5 Things Pediatricians Should Know About Special Education

As trusted partners for families from birth to young adulthood, pediatricians can play a unique role in helping families navigate the special education landscape. Here’s what we think they need to know.

It’s no secret that pediatricians play an important role in the lives of families with young children: They partner with families through the highs and lows of early childhood, watch children grow, and support families to navigate all kinds of health challenges for their children. But we think pediatricians can be key partners for families in a challenge outside medicine, too: helping families access support services for their children in school.

This might seem counter-intuitive. After all, healthcare providers aren’t trained educators, and their plates are already very full. But since many children aren’t enrolled in full-time school until age five or six, pediatricians are often the first and sometimes only consistent observer of a young child’s development, apart from their own family members. Doctors are able to recognize early on when a child needs extra support meeting developmental milestones, which might extend into the classroom. And parents trust them.

Given all that, we think pediatricians are well-positioned to offer support as families navigate the special education landscape, without spending a huge amount of time on it.

Here are 5 important things we think all pediatricians should know about special education:


When a child ages out of Early Intervention at 3, the responsibility for any future support services they may be eligible for shifts to their public school district.

But because most children at this age aren’t yet enrolled in school, many families don’t know where to begin. This is where pediatricians can make a huge difference. By pointing a family with a 3 or 4 year old toward their school district’s special education office, a pediatrician can give a family a head start on the process. Healthcare providers should consider providing an evaluation request letter template for families who need one, similar to the immunization letters that healthcare offices routinely provide for school enrollment. An evaluation request letter should identify the child’s key areas of concern so the school knows what to look for and evaluate. (Here’s an example of such a letter.)


A child’s right to a “free and appropriate education” is protected under the federal Individuals with Disabilities in Education Act (IDEA). But that doesn’t mean every child with a disability qualifies for special education services.

A child needs to be evaluated by their school district to determine if they meet the criteria for an Individualized Education Plan (IEP). If they do not qualify but they still have needs that require accommodations in school, the family can instead pursue a 504 plan. Healthcare providers can help by ensuring families have documentation of any medical diagnoses to support their requests for services (for example, a CARS rating score for autism or ADHD Vanderbilt results). Providers can also help manage families’ expectations by reminding them that the school district may not find that their child’s disability is a barrier to educational progress. Parents may have to advocate for their child in the process, and healthcare providers can help families feel empowered to do that by reminding them of their rights in the special education process.


Federal and state laws specify the timelines that school districts are required to follow once they receive an evaluation request from a family—but delays happen.

In our work with families, we’ve found that as many as 1 in 4 families encounter a delay or other compliance failure when they seek educational support services for their child. (For families with preschool-aged children, the rates of compliance failures tend to be even higher.) It’s helpful for pediatricians to understand the legal timeframe for evaluation requests: For example, in Massachusetts, this is typically 45 school days from the time a family returns their signed consent form; in California, it’s 60. These timelines give parents a sense of what to expect so they can advocate for their children as needed.


Families can be active participants in the process, starting right from the consent form.

Providers can encourage families to communicate proactively with school, ask questions, and speak up about what they hope for for their children. Since no evaluation can take place until the parent or legal guardian signs a written consent form for their child, families can start the process off on the right foot by reviewing the consent form as soon as they receive it from school, ensuring that it reflects their concerns and that they understand what’s being proposed, and then signing and returning it promptly to school.


Special education teams are often short-staffed and spread thin, so families will need to be patient, but persistent.

Pediatricians can let families know that the process of accessing services for their child won’t happen overnight—and in fact, it might be frustratingly slow. Remind families that if they don’t hear back within a reasonable timeframe (for example, if they don’t receive a consent form to sign within 5 school days of making their evaluation request), they shouldn’t be afraid to follow up. Providers should also recommend that families identify the point person for their child’s school evaluations, so they know their questions are going to the right place.

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