Early intervention for children ages 3 and older

In a prior blog post, I shared how to find early intervention services for babies and toddlers, up to age 3. In this post, I will tell you what to do if your child is between the ages of 3 and 21 years old.

Once your child turns 3, early intervention services are now called Special Education and Related Services, and your local school district becomes the provider of services to your child.

If your child had been receiving services in the babies and toddlers program, then usually the program administrator will help you with the transition to the local school district, if it is recommended that services continue. Each State is responsible for making sure that a smooth transition occurs between the existing program and that of the new preschool program.

If your child was not receiving services up until this point, you have not “missed the boat.” Often problems or issues are not evident until your child reaches school age or later. If you (or your child’s health care provider or teachers) suspect there may be a developmental issue or problem, you can request to have your child evaluated by your school district. The evaluation is free to you – it is paid for by your school district and federal funds.

How to request an evaluation

The request for an evaluation should be made in writing (ideally) but it can also be verbal. It should be sent to the Principal of your local school, or to the Special Education Administrator of your school district. Then, they should contact you and set up an appointment for an evaluation.

Who will test your child?

The evaluation may be done in one or more sessions and with one or more professionals, depending on your child’s needs. For example, the school psychologist may do some testing to determine your child’s educational and cognitive (thinking, memory, and reasoning) levels. Then he may or may not recommend that the speech therapist also screen your child in the area of language and speech. If your child is having trouble with fine motor skills, such as holding a pencil or feeding himself, he may also be evaluated by an occupational therapist. If there are gross motor concerns, such as walking, running or even catching a ball, then a physical therapist may be asked to evaluate your child, too. The school district will coordinate all of the screenings and soon you should be called back to hear the results from the professionals.

Will your child qualify for services?

To be eligible to receive services, your child must be found to be a “child with a disability” as defined by IDEA – the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (a federal law). Keep in mind that a “developmental delay” is one of the qualifying conditions, at least up until the age of 5 in most states, and up to age 9 in others. So, it is not always necessary to “label” a child with a specific diagnosis, (especially if the testing is not conclusive) in order for him to qualify for services.

As the law stands today, the 14 qualifying conditions or disability categories are:
• Autism
• Deaf-blindness
• Deafness
• Developmental delay (subject to each state’s specific criteria, and usually only up to age 9 and sometimes younger)
• Emotional disturbance
• Hearing impairment
• Intellectual disability
• Multiple disabilities
• Orthopedic impairment
• Other health impairment
• Specific learning disability
• Speech or language impairment
• Traumatic brain injury
• Visual impairment

For more info on whether your child qualifies for services, see this description of the 14 qualifying categories.

Once you have reviewed the evaluation results, if you disagree with the outcome of the evaluation, you may choose to take your child for an independent (private) evaluation. You can request that the school district pay for it. Sometimes they do (but not always).

Once your child qualifies, what happens next?

If the testing shows that your child fits the criteria for receiving services, the professional team will meet with you to develop an Individualized Education Program or IEP. This plan will provide the details of the services your child will receive, including “related services” (speech, OT, PT, etc.) and supplementary aids and services (such as specific supports or changes to the curriculum to meet your child’s individual needs). The IEP will specify details about the services provided. It should include where and when your child will receive services, with whom (such as a therapist, teacher, specialist) and how often (eg. daily, weekly). Most importantly, the IEP’s goals should be clearly defined and measurable. In a later blog post, I will give you a lot more information about IEPs.

For a helpful snapshot of this process, read 10 Steps in the Special Education Process.  This sheet will help you keep track of where you are in the process.

Bottom line

If your child is struggling in a particular area, or if you just have that nagging feeling that something isn’t right, it is better to seek help earlier rather than later. By having an evaluation done, you will learn a great deal about your child. If he needs assistance, the sooner the help begins, the sooner he can improve.

Note: This post is part of the new weekly series Delays and Disabilities – How to get help for your child.

Updated April 2016.


  • comment-avatar

    Can my daughter go to college after being enrolled in a special education process?
    I am really concerned that she may not be given the option to go to college once she is no longer found eligible for special education…
    Please advise…

  • comment-avatar
    Barbara June 11, 2013

    I am going to answer your question with an example.

    My daughter was in special education most of her life – most notably for a learning disability. She was mainstreamed but had supports and modifications to her program as necessary. She just recently graduated from college and is now an assistant teacher in a preschool – her dream. She went to a college that has an excellent, comprehensive support program especially for kids with documented learning disabilities and/or ADHD. Many, many colleges have support services such as these. There are tons of kids out there who are bright and can handle a college curriculum if they have the kind of support that enables them to do their work. This support can take the form of tutors, time management coaches, etc.

    My suggestion to you is to do whatever is best for your child at the moment. You did not mention how old she is or what her disability is. I am not sure what you mean by “option to go to college once she is no longer found eligible for special education.” If you want, you can email me directly with more info and I will be happy to help you. Send it to AskUs@marchofdimes.com.

  • comment-avatar

    I would like to give you the other side of the needs case from here in Alberta Canada.

    My son was born fine but started speaking late, just as I had. Here in Canada we have a very good safety net unless you need immediate care and so we were able to get my son into some simple but very effective treatment and he has no special needs now, in fact he talks a lot!

    My daughter was born with a genetic defect know as nephronophthisis and because of this will eventually need a Kidney transplant. Again our system has been very good with treatment and I have to say that because there are lots of small clinics for specialties here in Canada my daughter always gets the care that she needs

  • comment-avatar

    I like how clearly you’ve laid out the journey from requesting an evaluation to getting the help your child needs. As a special education teacher, I’ve done dozens of evaluations, re-evaluations, and even exited quite a few kids from special education in the middle school years. It can be an overwhelming prospect, but I wholeheartedly agree with your bottom line. It is so important to get the student the help that they need as early as possible. Time is a precious commodity, and the sooner the child can get IEP supports (if they qualify), the sooner they can start to improve.