Early Childhood Education

Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA)


Congress enacted the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) in 1975 to govern the education of children with disabilities. In the years that followed, IDEA was amended a number of times, including the 2004 revisions through P.L. 108-446, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Improvement Act. Over the years since it first enacted IDEA in 1975, Congress has expanded the group of students who have a right to special education beyond the first group of students, ages 6 to 18, to include infants and toddlers, young children ages 3 through 5, and older students ages 6 through 21.

Because the needs of and services provided to infants and toddlers are so different from the needs and services for older students, IDEA is divided into two parts. Part B of IDEA contains the requirements for providing special education and related services to children with disabilities from 3 through 21 years of age. Part C authorizes grants to states to develop and maintain early intervention programs for infants and toddlers with disabilities (birth to three years) and their families. Part C, the infants and toddlers program, has parallels with the provisions and requirements of Part B; however, these provisions and requirements differ in a number of important respects. For example, while Part B eligibility is based on categories of disabilities, eligibility for Part C programs are often based on a diagnosis of “developmental delay” that requires early intervention services. Instead of an individualized education plan (IEP), Part C programs have individualized family service plans (IFSP) in recognition that services must be provided to the family as well as to the infant or toddler. Since very young children are served in a variety of locations (including the home), Part C services are to be provided in “natural environments” which are the types of settings in which infants and toddlers without disabilities would participate. IDEA 2004 now gives states the option to develop a joint system that would permit parents of children receiving Part C early intervention services and are eligible for preschool services to continue in Part C until they are eligible to enter kindergarten.

This law started into motion a movement that even today continues to impact the lives of children with disabilities and their families. This legislation was designed to ensure that all children with disabilities receive an appropriate education through special education and related services. This law established six major components that have a direct effect on children with disabilities: (1) Right to free and appropriate public education, (2) Nondiscriminatory evaluation, (3) Procedural due process, (4) Individualized education program, (5) Least restrictive environment, and (6) Parental participation.

All children with disabilities are entitled to a free appropriate public education (FAPE) regardless of the nature or severity of their disabilities. That is, parents or family members cannot be asked to pay for any special education services. With this law, children with disabilities have a right to attend a local school as well as receive services that support their education in general education classes or most natural settings. To accomplish this, each state has in place what is called a child find system, a set of procedures for alerting the public that services are available for children with disabilities and for distributing print materials, conducting screening, and completing other activities to ensure that children are identified. The child find procedures include children with disabilities attending private and religious schools and highly mobile children with disabilities (such as migrant and homeless children) regardless of the severity of their disability.

Nondiscriminatory evaluation attempts to eliminate discrimination in the classification and placement of children suspected to have disabilities. The fundamental intent is to eliminate discrimination based on cultural background, race, or disability. The law requires that children be evaluated by trained professionals who must administer validated tests in the child’s first language or other mode of communication (Braille, sign language). The evaluation must not consist of only a single general intelligence test but must be tailored to assess specific areas (language, cognitive, motor, etc.) of education. Professionals cannot use a single procedure as the sole criterion for determining a special educational program for a child. Most important, a multidisciplinary team (team of professionals from various specialties) must assess the child in all areas related to the suspected disability.

Procedural due process guarantees safeguards to children with disabilities and their parents. IDEA ensures that any decisions made concerning children with disabilities are done so with parent input and in compliance with clear procedures. Parents must give written consent for their children to be assessed to determine if they have a disability. Similarly, parents must be invited to attend any meetings regarding their child, and they must give written permission for the child to receive special education. Further, written notice must be made prior to any change in placement. All records are confidential, and if parents do not agree with any evaluation or special education placement, they have the legal right to go to court. If disagreements occur between parents and school professionals related to placement or any other part of special education, mediation is an informal strategy that must be offered to parents to try to resolve the disagreement. If mediation is not successful, a due process hearing occurs.

The key to appropriate special education is individualization. IDEA requires that an IEP or an IFSP be developed for each child with special educational needs. The plan for students ages 3 through 21 is called an IEP. IEPs are intended to serve as planning guides for students with special needs, not as mere paperwork. IFSPs are created for infants and toddlers and their families when eligibility for early intervention is established. This requirement underscores the significant role of the families.

The least restrictive environment (LRE) clause refers to the physical placement of the student. The LRE is the setting most like that of nondisabled children that also meets each child’s educational needs. It is now presumed that the general education setting is the LRE for the majority of children with disabilities, and educators must justify any instance in which a child with a disability is not educated there. Young children with disabilities receive special education and related services in a variety of school and community sites. The team developing the child’s IEP or the IFSP determines the appropriate placement based upon the child’s needs. However, a full continuum of educational services must be available for children with disabilities. This continuum of services ranges from the general education classroom to a special day school or residential facility.

The IDEA is a remarkable law filled with very specific prescriptions (dictates) and proscriptions (prohibitions). The IDEA envisions specific roles for the federal, state, and local levels of government, as well as for parents. The most important roles, however, are reserved for parents and local government. IDEA explicitly calls for the active involvement of parents in all aspects of educational programming for their children with disabilities. When the provisions of IDEA are fully implemented, both letter of the law and the spirit of the law are protected. When this is the case, there is a supportive and mutually respectful relationship between families and professionals from the start. See also Disabilities, Young Children with.

Further Readings: Council for Exceptional Children (CEC) (February 2005). Available online at http://www.cec.sped.og; DeBettencourt, Laurie (2002). Understanding the differences between IDEA and Section 504. Teaching Exceptional Children 34(3), 16-23; Lerner, Janet W., Barbara Lowenthal, and Rosemary W. Egan (2003). Preschool children with special needs. Boston: Pearson Education; Turnbull, H. Ruderford, and Ann Turnbull (2000). Free appropriate education: The law and children with disabilities. 6th ed. Denver: Love Publishing.

Sharon Judge