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  • Writer's pictureJeff N. Eckert

ESE is (a Service Not) the Place to Be

Updated: Aug 17, 2019

Exceptional Student Education is the service delivery method for students with disabilities

One of the first terms that families of students with disabilities in Florida will hear from the school is the acronym ESE, which stands for Exceptional Student Education. ESE is the broad term for how specially designed instruction and related services are delivered to students with disabilities in the school system. In Florida, there are fourteen categories of disabilities that may qualify a student for ESE services:

  • Autism spectrum disorder (ASD)

  • Deaf or hard‐of‐hearing (DHH)

  • Developmentally delayed (3-5 years old only) (DD)

  • Dual‐sensory impaired (deaf‐blind) (DSI)

  • Emotional or behavioral disabilities (EBD)

  • Homebound or hospitalized (HH)

  • Intellectual disabilities (InD)

  • Language impaired (LI)

  • Orthopedic impairment (OI)

  • Other health impairment (OHI)

  • Traumatic brain injury (TBI)

  • Specific learning disabilities (SLD)

  • Speech impaired (SI)

  • Visually impaired (VI)

Typically, the ESE process begins with evaluations that can be requested by parents or the school. Once a parent gives written consent to the evaluation, the school is required to complete the evaluation within 60 calendar days (with some exceptions). The evaluations are critical to determining whether the student's disability has an adverse impact on her or his educational performance. Any evaluations should be appropriate to the student's unique needs.

For example, a student who is deaf or hard of hearing should be evaluated by an audiologist. Once the requested evaluations are completed, the next step is the eligibility staffing. Here, the parents and members of the school involved in the evaluation process meet to discuss the evaluation results and whether the student qualifies for ESE services. Alternatively, the student may not qualify for ESE services, but may receive accommodations as a result of a disability under a 504 plan based on the Rehabilitation Act of 1973.

ESE services are individualized based on the student's needs

Although the Florida statutes and regulations govern the delivery of ESE services, the states must also abide by the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). The legislative intent of the IDEA was for special education to "become a service for such children rather than a place where such children are sent." The IDEA's purpose is achieved primarily in two ways: 1) by focusing on the individualized services, and 2) by utilizing the least restrictive environment (LRE) for those services.

Generally, ESE services address five functional areas (domains) of a student's educational development:

  • Curriculum and Learning Environment

  • Social or Emotional Behavior

  • Independent Functioning

  • Health Care

  • Communication

More specifically, ESE services consist of specially designed instruction based on the unique needs of the student with a disability. Along with the specially designed instruction, ESE services can include technology devices, therapies, specialized transportation, and other relevant supports. Not every student will need ESE services in every area or domain. Again, the services are driven by the needs and recommendations of the evaluators, therapists, and parents. Further, a student may need related services to benefit from special education that includes "developmental, corrective, and other supportive services."

ESE delivery focuses on services rather than placement

One of the biggest misconceptions about ESE is that it mainly focuses on where the services are to be delivered. Admittedly, the location for ESE services is a consideration but the IEP team must also address how, when, and what types of services are delivered. As mentioned before, an unifying concept in special education is that ESE services should be delivered in the least restrictive environment (LRE) possible. Also, the historical context of IDEA indicates that the intent of the federal law is to enable students with disabilities to learn and socialize with their nondisabled peers.

However, it is the placement decision that often becomes the main issue in IEP disputes at the expense of the design of the actual services themselves. This is why it's critical for evaluations to be current and comprehensive. The Florida regulations provide procedural safeguards for parents who disagree with a school's evaluations. In such cases, parents may request an Independent Education Evaluation (IEE) at public expense. These safeguards help to reinforce the notion that special education is meant to be service-based and not merely "a place where such children are sent."


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