Section 504: A Plan for Equity, Access and Accommodations

A Brief Overview

  • Section 504 is part of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, which is upheld by the United States Office of Civil Rights.
  • This law protects access rights to public places and programs for individuals with disabilities. Accommodations that support access are guaranteed, and not providing access is a form of discrimination.
  • All students with qualifying disabilities are part of a protected class under Section 504, including those on 504 Plans and those on Individualized Education Programs (IEPs).
  • Section 504 protects a person with disabilities throughout life and covers individuals at work and in any public facility or program.
  • Key terms are equity and access to opportunity. A government-funded place or program provides whatever is needed so the person with a disability can benefit from the place or program. The opportunity is equitable when supports provide a way for the person to overcome the barrier of disability (to the maximum extent possible) to access the place or program that everyone else has the right to access.
  • Section 504 defines disability as an impairment that impacts a major life activity. If a student in school meets criteria, then the school provides what a student needs to access a Free Appropriate Public Education (FAPE) in the general education setting. ​
  • A Section 504 Plan determines what a student needs to receive equitable benefit from school.

Full Article

Section 504 is part of a law called the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, which is upheld by the United States Office of Civil Rights. This law is about access–to a public place or program. Section 504 protects a person for life and allows every student, employee or guest in a public institution to ask for and expect supports and productivity enhancers–what they need to succeed.

All children with disabilities who qualify for special services in school are protected by the provisions of the Rehabilitation Act. Students who qualify for Special Education are protected by Section 504 and the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). Children protected by IDEA have Individualized Education Programs (IEPs), and children who qualify for some support but do not meet the IDEA’s specific criteria may have Section 504 Plans. This article is primarily about Section 504 Plans. For more detailed information about the IEP, PAVE provides an article, Get Ready for School with IEP Essentials.

Education rights are like a pyramid: At the top of the pyramid is the IDEA (Individuals with Disabilities Education Act), which provides a full menu of special education programming and services for qualifying students.  Children at the top of the pyramid have all the protections of each of these laws.

At the center of the pyramid is Section 504, part of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, which guarantees non-discriminatory rights to equitable access for individuals with disabilities.

ESSA (Every Student Succeeds Act) is at the bottom, providing all children in the United States the right to a free public education “to ensure that every child achieves.”

Schools are bound by Section 504 as “covered entities,” places or programs that receive money from the U.S. government. Schools provide access to Free Appropriate Public Education (FAPE) by helping students with 504 Plans to succeed in regular classrooms and school settings. The goal is to meet the student’s needs as adequately as the needs of nondisabled students to offer equity and access to opportunities. Keep reading to learn more about what equity truly means.

Section 504 defines disability as an impairment that impacts a major life activity. A school team considers a variety of information to consider whether a student qualifies for a Section 504 Plan. A formal evaluation is not required, and parent involvement is voluntary. The team asks:

  1. Does the student have an impairment?
  2. Does the impairment limit one or more major life activities?

The law is intentionally broad, so it doesn’t limit the possible ways that a student who needs help can qualify for that help. ​A list of possible impairments is, therefore, unlimited. Here are a few examples:

  • Physical disability that might affect mobility, speech, toileting or a human function: Spina Bifida, deafness, dwarfism, loss of a limb
  • Cognitive, psychiatric, or emotional disorder: intellectual disability (Down Syndrome), a specific learning disability (Dyslexia), a brain illness or injury (bipolar disorder, Traumatic Brain Injury), an emotional disturbance (anxiety, depression) ​
  • Major bodily functions: disease of the immune system, digestive or urinary issues, an impairment of the nervous system or heart

​A list of major life activities is also endless. Whether an impairment “substantially” limits a major life activity is determined individually. Some impairments affect the ability to practice self-care, and challenges in basic life tasks like walking, seeing, hearing, speaking, breathing, learning, and working are captured. Someone with sensory challenges might struggle to concentrate, think and communicate—all of those can qualify as major life activities. ​Really, any system in the body might have a challenge that creates a barrier for an individual and therefore can qualify as a disability.

A photo of a slide that states that a Major Life Activity Includes: walking, seeing, hearing, speaking, breathing, learning, working, digesting, toileting, eating, sleeping, standing, reading, concentrating, thinking, communicating and lifting

What the Law Says

The law states: “No otherwise qualified individual with a disability in the United States…shall solely, by reason of her or his disability, be excluded from the participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance…”

The goal of a Section 504 Plan in school is to figure out what a student needs to be fully included and to receive equitable benefit from the government-funded program or service.

Equity doesn’t mean Equal

Supports and services for a student with a disability seek to provide equity. Equal opportunity would mean that all students get the same help. Getting the same help doesn’t give all students the same opportunity. In this picture, on the left, the little guy in the light blue shirt can’s see the game, even though he’s got the same platform as the taller guy. ​He needs a different platform to have the same opportunity to see the game.

The depiction of equality through the illustration of three children on a box and then justice is shown by making the boxes different sizes to serve the needs of each individual

The help that makes access to learning equitable puts the word Appropriate in FAPE– Free Appropriate Public Education.

Students with known disabilities get help and productivity enhancers to access the opportunities for success that all students have. If they need a taller crate—or an extra teacher, or a special swing on the playground, or training in Social Emotional Learning (SEL) or something else specific that gives them the same opportunity to learn, grow and benefit from school, then their civil right is to get the boost they need to have an equitable opportunity. ​

Accommodations and services create equity in order to give people a fair opportunity to succeed. This level of fairness can be called justice. 

Under Section 504, individuals with impairments have a right to get into public places—with ramps, elevators, braille labels on doors…whatever is needed for physical access. Other aspects of access are less obvious. Individuals with unseen disabilities have the right to accommodations that will make a program or service as effective for them as it is for the general population.

Positive behavior supports through a are an example of an accommodation that can help a student with a disability access the major life activity of learning. A BIP can be a stand-alone plan or can accompany a Section 504 Plan or an IEP. A BIP is developed after the school conducts a Functional Behavior Assessment (FBA). Parents sign consent for the school to conduct an FBA.

Section 504 Supports Inclusion and Bars Discrimination

Section 504 includes elements of inclusion. A person with a disability has the right to access the regular program unless special help and different options cannot work to provide that person with benefit from the program or service.

This is important in education: Students have the right to get help so they receive an equitable benefit from learning in the general education classroom. They move to a more specialized setting only if those supports fail to provide appropriate and equitable access. ​This is true for students on 504 Plans and IEPs.

Under Section 504, any alternative space or program must be “comparable.” Clearly, that’s subjective, but it’s important language to include in any discussion with the school if parents have concern that a child is not receiving an education that is equitable or comparable to that being offered to typically developing students. ​

According to the Office of Civil Rights, as an institution that receives government funding, a school is bound to avoid policies that might on purpose or accidentally exclude persons with disabilities. ​In other words, if a school’s policy or action creates a barrier to access for a student with a disability, the school might be cited for discrimination if the Office of Civil Rights did an investigation.

Here are examples of how Section 504 might impact a student:

  • The school helps a student succeed with other students in the regular classroom, which is the most integrated setting.​
  • If the student needs extra help or technology or a special place to sit, he/she gets that because the school is ensuring accessibility. ​
  • If the student needs to take a different test or get a homework deadline changed, then the school makes those reasonable modifications, which don’t fundamentally alter the program. ​
  • An auxiliary aid might be a 1:1 para, and the school district provides that. ​

Section 504 Protects Students Everywhere at School
Access rights are not limited to the classroom but include all aspects of school and learning. This is just a short list of school settings that are governed by Section 504:​

  • Classrooms​
  • School bus/transportation​
  • Lunch​
  • Recess​
  • PE (Physical Education)​
  • After-school Clubs​
  • Sports​
  • Field Trips

Are Parents Part of the Section 504 Team?

The Rehabilitation Act doesn’t require schools to involve family members in the administration of a 504 plan. However, the plan is managed by a responsible school staff member who notifies parents before a student is evaluated or placed on a 504 Plan and provides parents/guardians with a copy of the plan.

The school also provides written notification to parents about their rights to disagree through grievance procedures. The document that describes these procedures is called “procedural safeguards.” ​If a parent requests a formal evaluation for special education services, and the school district refuses, the school district must provide the parent with a written copy of the procedural safeguards.

How is a 504 Plan Different from an IEP?
The decision to include parents in 504 team meetings is determined by each school district. ​However, parents may contribute information such as doctor reports, outside testing reports and personal reflections and concerns. Schools are expected to make sound educational decisions about what the child needs to be successful.​

The fact that parent participation is not a guarantee of the law makes Section 504 different from the IDEA, which requires parental involvement in the IEP process. Here are a few other differences between these two laws:

  • A 504 Plan is nearly always implemented within the general education setting, whereas an IEP may include placement in a variety of inclusive and specialized settings.​
  • A 504 will NOT include academic goals, benchmarks, or measurements, which are key features of an IEP. ​
  • Under Section 504, a qualified student with a disability is protected regardless of whether the student needs special education. ​
  • An IEP is an educational program that follows a student through high school; a 504 Plan is a Civil Rights protection that follows a person throughout the lifespan.​
  • Remember, Section 504 is about equity and access, and the protections of the Rehabilitation Act cover students on Section 504 Plans and IEPs. ​

How are Discipline and Behavior addressed by Section 504?

​Students with disabilities are a protected class when schools administer disciplinary actions. If a student with a disability is suspended for multiple days within a school term, the school is required to have a meeting called a Manifestation Determination meeting. This requirement specifically states that schools hold this meeting by the 10th day of suspension.​

The school and family will go through a specific set of questions to determine whether the behavior that led to the suspension was caused by some aspect of the student’s disability. In other words, did the behavior manifest from the disability? ​

At that meeting, the team will decide whether the school followed the 504 Plan, the IEP, the specific behavior plan and/or its own disciplinary policies in making the decisions about what to do. If the team determines that the student’s disability was the cause of the behavior and/or that the school didn’t follow procedure, then the student may qualify for Compensatory Services—additional learning time—to make up for missed education during the suspension. ​

For a student with a Section 504 Plan, this meeting can also direct the school to conduct a comprehensive educational evaluation to see if the student’s disability qualifies that student for the full menu of special education options available under the IDEA—including an IEP.​  A website called School Psychologist Files has an article and a chart comparing Section 504 and IEP.

Here are a few points related to Section 504, discipline and behavior:

  • Students with disabilities can be disciplined. ​
  • Students with disabilities have special protectionsregarding discipline. ​
  • Schools cannot change a student’s “placement” without following the rules. Placement is where the student receives learning.  If the school disciplines a student with a 504 Plan in a way that changes the location where the student receives education, this may constitute a change in placement. The Office of Civil Rights has specific laws that govern what constitutes a change in placement and how schools respond. ​
  • ​Students with disabilities are a protected class. Schools have the right to discipline students to keep everybody safe, but the schools are bound by specific rules and regulations to make sure that their disciplinary actions aren’t discriminatory. ​
  • ​If a student with a disability keeps getting taken out of class because of behaviors, then the disciplinary actions might add up to a significant change in placement. The law states that this change is placement triggers a re-evaluation and opens the possibility that a higher level of special education service might be needed to support and protect this student with a disability. ​

Rules for Schools

Some parents are anxious about questioning actions taken by the school. It’s important to remember that parents also have protections under the law. The Office of Civil Rights maintains specific guidelines that do not allow schools to retaliate against parents for asserting their rights to participate in a student’s education. ​

Parents can reach out directly to the Office of Civil Rights:

  • OCR Seattle Regional Office at: 206-607-1600​
  • National: 800-877-8339 (TTY) or Federal Relay Service (FRS) at 1-800-877-8339 ​

Here are some additional resources for information about Section 504:

The United States Department of Health and Human Services: HHS.Gov

The U.S. Office of Civil Rights:  www2.ed.gov
Center for Parent Information and Resources (CPIR): parentcenterhub.org
Parent Guide to Section 504: GreatSchools.org
Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction (OSPI): k12.wa.us
For legal interpretations of Special Education and Section 504 Law: Wrightslaw.com

 

 

Evaluations Part 1: Where to Start when a Student Needs Special Help at School

A Brief Overview

  • Special Education is provided through the Individualized Education Program (IEP) for a student with a qualifying disability. The first step is to determine eligibility through evaluation. This article describes that process.
  • An article about IEP essentials is also available on PAVE’s website.
  • Parents can request an evaluation by submitting a written letter to the school district. PAVE offers a template to help with letter writing.
  • An educational evaluation collects information in all areas of suspected disability, including non-academic areas such as Social-Emotional Learning (SEL). Read PAVE’s three-part series on SEL for more information.
  • See PAVE’s Part 2 article about what to do if the school says no to your request for a special education evaluation.

Full Article
If a student is having a hard time at school and has a known or suspected disability, the school evaluates to see if the student qualifies for special education. If eligible, the student receives an Individualized Education Program (IEP). Information collected during the evaluation is critical for building the IEP, which provides specialized instruction and other supports in a unique way for each student.

A parent/guardian, teacher or school administrator can request an evaluation. A variety of tests and questionnaires are included. The evaluation looks for strengths and difficulties in many different areas, so input from parents, teachers and providers is critical. 

Generally, the evaluation reviews developmental history and assesses cognition, academic achievement and “functional” skills. Functional skills are necessary for everyday living, and deficits might show up in unexpected behaviors, unskilled social interactions or struggles with emotional regulation. Strengths are measured alongside challenges and can provide important details for a robust program.  

Evaluation is part of special education law

Nondiscriminatory Evaluation is a key principle of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), which is the federal law that governs special education. The IDEA includes a mandate called Child Find, which requires school districts to seek out, evaluate and serve students ages Birth-21 who may have disabilities that impact school success or access. The mandate applies to all children, including those who go to public or private schools. Children who are homeless or wards of the state are included, as are children who move a lot. Children who are “advancing from grade to grade” are included in the mandate, if they may have disabilities that impact learning in non-academic areas of school.

When a student is formally referred for an evaluation, the school follows a schedule of deadlines. Districts have 25 school days to respond to a written request for evaluation. Some schools will invite parents to a meeting to discuss concerns. Being prepared with a written statement can help. Parents can also share information from doctors, therapists or other outside providers. Parents can mark a calendar to track these timelines.

Before a school evaluates a student, the parent/guardian signs consent. If school staff recommend an evaluation and parents do not agree or sign consent, then the school does not conduct the evaluation. Please note that parents are consenting to the evaluation, so that parents and schools can make an informed decision about what to do next. Parents can choose at the next step whether to sign consent for a special education program to begin.

If a parent initiated the referral and the school doesn’t respond or denies the request for an evaluation, the parent can request an answer in writing. PAVE provides an article about what to do if the school says no to your evaluation request.

Considerations:

  • Child Find mandates evaluation if there is reason to suspect a disability. 
  • Students who are failing or behind their peers might have challenges related to language or access to school that don’t indicate a disability.
  • Parents who don’t understand the school’s reason can request a written explanation.
  • Schools cannot refuse to evaluate because of budgetary constraints. They also cannot refuse because they want to try different teaching strategies. School staff might use the term Response to Intervention (RTI). Although the school might benefit from a review of its methods, RTI is not a basis for refusing to evaluate a child for a suspected disability.

What happens next if the school agrees to evaluate?
If all agree that an evaluation is needed, and a parent/guardian signs a formal document giving permission, then the school completes the evaluation within 35 school days.

In compliance with the IDEA, an evaluation for special education is non-discriminatory. If the child cannot read, for example, the testing uses verbal instructions or pictures. The child’s native language is honored. Schools have a variety of tools available to eliminate bias. Parents can ask for clarification if they suspect that the testing missed its mark because of methodology.

The IDEA requires schools to use “technically sound” instruments in evaluation. Generally, that means that the tests are evidence-based as valid and reliable, and the school recruits qualified personnel to administer the tests properly. The IDEA is clear that a singular measure, such as an Intelligence Quotient (IQ) test, does not meet the standard for an appropriate evaluation.

Don’t be intimidated by fancy language!

The formal language of the IDEA and the evaluation process can feel intimidating, but parents need to remember that they have a critical role as the experts and long-term investors in their child. If the evaluation data is confusing, parents can ask the school to provide charts or graphs to make it clear. Parents have the right to ask questions until they understand the evaluation process and what the results mean.

If the evaluation indicates that a student has a qualifying disability, the impairment will meet criteria in one of 14 categories defined by the IDEA. A place to get more information about each of these categories is the Center for Parent Information and Resources (CPIR), which manages a website called the Parent Center Hub. These are the categories:

A primary goal of evaluation is to identify a child’s strengths and needs in the general education environment. Regular classrooms are the Least Restrictive Environment (LRE) unless a student is unable to succeed there. The evaluation determines whether a student needs extra help in the general education setting, and the IEP team uses information gathered through evaluation to recommend an initial program.

The IEP isn’t a one-and-done project

The IEP shifts and changes with the needs of the student, so the initial evaluation is only the beginning. A new evaluation is required by the IDEA at least every 3 years, but a new evaluation can be initiated earlier if there’s a question about whether the program is working. The school and family are always collecting new information and insights, and the IEP adapts in real time with new information.

For example, the school might document that a student is failing to access learning in general education despite help that was carefully designed to make the setting accessible. Then the IEP team, which includes a parent or guardian, might discuss placement in a more restrictive setting.

What if I don’t agree with the school?

Parents can always ask school staff to describe their decisions in writing, and parents have rights guaranteed by the IDEA to informally or formally dispute any decision made by the school. The Center for Appropriate Dispute Resolution in Special Education (CADRE) offers a variety of guidebooks that describe these options. In Washington State, the Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction (OSPI) provides state-specific guidelines for dispute resolution

Evaluation is a 3-part process

Not every student who has a disability and receives an evaluation will qualify for an IEP. The evaluation asks 3 primary questions: 

  1. Does the student have a qualifying disability?
  2. Does the disability adversely impact education?
  3. Do the student’s unique needs require specially designed instruction?

If the answer to all three questions is Yes, the student qualifies for an IEP and the protections of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA).

Eligible students are entitled to an education designed just for them. That entitlement is for a Free Appropriate Public Education (FAPE). Every student in the United States has access to a public education for free. An educational evaluation determines whether a student is also entitled to an education that is “appropriate,” with unique help so the individual can make meaningful progress toward goals despite the circumstances of disability.

Recommended guidelines for requesting an evaluation

  • Make your request in writing.
  • Address your letter to the district’s special education director or program coordinator.
  • You can deliver your request by email, certified mail, or in person. If you hand-deliver the letter, make sure to have your copy date/time stamped so you have a receipt.
  • You can track the days the district takes to respond. The district has 25 school days (weekends and holidays excluded) to respond.

Items that can be included in your letter:

  • The student’s full name and birthdate.
  • A clear statement of request, such as “I am requesting a full and individual evaluation for my son/daughter.”
  • A statement that “all areas of suspected disability”  be evaluated.
  • A complete description of your concerns, which can include details about homework struggles, meltdowns, grades, failed or incomplete assignments, and any other mitigating factors.
  • Attached letters from doctors, therapists, or any other providers who have relevant information, insights, or diagnoses.
  • Your complete contact information and a statement that you will provide consent for the evaluation upon notification.

You can follow up if you don’t hear back from the district within 25 school days. When you provide consent for the evaluation, please note that you are not giving consent for your student to be placed in a special education program. You are consenting to the evaluation so that you and the school can make an informed decision about how to help your child succeed.

After receiving a letter of request for evaluation the school district has the responsibility to:

  • Document the referral.
  • Notify you, in writing, that the student has been referred for evaluation.
  • Examine relevant documents from you, the school, medical providers, and other involved agencies.
  • Tell parents/guardians in writing about the decision to evaluate or not. This formal letter is called “prior written notice” and is provided within 25 school days of the evaluation request.
  • Request your formal written consent for the evaluation.
  • Complete the evaluation within 35 school days after you sign consent.
  • Schedule a meeting to share the evaluation results with you and determine next steps.
  • Initiate development of an IEP, if the student qualifies.

Evaluation for Behavior Supports

Sometimes a Functional Behavior Analysis (FBA) is conducted alongside an educational evaluation when behavior is a primary feature of a child’s difficulty at school. The FBA uses tools and observation to identify triggers and unskilled coping strategies that can help explain areas of need for learning. The FBA provides the foundation for a Behavior Intervention Plan (BIP), which supports positive choices. BIP goals and strategies prioritize social skill development and emotional regulation tools. The BIP can be a stand-alone document or can be used with an IEP or a Section 504 Plan (see below).

A student may qualify for a Section 504 Plan, if not an IEP

Section 504 is part of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 and provides for accommodations for individuals with disabilities that severely impact their ability to access a public building or a service, such as school. Sometimes students who don’t qualify for an IEP will qualify for special supports through a 504 Plan. Disability is more broadly defined under this Civil Rights law, and a disability that impacts a “major life activity,” such as learning, can qualify a student for accommodations and modifications in school.

Independent Educational Evaluation (IEE)

If you disagree with the evaluation and/or the school declines to offer any support services, parents can pursue a request for an Independent Educational Evaluation (IEE). While a request for an IEE is not required to be in writing, a written request is encouraged because it documents the request (see letter guidelines above). When granting a request for an IEE, the school district provides a list of possible examiners and covers the cost. If the school district denies an IEE request, the district initiates a due process hearing within 15 calendar days to show that its initial evaluation was appropriate.

Here are some additional resources:

Washington laws regarding evaluation are in sections 392-172A of the Washington Administrative Code (WAC)

Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction (OSPI): k12.wa.us

Center for Parent Information and Resources (English and Spanish): Parentcenterhub.org

Smart Kids with Learning Disabilities: smartkidswithld.org

PAVE’s Parent Training and Information (PTI) team can provide you with 1:1 support and additional resources. Here are two ways to Get Help:

Call 1-800-5PARENT (572-7368) and select extension 115, English or Spanish available, to leave a dedicated message.

OR

Go online to fill out a form to Get Help! Use the Google translate to make it to the language you use the best! 

Social Emotional Learning, Part 3: Tools for Regulation and Resiliency

A Brief Overview

Behavior is a form of communication. So-called “bad” behavior might mean that a child doesn’t know how to cope with an overwhelming, confusing situation.

Research shows that children who are taught self-regulation learn better at school. This article describes a few practical tools and techniques to help children manage their emotions and provides links and resources where you can find out more.

Children who attend schools that make positive behavior supports a priority get disciplined and suspended less often.

See PAVE’s Part 1 and Part 2 articles about Social Emotional Learning (SEL), with more information about the importance of compassionate schools and trauma-informed instruction.

Full Article

When a child throws a chair, kicks, screams or intentionally hits his head, what does the teacher do? The answer depends on the discipline policies of the school, but many districts are turning away from traditional punishments and toward trauma-informed techniques. These new methods of “restorative discipline” or “positive behavior interventions” are helping children maintain dignity as they recover from poor choices and learn self-regulation.

Heather T. Forbes, author of Help for Billy, is among professionals who are designing new ways to help children cope and learn. Emotional instruction is crucial, argues Forbes, whose website, Beyond Consequences, shares this advice:

“It is in the moments when your child or student is most ‘raw’ and the most dysregulated [out of control] that you are being presented with an opportunity to create change and healing. It takes interacting from not just a new perspective but from an entirely new paradigm centered in the heart.”

Forbes’ work is part of an emerging conversation about how “bad” (or unexpected) behavior can create teachable moments. Research shows that struggling children often don’t improve their behavior because of traditional punishments or even rewards.  In an article, Teaching Trauma in the Classroom, Forbes concludes:

“These children’s issues are not behavioral. They are regulatory. Working at the level of regulation, relationship, and emotional safety addresses more deeply critical forces within these children that go far beyond the exchanges of language, choices, stars and sticker charts.”

This area of education is now referred to as Social Emotional Learning (SEL). Washington school staff can access training and information about SEL through the website of the Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction (OSPI), the agency that oversees the state’s school districts. In the fall of 2018 OSPI released the Social-Emotional Learning Module. All staff—from teachers and principals to bus drivers and lunch servers—can use the training to help students learn self-awareness, self-management, social-awareness, relationships, and responsible decision-making.

OSPI offers other tools as part of its ongoing Compassionate Schools Initiative. A free e-book, The Heart of Learning and Teaching: Compassion, Resiliency, and Academic Success, includes this comment from Ray Wolpow, a project collaborator from Western Washington University:

“You cannot teach the mind until you reach the heart.”

Unexpected Behavior Can be a Cry for Help

Trauma and how it impacts learning and life has been studied since the late 1990s, when the national Centers for Disease Control and Prevention coined the term Adverse Childhood Experience (ACE). Childhood trauma was recognized as an important factor in physical and mental health conditions. In 2000, Congress established the National Child Traumatic Stress Network to offer free online courses and toolkits with continuing education credits for teachers. Among the offerings: “psychological first aid.”

This approach includes Positive Behavior Interventions and Supports (PBIS)—sometimes called PBI or PBS. A 2016 Mental Health Report from the Child Mind Institute describes PBIS as part of an array of programs that serve students from general education through special education. Educators call this type of multi-part programming a Multi-Tiered System of Supports (MTSS). PBIS can fit into MTSS programming this way:

  • Tier 1: All students and classrooms participate. These “universal interventions” integrate academics, discipline and social/emotional skill-building schoolwide.
  • Tier 2: Students who are “at risk” get more targeted interventions.
  • Tier 3: Students with significant academic, behavioral or emotional problems are supported uniquely through their Individualized Education Programs (IEPs).

According to the research, about 17,000 schools (17 percent of US schools), have PBIS. Children in PBIS schools were 33 percent less likely to receive office discipline reports and were suspended 10 percent less often than children in non-PBIS schools. The universal, school-wide interventions had significant positive effects on:

  • Disruptive behaviors
  • Concentration
  • Emotional regulation
  • Prosocial behavior

Despite these positive outcomes, the report identifies a need for more outreach and development in the third tier, related to IEP supports. According to Child Mind, more than 77,000 children who qualify for special education are suspended or expelled for more than 10 cumulative days in any given school year. Children with emotional disturbance are the most likely to be disciplined, with children who struggle with autism, anxiety and learning disorders also high on the list.

Many schools want to do better, and new supports are informed by brain science. Chapter One in OSPI’s handbook, “The Heart of Learning,” includes a list of the brain regions affected by trauma. Understanding the amygdala as a center for fear, for example, can be critical for designing strategies to manage melt-downs. “Overstimulation of the amygdala…activates fear centers in the brain and results in behaviors consistent with anxiety, hyperarousal and hypervigilance,” the page informs.

The George Lucas Educational Foundation sponsors a website called Edutopia that also offers articles that teach about neuroscience. A contributing editor on the website, Rebecca Alber, recommends that teachers “get curious, not furious” when children act out:

“When we ask students to do high-level tasks, such as problem solving or design thinking, it’s nearly impossible if they are in a triggered state of fight, flight, or freeze. This trauma state may look like defiance or anger, and we may perceive this refusal as choice, but it is not necessarily so.”

Use Your Words

Some teachers are turning directly to scientists for advice. Dan Siegel, a well-known neurobiologist and author, offers tips through his agency, Mindsight. Mindsight teaches how to “name and tame” emotions to keep from getting overwhelmed. For example, Siegel suggests learning the difference between these two sentences:

  1. I am sad.
  2. I feel sad.

The first statement “is a kind of limited self-definition,” Siegel argues, while the second statement “suggests the ability to recognize and acknowledge a feeling, without being consumed by it.”

Word choice can be critical in trauma-informed instruction. Jody McVittie, a pediatrician who started Sound Discipline, based in Seattle, gives workshops for parents and teachers. She talks about the difference between praise and encouragement in a training called Building Resiliency. Instead of saying “Great Job!” a teacher or parent might say:

  • “I noticed that you wrote all of the letters of your name on the line and it was really easy to read.”
  • “I appreciate that you asked some insightful questions during our discussion about the Constitution today.”
  • “I know you can write a creative description of the book you read.”

The more specific the encouragement, McVittie says, the more the student will be encouraged to keep working on that “good,” or expected behavior. Another of McVittie’s key concepts is “connection before correction” to help teachers create helpful relationships with students. An example she uses in her trainings:

A teenaged student tossed a soda can from across the room during class. A trauma-trained teacher pointed to the hallway, and the boy joined her there. Instead of directing him to the office, the teacher explained that she really enjoyed having him in class. She said that he contributed valuable questions. Then she asked why he thought he was in the hallway. He said it was because he threw the soda can. She asked, “What’s your plan?” His answer included apologies and decision-making about how to avoid the mistake again.

This story certainly could have ended differently, and McVittie encourages educators and parents to avoid a “Dignity Double-Bind,” where children experience shame instead of problem-solving:

“Make the child think,” she says, “by showing respect instead of giving orders to obey.”

McVittie and others hope these lessons create a new model of education where Social Emotional Learning (SEL) is part of every school day. “Let’s create a learning community,” McVittie encourages, “by showing grace.”

A Self-Regulation Strategy for Right Now

Sometimes grace starts with self-care. Following is a breathing practice you can use right now to help your nervous system regulate. You will be breathing deeply as you trace the outline of your hand, giving your eyes and your mind something to focus on while you control your breath.

  • Hold up one hand, with your palm facing you.
  • Place the first finger of your other hand onto the bottom of your thumb.
  • As you breathe in, slide your finger up to the top of your thumb.
  • Breathing out, slide your finger into the valley between your thumb and first finger.
  • Breathing in, slide up your first finger. Breathing out, slide down the other side.
  • Continue following your breath up and down all your fingers.
  • When you breathe out down the outside edge of your pinkie, continue to exhale until you reach your elbow.
  • Notice how you feel. Allow your breath to find a natural pattern.

Now that you’ve learned this technique, you can share it with your children!

The following are resources for further information and inspiration:

Resilience: The Biology of Stress and the Science of Hope, a film by KPJR
Edutopia: Getting Curious Not Furious
Beyond Consequences
Massachusetts Advocates free e-book: Helping Traumatized Children Learn
CDC ACE Report
Sound Discipline
2016 Children’s Mental Health Report
OSPI: The Heart of Learning and Teaching, Compassionate Schools
Aces Too High
The National Child Traumatic Stress Network Learning Center
The National Institute for Trauma and Loss in Children
Why Schools Need to be Trauma Informed
Center for Parent Information and Resources article bank on SEL, Behavior and School

 

 

A Supreme Court Ruling Could Impact Your Child’s IEP

A Brief Overview

  • The parents of a child named Endrew F argued that their son with a disability deserved more from his public school. They appealed their case all the way to the Supreme Court, and the ruling in their favor could mean more robust rights for all children with Individualized Education Programs (IEPs).
  • The implications of this unanimous decision are reverberating through schools and agencies that oversee special education. Read on to learn how you can participate in important conversations about these uplifted standards.
  • Learn key phrases from this ruling to help you be a proactive member of your child’s IEP team. The U.S. Department of Education has an important guidance document that includes some of this language: For example, a school must offer an IEP “to enable a child to make progress appropriate in light of the child’s circumstances.” The court additionally emphasized the requirement that “every child should have the chance to meet challenging objectives.”
  • This article and the included resource links can help you understand the Endrew F ruling and how you might use this information in advocating for your child’s rights.

Full Article

Endrew F (Drew) is a student with autism, ADHD and challenging behaviors. His disabilities impact his academic and functional skills, including his ability to effectively communicate about his emotions and needs. He attended a public elementary school in Douglas County, Colorado, and qualified for special education with an Individualized Education Program (IEP). His parents moved him to a private school in fourth grade, arguing that:

  1. Drew did not make measurable progress on the goals set in his past IEPs, and
  2. The IEP did not address Drew’s escalating behavior problems.

Drew had more success at the private school, and his parents filed a Due Process complaint with the Colorado Department of Education in 2012. They requested reimbursement for the private school tuition on the basis that the public school had failed to provide access to a Free Appropriate Public Education (FAPE), which is a cornerstone of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), the federal law that governs special education.

The parents argued, and lost, at the state, district and circuit court levels. These lower courts ruled that because Drew had made at least some progress toward his IEP goals, then the school had met its obligation to provide FAPE. Wrightslaw is one source for more detail about the case and its history.

The family filed an appeal with the Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS), and on March 22, 2017, the court ruled in their favor. The ruling, which took effect immediately, ended a discrepancy in circuit courts across the country by determining that a trivial amount of progress (“merely more than de minimis”) is insufficient to satisfy a student’s right to FAPE. In order to meet its “substantive obligation under the IDEA,” the court stated, “a school must offer an IEP that is reasonably calculated to enable a child to make progress appropriate in light of the child’s circumstances.”

Since then, a variety of agencies have been analyzing the court’s unanimous ruling and creating guidance documents to help schools and families understand the implications of this case. On April 9, 2018, The Office of Special Education Programs (OSEP) provided a two-hour webinar with speakers from various education fields to discuss the ruling and its broad-sweeping impact on schools and families. Parents need to understand this case, the experts agree, because family voices are critical to raising the level of expectation.

High expectations are a theme in discussions about the ruling. Some other emerging themes:

  • Parents/guardians are the first and most important lifelong teachers of their children. They, therefore, need to be fully welcomed and heard as key collaborators in the process.
  • IEP teams need to assure relevance when writing appropriately ambitious IEP goals for lifelong learning and success in varied environments. Goals toward narrowly defined academic “mastery” often miss this opportunity to create flexible learners.
  • State academic standards should be noted at the IEP table, but challenging objectives are to be individualized, not “one size fits all” or based in goals generated by computer data programs.
  • Educational benefit is determined on an individual basis, and standards for measurement must be varied and rigorous to ensure meaningful progress.
  • An IEP with the same goals year-after-year does not meet the standard of FAPE.

The Statewide Parent Advocacy Network (SPAN) issued a summary of the Endrew F ruling that includes a list of “Roles and Responsibilities” for professionals and families. “This new standard will require a prospective judgment by school officials that will be informed not only by the expertise of school officials, but also by the input of the child’s parents and guardians,” SPAN stated in this overview document.

Understood, a consortium of non-profit agencies committed to providing information on attention and learning problems in children ages 3-21, developed a free, downloadable Endrew F Advocacy Toolkit that provides a four-page handout of Talking Points and a four-page IEP Worksheet to assist parents in using principles from the Endrew F ruling in their own advocacy. For example, the court’s ruling included the words “appropriately ambitious” as a requirement for IEP goals. The worksheet offers a place where a parent can record a list of areas that they feel a child’s goals might not be ambitious enough. The worksheet then suggests a script for a parent to use at an IEP meeting:

“I know that my child’s goals should be appropriately ambitious. Even if my child is behind in academics, the IEP goals should aim to help my child catch up. When can we look at present level of performance and put services and supports in place, so we can set goals that allow my child to meet the same standards as his peers?”

The National Center for Parent Leadership, Advocacy, and Community Empowerment (National PLACE) offered a Webinar to explain how the ruling provides families with a new advocacy tool. PLACE, a membership organization whose website is named “Parents at the Table,” has made available some resource documents, including a Power Point with a set of slides titled: “What Parents Can Do.” For example, PLACE suggests that parents prepare questions for an IEP meeting using key phrases pulled directly from the Supreme Court’s ruling. Here are some sample questions:

  • Has the team carefully considered my child’s potential for growth?
  • Have we considered whether my child is on track to achieve or exceed grade-level proficiency?
  • Are the goals appropriately ambitious, with sufficiently challenging objectives?
  • How is the IEP reasonably calculated to enable my child to make progress appropriate in light of his circumstances?

PLACE emphasizes that parents should not accept an IEP with the same goals and objectives from year to year, indicators that a child has failed to make meaningful progress. And, using language directly from the SCOTUS ruling, PLACE encourages parents to hold schools accountable for a child’s progress by requesting a “cogent and responsive explanation” for decisions about goals and progress measurements.

Diana Autin, an attorney and executive director of National PLACE, uses the webinar platform to review foundational principles of the IDEA, re-authorized by Congress in 2004, to set a stage for understanding new guidelines related to the SCOTUS ruling. “It’s important to note that Endrew F can’t be understood or defined or used without it being within the context of the IEP requirements of IDEA,” she says.

Autin shares the PLACE webinar platform with Michael Yudin, former assistant secretary at the U.S. Department of Education and a longtime national leader in disability rights. Yudin points to key language in the ruling that clarifies earlier Department of Education guidance documents that he helped develop. The heart of IDEA, he says, is specially designed instruction that helps students reach goals that are “ambitious but achievable” and in alignment with grade-level content standards. “Specially designed instruction is adapting as appropriate to the needs of the child,” Yudin says, “so that the content, methodology and the delivery of instruction are appropriate to ensure access to the general curriculum so that the child can meet the educational standards that apply to all children.”

Inclusion sometimes requires access to specially designed instruction in Social-Emotional Learning (SEL), and the Endrew F decision reinforces the IDEA’s requirement for necessary behavioral interventions and supports, Yudin says. “This guidance clearly states that failure to consider and provide those needed behavioral supports and interventions through the IEP is in fact likely to result in a denial of FAPE.”

The child at the heart of this landmark case, Drew, struggled with phobias and had behaviors that included screaming, climbing over furniture and occasionally running from school. According to the PLACE webinar: “His parents believed that his progress had stalled and that the strategies used to address his behaviors were insufficient to allow him to learn.” Behavior interventions at the private school chosen by Drew’s parents helped, and his access to learning improved. In considering all aspects of the case, including a lack of suitable behavior interventions, the Supreme Court ruled that the public school had denied Drew access to FAPE.

A child “must be afforded the opportunity for significant learning,” the court stated. And individualized supports and programming must provide for more than “de minimis,” or trivial, progress to meet the standard of FAPE. “For children with disabilities, receiving instruction that aims so low would be tantamount to sitting idly,” the court wrote, “…awaiting the time when they were old enough to drop out.”

The ruling in Endrew F has brought new emphasis to existing policy related to discipline and behavior. On August 1, 2016, the U.S. Department of Education issued a Dear Colleague guidance document to establish clarity about the IDEA’s requirements for behavioral assessments and interventions. “Recent data on short-term disciplinary removals from the current placement strongly suggest that many children with disabilities may not be receiving appropriate behavioral interventions and supports, and other strategies, in their IEPs,” the document states. “In light of research about the detrimental impacts of disciplinary removals… the Department is issuing this guidance to clarify that schools, charter schools, and educational programs in juvenile correctional facilities must provide appropriate behavioral supports to children with disabilities who require such supports in order to receive FAPE and placement in the least restrictive environment (LRE).”

The Office of Special Education Programs (OSEP) offered a summary of policy that included this statement: “Parents may want to request an IEP Team meeting following disciplinary removal or changes in the child’s behavior that impede the child’s learning or that of others, as these likely indicate that the IEP may not be properly addressing the child’s behavioral needs or is not being properly implemented.”

For further information about the Endrew F decision and its implications, refer to the following resources:

The Center for Parent Information and Resources/Parent Center Hub

National PLACE/Parents at the Table

Wrightslaw

Understood Endrew F Advocacy Toolkit

SCOTUSblog

SPAN Parent Advocacy Network

OSEP IDEAs that Work

 

 

 

Positive Behavioral Interventions & Supports (PBIS) in Schools

By Kelcey Schmitz, MSEd
Center for Strong Schools
University of Washington Tacoma

We wouldn’t exclude, humiliate or send a child home for making an academic error.

However, when it comes to misbehavior, a typical response has been to punish or wait until the behavior escalates or occurs at a high rate or intensity before intervening. But this is changing. The direction of discipline is moving from reactive, punitive and exclusive measures to more positive, proactive and preventative approaches.

According to the National Technical Assistance Center on Positive Behavioral Interventions and Support (PBIS) (www.pbis.org), over 21,000 schools (elementary, middle, high) across the nation are implementing PBIS. As a result of using the same methods for teaching academics to students for behavior, schools report a decrease in problem behavior, an increase in instructional time, an increase in perception of safety, more positive school and classroom environments and an increase in student achievement. Taking an instructional approach to behavior is much better than waiting for problems to occur.

Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports (PBIS)

PBIS offers an alternative to traditional discipline methods. Evidence shows that harsh and punitive responses do not change behavior for the long term and may even contribute to the erosion of relationships between students and adults. Creating a positive climate and culture contributes to parents, students and staff feeling happier about the school environment and strengthening the bond between teachers, students, and families

PBIS is a framework schools use to organize behavior supports for students. Much like the public health model, PBIS emphasizes prevention instead of waiting for problems to happen. The practices and programs range in intensity and duration depending on the level of behavior.

Just like many health issues and diseases are preventable, there are many ways adults can prevent student problem behaviors.  Many students will respond to Tier 1 prevention strategies.  In fact, we expect 80% of students to be successful in Tier 1. Twenty percent of students will need additional support in the form of Tier 2 and Tier 3 supports.

Tier 1

To effectively implement PBIS, schools identify a team that is representative of the staff in the building to learn the steps. This team, with frequent input from their colleagues, students and families, create a school wide (Tier 1) PBIS plan. The first step the team takes is to establish 3-5 positively stated expectations or pillars. Some common expectations are “be responsible”, “be respectful”, “be kind” and “be safe.”

Next, they identify a few “hotspots” throughout the school where misbehavior happens frequently. For example, teams may conclude that the hallways, cafeteria or playground are good places to start. They generally pick two locations to get “quick wins.” Lesson plans, or “cool tools”, are developed expected behaviors for each setting are explicitly taught to students. Students are taught what being respectful looks and sounds like in the classroom and non-classroom settings and then are provided opportunities practice.

Every adult that interacts with students (i.e. nutrition services, transportation, custodians, teachers, para-educators) are trained on the specific effective practices. This way, no matter where students are, they are getting consistent, predictable and positive messages.

Students are acknowledged with specific positive feedback for showing the appropriate behavior.  Positive feedback is an essential component of PBIS. Some schools pair feedback with a ticket and students can turn in their tickets for drawings or save them up and spend them at a school store or exchange them for things like school dances, VIP seating at an assembly or a front of the lunch line pass. It is most effective that for every corrective statement, four positive statements must be given. This is referred to as the 4:1 ratio.

Another essential element of PBIS is using data to make decisions. Instead of being driven by tradition, emotions, or convenience to staff, regularly collected data is summarized and reviewed by teams. The types of data teams review include office discipline referrals, suspensions, expulsions, attendance, grades and even school nurse referrals. Office discipline referrals can give teams more detailed information about the problem behavior happening in school. This is called looking at the “Big 5” data (how often, where, when, why and by whom). Drilling down allows precise problem identification and more effective problem solving. It is one thing to say “the sixth grade boys are unruly” – but much more actionable if we can create a statement with the specific information such as “between 2:00 p.m. and 2:30 p.m. in the west hallway the sixth grade boys are using inappropriate language 15 – 20 times a day, motivated by peer attention.” Now the team can brainstorms solutions.

Regular review of data allows teams to identify problems early, before they become chronic. It is much easier to address a low-level behavior than behaviors that have been practiced over time.

It is expected that schools will take 2-4 years to fully implement their Tier 1 PBIS plan. Once a strong foundation is in place, the school begins to work on supports for students in need of more than what Tier 1 supports have to offer. In many cases, school teams are guided through the steps of the PBIS implementation process by an expert in the field either within their district or outside the district.

Tier 2 and Tier 3

Just like with academics, some students will need more instructional support for social behavior skills. Advanced tiers (Tier 2 and Tier 3) offer students more practice and feedback. Students with mild to moderate problem behaviors such as being off task, talking out, difficulty getting along with others, or not following directions are good candidates for Tier 2 supports. Some examples are the Behavior Education Program, a modification of Check-in/Check-out, social skills instruction, and homework club. A few students will still need very intensive support, or Tier 3, for chronic challenging behavior. Tier 3 supports include a functional behavior assessment and behavior intervention plan and may involve a wraparound or person-centered plan, as well. A professional with substantial behavioral expertise often provides the Tier 3 supports and services.

Get Involved

Ask your school if they have a PBIS plan. A fully implemented plan involves family input and involvement and there are many other ways you can support PBIS.  For example, families can use the same expectations and apply them to home settings such as morning, homework and bedtime routines. The common language and an instructional approach to behavior provide the much-needed consistency, predictability and positivity kids need across all learning, living and leisure settings.

Find more information:

Office of Special Education Programs Technical Assistance Center for PBIS

Parent Engagement in PBIS

PBIS Symbaloo Webmix

Join a weekly (Tuesday nights 6pm PST) PBIS Twitter chat (#pbischat)! www.pbischat.com or follow @pbischat