When families and schools meet to discuss a student’s special education program, they can find Common Ground by remembering that everyone wants the student to receive a Free Appropriate Public Education (FAPE).
Two short videos, A Tale of Two Conversations, provide a quick look at how a meeting might feel like one long argument or a helpful collaboration. The difference starts with preparation and approach.
Read on for tips about getting ready for a collaborative meeting.
Whether on Zoom or around a conference table, sitting down with a team of professionals can feel intimidating to families. When a child’s Individualized Education Program (IEP) is on the agenda, emotions can overtake a meeting. Getting defensive or angry does not usually help, however. This article provides tools for staying organized, open minded, and on topic to improve the work of meetings—and student outcomes.
A basic special education vocabulary boosts empowerment, and empowered families generally feel more confident at their meetings. Here is a key word to know:
Free Appropriate Public Education (FAPE)
A student with an IEP has the right to FAPE. That right is protected by federal law—the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). To meet the standard of FAPE, special education services are accessible to the student. Accessible means the services work as designed to enable progress appropriate, in light of the child’s circumstances.
A student receiving FAPE with appropriate, accessible services demonstrates steady progression toward mastery of skills. Those skills are being taught with specially designed instruction (SDI). As skills are learned, progress is measured through goal tracking. Meaningful progress indicates that the student is accessing FAPE.
Mastery can enable a sense of belonging. When the student feels capable, connected, and responsible within the school community, things generally run more smoothly for everyone.
In other words, FAPE is the result when everyone works together for the benefit of the student and meaningful learning happens. When a student is successful, the IEP team has done its job well and everyone can celebrate!
Here is a more formal way to talk about FAPE: Under the IDEA, FAPE requires an IEP reasonably calculated to provide progress appropriate, in light of the child’s circumstances.
FAPE provides a place to begin
When families and schools meet to talk about a child’s services, everyone can begin with FAPE as the overarching goal. FAPE provides Common Ground for the discussion. Everyone on the team wants FAPE:
The school district is required by law to provide FAPE to IEP-eligible students.
Teachers are happy when their students are successful.
The family wants a child to learn in a meaningful way.
The student wants to feel confident and proud.
Common Ground is not always where meetings begin
Problems arise in meetings when school staff and/or family members start the conversation far from Common Ground. The Center for Appropriate Dispute Resolution in Special Education (CADRE) has designed a curriculum to support families and schools in their discussions. Two short videos, A Tale of Two Conversations, provide a quick look at how a meeting might feel like one long argument or a helpful collaboration. The difference starts with preparation and approach.
To avoid a meeting that feels like a fight, the parent may want to start the meeting with some general comments to help school staff better understand the student and to gently remind the team that years of parenting have led to some expertise about a specific child.
For example, an IEP or a behavior plan might say that a student is “defiant” or “refusing” to do work. Those types of statements can make a parent feel defensive. Showing up angry probably will not lead to a productive meeting. Instead, a parent may come to the meeting prepared to explain that the student lacks confidence and would rather appear defiant than “stupid.” Maybe the parent has been able to talk to the student about their frustrations and can bring statements or requests directly from the student.
Another way to find common ground is to prepare open-ended questions and bring those to the table first, before offering suggestions or requests. For example, if a parent shows up and demands a 1:1 right at the start of the meeting, the conversation might quickly devolve into an argument about resource problems. If a parent comes ready to talk about what is not working for the student and concerns for their child’s learning and well-being, there is an opportunity to build empathy and problem-solving.
Climb mountains as a team
Firm predetermined “solutions” from any side can position school staff and family members far from collaboration, like the peeks of two mountains unable to ever meet in the middle.
Consider collaborative problem-solving as a project that starts at the intersecting bases of two mountains, on Common Ground. Shared expectations and assumptions are a good place to begin for an open-minded discussion. Here are a few conversation starters to consider:
According to these progress reports, the student is getting good at … How might we use that emerging skill to scaffold skill-building in this other area?
My student is not making as much progress as I expected in this area… Can we talk about strategies for improving progress?
This assignment, grade, or record shows that the student struggles to … Is there another approach to services or placement that we have not considered yet as a team?
I notice that this IEP goal is written to help the student “stop” doing an unwanted behavior. Can you help me understand the skill that is being taught, and can we rewrite the goal to focus on measuring progress toward the expected skill or behavior?
From what I see here (data/evidence/observations), this service is not working or is not accessible to the student. My theory about this is… Does anyone here have a different theory about what might be going on?
Here are some big-picture concepts for productive collaboration:
Trust is at the heart of positive working relationships.
Family members and educators can develop trust by showing personal regard, respect, transparency, and integrity. These may be particularly important for trust to grow among people of different cultures.
Blaming, bringing up the past repeatedly, minimizing another’s opinion, or rushing a conversation can create barriers to collaboration.
A neutral third party may be needed to resolve issues and rebuild relationships.
Prepare for the meeting
Request any documents that are going to be discussed at the meeting ahead of time. Review the documents in preparation for the meeting and mark down any notes for discussion. Whether meeting to discuss an IEP, a Section 504 Plan, behavior, ancillary services, or something else, families are better served when they prepare. To help families organize their concerns and requests, PAVE offers a format for designing a Handout for the Team Meeting. An alternative version supports self-advocates: Students: Get Ready to Participate in Your IEP Meeting with a Handout for the Team.
Leave with an action plan
At the end of the meeting, review what has been decided and be sure to make notes about any action steps, deadlines, or assignments. Be sure to note:
What is the action?
When will it happen?
Who is responsible?
Schedule a follow-up conversation or a plan to communicate about anything that is not firmly decided. After a formal meeting, the school sends parents a Prior Written Notice (PWN) to describe any changes being made to a student’s services and when those changes will take effect. Parents with their own notes about the action plan will better understand how to read the PWN and whether there are unresolved topics.
Procedural Safeguards provide additional options
If a meeting leaves too many issues unresolved, parents can review their procedural safeguards to make a choice about what to do next. A copy is offered by the school at all formal meetings, and parents can also request a copy any time. The Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction (OSPI) also provides information about parent and student rights.
Parents have the right to disagree with the school and to pursue resolution by:
Districts are responsible to provide a Free Appropriate Public Education (FAPE) to students within their boundaries with known or suspected disabilities that significantly impact access to learning. Read on to learn more about FAPE and student rights.
Families might be interested in attending a school board meeting to learn more about decisions being made at this time. Read on for more information about Open Meetings.
The final section of this article includes creative conversation starters, some ideas and prompts that might help your family prepare to talk with school staff.
With schools closed and lives disrupted by the COVID-19 crisis, families impacted by disability have unique questions. This article includes key information about student rights and creative conversation starters that family caregivers might consider when planning to meet with school staff over the phone, through written communication or over a web-based platform.
Student rights have not been waived
Students with disabilities have protections under federal and state laws. Those rights and protections are not waived during the school building closures. While schools are operating, districts are responsible to provide a Free Appropriate Public Education (FAPE) to students within their boundaries with known or suspected disabilities that significantly impact access to learning. The protections of FAPE include the right to:
Appropriate evaluation if there is a known or suspected disability condition that may impact educational access (Please refer to PAVE’s articles on Evaluations Part 1 and Child Find for more information)
Specially Designed Instruction (SDI) in areas of learning with significant educational impact from the disability and an identified need for SDI
Meaningful progress toward goals, which are developed to measure the effectiveness of Specially Designed Instruction (SDI)
Accommodations (extra time, videos with captioning or embedded sign language interpreting, accessible reading materials, other Assistive Technology…)
Modifications (shorter or different assignments, testing, etc.)
Special services (speech/language, occupational or physical therapy through video conferencing, for example)
Not get bullied or discriminated against because of a disability circumstance
In accordance with the IDEA, the IEP includes a description of the student’s present levels of academic achievement and functional performance. Special education attorneys Pam and Pete Wright have published books about special education law and maintain a website, Wrightslaw.com. Included during the pandemic is this page: IEPs During the COVID-19 Era: Your Parental Role and Present Levels in IEPs.
The Wrightslaw page encourages parents to read and re-read the present levels statements before meeting with the school. These statements form the basis for the student’s goals and other services. Up-to-date and comprehensive data within the present levels section of the IEP can be key to a successful outcome.
Wrightslaw encourages family caregivers to provide input for the present levels statements and to request further evaluation if the statements are incomplete or out of date. Creativity and collaboration are encouraged to allow for data collection while school buildings are closed: “Parents, never forget why you are essential members of your child’s IEP team. You are essential because your job is to represent your child’s interests. So, you need to be an active member, not a spectator. Your goal is to work with other members of the team to develop IEPs tailored to meet your child’s unique needs.”
No Waivers to Early Learning Requirements
Federal and state requirements to ensure that children with qualifying disabilities can access early learning services and make the transition to school-based services if eligible at age 3 also are still in place, without waivers.
Washington’s Department of Children, Youth and Families (DCYF) provides COVID-19 guidance for families of children in early learning through the Early Support for Infants and Toddlers (ESIT) program. Included is information about the Individual Family Service Plan (IFSP), how to manage a transition from IFSP to school-based services during the pandemic and tips for telemedicine appointments and protection of confidentiality.
The Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction (OSPI) provides guidance to schools in Washington. In early May 2020, OSPI issued guidance specifically related to early childhood programs during the COVID-19 closure. In particular, the document addresses a child’s rights through the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA).
Services for children Birth-3 are defined by IDEA’s Part C, and school-based services for children 3-21 are defined by IDEA’s Part B. About 3 months before a child with an IFSP turns 3, the school district is responsible to evaluate the child to determine eligibility for an IEP. PAVE provides a general article about the early learning transition process.
According to OSPI guidance, “School districts are expected to move forward with initial Part B evaluations as specified in the Early Childhood Transition from Part C to B Timeline Requirements. School districts must make reasonable efforts to comply with the requirement and may utilize alternative means for conducting virtual assessment and IEP team meetings, such as telephone or videoconferencing.”
Communication is key
How a student of any age accesses FAPE during a national health crisis is a work-in-progress that requires communication and collaboration between schools and families. On its website page titled Special Education Guidance for COVID-19, OSPI provides links to numerous documents that guide schools in best-practice for outreach to families.
On May 5, 2020, OSPI issued a Question & Answer document to address special-education delivery. “This is a national emergency,” the document states, “and districts should be communicating with families and making decisions based on student need and how those services can be provided. There is no one right way to provide services.”
Keep notes about student learning
Schools and families are encouraged to keep notes about student learning and access to educational services. Parents can ask the district to define its official dates of operation. When a school is officially closed, the district is not responsible to provide FAPE, according to OSPI guidance.
“If the school is open and serving other students, the school must ensure that the student continues to receive a Free Appropriate Public Education (FAPE), consistent with protecting the health and safety of the student and those providing that education to the student.”
IEP and Section 504 meetings are encouraged, and teams can discuss whether Recovery Services are needed to make up for services not provided or accessible due to the circumstances of the pandemic. Documentation from families and schools will support conversations about what was needed and what was provided. Families can collect and share their own observations about progress toward goals and whether materials provided by the school have been accessible.
Families can reach out to School Boards and Counselors
Families are meeting these emergency circumstances from a wide range of places economically, medically, emotionally, and logistically. School districts statewide have different staffing arrangements and approaches, and Washington schools are locally managed and overseen.
Families might be interested in attending a school board meeting to learn more about decisions being made at this time. Families have the option of making public comment at meetings to share thoughts or concerns. School board meetings are required monthly and must follow the state’s Open Public Meetings Act (Chapter 42.30 in the Revised Code of Washington).Families can reach out to their local district for information about how and when school boards meet. The Washington State School Directors’ Association provides a guidebook about the rules for Open Public Meetings. The rules apply in any meeting space or platform.
For additional support, families might consider reaching out to the school counseling office. The president of the Washington School Counselor’s Association, Jenny Morgan, provided comments in a May 7, 2020, webinar moderated by League of Education Voters. She said school counselors provide a broad range of services, from academic advising to social and emotional support. The American School Counselor Association provides a handout describing the roles of a school counselor.
Morgan says school counselors are uniquely trained to address the academic, career, and social/emotional development of all students through a comprehensive school counseling program. “We are advocates for your child’s educational needs,” she says. “Please do not hesitate to reach out to your school counselor for assistance and support. We are here for you.”
Creative conversation starters
Here are some ideas and prompts that might help your family prepare to talk with school staff. Keep in mind that some answers will not be easily provided, and conversations are ongoing.
My child struggles to understand social distancing. What strategy can we use to teach and practice this skill so it will be ready to use when schools reopen?
What social story does school staff have to share that will be accessible for my student to understand the coronavirus and why we need to stay home and practice good hygiene?
How can the school help my student cope with a high level of anxiety, grief, fear (any emotion that significantly impacts a student’s ability to focus on learning)? Which school counselor can help?
My child is turning 3 this month. Who can we talk to at the school district to help get our child ready for preschool?
My student does not want to do school right now. How can we work together to motivate my student to participate in learning and do the work?
My student wants to cook, research cars, talk about space flight, do craft projects, walk in nature, play with the family dog, plant a garden … right now. How can we make sure that continuous learning objectives match my child’s natural curiosity?
My student loves to play the drums (or something else specific). How can drumming and music (or any interest) be part of the math (or other subject) assignment?
The homework packet, online platform, etc., is not accessible to my child. How can we work together and create a learning plan that will work for our family at this time?
My child has a health condition that creates a greater risk for COVID-19 exposure. What could school look like for my child if buildings reopen but my child cannot safely re-enter a traditional classroom?
My student is in high school. How can we work together to make sure that the IEP Transition Plan and the High-School and Beyond Plan align? Can we invite the school counselor to our next meeting if we need more help?
Can my student do a self-directed project or an alternative assignment to earn a grade or meet a specific objective? Is there a modified way to demonstrate the learning, perhaps through a video, an art project, or a conference with the teacher?
Who is the transition counselor assigned to our school by the Division of Vocational Rehabilitation (DVR)? What tools and people can my student work with right now to explore career options and prepare for adult life?
What can school staff do to make sure that my student’s current education includes progress toward independent living goals? (Note: PAVE’s article, High School Halt, includes more information on topics impacting graduating seniors and youth transitioning through high school and beyond.)
A student with a disability has the right to a Free Appropriate Public Education (FAPE) in the Least Restrictive Environment (LRE). General education is the LRE.
Services are generally portable, and special education is delivered to the student to enable access to FAPE within the LRE to the maximum extent appropriate.
Federal law protects a student’s right to FAPE within the LRE in light of a child’s circumstances, not for convenience of resource allocation.
No student rights are waived due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The National Association of State Directors of Special Education provides a brief about LRE during the pandemic. The NASDSE brief includes examples of what LRE might look like for students doing distance learning or in a hybrid model of learning.
An ill-informed conversation about special education might go something like this:
Is your child in special education?
Oh, so your student goes to school in that special classroom, by the office…in the portable…at the end of the hall…in a segregated Zoom room?
Regardless of whether education is happening in a school building or virtually, this conversation includes errors in understanding about what special education is, how it is delivered, and a student’s right to be included with general education peers whenever and wherever possible.
This article intends to clear up confusion. An important concept to understand is in the headline:
Special Education is a service, not a place!
Services are portable, so special education is delivered to the student in the placement that works for the student to receive a Free Appropriate Public Education (FAPE), in light of the child’s circumstances. A student with a disability has the right to FAPE in the Least Restrictive Environment (LRE).
General education is the Least Restrictive Environment. An alternative placement is discussed by the student’s Individualized Education Program (IEP) team if access to FAPE is not working for the student in a general education setting with supplementary aids and supports.
Here is some vocabulary to further understanding:
FAPE: Free Appropriate Public Education. The entitlement of a student who is eligible for special education services.
IDEA: Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. The entitlement to FAPE is protected by this law that allocates federal funds to support eligible students.
LRE: Least Restrictive Environment. A student eligible for special education services has a right to FAPE in the LRE to the maximum extent appropriate. General education is the least restrictive, and an alternative placement is discussed when data indicate that supplementary aids and supports are not working to enable access to FAPE in general education.
IEP: Individualized Education Program. School staff and family caregivers make up an IEP team. The team is responsible to develop a program reasonably calculated to enable a student to make progress appropriate toward IEP goals and on grade-level curriculum, in light of the child’s circumstances. Based on a student’s strengths and needs (discovered through evaluation, observation, and review of data), the team collaborates to decide what services enable FAPE and how to deliver those services. Where services are delivered is the last part of the IEP process, and decisions are made by all team members, unless family caregivers choose to excuse some participants or waive the right to a full team process.
Equity: When access is achieved with supports so that a person with a disability has a more level or fair opportunity to benefit from the building, service, or program. For example, a student in a wheelchair can access a school with stairs if there is also a ramp. A person with a behavioral health condition might need a unique type of “ramp” to access equitable learning opportunities within general education.
Inclusion: When people of all abilities experience an opportunity together, and individuals with disabilities have supports they need to be contributing participants and to receive equal benefit. Although IDEA does not explicitly demand inclusion, the requirement for FAPE in the Least Restrictive Environment is how inclusion is built into special education process.
Placement: Where a student learns. Because the IDEA requires LRE, an IEP team considers equity and inclusion in discussions about where a student receives education. General education placement is the Least Restrictive Environment. An IEP team considers ways to offer supplementary aids and supports to enable access to LRE. If interventions fail to enable access to FAPE, the IEP team considers a continuum of placement alternatives—special education classrooms, alternative schools, home-bound instruction, day treatment, residential placement, or an alternative that is uniquely designed.
Supplementary Aids and Supports: The help and productivity enhancers a student needs. Under the IDEA, a student’s unique program and services are intended to enable access to FAPE within LRE. Note that an aid or a support—a service that enables access—is not a place and therefore cannot be considered as an aspect of a restrictive placement. Having a 1:1 to support a student, for example, does not violate LRE. This topic was included in the resolution of a 2017 Citizen Complaint in Washington State.
Note that the IDEA protects a student’s right to FAPE within LRE in light of a child’s circumstances, not in light of the most convenient way to organize school district resources. Placement is individualized to support a student’s strengths and abilities as well as the needs that are based in disability.
Tip: Families can remind the IEP team to Presume Competence and to boost a student from that position of faith. If the team presumes that a student can be competent in general education, how does it impact the team’s conversation about access to FAPE and placement?
What does FAPE within LRE mean during COVID?
No student rights have been waived at the federal or state level due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Regardless of whether a student with an IEP receives learning from home, at school, or in a hybrid model that includes both, FAPE in the Least Restrictive Environment is a protected right under the IDEA.
The National Association of State Directors of Special Education (NASDSE) provides a brief about LRE during the pandemic. The NASDSE brief includes examples of what LRE might look like for students doing distance learning and/or receiving some learning within school.
“The removal from the general education environment only occurs if the nature or severity of the disability is such that education in the general education classes with the use of supplementary aides and services cannot be achieved satisfactorily,” the NASDSE brief states.
“It is important to note that while the COVID-19 pandemic has not changed the individual student’ right to LRE it has changed how the general education system operates. These operational changes require school systems to determine how they will maintain each individual student’s LRE in the new context in which they are operating.”
Tip: Family caregivers can ask what general education looks like for students in the environment of distance, in person, or hybrid learning and how a special education student is supported to access what all students are receiving.
LRE does not mean students with disabilities are on their own
To deliver FAPE, a school district provides lessons uniquely designed to address a student’s strengths and struggles (specially designed instruction). In addition, the IEP team is responsible to design individualized accommodations and modifications.
Accommodations: Productivity enhancers. Examples: adjusted time to complete a task, assistive technology, a different mode for tracking an assignment or schedule, accessible reading materials with text-to-speech or videos embedded with sign language…
Modifications: Changes to a requirement. Examples: an alternative test, fewer problems on a worksheet, credit for a video presentation or vision board instead of a term paper.
Note that accommodations and modifications are not “special favors.” Utilizing these is an exercise of disability rights that are protected by the IDEA and civil rights/anti-discrimination laws that include the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 (particularly Section 504 as it relates to school) and the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA—particularly Title II).
Related Services may support LRE and other aspects of equitable access
An IEP may include related services (occupational therapy, speech, nursing, behavioral health support, parent training, etc.). For some students, related services may be part of the support structure to enable inclusion in the Least Restrictive Environment. If an IEP includes related services, then the IEP team discusses how and where they are delivered.
How related services are delivered during the COVID-19 pandemic requires an IEP team to consider medical concerns within the family and community and options for in-person, in-home and/or online delivery (telehealth). If related services are included in the IEP, then the school district is responsible to provide them unless an IEP team determines an alternative way to enable access to FAPE.
Here are a few examples of related services during the pandemic:
A medically fragile student requires nursing support while accessing virtual classes with peers (synchronous learning) or while working through a curriculum packet (asynchronous learning). A nurse at home becomes part of the family’s “COVID cohort” to meet health and safety guidelines.
A student with behavioral health needs struggles to access distance learning (school refusal), and parents lack skills to support behavior during learning time. The IEP is amended to include parent training for positive behavioral interventions and supports as a related service.
A student with receptive and expressive language deficits needs ongoing speech therapy to continue making meaningful progress on IEP goals and within the general education curriculum. Speech services are provided through telehealth.
A student in homeschool can receive Related Services from district
Note that a student enrolled in a homeschool can dually enroll in the local district to receive Related Services. A district is responsible under the IDEA’s Child Find Mandate to seek out and evaluate children who have known or suspected disabilities that may significantly impact access to learning, regardless of whether they are enrolled in public school. Here are resources for more information about homeschool process and requirements:
If a student will not return to the school building even if the district opens for some in-person instruction, then does the IEP team need to discuss how to provide access to general education (LRE) and IEP services from a homebound placement?
Does service delivery make room for a flexible schedule? Guidance from the state’s Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction (OSPI) provides for adaptability in how attendance is tracked and how a student can demonstrate participation. Likewise, Related Services may need to adapt to fit a schedule that works for a family with multiple considerations.
If delivery of an IEP service is not possible within health and safety guidelines, what else can the school district propose to provide access to learning/FAPE/LRE?
Two Washington students die from suicide each week. In a typical high-school classroom of about 30 students, chances are high that 2-3 students have attempted suicide in the past year. Read on for more detail from the 2018 statewide Healthy Youth Survey.
Approximately one in five youth experience a mental illness before age 25. About half of those with diagnosed conditions drop out of school.
These outcomes make adolescence a critical time for mental health promotion, early identification and intervention. Read on for ideas about how to seek help.
Seattle Children’s Hospital has a new referral helpline. Families can call 833-303-5437, Monday-Friday, 8-5, to connect with a referral specialist. The service is for families statewide.
A mom in Graham, WA, launched a program to improve education about mental health after her son died by suicide in 2010. The Jordan Binion Project has trained about 500 Washington teachers with an evidence-based curriculum from Teen Mental Health.
Emotional Disturbance is a federal category of disability under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). A student might qualify for an Individualized Education Program (IEP) under this category, regardless of academic ability. To qualify, a disabling condition must significantly impact access to learning. An educational evaluation also must show a need for specialized instruction.
Parents can share these resources with school staff, who may be seeking more information about how to help youth struggling to maintain their mental health.
Help is available 24/7 from the Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-TALK.
Another crisis option is to text “HEAL” to 741741 to reach a trained Crisis Text Line counselor.
For youth who need support related to LGBTQ issues, the Trevor Project provides targeted resources and a helpline: 866-488-7386.
The thousands of young people who send thank-you letters to Deb Binion didn’t always believe their lives were going to work out. One writer had attempted suicide and been hospitalized many times because of her bipolar disorder. Two years after finishing high school, she reported she was doing well and offered thanks for a course in mental health that helped her understand her illness, its impacts on her brain, and how to participate in her treatment. “It made a total difference in my life,” she said in her thank-you letter.
“Until she got the educational piece and understood her illness, nothing was helping,” Binion says. “No one had ever explained to her why she had this illness and what was occurring.”
The program, which Binion started after her son Jordan’s suicide in 2010, has trained about 500 school staff throughout Washington State to help young people understand mental illness and what to do to support themselves and others. Although the numbers are difficult to track, Binion estimates that about 100,000 Washington students receive education through the curriculum each year.
“My mission is to get this information to the kids,” says Binion, who runs the non-profit Jordan Binion Project from her home in Graham, WA. She says a short-term, limited pilot project with the Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction (OSPI) showed promising results, with 60 teachers throughout Washington informally reporting that about 85 percent of students showed improvement in their “mental health literacy,” a key feature of the program.
Teachers are specially trained to provide the Mental Health Curriculum
The curriculum, available through TeenMentalHealth.org, was developed by a world-renowned adolescent psychiatrist and researcher, Stan Kutcher. He observed that classrooms often struggle to provide an emotionally safe learning environment for students with psychiatric conditions. Some attempts to provide education about mental health have created confusing and triggering circumstances for students impacted by illness and/or trauma, he found.
Kutcher, professor of psychiatry at Dalhousie University in Nova Scotia, Canada, responded with a model for training school staff in how to teach sensitive topics of mental illness:
attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)
obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD)
post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
Deb Binion says the program was designed for students in grades 9-10, but middle-school and older students are also learning from it. She says the program takes about 8-12 hours to teach and that teachers in regular health classes, psychology classes, family and consumer science classes and others have taught the lessons.
Binion suggest that staff receive in-person training to understand how to create a safe learning environment for students. For example, teachers learn to provide individualized help without disclosing a student’s disability or medical condition to the class.
The topics can be confusing or triggering to some learners. Some of the videos might be difficult to watch because they include personal stories of self-harm, hospitalization and people suffering from emotional stress. The program may need individualized modifications for students in special education programs because of intellectual or developmental disabilities.
For information about how to bring a training to your area, individuals can contact Deb Binion through the Jordan Binion Project website or directly through her email: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Washington State recognizes a need for more education and direct support
OSPI, which oversees all school districts in Washington, provides an overview of Kutcher’s work and its connection to the Jordan Binion Project as part of the Mental Health & High School Curriculum Guide. Content in the guide was a collaboration between Kutcher and the Canadian Mental Health Association. At Dalhousie University in Nova Scotia, Kutcher serves as Sun Life Financial Chair in Adolescent Mental Health and Director of the World Health Organization Collaborating Center in Mental Health Training and Policy Development.
Washington State is aware that a lack of mental health services is impacting students. In 2018, OSPI released data that two children enrolled in Washington schools die by suicide weekly.
According to the 2018 Washington Healthy Youth Survey, at least one in three youth in all grades report feeling sad or hopeless for enough time to impact their activities. In ten years, those numbers increased by 10-20 percent across all grades. More than 900 schools administered the survey, representing all 39 Washington counties and 228 school districts.
About one in three 10th and 12th graders report feeling nervous, anxious or on edge, with an inability to stop worrying. From 2016 to 2018, the percentage experiencing these feelings increased for all grades. Rates of reported suicide have remained alarmingly high, with about 10 percent of students reporting that they have attempted suicide recently.
This means that in a typical high-school classroom of about 30 students, chances are high that two or three students have attempted suicide in the past year.
Female students and students who identify as lesbian, gay, or bisexual report higher rates of considering, planning, and attempting suicide. For youth who need support related to LGBTQ issues, the Trevor Project provides targeted resources and a helpline: 866-488-7386.
High rates of suicide attempts also are reported among students who identify as American Indian or Alaskan Native (18 percent) and students who identify as Hispanic (13 percent). Help for all is available 24/7 from the Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-TALK. Another crisis option is to text “HEAL” to 741741 to reach a trained Crisis Text Line counselor.
Despite the alarming data and evidence that adult support can impact outcomes, only half of students say they have access to direct adult support when they feel extremely sad or suicidal.
The 2018 Healthy Youth Survey introduced a modified Children’s Hope Scale, which measures students’ ability to initiate and sustain action towards goals. Across grades, only about half of students feel hopeful for their futures. Students who identify as lesbian, gay or bisexual and students of color were less likely to report adult support and were less likely to be highly hopeful for their futures.
State, local, community and school efforts are crucial for supporting youth mental health. With the release of the survey in Spring, 2019, the state issued a guide to information and resources to provide more detail about the survey and to direct families and school staff toward sources for support.
An OSPI survey in 2018 found that the number one concern statewide is that students don’t receive enough direct support in mental health, counseling and advising at school. The Washington School-Based Health Alliance (WASBHA) is working with some districts who have varied grants throughout the state to build on-campus health clinics to address a range of student health-care needs, including mental health. The Alliance sponsored an all-day summit May 3, 2019, at the Seattle Flight Museum that was attended by several hundred professionals invested in building collaborations between public health agencies and schools. Throughout the day, professionals discussed how students are much more likely to seek a counselor at school than in the community and that outcomes improve when providers and school staff collaborate and provide individualized help focused on relationship-building.
New state law expands parent involvement in mental-health treatment
Youth older than 13 have the right to consent or not consent to any medical treatment in Washington State. Parents and lawmakers throughout 2018-2019 engaged in conversations about how that creates barriers to care for may teens who don’t fully grasp their mental condition or how to recover.
In response, lawmakers wrote and passed the Adolescent Behavioral Health Care Access Act (HB 1874), signed into law by Gov. Jay Inslee May 13, 2019. The new law allows behavioral health professionals to provide parents or guardians with certain treatment information if they determine the release of that information is appropriate and not harmful to the adolescent. The bill also permits parents and guardians to request outpatient treatment for their adolescent, expanding the current parent-initiated treatment process so that adolescents can get treatment before they reach the point of hospitalization.
“Parents across the state are desperate to be allowed to help their children struggling with mental health issues or a substance use disorder,” says Rep. Noel Frame from the Seattle area. “At the same time, we need to protect the rights and privacy of these youth. This bill strikes a balance by ensuring adolescents can continue to access treatment on their own, while giving concerned parents an avenue to help their children and be involved with their treatment.”
Parents also have a new option for helping their children and youth by contacting Seattle Children’s Hospital, which in 2019 launched a new referral helpline. Families can call 833-303-5437, Monday-Friday, 8-5, to connect with a referral specialist. The service is for families statewide. In addition to helping to connect families with services, the hospital will be positioned to identify gaps in the system through its engagement with families.
One in five youth are at risk
The Teen Mental Health website cites an international statistic that 1 in 5 youth experience a mental illness before age 25. Many of those illnesses lead to life challenges that require help, the agency concludes, and this makes adolescence a critical time for mental health promotion, prevention, early identification, and intervention. The agency provides a School-Based Pathway Through Care that promotes linkages between schools and healthcare agencies, parent involvement and strong educational programs that reduce stigma through knowledge and timely treatment access.
One way that Washington State has responded to the crisis is through promotion of trainings in Youth Mental Health First Aid. Through Project AWARE (Advancing Wellness and Resilience in Education) and other initiatives, Washington has grown a network of about 100 trainers for Youth Mental Health First Aid and about 4,000 first aid providers. These trained individuals can listen actively in order to offer immediate caring and can also refer youth to providers. OSPI reports that Project AWARE has led to 3,964 referrals for youth to connect with community- or school-based mental health services.
Washington has a program for treatment response for youth experiencing psychosis. The New Journeys Program is designed for youth 15-25 who are early in their diagnoses, but there is some flexibility in who might be eligible to participate. Families can contact the program for additional information about how to apply.
Information about psychosis, early warning signs and places to seek help are available through the website of the Washington Health Care Authority (HCA). The website contains a link to information about the Wraparound with Intensive Services program (WISe), which provides community case management for children and youth experiencing a high-level of impact from a mental illness.
Special Education is one pathway toward more help
Students access some aspects of mental health support through the special education system. Emotional Disturbance is a federal category of disability under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). In Washington State, the category is referred to as Emotional Behavior Disability (EBD). The IEP might list any set of these words or the initials EBD or ED.
A student might qualify for an Individualized Education Program (IEP) under this category, regardless of academic ability. A comprehensive educational evaluation can determine whether a student’s mental condition causes a significant disruption to the student’s ability to access school and learning and whether the student needs specialized instruction. Generally, that specialized instruction is provided through a category of education known as Social Emotional Learning (SEL). SEL can be provided in multiple tiers that might include schoolwide education, small group training and individualized programming. OSPI provides recommendations from a 2016 Social Emotional Learning Benchmarks Workgroup.
A student with a mental health condition also might qualify for an IEP under the category of Other Health Impairment (OHI), which can capture needs related to anxiety, ADHD, Tourette’s Syndrome or another specific diagnosis. Students with a mental health condition that co-occurs with another disability might qualify under another category, and Social Emotional Learning might be an aspect of a more comprehensive program. PAVE’s articles about the IDEA and the IEP provide further information about IEP process, the 14 categories of qualifying disabilities and access to special education services. A student with a mental health condition who doesn’t qualify for an IEP might qualify for a Section 504 plan.
If a student, because of a disability, is not accessing school and learning, then the school district holds the responsibility for appropriately evaluating that student and determining the level of support needed to provide access to a Free Appropriate Public Education (FAPE). Questions about FAPE might arise if a student with a mental health condition is not accessing school because of “school refusal,” which sometimes leads to truancy, or because a student is being disciplined a lot. Students with identified disabilities have protections in the disciplinary process; PAVE provides an article about school discipline.
Help NOW can mean a lifetime of better opportunities
The Center for Parent Information and Resources (ParentCenterHub.org) has a variety of resources related to mental health awareness, including a link to a video that details results from a national study. The study showed that students who qualified for special education programming because of Emotional Disturbance experienced the highest drop-out rates when they went into higher education, work and vocational programs. Meaningful relationships with adults who cared about them in school provided a significant protective factor. Students were more likely to succeed in life-after-high-school plans if specific caring adults provided a soft hand-off into whatever came next after graduation.
A federal agency called the Child Mind Institute provides parents with guidance about getting good mental-health care for their children and has articles on specific diagnoses and what parents and schools might do.
Navigating the Higher Education Environment When You Live With Disability
Research over the past 20 years indicates that a fairly high percentage of college students with disability choose not to disclose that disability to a college administration. They are tired of “being labeled” or singled out because of their situation and simply want to participate in the same way as students without disability. This doesn’t necessarily mean hiding their disability (pretty difficult to hide a mobility device or service animal), they’ve just “had it” with permissions, meetings, and forms.
At the same time, many students get onto campus wanting not to disclose, and discover that yes, they *do* have to jump through the hoops at Disability Services in order to access strategic supports.
[If you’ve already met with the disability/access services office at your campus, and provided documents to receive services and equipment, you can skip this next section]
If you’re just beginning the access process, this is what you have to do:
Be able to clearly explain your disability and your specific requirements for services and equipment. It’s better to ask for more than you might expect to get, but be aware of the possibility that if the school can’t provide a service or equipment and you absolutely need it, you and your family will have to bear the expense, or you will have to find a school where such services/equipment is available.
Make an appointment at Disability/Access Services
Fill out any forms requesting services and equipment (usually available online)
Make certain you have all required documentation.
Below is an example of typical required documentation. It can vary from school to school, and you will find a similar list again, usually on the school’s website under “Disability/Access Services”.
“In order for a student to receive an educational accommodation due to the presence of a disability, documentation from a professional service provider must be obtained. Professional providers may include, but not necessarily be limited to, those identified below:
What Happens After the Appointment with Disability Services?
After the appointment, you’ll get an official notification from the Disability/Access Services administration informing you of your eligibility for services, and if eligible, what services you can expect to receive.
You may have to place additional calls to Disability/Access Services to determine when services begin, where to pick up equipment, arrange meetings with note takers, etc.
At most schools, YOU are responsible for notifying each of your instructors (every semester!) of your requirements for accommodations. Hang on to that eligibility letter–better yet, make multiple copies to hand out to instructors. Having known many college instructors, I suggest you don’t send this by email alone. Hard copy rules in this case.
Informing instructors about accommodations means giving plenty of notice for them to order alternatives to conventional textbooks. If you’re doing this at the beginning of a semester, expect delays getting the material. This sometimes happens even when you had your appointment with Disability/Access Services many months in advance of the semester. If so, you may have to negotiate with your instructor for extensions on assignments.
Make sure you understand the limits of what the school is providing for assistive technology. For instance, many schools limit the loan of portable screen-readers to specified uses or time frames. You may have to provide your own equipment or software outside those limits.
Some Disability/Access offices are one-stop shopping, and can set you up with tutors, any necessary remedial courses and on-campus health services (including mental/emotional health). At other schools, it’s very fragmented, and YOU will have to find these services separately, even when they are related to your disability.
Most such services are available through departments labeled “Student Services”, “Student Success Services”, “Counseling”, “Health Services” and the like. If you are unsure of where to find services, you can contact staff in an office usually labeled “Dean of Student Services”. College Deans are top-level administrators who oversee a number of related departments. Their staff are knowledgeable about all departments under that Dean’s authority.
Who to Talk with About Issues
What if you have issues with instructors not allowing or ignoring your accommodations?
Your first step should be to re-issue your eligibility letter to that instructor, following up by requesting the Disability/Access office to notify the instructor of your eligibility through their office. If this doesn’t resolve the issue, all schools accepting federal funds will have a Section 504 Coordinator (or similar title) on campus. This person is probably on staff in the Disability/Access Services office, wearing additional hats. Complaints regarding your access to materials, instruction, and class activities go to this person.
If you’re not using a Section 504 plan but still require accommodations, all schools accepting federal funds will also have an ADA Coordinator (or similar title). This person may or may not be located in the Disability/Access Services office but that office will be able to direct you to them.
[The ADA Coordinator is also the person to see when you have an unresolved issue around physical access on campus or with any program offered away from the main campus.]
Complaints about instructors *not* relating to your accommodations are usually addressed to the Dean of Academic Affairs (yes, another Dean), or the Chairperson of the academic department for that instructor.
In most cases, it’s appropriate to discuss any concerns with your instructor before escalating a concern or complaint up the line.
Navigating the Campus:
If your disability includes physical limitations you’re already aware of how many barriers exist to full participation in any environment. Many, many schools were built prior to ADA, and their facilities reflect lots of poor accessibility design. [I attended a school that only had accessible restrooms on every other floor, and in each case those restrooms were at the opposite end of the hallway from the elevators! At another school, I had classes in a building that underwent (planned) replacement of the only building elevator during the height of the semester].
If possible, move onto campus (or visit the campus) early for some “dry runs”. Acquire a campus map to figure out the quickest to get to classes, dining halls and sports facilities.
Make friends with the administrators working at Campus Police. (They’re the ones who assign parking spaces and they also know the best and quickest ways around grounds and buildings.)
It also doesn’t hurt to know the phone number for the folks who run the facilities. This department is sometimes called Physical Plant, Facilities, or Buildings and Grounds. They’re really useful when the accessible restroom is out of order, when the elevator breaks down, and when you want to know if certain areas are clear of snow and ice.
Lots of Fuss-Why Bother?
All this navigation of a college’s bureaucracy seems overwhelming, listed here all at once. Don’t get discouraged. I’ve listed these possibilities here so you can make notes for yourself and be prepared. With luck, you’ll never need to contact some of these offices or people. On the other hand, “entropy happens”—things sometimes go sour. Knowledge is power!