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Special Education Services and Federal Laws

For most children with ADHD, staying in a regular classroom with an excellent teacher, trained in and adept at behavior management, is the preferred situation. This is especially true if any necessary accommodations for your child can be put into place in that setting. Children with ADHD whose academic or behavior struggles cannot be managed effectively in a regular classroom using typical strategies may require special education services. These services may be delivered in a variety of settings, including the regular classroom and separate classrooms for part or all of a school day. The setting is determined by the needs of the eligible child. The federal law Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) guarantees your child’s right to be evaluated for and receive such services if eligible, free of charge.


The IDEA was designed to guarantee the provision of special services for children whose disabilities severely affect their educational performance. A child can receive services under IDEA if she is learning disabled, emotionally disturbed, or “other health impaired.” Your child may qualify for IDEA coverage if she has been diagnosed with ADHD and her condition has been shown to severely and adversely affect school performance. Note that both conditions must be met: an ADHD diagnosis alone does not guarantee coverage for your child unless it or another disorder is adversely affecting her educational performance. In most cases, it is a child’s coexisting learning, disruptive behavior, anxiety, or other functional problem—not the ADHD itself—that qualifies her for IDEA coverage.

The IDEA is based on providing services for categories of disability. It includes 13 categories that require coverage “without undue delay.” Under this law, schools are responsible for identifying and evaluating children who are suspected of having disabilities and who may need special education services. Depending on her diagnoses and assessment, your child’s disability may be categorized as “specific learning disability,” “serious emotional disturbance,” or “other health impairment.” After these needs are evaluated, documented, and eligibility determined, an IEP can be created to detail the special education services that are necessary.

Specific Learning Disabilities

  • The IDEA criteria for specific learning disabilities can vary from state to state. Children qualify for learning disabilities under this law if they have significant needs in the areas of
  • Oral expression
  • Listening comprehension
  • Written expression
  • Basic reading skills
  • Reading comprehension
  • Mathematics calculation
  • Mathematics reasoning

Testing for learning disabilities generally includes assessment by the school psychologist.

In addition to learning disabilities, children with ADHD and significant emotional problems can also receive services through IDEA. To receive these services, a child’s educational performance needs to be adversely affected by emotional and behavioral concerns:

  • An inability to learn that can be best explained on a behavioral basis
  • An inability to build or maintain relationships with peers and teachers
  • Inappropriate types of behavior or feelings
  • A persistent mood of unhappiness or depression
  • A tendency to develop physical symptoms or fears associated with personal or school

A comprehensive evaluation that meets federal and state guidelines needs to be completed before children can qualify for services as emotionally disturbed. A note from your child’s pediatrician that your child has ADHD or is depressed or anxious will not be enough to qualify her for services.

All children, including those with ADHD, are also eligible for services if they have the disabilities below and can be shown to need special education in order to benefit from their educational program.

  • Intellectual or cognitive disabilities
  • Hearing impairment, including deafness
  • Speech or language impairment
  • Visual impairment, including blindness
  • Serious emotional disturbance
  • Orthopedic impairment
  • Autism spectrum disorders
  • Traumatic brain injury
  • Other health impairment, including ADHD and Tourette disorder
  • Specific learning disabilities
  • Developmental delay (used in some states for children aged 3–9 who have problems with development of their physical, cognitive, communication, social/emotional, or adaptive skills [everyday life skills]).

Additional considerations for eligibility include (1) schools cannot be overidentifying children in terms of race or ethnicity; (2) a child is not eligible for special education solely because of lack of instruction in academic areas; and (3) in newer IDEA legislation, children no longer need to demonstrate a severe discrepancy between their ability (IQ) and their achievement.

An alternative way to assess a child’s need for special services, as mentioned previously, is RTI, an approach where a student with academic delays is given one or more research-validated interventions. The student’s academic progress is monitored frequently to see if those interventions are sufficient to help the student catch up with his or her peers. If the student fails to show significantly improved academic skills despite several well-designed and implemented interventions, this failure to “respond to intervention” can be viewed as evidence of an underlying learning disability. One advantage of RTI in the diagnosis of educational disabilities is that it allows schools to intervene early to meet the needs of struggling learners and not require them to fail before anything is done.

Last Updated
ADHD: What Every Parent Needs to Know (Copyright © 2011 American Academy of Pediatrics)
The information contained on this Web site should not be used as a substitute for the medical care and advice of your pediatrician. There may be variations in treatment that your pediatrician may recommend based on individual facts and circumstances.
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