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My child is receiving special education in school. What role should his pediatrician play?

Jennifer Poon

Jennifer Poon, MD, FAAP


special education

The pediatrician's office often is the first stop for families seeking help with school issues. Navigating the special education system, understanding your rights and collaborating with school officials to come up with a plan can be confusing and intimidating.

Your pediatrician and/or pediatric specialists play a big role in advocating for your child throughout his or her education. Developmental-behavioral pediatricians, for example, advocate for their patients with developmental and behavioral problems by working closely with schools, preschools, and other agencies involved with developmental care and education. When all parties work together―as a team―in sharing information and expertise, your child will receive optimal health care and educational services.

Here are ways pediatricians can help:

  • Education. Your pediatrician should be knowledgeable of your local school districts and other local agencies for appropriate referrals, if needed. As your child progresses in school, your pediatrician can also help the school understand your child's changing needs and how their disability may affect their education. For example, your pediatrician may be able to give you the paperwork needed to support accommodations such as extra time on school tests.

  • Team-based care. Services in the school are decided by a school-based team; they cannot be prescribed by a pediatrician. Pediatricians and pediatric specialists do provide input to school-based evaluation teams who decide if a child meets eligibility criteria for special education services under one of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) categories (see box below).

  • Communication. It is important that there is communication amongst everyone on your child's team. Schools may not fully understand a child's health needs and specifics about his or her disabilities. Pediatricians may not know what is actually being done for the child during the core part of the school day. It is important for your pediatrician to share relevant information with early intervention or school personnel. This may mean that you will have to sign a release that allows for your doctor(s) to share medical and mental health information―including developmental screening results, hearing and vision screening results, and any current medications and medical treatments―with your child's school and other members of their healthcare team. The school may provide information to your pediatrician that may inform medical care (such as how to address alertness in the classroom or behavior in school), with your permission. This team approach ensures comprehensive care for your child and also helps your pediatrician make informed medical diagnostic and/or treatment plans.

  • Reconcile differences. Schools evaluate children for legal disabilities under IDEA, while doctors evaluate children for medical conditions. Consequently, their conclusions may not match up. For instance, a school could classify a student under a disability of autism, whereas a doctor might diagnose the student with a developmental delay. Pediatricians and pediatric specialists can help reconcile differences and should work with school officials to reach a mutual understanding of your child's needs. Valuable information can be shared both ways. 

​Know Your Child's Rights:

Just as the needs of children can be complex, so too are the ways they are addressed. Federal laws—IDEA, Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act and the Americans with Disabilities Act—ensure the educational rights of children with disabilities and apply to schools receiving federal funds. But it is up to school districts to implement individual plans resulting from the federal protections, called Individualized Education Programs (IEPs) and 504 plans. Those can vary widely across the country and even within a single school district.

Requirements of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA):

  • Free appropriate public education: States and local school districts must offer this to all 3- to 21-year-olds with disabilities. Learn more here

  • Identification and evaluation: States and school districts must identify, locate and evaluate all kids with disabilities, no matter the severity, to determine eligibility and need for special education and related services.

  • Individualized education program (IEP): Eligible children will receive an IEP; infants and toddlers, an individualized family service plan. This is a written and specialized plan to address the education needs of an individual child, as they may relate to their disability. Parents are involved in the review and approval of the IEP.

  • Least restrictive environment: Children with disabilities must be educated in the least restrictive environment to the maximum extent possible. For example, being in a classroom with children who do not have disabilities.

  • Due process safeguards: These must be in place for children and their families, including the right to mediation, request for complaint investigation, due process hearing and other rights.

  • Parent and student participation and shared decision-making: Schools must collaborate with parents and students in the design and implementation of the special education services and placements.


If you have concerns about your child's development, learning, or behavior, talk with both your child's primary pediatrician and their teacher about a plan of action. Keep in mind that not all academic problems require medication and there are many options to help students.

Additional Information & Resources:

Jennifer Poon

Jennifer Poon, MD, FAAP

Jennifer Poon, MD, FAAP, is a developmental-behavioral pediatrician and Professor of Pediatrics at the Medical College of Georgia in Augusta. Her clinical work focuses on developmental delay, ADHD, and autism spectrum disorders. Dr. Poon is an Executive Committee member of the American Academy of Pediatrics Section on Developmental and Behavioral Pediatrics.

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American Academy of Pediatrics (Copyright © 2018)
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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