Placement in the Least Restrictive Environment (LRE) Encourages Inclusion

A Brief Overview

  • LRE has been an aspect of special education law since 1975, when there was widespread public concern about children with disabilities historically being segregated and denied equitable education.
  • Research shows that children of all abilities learn social skills from one another when they learn side-by-side.
  • Some Washington schools struggle to support access to general education programs and settings for students with disabilities. In 2019, only 56 percent of students with disabilities are included in general education settings for 80-100 percent of the school day.
  • Under federal law, a student is placed in a more restrictive setting when the IEP team agrees that the student needs a different placement for education to be appropriately accessible.
  • Help from a paraeducator might be part of the support services that enable a student to access learning in the Least Restrictive Environment (LRE). Note that a paraeducator is a service, not a placement. Having a 1:1 to help in the classroom does not violate LRE. This topic was included in the resolution of a 2017 Citizen Complaint. Read on for more detail.

Full Article

Some other articles that might be of interest: 

Evaluations Part 2: Next Steps if the School Says ‘No’ to Your Request

Section 504: A Plan for Equity, Access and Accommodations

Schools are responsible to provide a Free Appropriate Public Education (FAPE) for students with disabilities. One of the defining principles of special education law is that students with disabilities have access to general education, with nondisabled peers, to the maximum extent possible. That requirement is called Least Restrictive Environment (LRE).

LRE is a key feature of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) and has been part of disability rights for students since 1975. PAVE has articles about special education history and key principles of the IDEA. The LRE requirements are a response to widespread public concern about children with disabilities historically being segregated in institutions, separated from peers and removed from neighborhood schools.

A student qualifies for the protections of the IDEA and special education services when a disabling condition severely impacts access to learning and specially designed instruction is needed. An eligible student is entitled to a Free Appropriate Public Education (FAPE), delivered through an Individualized Education Program (IEP).

The IEP includes specially designed instruction and goal monitoring, supplementary aids and services, accommodations and intentionally chosen spaces to meet the student’s needs. Those thoughtfully chosen spaces are a student’s “placement.” A decision about placement is made after programming decisions are made by the IEP team.

Parents can learn this terminology to help in their advocacy. Here’s a statement that incorporates key terms: Placement in the Least Restrictive Environment (LRE) is part of a school district’s responsibility when providing a Free Appropriate Public Education (FAPE) for a student who receives special education services.

General Education is the first LRE option

The general education setting is the first LRE placement option, and how placement is designed is unique to a student’s individualized needs. Research demonstrates that students with disabilities perform better academically and learn social skills when they have access to the general education setting with proper support.

According to the Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction (OSPI), which provides guidance to schools in Washington State, “The body of research consistently supports the positive link between access to core instruction in general education settings and improved outcomes for students with disabilities.

“Inclusion is the belief and practice that all students have the right to meaningfully access academic and social opportunities in general education settings.” 

Still, some Washington schools struggle to provide meaningful access to general education programs and settings. In 2019, the state reports that only 56 percent of students with disabilities are included in general education settings for 80-100 percent of the school day.

The 2019 Washington Legislature passed House Bill 1109 to provide $25 million in 2020-21 to  implement professional development in support of inclusionary practices, with an emphasis on coaching and mentoring. Information about the Inclusionary Practices Professional Development Project is available on OSPI’s website.

What the law says

The IDEA states that schools are required to provide FAPE in the Least Restrictive Environment (LRE) “to the maximum extent appropriate.” Each state is required to implement the IDEA. The U.S. Department of Education maintains a website that shares language directly from the federal law. According to Sec. 300.114:

 “Each public agency must ensure that—

  • “To the maximum extent appropriate, children with disabilities, including children in public or private institutions or other care facilities, are educated with children who are nondisabled; and
  • “Special classes, separate schooling, or other removal of children with disabilities from the regular educational environment occurs only if the nature or severity of the disability is such that education in regular classes with the use of supplementary aids and services cannot be achieved satisfactorily.”

LRE decisions follow a 4-part process

OSPI’s website includes information directed toward parents: “Placement decisions are made by your student’s IEP team after the IEP has been developed. The term “placement” in special education does not necessarily mean the precise physical building or location where your student will be educated. Rather, your student’s “placement” refers to the range or continuum of educational settings available in the district to implement her/his IEP and the overall amount of time s/he will spend in the general education setting.”

Selection of an appropriate placement includes 4 considerations:

  1. IEP content (specialized instruction, goals, services, accommodations…)
  2. LRE requirements (least restrictive “to the maximum extent appropriate”)
  3. The likelihood that the placement option provides a reasonably high probability of helping a student attain goals
  4. Consideration of any potentially harmful effects the placement option might have on the student or the quality of services delivered

What if placement in general education isn’t working?

If a student is unable to access learning in an appropriate way (FAPE) because of the nature or severity of the disability, then the IEP team considers alternative placement options. It’s important to note that a student is placed in a more restrictive setting because the student needs a different location within the school, not because it’s more convenient for adults or because it saves the school district money.

According to IDEA, Sec. 300.114, “A State must not use a funding mechanism by which the State distributes funds on the basis of the type of setting in which a child is served that will result in the failure to provide a child with a disability FAPE according to the unique needs of the child, as described in the child’s IEP.”

Placement options are vast

IEP teams consider a wide range of placement options. They may discuss whether there’s a need for a small classroom setting, for example, or home-based instruction. For a child with a behavioral health condition, the team may discuss whether a “day treatment” school staffed with specialists in behavior management might provide the best access to FAPE.

The continuum of placement options includes, but is not limited to:

  • general education classes
  • general education classes with support services and/or modifications
  • a combination of general education and special education classes
  • self-contained special education classes
  • placements outside of a school district
  • home instruction
  • residential care or treatment facilities

School districts are not required to have a continuum available in every school building. A school district, for example, might have a self-contained setting or preschool services in some but not all locations. This gives districts some discretion for choosing a location to serve the placement chosen by an IEP team.

Placement and location are different

Note that the IEP team determines the placement, but the school district has discretion to choose a location to serve the IEP.

For example, an IEP team could determine that a student needs a day treatment/behavioral health-focused school in order to access FAPE—an appropriate education. If the IEP team chooses a Day Treatment placement, then the school district is responsible to find a location to provide that placement. Following this process, a public-school district might pay for transportation and tuition to send a student to a private or out-of-district facility. If a request for a specialized placement is initiated by the family, there are other considerations.

OSPI’s website includes this information:

“… if you are requesting that your student be placed in a private school or residential facility because you believe the district is unable to provide FAPE, then you must make that request through a due process hearing.”

Note: Due Process is part of the “procedural safeguards” available to family participants on the IEP team. PAVE has an article and a webinar about options when family members disagree with the school.

1:1 is a service, not a placement

The IDEA specifies that a more restrictive placement relies on data showing that “the nature or severity of the disability is such that education in regular classes with the use of supplementary aids and services cannot be achieved satisfactorily.”

Supplementary aids and services can include a wide variety of supports. The student might use assistive technology, for example, or teachers could craft unique ways to present the curriculum. The student may get individualized help from an adult.

The LRE requirement means that schools document efforts to enable a student to access general education, however that might be possible. General education access includes classrooms, programs like PE and art, extracurricular activities, recess…. IEP team members can get creative about how to help the student succeed. Some students design their own clever accommodations. Family members and outside therapists or behavioral specialists also contribute ideas.

A common conflict with families and schools is whether a 1:1 paraeducator might enable access to FAPE in general education. Some parents and schools may have conversations about whether a helper might “restrict” a student’s ability to develop independence. Sometimes those conversations lead to misunderstanding about LRE. A 2017 case in Washington addressed the topic and clarified that a 1:1 is a service, not a placement.

In response to a Citizen Complaint filed by parents in the Lake Washington School District, OSPI issued a public report,  with a finding in favor of the family. The parents wanted their child to get help from a 1:1 aide and disagreed with the school that it would “restrict” the student. According to OSPI’s report, parents had requested a 1:1 aide because they wanted the school to provide more support in order to increase the student’s time in general education. School staff on the IEP team said no to the request, citing a belief that a 1:1 aide “is the most restrictive level of service…”

OSPI rejected that argument, stating:

“The District is incorrect in its belief that 1:1 paraeducator support is the most restrictive environment for all students. Paraeducator support is a supplementary aid and service, not a placement option on the continuum of alternative placements….

“Based on the documentation in this complaint, the District did not base its decision to deny the Parent’s request for 1:1 aide support on the Student’s individualized needs. The District erred in failing to properly consider if the Student could participate in a general education setting with the provision of 1:1 aide support.”

LRE does not mean students are on their own

The conversation about what creates “restriction” is complex, and sometimes school staff bring up the concept of “learned helplessness” if they believe that children learn better with less instead of more support. Each conversation and circumstance is unique, but parents can research the topic of learned helplessness to understand various ways that data are interpreted to generate opinions.

Generally, when someone receives help–including education provided by a teacher or a teacher’s aide–that person learns how to do something and eventually models what is taught, with mastery over time. Revoking help before a person is ready to do something independently may create a help”less” situation. A person who cannot perform a task with success and doesn’t get the needed help to get better at the skill may over time give up and become helpless. Some articles on the subject relate to individuals who have been unable to cope or problem-solve independently and therefore “learn” to be helpless.

Parents talking with the school about LRE and appropriate support can do their best to provide accurate and comprehensive information about a student’s unique disability condition and what is needed to meet the student where he/she is ready to learn.

Following are a few additional resources:

An agency called Teaching Exceptional Children Plus features an article by a parent about the value of inclusion in general education. The January 2009 article by Beth L. Sweden is available for download online: Signs of an Inclusive School: A Parent’s Perspective on the Meaning and Value of Authentic Inclusion.

Understood.org offers an article and a video about the benefits of inclusion.

An agency that promotes best-practice strategies for school staff implementing inclusive educational programming is the IRIS Center, a part of Peabody College at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tenn.

Some other articles that might be of interest: 

Evaluations Part 2: Next Steps if the School Says ‘No’ to Your Request

Section 504: A Plan for Equity, Access and Accommodations

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.
  • Specially Designed Instruction (SDI) is the “special” in special education. The evaluation determines whether SDI is needed to help a student overcome barriers of disability to appropriately access education. Learning to ask questions about SDI can help families participate in IEP development. Read on to learn more.
  • Parents can request an evaluation by submitting a written letter to the school district. PAVE offers a template to help with letter writing.
  • For more detail about what happens when a student qualifies for special education, PAVE’s website includes a short video, Overview of IEP Process; a more detailed on-demand webinar, Introduction to Special Education; and an article about IEP Essentials.

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.

The school follows specific deadlines for an evaluation process, which are described in the state laws provided in the links connected to each of these bullet points:

  • The district must document a formal request for evaluation and make a decision about whether to evaluate within 25 school days (WAC 392-172A-03005).
  • After consent is signed, the school has 35 school days to complete the evaluation (WAC 392-172A-03005).
  • If a student is eligible, the school has 30 calendar days to hold a meeting to develop an initial IEP (WAC 392-172A-03105).

Evaluation is a 3-part process

Not every student who has a disability and receives an evaluation will qualify for an IEP. The school district’s evaluation asks 3 primary questions in each area of learning that is evaluated:

  1. Does the student have a disability?
  2. Does the disability adversely impact education?
  3. Does the student need Specially Designed Instruction (SDI)?

If the answer to all three questions is Yes, the student qualifies for an IEP. After the evaluation is reviewed, the IEP team meets to talk about how to build a program to meet the needs that were identified in the evaluation. Each area of disability that meets these three criteria is included as a goal area on the IEP.

The needs and how the school plans to serve those needs gets written into the section of the IEP document called the Present Levels of Academic Achievement and Functional Performance—sometimes shortened to Present Levels of Performance (PLOP). Becoming familiar with the PLOP section of the IEP is important for family members who participate on IEP teams. IEP goals flop without good PLOP!

Bring ideas to the evaluation review meeting

After an initial evaluation is finished, the school arranges a meeting to review the results and determine whether the student qualifies for services. The evaluation review meeting can include time for family members, students and outside service providers to share ideas about what’s going on and what might help. PAVE provides a tool to help parents and students get ready for this and other important meetings by creating a Handout for Meetings.

Read on for ideas about what to do if the school determines that a student doesn’t qualify for IEP services and parents/caregivers disagree or want to pursue other types of school support.

If a student qualifies for special education, new input can be added to information from the evaluation that is automatically included in the PLOP. The present levels section of the IEP is important because it provides space to document the creative ideas that will support the student at school. This section can provide answers to this question: How will the school support the student in meeting annual goals?

Remember that the 3-part evaluation determines whether the student needs Specially Designed Instruction (SDI). SDI is the “special” in special education. SDI is provided through individualized teaching methods, and its success is tracked and measured through progress on the IEP goals.

Progress monitoring is required annually but can be done throughout the year with a communication strategy designed by the school and family. That communication strategy can be written into the IEP document. PAVE’s article about SMART Goals and Progress Tracking can help families better understand how to participate in follow-through to make sure that the special education program is helping the student make meaningful progress.

FAPE is a special education student’s most important right

Whether the student makes meaningful progress is also a measure of whether the school district is meeting its obligation to provide a Free Appropriate Public Education (FAPE), the primary entitlement of a student who qualifies for special education under criteria established by the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA).

PAVE provides an article about the history of special education with more detail about how FAPE became the standard for special education service delivery.

When a student is evaluated, the results are reviewed by a team that includes school staff and the family. The team discusses whether the student qualifies for special education. If yes, then the IEP process begins to determine how best to deliver FAPE. In other words, how will the school district provide an appropriate education to meet a student’s unique needs, in light of the circumstances of disability?

PAVE provides an article describing the IDEA and its six primary principles as the Foundation of Special Education. In addition to FAPE, the primary principles include: appropriate evaluation, IEP, parent and student involvement, education in the Least Restrictive Environment (LRE) and Procedural Safeguards, which provide dispute options and protections to make sure schools follow federal and state rules.

A referral starts the evaluation process

A parent/guardian, teacher, school administrator, service provider or other concerned adult can refer a student for evaluation. PAVE’s recommended guidelines for requesting an evaluation in writing are included later in this article.

If the school agrees to evaluate, 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. Listed below are some common skill areas to evaluate:

  • Functional: Functional skills are necessary for everyday living, and deficits might show up with tasks such as eating, handling common classroom tools or using the restroom.
  • Academic: Testing in specific academic areas can seek information about whether the student might have a Specific Learning Disability, such as dyslexia.
  • OT and Speech: Occupational Therapy and Speech/Language can be included as specific areas for evaluation, if there is reason to suspect that deficits are impacting education.
  • Social-Emotional Learning: Many evaluations collect data in an area of education called Social Emotional Learning (SEL), which can highlight disabilities related to behavior, social interactions, mental health or emotional regulation. It’s common for parents to fill out an at-home survey as part of an SEL evaluation process.
  • Autism Spectrum: Testing can look for disability related to autism spectrum issues, such as sensory processing or social difficulties. Testing in this area can be done regardless of whether there is a medical diagnosis.
  • Adaptive: How a student transitions from class-to-class or organizes materials are examples of adaptive skills that might impact learning.

Please note that strengths are measured alongside challenges and can provide important details for a robust program. The first part of a present levels statement can always include statements about what the student does well.

Eligibility Categories of Disability

Areas of evaluation are associated with the 14 categories of disability that are defined as “eligibility categories” under the IDEA. These are broad categories, and sometimes there is discussion about which is the best fit to capture information about a student’s unique situation. Please note that there is no such thing as a “behavior IEP” or an “academic IEP.” After a student qualifies, the school is responsible to address all areas of need and design programming, services and a placement to meet those needs. An IEP is an individualized program, built to support a unique person and is not a cut-and-paste project based on the category of disability.

This list includes some common diagnoses and/or issues that come up within each of the IDEA’s 14 categories.

  • Autism: A student doesn’t need a medical diagnosis to be evaluated in the area of autism. If features from the autism spectrum of disability may significantly impact access to education, then the school can assess those features to determine eligibility and special education needs.
  • Emotional Disturbance: Anxiety, Depression, Serious Mental Illness and/or behavior disabilities can fall under this category, which Washington schools often refer to as Emotional Behavioral Disability (EBD).
  • Specific Learning Disability: Issues related to dyslexia, dysgraphia, dyscalculia or other learning deficits can be educationally assessed. A formal diagnosis is not required for a student to qualify under this category.
  • Other Health Impairment: ADHD, Tourette’s Syndrome and other medical diagnoses are captured within this broad category, often shorted to OHI or Health-Impaired on the IEP document.
  • Speech/Language Impairment: This category can include expressive and/or receptive language disorders in addition to issues related to diction. Social communication deficits might qualify a student for speech services.
  • Multiple Disabilities: Students with complex medical and learning needs can meet criteria in this category.
  • Intellectual Disability: A student with Down Syndrome or another genetic or cognitive disorder might meet criteria in this category.
  • Orthopedic Impairment: OI refers to physical disabilities that impact access to education.
  • Hearing Impairment: Note this is a separate category from deafness or deaf-blindness, as educational testing and identified needs may differ.
  • Deaf blindness
  • Deafness
  • Visual Impairment/Blindness
  • Traumatic Brain Injury: Brain Injury Alliance of WA is a good place for resources to better understand TBI and how to support a student with medical and educational needs.
  • Developmental Delay (ages 0-8): This category can qualify a child for early learning (Birth-3) services in addition to IEP services through age 8. By age 9, a new evaluation may determine eligibility in another category for IEP services to continue.

Child Find requires school districts to evaluate

Appropriate evaluation is a key principle of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). The IDEA includes a mandate called Child Find, which requires school districts to seek out, evaluate and serve students ages Birth-21 who have known or suspected disabilities that may impact school success or access. PAVE has an article about the Child Find Mandate, which 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.

Here are some 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.

Deadlines start when a referral is made

When a student is referred for an evaluation, the school follows a schedule of deadlines. Parents can mark a calendar to track these timelines. To make sure deadlines are followed, PAVE recommends that formal requests and communications are made and stored in written form. Parents can always request a written response from the school or write down a response made verbally and send a “reflective” email that includes detail about what was discussed or decided. That reflective email creates a written record of a conversation.

Districts have 25 school days to respond to a request for evaluation. Some schools invite parents to a meeting to discuss concerns. Being prepared with a written statement can help. Parents can also share information from doctors or outside providers.

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.

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 take action if they disagree with the way testing was done or the way it was interpreted.

The IDEA requires schools to use “technically sound” instruments in evaluation. Generally, that means the tests are evidence-based as valid and reliable, and the school recruits qualified personnel to administer the tests. 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.

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 and develop 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. PAVE provides an on-demand webinar about conflict engagement: Parents as Partners with the School.

Recommended guidelines for requesting an evaluation

Make the request in writing! PAVE provides a sample letter to help.

  • Address the letter to the district’s special education director or program coordinator.
  • Deliver the request by email, certified mail, or in person. To hand-deliver, request a date/time stamp or signature at the front office to serve as a receipt.
  • Track the days the district takes to respond. The district has 25 school days (weekends and holidays excluded) to respond.

Items to include in the referral letter:

  • The student’s full name and birthdate.
  • A clear statement of request, such as “I am requesting a full and individual educational evaluation for [the student].”
  • A statement that “all areas of suspected disability” be evaluated.
  • A description of concerns. Include any details provided by the student about what is working or not working at school, during transportation or related to homework. Consider all areas of school, not just academic ones.
  • Include any detail about past requests for evaluation that may have been denied.
  • Attach letters from doctors, therapists, or other providers who have relevant information, insights, or diagnoses (NOTE: medical information is offered voluntarily and not required to be shared).
  • Parent/legal caregiver contact information and a statement that consent for the evaluation will be provided upon notification.

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

  • Document the referral.
  • Notify parent/caregiver, in writing, that the student has been referred for evaluation.
  • Examine relevant documents from family, the school, medical providers, and other involved agencies.
  • Tell parents/caregivers in writing, within 25 days, about the decision to evaluate or not. This formal letter is called “Prior Written Notice.”
  • Request formal written consent for an evaluation.
  • Complete the evaluation within 35 school days after consent is signed.
  • Schedule a meeting to share evaluation results with a team that includes family to 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). PAVE provides a variety of articles about Positive Behavior Interventions and Supports.

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

Section 504 is part of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973. This Civil Rights law protects individuals with disabilities that severely impact “major life activities,” such as learning, breathing, walking, paying attention, making friends… The law is intentionally broad to capture a wide range of disability conditions and how they might impact a person’s life circumstances.

Sometimes students who don’t qualify for the IEP will qualify for accommodations and other support through a Section 504 Plan. PAVE has an article about Section 504, which provides an individual with protections throughout the lifespan. Note that Section 504 anti-discrimination protections apply to students with IEPs and Section 504 Plans. Key protections provide for equitable opportunities, access and non-discriminatory policies and practices. These protections might be part of the discussion if a student, because of disability, is denied access to a field trip, extracurricular opportunities, a unique learning environment or something else that is generally available to all students.

Section 504 includes specific provisions to protect students from bullying related to disability conditions: A US Department of Education Dear Colleague letter about bullying describes those protections as an aspect of a school district’s responsibility to provide FAPE.

Independent Educational Evaluation (IEE)

If parents/caregivers disagree with the evaluation or the school’s decision to decline support services, they can pursue a request for an Independent Educational Evaluation (IEE). Making this request in writing encourages a professional response. 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 additional resources:

Washington laws regarding evaluation are in 392-172A, 03005-03080, 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 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!

ESY Helps Students Who Struggle to Maintain Skills and Access FAPE

A Brief Overview

  • Extended School Year (ESY) services help a student with a disability maintain skills in academic and/or functional areas, such as speech/language, occupational therapy, or behavior.
  • The team that administers the Individualized Education Program (IEP) determines what is needed for a student in special education to receive a Free Appropriate Public Education (FAPE), and ESY might be needed to deliver FAPE.
  • ESY is provided when school is not normally in session. Typically, it’s provided during summer; ESY also can be provided during holiday breaks or as an extension of the typical school day.
  • Any student eligible to receive special education and related services may be eligible for ESY. The need for services is determined through evaluation.
  • Parents can keep notes about any loss of skill during a break from school. By tracking how long it takes to recover a skill, parents can provide data for a discussion about whether ESY is needed.
  • ESY services are provided at no cost to the family.
  • Districts may contract with a nearby district or private provider to support an eligible student.
  • Read on for more detail about what may qualify a student for ESY.

Full Article

With summer coming, some parents worry that a child’s progress at school might be erased by the break. Parents can request a meeting with the Individualized Education Program (IEP) team to review progress. The team uses existing data and can plan additional evaluations to decide whether the student needs extra instructional time. The student might need supplemental instruction in an academic subject or to maintain a skill in speech/language, occupational therapy, behavior or another area being served through the IEP.

The critical question for the IEP team: Will learning that occurred during the regular school year be significantly jeopardized if ESY services are not provided?

Extended School Year (ESY) is available for students in special education if there is evidence that without extra instruction they will fall significantly behind in specific skills. Falling behind is formally called regression. Recovery of those skills is called recoupment. A school will provide ESY if regression or likelihood of regression is significant and extra instructional time is needed for recoupment of skills. ESY services help a child maintain skills already being taught and are not provided to teach new skills.

Families often think of ESY as a summer program, but it’s not the same as summer school. ESY is provided when school is not normally in session. ESY also can be provided during holiday breaks or as an extension of the typical school day. A summer-school program can be structured to accommodate a student’s individualized ESY program.

Conversations about ESY can happen any time the IEP team meets to discuss progress and goal-setting. If ESY is determined necessary, the IEP document includes an amendment with specific ESY objectives. When an IEP team determines a child eligible for ESY, the school district alerts parents in a Prior Written Notice (PWN) before implementing ESY. If transportation is needed for delivery of ESY services, the district provides transportation.

ESY is not an enrichment program. It is not provided for credit recovery. It is also not a “compensatory service,” which is provided by the district when a student’s services have not met requirements for a Free Appropriate Public Education (FAPE).

A student who qualifies for special education services is protected by the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). The student is entitled to FAPE, and the school district is responsible for providing FAPE. Nearly every discussion about services relates to FAPE and what is needed to make a student’s individualized program appropriate. PAVE has an article about IDEA with more information about FAPE and other foundational principles in special education.

Each state administers the IDEA with its own more specific policies and guidelines. The Washington Administrative Code (WAC) includes detail about ESY in sections 392-172A-02020.

ESY services might include 1:1 instruction at home, at school or at a district office. A student could also receive ESY as part of “related services” at a provider’s office. (Occupational and speech therapy are examples of related services.) Computer- and home-based learning are additional ESY options. Like all IEP programming, ESY is individualized. Service delivery is designed by the IEP team, and sometimes creative problem-solving is needed.

If the IEP includes ESY services and the family moves during the summer, the new school district is responsible to provide the services as they are designed in the IEP or in a comparable way.

Who is eligible for ESY?

The IEP team decides whether a student requires ESY services by meeting to review the student’s progress toward IEP goals. PAVE has an article about goal-tracking. Parents or teachers may have notes about any loss of skill during a past break from school. By making notes about how long it takes to recover a skill after a break, parents can contribute important data. Sharing that information earlier in the school year is ideal, so there is ample time for a review of data and any additional testing. Attendance information also is helpful because some disabilities create illness conditions that keep a child out of school long enough to fall significantly behind.

The school and family discuss whether the lost skills and extra time required to regain them is likely to create a significant barrier to progress toward IEP goals and learning in the future. This will justify whether recoupment is required to reverse or prevent regression.

The Disability Rights Education and Defense Fund (DREDF) has an article about ESY and lists the following as evidence that a school might consider:

  • Documented problems with working memory from assessments
  • Demonstrated need for constant reinforcement over time, even during the regular instructional day/year
  • History from a previous year of losing skills and struggling to regain them after a school break
  • Need for constant reinforcement of a behavior support program when a student is at risk of being moved to a more restrictive environment without substantial progress around behavior

What does LRE have to do with ESY?

Special Education has Least Restrictive Environment (LRE) as a primary feature. In accordance with the IDEA, a school district is responsible to provide instruction in the least restrictive setting to the maximum extent appropriate.

Accommodations and supports are provided to allow for LRE. Therefore, LRE is part of the school’s obligation to FAPE (see definition above). For some students, routine is paramount. Parents and teachers can discuss whether a break in routine might jeopardize the student’s ability to remain in the current classroom/placement. If yes, then ESY might be needed for the student to continue accessing school in the Least Restrictive Environment.

Parent participation is also a foundational principle of the IDEA. Parents who disagree with school decisions have the right to dispute those decisions. PAVE has an article about Procedural Safeguards and options when families and schools disagree.

Which students might be eligible for ESY?

ESY is not mandated for all students with disabilities and is not required for the convenience of the school or a parent who might need respite or daycare. There are no federal regulations on ESY eligibility. DREDF, a parent-information center in Berkeley, Calif., lists standards established by a range of legal rulings:  

  • Regression/Recoupment: Likelihood of regression or anticipating that it will take a long time to get a skill back can make a child eligible for ESY. A student doesn’t have to fully lose a skill or experience a long delay in recovering the skill to qualify.
  • Degree of Progress toward IEP Goals: Very slow progress toward IEP goals can meet criteria for ESY. Trivial progress toward goals does not meet the standard of FAPE, as established by a 2017 supreme court ruling.
  • Nature and/or Severity of Disability: Determination is not limited to a specific category of disability. However, students with more severe disabilities are more likely to be involved in ESY programs because their regression and recoupment time are likely to be greater than students with less severe disabilities.
  • Emerging Skills/Breakthrough Opportunities: If a critical life skill is not completely mastered or acquired, ESY services may ensure that the current level of skill is not lost over a break. A few examples of critical life skills: beginning to communicate, learning to read or write, self-care. 
  • Interfering Behaviors: Some students receive positive behavior support as part of the IEP. When considering ESY, the IEP team would determine whether interruption of such programming would jeopardize the student receiving FAPE.
  • Special Circumstances: Sometimes there are special circumstances that prevent a student from learning within the regular school schedule. Districts have different definitions of what constitutes a special circumstance. Parents can ask for a copy of district policy and refer to WAC 392-172A-02020.

No sole factor determines whether a student qualifies for ESY. IEP teams review a variety of data, including informed predictions about what is likely to happen in future based on past experiences. A student who has received ESY in a previous year is not automatically entitled to those services again, and a student who wasn’t eligible in the past is not automatically denied.

Summary and Additional Resources

Some students require special education and related services longer than the regular school year in order to receive FAPE. ESY can minimize regression, so a child can catch up or recoup those skills. Parents who have concerns can discuss eligibility criteria with the IEP team. The sooner ESY is discussed, the sooner data can be collected and reviewed. Parent may need time to consider all options and to collaborate with the school.

As part of its Model Forms, the Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction (OSPI) provides a downloadable document that IEP teams can fill out and attach to the IEP when a student qualifies for ESY services. To access the PDF directly: Extended School Year (ESY) addendum.

A website called Great Schools.org provides additional information about ESY and downloadable forms about IDEA requirements.

Wrightslaw.com provides information about the IDEA and legal findings on a variety of topics.

IDEA: The Foundation of Special Education

The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) is a federal law that was passed in 1990 and has been amended. The IDEA provides children with qualifying disabilities, from birth to age 21, with the right to a free public education that is specifically designed to meet their individual needs.

Some important concepts carried over from the Education for All Handicapped Children Act, passed in 1975. That was the first United States law that required schools to provide Special Education to all children with disabilities. This article provides a quick summary of the IDEA, which is unique as a law that provides an individual entitlement.

Entitlement means that a child with unique needs gets those needs served on an individual basis, not based on a system or program that’s already built and available. The strengths and challenges of a specific student are assessed, and a team including family members and professionals works together to design a program.

The local school district is responsible for providing the program—specialized instruction, services, accommodations and anything else that the team has identified as necessary to provide the student with a high-quality education. Progress measurements are guaranteed under the IDEA to ensure that the student finds meaningful success, in light of the circumstances of disability. If a neighborhood school cannot provide the services and programming that are deemed necessary, then the school district is responsible for creating a program and placement that does meet the student’s needs.

The federal law drives how states design their own special education policies and procedures. Title 34, Part 104 is the non-discrimination federal statute under the Office of Civil Rights Department of Education. In Washington State, rules for the provision of special education are in Chapter 392-172A of the Washington Administrative Code (WAC).

The IDEA is written in three parts: A, B and C. Part A describes the general goals and purpose of the law. The right of a child with disabilities to receive an education that prepares that child for adult life is stated: ​”Disability is a natural part of the human experience and in no way diminishes the right of individuals to participate in or contribute to society…

“Improving educational results for children with disabilities is an essential element of our national policy of ensuring equality of opportunity, full participation, independent living, and economic self-sufficiency for individuals with disabilities.”

Part B of the IDEA covers children ages 3 through 21—or until graduation from high school. Students who receive services through an Individualized Education Program (IEP) are covered under Part B, and the principles listed below describe IDEA’s Part B protections.

Part C protects children Birth to age 3 who need family support for early learning. ​The disability category of developmental delay overlaps early learning and IEP and can qualify a child for free, family-focused services to age 3 and school-based services through age 8.

To qualify for an IEP under the IDEA, a student meets criteria in one of 14 disability categories
Autism Deaf -blindness Deafness
Emotional Disturbance Hearing Impairment Intellectual Disability
Multiple Disabilities Orthopedic Impairment Other Health Impairment
Specific Learning Disability Speech / Language Impairment Traumatic Brain Injury
Visual Impairment/Blindness Developmental Delay (ages 0-8) Traumatic Brain Injury

The disability must be found to have an adverse impact on learning. When a student qualifies for services, specialized instruction is recommended to help the student overcome the impact of the disability in order to access meaningful learning. PAVE provides comprehensive articles about evaluation and the IEP process.

IDEA’s Primary Principles:

  1. Free Appropriate Public Education (FAPE): Students with disabilities who need a special kind of teaching or other help have the right to an education that is not only free but also “appropriate,” designed just for them. Under IDEA rules, schools provide special education students with “access to FAPE,” so that’s a common way to talk about whether the student’s program is working.

  2. Appropriate Evaluation: The IDEA requires schools to take a closer look at children with potential disabilities. There are rules about how quickly those evaluations get done. The results provide information that the school and parents use to make decisions about how the child’s education can be improved.

  3. Individualized Education Program (IEP): The IEP is a dynamic program, not a packet of paper. The document that describes a student’s special education program is carefully written and needs to be reviewed at least once a year by a team that includes school staff and parents/guardians. Every student on an IEP gets some extra help from teachers, but the rest of the program depends on what a student needs to learn. Learning in school isn’t just academic subjects. Schools also help students learn social and emotional skills and general life skills. By age 16, an IEP includes a plan for life beyond high school, and helping the student make a successful transition into being an adult can be a primary goal of the IEP.

  4. Least Restrictive Environment (LRE): The IDEA says that students should be in class with non-disabled classmates “to the maximum extent appropriate.” That means that regular classrooms and school spaces are first choice as the “least restrictive” places. If the school has provided extra help in the classroom but the special education student still struggles to be successful, then the IEP team considers other options, such as a structured learning classroom. The school explains placement and LRE in writing on the IEP document. PAVE has an article about LRE.

  5. Parent and Student Participation: The IDEA makes it clear that parents or legal guardians are equal partners with school staff in making decisions about their student’s education. When the student turns 18, educational decision-making is given to the student. The school does its best to bring parents and students into the meetings, and there are specific rules about how the school provides written records and meeting notices.

  6. Procedural Safeguards: The school provides parents with a written copy of their rights at referral and yearly thereafter. Parents may receive procedural safeguards any time they request them. They also may receive a copy if they file a citizen’s request or a due process complaint. Procedural safeguards are offered when a school removes a student for more than 10 days in a school year as part of a disciplinary action. When parents and schools disagree, these rights describe the actions that a parent can take informally or formally.

    PAVE provides information, resources and, in some circumstances 1:1 support through our Parent Training and Information (PTI) center. To get help, reach out through our Help Request Form or by calling 800-572-7368.

Get Ready for School with IEP Essentials

A Brief Overview

Each student has abilities and skills. A thoughtful Individualized Education Program (IEP) can highlight abilities and provides the supports needed for the student to learn. This article will help parents understand how to participate in the IEP process.

Every part of the IEP is measured against this question: How does this help the student with disabilities receive the support needed to access a Free Appropriate Public Education (FAPE)? Read on to learn more about FAPE and other important parts of special education.

Learn the 5 steps a parent can take as a member of the IEP team. This article will help you gear up for the school year.

The Parent Training and Information (PTI) team at PAVE are here to help: If you need 1:1 help navigating the IEP process, click Get Help! on our website, wapave.org.

Full Article

A new school year is a great time to take a fresh look at your student’s Individualized Education Program (IEP). If your student doesn’t have an IEP and you wonder if a disability might be impacting your student’s learning, this is a good time to learn about the special education process. This article will help you learn the basics. You can also read PAVE’s article about Evaluation, the first step in the IEP process.

As you and your student get ready for school, the most important thing is the “I” in IEP. The “I” is for “Individualized,” so no two IEPs are the same! Your student has abilities and skills. A thoughtful IEP highlights abilities and helps your student access the supports needed to learn. With an IEP, a student with disabilities can make meaningful progress in school.  It also prepares your student for life after high school. An IEP is a team effort, and parents and students who learn about the process and fully participate get on a path for success.

FAPE is an acronym you want to know

When Congress passed the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) in 1990, special education got its most important acronym: FAPE. FAPE stands for Free Appropriate Public Education. The right to FAPE makes the IDEA law unique: It is the only law in the United States that provides an individual person with the right to a program or service that is designed just for that person. This is called an entitlement.

Entitlement means that a student with disabilities is served on an individual basis, not based on a system or program that’s already built and available.

When schools and parents talk about a special education program, they talk about the services and instruction that a student needs to learn in school. Every part of the IEP is measured against this question: How does this help the student receive the support needed to access a Free Appropriate Public Education (FAPE)?

Education is a civil right. Students have the right to access a free, public education through the age of 21. Students with disabilities identified through an evaluation process qualify for FAPE. Let’s take a closer look at the second word in FAPE: Appropriate. When an education is “appropriate,” it is designed to fit a specific student. Like a custom-made garment, it fits the learning style, capacity and specific needs of the student without any gaps.

The IDEA is based on an earlier law: The Education for All Handicapped Children Act of 1975. This federal law was the first one that required schools to create specific educational plans for students with disabilities. In 1972 a Washington, D.C., court said that education should be free and “suitable” for all children of school age, regardless of disability or impairment.

Parents can keep this in mind when they read through the IEP or when they prepare for IEP meetings. They can ask, Is the program or service suitable and appropriate, given my student’s abilities and circumstances?  

To qualify for an IEP a student is evaluated to see if there is a disability that is causing an adverse educational impact. The educational evaluation may show that the student has a disability that matches at least one of the 14 categories that are listed in the IDEA. Those categories are:

Autism

Deaf-blindness

Deafness

Emotional Disturbance

Hearing Impairment

Intellectual Disability

Multiple Disabilities

Orthopedic Impairment

Other Health Impairment

Specific Learning Disability

Speech/Language Impairment

Traumatic Brain Injury

Visual Impairment/Blindness

Developmental Delay (ages 0-8)

 

If the student, with parent input, is determined to “meet criteria” under the IDEA, then that student is eligible for special education services. Special education is a service, not a place.

Current federal law includes six important principles

The IDEA, which has been amended a few times since 1990, includes some important elements for  parents. Here’s a brief overview:

  1. Free Appropriate Public Education (FAPE): Students with disabilities who need a special kind of teaching or other help have the right to an education that is designed just for them.
  2. Appropriate Evaluation: The IDEA requires schools to take a closer look at students with suspected disabilities. That part of the law is called the Child Find mandate. There are rules about how quickly those evaluations get done. The results provide information that the school and parents use to make decisions about how the student’s education can be improved.
  3. Individualized Education Program (IEP): The IEP is an active program, not a stack of papers. The document that describes a student’s special education program is carefully written and is reviewed at least once a year by a team. This team includes school staff and parents/guardians and the student, when appropriate. Learning in school isn’t just academic subjects. Schools also help students learn social and emotional skills and general life skills. Every student has access to a High School and Beyond Plan by age 12 or 13. By age 16, an IEP includes a transition plan for life beyond high school. This helps the student make a successful transition into adulthood and is the primary goal of the IEP.
  4. Least Restrictive Environment (LRE): The IDEA says that students should be in class with non-disabled classmates “to the maximum extent appropriate.” That means that regular classrooms and school spaces are first choice as the “least restrictive” places. If the school has provided extra help in the classroom but the special education student still struggles to be successful, then the IEP team considers other options, such as a structured learning classroom. The school explains placement and LRE in writing on the IEP document.
  5. Parent and Student Participation: The IDEA makes it clear that parents or legal guardians are equal partners with school staff in making decisions about their student’s education. When the student turns 18, educational decision making is given to the student. The school does its best to bring parents and students into the meetings, and there are specific rules about how the school provides written records and meeting notices.
  6. Procedural Safeguards: The school provides parents with a written copy of their rights at referral and yearly thereafter. Parents may receive procedural safeguards any time they request them. They may also receive procedural safeguards the first time they file a citizen’s request in a school year or when they file for due process. Procedural safeguards are offered when a decision is made to remove a student for more than 10 days in a school year as part of a disciplinary action. When parents and schools disagree, these rights describe the actions that a parent can take informally or formally.

Ready, set, go! 5 steps for parents to participate in the IEP process

Understanding the laws and principles of special education can help parents get ready to dive into the details of how to participate on IEP teams. Getting organized with school work, contacts, calendar details and concerns and questions will help. Here’s the basic 5-step process:

  1. Schedule

    Evaluation is the testing that a school completes to determine if a student meets the requirements for an IEP. A teacher, administrator or parent can refer a student for an educational evaluation. If the student has never had an IEP and the parent is making the request, here are a few tips:  Make the request in writing, and know your rights if the school’s answer is no. PAVE provides a sample letter that anyone can use. You can request information and help at wapave.org

    Once testing is complete, the school schedules a meeting to discuss the results and whether a team will move forward in developing an IEP. ​Parents get a written invitation to the meeting. If the date and time don’t work, keep in mind that parents are required members of the IEP team. The school and family agree on a time, and schools document efforts to include parents at all IEP team meetings. You can ask ahead for the agenda to make sure there’s going to be enough time for the topics being discussed.

    The school’s invitation lists who’s going to be there. The team could be very large or very small depending on the needs of the student and the professionals involved. ​Team members include: ​

  • A parent or legal guardian​
  • A District Representative. A school administrator can fill this role, so this person might be a staff member from the district special services office, a principal, a dean or a building administrator. This person needs to know district policies and should have some power to make decisions and implement team recommendations.  ​
  • Experts to explain the testing results. This could be a school psychologist or a specialist such as a physical therapist, occupational therapist, Applied Behavior Analyst (ABA), a nurse, etc.
  • Any individuals with knowledge or expertise invited by the school, the student or family. Therapists, counselors, extended family and friends sometimes attend. ​
  • The student. Self-advocacy is important at all ages, but youth making after-high-school plans are especially encouraged to attend, participate or even lead their own meetings. Many parents bring out photographs of their student to place on the table during the discussion. Don’t be afraid to get creative to make sure that the “I” isn’t left out of IEP! ​

    If your student already has an IEP, a re-evaluation occurs at least once every three years unless the team decides differently. A parent can ask for a re-evaluation for different reasons. Usually, a re-evaluation will not occur more than once a year.

  1. Prepare

    Confirm the time and location for the meeting and read the attendance list. If a key member of the team is going to miss the meeting, you will have to sign consent to excuse that person. Ask to reschedule if you aren’t okay with that person being gone.

    You can ask for a copy of the evaluation results or a draft copy of the IEP before the meeting to help you get ready. You can collect letters or important documents from medical professionals or other providers to help you explain something that’s concerning you. You may write a short list of questions, so you don’t forget to ask something important during the meeting. Another option is to make a list of your student’s strengths and talents, to make sure that the school’s program builds on what already works. You can write a letter of concern and ask for it to be attached to the IEP document. Consider inviting someone to come with you, to take notes and help you stay focused. 

  2. Learn

    Knowing the technical parts of an IEP will help you understand what’s happening at the meeting. Remember that the IEP is a living program, not a document. The document that gets drafted, revised and agreed upon does the best job that it can to describe the positions and intentions of the IEP team. The document is a reference guide for the real-time programming that a student receives at school each day. The IEP is a work-in-progress, and the document can be changed as many times as needed to get it right and help everyone stay on track.

    This list includes the technical elements of an IEP:

  • Present Levels of Performance, statements that describe how a student is doing in academics, and can include Social Emotional Learning (SEL) and everyday life skills
  • Educational Impact Statement, describing the disability and its impact on learning
  • Annual Goals, including academic, social, emotional and functional goals. Goals should be SMART (Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant and Timely). The IEP provides a specific way to check on progress.
  • Assessments: state testing scores, upcoming testing schedules and accommodations for access to the tests
  • Program, Placement, Related Services and Supplementary Aids. Special ways of teaching a student are always included in an IEP. How that instruction and the rest of services get delivered is different in every situation and requires collaboration and creativity.
  • Scheduling Details: time, duration and location for all special education programs
  • Least Restrictive Environment (LRE): Schools explain how much time a student spends in special settings instead of regular settings with general education students. A chart or “service matrix” on the IEP document shows how much time a student spends in each location. This section also describes how the placement meets the LRE requirement “to the maximum extent appropriate.”
  • Extracurriculars and other nonacademic activities and how they are accommodated
  • Extended School Year (ESY), if the IEP team believes it is necessary.
  • Behavior Intervention Plan (BIP), as needed, based on a Functional Behavior Assessment (FBA) and recommendations from professionals who work with the student
  • Transition Plan (required on an IEP at age 16). This can be key to a young person’s future, and families and students need to participate fully. Sometimes counselors from the Department of Vocational Rehabilitation (DVR) or another agency interview the student or even come to the IEP meeting to help.
  • Age of Majority statement and plan for the transfer of rights to the student unless parents have guardianship when a student is 18
  1. Attend

At the meeting, each person should be introduced and listed on the sign-in sheet. Schools generally assign a staff member as the IEP case manager, and that person usually organizes the team meeting. Any documents that you see for the first time are draft documents for everyone to work on. Remember that everyone at the table has an equal voice, including you!

Having a photo of a student who isn’t attending in the center of the table might help remind the team to keep conversations student-centered. Parents can help to make sure the focus stays on the needs, goals, strengths and interests of their student.

One key topic for discussion might be about the goals and how they are written. The acronym SMART can help the team make sure goals are Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant and Timely. Ask how the school is going to keep track of progress. Decide as a team how often you would like progress reports.

You may discuss placement–where the school day will happen. Families and schools talk about how much time a student is spending in the Least Restrictive Environment (LRE):  Remember that LRE is one of the IDEA’s primary principles. Your opinion in this important conversation about inclusion matters! If your student is not participating with non-disabled peers in academic or extracurricular areas, ask for the reasons in writing.

At the meeting, behavior gets talked about if it’s getting in the way of a student’s ability to learn in school. You can request a Functional Behavior Assessment (FBA) so the IEP team can develop a Behavior Intervention Plan (BIP) to support the student. The U.S. Office of Special Education Programs has a document called a Dear Colleague Letter that describes the school’s obligations to provide behavior supports when they are needed. That document includes this statement:

“Parents may want to request an IEP team meeting following disciplinary removal or changes in the student’s behavior that impede the student’s learning or that of others, as these likely indicate that the IEP may not be properly addressing the student’s behavioral needs or is not being properly implemented.”

Specific goals for Social Emotional Learning and self-regulation strategies may be needed for appropriate and meaningful access to education. For more ideas, read PAVE’s article series about Social Emotional Learning

Here’s a list of other topics you may want to consider:

  • Modifications your student may need in class or for fire drills, lunch or recess support, walking to/from classes, etc.
  • Accommodations your student will need in class or for testing, such as earphones or a specific seat
  • Long-term goals: An IEP must include transition goals by age 16, and all Washington schools start Life After High School planning in middle school.
  • Extended time over breaks in the school year: Consider how your student might have a pattern of losing and regaining skills or information over extended breaks from school. You also might want to consider if your student is showing signs of emerging skills that potentially could be lost if an extended break from school happens.

Writing down how you plan to communicate with the school can help you participate in the IEP process. Your plan can be written into the IEP during your meeting. This is an individual education program and the team can agree on what is needed for everyone to work together for success. ​Here are a few ideas for ongoing communication with the school: ​

  • A journal that your student carries home in a backpack​
  • A regular email report from the Special Education teacher​
  • A scheduled phone call with the school​
  • A progress report with a specific sharing plan decided by the team​
  • Get creative to make a plan that works for the whole team! ​

During your meeting, ask questions if you don’t understand something. If it is said in the meeting, it can also be put into writing. For example: “The district doesn’t have the funding to offer that.” You can choose to respond, “Please put that in writing.” Any decisions that impact your student’s education or changes to your student’s IEP must be written down in a form called the “Prior Written Notice.” It is like a thank-you note sent after a party. The note states what happened, why it happened and who participated in the event.

​5. Follow up

Your meeting may resolve your concerns. If it doesn’t, consider adding notes to the signature page. You can ask for a follow-up meeting or write a letter to be attached to the IEP document. Make sure to follow through with whatever communication plan the team agreed to. The IEP team reviews the program at least once a year but can meet and change the program more often, if needed.

This article began with a brief history of special education law. Parents have played an important role in that history, and they continue to impact the way that special education is provided in the schools. A recent court case that started in Colorado went all the way to the Supreme Court. That case, referred to as Endrew F, raised some standards related to the IEP. PAVE published an article on Endrew F that includes resource links and tips for using language from that court ruling to help in the IEP process.

If all of this sounds a little overwhelming, you can break the work into steps. Figure out the best way to help your family stay organized with paperwork and information. Choose a calendar system that helps you track appointments and deadlines. Collect and mark the dates for major school events, such as back-to-school night and parent-teacher conferences.

You can choose to print this article and highlight the sections you want to remember. Tuck the pages into your notebook or file folder, with the most recent copy of the IEP.

Talking about the upcoming year with your student can help to reduce worries.  Talk about new activities, classmates and things that will be the same or familiar. Find out if your school has an open house, and plan to attend. At your visit, talk about the school with your student.  What do they like or not like?  What’s new or different? What questions do they have?  Take pictures during your tour, and you can review them in the days right before school starts.

Try to meet with your student’s teachers and other school helpers, including therapists or even the bus driver, if possible. Helping your student to establish relationships early can ease worries and help the school team know what makes your student unique and awesome. Share a simple “quick reference” version of the IEP or Behavior Plan, if available.  You can also write your own simple list of suggestions for success.

From all of us at PAVE, we wish you a happy and successful school year!

Resources for more information:

Office of the Superintendent for Public Instruction (OSPI) Special Education Resource Library

Open Doors for Multicultural Families: Resources

Center for Parent Information and Resources (CPIR/Parent Center Hub)

Wrightslaw: Tips for Using the IDEA to improve your student’s IEP

Regulations governing the development and content of an IEP are contained in the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA, Public Law 108-446), and in the Washington Administrative Code (WAC 392-172A).