Special Education: Getting Help for Your Child

  • What Is Special Education?

    Many kids with special needs qualify for extra help in school. A child who has a problem that makes it harder to learn might be able to get:

    When a child has these services, it’s called “special education.” To qualify for special education, kids need to be tested.

    If you’re concerned about your child’s ability to learn, don’t delay testing. The sooner kids get the help needed, the more likely they’ll succeed in school.

  • What's the Law?

    The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) makes sure that children with disabilities get the same free, quality public education as other kids. (A disability is any physical or mental condition that limits a child’s ability to learn.) The law covers kids from birth to age 21.

    Children who quality for extra help receive a written plan that sets learning goals for them, and explains how to reach those goals. Parents, teachers, therapists, school psychologists, and others work as a team to create the plan. Plans are offered based on ability and age:

    • Individualized Family Service Plan (IFSP): This is given to infants and toddlers up to age 3 who have developmental delays or medical problems that can lead to delays (such as hearing loss, being born early, or genetic problems like Down syndrome).
    • IEP: This is given to kids ages 3 to 21 who have physical or mental disabilities.
  • What Do I Do First?

    Talk to your doctor. If your child has special needs that make it harder to learn or seems behind in development, tell the doctor. The doctor can see if your child is on track or needs testing. Your child may be seen by a specialist (such as a speech therapist or psychologist).

    If needed, get testing. A child who may need extra help to reach milestones will be referred for testing. Testing for special education services can be through your state’s early intervention program or through your local school district.

    You can request a free test, even without a referral from your doctor. Here’s how:

    • If your child is under 3, call your state’s early intervention program.
    • If your child is age 3 or older, call your local school district.
    • If your child is older and struggling in school, you can ask for an evaluation at any time. Talk with teachers, the principal, a school guidance counselor, or psychologist to set up testing.
  • How Will My Child Be Tested?

    The kind of tests given depend on your concerns and the needs of your child. Tests can check for language skills, motor skills, development, behavior problems, IQ, and achievement.

  • What Services Are Offered?

    Babies & Toddlers

    Babies and toddlers are enrolled in their state’s early intervention programs. Most services are given in the home and include help learning to walk, talk, play, and develop other skills. Families and caregivers learn to help children reach their goals. Families also may get help managing problem behaviors and social work support.

    Before kids turn 3, they are tested again to see if they need to continue with special education. If a child qualifies, a plan is put in place for preschool.


    After age 3, kids usually get services outside the home. Preschoolers learn best when they’re around their peers, and teachers help prepare them for kindergarten. This happens in special education preschools or other learning centers. If needed, a child may get extra services — such as speech therapy — to help meet learning goals.

    After preschool ends, kids are tested again to see if they need to continue with special education services in elementary school.

    School-Age Kids

    Depending on their need, students from kindergarten age through age 21 may qualify for either an IEP or a 504 education plan:

    • An IEP is a custom learning plan. It tells a child’s current grade level creates reachable goals for learning, and has a plan for how the school will help the child reach those goals. The IEP includes yearly planning and progress reports.
    • 504 plans make sure that kids with special needs get the extra support they need in the regular classroom. Support might be having an aide in the classroom, having more time to work on tests or homework, or having a keyboard for taking notes. These things are called “accommodations.”

    These two plans might seem the same, but they are different. The IEP provides individualized special education and related services, depending on a student’s need. To qualify for an IEP, a child must have a disability recognized by the IDEA. The 504 plan helps a child with a disability succeed in a regular classroom setting.

    Students with needs that go beyond what the school district can offer may be placed in a special school or program.


    The IEP will start to prepare a child at age 14 for adult life. This is called “transition planning.” Transition planning focuses on what a teen wants to do after graduation — such as college or vocational school, working, or volunteering — and the skills needed to reach those goals.

    The transition plan also includes where a young adult might live and whether he or she can live independently. It addresses life-skills education (like money management, transportation, grooming, and household chores), and sets a plan for switching to adult health care services.

  • How Often Are Plans Reviewed?

    IEPs and 504 plans are reviewed every year. A major review (which usually includes re-testing) should happen every 3 years.

  • Can I Change My Child's Plan?

    You (or anyone one else on your child’s planning team) can ask for a review at any time. If you disagree with your child’s IEP, request a meeting with the IEP team to discuss your concerns. Parents have the right to be in all IEP planning meetings, to look over school records, and to disagree with and/or ask to change the plan.

    If this effort does not get the results wanted, you can work with a mediator or make a “due process” complaint to help resolve the issues between you and the school district. You also can file a complaint through your state education agency or file a lawsuit.

    Your child will continue with services while you go through the resolution process.

  • What Else Should I Know?

    Your child’s pathway to learning may be different from what you expected. It may sometimes feel like an overwhelming process. But remember that you do not need to go through it alone.

    Find support at school and in the community. Talk to other parents who have been through it before you. Join a support group, either online or in person.

    With careful planning and patience, working together with the school, you can help your child learn and reach his or her full potential.