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Here is a basic roadmap, in general for ages birth to 5, on the special education process.

What Parents Need to Know about the Special Education Process for Young Children: Birth to 5

Published February 16, 2023

By Marion M. Walsh, Esq.

When parents suspect that their child may have a disability, the process can be daunting and filled with many emotions. Some parents learn that their child has a disability at or near birth. Others suspect a disability when their child does not meet early developmental milestones. If you or a child’s physician or provider suspect a disability, it is best to seek intervention and services as soon as possible.

Here is a basic roadmap, in general for ages birth to 5, on the special education process. The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) protects the rights of children with disabilities and requires the appropriate local agencies to identify, evaluate and refer children suspected of having a disability to determine eligibility for services.

Children Birth to 3: Early Intervention Services

For children younger than three, early intervention (EI) represents the earliest stage of the special education process. New York State’s Department of Health provides services through the Bureau of Early Intervention. EI refers to publicly funded supportive services given to eligible children younger than three. These services address developmental issues to give them better outcomes overall. To qualify children must have, or be at risk for, developmental delays. The early services focus on social-emotional and physical development provide the foundation upon which cognitive, language and adaptive living skills develop for children.

Early intervention services are critical for development as the connections in a child’s brain are most adaptable in the first three years. Ensuring that young children have access to inclusive early interventions during this critical period of development means that children will get the appropriate services and supports

Early intervention services focus on five areas of development with therapies and services available:

  • Physical, including walking, crawling, grasping, drawing (physical therapy, occupational therapy);
  • Cognitive, including thinking, reasoning, problem-solving (special education);
  • Social, including interacting with others, playing, acting appropriately;
  • Communication, talking, listening, understanding communicating (speech therapy); and
  • Adaptive, feeding, dressing, ability to help self (feeding therapy)

Part C of IDEA covers early intervention services. It states: “to the maximum extent appropriate to the needs of the child, early intervention services must be provided in natural environments, including the home and community settings in which children without disabilities participate.” This “natural environment” means the standard setting for the general peer group of the child in question, for example, at home or a daycare facility. This is an important distinction within Part C, and it ensures that early intervention services occur in places where they may be most effective and convenient for a child to receive. This is a legal mandate, not merely a best practice.

How Does a Child Become Eligible for Early Intervention?

In New York State, the first step to obtain EI services will be to refer your child to the Early Intervention Program (EIP), in the county where you live. While certain professionals are required to refer children to the EIP if a developmental problem is suspected, you also can and should make a referral if you believe your child is lagging behind same aged peers.

Upon referral, the EIP will provide you with a list of qualified evaluators to assess the child in all five areas above, at no charge; the parent may select from the list or can ask the EIP to assign someone. When the evaluations are complete, the EIP, parents and evaluators meet to discuss the results, assess eligibility and, if eligible, make service recommendations and assign a service coordinator. The service coordinator will help you get services and locate providers. Although health insurance, including private insurance and Medicaid, may be used to pay for early intervention services, EIP services must be provided at no cost to you and will not affect your insurance coverage.

Children 3-5: CPSE Process

When your child approaches their third birthday and still appears to need special education services, you or the EI service coordinator will refer them to the Committee on Preschool Education (CPSE) in your school district. If your child begins to attend a typical preschool, sometimes a child’s preschool teacher may refer your child. The CPSE will hold a meeting and will include school district personnel, your EI service coordinator, any preschool teachers, and perhaps one or more of your child’s service providers.  The CPSE may request to conduct updated evaluations prior to the meeting. Again, you can choose the evaluator from a list and your EI service coordinator or CPSE chair can help.

How will a Child Qualify for CPSE Services?

At the meeting, the CPSE will determine whether your child qualifies to be classified as a preschool student with a disability, and if so, which services are recommended. In New York State, a child ages 3-5, may be identified as a “preschool student with a disability” if the CPSE identifies the child as having a disability because of mental, physical or emotional reasons, which impact learning.

If the CPSE finds that your child is an eligible preschool student with a disability, the CPSE members, including parents, will develop an Individualized Education Program (IEP) for your child that will list the recommended services to be provided. The CPSE must provide the services in the Least Restrictive Environment (LRE), meaning with typical peers to the maximum extent possible. Some students qualify for related services only, such as speech language therapy, feeding therapy, physical therapy, occupational therapy, counseling, parent training or other services. The services can be provided at home, at day care, or at student’s private preschool.

Some children will also qualify for a special education program. These programs can include a Special Education Itinerant Teacher (SEIT) which is a special education teacher who will work with a child in a setting recommended by the CPSE; a special class in an integrated setting or a special class with only children with disabilities, depending on a student’s needs.

When the CPSE recommends that a publicly funded program for a child, generally all services need to be provided during the program hours, so a heavy related services schedule will take away from time in the classroom. For various reasons, parents might take a child who qualifies for a publicly funded educational program and choose to keep them in a private program while requesting related services and a visiting special education teacher at the program (or doing a mix of push in and center-based services).

If parents disagree with a CPSE decision, they may file for due process with their school district. Keep in mind that early advocacy for both the EI and CPSE process is very important, and the process can be confusing. The right services can be life changing for children, so parents can benefit from an experience attorney or advocate.

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