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Understanding Student Services and Special Education

Getting Started

As parents of children with a wide range of needs, we all access specific services for our children in uniquely different ways. What we have in common is our desire to do what’s best for our children. For most of us, it’s our first experience with the school district's student services department. Student services refers to a variety of programs geared to meet the individual needs of children. It may include health services, social/emotional learning programs, intervention services called Response to Intervention (RTI), English Learners, 504 Plans, and special education. We need to learn everything about our child’s unique needs and how the student services department can support us.

Included here is information to help you successfully navigate the student services system and make informed decisions for your child.

If you are concerned about your child, pursue it.

No one knows your child better than you do. If you feel that something is not right, find the help you need to understand what’s going on with your child. That help may come from a pediatrician, psychologist, speech therapist, teacher, social worker, or other parent. Talk to them. Listen to what they have to say and weigh it against what you know and feel inside about your child. Not everyone you consult necessarily has the expertise to figure out your child’s problem, or determine if there even is a problem. Keep looking.

If you think your child may need additional services, you can start the process by calling the appropriate person in your school district. If you suspect a disability or the interventions are not effective, you can initiate a “referral” for the school to conduct a formal evaluation to determine if your child has a disability that would make him or her eligible for a 504 Plan or special education.

Put all important communication in writing.

Communicating in writing is a business-like way of keeping an accurate record. It’s a good way to clarify quickly any misunderstandings and lets other people on the child’s educational team know what’s happening. By communicating in writing you will also start the clock ticking on any response time required of the school.


Your communication should be in writing if:

1. You are making any request;

2. You are confirming any change, agreement, disagreement; or

3. You are giving information.

In short, if the information is important enough to remember, then put it in writing and keep a copy.

Establish a strong partnership with the school.

In most cases, your child will be at his/her school for several years. It is in your child’s best interest for you to establish a positive working relationship with the school staff. A relationship built on mutual respect, open communication, and collaboration will allow you to problem solve together when disagreements do arise.

Learn about available resources.

Read everything you can. A good place to start is to get information on the Internet. Networking with other parents of children with similar needs and/or joining a support group can also be beneficial.

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