Special Education Needs and Services

If you are a parent, foster parent, guardian, or a person who holds education rights for a school-age child who is struggling in school, this information is for you. There are many reasons why a child may do poorly in school or not want to attend school regularly, including behavioral or emotional issues, language issues, medical problems, or learning disabilities. In addition, students who are in foster care may have experienced trauma that affects their ability to focus on school or leads to some of these behaviors and issues.

It is important to ask for help if your child:

  • Has difficulty reading, writing, or doing math;
  • Has a hard time sitting still, concentrating, and following directions;
  • Has problems with speaking or pronunciation;
  • Often forgets where things are;
  • Loses track of time;
  • Has difficulty understanding concepts such as up and down, left and right, or front and back;
  • Has problems with motor skills such as holding a pencil;
  • Has trouble with personal routines for daily living; or
  • Seems withdrawn or has trouble making friends.

The information on these pages describes the process for identifying the need for special education and the services and supports the school can provide if your child is found eligible to receive them.

Qualifying for special education services

Both state and federal law list specific disabilities that may qualify a student to receive special education services. These disabilities include:

  • intellectual disability
  • hearing impairment, including deafness
  • speech or language impairment
  • visual impairment, including blindness
  • emotional disturbance
  • orthopedic impairment
  • other health impairment
  • specific learning disabilities
  • autism
  • traumatic brain injury

If your child has one of these disabilities and the disability is interfering with his or her access to a basic level of education, your child should qualify for special education.

Although your child’s school has a legal responsibility to identify students who are eligible for special education services, school personnel may not discover that your child needs help. If you suspect that your child has a disability that entitles him or her to special education, it is critical that you request an assessment.

Early identification of special education needs

Not all disabilities are easy to recognize. Learning disabilities, in particular, may be difficult to identify, especially since children with learning disabilities often have average or above -average intelligence. Yet intelligence alone is not enough to guarantee success in school. Without special services, children with learning disabilities may have difficulty learning and may become frustrated and choose to skip class or even drop out of school.

Read the Assessments and Eligibility section to find out how eligibility for special education is decided.

Note:  If your child is under the age of 3 and has a disability, he or she may be eligible for services from a Regional Center through California’s Early Start program. To learn more, visit the website of the Department of Developmental Services.

Services if your child is eligible for special education

Special education gives instruction and supports that are specially designed to meet the unique needs of a child whose disability affects his or her educational performance or ability to learn in a regular classroom. These special services are provided at no cost because state and federal law requires that all children in public schools who are eligible for special education receive a free and appropriate public education.

A child who is found eligible for special education may receive a variety of services, including speech and language therapy, psychological services, physical and occupational therapy, and counseling services. The child may also receive transportation and other supports needed to access and benefit from his or her education.

Read the Assessments and Eligibility section, or click to learn about the services offered if eligible.

Where are the services provided?

According to both state and federal law, children with disabilities must receive their education in the least restrictive environment. This means that your child must receive instruction with nondisabled peers to the maximum extent appropriate.

If, however, your child’s disability is so severe that education in a general education classroom is not possible, even with support, your child should receive services in a more specialized environment. The school district must offer a range of placements for children, including:

  • Instruction in the general education classroom (modified with appropriate supports);
  • Resource specialist services (often called “pull-out” services because a child is usually “pulled out” of the classroom to receive them);
  • Instruction in special classrooms and centers;
  • Instruction in special schools for the visually impaired or for students who are deaf or hard of hearing;
  • Home instruction;
  • Placement and instruction in a residential facility such as a hospital or other institution; and
  • Placement in an appropriate nonsectarian, nonpublic school.
© 2017 Judicial Council of California