Entering Special Education

Tips for getting your child started in special education.

What's the first thing you should do if you believe your child is eligible for special education? There's no place to just sign your child up. Instead, you'll have to prove to the school district that your child is eligible for special education. To make your case, you'll have to learn more about your child's disability.

Recognize Your Child's Needs

It's common for parents to realize that their child has unique needs but not know how those needs should be met. It may be that your child's problems can be isolated and addressed very specifically, or the problems may be more wide-ranging. To figure out what to do, start by focusing on your child's specific difficulties. Think about whether your child has had any of the following troubles:

  • academic problems in reading, spelling, or math
  • delays in developmental areas, such as language or fine motor skills
  • difficulties processing or retaining information, such as understanding simple instructions or problems with short- or long-term memory
  • social or emotional problems
  • trouble sleeping, eating, or getting along with the family
  • sustained difficulties in paying attention or staying focused
  • inappropriate or hyperactive behavior, or
  • delays in physical milestones or other physiological difficulties, such as hearing loss, sight problems, difficulties with mobility, or handwriting problems.

To gather information about your child's problems, you might also talk to your child's teacher, pediatrician, care provider, or others who spend a lot of time with your child.

Get Your Child's School Records

As part of your information-gathering process, you must find out what is in your child's school files. This information will help you assess how serious your child's problems are, whether your child needs special education, and what position the school might take on your child's needs.

Your child's file might include the following types of records:

  • report cards and other progress reports
  • medical records (such as immunization records and health reports)
  • attendance records
  • disciplinary reports
  • testing data and assessments, and
  • teacher comments and other observations.

Ask the school district to send you a copy of your child's file. The school is legally obligated to send you the file within 45 days of your request (although it usually won't take that long). The school might charge you a fee for copying the file.

Do Some Research

Once you have a sense of your child's problems, it's time to hit the books -- and the phones. There are lots of sources of information out there, including the Internet, other parents, pediatricians, psychologists, and other experts and advocacy groups that specialize in particular disabilities. Use these sources to learn more about your child's disability and about the ways his or her needs can be met.

Ask the School District to Get Moving

Your school district has a legal obligation to figure out which children might need special education. However, you can get the ball rolling by contacting your school district, explaining your child's problems, and asking that it start the special education process. It's best to do this in writing. And make sure to ask the district to send you any written materials it has about special education.

For a general overview of special education and the IEP (individual education program) process, read Special Education Law.

For comprehensive guidance on special education and the IEP process read The Complete IEP Guide: How to Advocate for Your Special Ed Child, by attorney Lawrence Siegel (Nolo).

Or, if your child has a learning disability (as opposed to another type of disability) read Nolo's IEP Guide: Learning Disabilities , by attorney Lawrence Siegel (Nolo), in which Lawrence Siegel tailors his discussion of special education and IEPs specifically for the parents of children with learning disabilities.

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