Special Education overview

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Massachusetts Law Reform Institute, Justice Center of Southeastern Massachusetts, and Massachusetts Advocates for Children

Is your child struggling at school? “Struggling” includes having trouble:

  • understanding assignments, 
  • completing assignments, 
  • paying attention in class, 
  • staying organized, 
  • making friends, or 
  • behaving appropriately. 

If your child is struggling, an evaluation can show if accommodations, special education, or both can help.

What are accommodations?

Accommodations let a child "access the general education curriculum."

Accommodations are changes that make it possible for your child to learn the same things other students in their grade are learning. Accommodations do not change what your child learns, but may change how they learn the material or show what they know.

Accommodations can be: 

  • getting more time to take tests, 
  • sitting closer to the teacher, 
  • being able to use notes, 
  • breaks to take a walk, or 
  • being able to use a calculator.
What are specially designed instruction and related services?

Special education includes “specially designed instruction” and “related services.”

Specially designed instruction means teachers change the way they teach your child to meet your child’s needs. They may also change the content they teach your child.

Related services are services like speech and language, physical, and occupational therapy, counseling and transportation.

To get accommodations or special education services, your child needs an Individualized Education Program (IEP) or a Section 504 Plan.

How much will accommodations or special education services cost me?

If your child needs accommodations, special education, or related services, the school district must provide them for free.

How do I get accommodations or special education services for my child?

If you are worried about your child’s academic, social, emotional, or physical development, ask the school to test your child. Your child must be found “eligible” to get accommodations or special education. They need an evaluation to find out if they are eligible.

Give the school a “request for an evaluation” letter. Give the letter to the Special Education coordinator at your child’s school or the principal. Download a sample “request for an evaluation” letter (Word document).

The school can only do an evaluation after you sign their “consent form.” After you ask for an evaluation, they will send you the consent form. The results of the evaluation should show if your child needs accommodations, or special education services, or both.

If your child is eligible, the school will work with you to write a 504 Plan or an IEP. It describes the accommodations, services, and supports your child will get. Learn more about 504 Plans and IEPs.

If your child attends a private school, or you are homeschooling, your public school district must evaluate your child. Based on that evaluation, the school district decides if your child is eligible for special education. If your child is eligible, the district will provide services for your child.

How long does the evaluation process take?
Flow chart. Request an evaluation, arrow reading "5 school days", Receive consent form from school district, arrow, Return signed consent form, two arrows with one reading "30" that points to "Evaluate your child", the other arrow says "45" and points to "Have team meeting"
Flow chart with the steps to follow after you request an evaluation.

The evaluation process takes 45 school days, about 2 ½ months.

After you ask the school district to evaluate your child, they must give you a “consent form” within 5 school days.

After you fill out and return the consent form they must do the evaluation within 30 school days.

They must hold a team meeting to discuss the evaluation within 15 school days after the tests are done.

They must give you copies of the evaluation report at least 2 days before the team meeting, if you ask for them. It is important to remember to ask the school for copies of the evaluation report.

If the school finds your child eligible, your child may get an Individualized Education Program (IEP) or a 504 Plan. The rules for eligibility are different for the 2 plans.

What is on an evaluation consent form?
For Example

If you think your child has trouble communicating, you may ask for a speech and language assessment.

If you think your child has trouble with anger or making friends, you may ask for an assessment that will look at their social and emotional needs.

The consent form lists the tests the school plans to do. They call the tests "assessments." The consent form must include an “education assessment.” An education assessment describes your child's:

  • educational progress,
  • attention skills,
  • participation in class,
  • memory, and
  • social relationships with peers and adults.

It also describes your child's educational and developmental “potential” or the goals your child should be able to reach.

The education assessment tests:

  • to see if your child is struggling to make progress in school,
  • for reasons why your child is struggling, and
  • to get a better understanding of your child's "potential" or the goals they should be able to reach. 

The consent form must also list any other assessments the school wants to do. 

The school must test for all disability-related needs they think your child has. For example, if they think your child may have dyslexia they should test for it. 

You can also ask the school for other tests.

Can the school test my child if they do not ask me first, or if I do not agree?

The school district can only test your child if you agree. They can only do a test if you sign a consent form.

The consent form asks you to agree to an evaluation. The form lists the tests the school plans to do. On the consent form, you can agree to all the tests that the school proposes or you can agree to only some of them.

What can I do for my child who is getting bullied, harassed, or teased?

Other children or school staff members should not bully your child. The school must make sure that your child is safe and comfortable so that they can learn.

Report the bullying to the school principal. Some schools have a special staff member to whom you can report bullying.

Teachers and school staff must be trained to respond to bullying.

Your child’s school must take steps to protect your child. And the school must tell you what they are doing to stop the bullying.

Every public school in Massachusetts must have a bullying prevention plan. Find the plan on the school district’s website, or ask a school administrator for a copy of the plan. This plan must:

  • Define bullying;
  • Explain how to report bullying, and how it can be done anonymously.
  • Explain how the school responds to reports of bullying.
  • Describe procedures to notify the parents of both the victim and the child who bullies.
  • Explain how the school investigates reports of bullying.
  • Explain how the school plans to protect students who report bullying.
  • Describe the ways the school may discipline children who bully. And,
  • Explain that they provide counseling or referrals for victims and children who bully them.

Your child’s IEP team must consider bullying every year when they write the IEP. The IEP must lay out ways to teach your child the skills they need to avoid and respond to bullying, if:

  • Your child’s disability affects their social skills, or
  • They have a disability that makes them likely to be bullied, harassed or teased, or to bully others, or
  • Your child is on the autism spectrum.

If your child is a bully because of their disability, their IEP should include goals and objectives to end the bullying.

See the Mass Advocates for Children Bullying Fact Sheet.

Can my child get special transportation?

Your child can get special transportation if:

  • they need it because of their disability, and
  • they need the special transportation to get to their special education.

For example

Your child’s IEP might say “special door-to-door transportation” with a “bus monitor,” or special equipment like a special seat or seat belt.

If your child does not need special transportation, they will get the same transportation as the other students in their school district.

Will my child need to go to a special school?

The school’s goal is to teach your child and provide services in the general education classroom with their peers as much as possible. This is the “least restrictive environment” (LRE). 

Your child has the right to stay, as much as possible, in a classroom with their peers who do not have disabilities. Your child should stay in the general education classroom if the school can meet your child’s needs with extra supports and services. The school should only move your child out of the classroom if the school cannot meet your child’s needs in the classroom. Your child should spend as little time as possible outside of the general education classroom. 

The physical space where your child learns is their “placement.” Some examples of placement are:

  • Full inclusion: Your child spends at least 80% of their time in the general education classroom.
  • Partial inclusion: Your child spends 40% to 79% of the time in the general education classroom. 21%-60% of their time your child is taught in a smaller, separate classroom with other students with disabilities.
  • Substantially separate: Your child spends less than 40% of the time in a general education classroom. Most of the time your child is taught in a smaller, separate classroom with other students with disabilities.
  • Separate day school: Your child goes to a different school that only serves students with disabilities.
  • Residential school: Your child lives at a school where they get special education around the clock.
Does the school have to do anything different if my child is on the autism spectrum?

If your child is on the autism spectrum, the IEP Team must consider things that are specific to children on the autism spectrum. When they are developing the child’s IEP they must consider your child’s:

  •  Verbal and nonverbal communication skills,
  • Social interaction skills,
  • Ability to avoid and respond to bullying,
  • Responses to sensory experiences,
  • Ability to adapt to change in their routine or their surroundings like moving from one room to another or a change in class schedule, or if there is a change in class time,
  • Repetitive activities and “stereotyped movements” like hand-flapping and rocking,
  • Response to positive behavioral interventions, and
  • Other needs so that they can make progress in school and their social and emotional development.
Is there anyone I can talk with about special education for my child?

A Parent Advisory Council (PAC) brings parents of students with disabilities together to learn and talk about things they have in common. Each school district must have a PAC.

Your local PAC meets with the school committee to talk about the education of students with disabilities in the district. You can become involved. Attend a PAC meeting to meet other parents and learn about bigger issues in the school district that may affect your child’s education.

Your school should have a special education coordinator you can talk to.

You can also talk to a special education advocate or lawyer

If you have a specific question about laws or regulations, or if you believe the school is doing something they should not do, you can fill out an online complaint with the Problem Resolution System. Call the Problem Resolution System office (which used to be called the Program Quality Assurance office) of the Massachusetts Department of Education at 781-338-3700.

What if my child is an English learner and needs special education?

If your child is an English Learner, and you think they may have a disability that is getting in the way of their progress in school, ask the school for a “bilingual” evaluation. “Bilingual” means in English and the language that your child speaks at home.

If the school district decides your child is eligible for an IEP or a 504 Plan, they should still give your child English Learner Services and Instruction. Your child has a right to the services they need in both areas.

Resource Boxes
More Resources
Videos: Special Education Rights
School_Special Education_MAC videos

Massachusetts Advocates for Children (MAC)'s Special Education Rights Video Series helps parents understand their rights and what to do if these rights are violated. 

Sample Letters and Emails
School_Special Education_MAC_sample letters

Use MAC's templates and sample letters to request records, evaluations, copies of evaluations, and independent evaluations.

For Immigrants and Spanish-Speakers
School_Special Education_MAC_immigrant_language resources

Immigrant Student and Parent Rights at School - English-Spanish Bilingual Flyer by the Education Law Task Force

Resources in Spanish - Massachusetts Advocates for Children (MAC)


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