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Ask the Experts

What Do I Do If My Son Can't Get Into Special Ed?

By Dr. Lisa Hunter, Child Psychologist


What options do parents have in advocating for their child's educational needs?

My son was evaluated by the school, and it was concluded that he met two of the three requirements needed to qualify for special education. Since he did not meet all three components, the school does not feel responsible for supplying any form of remediation, although it was evident my son would benefit from a reading tutor or other remedial reading assistance.

It's as if my son being classified and or labeled as "normal" gives him no "rights." Please advise.


If you feel that the results of the evaluation are inaccurate and your son does in fact meet the requirements for special education, you may want to have him evaluated independently.

This option may be costly, but it could provide you with a more thorough evaluation of your son's learning needs and potentially, the documentation necessary for him to qualify for special education services.

Another option is to advocate for any classroom modifications, tutoring or other services the school may be able to offer your son even though he does not qualify for special education. Your son does have a right to learn regardless of whether or not he qualifies for special education. If you are having a difficult time advocating for your son's needs, you may want to get some extra help through a local parent advocacy such as the Learning Disabilities Association of America. These centers are typically staffed by parent advocates who can accompany you to school meetings to help you get the services you need for your son.

If, despite your best efforts and assistance from an advocacy center, you are unable to get the school to provide your son with additional reading assistance, you should consider hiring a private reading tutor. Again, this could be a costly option, but it is essential for your son to get the reading help he needs as soon as possible.

Dr. Lisa Hunter is an assistant professor in the department of child psychiatry at Columbia University and the director of school-based mental health programs at Columbia University's Center for the Advancement of Children's Mental Health. Her research focuses on the development, implementation, and evaluation of school-based mental health and prevention programs. In addition she is a licensed clinical psychologist in private practice in New York City. She specializes in cognitive behavioral treatment for children and adolescents.


Advice from our experts is not a substitute for professional diagnosis or treatment from a health-care provider or learning expert familiar with your unique situation. We recommend consulting a qualified professional if you have concerns about your child's condition.

Comments from readers

"My son is a struggling reader, but seems to making great strides. He is in 4th grade, but reads on a 3.6-3.7 level. I work with him daily on reading activities and we still work on phonics twice a week. he is in a private school and does well with the class work, but tanks out on the test. Is it possible that he is having problems understanding the directions?"
"I am dying to know if anyone out there has succeeded in getting a 504 Plan from a school district for a RAD kid ?"
"Getting an independent evaluation needn't be costly. IDEA - Federal Special Ed Law allows parents to request an independent educational evaluation at the district expense if they disagree with the school's evaluation for any reason. In fact, there is no requirement to disclose why you reject their evaluation. Write a letter to the district requesting an IEE independent ed evaluation. Request the district's list of requirements and payment procedures. You may pick ANY evaluator that meets the professional requirements - you are not limited to district approved evaluators. For more on the law and your rights, go to Do a search on IEE."
"A couple of other insights for some of the parents here: 1. Check with colleges and universities in your area. Those with training centers for special education teachers and school psychologists or clinical psychologists frequently offer free or significantly reduced cost evaluations of children as part of their training mandate. 2. It is a seriously unfortunate fact that the bar for eligibility for school-based special education services is higher (based on federal rules and regulations) than the bar for diagnosis of a disability. That's because the government feels (for a variety of reasons) that a child must be significantly handicapped - not just delayed - in order to receive those services at tax-payer funding. It typically costs between double and triple the district average cost for a student with no special ed eligibility to educate a student with minimal pull-out special ed eligibility. If your child requires a smaller instructional placement or a private day placement, we're talking about 4-10 times the average cost. As a result, it is very difficult to follow the law and find students eligible for special education assistance unless pretty much everyone can take one look and go 'whoa - huge problem here!' 3. 504 plans can be a godsend in those cases - but only if the district is willing to make actual accomodations (accomodations are changes to the school program that result in the student being expected to complete the same work as peers. If the expectations are lowered, then it becomes a modification) that the regular education teacher can accomplish. Depending on class size, some districts may find it difficult to actually provide accomodations that other districts provide routinely. But a 504 plan does not require the same level of handicap that special ed does. For a 504, children need a diagnosis of a condition that has an adverse impact on a major life function (which would be school learning) but does not rise to the level of a handicapping condition. Personally, that's where, as a parent, I'd push my district first. 4. Recognize that, as unfortunate as it is, our education system is funded by us and our neighbors - and no one likes to pay more taxes. There is a significant trade-off between what most school districts would like to provide, and what most tax-payers are able (or willing in some cases) to provide. Just as our costs as parents rise daily, school districts face the same cost increases but don't have the same options (limited as ours may be) to increase income by seeking second jobs or moving to another area. Instead, they have to cut programs, increase class sizes, and reduce building maintenance - all of which contributes to more difficulty for students who are at-risk and hanging on by the skin of their teeth. We have got to come up with a better way nationally to work with at-risk students who truly need the help, but who don't meet that high standard for special education. That's enough - off my soapbox for now. "
"I understand how frustating this is because I'm going through the same thing. And I'm in Peoria, IL. My 9yr son is in 3rd grade for the 2nd time because I stood up to the school and demand that they hold him back because his reading level was still at an 2nd grade level. They tested him and stated he doesn't qualify for special education in reading. His teacher has stated to me that he is don't ready for 4th grade reading but she past him with an grade of an B. What should we parents do when we are against the school system, other children, bills I barely can pay and still Droctor you want us to pay for an tutor and I already have to pay for them to be in school every year."
"my son has adhd but the school he attended last year doesn't recognize this as a disability ,,,in fact i have been told the only help i can get him as far as tutoring is only offered to the students involved in sports,,,my son has a college level reading skill but only if the material interests him,,he also has perfect attendence except for two days he was expelled for (not working in class)...any advice is helpfull in our situation, in rural kansas the only help is too far for most people to drive"
"How unfair........ The school systems are all acroos the map. If they would just listen to the mothers of these children. We know when something is wrong with are child. Its called motherly instinct. Its most unfortunate that there is so much red tape and waiting for your child to be eval. I had my son tested privately and now the school wants to do their own testing, which won't be done until next year. wish me luck. For the record my son has state ins. and it is covered un mental health. As for private help with Ld I don't know much about it except that is exspensive. Which we can't afford. You would think these places would just do it for the children and not the amighty dollar. In this coun try all that matter to people is the dollar not helping chlidren or people."
"my son is in the 9th grade and has been struggling in school since grade 3 he was tested for ld and placed in ld class which was determined later that year he did not need. the test results showed no ld however the portion of the test that tested his ability to retain information severely below level so i kept him back in third grade because he could not read well enoough. he has been to psyhologist and medical dr's and placed on concerta he says him concentrate. he has also duffered from headaches since age 4 .i am writing you becuase no one takes his dx seriously the either do not understand the disorder and how real it is for him. my problem is that my child is losty in the system when it comes to getting help. he could benifit from a smaller classroom and instruction from teachers that understand this disorder or a plan for kids like him. though it may not be a ld it is affecting his ablity to learn. he does not have behavioral problems' but if you tell him to do something and anything interrupt him it becomes the new focas of his attention. he has been like this for as long as i can rember he is unorganized and loses everthing. we have the no child left behind policies but my child is being left behind. i am trying to be supportive of him but at this point i am ve! ry scared for him if he does not get some help. the moat heart breaking thing for me is that i see him starting to give up, because he is trying and he beginning to feel deapare. he state ' it feels like i cant do anything right and it feels like everything i try to do goes wrong.' All his life my child has been outgoing caring respectful and an all in all good boy.i feel like im watching his hope and enthusiam fade im loosing my child. if you have any thing you could share with me i would appreciate it. "
"My nephew experienced this in second grade and is now in fifth grade reading at a third grade level. He is way behind in all areas, but does not qualify for special education services or a 504 plan. I need a referral to an education advocacy lawyer. Does anyone know anyone in California that provideds this service? I just want the school to do their job and educate my nephew. the ironic thing is I am a special education teacher. Any information would be appreciated. Thanks!"
"Dr. Hunter, before you to say 'This option may be costly but…', perhaps you should consider that this reader could be in the same situation we are. When we have to take our child for her physical to begin school, we have to choose between paying the utilities or the car payment that month. Getting private evaluations and tutor isn't an option for us. There are hundreds of thousands of us out here who work hard enough to be ineligible for assistance, but still can't meet the basic needs of existence, much less the educational needs of our children. My husband was out of work for two years, during which time I battled cancer. He finally got a job, making about 1/5th of what our income was before. We lost our dependable vehicle, our home and most of our possessions in an attempt to stay off the streets. We KNEW we wouldn't be able to provide private schools, counseling or testing for our daughter who has Attachment Disorder, so we scrimp and save every day to pay the lowest r! ent available in a bad neighborhood that happens to be in a good school district. We believed they would help her. Instead they have even fought me about having her tested. Because she has moments of brilliance (as most RAD children do), they discount the fact that she typically does not have a clear understanding of instructions, content, or expectation. Because she sometimes remembers events or material, they assume that her typical short-term memory issues are deliberate. She is over a year behind in reading skills. Her grades stay at the D level only because she does manage to slip in occasional A's with all the F's on her tests and assignments. They tell me she is making 'progress', so they don't want to label her. I tell them I don't care about labels, that I want her to get a good education. She is functioning academically at a first grade level in the third grade. What are their expectations when she gets to the 5th, 8th or 12th grade? We don't need advice t! o go pay for services the school is legally obligated to provi! de. We need advice on how to make them do their jobs."
"Our school regularly looks at Section 504 plans for students who do not qualify for special education services. It holds a less strict definition of 'disability' and allows for team planning between parents, student, and teachers to create a viable plan for success."