Special Education / Ages 2-18

Common Terms You Might Hear in Special Education

If you’re just starting on your child’s special education journey, you might be hearing a lot of new terms and acronyms. Here’s what it all means.

IEP, IDEA, FERPA—oh my! Special education comes with its own vocabulary, and it’s not always easy to figure out what means what. Here are some of the most common words, terms, and acronyms you’ll probably come across.
  • Individuals with Disabilities in Education Act (IDEA): This is the federal law that protects the right of every child to a free and appropriate education (FAPE). It means that schools are required to provide the support services that every child needs in order to learn. If your child’s needs go beyond what their public school can support, your school district is required to pay for an educational setting that can meet those needs (such as a private or therapeutic school). This doesn’t mean it’s always easy to get the services your child needs—most special education parents will tell you it isn’t, unfortunately. But it’s a good idea to understand your legal rights under IDEA. Importantly, IDEA applies to all children in the United States, regardless of their family’s immigration status. If your primary language is not English, IDEA also protects your right to have your child’s educational documents translated, and to have a trained interpreter present in meetings with school.
  • Free and appropriate education (FAPE): You might hear this acronym in relation to IDEA. It refers to the legal right of every child in the United States to an appropriate public education, regardless of any disability they may have. (Learn more above, under IDEA.)
  • Evaluation: Getting your child support will always start with a formal evaluation. This is the process of assessing your child’s skills, challenges, and needs to determine what support (if any) they are eligible for in school. You can request an evaluation of your child at any time. Once you sign the evaluation consent form, school is legally required to complete the process within 30 school days. (This doesn’t always happen, but that’s what the law says!) An evaluation by your child’s school is free. If you prefer, you can also pay for a private evaluation.
  • Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA): This law protects the privacy of students’ educational records, which means that your child’s school cannot give anyone else information about your child’s learning without your permission. FERPA also gives parents and legal guardians the right to access your child’s school records, including their evaluation report. (Learn more about how to do that here.) If you want your school to share your child’s educational records with a third party, like your pediatrician or a Navigator, you will be asked to sign a FERPA waiver form.
  • Individual Education Plan (IEP): An IEP is a legally binding document that lays out the supports your child should receive in school, if they have one of the 13 specific diagnoses that make them eligible. Your child’s IEP might include services like one-to-one or small group support, accommodations related to the learning space and tools (such as where and how they sit in class), and transportation to and from school. You will be part of the process of determining what’s in the IEP, including attending IEP meetings with your child’s IEP team. You do not have to accept or sign the IEP until you believe it includes all the support services your child needs. By law, the IEP must be translated into your primary language.
  • General education classroom: This is a mainstream classroom that includes children with and without disabilities.
  • Sub-separate classroom: This is a “substantially separate classroom” for students with more significant disabilities. Places in these classrooms are reserved for children who need more support than they are able to receive in general education classrooms. Sub-separate classrooms usually have more adults and fewer children than general education classrooms.
  • “Least restrictive environment”: Special education law requires students to be placed in the “least restrictive environment,” which means that your child should be in a general education classroom (with support), as long as they are able to learn there.
  • Pull-out: A pull-out is a time for your child to come out of their regular classroom and get one-to-one or small group support with a learning specialist or paraprofessional.
  • Push-in: A push-in is a time for your child to receive one-to-one or small group support from a learning specialist or paraprofessional without leaving their regular classroom.
  • Twice-exceptional: Twice-exceptional or “2e” refers to students who have a disability that affects their learning and are also gifted in another area of learning. For example, a student with autism who excels in writing, or a student with dyslexia who is gifted in music or math.
  • 504 Plan: A 504 plan documents accommodations for children who have a disability that interferes with their access to learning, but does not qualify them for special education services. For example, if your child is visually impaired, a 504 plan will establish the required accommodations to make the classroom accessible for them. 504 plans cover children with a broader range of disabilities than IEPs, so a child who is not eligible for an IEP may still receive a 504 plan.
  • Multi-tiered Systems of Support (MTSS): This is a system of classroom supports that are available to all children who need them, not just those who are eligible for special education services. For example, if your child’s evaluation shows that they do not have a disability but they are reading below grade-level, they can receive additional support in reading.
  • Response to Intervention (RTI): Similar to MTSS, RTI is a system for providing learning support to students who don’t qualify for special education.

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