Special Education Frequently Asked Questions
II. The IEP
III. Section 504
VIII. Reference Information
In its initial function, special education is a system of pragmatic intervention. These interventions, used successfully, will empower students to overcome or compensate for disabilities that hinder learning. These interventions include:
In essence, special education is individualized, intensive, and purposeful instruction designed to address distinct problems in teaching and learning (Heward. 2005).
In the context of this FAQ, the three terms are interchangeable. They each refer to a specific emotional, mental, physiological, psychological, or social condition that affects a childís development and learning.
IDEA is an acronym that refers to the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. This law provides the federal mandate for special education services in each state. It outlines the system of funding employed for special education and related services. The law also establishes a framework for "due process" procedures in special education. In 2004, IDEA was reauthorized and modified to align more closely with the goals of the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act; the resultant legislation is entitled the Individuals with Disabilities Education Improvement Act (IDEIA).
In aiding students with disabilities, IDEA was preceded by Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973. In addition, the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act in 1990 provided a broad set of regulations protecting the civil rights of people with various disabilities. Before the inception of the Education for All Handicapped Children Act of 1975, approximately 1 million children with disabilities were denied pertinent services and schooled in separate facilities and institutions. Since then, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act has been amended several times in order to ensure that students with special needs are serviced appropriately. For an in-depth discussion of Section 504, IDEA, and the ADA, please refer to S. James Rosenfeldís article, Section 504 and IDEA: Basic Similarities and Differences.
P.L. 94-142 is the legal code that encompasses the Education for All Handicapped Children Act of 1975, the predecessor to the IDEA and IDEIA. The term is generally used interchangeably with IDEA, as it also refers to all amendments affecting the 1975 Act.
Children ages 3 through 21 who require special education and related services because of a disability are eligible. A child with a disability is defined as having at least one of the following exceptionalities:
Beyond this, it is noteworthy that the definitions of disability in the New Jersey Administrative Code also include descriptions of the following additional categories: Multiply disabled, Preschool child with a disability, Social maladjustment, and Deaf/blindness.
Every school district has its own specific procedures for determining eligibility. Nevertheless, the process, in general, is fairly standardized. A student exhibiting symptoms of severe academic, social, emotional, or environmental stress is initially screened by a school-based intervention team. This necessary step precedes a referral to the Child Study Team. This intervention team is typically comprised of the studentís teacher, a school administrator and a school counselor. After attempting to determine the possible etiology of the studentís difficulties, the team will recommend interventions to assist the student. These may include, but are not limited to:
If the difficulties persist through a trial period while the studentís performance is monitored, the intervention team may refer the student to the Child Study Team for a more thorough assessment. The education agency in charge must make reasonable efforts to obtain a parentís consent for evaluation. If the parent(s) fail(s) to respond to the request for consent, the CST may evaluate the student. If the parent refuses consent, the school or education agency may pursue an evaluation through the mediation and due process procedures specified in IDEA.
In any event, the Child Study Team performs a complete educational case study of the student. This multi-faceted approach ensures that the student is correctly diagnosed and properly treated. The case study includes the following steps:
If such a student is diagnosed with a specific exceptionality by the Child Study Team, that student is most definitely eligible. However, a student is not eligible for special education if his/her learning difficulties do not stem from a specific disability.
Although different states and school districts have their own unique procedures, the classification system, due process procedures and other federal regulations apply to all states. Indeed, while a state may add certain elements in order to execute the law, no state may pass legislation that limits or restricts those federal guidelines.
IEP stands for Individualized Education Program (also called Individualized Education Plan, Individual Educational Program, etc.). The IEP is a legally binding contract of services provided by a school district for children classified with a disability. While different school districts vary the IEP in format and structure, there are seven legally mandatory components:
Essentially, the IEP is a blueprint that outlines a studentís progress, strengths and weaknesses. Although a studentís IEP must be kept confidential, general education teachers who have contact with a special education student must have access to it. Unfortunately, many teachers and administrators consider the IEP to be more of a legal document than a working educational plan. Teachers especially should review their studentsí IEPs thoroughly in order to gain an insight into their progress.
The IEP Team must include the following members:
The Child Study Team (CST) is a group of professionals who perform the task of diagnosing students with special needs. A CST is generally made up of the following individuals:
In addition to these members, the CST may utilize various other professionals in order to evaluate and properly diagnose a student (i.e. audiologist, physical therapist, autism specialist, etc.). Typically, one member of the team is assigned as a casemanager to a school or cluster of schools. It is important to distinguish the Child Study Team from the IEP Team, which also includes parents, general education teachers and special education teachers.
The IEP Team reviews each studentís performance annually to determine progress and plan for the upcoming year. In addition, a reevaluation of the studentís program must be conducted every three years. However, a reevaluation may be conducted sooner if necessary. Under IDEIA, a number of state are using three-year IEPs (i..e with no annual review) on a trial basis.
Free, appropriate, public education or FAPE is the standard outlined in the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. By law, FAPE refers to special education and related services that:
The term "related services" means transportation, and such developmental, corrective, and other supportive services as may be required to assist a child with a disability to benefit from special education. It includes the early identification and assessment of disabling conditions in children. Related Services include:
The term "supplementary aids and services" means, aids, services, and other supports that are provided in the general education classroom or other education-related settings to enable children with disabilities to be educated with non-disabled children to the maximum extent appropriate in accordance with the law.
The term "transition services" means a coordinated set of activities for a student with a disability that:
The term "least restrictive environment" refers to the placement of students with exceptionalities in the most advantageous educational placement suitable for their needs. This standard is mandated by IDEA. The continuum of educational placements ranges from the least to the most restrictive:
A 504 plan is a legally binding education plan created under the authority of Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973. It is designed to create modifications and accommodations for students with special needs who are attending their schoolís general education program. For this reason, the 504 plan should not be confused with an IEP. However, in some instances, students transitioning from special education to general education classroom placement may qualify for a 504 Plan.
Put simply, the student must meet the qualifications set forth in Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973. The student must exhibit one or more of the following symptoms:
It is important to note that although a student may not qualify for special education services under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), he/she may still qualify for a 504 Plan.
The term "major life activities" includes, but is not necessarily limited to:
The steps are somewhat similar. However, Section 504 grants far greater leeway than IDEA. Generally, in order to design and implement a 504 Plan, the following steps must be taken:
The following persons make up the 504 Plan Team:
The term "early intervention services" means services that are designed to meet the developmental needs of an infant or toddler with a disability in any one or more of the following areas:
These services must be provided under public supervision and at no cost (except where federal or state law provides for a system of payments by families, including a schedule of sliding fees). To the maximum extent appropriate, these services must be provided in natural environments, including the home, and community settings in which children without disabilities participate. The services must be provided by a qualified professional in the given field, and must conform with a studentís individualized family service plan (IFSP). Early Intervention Services include:
An Individualized Family Service Plan (IFSP) provides a blueprint for the early intervention process of children with disabilities and their families. Through the IFSP process, family members and service providers work together to create, implement, and assess services designed to foster the childís and familyís development. According to IDEA, an IFSP must include:
An IFSP differs from an IEP in many ways. First and foremost, the IEP is an individualized education program, while the IFSP is and individualized family service plan. Put simply, the IFSP is based around the family, rather than the school. It includes goals for the family as well as the child. Furthermore, whereas an IEP indicates the least restrictive environment for a studentís educational placement, an IFSP emphasizes natural environments such as the home and local community settings.
Parents, educators and administrators are equal members of the IEP Team. Parents have the right to participate in meetings concerning their childís:
It is important for parents to maintain regular contact with the educational professionals that work with their child. Also, in preparation for an annual review or reevaluation, parents should prepare by reviewing past IEPs and student records. As the parent is typically the only team member that sees the child at home, their input is most important in assessing student progress and achievement.
An IEP meeting may be held without a parent, if the parent is unable or unwilling attend. Nevertheless, it is the responsibility of the school district to invite the parent(s) and document its attempts to set a time when all persons can attend. When possible, alternative methods for parents to participate, such as by phone, must be initiated. In the absence of a parent/guardian, the remainder of the IEP Team will evaluate and make decisions concerning placement, related services and educational program.
Yes. When necessary, an interpreter or translator must be provided by the school at no cost to the parent.
The written notice of the meeting must state the purpose, time, location and those who will attend. The notice must confirm that the parent may invite to the meeting other individuals who have knowledge or special expertise regarding the child, including related services personnel. The determination of whether the individual has such knowledge or special expertise is determined by the party which invited the individual. In addition, beginning at age 14, or younger if appropriate, the notice for a student with a disability must indicate that the purpose of the meeting will be the development of a statement of the transition service needs, and that the school will invite the student to attend.
"Due Process" is a legal principle outlined in the Fifth Amendment to the Constitution:
"[No person shall] be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law."
In reference to special education, the deprivation of liberty takes one of two forms:
Before continuing with a formal due process hearing, parents must be offered the opportunity to resolve the dispute through a mediation process. Mediation is a completely voluntary process for all parties involved. If the parents decline to participate in mediation or are not satisfied with the results, they retain the right to a due process hearing. If either the school or parent is dissatisfied with the decision in the hearing, that party may appeal the judgment to the state education agency. If the state education agency does not overturn the original decision, all parties retain the right to take civil action through the courts.
Autism is a developmental disability significantly affecting verbal and nonverbal communication and social interaction, generally evident before age three, that adversely affects a childís educational performance. Other characteristics often associated with autism are engagement in repetitive activities and stereotyped movements, resistance to environmental change or change in daily routines, and unusual responses to sensory experiences. The term does not apply if a childís educational performance is adversely affected primarily because the child has an emotional disturbance. Under some circumstances, it is possible for a child to be diagnosed with autism after age three.
Deaf-blindness is defined as concomitant hearing and visual impairments, the combination of which causes such severe communication and other developmental and educational needs that they cannot be accommodated in special education programs solely for children with deafness or children with blindness.
An auditory impairment is an impairment in hearing, whether permanent or fluctuating, that adversely affects a childís educational performance but that is not included under the definition of deafness in this section.
Deafness is an auditory impairment that is so severe that the child is impaired in processing linguistic information through hearing, with or without amplification, that adversely affects a childís educational performance.
An emotional disturbance is a condition exhibiting one or more of the following characteristics over a long period of time and to a marked degree that adversely affects a childís educational performance:
This term includes schizophrenia. The term, however, does not apply to children who are socially maladjusted, unless it is determined that they have an emotional disturbance.
The term cognitively impaired corresponds to "mentally retarded" and means a disability that is characterized by significantly below average general cognitive functioning existing concurrently with deficits in adaptive behavior; manifested during the developmental period that adversely affects a studentís educational performance and is characterized by one of the following:
Multiple disabilities or multiple handicaps refers to concomitant impairments (such as mental retardation-blindness, mental retardation-orthopedic impairment, etc.), the combination of which causes such severe educational needs that they cannot be accommodated in special education programs solely for one of the impairments. The term does not include deaf-blindness.
An orthopedic impairment is a disability that severely and adversely affects a childís educational performance. The term includes impairments caused by congenital anomaly (e.g., clubfoot, absence of some member, etc.), impairments caused by disease (e.g., poliomyelitis, bone tuberculosis, etc.), and impairments from other causes (e.g., cerebral palsy, amputations, and fractures or burns that cause contractures).
The term other health impairment refers to a limited strength, vitality or alertness, including a heightened alertness to environmental stimuli, that results in limited alertness with respect to the educational environment, that:
A specific learning disability is a disorder in one or more of the basic psychological processes involved in understanding or in using language, spoken or written, that may manifest itself in an imperfect ability to listen, think, speak, read, write, spell, or to do mathematical calculations, including conditions such as perceptual disabilities, brain injury, minimal brain dysfunction, dyslexia, and developmental aphasia.
The term does not include learning problems that are primarily the result of visual, hearing, or motor disabilities, of mental retardation, of emotional disturbance, or of environmental, cultural, or economic disadvantage.
The term social maladjustment refers to the consistent inability to conform to the standards for behavior established by a school. Such behavior is seriously disruptive to the education of the student and/or other students and is not due to emotional disturbance.
A communication impairment or communication handicap is a disorder, such as stuttering, impaired articulation, a language impairment, or a voice impairment, that adversely affects a childís educational performance.
The term preschool handicapped refers to an identified disabling condition and/or a measurable developmental impairment which occurs in children between the ages of three and five years and requires special education and related services.
The term traumatic brain injury corresponds to "neurologically impaired" and refers to an acquired injury to the brain caused by an external physical force, resulting in total or partial functional disability or psychosocial impairment, or both, that adversely affects a childís educational performance. The term applies to open or closed head injuries resulting in impairments in one or more areas, such as cognition; language; memory; attention; reasoning; abstract thinking; judgment; problem-solving; sensory, perceptual, and motor abilities; psychosocial behavior; physical functions; information processing; and speech. The term does not apply to brain injuries that are congenital or degenerative, or to brain injuries induced by birth trauma.
The term visual impairment refers to an impairment in vision that, even with correction, adversely affects a childís educational performance. The term includes both partial sight and blindness.
The symptoms of students with special needs are numerous and diverse. The most important aspect of examining these behaviors is the consistency with which they appear. While exhibiting these symptoms does not guarantee that an exceptionality exists, consistent demonstration of the following behaviors may indicate a more serious problem. Although these symptoms have been separated into two categories, this is not meant to imply that they are independent of each other. For example, severe academic stress may manifest itself in a behavioral problem. Nonetheless, it is important to note that only qualified professionals should attempt to diagnose such exceptionalities (Pierangelo, 1994).
Children with exceptionalities can grow up to do many things. If one looks to history, you may find that such people have:
These children have also gone on to become teachers, firefighters, soldiers, sales representatives, physical therapists, nurses, police officers, baseball umpires and anything else one could imagine. In essence, children with exceptionalities are like all children. They are capable of anything that they apply themselves towards.
There is no easy answer to that question. Like all children, they need a supportive environment to nurture their gifts. They need rules to help them understand that this world has limits. Nevertheless, most importantly, they need good parents and teachers that understand them and are willing to help them.
Sections I-V of this FAQ are paraphrased, or quoted directly, from the Individuals with Disabilities Education Improvement Act (IDEIA) and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973. Section VI, which contains the descriptions of the federal categories of disability (e.g. autism, specific learning disability), was drawn from the New Jersey Administrative Code (NJAC). These definitions are aligned with those that appear in the Federal Register. I wrote Section VII based on my studies at Kean University (Union, NJ) during the completion of my M.A. in special education.
Information pertaining to IDEA may be found at http://idea.ed.gov/explore/home.
Information pertaining to Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 may be found at http://www.wrightslaw.com/info/sec504.index.htm.
The NJAC sections pertaining to special education are found in Title 6A, Chapter 14 (6A:14) and are accessible at http://www.nj.gov/education/code/.
Additional references include:
Heward, W. L. (2005). Exceptional children: An introduction to special education
(8th ed.). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Education/Merrill/Prentice Hall.
Pierangelo, R. (1994). A survival kit for the special education teacher.
West Nyack, NY: Center for Applied Research in Education.
Last Updated on June 20, 2010