Your child’s full evaluation is done. The next step is a meeting to determine if he qualifies for special education and an IEP. This can be a stressful time for many parents because there’s so much uncertainty.
Does the testing show their child qualifies for special education? Will he get the support and services he needs? Who makes that decision and how?
Knowing what to expect at an eligibility meeting can help you be an informed and active participant.
Who Should Be at an IEP Eligibility Meeting
Prior to the meeting, you should get written notice of your meeting (this is often called prior written notice). It should list the people or the positions of people who are invited to it.
When you walk into the room, it may be packed with people. That can be intimidating, especially if you don’t know who they are, and they all know each other. But the first thing that should happen at the meeting is introductions. Everyone will give their name, their title and their relationship to your child. If this doesn’t happen, speak up and ask that introductions be made.
It’s important to remember that you’re a crucial part of the team. So when you introduce yourself, say something like, “I’m Kevin’s mother. I’m looking forward to working with all of you.”
The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) requires certain people to be at this meeting. They include:
- You. Parents have the opportunity to take an active role in the evaluation meeting and all IEP meetings. (If you don’t go, however, the meetings can take place without you.)
- Your child’s general education teacher(s). If your child doesn’t yet have an assigned teacher, a general education teacher who teaches kids of the same age will attend. (This can happen when you transfer schools.)
- A special education teacher. Read about the role of special education teachers.
- A school administrator who knows about general and special education. This person needs to have the power to make decisions about school resources.
- The professional (or professionals) who evaluated your child. If that evaluator can’t be at the meeting, there needs to be another professional there. That person has to be qualified to interpret the testing. The same goes if you’ll be going over a private evaluation. (Some of the professionals who might be there include an occupational therapist, speech-language therapist, school psychologist or physical therapist.)
- Anyone else that you or the school district invite. This person usually has to know your child and have information to add to the discussion. You might want to invite an educational therapist who works with your child, for instance. Or a professional advocate. A family or friend can also be helpful by listening and taking notes. Let the team know who you’ve invited, so that person can be added to the attendance sheet.
The Goal of an IEP Eligibility Meeting
The goal is to decide if your child needs special education. The criteria can vary from state to state. Your state’s Parent Training and Information Center (PTI) can help you find that information.
No matter what the criteria are, this decision can’t be made ahead of time by the school. That’s called “pre-determination,” and IDEA does not allow for that. The decision should be made together by the entire team.
At the meeting, you and the rest of the team will all talk about the evaluations and other information about your child. You’ll also have a chance to share your concerns and other information you have. If you want the school to consider an outside evaluation, be sure to provide copies for them.
The Conversation About IEP Eligibility
When it comes time to discuss whether your child is eligible for services, keep in mind the two main requirements he needs to meet:
- He has to have a “disabling condition” that fits into one of the 13 categories of disabilities defined by IDEA and your state’s regulations.
- The disability has to have an “adverse effect” on his education.
Some cases are clear. The child has a specific learning disability or attention issue. It’s affecting his ability to learn in the regular classroom, and the team agrees he’s eligible.
Other cases aren’t that simple.
Even though IDEA clearly outlines the 13 categories, it doesn’t list all the issues that fall into each one. It also doesn’t provide definitions for some key terms, like “adverse effect.” Even the word “education” is open to interpretation.
Because of that, the discussion can be complicated. It can also be frustrating. Often, it comes down to a few questions:
- What category do your child’s issues best fit in?
- What is considered to be a part of a child’s education?
- What does an “adverse effect” look like in real life?
Understanding Category: Some kids have more than one learning and attention issue. So there may be a conversation about which category is the best fit.
For example, a child could have ADHD and a learning disability. He could be eligible in one of two categories. The first is Other Health Impairment (OHI). The other is Specific Learning Disability. The question is which category to use. Each one has different criteria that must be met for your child to qualify. (Read more about how kids with ADHD may qualify for special education services.)
Keep in mind that it’s your child’s needs that determine his services, not the category or diagnosis. The category should match the issue that most impacts his learning.
Understanding What’s Part of Education and “Adverse Effect”: The last two questions come up a lot for kids with learning and attention issues. That’s because some kids do well in some classes and not others, or primarily have trouble with things like self-control or social skills.
Many people think learning is about doing well in school. They may think if a child is getting good grades, his issues aren’t affecting his education. But if getting good grades comes at the cost of taking hours to do short homework assignments or needing more parental support than expected, that’s “adverse effect” as well.
And the U.S. Department of Education has made it clear that education includes behavior, attention and social skills. Trouble with self-control, organization, attention or social skills gets in the way of learning, too.
Your school may not agree, but if you think your child’s issues in those areas are affecting his learning, know that IDEA supports that argument.
It can also help to be familiar with some other terms you may hear from the team. These include “patterns of strengths and weaknesses” (a model for evaluating a student for special education), “functional skills” (skills needed to function at school, such as holding and using a pencil), and “academic skills” (skills needed to perform at school, such as reading and writing).
Making the Decision: Eligible or Not Eligible
IDEA requires that the eligibility decision be made by the whole team at the meeting. Usually the team is able to make a decision about eligibility without having to dive too deeply into these issues. All the members of the team are tasked with the same thing—to help your child be successful. That means they’re there to work together to make that happen.
Sometimes the team won’t find your child eligible for special education services. If that happens and you disagree, follow these steps. You may also want to talk about whether a 504 plan is right for your child. Learn about the difference between IEPs and 504 plans.
If the team finds your child is eligible for special education services, the next step is creating an IEP. Some schools have joint eligibility and IEP development meetings. But if time is running short or you haven’t planned on combining these steps, an IEP meeting will be scheduled.
Having some time between meetings isn’t always a bad thing. You can use that time as an IEP boot camp to get ready. And read other parents’ stories about their IEP experiences.