Special Education Processes

On this page we will define and explain the processes surrounding Special Education, including who qualifies for Special Education, and what services it provides. For more information on Special Education regulations, laws, and terms, see our Special Education page.

Referral/Child Find

The school district is required to have a procedure for finding children with disabilities. Either a parent or school personnel may refer a child to be evaluated to see if Special Education services are needed. Referral of a child for evaluation may be formal or informal.
The parents will be part of the team that makes decisions about the child’s educational program. It is important for parents to become real partners in the process of making the decisions about their children. The information that a parent can share is very important to the school. It is also important for parents to understand and respect the point of view of the school personnel. By treating each other with mutual respect and working together, parents and school personnel can more effectively develop an appropriate program for the child.

Evaluation (Assessment)

Evaluation to determine eligibility for Special Education is a process of gathering information about the child that will be used in decisions about whether the child is eligible for services and under which disability category the child should be served. This information also helps determine the strengths and needs of the child that will be considered in decisions about the services the child needs. Parents must give permission for the evaluation to take place.
The evaluation should be appropriate for the child and conform to a number of legal requirements that are listed in the law. Parents will be better able to participate in the IEP process if they understand the results of the evaluation. If parents disagree with the results of the evaluation, they may request an independent evaluation (testing given by someone outside the school district) at the school district’s expense, within certain guidelines.
Some children who do not qualify for Special Education may be eligible for services under Section 504, an act that protects the rights of individuals with disabilities. A section 504 plan is developed by a team that includes the student’s parents, and can provide the student with necessary accommodations or services.

Eligibility (Classification)

The team (including the parents) reviews the data from the evaluation and decides if the child qualifies in one of the categories that are served in Special Education. The requirements for each category are determined by federal and state law.
According to IDEA 2004, a “child with a disability” is a child who has one or more of the disabilities listed below, has a disability which adversely affects the student's educational performance, and needs specialized instruction and/or related services to benefit from his/her education. It is possible for a child to have a disability and not be eligible for specialized instruction. Disabilities covered by Special Education include:
  • Autism
  • Deaf/blindness
  • Emotional disturbance
  • Hearing impairment/deafness
  • Intellectual disability
  • Multiple disabilities
  • Orthopedic impairment
  • Other health impairment (such as asthma, attention deficit disorder, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, diabetes, epilepsy, a heart condition, hemophilia, lead poisoning, leukemia, nephritis, rheumatic fever, sickle cell anemia, Tourette syndrome, and some kinds of acquired brain injuries, etc.)
  • Specific learning disability
  • Speech/language impairment
  • Traumatic brain injury
  • Visual impairment (including blindness)
  • Developmental delay (ages 3 - 7 only)
School districts may choose to use the Developmental delay category (which is used in Early Intervention age 0-3) for children ages 3-7 instead of another category if the child meets the eligibility criteria.
Significant changes were made in IDEA 2004 regarding the identification of students with specific learning disabilities. A local education agency (LEA) may use one of two methods, or a combination of both, to determine a student’s eligibility.
  1. A process based on the student response to scientific, research-based intervention.
  2. Identification of a severe discrepancy between intellectual ability and achievement.
  3. A combination of these.

Individualized Education Plan (IEP)

The Special Education process is designed to make sure that each child with a disability will have an education that is individualized to meet his or her needs. The Individualized Education Plan (IEP) is a written plan developed by an IEP team that includes the child’s parents or guardian.

IEP Meeting

The team (including parents) meets to develop an appropriate program for serving the child. In the team meeting, the student’s educational needs are discussed. The team sets measurable annual goals and short term objectives. Based on the goals, they decide how to best meet the child’s educational needs, including what Special Education and related services and supportive services will be provided. A number of other factors related to the child’s education must also be considered. The IEP sets forth in writing a commitment of the resources necessary to serve the child. The IEP also serves as an evaluation device and can be modified at any time. The team can reconvene whenever necessary.


The team (including parents) decides upon the placement of the child based upon the program agreed upon in the IEP meeting. The team determines where the services can be delivered. The student must be served in the Least Restrictive Environment (LRE) appropriate for that child.

Annual Review

The team (including parents) meets to evaluate the child’s total program and progress at least yearly. The review meeting is also an opportunity to update the IEP and set new goals. If the team determines that the child no longer qualifies for Special Education, the child will not continue with the IEP process.

Due Process Rights

Parents have a right to disagree with the rest of the IEP team at any point in the process, and they have a number of due process (legal) rights, including mediation, that are outlined in the law. These rights are explained in detail in the parents’ rights statement that the school provides.


No later than age 14, the team must include a statement of transition services needed to help the student move from school to post-school activities. Transition services must be provided starting at age sixteen. Identified students with disabilities receive special education and related services in accordance with the Individuals with Disabilities Improvement Education Act (IDEA) through age 22.


Information & Support

For Parents and Patients

Center for Parent Information and Resources (DOE)
Parent centers in every state provide training to parents of children with disabilities and provide information about special education, transition to adulthood, health care, support groups, local conferences and other federal, state, and local services. See the "Find Your Parent Center Link" to find the parent center in your state; Department of Education, Office of Special Education.

Parental Rights under IDEA
For the majority of parents, the most relevant procedural safeguards under IDEA are identified on the Center for Parent Information & Resources website. Dated Oct. 5, 2017. Also in Spanish.

IDEA Parent Guide (National Center for Learning Disabilities) (PDF Document 1.1 MB)
A comprehensive guide for parents on rights and responsibilities under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA 2004). Helps parents determine if their child might be eligible for services, what kind of services to expect, how to request an evaluation, how to develop a plan for services, and what their legal rights are. (105 pages, 2014)

Sample Individualized Health Plan (IHP)
Read a sample IHP at the PACER Center website. An IHP has important information about the child's health care needs while in school, and is created by the family, school nurse, and health care providers.

National Center on Secondary Education and Transition
This easy-to-use website provides information about transition during high school and to opportunities after high school including jobs, vocational education, and college. Provides links to contacts in each state for State Transition Contact, Regional Resource Center Contact, State Director of Special Education, Part B Contact, and State Director or Vocational Rehabilitation.

Services for Patients & Families in Idaho (ID)

For services not listed above, browse our Services categories or search our database.

* number of provider listings may vary by how states categorize services, whether providers are listed by organization or individual, how services are organized in the state, and other factors; Nationwide (NW) providers are generally limited to web-based services, provider locator services, and organizations that serve children from across the nation.

Authors & Reviewers

Initial publication: July 2013; last update/revision: May 2019
Current Authors and Reviewers:
Author: Gina Pola-Money
Reviewers: Shena McAuliffe, MFA
Tina Persels
Funding: The Medical Home Portal thanks Utah Parent Center for their contribution to this page.