What Happens if Your Child Needs Special Services at School

Have you received a call from your child’s school saying they believe your child may need special education services? Or are you concerned that your child may need additional supports or assistance to learn at school? First, take a deep breath. This doesn’t mean that your child is not smart, or capable of learning, or that you did anything wrong. We all learn differently and have different needs, and perhaps your child may need different supports to help her to learn in a school setting. This might also be a good reminder to make a connection with your child’s school, especially your child’s teacher. (If connecting with their teacher has been difficult for you, see this post for some suggestions about how to talk to your child’s teacher.)

Once you or your child’s school has recognized that your child might benefit from some special services, there is a standard process that most schools follow. Here’s what you can expect from the process:

  1. The first step is for the school to have your child tested. You will not have to pay for this. The focus of the testing is to pinpoint areas that your child needs additional support in, such as learning, speech or hearing, or even how social interactions, previous experiences or trauma might affect your child’s learning.
  2. If testing determines that your child is in need of special education supports, the school will hold a meeting to make a plan for what services and supports your child will benefit from. This is called an Individualized Education Program, or IEP. And you, as a parent or caregiver, should most definitely attend the meeting to create it. A team of educators and school personnel, including your child’s teacher, school counselor or psychologist, principal or vice principal, and other staff your child may already be working with such as behavioral specialists or educational assistants will also be at the meeting.
  3. After the IEP is created, it will need to be signed by you and school staff. It should specify what services and support your child will receive throughout the school year, as well as the attainable educational or developmental goals for your child that the IEP will help your child to reach.

As we said, you should definitely attend your child’s IEP meeting and there are a few steps that you can follow to prepare.

  1. Talking to your child’s school psychologist or counselor can be helpful to learn more about the process and to have someone to answer questions. She or he may have insight into your child’s behavior at school. If you are surprised or concerned by the information that your child might need help at school, talking to the counselor can be helpful to understand what the school is seeing. The school counselor may also be helpful in making a connection with your child’s teacher if you have not felt successful at connecting in the past.
  2. Talk to your child about his feelings about school. What is his experience? Can he name what is helpful and not helpful for him during their school day, or times when he feels really frustrated or upset in other ways? Your child may or may not already feel angry, upset or even ashamed about her school experiences, this conversation is not about lecturing or grilling her. Instead, try to create a gentle, supportive time for you to gather information about her experience, not to judge. Consider talking with your child while she is doing something else, like drawing, or playing with playdoh, rather than sitting her down and peppering her with questions. Using open ended questions and giving time between asking questions can also be helpful. That could sound like, “When I was in school, trying to read was hard. What does reading feel like for you?”
  3. Consider going to see your child at school to get a sense for when he does well and when things break down for him. Get in touch with your school’s front office and talk to your child’s teacher to consider how you can do this in an unobtrusive way for the rest of the class.
  4. Before the IEP meeting, write down a list of both what your child struggles with, and your child’s strengths. Be prepared for there to be 10 or more people in the meeting. This can feel overwhelming. Writing your thoughts and questions down on paper before the meeting can help if you lose track in the moment.
  5. Consider whether another adult who knows or has expertise on your child, such as a pediatrician or other services provider outside the school, should be invited to attend the meeting. You may also be allowed to bring a relative or close friend to take notes and povide moral support for you. Check to see if there is a local Community Parent Resource Center that can help you with further questions or concerns you might have, such as who is permitted to attend IEP meetings: https://www.parentcenterhub.org/find-your-center/. And don’t be afraid to talk to other parents or teachers to get the support or information that will help you.

The most important thing to remember is that you as a parent and caregiver are so important to helping your child access the services he needs. Do your best to work as a team with the school, and don’t be afraid to participate and speak up. You are your child’s best advocate. You know your child, and your insight and experiences are invaluable for creating the best plan for your child. Everyone involved wants what’s best for your child, and the best way you can support your child is to participate in the process, to be in the know, and to advocate for your child as needed.

Additional resources:

Center for Parent Information & Resources: Common questions about special education services: https://www.parentcenterhub.org/lg1/


(Oregon Specific) https://factoregon.org/


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