemental aids and services would not make it possible for the student to remain in that classroom and make effective progress.

Determination of the LRE is based on your child’s IEP, not on a diagnosis or specific disability label. This determination must be made individually and carefully. Students cannot be placed in separate or more restrictive environments only because they require modification of the curriculum. It is important to remember that Teams do not have to choose between specialized help for a student and inclusion of that student in the general education classroom; students are entitled to both. After the Team has developed the IEP and understands the needs and goals for your child, then the Team will determine the most appropriate setting for your child’s services. LRE is an integral part of the placement determination.

The ABC’s of Special Education: Useful SPED Acronyms and Terms (Part I)

31 May

IEP, LRE, BIP, etc…. What do all these acronyms and terms mean?  Here are the definitions for some of the more common terms and acronyms, used by educators during team meetings, but you were to afraid to ask what they mean…  

504 Plan:   A plan developed for a student with a disability that specifies what accommodations and/or services they will get in school.

Accommodation:   Changing the way material is presented, or the environment/setting, or the conditions as needed.

APE:   Adaptive Physical Education or P.E. for students that have a disability that keeps them from participating in P.E..

Assessment:   An assessment is an evaluation or test.

Behavior Intervention Plan (BIP):   A formalized plan that goal is to change specific negative behaviors a student may have.

Developmental Disability/Developmentally Delayed (DD):   A substantial disability that began before age 18 and is expected to continue.

Direct Services:  Services given to the child either one-to-one (1:1) or in a small group setting.

DOE:   Department of Education

EBD/ED: Emotional/Behavioral Disorder or Emotional Disturbance.   Used when a student has significant problems following the rules and/or in managing their emotions.

FAPE:  Free Appropriate Public Education

FBA: Functional Behavioral Assessment

IEP (Individualized Education Program):   A written education plan for a child  developed by a team of  professionals (teachers, therapists, etc.) and the child’s parents.

Inclusion:   To provide sped services to the student in the regular classroom.

LD (Learning Disability):  A disorder in one or more of the basic psychological processes involved in understanding or using language, spoken or written, which may results in an imperfect ability to listen, think, speak, read, write, spell, or do mathematical calculations.

Least Restrictive Environment (LRE):  The environment that provides disabled students the most amount of access possible to non-disabled students.

Occupational Therapy (OT):   A therapeutic service that specializes in upper arm function, including fine motor skills like handwriting. It also deal with activities of daily living and sensory integration issues.

Physical Therapy (PT):  A therapeutic service where the therapist specializes in gross motor skills such as walking, running, jumping, balance issues, etc.

Resource Room:  A room separate from the regular classroom where students  receive academic assistance.

SLP:  Speech and Language Pathologist

What You Can Do if Your Child is Denied SPED Services

30 May

Your child is struggling in school.  You, or your child’s school, has requested that your child be tested to find out if they qualify for special education services.  You meet with the team and are informed that your child does not qualify for services.  It has been determined that your child is making “adequate progress.”  However, your child continues to struggle and is not receiving enough support at school.  What can you do to get the help that  your child needs to make progress?

First, you should know that you can challenge the school’s decision to not provide services; however, consider that the federal law says that even if the child has a qualifying disability they can be denied services if they are making progress in the general education curriculum.  Making progress is a term that can be interpreted differently, but to most schools it means not failing.   As parents, it is beyond frustrating to see our children working very hard to earn a “C”.  We want them to feel successful, be rewarded,  for all the hard work they do.  Eventually, many students give up because they feel that no matter how hard they work, they fail to get the grades they want.  It is very hard to convince a school district to put a “C” student on an IEP, but there are ways you can advocate for your child if they have been denied SPED services.

How to Advocate for your Child After They’ve Been Denied SPED Services:  


  1. Gather documents that prove your child is not making the same progress as his peers.  [Ask to see his file and look for reading level scores, benchmark testing results, end of year tests, etc.]
  2. Ask if the school will consider a 504 plan for your child if they denied them an IEP.  [A 504 plan is for accommodations in the general education classroom.  For example, extended test time, less homework, tutoring with the teacher, etc.]
  3. Start being very vigilant about your child’s progress.  [Question the teacher often about grades, assignments, and the progress they are making.  Write notes when homework is to difficult.  Ask for re-testing when they fail a test.  Speak with the principal if the teacher is not accommodating your requests.  Basically, be a pain in the neck so that the school staff begin to understand the level of difficulty your child is having.]
  4. After gathering more documentation, ask for mediation to resolve the dispute with the school. [Documentation being independent testing, a review of your child’s records, notes to and from the teacher and principal, etc.  You will need this information to prove your case with a mediator.)
  5. Tell the school right away (in writing and verbally)  that you disagree with their findings and/or the testing. [By doing this, your opinion goes on the record; and, if you get an independent evaluation, they may have to pay for some or all of it.]
  6. Request that the school do specific evaluations, such as a reading evaluation or functional behavioral assessment. [This will be helpful if your child’s school only performed an achievement test, such as the Woodcock-John or WIAT.]
  7. Tell the school you will be getting an outside evaluation done and they will be testing for specific learning disabilities. [The school must consider the results of an outside evaluation as equally as they consider their own testing results.  Also, depending on your income, they will be required to pay for all or some of the testing to be done.]

Remember that the best way to advocate for your child is to be armed with a lot of information.  Know all that you can about them as a learner, understand your child’s and your own rights, and know about the SPED process.  Here is a link to the Massachusetts Department of Education Notice of Procedural Safeguards (in plain English: A Guide to Your Rights and Your Child’s Rights)  Guide to Procedural Safeguards

Does my child really need an IEP?

28 May

Does my child really need an IEP?

This is a question that many of us have wondered about. We worry that by allowing the school to give our children special education that they will be labeled and tracked for the rest of their school days.  We wonder if they will be denied by colleges if they see SPED on their records.  What will the other children think and say? As parents, we worry about the lasting effects of special education on our children.  Stereotyping, assumptions, bullying, and poor self-esteem are some of the negative things we hear about special education.  So you ask, “Is all of this worth allowing the school to put my child on an IEP?”  If you consider the benefits that your child may receive from being on an IEP, you may decide the answer to your question is yes.

What are the positives  if my child were put on an IEP?

While it is true that sometimes people make assumptions (or stereotype) children in special education, most educational professionals are aware that children with disabilities have strengths as well as their weaknesses.  When an IEP is written for your child, there will be a specific place where the team will write your child’s strengths.  These strengths will be reported by you, the teachers, and the specialists who tested your child.  The IEP should be designed to work off of your child’s areas of strength.  Without the IEP to guide them, many general education teachers may never get to the point where they even discover your child’s strengths because they are so focused on catching them up in their areas of weakness.   The weakness becomes the focal point for instruction, not your child’s strength.

Yes, it is also true that children in special education are victims of bullying.  However, in recent studies it has been found that 1 in 4 of all children are victims of bullying at some point in their childhood.  Bullying has become a hot topic in education now.  Schools are working on coming up with prevention plans for all children.  In Massachusetts, a bullying prevention law was recently passed in congress.  Because of the increase of inclusion programs for special education students, children are more accepting  of a child’s differences than they were in the past.  Children and adults with disabilities are no longer hidden away, they are involved in the school and general community.  While every parent should stay vigilant about bullying, I would not deny my child services because I thought they may get bullied.  There are ways to prevent and stop that problem if it were to occur.

While poor self-esteem is a definite concern for any child that struggles in school, giving a child help usually does not cause a child to have low self esteem.  In fact failing school or struggling with grade-level work is more likely to cause the low self-esteem of a child with learning disabilities.  Children are happy when they feel successful, when they are accomplishing their goals, and when they are not struggling.  Receiving more time from teachers, instruction that is at their level and tailored to build off their strengths will only help to raise the child’s self-esteem.  Another important consideration is that special education services are a matter of confidentiality.  It is not noted in a child’s permanent record or on their report cards that they are receiving special education services.  This information is kept in a separate file and not shared with staff that does not work directly with your child.

If my child’s IEP is carefully planned, written, and carried out, what could be the benefits?

  • Lower teachers to student ratios (more time face to face with the teacher)
  • More time given for review of curriculum (this is extra help for the child)
  • Special testing accommodations (no time limits, use of reference sheets, use of a scribe)
  • Accommodations in the classroom (less homework, use of a spell checker, books on CD)
  • Specialized instruction (Wilson Reading, Orton-Gillingham, Touch Math)
  • Special therapies (physical or occupational therapy, social skills groups)
  • Use of non-standard accommodations (sensory stimulation, fidget-toys, seat cushions, behavior modification plans)
  • No cost summer program
  • Accountability (progress reports, frequent assessment of goals, yearly team meetings)
  • Confidentiality

While special education is not right for every child, it is exactly what others need to be successful. Consider the positives as closely as you consider the negatives when you are deciding whether to give your consent.  Again, I suggest you do your research about your child’s disability, take the time to visit the school and see their special education program, and know what options are available to your child before you make any decisions.

NOTE:  If you feel your child needs special education services and was denied by the school district, there are things you can do to try to get your child the help they need.  I discuss this issue further in What You Can Do if Your Child Has Been Denied SPED Services .

What is Special Education? (Types of Placements for Your Child)

27 May

Learn about how special education services are delivered in the public school system now, as compared to just twenty years ago. 

Special education is individualized, specialized academic instruction for students that have a qualifying disability.  Basically, it is giving a student what they need to achieve to their greatest potential.  So why do so many people have a negative reaction when they hear the words special education?

 It may conjure up images from their own childhood; perhaps they recall children in hidden classrooms, never mixing with the rest of the student body.  They may remember these students being bullied and alienated at school or in the neighborhood.  It is true that in the not so distant past, special education was not what most of us would want for our children.  However, much has changed!

Special education as we know it today has only been around since the 1970’s, but it has gone through several major overhauls in the past 30 years.  Once, special education was one size fits all.  That meant all the children with physical or learning differences were kept together in one room, while the rest were taught the curriculum.  That is not the case now. In the 1990’s special education made a shift toward mainstreaming, or including children in the regular general classroom as much as possible.  This means that many children that would’ve been put into separate classrooms, away from their peers, are now being educated in the general classroom.  It turns out that this model of special education benefits not only the child with special needs, but also the typical students.  Children are seen as individuals, with different needs.

Some children do not benefit from mainstreaming or inclusion, they need more intensive, therapeutic instruction that needs to be delivered in a separate classroom.  However, these students are not hidden away in the bowels of school buildings anymore.  All efforts should be made to have separate classrooms mixed in with general classrooms.  Some students need to be educated in specialized schools because they need a wrap-around approach to their education.  There are many ways that districts deliver special education services to students.  Here are the 4 methods used in public school districts:

Full Inclusion:  In this model, the general education (gen. ed.) teacher and a sped teacher collaborate in the gen. ed. classroom.  This model can look different in different schools.  Sometimes a sped teacher is leading a small group within the classroom, other times the sped teacher is assisting the gen. ed. teacher.  The student will receive accommodations, changes in the classroom environment, that will help them access the gen. ed. curriculum (Eg. Have the student sit closer to the teacher).  Sometimes the curriculum will be modified for the student so they can complete the same or similar activity as the rest of the class (Eg. Give the student less problems to solve).

Partial-Inclusion (Pull-out):   Schools will have designated areas (usually called resource rooms) where service is given to sped students only.  The students will leave their gen. ed. classroom during the subject area that they need assistance in and go to the resource room to receive their instruction.  Sometimes the instruction is very similar to what the gen. ed. students are learning, other times it is not.  Students are taken to the resource room for various reasons.  Some common reasons for using this model instead of full-inclusion is that the student’s instructional level is well-below the grade level, the student requires a different type of program (especially true for students with reading disabilities) than the other students are using, or the student requires a small group setting with a slower pace and frequent review.  Many resource rooms have more than one staff member working with students, so the students get more teacher time.

Substantially Separate Classrooms: Classrooms for children that benefit from a small group setting for most of the day.   Usually there is more than one adult in the room so students get a lot of one-on-one instruction.  Students in these classrooms are usually mainstreamed for a small part of the day (gym, music, art, etc.).  The room is usually operating much differently than a gen. ed. classroom, using more therapeutic programs and highly specialized instruction methods.  Usually substantially separate classrooms include students that all have the same or similar disability.  The students in these classrooms usually have significant difficulty accessing the gen. ed. curriculum, but they may not necessarily be cognitively impaired.

Outside Placement:  Sometimes a district does not have the facilities, staff, or resources to service a student.  In that case, schools will place the student in an outside placement.  An outside placement will be in a different school, either publicly funded or private. A publicly funded outside placement will typically be an educational collaborative.  A collaborative is several school districts pooling  funds, staff, and resources to offer services to their most disable students.  Sometimes the services are provided in a public school building, but usually the collaborative will have its own space.  Sometimes, districts will pay to send students to a privately funded school because they do not have the ability to educate the student in their district or in a collaborative.  Districts use this option as a last resort because it can be very costly.  The school must pay for the tuition and the transportation fees.  In certain rare instances a district will split the cost of a private outside placement with the parents.

Because special educators work to meet the individual needs of their students, there is not one model of service delivery that will benefit all children.  It really depends on the needs of the child, the degree of disability, and preferences of the child’s family.  When you are considering what type of placement is best for your child try to put your own bias aside.  Forget what you felt like when you were a child.  Instead, investigate the placements available at your child’s school.  Talk to the teachers, observe the settings, and consider your child’s strengths and weaknesses.  If they work better in a small group with more teacher supervision, then a partial-inclusion program may be best for them.  If your child requires unique instruction methods most of the time, a separate setting may make sense.  Try to keep an open mind and arm yourself with information.

Top 10 Ways to Get What You Want at an IEP Meeting

27 May

10.  Understand your child’s diagnosis prior to the meeting.  Read the testing reports and look up things you don’t understand.  Ask someone to help you interpret the results.

9.  Prepare for the meeting.  Have a list of goals and questions to ask.  Leave space to write the answers.

8.  Be reasonable.  Having unreasonable expectations and being inflexible will not  help in the end.

7.  Research available programs/resources in your district and surrounding area.  Knowing your child’s options is up to you, the district may not tell you what is available.

6.  Take an active role in the planning and writing of the IEP.  Make suggestions and voice your approval or disapproval of each item (even if you’re not asked).

5.  Bring another person to take detailed notes and help keep you focused on your goals.  Having support for yourself is helpful when sitting at the IEP table.

4. Know what it is that you truly want for your child.  Write it down before the meeting.

3.  Stay calm.  Do not raise your voice, slap the table, point your finger, or use insults at the meeting.  Excuse yourself for a moment if you feel yourself losing control.

2.  Ask for what you want and then some.  Have some things you are willing to compromise on, but remain firm on what you truly want for your child.

1.  Remember that you are an equal member of your child’s team.  You are speaking for your child and your opinion is just as important as any other team members.

IEP Process Guide

26 May

This is a guide to the IEP process that is published by the Massachusetts Department of Education.  Some laws and procedures may be different in some states, however, states are bound to the federal laws of IDEA.  Your state probably has a guide similar to this one on their state department of education website.  IEP Process guide

The Basic Special Education Process Under IDEA

26 May

The Basic Special Education Process Under IDEA

The writing of each student’s IEP takes place within the larger picture of the special education process under IDEA. Before taking a detailed look at the IEP, it may be helpful to look briefly at how a student is identified as having a disability and needing special education and related services and, thus, an IEP.

Step 1. Child is identified as possibly needing special education and related services. 

Child Find.” The state must identify, locate, and evaluate all children with disabilities in the state who need special education and related services. To do so, public school districts conduct “Child Find” activities. Parents may be asked if the school district can evaluate their child. Parents can also call the public school district and ask that their child be evaluated. Or–

Referral or request for evaluation. A school professional may ask that a child be evaluated to see if he or she has a disability. Parents may also contact the child’s teacher or other school professional to ask that their child be evaluated. This request may be verbal or in writing. Parental consent is needed before the child may be evaluated. Evaluation needs to be completed within 45 school working days after the parent gives consent.

Step 2. Child is evaluated. 

The evaluation must assess the child in all areas related to the child’s suspected disability. The evaluation results will be used to decide the child’s eligibility for special education and related services and to make decisions about an appropriate educational program for the child.

Step 3. Eligibility is decided. 

A group of qualified professionals and the parents look at the child’s evaluation results. Together, they decide if the child is a “child with a disability,” as defined by IDEA. Parents may ask for a hearing to challenge the eligibility decision if they disagree with it.

Step 4. Child is found eligible for services. 

If the child is found to be a “child with a disability,” as defined by IDEA, he or she is eligible for special education and related services, and the IEP team will write an IEP for the child.

Once the student has been found eligible for services, the IEP must be written. Detailed information on the IEP process is available on the ESE Web site

1 This summary is taken from A Guide to the Individualized Education Program, published by the Office of Special Education and Rehabilitative Services U.S. Department of Education, July 2000, pages 5 – 7. It is slightly revised consistent with Massachusetts requirements.