Discovering that your child has a learning disability or special needs can be a very stressful time for a parent. It can also raise some very important questions: How will this affect my child in school? Will she be treated differently? Will my child be singled out and noticed for a disability he or she isn’t responsible for? Will he get a proper education so that later on he can get a good job to support his family?
The answers to all these concerns and others are found in the many programs designed by the Florida Department of Education (FLDOE) to help children with learning disabilities and special needs receive the best education possible to prepare them for life after school.
In Florida, children with such needs are called exceptional students, and the primary program designed to help them maximize their education is called Exceptional Student Education (ESE).
The state defines an exceptional student as one with a diagnosed learning disability or having any of the following special needs: emotional or behavioral disabilities, physical limitations due to orthopedic impairment, blindness, hearing difficulties or deafness, speech impairment, traumatic brain injury or some other form of illness or disease that may limit their ability in the classroom.
Some parents may already be aware of their child’s special needs, but others will be notified by school officials that their child needs to be professionally evaluated to determine if they meet the criteria for an ESE program.
“The ideal situation would be for us to know that a child has special needs from the moment of his or her birth. That way we could start utilizing the early intervention programs that are in place for these children before they come into the kindergarten classroom,” says Kathleen Ruiz, ESE parent liaison for Marion County Public Schools. “Many times a very young child will show signs of a learning disability or behavioral problem that will be seen by the parent or possibly diagnosed by the child’s pediatrician or even recognized by a neighbor. But for many of these special needs children, the first time anyone will notice a problem will be in the classroom.”
What To Expect
According to Ruiz, if your child’s teacher suspects a problem, she will initiate a response to intervention (RTI) that involves a multi-tiered system of support (MTSS) designed to assist students who are struggling to learn. If the child is determined to have a special need that may require a certain degree of care, then the child would be evaluated by a trained specialist. An eligibility meeting would be held to ascertain if the student is eligible for an ESE program. Prior to any evaluation, the parent/caregiver would be notified, asked to give consent and be included in any decisions concerning the child’s care. Parental consent is required for a student to enter the program.
“One of the things we want to stress to all parents or caregivers of special needs children is that they are a vital part of this process,” says Ruiz. “They will be included in all decisions and plans, and their input and concern for their child’s education is possibly the most important aspect of this entire process.”
Eligibility determination is an involved process utilizing trained experts.
“Eligibility determinations are quite rigorous, with specific criteria being outlined in the State Board of Education Rules,” says Jim Husted, Florida Diagnostic and Learning Resources System/Springs Coordinator. “If the child is determined to be eligible, then an individual education plan (IEP) will be formulated by school staff, therapists and the parent/caregiver. The IEP will define annual goals and will include how often ESE services, such as speech therapy or individualized instruction, will be needed.”
Husted notes that students’ needs vary greatly, from mild learning disabilities to profound physical challenges. This requires great flexibility in how each child is taught and where their education takes place.
“The legal standard is to teach the child in the least restrictive environment,” he says, and this point is echoed by Ruiz.
“Our primary goal is to include students receiving ESE services in the general education population as much as possible,” says Ruiz. “All students participate together in art, music, physical education and in the cafeteria. If possible, we keep ESE students in the general classroom and send the instructor to them. If a child has a problem with math, our trained ESE instructor would visit the student’s classroom during math instruction and sit with the child individually and/or with others in a small group and assist them with the math assignment. If the child still couldn’t meet the goals of his or her IEP with this type of in-class assistance, then it is possible the student would be removed from the general classroom during math instruction and taken to the ESE Resource Room for more personalized and intensive instruction. Following this session, the child would then be returned to the regular classroom for inclusion in the rest of his or her classes.”
According to Ruiz, if your child has a greater need, they may spend the majority of their day being instructed in the ESE resource room but will still spend as much time as possible in the general education environment. Certain students with profound mental, behavioral or physical needs may be required to attend self-contained ESE classrooms with other students with similar needs where they can receive highly-specialized instruction and care. The ESE program was carefully designed with all students of all abilities in mind.
According to Husted, your child will have his or her IEP goals reviewed each year, and every three years all available data will be evaluated to make sure your child is receiving the maximum benefit from the ESE program. He also says that reevaluations can be requested by the parent/caregiver or other members of the IEP team on a more frequent basis.
Having a special needs child is a unique opportunity to bring out the best in your parenting skills, and academic programs such as ESE are specifically designed to assist you and your child in maximizing his or her innate academic abilities. Ruiz says parents should maintain an open line of communication with their child’s general education and ESE teacher, as both endeavor to provide all ESE students with the highest quality education possible.
For more information concerning local ESE programs, contact your child’s school or:
Marion County schools contact Barbara Dobbins at (352) 671-6832 or email Barbara.Dobbins@marion.k12.fl.us.
Citrus County schools contact Nancy Haynes at (352) 726-1931 or email Haynesn@citrus.k12.fl.us.
FDLRS/Springs serves six school districts, including Marion and Citrus counties, and can be reached at (352) 671-6051. Parents or caregivers who are interested in learning more about all aspects of ESE services can contact FDLRS and obtain a login for a website titled Special Ed Connect.
Signs your child may require special assistance:
Have health problems
Talk differently than other children the same age
Act bored or lazy
Have trouble paying attention
Take longer to learn school subjects than other children the same age
Walk or move differently than other children the same age
Have difficulty seeing, hearing or communicating with others
State-accepted disorders that enable your child to receive ESE instruction:
Autism spectrum disorder (ASD)
Deaf or hard of hearing (DHH)
Developmentally delayed (DD) for 3 through 5 years old only
Dual sensory impaired (deaf-blind) (DSI)
Emotional/behavioral disability (E/BD)
Homebound or hospitalized (HH)
Intellectually disabled (InD)
Orthopedically impaired (OI)
Other health impairment (OHI)
Traumatic brain injury (TBI)
Specific learning disability (SLD)
Speech impaired (SI)
Language impaired (LI)Visually impaired (VI)