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Caught Between Serving our Country and Balancing Special Needs Education For Military Kids

Transferring IEPs and 504 Plans

Under totally normal circumstances, special education can be a challenge. Everything seems to take a million years between requesting, testing, and making a new plan.

For military connected children, it can be even harder.

IEPs (Individual Education Plans) and 504 Plans, two foundational special education documents, are governed by both federal and state laws.

This can protect and help military children enormously. Their education plans must be followed from day 1 in a new district. This helps with continuity of services and maintaining progress. It also means that each new district can retest military children and change everything. States can set their own requirements for eligibility, as long as they meet the minimum set up by the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. In plain terms: a child found eligible for services in State A may be declined for services by State B, all because the eligibility threshold in the new state wasn’t met. Every state can put in place different diagnostic criteria or methods to determine if there is a need. Often this translates to differences between ability, achievement and age expectations. Or meeting a slightly different variation of clinical or education diagnostic guidelines. What it means is that students can be moved on and off their education plans based on where they move.

Gaps in Services

School districts vary widely across our country. From large districts with lots of resources to poorer or smaller districts with fewer resources, there are military children everywhere.

Military families, especially those on active duty, do not have a choice in where they live. This can mean that families are moving in and out of areas with huge gaps in services.

In one area, a family might have found that all of their educational and therapeutic needs are 100% covered. Their child is receiving speech therapy, occupational therapy, and physical therapy in school. There is a TRICARE covered ABA therapist in the community. And there are additional opportunities, like adapted swimming lessons or horseback riding. When they move, their new district might still provide those therapies but with fewer hours or less frequency. There might no longer be an ABA therapist or the specialist their child needs could have a wait list a mile long. All of these are realities for military families. They never know what they might find base to base or district to district. Every move is a huge roll of the dice with their child’s health and developmental progress are at stake.


The military’s health care program, TRICARE, does offer some support. But not all services or facilities are available at every base. For example, ABA (Applied Behavior Analysis) is authorized for TRICARE beneficiaries. But it is a multi-step process. Even under the best circumstances, going from referral to diagnosis to acceptance into the program could take months. When you factor in wait times for medical providers and the availability of the therapist, it could be a lot longer. And then families need to do the math to determine what is covered by TRICARE and how much they will need to pay out of pocket. This same dance happens for every “extra” service or health care need. Will it be available where I am? Who can I see outside of the military? What will it cost?


The Exceptional Family Member Program (EFMP) is designed to help provide support and services to military families. All dependents that have special needs, from allergies to autism to terminal illnesses, are required to enroll. The local EFMP center can help families find resources and services. They are a wealth of knowledge. EFMP works to coordinate during PCS season to ensure that needs are going to be met at the next duty station. This can limit families to just a few locations or lead to unaccompanied tours (where a family stays behind while the service member goes to another location).

Caught in the Middle

What ends up happening, in many cases, is a giant tug-of-war. The service member needs to go to X to promote or learn a new skill. Except that there are no services available there for her child. Does the family go anyway, without command approval and no access to military healthcare? Do they separate to make keep the services they do have? Does the service member leave the military to have more flexibility?

For veterans, especially Wounded Warriors, balancing their health care needs with that of their child’s education or health can also be a delicate dance. All of this because there aren’t uniform special education standards and services nationwide. A child can be declined for an IEP, even though there is one in place from their last school. There might not be enough services at the next location or the family might be leaving a district that went above and beyond for a subpar school.

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