Glossary of terms and acronyms

Special education involves a lot of terms and abbreviations that may be new to you.

Here is a list of some common words and phrases that you will probably hear:

  • 504 Plan: A set of accommodations, or changes in the classroom environment to help your child follow the regular curriculum.  It is less formal and involved than an IEP and does not change the instruction itself.  For example, a student who uses a wheelchair but doesn't need academic supports would have a 504 plan. See Accommodations below for other examples.A student may qualify for a 504 plan but not an IEP.

  • Accommodations: Changes that the teacher can make to help your child learn more effectively.  For example: they may rearrange the classroom, let your child take more time for tests, or give them certain types of learning aids.  Accommodations are NOT changes to the education content itself.

  • Advocate: A professional who helps parents advocate for their child's special-education needs and resolve problems with the school.

  • Assessments (Standard): Tests given to all students to check their progress in school. Students with disabilities may need accommodations for these tests, which will be written in the IEP.  Certain students may need alternate assessments, depending on their disability.

  • Dispute Resolution: A formal process that parents and schools go through when they cannot agree on something related to special education services.

  • FAPE: Free and Appropriate Public Education. This is every child’s right, even if they need special services.  All students ages 3 to 22 can get a free public education that meets their educational needs. They have a right to fully take part in school life, including after-school activities. What is “appropriate” for each child will be different because each has unique needs. But it means more than just getting by: every child's education should challenge them to the best of their abilities.

  • General curriculum: This means the regular teaching plan for each subject in a typical classroom. An IEP or 504 Plan will discuss "accessing the general curriculum," which means being able to follow the lessons that everyone else in the class does.

  • General Education classroom (or teacher): This refers to the regular classroom that has students without disabilities or teacher of that regular class, NOT the special education ones.

  • IEP: Individualized Education Plan. An Individualized Education Plan, or IEP, is a document that describes the special services your child will get to meet their educational needs. It is a legal contract between you and the school.

  • IDEA: Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. The federal law that gives children with disabilities the right to have "equal access" to a "free and appropriate education". (See FAPE above.) It requires public schools to give them the services they need to meet their own educational goals.

  • LRE: Least Restrictive Environment. The IDEA law (see above) requires that students with disabilities must be taught with their non-disabled peers as much as possible.  The closest they can get to being in a typical classroom is called the "least restrictive environment," or LRE.  If extra supports and services will allow your child to make progress in the regular classroom, then that’s what the school must offer.  Only if that’s not possible will your child go to a more restrictive setting like a special needs classroom.  The most restrictive environment is a special needs school or hospital-based setting.

  • Placement: The school or type of classroom where your child will be taught.  Based on your child's needs, these range from the regular classroom in the child's regular school to a special-needs classroom, a separate school, or a special program in the home or a hospital.  Placement also refers to how often your child will be in the regular classroom with non-disabled peers, and how often they will be in a different classroom with specialists.

  • Procedural Safeguards: These are specific procedures that are required by law to protect the rights of students and parents.  They include timelines, consent processes, and specific rules for getting the evaluation and creating the IEP.  Click this to find the document that describes these in Massachusetts: Parents' Notice of Procedural Safeguards. (It comes in 11 languages.)

  • RTI: Response to Intervention. This is a system of trying different teaching strategies, or interventions, to help a child who is struggling in school before referring them for special education services. There are different levels that increase in intensity. When a lower level strategy doesn't work, the school will try the next level. If these do not help a child make progress, the next step is to get a special education evaluation.

  • Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act. This is part of a federal civil rights law . It gives children with disabilities the right to get accommodations in public schools so they have equal access to education.