Children's Voice Dec 2005

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Fostering Progress

Navigating Special Ed

Working with the special education system can be a confusing journey, but with a basic road map in hand, parents and guardians can find their way.

By David Gold and Thomas Stacy

Special education conjures different meanings, fears, anxieties, and hopes for children and their parents or guardians. But what does special education really mean, and what are the pros and cons for children enrolled in it? How exactly can special education help?

Used appropriately by parents armed with an understanding of the system and a good working relationship with the school, special education can be an invaluable resource for many children, including those diagnosed with learning disabilities, mental retardation, attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), and autism.1 But when children experience significant difficulties in school, and their families look to special education for help, many discover the process can be confusing and intimidating.

Sometimes, special education seems to have a vocabulary of its own. Many parents and guardians have attended meetings with their child's education team where they don't even understand the title of the meeting; they are asked to make decisions and sign agreements when they can't understand the questions, let alone any potential solutions.

The Role of Special Education

Two points about special education are widely misunderstood by the public. First, the purpose of special education is to help students already experiencing significant difficulties in the education system, not to prevent students from experiencing difficulty in the first place. The second misconception is that the special education system is supposed to provide whatever services are necessary to ensure the best education for its students.

This is not the case. Rather, the role of special education is to provide the necessary services to ensure a good or adequate education for the student. Special education isn't supposed to provide a Mercedes-Benz education. It is mandated, however, to provide the educational equivalent of a Honda Accord.

The terms IEP and 504 plan can be confusing for families considering special education. A 504 plan defines a set of instructional services for students with some form of disability that interferes significantly with at least one major life activity. It is designed for students whose needs are not severe enough to warrant special education services. A 504 plan gives students access to educational services, just as a ramp gives wheelchair-bound individuals access to a public building, but it is a somewhat less intensive plan of intervention than what is usually included under special education.

An IEP, or Individual Education Plan, is the set of educational modifications, accommodations, and interventions special education provides students. Strict laws govern how IEPs are created, their content, how often they are reviewed, who is responsible for implementation, and how these individuals will be held accountable for providing services.

The IEP Meeting

Administering special education services begins with an initial IEP meeting, and everyone present comprises the IEP team. Typically, the team includes one or more regular education teachers who teach the student, one special education teacher, a school administrator, and, ideally, one or more related service professionals, including school psychologists, social workers, speech and language pathologists, occupational therapists, and others. The most important members are the student and her parents. Parents are full members of the IEP team and have equal say in all team decisions.

During the initial meeting, the team will answer two questions: Is there enough evidence the student has at least one condition qualifying her for special education services, and should she be formally assessed? If there is enough evidence, including grades, disciplinary referrals, and teacher reports, the team will order specific assessments and evaluations. Legally, the school must administer these assessments, at no cost to the student or family, under a predetermined time frame. Everything in the special education process operates according to a specific timetable mandated by federal law.

Before the end of this time frame, the team must reconvene and review the assessment results that evaluate whether the student can be classified as having a disability, thus qualifying her for special education services. If the student is eligible, the team then addresses what services the student needs. In rare instances, such as when assessment data have already been collected, it's possible to forego additional assessments and decide during the initial meeting if the student qualifies for special education.

Classifying the Disability

Thirteen labels or classifications qualify a student for special education and often are referred to in meetings by their numeric labels rather than by the qualifying condition. (More on disability codes.) These classifications or disabilities include mental retardation, autism, blindness or visual impairment, hearing impairment, physical impairment, speech or language impairment, and learning disabilities.

A learning disability means the student's achievement in one or more academic areas is significantly below his overall cognitive or intellectual potential, as measured on a standard IQ test. This discrepancy must significantly interfere with the student's ability to receive an adequate education.

For example, if a student's IQ places him in the superior range, but his spelling ability places him in the average to below-average range, this may constitute a significant discrepancy between potential and achievement. But if the student works hard and is earning Bs in English, despite his spelling ability, the discrepancy is not interfering significantly with his education and school performance, and he most likely would not--and probably should not--be classified with a learning disability. A learning disability would be labeled as 09 qualifying condition for special education.

Another common qualifying condition is severely emotionally disturbed (SED). These students have difficulties in school because of social and emotional issues that often manifest through behaviorally acting out in school. Technically, an SED student has significant difficulties forming and maintaining relationships with others, including peers or authority figures, and these difficulties interfere with her ability to receive an adequate education.

SED is not a medical, psychological, or psychiatric term. It is specific to the special education system and can potentially refer to students with a host of psychological or psychiatric difficulties, including forms of depression, bipolar disorder, conduct disorder, oppositional defiant disorder, and other social or emotional difficulties. In terms of qualifying conditions for special education, SED is classified as 06.

ADHD is a medical diagnosis, not a specific classification or qualification for special education, nor listed as a qualifying disorder on an IEP. Rather, ADHD typically is lumped into category 08 and labeled other health impairment. ADHD is characterized by impulsivity, difficulty sitting still, and an inability to focus and control attention. It's not unusual for school systems to have very specific guidelines about who may assess and diagnose ADHD. In some school systems, ADHD may only be diagnosed by a medical doctor and not by the school psychologist or even a private clinical psychologist.

Determining Appropriate Services

Once the IEP team decides a student qualifies for special education, the discussion turns to what services to provide him. These services may include implementing changes within his classroom, such as preferential seating, extra time on tests and quizzes, and providing lists of homework assignments ahead of time. It may also mean removing the child from his classroom for all or part of the school day to receive extra help, or to be placed in a classroom with a more favorable teacher-student ratio or in which the teacher is trained to work with students with certain disabilities.

Teachers may use different teaching methods for students with learning disabilities, such as increased visual cues, whereas teachers working with SED children may use token economies and behavior modification. Special education students may also receive specialized therapy from one or more school-based professionals--often called related service providers--including school psychologists, social workers, occupational therapists, and speech and language therapists.

Obviously, most services are related to the student's qualifying condition. But, once the student is accepted into the special education program, she is eligible for all services the IEP team decides are beneficial for that student, even if the interventions are not specifically related to her qualifying condition.

For example, if a student has a learning disability in mathematics, the team may decide she would benefit from seeing a social worker or school psychologist for counseling, even if the counseling has nothing to do with the learning disability but will focus on other aspects of her life. The IEP team must be convinced a legitimate need for these services exists, but the need doesn't necessarily have to be related to the student's qualifying condition.

The services the team agrees on are recorded in the student's IEP, which lists the services, modifications, and accommodations the student will receive, their frequency, who will provide them, and the goals the team sets for the student. The IEP is a legal document--by law, the school system must abide by what is recorded in the IEP.

The team must meet at least once a year to review the IEP, discuss the student's progress, and revise the goals and services as needed. If specific concerns arise about the student's progress or any part of the IEP, any member of the team can request a review meeting at any time, however, without waiting for the regular annual review.

There are some limits on the services the IEP team can recommend. For instance, the school system must provide services that will meet the student's academic needs in the least restrictive setting possible--if a student's needs can be met by removing him from his regular classroom for only one period each day, then he should not be removed for three periods each day or placed in a full time, self-contained classroom.

This rule is designed to prevent overusing resources or abuses such as segregating special ed students. This also means, however, that services often are only increased incrementally, which can prove frustrating for both parents and teachers.

Special education is by no means a panacea. Despite what many parents want, it isn't designed to prevent students from developing academic difficulties and falling behind in the first place. Rather, for those students who already are having difficulties and find themselves in a hole academically, it can be an invaluable resource. Special education is not a one-size-fits-all service but must be constantly tailored to fit each student's specific needs at any particular time. The more parents understand the system and their personal goals, options, and resources, the better prepared they will be to actively participate in helping design a program to help their child or teenager.

David Gold PhD and Thomas Stacy PhD are practicing psychologists in Maryland. For more information on learning disabilities, see the new Children's Voice column, "Exceptional Children."

  1. Although children diagnosed with mental retardation, ADHD, and autism do often experience learning disabilities as well, strictly speaking these conditions themselves are not learning disabilities.

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