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Tim Villegas
BY Tim Villegas

The Most Important Thing Parents Need To Understand About Special Education

Are parents expecting too much from special education? My thoughts on what parents need to understand about special education.

“What we’ve got here is failure to communicate” – Cool Hand Luke

Imagine this scenario

It is Friday afternoon and the conference room is filling with professionals. The special education teacher, general education teacher, speech therapist, occupational therapist, physical therapist, school principal, school district representative and special education nurse are all sitting at the table. In a few minutes parents of a child with special needs will walk through the door with an advocate.

The school staff is expecting a fight about related services. The mood is tense and there are more than a few snarky things said before the parents walk in. The parents on the other hand are prepared not to budge on their position and are expecting to push for their child’s right to services in order to benefit from special education.

What is the best way to think about this situation? Who is right? Who is wrong? Is there a right answer?
While this example is intentionally vague, if you are a parent or teacher of children with special needs, you have probably experienced something like this at least once. The problem, in my view, is a failure to communicate. The failure goes beyond the school district and extends to the family as well. Communication is a two way street and it is just as important for the family to communicate the needs of their child to the school as it is for the school to survey the parents on their strengths.

Are parents expecting too much from special education?

The promise of special education is not to fix students’ imperfections but to give every child equal access to learning. When the school district recommends services, whether they are for specialized instruction or related services it should be an informed decision based on assessment. These services should never be based on what we think would be “nice” or even “beneficial” for the student. We certainly do not need an Individualized Education Program (IEP) to provide best practices for teaching. These should already be in place. In addition to this, special education services should be thought of in terms of access to general education.

Special Education is Just Like Ramps to a Building

Think about special education much like the ramps of access to a building. Special education is the service that helps students with disabilities access their education. Without this service they would not be able to access learning which in turn denies them a free and appropriate education (FAPE).

The breakdown, in my opinion, happens when parents request services that their children do not need to access their education. Every child is different and will fall on some sort of spectrum in regards to how they learn. This does not mean, however, that a child needs special education if they are getting bad marks. It also does not mean that a school can deny a child services because they are getting good grades either. The point is that what you see the purpose of special education is…matters. It can cloud the mind of even the most thoughtful parent. Services are provided for students to make “meaningful educational benefit”.

What do the Courts Say?

“Courts have held that to receive a free appropriate public education, the child must receive meaningful educational benefit. Courts have also held that while children with disabilities are entitled to a free appropriate education, they are not entitled to the “best” education, nor to an education that “maximizes” the child’s potential. Strike these terms from your vocabulary.” – Wrightslaw

Let’s wrap up on a positive note. I am absolutely for parents advocating for their child’s education. I am for good school to home communication for every child. I am for IEPs that are respectful and that have parents that are active participants. I am for parents who understand their rights and are prepared to go to due process to give their children access to education. What I would like to do is encourage parents to think about what their children really need and what they deserve from special education.

What is your understanding of “meaningful educational benefit”? Do you think parents are expecting too much from special education?

Tim Villegas

Written on April 8, 2014 by:

Tim Villegas has worked in the field of special education and with people with disabilities for over ten years. Tim has turned his passion for blogging and promoting ideas about inclusive schools and communities into his own website, He believes that we can create a bridge between educators, parents, and advocates (including self-advocates) to promote ideas, innovation and inspiration to change our world to be more accepting and value each and every human being. Tim lives with his fetching wife and three adorable children in Marietta, GA. Follow him on Twitter, Facebook, and Google+.