10 Steps to Special Education

Children can have all sorts of difficulties growing up. Sometimes problems are obvious right from the start; and sometimes they don’t appear until a child is in school. Some children have trouble learning to read or write. Others have a hard time remembering new information. Still others may have trouble with their behavior. For some children, growing up can be very hard to do!

When a child is having trouble in school, it’s important to find out why. The child may have a disability. By law, schools must provide special help to eligible children with disabilities. This help is called special education and related services. 

There’s a lot to know about the process by which children are identified as having a disability and in need of special education and related services.  This brief overview is a good place to start. Here the process is broken into 10 basic steps. 


Step 1. Child is identified as possibly needing special education and related services
There are two primary ways in which children are identified as possibly needing special education and related services: the system known as Child Find (which operates in each state), and by referral of a parent or school personnel.

Child Find
Each state is required by IDEA to identify, locate, and evaluate all children with disabilities in the state who need special education and related services. To do so, states conduct what are known as Child Find activities.

When a child is identified by Child Find as possibly having a disability and as needing special education, parents may be asked for permission to evaluate their child. Parents can also call the Child Find office and ask that their child be evaluated.

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, but it’s best to put it in writing.  
Sample Letter Requesting an Initial Evaluation

"When a student is referred for an evaluation to determine eligibility for special education, the school district shall send written notice to the child's parent (s) within 5 school days of receipt of the referral." 28.04(a)  When the school district receives your request for the evaluation, they must send you an Evaluation Consent Form within 5 school days. The form will list the specific tests that the school plans to give your child. The school may not refuse to evaluate your child, nor may they delay evaluating your child in order to try to help your child in some other way first. 
"Initial Evaluation. Upon receipt of consent of the parent, the school district shall provide or arrange for the evaluation of the student by a multidisciplinary team within thirty (30) school days. The assessments used shall be adapted to the age of the student and all testing shall meet the evaluation requirements set out in state and federal law. The school district shall ensure that appropriately credentialed and trained specialists administer all assessments." 28.04(2)  

Parental consent is needed before a child may be evaluated. You must sign and date the Evaluation Consent Form and return it to the school. The school will not begin the evaluation of your child until they have received this signed form. ​Under the federal IDEA regulations, evaluation needs to be completed within 60 days after the parent gives consent.  However, Massachusetts state law requires school districts to proceed and conduct a special education evaluation within 30 days after a parent refers the child for testing.  School districts do not have the option to refuse or delay testing for any reason (i.e. pre-referral efforts, CAP plans, etc.).  

Administrative Advisory SPED 2002-2: 
Requirement to Review Refusals to Evaluate for Special Education Eligibility: "Referral for Initial Evaluation. A student may be referred for an evaluation by a parent or any person in a care giving or professional position concerned with the student's development." 28.04(1)

Step 2. Child is evaluated
Evaluation is an essential early step in the special education process for a child. It’s intended to answer these questions:

  • Does the child have a disability that requires the provision of special education and related services?

  • What are the child’s specific educational needs?

  • What special education services and related services, then, are appropriate for addressing those needs?


By law, the initial evaluation of the child must be “full and individual”—which is to say, focused on that child and that child alone. The evaluation must assess the child in all areas related to the child’s suspected disability.  

If you wish, you have the right to meet with your school’s Director of Special Education (or his or her designee) to discuss the evaluation that will be done for your child, to ask questions, and/or to provide your input to the evaluation process. 

Types of Evaluations.  There are several types of evaluations/assessments that can be done by school systems or independently.  If the school is evaluating your child, they must be evaluated in ALL the areas of 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.

The school must hold a Team meeting to discuss the evaluation results within 45 school days from the date on which they received your signed Evaluation Consent Form. This meeting must be attended by: a) the parent(s); b) at least one regular education teacher of the child; c) a representative of the school district who has authority to commit the resources of the district; d) a representative of the school district who is qualified to provide, or supervise the provision of, special education services, is knowledgeable about the general education curriculum, and is knowledgeable about the availability of resources in the school district; and e) individuals who can interpret the instructional implications of the evaluation results. You, as the parent, also have a right to bring anyone you like to the Team meeting, as does the school. 
If the parents disagree with the evaluation, they have the right to take their child for an Independent Educational Evaluation (IEE). They can ask that the school system pay for this IEE.


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. If the parents do not agree with the eligibility decision, they may ask for a hearing to challenge the decision.

In order to be eligible, your child must meet all four of the following eligibility criteria: 

  1. the child has a disability;
    A medical diagnosis is not required. Rather, the student must fit into one or more of the following disability categories defined in special education law at 603 CMR 28.02(7): autism, developmental delay, intellectual impairment, hearing impairment, vision impairment; deafblind; neurological impairment; emotional impairment; communication impairment; physical impairment; health impairment; specific learning disability. 

  2. the child is not making effective progress;
    Effective progress means the child is making documented gains, academically, socially, and emotionally, at a rate commensurate with their unique potential.
    See 603 CMR 28.02(17). 

  3. the lack of effective progress is due to the disability and not to some other factor; and
     

  4. the child needs specialized instruction4 and/or a related service in order to access the curriculum and make effective progress despite their disability. 
    Specialized instruction means that the instruction given to the child has been changed (from what it would be if the child were not disabled) in one or more of the following areas: content; instructional methodology; instructional setting; or performance criteria.
    Related services include but are not limited to: speech, occupational, and physical therapy; counseling; assistive technology; adapted physical education; school health services, etc.

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 eligible for special education and related services. Within 30 calendar days after a child is determined eligible, a team of school professionals and the parents must meet to write an individualized education program (IEP) for the child. 

If your child is found eligible for special education, the Team will write an Individualized Educational Program (IEP). The IEP is a document specific to an individual student that details the content of the student’s educational program, including but not limited to information about: a) how the student’s disability affects their participation in all aspects of life (academic and non-academic activities, community involvement, etc.); the accommodations, modifications, specially designed instruction, and related services that will be provided for the student, or on behalf of the student; and c) goals that the student is expected to meet over the next 12 months. The IEP will also document any accommodations the student will receive when taking the MCAS exams.
The IEP is a legally binding document. All services, instruction, modifications and accommodations described therein must be provided. Alternatively, if something is not documented within the IEP, the school has no obligation to provide it. 
The IEP must be delivered to you within 2 calendar weeks of the Team meeting at which it was written. Once you receive the IEP, you have 30 calendar days to review and respond to it. You can accept the IEP in full; reject it in full; or accept only parts of it. As soon as the school receives your written response to the IEP, the accepted portions of that IEP will be implemented. 

If your child is found ineligible for an IEP the school must notify you of this fact, in writing, within 10 calendar days of the Team meeting, stating the reason he or she was found ineligible. 


Step 5. IEP meeting is scheduled
The school system schedules and conducts the IEP meeting. School staff must:

  • contact the participants, including the parents;

  • notify parents early enough to make sure they have an opportunity to attend;

  • schedule the meeting at a time and place agreeable to parents and the school;

  • tell the parents the purpose, time, and location of the meeting;

  • tell the parents who will be attending; and

  • tell the parents that they may invite people to the meeting who have knowledge or special expertise about the child.


Step 6. IEP meeting is held and the IEP is written
The IEP team gathers to talk about the child’s needs and write the student’s IEP. Parents and the student (when appropriate) are full participating members of the team. If the child’s placement (meaning, where the child will receive his or her special education and related services) is decided by a different group, the parents must be part of that group as well.

Before the school system may provide special education and related services to the child for the first time, the parents must give consent. The child begins to receive services as soon as possible after the IEP is written and this consent is given.

If the parents do not agree with the IEP and placement, they may discuss their concerns with other members of the IEP team and try to work out an agreement. If they still disagree, parents can ask for mediation, or the school may offer mediation. Parents may file a state complaint with the state education agency or a due process complaint, which is the first step in requesting a due process hearing, at which time mediation must be available.


Step 7. After the IEP is written, services are provided
The school makes sure that the child’s IEP is carried out as it was written. Parents are given a copy of the IEP. Each of the child’s teachers and service providers has access to the IEP and knows his or her specific responsibilities for carrying out the IEP. This includes the accommodations, modifications, and supports that must be provided to the child, in keeping with the IEP.

Step 8. Progress is measured and reported to parents
The child’s progress toward the annual goals is measured, as stated in the IEP. His or her parents are regularly informed of their child’s progress and whether that progress is enough for the child to achieve the goals by the end of the year. These progress reports must be given to parents at least as often as parents are informed of their nondisabled children’s progress.

Step 9. IEP is reviewed
The child’s IEP is reviewed by the IEP team at least once a year, or more often if the parents or school ask for a review. If necessary, the IEP is revised. Parents, as team members, must be invited to participate in these meetings. Parents can make suggestions for changes, can agree or disagree with the IEP, and agree or disagree with the placement.

If parents do not agree with the IEP and placement, they may discuss their concerns with other members of the IEP team and try to work out an agreement. There are several options, including additional testing, an independent evaluation, or asking for mediation, or a due process hearing. They may also file a complaint with the state education agency.


Step 10. Child is reevaluated
At least every three years the child must be reevaluated. This evaluation is sometimes called a “triennial.” Its purpose is to find out if the child continues to be a child with a disability, as defined by IDEA, and what the child’s educational needs are. However, the child must be reevaluated more often if conditions warrant or if the child’s parent or teacher asks for a new evaluation.