School districts around the country, aided by hundreds of millions of dollars in new federal grants, are making dramatic changes in educating handicapped children.

The federally mandated drive is designed to identify handicapped children at the earliest possible age and then, with their parents, tailor individual programs to fit the needs of each. Free lawyers will even be provided to help parents obtain the assistance they need form schools.

In its intent, the effort is comparable to the War on Poverty of the '60s. Some 6 million school-age children who are crippled or suffer blindness, deafness, retardation, emotional or mental disturbance and learning disablities are supposed to benefit from it.

Washington area schools are full participants in the massive program. For example:

Nearly half of the 159 new teahcers being hired by the Montgomery County public schools next fall will be special education teachers.

Telephone hotlines have been set up by all local school boards to aid identification of handicapped children who are not getting help. In the District, a social worker used it to notify authorities of a profoundly retarded 16-year-old youth who had never been enrolled in school.

County school boards everywhere - some of which had never bothered to comply with previous special education efforts - are now being monitored by state authorities to help ensure compliance.

Throughout the area, public school activities and classes that once excluded handicapped students are being forced at least to try to integrate them.One Arlington elementary school class, for example, has six handicapped students among 21 children this year. There were none last year. In largely rural Washingoon County, Md., funds from the new program were used to hire three teachers with special education training to work for half a day each day with handicapped students. Previously, the children were sent to a special education center where only handicapped children attended.

Most of the new effort - on which the federal government may spend $1 billion by 1980 - is mandated under the Education for All Handicapped Act, which took effect Oct. 1.

That law said Fred Weintraub, assistant director of the Council for Exceptional Children, "has brought the education of handicapped to a higher level of public attention that it ever had before. Teachers and principals never really knew what was going on in the field before. The law gives parents a say in their childrens' education. It lets parents to ask, 'what are you doing for the kids?' In that sense it is a radical measure."

The new law adopts language from several recent court decisions that, starting in 1972, found that handicapped persons are entitled to a "free, appropriate education . . . in the least restrictive environment," a phrase parents and advocates now repeat like a catechism.

"There is a civil rights flavor," said Edwin W. Martin, director of the Bureau for the Education of the Handicapped in the Department of Health, Education and Welfare. "Kids with handicaps are not all that different from kids without handicaps. Many of them can lose their handicaps if given help early enough and fully enough," he said.

That help will come in the form of the masive infusions of federal funds to cover excess costs of educating handicapped whildren, Martin said, costs which can be as more than two or three times as high as educating non-handicapped children.

The first step is early identification of handicaps, which include a wide variety of often subtle learning, emotional and physical problems. Previous legislation established early identification programs but the laws were often not enforced.

In Prince George's County more than 348 previously unidentified children have been identified as handicapped since January, according to Jane Gallagher, project coordinator.

In Montgomery County, a nursery school teacher recently called the "Child Find" hotline and confidentially reported that two of her students appeared to be slow learners who needed help.

Official say that anonymity is often required because some parents strong object to efforts to identify potential handicaps in their children. They fear that they or their child will be stigmatized in the event a handicap is discovered.

(Northern Virginia has a special phone number too, but a reporter attempting to find out what it was required an hour and a half of telephoning. New York City advertises its number on subway display panels.)

Once a child is identified, an Individualized Education Program must be drawn up with parents. Parents for the first time must approve the evaluation of their children.

"This is the heart of the law, because it gives parents control over their children's education," said Linda J.Jacobs, assistant superintendent for special education for Maryland.

"The individualized program" is based on the individual needs of the child, not on some label someone gives him," she said. It must list annual "goals" for the child, services to be provided and dates of those services. It is "a statement of intent,"

If parents are not satisfied with the evaluation (or lack of it) of their child, or the program prepared, they may demand a review with school officials.

If they are still not satisfied, they may call on alimited number number of federally funded lawyers in public interest law firms or special interest advocacy groups to represent them. Civil suits, a last resort after all administrative appeals have been exhausted, are possible, and several have recently been filed in local circuit courts.

Harold Burke, director of special education in Alexandria, expects the often emotional confrontations between school officials and parents to increase in the next few years.

"A lot of parents think the law says children should be in the 'most ideal environment.' They interpret it to mean, 'You put him where I think he should be, even if that means a tremendously expensive private treatment program," rather than special education within the school system, he said

Maryland special education director Jacobs also expects more conflict in years to come, but is not dismayed by it. "Parents often know what's best for their children, even when they don't have the exact words or tests. They are the best monitors of the programs," she said.

Once a child has been identified, and an individualized program drawn up he must be educated in the "least restrictive" environment according to the law.

This means that a disabled kid has the right to be with nondisabled kid when he has no reason to else where," said Weintraub.

The placement of handicapped with nonhandicapped children has been called "mainstreaming."

"Speech handicapped kids have always been mainstreamed. If he stuttered, he'd go to a special class for an hour or so a day, and spend the rest of the time with his peers," Weinstraub said.

The teacher is very important in a mainstreamed class," said Beth Hoffman, a former principal and now a reading specialist in Arlington. "You need to explain to the kids why a child sounds diffrent, if he's hearing-impaired. They might think it's going to happen to them, so a teacher has to allay their fears," she said.

"Mainstreaming" - the theory and practive - is undoubtedly the most controversial element of the new laws.

Some teachers say that when handicapped students are integrated into classes with nonhandicapped students, everyone suffers from lack of attention. Others say that teachers is regular classrooms simply are not equipped to deal on a regular basis with handicapped students.

"My son flunked mainstreaming," said Kathleen Donovan, whose 13-year-old son is hyperactive and has a learning disability. "The principal called me several weeks ago and said, "There's no teacher in this school who'll work with your son.' I had two options: he could set in the nurse's office after his special classes, rather than go into a class with nonhandicapped students or he could come home" and the school would set up a conference to discuss further measures to help, he said.

She chose the latter course, but would prefer seeing her son in public school rather than a specail school.

Teachers sometimes agree with parents that they do not have the training or time to deal with handicapped children, who often divert their attention from their nonhandicapped atudents. "This mainstreaming is for the birds," said one veteran elementary school teacher in Northern Virginia. "I can't spend enough time with any of these kids. If I'm right here they get the work done, but I can't be there all the time."

On-the-job refresher courses are often not attended by the teachers and adminstrators at whom they are aimed. One recent three-day seminar in Viginia on children with learning disabilities was attended for only one afternoon by one principal.

Helene Milman, a parent activist, has watched her 3-year-old emotionally handicapped son go from segregated classes to mainstreamed classes with teachers "who didn't know what to do with him. Now he's doing all right, because in effect he is able to educate the teachers that once he gets the special attention he needs he can do the work," she said.

She believes the real impact of the new laws will be felt in 10 or 15 years. "There's chaos now. Teachers aren't trained. Many of them are good teachers, but it's an attitude, a fear of something. Right now it's just like it was with the racial situation in the sixties, new laws, and many problems. For Lance (her son) and his children, she said, "it will be worthwhile."