Finding out if your child is eligible for special education

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, like ADHD, are not learning disabilities but might still 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. The school will probably also do its own evaluation to get 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.

After the evaluation, 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, and 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, you can still consider asking for a 504 plan or for informal supports. Or you could keep trying to get special education services.

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 to make progress. 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 a child who has a “covered” disability 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, including 504 plans and informal supports.

No matter where you are in the process of seeking help for your child, knowledge is power. Learn more about your rights, your responsibilities, and steps you can take to seek special education for your child.

Key takeaways

  • 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.


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