The Special Education Process: How it works

meeting geralt pixabay


The Special Education Process:  How it works

by Marie Toole, MS, OTR/L

on the School Tools From Your Pediatric   Occupational Therapist Blog


On the School Tools Blog I share information monthly with parents about how you can help your child.  This month we will discuss how to access services for your child if you have concerns about his development or academic achievement.  From birth to three years old, you as a parent have access to services through Early Intervention or EI services.  Generally, your pediatrician or health care provider can steer you towards access to services at this early age.  In the state I live in, New Hampshire, the state is divided into regions to best coordinate EI care.  Providers work for Area Agencies within those regions that get some state and federal funding.  Those agencies are responsible for evaluating and servicing children with developmental issues or delays in motor, speech, or social-emotional areas.  In your state, these agencies might be called something else but your pediatrician can help you access their services if they are warranted.


Once your child turns 3, your local public school system takes over the responsibility for these services.  The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) and No Child Left Behind (NCLB) are Federal laws that guarantee your child can get those services and will have access to a Free and Appropriate Public Education (FAPE) from age 3 until age 21.  As long as he continues to qualify under your school district’s regulations and guidelines, your child is entitled to services.   Ask for the Procedural Safeguards or your “parental rights” booklet which outlines your rights during the special education process and beyond if your child is identified as having an educational handicap.

classroom bulletin boards shannonmatthew pixabay

The obligation of a public school is to provide services for all children that meet their educational needs.  Under the Response to Intervention (RtI) model, there are three tiers of supports.  The first tier consists of supports that all students can access. These are essentially good teaching practices such as preferential seating or extra time.  After the student has been provided with these supports, the classroom teacher may have more concerns about the student’s needs and feel these kinds of support are not enough at this time.  The teacher can bring his concerns to the Child Concern Team (CCT) under the regular education model to get some additional supports.  This second tier is when some additional supports may be put into place.  An extra tutorial for reading, for example, or maybe the school team sees that your child qualifies for Title One services for math.  The Physical Therapist (PT), Occupational Therapist (OT), or Speech Language Pathologist (SLP) may consult with the classroom teacher to offer some additional supports to try.

If you continue to have concerns about your child’s academic success or development after these tier 2 supports have been tried, then

  • you as a parent can write a letter of referral,
  • your pediatrician can write a letter of referral for you, or
  • the classroom teacher can write a referral as well.

These letters of referral will spell out what your concerns are and may hypothesize what is happening.  In our district we use a specific form that asks for educational data such as district-wide test scores or all the supports that have been tried. This helps us narrow our focus to make sure we have all the information we need.  All of these situations will bring your child into Tier 3 supports and into the Special Education process.

signature edar pixabayOnce you enter the Special Education process, those federal laws (IDEA and NCLB) protect you and your child’s educational rights.  Certain timelines are now in effect which protect you and your child and ensure that a timely process occurs. Once the referral is written, the school district has 10 calendar days to respond to your request.  The school district should be setting up a meeting to discuss the referral within 14 days of that initial contact.  At that meeting, which is called the Referral Disposition, the team will decide what they want to do.  The team members who are integral to the questions asked in the initial referral should be invited to this meeting.  You as the parent are the most important person on the team.  Don’t forget that.  The school team cannot go ahead and do anything further without your written consent.  You should also get a written copy of notes that are taken at any meeting you have so you can refer back to any decisions that were made.


So who should be at that meeting?   You as the parent can ask for any team member to be present. Here are some suggestions:

  • The classroom teacher should always be present as he has the most current information as to how your child is progressing on a daily basis.
  • The special education teacher or case manager can also shed light on your child’s educational needs.
  • Someone representing the school district can attend, usually a member of its administrative team who can make decisions about special services.
  • For questions about your child’s academic skill acquisition or cognitive ability, ask the school psychologist or School Administer of Intellectual Function (SAIF) to be present.
  • If there are speech, language, or articulation concerns, ask the SLP to be there.
  • If there are motor concerns (gross or fine), invite the OT or PT.
  • If there are concerns about sensory processing, then ask the OT to attend.

If an invited team member cannot make the meeting time, then you as the parent need to be notified and given the option to reschedule if you want that person to be present.

What will happen next?  At the referral disposition meeting, the case manager will review thenoteboods pencil grip StartupStockPhotos Pixabay referral paperwork and the referral questions.  Invited team members will have done file reviews to share information we already have and hypothesize what additional information we might need.  This helps guide the team to make informed decisions.  After reviewing all of the information and asking you as the parent what your concerns are, the team will put forth a proposal.  There are generally three options they can make:

  1. The team members may decide it has enough information and does not need to do any further testing.
  2. The team members may decide that your child qualifies for supports and services under Section 504. This will require a different team of school personnel as this is considered a regular education support and has different requirements under federal law.
  3. The team members may decide to do further testing to clarify your child’s learning needs.

Remember, you as the parent are an integral member of the team.  Nothing can happen without your support and written permission.  If you do not understand or need additional time, please do not hesitate to ask questions at any time during the meeting. There may be many people around the table and this may be overwhelming.  You can also bring another person along for support.  Once the team puts forth a proposal, you always have 14 days to consider this proposal.  Do not feel you must sign anything in the meeting.  Take it home, think about it, discuss the information with others, and then make your decision.

If you decide to move ahead and complete additional evaluations for your child, you will need to sign a written permission.  This permission will state exactly what evaluations your child will be undergoing.  Ask how long each evaluation will take, how much class time your child will miss, and what the classroom teacher’s policy is for making up that missed work.  Once you sign permission for these evaluations, the clock starts ticking again.  The team has 45 calendar days to complete all of the evaluations and meet with you to discuss and review them.   You should receive a written copy of the evaluation results ideally one week prior to this meeting.  When you get your written report, read through it and mark it up with questions or concerns so you will be prepared for your meeting.

tutor meeting nrjfalcon1 pixabayAt the evaluation review meeting, each team member who evaluated your child will briefly review his evaluation results. Ask your questions and express your concerns.  Make sure you ask the classroom teacher if he sees the same kinds of things in the classroom.  Gather as much information as possible so that again you can make an informed decision.  This meeting is a great time to ask a friend or relative to assist you if it feels overwhelming.  Sometimes having another pair of ears to hear things is very helpful.  After hearing all of the information, the team will have lots of paperwork to review.


The next step is to decide if your child qualifies under the special education law for additional supports and services. There will probably be a deliberation form to go over and questions to be answered to see if your child qualifies for special education.  In our district, we have forms for each educational handicap with questions to help us delineate if your child meets the specific criteria needed.  Team members fill in each section with information from our evaluations that help us make conclusions based on fact.  These questions help us meet the requirements of the law and make sure we do not miss any pertinent information.  This is where the team, and you as the parent, decide how to best meet your child’s educational needs.  The team will put forth a proposal and you always have 14 days to make your decision.

If the team decides that your child does qualify for specialized instruction and you agree, your child will now be identified as a student with an educational handicap.  There are 8 possible educational handicaps in my state ranging from Specific Learning Disability (SLD), to Autism, to Other Health Impairment (OHI), as well as a few others.  The team is now responsible for writing an Individualized Education Program (IEP) and will have 30 calendar days to write and present it to you. The IEP is a plan that will spell out exactly what the team proposes to work on over the course of the next year to help your child acquire the skills he needs at this time.  The IEP is a legal document that states what the school is obligated to provide for your child and should spell out the services he needs.


At the IEP meeting, the team will review long-term goals and the objectives to meet those goals along with the accommodations they will make to help your child be successful.  Even though it looks official, the IEP can be changed and amended at a moment’s notice.  If the team, and you as the parent, agree the the proposal is not working and needs to be changed, you can request a meeting to revise the plan.  When your child gets his regular report card, you should get a progress report on how he is doing and progressing towards those goals and objectives agreed to on the IEP.   At least once a year the team needs to convene and update the IEP goals and objectives.  At least every three years (or sooner), the team needs to consider whether or not additional testing is needed to continue eligibility for services.  As always, you as the parent are an integral member of the team.  Do not feel you are bothering us if you want to convene the team and discuss progress.  That is our job.  And it is your job to advocate for your child.


I hope this was helpful in delineating the roles and functions of the school team as well as the timelines for completing the special education process.  Look for my next blog that will review what an OT evaluation entails for your child.


Marie TooleMarie L. Toole, MS, OTR/ L, is a pediatric occupational therapist with 28 years experience in NICU, Early Intervention, and private practice with the last 20 years spent working in public schools. She is NBCOT and SIPT certified as well as a member of AOTA and NHOTA.  She lives in southern New Hampshire and can be reached at  Follow her on Twitter @MarieTooleOTNH, on Pinterest marietooleNHOT, and on School Tools for Pediatric Occupational Therapists  where she tweets, pins, and posts about OT, education, autism, and sensory integration, as well as other school related topics.

 Disclaimer: The information shared on the Go-To-For-OT Blog or affiliated Twitter, Facebook, or Pinterest sites, and shared on social or public media or as links on other sites is for general informational purposes only and should not be relied upon as a substitute for sound professional medical advice or evaluation and care from your physician/medical team or any other qualified health care providers. Therefore, the authors and administrator of these posts take no responsibility for any liability, loss, or risk taken by individuals as a result of applying the ideas or resources.  
Photos are the property of the photographers on Pixabay.  Their use should include the link provided to the contributor’s source.  
The Special Education Process: How it works