You may not know this about-- I have a toddler at home.
She is wild and busy and headstrong and sweet (as toddlers are). She certainly gives me a run for my money most days, but the hardest part of parenting a toddler, other than the constant redirection and gentle discipline, is the wondering...
Is my child on track?
Is she supposed to be running or jumping by now?
Why can't she identify colors like the other kids in music class?
How many words can she say? Does "wa-wa" count as a real word if she knows it means "water"?
You know the drill. There's that constant internal nagging to be on the lookout for something amiss. (Or maybe that's just me, since I work in this field! My guess is that I'm not alone though.)
Today's post is all about eligibility, or the process of determining whether a child needs and qualifies for special education services. If that nagging feeling that your child may need something more has lingered into school-age, this post is for you.
Like nearly everything else in the special ed world, this process follows a straightforward series of steps:
1. Referral - if someone in the child's life feels like the child may need to be evaluated, they can make a referral to the school to initiate the process. This referral can be made by a parent/guardian, a teacher or other school personnel, or by an outside source like a doctor or a disability service provider. The school district has a formalized process to identify students who they feel may need to be evaluated, and this process is called "child find." You can learn more about Child Find here.
2. Data collection - Once a referral is made, the school team will begin to collect information that may be helpful in determining whether or not to formally assess the student. This information can include parent and student input, a summary of interventions tried already, a statement of the student's current performance, results from vision or hearing screenings, and any relevant medical assessments. Once this data has been collected...
3. The team meets - This includes school personnel, the school psychologist, medical providers (if necessary), the parent/guardian, and anyone else who may be relevant! The team will meet to review the documentation previously collected and come to a decision about whether to formally assess the child. The team's decision about whether or not to assess must be given to the parent in writing (this is considered Prior Written Notice). If the team decides to move forward with a formal assessment, they will discuss specific areas of concern and what instruments should be given based on those areas of concern. The team must obtain the parents' written consent prior to conducting the evaluation.
4. Evaluation is conducted - A school psychologist or another clinician completes the evaluation using the chosen instruments. Often the team will chose to do a full psychoeducational evaluation which includes an IQ test (such as the Wechsler Intelligence Scale for Children, or WISC) and an Achievement test (such as the Woodcock Johnson, or WJ-III). This psychoeducational assessment will also lay out the child and family's history, his or her behavior during the test, the assessor's observations, limitations of the instruments used, and an overall summary. This summary may include an educational diagnosis, such as autism or intellectual disability, and may include suggestions for supporting the student in school.
5. The team reconvenes - after the evaluation is complete, the team will meet again to discuss the results. Note: the student is not automatically eligible for services, EVEN IF the evaluation report indicates a diagnosis. The team, including the parent, will review the evaluation report (in addition to the other documentation collected previously) and will compare this information to the eligibility requirements set forth by the state. The team must determine a) whether the student has an educational disability and b) whether that disability adversely impacts the student's educational performance. Criteria for determining these conditions is available on your state's Department of Education website. If the team determines that the student meets the criteria outlined...
6. An eligibility category is assigned - In order for a student to receive special education services, they must be determined eligible under one of 13 categories outlined in the I.D.E.A. legislation. These categories include: autism, deaf-blindness, deafness, emotional disturbance, hearing impairment, intellectual disability, multiple disabilities, orthopedic impairment, other health impairment (OHI), specific learning disability (SLD), speech or language impairment, traumatic brain injury (TBI), or visual impairment. Some districts may also consider "developmental delay" up to age 9-10, and some states may include other categories such as "functional delay" (here in Tennessee) or even "intellectually gifted" which falls under the special education umbrella.
7. An IEP meeting is held, and an IEP is developed - As long as the IEP is later signed by the parent/guardian (they've given their written consent), the student is now eligible and required to receive the special education services outlined in the IEP.
8. Child receives special education services, the IEP is updated at least once per year, and eligibility is reviewed at least once every 3 years - This cycle continues until your child is either determined to be no longer eligible for special education services, they graduate high school, or they age out of the system at age 21-22.
Phew! That is the quick-ish and easy-ish explanation of how eligibility is determined. Need more info about this? We have an entire online training module dedicated to IEP Basics in our Digital Course-- check it out here!