The Secret Language of Special Education



When you go into a public school, especially in attending a team for your child with a suspected or identified disability, you can feel like school personnel are speaking a different language with all of the acronyms that are used.  I know even as a new teacher I would hear the terminology and nod my head in agreement while feeling foolish that I didn’t know what other educators were talking about.  But no worries, your interpreter is here. Below is a cheat sheet from Chapter 1 of my book: “Roadmap to Navigating Your Child’s Disability” to help you navigate the process in getting your child the best supports for their disability.  Because your child should be the primary focus and you should not need to waste your time in researching these acronyms.


Educational Jargon Cheat Sheet:

  • IDEA: It all starts with IDEA. You are probably reading that as idea but it is pronounced I.D.E.A. and it is the most important law that was passed in 2004. It stands for The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act and it outlines a whole lot of criteria that need to be followed for kids ages 3-21 whether they have a disability or one is suspected. The bottom line is this law makes advocacy possible because it levels the playing field by outlining how public agencies need to provide early intervention, special education and related services to more than eligible infants, toddlers, children, and youth with disabilities.
  • ADA: This stands for the Americans with Disabilities Act.  It is a Civil Rights law that is intended to prevent discrimination solely on the basis of disability in employment, public services, and for accommodations.
  • 504: We will talk about the specific terminology of a 504 plan below, but the gist of the 504 is that it is also a Civil Rights law that is supposed to prevent discrimination of one’s disability in programs and services. *A great resource that breaks down the comparison of ADA, IDEA, and Section 504 can be found at
  • Infants and Toddlers: This is the first step in early intervention services. Prior to your child being school aged (age 5), there are services they can get through the public school system. If you suspect they have a delay with talking, walking, life skills, etc. look up the process within your county. It can usually be found under the special education section for the public school system. With infants and toddlers, once you make the request, they will do the testing, and if your child qualifies, services will be provided in your home.
  • Child Find: This is what it's called in my county but it may be different in your school district. This is for preschool or prekindergarten children along with those kids in a district who may be going to a private school. If your child meets that criteria, you call the identified office number. Again, look on your district's Special Education portion of the website to find this. Then you call and make the referral. That office will then contact the home school in your area. They will schedule a meeting with you to hear the concerns and recommend any testing. As the parent or guardian, you will have to bring the child to the school for testing. Then, you may have to bring them to that location as well to receive services. 
  • SST: This stands for Student Support Team. If there is a concern that you or the school has, this is normally the first type of formal meeting called. It is different than a conference because you will have a team of people from the school. This can include the student support team chair who facilitates the meeting, classroom teacher(s), special educator(s), the guidance counselor, the nurse, and/or the psychologist. At times, the reading specialist is also there. If that seems like an overwhelming amount of people, you are not alone in thinking that. Just remember everyone is there to SUPPORT your child which means you as well. Ultimately, the team members should have a helpful demeanor and will offer suggestions on appropriate next steps to better help your child in the area identified as an issue. This team can meet for concerns in the following areas: social, emotional, inattention, academic, medical, and attendance. You may request this type of meeting if you have a concern in one of these areas.
  • 504 plan: The 504 plan refers to section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act and the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). This basically means that while your child does not qualify for an IEP, he/she is entitled to accommodations to help them be successful in the school environment due to the disability. The disability can include ADD, Anxiety, Cystic Fibrosis, and/or any other documented disability. This plan would be most appropriate if your child is not significantly below grade level (1-2 years) but have a disability which is impacting them educationally where they need accommodations like reduced distractions, extended time, repetition of directions, chunking of assignments, etc. to be successful in school.
  • IEP: This stands for Individualized Education Plan. When a child has been found to have a disability that is causing a significant educational impact, they can qualify for this type of plan. This means that the child is at least 1-2 years below grade level, their disability is causing a negative educational impact and they require specially designed instruction through this lengthy plan. The plan will include goals that match up to their areas of need based on their disability with objectives included for how those goals will be met. A case manager will be assigned to monitor and implement this plan for the child. The IEP team which should include you the parent needs to meet at least once a year to review and update this document.
  • FBA: FBA stands for a Functional Behavioral Assessment.  A team will recommend and get permission from you the guardian for this type of assessment if they would like to understand specific behaviors from a child.  It includes a variety of assessment methods: observations, interviews with teachers, parents, review of referrals for behavior, etc. that allow the team to analyze the child’s (problem behaviors) to determine what is triggering those behaviors and what function they are serving for the child.  I have never met a child who willingly wants to display “bad” behaviors.  They just may not know how to appropriately express how they’re feeling.  The goal of this type of assessment is to help the team get a better understanding of when these behaviors are happening so they can develop a plan to help the child learn replacement behaviors.
  • BIP: The BIP is the next step after the FBA as it is the actual Behavior Intervention Plan.  Normally this type of document is developed through the team with input from the psychologist, special educator, and teachers to focus on 1-2 problem behaviors for the child.  There is usually a plan of positive incentives put in place (i.e., some kind of reward for the positive behavior) in order to get the child to the identified behavior the team wants instead of the problem behavior.  There also may be training listed for staff who will help work with the child along with a response plan (what the school will do if the child becomes violent, runs out of school, or is destructive to property).  As the parent or guardian, you should always be aware and sign off on the plan before it is implemented as it is a formal assessment measure.  We will talk more about that in Part II.
  • AT: Assistive Technology – For this definition we are going to specifically look at how it is defined throughout special education in schools.  It is any item, piece of equipment or system that is used to increase, maintain, or improve the functional capabilities of children with disabilities. *Examples (Audio Recorders, F/M systems that amplify sound for students with hearing issues) Schools usually have their own assistive technology department within the county.  If you have questions about what is available for your child, reach out to your school’s IEP chair or Special Education department chair to ask who you should contact about the types of available assistive technology within that county.
  • PLAAFP: This is a specific section that is required on every IEP called the Present Levels of Academic Achievement and Functional Performance.  Basically, for every area the team is saying is affected by your child’s disability, they need to show data as to why your child is performing below level in that area of need to determine that they need a goal to help support them due to their disability.
  • ESY: This stands for Extended School Year and is a page specifically on the IEP.  Extended School Year is Special Education summer school.  In order for your child to qualify for this, the team will review the questions on this specific page.  Normally, they are looking at data that shows your child regresses with skills learned over a break.  Extended School Year can be very helpful for students who tend to not retain learned skills and/or who continue to benefit from the school structure over the summer.
  • LRE: This acronym is normally thrown out on the last page of an IEP after the team has gone through all of the other services.  It stands for Least Restrictive Environment which in layman’s terms means that your child is in the right classroom setting to receive the services.  Normally the team has to list the settings they have considered. The first is always general education without accommodations and supports.  This means your child in the classroom with no accommodations. The second is general education with supports and accommodations.  This should be the next environment considered when your child has an IEP as they will need accommodations to be successful with their plan. After that, if their IEP has been tried and the child is not successful, you may see OGE (Outside General Education) hours.  This could mean your child needs an interventional reading program outside of the classroom with the reading specialist or the special educator.  On this page if your child has speech services, you will also see that they are out of the general education environment for that.  Outside general education could also reference a self-contained program or placement. A self-contained placement means a different regional program for your child.  We will discuss this in more detail in Part II.
  • FAPE: This is a popular term and it stands for “Free Appropriate Public Education.” One of my favorite links: breaks it down by each letter. F: Free means that all students with disabilities will be educated at the public school’s expense. A: Appropriate means that your child will have a specific program that is tailored to their needs. This plan is outlined in their IEP.
  • P: Public refers to the public school system.  Children no matter the nature and severity of their disabilities have the right to be educated under the public school system. E: Education must be provided to every school aged child with a disability. This education should be outlined according to your child’s plan and should prepare them for their future including further education, employment and independent living. *So basically it means your child is getting what they need within their school setting.
  • FERPA: Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act of 1974 is federal legislation in the United States that protects student’s personally identifiable information. This Act states that parents of students under 18 or students over 18 be allowed to view and propose changes to their educational record. The act also states that the school must have a signed release from that parent or eligible student in order to release the personally identifiable information to anyone.  This is usually done through a document called a release of records.

You may also have lettered acronyms thrown at you in relation to the titles of school personnel which can seem confusing. Refer to the list below anytime to help understand the role associated with each acronym.

  • IEP Chair: They run the IEP meetings. If you have a concern about meeting notes or your child's services, they along with the case manager are the ones to contact.
  • SLP: Speech Language Pathologist: They service students who have speech and language concerns. This includes articulation, stuttering, communication, pragmatics, and language. If there is a concern with your child in any of the listed areas, they should be included in the meeting.
  • OT: Occupational Therapist: Occupational therapy is a health profession where therapists help individuals engage and perform duties in their daily life.  In the school setting for students who qualify for occupational therapy, they can work with the student on a range of things including visual (hand eye coordination) and gross motor skills (the ability to control the large muscles of the body for sitting, crawling, walking, running, handwriting, and other activities.)
  • PT: Physical Therapist: A physical therapist is a member of the school’s team if a child qualifies for services on their IEP based on their needs.  The school based physical therapist promotes motor development (the growth of muscular coordination with a child) and the student’s participation through everyday routines and activities. They design and perform therapeutic interventions that focus on functional mobility for the student.
  • ESOL/ELL/ESL:  These are all acronyms that stand for English as a Second Language.  There is usually an ESOL teacher assigned to every school, although they may have multiple schools depending on the identified population of students who have English as a second language that attend the school.  This teacher is there to provide instruction for these students on learning English.  They also can be a resource to teachers and the community to provide suggestions for interventions that can help English Language Learning students become successful.

Chrissie Kahan is an advocate for equity and students with disabilities. As an educator for the past 15 years and an assistant principal for the past 8, she has experience working in partnership with parents, teachers, and related service providers. Chrissie has always had a heart for children, especially advocating for kids who have been labeled as "behavior problems."  She is special-education certified and serves as the Individualized Education Program (IEP)/Student Support Team Chair within her elementary school.

She has authored the following books: Benny Gator and Angry Ana with the purpose of spreading awareness to kids and families in regards to the topics of anxiety and anger management. She has also co-authored the book Navigating the Road of Infertility with her husband. This book has been featured internationally, most recently on HLN for National Infertility week. She and her husband have founded the publishing company: King Kahan Publishing, LLC where their hope is to publish books that focus on spreading awareness to real world issues in a meaningful way.

Learn more about Chrissie Kahan at, and connect with her on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.

Roadmap to Navigating Your Child’s Disability will be available on Amazon and Smashwords.