Special Education: What Parents Need to Know

The way that special education services are delivered is based on a federal law called The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). There are many purposes of this law. The most important being that children with disabilities receive a free and appropriate education designed to meet their unique needs to prepare them for further education, employment and independent living. The law was written to ensure that the rights of children and parents are protected. 

This course will provide you with information you need to more effectively advocate for your child within the public school system.

Who is on my child's team?

The Legal Required IEP Team Members


Your Opinion Matters!

Parents are equal participants on the IEP team.

  1. Write down any questions or concerns you have before the meeting.
  2. Review any progress reports or drafts that the school provides prior to the meeting.
  3. If you have any reports from private providers you would like the team to consider, share them prior to the meeting.
  4. During the meeting ask school personnel to explain any terms, language, or statements that are unclear. 
  5. Do your best to stay focused, and maintain a positive attitude during meetings. 
  6. Meetings are held at least annually, but you can request a meeting at anytime if you have concerns you would like the team to address. 

General Education Teacher

Not Always...

The law does include language that a general education teacher is only a required team member if the child is, or may be, participating in the general education environment. If a child is not and likely will not participate in the general education environment, she/he is not required to attend. 

Special Education Teacher


All IEP meetings should include at least one special education teacher OR a special education provider. Special education providers include speech and language pathologists (SLPs), occupational therapists (OTs), physical therapists (PTs), and other school staff members that are responsible for implementing a student's IEP. 

Representative of the Local Educational Agency (LEA)

Often Makes the Final Decision

This person is often a Special Education Director or Assistant Director. Sometimes, however, a school administrator such as a principal or a school psychologist will fill this role in a meeting. This person has three roles defined by the law:

  1. They are qualified to provide, or supervise others that provide, instruction that has been specially designed to meet the unique needs of individual students.
  2. They understand the general education curriculum.
  3. They know the district resources that are available AND are able to commit to providing resources to individual students.

That third role is really important. It basically means that if the LEA agrees that the district will provide a service, then it will be provided. The district shouldn't call parents a few days later saying that they actually can't provide something they agreed to at a meeting. This is why they are often seen as the final decision maker. 

Individual who can interpret evaluation results

Not Always ANOTHER Person

It is a legal requirement that someone attends the meeting who can explain evaluation results. Often this is the special education providers. Sometimes, someone like a school psychologist will also attend the meeting if they have done evaluations with the student. 

Other individuals with knowledge or expertise regarding the student

Almost Anyone the Parent Wants!

Schools are legally required to allow people to attend the meeting who have knowledge of or expertise with the student. This can be anyone you want there with you. This includes but is not limited to:

  • Friends or family members
  • A leader of an extracurricular activity your child is in
  • A therapist from outside of school
  • An advocate
  • A health-care provider

IEP meetings can be overwhelming. It is a good idea to ask someone to come to the meeting with you as a support person. 


When Appropriate

Most teams start involving students more and more in the IEP meetings in middle school (around age 14). However, if appropriate, a child can participate at any age for all or part of the IEP meeting. 

Click on each team member from the school to read about their role:

Important Note:

Team members can be excused from the meeting only if the parent and school agree in writing. If you agree to excuse a team member, that person should still give written input to the team.

School Staff Contact - Situation #1

Your son is receiving special education services for reading, among other needs. Your child is crying over his reading homework every night. You are concerned that the work being sent home is too difficult for your child because he needs a lot of support from you to complete the assignments.  Which staff member should you contact first?

  • General Education Teacher
  • Principal
  • Special Education Teacher

School Staff Contact - Situation #2

Your son is 7. He has developmental delays and an IEP at school. Your daughter is 9 and attends the same school, but does not have an IEP. Last night she confided in you that she wants to go to a new school because some kids in her class were making fun of her little brother. She doesn't want anyone to know they are siblings. She also told you she thinks she is the worst sister ever for feeling this way. You reassured her that she is not the worst sister ever, and that you would help her. Who can you contact to help both of your children?

  • His special education teacher
  • Her general education teacher
  • The school social worker

School Staff Contact - Situation #3

Your son's IEP states that he will have 30 minutes of speech therapy a week. The school's speech therapist is out on maternity leave. It just came to your attention that your son has not had any speech therapy since she left over a month ago. Who should you contact?

  • Special Education Assistant Director
  • Superintendent
  • Principal

Basic Special Education Process

Eligibility Flow Chart

From the Illinois State Board of Education

This flow chart is a great quick overview of the process that schools are required to follow to determine special education services and supports for a student. 

This section of the training is going to focus on this process and how parents can participate in each step along the way. This PDF created by the Illinois State Board of Education is a great resource to print out as a quick reference. 

Initial Eligibility Flow Chart

How it begins...

Request an Evaluation for Special Education Services

As a parent you have the right to request an evaluation for special education services. It is always recommended that this type of request is done in writing. This does not have to be a letter sent in certified mail or anything. An email counts as "putting your request in writing". 

The legal timeline is that the school has 10 school days to respond to this letter, but often they respond sooner. They can respond by either scheduling a meeting to discuss what evaluations they need to make the determination, or by explaining in writing why they are denying an evaluation at this time. 

Below is a sample letter. Feel free to copy and edit this letter if you would like to make this type of request. Email your request for an evaluation for special education services to your child's teacher and principal. 

Sample Parent Letter

To whom it may concern,

I am reaching out to you today regarding my daughter Makayla. I just received her report card. Her teacher noted that despite interventions, she has not made expected progress in reading this quarter. Additionally in the emotional development section her teacher noted that she has been struggling to solve disagreements with peers. I am requesting that she is evaluated for special education services at this time. 

I look forward to hearing from you soon. I understand that if you agree to this request we will need to meet to discuss what evaluations are needed. I am available to meet anytime during school hours on Wednesdays. I can be reached either via email or phone at 123-456-7890.


Stephanie Smith--

Who can request that a child is evaluated for special education services?

  • Parent or Legal Guardian
  • General Education Teacher
  • Service Coordinator from a local Non-Profit
  • Principal
  • Social Worker
  • Child's Pediatrician
  • Child's Therapist Outside of School

Decision to Proceed

District Responds to the Request

The district can respond in a variety of ways, but must respond within 14 school days. If the district determines an evaluation is warranted a meeting will be scheduled with the parents. It will be explained that the purpose of the meeting will be to discuss what types of evaluations are needed to determine if a student is eligible for special education services. 

If the district is denying the evaluation request they must do so in writing. In this written denial they must provide their reasoning for not completing evaluations at this time. If the request is denied the district must also inform parents of their right to request a due process hearing to challenge the decision. 

Domain Meeting

Planning Evaluations

The first meeting you will have is a Domain meeting. This is just a fancy way of saying a meeting to talk about what areas the family and school district feel they need more information about. Those areas are called the domains. The domains that schools can evaluate include:

  • Academic Performance
  • Health
  • Vision
  • Hearing
  • Social & Emotional Status
  • Communication
  • Motor Abilities
  • General Intelligence
  • Functional Performance
  • Other areas as needed

Save and/or print out this PDF to use to prepare for a domain meeting. Remember that you will have a domain meeting at the very beginning of the process, but also every three years when the team has to reestablish eligibility by going through the process again to ensure they are meeting a student's needs. 

Preparing for a Domain Meeting

If the district agrees to do evaluations, then the child will start receiving special education services right away.

  • True
  • False

Evaluation Window

60 School Days...

Beginning the day that you sign consent to evaluations - generally at the domain meeting - the clock starts ticking. The school district has to schedule the meeting to review the evaluations on or before 60 school days from the day consent is given. 

Eligibility Conference & IEP

The Big Meeting

An eligibility meeting will be scheduled. At this time the school team will share their evaluation results. If you have any reports you would like the team to consider (perhaps from a doctor or private therapist) provide them to the school team at least two weeks in advance.

If the team decides your child is eligible for services they will have to decide how they are eligible from a list of 14 categories that are defined by federal law. Watch the YouTube video below from Your Special Education Rights if you want to learn more about the difference between a diagnosis and eligibility. Below the video you will find a link from the Illinois State Board of Education website explaining the 12 disability eligibility category options in special education. 

If eligible, the team will also develop an IEP (individualized education plan).  Sometimes this is done at the same meeting that eligibility is determined, and in other situations the team decides to reconvene to develop the IEP. The parts of the IEP will be discussed in the next section of this course. 

Eligibility - Situation #1

Abby is 8 years old and in third grade. School has never been easy for her, but she works hard and has done okay until this year. She meets with a tutor once a week at a local library to work on reading. Her mom took her to the pediatrician because she has been complaining of stomach aches, but there was no medical explanation for them. Abby has been struggling with friendships recently.  Abby always does her homework, but often forgets to turn it in. The team agrees that special education supports and services are appropriate after completing evaluations. Which of the following three eligibility categories is the team most likely to discuss as a possibility for Abby?

  • Other Health Impairment
  • Specific Learning Disability
  • Developmental Delay

Ongoing Eligibility

Annual IEP Meetings 

The IEP team will meet annually. The discussion will generally start by each team member sharing present levels of functioning, or how the student is doing. The team will also propose their goals for the student. The amount of time they believe they will need to accomplish these goals and what the student's placement will be discussed as well. 

3-Year Re-Determination

Every 3 years the team will have a "Domain Meeting". At this meeting, parents give consent to the school team to complete a variety of evaluations. After that meeting the school team will have 60 school days to reconvene, discuss the evaluations, and write a new IEP. These IEP meetings are generally much longer than the non-re-determination IEP meetings. 

More when needed!

Annual meetings and 3-year re-determinations are the minimum of what is required by law. If anyone on the IEP team (which includes either the school team or the family) feels a meeting is needed they can be scheduled more frequently. If you would like to call an IEP meeting it is best to do so in writing simply stating that you would like an IEP meeting and why you feel a meeting is needed at this time. 

What if I disagree with the school's evaluations?

You have a few options:

  • Document the specific results and sections of evaluations that you feel are inaccurate and explain why in writing. Send it to the LEA and request that it is attached to the eligibility paperwork as documentation of your input. 
  • You can request an Independent Educational Evaluation (IEE) at the public expense. This needs to be requested before any independent testing is done. You can initiate an IEE by writing to the LEA. In your email or letter make sure you state exactly why you feel an IEE is needed. 
  • Take your child for a private evaluation paid for either out of pocket or utilizing their health insurance coverage. This way you have more control over who sees the test results depending on the outcome. Additionally, whoever is evaluating your child is more neutral as they are not being paid by the school district. 
  • You can request mediation, file for due process, or file a complaint with the State Board of Education. These options will be covered in more detail later on in this course. 

Eligibility - Situation #2

Samuel was adopted when he was an infant. He received early intervention services at home until he was three. He attended preschool and kindergarten with an IEP eligibility of developmental delay. He is now going into first grade and was diagnosed last year with a rare genetic syndrome. His parents just had his 3-year re-determination of eligibility meeting. They provided the school with documentation of his medical diagnosis three weeks before the eligibility meeting. The school changed his eligibility to an intellectual disability. The family is upset and wants the school to list his eligibility as his medical diagnosis and not intellectual disability. 

  • The school should list his genetic syndrome as his eligibility for special education services
  • In the health domain his medical diagnosis should be noted and explained, but it can't be his eligibility
  • Due to confidentiality laws the school can not consider any input from medical professionals when considering eligibility

How can parents participate in the process?

Your Input is Important

  1. Prepare for meetings by making a list of your child's strengths and your concerns. Ask that the team does evaluations or provide support in the areas you are concerned about. Consider using the PDFs in this training to help you prepare. Bring your notes with you to the meeting so you don't forget any important points you wanted addressed.
  2. Consider taking notes during the meeting if it will help you stay focused on the conversation and remember any key points you want to check to insure they are documented in the official notes.
  3. If you have difficulty speaking or understanding English tell the school. They are mandated to provide an interpreter or translator for the meeting if you request it. 
  4. Ask any professionals that see your child outside of school if they have any input. If they do, ask them to put it in writing if they are unable to attend the meeting in person.  Share it with the school team as soon as possible so they have time to review the outside provider's input prior to the meeting. 
  5. Invite other people to the meeting who might help you feel more comfortable or who have important information to share about your child. Let the school know who you invited. Consider asking someone to attend to take notes for you so you can focus on the conversation. 
  6. Ask lots of questions! It is okay to not understand all the terminology that is being used. Sometimes school teams fall into speaking their own language. Politely interrupt and say something like "Excuse me, you said something about ____, but I am not quite sure what that means. Can you clarify please?". 
  7. If you disagree with anything that occurs, write a statement explaining your disagreements. Send it to the LEA and state that you would like it attached to the Eligibility or IEP to document your concerns about the plan.

Remember that one of the purposes of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) is to "ensure that the rights of children with disabilities and their parents are protected". Parents are an important participant in the special education process. 

Understanding Data

Different Types of Tests

Understanding the Type of Test

Decisions in education are often based off of data. Understanding the data will go a long way in helping you to advocate for your child. The tests used to determine eligibility are often a type of test called a norm-referenced test. Watch this fantastic YouTube video from Teachings in Education to better understand what norm-referenced tests are. 


Percent vs. Percentile

These two terms are very easy to confuse. On a classroom criterion-referenced test, the score at the top of the page is the percent of questions that the child answered correctly. However a norm-referenced test score is often reported as a percentile. A percentile is the percentage of students that your child's score was the same as or higher than. Most students score between the 16th and 84th percentile. Any test results below that range should be discussed as potential areas for growth.

How in the world am I going to remember that?!

You don't have to. Print out this document and bring it with you to refer to during any meetings with the school teams. 

Understanding Your Child's Test Scores

Interpreting Test Results - Scenario #1

WISC-V Subtest Score Summary 

Wechsler Intelligence Scale for Children - Fifth Edition (WISC-V) is an assessment commonly used to assess children in the intellectual domain area when establishing special education eligibility. Look at the percentile scores in the sample results below. 

Select the subtests that show a below average percentile that should be discussed by the team. 

  • Similarities
  • Vocabulary
  • Information
  • Comprehension
  • Block Design
  • Visual Puzzles
  • Matrix Reasoning
  • Figure Weights
  • Picture Concepts
  • Arithmetic
  • Digit Span
  • Picture Span
  • Letter-Number Sequence
  • Coding
  • Symbol Search
  • Cancellation

Interpreting Test Results - Scenario #2

MAP Scores

Measures of Academic Progress (MAP) is a commonly used assessment in many school districts. Look at the chart below and find the column with the percentile range. This test is given 2-3 times per school year. The center number is the students actual score and the numbers on either side are the test creator's prediction of the lowest and highest percentile the student would score depending on the questions they get on this computer based test. For the purpose of this question look at the lowest percentile in the range listed

What grades did this student have a percentile range (lowest number in the range) below average in either the fall, winter, or spring testing term?

  • 9th Grade
  • 8th Grade
  • 7th Grade
  • 6th Grade
  • 5th Grade
  • 4th Grade
  • 3rd Grade

Reading Levels

Focus on Literacy

So much of modern education is focused on developing children's reading skills. There are may different reading programs used by schools to address children's needs. Many of these reading programs utilize different leveling systems to help explain where a student is within the scope of the program. This PDF can be found on the Washington Secretary of State website. This chart was designed for librarians. However, it is a valuable reference for parents to gain a better understanding of their child's reading level, regardless of the program used. 

readingchart Washington Secretary of State

Interpreting Test Results - Scenario #3

Use the reading level correlation chart to answer the following question:

A student is just starting 3rd grade. At the IEP meeting the team shared that last year the student went from a Fountas-Pinnell reading level C to an H. Should this child continue to receive special education services in the area of reading?

  • Yes
  • No

Sections of an IEP

Preparing for an IEP Meeting

Preparing for an IEP Meeting

Once a child qualifies for special education, there will be annual IEP meetings. During these meetings lots of information will be covered. As part of the IEP team, your input as a parent is important. 

  1. Consider inviting someone to come to the meeting with you (a friend, your child's coach or scout leader, a family member... anyone who can be there to support you). 
  2. All the school staff members will have prepared information and ideas to share with you. Take some time to make some notes of what you want to share with them, too! Use the PDF below to help you prepare for the meeting.
  3. Meetings are held at least annually. If you feel a meeting is needed to make changes to the IEP at any time during the school year, send an email explaining why and ask for a meeting to be scheduled.

IEP Preparation Note Sheet

Important Sections of the IEP

Present Levels

Every IEP meeting will start with the school staff sharing a student's present levels. Any recent evaluations (such as district-wide assessments such as AIMS Web, MAP or iReady), current grades (if appropriate), work completion, general teacher observations, and any information the team feels is relevant may be presented to help understand a student's current strengths and needs at school. 

Parent Concerns

Know that this section of the IEP exists. Be prepared to be asked your concerns. Take some time before the meeting to write down your biggest concerns. Bring this list with you so you don't forget to mention any of them.

Goals and Benchmarks

The team will come with goals to propose to you. If there is something you would like the team to work on with your child, it is okay to request goals! Goals will be covered in more depth later in this training. 

Special Education, General Education, and Related Service Minutes

Often this is simply called the minutes section. The team will take time to discuss what services are needed and how they will be provided to meet the goals. Minutes can be discussed as being provided either in the general or special education environment - sometimes called "pushed in" or "pulled out" services. They will also discuss if their minutes will be spent directly with the student or provided by consulting with other staff members. Parents can ask if time will be spent working with the student individually or working with a small group. There are pros and cons to all the different ways that minutes can be implemented - keep in mind that it is an Individualized Education Plan and that one way of providing service isn't better or worse than the other as long as it meets a student's needs.


Classroom-based, district-level, and statewide tests will be discussed. The focus of the discussion will be deciding if the assessments are appropriate for the student and what accommodations they may need to participate in the testing. 

It gets complicated with statewide and district-level assessments. These larger-scale tests only allow specific types of accommodations, and sometimes it varies by section. This is for test validity. Some common accommodations on these assessments include extended time, test being read (except for reading sections), allowing breaks, and access to sensory tools. It is also an option for the student to participate in an alternate assessment if the IEP team determines the assessments, even with accommodations, are not appropriate for the student.

Supplementary Aids, Modifications, and Accommodations

During this portion of the meeting, the team will discuss what the student needs to access an appropriate education. Some examples of what might be considered during this part of the discussion include visual schedules, sensory tools, small group instruction, alternate curriculum, supervision in hallways, directions stated one step at a time, visual cues, and seating close to the point of instruction. There are so many more, however! This will be covered in more detail after the portion of this training on goals.

Assistive Technology

If a student needs access to either low-tech or high-tech assistive technology it needs to be documented in the IEP.

  • Low-Tech assistive technology examples: pencil grips, adaptive silverware, slant boards for writing, paper with raised lines, and large print books
  • High-Tech assistive technology examples: communication device with voice output, word prediction software loaded onto a Chromebook, text-to-speech technology, and specific cross-platform apps to help with organization

Extended School Year (ESY)

This is often called summer school. Students qualify for ESY if the IEP team determines that it is necessary to prevent skill regression. All kids lose some skills over summer break, but usually quickly gain them back. A student qualifies for ESY if they lose more skills than typical and/or if they take significantly longer to regain those skills upon returning to school. Keep in mind the focus of ESY is skill maintenance, not progress. 


The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) requires that placement is discussed at IEP meetings. The law also requires that students are educated in the least restrictive environment. This is such an important component of an IEP that it will be covered in more detail later on in this section.


School districts are responsible for safely transporting students to and from their educational placement. Any supports that the team agrees a student needs should be provided for both the school year and ESY (if the student qualifies for ESY). Consider if your child requires a special type of seat belt or harness, a bus aide, climate-controlled transportation, an assigned seat, or any other supports while on the ride to and from school. These supports and accommodations can be written into the transportation section of the IEP.


Someone from the school team will take notes during the IEP meeting. These notes then become part of the IEP. It is highly recommended that parents review the whole IEP, but especially the notes section, to make sure the conversation was accurately recorded. 

Sections of an IEP - Scenario #1

Your friend's daughter has an IEP. Your friend is sharing with you that she is really concerned about her daughter's lack of friends. You ask if she sees the social worker at school to work on her social skills at all. Your friend can't remember, but pulls up a PDF of the IEP on her cell phone. 

Which section of the IEP can you look in to quickly see if the student meets regularly with the social worker?

  • Present Levels of Performance
  • Accommodations and Modifications
  • Minutes

Sections of an IEP - Scenario #2

Listen to the audio clip below. Do the following notes taken by the LEA accurately reflect the conversation for this portion of the IEP?


Speech minutes were discussed. Ms. Clark (SLP) shared that Lauren has made a lot of progress using her communication device this year. Mom shared she has made improvements at home as well. Minutes agreed upon are documented in the minutes section of this IEP.

Speech Minutes Discussion

  • Yes - it is important to always check the notes section, but in this case the conversation was accurately documented by the LEA.
  • No - the family should email the team and ask that the notes section be amended to more accurately reflect this portion of the conversation.

Goals, Benchmarks, and Monitoring Progress

The team will propose goals

For each goal they propose, they will briefly explain where a student is with a goal (their present level of performance in this specific area), the goal (what they think can reasonably be accomplished in 12 months time), and benchmarks (smaller goals showing they are making steps towards achieving the goal). 

You can request goals

If there are any additional areas you would like the team to work on with your child you can request goals. The team can definitely work on academic areas, but also consider goals in the areas of behavior, communication, self-help, and any other areas your child may be having difficulty. 

Keep in mind that the purpose of the law is to prepare students for "further education, employment, and independent living". Any goal related to that purpose is open for discussion among the IEP team. Don't be afraid to ask the team to work on skills in areas like self-care or organization, because they definitely tie to preparing a student to live as independently as possible. 

What makes a "good" goal

Have you ever heard of S.M.A.R.T. goals? This is a popular way of writing both personal and business goals. S.M.A.R.T. is an acronym for the important components of a strongly written goal. 

  • S - Specific
  • M - Measurable
  • A - Achievable
  • R - Relevant 
  • T - Time Bound

Goal Examples

  • Emma will solve one-step math word problems with mixed one-digit addition and subtraction with 80% accuracy given five problems on three consecutive opportunities by this time next year.
  • Thomas will independently follow two-step directions related to academic tasks in small group settings at least four out of five trials per day over three consecutive school days by this time next year.
  • Using  a task strip on the wall near the sink, Brad will wash his hands with no staff prompting without skipping steps on three consecutive attempts over at least two school days by this time next year.

Modifications and Accommodations


Accommodations change how a student learns the material.

These can be provided in either an IEP or a Section 504 Plan (often used for students who do not qualify for an IEP, but do have a diagnosis supporting the need for accommodations).


  • Additional time for assignments
  • Use of math manipulatives
  • Graphic organizers
  • Preferential seating
  • Allow student to take breaks
  • Use of an adaptive pencil grip
  • Visual schedule
  • Access to sensory supports
  • A list of discussion questions before reading the material
  • Number and sequence steps in a task
  • Word bank for fill in the blank questions
  • Read tests aloud
  • Reduce the number of questions


Modifications change what the student is taught or expected to learn.

Modifications can only be provided in an IEP, and not in a Section 504 Plan.


  • Provide a similar reading passage at a lower reading level
  • Use a different curriculum than followed by general education students
  • Select only portions of a curriculum to cover - getting through less material than general education students during the school year
  • Cover the curriculum at a slower pace - getting through less material than general education students during the school year

Preparing for this part of the IEP meeting

This PDF from PACER Center in Minnesota is a great resource to look over as you prepare for an IEP meeting and think about what accommodations would benefit your son or daughter.

Accommodations and Modificiation

Sections of an IEP - Scenario #3

Prior to starting to use a slant board your son's handwriting was almost illegible. Last year, when your son's OT worked with him on his fine motor skills he noticed that your son had much more control when using the slant board. While his handwriting was still not perfect, use of the board made a huge improvement. Over the summer you moved across town, and your son will be starting at the new school in two weeks. Being proactive, you reached out to the OT at the new school to inquire about having a slant board available to him for written assignments. It is her first day back from summer break and she told you that she will be reviewing his IEP later this week. She did assure you that anything documented in his IEP will be in place for the first day. You want to look at his IEP and see if use of a slant board is in there.

In which section of the IEP will the need to use a slant board for written tasks likely be documented?

  • Goals and Benchmarks
  • Educational Accommodations
  • Behavior Plan


The Case for Least Restrictive Environment (LRE)

The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) was written to ensure that students with disabilities are educated with their peers without identified needs. There has been extensive research that when students with disabilities are included in a general education classroom, they make more progress than when they are kept separated. This link from wrightslaw.com below does a fantastic job summarizing that research.

Placement Options

There are times, however, that IEP teams decide that a student needs a more restrictive environment to meet their unique educational needs. There is a wide variety of placement options that IEP teams can consider. This PDF created by the Illinois State Board of Education (ISBE) shows these placement options from least to most restrictive. Legally families are able to tour and observe any placement option being considered for their child.

Below the PDF you will find the ISBE link where you can search for non-public special education programs that IEP teams within the state of Illinois can consider. This database includes both therapeutic day school programs and residential placements. 

The PDF at the bottom of this section is designed to be printed off for use when touring different placement options. This is intended to help families process how different placements may or may not meet the needs of their child.


Placement Tour Notes

Sections of an IEP - Scenario #4


Which of the following statements is true regarding placement decisions made by IEP teams?

  • A child with an IEP must be educated in the least restrictive environment (LRE) that meets their unique needs.
  • A child's eligibility category is the driving factor in determining least restrictive environment (LRE).
  • All children in their initial IEP must first be placed in a general education classroom with supports prior to moving to more restrictive environments.

Transition Aged Students

Middle School Students

At age 14 ½, a student's IEP team will begin discussion about transition and life after school ends. This is a section of the IEP that begins to be used sometime at the end of middle school or in early high school. At this age, discussing transition simply means: 

  • completing interest surveys
  • begining early career exploration
  • teaching self-advocacy skills
  • beginning to involve the students on the IEP team as appropriate

High School Students

During the high school years, IEP teams will discuss transition more and more each year. In addition to those listed for middle school students, key points to focus on related to transition during the high school years should be:

  • participation in vocational or pre-vocational activities
  • discussing various employment options and job coaching
  • considering post-secondary education options
  • planning high school courses of study

Supports Beyond High School

If a student is still eligible for special education services after their senior year of high school, they can remain in the public school system until the day before their 22nd birthday. Important considerations for parents during this time include:

  • choosing to delegate their educational rights to their parents at age 18 unless guardianship was obtained
  • actively participating in vocational opportunities
  • focusing on identifying and accessing recreational and leisure options
  • inviting and encouraging adult service providers to participate in meetings
  • investigating day programs if appropriate
  • focusing on skills to build independence

Everything you need to know about IEP's and behavior

When would a behavioral intervention plan (BIP) be considered?

A one-time isolated incident wouldn't be sufficient for a student to need a behavioral intervention plan (BIP). However, if there is an undesired behavior that seems to be frequent, the team should conduct a functional behavior assessment (FBA) to better understand the behavior. If the data from the FBA supports that the behavior's interrupting the student's learning or the learning of others, then the team should develop a BIP.

Behavior is Interrupting the Child's Learning

Examples include, but are not limited to:

  • Leaving the classroom without permission
  • Ripping up papers
  • Self Injury
  • Refusing to do class work
  • Acting withdrawn

Behavior is Interfering with the Learning of Others

Examples include, but are not limited to:

  • Yelling
  • Aggression toward others
  • Using inappropriate or harassing language
  • Disrupting the class

Functional Behavioral Assessment (FBA)

Step One

If the IEP team believes a behavioral intervention plan (BIP) is necessary, the first step is to conduct a functional behavioral assessment (FBA). The purpose of the FBA is to understand a problem behavior by identifying the function of the behavior. Since the FBA is an evaluation, the parent will need to provide consent.

Data will be collected over an agreed upon period of time. Data collection will include:

  • An objective description of the behavior
  • Places and situations the behavior occurs
  • Events that happen just before the behavior
  • Events that happen just after the behavior
  • Frequency, duration, and intensity of behavior

Keep in mind the goal of the FBA is to identify the function of the behavior. Different interventions are appropriate for different functions. Possible functions of undesired behavior include:

  • Gaining attention of others
  • Gaining access to items
  • Attempting to meet sensory needs
  • Escaping a task/situation
  • Avoiding another person

The team will then meet to discuss the FBA and, if appropriate, develop a BIP.

FBA and BIP - Scenario #1

What is the best hypothesis that explains the function of the following behavior:

Sometimes Sydney throws classroom materials and screams when presented with tasks in math class. The teacher then calls the office and either the principal or vice principal comes to the classroom and takes her to the office to fill out a "think sheet".

  • An attempt to meet sensory needs
  • Avoid a task
  • Gain attention
  • Access preferred items

Behavior Intervention Plan (BIP)

Information included in the BIP

Remember that the BIP is part of the student's IEP, and is a legal document. The BIP should include the following information:

  • Summary of the FBA and the student's strengths
  • What replacement behaviors will be taught including:
    • How it will be taught
    • Who will teach them
    • Time frame
  • A description of how staff will reinforce appropriate behavior
  • Additional supports that will be provided such as schedule changes, increased/additional services, tutoring, etc.
  • Types of data that will be continually collected to monitor progress
  • How the school will share information regarding the BIP with the family

Purpose of the BIP

  • A plan to teach replacement behaviors which have the same function as the problem behavior.
  • Make changes to the situations that contribute to the behavior.
  • Teach missing skills which decrease the likelihood of the undesired behavior continuing.


  • If a student is running out of class when they feel a task is too difficult, teach them to request a break.
  • If a student is avoiding gym due to the noise level, provide the student with noise canceling headphones to help with the sensory overload.
  • If a student engages in yelling and ripping papers during group work when they disagree with group members, the social worker could focus on teaching the student how to take other's perspectives. 

FBA and BIP - Scenario #2

Which of the following is a proactive BIP intervention that will teach missing skills and decrease the likelihood of the undesired behavior continuing?

  • For every minute that Percy refuses to work on presented tasks in the morning, he will stay in the classroom for one minute of recess. For tasks presented in the afternoon that he refuses he will stay after school for one minute per minute of refusal. The maximum time he will stay after school is 30 minutes. Any additional time beyond the 30 minutes will be time he stays in for recess the next day.
  • For every ten minutes that Percy is on task he will receive a token of a preferred character on a token board. When he earns 5 tokens he will have access to a preferred activity for 5 minutes.
  • Any time that Percy refuses to complete a classroom assignment in his general education class he will be directed to take the assignment to the resource classroom to work on it with staff there.

Discipline of a Student with an IEP

School Safety

The school's first priority must always be the safety of all students. Special education laws cannot hinder school safety. 

Students with IEPs can receive the same punishments as other students for the most part. The only exception is that a student with an IEP cannot be suspended for more than 10 school days in any given school year without a Manifestation Determination Review (MDR). Additionally, students with a disability cannot be punished more harshly than students without disabilities for breaking the same rule. 

Schools can report crimes committed by students with IEPs to local police departments (just as they can for students without identified needs). They do not need parental permission before reporting a crime. 

Manifestation Determination Review (MDR)

When a student faces a suspension that could result in removal from the school setting for more than 10 total school days for the year, the IEP team is required to conduct a Manifestation Determination Review (MDR). Some teams will hold these meetings prior to the 10 day rule in an attempt to better meet the student's needs. 

The purpose of the MDR is to decide if the primary cause for the incident was part of the student's disability. Parents are able to provide relevant information to the school district to consider in this decision (such as documentation of any medical diagnoses or private provider recommendations).

  • If the primary cause IS the student's disability, the school may not impose an expulsion or a suspension of more than 10 total days during the school year.
  • If the primary cause is NOT the student's disability, the school district may recommend an expulsion hearing before the appropriate school district authorities or traditional suspension as is appropriate for students without IEPs for breaking the same rule. 

The two required questions the team must answer during an MDR (and parents can provide documentation to support if desired) are:

  1. Did the incident have a direct and substantial relationship to the student's disability?
  2. Was the incident a result of the school's failure to implement the IEP?

If the answer is yes to either of these questions then the team must find that the student's disability was related to the incident and may not recommend the student for expulsion or suspension of more than 10 school days in the course of the school year.

Placement Change

When considering a placement change related to the behavior of a student with an IEP, there are two ways that placement can be changed.

IEP Team Decides a Placement Change is Needed

At an MDR or an IEP meeting requested by either the family or the school team, the team should discuss and agree upon the least restrictive environment (LRE) that is appropriate to meet the student's needs.

Considerations for parents regarding placement and student discipline:

  • If your child has been suspended for 10 days during the course of the school year, is their current placement really capable of meeting their needs?
  • Even if your child is not being suspended, are you being asked to pick them up early regularly? Are they spending a significant amount of time out of class due to behavioral concerns (for example - in the office)?
  • If your child is missing school due to suspension, are they accessing their education?
  • Are there changes that could be made to the BIP to help your child be more successful in their current placement?
  • Have you toured more restrictive placement options to better understand those programs and how your child may or may not fit into them?
  • If you feel a placement change is needed for your child to access an appropriate educational experience, request an IEP meeting.

Interim Alternative Educational Setting (IAES)

In some situations students with IEPs may be removed for up to 45 school days into an Interim Alternative Educational Setting (IAES). An MDR will be held, but regardless of the outcome of that meeting, the IAES will be the student's placement for 45 school days. The IAES may be any placement that is capable of implementing the student's IEP. The three primary situations that this can occur are:

  • The conduct involved a weapon
  • The incident involved the sale, use, or possession of an illegal drug or controlled substance
  • Serious injury was inflicted on another student or staff member

If a student is placed in an IAES and the family files for Due Process, the student will remain in the IAES until the dispute is resolved, even if it takes more than 45 school days. This is called a "stay put". Due Process will be discussed more in the next section of this training.

Recommended Advocacy Strategies

Advocacy Strategies - Question #1 (Part 1)

When should you consider bringing someone with you to a meeting?

  • You think the school is going to recommend a placement change.
  • You want the team to add more services for your child.
  • Everything is going well, but the meetings can be overwhelming.
  • You are concerned that your child has not met his goals this year.
  • The team doesn't seem to be taking your concerns seriously.
  • Your child does really well at school, but is struggling at home.
  • Your child has no behavioral concerns at home, but does at school.
  • The team working with your child is fantastic, but next year she will start middle school.
  • It feels intimidating to sit around a big conference table and be the only one that doesn't work for the school district.

Advocacy Strategies - Question #1 (Part 2)

Legally, parents and schools can invite anyone with "knowledge or special expertise" of the child to attend the IEP meeting. The person who is inviting the participant determines if they fit that definition. If you invite someone to attend the meeting with you, simply email your child's teacher and/or the LEA to let them know.

Which of the individuals below could you consider inviting to your son or daughter's IEP meting?

  • A family friend
  • Your child's scout leader
  • A private therapist
  • A family member such as a grandparent or aunt
  • A special education advocate
  • A parent of an older child with an IEP that you connected with in a Facebook group for parents of children with special needs in your area
  • A lawyer
  • A neighbor who has always been kind to your child
  • A coach from a sport your child is in or has participated in
  • Your friend who lives out of state who is willing to conference call in to the meeting

Put it in Writing

Why take the time to write it all out...

It is a common saying that if it isn't in writing, it didn't happen. Having a conversation with someone is a great way to build a relationship and even to discuss a concern. However, in the future if a concern becomes an ongoing issue, then it becomes your word against theirs if there is no documentation of the conversation. If you have an email strand, however, you have documentation of your request, your reasoning for the request, and time lines if you need to refer to them in the future. If you have a really great discussion with a team member regarding an issue, it is recommended to send a short email summarizing your concern and any agreement that was discussed as a follow-up.

The link below from Wrightslaw is long, but worthwhile, especially if you have some major concerns regarding your child.

The PDF below the link has some great sample letters from the Illinois State Board of Education's publication titled Educational Rights and Responsibilities: Understanding Special Education in Illinois

Sample Letters ISBE

Key Terms to Use

How you say things matters

Both in writing and during meetings, these key phrases will help you advocate for services for your child:

  • Appropriate - The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) requires that schools provide students with a Free and Appropriate Public Education (FAPE). Eliminate the word "best" from your vocabulary when you are discussing your child's educational needs. 
  • Least Restrictive Environment - When discussing placement, be prepared to explain why the placement you desire for you child is the least restrictive environment that meets his educational needs.
  • Unique Needs - This phrase is helpful when you are asking the school to add an accommodation, goal, more minutes, or anything along those lines. For example, you could say: "I think it is important that we consider providing Meredith with a communication device and have some goals around her learning to use it to meet her unique communication needs. Even though she is verbal, when she becomes overwhelmed it is very hard even for familiar people to understand what she is saying. Having a second mode of communication would really help her express herself in those moments".
  • Observation - It is within your parental rights to observe any placement that is being considered for your child. It is highly recommended that if it isn't offered, ask any time a placement change is being considered. 
    • You are also able to observe your child in class. This is more difficult to do as your child will know you are there and you may not see a typical day. Your presence may impact her either for better or worse.
  • Activities of Daily Living (ADL) - The purposes of IDEA are spelled out in four sections. The first section is very clear: the purpose of the law is to meet students' "unique needs and prepare them for further education, employment, and independent living." A large component of this is learning to complete tasks such as eating, dressing, toileting, and bathing as independently as possible. These types of skills are called activities of daily living. Know that you can request the school to work on IEP goals in these areas.
  • Let's reconvene to continue this discussion at a later date - There are so many situations where this statement can be powerful. Here are some examples:
    • The school did not schedule enough time to really discuss all the issues, and staff is starting to excuse themselves from the meeting prior to all points being addressed.
    • The school is proposing a plan that you need some time to think about. In most instances, it is completely acceptable to ask for some time to think about the different options and meet again in a week or two. This also gives you a chance to invite someone to come with you to the follow up meeting if you want/need to. 
    • You just sat through an hour and a half meeting to re-determine your child's eligibility. The team wants to move into discussing the IEP, but your head is spinning and you are losing focus. 

Advocacy Strategies - Question #2

Listen to the audio clip below then select the statement that the student's parents should make.

End of IEP Meeting Audio Clip

  • "I am requesting that the OT and social worker return immediately and we discuss placement and the rationale behind at least three different options."
  • "I think we should just conclude this meeting for this year at this point. Please email me a PDF of the IEP to review and if I have any concerns I will email you."
  • "I would like to schedule a meeting in the next week or two so that we can all sit down to finish this discussion when we aren't as rushed. I know that Will has had a difficult few weeks and we had a lot to discuss. I'm just not comfortable rushing through discussing placement."

Tips for Different Personality Types

For any disagreement with any personality type

  • Control your own emotions.
  • Work toward mutual interests.
  • Try to minimize the negative impact of the disagreement.
  • Use "I statements" when raising concerns to the team.
    • Example: "I feel frustrated that I frequently have to leave work to come to school and pick Aiden up because he is having a meltdown at school. I'm wondering if we need to completely change his behavior plan to be more proactive and less reactive."

Overly Assertive Team Members

  • Don't argue or attack.
  • Don't give up, but also don't blow up.
  • Make it clear that you are not questioning their authority, but that your perception also has value.

So, what can you say? Try something like these statements:

"While that would be an option, my experience has been that..."

"Mr. Smith, you are the director of special education. You have had a lot of experience working with children similar to my son. I value your input, but I have some ideas that would make it more likely that my son will achieve the wonderful goals your team has written for him."

A Know-It All

  • Try to get her to consider another point of view.
  • Avoid attacking her expertise.
  • Don't be confrontational.

So, what can you say? Try focus on asking them questions to encourage them to see holes in their proposals:

  • Who will... ?
  • When will... ?
  • What can we expect... ?
  • How do you see this plan working next year?
  • Where will... ?

Conflict Abstainers

  • They are often pleasant, supportive, and truly want to help.
  • Reassure them that you can take whatever news they have to share with you.
  • Pay attention to indirect comments, hesitations, and omissions. Ask for clarification as needed during meetings.
  • Specifically ask them to share their ideas.

So, what can you say? Try something like these statements:

"I'm sorry to interrupt, but you briefly said that your data shows  this behavior is happening most often during math class. Can you talk more about what that looks like?"

"Ms. Grey, I'm curious to hear what you think would work since Justin is in your class for at least two hours a day."

Misinformation Sharers

  • Prepare any data you have prior the meeting.
  • Consider bringing a list of dates of incidents that were shared with you via email, phone call, or a communication notebook you have with the teacher.
  • If a standardized test score is low, but the team claims your child is doing fine in class, request an evaluation in that academic area on a different form of testing to better understand your child's needs.

So, what can you say? Try something like these statements:

"I'm sorry to interrupt, but you said Aiden hasn't shown any aggression since December. However, I have emails from you regarding multiple incidents in the last two months. I am concerned that those aren't being accounted for in your data."

"I understand that Lilly is doing well in your reading group, but I am concerned that her MAP scores are in the below average range. I would like the school psychologist to do some reading assessments with her."

Advocacy Strategies - Question #3

Select the statement below that would be the most effective way for a parent to advocate for her child at an IEP meeting when the child has not been making progress toward his goals. 

  • I am concerned about Tim's lack of progress on his math goal. I understood, and correct me if I misunderstood, that in a year he only met the first benchmark, and his goal will remain the same for the year ahead. What can we change to insure he not only makes some progress, but meets this goal this time?
  • Your team clearly doesn't know how to teach Tim. Look at his math goal, it isn't even changing. Next year you will have to work with him 1:1 on math for an hour a day.
  • I can't believe that Tim once again didn't make expected progress in math. You all talk about how well he is doing, but ignore his lack of academic progress. You need to figure out accommodations that will actually work this year.

When all else fails...

Conflict Resolution

Almost everything in special education happens because of agreements between families and schools. Often these agreements can be worked out through the IEP process. Unfortunately, there are times when a family and a district are unable to come to an agreement. If a more formal approach is needed, parents have a few different options. 


Mediation is a voluntary process that parents and the school district have to agree to participate in. If requested, a mediator will be appointed by the Illinois State Board of Education (ISBE) to focus on a way to work out an agreement to the benefit of the child. A mediation meeting generally lasts 2-3 hours, but can be longer depending on how many issues need to be discussed. If an agreement can be reached, it will be documented in writing. If either side refuses to sign the agreement, then it is not a legally binding document.

State Complaint

If a family files a complaint with the Illinois State Board of Education (ISBE) an investigator from ISBE will be assigned. A parent filing a complaint with ISBE has the right to present the case to the investigator, but does not have the right to be present when the investigator is discussing the issue with the school district. There is no formal hearing related to the complaint. One unique part of state complaints is that they can be filed for individual students, but also for district practices that affect a whole group of children.

ISBE State Complaint Form

Due Process

Requesting a due process hearing is the only way a child can maintain a current placement if the parent disagrees with the district's proposed placement. This is often referred to as a "stay-put". Due process hearings include formal arguments (often made by lawyers), witness testimony, and use of evidence by both sides. The decision maker acts like a judge and is called an "Impartial Hearing Officer". Most due process cases are initiated by parents. Legally, schools can only initiate due process if a parent refuses to provide consent for an evaluation, or a district refuses to grant a parent's request for an independent evaluation paid by the district. Occasionally your attorney fees can be recovered from the district if you prevail in the hearing, but this is rare; it would require that the hearing be in your favor AND that the district does not appeal the decision to a court of law. 

Do I need a lawyer?

While there is nothing that prevents you from representing yourself, it is recommended that if you are considering these options you seek the expertise of someone familiar with Special Education Law to represent you in the process.

Can I just revoke my consent?

After agreeing to special education supports and services, the parent has the right to revoke that consent at any point in time. If consent is revoked, the student would no longer receive any services written into his IEP; additionally, the student and parent will lose all the rights and protections outlined in IDEA. 

Need More Information?

If you are considering any of these options, or think you may need to in the near future, it is highly recommended that you take time to read Chapter 11: Conflict Resolution, from the Illinois State Board of Education publication titled Educational Rights and Responsibilities: Understanding Special Education in Illinois.

What does the law actually say?

Section Directions

This section consists of eight true or false questions about IDEA. Test your knowledge of what the law actually says!

If we move to a different district we will have to start the process all over again.

  • True
  • False

The only way I can review my child's file is by paying an expensive file retrieval fee.

  • True
  • False

If I agree to special education services they will make me put my child on medication.

  • True
  • False

My child’s team is going to meet to discuss changing placement, which I do not want. The district will likely recommend a more restrictive placement. My plan is to not sign anything at the upcoming IEP meeting. Then my child’s placement will not change.

  • True
  • False

Once I agree to special education services whatever is written in the IEP can't be changed.

  • True
  • False

I can't record audio of our child's IEP meeting.

  • True
  • False
  • This one is more complicated than a simple true or false

Your child must go through Response to Intervention (RTI) before being evaluated by the school for special education services.

  • True
  • False

Eligibility meetings are overwhelming, but there is nothing I can do to prepare.

  • True
  • False


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