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Special Education Info & Eligibility

What is Special Education?

The California Education Code (Section 56031) defines special education as: Specially designed instruction to meet the unique needs of individuals with exceptional needs, whose educational needs cannot be met with modification of the general instruction program; and related services that help individuals with special needs to benefit from specially designed instruction. Special education is an integral part of the total public education system. Other features of special education are:

  • It is provided in a way that promotes maximum interaction between students with and without disabilities in a manner which is appropriate to the needs of both.
  • Services are provided at no cost to parents.
  • It provides a full range of program options to meet the educational and service requirements of individuals with exceptional needs in the least restrictive environment (LRE). The LRE is generally the setting that is most similar to those attended by general education students.

Special education for eligible students, ages 3 through 22, provides necessary specially-designed instruction, aids, and services, as determined by the Individualized Education Program (IEP) team.  Special education services can include:

  • Modified Curriculum
  • Behavior Plans
  • Speech and Language Instruction
  • Various Accommodations
  • Adapted Physical Education
  • Occupational Therapy
  • Educationally-Related Mental Health Services
  • Consultation with Various School Specialists

Examples of specially designed instruction include:

  • Systematically teaching a student to attend
  • Use of pictures in a lecture-type lesson
  • Use of manipulatives in an Algebra lesson

Examples of specialized aids include:

  • Books on tape
  • Textbooks with enlarged print
  • Auditory training equipment

The IEP team, of which the parent is an important member, determines a student's eligibility and identifies any needed program, aids, services, and instruction considered necessary for the student to progress in school. The needed program, aids, and services must be provided in the least restrictive environment (LRE).  Members of the student's IEP team meet at least once a year to: (1) review the student's progress, the IEP, and the appropriateness of the placement, and (2) to make any necessary changes in the child's program. Remember that special education is a service, not a place.  Special education is NOT for students with learning difficulties that are due primarily to cultural or economic differences, lack of familiarity with the English language, or limited school experience.  In addition, special education is not designed to meet the needs of students who have temporary physical disabilities.

Who is eligible for Special Education?

A student, ages 3 through 22, having one or more of the following thirteen federally defined disabling conditions that adversely affect his or her educational performance may be eligible to receive special education services:

  • Autism
  • Deaf-Blindness
  • Deafness
  • Hearing Impairment (Hard of Hearing)
  • Mental Retardation
  • Multiple Disabilities
  • Orthopedic Impairment
  • Other Health Impairment
  • Serious Emotional Disturbance
  • Specific Learning Disability
  • Speech and Language Impairment
  • Traumatic Brain Injury
  • Visual Impairment
Eligibility is determined through an assessment process that identifies one or more impairments that prevent a student from achieving at his or her potential.  A student may be performing significantly below the district's standards and additional interventions may be necessary for the student to maximize access to the educational program.

How does a Student Get Special Education Services?

Several procedural steps are required for a student to be identified for special education services (and for reviewing the ongoing need for these services).  These steps are: 

  • Student Intervention Team (SIT) 
  • MeetingInterventions in General Education (RtI – Response to Intervention)
  • Assessment PlanAssessment PeriodIndividualized Education Program (IEP) Team Meeting
  • IEP ImplementationAnnual Review IEP
  • Triennial Assessment

What is a Student Intervention Team (SIT)? 

Sometimes a child does not make sufficient progress in the general school program, even with modifications and remedial instruction.  Under current federal and state law, anyone can refer a child when he or she suspects a child has special needs.  The child can be referred to the school's Student Intervention Team (SIT).  The SIT, which typically includes the parent or guardian, develops a plan of modifications and/or interventions to be implemented in the general education classroom over a period of time.  If these modifications/interventions are not successful, the SIT may ultimately refer a child for consideration of special education eligibility.

The SIT process is not meant to delay a necessary special education assessment.  Rather, the SIT meeting provides a forum for discussing identified concerns.  Once concerns are identified, it is a time for problem-solving. Typically, an intervention is designed, implemented, and monitored.  This process is sometimes referred to as Response to Intervention (
RtI).  During this time, the student’s progress is monitored at regular intervals while he receives scientifically-based interventions.  The purpose of this process is to identify the level of support and types of educational conditions that improve a student's progress toward the district standards.

One outcome of the SIT process may be a special education assessment.  However, many students are successful after the SIT process and do not require special education services.  Parent participation in the SIT is particularly valuable.  Parents bring important information to the SIT and also receive important information from school personnel. Parent participation helps ensure that a full discussion of a child's educational performance takes place.

How Does the SIT Process Work?

Consultation: First, the parent or guardian and the teacher discuss the student, identifying strengths and weakness, and possible interventions. The school counselor and/or administrator are welcome to participate in this consultation.

Referral: If the interventions that have been developed and implemented are unsuccessful, the parent or guardian, or the teacher, makes a referral to the SIT.  If a parent requests a SIT meeting or an evaluation for special education services, the meeting will be held within two weeks of receipt of the written referral.

Initial SIT Meeting: School staff schedules and invites the parent or guardian to a SIT meeting. The team members may include the parent, psychologist, teacher(s), counselor, and school principal. The SIT commonly adheres to the following six steps and approximate time requirements. It's important to note, however, that SITs may vary from school to school and from case to case:

Step 1: Overview -- The team reviews information about student's strengths and areas of need, preferences, interests, and general health and well being.  All relevant information is examined and discussed, including any outside evaluations the parent or guardian may have gathered. Information is collected through team discussions, review of records, work samples, observations, and interviews.

Step 2: Problem Identification -- The team lists instructional and/or behavioral concerns, prioritizes them, and defines the concerns in terms of one or two measurable behavioral goals. The goals may be based on district content standards, peer performance, or developmental standards.

Step 3: Define Intervention -- The team brainstorms possible interventions to meet the goal(s) identified in Step 2. Interventions are then selected based on their feasibility, likelihood of success, and scientific evidence to support their use. Creative uses of both community and district resources (e.g. the reading specialist, after school tutoring, counseling, etc...) are considered in determining the feasibility of each intervention. Next, the duration and intensity of the intervention are established. The individuals accountable for providing the interventions are identified. In addition, a liaison (i.e., someone to assist the interventionist(s) in fine-tuning the intervention) should be selected.

Step 4: Identification of Monitoring System-- The team establishes a continuous monitoring technique. Information on the student's progress toward the identified goal(s) will be collected and recorded frequently.  Adjustments to the interventions are made based on this information. Progress may be charted. The responsibility of monitoring student progress is assigned to one or more team members.

Step 5: Schedule a Follow-up Meeting -- A date is selected for reconvening the SIT team.  Most interventions take from 10 to 12 weeks to see an effect.

Step 6: Hold the Follow-up Meeting-- The follow-up meeting will be held to determine the success of the intervention.  The team will decide whether to:

  • discontinue the intervention because the goals have been achieved;
  • modify the interventions;
  • develop an additional intervention or consider other options.

In making such decisions, the team will consider:

  • the discrepancy between actual and targeted behaviors before and after the intervention;
  • progress toward district content standards and performance indicators;
  • the intensity, duration, and effectiveness (e.g. whether it was implemented as planned) of the intervention;
  • and the amount of resources required to implement the intervention.

Assessment for special education is probably not warranted in cases where the intervention results and other information reviewed by the SIT suggest that the student does not have a disability of such severity that the identified needs cannot be met in general education, with or without accommodations.  If parents or guardians disagree with the SIT decision that special education assessment is not necessary, the team will provide them the basis for its decision in writing. The notice may be completed at the conclusion of the initial SIT or follow-up meeting and given to parents or guardians, or mailed to them shortly after the meeting. The notice letter must include:

  • A copy of the Special Education Parents Rights and Procedural Safeguards;
  • A description and explanation of the district's position as well as a description of any options the district considered and the reasons why those options were not selected;
  • A description of each evaluation procedure, test, record, or report the district used as a basis for its decision; and
  • A description of any other factors that are relevant to the district's decision.

How is Eligibility for Special Education Determined?

STEP ONE:  The Assessment Plan
The primary assessment provider (e.g. school psychologist, speech therapist, occupational therapist, etc.) will complete an assessment plan. The parent or guardian must sign an assessment plan before the school can begin an individual assessment of a student. Parents must be informed about the assessments' purpose, the methods or techniques which will be used, and the people (by title) who will be conducting the assessment.  The purpose of the assessment is to answer one or more questions identified on the assessment plan. The assessment questions are designed to identify the type of services and level of support that will assist the student in attaining the district standards.  If a parent does not approve an assessment plan when the district believes an assessment is needed, the district or parent may purse complaint procedures or proceed to due process.

STEP TWO: The Assessment Process
The assessment of a student is conducted to determine whether or not the student has special needs that qualify him or her for special education services and to assist in instructional planning.  Testing should result in identification of the student's present skill levels and interventions that are likely to be successful.  The final step in the process is a team meeting where the separate components of the assessment are brought together.  The assessment involves collecting important information from parents or guardians and from qualified district personnel.  Information can include:

  • Formal/informal test(s) administered in a one-on-one setting.
  • Review of school records and district assessments.
  • Parent interview
  • Teacher interview
  • Observation of the student in the classroom and possibly other setting, such as the playground
  • Health and developmental history

In addition, the assessment will include reviewing any outside evaluations that have been obtained and made available to the school district.  Data gathered during the assessment process will be summarized in written assessment reports. IEP members may want to consider the following questions as they review the assessment reports: 

  • Based on what we know about the nature of the student's needs, is the assessment thorough?
  • Does the assessment provide a clear picture of how the student performs in critical skill or developmental areas? Does the assessment describe the student's areas of strength as well as his or her weaknesses?
  • Do the assessment results help to develop instructional or behavioral goals?
  • Do the assessment results help to identify interventions that are likely to help the student reach these goals?
  • Did the assessment process answer the questions on the Assessment Plan?
Assessment team members include:

Parents who:  (1) review and approve the Assessment Plan, (2) provide health and developmental history, (3) describe the child's responses to tasks and social interactions in the non-schools settings of home, neighborhood and community, and (4) release existing assessment reports if available, including physician's reports.
Teachers who inform the team about the student's academic achievement, physical/motor performance, and social behavior in the classroom.
Health Technician who reviews the student's medical background and physical development, as well as screens hearing and vision.

Speech-Language Pathologist who provides relevant information speech and language development (if a need is suspected in this area).
School Psychologist who examines the student's social, emotional, academic, and intellectual development.
Adaptive PE Teacher or Occupational Therapist who examine the student's physical and sensory/motor development (if a need is suspected in these areas).

What is an Individualized Education Plan (IEP)?

The Individualized Education Plan (IEP) is a legal document that must be written for each child who is eligible for special education services. The IEP helps ensure that special education services are provided as planned, and that their appropriateness is evaluated regularly.  IEP specifies services to be provided by the school district. It describes anticipated long-term goals and short-term objectives for a student, and serves as a "blueprint" for instruction in the school environment. It is not, however, a daily lesson plan. 
The IEP must be reviewed and updated annually. However, parents and/or teacher(s) can request a review more frequently.  Note: there is no such thing as an emergency IEP.

Who should attend an IEP team meeting?  Current law stipulates that, at a minimum, the following persons must attend an IEP team:

  • the parent(s) or guardian(s);
  • a teacher knowledgeable about the student (a student's general education teacher participates to the extent appropriate);
  • an administrator, or designee;
  • the student, when appropriate, (usually middle and high school students attend); and
  • special education teacher.

Who else may be members of an IEP team?

  • School psychologist, speech therapist, adapted physical education specialist
  • advocates from organizations or agencies, such as a Regional Center counselor;
  • non-school therapists or specialists who work with a child; and
  • a friend or relative who will provide moral support and take notes for the family
The team approach to developing an IEP involves communication and cooperation among parents, teacher(s), and other specialists with different kinds of skills who may work for the school district or outside agencies. Together, the team prepares an IEP that best suits the student's present educational needs. The team develops the IEP at a meeting that is held at a time and place that is convenient for parents and the school personnel.

What must the IEP document contain?  In addition to eligibility information, the IEP document always includes the following components:
A statement of the student's present levels of educational performance
Statements about what the student can and cannot do are based on assessment information. These may include information about academic, social, language, motor, self-help, and pre-vocational skills. Statements should describe the student's classroom performance and how the disability affects his or her participation and progress in the general curriculum. They should not list only test scores.
A statement of the student's annual goals & short-term instructional objectives
Based on the student's identified learning needs, the IEP specifies skills the student will work on. The IEP must specify annual goals (i.e., what the student can reasonably be expected to accomplish within one year). Short-term objectives are measurable, intermediate steps between where the student is now (i.e., present levels of performance) and the annual goals. The objectives are developed based on a logical breakdown of the skills necessary to achieve the goal. The objectives serve as a guide for planning and implementing instructional activities in the classroom and as milestones for measuring progress. The IEP identifies a few learning goals in each area, however, these goals are not the only skills the student will learn during the year. The student will receive instruction in many other skills beyond those identified by his/her IEP. Progress toward attaining the annual goals will be reported to parents at least three times a year. For children who are limited English proficient (LEP), the goals and objectives must address English language development.
A statement of specific education and related services to be provided to the student. Some services may include when appropriate:
  • assistive technology,
  • extended school year services,
  • shortened day services,
  • adaptive physical education,
  • transition services,
  • community experience,
  • employment and post-school living, and
  • acquisition of daily living skills and a functional vocational evaluation, if appropriate.
A description of the extent to which the child will participate in the general education program and a description of the program to be provided.
Participation in state or district-wide Assessments, with accommodations where necessary.
Projected dates for initiation of services and the anticipated duration of services.
Annual and Triennial Date
The IEP will be reviewed at least once per year. The annual review date indicates the date that the IEP must be reviewed. A triennial review, which closely examines the appropriateness of the student's program, is conducted every three years. This three-year review may entail an informal consultation between the parent(s), the teacher and the school psychologist or a more formal assessment. The IEP should include objective criteria, evaluation procedures, and schedule for determining whether short-term and long-term educational objectives are being achieved.
Signatures and Parent/Guardian Approval
Persons attending an IEP team meeting are asked to sign the IEP to indicate their participation; however, only the parent/ guardian is asked to approve the IEP. This is because an IEP cannot be implemented without parent approval.

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