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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
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.
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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
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.
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.
The following is a guest blog post by Kokua Network contributor Heather Johnson.
In an ideal world, a child’s case manager and therapists would remain the same from the very first diagnosis until retirement. It’s frustrating to have to get a person reassessed and explain that person’s story, needs and progress to a new person at every new phase of life. Unfortunately, funding streams change as your child ages. Knowing where to begin is sometimes the hardest challenge. This blog is in no way a comprehensive guide to all of the service options available to you, but rather serves as a jumping off point; a place to begin.
Birth-3 Early Intervention
When you start to suspect your child might need some additional supports, the first thing to do is get him or her assessed. Your family doctor is a good place to start, however, you can also go through your county Mental Health/ Mental Retardation (MHMR) department. This assessment will determine what services your child needs, such as occupational therapy, physical therapy, speech/language support, hearing and vision support, and behavior services. Identifying your child’s need early and beginning services at this age is crucial; many symptoms and characteristics of many disability diagnoses can be alleviated or reduced if they are treated early.
Age 3-5 Preschool
After your child has aged out of early intervention but before he or she has started kindergarten, services are accessed through your county’s intermediate unit if the child has a diagnosis of Intellectual Disability. The intermediate unit can help your child continue the services they had in early intervention, as well as re-assess to see what needs have been met and what still needs support.
Not all children who are eligible for services in Early Intervention qualify for preschool supports, so getting a new assessment at this time is critical. If your child does not qualify for services through the intermediate unit but you still feel supports are necessary, don’t give up! Most qualification decisions can be disputed, or services may be funded through private insurance. If you hit a road block here, reach out to your local advocacy group for help.
Age 5-21 School
Once your child is in school, the district is required by law to meet his or her instructional needs, whether it is one of the services listed above, or others such as adaptive equipment, specialized instruction, or placement in a private school. Unfortunately, it can sometimes be a fight to get these services in place. Educational advocates are available to help you navigate through any problems, if necessary.
If your child has an ID diagnosis, another resource for you now is supports coordination services,. To register with the county for these services, call the intake specialist. You’ll have to meet with the specialist, provide documentation, and choose your supports coordinator, who will help you to create your child’s Individualized Support Plan. Although the school district is responsible for providing services, your supports coordinator can help you find things like activities, summer camps, support groups, advocates, and in some cases help with funding assistance.
If you don’t choose to register your child with the county during elementary and middle school, please do so by the time her or she turns 18. The better the county is aware of your situation post-graduation, the more likely your child is to receive funding, and your supports coordinator can help you through the transition from school to adult life.
21 and on Adulthood
Once your child turns 21 her or she is no longer entitled to any services. The state and federal government have funding programs, called Waivers, to help pay for services your child will need to lead a normal life, such as day programs, residential placements, in-home supports, transportation and respite. These funds are allotted based on need, and the availability of funding will change based on government officials, number of people applying, etc. Financial qualifications need to be met to be eligible for these funds, including receiving medical assistance and having assets below $2,000. Your supports coordinator will help you apply for funding and set up services.
It’s a long and frustrating road to travel, but please know you are not alone. We are a strong, well-connected and knowledgeable community; help is always available to those who need it. If you need individual assistance or have further questions, you can always contact me, Heather Johnson, from The Arc Alliance, at 610-324-8307 or email@example.com.
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.
This post is about three little letters that mean big, big things to any special needs family. Yes, I’m going there. I’m talkin’ IEP.
To be honest, I had another post about something entirely different half-written, and I’m going to have to get back to that another time. Because I just got back from my son’s IEP meeting and realized that I have to write about that right now.
Let’s start with a disclaimer: this post is not intended to be an exhaustive resource on what to expect from an IEP meeting, or how to effectively advocate for your child within the meeting. (For some awesome information like that, check out these articles: The 504 Plan versus The IEP or The IEP Team.
This post will be more about our own personal experience.
And, for the most part, that experience has been (surprisingly, perhaps), very good. From the beginning, our son has had an extremely dedicated team of insightful, enthusiastic, professionals; people who have all worked well together toward a common goal. Crazy, right? I know that can sound like a very unusual thing to those of you who have been down this road. There has been no screaming, no crying, no walking out of the meetings and refusing to sign the forms. We have never once considered removing our son from the school for any reason. (I know you’re thinking, “what is she smoking?”).
We’ve been very, very lucky.
This year, though, has brought some changes. Still no screaming or fighting, but changes nonetheless.
This year, for the first time, when I read the document prior to the meeting, I saw the first indications that some changes that the school and teacher are suggesting seem more motivated by what works for the school than by what works for my son.
So, now what? What do we do now? We like these people, our son likes these people, and we think that so much of what the school is doing is good stuff. But how do we advocate for our son in the meeting without, you know, screaming and yelling?
My first suggestion, if this happens to you, is to do whatever will help you work on those emotions before you enter the meeting room. Your child is best served if you are calm and focused, so work out your emotional stuff separately. Figure out whatever you need to do to get you to your place of Zen. For some, that involves prayer, long walks, yoga . . . For me it involved a treadmill cranked up to “sprint” and really, really loud gangsta rap. To each his own.
Because I had seen the IEP document before the meeting, I had a pretty good idea of what changes the school would be suggesting. So I did some research and I went to the meeting with documents, notes, and questions. That helped me stay on track and make sure I didn’t get sidetracked and miss something important (Easy to do when a dozen people are discussing a 49-page document).
Throughout the meeting, I took more notes. I listened to the points that the various educators and therapists were making. I showed them the respect that any true professional deserves. I think that’s important.
In the end of the meeting, when I felt that some things still didn’t sit right with me, I asked that certain paragraphs (called SDIs) be added to the document before I sign it. Remember, this is a legal document. For example, I am ok with some changes being made from now until the end of the school year, but I don’t necessarily want those changes to continue into next school year. So I asked for an SDI requiring the team to revisit these changes in the first month of the new school year. Turns out, you can do that.
But…some things still did not sit right with me. So, at the end of the meeting, for the very first time, I refused to sign. I didn’t yell or scream. I just said, “You know…I’d like to think about the wording on some of these things. Can you send me some backup information about these changes for me to read, and can I take this home with me and think this through before I sign it?” The answer to that was, and always should be, “yes.”
It was as simple as that. Well, sort of. Now I need to sit and think about the changes. I will talk them over with my husband, and I will draft some more paragraphs to add to the document. These amendments are intended to provide clarity and more detail to what seemed to me to be rather nebulous plans, and I will ask for detailed reporting in order to evaluate the success of the changes that the school wants to make.
I’m not certain the final document will be perfect, but I feel that I’ve done the best job possible of serving my son’s needs and leaving room for course corrections if we find them necessary.
And now, I want to hear from you. How have your IEP experiences been? What suggestions do you have for people who may be just starting out on this road? Please share your comments below—this community is here so that we can learn from each other.
Helpful Steps When Transitioning To A New School District
For most any child, having to leave a school district where you’re comfortable with your surroundings and you have great friends, making the switch to a new school can cause some anxiety. For a child with special needs, this change can become even more challenging. Yet, as a parent, there are steps that you can take to help provide a smooth transition.
These steps include…
Step 1. Contact the new district in advance.
When you know for certain that you’ll be moving to a new location and you know which school your child will most likely attend, contact the Director of Special Education. Explain your child’s diagnoses, special needs and the type of program he or she is currently in. Offer to send a copy of your child’s latest IEP (Individualized Educational Plan). Find out how the school district services students with special needs. When a school district is given the heads up on a child with special needs, it allows more time for the district to prepare for the child.
Step 2. Set up an IEP meeting.
If possible, request to have an IEP meeting regarding your child prior to his first day at the new school. Put together a brief video or powerpoint that will help the IEP committee learn about your child’s strengths and weaknesses. In three minutes or less, let everyone present gain a good sense of who your child is. This tool will help immensely as the committee decides on a program and puts an educational plan together. Ask to visit the classroom and to meet some of the teachers.
Step 3. Take your child for a visit.
Before your child starts his first full day of school, make arrangements for him to visit the school. Enter the main door that he will typically be entering and ask to have someone walk the two of you through his daily schedule, showing where his classes are, the cafeteria, the gym, etc. If it’s okay with the principal, have your child sit in on a class so that he can begin to meet his classmates.
Step 4. Put together a picture book.
Depending on the age of your child and his special needs, consider putting together a picture book. The book should include photos of the bus your child will be riding, the school building, his teachers, his locker or cubby hole, the cafeteria, the gym, the classrooms, etc. Go through the picture book with your child a few times before his first day of school to help him become familiar with his new surroundings. During his first week, point at some of the photos and ask your child what he thinks about them. This will help you gauge how well he is adjusting to his new surroundings.
Step 5. Ask to have an older student be a buddy.
Many school districts will gladly line up an older student to be a “buddy” for a child with special needs. A buddy can help your child learn his locker combination, brave the cafeteria, and help him transition from class to class. Some students might only need a buddy for a few weeks, while others might need one for a full semester.
By taking these five steps, you’ll be providing a smooth transition for your child.
The Team Roster
“We’ve found your child eligible for special education services.” Maybe these are the words you’ve hoped to hear, and maybe they are the ones you’ve feared. Maybe it’s a little bit of both. Whatever your reaction, there are a number of important decisions need to make right after hearing those words at the IEP meeting. This may be difficult, as so many thoughts pass through your mind. “Who are these people sitting at this table with me as we decide my child’s future?” That is a very important question, and one we will discuss here so that you will have a leg up when you go for your eligibility meeting.
According to the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (revised in 2004), there are several people necessary to an IEP Team. These are the people who would need to be at your IEP meeting:
- Parents of the child
- Not less than one regular education teacher, if the child is or may be participating in the regular education program at all
- Not less than one special education teacher/provider
- A representative of the school who can interpret evaluations if necessary
- A person brought in by you, the parent, as someone who can contribute to the meeting
- The child with the disability, if appropriate. The child must be invited if the purpose of the meeting is to discuss post-secondary goals and transition services are needed.
Child Study Team Roles
The Child Study Team is a portion of the IEP Team. They are a multi-disciplinary team who may or may not be housed in your child’s school. One member of the Child Study Team is usually assigned as case manager for your child. This is the person whom you should contact with questions regarding IEP implementation, particularly if it is a question the teacher cannot answer.
The psychologist is the member of the team who assesses your child’s developmental and cognitive abilities. During the initial evaluation, the psychologist will usually administer various tests which evaluate these abilities in both verbal and non-verbal forms. Copying puzzles, remembering series of numbers and being able to repeat them backwards and forwards are just two examples of tasks your child may be asked to perform as part of the school psychologist’s evaluation. This is the person your child may see should a crisis arise during school time.
The learning disabilities teacher-consultant (LDT-C) is someone who is trained in assessing your child academically. This person is a certified teacher who has gone through the training which allows him/her to evaluate where your child is now in the learning process. They are aware of various learning styles and help to create an academic plan for your child. This is the person you should consult with regarding the academics of your child.
The social worker is the member of the team who deals with the interactions of your child in relation to family, school and community. The social worker may evaluate your child and one or both parents or guardians of the child. The social worker may visit your home to get a better idea of the social interaction there. Part of their evaluation of your child may include asking you questions about their self-help skills. You may want to notify the social worker of any major changes in which you think may cause shifts in behavior and performance in your child.
Other Possible Team Members
Depending on what type of services your child needs, there may be several other team members involved, such as a behaviorist, physical therapist, occupational therapist and/or a speech-language therapist. These professionals bring their expertise to the table, and may be involved if your child needs any of these services.
Your Key Role
Finally, you (and your child, if appropriate) are an important member of the IEP team. If you would like to, you may bring a family member, friend, or advocate with you to support you at the meeting. An advocate can be anyone familiar with the special education process. Some states have lists of approved advocates that you can choose from. Speaking with other parents in a local support group is often a good resource for finding a strong advocate.
Everyone at the table comes with the same intention—that is, to assist your child in reaching their potential. Everyone may have different ideas about how to do that. Come to the meeting prepared, but with an open mind. You will be glad you did.
Navigating the Waters of Placement in the Public School System
Your child was just determined eligible for special education services in your public school system. Sitting at an IEP meeting and listening to someone on the team list the array of possible placements for your child, with all their pros and cons, can be overwhelming. Who wants to make a decision that will affect your child’s life, based on a five minute snapshot of information during an already stressful situation? Wouldn’t it be an advantage to understand these placements before the actual moment in which you’ll make that decision? This article will do just that: identify and explain typical public school special education placements, along with their pros and cons.
Least Restrictive Environment
Schools are, by law (the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, 2004), required to provide a student with the least restrictive environment (LRE). This means that, to the extent possible, your child should be exposed to the general education curriculum and be placed with the general education population. The LRE is not specifically defined, however, because just as every child is different, so too will the LRE for that child be different. For the purpose of this article, we are going to presume that the public school setting is deemed appropriate for your child. Within that system there are many different types of placements. We are going to start with the one that has the maximum time with the general education population, and move our way back to the most isolated placement in a public school.
Mainstreaming is, literally, putting the classified student in the general education classroom with little to no accommodations. This can work if the general education teacher is able to work well with a student who has a disability. The student must be near grade level in that subject and able to conform for the most part to the rules of the classroom in order for this to be successful.
Inclusion has been the buzzword since the mid-1990’s. In an inclusion class, there are two teachers, one of whom is certified in general education and the other in special education. The two teachers co-teach. They both teach the entire class at the same time. The way they do this depends on the needs of the students. At times, they may teach the class as a whole, taking turns leading the lesson. At other times, the special education teacher may split the class or take a smaller group to reinforce the class work. The special education teacher also modifies the materials as necessary for the classified students. This may include class work, study guides and tests. Students who are in inclusion settings usually have lunch and electives (i.e. art or music) in the general education setting.
Some students require the support of a small group setting. A resource room is taught by a special education teacher. Usually, these students spend part of the day, including homeroom, lunch and electives in an inclusion setting. They go to the resource room for the subjects that they need the most help with. The students get more individualized attention and learn at their own level. The pace is usually somewhat slower than the general education classroom. Teachers are able to tailor lessons to the students’ needs. After the class numbers reach a certain amount, it is required by law that a paraprofessional be in the room for extra support. This number varies by the grade of the student, the classification of the student, and by state.
The classroom that provides the most support for the student is the self-contained classroom. In this classroom, the student is taught in a small group all day. Students in this classroom usually report there for homeroom and stay there for all academic subjects. They typically have lunch and electives with their peers in general education. The pace and level of the work in a self-contained classroom is tailored to the needs of the student. After the class numbers reach a certain amount, it is required by law that a paraprofessional be in the room for extra support. Again, this number varies by the grade of the student, the classification of the student, and by state.
More and more, students are spending there days in more than one of these settings. IEP teams are realizing that it is beneficial to these students to spend as much time in the general education setting as possible. Regardless of their placement, the goals and objectives of your child’s IEP must be followed. Hopefully, you now have a better idea of the options available to your child in the public school setting. Remember to come to your meetings prepared, and with an open mind. It is always your right to call another meeting in between your annual reviews if you believe it is necessary.