IDEA: The Foundation of Special Education

A Brief Overview

  • The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) is a federal law that entitles children to special education services if disability significantly impacts access to education and a specially designed program is needed.
  • Key concepts are from the Education for All Handicapped Children Act, passed in 1975. The United States celebrated 45 years of special education law Nov. 29, 2020. In recognition, the Office of Special Education Programs (OSEP) offers an historical infographic: OSEP Fast Facts: IDEA 45th Anniversary.
  • The IDEA is unchanged during the pandemic. Although education is delivered in a variety of new ways, student rights and protections are intact. For more information, PAVE provides a training video: Student Rights: Special Education During COVID-19 and Beyond.

Full Article

The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) is a federal law that was passed in 1990 and has been amended. The IDEA provides children with qualifying disabilities, from birth to age 21, with the right to a free public education that is specifically designed to meet their unique, individual needs.

Key concepts came from the Education for All Handicapped Children Act, passed in 1975. That was the first United States law that required schools to provide special education services to all children with eligible disabilities. PAVE has an article about special education history.

This article provides an overview of the IDEA, which is unique as a law that provides an individual entitlement. Entitlement means that a child with unique needs gets those needs served on an individual basis, not based on a system or program already built and available. The strengths and challenges of a specific student are assessed, and a team including family members and professionals works together to design a program.

No rights are waived due to COVID-19

The IDEA drives how states design their own special education policies and procedures. Title 34, Part 104 is the non-discrimination federal statute under the Office for Civil Rights Department of Education. In Washington State, rules for the provision of special education are in Chapter 392-172A of the Washington Administrative Code (WAC).

No federal or state laws are altered because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Although education is being delivered in a variety of new ways, all student protections and special education rights are intact.

FAPE is an important acronym to learn!

The first principle of the IDEA is the right to a Free Appropriate Public Education, FAPE. Figuring out how to provide FAPE is the work of an Individualized Education Program (IEP) team that includes school and family.

The local school district is responsible to provide FAPE through an IEP, which includes specially designed instruction, services, accommodations, and anything else that the team identifies as necessary to provide the student with education that is accessible, equitable and appropriate.

Part of FAPE is ensuring that the student finds meaningful success, in light of the circumstances. If a neighborhood school cannot provide the services and programming to guarantee FAPE within the general education classroom, then the school district is responsible to create a program within a placement that does meet the student’s needs. Keep in mind that Special Education is a Service, Not a Place: see PAVE’s article with that statement as its title.

The IDEA considers the whole life of a person with a disability

The IDEA is written in three parts: A, B and C. The right of a child with disabilities to receive an education that prepares that child for adult life is stated in Part A: ​

“Disability is a natural part of the human experience and in no way diminishes the right of individuals to participate in or contribute to society…

“Improving educational results for children with disabilities is an essential element of our national policy of ensuring equality of opportunity, full participation, independent living, and economic self-sufficiency for individuals with disabilities.”

Part B of the IDEA covers children ages 3 through 21—or until graduation from high school. Students who receive services through an Individualized Education Program (IEP) are covered under Part B. The six principles listed at the end of this article describe IDEA’s Part B protections.

Part C protects children Birth to age 3 who need family support for early learning. ​The disability category of developmental delay overlaps early learning and IEP and can qualify a child for free, family-focused services to age 3 and school-based services through age 9. PAVE has an article: Early Intervention: How to Access Services for Children Birth to 3 in Washington.

To qualify for an IEP, a student meets criteria in one of the IDEA’s 14 disability categories:

  • Autism: A student does not need a medical diagnosis to be evaluated by the school. If features from the autism spectrum may significantly impact access to learning, then the school can assess those features to determine eligibility and special education needs.
  • Emotional Disturbance: Psychological or psychiatric disorders (anxiety, depression, schizophrenia, post-traumatic stress, etc.) can fall under this category, which Washington schools often refer to as Emotional Behavioral Disability (EBD). Please note that all eligibility categories are intended to identify the needs of students and are not intended to label children in ways that might contribute to stigma or discrimination.
  • Specific Learning Disability: Issues related to dyslexia, dysgraphia, dyscalculia, or other learning deficits can be educationally assessed. A formal diagnosis is not required for a student to qualify under this category. A Washington law taking full effect in 2021-22 requires schools to screen for dyslexia: See PAVE’s article about dyslexia.
  • Other Health Impairment: ADHD, Tourette’s Syndrome and other medical diagnoses are captured within this broad category, often shorted to OHI or Health-Impaired on the IEP document.
  • Speech/Language Impairment: This category can include expressive and/or receptive language disorders in addition to issues related to diction (how a student is able to produce sounds that are understood as words). Social communication deficits also might qualify a student for speech services.
  • Multiple Disabilities: Students with complex medical and learning needs can meet criteria in this category.
  • Intellectual Disability: A student with Down Syndrome or another genetic or cognitive disorder might meet criteria in this category.
  • Orthopedic Impairment: OI refers to physical disabilities that impact access to education.
  • Hearing Impairment: Whether permanent or fluctuating, a hearing impairment may adversely affect a child’s educational performance.
  • Deafness: A student unable to process linguistic information through hearing, with or without amplification, may be eligible for services under this category.
  • Deaf blindness: A combination of hearing and visual impairments establishes a unique set of special education service needs.
  • Visual Impairment/Blindness: Partial sight and blindness may fit this category when, even with correction, eyesight adversely affects a child’s educational performance. Washington State’s Department of Services for the Blind (DSB) is an agency that provides youth and adult services for individuals who are blind or low vision.
  • Traumatic Brain Injury: Brain Injury Alliance of WA is a place for resources to better understand TBI and how to support a student with medical and educational needs.
  • Developmental Delay (ages 0-8): This category can qualify a child for early learning (Birth-3) services in addition to IEP services through age 8. By age 9, a new evaluation may determine eligibility in another category for IEP services to continue.

Educational evaluations ask 3 key questions

The disability must have an adverse impact on learning. Not every student who has a disability and receives an evaluation will qualify for an IEP. Following procedures described by the IDEA, school districts evaluate students to consider 3 key questions:

  1. Does the student have a disability?
  2. Does the disability adversely impact education?
  3. Does the student need Specially Designed Instruction (SDI)?

When each answer is yes, a student qualifies for services. In each area of eligibility, specialized instruction is recommended to help the student overcome the impact of the disability to access FAPE. PAVE provides various articles about the evaluation process, including a sample letter to refer a student for services.

IDEA’s Primary Principles:

  1. Free Appropriate Public Education (FAPE): Students with disabilities who need a special kind of teaching or other help have the right to an education that is not only free but also appropriate, designed just for them. Under IDEA rules, schools provide special education students with “access to FAPE,” so that’s a common way to talk about whether the student’s program is working.
  2. Appropriate Evaluation: The IDEA requires schools to take a closer look at children with potential disabilities (Child Find Mandate). There are rules about how quickly those evaluations get done. The results provide information that the school and parents use to make decisions about how the child’s education can be improved.
  3. Individualized Education Program (IEP): An IEP is a dynamic program, not a packet of paper or a location (Special Education is a Service, Not a Place). The program is reviewed at least once a year by a team that includes school staff and family. Every student on an IEP gets some extra help from teachers, but the rest of the program depends on what a student needs to learn. Areas of need may be academic, social and emotional skills, and/or general life skills. By age 16, an IEP includes a plan for life beyond high school, and helping the student make a successful transition into life after high school becomes a primary goal of the IEP.
  4. Least Restrictive Environment (LRE): The IDEA says that students should be in class with non-disabled classmates “to the maximum extent appropriate.” Regular classrooms and school spaces are the least restrictive. If the school has provided extra help in the classroom but the special education student still struggles to access FAPE, then the IEP team considers other options. The school explains placement and LRE in writing on the IEP document. PAVE has an article about LRE.
  5. Parent and Student Participation: The IDEA and state regulations about IEP team membership make it clear that parents or legal guardians are equal partners with school staff in making decisions about their student’s education. When the student turns 18, educational decision-making is given to the student. The school does its best to bring parents and students into the meetings, and there are specific rules about how the school provides written records and meeting notices (WAC 392-172A-03100).
  6. Procedural Safeguards: The school provides parents with a written copy of their rights at referral and yearly thereafter. A copy of the procedural safeguards is available online from the Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction (OSPI), the guidance agency for Washington schools. Parents may receive procedural safeguards from the school any time they request them. They also may receive a copy if they file a complaint with the state. Procedural safeguards are offered when a school removes a student for more than 10 days in a school year as part of a disciplinary action. When parents and schools disagree, these rights describe the actions that a parent can take informally or formally.

PAVE provides information, resources and, in some circumstances 1:1 support through our Parent Training and Information (PTI) center. To get help, reach out through our Help Request Form or by calling 800-572-7368.

Child Find: Schools Have a Legal Duty to Evaluate Children Impacted by Disability

A Brief Overview

  • School districts have an affirmative duty to locate, evaluate and potentially serve any infant, toddler or school-aged student impacted by disability under the Child Find Mandate — part of special education law.
  • The duty to evaluate is based on a known or suspected disability that may significantly impact access to learning. Data from evaluation then determines eligibility. Washington’s Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction (OSPI) has state specific information about Child Find.
  • PAVE recommends making referrals in writing and provides a sample letter.
  • Public school districts provide evaluations and special education services at no cost to the family.
  • Child Find is intact during the pandemic, as are all student rights and protections. For more information, PAVE provides a training video: Student Rights: Special Education During COVID-19 and Beyond.

Full Article

Family caregivers, teachers, or anyone else can refer a child for an educational evaluation if there is reason to suspect that a disability is impacting that child’s ability to learn. The local school district provides a comprehensive evaluation, free to the family, if there is a known or suspected disability and reason to believe that appropriate early learning or school success requires intervention.

The school district’s duty to seek out, evaluate and potentially serve infants, toddlers or school-aged students is guaranteed through the Individuals with Disabilities Act (IDEA), as part of the Child Find Mandate. The law says that this obligation to evaluate exists for all children ages 0-21, regardless of whether they:

  • Attend private or public school
  • Are housed in a stable way or are homeless
  • Live with a birth or adopted family or are a ward of the state

Receiving adequate marks and “passing from grade to grade” does not erase the school’s responsibility to evaluate. Impacts to all areas of school and learning are considered. Academic challenges might trigger an evaluation. So can school refusal, communication deficits, missing social skills, trouble with emotional regulation and behavior challenges.

Children in private and home-based schools are protected by Child Find

Parents have the right to request an evaluation from the public-school district regardless of whether a child attends public school. If the child is found eligible, the local district is responsible to provide services unless the family does not want them. In some cases, families arrange to have a child attend private or home-based school but receive special-education services through the public school. Private schools do not have to evaluate children or provide special education, but they are responsible to provide equitable services and to comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act. See PAVE’s article about navigating private school.

The IDEA includes categories of disability that might qualify a student for special education services at a public school. PAVE has an article about IDEA and additional articles with information about evaluation process.

Request an evaluation in writing

PAVE’s Parent Training and Information (PTI) staff recommend that families request evaluation formally—in writing. Specific deadlines apply in the evaluation process. Washington districts have 25 school days to decide whether to evaluate. After parents sign consent, staff have 35 school days to complete the evaluation.

sample letter to request evaluation is available on PAVE’s website. The Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction (OSPI) provides more detail about state requirements. A national agency called Wrightslaw has additional information about Child Find.

The Child Find Mandate requires states to implement programs to locate children who might need more support, particularly those who might need services as infants or toddlers. Child Find is written into the IDEA in “Part C,” which protects children 0-3 with known or suspected disabilities in need of early intervention. However, Child Find applies to all children who might need services—through age 21 or until high-school graduation.

Testing determines whether the child has a disability that is causing learning delays. For very young children, this includes a known or suspected disability that might delay learning. For a child younger than 3 in Washington State, early intervention is provided with an Individualized Family Service Plan (IFSP). PAVE’s website includes an article with more information about early intervention services and the transition to school-aged services at age 3.

For a child ages 3-21, an evaluation determines whether a disability is significantly impacting access to school and whether specially designed instruction is necessary for the student to access learning at school.

Schools use data to determine whether a child is eligible for services

The duty to evaluate is based on a known or suspected disability that may significantly impact access to learning. Data from evaluation then determines eligibility. Washington’s Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction (OSPI) has state specific information about Child Find.

The referral process includes a review of existing data about a student. Existing data might include information from families, medical providers and anyone who can discuss a child’s performance at public school, preschool, private school, at home or in another setting. Based on this data, the district decides whether to evaluate. Often the decision is discussed at a “referral meeting” with school staff and parents. If a school district refuses to evaluate, family caregivers can request an explanation in writing and have the right to dispute that decision by exercising Procedural Safeguards.

Child Find requires schools to do outreach

School districts operate Child Find programs in a variety of ways. For example, a school might:

  • Train teachers to recognize signs that a student might need to be screened
  • Publish, post and distribute information for parents so they can understand how to request evaluation and why a child might benefit from services
  • Offer workshops or other trainings to parents about evaluation, early intervention and special education

When should the caregiver for a young child be concerned?

If parents do not think their child is growing or developing like other children the same age, they can request an educational evaluation, even if a pediatrician says there is no cause for concern. The national Center for Parent Information and Resources (CPIR website: ParentCenterHub.org) provides a list of developmental milestones to help parents recognize potential delays.

Early intervention can be critical. Parents can contact their local school district or seek more information and assistance from Early Support for Infants and Toddlers (ESIT), managed by Washington’s Department of Children, Youth, and Families (DCYF).

To determine whether early intervention is needed, an evaluator considers:

  • Physical skills (reaching, crawling, walking, drawing, building)
  • Cognitive skills (thinking, learning, solving problems)
  • Communication skills (talking, listening, understanding others)
  • Self-help or adaptive skills (eating, dressing)
  • Social or emotional skills (playing, interacting with others)
  • Sensory processing skills (handling textures, tastes, sounds, smells)

The evaluator uses natural situations to look at these skills while a child stacks blocks, draws, counts, cuts with scissors, jumps, or performs other activities. Testing time varies, and parents can ask how much time was spent, which settings were reviewed, and who conducted the review.

Parents can decide whether they agree with the results and whether they believe the evaluation was appropriate. “Appropriate evaluation” is protected by special education law, the IDEA, as a primary principle. Parents who disagree with the results of an evaluation—or a school’s decision to not evaluate—have the right to dispute decisions through a variety of informal and formal processes, described in Procedural Safeguards.

Birth-3 services are provided through an IFSP

If an evaluation determines that a child requires early intervention, then those services are provided through an IFSP. Early intervention services might include speech and language therapy; physical therapy; psychological services; home visits; medical, nursing, or nutrition services; hearing or vision services.

In most cases, services are provided in the home or in a child-care setting. The goal is for services to take place in the child’s “natural environment.” Occasionally a child may visit a provider’s office for specialized services.

What does an older child’s evaluation look like?

Educational evaluations for children 3-21 are conducted in consultation with a team that includes parents, teachers, special education professionals and school district administrators and evaluation specialists who can interpret and explain the results.

The assessments can look like academic tests, questionnaires, or informal observations. There are no right or wrong answers, and the evaluators are looking for clues that might show an area of need for different or specialized instruction. A comprehensive evaluation can measure a child’s ability to:

  • Think, reason and problem-solve
  • Understand spoken language
  • Explain ideas and speak clearly
  • Understand facial expressions and body language
  • Use facial expressions and body language to express emotion
  • Remember what they hear and understand different sounds
  • See differences in pictures and designs, remember what they see, and understand those visual images
  • Use body parts with physical skill
  • Get along with other people
  • Read, write, spell, and do math
  • Hear and see

Parents can provide a health history and notes and diagnoses from medical providers that contribute outside information to be considered as part of the assessment.

The Down Syndrome Guild of Greater Kansas City provides a comprehensive list of commonly used assessments for a variety of disability conditions.

Help for children 3-5 years old

Children ages 3-5 with identified disabilities can receive free special education and related services at preschools run by the local public-school district or through federal Head Start or the state-run Early Childhood Education and Assistance Program (ECEAP). Often these preschools are specifically designed for children with disabilities, so inclusion with general education students may be limited.

Once a student enters the local public school for kindergarten, specialized instruction may be provided in general education by special educators who “push in” with support in the classroom. The IDEA requires education in the Least Restrictive Environment (LRE) to the greatest extent possible with typically developing peers. Special education is a service, not a place: See PAVE’s article with that slogan as its title.

Some children do not thrive in typical classrooms. The IEP team, including the parent, may determine that a smaller classroom or “pull out” instruction is needed for the student to make meaningful progress. These decisions are documented in the IEP.

Related services can support parent training

“Related services” might include speech-language therapy, occupational therapy, mental health counseling or special transportation to school or extracurricular activities. Training about positive behavior interventions for family caregivers, school staff and children also could be provided as a related service. Students who are enrolled in a private or home school may be dually enrolled in public school to access related services provided through an IEP.

During the pandemic, some extra attention has been paid to parent training as a related service in order for parents to understand how to support children learning from home.

What happens if a doctor or teacher refers a child for evaluation?

Any adult knowledgeable about a child’s condition can refer that child for evaluation. If a person outside the family makes the referral, parents get a formal written notification about the referral. Parents must sign consent for an evaluation process to begin.

Parents/guardians do not have to give permission. Parents who refuse to give permission have the right to request an evaluation later.

If school staff refer a student for an evaluation and parents do not want their child evaluated, the school district may ask parents to participate in mediation to further discuss the decision. If parents still refuse to sign consent, a school district can begin a legal procedure called Due Process to have the case considered by an administrative law judge. Through this process, a district may be allowed to screen a child for special education without parent consent.

If a student does not qualify for IEP services, a Section 504 Plan might help

A student who is evaluated and determined ineligible for special education might still qualify for some support with a Section 504 Plan. Section 504 defines disability much more broadly than the IDEA, and a student can qualify for support if an identified disability significantly impacts a major life activity, such as learning or socializing with peers.

Educational evaluations identify barriers to education, so schools can figure out how to help children make meaningful progress. Sometimes special education is provided to help with access to academic learning, and sometimes it is needed for a child to build functional skills or to develop more skill in Social Emotional Learning. When requesting a full and complete evaluation, parents can ask questions and provide feedback to make sure the school evaluates in all areas of suspected disability and that the tools for evaluation are comprehensive and varied.

Sometimes a child comes to the attention of the school because of unexpected behaviors that might lead to disciplinary actions. PAVE’s article, What Parents Need to Know when Behavior Impacts Discipline at School, has additional information for families who might be requesting an educational evaluation because of behavior incidents.

Links for Learning in School

IDEA Basics: Individuals With Disabilities Education Act – This 3-minute YouTube video provides foundational information about the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), the federal law that governs special education.

Office of Superintendent for Public Instruction (OSPI) – Special education law and process, guidance for families, dispute resolution procedures in Washington State and a resource library

Other great OSPI links: OSPI – Graduation Requirements Certificate of Academic / Individual AchievementOSPI – Technical Assistance Specific to the 20 Indicators Child Find

Open Doors – Transition Guide – This is Washington State’s Community Parent Resource Center (CPRC), our sister organization  funded by the Department of Education’s Office of Special Education Programs  (OSEP). This part of the Open Doors website provides resources relevant to youth (teenagers to age 26) that are culturally relevant and in multiple languages. Focus is intellectual and developmental disabilities.

Child Mind Institute – Advice for parents and information about school impacts when a child has a mental health condition

Office of the Educational Ombudsman (OEO) – Direct support, training materials, newsletter sign-up and community events for families in schools in Washington State

Seattle Children’s Mental Health Referrals – Parents who are struggling to access mental health services anywhere in Washington State can reach out to a referral helpline administered by Seattle Children’s Hospital: 833-303-5437. Please note that your call will be answered electronically, and you will be directed to provide your contact information. You may need to wait a couple of weeks before your call is returned.

Smart Kids with Learning Disabilities – Information about many different learning disabilities, what to look for and how and when to seek help. Aspects of special education are described in easy-to-understand formats. 

Useful link in Smart Kids with Learning Disabilities – 6 Principles of IDEA, Individuals and Disabilities Act

The Center for Parent Information and Resources (CPIR) – A clearinghouse of information and resources related to all aspects of Special Education. Articles are often available in multiple languages, particularly Spanish. Parenting toolkits, videos and articles related to learning challenges are specific and practical

The Center for Appropriate Dispute Resolution in Special Education (CADRE) – Parent guides in English and Spanish that describe informal and also legal options for engaging in a conflict with the school

Wrights Law  – Special education legal principles and court cases that have impacted the interpretation and implementation of special education law