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Special Education Eligibility

Eligibility: Determining Whether a Child is Eligible
 for Special Education Services


When is a child’s eligibility for special education and related services determined?
The eligibility of a child for special education and related services is considered upon completion of the administration of tests and other evaluation materials.

Who makes the decision about whether a child is eligible for special education and related services?
The parent of the child and a team of qualified professionals must determine whether the child is a child with a disability and in need of special education and related services. (The determination of whether a child suspected of having a specific learning disability is a child with a disability, must be made by the child’s parents and a team of qualified professionals which must include the child’s regular teacher; or a regular classroom teacher qualified to teach a child of his or her age if the child does not have a regular teacher; or, for a child of less than school age, an individual qualified by the SEA to teach a child of his or her age; and at least one person qualified to conduct individual diagnostic examinations of children, such as a school psychologist, speech-language pathologist, or remedial reading teacher.)

What must the team consider in determining eligibility?
n interpreting evaluation data for the purpose of determining if a child is a child with a disability and in need of special education, each public agency is to draw upon information from a variety of sources, including aptitude and achievement tests, parent input, teacher recommendations, physical condition, social or cultural background, and adaptive behavior.

Are there additional procedures for evaluating children and determining the existence of a specific learning disability?
Yes. IDEA includes the following additional procedures when evaluating and determining the existence of a specific learning disability:

1.    A team may determine that a child has a specific learning disability if:

  • The child does not achieve commensurate with his or her age and ability levels in one or more of the areas listed below, if provided with learning experiences appropriate for the child’s age and ability levels; and
  • The child has a severe discrepancy between achievement and intellectual ability in one or more of the following areas: Oral expression; listening comprehension; written expression; basic reading skill; reading comprehension; mathematics calculation; mathematics reasoning.

2.    The team may not identify a child as having a specific learning disability if the severe discrepancy between ability and achievement is primarily the result of:

  • A visual, hearing, or motor impairment;
  • Mental retardation;
  • Emotional disturbance; or
  • Environmental, cultural or economic disadvantage.

3.    Observation:

  • At least one team member other than the child’s regular teacher shall observe the child’s academic performance in the regular classroom setting.
  • In the case of a child of less than school age or out of school, a team member shall observe the child in an environment appropriate for a child of that age.  

4.   Written report — For a child suspected of having a specific learning disability, the documentation of the team’s determination of eligibility must include a statement of:

  • Whether the child has a specific learning disability.
  • The basis for making the determination.
  • The relevant behavior noted during the observation of the child.
  • The relationship of that behavior to the child’s academic functioning.
  • The educationally relevant medical findings, if any.
  • Whether there is a severe discrepancy between achievement and ability that is not correctable without special education and related services.
  • The determination of the team concerning the effects of environmental, cultural, or economic disadvantage.     

Each team member shall certify in writing whether the report reflects his or her conclusion. If it does not reflect his or her conclusion, the team member must submit a separate statement presenting his or her conclusions.

What are the two components that must be present in order for a child to be eligible for special education and related services?
In order for a child to be declared eligible for special education and related services it must be determined that the child is a “child with a disability” and is in need of special education and related services.

How does the law define a “child with a disability?”
The term “a child with a disability” means:

  • A child evaluated according to IDEA as having mental retardation, a hearing impairment including deafness, a speech or language impairment, a visual impairment including blindness, serious emotional disturbance (referred to in IDEA as emotional disturbance), an orthopedic impairment, autism, traumatic brain injury, an other health impairment, a specific learning disability, deaf-blindness, or multiple disabilities, and
  • Who, by reason thereof, needs special education and related services.

Is there a non-categorical designation of a child with a disability in addition to the above categories?
At the discretion of the State and Local Education Agencies, a “child with a disability,” aged three through nine, may include a child who is experiencing developmental delays, as defined by the State and as measured by appropriate diagnostic instruments and procedures, in one or more of the following areas: physical development, cognitive development, communication development, social or emotional development, or adaptive development, and who, by reason thereof, needs special education and related services.

What does IDEA require when determining eligibility for special education and related services based on “developmental delay?”
When determining eligibility for special education and related services based on “developmental delay” rather than a specific category, IDEA requires the following:

  • If the state decides to allow eligibility based on developmental delay, local districts will be able to choose whether or not they wish to follow suit. If the state does not adopt the developmental delay category, local districts may not use the category for establishing eligibility for special education and related services.
  • States may not require local districts to adopt and use the term “developmental delay” for any of its students.     
  • States that adopt the developmental delay category may apply it to children aged three through nine or a subset of that age range, e.g. aged three through five
  • States and local districts who choose to use the developmental delay category may also use one or more of the specific categories.
  • States may adopt a common definition of developmental delay for its programs under IDEA, Parts B and C.
  • If a local district uses the developmental delay category, it must conform to the state’s definition of developmental delay and the age range adopted by the state.

What are possible implications for students with learning disabilities when they are identified as having a developmental delay?
The use of a “developmental delay” category to determine whether a child is eligible for special education and related services could make it possible to identify some children early before they experience failure in school and fall behind their peers. Many children with learning disabilities show delays in one or more of the areas specified. There is, however, some concern that children with learning disabilities will be included in the “developmental delay” category without identifying the specific processing disorder/s present and, thus the specific intervention strategies needed will not be provided. Parents should ensure that:

  • Assessment tools and strategies used gather relevant functional and developmental information.
  • Tests and other evaluation materials used include those tailored to assess specific areas of educational need.
  • Assessment tools and strategies provide relevant information that directly assists persons in determining the education needs of the child.

Since States and Local Education Agencies are not mandated to follow a certain course, but can make a choice regarding whether to use “developmental delay” for children aged three to nine, parents need to determine the eligibility criteria used by their State and Local Education Agencies. Contact special education administrators at the State Department of Education or the local school district for this information.

Are there other non-categorical designations?
Some states have expanded the non-categorical age past the “developmental delay” age span (3 through 9 years) to include students birth through twenty-one years of age. If states use a designation instead of categorical disabilities, certain guidelines must be followed. While the state determines the criteria for eligibility, the team must provide a comprehensive evaluation of the child that could determine a disability as defined by IDEA.

To determine a child's eligibility for special education programs and/or services, there must be a significant delay or disability in the child's development. Criteria to consider when determining whether a child exhibits a delay or disability in one or more of the major areas of development are as follows:

Delay or Disability in Cognitive Development

A.    Definition
A child with a cognitive delay or disability demonstrates deficits in intellectual abilities beyond normal variations for age and cultural background. This might include difficulties in:

·        the ability to acquire information,
·        problem solving,
·        reasoning skills,
·        the ability to generalize information,
·        rate of learning.
·        processing difficulties,
·        memory delays,
·        attention, and
·        organization skills.

B.    Factors, Considerations, and Observable Behaviors that Support or Demonstrate the Presence of a Cognitive Delay or Disability

·        The child has significant delays in cognitive abilities, as reflected in intellectual assessment scores, neuropsychological findings, teacher or parent rating scales, and/or results of structured observations in a classroom or other setting.
·        The child shows significant discrepancies beyond what would be normally expected within or between skill development areas, such as differences between verbal and nonverbal skills, differences within verbal sub-areas, or within perceptual-motor sub-areas. For example, a child with good acuity to visual details may show significant deficits in problem-solving spatial skills.

Delay or Disability in Language and Communication 

A.    Definition
A child with a delay or disability in language and communication demonstrates deficits beyond normal variation for age and cultural background that adversely affect the ability to learn or acquire skills in the primary language in one or more of the following areas: 

·        receptive language,
·        expressive language,
·        articulation/phonology,
·        pragmatics,
·        fluency,
·        oral-motor skills, or
·        voice (such as sound quality, breath support).

B.    Factors, Considerations, and Observable Behaviors that Support or Demonstrate the Presence of a Language and Communication Delay or Disability

·        The child does not use communication effectively with peers and/or adults. For example, the child does not express needs and wants in most situations.
·        The child's speech and language cannot be understood by others in the child's environment who speak the same language. This may include family members, playmates or other children in the child's preschool program.
·        The child exhibits observable severe or frequent frustration because of communication difficulties.

·        The child exhibits speech sound and/or phonological process errors that impair intelligibility and are not developmentally appropriate. For example, speech sound production impairs listener's ability to understand the child.

·        The child has difficulty understanding and using age-appropriate vocabulary, language concepts, and/or conversation (for example, limited vocabulary, sentence structure, and functional use of language restrict communication). In dual language acquisition, delays in both languages in young children are typical.

·        The child demonstrates specific weaknesses in pragmatic language ability. For example, limited turn-taking, eye contact, asking and responding to questions, or knowledge of the speaker/listener role interfere with communication.

·        The child demonstrates difficulty processing auditory information. For example, following simple directions or answering simple questions present problems for the child.

·        The child demonstrates oral motor difficulty, such as in swallowing or feeding, and/or developmental apraxia, the inability to coordinate speech muscle movement to say words. For example, the child has difficulty combining sounds to say words and/or there is excessive drooling or weak oral muscle movement.

·        The child demonstrates speech dysfluency (stuttering) that interferes with communication abilities (for example, word sound repetitions and/or speech productions that interrupt smooth flow of speech).

  Note: All speech observations should be made through an evaluation in the child's native language. If a child uses two languages, assessment should occur in both languages to determine best performance.

Delay or Disability in Adaptive Development

A.    Definition
A child with a delay or disability in adaptive development demonstrates difficulty learning or acquiring skills necessary for daily living and learning through play. These occur over time, in a variety of situations, and interfere with the effectiveness of the child's ability to meet personal needs, social responsibility, or participation in developmentally appropriate situations and cultural group. Adaptive behavior demonstrates the effectiveness with which the individual copes with the natural and social demands of his/her environment.

B.    Factors, Considerations, and Observable Behaviors that Support or Demonstrate the Presence of an Adaptive Delay or Disability
Adaptive behavior areas would include activities of daily living such as toileting, eating, dressing, and personal hygiene, as well as development of play skills including the acquisition of developmentally appropriate pretend or exploratory play and engagement in peer and adult social play. Consideration should be given to the following factors:

·        family history, cultural factors, family expectations, and opportunities to develop self-help skills;

·        motor contributions to functional skills, such as fine motor skills necessary for managing, fastening, or engaging in object exploration, oral motor components to eating or the gross motor abilities that support environmental exploration;

·        the child's ability to accomplish activities of daily living adequately and as efficiently as the child's typically developing peers;

·        the necessity for extensive task adaptations needed to support adaptive skills that are unusual for typically developing peers (for example, while the use of a covered cup or diaper is common for two-year-olds, it is not expected of a four-year-old);

·        an inflexibility or rigidity in play behavior (for example, ritualistic self-stimulating behavior or engaging in spinning or rigid horizontal alignment of objects during free play rather than exploratory manipulation that is based on object properties);

·        an avoidance of peer social interaction during play, with a preference for interaction exclusively with adults or observation of peers rather than active engagement with them during free play opportunities; and

·        limitations in the initiation of play activities in either independent or free play (for example, some children will seem passive during free play either unaware of the play potential of a situation or afraid to engage in activities unless invited).

Delay or Disability in Social-Emotional Development

A.    Definition

A child with a delay or disability in social-emotional development demonstrates deviations in affect or relational skills beyond normal variation for age and cultural background. These problems are exhibited over time, in various circumstances, and adversely affect the child's development of age-appropriate skills.

B.    Factors, Considerations, and Observable Behaviors that Support or Demonstrate the Presence of a Social-Emotional Delay or Disability

·        The child shows significant observable behaviors such as perseveration, inability to transition, overdependence on structure and routine, and/or rigidity.

·        The child exhibits significant patterns of difficulty in the following relational areas: trust building, aggressiveness, compliance, lack of age-appropriate self-control, oppositional/defiant behavior, destructive behavior, poor awareness of self and others, or inappropriate play skills for age.

·        The child has significant affect difficulties such as depression/withdrawal, limited range of emotions for a given situation, low frustration tolerance, excessive fear/anxiety, radical mood swings, and/or inappropriate fears (for example, a child who often misinterprets the approach of other children or adults as hostile in intent).


  Note: While some behaviors can be symptomatic of an emotional, social or neurological problem, they may also be part of many children's normal development. The behaviors listed above must be clearly understood in their clinical context and must be significant before being considered a sign of a delay or disability. 

Delay or Disability in Motor Development

A.    Definition
A child with a delay or disability in motor development demonstrates a deficit beyond normal variability for age and experience in either coordination, movement patterns, quality, or range of motion or strength and endurance of gross (large muscle), fine (small muscle), or perceptual motor (integration of sensory and motor) abilities that adversely affects the child’s ability to learn or acquire skills relative to one or more of the following:

·        maintaining or controlling posture,
·        functional mobility (for example, walking or running),
·        sensory awareness of the body or movement,
·        sensory-integration,
·        reach and/or grasp of objects,
·        tool use,
·        perceptual motor abilities (for example, eye-hand coordination for tracing),
·        sequencing motor components to achieve a functional goal.

B.    Factors, Considerations, and Observable Behaviors that Support or Demonstrate the Presence of a Delay or Disability in Motor Development

·        The child is unable to maintain a stable posture or transition between positions (for example, to go from standing to floor sitting) to support learning or interactive tasks.
·        The child is unable to move about the environment in an efficient way that is not disruptive to others. Efficient mobility refers to both the time required for moving from one place to another and the amount of energy the child must expend to move.
·        The child uses an inefficient or abnormal grasp or reach pattern that limits the ability to either explore or use objects. An inefficient grasp or reach is one which does not enable flexible manipulation, limits use of tools such as writing implements or silverware in functional tasks, leads to fatigue, or limits the child's ability to obtain or use learning materials.
·        The child has problems with learning new gross and/or fine motor abilities or in using motor skills in a flexible functional way. The child does not seem to accomplish motor tasks automatically after practice and attends to the motor aspects rather than cognitive or exploratory components of play or pre-academic programming.
·        The child may achieve developmentally appropriate skills as measured on formal testing but has significant asymmetry that interferes with bilateral manipulation or tool use (for example, child is unable to transfer objects from hand to hand or stabilize paper when writing or cutting).
·        The child is unable to sequence one or more motor actions in order to accomplish a goal. This includes the child with clumsiness that consistently interferes with goal-directed social or object interaction.
·        The child has difficulty participating in gross motor activities, is unable to complete many of the tasks performed by typically developing peers, or may refuse to participate in activities rather than seem uncoordinated.
·        The child has problems in the neurological processing of information from any of the senses and organizing it for use.



  Note: A determination must be made on the child's lack of exposure or familiarity with the function of instruments used to determine motor behavior. For example, does the child know how scissors are supposed to work?

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