Coming to Terms

Navigating the maze of special education acronyms.

Families of children with special needs encounter seeming endless acronyms, such as IDEIA, ADAAA, IEP, CST, FAPE and LRE, to name just a few. Then there are the terms to know, including 504 Plan, referral, evaluation, classification and modification. Though easy to get lost in the maze of acronyms and terms, it is crucial for parents to understand the meaning of everything and appreciate how the terms fit in the overall special education framework. This understanding helps parents, teachers and experts have clear communication, and in turn work cooperatively to accommodate a child’s unique needs.

For starters, in order for a child with special needs to receive proper care and attention at school, a referral must be made. A referral is a written request indicating that a parent has concerns regarding her child and would like the school to arrange a meeting to determine what evaluations are needed. A referral is most commonly made by a child’s parents. However, a school employee or agency involved with the child may also make a referral. A referral is made to the child study team (CST) of the school district. A CST is comprised of a school psychologist, school social worker and learning disabilities teacher consultant (LDTC).

Within 20 calendar days from their receipt of the referral, the CST meets with the student’s parents and teachers to plan for the evaluations that are to be conducted and used in determining whether the student is eligible for special education and related services. Parents must be provided written notice of this meeting, which is often called the eligibility planning meeting. At the eligibility planning meeting, the child’s parents and CST discuss what evaluations seem warranted. The evaluations generally include a social history assessment, an educational evaluation and a psychological assessment. However, depending on the concerns of the parents and the CST regarding the particular student, there may also be a speech/language evaluation, an occupational therapy evaluation, a physical therapy evaluation, a psychiatric evaluation and a neuropsychological evaluation. In New Jersey, after parental consent has been received for the initial evaluation, the evaluations, determination of eligibility for services and, if eligible, development and implementation of the individualized education plan (IEP) must be completed within 90 calendar days.

After the completion of the evaluations, the CST and parents reconvene to determine whether a child is eligible for special education and related services. A student’s eligibility is determined under the Americans with Disabilities Act Amendments Act of 2008 (ADAAA) and the Individuals with Disabilities Education Improvement Act (IDEIA). A child is eligible for a 504 plan under ADAAA if he is determined to have a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits at least one major life activity. Should a child qualify under ADAAA, he is protected against discrimination on the basis of his disability, and the school district must make the accommodations necessary to ensure he is not denied access to a public education.

Alternatively, a child is deemed eligible for special education and related services under the IDEIA if the disability places the child into one of the following ten categories or classifications: mental retardation, hearing impairments, speech/language impairments, visual impairments, serious emotional disturbance, orthopedic impairments, autism, traumatic brain injury, other health impairments and specific learning disabilities. Under the IDEIA, a student with a disability is entitled to receive a free and appropriate public education (FAPE), ensuring a student may attain meaningful educational benefit. The student’s program is also to be provided in the least restrictive environment (LRE), commonly in the student’s neighborhood school that he would have attended had he not had a disability.

The IEP team works together in developing an IEP, a document specifying the student’s present levels of educational performance. An IEP addresses how the student’s disability affects him in the general education classroom, declares measurable annual goals and objectives, and reveals a statement of special education, related services and program modifications to be provided to the child. The IEP is reviewed annually by the IEP team, with re-evaluations conducted triennially. In order for the initial IEP to be put into effect, the student’s parents must sign off on the plan. All future IEPs as the result of annual review automatically take effect within 15 days, unless the student’s parents first submit their written opposition to the proposed program.

Finding your way through the maze of acronyms and terms commonly used during the IEP process can be befuddling. Take the time and care to comprehend the meaning of each term in your endeavor to successfully collaborate with your child’s school and the specialists working with your family. Open communication among parents, teachers and experts regarding a child’s needs, potential and ambition enables the development of a program from which the student derives a meaningful educational benefit.