eligibility Kids and Families Special Education

I think my child needs special education. What should I do first?

Has observing distance learning made you wonder whether your child might need special education services? Don’t worry, we’re here to help you determine whether your child might be eligible for special education and an IEP.

By Attorney Kate Rabb

Has observing distance learning made you wonder whether your child needs special education services or extra help with school?  Parents everywhere have expanded their responsibilities to include teacher, counselor, and tutor.  For many, this has provided a rare glimpse into their kids’ academic and emotional struggles which might otherwise have been afforded only to the most observant classroom teacher.  Many parents now realize that school is not going as well as they thought. Their kids may need extra help in reading, writing, or math to keep up with their classes or extra time to finish assignments.  It’s one thing to know your child needs special education services, but it’s an entirely different and more daunting task to know how to get them.  Add the job of special education expert to teacher, counselor, and tutor, and you have one exhausted and overwhelmed parent.  Don’t worry, we’re here to help you determine whether your child might be eligible for special education and an IEP. That’s what special education attorneys and education advocates for parents do!

You suspect your child might need special education services.  What should you do first?

Send an email to the school! As a parent, you tend to know when your child is struggling often before school catches on.  This is especially the case during distance learning when you’ve watched your child miss math assignments, get lost in reading passages, and feel increasingly anxious about participating in class.  This is incredibly difficult to witness, but it also creates a great opportunity for you to advocate for the services your child needs to succeed in school.  Schools are required under law to identify, locate, and evaluate all children with disabilities.  All means all, including those who are homeschooled and who attend private schools.  But you don’t have to wait for the school to reach out to you.  You have the right to start the process yourself.

Starting the Process: The Initial Email

To begin, let the school know in writing that you think your child may have a disability.  This is the “written referral” that sets in motion – albeit slow motion — the process of determining whether your child is eligible for special education services. 

Sending that email is an important first step but, even if the process goes smoothly, it may still will be months before your child gets an IEP. This is because special education law provides a specific timeline for schools to follow in developing an IEP.  If you think your child may need services more quickly, you may want to contact a special education attorney or advocate who can help you get the expert advice you need to support your child during this process.


After receiving your email, the school has up to 30 days to get your written consent to conduct initial evaluations of your child.  This likely will happen during an IEP meeting.  In that meeting, the team will consider information about your child that they and you have gathered, and also any data or test results that you may have from doctors, therapists, tutors, or evaluators.  The IEP team will then decide if the school needs to conduct evaluations of your child to determine whether they should receive special education.  Those evaluations may include tests and classroom observations, many of which can be done virtually, if necessary.  If you want the process to continue, you will have to consent in writing to the evaluations and assessments that the school proposes or have those evaluations done privately. 

Sometimes, the school looks at the data presented and declines to move forward with the process.  If you disagree and still believe your child needs special education, trust your gut!

Meeting to Determine Eligibility for Special Education

Once you’ve agreed in writing to have the school evaluate your child, the IEP team has 60 days to complete those evaluations and review them with you.  By the end of that 60-day period, the school will host another IEP meeting, the eligibility meeting.  In the eligibility meeting, they share what they’ve learned from their evaluations (or review evaluations you provide), consider all of the data before them, and decide whether your child has a disability and needs special education services. 

First, they’ll ask, “Does the child have a disability?”  If the answer is yes, your child does have a disability as defined by the Individuals with Disabilities Act (IDEA), you’re partway to an IEP.  But it is not enough to have a disability; that disability has to impact your child’s ability to learn.  The team will then ask, “Does the child’s disability mean that they need special education to make progress in school?”  If the answer to that question is also yes, your child is eligible for an IEP. Most disabilities that qualify a child for an IEP have specific definitions in the law that help the IEP team (which includes you!) make this decision. One of the most common questions we are asked is about eligibility for the “specific learning disability” category, which includes dyslexia.

The school may determine at this point that your child is not eligible for special education services.  This may be because they think your child does not have a disability under the IDEA.  Or they may conclude that your child does have a disability, but that it does not impact their learning.  If this is the case, and you think your child needs special education services, don’t give up before looking into your options– this may be a situation where you need some outside support. 

Developing an IEP

After determining eligibility, the IEP team has up to 30 days to develop an IEP for your child.  This is designed to be a collaborative process, and the school must meet with you before finalizing the IEP so that you can provide input. Rest assured that once the IEP is developed, the team must begin implementing the plan as soon as possible. 

If you are not satisfied with the plan developed for your child, including the services, accommodations, or placement it provides, you might want to consult with an education attorney who can help you get the education program your child needs to thrive in school.

If you think your child needs special education but need assistance with the process, schedule a free call to discuss how a special education attorney or parent advocate can help.

This blog post is for informational purposes only. It is not legal advice and does not create an attorney-client relationship.