When your child started school, you were all set for ABC's. And when 1-2-3's came, you didn't bat an eye. But if your child has struggled with any of these subjects, and your teacher has suggested evaluation for special education, then get set for a whole new world of acronyms, from FAPE to IEP and beyond. Chaotic as these terms may seem, they can be very helpful for you and your child. Over the last three decades, our schools have developed more and more sophisticated tools for serving children with special needs—and that's a good thing. Your school can explain its own programs (and be prepared for another alphabet onslaught!), but since national legislation covers special education, here's a “crib sheet” of terms you can be sure you'll see. And if you don't, speak up! The programs below are your right under federal law.

IDEA (Individuals with Disabilities Education Act)

This landmark law got its start in 1975, when it was called the Education for All Handicapped Children Act.  Before that, it was not unusual for children with special needs to be pushed out of schools, either into institutions or even into home care. Today, the U.S. Department of Education estimates that about 6.5 million children and youths receive “special education and related services” in our schools.

FAPE (Free and Appropriate Public Education)

FAPE is a cornerstone of the Individuals with Disabilities Act. It means that if your child needs special education services, the public schools are required to provide them at no cost to you, and in ways that meet local, state, and federal standards.

LRE (Least Restrictive Environment)

Even in an age of sophisticated tests and programs, lots of professionals may have differing opinions about the best setting for a child. Some special needs kids may require special classrooms; but as much as possible, the law says that they should learn and grow around their typically developing peers.

IEP (Individualized Education Plan)

This is the term you'll probably hear most often, because schools develop these plans for every child and will review them regularly, sometimes several times a year. Parents, teachers, and educational specialists meet together to create each IEP, which sets specific, concrete learning goals and objectives. If they work, your child may stop needing special education services altogether; if not, the team will meet to make any necessary changes.

504 (Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973)

If your child has a mild learning disability or condition such as ADD, don't be surprised if the school mentions a “504” plan. This means that although your child doesn't need a special ed resource teacher or aide, she can still get “accommodations” in the classroom which can be written into a plan with clear goals. A child with hearing problems, for example, will be guaranteed a seat near the teacher. In high school, students with attention problems might be allowed extra time on tests. Still feeling intimidated? You're not alone. But remember this: as a parent, you are a uniquely important person in your child's education, especially if she's got special needs. Do not hesitate to ask questions and pursue answers until you're truly satisfied. A free and appropriate public education is not just a privilege: thanks to IDEA, it's the law.