Special Needs Children in the School Setting

Some children experience difficulties in school, ranging from problems with concentration, learning, language, and perception to problems with behavior and/or making and keeping friends. These difficulties may be due to physical disorders, psychiatric disorders, emotional problems, behavioral problems, and learning disorders (or disabilities). Children with special needs are usually entitled to receive special services or accommodations through the public schools. We should also consider asthma, cystic fibrosis, cerebral palsy, Autism and many more chronic conditions in children for special school accommodations if needed.

Federal law mandates that every child will receive a free and appropriate education in the least restrictive environment. To support their ability to learn in school, three Federal laws apply to children with special needs:

  • The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) (1975)
  • Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of l973
  • The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) (l990).

Different states have different criteria for eligibility, services available, and procedures for implementing the laws. It is important for parents to be aware of these laws and regulations in their particular area.

Evaluation of Your Child

As a parent, you may request an evaluation of your child to determine his or her needs for individualized education and / or related services. The evaluation may include psychological and educational testing, a speech and language evaluation, occupational therapy assessment and a behavioral analysis. The best place to start an evaluation would be your pediatrician’s office. These are the steps caregivers need to take:

  1. Meet with your child’s teacher to share your concerns and request an evaluation by the school’s child study team. Parents can also request independent professional evaluations.
  2. Submit your requests for evaluations and services in writing. Always date your requests and keep a copy for your records.
  3. Keep careful records, including observations reported by your child’s teachers and any communications (notes, reports, letters, etc.) between home and school.

The results of the evaluation determine your child’s eligibility to receive a range of services under the applicable law. Following the evaluation, an Individualized Education Program (IEP) is developed. Examples of categories of services in IEPs include: Occupational Therapy, Physical Therapy, Speech and Language Therapy, and/or the provision of a classroom aide.

Parents do not determine whether their child is eligible under the law, however, parents are entitled to participate in the development of the IEP. Additionally, the findings of school’s evaluation team are not final. You have the right to appeal their conclusions and determination. The school is required to provide you with information about how to make an appeal.

What a Parent Can Do

Children with special needs are guaranteed rights to services in school under federal and state laws. Parents should always advocate for their child, and must be proactive and take necessary steps to make sure their child receives appropriate services. The process, however, can be confusing and intimidating. Here are some tips:

  • Parents should request copies of their school district’s Section 504 plan. This is especially important when a school district refuses services.
  • If the school district does not respond to your request, you can contact a U.S. Department of Education Office of Civil Rights Regional Office for assistance.
  • If the school district refuses services under the IDEA or Section 504 or both, you may choose to challenge this decision through a due process hearing. (A legal hearing in which you and your child have an advocate who can express your views and concerns.)
  • Other resources for parents include: the State Department of Education, Bazelon Center for Health Law at

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