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What is IDEA for special education?


Parents searching for information on special education often have a child who’s teacher suggested they may benefit from additional educational supports. Wikipedia defines special education as: “the practice of educating students in a way that addresses their individual differences and special needs“. While you might ask if all children have individual differences that should be considered, this article examines a brief history and the how and why special education services are provided under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973. By the end of the article, you will understand:

  • What is special education.
  • An overview of special education.
  • The importance of special education.
  • What are special education services.
  • Types of special education.

Access to Education — It’s a Right

Free Appropriate Public Education, or FAPE, is a federally recognized right of all Americans. Additionally, for any student who has a disability and is between the ages of 3-22, federal law requires public schools to provide necessary services to ensure the student’s right to FAPE is protected. Additionally an appropriate education, as outlined under the IDEA, mandates that educational activities occur in the least restrictive environment (LRE) for the student. Similarly, students that have a physical or mental challenge not recognized under the IDEA may also be provided educational supports under Section 504 to ensure access to FAPE.

History of Legislative Landmarks

It’s easy to be confused about the provisions of these two landmark laws. As mentioned previously, Section 504 plays a role in the education system, but it is part of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 which was a broad anti-discrimination and civil rights statute protecting individuals with a disability from any acts of exclusion or discrimination due to a disability. Parts of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 apply to education ensuring that students receive the same treatment and services as their peers who do not require services (Durheim, 2013). Special education considerations given under the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 are commonly referred to as a “504 Plan” in reference to the section of the act the applies to education. Legislative supports were refined under the IDEA which was a major revision of earlier law. IDEA was enacted in 1990 and revised in 1997 and specifically address education and defines qualifying disabilities. To learn more about the differences between an educational plan under Section 504 and an IEP, click here.

Separate Is Not Equal

The Supreme Court has ruled that separate public facilities do not provide equal opportunity for all citizens under the law. This applies to students with a disability. The recognition of this is provided in requirements the a students education be conducted in the least restrictive environment (LRE) as outlined by the IDEA. By prioritizing the LRE, schools must address the importance of inclusion when provide a FAPE within the student’s physical and social abilities. Schools must also consider access to the curriculum, what type of environment, and which supports and support services will best serve the student.

Finding the Right Blend of Special Education and General Education

Creating a special education plan for a student requires ensuring FAPE in the LRE and in unique for each student. A child might attend a general education classroom where the only special education is the incorporation of adaptive equipment, an aide, or other accommodations minor modification. In other cases, a general education classroom would not be suitable for a student if their behavior disrupts others or a typical classroom setting cannot meet the student’s needs or abilities. In these cases, a special education classroom environment may be recommended.

What Services are Included Under Special Education?

Special education services take a variety of forms and can include different teaching styles to accommodate the needs of your child. Services most commonly take place in the classroom, home environment, or private and public institutions (“IDEA Part B,” 2018). Related services will vary, but may include speech therapy, occupational therapy, physical therapy, adaptive physical education or counseling. You may also request specific services, modifications or accommodations such as extra time during breaks to arrive on time for class, seating arrangements, or even copies of the class notes that include larger print or more pictures. You can read more about other available services in “Step 6. Team Develops IEP” later in this article. 


Legal recognition of FAPE guarantees free and essential educational services within the jurisdiction of a public school district. Students in a private school setting may receive funding only if their local school district is unable to provide equal services in a public school. As such, a student would not receive funding if their public school district can supply a FAPE and the parents chose to enroll their child in private school instead (“Free Appropriate Public Education,” 2010). 

Does Your Child Qualify for Services?

In order to qualify for Section 504, a student must fall within the age range of 3-22, and have a diagnosis, or “disability” (Durheim, 2013). According to the Section 504 definition, a “disability” is defined as any mental or physical impairment that significantly limits one or more areas of life. This includes any of your child’s occupations, such as ADLs, play or education. The second qualifier concerns any existing medical records that document the diagnosis (“Free Appropriate Public Education,” 2010). Similarly, under the IDEA, children with a qualifying diagnosis that adversely affects academic performance are qualified. To see a list of the 13 qualifying disabilities under IDEA, click here.

Considerations When Requesting Services

Having access to additional resources and specialists for your child can optimize their educational experience. Despite these significant advantages, it is also important to understand there may be disadvantages to receiving services as well. If your child receives services in a separate classroom, this may have the effect of limiting social participation. On the other hand, if services are provided within a general education classroom, having services can lead to stigmatization and have social-emotional consequences. Although making this decision can feel overwhelming, your child’s teachers, physicians, counselors, etc. can provide all of the information and recommendations to help you make a choice you feel most comfortable with.

How Can You Request Services For Your Child?

For children between the ages of 5-21, IDEA mandates public schools to identify students showing signs of atypical learning. Any school employee who notices a gap in learning will refer the identified student for special education. Parents are still able to make a request for evaluation if they have concerns.

If your child is between the ages of 3-5, and was already receiving Early Intervention services under IDEA part C, your service coordinator should have organized transitional services to part B before their third birthday. If this is not the case, you should contact your local school district to start the process.

Part B? Part C?

IDEA “Part C” defines services for children between the ages 3-5. These are commonly referred to as Early Intervention or EI. To learn more about there service click here. Part B of the IDEA provides commitments to a student by a school in the form of an Individualized Education Plan (IEP). There are 10 steps to obtaining an IEP. An IEP is essentially a formal document listing all members contributing to the team, the amount and type of special education services your child requires throughout the school year and the intended outcomes. This document ensures that all professionals, parents and the child, share similar ideals. IEP’s are reviewed once a year to make any appropriate updates or reevaluations (“Children 3-22,” 2017).

10 Steps to Establishing an IEP

1. Identification

Child Find is a mandatory service in every state that locates and evaluates any child with a disability. Once the child has been identified, further evaluation requires parental or caregiver permission. A school professional or parent may also request an evaluation for the child if they have concerns. If the school district also has reason to believe the child requires services, then an evaluation is conducted. The school district, legally, does not have to conduct further evaluation of the child based solely off parental demand.

2. Evaluation

Evaluations are conducted on an individual basis to obtain the most accurate information about the child. Results are then analyzed to determine eligibility for special education and other necessary services. If parents disagree with or have qualms with results, they may ask the school system to pay for a further evaluation called an Independent Educational Evaluation (IEE).

3. Determining Eligibility

The IEP team, which includes the parents, will go over evaluation results to collaboratively determine the child’s needs. If the parents can challenge a team’s decision if they disagree by scheduling a hearing.

4. Confirming Eligibility

If results determine a child’s disability by IDEA standards, then they are deemed eligible for special education and any other required services. The IEP is then put into play about 30 days after this decision is made.

5. IEP Meeting is Scheduled

The parents may invite other professionals to the meeting if they feel those individuals have special expertise on their child. The child may attend meetings when appropriate.

6. Team Develops IEP

Parental consent is mandatory before any special education or related services are provided. The team, including the parents, will work collaboratively until mutual goals are reached. The school or parents may ask for a mediation if a mutual decision is not reached. In this case, a complaint is filed with the state education agency (“Filing a Complaint”, 2017). A due process complaint may also be requested (“Due Process Hearings”, 2017).

7. Plan is implemented

All members of the IEP team receive copies of the plan to ensure each member understands their role in ensuring student success.

8. Progress reports 

The child’s progress is evaluated to measure progress and to update and revise any goals. This is also a good time to consider the addition or subtraction of services. This depends on how the child’s response to intervention. Parents are provided with a copy of every progress report.

9. IEP review

IEP reviews are conducted once a year, unless parents or the school ask for more reviews. At this time,  the team needs to determine if any revisions should be made. If parents do not agree with all decisions made during this meeting, they may file another state complaint or due process complaint (referenced in step 6).

10. Reevaluation/Triennial

Every three years, a reevaluation, or triennial is conducted to determine if the child’s disability is persisting and to examine their educational needs. Reevaluations vary depending on the child’s conditions or if the parents/teachers request a new evaluation.

Core Components of an IEP

Current Academic Levels of Performance

All IEP team members report on performance levels as each team member sees the child in different environments. Teachers report on classroom performance, parents report on behaviors in the home environment, and school staff report evaluation results. Classroom, home, and playground observations, state and district-wide tests, special education evaluations, and standardized tests all contribute valuable information about the child’s performance levels. During this time, it may come to light that the student has deficits in other areas of development that are impacting school performance (behavioral, sensory, motor, etc.) The IEP would then collaborate to determine what services will compensate or improve deficits.


The team must write collaborative and measurable goals. The IEP team will agree on goals to ensure they are appropriate for the child’s strengths. A measurable goal is one that is achievable, usually within one year. Goals can relate to a variety of areas, such as educational, social, behavioral, or any specific parental concerns. 

Special Education and Related Services

School districts are mandated to provide a FAPE in the LRE. The IEP team will work together in order to determine what the child requires in order to make this happen. Recommended services are discussed and identified along with implementation ideas, .

Optional Potential Services:

  • Activity limitations and what adaptive equipment/aides will be required for safe engagement
  • Duration and frequency of services
  • Any upcoming transition services (typically occurs around age 16)
  • Behavioral services
  • Communication/assistive technology device management
  • Additional accommodations in the general education classroom

IEP Considerations

What Should the Parents Know Going into an IEP?

IEP team members and meetings are there to facilitate the best possible learning opportunities for your child. In addition to providing parental support and addressing parental concerns, nothing will be approved without your consent. You always have the option to challenge or disagree with team recommendations. Also, you may be able to bring a friend or family member to an IEP meeting for additional support – just, be sure to let the school know first. You may request individual meetings with any one of the team members if you have specific questions and would like to discuss things further. Remember, do not sign the IEP right away if you need additional time to think about it- you have the option to take it home and gather more information.

Who is on the IEP team?

IEP teams will always include a parent, school representative and the child’s teacher. Other members may vary depending on your child’s specific needs but can also include:

  • School psychologist
  • Occupational therapist (OT)
  • Physical therapist (PT)
  • Speech therapist (ST)
  • Transition service representatives
  • Service coordinator

What other services may be available to my child?

  • Extra time allotted for exams or assignments.
  • Peer/aid assistance for taking notes.
  • Assistive devices.
  • Behavioral intervention plans.
  • Rearranging class schedules (child may leave class a bit earlier if they require extra time for walking, or are aversive to large crowds, etc.)
  • Visual aids.
  • Preferred seating assignments (may need to sit closer to the teacher for hearing or vision).
  • Different modes of testing (oral rather written).

After the IEP

An IEP requires a parent signature to fulfill any special education services. Your signature indicates your agreement with all of the plans detail. Also, rescinding your agreement is possible, but this could involve time-consuming legal implications. So, it may be best to consult with a special education advocate prior to taking such actions. Usually, if the parent contacts the school to explain why they would like to change parts of the IEP, another IEP meeting can be arranged to discuss concerns.


Many parents worry about their child’s educational experience. Federal laws guarantee all children access to a free public education. Hopefully this article has contributed to your understanding of the history and implementation of special education law and services. While federal laws are broad, many states implement special education services differently and the steps outlined here may vary in your state.


Children (3 to 22). (2017, July 6). Retrieved March 18, 2020,  from

Due Process Hearings. (2017, September 20). Retrieved March 18, 2020, from

Durheim, M. (n.d.). A parent’s guide to Section 504 in public schools. Retrieved March 18, 2020, from

Filing a State Complaint. (2017, October 1). Retrieved March 18, 2020, from

Free Appropriate Public Education under Section 504. (n.d.). Retrieved March 18, 2020, from

Office of Developmental Primary Care. (n.d.). Retrieved March 18, 2020, from

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