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Greer Gurland
BY Greer Gurland

5+ Special Education Terms Parents Need to Know

FAPE … LRE … IDEA … I confess: my children’s IEPs read like they were written in a foreign language. It took me a while to figure out what I was even reading, let along what it all meant. But special education law and your children’s documents should always be understandable. To that end, let me share a list of five must-know acronyms and terms (or groups of terms) that every parent of a child with learning differences or other special needs should know.

Knowing how to speak the language of special education helps you as a parent make effective requests. It also lets the school team know that you are an educated parent advocate–which is just what your child needs.

1. IDEA = Individuals with Disabilities Education Act

IDEA (with all its subsequent modifications) is the federal law that gives children with disabilities the same right to an appropriate education as children without special needs. Parents should know that IDEA is not just about test scores. IDEA has three stated purposes:

• readying students to pursue their education after high school
• preparing students for employment
• helping students learn to live independently, to the extent possible.

Federal law lists thirteen classifications under which children can qualify for special education. While the program known as Early Intervention provides services to children ages 0-three, public school districts are charged with providing special education and related services to students from age three through 21 (in some cases) whose disabilities necessitate it in order to make progress.

Another key provision of IDEA is that parents are vital participants in decision-making for their children. This means that parents have a right not only to share information and voice concerns, but also to decide as part of a team along with teachers and/or other professionals what programs and services are appropriate for the child.

2. FAPE = Free Appropriate Public Education

IDEA states that children with special needs are entitled to a “free, appropriate public education”. Free means at no cost to the parent—including the cost of transportation if needed to take a child to a school other than the child’s home school in order to place the child in an appropriate program. Appropriate is a critical term that parents need to understand. A program is considered “appropriate” for a child when the child in that program makes meaningful gains. “Meaningful,” in turn, means that the child is benefiting from the program, not regressing or stagnating. An “appropriate” program is not necessarily the best program. Also, progress is determined not by report cards but by measuring the child’s achievement versus his or her potential using standardized tests.

3. IEP = Individualized Education Program

An IEP is the written document that the school, in conjunction with a student’s parents, creates in order to describe the special education program for the child. Parents should know that the IEP grows out of the child’s needs. If the school does not have in place the program or services that the team believes the child needs, IDEA charges the IEP team with finding that program or creating it.

The IEP should set goals for the child for one year, but the team should revise it throughout the year, as needed, to ensure that the child’s program is appropriate. If parents are concerned about their child’s progress, it is completely appropriate for them to request a meeting of the IEP team to address those concerns. IDEA gives parents the right to do so.

4. LRE = Least Restrictive Environment

Educating children in the “least restrictive environment” is part of IDEA’s mandate. What this means is that schools must educate students, to the extent possible, close to home and with their non-disabled peers. Parents need to know that LRE is not the same location for every child. The IEP team needs to consider the child’s unique profile.

An environment cannot be the LRE for a child if the child fails to make meaningful progress in that environment. Special education attorneys often speak of finding the so-called “sweet spot”—that placement in which students are in an environment that is not unnecessarily restrictive, but also is tailored enough so that the student receives the supports that he or she needs to make meaningful progress.

5. OTs, PTs, SLPs = Occupational Therapists, Physical Therapists, Speech-Language Pathologists

This set of acronyms represents three of the most common related services that children with special needs have as part of their IEPs, and the folks who provide them. The school provides these so-called related services to children, most often during the child’s school day. Parents should know that schools are required to assess students in all areas of suspected disability. Parents may ask for their child to evaluated for OT, PT, and speech therapy, but also in other areas if they have concerns.

Physical therapists will help your child with gross motor skills, like walking, running, and jumping. Occupational therapists will help with fine motor skills, like writing,, coloring, and cutting, and may also address sensory-integration issues. Speech-language pathologists help children with producing the sounds of speech, using language to express themselves, and processing the language they hear.

Schools have provided psychiatric evaluations, functional behavioral assessments, and assistive technology evaluations, to name a few. Parents can also bring private evaluations to the school districts. IDEA requires school IEP teams to consider this information.

Parents should take heart in the fact that education is more than academics, and special education is not just for students with poor grades or who are failing in school. Education is a broad concept that encompasses emotional, social, and behavioral challenges that may interfere with a students ability to function in school. Students’ IEP programs have included supports for such emotional, behavioral, social, and other concerns.

In addition to OTs, PTs, and SLPs, parents should know that behaviorists and school psychologists are two additional types of professionals who can play an important role in helping children whose disabilities affect their ability to function in school.

… and lots more

There are, of course, many many other acronyms and technical terms that may be thrown around by professionals in IEP meetings and the reams of paperwork that go along with them. Yet to work effectively to meet each child’s needs, all members of the team need to be able to speak the same language. Sp don’t hesitate to ask for clarification of a term or any other procedure, program or policy. Federal law makes you, the parent, a vital part of your child’s IEP team.

Find a source of strength in you to be that confident mom or dad at the IEP table, unafraid to ask any question that helps you get the information you need. Because no one cares like you. You are your child’s best advocate, and your child needs you.

For longer lists of special education terms, visit these online resources:

“Glossary of Special Education and Legal Terms” from Wrightslaw
“Disability Terms and Definitions” from Council for Exceptional Children
“Terms in Special Education” from Do2Learm
“IEP Terms to Know” from
“Glossary” from The Iris Center

Greer Gurland

Written on March 16, 2017 by:

Greer Gurland Esq., a Harvard Law School graduate and a mother of children with special needs, is the author of the 2016 multiple award winning How To Advocate Successfully for Your Child: What Every Parent Should Know About Special Education Law, available in English and Spanish. The book is a quick read packed with Ms. Gurland's personal and professional expertise delivered without legalese. It is designed to answer the questions many parents would ask a special education attorney if they could, and contains answers to these questions, as well as model forms and letters for parents to use. Parents describe reading the book as like getting engrossed in a conversation with a good friend (who happens to be a special education attorney)—the kind that goes out of her way to help you out. Ms. Gurland also received a 2017 “Best Lawyers for Families” Award from Family Magazine. (Photo: Sussan, Greenwald & Wesler)