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Special education: a practical primer

Learn about your rights and responsibilities, as well as what to expect, when you enroll your child in special education.

By GreatSchools Staff

In this guide you'll learn about the basics of special education, your child's rights, and how an individualized education program (IEP) is created.

What rights does special education law provide?

The most important federal law governing special education is the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). The goal of the act is to ensure a free, appropriate public education (FAPE) for children with disabilities. It was passed in 1975 and updated in 1997 and 2004. The current act is officially called the Individuals With Disabilities Education Improvement Act of 2004, but most people call it IDEA 2004.

Before the passage of the law, most schools placed special education students in self-contained special day classes. Many students were enrolled in special schools rather than in their neighborhood schools. Some students would eventually be "mainstreamed," or moved into general education classes, if they showed sufficient progress and evidence that they could keep up with those classes.

But IDEA influenced many schools to rethink their basic approach to special education. The law requires schools to educate all students in what is known as the "least restrictive environment." Thus many schools practice "inclusion," which involves educating special needs students in the schools and classrooms they would otherwise attend, to the maximum extent appropriate. It involves bringing special services to the child in the regular classroom rather than "pulling out" the student to receive special services. Proponents of inclusion believe that students belong first in the regular education environment because it is often better for students socially and academically. They believe students should be removed from that environment only when necessary services can't be provided in that environment.

Most schools strike a balance between teaching special education students in regular education classrooms when possible and pulling them out for portions of the day to work with a specialist in what's usually called the "resource room."

Specific rights

  • You have the right for your child to receive the services and aids she needs to facilitate her placement in a regular education classroom.
  • You have the right to have your child taught with nondisabled students to the maximum extent appropriate for both. This includes participation in nonacademic activities.
  • You have the right to have your child kept in the general education environment until supplemental aids and services have been tried and determined insufficient.
  • You have the right to have your child stay in the school he would regularly attend unless the IEP states otherwise.

Comments from readers

"My son is retained in the 3rd grade this school year. I let the teacher know at the beginning of the school year that my son was struggling with his reading. It was 3 months before the CRCT test was given that they offered help. I feel that I was not doing my job with my sons learning.He was just sliding by with his assignments/GRADES. He went to Summer school from Kindergarden to 3rd grade. The 3rd students have to score 800 or more. He scored 767 on the 1st test and 781 on the 2nd test. I am moving him to a knew school and hope this will help. I have to check with the 2 schools I have on my list to see if they can give my son the help he needs with his LEARNING. My son just clamps up with READING. We will talk about the IEP at both schools. "
"i have aquestion my child does have an iep can she have all her core class like math english history science in with the resource teacher and other class with the others? she feels she does better away from others when she not with some many people grades do better she will be in the 8th grade and has emotional problems at this time what can i do "
"what if i feel my child not geting the help she needs .and i requisted a ard meeting and to have her tested for dyslexia they told me they won't here in texas but yet they want her medicade this is school they feel as long as you quilife for special ed that good anough but she in fourth grade reading"
"What do I do if we moved and the new school in the new stated told me that they do not have IEP for gifted and never looked at my daughters until a year and a half later and now that she is failling everything i asked for her to be retested"
"What if the principal of the public school does not keep up to date with special education laws and regulations, or if is reminded of them, refuses to follow process and procedures? The Director is informed, the Chair documents, what is the next step involved to reach a higher degree of compliance?"
"What to do when the IEP indicates S/L services but the school doesn't have an SLP. My autistic grandchild is being denied language therapy which is detailed in his IEP but the public school he attends has no SLP...and may not get one for 3 months,due to shortage of SLP's. This is in violation of his IEP. What do I do now? "
"This article may be the most important thing I have read in three years. My 9 year old son has been on meds for three years for adhd and still struggles. Not his new teacher for 3rd grade if proving to be VERY difficult to deal with. Not letting unfinished work come home. Believing his mis-behavior to be completely his fault and not making any allowances for adhd at all. Open house is tonight. I'm sick to my stomach thinking about how I'm going to handle tonight. I'm going to try to push for an evaluation for an IEP. PLEASE, wish me luck."
"Please add in a few sentences to note that parents do not have to sign the IEP at the meeting and that there is no legal deadline as to when they have to return a signed IEP. Parents and their support system need to take time to reflect before signing. They may also choose not to sign the IEP until changes are made. There is no deadline for that either. We received completely wrong information from our schools on these pts."
"We need an Anti-bullying policy for Disability students. It is required by law. Great law suit for Abilene Kansas Middle School. All they have is a plan not a policy. It is federally funded so it IS A CRIME for not having one."
"newly classified 14 year old to be sent to find school for self need help they say he's emotionally disturbed i disagree he is very bright and i dont want him deprived of his education due to adhd and odd ant suggestions i lve in newark nj and the local high school is not good for my son he dosent fit in that is why i regestered him to the vocational hgih school who now doesn't want him even in thier special ed program i dont understand and cant afford an attorney nor a private school any ideas?"
"I need help in finding a school that will help my child and meet her needs. Cambria has been horible for her and has failed their obligations in the 504 & IEP! My child has several learning disabilities, she needs a small classrooms and a nurtering setting. Is there ANYTHING near us. Even a public school in SLO that had a piliot program????? Thanks Debbie"
"My child of 8 yrs of age currently is a special ed child and currently attends a public school that has him 1/2 day he is seperated with 3 other kids (special ed) and there is a 3 (teachers) : 4 (students) and the other 1/2 day he attends the regular class. I'd like to know that if there is a school in Minnesota that only caters to special ed kids for I see no progress in my child. THANKS."
"I wish I had seen this article earlier. I felt my son was having problems since preschool with learning to read. The preschool and kindergarten teacher told me, like so many, 'to give it time'. In first grade he started to have behavior problems. When trying to find a psychologist for testing they infomed me that I should have the school do this. I promptly did. Since the teacher did not see any problem they said they would start by testing for gifted. The school system dragged this out into second grade. All the while I was telling everyone that I felt my son was dylexic, it runs in the family. The school psycologist did not see any signs of dyslexa although there was > 30 point difference in IQ and achievment, he was promptly labeled adhd. Then when I again reittereated that I felt the ADHD was secondary to the dyslexia I was told nothing else would be done till the adhd was addressed by me. 'By the way there is medication that helps although the school system does not! promote this', yea right! The outcome was that he would be monitored, since he was not failing. Emotionally distraught, everyone agreed, but not failing. I was discourged by the ese coordinator upon having him privately tested, I did it anyway. Bottom line, he is gifted with dyslexia, does not read well, mostly by context clues, and cannot write or spell, no ADHD! I am preparing for my IEP meeting it is a shame that the schools do not adivse you of your rights or give guidance but my experience is that they do not!! Good Luck, and always trust your instincts. "
"are catholic grammar schools in new jersey required to have an iep for a high level aspergers child"
"What if the child keeps falling in the gray and the school doesn't do anything. She has done first grade twice and is now in 2nd grade and is not passing. she has done the iep test 3 times. and keeps falling in the cracks. What Should I do.. "
"If a teacher refuses to follow an iep you need to make very clear to the principal that they are discriminating against your child! they can be sued on the basis of : americans with disability act(ADA) and (IDEA 2004) which state that a disabled person cannot be discriminated against and has the right to get a free and appropriate education with customized exceptions made for them. my son was diagnosed with adhd while in kindergarten, although he has a very high iq of 131. he is very impulsive, cannot sit still in class sometimes, is very talkative, distractable and interrupts others. his school work is excellent most of the time, yet there are other times that not paying attention will get him a lower score on a quiz. because of his behavior (not his school work) his 1st grade teacher wanted to keep him back to repeat the grade, she explained in her words to the school principal why she felt this way and they called me in to a meeting a week before school ended to tell m! e and my husband the bad news. i refused to accept her explanation that he was 'socially immature' and another year in 1st grade would be better for him and that i was doing him a 'disservice' by wanted him to go on to 2nd grade. i immediately set up an appt. to speak to the superintendant of the schools(board of education). i took his schoolwork throughout the year which i had saved in a shoebox and his adhd evaluation and iq scores. the superintendant together with the special education director agreed that my son should not repeat 1st grade and therefore the principal and teacher's decision was overturned and an iep was done in 2nd grade. now my son is in the third grade and is still doing great although he is still hyper at times. My son has never taken medication which was a long and arduous decision on our part but we felt it was the right thing to do for him. My personal opinion(others may disagree) is that medication may affect him in many ways negatively and tha! t is s chance i am not willing to take, i have read extensivel! y on the pros and cons. it is frustrating at times, sometimes daily to deal with his hyperness, impulsivity and even tantrums but i talk to him a lot and give him praise and encouragement whenever it's called for. although i give him timeouts or even punishment whenever he does something severe i find that patience and prayer is key in raising a child as special as this. if a parent can't take on the responsibility of doing all they can for their child no one will and the child will be lost in the educational system and in life. "
"My child's principle never attends her meetings. She has been asked to attend several times to avoid confusion when things happen and she still won't. What should I do?"
"Hi, My child is in a special day class. He's in the 5th grade.The LONG BEACH UNIFIED school system in CALIFORNIA has not abided by the requirements in his IEP for several years now. When we start the process I didn't know any better and wasn't aware of what our rights were.This has been going on since the 2nd grade. He was supposed to be in general ed. with a tutor.It didn't happen so I agreed to let him go to the special class. I wish I could do this all over again with the knowledge I have now.All of this has caused a lot of damage. "
"Thank you so so much! Please feel free to use my comment on your site. Your information has been very simple to understand, yet extremely informative. It answered all of my questions, and I now know how to proceed in the next meeting."
" this is great information I am a mother of a child who has downs syndrone and reading this information helps me get prepared for my sons ARD meeting"
"What does one do in the instance that a teacher refuses to follow an IEP? My nephew is severely ADHD, Dyslexic and has several medical conditions. He attends tutoring 3 to 4 days a week. My sister is having trouble with her son's teacher and her not following the IEP. Her son is in a Private School and my sister feels she doesn't have a leg to stand on when it comes to asking the Principal to help re-enforce the IEP. In a situation like this, what do you do?"
"I am a veteran teacher and was a reading coach in secondary schools. I can tell you that many teachers in secondary either have no idea what is on IEPs, do not care, or do not know how to teach using the strategies that are suggested by the case manager. The simple fact is that there is too little funding, to few teachers trained in ESE, case managers have over a hundred children who they are to provide instructional interventions for as well as meet with over the course of the year. as well as coach teachers on how to teach in all modalities and to few parents are screaming loud enough for the powers that be to hear them. Many secondary classes are strictly auditory--LD and others require multi-modality delivery of the content. I am a kenisthetic learner as are most people with ADHD. Try to find more than ten teachers in any given school who have any idea at all how to teach in this way. I am sorry to sound negative--my only point is that parents/grandparents MUST educate themselves and demand that the teachers with whom their children come into contact are educated enough to provide a sound education to them. Before I was an educator, my daughter went through staffing (she is schizophrenic. I was completely in the dark! I had no idea what my rights were or how the classes were conducted. My advice to parents is to read all you can and talk to ESE professionals who are not involved before attending your staffing. Good luck!"
"It's great you can actually get others opinion and feed back in this website. In my experience with my son which is now in 5th grade has been hell with the school system. The first thing that happens that bothers the teachers and principal they want to medicate your child and throw them in a special class to label them and not deal with them. My only advise to parents is to fight for what you know is right. You have the right to have your child to get opions from outside professional, do not get fooled into what they want to make their lives easier. I live in florida and my child had issue with school because he has anxiety, He went to Fairlawn Elementary and as soon as my son started to cry for the first week, they decided they couldnt help me and coned me into placing my child into a special eh program. They did not even try to help. Just he needs medication and other school. To make things short. Just dont ever stop fighting for what you think is right for your child, you! have all the right. "
"This article is very informative and a must read for first time parents of a special needs child. The murky waters of special education can be so scary and you many times feel like a the accused in an inquisition. Knowing what rights your child has is important. Despite the fact that the schools goal is to provide your child with the best education they will try to steer you in the direction that cost them the least in terms of time, resources, and money. Knowing that you can say no and dictate more of what your child receives is essential in surviving this whole process with your sanity."
"Thanks you for this article. Would like to suggest that parents visit the school's Special Day class in advance to see the mix of students'special education needs and to meet the teacher and principal. From my experience, Speech and Language gets ignored, depending on existence the stronger types of LDs in the classroom. It was frustrating to see my son's IEP goals unmet and even more frustrating to hear that the teacher had no energy in fulfilling them because he/she was too emotionally and physically drained in the classroom. I couldn't wait for the annual review, so I requested an emergency IEP meeting with results that made some sense for my child. "
"First of all, I believe that the educational system in this country treats all LD students with a band aid approach. They do not look at a specific diagnosis - they just lable a child as being developmentally disabled in a certain subject. It's kind of like giving the same treatment to all people in a hospital, regardless of whether they have a broken arm or late stage cancer! Also - I read these letters, and realize that we are all in the same boat - we need to organize behind a powerful political group or representative. Lobbyists can do great things, especially in election years! If anyone has any ideas, I'm in!"
"This article is a great primer for special education. But, the reality is the process is much more difficult than it should be. I encourage parents to educate themselves about their child's disabilities in order to advocate for their child in school. Any parent in Massachusetts should go to for help."
"What do you do when every school in your district is falling behind and is considered to 'need improvement.' I have moved from an affluent area, where my son received a top-notch education, to a different county in NJ. To keep him in his old school, it would have cost $23K. Now he attends a new charter school (the only option b/c of the violence in the other schools) but this school is just as bad. There are no schools in the district above a '3' rating. Does anyone have any answers as to how I can get my child into another district w/out it costing me an arm and a leg. He's entitled to a good education, and my district is not providing it. Any and all help is appreciated."
"My son has been on an IEP since he was 3 years old. He started high school this year. I became aware that they don't have a good spec ed program for him and the others. They continue to place the kids in Reg. Academic classes even though they are not retaining the lesson. I believe that in high school since the gap between his capabilities and the high school level is so great that they need to create a curriculum that is specific for the special needs, in a classroom of their own, doing functional academics rather than deciphering information from a 10th grade text book! I know it goes against the whole inclusion but they are not learning anything to help them in their life! They have my son copying definitions for homework. He cannot pronounce/understand the words he is writing! I want a structured Life Skills class focusing on functional academics. I want them to have one-on-one speech therapist since all of the eight life skills students would benefit from that.! I want weekly cooking and a weekly outing. I know a school that takes them to the bank once a week to deposit checks. They have a washer/dryer in the class to teach and show them how to pack for a trip. They still go in to regular ed classes such as art, gym, radio station, acting. The classes that would be inclusion are hands on classes not science/art. Daily they work on reading/writing. My son cannot structure a sentence and his reading level is 1st grade and they have him reading from 9th grade text books! I call this Delusion of Inclusion. No matter how many aids are in class or how much they modify reg academic classes he isn't learning much. I'd rather him learning in a structured Life Skills class with inclusion in appropriate classes. I am surprised that at this stage of the game they haven't set up a curriculum that was created just for the special needs child in high school! I am fighting to change the curriculum. I never fought before but just went al! ong with it until high school when the first day assignment wa! s for my son to read pages 3-24 in his 9th grade text book! I thought they knew him and his ability!!! In his supposed Life Skills class they were continueing to help him learn this academic class and not help him with functional lessons. Half of his day spent on this academic class when he still can't read and write at a 2nd grade level! The school that I beleive has a great program is Acton/Boxborough High School in Massachusetts. They have 14 students 1st/2nd period math/english - separated into four groups depending on their ability. 3rd period varies - m,w,f adapted PE; tue. outing to bank and thur. cooking. 4th period life skills. 5th period lunch. 6th period speech/language. 7th/8th functional academic - science,social studies, reading, vocational training. Other outings vary - after the students save their money for 6 weeks they get to go shopping. Another outing they go out to a restaraunt and spend their own money, pay their own bill and tip. Acton has a lot of peopl! e come to look at their program for ideas. The teacher was very proud of her school and she should be. I requested a curriculum change for my sons high school and asked that they look at Acton High School. When my son was in elementary and middle school I didn't say much but now it has become so obvious that something needs to be done!!!! I know of 4 other families (out of 8) that are unhappy and tried to get out of this school district and couldn't. One has a lawyer and others have advocates and still they are not happy! It shouldn't be this difficult. The whole point of inclusion was to get these kids out of the boiler room and learning with the non-disabled at an appropriate level. The key word is appropriate! The team needs to decide what is appropriate!"