IDEA & Child Find

Individuals with Disabilities Act of 2004 (IDEA) is a Federal Law that provides for the right to education and protections for children with disabilities and their families.

The  The primary purposes of IDEA are:

  • To provide a free appropriate public education (FAPE) to children with disabilities.
  • To give parents a voice in their child’s education.

Among other things, IDEA requires schools to find and evaluate students suspected of having disabilities, at no cost to parents. Once kids are identified as having a disability, schools must provide them with special education and related services (like speech therapy and counseling) to meet their unique needs.  This part of the IDEA, requiring schools to identify and evaluate children with suspected disabilities is commonly referred to as the “child find mandate”. The mandate requires all school districts to have a process for identifying and evaluation children who may need special education and related services. Below is a graphic of the Hillsborough County School District Child Find process.

Once identified as a child with a qualifying disability, an Individualized Education Program (IEP) is created for each public school child (age 3-21) who needs special education. The IEP is created through a team effort, and reviewed periodically. Each child’s IEP must contain:

(1) A statement of the child’s present levels of academic achievement and functional performance, including—

(ii) For preschool children, as appropriate, how the disability affects the child’s participation in appropriate activities…

The “present levels” statement is crafted by considering the areas of development in which a child with a disability may need support. These are roughly divided into the two areas of development: academic and functional.

Functional performance.

  • dressing, eating, going to the bathroom;
  • social skills such as making friends and communicating with others;
  • behavior skills, such as knowing how to behave across a range of settings; and
  • mobility skills, such as walking, getting around, going up and down stairs

For preschoolers, the statement needs to talk about how the disability affects the child’s participation in appropriate activities—meaning preschool activities.

Those are often different than what school-age children are involved in and include things like learning basic skills such as using scissors, coloring, grouping things, learning your letters, playing children’s games, and so on. So the “present levels” statement for a preschooler will describe how the child’s disability affects his or her participation and success in the preschool environment.

Here are two examples:

  • Dayton prefers to play in isolation and becomes upset (e.g., cries and hits others) when another child comes too close. As a result his peer interactions at playtime are limited.
  • Dayton enjoys reading books and listening during story time, he is able to sit quietly and listen to stories for 10 minutes when in a supporting chair.

A fully developed, well-written “present levels” is the foundation upon which the rest of the IEP can be developed to specify appropriate goals, services, supports, accommodations, and placement for the child.

These early intervention programs help parents find out what kinds of support and services are available. It is typically the basis for establishing in school support for children with special needs, and the evaluation should be completed as soon as it is suspected a child may have a disability to increases student success.

More information regarding Florida Child Find can be found on the Florida Diagnostic & Learning Resources System (FDLRS) website at


Author, Ed Spinks, is an attorney and parent of a child with Down syndrome, he focuses his legal practice in the areas of Elder Law, Estate Planning and Disability Rights. He also serves on the Board of Managers for GiGi’s Playhouse and is a member of the Education Law Committee of the Florida Bar.

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