One of the most common concerns from parents about their child’s language development is “How do I get my child the help that she needs?” If you are a parent asking this question about your child, you are not alone.
In the United States, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) guarantees all children with disabilities access to a free and appropriate public education. Under IDEA part B, a child with a disability, including developmental language disorder (DLD), is eligible for treatment from ages 3 to 21 if the disability affects academic functioning. There are two questions that must be answered before the public school will provide special services to support your child:
- Does your child have a disability in a category that is recognized under federal law?
- Does your child’s disability limit his/her ability to learn at school?
Here are the steps you can take to find the answers to these questions:
Step 1: Ask for an Evaluation at Your Child's Public School
Federal law says that your public school district must begin to evaluate your child quickly (60 days, or faster) and at no cost to you.
Put Your Request in Writing
Put your request in writing, include your child’s name, the date, your consent for the evaluation and a brief description of your concerns. If you have supporting evidence (outside evaluations, reports from teachers or daycare providers, etc.), include copies to support your request.
Your local public school is a good first stop even if your child is not yet in kindergarten, is homeschooled or is enrolled in a private school. Child Find requires that schools evaluate children suspected of having a disability.
Schools are required to help you get to the right place for an assessment if your child is under 5, not yet in kindergarten, or not enrolled in a public school.
If the school declines to do the assessment, they must tell you this in writing and explain why. You have the right to challenge this decision.
Tip: If you are concerned about your child, don’t wait until the next marking period, term, semester or school year – ask for the evaluation now, so that the clock starts ticking. You can always withdraw from the evaluation process later if your child’s performance changes.
Step 2: School Assessments
The recent reauthorization of IDEA requires that schools use multiple pieces of information to assess your child’s academic skills. A single assessment cannot enroll a child in special education services. This is meant to protect your child from being wrongly diagnosed. An assessment is likely to:
- Assess how your child learns the general curriculum while in a general education classroom and/or with small group supports. This is often done via a process called Response to Intervention (RTI) or Multi-Tiered Support Systems (MTSS). In this case, a child’s ability to do grade-level work is assessed. If the child isn’t succeeding, they are given more support, sometimes called Tier 2 instruction. Tier 2 instruction is usually provided in a small group with specialized curriculum or extra instruction. If they are learning well after Tier 2 instruction, the school may reassess their skills and return the student to the general curriculum or continue to provide small group supports. If they are struggling, they are referred on for additional assessment and supports, sometimes called Tier 3 or special education. The process of observing learning in Tier 1 and Tier 2 situations can take 6-12 weeks.
- If your child is not yet in school, this assessment can happen in a daycare or preschool or in your home. It will likely focus on life-functioning skills rather than academic skills, but it may still take time. For very young children it may draw on parent or caregiver report instead of direct observation.
- Although the school should use RTI or MTSS to determine eligibility based on function, they cannot delay or deny access to a formal evaluation or access to special education services while they do this. If the school has evidence from standardized test results or a pre-existing diagnosis that your child should be getting assistance, they do not HAVE to do RTI/MTSS style assessments first. In fact, the government says that they must not delay intervention unnecessarily. This is true for all ages.
- Assess your child’s abilities using standardized assessments that are culturally and linguistically appropriate. Your child will likely be tested by a speech-language pathologist or a psychologist. Testing will likely be scheduled during a school day in a quiet setting and may take one to two hours. For a child with DLD, this process should include formal assessment of language content (vocabulary, semantics), form (grammar, phonology) and use (conversation, narratives, explanations). Both comprehension (listening, reading) and production (speaking, writing) should be assessed. Different states will provide different cutoffs for who is eligible for services. Usually a child must score 1.5-2 standard deviations below the mean in one or more areas of functioning to be eligible for special education supports. Learn more about tests that are most likely to identify the presence of DLD here.
Step 3: Meet with the School After the Assessment is Complete
After the assessment is complete you should have a meeting with the school where they explain the results and your child’s eligibility for services. It is helpful to remember that the school’s obligation is to support your child’s academic success.
IDEA requires the use of 13 categories of special education. DLD is not a federally-recognized category, but it will likely fit within one of three recognized categories:
Learning Disability in the area of Language or Reading
Section 504 of the Americans with Disabilities Act prohibits discrimination against an individual with a disability. It provides a bigger umbrella for qualifying for services but requires fewer protections. Some children who do not qualify under IDEA may qualify under section 504. Many children with ADHD are served under section 504.
If Your Child is Eligible for Special Education
If your child is eligible for special education, the next step will be the development of an Individual Education Program (IEP) or a 504 plan. Children under 3 will receive an Individual Family Services Plan (IFSP) instead of an IEP. These are legal documents that describe the interventions and accommodations that you and the school agree are appropriate for your child. The school has 30 days to schedule an IEP meeting after your child’s assessment is complete.
If Your Child is Not Eligible for Special Education
If your child is not eligible for special education, the school must explain to you how they came to this decision. You have the right to challenge this decision if you disagree.