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Understanding Special Education Laws

Children with learning disabilities and mental health disorders are entitled to the help they need to succeed

Writer: Rachel Ehmke

en Español

Schools are required by law to provide appropriate accommodations and education plans to children who qualify, but understanding just what kind of help is included—and who qualifies—can be difficult. Making sense of the two laws that guarantee these supports is a good place to start.

The first, known as a Section 504 plan, provides “reasonable accommodations” to children with learning disabilities. To qualify under Section 504 your child must demonstrate that she has a disability that substantially limits her in one or more “major life activity.” This might include speaking, listening, concentrating, reading, or writing.

Depending on your child’s needs, her Section 504 plan could entitle her to a wide range of accommodations, such as special seating, a quiet place for testing, extra breaks, the use of a computer, different text books, different testing formats, and much more. The goal of a Section 504 plan is to allow children with learning disabilities to participate in the general curriculum at school.

If your child has any learning or mental health disorder that adversely affects her progress in school, she may warrant consideration under a second law, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, or IDEA. IDEA promises a “free and appropriate education” to children classified with various specific legal disabilities. Categories of disability under IDEA include:

Though IDEA makes provisions for the public funding of special education and accommodations, all eligible kids have the right to them, whether they’re enrolled in public or private schools. Kids enrolled in private schools can get help through their local school districts.

After having an evaluation to decide if your child is eligible under IDEA, you, school officials, and teachers (and any outside professionals you choose to bring in) will produce an Individualized Education Program, or IEP. This is a plan of action, revised every year, detailing the education approach that all agree best suits your child. An IEP might include specially trained educators, special teaching methods, accommodations like extra testing time, and whatever else is considered appropriate.

This article was last reviewed or updated on November 6, 2023.