Eligibility: Determining Whether a Child is Eligible for Special Education Services

Small group of professionals performing an evaluationWhen is a child’s eligibility for special education and related services determined?

In most states the eligibility of a child for special education and related services is considered when a child has arrived at the Tier 3 level of RTI (Response to Intervention). When a child has been in Tier 2 for a pre-determined amount of time and an evaluation is given, then a meeting is called to determine eligibility for special education services. Who makes the decision about whether a child is eligible for special education and related services?

The parent of the child and a team of qualified professionals must determine whether the child is a child with a disability and in need of special education and related services.

(The determination of whether a child suspected of having a specific learning disability is a child with a disability, must be made by the child’s parents and a team of qualified professionals which must include the child’s regular teacher; or a regular classroom teacher qualified to teach a child of his or her age if the child does not have a regular teacher; or, for a child of less than school age, an individual qualified by the SEA to teach a child of his or her age; and at least one person qualified to conduct individual diagnostic examinations of children, such as a school psychologist, speech-language pathologist, or remedial reading teacher.)

What must the team consider in determining eligibility?

In interpreting evaluation data for the purpose of determining if a child is a child with a disability and in need of special education, each public agency is to draw upon information from a variety of sources, including aptitude and achievement tests (but not restricted to these results), parent input, teacher recommendations, physical condition, social or cultural background, and adaptive behavior.

Are there additional procedures for evaluating children and determining the existence of a specific learning disability?

Yes. IDEA includes the following additional procedures when evaluating and determining the existence of a specific learning disability:

    1. A team may determine that a child has a specific learning disability if:
      • The child does not achieve commensurate with his or her age and ability levels in one or more of the areas listed below, if provided with learning experiences appropriate for the child’s age and ability levels; and
      • The child has a severe discrepancy between achievement and intellectual ability in one or more of the following areas: Oral expression; listening comprehension; written expression; basic reading skill; reading comprehension; mathematics calculation; mathematics reasoning, and/or a presented portfolio, and/or teacher reports on daily work which shows academic performance is not in an acceptable range and the learning processing disability can be seen or it was stated.
    2. The team may not identify a child as having a specific learning disability if the severe discrepancy between ability and achievement is primarily the result of:
      • A visual, hearing, or motor impairment;
      • Mental retardation;
      • Emotional disturbance; or
      • Environmental, cultural or economic disadvantage.
    3. Observation:
      • At least one team member other than the child’s regular teacher shall observe the child’s academic performance in the regular classroom setting.
      • In the case of a child of less than school age or out of school, a team member shall observe the child in an environment appropriate for a child of that age.
    4. Written report For a child suspected of having a specific learning disability, the documentation of the team’s determination of eligibility must include a statement of:
      • Whether the child has a specific learning disability.
      • The basis for making the determination.
      • The relevant behavior noted during the observation of the child.
      • The relationship of that behavior to the child’s academic functioning.
      • The educationally relevant medical findings, if any.
      • Whether there is a severe discrepancy between achievement and ability that is not correctable without special education and related services.
      • The determination of the team concerning the effects of environmental, cultural, or economic disadvantage.

Each team member shall certify in writing whether the report reflects his or her conclusion. If it does not reflect his or her conclusion, the team member must submit a separate statement presenting his or her conclusions.

What are the two components that must be present in order for a child to be eligible for special education and related services?

In order for a child to be declared eligible for special education and related services it must be determined that the child is a “child with a disability” and is in need of special education and related services.

How does the law define a “child with a disability?”

The term “a child with a disability” means:

      • A child evaluated according to IDEA as having mental retardation, a hearing impairment including deafness, a speech or language impairment, a visual impairment including blindness, serious emotional disturbance (referred to in IDEA as emotional disturbance), an orthopedic impairment, autism, traumatic brain injury, another health impairment, a specific learning disability, deaf-blindness, or multiple disabilities, and
      • Who, by reason thereof, needs special education and related services.

Is there a non-categorical designation of a child with a disability in addition to the above categories?

At the discretion of the State and Local Education Agencies, a “child with a disability,” aged three through nine, may include a child who is experiencing developmental delays, as defined by the State and as measured by appropriate diagnostic instruments and procedures, in one or more of the following areas: physical development, cognitive development, communication development, social or emotional development, or adaptive development, and who, by reason thereof, needs special education and related services.

What does IDEA require when determining eligibility for special education and related services based on “developmental delay?”

When determining eligibility for special education and related services based on “developmental delay” rather than a specific category, IDEA requires the following:

      • If the state decides to allow eligibility based on developmental delay, local districts will be able to choose whether or not they wish to follow suit. If the state does not adopt the developmental delay category, local districts may not use the category for establishing eligibility for special education and related services.
      • States may not require local districts to adopt and use the term “developmental delay” for any of its students.
      • States that adopt the developmental delay category may apply it to children aged three through nine or a subset of that age range, e.g. aged three through five
      • States and local districts who choose to use the developmental delay category may also use one or more of the specific categories.
      • States may adopt a common definition of developmental delay for its programs under IDEA, Parts B and C.
      • If a local district uses the developmental delay category, it must conform to the state’s definition of developmental delay and the age range adopted by the state.

What are possible implications for students with learning disabilities when they are identified as having a developmental delay?

The use of a “developmental delay” category to determine whether a child is eligible for special education and related services could make it possible to identify some children early before they experience failure in school and fall behind their peers. Many children with learning disabilities show delays in one or more of the areas specified. There is, however, some concern that children with learning disabilities will be included in the “developmental delay” category without identifying the specific processing disorder/s present and, thus the specific intervention strategies needed will not be provided. Parents should ensure that:

      • Assessment tools and strategies used gather relevant functional and developmental information.
      • Tests and other evaluation materials used include those tailored to assess specific areas of educational need.
      • Assessment tools and strategies provide relevant information that directly assists persons in determining the education needs of the child.

Since States and Local Education Agencies are not mandated to follow a certain course, but can make a choice regarding whether to use “developmental delay” for children aged three to nine, parents need to determine the eligibility criteria used by their State and Local Education Agencies. Contact special education administrators at the State Department of Education or the local school district for this information.

Are there other non-categorical designations?

Some states have expanded the non-categorical age past the “developmental delay” age span (3 through 9 years) to include students birth through twenty-one years of age. If states use a designation instead of categorical disabilities, certain guidelines must be followed. While the state determines the criteria for eligibility, the team must provide a comprehensive evaluation of the child that could determine a disability as defined by IDEA.

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  1. What if a child is ineligible for special education because of his IQ but, his behaviors qualify him
    and is turned down because behaviors does not qualify. Although the behaviors are so sever that they are prevention the child from learning

    • I don’t think that IQ is the determining factor for special education. I have a son who has Autism. He will always have it, he will never outgrow it, and his adaptive behaviors (like social interaction, self direction, higher executive functioning) needed aggressive teaching strategies. However, his math IQ score is 143. It did not exclude him from special education services, because the need existed. However, if the adaptive behaviors do not need special education classes to teach them how to follow directions or rules, then the IEP team may determine that the child wouldn’t benefit from sitting through the social skills class. In my son’s case, he couldn’t follow rules, because he lacked the ability to apply knowledge to similar circumstances. To him, skipping down the hallway was not against the rules, because the rules said no running in the hallway. He had to be taught every variation of rules just to function. He sat through hours and hours of classes trying to apply facial expressions to the appropriate feelings they represented, and what actions trigger feelings. Special Education is not necessary for every child, even if they have some sort of exceptionality. My son did not need any special education math classes! But in other areas he really struggled. If you feel that your child is not receiving needed benefits in a specific area, then you can have an independent evaluation done and appeal the decision. I hope this helps!

      • Susanne says:

        I believe if the parent researches different conditions which qualify a child for special education, they will find that their child can qualify in other ways other than an IQ score and academic abilities scores. They can get a doctors diagnosis and receive services under Other Health Impaired, such as for ADHD or ADD, they can get behavior ratings and assessments done by requesting the school to do them and the child could qualify for special education support due to emotional/social needs. Self-education is important for parents to do, in order for them to know what services their child has the right to receive based on their needs. There are other disabilities that a child can have that qualifies them for services. Asking for a thorough assessment other than IQ may be necessary. It is the parents right to request evaluations through the school system, as by law, every child has the right to a free and appropriate education.

        • Some School Districts do not consider Behavior a disorder, unless a child can qualify as Emotionally Impaired.

        • The parent should speak with the school psychologist before requesting anything. They are the experts who know what qualifies a child and if an evaluation would even be appropriate. A child can have a disability but not require specially designed instruction therefore they would not qualify for special education.

  2. When a child does not qualify, they still have an IEP in MI to say they did not qualify. Unfortunately, these papers often confuse parents and other non-special ed staff members. They should be eliminated as the PLAFF statements-present levels appear on Eligibility (or not) team paperwork.

  3. George Miller says:

    Some children are ADD and should receive medication, but I do not feel that all children on meds should be on meds. Some children are just hyperactive and that can be a subjective assessment.

  4. Cornell Herrington says:

    As we consider students at all levels with disabilities we must have a deep understanding of what procedures to utilize as each disability has it’s own unique way of providing assistance. We can all agree that every child or adult deserves a quality education, one in which they can learn and achieve
    to high standards alongside their peers. For the more than six million children and
    youth with disabilities in this country, the right to a free and appropriate public education
    is supported by the Individuals with Disabilities Education Improvement
    Act (IDEA 2004). However, as we stated earlier and suggested, implementing IDEA
    2004 does not come without challenges—many of which require the collaboration
    of diverse groups of stakeholders.

  5. Can a child identified with a disability, let’s say Specific Learning Disability but the student did not meet the criteria for Speech Impairment. Can the IEP committee then disagree with speech therapist and then give the student speech therapy services, since he has a disability of SLD?

    • Teacherclarabelle says:

      Not officially. Who will you use to provide the therapy? The speech therapist who tested the student? A surefire recipe for disaster, in my opinion. However, speaking as a teacher of students with learning disabilities, I can tell you that a part of my interaction with my kids involves modeling and expecting them to speak clearly. The phrase I use is, “Take the mush out of your mouth and try again.” I know, it’s not PC, but it’s effective. I do NOT do that with my students whose impairments are pronounced to the point it’s obvious that the “mush” isn’t going to go anywhere.

    • It would, in my opinion, be inappropriate to tell the speech therapist (the expert in speech and language) that a child needs services if the speech therapist tested them and they decided (with their expertise and knowledge that I do not have) they do not actually require said services.

      • Cheesedoodle says:

        With all due respect, I have worked with many professionals in the school system and they don’t want to pay for services unless they are what they consider to be deemed necessary. Many parents use outside professionals to evaluate their children and go into the school with medical proof that their child has a speech problem yet the school denies their child therapy stating it’s not educationally necessary. So I would never take the school professionals at their word and I recommend seeking outside evaluations as well as in school and continue to fight for what they feel their child needs.

  6. What happen when the team meets and the whole team are in agreement that the child needs assistance but the parents are against it all and feel nothing is wrong with the child. What then?

    • The parent has the right to sign they do not agree with the eligibility report and an IEP will still need to be developed but the parent ultimately has the right to decline services.

  7. Which is the most important, getting the services that are needed so the child maybe successful during his/her school year or having the authorities just giving in to the parents either way?

  8. Does a dyslexic child qualify for IDEA? I have a son diagnosed with Dyslexia, ADHD, and developmental coordination disorder. He is homeschooled and the local district is saying he cannot be offered services because he is a 504 kid; not a IDEA qualified kid. Thanks!

    • Section 1401: subsection 30 Specific Learning Disability
      A) In General. The term ‘specific learning disability’ means a disorder in 1 or more of the basic psychological processes involved in understanding or in using language, spoken or written, which disorder may manifest itself in the imperfect ability to listen, think, speak, read, write, spell, or do mathematical calculations.
      B) Disorders included. Such tem includes such conditions as perceptual disabilities, brain injury, minimal brain dysfunction, dyslexia, and development aphasia.

      • Yet I have a dyslexic ADHD kiddo who was denied an IEP, because he is making progress. He is a year behind in reading and they say that is “normal development” for his age. I

        • A child is expected to make a years worth of growth in one year. If your child is behind but making one years worth of growth that shows the interventions they are implementing are working. We would not expect a child to make much more than a years worth of growth in one year and therefore placing him in special education would do nothing for him that he can’t already have (except label him).

      • You are missing the point. A child can have a disability (yes dyslexia as it is clearly stated under SLD) but not require specially designed instruction. You must have a disability AND evidence a need for specially designed instruction. Specially designed instruction allows children to access the curriculum in an appropriate manner.

    • Teacherclarabelle says:

      In Arizona, at least, the dyslexia is recognized as a reading disability, the ADHD is covered in Other Health Impairment, and I have never heard of the third one. As to the child being a “504 Kid” not a “special education kid”, they are nuts, in my opinion. Every disorder/disability/eligibility has a spectrum to it, and the services the child receives are determined where they are on that spectrum. For instance, I have had students who are, technically Mildly Intellectually Disabled, but who manage well in general education classes with some modifications. I’ve also had some students who are MID who end up in a totally self-contained situation where they get grade-level concepts but at a level they can handle academically.

      • Krista L. says:

        think about it this way. I have dyslexia, I received 504 benefits in school, right? I was pulled out of class for an hour a day for one on one reading help. But here in Texas if the school decides to label you special education you no longer get the rights to a regular room at all and get thrown in a room where you don’t belong. the special education program in America is on a downward slide and people don’t even realize it.

    • Just because a child has a 504 does not mean they cannot qualify for an IEP. A 504 provides accommodations. And IEP provides specially designed instruction AND accommodations. Some kids can be successful with just a 504 and DO NOT require specially designed instruction in order to make adequate progress. Perhaps that’s what the school is trying to say…?

  9. If my child has 5 qualifying factors, how do I know which one should be the primary and the secondary on the IEP?

    • To be honest, it does not matter. The school should program for all of their needs regardless of which is primary. A school psychologist will make that decision and it should be a sound decision as they have years worth of schooling.

  10. My daughter has binocular disorder, (dyslexia), ADHD, Bipolar Disorder, and Sever Depressive Disorder. She has been in a residential facility for 3 months and her 504 team refuses to find her eligible for an IEP. Her working memory is 79 and her overall IQ is 98. She is reading at a 5th grade level, but does really well in math. I really want her to get more services and step down to a less restrictive environment such as a therapeutic day school, but the team will not allow it on a 504 and she is not getting approved for an IEP. I have an advocate from the Disability Resource Center, and I am a special education teacher who works with kids with Emotional Disabilities who have IEP’s. Please explain what I can do to help with getting her services.

  11. I’m about to go into the ER IEP update meeting that the school determined my 6yo has a LD (Already receives ST). She is a year behind with reading and .5 years behind in math. However, they will not really change what they are doing. She brought home the new IEP for me to review/sign last night. So I only had 16 hours to review. They have TItle1 support for all K-2 with reading/math delays. It is not learning support. Just extra federal funded help. School says she will make up the year by June because she reached a benchmark. Because she is slowly improving, not caught up, they will not give her learning support. They recognize she is a visual spatial learner but not really addressing it in accommodations. I have to play the waiting game for the next six months hoping they are right. Otherwise I will have the data to prove they need more interventions or do they get to say she stays in the Federal program another year?

    • Angela Harris says:

      Schools have moved away from “labels” because the research shows that many sped students actually get further behind for a variety of reasons…That is where RTI [response to intervention] was “adopted”. Pulling out of the classroom for “resources means that your child may miss “other ” work with their peers..At age 6 sometimes time is a factor…we do not walk, talk or toilet train at a specific age..

  12. Tricia E says:

    Does the child need to be seen by a medical doctor to determine qualification?

  13. My son, 9, was diagnosed with dyslexia last year and all 2nd grade has been receiving an hour of dyslexia intervention every day. He is making some progress, but not enough, so the school did a SpED evaluation at our request. School officials tell us his dyslexia does not qualify under IDEA as specific learning disability. In order to get him more services (pull-out / resource help), they said he could qualify as Other Health Impairment if he gets a doctor to sign a form saying he has ADHD. Although he is ‘all boy’ he rarely gets in trouble at school and usually when he does it’s for talking without permission once every few weeks. During an observation, the LSSP said that on an afternoon after a field trip and with lots of action in the room, my son was on task 93% of the time. The counselor said that the diagnostician & LSSP might be pushing for OHI, just to get him extra help even though he really doesn’t seem to fit the ADHD profile. Many of the ADHD characteristics his teacher says he has could also be because of his dyslexia (per counselor, LSSP, diagnostician). Can my son qualify for Special Education Services just with the Dyslexia or should I get my dr. to sign the OHI form even though it isn’t clear he actually has ADHD? I’m not opposed to having him diagnosed with ADHD if he actually has it. However, if it is the only way to get him Special Education services I feel like we have to do it. The principal & counselor say that it’s worth getting the diagnosis to see if the resource pull-outs help….. but that’s a heavy diagnosis, just to get help I think he could get already having a dyslexia diagnosis. HELP!


  1. […] Classes are only given to specific individuals who qualify and are not all integrated classes (Eligibility: Determining Whether a Child is Eligible for Special Education Services). Originally those with disabilities were sent off to a separate school all of their own. In 1971 […]

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