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Special Education: An Overview

The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) is federal legislation that guides the identification, evaluation, and provision of early intervention services for eligible children from birth to three years old and special education services for eligible children from three to twenty-one years old. Special education is specially designed instruction, provided at no cost to parents or guardians, to meet the unique needs of a child, three to twenty-one years old, with a disability. For more detailed information on how the special education system works, read Module 2, "Special Education," of the Department of Defense (DoD) Special Needs Parent Tool Kit — Birth to Eighteen.

This overview will give you a general idea as to the special education services and resources available to families.


To receive special education, a child must qualify according to established guidelines. The IDEA defines disability categories, but each state and the DoD set their own eligibility criteria.  Parents should research to learn more about a particular special education program including the eligibility criteria.

Relevant regulations


The IDEA requires school districts to provide comparable services when a student moves from one district to another. "Comparable" means that the new school system will honor the previous school district's individualized education program (IEP) by meeting the student's goals and objectives, but not necessarily by re-creating the same program. Parents must obtain current copies of the student's IEP and eligibility records prior to transferring to a new school to ensure that comparable services can be provided immediately.

Moving overseas

DoD schools are governed by the IDEA and therefore also provide comparable services to children who enter with an active IEP.

The Department of Defense Education Activity (DoDEA) special education website has a list of special education relocation suggestions for families who are moving overseas. The DoDEA website also provides points of contact for each overseas area (Europe and Pacific). If a child receiving special education requires special equipment, assistive technology, or individualized paraprofessional support, parents should contact the responsible special education coordinator.

Europe DoDEA Special Education Coordinator
Pacific DoDEA Special Education Coordinator

Graduating or leaving school

The National Center on Educational Outcomes is a great resource for each state's graduation requirements for students with disabilities.

When young adults with disabilities leave school, options for further education and work opportunities differ among communities. The best way for families to determine the options available in their community is to contact the local office of the State Vocational Rehabilitation Program.


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