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What can schools offer? The spectrum of services

In the last post, we talked about the pretty recent birth of special education in the US. It’s not even 50 yet! After a quick refresher of how special ed came to be, we recognized the systemic shortcomings that plague our schools and impact our kids:

Special education was an add-on to a school system designed for general education students.

Special education teacher preparation is specified to only education specialists, even though most kids on IEPs spend most of their time in general education.

And, special education is federally mandated but not even halfway federally funded.

There it is, folks. The deepest source of our advocacy headaches.

In this episode, we’re going to talk about the spectrum of services available to students with disabilities. And to start, I’m gonna hand you a mantra: Special education is a service, not a placement.

A service, not a placement? Here’s the deal: we have to watch out that our kids are not dumped into special education classrooms or put on “tracks” that take graduation off the menu of options. We need to be aware that special education services can happen in any setting and are designed to be tailored to each student.

In other words, you can indeed have a kid who can rock an advanced math class and may also need small group support (in general ed or in a separate classroom) for writing. If we were to place this kid based on his lowest needs, then he’d be in a special day class and missing opportunities to reach his potential! Special education is a service.

So, how do you know what services you can ask for? How do schools decide what to offer? Let’s go over the basics of services available for general academic need. (We will talk about additional services, like speech or occupational therapy, in a different episode).

If your child has a disability and needs only accommodations, they may be best served with a 504 plan. This 504 plan outlines the small changes (called accommodations) the school can make to ease your child’s school experience and ensure their disability doesn’t prevent access to learning. For example, if your child has a physical disability that makes getting class to class difficult, he may have a 504 plan to accommodate PE with alternatives to runs or long walks; he may get help from a campus aide to drive him between classes or have extra passing period to move at his own pace.

Another example of a 504 plan happens a lot with students with ADHD. Maybe your child needs extra time for tests or a quiet space in which to focus. Those are reasonable things a school can provide that are small changes to accommodate for some of the disability-related challenges. That’s 504 territory.

504 plans are not technically special education, just because they fall under a different section of law. But, let’s be real. It’s going to be the same team at school, usually, who runs the show and updates the plan, possibly with the omission of the special ed teacher.

Ok, so what if a 504 plan’s accommodations aren’t enough to address some of the impact of your child’s disability? What if, for example, they have some academic or speech and language needs? That’s where an IEP would come in! IEPs are more robust than 504 plans and are considered special education. Caution right there, though: special education does NOT mean dumb. Special education means your child has a disability, and most disabilities do not impact intelligence.

IEP means an Individualized Education Plan. IEPs can include accommodations just like 504 plans. They can also include services from specialists to help your child advance with specific skills. They are meaty documents that describe what the school proposes to support your child in the coming year.

We will cover a lot of insider tips on IEPs, but for now, I want to just go over what academic services a school may offer and in which settings.

Districts often have a spectrum of services available for students, depending on the severity of the student’s needs. I made a visual for you in the resources. When services are needed for the full school day, let’s say for a child who needs significantly modified curriculum or teaching methods, then the school also might propose that the setting is a special education classroom or even special school.

The services and their settings are on a spectrum that’s described as “most to least restrictive.” The idea is that schools want to propose the most access to and time in general education as possible (in IEP language, this is the Least Restrictive Environment). (Side note: this least restrictive idea is commendable, but as you remember, that’s also putting our kids in with general ed teachers who may not have strong backgrounds in special ed).

Most restrictive services are home instruction or residential programs; they include no time with general education. Next most restrictive is a specialized school. These are often where districts will offer their programs for students with medical and academic needs.

Now we move to programs on a general education campus; next most restrictive service offering is full-time special ed in what schools usually call “special day classes.” Some of these special day class placements are flexible, allowing students to attend general ed for learning in their strongest subjects while getting more substantial help in the special day class, too.

After special day class, there is RSP or Resource or Pull Out…it goes by lots of names. This is when students are in general education for most of the day and go to a separate classroom for intensive instruction to meet their needs, on a set schedule. Most students on IEPs get this kind of help.

The least restrictive service happens in general education classrooms. Either students get small group help within their usual classroom, or they are in classes that are co-taught by a special and general educator.

That’s the spectrum of services for students with disabilities. I know, it’s a lot to chew on. So, I’ll recommend what I share with students, too. Experience this learning a few times. Grab the visual at or listen to the episode again. You can also read the transcript on the website, if you like visuals to help you learn!

Lastly, if you think your child may need a 504 plan or IEP, email your school psychologist, social worker (if you have one; these are more of an East Coast thing), and CC the school admin team (the principal and any vice principals). I have sample request letters you can use under the resources section. Make your request in writing and date it.

No matter what service your child receives, it’s important to understand the menu of options. Today you learned about the array of special ed services available, from residential placements to full-time general education. As you reflect on which types of services may best help your child, keep track of your own questions. You may even start a special ed binder or notebook, as we pave this path together!

So happy to have you here! Talk to you soon!

P.S. If you haven’t reached out yet, send an email to I’m taking your questions, and I’m here to lend an ear if you need to get your story out.

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