This is a tricky question because there are only a few avenues for services helping children with learning disabilities. Most commonly, students need to have demonstrated struggle in an academic area, and they need to have been provided some in-school intervention (this is called Response to Intervention or “RTI”). RTI was established to lower the risk of over-referral of students for special education services. Some students just haven’t been taught properly or enough!
If after RTI a child is still struggling, the school district may recommend that the child get evaluated by a neuropsychologist or educational psychologist. The school board must provide one, although wait times can be long. The student may then receive an Individualized Education Program (IEP) if it is deemed that they require additional support.
What is An IEP?
The IEP is a legal document that lists what services students require, what their goals are, what accommodations are available, and when the IEP will be revisited (typically one year, but with quarterly or semi-annual benchmarks).
Specifically, the IEP will include recommendations for:
Classroom type typically for students with LD’s. This will be a general education classroom ("mainstream") or Integrated Co-Teaching (ICT) classroom, where a general education and a special education teacher work together in the same room.
Related service providers such as speech language therapy, occupational therapy, SEIT (Special Education Itinerant Teacher) services, all of which can vary by frequency, length, and grouping (individual, in a group, or in the classroom, for example) or paraprofessionals.
Accommodations can be anything from assistive technology tools (e.g. access to audiobooks, dictation software, calculator), classroom accommodation (e.g. preferential seating, reduction of distractions, diverse response types), testing accommodations (e.g. extended time, having questions read orally, necessitating typed responses, requiring minimally distracting or small group environment), and any exemptions they may qualify for (e.g. languages, testing).
What Services Do Public Schools Have to Provide?
There is no "one size fits all" list of what services a school must provide to students with learning disabilities or learning differences.
That's because services are meant to be individual and specific to your child, and each child's LD manifests itself differently, thus warrants different supports. The school board is required to give you Free and Appropriate Public Education (FAPE), thanks to the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) of 2004, which is legally binding in all states.
How “appropriate” is defined is dependent on a few factors, such as a child’s evaluation, information from teachers and parents, and demonstrated progress and/or challenges, despite being provided with quality education. The goal of the school board is to provide students with the Least Restrictive Environment (LRE) that they can thrive in to ensure that resources are allocated appropriately, and that all students are appropriately challenged.
FAPE also means that at an IEP meeting, the only reason that recommendations may be rejected is if students have demonstrated mastery of the target skill, or if the recommendation is deemed too restrictive. Schools may not reject recommendations because they do not have the personnel to provide those services. FAPE requires that if there are no public schools in your area that meet your child’s needs, the school district and government need to provide you with access to an appropriate alternative. They may provide you with paperwork to allow you to access a related service provider at a nearby clinic or in your home, they may provide transportation to a school that is slightly further, and in rare cases, they will provide reimbursement or a voucher for a nearby special education private school.
When and How Will I Hear More?
Once a year, the IEP is reviewed and parents or guardians are invited to attend the conference that summaries the progress made as well as the remaining goals. Every part of the IEP is reviewed, progress is reported, and goals and accommodations are renewed. Parents need to sign the IEP for it to continue to go into effect. If you do not agree with the IEP, you may appeal it. This can be a difficult, so speak to parents, teachers, special educators, or local advocates or lawyers for support about how to navigate the process of fighting for more or different services for your child.
What Else Do I Need to Know?
IDEA is a federal law, thus states are required to provide at least as much as that law dictates. States differ in what additional services they can and do provide. For example, some states have vouchers or scholarship programs specifically for students with disabilities, and New York State is currently in talks about easing reimbursement for special education private schools.
Where Can I Read More?
The Center for Parent Information & Resources tells you how to find a Parent Center (each state has one) to help you navigate the special education process, along with resources about everything from advocacy to technology.
State Education Agencies oversee special education services and procedures in each state. Find your state to read the most accurate information for you.
This Advocates for Students Guide outlines the process of obtaining an IEP, and provides helpful tips about appeals, due process hearings, and advocacy.
For those of you into technical language, NADSE has a report about state-by-state policies and services for students with specific learning disabilities.