What is Special Education?

 After an IEP meeting, have you ever left your school wondering:

  • What just happened?  What did I sign?
  • Is my child getting the best possible services?
  • Am I asking the right questions? Does this plan really meet my child's needs?


Special education is a broad term used by public K-12 school districts and the law (IDEA) to describe specially designed instruction that meets the unique needs of a child who has been identified as having a specific learning disability. If a student is found to have one or more of the 13 qualifying conditions, any services deemed necessary are provided free of charge by the public school system. Learning disabilities cover a wide spectrum of disorders ranging from mild to severe and can include mental, physical, behavioral and emotional disabilities. 

 There are 13 categories of special education as defined by the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA).  In order to qualify for special education, the IEP team must determine that a child has one or more of the following and it must adversely affect their educational performance.

  • Autism
  • Blindness
  • Deafness
  • Emotional Disturbance
  • Hearing Impairment
  • Intellectual Disability
  • Multiple Disabilities
  • Orthopedic Impairment
  • Other Health Impaired
  • Specific Learning Disability
  •  Speech or Language Impairment
  • Traumatic Brain Injury
  • Visual Impairment


Special education makes it possible for your child to achieve academic success in the least restrictive environment despite their disability. The federal law overseeing special education is called the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act or IDEA. IDEA entitles all children to a free appropriate education (FAPE). Examples of "appropriate" programs include:

  • A specific program or class for your child. 
  • Access to specialists. 
  • Modifications in the educational program such as curriculum and teaching methods.

There are hundreds of unfamiliar terms and acronyms in the IEP process. When you have time, I encourage you to review the terms and definitions appendix. One thing to remember is that APPROPRIATE does not mean BEST. Every child would benefit from receiving the best of everything. This is an important distinction to remember.


If your child is struggling in school, having social or behavioral problems, or if you suspect they have one of the 13 categories of special education, you can request an evaluation. Some school districts request that you meet with your school's student study team (SST) before conducting an evaluation. If your child does not qualify for services under IDEA, they may qualify for modifications under Section 504 of the American Disabilities Act of 1973.

If you child attends a private school, you should read my special section on PRIVATE SCHOOLS as special education law is only mandated to public K-12 institutions. 

What is an SST?
What is a 504 Plan?

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