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School and Special-Needs Children



  • All US public schools provide services for children with special needs.
  • To get these services, your child will need to be assessed by a team of professionals. Together with you, they will create an Individual Education Program (IEP) for your child.
  • If you have a child who you think may have a special need, contact your school district.


What are special needs?

The term "special needs" includes children who have:

  • Developmental delays and intellectual disabilities that affect thinking and learning
  • Severe emotional and behavioral problems
  • Speech and language problems
  • Vision problems such as blindness
  • Hearing problems such as deafness
  • Physical problems such as cerebral palsy
  • Traumatic brain injury
  • Learning disabilities
  • Attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder

All public school districts in the US are required to offer special services for children with these conditions, free of charge. Services for preschool children usually begin around 3 years of age. For school-age children, public school districts provide services through 21 years of age, or until they graduate from high school, whichever comes first.

Most states also provide special services for gifted and talented students. This is not required by law.

What services do schools provide?

There are many types of services that schools offer through special education. These include:

  • Evaluation and assessment of the child's abilities and needs
  • Special classes and specially trained teachers and aides
  • Classroom accommodations such as books in large print for a visually impaired child or a special desk for a child with a physical disability
  • Assistive technologies such as special computers or keyboards, digital recorders, or hearing devices
  • Special transportation such as a special bus to pick up children with severe visual impairments
  • Speech and language therapy
  • Occupational therapy for problems with movement and senses such as touch, body awareness, sight, sound
  • Physical therapy for children with bone, muscle, and joint problems

Services can be provided in several ways. Common methods are:

  • Consultation: A specialist consults with the regular classroom teacher on how to best serve the child.
  • Inclusion: A special teacher or aide comes into the regular classroom to help the child.
  • Pull out: The child leaves the classroom to attend speech and language therapy or physical therapy.
  • Special classrooms: The child goes to a different classroom for part or all of the day.
  • Home-based support: Home schooling is another way to address special needs. A child may be able to still receive special services from the school district, such as home-based therapy.

Schools keep children in a regular classroom whenever possible. This is called mainstreaming. In general, when children move into middle school and high school, they will spend more time in a regular classroom and less time receiving special services.

What is the process for a child to receive special services?

The Special Education Department within each school district usually follows certain steps to evaluate a child with special needs. These steps may include:

  • A team of school professionals will review referrals from family or school staff. They will decide if your child needs special services or if your child's needs can be met by changes in the regular classroom.
  • If your child seems to need special services, a formal evaluation is done. This usually includes several hours of testing and assessment by specialists at the school. Teachers, the school psychologist, speech-language specialist, and others may be involved. For example, if a child is thought to have learning disabilities, the school may test him or her to assess IQ, vision and hearing, and basic reading, writing, spelling, and math skills.
  • The school staff then meets with you to go over the results of the evaluation. Together you will decide what services to provide. This meeting is usually called an Individual Education Program (IEP) Meeting. At the meeting, any special services needed are outlined and written in the IEP document. The school must follow this plan. Your approval is needed in most cases for the IEP plan to go into effect. Make sure that you get a copy of your child’s IEP.
  • At least once per school year, usually in the spring, the school must call an IEP meeting and invite you to attend. This meeting is to discuss what progress has been made and decide what services your child will need for the next school year. If you feel that an IEP meeting is needed sooner, you may ask for one.
  • Your child’s needs may change over time. At least every 3 years, the school must retest your child to decide what services he or she needs. Stay in touch with your child’s teachers and check on how your child is doing.
  • If you believe that the school has not properly assessed your child or has not provided the right services, you may ask for a special hearing. You can also ask for an independent evaluation of your child by a professional outside of the school.

What laws govern special services in schools?

There are several federal laws that apply to schools:

  • Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA)
  • Rehabilitation Act
  • Vocational Education Act
  • Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA)

These laws define the disabilities that are eligible for special services. It also outlines the process to identify children in need. There may also be state laws that apply. Many states offer more services than what is required by IDEA.

Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act, and the ADA state that no agency that gets federal money can discriminate against disabled people. In schools, this means that children with special needs must receive equal services to children without special needs.

The Vocational Education Act, often called the Carl Perkins Act, provides for job training skills to older children.

The No Child Left Behind federal law requires that each state test every public school student's progress in reading and math in grades 3 through 8 and at least once during grades 10 through 12. If children with special needs have trouble taking tests due to their disabilities, they may not be required to take the national tests. Parents of children in underachieving schools are given the option of sending children to a different school. They also may qualify for services such as private tutoring for their children.

How can I help my child?

  • If you have a preschool child who you think may have a special need, contact your school district. Ask about the "Child Find Program." It is very important to get help early. Young children who get help early may need less help when they are older.
  • If you have a school-age child who you think may have a special need, talk with your child's teacher. Ask how to refer your child for evaluation.
  • Learn about the laws in your state. This helps you make sure that your child gets all the services he or she needs or deserves.
  • Look for local resources to help you and your child. Most cities and states have parent groups for problems such as autism, some medical conditions, and learning disabilities.
  • Children and parents often worry about a child being labeled as different because they get special services. Remind your child that children don't always learn the same things at the same rate. Praise your child's efforts at learning. Praise your child for trying.
  • Children who struggle in school often feel confused, angry, and guilty, as do their parents. Getting some professional help can reduce frustration and a sense of failure for your child. Find a counselor who works with children with disabilities and knows the laws that govern special education in your state. Family counseling may be helpful as well.
  • Help your child gain a sense of success through a hobby or other activity in an area of strength. This can greatly help your child's self-esteem.

For more information about education for children with special needs, contact:

Developed by Change Healthcare.
Pediatric Advisor 2022.1 published by Change Healthcare.
Last modified: 2021-01-11
Last reviewed: 2019-06-24
This content is reviewed periodically and is subject to change as new health information becomes available. The information is intended to inform and educate and is not a replacement for medical evaluation, advice, diagnosis or treatment by a healthcare professional.
© 2022 Change Healthcare LLC and/or one of its subsidiaries
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