Navigating Special Education Services 101

Billy was an excellent student all through elementary school. But when he was in fifth grade, his parents divorced. Billy began showing signs of anxiety and depression after both parents remarried, and by eighth grade, he had stopped participating in his favorite activities or interacting with friends. 

In ninth grade, he started hanging around a new group of students who weren’t the greatest influence. His father pushed for stern discipline, but his mother supported his individuality, believing it was a phase he would get through. But in the first three months of high school, Billy was suspended for skipping class and possession of a lighter. His first quarter grades were three D's and one C.

Billy's parents wrote a letter to the school principal asking that their son be tested for special education services. In the meantime, they found help outside of school for Billy. Billy started seeing a psychiatrist and a counselor with his family.

A few months later, Billy and his family went to school to review the results of his testing. The team discovered that he did have an emotional disability and that it was having an impact on his school performance.

Billy begins to receive special education services through an Individual Education Plan (IEP), and requires modifications to the general education curriculum. With his team, he develops strategies to help with his test anxiety, and receives counseling at school in addition to the counseling he receives with his family.

Over time, Billy's family will learn that school is not the only answer to their son's disability. It's a lifelong diagnosis that requires a team approach, with the family leading the team as an advocate for their child...

What does it mean to be an advocate for my child?

Being an advocate for your child can mean many things. In the world of IEPs, it means speaking up and working with educators and school leaders to make sure your son or daughter has the most effective treatment and learning environment available to them, and defending your child’s rights as a student.

As an advocate, what will I need to do?

  • Learn everything you can about IEPs. An IEP contains a summary of your child's present level of performance in any area where they are not age/grade appropriate, along with what will be done to meet college/career-ready standards that are set by the state by the time they finish school.  The IEP must tell you whether your child is working toward a High School Diploma or a Certificate of Completion, and whether they will finish high school in 4, 5, or 6 years. The IEP also contains a transition plan for when your child turns 14, and helps support your child in transitioning to life beyond school. But also remember - lots of students who have emotional disabilities don't meet the eligibility requirements for special education services, but still have a disability. The school team may need to develop a 504 Plan to make accommodations for that student’s needs. Don't give up if your child is not experiencing success at school!
  • Gather information and resources. Once your child has a diagnosis, such as ADHD, an emotional disability such as an anxiety disorder or oppositional defiant disorder, dyslexia, or autism, do your research and make sure you fully understand what his or her needs will be. 
    • Learn about the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), a federal law that requires public school systems to help meet kids’ special needs so you’re informed of your child’s rights as a student.
    • Maintain a stockpile of educational resources so you can educate others. Learn who the key players are in your child’s school and school system. Work with them to understand their knowledge and expertise, and determine who will best serve as a member of your child’s IEP team. 
    • Make sure they’ve met your child and had a chance to sit down with him or her to fully understand his or her individual needs.
  • Plan. Once your child has an official evaluation from the school system, apply your knowledge and work with your team to make a plan for your child’s education. Set goals that are realistic and measurable. Determine what supplementary aids and services your child will need. Define how you want to be updated on your child’s progress.
  • Recognize your role in your child’s progress and education. You should enter every meeting like each person is on your team and you are in this together. But also remember that your child only spends about 20% of their time in school; the school team can only be responsible for so much!
  • Follow up and modify (as needed). Make sure your IEP team meets at least once a year. This meeting is critical in ensuring that the IEP you’ve spent so much time developing and fine-tuning is working for your child. Use this time to evaluate what’s working and what isn’t, and modify as needed.
    • Fight for your child’s right to an education that works and will be effective. If needed, get a professional educational advocate involved to help you get what your child needs.

As a parent advocate, there will undoubtedly be more steps needed to make sure your child is given his or her best chance to thrive. Your personal experience may differ from someone else’s depending on your child, your school system, and whom you partner with to fight for your child’s educational rights.

It’s important to know that this can be a lengthy process, but there is support available. 

As a parent, you should feel empowered. You may find some of the resources listed below useful as you begin the IEP journey. We also encourage you to seek out other parents who have gone through the process for support and guidance.  

Parents: what has worked for you in the past? Use the comments below to share your tips and tricks for advocacy.


April Arford, M.S., is the IEP coordinator for The Forbush School at Prince George's County. April received her bachelor's degree in special education from Goucher College and her master's in science in school administration and supervision from The Johns Hopkins University. She has over 25 years' experience in the field of special education as an educator, compliance specialist and nonpublic director. She has served as an adjunct instructor at The George Washington University and Towson University and is currently a volunteer mediator with the Community Mediation Center in southern Maryland. April is the proud mother of a 28-year-old Special Olympic Gold Medal athlete.