The Special Education Model

Occupational therapy services are included under the umbrella of special education. This section presents an overview of the special education model. This process, specific to occupational therapy, will be discussed in separate sections (Early Intervening/RtI, Assessment, IEP Process, and Goals & Data Collection).


IDEA 2004 emphasizes a collaborative approach, therefore, special education services in the school setting are determined through a team process. The law requires school districts to work together with parents, students, general educators, special educators, and related service providers to create special education services. “The term ‘special education’ means specially designed instruction, at no cost to parents, to meet the unique needs of a child with a disability…” [IDEA 2004 TITLE I/A/602/29]. In order to receive special education services, a student must first be found eligible by being identified as having an eligible disability that prevents him or her from making effective progress in the general education program.



Instructional Support/Early Intervening


Prior to referring and placing a child in special education services, every effort should be made to meet the child’s needs within the general education program. The implementation of instructional support (early intervening or pre-referral strategies) is an opportunity to prevent student failure and help the student to succeed in the general education program. The general education program includes academic and non-academic offerings of the district.


1. The intent of federal regulations is to have all students educated with their peers to the extent possible, and appropriate instructional practices and supports enable this process. When a teacher identifies a student as being at risk, an instructional support team meets to design classroom strategies to support the student.  These efforts may include modifying the curriculum, teaching strategies, the environment or materials. The use of consultative or support services are also appropriate strategies. The make up of this team is at the discretion of the district.


2. A variety of strategies are tried for a designated period of time. These attempts and results are then documented and made part of the student's file. 


3. If the student continues to fail to make progress with instructional supports and strategies in place, he/she may be referred for a special education evaluation.


4. The instructional support/pre-referral process does not limit the right of the parent to refer the student for an evaluation at any time.


5. Students whose special education needs have already been established do not require the instructional support/pre-referral process. This may include a student moving into the district with an existing IEP, or a student who is turning three years old and who is on an Individualized Family Service Plan (IFSP).



Referral and Evaluation


An initial evaluation must be completed in order to determine eligibility for special education. When a student is referred for a special education evaluation, the team works through a formal assessment process to determine whether or not the referred student is eligible for special education services.


Informed parental consent is required for all evaluations.


Evaluations are conducted in all areas of suspected disability.


A variety of assessment tools and strategies must be used to gather relevant functional, developmental, and academic information that may assist in determining whether the student has a disability and the content of the individualized education program (IEP). The tools and strategies used must provide relevant information that directly assists in determining the educational needs of the student.


No single procedure is used to determine eligibility. A variety of testing methods are used so that the team is able to obtain a clear understanding of the student and the suspected disabilities. The student’s medical condition, the student’s medical doctor, or other medical specialists, do not determine which services a student requires in the public school setting.  The special education team makes these determinations.


Each evaluator generates written evaluation summary that addresses the reason for referral and includes the procedures used, the results, and the diagnostic impression, as well as a detailed description of the student’s needs, with explicit means of meeting them.




School personnel are required to adhere to precise timelines for eligibility determination and development of individualized educational plans which are outlined by IDEA and state special education statutes and regulations. Occupational therapy service providers in the schools are required to know and work within these timelines.



The Individualized Education Program (IEP) Process


The IEP process is a collaborative team process. The IEP team process has three important, integrated steps: eligibility determination, IEP development, and placement.


Eligibility determination begins with the evaluation process. Upon completion of the evaluations, a team meeting is held. At the meeting, the team must determine whether a child is eligible for special education services. If the team has found the student to be eligible for special education, they then discuss, plan and generate the written IEP document, which describes and acts as a service contract that guides the student’s special education services for the next year. Once all of the elements of the IEP are in place, the team makes a placement decision.


Eligibility Determination


At the meeting, the evaluations are reviewed and the team uses all of the information gathered in the evaluation process to understand the student and the student’s participation needs so that they can then make a determination of eligibility. There are two criteria that must be met in order for a student to be eligible for special education:  a child must have a disability and must need special education services and related services.


Eligibility Questions:


1. Does the student have a disability?

The Individuals with Disabilities Act of 2004 (IDEA) lists 11 disability categories:

Mental retardation

Hearing impairments (including deafness)

Speech or language impairments

Visual impairments (including blindness)

Emotional disturbance

Orthopedic impairments


Traumatic Brain Injury

Other health impairments

Specific learning disabilities

Developmental delay (for students age 3-9 as defined by each state)


2. Does the student, because of this disability, need special education and related services?


IEP Development


The Individualized Education Program (IEP) is a written statement of the educational program designed to meet a child’s individual needs. Every child who receives special education services must have a written IEP. The IEP is developed and implemented by the team following an initial evaluation and determination of eligibility.


Development of the IEP is a collaborative team process. When developing the IEP, the team must consider the child’s strengths, the parent’s concerns related to the education of their child, evaluation results, the academic, developmental and functional needs of the child. In developing the IEP, the team uses all available information to:


1. Identify student needs

2. Prioritize student needs

3. Determine goal areas based on prioritized needs

4. Develop measurable annual goals

5. Determine which team members can most effectively address the goals and in what role

   (where, when, and with what frequency)




The final step of IEP process is establishing placement. Placement is determined by the IEP team and is based on the child’s IEP and consideration of least restrictive environment (LRE).  LRE means that, to the maximum extent appropriate, children with disabilities are education with children who are non-disabled.  Therefore, the first placement option considered by the team is always the general education setting that the student would be placed in if he or she was not disabled.





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