Helping Special Needs Families Get the Information and Resources They Need! Member Sign In or Become a Member.
Common IEP Mistakes

Jeffrey Hartman-@jhartman1276iepfolder

School employees generally try to do their best for students with disabilities. Most of them came to the field to do some good, but face many barriers in trying to do so. They also make honest mistakes.

The barriers facing school employees begin far beyond the walls of schools. Special education has had funding issues at the federal and state levels for decades. Districts with the greatest overall budget problems often have the largest special education populations. Special education law is complicated and unforgiving, and schools struggle to keep up with it. Timelines test them and force staff to hurry. Special education teachers have more responsibilities than their training usually covers. The act of trying to educate students who struggle to learn is inherently difficult. The job burns people out and they leave, creating an environment in which schools lack experienced staff. These aren’t excuses. These are realities.

Amid these realities, schools make mistakes. Teachers, therapists, and administrators usually don’t deliberately deny services to students with special needs, though this certainly does happen on occasion. More often, school members of IEP teams simply come up short of their intentions. They lack the resources to adequately provide for students, or the individuals charged with providing services are pulled in too many directions to effectively implement IEPs. When team members are awash with competing responsibilities, the potential for mistakes and negligence rises.

Just because a school faces barriers and school employees are strained doesn’t mean they should get a pass on failing to implement IEPs. They have an obligation to collaborate with parents to create appropriate IEPs and to implement these with fidelity. While parents should understand that school employees struggle to provide what the IEP demands, they need not accept negligence.

What follows is a set of common mistakes made by school members of IEP teams. Parents can use this as a rough guide for filtering for possible errors and misgivings on the part of the school team. The list isn’t exhaustive, but it should serve as a place to begin critically examining how the school team is performing.

  1. IEP goals that aren’t measurable

This mistake might have more to do with a special education teacher’s writing skills or understanding of protocol than with any resource strain the school is experiencing. A teacher might recommend sensible goals, but these might be worded in a way that renders them immeasurable. If the goals aren’t measurable, the team can’t effectively gauge progress. Strong goals should name the student, cite a condition for the goal (under what circumstances it should happen), describe the skill to be performed or the content to be mastered, and give criteria for performance. For example:

Strong goal: Given a list of 25 words from the 2nd grade Dolch sight word list, Jeff will pronounce at least 20 words from the list without error in 5 consecutive trials by (date).

Weak goal: Jeff will improve his sight word vocabulary.


  1. Vague or generic specially designed instruction

Similar to issues with immeasurable goals, this mistake affects the usability of the IEP. Specially designed instruction should be tailored to the specific student. The IEP should specify where it will take place and how often it will be needed. For example:

Strong specially designed instruction: One additional class period of extended time in a resource room for mathematics tests that include constructed responses.

Weak specially designed instruction: Extended testing time.


  1. Insufficient transition component for students at either 14 or 16

Schools sometimes struggle to plan adequately for student transition. In some cases, the transition section of an IEP can be left sparse for a student who should be considered for services. At age 14, a discussion of transition must be part of the creation of the IEP. This can happen earlier, but it must be in place for students turning 14 during an IEP term. For students turning 16 during an IEP term, specific transition services must be described. In particular, for students 16 and older, the IEP should include stated transition outcomes, present performance levels in relation to these outcomes (these should include reading and math levels, but also performance on transition assessments and interest inventories; performance in relevant and specific areas such as knowledge of personal information might be needed), goals and objectives in support of outcomes, and detailed services that will support goal progress.

4. Outdated or inaccurate present levels
Present levels of performance should be within 6 months of the IEP meeting date. Exceptions can include students who have been absent for long stretches. Otherwise, IEPs should showcase recent performance data, even if the IEP is written in between evaluation years or if the student isn’t likely to show much growth between testing periods. All assessments used should be appropriate for the student. Recent anecdotal information should accompany the new levels, replacing or supplementing previous information.

Parents must take time to review present levels to be certain these are individualized. Teachers pressed for time might copy and paste text from IEPs of other students. Parents should check to see if names and pronouns are consistent throughout documents.

5. Incorrect dates or outdated documents

Related to the item above, parents should check IEPs for correct dates. An IEP term should be a full year minus a day from the IEP meeting date. Exceptions can be made for students scheduled to graduate within the term or for upcoming evaluations. The date programming is to begin should be agreed upon by all team members and shouldn’t allow for any lapse in service from the previous IEP. Parents should keep track of timelines on their own to ensure schools don’t allow documents to fall out of compliance by overlooking them.

  1. Unauthorized changes in related services

Related services such as physical therapy shouldn’t change without parental consent. Therapy levels can’t increase without an evaluation, but therapists can decrease them between evaluations. They can’t do this without discussing the matter with parents. A related service can’t be added or deleted at whim. Parents should check the related service section of a new IEP against the previous IEP for any differences the team might not have addressed.

If a statement of need exists in an IEP or evaluation, the IEP should address this through specially designed instruction or a related service. For example, if a need in communication is noted, the IEP should include some provision for speech. Similarly, anecdotal information about problematic behavior should be a trigger for a behavior plan.

  1. No discussion of ESY

Although extended school year services typically are reserved for the most disabled students, a conversation about the appropriateness of these services must happen for all students. Teams must verify whether or not a need exists. IEP meetings shouldn’t conclude without such a conversation. The IEP must reflect the decision of the team regarding eligibility.

  1. No discussion of placement options

Placement typically remains stagnant for students who receive special education services. However, the point of scheduled evaluations is to determine if services continue to be necessary and if the level of services continues to suffice. Every IEP meeting should include a conversation about whether or not services need to continue at their current level or at all.

The IEP must contain an explanation of why specialized services are necessary. Progress or participation in the general education curriculum must be noted. The degree to which disabling conditions affect progress or participation must also be noted. The IEP must reflect how much time the student will spend outside of the general education environment. School members of the team should be reviewing all of this with the parents at each meeting.

Placement options are a crucial part of any discussion of discipline involving a student with an IEP. Parents should be mindful of any placement options being considered during disciplinary proceedings.

  1. Documents not in native language of parents

The school must provide documents in the native language of the parents, which is increasingly easy to do. Interpreters must be available for meetings and phone calls as well. With interpretation services widely available, schools have little excuse for not providing these.

  1. Team members absent from meetings without parental consent

IEP team members only can be excused from IEP meetings if the parent is notified beforehand of the pending absence and gives approval. If the parent doesn’t approve, the meeting must be rescheduled. Emergencies do happen, but the team can’t move forward without the consent of the parent.

  1. No procedural safeguards notice

The school must inform parents of procedural safeguards, which are rights outlined by special education law. These rights are described in a document schools must provide to parents (typically around 30 pages). For any parent new to special education, these are vital.

  1. Insufficient notice for meetings

Schools must formally invite parents to special education meetings. They must offer a range of participation options. Meetings sometimes must be held unexpectedly and immediately, but in most cases, notice should be sufficient for parents to make arrangements for attendance. Parents also should have sufficient opportunity to review documents, in particular, to read evaluation reports prior to IEP meetings.

Just as schools might face time and resource constraints that limit the ability to address special education mandates, parents might face interruptions and distractions that pull attention away from some of the nuances of special education documents and relationships. Some of the mistakes mentioned above might be just that—mistakes. Parents need to be diligent in checking for these and willing to diplomatically bring them to the attention of school officials.








Read More
Understanding Alternate Assessments

Understanding Alternate Assessments:
A guide to standardized testing options for students with IEPs


By Jeffrey Hartman - @jhartman1276

Standardized testing of any kind has become a sore subject across the country. A politically-charged public debate has developed over the value and purpose of standardized assessments for all students. The complexities of assessing students with IEPs have come to light during this debate. While this is an issue of the moment, assessment options for students with IEPs have been a concern in special education circles for decades. Parents who are new to special education might not be aware of how special education law addresses the issue.

According to the IDEA, NCLB, and the ESEA, students with IEPs must be tested via state assessments whenever their peers without IEPs are tested. Disabilities do not exclude students from testing, and even students with the most severe disabilities must be tested. To the uninitiated, this might appear to be an overzealous effort by state bureaucrats who don’t understand the nuances of teaching students with special needs. While this might be true in part, the testing of students with disabilities also can be attributed to the demands of parents.

The concern over testing students with disabilities used to be exclusion. Parents and advocates feared that if students with disabilities were not tested, teachers and schools would lack accountability for them. Without assessments in place, the assumption was teachers wouldn’t be motivated to provide any kind of rigor for disabled students. Creating alternate standards and assessments of these standards became the way to combat this.

Today, students with disabilities can be tested in a variety of ways, and the choice is largely based on relative ability and IEP team decision. The basic options are to take an assessment with accommodations, or to take an alternate assessment based on alternate standards (instances of exclusion based on religious belief or psychological condition exist, but these are rare). Which option is best depends on the level of disability of the student. Each IEP team determines the appropriate testing using eligibility criteria particular to each state.

For students who follow the general education curriculum with accommodations, taking the regular state tests with accommodations is the most common option. The majority of students with IEPs go this route. Ideally, anything a student uses in class to help minimize the effect of a disability should be available as a testing accommodation. Not every possible accommodation is allowed, but typical accommodations such as extended time, testing in a separate room, and large print tend to be permitted. Test administrators can read directions to students and can read items on math and science tests, but students are almost always on their own to read everything on reading tests. Allowable accommodations vary from state to state.

In some states, an intermediate option exists. Students with IEPs are sometimes permitted to take a modified version of the test that assesses performance according to the same standards but at a lower reading or mathematics level. Such modified tests are most often offered as alternates to grade level math tests. They tend to come with a catch that makes them unattractive to administrators: they have mandated performance ceilings. That is, students who take the modified tests might automatically receive low scores before even beginning the tests. The reason for that is that these students take the modified tests because they would struggle with the grade level versions. While these modified tests might provide more useful performance data, administrators might push IEP teams to not make students eligible for them.

These modified tests aren’t available in all states. What must be available in every state is a genuine alternate assessment for students with moderate to severe disabilities. The IDEA doesn’t specify how states handle alternate assessment, but it does require their availability. NCLB and ESEA each enforce this. Most states have alternate standards for students who would benefit from instruction in life skills. IEP teams can (and should) use these standards when developing goals for such students. The alternate assessments can then be authentic tests of an appropriate curriculum and of IEP progress. Commercial alternate assessments get used in lieu of state designed tests in some states, but these typically align with any alternate standards that are in place.

IEP teams determine what testing options will be best for students. They use set criteria when reviewing eligibility for genuinely alternate --and not just modified-- testing. Most students do not qualify. For the few who do, several tiers of each alternate test exist in many states. This is intended to provide the best chance for finding a suitable assessment for students with highly disparate skill levels. A test that is too rudimentary might be insulting, while a test that is too demanding might be demoralizing. While some students function at levels that no test will appropriately fit, efforts are nevertheless made to include these students in the opportunity to be assessed.

Alternate assessments usually focus on a combination of functional academic content knowledge and skill performance. The balance is tilted towards skill performance for students who would struggle with functional academics. The tested skills are intended to come from the alternate standards-based curriculum the students follow. Again, the ideal situation is to have a match between IEPs goals in life skills domains and the areas assessed through the test. Some states have systems in place for aligning goals with alternate assessment anchors. A fair testing scenario can be achieved even for students with highly particular skill sets. Teachers and parents will receive student performance reports that can be useful for future planning and can have some merit as indicators of progress.

These assessments aren’t without drawbacks. On the schools’ end, they can be complicated to administer, sometimes involving intensive preparation of testing materials and multiple staff members to oversee test administration over what can be several days. For students, the tests should feel similar to authentic instructional activities, but some students might respond poorly to the structure of a testing situation. As mentioned, there will be some students for whom no test will authentically gauge their abilities. Even students who can adhere to the tests might not generalize their learned skills well enough to give a truly indicative performance. Parents might have apprehensions stemming from these issues and might question the value of the tests versus the consternation they cause. States and school districts have varying methods of including alternate assessment data in overall school performance on tests. Curious limits exist for how much data can be used, thus calling into question the usefulness of the assessments.

Alternate assessments are a real option for students with moderate to severe intellectual disabilities. They are a mandated way for these students to participate in meaningful assessment related to their programs. A very small portion of the student population is eligible for these assessments, but options do exist for higher functioning students who need accommodations. The current climate in American education might appear to be threatening the status of mandated assessments, and the long-term effects of the opt-out movement remain to be seen. For now, parents of students with disabilities should investigate what alternate assessment options exist per their state’s department of education. If a student must take a test, the most appropriate test should be sought.



Read More
Guide to Services-Day Programs

by Heather Johnson

Typically, the most urgent need families have post-graduation is some kind of safe, supervised and productive activity for their child to engage in since they are no longer attending school. Traditionally, the options for post-school-age day programs were either supported employment in the community, an activities-based day program, or a sheltered workshop. Luckily, the quality and choices offered in day programs has increased in recent years, and there are now excellent programs to choose from. Some definitions: a sheltered workshop (or prevocational program) is intended to help individuals develop skills to work in the community, usually by doing piece or factory work and being paid per completed piece. An adult day program provides supervision and opportunities to participate in cooking, art, music or other types of recreational activities. Job supports, on the other hand, provide individuals with assistance in finding, learning and maintaining employment in the community. Adult day programs are generally located in a large setting, with staff ratios typically between 1:3 to 1:15.



However, the difficulty now lies in the intricacies of the CMS Final Rule. The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS, also known as Medical Assistance), is the national organization that provides services. CMS is changing the way services are provided in order to maximize supports and monitor the programs. The Final Rule refers to the specific mandates the federal government is now imposing on the states. The biggest change with the Final Rule is to get as many people as possible into community jobs and to de-segregate sheltered workshops. One long-term issue within the service system is the lack of genuine employment opportunities for our folks, and the push to get as many people employed in the community as possible has led to new regulations. Basically, this means that everyone must be supported in finding employment before going to a more traditional sheltered workshop or activity-based day program. As of 7/22/2015, anyone 23 years old or younger is going to be required to complete the Office of Vocational Rehabilitation process before they can attend a day program or receive job supports through a waiver. Those over 24 and already in a workshop are “grandfathered” into their placements and do not need to go through OVR unless they want to get a job or add job supports. The OVR process provides funding for an assessment of employability and 90 days of on-the-job supports, at which point the waiver could take over providing services for that person to remain employed.

Some people are not going to be successful in a community job. However, it has also been recognized that most day programs are considered segregated because they offer no opportunities for community integration. Now, day programs and sheltered workshops are required to provide individuals with some kind of community integration, whether this is volunteering in the community, having community members come into or also use the program, or other methods of exposing the individuals to opportunities beyond the facility setting. In order to attend a program like this, though, you must have a letter from OVR stating that employment is not a possibility. The full scope of the changes affecting these programs is still unknown. According to the Pennsylvania Department of Human Services, “at this point, no decisions or definitions have been made regarding adult day program settings. The transition plan states that the Department will review Pennsylvania regulations, waiver service definitions, policies, and provider standards to assure compliance with HCBS final rule.”
Some things to consider: it is usually in the best interests of the individual to complete the OVR process while still in high school. Most, but not all, high schools offer transition services which include this assessment and support, so make sure to specifically request it. Also important: if community employment is appropriate for your child, the money made impacts his or her Social Security benefits (this includes piecework in sheltered workshops!) For more information on any of these topics, feel free to contact your supports coordinator or myself.

Heather Johnson is a Supports Coordinator Supervisor at The Arc Alliance, a nonprofit organization supporting families and individuals of all ages with developmental and other disabilities. In addition to her personal experience as a family member of those with special needs, she has been working for 18 years in all areas of the special needs community. Heather is one of the guest bloggers who will periodically post information for Kokua Network members.

Read More
October is Down Syndrome Awareness Month

Thank you to Anne Hollis and her family for creating another fantastic video for us to share.


Read More
Pros and Cons of Extended School Year

Pros and Cons of Extended School Year

By Jeffrey Hartman - @jhartman1276


Extended School Year (ESY) services are a set of supports designed to prevent students with IEPs from losing established skills during the summer break. While any student with an IEP potentially could be eligible, ESY services are reserved for those who exhibit skill regression or delayed skill recoupment following scheduled breaks from school. Evidence of regression and recoupment issues can include the suspected potential for established skills to diminish. Each IEP team determines student eligibility, but students with the most severe disabilities tend to automatically qualify.

Every IEP team must consider ESY services. Teams use a set of criteria to decide whether or not ESY services are warranted. Meetings for students thought to be eligible are held midway through school year to give parents ample time challenge if the school denies eligibility. In some districts, arrangements for ESY services need to be made early in the spring for logistical reasons, but districts are obliged to ensure that services will be available for any potentially eligible students regardless of when eligibility decisions are made.

ESY services are not the same as summer school or a summer camp. They are not meant as enhancements to existing learning programs. An ESY program is meant to prevent a student from losing a skill. Services are intended to prevent a lapse or reversal of progress. Because of this, ESY services aren’t comprehensive. Rather than resembling an abbreviated version of the regular school day, ESY services focus on just one or two IEP goals. Teams concentrate resources on maintaining progress towards these particular goals.

Even though schools must provide ESY services to eligible students, attendance isn’t mandatory. Parents can send eligible students every day, every other day, or no days. Students need not attend, but school must have everything in place in case students do attend. This includes any related services that might be needed to support goal progress. The IEP must describe everything necessary to make ESY services successful.

Deciding whether or not to send students to an ESY program can be difficult for some parents. Several factors can complicate this decision. The eligibility criteria might make clear the potential need for the services, but it doesn’t tell parents whether or not services will be of benefit. Clearly, this decision must be made case-by-case, but below are some pros and cons of ESY services that might assist in making the decision.




  1. ESY services are free. They are considered part of a student’s Free Appropriate Public Education (FAPE) and therefore must come at no cost to parents. This shouldn’t be a determining factor when deciding against other potential summer placements, but parents shouldn’t decide not to send out of a fear of costs.


  1. While not comprehensive, the services will continue the effort to support progress towards one or more goals in a structured and highly individualized manner. ESY services will have a deliberateness and rigor not seen in other types of summer programs.


  1. The program will provide some measure of stimulation and engagement, even if tailored to a limited area of need. The target area will be of principle concern, but some naturally occurring socialization will take place.


  1. School-based related services such as speech or occupational therapy will continue, albeit in a limited fashion. These will be meant to support the specific setting of ESY, but progress made during the regular school year has some opportunity to continue.


  1. The services will take place in the safety of a school with certified teachers rather than in a camp setting that might involve volunteers or undertrained staff.




  1. The student might have different teachers, therapists, and assistants than during the regular school year. If so, they will need time to get to know the student, which could amount to time lost during an already short program. Additionally, services might be in a different classroom or building with different classmates than the student knows. The changes could be a difficult adjustment for some students.


  1. ESY services almost always happen during a truncated school day and week. Considering this, progress towards even the limited aims of the program can be strained, especially when feeding, dressing, and toileting needs are included. Essentially, the point of the services can be derailed by the limited time available.


  1. School buildings undergo renovations during the summer months. While a building might be hosting ESY services, it also might be having work done to the air conditioning or plumbing. Such renovations could inadvertently interrupt services, even though the services are guaranteed.
  2. Students are grouped as much as possible by relative abilities, but the possibility exists that a student might be mixed into a class with students who have remarkably different needs. This is dictated by space, available staff, and the number of students with particular needs enrolled.


  1. ESY services aren’t likely to be as enjoyable for a student as other summer placements might be. In the spirit of normalization, ESY services are quite different than what students without disabilities experience during the summer. A student might need a break. Another student might benefit from a general camp experience, or from one focused on developing some other aptitude. Maintaining skills is important, but so is enjoying childhood.




Functional school districts with ample resources should be able to provide a worthwhile ESY experience. Districts that struggle to provide for students might offer ESY experiences that could be outright detrimental. Parents must remember that gains from ESY services are likely to be slight and some loss could occur despite enrollment in the program. Attendance is not mandatory, so sampling a program while reserving the right to withdraw might be worth a try. Each case must be decided with what is best for the student in mind.





Read More
A Guide to Services for Special Needs Adults – Residential Options

This is blog post is one in a series by contributing blogger Heather Johnson.

The plan for most adults with disabilities is to eventually get a place of their own in the community, and there are a couple of ways to make that happen. This blog will discuss some options and some things to consider when making residential plans.

Community Living Arrangements (or CLA’s) are what most people know as “group homes.” Group homes can be for between one to four individuals; any placement with more than four people is known under a different name. One-person homes need to be authorized by the Office of Developmental Programs (ODP) because it is important that our individuals aren’t isolated from the community; in addition, one person homes are much more expensive to fund. Because of this, one person homes are challenging to obtain through the waiver. CLAs generally have 24 hour staffing, and staff is hired by the provider agency to do things such as assist with activities of daily living, cook, provide transportation to day programs/appointments/community outings, and medication administration. The maintenance of the house (cleaning, laundry) varies depending on the functioning level and goals of the individual, but ultimately is the responsibility of the provider agency. The staff-to-client ratio varies dependent on the functioning level and need of all the individuals in the house, but is generally 1:3 or 2:4. In addition to the daily fee paid through the waiver, an individual in a CLA also has to give 72% of their social security to the provider agency for room and board fees. Any additional expenses, such as clothes, cable, money for community events, etc. are not included.

Group homes are not the only residential option. Sometimes, people will decide to open their homes up for individuals with a disability to live with them as family; this service is called Life Sharing or Family Living. The idea behind Life Sharing is that the individual will have as typical a life as possible, and be included in a family setting instead of a staffed arrangement such as a CLA. In Life Sharing, the individual is included in things like holidays and weekend excursions, and follows the schedule of the family. This service also has a daily rate paid by the waiver, and 72% of the individual’s social security goes to paying for room and board. Generally, families get paid a monthly stipend from a provider agency that covers bills, food, and household expenses (such as cleaning supplies). The family in most cases is responsible for medication administration and transportation, and the chore arrangement is agreed upon before the individual moves in. Most families agree to one year of services, but that can be shorter if the arrangement isn’t working out. However, there are individuals who have been with the same family for years. In this service, the most important thing is ensuring a good match between the family and individual. Unfortunately, parents/siblings/other family cannot be Life Sharing providers for their own family members.

Some other residential options include Reverse Life Sharing, in which a caretaker moves in with an individual in their own home, and Unlicensed Homes which only have a maximum of 30 hours of staffing per week.

All these services require a Consolidated Waiver, as the daily rate is between $100-$400 per day. There are a few other options for individuals without that waiver, such as boarding homes or low-cost apartments that can be paid for with Social Security; unfortunately, these places can be few and far between.

The future living arrangements for family members with an intellectual disability can be a hard decision to make, but your Supports Coordinator should be able to inform you of the options available to you based on individual resources.

Heather Johnson is a Supports Coordinator Supervisor at The Arc Alliance, a nonprofit organization supporting families and individuals of all ages with developmental and other disabilities. In addition to her personal experience as a family member of those with special needs, she has been working for 18 years in all areas of the special needs community. Heather is one of the guest bloggers who will periodically post information for Kokua Network members.

Read More
Psychological Testing for Students with ID

The Importance of Psychological Testing for Students with Intellectual Disabilities

By Jeffrey Hartman - @jhartman1276


For students who have intellectual disabilities, any kind of testing can seem like a burden for all involved. The student might struggle with the demands of the test. The psychologist might have difficulty administering the test in a way that accommodates the needs of the student. The parent can feel the test is going to reaffirm disappointing news about the student’s aptitude. However unpopular tests are, students with intellectual disabilities (or those on the cusp of being identified) are likely to need a specific and crucial test score to accompany them into adulthood. Most will need an IQ score.

IQ scores and the tests used to obtain them take heat from the public. Decades of criticism claim they don’t tell enough about a child’s functioning to be used to determine disability (test scores alone don’t determine this in schools). Critics denounce their use and suggest scores burden children with unshakeable labels. From accusations of cultural bias to questions about norm referencing, IQ tests and scores connote their share of negativity.

Whether or not anyone likes them, IQ scores are what county intellectual disabilities offices typically use to determine eligibility for services. These offices have enough cases to process that they don’t have time to work with anything but numbers. A constellation of factors might be used in schools to determine the presence of an intellectual disability and subsequent eligibility for special education services. At the county level, a clear and indisputable number usually is necessary.      Using the score, the county will assign a case manager or give the family a choice of supportive agencies from which to choose. The agencies will provide services such as respite care, community integration, and job coaching. Eligibility allows a waiver that can be applied to the costs of recreational services or adult day programming. Without the score, accessing any of this can be anywhere from difficult to impossible.

To get the all-important score and resulting services, an IQ test must be administered, or at least attempted. Some students with serve disabilities might have been found eligible for special education services without undergoing IQ testing. Evaluating teams might have recognized that attempts to obtain a score wouldn’t yield anything of worth. County offices of intellectual disabilities will require some bona fide score. The specific test typically isn’t important, so long as it’s a commercial test from which a score can be obtained. If the student isn’t capable of responding to the test, a statement from the psychologist administering the test should suffice, assuming an attempt was made.

The cutoff for intellectual disability services is typically an IQ at or below seventy. The score should be no more than five years old. Some counties and states will accept older scores, but the more recent, the better. Ideally, the scores should be obtained before the student turns eighteen, because strictly speaking, an intellectual disability by definition must manifest before then. Depending on the county, intellectual disability services won’t be available until student turns twenty-one, but some services in some counties can start at eighteen or even earlier. To get the services at any age, the score has to exist.

Parents are sometimes caught off-guard when their child who has received special education services for years suddenly needs an IQ score to receive services outside of school. This is especially surprising if their child has been receiving life skills-oriented instruction. Yes, sometimes a statement of an intellectual disability in an evaluation might be enough to secure services from the county. Parents who assume this will be the case often assume too much.

For students whose functioning is thought to be on the cusp of an intellectual disability, testing is a judgment call. A student functioning at this level might not need some of the services offered by the county. Furthermore, the student and the family might not want to know the results if these happen to indicate an intellectual disability. A conversation about the need for services should happen with the IEP team.

Before putting a child through an IQ test, determining with certainty whether or not the score will be necessary is wise. Parents can find out from the special education department of their child’s school, from the county intermediate unit, or from the county office of intellectual disabilities. The names of these entities vary from state to state, but locally tailored searches should reveal the appropriate parties. The school might have a recent enough test score on file that new testing won’t be needed. If not and if the county requires an updated score, the school can and will administer the test.

Considering the expense in obtaining a score privately, petitioning the school for the score is wise. Parents can request an updated evaluation that includes an IQ score. Doing so in writing is always best. Motives need not be covert. Having the score is an important component of transition, so schools should be willing to assist. A plan might be in place to conduct the test during the last evaluation cycle prior to the student turning eighteen, but if not, urging the school is recommended.

The test itself will consist of a variety of logic puzzles, many involving pictures or items that are read to the student. For the score to be valid, standardized conditions must be maintained, although some accommodations can be made. Depending on the student’s disability, multiple sessions might be needed. Many schools share psychologists with other buildings, so a multi-session test could take weeks to complete. Parents might have questionnaires to answer, or at least some opportunity for input in the new evaluation. A full evaluation isn’t really needed unless the student is due for one. The evaluation used to obtain services can just include the IQ test and results.

Schools often offer a standalone evaluation that states only the IQ test results. The score will be obvious in this document. Schools cannot furnish this to the county or anyone else without the parent’s permission. Generally, the parent presents the findings to the necessary parties. School officials can help identify these if necessary.

The cruel irony is when a student tests too high to be eligible. Legions of adults exist in a limbo of not being eligible for intellectual disabilities services, but not being capable of many competitive jobs or training options. As with any other evaluation, parents can dispute findings and request an independent evaluation through the school. A second evaluation is no guarantee of a different score, but if services are desired, it’s worth a try.

Parents of students with disabilities sometimes cringe at the thought of their child having to endure testing. What must be understood is that some of these tests can be gateways to important benefits. IQ tests remain integral to special education services as well as to county intellectual disabilities services. Working with schools to make sure a score is on file is critical for transition.


Read More
A Guide to Special Education Documents

By Jeffrey Hartman - @jhartman1276

Beginning The Paper Trail

Part of the difficulty parents face in navigating special education is coping with the barrage of paperwork. Parents aren’t alone in feeling overwhelmed. Excessive paperwork is a common complaint among teachers in the field. Special education demands layers of documentation. Understanding why along with what the documentation means can help dispel some of the confusion about special education processes.

Why Is There So Much Paperwork In Special Education?

The simple answer to this question is that the law requires it. A more thorough answer includes some explanation as to why the law requires it and why schools have had to respond to the law with such seemingly excessive protocols.

In practice, special education is a set of services meant to grant students with disabilities access to appropriate educational programming. The services are the visible part of special education. They happen to be merely one area covered by special education law. Most of the law deals with protecting the rights of students and parents. Services just happen to be one of those rights.

Special education law in America falls under the auspices of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (the IDEA). The law outlines eligibility for special education services. It requires schools to provide appropriate educational opportunities to students regardless of disability and at no cost to parents (Free and Appropriate Public Education, or FAPE). These educational opportunities must happen in the closest setting to the general education environment that is possible (the Least Restrictive Environment, or LRE). Each student must have a set of services tailored to his or her needs (an Individualized Education Program, or IEP).

To assure all of this happens, the IDEA requires schools to document every interaction with parents. The point of the documentation is to prevent schools from inadvertently or even purposely denying educational rights to anyone. Schools have mandates to follow according to the IDEA that parents never see, but most of the paperwork parents do see exists for the sake of holding schools accountable for following protocol, including the provision of services.

Schools face pressure to fulfill the mandates of the IDEA. Districts can lose funding if they fail to adequately provide services or document their efforts. Compliance with the IDEA drives much of what special education teachers and administrators do. Furthermore, mistakes made at any point in the process could result in parents filing for due process and possibly recouping compensatory education settlements. Certainly, most special education teachers and administrators are doing their jobs because they want to help students achieve, but the pressures they face are what create the paperwork parents see.

What Does The Paperwork Mean?

As parents receive document after document, special education can begin to feel like an exercise in redundancy. Parents of students who have received services for several years can become exhausted by having to review the same documents repeatedly. The documents do have purpose. Explaining them individually will help clarify this. The explanations will follow the order parents are likely to encounter the documents.

  • Permission to Evaluate (PTE)

The PTE allows the parent to give the school permission to conduct an evaluation designed to determine eligibility for special education services. The school will issue a PTE under a few conditions. A student might be coming to an elementary school following Early Intervention, so the parent might request that the receiving school evaluate for services prior to admission. School staff might recommend an evaluation if a student has shown difficulty accessing the general education curriculum even with interventions. A parent might request an initial evaluation at any point in the student’s educational career. If so, just like with a student coming from Early Intervention, the request should be in writing. Schools do have to honor oral requests, but the written request is verifiable.

The school must respond following the receipt of a request. They may offer a Permission to Evaluate-Evaluation Request form prior to offering a PTE if an oral request is made. This extra form is their way of getting the request in writing. When parents receive the PTE, they can decide whether or not they grant permission and then sign and return the document. They’re essentially giving permission for a battery of assessments to be completed, possibly including psychological testing and even a medical assessment. They’ll often have questions to answer in the document about their child’s performance. They have to give permission for an Initial Evaluation. In subsequent evaluations, schools can evaluate without parental permission. Teams can even waive an evaluation should members agree that one isn’t needed to confirm eligibility.

For students with services in place, schools will issue a Permission to Reevaluate (PTRE) every two to three years (depending on the disability). This will be nearly identical to the PTE. Schools typically issue PTREs in the months prior to the expiration of the existing Evaluation Report.

  • Procedural Safeguards Notice

This might be called a Notice of Parent Rights or something similar. The document is a lengthy, detailed description of student and parent rights throughout all special education protocols. Schools must provide this notice at some point during the school year. While there isn’t a specified point in the process to issue it, schools usually do so early in the process, perhaps shortly after an evaluation request.

  • Psychological Questionnaires

While not specific to special education, if a student receives psychological testing as part of his or her evaluation, parents will have additional questions to answer on a series of non-district, commercial forms.

  • Invitation to Participate

As the evaluation is completed, a meeting will be scheduled to review the draft Evaluation Report (whether an Initial or Reevaluation). The school will invite the parent using an Invitation to Participate form. This same form is used to invite parents to IEP meetings. The Invitation to Participate will list all parties the school intends to invite. Schools must issue an Invitation to Participate to students fourteen and over. The document must include a suggested time and place for the meeting, along with an opportunity for the parents to request any special accommodations.

The Evaluation Report and IEP may be reviewed during the same meeting, but often two separate, successive meetings are held. For the Evaluation Report review, the school will send a draft of the document for the parents to review prior to the meeting. Even if a student isn’t being evaluated in a given year, the school must issue an Invitation to Participate for the IEP meeting.

  • Evaluation Report (ER)

The ER is the document that will be used to determine a student’s eligibility for special education services. It is the culmination of findings from the evaluation team, including input from teachers, therapists, parents, and the psychologist. If the findings point towards eligibility, the document will include a recommendation for special education services along with what specific type of services. Should parents disagree with the findings, they can request an Independent Educational Evaluation (IEE).

ERs are written every three years for most students and every two years for students with more severe disabilities. Following the Initial Evaluation, ERs are referred to as Reevaluation Reports (RRs). When psychological testing is completed as part of an evaluation, a stand-alone Psycho-Educational Evaluation Report accompanies the ER or RR. All the same information is included in the ER or RR, but the stand-alone document can be helpful in petitioning for post-secondary services. All parties involved in creating the ER or RR sign it.

  • Functional Behavior Assessment (FBA)

If a student has behaviors that need to be addressed through supportive services, the school may conduct an FBA as part of the evaluation. The FBA will use an assortment of evaluations to determine the antecedents of a behavior, the target behavior itself, and the consequences of this behavior. It will then recommend a course of action for supporting the student so that the behavior doesn’t interfere with learning. The FBA can happen separately from an ER, but parents still have to give permission through a PTRE.

  • Individualized Education Program (IEP)

The IEP is what most people associate with special education. It is the document that outlines the services recommended in the ER or RR (or FBA, if one exists). The IEP contains a summary of the ER or RR, a description of present levels of student performance, annual goals for performance within the student’s curriculum, specially designed instruction to support performance, and a description of any related services, such as therapies. The IEP will detail how much time the student spends outside of general education environments, along with why. IEPs for students turning fourteen and older must include a transition plan. If an FBA recommends a Positive Behavior Support Plan, that must accompany the IEP. The IEP must be created annually, but IEP review meetings can happen several times per year at team member request.

Importantly, IEPs contain a signature page that shows who participated in the meeting. Signatures do not indicate approval of the plan. After the meeting, the team typically has a few days to implement the document. The parent should have time to review it. The IEP isn’t in place until the next document is signed by the parent to show agreement.

  • Notice of Recommended Educational Placement (NOREP)

Until the NOREP is signed to indicate parental agreement, any new services outlined in the IEP can’t happen. The NOREP states what level of special education service the school will provide. It is the actual statement that these services will be provided. The IEP is the description of services, but the NOREP is the authorization. Sometimes a NOREP is written to cover a single new or changed service. A special NOREP can be written for students who are no longer eligible for special education and are exiting. Should a parent wish to refuse any part of an IEP and request mediation or due process, the NOREP is where to do it.

  • Medical Assistance Billing Parental Consent Form

For students who receive related services such as school-based occupational therapy or speech therapy, parents have the option to give the school permission to bill these services to the state. Parents can grant or deny this consent. Services will not be declined if a parent denies consent.

  • Manifestation Determination (MD)

If a student with an IEP causes in infraction in school that would normally warrant discipline, an MD must be conducted to determine if the student’s disability was the cause of the behavior leading to the infraction. Students aren’t to be disciplined for anything attributable to their disabilities. If the MD finds the student’s behavior was not caused by the disability, typical disciplinary measures can be enacted, so long as the student’s educational program isn’t interrupted beyond predetermined degrees. If the MD finds the student’s behavior was a manifestation of his or her disability, a new FBA typically must be made. The MD review meeting is an IEP meeting for which the parent must be invited. It often leads to the issuance of a new PTRE for the creation of an FBA.

  • Progress Reports

Progress towards IEP goals and objectives must be reported at whatever intervals the IEP team determines. They are usually issued with report cards, but they are not the same as report cards. Report cards show grades in courses. Progress reports show progress towards IEP goals, which are in place to support overall curricular progress. The goals are typically skills needed for curricular achievement. The grades on report cards are the curricular achievement. The exception is for students who follow alternate curricula. Their grades might mirror their IEP goals.

  • Summary Of Academic Achievement And Functional Performance

This document is created at the end of special education services, typically when a student is leaving school. It lists what academic or functional competencies the student has achieved by the end of services. It also describes steps the student and parent can take for post-secondary living, along with contacts for resources.

Dealing With The Documents

The list above isn’t exhaustive. Some special circumstances demand other less common paperwork. For most students, these are the most frequently appearing documents. Many students won’t need FBAs or MDs, but any eligible student will have ERs, IEPs, and NOREPs. Parents would be wise to maintain a chronological binder of all documents, either organizing strictly by date or by document type. Keeping copies of every document is also recommended. Schools will furnish replacement copies upon request, but preserving records is best.

Special education is awash with paperwork, but an understanding of what each document is along with a good organizational method for dealing with them will benefit all involved. The IDEA is in place to protect rights, which must be remembered when the paperwork seems burdensome.


Read More
A Guide to Services for Special Needs Adults–An Overview

This is blog post is one in a series by contributing blogger Heather Johnson.


Once you have your waiver, you are eligible to start receiving services. This blog series will explain and explore some of the more popular services, but before we get into specifics, here are some general things to know:

*If your waiver has a cap, you cannot go over that amount of money. This sometimes means making hard choices, such as between summer camp or respite. Also, keep in mind that if you are at the cap, you still might have to make hard choices in July when the new fiscal year begins, because services can increase in price between one year and the next. Always be prepared to have to re-evaluate your services regularly based on cost.

*Putting services in place is not a fast process. Usually it takes three to six weeks to begin services. The first thing that happens is you’ll have a meeting with your supports coordinator (SC) to discuss what the needs are and what options are available. Next, your supports coordinator will send out referral packets to provider agencies, which basically serves to give basic information about the individual to see if the provider has vacancies or a staffing match. After that has been established, you’ll either take a tour of the facility so everyone can meet each other, or have an intake meeting at home. If everyone on the team agrees, a start date will be established. The SC will then do what is called a critical revision to the individual support plan (ISP) to start the service, and submit it to the county. The county Administrative Entity (AE) requires at least ten business days to approve a service; keep that in mind when beginning services. In emergent situations this can be circumvented, but is not recommended.

*You will not get paid money from the county or federal government. Many people have the idea that they will get a lump sum of money to spend as they see fit. The process is this: once you have a service in place, the provider bills the waiver directly. There are some options for more control in terms of hiring staff or becoming an agency-with-choice provider, which are very complicated but work for some incredibly organized individuals with time to invest. For more information on PPL (a company that provides alternative service arrangements) and agency-with-choice (AWC) providers, reach out to your supports coordinator.

*Primary caregivers, in the majority of situations, cannot also be staff. Unfortunately, you can’t be paid to provide care to your child. Sometimes a family member can get hired by a provider to provide services, but rarely ever the primary caregiver.

*There are sometimes qualifications that have to be met before certain services can be provided. For example, if an individual should need nursing, a letter of medical necessity is required from the doctor as well as a denial letter from the insurance company. For job services, the person must have gone through the office of vocational rehabilitation (OVR) and obtain documentation that either the 90 days of services have been used or the person is not a good fit for OVR. The reason for this is the waiver is the payer of last resort-if there are any other possible funding streams for any service we have to attempt to go that route first.

*Consolidated waivers are incredibly scarce. It’s a lovely idea to have your adult child fly out on their own by moving into a community living arrangement (called a CLA or group home) and having a job while you still live at home and are healthy, and ideally, that would happen for everyone. Unfortunately, there just isn’t enough money to go around. Right now, some people in dire situations do not have services because funding is not available. If an individual is safe where they are, they will not be prioritized for community placement. I apologize for the harsh truth; the funding is controlled at the government level. If we as a community really want change for our adult loved ones with disabilities, we all need to get on the phone with our legislators and demand funding for Medical Assistance, it’s the only way to get the money we need.

As always, should you have questions about waiver funding you can contact your Supports Coordinator, your county Administrative Entity, or me.

Heather Johnson is a Supports Coordinator Supervisor at The Arc Alliance, a nonprofit organization supporting families and individuals of all ages with developmental and other disabilities. In addition to her personal experience as a family member of those with special needs, she has been working for 18 years in all areas of the special needs community. Heather is one of the guest bloggers who will periodically post information for Kokua Network members.

Read More
Early Intervention: What to Expect

By Jeffrey Hartman - @jhartman1276


For many children and their parents, special education services begin long before kindergarten. Depending on the nature of the disability, the journey might begin before or just after a child is born. The news of a child having a delay or disability is jarring enough. Learning to navigate the system of available services can be confounding. Becoming acquainted with this system sometimes starts mere hours after delivery.

An attending physician may note the possibility of a delay upon examination of a newborn. Characteristics of a specific disabling condition might be clearly evident. Apgar assessments of breathing and reflexes and such might aid identification, but visual inspection alone could be enough to note an anomaly. The team assisting in the delivery might immediately begin what could be considered proto-special education as they prepare a referral for early intervention services.

The purpose of early intervention services (often abbreviated as EI) is to address a possible developmental delay. These are delays in what would be considered average functioning for a child at a given developmental level. Eye gaze, grasping, or sitting are examples of milestones that could be delayed. Such delays might be the result of surgery, prematurity, or low birth weight. They also could be caused by a congenital condition. If an obstetrician or pediatrician notes a possible delay at birth or in the days, weeks, or months afterwards, he or she will recommend EI. Parents also might initiate a referral if they note something atypical and bring this to a pediatrician’s attention.

EI is meant to promote the physical, cognitive, and even social development of a child experiencing some kind of developmental delay. The services are provided via Part C of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) and consequently are considered special education. They are free to parents. Protocols and protections akin to those afforded to older students with special needs are in place.  Access to EI is a right and the IDEA mandates provision.

A child must first qualify for EI. The referral doesn’t automatically qualify the child. Parents must take the referral to a center that provides EI. If a physician hasn’t made (or won’t make) a referral, parents might be able to obtain one directly from the EI provider. Typically, this provider will be a county Intermediate Unit (IU) or a county office of intellectual disabilities (whether or not an intellectual disability is suspected). Sometimes the provider will be an entity solely dealing with EI. Whichever the case, an intake and evaluation will proceed at the direction of an assigned service coordinator. This will be the point person throughout the evaluation. The point of the evaluation will be to determine the presence of a delay and the need for EI.

The IU, county office, or EI center staff will conduct the evaluation. Even if the parent initiates the referral, the service coordinator will obtain parental permission before proceeding. To the greatest extent possible, the evaluation will take place in the most comfortable environment for the child, which usually is the home. The evaluating team might consist of a nurse, a teacher, and a psychologist. Various therapists might participate, depending on what is noted in the referral. Parents will answer a set of screening questions. The team will use various scales to determine readiness. The evaluation will resemble a conversation mixed with playtime for the child.

The team completes the evaluation after meeting with the child. They review results with the parents. To qualify for EI, the completed evaluation must note that the child shows delays of approximately 25% or 1.5 standard deviations below what would be considered average functioning in at least one of the assessed areas. The actual cutoffs and assessed areas vary per state. If the child qualifies, the team must create an Individualized Family Service Plan (IFSP) within forty-five calendar days of the completed evaluation. Should the parents disagree with the findings of the evaluation (which might be the case if a child is found ineligible), they can request an independent evaluation and use the findings of this to challenge what the initial evaluation finds.

The IFSP determines what EI will be. Per the IDEA, services should take place in the most natural setting possible, such as a typical daycare center for children without disabilities. They might take place in the home per a qualified instructor. This is in the same spirit of least restrictive environment that applies for older children with special needs. For children with severe disabilities, services might need to happen at a center for EI. Wherever they happen, they will resemble a more sophisticated and deliberate version of common daycare activities. Unlike most available daycare, services might include specialized transportation or specific therapies. Crucially, all services will be based on the needs of each child. Six months following the start of the IFSP, the team will review its effectiveness and revise as needed. Such adjustments can be made earlier per teacher, therapist, or parental request. In rare instances, teams might determine services can cease—a decision parents can challenge. If a child qualifies initially, the likelihood of services no longer being needed by the time of a review is fairly low.

Part C of the IDEA covers services from birth to three. From three forward, Part B of the IDEA begins. Services for children from three to school age are considered early childhood services, although in some states and districts it is still called EI. Prior to the child turning three (ideally, at least four months prior to this), parents must contact the local school district about enrollment. The EI service coordinator can assist with this. A written request for a new evaluation should accompany the contact, though schools are obligated to honor oral requests.

The school district will send the parents a specific request form for an evaluation followed by a formal permission form. It might seem redundant, but most districts will insist on both—the first to verify the request and the second to obtain indisputable permission. The district must send the permission form within ten calendar days of the written or oral request. Upon receipt of the parent’s permission, the district must complete the new evaluation within sixty calendar days. A team including a teacher, a psychologist, and various therapists will create the evaluation. Parents will supply input. Testing might happen in the home or other daycare setting, but more likely will happen at a district early childhood center. The evaluation once again will determine eligibility, this time according to one of the thirteen disability categories under the IDEA.

If the child is eligible, the team (including the parents) will have thirty calendar days to create and implement an Individualized Education Program (IEP). This document will guide the child’s educational program through the district-run early childhood center. A certified special education teacher specifically licensed to work with young children will oversee the IEP. Parents get the opportunity to review and approve or disapprove the program before its implementation. If they disagree with some aspect of it, they can refuse the placement notice and request either mediation or due process. Some cases don’t even get this far without a dispute. Like with the EI evaluation, parents of a child found ineligible can dispute the findings and request an independent evaluation.

The child will be evaluated every two or three years, depending on the disability. At regular school age, a placement determination will be made per which school or program will best meet the child’s needs. Admission to a regular school could be delayed by the team should members feel the child isn’t ready for that transition. Services do transfer to private and charter schools, although these entities might not be able to actually accommodate some needs. Public schools have to either accept students or pay for them to be educated at an appropriate private school.

The path from EI to school admission can seem complicated. It does involve many steps. Parents must know that county IU and intellectual disability offices are in place to assist them. A massive network of support exists. Although it might appear overwhelming, it is there to help.



Read More
1 2 3 4