Understanding the Essentials

If you are new to special education, the process and terminology can be overwhelming. Educators unfortunately are so familiar that they aren't always aware how much parents might not know. When it comes to meetings they'll typically have a very clear idea of what they think is best for your child and how that falls within the bounds of what the school offers and the legal framework that governs special education. 

All too often, this knowledge imbalance can be frustrating for parents as you might feel yourself being guided to certain outcomes without fully understanding why or whether they are the best possible option. It can feel a little like playing chess for the first time when no one explained how the pieces move. Only this isn't a game and you are being asked to make important decisions that can have a major impact on your child's education. 

Our aim at Reading SEPAC is to help explain some of these rules to get you started but we recommend you consult some of the additional resources we've compiled here. In particular we recommend you look at the Parents Guide to Special Education, which you can find here in full, and here in a shorter interactive version that provides the essentials with links back the fuller document for when you need to go deeper into a topic.  This guide was created by the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) and the Federation for Children with Special Needs (FCSN) and is intended specifically for parents in Massachusetts.

The Rules Governing Special Education and 504 Plans

The rules that govern special education are ultimately based on the law at both the Federal and State level. The main laws at the federal level are the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 . In Massachusetts these are supplemented by the state’s special education law (MGL c. 71B). From a very high level these enshrine three fundamental principals:

Beyond this the federal laws differ. Without going into much detail the essence of the difference is that IDEA is more prescriptive. It mandates parental sign-off and provides a defined process for this to occur, and generally requires more from schools. It also has more to say on how to help  students transition out of the education system to adulthood, called Transition Planning, which kicks off at age 14. In a nutshell, both laws have the same goal but IDEA is more comprehensive in codifying the steps to achieve the goal into law. 

The tradeoff is IDEA is narrower in terms of who it covers. To  be eligible for special education under IDEA, a child must not only meet the definition of a defined disability within the law, which can be found here, but that disability must be be impeding the child's effective progress in the general education program to a degree that they require special services and specialized instruction, i.e. an individual education plan (IEP). 

Section 504 is broader as it only requires that a disability impede a major life function to be covered, so students who do not qualify for an IEP under IDEA might still qualify for services under section 504. Basically, if a child doesn't require an individualized education plan and can make effective progress in the general education program but still needs certain accommodations Section 504 covers this. 

Like IDEA, Section 504 requires a plan for the child, though not as detailed as an IEP. The differences then are a matter of degree as both Section 504 plans and IEPs aim to provide accommodations that are appropriate for the child's needs. 


Children have a right to an evaluation for special needs and school's have a duty to assess the needs of children who might be eligible. The evaluation process can be initiated by a parent or caregiver, by a teacher, or any other professional working with the child. There are specific timelines and rules governing the evaluation process we won't go into here, but some key things to be aware of as a parent

Individualized Education Plan

Children with special needs under IDEA are entitled to an individualized education plan that breaks out in detail goals for the child, areas of need and steps to accommodate as well as a full service breakdown. The plan is created by a team, which includes a team chair, the child's teacher and special education resources at the school as well as you, the parents or caregivers. You all need to agree on what goes into the plan and will revisit and update the plan at least once a year. IEPs are covered in greater detail here.

504 Plan

Children with special needs under Section 504 are entitled to a plan for accommodations, typically referred to as a 504 plan. Similar to an IEP, the plan is typically created by a team which will include the child's teacher and special education resources at the school as well as you, the parents or caregivers and will break out specific accommodations for the child. The process is similar to an IEP but a little less proscribed and the plan a little less detailed. 504 plans are covered in greater detail here.

Transition Plan

When a child turns 14 the IEP team needs to consider the child's post-school goals and courses they'll need during the remainder of their education to reach these goals. These are documented in a statement of transition services needs, which is included in the IEP going forward. This is expanded further at age 16 to include a breakout of transition services that might be needed to help the child prepare for leaving school. Transition Planning is covered more in depth here

Importance of Collaboration

Laws are good at establishing rights and frameworks, but at the end of the day its people who need to do the work of education. The laws, particularly IDEA, are very good at establishing a team structure and a strong role for parents, but teams can vary in terms of their level of function or (hopefully not) dysfunction. As parents you have a big part to play in this as you are biggest experts in the room on your child with the most at stake in terms of their future. For parent-to-parent advice on how you can help create a more effective team for your child we recommend you consult our page on Foundations for Effective Collaboration.


Children with special needs may be more prone to bullying. Parents should understand that Massachusetts has strong anti-bullying laws  that place many requirements on schools to protect all children from bullying. Specific to special education, the law also requires that IEP teams consider potential vulnerabilities to bullying based on a child's disability. If vulnerabilities are found then the law requires that the IEP address the skills and proficiencies needed to avoid and respond to bullying. More information on bullying can be found here


Both Section 504 and IDEA provide protections related to displinary actions that lead to a student being excluded from school, such as a suspension. Information on these protections as well as the laws governing discipline in general in Massachusetts can can be found here.

Additional Information 

For additional resources and information we recommend you consult our Special Educational Focused Resources page. Below we've also broken out some potentially helpful links. We include similar links tied to specific topics. 

Official Resources

Basic Rights in Special Education (video) - Federation for Children with Special Needs (FCSN)

Making Education Work for your Child - Mass.gov 

Laws and Regulations (Presentation) - Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE)

Disability Definitions and Related Links - Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE)

603 CMR 28.00 Special Education - Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE)

Special Education Laws and Regulations - Federation for Children with Special Needs (FCSN)

Laws & Guidance - US Department of Education

IDEA Statute and Regulation - US Department of Education

General Resources

IDEA Parent Guide - National Center for Learning Disabilities

The Power of Parent Advocacy (Presentation)- Federation for Children with Special Needs (FCSN)

Least Restrictive Environment Continuum, explained - A Day in Our Shoes

Timelines in Special Education and Section 504

Mistakes People Make - Parents - Wrightslaw

What is a neuropsychological evaluation? - Understood

Please note that we at Reading SEPAC cannot guarantee the accuracy or completeness of any information presented on any third-party website listed on this site, nor do we endorse any informational content appearing on third-party websites of any of the providers listed. We endeavor only to provide a listing of potentially helpful information available. Its up to you, as a consumer, to do your own diligence and research. Also note that any summarization of the laws, rules, regulations, processes or similar related to special education, or advice proffered is based exclusively on the experience of Reading SEPAC members as parents of children with special needs. Its in no way an official reflection of the position of the FCSA or the Reading School system and we make no claims of expertise in communication, law, education or any other areas. While we have endeavored to provide simple-to-read language for parents, we are not experts, do not claim to be, and make no warranties or claims of accuracy related to the informational content of this website.