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To Parents of Children With special Needs: Organizing Your Records is Important

How to Get Your Child's School Records - and Why It's Important
Coming in updated article on this topic, based on the recent reauthorization of IDEA.


As a parent of a child with learning disabilities, you have a special interest in knowing what is in your child's school records. This is true because of the significant information these records offer you about your child and also because of the emphasis schools place on these records when making educational decisions. If any information in your child's records is inaccurate, biased, incomplete, or inconsistent, this material may well result in inaccurate decisions regarding your child's right to special education services. For these reasons you must know how to obtain, interpret, and correct these records and how to use them effectively in school meetings. This article will give you an overview of your rights to your child's records.

The Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act

Schools are required by federal and state laws to maintain certain records and to make these records available to you upon request. The federal Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) and the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) establish the minimum requirements school systems must meet in maintaining, protecting, and providing access to students' school records. State laws will sometimes go beyond these minimum requirements and provide parents with additional rights to review, modify, or seek other changes in these records. Be sure to obtain a copy of your own state's and school district's school records laws and procedures by contacting your school district's director of special education.

Obtaining Your Child's Records from the Local School

Getting copies of your child's school records should be fairly easy. While federal law does not specifically require school systems to provide parents with copies of these records, in practice most school systems do so upon request.

Types of Files

Begin by asking the school principal about the location of your child's various files or records. These will include:

Cumulative file. The principal will have your child's cumulative file, which you will want to see and copy. Often the cumulative file contains little more than a profile card with personal identification data and perhaps academic achievement levels, some teacher reports, and report cards.

Confidential file. Also accessible to parents, the confidential file may be kept at your child's school, or in a central administrative office where the special education program offices are located. The file is called confidential because access to the information is limited to certain individuals. Your child's confidential record includes all of the reports written as a result of the school's evaluation; reports of independent evaluators, if any; medical records that you have had released; summary reports of evaluation team and eligibility committee meetings; your child's Individualized Education Program (IEP); and, often, correspondence between you and school personnel.

Compliance file (some schools). Some school systems keep the reports of eligibility meetings, correspondence between the parents and school officials, and other similar documents in a separate compliance file. The contents of the compliance file demonstrate that the school system has met the timelines, notification, and consent regulations required by IDEA.

Discipline file (some schools). Some schools may also maintain a separate file regarding discipline issues involving long-term suspension or expulsion.
A good bit of detective work is sometimes required to understand your school system's individual filing system!

Getting Copies of Records

School districts usually require parents to sign a "release of information" form before they will provide copies of schools records. You can often obtain that form through your child's school, or by simply writing a letter to the school principal or special education director, requesting a copy of school records. In many school districts, parents can go to the district's special education offices and fill out a form to request their children's records.

School districts usually provide the first copy of records for free. If they do charge a fee, the fee can be only for the cost of reproducing and mailing the records, not for personnel time or other costs. Again, check your local policies and procedures for your district's process.

Records Open to Parents

Because of the importance of your child's records in determining special education services, you should review and correct them annually ...

Once you have gained access to your child's records, does this mean you can see any and all records pertaining to your child? Which records is the school system legally required to show you? Under FERPA, schools must show parents all records, files, documents, and other materials that are maintained by the school system and contain information relating to their children. This includes all records referring to your child in any personally identifiable manner - that is, records containing your child's name, Social Security number, student ID number, or other data making them traceable to her.

The following are excluded from the records schools must show you:

Notes of teachers, counselors, and/or school administrators, made for their personal use and shown to nobody else (except a substitute teacher)

Personnel records of school employees

Examining and Correcting Your Child's Records

Even when you have your child's records in your hands, you may wonder what you've got. The language of the educators, psychologists, educational diagnosticians, and other school professionals is often difficult to understand. If this is the case for you, all you need to do is ask someone to help you. The law requires school personnel to explain the records to you when you do not understand them. Or you may take a friend or a knowledgeable professional with you to help review the records and explain confusing parts. When you do this, however, you will be asked to sign a form giving that person permission to see your child's records.

As you review the records, you may find places where information given about your child or family conflicts with your own assessments. If left unchallenged, this material could lead to decisions about your child's educational program that are not in his or her best interest. To prevent this from happening, you can follow two paths.

First, you can informally ask the principal or the director of special education to delete the material, giving your reasons for the request. Often school officials will honor the request and no problem arises.

You may also write down your objections to a particular record and have that attached to the record.
If you strongly believe the report does not belong in your child's record, and the schools refuse to remove the requested material, you have a right to a formal records hearing. Your state and local school district policies will tell you how to follow the more formal process for amending your child's records.

Controlling Who Sees Your Child's Records

FERPA and IDEA prohibit schools from disclosing your child's records to anyone without your written consent. The only exceptions are:

School officials, including teachers, in your child's district with a legitimate educational interest as defined in the school procedures

School officials in the school district to which your child intends to transfer (Before the records are sent, however, you will want to review them and challenge their content, if necessary.)

Certain state and national education agencies, if necessary, for enforcing federal laws

Anyone to whom a state statute requires the school to report information

Accrediting and research organizations helping the school, provided they guarantee confidentiality

Student financial aid officials

People who have court orders, provided the school makes reasonable efforts to notify the parent or student before releasing the records

Appropriate people in health and safety emergencies such as doctors, nurses, and fire marshals

Law enforcement and judicial authorities in certain cases

With the exception of the people listed above, schools must have your permission to release material from your child's records to anyone other than yourself. When requesting release of the records, the school must tell you which records are involved, why they have been requested, and who will receive them. Likewise, if you want someone outside the school system to see your child's records, you will be asked to sign a release granting such permission. All of these rules have been instituted to protect your privacy and that of your child.

When Your Child Reaches 18 or Goes to Post-secondary School

When your child reaches the age of 18 or enters a post-secondary educational institution such as a vocational-technical school, a college, a university, or trade school, most rights to records previously available to you are transferred to your child. The only parts of the record your child will not have the right to see are your financial records and any statements or confidential recommendations your child has waived the right to see. This means if you wish to review the school records of a son or daughter who is 18 or who is attending post-secondary school, she must first sign a waiver permitting you to do so.

The law requires school personnel to explain the records to you when you do not understand them.

IDEA gives parents of children with disabilities, including learning disabilities, special consideration when transferring record rights. The law grants states the authority to develop individual policies which take into account the type and severity of the child's disability and the child's age when transferring record rights from parents to their children. Thus, if your child with disabilities has reached age 18 or is about to reach 18 and is in secondary school, you should find out, by asking the director of special education in your school district, if your state has a policy that allows you continued access to your child's records. If not, you and school personnel may want to develop a waiver form which your child can sign allowing you continued rights to review, to control access to, and to seek changes in those records.

When You Move

If you should move, your child's school records will, of course, move with you. To be certain your child's new school receives only relevant and current records, you will want to examine the entire contents of the folder and identify specifically the material you want forwarded. Most school systems will honor your request and send only the information you want released. However, you should note that many states require schools to transfer records about any disciplinary violation; you do not have the option of excluding that information.

Should the school wish to send material you want withheld, you can initiate a records hearing procedure to prohibit them from doing so. In any case, before you move, always review your child's school folder. You will want to eliminate the irrelevant, inaccurate, and dated material or attach your critique to those records you believe should have been removed but were not.

Because of the importance of your child's records in determining special education services, you should review and correct them annually, whether or not you move. You should also be certain you have a duplicate copy of all the material in the official files. Then, if the records are lost, you will have copies to replace them.

A Final Note: Thick Records

Classroom teachers have been heard to comment, "When I see a thick set of records for a child new to my class, I know trouble is coming." This is another reason for your diligence in reviewing your child's records periodically. Many reports, especially those written several years previously, give little if any information that will be useful in current decisions about your child. A careful weeding out of irrelevant documents can help to avoid the thick record syndrome.

How to Analyze and Correct Your Child's School Records in Four Steps
Coming in updated article on this topic, based on the recent reauthorization of IDEA

The importance of reading, organizing, analyzing, and evaluating your child's school records cannot be overemphasized. The information in these records provides the basis upon which crucial decisions will be made concerning your child's education. In this article, a step-by-step process for analyzing and revising/updating your child's school records is described.

Your Child's School Records: Article 2 of 2
First in series: How to Get Your Child's Records

Using the Four-Step Record Decoder process and accompanying form, you will become thoroughly familiar with your child as seen through the close up lens of her school records. When you've completed the process, you will know whether the information in your child's file paints an accurate picture of her learning needs and strengths. The first article on school records explains how to obtain your child's records from the school.

When you have obtained your child's school records, often a stack of documents an inch or more thick, what will you do with them? How can you begin to make sense of all this material written about your child? The four basic steps -Organize, Read, Analyze, and Evaluate - are described in detail below: You may also wish to download the Four Step Record Decoder (pdf), which is designed to help you record pertinent information as you organize, read, analyze, and evaluate your child's school records.

Step 1: Organize

1. After obtaining the complete set of records from the school system, separate the documents into two sets:

Records that describe your child (such as teacher reports, psychological evaluations, social history, IEPs, etc.)

Other documents or correspondence of an administrative nature (for example, the minutes of an eligibility committee meeting, consent forms, etc.). These administrative documents and correspondence help you keep track of your contacts with the school system.

2. Make an extra copy of the records. This way you will have an "original" that remains untouched, and a copy that you can mark, cut, paste, and use in whatever way is most helpful to you.

3. Arrange each set - descriptive reports and other documents - in chronological order.

4. Secure the pages in a folder with a clip or in a loose leaf notebook so that if you drop them you won't have to back up three steps.

5. Number each report and make a chronological list that you can add to as new records are generated.

Preparing for Your Journey through the Special Education Maze
Coming in 2005 updated article on this topic, based on the recent reauthorization of IDEA.

Parents have an opportunity to participate in meetings about the identification, evaluation, and educational placement of the child, and the provision of a free appropriate public education to the child;

Parents are part of the teams that determine what additional data are needed as part of an evaluation of their child, their child's eligibility, and the educational placement of their child;

Parents' concerns and information are considered in developing and reviewing their children's Individualized Education Programs (IEP).

How do you prepare for your role in educational planning for your child? You begin by carefully looking at the central figure in the whole planning process - your child. This article suggests a way to observe your child to gather information. It will help you be effective at any stage of the planning process, whether it be for your school-age child's first formal evaluation, or your child's 10th IEP meeting.

Since planning an appropriate program for your child requires specific, documented facts rather than generalized impressions and concerns, you will need to collect your own facts.

To begin focusing on your child, think about the following:

What are three things your child has recently learned or accomplished?

Choose one of the items above. What helped your child learn this?

What are three things your child is trying to learn now?

Choose one of the items that your child is having trouble learning. What is causing her trouble?

What one thing would you like your child to learn within the next six months?

Observing Your Child in a Systematic Way

Sometimes parents have trouble answering the above questions. You know a lot about your child, but your knowledge is often "felt" in a general sense rather than in the specific terms needed to answer the questions.

Since planning an appropriate program for your child requires specific, documented facts rather than generalized impressions and concerns, you will need to collect your own facts. To convey personal knowledge of your child to school personnel - people accustomed to dealing with test scores, specific behaviors, goals, and objectives - written, concrete facts will be most influential.

One way to collect these facts is to observe your child in a formal way. "Observe!" you say. "When? How?" You think of the days you barely have enough time and energy to brush your teeth before turning in for the night. But observations can be made. Gathering and organizing information is a vital part of becoming an effective educational advocate for your child.

Guidelines for Planning an Observation

Before you begin to observe your child, think about:

What will you be looking at during the observation?

How your child solves disagreements or problems

What distracts your child

What holds her attention

Who, if anybody, will be interacting with your child?

Where will you observe your child - in what setting?

Try to be open to new aspects of behavior you may have overlooked before. Observe behaviors that are happening now.

Ball game

When will you observe your child?

Before school
After school
At school

Tips for Becoming a Skilled Observer

Step back. Suspend for a brief time (three to five minutes) your normal role in family life. Step back from your family situation to put some distance between you and your child. By not intervening where you normally would, you may see your child's abilities and problems in a new light.

Start fresh. Try to be open to new aspects of behavior you may have overlooked before. Observe behaviors that are happening now. Although reports on the past are important in describing a child's development, school personnel are interested in fresh, up-to-date information on what she can do now.

Get focused. Decide upon a specific behavior or skill to observe. How, you ask, should you make this decision? The best rule is to look at those areas that trouble you or your child. You may want to examine one of the problem behaviors you have listed in the questionnaire, or you may want to ask a doctor or other professional to suggest behaviors to observe.

You can plan your observation to include various factors: who will be with your child, as well as where and when you will observe her. Concentrate on the one skill or behavior you have chosen, ignoring, as best you can, the other things going on.

Go with the flow. As you watch your child's activities, record what you see actually happening, not your interpretations of your child's actions. You should become a "candid camera," waiting until later to reflect upon what you see.

Write down detailed, factual information. You will find this is easier if short periods of time are spent observing - perhaps five minutes or less. You can go back at another time, review your collection of observations, and then interpret the data. Use the Parent's Observation Record to document your observations.

Example Of a 5-Minute Observation
Reason for observation: Parent frustration over child's difficulty getting ready for school on time
Focus: Getting dressed for school

Opens his sock drawer, stares at contents.
Notices battery on top of bureau and picks it up.
Takes it over to battery tester to test; decides not to.
Sets battery down on floor.
Comes back to bureau, shuts drawer.
Remembers he's looking for socks and opens drawer again.
Picks out socks.
Sits on bed with socks in his hand.
Notices deflated balloon on floor.
Puts socks down; picks balloon up.
Throughout your child's school years you will need to make new observations of her growth and development. Fresh observations collected prior to meetings with teachers and other professionals can assist in providing specific recommendations for her special education program. By having this valuable information at your fingertips, you will feel confident as you fulfill your role as an equal partner in the special education planning process.

Other Resources Books

Negotiating the Special Education Maze: A Guide for Parents and Teachers
By Winifred Anderson, Stephen Chitwood, and Deidre Hayden

From Emotions to Advocacy - The Special Education Survival Guide
By Peter and Pamela Wright

Assistive Technology Guide

© 2003 The E-Accountability Foundation