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August 28, 2015 | 13th Elul 5775

Navigating the Special Education System for Parents - No IV, 5765

Navigating the Special Education System for Parents                          No IV, 5765

Al sh'loshah d'varim haolam omed:
Al haTorah, v'al ha-avodah, v'al g'milut chasadim.

The world depends on three things:
on Torah, on worship and on loving deeds.
- Pirkei Avot 1:2

This year each issue of V’shinantam will be on a different topic in the area of special needs and written by our consultant, Shana Erenberg, Ph.D. Shana received her doctorate from Northwestern University. For 20 years, she served as the founding director of the Keshet Sunday School for students with disabilities in Northbrook, IL and is currently the Chairman of the Department of Education at Hebrew Theological College in Chicago. She also has a private practice and serves as a consultant.

It is my passionate belief that all Jewish children are entitled to a Jewish education, regardless of need or ability. It is their birthright and our obligation.

V’shinantam is organized around the three pillars of Torah, Avodah, and G’milut Chasadim. In the Torah section you will find an overview of the topic, in Avodah, applications for your classroom, and in G’milut Chasadim additional resources.

The Process of Identifying Your Child’s Special Need

For parents with a child with special needs, navigating the special education system can be challenging and intimidating. Parents are often faced with a barrage of terms and acronyms that are confusing and diagnostic reports that are difficult to understand. Obtaining services for their child can seem like moving through an impossible, frustrating labyrinth.

It is crucial that parents are active and vocal advocates for their child with special needs. Frequently, parents will find that the school team is supportive and committed to providing the best possible services for the child. In some cases, however, parents may find themselves at loggerheads with the district over the child’s needs. In either case, parents must be familiar with special education policies and procedures to insure that their child’s unique needs will be met. Education is the key to effective advocacy.

The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) is a federal law that provides mandates for the education of students with special needs, from birth through age 21. Each state implements the IDEA in conjunction with state rules and regulations. (Readers are referred to the State Board of Education for their particular state for specific policies and procedures.) Both IDEA and state administrative codes delineate the process by which children with special needs are identified, referred for evaluation, assessed and served. Below the basic process is outlined.

The child is identified as possibly needing special education and related services, and referred for an evaluation.

By law, a state must identify, locate, and evaluate all children with disabilities in the state who need special education and related services. To do so, states conduct Child Find activities. These activities may include advertisements of services, offerings of screenings and informational meetings for parents.

In addition, parents may request that the school district conduct an initial case study if the child has special needs. This request may be verbal or in writing, but it is advisable that all requests be put in writing and dated. The school district may also refer a child for an evaluation if it is suspected that the child has special needs. Parental consent is required before a case study is conducted. The case study evaluation must be completed within a reasonable time period, usually no more than 60 school days from the time of the request.

When a child is referred for evaluation, the district may first conduct a preliminary screening, such as observation of the child, assessment for instructional purposes, consultation with the teacher or other referring agent and a conference with the child. The district will then determine whether or not a full case study evaluation is warranted. The district must notify the referring party and the parent of the decision and the basis on which it was reached.

A case study is conducted and the child is evaluated.

Each district must have written policies pertaining to the evaluation process. The case study is a multidisciplinary effort, involving specialists from a variety of professional domains. The team usually includes the school psychologist, a learning disabilities specialist, the school nurse and a social worker. Speech and language therapists as well as occupational and physical therapists may be part of the team if the student’s special needs require it. A variety of assessment tools and strategies must be used by qualified specialists, and no single measure may be used alone to determine the presence of a disability.

Tests and other materials used to evaluate a child cannot be discriminatory on a racial or cultural basis. The assessments must be administered in the child's native language or other mode of communication, unless it is clearly not feasible to do so. The tests must be technically sound and designed to assess the relative contributions of cognitive, behavioral, physical, and developmental factors; and shall be used in a manner consistent with the instructions provided by their publishers.

A multidisciplinary conference (MDC) is held to discuss the test results and determine eligibility.

Upon completion of the case study evaluation, an MDC is held to review the results with the parents. The MDC must be held no later than 60 days after the initiation of the case study process. Parents must be advised in writing of the date of the MDC, usually no less than ten days before the scheduled meeting. Each evaluator prepares a written report of the diagnostic findings and shares this information with the team. Parental input and concerns must be considered and addressed at the MDC.

The team will then determine whether or not the child is eligible for special education services. Eligibility criteria may differ from state to state. Under the IDEA, students may be eligible for special education and related services under one or more of the following categories:

  1. Autism: A developmental disability significantly affecting verbal and nonverbal communication and social interaction, generally evident before age three, that adversely affects a child’s educational performance. Other characteristics often associated with autism are engagement in repetitive activities and stereotyped movements, resistance to environmental change or change in daily routines, and unusual responses to sensory experiences. The term does not apply if a child’s educational performance is adversely affected primarily because the child has an emotional disturbance.

  1. Deaf-Blindness: Concomitant hearing and visual impairments, the combination of which causes such severe communication and other developmental and educational needs that they cannot beaccommodated in special education programs solely for children with deafness or children with blindness.

  1. Deafness: A hearing impairment that is so severe that the child is impaired in processing linguistic information through hearing, with or without amplification, that adversely affects a child’s educational performance.

  1. Emotional Disturbance (includes schizophrenia but does not apply to children who are socially maladjusted, unless it is determined that they have an emotional disturbance): A condition exhibiting one or more of the following characteristics over an extended period of time and to a marked degree that adversely affects a child’s educational performance:

1) An inability to learn that cannot be explained by intellectual, sensory, or health factors;
2) An inability to build or maintain satisfactory interpersonal relationships with peers and teachers;
3) Inappropriate types of behavior or feelings under normal circumstances;
4) A general pervasive mood of anxiety or unhappiness or depression; or
5) A tendency to develop physical symptoms or fears associated with personal or school problems.

  1. Hearing Impairment: An impairment in hearing, whether permanent or fluctuating, that adversely affects a child’s educational performance but that is not included under the definition of deafness.

  1. Mental Retardation: Significantly sub-average general intellectual functioning, existing concurrently with deficits in adaptive behavior and manifested during the developmental period, that adversely affects a child’s educational performance.

  1. Multiple Disabilities: Concomitant impairments (such as mental retardation-blindness, mental retardation-orthopedic impairment, etc.), the combination of which causes such severe educational needs that they cannot be accommodated in special education programs solely for one of the impairments (does not include deaf-blindness).

  1. Orthopedic Impairment: A severe orthopedic impairment that adversely affects a child’s educational performance; includes impairments caused by congenital anomaly (e.g., clubfoot, absence of some member, etc.), impairments caused by disease (e.g., poliomyelitis, bone tuberculosis, etc.), and impairments from other causes (e.g., cerebral palsy, amputations, and fractures or burns that cause contractures).

  1. Other Health Impairment: Limited strength, vitality or alertness, including a heightened sensitivity to environmental stimuli, that results in limited alertness with respect to the educational environment, that:

1) is due to chronic or acute health problems such as asthma, attention deficit disorder or attention deficit hyperactivity disorder,
2) diabetes, epilepsy, a heart condition, hemophilia, lead poisoning, leukemia, nephritis, rheumatic fever, and sickle cell anemia; and
3) adversely affects a child’s educational performance.

  1. Specific Learning Disability: a disorder in one or more of the basic psychological processes involved in understanding or in using language, spoken or written, that may manifest itself in an imperfect ability to listen, think, speak, read, write, spell or do mathematical calculations, including such conditions as perceptual disabilities, brain injury, minimal brain dysfunction, dyslexia and developmental aphasia. (Does not include learning problems that are primarily the result of visual, hearing or motor disabilities, mental retardation, emotional disturbance or environmental, cultural or economic disadvantage.)

  1. Speech or Language Impairment: A communication disorder, such as stuttering, impaired articulation, a language impairment or a voice impairment, that adversely affects a child’s educational performance.

  1. Traumatic Brain Injury: An acquired injury to the brain caused by an external physical force, resulting in total or partial functional disability or psychosocial impairment or both, that adversely affects a child’s educational performance. The term applies to open or closed head injuries resulting in impairments in one or more areas, such as cognition; language; memory; attention; reasoning; abstract thinking; judgment; problem-solving; sensory, perceptual, and motor abilities; psychosocial behavior; physical functions; information processing and speech. The term does not apply to brain injuries that are congenital or degenerative or to brain injuries induced by birth trauma.

  1. Visual Impairment: An impairment in vision that, even with correction, adversely affects a child’s educational performance (includes both partial sight and blindness).

The MDC can sometimes prove to be overwhelming for parents. They are hearing information about their child that may be difficult to process and accept. In addition, there are often numerous district personnel in attendance and the parents may feel “outnumbered.” Parents should know that they may bring along another individual for support. This person may be a special needs advocate, a private specialist or even a friend. (Check your community resources for low-cost or free advocacy services). In contentious cases, parents may choose to bring an attorney to the MDC. It is, however, in everyone’s best interest to keep the process as amicable as possible and for all participants to work cooperatively on behalf of the child.

If the parents disagree with the district evaluation, they have the right to take their child for an Independent Educational Evaluation (IEE). They can ask that the school system pay for this IEE.

Next Steps: IEP and Placement

If the child is determined eligible for special education, the team and parents meet to develop an Individualized Education Plan (IEP) or Individual Family Service Plan (IFSP) for younger children and determine placement.


The IEP meeting must be held within thirty days after the determination of eligibility. Usually, the IEP meeting is held immediately subsequent to the MDC. The IEP must be developed before actual placement and initiation of special education and related services. No special education and related services can be provided prior to the development of the IEP.


Parents must be notified in writing of the date and time of the IEP meeting at least ten days in advance. The meeting must be held at a mutually convenient time and place. If a parent cannot participate in the IEP meeting the district must take steps to insure that parental input is considered and the results of the meeting conveyed to the parents.


The IEP committee must be composed of at least the following:

1)     A school administrator or designee who is authorized to make and supervise
  placement decisions

2)     The child’s classroom teacher and the special education teacher

3)     Parent/legal guardian or surrogate parent

4)     The student (Although the student may opt to not participate in the IEP meeting)

5)     A member of the evaluation team or someone knowledgeable about the evaluation
  procedures used with the student and the results of the evaluation. This person is
  usually the school psychologist.

Additional participants in the IEP meeting may include:

1)     General education teacher(s)

2)     Physical, occupational and speech therapists

3)     Vocational counselors

4)     Representatives of community agencies (e.g. community service boards,
  rehabilitation counselors)

5)     Pupil personnel staff

6)     Others at the discretion of the school and/or parent


The IEP is considered to be a legal document that delineates academic goals, related services and accommodations that the child requires. It must be calibrated to convey an educational benefit for the child. The development of the IEP precedes placement decisions and cannot be designed to reflect a specific placement. The IEP is based on assessment data as well as input from parents and professionals and drives all educational decisions for the child.

The IEP must contain the following components:


  1. Present Levels of Educational Performance: A written statement that describes the student's strengths, weaknesses and learning styles in academic areas; vocational, social, behavioral, perceptual, physical, communication and/or life skills, as appropriate. This information should be current and based on relevant assessment data. 
  2. Annual Goal(s): A statement of what a student with a disability can reasonably be expected to accomplish in a year’s time in specific areas. It is written to address an area of weakness identified in the Present Level of Educational Performance.  
  3. Short-Term Objectives: Outlines the sequence of steps moving the student toward each annual goal. The objectives must be stated in behavioral, measurable terms and state what the student will accomplish. Short-term objectives include benchmarks that identify the amount of progress a student is expected to make in a given period of time.  
  4. Evaluation Criterion: The level of performance necessary for mastery of a given objective. This can be expressed in percentage of accuracy required, number of times a certain performance is required, etc. Evaluation criteria also include the means by which performance is assessed as well frequency of assessment.
  5. Special Education and Related Services: A list of all the special education and related services required by the student to benefit from the student's special education program. The determination of the special education and related services is based upon the student’s IEP goals and objectives that correlate to the student’s present level of educational performance. The IEP must specify the amount of minutes per week or month that the services will be offered as well as the personnel required to provide the services.

    Related services may include:

    1)   Speech and language therapy, occupational therapy, physical therapy, transportation and other developmental, corrective and supportive services the child may need

    2)   Social work services, counseling services, including rehabilitation counseling, and certain medical services (for diagnostic and evaluation purposes only) as may be required to assist a child with a disability to benefit from special education

    3)   Transition Services: The IEP for students beginning no later than the age of sixteen (16) and annually thereafter (and at a younger age, if determined appropriate) must contain a statement of needed transitional services. This may include a statement of the interagency responsibilities or linkages (or both) before the student leaves the school setting

    4)   Transportation, if needed

    5)   Assistive technology, as needed

  6. Accommodations: A list of accommodations including supplementary aids and services needed by the student to assist the student in both special and general education settings. Accommodations may include instructional and behavioral modifications, assessment modifications, adaptive equipment and/or assistive technology devices.
  7. Participation in General Education and Nonacademic Activities: Students with disabilities must be given the opportunity to participate with their non-disabled peers to the maximum extent appropriate in general education, nonacademic and extracurricular activities. The extent to which the student participates needs to be documented on the IEP. If a student is unable to participate in the general education curriculum, justification for this decision must be listed in the IEP.


Once the goals and services have been delineated in the IEP, a placement decision is made.


After the IEP is developed and agreed to, the next step is to determine where the student will receive the services outlined in the IEP. Placement is driven by the IEP and must provide Free and Appropriate Public Education (FAPE) in the Least Restrictive Environment (LRE). The Least Restrictive Environment requires that:

1)     The child has the opportunity to participate with typical peers in academic, nonacademic,
  and extracurricular activities unless otherwise indicated.

2)     The child is educated in a setting similar to that which the student would be served if
  he/she did not have a disability.

3)     The amount of time and the distance the student must be transported from his/her
  home is reasonable.

4)     The student is removed from the regular educational environment only when the nature
  and severity of the disability is such that education in regular classes with the use of
  supplementary aids and services cannot be achieved.

5)     Consideration is given to any potential harmful effects the placement may have on
  the student.


To assist in determining the placement, the IEP team considers a continuum of services. From least to most restrictive, placements may range from:


1)     Direct instruction and/or consultative services within the regular classroom

2)     Resource room services for less than 50% of the school day

3)     Resource room services for more than 50% of the school day

4)     A self contained class (within the home school or elsewhere),
  with integration with typical peers as appropriate

5)     A self-contained class without integration

6)     Separate public day school for students with disabilities

7)     Separate private day school for students with disabilities

8)     Public and private residential facilities

9)     Homebound services

10)   Hospitalization

The team must consider and discuss more than one placement option. Placement options are then either rejected or accepted. A justification statement for each decision must be included in the IEP.


If the school district is unable to provide FAPE in the LRE for the child, it is required to fund a private placement. The standard that is generally applied is reflected in the analogy that the school must provide a “serviceable Chevy” rather than a “Cadillac” for educational placements. Parents always have the option of unilateral placement of their child in a “Cadillac” school, however, if the district has viable placement options it will not be required to pay for the private placement.


If the parents agree to the IEP and placement recommendations, services must commence within ten days. Parents can waive the ten day requirement so that services can begin sooner.


Parents must be given their rights at the MDC/IEP meeting, including the right to due process if they do not agree with the team’s decision.


At each MDC/IEP meeting, parents must be given a written copy of their rights under IDEA. These rights include due process procedures that can be applied should there be a disagreement regarding the evaluation, IEP or placement. Due process refers to a legal option that parents of a child with special needs may pursue if the student’s needs are not being met. The parents and school district will present the issue along with documentary evidence to an impartial hearing officer, who will rule on the matter. Parents should refer to an attorney or special education advocate before filing for due process to ascertain that proper procedures are followed. While advisable, an attorney or advocate is not required for a parent to file due process. A school district also has the right to file due process.


Parents who seek to file due process have the option to request mediation. The mediation process is an intermediate step in attempt to reconcile the issues prior to a due process hearing. Mediation is not binding on either party.


While due process is an important right for children with special needs, it can be emotionally draining and time consuming for parents. In addition, if the parent engages an attorney and experts, the process can be financially burdensome (although there is a provision for the recovery of fees for the prevailing party). As such, due process should not be taken lightly nor filed for frivolous issues. It is always preferable for the parents and school district to come to a mutually acceptable agreement that will provide an educational benefit for the child. That caveat being noted, parents should not hesitate to exercise their right to due process for significant issues pertaining to their child’s education. If a parent files a due process request, the IEP and current placement remain in place until the matter is resolved. This process is known as “stay put.”


At a minimum, the IEP must be reviewed annually.


The IEP team reconvenes with the parents to review progress made by the student toward the goals. New goals will be written for the following school year. The team, including the parents, will also review the child’s strengths and continued needs. Determinations may be made regarding the need to increase, decrease or maintain special education and related services for the child. These changes cannot be implemented without parental consent.While the district must formally review and update the IEP annually, parents may request that progress meetings be held periodically throughout the year. The child may be included in the review process if appropriate.


Every three years following the initial evaluation in which a child was found to have disabilities requiring special education and related services, the school district must re-evaluate the student. All of the same policies, procedures and safeguards from the initial assessment apply to the triennial reevaluation.



Tomey, Harley A. Individualized Education Program: The Process. Virginia Department of Education


Special Education Law in Illinois



Additional Resources


Glossary of Acronyms

CEC: Council for Exceptional Children

CSE: Case Study Evaluation

FAPE: Free and Appropriate Public Education

FERPA: Federal Education Records Privacy Act

IEP: Individual Education Plan

ISFP: Individual Family Service Plan

IDEA: Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (Reauthorized 04-05)

LDA: Learning Disabilities Association

LEA: Local Educational Agency

LRE: Least Restrictive Environment

MDC: Multidisciplinary Conference

NCLB: No Child Left Behind




My Child’s Special Needs: A Guide to the Individualized Education Program


IEP/CSE Information and Forms


General Information


A Guide to the Individualized Education Program, U.S. Department of Education

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