Understanding School-Based Supports

By Maggie Gibson, Ph.D.

As a parent or guardian, it can be difficult and overwhelming to understand how best to support your child as they progress through school. The following questions and answers, while not exhaustive, may be a helpful starting point in finding what types of school-based supports and processes are worth pursuing in helping your child throughout their academic career.

Moreover, it is important that families consult with their local schools and school districts to understand the policies that govern their child’s school as policies can vary widely district to district. However, the following supports and processes are common to many school districts throughout the United States. Several online resources are also included following this article that provide additional information regarding the concepts discussed.

What is MTSS and/or what is RTI?

Multi-Tiered Systems of Support (MTSS) and Response to Intervention/Instruction (RTI) are both instructional delivery frameworks that operate on the assumption that the majority of students within a school will make progress in response to a school’s general academic or social-emotional curriculum. However, these frameworks also acknowledge that a minority of students who are experiencing academic or social-emotional difficulties may benefit from intensive, targeted academic or social-emotional instruction, delivered in small groups or individually. This instruction is delivered in addition to the general academic or social-emotional curriculum to help them catch up to their peers.

As a student receives targeted, intensive instruction, schools collect information on the student’s academic or social-emotional progress over time. If the student makes adequate progress and achieves academic or social-emotional goals, the additional instruction or support may be removed. However, if the student continues to not reach expectations, the school may decide to deliver additional instruction more frequently, in a different format, or for a longer period of time. If a student continues to not meet academic or social-emotional goals even while receiving additional instruction over time, the school may choose to pursue an evaluation for special education eligibility.

What is a 504 plan?

A 504 plan is designed to provide students with disabilities accommodations within a school that allow the student to access and participate in instruction while not changing the instruction itself more effectively. Examples of accommodations that might be included in a 504 plan include, but are not limited to, providing extended time during tests and assessments, preferential seating, or having test or assessment items read aloud to a student. While 504 plan accommodations are often provided to students receiving special education, not all students who have 504 plans receive special education services.

What is an IEP?

An Individualized Education Plan (IEP) provides set guidelines and goals for the specialized instruction and related services that students within special education receive. Students qualify for special education and an IEP when their disability has a significant educational impact, and school districts have specific criteria and evaluation procedures in determining which students qualify for special education services and an IEP. A student’s IEP is regularly reviewed by a school-based team that provides the opportunity for the parent or guardian to participate and provides an opportunity for the student to participate after reaching a certain age. There are several special education eligibility categories including, but not limited to, Autism, Emotional Disability, Specific Learning Disability, Other Health Impairment, and Intellectual Disability.

What is the difference between meeting special education eligibility with an IEP and having a diagnosis?

Some students may have an IEP and qualify for special education while also having a diagnosis of Autism Spectrum Disorder, Specific Learning Disorder, Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder, or other diagnoses. However, not all students with a diagnosis have an IEP and qualify for special education and not all students who have an IEP and qualify for special education have a diagnosis. As previously stated, school districts have specific criteria and procedures in determining which students qualify for special education services that are largely centered around the educational impact of a student’s difficulties or needs.

A child may receive a diagnosis after being evaluated by a provider in the community. A diagnosis may allow a child to access services in community that an IEP may not as a diagnosis is relevant to a child’s functioning outside of the educational setting. For example, many children with an IEP under the category of Autism may not qualify for community services, like Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) therapy without a diagnosis of Autism Spectrum Disorder.

What will my child’s school do with a psychological evaluation or learning evaluation report?

School districts are governed by specific policies that guide how they might utilize an evaluation report. However, schools may choose to use the information provided within a report, in conjunction with the information they gather from a student within the school setting, to inform eligibility for special education services, shape the accommodations included in a 504 plan, and inform the additional academic or social-emotional instruction a student might receive. Evaluation reports can often provide a school with additional information that formally reflects the needs of the student they are serving.

Additional Resources

Understood.org-What is MTSS?

RTI Action Network-What is RTI?

Verywell Family-504 Plans for Students with Disabilities

US Department of Education-Guide to the Individualized Education Program

Understood.org-The Difference Between a School Identification and a Clinical Diagnosis