Special Education Questions

 Is the school evaluation a diagnosis?

 Qualification (or not) for special education is not a diagnosis; this misperception is quite pervasive. Special education categories are not diagnostic; indeed, some of them do not even remotely resemble any diagnostic criteria used by doctors.  The purpose of the IEP team (which always includes the parent) is to decide whether or not a child qualifies for special education, and if the decision is made to qualify him/her, what remediation will be provided in the context of the child’s education

Special education categories are legal categories, not diagnostic ones.  The complexity of special education categories hinges on the fact that they are legal categories and not psychological/medical diagnoses (in reality, the diagnostic systems used by doctors are infinitely more complex). However, although there are only a handful of special ed categories, the broad “criteria” used in these categories makes them arbitrary.  Arbitrary legal categories combined with lack of a doctor’s diagnosis is a guaranteed recipe for mass confusion (not only for parents, but for special educators as well).  It leads to far more costly legal battles than would likely be the case if a more sane approach was implemented. 

Take for example the special ed category of “emotionally disturbed” (which is perhaps the most arbitrary and downright vague of the special ed categories). A doctor may diagnose a child with an emotional disorder such as Major Depression or Generalized Anxiety Disorder.  That same child may or may not qualify as “emotionally disturbed” according to special educators.  Conversely, a doctor may assess and then subsequently not diagnose a child with an emotional disorder.  That same child may or may not qualify as “emotionally disturbed” according to special educators. Not qualifying for special education allegedly means that the child’s education is not impacted. Without a doctor’s diagnosis first, however, the arbitrariness of “qualification” grows exponentially. (BTW, some researchers estimate that more than half of any given public high school population would “qualify” as “emotionally disturbed” given the vague “criteria”).  Hence, the decision to qualify (or not) seems to be up to the discretion of the school district, and not objective criteria. Although the parent can fight the decision, they must be prepared to fight an often expensive legal battle.

A possible solution for the future   “Qualifying” for special ed is arbitrary as it now stands.  The IEP team is supposed to elucidate educational impact of “disability” on a child, then plan and provide educational remediation although they are not qualified to diagnose said “disability.” Before fumbling through the IEP process,therefore, it would make sense to obtain a diagnosis from a doctor (pediatrician, licensed psychologist, or child psychiatrist) first.  The IEP team would then be doing what it should be doing: elucidating educational impact (if any), then planning and providing educational remediation.   Instead, the IEPs purpose has gotten hopelessly mixed up with misconceptions about “diagnosis” when the IEP team is an educational team.  If the law stipulated that consideration for special ed qualification first required a diagnosis by a doctor, a variety of ills would be remedied, including: 1) the parents would receive an unbiased diagnosis from a licensed doctor, which would be beneficial to them whether or not their child subsequently “qualified” for special education; and 2) special education personnel could concentrate on what they were trained to do: Remediate educational difficulties.  Other positive side effects may be 1) substantially more trust between parents and educators, resulting in 2) fewer costly legal battles, resulting in 3) more money for training special educators in research-based remedial techniques.

page footer2
Further Reading:   Advice for IEP MeetingsInfo on IEEs, Misc. SPED Questions
What is the difference between a Psychologist, a Neuropsychologist, a Licensed Educational “Psychologist,” and a School “Psychologist?”
Neuropsychology questions
Special education questions