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The school system is required to provide your child with a free and appropriate public education (FAPE). Services that may be necessary for your child to be successful are included in this law. Where do you start?
There are three laws that guarantee children with disabilities a free, appropriate public education and/or prevent discrimination based on disability.
The first step is learning to be an effective advocate for your child. The process of getting the educational services your child needs may be complicated. Keeping careful records may take a little time to learn, but it will pay off.
Start keeping a loose-leaf binder with information about:
Having this information handy in one place will make it much easier to navigate the special education system.
You can also attend advocacy training, or take advantage of advocates in the community. Both Better Days Ahead and The Advocacy Center offer advocacy training. This will help you learn more specific techniques for working with school officials to get your child what he/she needs to do well in school.
You are not alone. Parents and caregivers have found themselves at some point, either wondering or being told if their child is "normal", especially early on and if you are a new parent. It can be confusing to know the difference between what is typical child development and what may not be.
To learn more about what you should know about the screening process and might want to consider as "next steps" if your child is in preschool, go to School FAQs - Preschool page.
The first step in the process of getting special education services is the referral. This is a formal request by you that would like your child to be evaluated for special education services. First, talk to the teacher about your concerns regarding your child. The teacher will want to know your concerns, and you may have suggestions yourself about ways to help your child while the special education process is being started.
You must write and submit the letter to request an evaluation for Special Education. Call the Special Education Office in your district to find out to whom to send the letter to. It is also a good idea to send a copy of the letter to the principal and teacher so that they are kept aware of what is going on. Make sure to keep a copy of the letter for your personal files.
It is best to call again in a few days to be sure your referral was received. It is suggested that you hand deliver your letter or at the very least send it certified with a return receipt requested. This minimizes the possibility of lost paperwork and delayed meetings.
Prior to the meeting the school will conduct testing with your child to assess cognitive functioning and academic achievement. When the referral is processed, you will be notified in writing of the date, time and place for the meeting (districts are only required to give you five (5) days notice). The notice will, include information about your right in the process.
"When I was trying to get Special Ed services for my daughter, the CSE Chairperson told me that the squeaky wheel gets the oil. I can’t believe how it has been up to me to stay on top of my daughter’s program by calling, calling back, and coordinating calls and meetings between schools, professionals, and me." - Parent
Get a copy of the booklet "A Parent’s Guide to Special Education for Children Ages" 5-21, which is put out by the State Education Department to describe the special education process, programs and services - this version has not been updated with the most recent changes in State and federal special education laws. To see the most current New York State regulations on special education go to the New York State Education Department's website and when you're at the site the laws and regulations that may be of most interest to you are:
Copies are available through the New York State Office for Special Education Services, RSE-TASC (Regional Special Education Technical Assistance Support Center), formerly known as SETRC (Special Education Training Resource Center) or through your child’s home school district. This guide is also available in Spanish.
At this stage, once you have been notified that you will work with the Committee on Special Education (CSE). This is a team that coordinates your child’s evaluation, recommends programs and services, and oversees the implementation or startup of special education services for the school district.
The required members of the team are:
Remember, you are a very valuable member of your child’s CSE – you are the expert on your child. Share any pertinent paperwork with the CSE. The CSE will decide if further testing is needed based on testing that has already been done. The full process from referral to recommendation of an educational program must be completed within 45 school days from the time your referral is received.
The evaluation is a comprehensive assessment of your child’s skills and abilities in school and elsewhere. Different school personnel perform various types of testing.
The evaluation includes:
At this point you should be very closely involved in the CSE process. You can work with the CSE to decide what kind of evaluation is appropriate. You might be able to provide information from other agencies or your own experience with your child. You might have to contact the head of your CSE regularly to ensure that they have the information from you that will help your child.
The CSE must then decide what other kinds of information are needed to give them a complete picture of your child’s needs. The CSE must have your permission before beginning any testing on your child.
They will send you a letter outlining:
If you feel that the evaluation is not complete or if you disagree with the results, you have the right to request an independent evaluation at the school district’s expense. An independent evaluation is like a “second opinion” about your child’s need for special education services.
The first step in getting an independent evaluation is to talk with the CSE Chairperson about your concerns – you may be able to get it resolved at this point without pursuing a "second opinion." If you are still not satisfied, you can request information from the school district about getting an independent evaluation.
You should submit in writing a request that the district pay for this evaluation. The district may tell you that you have to choose an independent evaluator from the list provided by the district. This is not true -- you can choose any evaluator, and ask the district to pay, as long as the evaluator uses the same methodology that the district's evalutors use. The district may refuse to pay, especially if you go to someome who is not on its list -- but by law, the district is required to pay for the independent evaluation, unless it asks for an impartial hearing to show that the district's own evaluation is appropriate.
You have many rights in this process. These include the right to:
The process from referral to recommendation of a program must be completed within 60 school days of your request.
After an evaluation has been completed, the Committee on Special Education will meet to decide whether or not to recommend special education services. You should attend this meeting along with your child, if possible, to provide input to the committee. At this meeting you and members of the CSE will look at the evaluation materials and study them. Again, your input at this meeting is very important. You should bring with you any other information you have on your child that might help the CSE makes its decision.
To prepare for this meeting, get copies of the evaluation reports ahead of time and study them.
You can contact the people who did the evaluations if you have any questions about the materials. You might want to make notes of your thoughts about the evaluation materials, as well as any other important points you want to address at the meeting.
The CSE will try to answer the following questions about your child:
There are several types of disability labels used for classifying children with special education needs. The thing to remember about these classifications is that in order to receive them, the child’s challenges must often be shown to interfere with his school performance. There are some exceptions, but they can be difficult to understand.
The classifications most often seen in children with emotional or behavioral challenges are:
A complete list of education disabilility labels can be found here. We have not discussed all of the possible labels in this section. The ones we have listed are the ones that are the most commonly seen in the public education system (children with emotional or behavioral problems).
It is possible, at this stage, for the CSE to decide that your child is not eligible for special education services.
Other possible decisions may include:
If your child does not qualify for special education services, you can ask the CSE to make adaptations to the regular school program using your legal rights under Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act.
Accommodations under Section 504 are guaranteed to students with disabilities if they are needed in order for the student to learn. However, the law allows districts to choose whether the CSE will be responsible for Section 504 implementation, or whether the school will be responsible.
If your district has chosen to do this at the school level (as the Rochester City School District has done, for example but each district is different) then you will have to go back to your child's school to start the Section 504 process. It is important to keep advocating for this at the school level, because Section 504 rights often get "lost in the shuffle" when you are going back and forth between the CSE and the school.
If you disagree with the committee’s findings contact the CSE chairperson to discuss your concerns. If you cannot reach an agreement, you may request an impartial hearing. If you are involved in the process, however, the recommendation of the CSE should not be a surprise and minor disagreements can usually be resolved.
If the CSE decides that your child is eligible then several things must occur starting with the writing of an Individualized Educational Plan (IEP).
The IEP will address:
Be sure that your child’s challenges are described, in specific measurable terms, whenever possible. It is difficult to show a child has improved his performance when the problem is worded vaguely.
For example, if the CSE uses a description such as “Jane is easily distracted”, ask them to use more specific terms like “Jane leaves her seat 4 times an hour”.
Use the following as a guide to understanding the elements that are part of your child's IEP. Remember, having specific goals which clearly identify your child’s accomplishments or continued challenges will be easier for everyone to notice and measure progress.
Guide to IEP elements:
Trying to figure out what services your child needs can be one of the most difficult parts of the special education process. Sometimes schools will recommend services based on what has traditionally worked in the past and, like many large systems, they can be slow to change and embracing innovation, but don't let that deter you from what you feel is in the best interest for your child.
Here is a list of the various services or settings that might be part of a recommendation:
Determining exactly what your child needs can be very difficult. The right kind of evaluation can help you and the CSE decide what would best help your child. You can also provide input as to what classroom situations have worked well (or poorly) for you in the past.
"We kept our son in a private school for years; we didn’t want him to be in special education. When we finally moved to Rochester and made the change, I realized that there were many things about the private school classes that really helped my son. His challenges were mainly social, and the school he had attended emphasized cooperation in learning. The classroom actually helped my son get better because they required students to work together for grades. They also controlled students’ behaviors toward one another, and emphasized respect. I knew that I could bring that up to the CSE in hopes that they could somehow integrate these methods into his special education placement." - Parent
The special education laws guarantee that your child will be educated in the least restrictive environment (LRE). LRE means that your child has the right to inclusion in a regular classroom like any other student. Your child can only be removed from the regular classroom when the severity of the disability is so great that any type of changes to your child’s program or support for him in this classroom will still not allow him to achieve his educational goals.
You should discuss the least restrictive environment for your child with the CSE. For some, LRE means your child might stay in a regular classroom with special supports.
Special supports may include:
When the IEP is completed you must consent to it before services begin. You do not have to sign the IEP. You might find it useful to take the IEP home and study it before giving your consent. You can also investigate the recommended programs and services yourself or talk with an advocate about them. Sometimes when you get away from the CSE setting you may be uncomfortable with the recommendations that were laid out. You can still renegotiate your child's IEP before giving consent.
Here's what you can do if you think you want to renegotiate the IEP:
Implementation are the actual changes to the educational program that is made based on the CSE’s recommendations. As noted above, the process from referral to recommendation of a program must be completed within 60 school days of your request. It is important that you as the parent keep in touch with your child or the school to be certain that all the recommended changes take place.
Schools have tons of paperwork going through the system. If you find that your child’s program has not been put in place then it is best to call the CSE Chairperson to tell them know. This should resolve the issue, but if it doesn’t then keep up the calls and don't be afraid to speak firmly. If you are still running into issues then call the State Education Department which is located in Batavia at 585-344-2112.
When reviewing your child’s recommended program as suggested by the NYS Department of Education, remember to consider the following:
Once the educational program is in place, it must be reviewed by the CSE at least once a year.
This annual meeting should include:
At this time, the CSE will review the educational program to determine if it is meeting your child’s educational needs. If your child is failing or is extremely unhappy or anxious in school then this is an excellent time to address why that might be happening. This is another good chance to use your note-keeping skill on your child’s progress.
At this meeting, you can present any information in support of whatever you feel is best for your child. If you have specific suggestions or recommendations, be sure to bring them up.
It is possible that the CSE could decide this program has met your child’s needs and there is no longer a disability that affects educational performance. This should be indicated by your child performing at or above grade level. Your child would no longer need special education if that happened. As with any other decision of the CSE, if you disagree, you may discuss it with the CSE and initiate an impartial hearing to appeal any decision with which you disagree.
There are many avenues built into the system for resolving disagreements between the parents and the CSE. Even when you have a very cooperative relationship with the CSE, disagreements happen. The best way to start trying to resolve disagreements is to contact the people who work with your child. Using a problem-solving approach will help you get the best results.
There are 5 steps you can use to solve challenges. Many parents find it helpful to write out these steps before talking with school professionals (adapted from Finding Help, Finding Hope: A guidebook to School Services for Families with a Child who has Emotional, Behavioral or Mental Disorders. W. Anderson, Federation of Families for Children’s Mental Health: 1994).
If you do not get the results you want following this process with the people who work closely with your child, don’t waste any time – go up the ladder to people with more authority. The CSE chairperson has a big say in your child’s program. This person has attended the meetings about your child and is familiar with your child, as well as able to advocate for changes in educational programs.
If this does not work, there are also several points where you can request an Impartial Hearing. If you are dissatisfied with the outcomes of meetings with the CSE Chairperson, tell the Chairperson you would like to start the hearing process.
Finally, specific information about due process rights can be found in the publication A Parent’s Guide to Special Education for Children Ages 5-21 published by the New York State Education Department and available through you local school district. It is often recommended that families consult an attorney before bringing an impartial hearing.
There are several attorneys in the Rochester area who provide this service at no cost to parents -- however, each attorney has his or her own criteria for whether your case will be accepted.
Yes! Supporting families is a core principle of System of Care and Better Days Ahead (BDA), a service of the Mental Health Association of Rochester, specializes in providing supports for families who have a child(ren) with emotional and behavioral challenges. Learn more.
Meet other family members and caregivers who gather monthly to learn about a variety of topics ranging from child behavior to understanding Medicaid and anything else related to raising a child with mental health challenges and provide input into how to change the system. Learn more.
Children and adolescents with mental health issues need to get help as soon as possible. Here is a short list but click here for a more complete list of signs and symptoms.
Models are being used for illustrative purposes only and are not personally endorsing this organization.
Comments or suggestions? Please e-mail webmaster.
Funding for this website was made possible (in part) by Grant No. SM57043 from SAMHSA and in partnership with the Monroe County Office of Mental Health. The views expressed do not necessarily reflect the official policies of the United States Department of Health and Human Services; nor does mention of trade names, commercial practices, or organizations imply endorsement by the U.S. Government.