Communicating with School / Special Education / Ages 5-18

What Parents Need to Know About Special Education

All kids learn differently—and some children need additional support or specialized services to help them thrive.

In the United States, all children have the legal right to a “free and appropriate public education.” This is true regardless of your immigration status, or what language you speak at home, or any characteristic of your child—including whether or not they have a disability.

If you think your kid is struggling in school but you’re not sure why or what to do about it, here’s what you need to know:

  • Children without diagnosed disabilities can still have access to support in school. Many states use what’s called a “multi-tiered system of support” (MTSS) or “response to intervention” (RTI) to provide targeted support in school to students who need it. These aren’t special education programs. Instead, they’re ways of identifying students who are struggling in their learning and providing specific support strategies to give them what they need. Like the name suggests, MTSS provides multiple tiers of support for children across both academic and behavioral needs. RTI is an approach to providing support through targeted teaching strategies called “interventions.” You might hear from your child’s teacher about these types of support. You can also raise your concerns with your child’s teacher and ask what types of tiered or targeted support is available. 
  • As a parent or guardian, you have the right to request an evaluation for your child. If your child is having trouble in school and the support they’re receiving in their classroom isn’t sufficient, you can ask for an evaluation to figure out what might be going on. (You don’t have to wait until the teacher or pediatrician suggests an evaluation, although in some cases they might.) This evaluation will be free of cost to you, or you can choose to pay for a private one if you prefer.
  • All children with disabilities that present challenges to thriving in school have the right to support that meets their needs. What those services look like—and how you access them for your child—will depend on your child’s specific needs. Children with diagnoses that meet specific criteria might receive an Individual Education Plan (IEP) to support their needs. Other children might receive support through a 504 plan, which provides accommodations to allow all children equitable access to education. Although they are similar, an IEP and a 504 have some distinctions—and which one your child is eligible for will depend on their particular needs. (Here’s a chart from Understood that breaks down the differences between IEPs and 504 plans.)
  • If your child is struggling in school, there’s a good chance you are also feeling overwhelmed by the process of getting them support. We get it, really: Getting our kids what they need to thrive in school is one of our biggest goals as parents. 

Here are some resources to help you figure out what’s next:

  • What Parents Need to Know About IEPs: Here’s a rundown of why a child might need an IEP to thrive in school, what goes into making one, and what your rights are as you seek support for your child.

For detailed information on everything related to students with learning differences, we love Understood.org.

As you get started seeking support for your child, here are a few essential resources from their archives: