Students who need extra help in American public schools may be eligible for special education services. Special education is a system of support for students who have learning differences and disabilities, from the elementary through secondary school level. It is mandated by federal and state law, which has been formulated around the fact that some differently-abled students are unable to access education or be academically successful without special supports and accommodations.


The law requires that students with cognitive, physical, emotional, and/or medical conditions receive special services, supports, technologies, and individualized plans for engaging the curriculum used at their schools. Special education is the system in place to meet this requirement. Special education is designed to aid students who need extra help to acquire academic knowledge and basic life skills while at school. Through plans tailored to meet specific individual needs, it helps students gain an education, while also integrating with their peers and learning to be contributing members of society.


At its core, special education is specially designed instruction that meets the unique needs of any and every child with a documented need, that must be provided at no cost to parents/guardians. So, in order to receive special education services, a student must be identified by a school or district representative as a student who requires assistance to be successful in a school environment. This is accomplished through a legally required process known as Child Find, the first step to finding children with special education needs. A teacher, parent, or doctor can document the challenges a student faces and then present a case on behalf of the student at a meeting of an admission, review, and dismissal (ARD) committee; the meeting is held to determine eligibility based on the full evaluation report. Once the student is identified as being in need of help, he or she will be designated as eligible for special education services. Following the establishment of special education eligibility, the ARD team develops a specialized plan for a student that includes individual educational goals and specific accommodations for learning.


A student may be eligible for special education services under either the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) or Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, or both. Though they are covered by different laws and work in different ways to provide support to students with learning differences and/or disabilities, the goal of both is to help students thrive in a school environment. Part two of this series on special education will be a discussion of IDEA and Section 504.

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