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Special Education Terms & Acronyms: a glossary

Are you confused about all the Special Education terms and acronyms that you've been hearing? Here’s a list of Special Education terms defined in straightforward language.

A set of accommodations, or changes in the classroom environment, to help your child follow the regular curriculum. It is less formal and involved than an Individualized Education Program (IEP) and does not change the instruction itself. For example, a student who uses a wheelchair but doesn’t need academic supports would have a 504 plan. See Accommodations below for other examples. A student may qualify for a 504 plan but not an IEP. Read more about 504 plans, or compare 504s and IEPs.

Changes that the teacher can make to help your child learn more effectively. For example: they may let your child sit at the front of the classroom, wear headphones when doing their own work, take more time for tests, or give them certain types of learning aids. Accommodations are NOT changes to the education content itself. They can be used for class instruction, homework and testing, including college entrance tests like the SAT or ACT. They can be written into an IEP or a 504 plan. Adults can also get accommodations in the workplace. More about accommodations, or about testing accommodations for high schoolers.

ACT stands for American College Testing. This is a standardized test students may take in junior or senior year in high school. The ACT scores will be part of their college application. (The SAT is a different standardized test. Students can take either or both.) More on the ACT and SAT.

A condition where a person’s brain processes information differently. It is not their fault! It makes it hard for them to focus on one thing, and can make them impulsive and disorganized. If a child is also hyperactive (they can’t sit still), then it’s called ADHD: Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder.

If a child has ADD or ADHD there are things you can do to help. You can reduce distractions by having them sit at the front of the class, do their work or take tests in a quiet corner, or use headphones to cancel outside noise. They can also get help to learn strategies to stay focused and organized. Medicines can also help. More about helping a child with ADD or a parent with ADD.

A condition where a person’s brain processes information differently. It is not their fault! It makes it hard for them to focus on one thing, and can make them impulsive and disorganized. Some people are also hyperactive: they can’t sit still.

If a child has ADD or ADHD there are things you can do to help. You can reduce distractions by having them sit at the front of the class, do their work or take tests in a quiet corner, or use headphones to cancel outside noise. They can also get help to learn strategies to stay focused and organized. Medicines can also help. More about helping a child with ADHD or a parent with ADHD.

ADLs are activities that we typically do every day to take care of ourselves. Examples are eating, bathing, dressing, using the bathroom, and getting from place to place. Some people with disabilities may need help learning or doing their ADLs. More about caring for a child with a severe disability.

The Affordable Care Act (ACA), also known as Obamacare, is a law passed in 2010 that makes it easier and cheaper to get health insurance. It also requires insurance companies to pay for a minimum set of services like check-ups, emergency care, mental health care and maternity care. The ACA also prevents health insurance companies from denying insurance – or charging more – if you already have a health condition (a pre-existing condition). More about getting health insurance.

Standardized testing in school that is modified or adapted for people with intellectual disabilities. In Louisiana the grade level alternate assessments are called LEAP Connect. More about alternate assessments.

A Louisiana law that allows the IEP team to decide on a different set of criteria for a student to pass a course or to move on to the next grade. For example, they may decide on an interview or portfolio instead of a written test at the end of a course. More about the April Dunn Act.

Tests given to all students to check their progress in school. Students with disabilities may need accommodations for these tests, which should be written in the IEP or 504 Plan. Certain students may need alternate assessments, depending on their disability. Your state’s grade level performance assessments may have different names, like MCAS in Massachusetts, or LEAP 2025 in Louisiana. More about assessments in special education or about assessments for high school students.

Someone who is getting a benefit. For example, a person who is getting SSI payments is the beneficiary. This also refers to a person who is named in a will to inherit money or possessions, or the person who “owns” the money in a Special Needs Trust. More about financial benefits.

Louisiana Term: The document describing the special education procedural safeguards: procedures that are required by law to protect the rights of students and parents. They include timelines, consent processes, and specific rules for getting the evaluation and creating the IEP. All parents and guardians should get this when their child starts the special education process. Read about the special education evaluation process.

Louisiana Term: A student needs a certain number of Carnegie Credits in order to graduate from high school. This means they must pass courses with the required number of Carnegie Units. One Carnegie Unit means that there has been 120 hours of class time in a certain course. This is usually the same as a full year course, but not always. Read about graduation pathways and requirements in Louisiana.

Louisiana Term: A form of guardianship that allows a parent or guardian to continue making decisions for a child after they turn 18. You must apply for this before your child turns 18 and show that they have a significant developmental disability. It’s easier and cheaper than waiting until after they turn 18. Then you would have to apply for interdiction. More about Continuing Tutorship and how to apply.

When a child does not yet learn or do certain skills that children their age typically do. Common examples: a speech delay, or trouble holding a crayon. Developmental delays can qualify a child for support services like Early Intervention or Special Education. (It’s called a delay until age 9 because children can catch up with the right support. After that it’s called a disability.) Read about assessing a young child’s development or services for children with developmental delays.

When a child or adult cannot do certain things that people their age typically do. It can be a physical or intellectual difference that limits someone’s ability to take care of themselves, starts when they are young, and will probably affect them throughout their life. Read about assessing a young child’s development or services for children with developmental disabilities.

A DSW is hired to help care for a person with a disability, usually in their home. Also often called a PCA: Personal Care Attendant. The DSW (or PCA) helps with things like bathing, feeding, using the bathroom, and sometimes light housekeeping. DSW services might be covered by health insurance or state disability support programs. More about in-home help.

A formal process that parents and schools go through when they cannot agree on something related to special education services. More about solving disagreements with the school. Read about communicating with the school to prevent disputes.

A professional who helps parents advocate for their child’s special education needs and resolve problems with the school. More about special education advocates.

A student must pass these to get credit for each course they take in high school. They must pass a certain number to get their diploma. Louisiana now calls these LEAP 2025 assessments. More about LEAP 2025.

This is every child’s right, even if they need special services to make it happen. The Individuals with Disabilities Act (IDEA) guarantees that all students ages 3 to 22 can get a free public education that meets their needs. They have a right to fully take part in school life, including after-school activities. What is “appropriate” for each child will be different because each has unique needs. But it means more than just getting by: every child’s education should challenge them to the best of their abilities. More about FAPE.

Fluency is the ability to read smoothly and accurately, with expression. It is a key component of literacy and a necessary skill for understanding what you read. More about fluency and other literacy components.

The regular teaching plan for each subject in a typical classroom. An IEP or 504 Plan will discuss “accessing the general curriculum,” which means being able to follow the lessons that everyone else in the class does.

This refers to the regular classroom that has students without disabilities, or the teacher of that regular class. In other words NOT the special education class or teacher. Read about classroom placement on the IEP (Individualized Education Program).

Students are expected to have certain skills and knowledge in each grade, and these build on each other throughout the school years. States have their own standards of what skills and knowledge students in each grade should have. School assessments during each year track students’ performance to see if they are still at grade level. More about grade-level expectations.

Louisiana has 2 main pathways through high school. Each has a different set of requirements for graduation. The TOPS University is a traditional high school pathway that prepares students for a 4-year college. The Jump Start Career (or TOPS Tech) pathway prepares them for a technical or community college and trains them for a specific type of job. You may also hear about the Alternate Assessment pathway for students with intellectual disabilities. More about graduation pathways in Louisiana, or supporting your child in high school (in any state).

A legal process where a parent or other adult is appointed to make legal decisions for someone over 18 who has a disability and can’t make their own decisions. “Limited Guardianship” can specify only certain kinds of decisions, or “Full Guardianship” is for all decisions. In Louisiana there are 2 forms of guardianship: continuing tutorship and interdiction. More about guardianship or less restrictive options.

A certificate that shows you have learned the skills needed for a specific job. For example, students in Louisiana’s Jump Start program will take a certification exam to get their IBC for their chosen field.

The federal law that gives children with disabilities the right to have “equal access” to a “free and appropriate” education. (See FAPE above.) It requires public schools to give them the services they need to meet their own educational goals. More about IDEA and your special education rights. (Or in Podcast form.)

When a child is approved for Early Intervention services, the family and Family Service Coordinator will write up an IFSP. It describes the child’s goals, and the services the child and family will get. More about Early Intervention.

A plan that describes a student’s path through high school. It includes what courses they will take and how the teachers will assess their performance. The IEP team will work together to create an IGP that fits the student’s goals. More about the IGP.

A document written for each child who qualifies for special education. It describes your child’s goals and the special services and accommodations your child will get to meet their unique educational needs. It is a legal contract between you and the school, under the IDEA law. Parents and guardians should be part of the team that writes this. More about the IEP.

“Intellectual” or “cognitive” refers to how someone’s mind works. This kind of disability means that a person has limited mental capacity. They may have trouble thinking, learning, communicating, or taking care of their own daily needs. This can be mild or severe. You may also see the term “I/DD“, which means Intellectual or Developmental Disability. Read about caring for a child with an intellectual disability.

Louisiana Term: This is the same as Guardianship, a legal process where a parent or other adult is appointed to make legal decisions for someone over 18 who has a disability and can’t make their own decisions. It can be for all kinds of decisions, or just some of them. More about Interdiction and how to apply.

A high school program, or graduation pathway, in Louisiana for students who want to train for a job during high school. It prepares them for technical or community college and lets them graduate with a high school diploma and one or more Industry-Based Credentials for a specific type of job. (See IBS, above.) More about graduation pathways in Louisiana.

Louisiana Term: Leap stands for the Louisiana Education Assessment Program. It’s the statewide performance test given every year to all students in grades 3-12. The test tells how well a student is meeting the expectations for their grade level, and identifies when they need extra support. More about LEAP 2025.

Louisiana Term: Also called Alternate Assessment, this is the annual state performance test for students with significant intellectual disabilities. More about LEAP connect and more about Alternate Assessments.

There are many different types of learning disabilities (LDs). They affect how a child takes in new information, understands it and responds to it. Common examples are Dyslexia (reading), Dysgraphia (handwriting and fine motor skills), and Dyscalculia (numbers and math). If a child has a learning disability, it does not mean they’re not smart: they can learn successfully with the right kind of teaching. It’s important to catch LDs early and get support. More about learning disabilities.

The IDEA law requires that students with disabilities must be taught with their non-disabled peers as much as possible. The closest they can get to being in a typical classroom is called the “least restrictive environment,” or LRE. If extra supports and services will allow your child to make progress in the regular classroom, then that’s what the school must offer. Only if that’s not possible will your child go to a more restrictive setting like a “special needs” classroom. The most restrictive environment is a specialized school or hospital-based setting. More about LRE.

Medicaid is a federal program that provides public health insurance to people who have low income or a disability, or are pregnant or elderly. Medicaid generally has good disability benefits. Each state runs their own version of Medicaid, which may have a different name. For example, Medicaid is called Healthy Louisiana in LA and MassHealth in MA. More about Medicaid for children with disabilities.

Milestones are skills that children usually develop at certain ages. For example: smiling at 4 months, reaching to grab a toy at 6 months, or walking at 15 months. Each child develops these skills at different times, but if they are far behind the expected timing, it’s good to check on their development with their doctor. If a child misses milestones, it may be a sign of developmental delay. More about milestones in child development.

A neurodivergent person is someone who does not think, behave or perceive the world in a typical way. This is not a disability in itself, but is often wrongly perceived that way. Neurodivergent people do not need to be “fixed”, but do need to be understood and accepted as they are.

A neurotypical person is someone who thinks, behaves and perceives the world in a way that is typical in the general population. While this is how most people are, it’s not a “better” way to be, and we should not see it as a goal to strive for.

A PCA is hired to help care for a person with a disability, usually in their home. Also often called a Direct Service Worker (DSW). The PCA (or DSW) helps with things like bathing, feeding, using the bathroom, and sometimes light housekeeping. PCA services might be covered by health insurance or state disability support programs. More about in-home help.

The school or type of classroom where your child will be taught. Based on your child’s needs, these range from the regular classroom in the child’s regular school to a special-needs classroom, a separate school, or a special program in the home or a hospital. Placement also refers to how often your child will be in the regular classroom with non-disabled peers, and how often they will be in a different classroom with specialists. The IDEA law requires students to be placed in the Least Restrictive Environment (LRE). More about LRE.

These are specific procedures that are required by law to protect the rights of students and parents. They include timelines, consent processes, and specific rules for getting the evaluation and creating the IEP. These are described in a document that all parents and guardians should get when their child starts the special education process. (In Louisiana this is called Bulletin 1508.) More on families’ rights in special education.

If someone is getting SSI benefits and they are not able to manage their own finances, a Rep Payee is set up to receive their SSI payments and buy the things the person needs. The Rep Payee can set up a joint bank account with the person and manage the money. A Rep Payee is often the person’s parent or other family member. More about Rep Payees for SSI.

A system of trying different teaching strategies, or interventions, to help a child who is struggling in school before referring them for special education services. There are different levels that increase in intensity. When a lower-level strategy doesn’t work, the school will try the next level. If these do not help a child make progress, the next step is to get a special education evaluation. More about RTI.

SAT stands for Scholastic Aptitude Test. This is a standardized test students take in junior or senior year in high school. The SAT scores will be part of their college application. (The ACT is a different standardized test. Students can take either or both.) More on the SAT and ACT.

Louisiana Term: This is a formal process to identify why a child is having trouble and in what areas, and put interventions in place to help. If your child is having trouble, you can ask their teacher to set up an SBLC meeting. More about the SBLC.

An insurance, or health plan, that is in addition to your main one. For example, many people have private insurance and also Medicaid as their secondary insurance. This can help because different plans cover different services. More about health insurance for children with disabilities.

A set of services and supports from the school to help children with disabilities. This includes physical, intellectual, emotional or learning disabilities that prevent the child from making progress in school. Special education services include specialized teaching techniques and therapies that help children develop and learn despite their disability. If a student qualifies, these services will be written into an Individualized Education Program (IEP) and are guaranteed by the IDEA law. (See IDEA above.) More about special education.

Tests or assessments that are the same for all students. There are different kinds. Some are for assessing grade level skills and others are for applying to college.

The traditional high school program, or graduation pathway, in Louisiana. It prepares students for going to a 4-year college. More about graduation pathways in Louisiana.

A detailed plan to help a child with a disability meet their goals for after high school. For all students with an IEP, the Transition Plan should be written by the team (including parents or guardians and the student) by age 14-16. More about transition planning.

A program that helps people to learn the skills they need to do a job. This may include specific skills for the job, but often includes general skills like being responsible and professional, and communicating well with co-workers. There are often vocational programs to help students in high school as well as after graduation or later in life. More about vocational programs and job readiness.

A career readiness test for Louisiana students in the Jump Start pathway. Students may take this instead of the ACT or SAT before applying to college or technical school. More about graduation pathways in Louisiana.