At a glance
Not every child with learning and thinking differences is eligible for special education services.
To decide if your child needs special education, the school district has to do an educational evaluation and an eligibility determination.
If your child doesn’t qualify for special education services, you still have options.
If your child has learning and thinking differences — or if you suspect your child does — you may be eager for your child to receive special education services. To find out if your child is eligible, school officials have to do two things. First, they must determine if your child has a “covered” disability. Second, they have to determine if it’s severe enough for your child to need services.
The public school district handles both steps. They do this with input and permission from you.
Step 1: The educational evaluation
You, your child’s teachers, or anyone else who notices your child is struggling can request an educational evaluation from the school. No matter who requests this, the school needs your permission to take this step.
Some conditions, such as ADHD, are not learning disabilities but can interfere with learning. Those conditions are usually diagnosed by a doctor or other outside expert, not the school. If this is your situation, you can show proof of your child’s diagnosis. However, the school will probably do its own evaluation to gather more information.
A team of professionals does the evaluation. This team usually includes the school psychologist and other educators. They give your child various tests and review your child’s school records. They also observe your child in the classroom.
When the evaluation is complete, the evaluator will write a report. It will include scores, a summary of findings, and recommendations for how to help your child. You’ll meet with the team to go over the results. The evaluation gives you and the school insight into your child’s challenges, strengths, and needs.
A key finding will be whether your child has one or more of the disabilities listed among the 13 disability categories in IDEA. One of these categories, “,” applies to many kids with learning and thinking differences.
If your child has a condition other than the disabilities listed, but that condition makes learning difficult, it may be covered under the “other health impairment” category of IDEA.
If the evaluation shows your child has a disability that could make your child eligible for special education, you’ll move on to the next step. If your child isn’t eligible to move to the next step, there are other options to consider.
Step 2: The eligibility determination
If the evaluation shows that your child has a disability, the next step is for the school to determine whether your child needs special education services. They’ll make this decision based on their evaluation of your child.
If the school determines your child needs services, the next step is to create an Individualized Education Program (IEP).
However, even if your child has a “covered” disability, your child still might not be eligible. The school may determine that the disability doesn’t keep your child from learning adequately in the general education classroom. In that case, it won’t provide special education services.
Being denied services can be a blow. The good news is there are other options to help your child.
Public schools follow federal regulations when evaluating students for special education.
If your child doesn’t qualify for special education, there are other options that might help.
You have rights and responsibilities as you seek special education for your child.
About the author
About the author
Kristin Stanberry is a writer and editor specializing in parenting, education, and consumer health/wellness.
Bob Cunningham, EdM has been part of Understood since its founding. He’s also been the chief administrator for several independent schools and a school leader in general and special education.