It happens a lot: everything seemed fine in preschool and kindergarten, and even first grade, but then it’s time to read independently…or do hard math problems…or write an independent report…and there’s an explosion. You do all the right things: call the teacher, help at home, give endless encouragement. But your kid just seems to be miserable, and you’re at the end of your rope, too.

Of course, sometimes this is really just a short bump in the road. But if problems persist, and especially if you’ve worked with the school and together you can’t seem to crack it, you may want to think about special ed.

If those words leave you breathless, hang on. Many Americans remember a day when “special ed” meant segregated classes, or even whole schools. Even worse, prior to the passage of the Education For all Handicapped Children Act in 1975, it was not unusual for highly disabled students to be labeled “ineducable” and pushed out of school entirely.

Today, over three decades later, “special education” is a whole different game. Today, experts have more information, and more tools than ever, to identify learning strategies that may make all the difference for your child. And due to successive updates in federal law, experts now overwhelmingly emphasize keeping kids in regular classrooms with extra support.

So what does “Special Education” cover? Federal law—now known as the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), includes traditional categories such as mental retardation, multiple handicaps, hearing impairment or blindness, speech and language problems, orthopedic handicaps, autism, and specific learning disabilities. But especially with the recent dramatic improvements in research, we also know that within these categories a child may have symptoms that vary widely.

So what does this mean for you and your child? If a teacher suggests special education, the process will always start with a thorough evaluation to see what’s going on. Then, and only then, will the school work with you to determine a plan of action. Suppose, for example, that your first grader just can’t sound out words, and is also having trouble pronouncing them right. Often this results from speech and language problems that can be resolved in a few months of therapy—and be all the “special ed” that your child ever needs.

Under the law, you can, of course, refuse special education services for your child. But if you’re worried about stigmas or holding your child back, you may want to think again. As Penny Kodrich, Ed.S. Director of Special Services for the renowned Edina Public Schools in Minnesota, says, professionals understand that “kids want to have friends. They want to do stuff and be included. You need to build a purposeful feeling of belonging.” And for a child struggling to keep up, a caring professional with the right set of skills may be just the right boost, not just for now, but for a successful future in school.