What Qualifies a Child for Special Education? A Texas Parent’s Guide

What Qualifies a Child For Special Education

As parents, we spend countless hours researching the best developmental activities, peeking into the backseat to check on napping babies, and worrying over every fever and bruise. We know our children better than anyone else. So when we notice learning, attention, or behavioral struggles, it’s worrying.

You may lay awake at night wondering if your child needs special help in school. Questions race through your mind about evaluations, eligibility, and services. At Shields Law, we help Texas families just like yours understand the process and advocate for support. This article will walk through how schools determine eligibility, explain the disability categories, and offer tips to navigate the system.

Eligibility for Special Education

To be eligible for special education services, a student must (1) have a disability and (2), as a result of the disability, need special education services to benefit from education.

As listed under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), qualifying disabilities include:

  1. Autism Spectrum Disorder — Characterized by challenges with social interaction, communication, and restrictive/repetitive behaviors. For example, Rachel rarely makes eye contact and has trouble relating to peers.
  2. Deaf-Blindness — Concurrent hearing and vision loss impacting communication, learning, orientation, and mobility.
  3. Emotional Disturbance — Difficulty learning due to psychiatric conditions like clinical depression, bipolar disorder, and anxiety. Jackson’s anxiety causes school avoidance, crying spells, and thoughts of self-harm.
  4. Hearing Impairment — A hearing impairment not covered by the definition of deafness, affecting language development, communication, and learning. Even with hearing aids, Caleb struggles to distinguish speech sounds.
  5. Intellectual Disability — Significantly below-average thinking and reasoning abilities, along with deficits in everyday living skills. Despite accommodations, Victor is performing academically at a 1st-grade level in 4th grade.
  6. Deafness — A diagnosis of deafness.
  7. Multiple Disabilities — Having two or more disabilities, such as intellectual disability combined with cerebral palsy affecting mobility and learning.
  8. Orthopedic Impairment — Limitations in motor skills and mobility from congenital anomalies, disease, or injury like club foot, fractures, spina bifida, or arthritis. For example, spina bifida confines Rose to a wheelchair.
  9. Other Health Impairments — Conditions that limit a child’s strength, attention, or alertness, like ADHD, asthma, epilepsy, etc. For instance, owing to his epilepsy, transitioning between tasks triggers seizures for James.
  10. Specific Learning Disability — Difficulty with reading, writing, and math despite adequate intelligence, often called a learning disorder like dyslexia dysgraphia. Though bright, Michael struggles to decode words.
  11. Speech or Language Impairment — Problems understanding or using spoken language related to articulation, fluency, or pragmatics. At age 5, Mark has limited vocabulary and difficulty communicating beyond basic needs.
  12. Traumatic Brain Injury — An acquired brain injury leading to deficits in cognition, behavior, social skills, and/or physical functioning. After a car accident, Tina has memory gaps, distractibility, and emotional dysregulation.
  13. Visual Impairment Including Blindness — Partial or total vision loss or blindness affecting access to print, mobility, and learning. Luis has a degenerative retinal condition causing increasing tunnel vision.

As you can see, eligibility depends on the specifics of the disability category, symptoms, and educational impact. By far, specific learning disabilities, ADHD, autism, and speech/language disorders are most prevalent.

A Team Effort: The Special Education Evaluation Process

Special education provides individualized instruction and services for students with disabilities that impact educational progress. But how do you know if your child qualifies?

It begins with a comprehensive evaluation to identify any disability interfering with learning and determine if your child needs specialized teaching. Areas assessed include:

  • Cognitive abilities like reasoning, memory, and processing speed
  • Academic skills in reading, writing, math, and other subjects
  • Communication and language ability, including articulation, vocabulary, and social language
  • Motor and sensory skills like coordination, balance, vision, hearing
  • Social, emotional, and behavioral skills, including mood, focus, tantrums

In Texas, an ARD/IEP Committee makes decisions about eligibility. School professionals like psychologists, speech therapists, occupational therapists, physical therapists, and your child’s classroom teachers conduct a Full Individual Evaluation (FIE).

They also consider any academic or behavioral interventions attempted in class and your child’s response. For example, Kelly struggled with reading, so her school tried small group instruction with the reading specialist twice a week. However, after 12 weeks, she made minimal progress, so they initiated testing.

Importantly, your unique input and observations as the parent are a critical piece, too. You offer perspectives others can’t. For instance, you see challenges with homework, socializing, and self-care skills at home. Documenting real examples provides the team with a full picture of how the disability manifests day-to-day.

Within 30 days following the evaluation, the committee meets to review the report and determine whether the student is eligible for special education services. This group includes you, your child’s teacher, school administrators, and assessing professionals. 

If they determine your child has a qualifying disability needing specialized instruction, they develop an IEP – an Individualized Education Program or 504 plan. These crucial documents outline the services, accommodations, instructional modifications, and goals designed to meet your child’s needs.

How to Request a Special Education Evaluation

If you suspect your child may have a disability affecting learning, you have the right to request an evaluation from the school. You can submit a written request to your child’s teacher or school administrator. Include specific concerns like falling behind in reading or difficulty focusing in class.

The school has 15 school days to respond to your request. If the school agrees to evaluate, they must provide written notice proposing to evaluate,  a copy of the procedural safeguards notice, and an opportunity for you to give written consent. If approved, the school must complete the initial evaluation within 45 school days of parental consent.

Tips to Advocate During the Evaluation Process

Having a child evaluated for special education services is often stressful and confusing. Here are a few tips as you navigate the process:

  • Learn all you can about the disability categories and eligibility criteria. Understanding the terminology and meeting diagnostic standards is key to communicating needs.
  • Track examples at the home of the specific struggles you notice, like tantrums, forgetting homework, and inability to make friends. Your real-world observations provide critical context.
  • Ask questions throughout. It’s your right to understand the scope of testing, the meaning of results, and recommendations.
  • Share medical, psychological, or tutor evaluations you have. These offer additional perspectives.
  • If you disagree with the school’s evaluation findings, request an independent educational evaluation at the district’s expense.
  • Keep the focus on identifying needed services, not just applying a label. This enables progress.

At Shields Law, our special education lawyers have proudly helped hundreds of Texas families seeking appropriate special education services for their children. Remember, there are options to assist your child’s learning, whether they qualify for an IEP or not. Contact us today, and we’ll help you understand your rights, navigate confusing procedures, and, most importantly, make sure your child gets the tools needed to reach their potential.

Author Bio

Kevin Piwowarski Shields

Kevin Shields

Kevin Shields is a Founding Member and Special Education Lawyer at Shields Law Firm, representing children and families in special needs matters throughout Texas. Before becoming a lawyer, Kevin worked as a general education teacher and fought for increased inclusion time for his students receiving services. He advocated for his students by calling out providers who missed sessions and was often the dissenting voice at the IEP table.

Kevin obtained his Juris Doctor from Georgetown University Law School and holds a Bachelor of Arts from the University of Texas at Austin. He is admitted to practice law in Texas, Maryland, and Washington, D.C. He is also a member of the Council of Parent Attorneys and Advocates (COPAA) and holds memberships in the State Bar of Texas, focusing on School Law, Juvenile Law, and Child Protection Law. He is also a member of the Academy of Special Needs Planners.

Facebook | State Bar Association | Google

Skip to content