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Medical vs. Special Education Evaluations for Children with Disabilities: What's the Difference?

Aug 17, 2023
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If your child has a disability, you will likely encounter two different types of evaluations: a medical evaluation and a special education eligibility evaluation. While both are important, they serve different purposes and are connected to different services. 

What Is a Medical Evaluation?

A medical evaluation is an assessment conducted by medical professionals or other specially trained clinicians such as psychologists.

The primary purpose of a medical evaluation is to diagnose, understand, and manage your child's developmental disability or condition. The medical evaluation aims to provide a diagnosis, which is essential for determining the most appropriate treatments and interventions to address your child's specific needs. It helps identify medical conditions that may require medical treatments, therapies, or medications.

A medical diagnosis can inform therapeutic interventions within the medical system such as behavior therapy, speech therapy, occupational therapy, individual counseling, or medication management. Some outside agencies, such as County Board of Developmental Disabilities, require documentation of a medical diagnosis. 

What Is a Special Education Evaluation?

A multidisciplinary team evaluation, or special education evaluation, is an evaluation through your local school district. It is conducted by a team of educational professionals which can include teachers, special education coordinators, therapists, and school psychologists.

The purpose of this type of evaluation is to determine if your child meets eligibility for special education services through IDEA. The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) is a law that makes special education available and free for children with disabilities.

To be eligible for special education services, the school team must find that your child meets criteria for one of 13 disability categories AND that the disability has an impact on your child’s education. The definitions of school-based eligibility categories differ from state-to-state and are different from the criteria used by medical professionals, even though the names of the disabilities may be the same. A child does not need a medical diagnosis to be evaluated for special education services.

Special education eligibility leads to the development of an Individualized Education Program (IEP), which is a specialized support plan based on your child’s needs at school. School services may include some of the same interventions as used in the medical system (like behavior or speech therapy), as well as other supports and specialized educational placement. 

The main difference between a medical evaluation and a special education evaluation lies in their focus and purpose. While a medical evaluation aims to diagnose and understand the medical condition or developmental disability, special education eligibility determines if a child qualifies for educational support and services in the school setting.

Learn more about IEPs, 504 Plans and FBAs.

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Hannah Barton, PhD
Psychiatry and Behavioral Health

Hannah Barton, PhD is a part of the physician team of Pediatric Psychology at Nationwide Children's Hospital.

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700 Children’s® features the most current pediatric health care information and research from our pediatric experts – physicians and specialists who have seen it all. Many of them are parents and bring a special understanding to what our patients and families experience. If you have a child – or care for a child – 700 Children’s was created especially for you.