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V.1 #2 Recommended Practices - Diagnosing and Classifying Children in Special Education: It's Ti

Let me get right to the point: The classification system used in IEP development under current federal law, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Improvement Act of 2004 (IDEA), is sorely inadequate for establishing meaningful goals for children with disabilities. The broad, one-level disability category, drawing on IDEA classifications, significantly limits a teacher's ability to find the correct remediation, modifications, accommodations, assistive technology, and management solutions for children needing special education.

Lack of Meaningful Information

In most states a child's IEP notes his IDEA classification (for example, Specific Learning Disability, Emotional Disturbance, Speech or Language Impairment) with little meaningful detail. Because IDEA allows for only 13 possible classifications (despite the thousands of possible disabilities and disorders), these broad, one-level IDEA classifications often leave educators, parents, and the child with little information on the specifics of the disability and or guidance about how to help the child succeed in school.

For instance, children with learning disabilities in reading (dyslexia), math (dyscalculia), writing (dysgraphia), and visual processing are all classified under IDEA's category of "Specific Learning Disability," yet their situations differ dramatically. To complicate matters, numerous disabilities have recognized "subtypes"-there are, for example, more than ten types of dyslexia. An IEP for a child with dyslexia , showing the one-level IDEA classification of "Specific Learning Disability," fails to give teachers a clear idea of the child's exact diagnosis. The one-level classification also fails to offer information about how to best help the child.

Take another example apart from learning disabilities. Over half a million children have the IDEA classification of "Emotional Disturbance" on their IEPs. When a teacher receives an IEP for one of these children, it literally tells the teacher nothing about the child's needs. Is the "Emotional Disturbance" an anxiety based problem (e.g., school avoidance, test anxiety, social-related anxiety), or a pervasive mood disorder (e.g., depression), or an inappropriate behavior problem (e.g., little impulse control, aggressive behaviors, disruptive behaviors), or a previously diagnosed psychological disorder (e.g., schizophrenia, manic depression)? IDEA classifications answer none of these questions.

This lack of information raises a critical question that challenges the core of special education: How can Child Study Teams, IEP Teams, and the like meet the unique needs of these children, write effective functional behavioral analyses (FBAs), and create effective goals when a one level classification of "Emotional Disturbance" fails to address the specific behaviors and symptoms associated with these children? Clearly, the current one level type of classification system used on IEPs can do serious disservice to identifying and meeting the unique needs of a child with an Emotional Disturbance. The same can be said for meeting the needs of children with other classifications. For example, one child classified as having a Specific Learning Disability may have word recognition problems; another, with the same overall score on a reading test may have reading comprehension problems, but no problems with word recognition. One may be highly motivated to succeed in reading; the other highly motivated to es cape reading.

Possible Solutions

Special educators and other professionals who develop, implement, and review IEPs need to advocate for a standard coding system that will convey descriptive and meaningful information about children with disabilities. Just as mental health professionals have the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders-IV-Text Revision (DSM-IV-TR) and other professionals have standard reference guides, special educators, related service personnel, and parents needs to "speak a common language." Right now, they don't. Thus, to help rectify this problem, there's a pressing need for a comprehensive diagnostic manual for special education, one with a specific coding system adequate to communicate what teachers and others need to do to help these children.

In the meantime, at IEP meetings, parents, teachers, and related-service personnel can advocate for IEPs whose Present Levels of Academic Achievement and Functional Performance (PLAAFP) sections are comprehensive, accurate, and meaningful. Such PLAAFP's can provide some guidance for developing measureable goals and for selecting interventions.


In schools, after a comprehensive assessment is completed for a child with a suspected disability, there is no common and agreed-on diagnostic manual that all professionals use to determine whether the child meets the criteria for a specific disability as defined by IDEA. This makes no sense; there needs to be a standard and guide by which educators make decisions regarding specific diagnoses of disabilities and disorders, as well as educational decisions for a child. It's time to communicate effectively. It's time for a change.

Dr. George A. Giuliani is the Executive Director of the National Association of Special Education Teachers (NASET) and is a full-time Associate Professor and Director of the Special Education Program at Hofstra University's Graduate School in the Department of Counseling, Research, Special Education, and Rehabilitation. In addition to holding a Juris Doctor from the City University of New York School of Law, he is a New York State licensed psychologist and certified school psychologist. He has an extensive private practice focusing on children with special needs.

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