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School-Age Special Education Basics


The purpose of School-age Special Education is to prepare children with disabilities to lead productive and independent adult lives, to the maximum extent possible. If you are a parent of a young child who is just entering the School-age Special Education system, thinking about when your child becomes an adult may seem extremely premature. However, if you are the parent of an older child, you may feel that the remaining school years are precious, and you may feel an urgent need to make sure your child is prepared for whatever comes next. Whatever age your child is, it is important to take advantage of the supports available to your child during the school-age years so that he or she grows up to be happy and as successful and independent as possible.

Whether or not your child has already received a medical diagnosis of Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), your child may be eligible for special education services. While some children are diagnosed with ASD at a young age, others may not be diagnosed until they are much older, perhaps in middle school or even later. In order to receive special education services, the “name" of any diagnosis your child has isn't what is most important. What is more important is identifying your child's needs and getting services to help your child progress.

School-age Special Education is available to eligible students from the time they are old enough to enter kindergarten until they are 21 years old. It is governed by Part B of the IDEA. IDEA is a federal law that governs special education for the entire nation. States also have laws and regulations that must be followed, but no state (or local government or school board) can take away any rights provided by the federal law. IDEA requires states to provide School-age Special Education services for all children who qualify.

If your child received Preschool Special Education services, many of the laws and regulations for the School-age Special Education system will be familiar to you. That is because Preschool Special Education and School-age Special Education are both regulated by Part B of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). However, as a practical matter, there are many differences between the two systems. Children undergo remarkable developmental changes during the school years, and there will be many more matters to consider as your child grows up.

The special education process can be a confusing one for many parents. But it is very important that you work to understand it. By learning about special education procedures, you can help your child progress and learn. Below is a quick summary of the basics for families new to special education.

The Essentials:

Before special education services can begin, a team will assess your child's particular needs. Your child will have a special education evaluation which will be put into a written document called an Evaluation Report. The Evaluation Report will explain whether or not your child has been found eligible to receive special education services. If your child is eligible, the information contained within the Evaluation Report will be used to create an Individualized Education Program (IEP) for your child. The IEP will set educational, behavioral, and social goals for your child and explain what services your child will receive, and where and how often they will be given. It will also specify how the school will monitor your child to make sure the services he or she is receiving are working to help your child make progress (called “progress monitoring"). The IEP will be implemented by the school as soon as possible after you agree to it. If you disagree with the Evaluation Report and/or IEP, there are dispute resolution procedures, which are designed to help resolve disagreements which occur within the special education system. Your child's Evaluation Report and IEP will be updated periodically for as long as your child continues to be eligible for special education services.

For families transitioning from the preschool special education system:

If your child received Preschool Special Education services, it is not necessary for your child to have a reevaluation prior to entering the school-age system, though you may request one. Similarly, you and the school-age team may agree to adopt your child's preschool IEP, in whole or in part, if you wish. Within one year of being in the school-age system, however, the school-age IEP team will need to reconvene and develop a new IEP.

Figure 1: The process of qualifying for and receiving School-age Special Education is a circular one. As your child develops, his or her needs will be periodically reassessed and new plans will be made. The special education process has a built-in check called “progress monitoring," which is a way for families and teachers to assess how your child is doing and make adjustments to your child's plan as needed, even without conducting a more formal evaluation.

Additional Resources

The Center for Autism Research and The Children's Hospital of Philadelphia do not endorse or recommend any specific person or organization or form of treatment. The information included within the CAR Autism Roadmap™ and CAR Resource Directory™ should not be considered medical advice and should serve only as a guide to resources publicly and privately available. Choosing a treatment, course of action, and/or a resource is a personal decision, which should take into account each individual's and family's particular circumstances.