The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) is a federal law that ensures that all children ages birth through 21 receive a free and appropriate public school education regardless of the severity or type of their disability. Before this law was passed, many children with disabilities were excluded entirely from participation in public education or were not receiving an education appropriately designed to meet their needs.
Originally introduced into legislation in 1975 as the Education of All Handicapped Children Act (Public Law No. 94-142), the law was renamed in 1990 and has since undergone two additional reauthorizations. President George W. Bush signed the most recent reauthorization into law on December 3, 2004, and most provisions became effective on July 1, 2005. Final regulations were made available on August 14, 2006. This reauthorization was characterized by several modifications, including revised and added definitions, revised school discipline procedures, an emphasis on progress monitoring and accountability, changes to procedures in funding allocation, and changes intended to better align the act with the No Child Left Behind act. In addition, taking into consideration feedback from several national organizations and the public, the authors included measures to support the needs of at-risk populations, including homeless children and their families, migratory families, children with limited English proficiency, children exposed to family violence, and children in foster care.
Like its predecessors, the revised IDEA outlines state and local education agency responsibilities, procedures and criteria for determining eligibility for services, regulations pertaining to documentation and monitoring of services and student progress, the scope of included services and placements, and safeguards related to parental involvement and privacy. The law is divided into four parts. Part A outlines general provisions. Children ages 3 through 21 are covered under Part B. Part C details unique regulations concerning services for infants and toddlers with disabilities. Part D includes a description of national activities to improve the education of children with disabilities. IDEA also details the provision of funding to local and state agencies that serve children with disabilities in accordance with this law. IDEA is not fully funded and does not cover all expenses incurred by schools to provide services to individuals with disabilities.
Role of Mental Health Providers
IDEA groups mental health providers, including counselors, psychologists, social workers, and rehabilitation counselors, under the general umbrella of “related services.” Specifically, related services are defined by IDEA as those services necessary to assist a child with a disability to benefit from special education. IDEA broadly paints the scope of mental health services, indicating that related service providers may be involved in any of the following: direct counseling with students, early identification and assessment of disabilities, social work services, and parent counseling and training. Practitioners may also be responsible for linking school-based services with outside community resources such as primary care physicians, juvenile justice systems, child welfare agencies, and public recreation agencies. The newest revision of IDEA emphasizes the role of mental health providers in creating a safe school environment as indicated by the explicit description of counselors’ role in implementing and monitoring individual and system-wide positive behavioral interventions. School-based mental health practitioners are also likely to participate in disciplinary decisions and should be familiar with revised IDEA regulations pertaining to disciplinary actions with students with disabilities. The revised guidelines explicitly describe procedures for determining whether the conduct of a child with a disability is a manifestation of his or her disability, and they include criteria for determining when a functional behavior assessment and behavior intervention plan must be implemented.
Assessment and Eligibility Issues
IDEA defines children eligible for services based on whether or not they have a disability outlined in 13 categories, including mental retardation, hearing impairment (including deafness), speech or language impairment, visual impairment (including blindness), emotional disturbance, orthopedic impairment, autism, traumatic brain injury, other health impairment, specific learning disability, deaf-blindness, or multiple disabilities. Practitioners working in schools should familiarize themselves with both the federal definitions outlined in IDEA and their state’s interpretation of these disability categories.
These categories overlap with diagnostic codes of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorder, Fourth Edition, Text Revision (DSM—IV—TR) but are also markedly different. Practitioners familiar with DSM—IV—TR diagnostic criteria will notice that several childhood disorders are not overtly represented in these eligibility criteria. However, these children may qualify for services under one of IDEA’s broader categories. Furthermore, for a child to be eligible for services, one must be able to document that the child’s diagnosable disability has an educational impact and that the disability warrants special education services. Therefore, not all children who may meet DSM—IV—TR diagnostic criteria would qualify for services under IDEA. For example, a child with a hearing loss may not qualify for services if it is demonstrated that he or she is making academic progress at a rate commensurate with that of his or her peers. Furthermore, several criteria for determining eligibility include provisions stating that the child’s learning problems cannot be due to environmental, cultural, or economic disadvantage. Practitioners should be aware that states receiving IDEA funds must serve students with these recognized disabilities, but many states have adopted classification systems that may expand upon these definitions. IDEA does not require education agencies to label students in order to receive services. Indeed, some states have adopted noncategorical service delivery systems.
Several IDEA disability classifications have fueled long-standing debates. In the most recent revision, the criteria for determining whether a child has a specific learning disability was modified, changing the controversial requirement that a child display a severe discrepancy between intellectual ability and academic achievement to permitting the use of a process based on the child’s response to research-based intervention. Under this response-to-intervention approach, children who demonstrate persistent academic difficulties despite the implementation of empirically supported interventions may be considered eligible for special education services. States may choose to continue to use the discrepancy model between the child’s intellectual ability—typically as measured by a norm-referenced standardized assessment—and the child’s achievement in one of several areas. These include oral expression, listening comprehension, written expression, basic reading skill, reading comprehension, mathematics calculation, and math reasoning. Regardless of the method used, an observation of the child’s academic performance by an observer other than the teacher within the classroom is mandated. Furthermore, in determining eligibility, teams must rule out sensory impairments; mental retardation; emotional disturbance; and environmental, cultural, and economic disadvantage as possible causes of the child’s learning challenges.
The federal definition of mental retardation has also been scrutinized. To be classified as qualifying for services as a student with mental retardation, a child must show significantly below average performance—generally defined as below two standard deviations below the population mean—on a measure of general intellectual functioning. This is often demonstrated through use of standardized intelligence tests. However, IDEA does not explicitly mandate using intelligence tests. States may choose to use other procedures that are deemed valid and nondiscriminatory. In addition, the child must demonstrate significant deficits in academic functioning and adaptive behavior delays. Adaptive behavior refers to the child’s ability to meet age-appropriate expectations for independent personal and social functioning. Critics of this definition have cited the overrepresentation of minority students in special education as indicative of unfair assessment techniques and procedures for identifying students with mental retardation.
Emotional disturbance is another IDEA definition that has caused significant controversy. The term includes students demonstrating difficulty learning that cannot be explained by cognitive, sensory, or health factors; difficulty building and sustaining satisfactory interpersonal relationships with peers and adults; inappropriate types of behavior or feelings under typical circumstances; a pervasive mood of unhappiness or depression; or a tendency to develop physical symptoms or fears related to personal or school problems. These problems must occur over a long period of time to a marked degree and must adversely affect the child’s academic performance. The federal legislature’s decision to exclude children who are socially maladjusted from this category, unless they also meet criteria for emotional disturbance, has sparked the most controversy. Several practitioners believe that the two cannot be treated as distinct problems. Noting differences between the IDEA and DSM-IV-TR systems of classifying disorders, practitioners should not assume that a child meeting DSM-IV-TR criteria for an emotional disorder would automatically qualify for services under IDEA.
Practitioners working within school systems should be familiar with several procedural elements incorporated into IDEA. The law outlines detailed procedures for conducting evaluations for determining eligibility. Specifically, IDEA Part B mandates that eligibility decisions are made using a variety of technically sound assessment tools and strategies (e.g., standardized assessment data, information from the parents, curriculum-based assessment measures) and that multiple sources of data must inform eligibility decisions. Assessment tools must also be considered fair for use with the particular child and valid for their intended use. After completing these assessments, a team— whose members are defined by IDEA regulations— must meet to determine whether the child meets eligibility criteria as a child with a disability and whether the child needs special education services.
Once a child has been found eligible for special education services, a team must convene within 30 calendar days to develop an Individualized Education Program (IEP). The IEP is a document that records the child’s individualized education plan, including information regarding the child’s disability and its impact on participation in the general curriculum, a description of special education services and supports the child will receive—including the extent to which the child will not participate with nondisabled peers in a general education classroom, a plan for monitoring the child’s progress toward annual goals, and a plan for transition services.
In making placement decisions, teams must select the “least restrictive environment” in which the child can receive the services needed in a setting as close as possible to an age-appropriate general education classroom. The intention behind this terminology was to ensure that to the greatest extent possible, children with disabilities are educated with their nondisabled peers. School teams should carefully weigh whether the child can be educated within the regular classroom with special education supports, or whether the benefits of a special education classroom would outweigh the benefits of placement with support in the general classroom, including consideration of whether a child’s behavior within a general education classroom is too disruptive or dangerous to others. The challenge to school teams when making placement decisions is to balance a child’s right to an education in the least restrictive environment with the right to an appropriate education. Unfortunately, the lack of research-based evidence to support placement decisions can make this decision challenging.
IDEA also contains several safeguards designed to protect the rights of parents and their children with disabilities. Specifically, IDEA outlines procedures to ensure schools obtain written consent from parents before initiating evaluation, eligibility determination, and placement in special education. The law also documents procedures for providing parents with notice of these events, specifically stating that this notice must be provided in the parents’ preferred mode of communication. Schools must also provide parents with documentation of their rights and of the protections available to them and their children. Practitioners should familiarize themselves with these statutes and state/district interpretations of these guidelines.
IDEA’s Part C was developed in recognition of the importance of early identification and intervention for very young children with disabilities. Part C encourages states to develop statewide coordinated multidisciplinary programs to serve the needs of infants and toddlers with disabilities and their families. Each state receiving Part C funding must identify a lead agency (e.g., department of health, education, social welfare) to coordinate and monitor services and an interagency coordinating council to ensure coordination among various agencies providing services. Furthermore, these states must also establish a public awareness program and a child-find system to promote early identification of young children with disabilities.
Children eligible for services under Part C are children under age 3 who are experiencing significant developmental delays in cognition; in fine or gross motor skills; or in communication, social/emotional, or adaptive development or who have been diagnosed with a physical or mental condition that has a high probability of resulting in developmental delay. States may also choose to serve children defined as at risk for developing a significant delay either due to biological or environmental factors.
Procedures for evaluating and determining eligibility for Part C services are fairly similar to those for Part B. However, the legislation was written to ensure family participation throughout the process. Therefore, the eligibility determination process must include gathering information regarding the family’s concerns, priorities, and resources, and identification of services necessary to help the family meet the developmental needs of their child. If a child is found eligible for services, the team—including the parents, a service coordinator, a person directly involved in conducting the evaluations, and persons who will be providing services—convenes to create an individualized family service plan (IFSP) rather than an IEP. The IFSP is similar to an IEP but emphasizes the role of the family. Therefore, the IFSP must contain a statement of the family’s resources, priorities, and concerns and may include direct (focused on the child) as well as indirect (focused on the family) interventions in recognition that addressing the family’s needs may be necessary to support the child.
Unlike services for school-age children, to the greatest extent possible, services under Part C must be delivered in the child’s natural environment. In order to facilitate smooth delivery of services, a service coordinator representing the profession most immediately relevant to the child’s or family’s needs, and who will be responsible for implementing the plan and coordinating with others, is also identified on the IFSP. The IFSP must also document steps that will be taken to transition a child with a disability to preschool or other services. Unlike an IEP, this plan is reviewed at least every 6 months. Similar to Part B, Part C also outlines specific procedural rights for parents.
In aligning more closely with No Child Left Behind and its emphasis on highly qualified professionals and documentation of outcomes, the revised IDEA may be expected to impact service providers in several ways. Although not explicitly stated in IDEA in relation to counselors, language emphasizing “highly qualified” professionals resonates throughout the legislature. As a result, several school systems receiving IDEA funds are requiring counselors and psychologists to demonstrate appropriate credentialing. The revised IDEA is also more outcome-oriented than previous versions, focusing on assessing the progress of students with disabilities. As a result, counselors and psychologists practicing within the schools may be expected to write objective, attainable goals, provide methodology for assessing progress toward these goals, and document progress. Related to this emphasis on adequate progress, IDEA stresses the use of evidence-based interventions, encouraging counselors to select interventions with a strong empirical foundation when providing services within the schools.
- Assistance to States for the Education of Children with Disabilities and Preschool Grants for Children with Disabilities, 34 C.F.R. § 300-301 (2006).
- Jacob, S., & Hartshorne, T. S. (2003). Ethics and law for school psychologists (4th ed.). Hoboken, NJ: Wiley.