Special Education

Between 30-60% of children in foster care have a learning disability and approximately half of foster children under the age of 5 have developmental delays. These specialized needs, compounded by frequent moves, emotional distress, and instability, can dramatically affect your foster child’s ability to succeed in school. As a CASA, you can help ensure that these challenges are minimized and that your youth receives the additional help they need. familiarize with special education needs to make sure they have the support they need in place to be successful. 

All students with disabilities are guaranteed a free and appropriate education through the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). These students have access to a number of additional services and resources to make sure that their education meets these standards. Every student with an identified disability in the public school system receives an Individualized Education Plan (IEP), which outlines any special services they may need, records goals for the future, and tracks their educational progress. The following is an overview of IEPs and options for educational support.  Links to further information are included at the bottom.

Who is eligible for an IEP?

There are thirteen types of disabilities that qualify a child for special education. They are as follows:

autism, deaf-blindness, deafness, emotional disturbance, hearing impairment, Ÿ intellectual disability, multiple disabilities, orthopedic impairment, other health impairment, specific learning disability, speech or language impairment, traumatic brain injury, and visual impairment (including blindness)

(Learn more about each of these categories here.)

If you suspect that your child may qualify for special education, speak with their teacher or a school administrator.

Getting an IEP

When assigned to you as your case, your youth may already have an IEP.  If he or she does not have one and you or another appropriate adult suspects that the student may be inhibited by one of the above disabilities, you may request an evaluation from the school.

Be sure to speak first with their caregiver and case worker before making a request. To request an evaluation, you will need to write a referral letter including the reasons you believe the youth may qualify for an IEP. 

After receiving the letter, the school is required to respond within 15 days. If consenting, the school psychologist or another professional may give your foster youth a variety of tests or observe them in the classroom.  An IEP team -- including the caregiver, the educational rights holder (if different than the caregiver), the teacher, and school officials -- will decide whether the student needs special education and develop an IEP. The school has 60 days from their response date to complete this process. Stay involved throughout and work with your child’s caregiver to monitor progress.

What’s in an IEP?

Below is an overview of some of the major sections in an IEP.  Furhter resources to help you develop your youth's IEP can be found at the bottom of the page. 

Present level of performance: This is a statement on how your youth is currently doing in school. It is based on both teacher observations and objective data, such as test scores, and describes the student’s strengths, weaknesses, and skills.

Annual education goals: These goals are realistic outcomes achievable within a year’s time. For youth with more severe disabilities, they may be shorter-term.

Accommodations allowed during standardized tests:  Special education supports and services provided to your child by the school. These may include extra time, frequent breaks, seating in another room, among others.

Method of measuring and reporting progress: The school is required to track your youth’s progress and share those results with you. This often involves informal or formal assessments and scheduled reports.

Transition planning: This section becomes relevant when the youth turns 16. It is focused on graduation from high school and post-high school goals.


Being diagnosed with a disability does not automatically mean that your youth will be put in another classroom or given a new teacher. There are multiple supportive programs that can be customized to your youth’s needs. Modifications can be made to his or her schedule, materials, testing schedule , and more. Your youth may receive extra time on tests or support from a tutor. There are also additional services, including counseling and mental health services, occupational therapy, and physical therapy that can be offered in addition to your youth’s general education.

What you can do as an advocate

  • Attend meeting in person or over the phone
  • Review your youth’s IEP.  If you need support understanding the IEP or preparing for a meeting, ask your case supervisor or the CASA Educational Advocacy Coordinator
  •  Keep your youth’s IEP goals in mind and check on their progress quarterly
  • Ask lots of questions and share your understanding of youth’s strengths and needs

With high school students:

  • Ensure that transition goals are fleshed out
  • Connect your youth to appropriate post-secondary resources and opportunities (e.g. college disability services, work opportunities)

Please review the resources and information below to develop your understanding of the rights of foster youth with special educational needs. 

Additional Resources:

Overview of IDEA

Categories of Disability Under IDEA

Special Education in San Francisco School District

Guide to the IEP (Dept of Education)

Your First IEP Meeting

Building Self-Esteem

Where to Turn When You Have a Concern

When You Have an IEP Dispute

Foster Youth Education Task Force Fact Sheet

Support for Families: offers workshops, a phone line, support groups, and more for families of children with disabilitie