The most significant level of support available to a student in a public school is special education,
sometimes referred to as "IEP" services.
IEP stands for Individualized Educational Plan. It is governed by federal law as well as state rules and guidelines. An IEP is for students who meet criteria for one or more of a variety of educational disabilities outlined by state and federal law. The IEP contains, most fundamentally, three different parts:
The first is a section that outlines the services that a student will receive. The second is the section that outlines the accommodations that they need. The third section identifies the goals that the student will be working on over the course of a year.
Each year the IEP team (parents, teachers and service providers) meet to review the plan, the student's progress, and make changes as needed. Every three years the team determines whether or not the student continues to qualify for services.
Students can have IEPs for everything from speech articulation issues, learning disabilities, ADHD, emotional or behavioral problems to severe physical and/or intellectual disabilities. Schools have a legal obligation to proactively "find" children with disabilities. This does not mean, however, that in the busyness of a full classroom, students don't at times fall through the cracks.
In particular, students who do not have behavior issues may not readily come to the attention of school personnel. Or alternatively, students with learning issues may act out because they don't want to look "stupid", resulting in school staff viewing the child as a behavior problem and not seeing the underlying disability.
In addition, teachers may not be aware of how much support a student is receiving at home. For these reasons, it is not uncommon for parents to be the ones to first express concern regarding their child to the school.
If you find yourself in this position, the first step is to express your concerns to the teacher and find out whether or not they share your concern. If they do not, listen carefully to why they are not concerned. If you do not feel that your concerns are being taken seriously, then the next step would be to contact the school administration (principal or assistant principal) and request that a problem solving meeting occur with the teacher, an administrator, and relevant specialists in attendance (e.g. learning disabilities teacher, psychologist, social worker and/or speech pathologist).
At this meeting of the minds, the team should discuss the data currently available such as state test scores and classroom assessments. The team may also want to consider whether doing some initial screening in a specific area may provide the additional data necessary to determine whether or not a full special education evaluation is in order.
Ultimately, you as a parent do have a legal right to demand that the school complete a special education evaluation.
Before "playing that card", however, try to work collaboratively with the school team to carefully consider whether or not this is appropriate. I have seen situations where schools have resisted a parents' pleas to evaluate the student only to find that the student does indeed have a disability and qualifies for services. I have also seen situations in which a school acquiesces to a parents demand for an evaluation in the absence of any evidence of a disability, only ending in the frustration of many hours of wasted time of professionals that could have been spending that time working with truly disabled students.
When it comes to qualifying for an IEP, it must be agreed by the IEP team that the student "cannot receive reasonable educational benefit from general education alone." This is, of course, fairly subjective with meeting or not meeting the criteria but also a high standard to meet.
To determine whether or not the student qualifies for an IEP, specialists do testing in relevant areas. This should, for most students, include a full academic evaluation to assess the student's reading, writing and math skills, a cognitive evaluation (IQ test) to determine how your student processes information and also a social/emotional evaluation exploring the student's attention skills, emotional regulation skills and ability to conform their behavior to the demands of the environment.
It may also include a speech and language evaluation and the evaluation of an occupational therapist. Your students' vision and hearing should also be tested as a part of this process. Once this testing is completed (60 days at most), the team (including parents!) meets to review the testing and determine whether or not the student meets criteria for an educational disability and therefore qualifies for IEP services.
It is important to note that services, goals and accommodations should be crafted to meet the unique needs of YOUR child.
The goal is always to provide the necessary services while having as minimal of an impact as possible on your child's school experience by keeping them with their regular education peers to the greatest extent possible. While for some students this may mean an alternative learning environment, this is very unusual. For the vast majority of special education students, their school experience looks only slightly different.