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Eligibility for special education can be a confusing and frustrating process for many parents and even teachers. They see a child struggling in some way and needing additional help. They ask for an evaluation for special education, thinking the child will be eligible and finally get the help he/she needs. The eligibility meeting comes, the child is not eligible. What? How? Why?

All children struggle at some point in time with some aspect of learning, social, or emotional skills. We all have different strengths and weaknesses and most of the time we will be stronger in one subject than in another. It is normal to struggle and it is normal to find one area of learning easier than another. The process of seeing if a child is eligible for special education is a process where we are trying to figure out if your child has a disability that will adversely impact his/her education. Labeling a child as having a disability is not something we take lightly. We are bound by what the state and federal governments have set for the criteria of what each disability is. Just having a disability does not automatically make a child eligible for special education, there are other criteria that have to be met.

In order to determine if a disability is present and if it is adversely impacting the child's education, there are specific criteria that must be met. This is a lot like when you go to the doctor's office and are sick. In order to diagnose what is wrong and give you the right medicine the doctor has to get as much information as possible and rule out things. They must also figure out how severe the problem is so they can prescribe the right treatment. The same is true for eligibility for special education. We have to gather as much information as possible in order to determine if a disability is present and if it is impacting the child's education. Some of the things we have to rule out include: the child is not struggling because of a lack of appropriate instruction (e.g., being absent a lot, frequent school changes), environmental factors at home (e.g., things like unsafe living conditions, not having enough to eat, and being homeless can all impact learning), and/or is not proficient in English.

There are so many things that can impact learning at school as well and part of our job is to look at the whole picture and see if we can figure out what might be impacting the child. We also have to see if the child has a disability, is it adversely impacting their education. This means is the disability making it really, really, really hard for them in school to meet expectations in academics, behavior, or social skills.

Three Main Criteria

In general, to qualify for special education in California the the child:

1. Must have one or more eligible disabilities

2. The disability must negatively affect her/his educational performance

3. The disability must require special education and related services.

California law also requires that the child meets certain disability criteria and age requirements. Cal. Educ. Code §§ 56026(c)-(d)

Exclusionary Criteria

If a child meets any of the exclusionary criteria this means the child cannot be found eligible for special education services.

1.A child is not eligible for special education if the determining factor in the child's exceptional needs is a lack of appropriate instruction in reading or math, or limited English proficiency. 20 U.S.C. § 1414(b)(5); 34 C.F.R. § 300.306(b).

2. A child may not be eligible for special education if his or her educational needs are primarily due to limited English proficiency, a lack of instruction in reading or math, temporary physical disabilities, social maladjustment, or environmental, cultural, or economic factors. Cal. Educ. Code § 56026(e).

California law also has other exclusionary criteria for specific eligibility categories.

Eligibility Categories

Specific descriptions of each eligibility criteria can be found in Section 3030 (a through j) of the California Education Code. For further information please go to: Eligibility Codes (CASP)

  • Autism means a developmental disability significantly affecting verbal and nonverbal communication and social interaction, generally evident before age three that adversely affects educational performance. Characteristics often associated with autism are engaging in repetitive activities and stereotyped movements, resistance to changes in daily routines or the environment, and unusual responses to sensory experiences. The term autism does not apply if the child's educational performance is adversely affected primarily because the child has emotional disturbance as defined below. A child who shows the characteristics of autism after age 3 could be diagnosed as having autism if the criteria above are satisfied.

  • Specific Learning Disability (SLD) means a disorder in one or more of the basic psychological processes involved in understanding or in using language, spoken or written, that may manifest itself in an imperfect ability to listen, think, speak, read, write, spell, or to do mathematical calculations. The term includes such conditions as perceptual disabilities, brain injury, minimal brain dysfunction, dyslexia, and developmental aphasia. The term does not include learning problems that are primarily the result of visual, hearing, or motor disabilities; of mental retardation; of emotional disturbance; or of environmental, cultural, or economic disadvantage. ) Specific learning disabilities do not include learning problems that are primarily the result of visual, hearing, or motor disabilities, of intellectual disability, of emotional disturbance, or of environmental, cultural, or economic disadvantage.

  • Other Health Impairment (OHI) means having limited strength, vitality, or alertness, including heightened alertness to environmental stimuli, that results in limited alertness with respect to the educational environment, that

(A) is due to chronic or acute health problems such as asthma, attention deficit disorder or attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, diabetes, epilepsy, a heart condition, hemophilia, lead poisoning, leukemia, nephritis, rheumatic fever, sickle cell anemia, and Tourette syndrome; and

(B) adversely affects a child's educational performance.

  • Emotional Disturbance (ED) means a condition exhibiting one or more of the following characteristics over a long period of time and to a marked degree that adversely affects a child's performance:

-An inability to learn that cannot be explained by intellectual, sensory, or health factors.

-An inability to build or maintain satisfactory interpersonal relationships with peers and teachers.

-Inappropriate types of behavior or feelings under normal circumstances.

-A general pervasive mood of unhappiness or depression.

-A tendency to develop physical symptoms or fears associated with personal or school problems.

The term includes schizophrenia. The term does not apply to children who are socially maladjusted, unless it is determined that they have an emotional disturbance.

  • Hearing Impairment (HI) means an impairment in hearing, whether permanent or fluctuating, that adversely affects a child's educational performance but is not included under the definition of deafness.

  • Intellectual Disability means significantly subaverage general intellectual functioning, existing concurrently [at the same time] with deficits in adaptive behavior and manifested during the developmental period, that adversely affects a child's educational performance.

  • Multiple Disabilities (Severely Multiply Handicapped SMH) means concomitant [simultaneous] impairments (such as mental retardation-blindness, mental retardation-orthopedic impairment, etc.), the combination of which causes such severe educational needs that they cannot be accommodated in special education program solely for one of the impairments. The term does not include deaf-blindness.

  • Orthopedic Impairment (OI) means a severe orthopedic impairment that adversely affects a child's educational performance. The term includes impairment caused by congenital anomaly (e.g. clubfoot, absence of some member, etc.), impairments caused by disease (e.g. poliomyelitis, bone tuberculosis, etc.), and impairments from other causes (e.g. cerebral palsy, amputations, and fractures or burns that cause contractures).

  • Speech or Language Impairment (SLI) means a communication disorder such as stuttering, impaired articulation, a language impairment, or a voice impairment that adversely affects a child's educational performance.

  • Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI) means an acquired injury to the brain caused by an external physical force, resulting in total or partial functional disability or psychosocial impairment, or both, that adversely affects a child's educational performance. Traumatic brain injury applies to open or closed head injuries resulting in impairments in one or more areas, such as cognition; language; memory; attention; reasoning; abstract thinking; judgment; problem-solving; sensory, perceptual, and motor abilities; psychosocial behavior; physical functions; information processing; and speech. (A) Traumatic brain injury does not apply to brain injuries that are congenital or degenerative, or to brain injuries induced by birth trauma.

  • Visual Impairment (Including Blindness) (VI) means an impairment in vision that, even with correction, adversely affects a child's educational performance. The term includes both partial sight and blindness.

  • Deaf-Blindness means concomitant hearing and visual impairments, the combination of which causes such severe communication and other developmental and educational needs that they cannot be accommodated in special education programs solely for children with deafness or children with blindness.

  • Deafness means a hearing impairment that is so severe that the child is impaired in processing linguistic information through hearing, with or without amplification that adversely affects a child's educational performance.

  • Established Medical Disability (ages 3-5 only) means a disabling medical condition or congenital syndrome that the individualized education program (IEP) team determines has a high predictability of requiring special education and services.