Special Education 101

When you have a child with a disability, it is important to understand how special education works so that you make sure your child gets the services he or she needs. Special education is complex and can be confusing to families that may also be dealing with serious medical issues. RedTreehouse.org can help you understand what the law says about your rights and responsibilities.

This guide is intended to help families set reasonable expectations and learn how to work in partnership with their child’s school district for the best possible educational outcome.

What laws govern Special Education?

Although there are many federal laws and state regulations that play a role in special education, the most important special education law is the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act – IDEA.

IDEA guarantees students with disabilities the right to a “free and appropriate public education” (FAPE) in the “least restrictive environment” (LRE).

Understanding exactly what that means can take time. Fortunately, there is a lot of information available to help parents understand IDEA. Some of the most useful sources can be found on RedTreehouse.org:

In Ohio parents should also be familiar with the state regulations found in the Ohio Operating Standards for the Education of Children with Disabilities (Ohio Operating Standards). Red Treehouse can connect you to an electronic copy.

One additional federal law that parents should be aware of is Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act, commonly referred to as simply “Section 504.” This civil rights law prohibits discrimination against individuals with disabilities. Section 504 can be especially important to those students who have disabilities but do not qualify for special education. Click here to learn more about Section 504.

Who is eligible for Special Education?

To be eligible for special education, a child must:

  1. Be between the ages of 3 and 21 years.
  2. Have a specific disability as defined in IDEA (see the list) and
  3. Require special education to make progress in school.

If it is determined through an evaluation that a child is eligible for special education, an IEP (Individualized Education Program) will be created. An IEP is a legal document that describes what special education and related services the child will receive.

Students who have a disability but who do not meet the eligibility requirements may still be eligible to receive some help in a general education setting under a 504 Plan. These students will not however have an IEP and do not receive special education.

For more information about 504 plans see the Red Treehouse family resource guide, The "411" on 504 Plans.  

Although children with a disability who are under the age of 3 are not eligible for special education, they may be eligible for Early Intervention Services

For more information about Early Intervention see the Red Treehouse family resource guide, Early Intervention.

The ABCs of Special Education

Key acronyms (abbreviations) and terms

There are many acronyms (abbreviations) and terms that are frequently used in special education. Sometimes educators and other professionals forget that parents may be unfamiliar with these. Don’t be afraid to ask your child’s education team to define terms for you and to write things down because many of the terms sound alike and it is easy to get them mixed up.

Luckily there are many websites that contain definitions of these acronyms and terms. Here are a couple of resources:

Student's and parent’s rights

Parents and their children have rights and protections under IDEA. These protections are called “procedural safeguards.”  They are designed to help parents play an active role in their child’s special education. It is good to become familiar with these procedural safeguards so that you can get the best outcome for your child. The Ohio Department of Education publishes a Guide to Parent Rights in Special Education, which is the best way for Ohio families to learn about their rights. Your Ohio public school district is required to provide a copy of this guide to you at least once a year.

For more information about parental rights under IDEA check out the following:

Additionally, IDEA requires that each state must have at least one PTI (Parent Training & Information Center). The main purpose of the PTI is to provide support to parents and free information to allow them to make the most of their child’s education. PTIs provide information about parental rights not only under IDEA but also Section 504 and the ADA. A list of every PTI in the United States can be found here. Ohio’s PTI is the Ohio Coalition for the Education of Children with Disabilities (OCECD). The OCECD holds many free workshops you can find on RedTreehouse.org.

Working in partnership with your child’s school district

The best way to help your child get a good education is to establish a positive relationship with his or her school district.  Although you may hear horror stories about parents having to “fight” with their school district to get services, don’t assume that you can’t have a good relationship with the district – many parents do.

It is important to have realistic expectations while advocating for your child. While every parent wants their child to receive the very best education, this is not what the law requires. The law simply requires that the education provided be “appropriate.” The school district’s responsibility is to educate your child and if you are requesting a service that is not directly linked to an educational goal, you may not be successful in obtaining the service even though it would benefit your child in general. This can be a difficult thing to accept.

Learn to “pick your battles” and compromise on things that are not essential to your child. In most cases it will be possible to work as a team with your school district to help your child. Check out these helpful tips for working with your school district.

Parent Mentor Program

A great resource for Ohio families is the Parent Mentor Program. Established in 1990, the Parent Mentor Program is funded by the Ohio Department of Education. Parent mentors are school district employees and parents of children with disabilities - they understand firsthand the challenges that families face. The parent mentor’s job is to provide resources, guidance and support to families. Some of the things parent mentors can help families with include:

  • Guiding families through the special education process.
  • Helping families understand their rights and responsibilities.
  • Providing information and resources to families and schools.
  • Engaging community services and other resources to support schools and families.
  • Attending IEP meetings and other meetings at the request of the parents or staff members.
  • Listening and supporting both the families and teachers on an individual basis.
  • Hosting information sessions or workshops for families and professionals.
  • Connecting families, schools and the community to benefit students with disabilities.

Parent mentors are now available in about one-third of the Ohio public school districts. To find out whether your district has a parent mentor, click here.

What to do when you don’t agree with the IEP

Sometimes parents and school districts disagree about a child’s IEP. This can be very upsetting to parents. The best thing to do is remain calm and remember that you do have options. You do not have to sign the IEP if you are not in agreement with it. You can also sign only part of the IEP and note that you disagree with other parts.

When you disagree with your child’s IEP, you should first try to informally resolve the disagreement directly with the IEP Team. If you are unable to resolve the dispute this way, IDEA provides several options to you including:

  • Mediation
  • Due Process Complaint/Hearing, potentially followed by a civil lawsuit
  • Complaint with the State Board of Education

There are several resources that provide good information to parents about these options and can help you understand whether you should seek legal help. RedTreehouse.org has links to several of these resources.


This guide was developed as part of a project made possible by a grant from the Ohio State Bar Foundation. The views expressed herein do not necessarily represent those of the Ohio State Bar Foundation.

Lead researcher/author: Helen Livingston Rapp, Esq., RedTreehouse.org Legal Intern

Missy Toms