Special Education Resources

Quick Answer

Special education services can help children with disabilities not only learn but thrive. However, the special education system can be confusing and intimidating, especially if you have a young child who’s just starting school. By learning more about special education and the wide range of resources available to students and families, you will be better able to navigate the system and advocate for your child.

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What Is Special Education?

A special education teacher plays with building blocks with two young studentsSpecial education is a program of instruction that educators design to address the unique needs of a specific student with a disability. This includes any related services the student needs to participate in their program, such as transportation and mobility services. Students attending public schools receive special education services for free.

At the heart of special education is the Individuals With Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). This federal law guarantees that eligible students with disabilities receive a Free Appropriate Public Education (FAPE).

Navigating Special Education Services

Indeed, the special education system can be overwhelming to parents who are just starting to navigate it. Between the many acronyms and the sheer volume of information, it is common for parents to feel overwhelmed or lost.

The good news is that there are several resources available to help you ensure that your child is getting the best education possible. If you have questions or concerns, your child’s teacher, counselor, or principal should be able to help.

Check out these organizations if you still need assistance or are looking for additional information on special education:

Read on to learn about some of the other terms you’ll likely encounter as you advocate for services for your child. It may seem like alphabet soup at first, but we know you’ll be a pro in no time.

Learning the Lingo

Individualized Education Program (IEP)

Special education services are provided to students according to a written plan called an IEP. Think of the IEP as a blueprint that maps out the student’s instructional program, learning goals, and supports they need to succeed. Children can have an IEP in any grade — from pre-K through high school.

An IEP team consisting of teachers, a school district representative, and the child’s parents or guardians will create an IEP tailored to the child’s abilities and needs. You are a crucial part of this team as the person who knows your child best.

Individualized Family Service Plan (IFSP)

IFSPs outline early intervention services for infants and toddlers who are showing signs of developmental delays. These plans are available for children three years and under who experience cognitive, communicative, emotional, physical, and/or social impairments.

IFSPs differ from IEPs because they address the future needs of young children and emphasize the importance of including the family in these goals. In writing the ISFP, the team focuses on the concept that the family is the child’s greatest asset.

Least Restrictive Environment (LRE)

A student in a wheelchair interacts with peers in a classroom One of the main principles of special education is that students with disabilities should be included in the general education environment as much as possible and only removed if education with support services cannot be achieved. This is referred to as the least restrictive environment. The IEP team determines the LRE.

Other Health Impairment (OHI)

Other health impairment is a disability category under the IDEA that includes a broad range of chronic and acute health problems such as asthma, attention deficit disorder (ADD), attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), diabetes, and leukemia. The student must have “limited strength, vitality, or alertness” and their educational performance must be affected to qualify for special education services.

Section 504 Plan

Section 504 plans are programs that allow children with disabilities to learn in public schools alongside their peers. A student who does not qualify for services under the IDEA may qualify for 504 services, which are required by regulations under Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973.

Unlike IEPs, 504 plans do not provide individualized instruction or special education. Section 504 accommodations may include extra time on tests, speech-language therapy, study skills classes, and the opportunity to leave the classroom for short breaks.

The Office for Civil Rights has helpful information on how the IDEA and Section 504 work together to help students with disabilities.

Related Special Education Services

The IEP team determines the related services that a child needs to help them benefit from their special education program. A child may qualify for one or more of these related services based on their disability and related needs.

Occupational Therapy (OT)

Occupational therapy is a type of therapy that uses everyday activities — or occupations — to treat a person’s ability to perform ordinary tasks. OT in a school setting equips students with skills to interact with their school’s curriculum.

Some occupational therapists work with teachers and parents to create a therapy plan. Materials such as paper, clay, scissors, chalk, blocks, and puzzles are often used to improve a child’s fine motor skills.

To find a qualified occupational therapist, you can:

Physical Therapy (PT)

Some children receive physical therapy in school as part of their IEP. In school-based PT, physical therapists use various therapeutic activities to help students access their educational environment.

For example, a child might receive PT to improve their handwriting or help them safely navigate school stairs. Children with cerebral palsy and muscular dystrophy may benefit from PT.

As noted above, your child’s pediatrician or school nurse may be able to help you find a qualified physical therapist.

Useful Tool

The American Physical Therapy Association has a searchable directory that can help you locate PT specialists near you.

Recreational Therapy

Recreational therapy uses recreation and activity-based activities to help students with disabilities participate in leisure and play activities as independently as possible. This may allow them to benefit from the social parts of school.

Some recreational therapy techniques include:

  • Dancing to music
  • Drawing with sidewalk chalk
  • Painting on large pieces of paper
  • Playing bingo, board games, or card games

This type of therapy may be provided in school or outside of school in parks, summer camps, or other settings.

Special Education Aides

A special education aide helps a student in a wheelchair hold a building blockSpecial education aides generally work in small group settings with children with disabilities to help improve their behavior, emotional/communication skills, and more. They often work with special education teachers and therapists to create a plan that fits the child’s needs.

Speech-Language Therapy

Many children with birth injuries have trouble speaking. Speech-language therapy helps children communicate with others more effectively.

Sign language, hearing aids, communication devices, computer programs, and oral muscle exercises can all be used to help children communicate.

Other Related Services

These are only a few of the related services available to eligible students with disabilities. Some students, for example, receive transportation, counseling, and school nurse services. The IDEA provides a detailed listing of related services.

Public Schools Versus Specialized Schools

When deciding on schools for your child, you may wonder whether they would do best at a public or specialized school for children with disabilities. As with most things in life, there are pros and cons.

Certainly, one substantial positive aspect of public schools is that they are free. Additionally, they are legally required to teach your child, unlike private schools.

However, many public schools are underfunded and can be complex places for students with special needs to navigate.

Many children with disabilities thrive at private schools. Schools that cater to students with general or specific disabilities can be expensive, but your school district may be obligated to pay for private tuition if you can show that the district cannot provide your child with a FAPE.

Additionally, there are many scholarships available for children with disabilities that can be used to help pay for private elementary or secondary education or even higher education costs. For example, national disability organizations such as United Cerebral Palsy and its local chapters are known for awarding scholarships.

A college advisor may be able to help you find disability scholarships for higher education opportunities. Your local health care provider, school counselor, or nonprofit organization will likely have a list of available elementary or secondary education scholarships.

Homeschooling Children with Learning Disabilities

Many parents of children with disabilities opt for homeschooling. Homeschooling may be the best option if you believe that public schools cannot provide your child with the right amount of attention and resources for academic growth and success.

A parent helps a child with homeworkMany homeschooled children with learning disabilities are using online learning options. Parents homeschooling their children can help them with the pace, presentation, and instruction of online learning. This level of customization can create a personalized learning experience best suited for your child.

In some states, homeschooled students with disabilities qualify for special education services provided by their school district. Check with your local school district to find out the rules in your state.

Useful Tools

The Home School Legal Defense Association and Homeschool.com has a wealth of resources available for parents educating children with special needs at home.

How to Access Special Education Resources

If you think your child could benefit from special education services, you can ask the school to evaluate your child. You can do this by calling or writing to the school principal or director of special education for your school district.

If you are looking to enroll your child in a specialized school for children with disabilities, reach out to the institution to see if your child qualifies.

If you are interested in homeschooling your child, make sure you do your research and learn about the rules in your state.

Remember, your child deserves a quality education. Special education offers children with disabilities the opportunity to learn and grow into happy and productive adults.

If you believe your child is not receiving the services they need to succeed, speak up. Don’t be afraid to ask questions, voice your concerns, or ask for help.

As noted above, there are many resources available to help you navigate the special education system and obtain the best possible education for your child.

Birth Injury Support Team

The Birth Injury Justice Center was founded in 2003 by a team of legal professionals to educate and empower victims and families affected by birth injuries. Our team is devoted to providing you with the best resources and legal information for all types of birth injuries.

View Sources
  1. Center for Parent Information and Resources. “Other Health Impairment.” Retrieved from: https://www.parentcenterhub.org/ohi/. Accessed on March 13, 2023.
  2. Center for Parent Information and Resources. “Writing the IFSP for your child.” Retrieved from: https://www.parentcenterhub.org/ifsp/. Accessed on March 13, 2023.
  3. National Council for Therapeutic Recreation Certification. “About Recreational Therapy.” Retrieved from: https://www.nctrc.org/about-ncrtc/about-recreational-therapy/#. Accessed on March 13, 2023.
  4. U.S. Department of Education. “About IDEA.” Retrieved from: https://sites.ed.gov/idea/about-idea/. Accessed on March 13, 2023.
  5. Washington Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction. “What Is Special Education?” Retrieved from: https://www.k12.wa.us/student-success/special-education/family-engagement-and-guidance/what-special-education. Accessed on March 13, 2023.