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Updated: May 12, 2021

In the U.S., your child can receive speech-language early intervention services for children aged birth to three years. School districts are required to serve children from age three to graduation or age 21. Families can find it challenging to sort out what they need to do as their child makes the transition between programs at age three. Early intervention services are available to children in all U.S. states and territories who have a developmental delay or are at risk for a delay. School programs have different criteria for who is eligible and speech-language falls under the umbrella term of special education. Both programs are funded by the federal law called the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, or IDEA.

Fortunately, there are rules in IDEA designed to make the transition easier for parents to navigate. Unfortunately, the process doesn’t always go as smoothly as the rules intended. This guide describes the rules and timeline for making the transition. The rules mentioned here are from IDEA, and links lead to the official language.

In addition to the rules, you’ll see my advice on how you can make sure you understand the program that’s offered, and how to get the best plan and services for your child.

Get the printable version of this guide, with checklist.


The activities that prepare for your child’s third birthday are often called the Part C to Part B transition. This refers to the two parts of IDEA: Part C relates to early intervention and Part B addresses services for children aged 3–21.

The rules say children in EI will have a “smooth and effective transition to those preschool programs.” Smooth and effective — a lofty goal. Fortunately, many agencies have found ways to do it.

Note that this transition planning is required only for students who are potentially eligible for school-based services. When it’s known that the child does not need to continue services, transition planning is not required.

Activities are supposed to follow a timeline that makes sure the new program plan is in place and ready to go by your child’s third birthday. This doesn’t mean services must have a firm stop and start date on that magic day. It means the birthday is the deadline for having the plan in place.

Some children may continue receiving services on an IFSP until a date decided by the planning team. Often this is done when the child has a summer birthday. The school may decide to have IFSP services continue through the summer and have the IEP written to begin on the school start date in the fall. Sometimes IFSP services can continue even longer. If this option is considered, you must be given clear explanations of what you are getting and not getting under this plan.


Early intervention providers are required to notify the school district of children who will be turning three at least 90 days before the child’s third birthday. This notice includes the child’s name, date of birth and parent contact information. Parents are notified that the information will be sent. Some states allow parents to opt out of sending the notice.

There’s a special rule when children are picked up by early intervention services when they are close to turning three. The EI agency must notify the school district immediately if the toddler is found eligible between 45–90 days before the child’s birthday,

A copy of the notification to the school district is also sent to the state educational agency. This is so they can monitor if transition timelines are being followed correctly.

If the EI agency receives a referral less than 45 days before a child’s third birthday, they do not have to do an evaluation or IFSP plan. Instead, the EI agency will get signed permission from the parent to send the referral information to the school district. The school’s testing timeline begins when they receive the written referral.



Begin discussing transition early

Your IFSP has a Transition page. Don’t saved it for the transition conference that’s held shortly before your child turns three. Use this page to write down information you want to learn and answers to questions as they are collected.

Parents are more likely to feel overwhelmed or panicky if all the transition planning is sprung on them with little time to mentally prepare. Gather information over time so you have time to ponder it and make well-informed decisions.

Get an overview of options available in the community

EI staff should be aware of the school districts in your area. Ask them for general information about the programs offered (such as age 3 speech therapy or preschool for children with IEPs). Ask for school contact information so you can speak or email directly with the correct person at your local school.

If you want to explore private options, ask about those as well.


Identify date when child’s name will be given to school

Your EI program is required to report your chid’s name, birthdate and contact information to the local school district and state monitoring agency. The district needs the information so they can plan for the evaluation process. The state agency needs it so they can make sure EI and schools are following the timelines in the law.

EI needs your permission to send this information. Make sure you have your questions answered so you feel comfortable allowing EI to send the information by their deadline date.

Find out about community preschool options

Schools are supposed to have a range of options available for children. Now is the time to start collecting information n what’s available in your area.

One common option is a preschool program only for children with IEPs, starting at age 3. The preference, though, is for children to have experiences with their typically developing peers. So you might see a preschool program that includes some typical peers, or you might see districts that pay for services to be provided in licensed day care settings.

Schools are supposed to have written agreements with other publicly-funded preschool options in the community, such as Early Head Start for 3-year-olds and Head Start for 4-year olds. Head Start is for families with limited income, but the program is required to reserve some slots for children with disabilities regardless of income. Find out the process for getting on that list.

Learn about community programs’ location, class size and how special education services are coordinated. What are the differences between the programs? How is transportation coordinated between programs?


Set a target date for the transition conference

The planning conference between EI and school must be held no later than 3 months before your child’s third birthday. Get it on everybody’s calendar sooner rather than later. Someone from the school district must attend, and it can be a challenge to coordinate schedules.

Set the meeting day well before the 90-day deadline. Your school district has 90 days to complete all their testing and hold the IEP meeting. The transition conference should allow enough time to get all the paperwork squared away before the 90-day countdown begins.

You want to have the IEP meeting before your child’s third birthday to allow time to set up the details, including transportation. The school district has 10 days to send you a copy of the IEP document with a permission form that says you approve. Nothing can proceed until the school receives your signed permission.

IEP services do not have to start on any specific day after the IEP meeting is held—the start date is decided by the team and written into the IEP.

Your EI program is responsible for scheduling the transition conference. Ask your service coordinator to start the scheduling process now. Find out the name of the school district person who will be invited to attend. You can talk to that person directly to get answers to your questions about the school district.


Attend the transition planning conference

Early intervention services focus on family needs. This meeting is a good time to talk about any supports you need so you’ll be ready to participate in the IEP evaluation and planning process. Want to visit the programs available? Need more information about the process? Decide at the meeting who will provide your supports and when they will happen.

Fill out the school district referral form

The school needs this form to start their process. Your service coordinator may have already prepared this form, or it may be done at the conference.

The form describes information about your child and why they may need school services. It’s a request for the school to start the evaluation process.

The first step in the evaluation process is to send you the evaluation plan. This form lists the sources of information that will be used to decide if your child qualifies for IEP services. Ask about the timeline for sending you the plan. There’s no deadline for the school to send it, but you can let them know you’d like it within the next two weeks.

There’s a chance the school won’t need to do further testing if they plan to accept the data available from the EI program. You can ask what the school’s typical procedure is. Ask the school representative to avoid unnecessary testing by accepting recent test results and current progress reports from IE.

Sign a release of information form

Your EI program and school must keep your child’s information confidential. They are not allowed to talk to each other unless you give them signed permission.

Often, the permission form states which program staff may share information. Make sure the release allows therapists to talk to each other and/or send copies of their evaluation reports or progress notes. Allow either agency to contact the other and exchange information. This will allow school staff to follow up for more details if needed.

Sign a Medicaid information form

Districts often ask every parent to sign this form, because then they avoid the privacy issue of asking if a child is eligible for Medicaid funding. This form gives the school permission to submit your child’s name to the state Medicaid agency to find out if reimbursement is available for any medically related services like nursing, therapy or physical care.

Some parents are concerned that signing this form could cut into the funds available for outside therapy or medical services. Sometimes private therapists have this misunderstanding as well. States actually receive federal Medicaid funds from two different funding streams. One stream is specifically for school-based services and does not affect the funds available to a child who uses non-school services.

Note: Private and school-based therapists are supposed to coordinate their plans of care. Be sure to give them written permission to share information with each other.

Some people wonder why schools should be able to Medicaid funds at all. The costs of providing special education are never fully covered by federal and state funds. You school district has to make up for the shortfall by using money from the general fund. States convinced the federal government that it was reasonable to use medically-related federal funds for those services provided in a school setting. This helps local taxpayer dollars go farther to address school programs that benefit all children.

Receive a copy of the parent and child rights (due process) document

This lengthy document has a title like Parent and Child Rights In Special Education, or Due Process Procedures. I’ll just call it the Rights.

Parents receive their Rights document at least once per year to remind them of options if they disagree with a plan or if the plan is not being implemented as written. It’s a lot of information and is usually more than you need to know. Usually everything goes fine and parents are satisfied with their child’s program.

Many schools send this information as part of the paperwork for starting the evaluation process. It’s okay to wait until then if they didn’t bring a copy to the transition conference. However, it’s handy to talk about the document at the transition conference because the school person has a chance to explain the information to you in layperson terms. In theory, it’s written in a reader-friendly format, but it’s just too long. The school person can give you an overview of the highlights. Or you can read my version in next week’s blog post.

It’s good for the district to know that you are interested in understanding how to protect your due process rights. Due process means the procedures that are followed when you and the district disagree, or when the IEP is not being implemented as written. Like I said, most parents never need to use the information. You’re showing an interest because you want to understand how everything works.


Receive a Prior Written Notice (PWN)

This step is not likely, but it could happen. The district has to send you a PWN any time they propose to start or change an IEP. They also send one if you request an action (in this case, make a referral for evaluation) and they decline to act on the request.

A district can use referral information to decide that an evaluation if it’s clear the child will not be eligible for services. If they decide not to do testing, they send the PWN to explain their decision. You can appeal the decision.

Districts rarely decline to do an evaluation with a child from EI. That’s because a transition conference is only scheduled if the program coordinator and parent feel the child needs continued ser