What is special education?

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 the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (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.

Parental consent is needed before a child may be evaluated. Under the federal IDEA regulations, evaluation needs to be completed within 60 days after the parent gives consent. However, if a State’s IDEA regulations give a different timeline for completion of the evaluation, the State’s timeline is applied.

Special education is instruction that is specially designed to meet the unique needs of children who have disabilities. Special education and related services are provided in public schools at no cost to the parents and can include special instruction in the classroom, at home, in hospitals or institutions, or in other settings. This definition of special education comes from IDEA, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. This law gives eligible children with disabilities the right to receive special services and assistance in school.

More than 6.8 million children ages 3 through 21 receive special education and related services each year in the United States. Each of these children receives instruction that is specially designed:

  • to meet his or her unique needs (that result from having a disability); and
  • to help the child learn the information and skills that other children are learning in the general education curriculum

Who is eligible for special education?

Children with disabilities are eligible for special education and related services when they meet IDEA’s definition of a “child with a disability” in combination with state and local policies. IDEA’s definition of a “child with a disability” lists 13 different disability categories under which a child may be found eligible for special education and related services. These categories are listed below. IDEA describes what each of these disability categories means.

IDEA’s Categories of Disability

Autism

Deafness

Deaf-blindness

Hearing impairment

Intellectual disabilities

Multiple disabilities

Orthopedic impairment

Other health impairment

Serious emotional disturbance

Specific learning disability

Speech or language impairment

Traumatic brain injury

Visual impairment, including blindness

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States and school districts must follow IDEA’s definitions. To understand more about your Rights as a parent, please see the Know Your Rights section.

Services to Very Young Children

Infants and toddlers can have developmental delays and disabilities to.

Children birth to three years of age are also part of IDEA. These services are called early intervention services and can be very important in helping young children develop and learn. Please see the Early Learners link if your child is an infant or toddler.