Key Information and Creative Questions for Families to Consider During COVID-19 Closures

A Brief Overview

  • 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. Read on to learn more about FAPE and student rights.
  • 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.
  • FAPE requirements for high-school transition services apply now, as always. PAVE’s article, High School Halt, includes more information on topics impacting graduating seniors and youth transitioning through high school and beyond.
  • How a student of any age accesses FAPE during a national health crisis is a work-in-progress. A Continuous Learning Plan (CLP) is a tool schools and families might use for temporary circumstances. PAVE provides another article describing that process: IEP on Pause? How to Support Continuous Learning with School Buildings Closed.
  • 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.
  • To support well-being for family members of all ages and abilities, PAVE provides this article, which includes links to videos with simple mindfulness/breathing practices: How to Get Organized, Feel Big Feelings, and Breathe.

Full Article

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

FAPE rights related to accommodations, modifications and anti-bullying measures are protected by the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 and apply to all students with disabilities, including those who have Section 504 Plans and those with Individualized Education Programs (IEPs). FAPE rights related to evaluation process, SDI, and formal goal setting are aspects of the IEP and are protected by the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA).

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.”

IEP and Section 504 meetings are encouraged, and teams can build different versions of the documents to support at-home learning now and in-school services when buildings reopen. A Continuous Learning Plan (CLP) is a tool schools and families might also use for temporary circumstances. PAVE provides an article describing that process, with linkages to the plan’s template: IEP on Pause? How to Support Continuous Learning with School Buildings Closed.

OSPI notes that health and safety are top priority and that some aspects of a student’s program may not be possible to implement during the crisis. Discussion about Compensatory Services to make up for elements of FAPE not provided during the closure will require a review of documentation.

Keep notes about student learning

Schools and families are encouraged to keep notes about student learning and access to education and/or special services during days that schools are providing educational services to all students. 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.

State guidance related to the provision of FAPE aligns with federal guidance issued since the pandemic began. On March 16, 2020, the U.S. Department of Education Office for Civil Rights (OCR) and the Office for Special Education and Rehabilitative Services (OSERS) issued a fact sheet describing the federal rights of students with disabilities:

“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.”

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.)

During the school closures related to the coronavirus pandemic, families with students of all ages and abilities are figuring out strategies for coping with the disruptions. Additional articles from PAVE provide information about working with the school to design a Continuous Learning Plan, preparing for a virtual meeting, student rights during the School Shutdown and How to Get Organized, Feel Big Feelings, and Breathe during the crisis.

School Shutdown: Pandemic Guidance for Families also Impacted by Disability

A Brief Overview

  • Governor Jay Inslee announced April 6, 2020, that Washington school buildings are closed to regular instruction at least through the end of the school year because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
  • During the shutdown, schools and families are seeking creative ways to help all children learn, said Washington’s Superintendent of Public Instruction, Chris Reykdal, who participated in the April 6 press conference with Gov. Inslee.  “Especially during times of uncertainty,” Reykdal said, “students need our support. They need grace, and structure, and routine. Even though the world may feel like it’s upside down, our students need to know that we will move forward.”
  • PAVE’s program to provide Parent Training and Information (PTI) continues to offer 1:1 support by phone in addition to online learning opportunities. Please refer to our home page at wapave.org to “Get Help” or to check the Calendar for upcoming events. A PTI webinar recorded live March 26, 2020, provides information about the rights of students with disabilities.
  • For questions about delivery of special education during the school building closures, families also can visit the website of the Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction (OSPI), which maintains a page, Special Education Guidance for COVID-19. Ways to support inclusion during the closures and a downloadable spreadsheet of online and offline resources for continuing learning are clickable links on that page.
  • Providing families with access to meals has been a priority for schools. An interactive map on the website of Educational Service District 113 includes information from schools across Washington about where meals are delivered and addresses for where families can pick up free food by “Grab-and-Go.”
  • The U.S. Department of Education has created a website page to address COVID-19. Links on the website, gov/coronavirus, include a Fact Sheet titled, Addressing the Risk of COVID-19 in Schools While Protecting the Civil Rights of Students, issued by the department’s Office for Civil Rights (OCR).
  • For additional resources, see Links to Support Families During the Coronavirus Crisis and Links for Learning at Home During School Closure.

Full Article

With school buildings closed to help slow the spread of the novel coronavirus (COVID-19), families have many questions about how children can access meals, childcare and basic education. Recognizing that too much information can be overwhelming, PAVE provides this article to help families with children impacted by disability understand a few key issues during this challenging time. Included throughout are links to information on official websites that are frequently updated.

Nationally, agencies that provide guidance to schools have been in conversation about the challenge of providing equitable education to all students as learning that respects the requirement for “social distancing” becomes the only option. The U.S. Department of Education is tracking much of that work on its website, gov/coronavirus.

Most schools in Washington resumed services with distance learning on March 30, 2020. Some districts planned a later start because of spring break schedules. Chris Reykdal, Washington’s Superintendent of Public Instruction, issued guidance that all schools within the state offer something in order to engage students in learning.

He emphasized that families and schools should maintain an attitude of creativity and patience and that the goal is not to overwhelm parents and students. The guidance is not a mandate for students, Reykdal said, and the state is not directing schools to grade student work during this period of distance learning. The expectation is that districts “are sending opportunities for families and checking in,” he said in comments quoted in a March 30 broadcast and article from KNKX, a National Public Radio affiliate.

Various federal and state laws protect students with disabilities and their right to a Free Appropriate Public Education (FAPE), regardless of the nature or severity of the disability. How to provide education that is appropriate and equitable when school buildings are closed is a national conversation. In Washington State, the Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction (OSPI) is continuously updating guidance for schools and families on these topics.

An OSPI website page devoted to special education topics during the COVID-19 shutdown includes this guidance: “If the district continues providing education opportunities to students during the closure, this includes provision of special education and related services, too, as part of a comprehensive plan.”

In a March 18, 2020, letter to school staff who support Individualized Education Programs (IEPs), OSPI encouraged IEP reviews and evaluations to continue as possible: “School districts are encouraged to continue to hold IEP and evaluation meetings through distance technology whenever possible, and if agreed upon by parents and school staff are available.”

Meals are a top priority

The Superintendent of Public Instruction, Chris Reykdal, provided information March 19, 2020, in a webinar sponsored by the Washington League of Education Voters. Note: the League of Education Voters offers a comprehensive listing of COVID-19 resources.

Reykdal said that OSPI has prioritized food distribution for students as its most important role during the shutdown. He said some districts deliver food to stops along regular bus routes. Others have food pick-up available in school parking lots. For the most current information about how a district is making meals available for students, families are encouraged to check their local district website or call the district office. OSPI provides a list of districts throughout the state, with direct links to district websites and contact information.

An interactive map on the website of Educational Service District 113 includes information from schools across Washington about where meals are delivered and addresses for where families can pick up free food by “Grab-and-Go.”

Childcare options are difficult to design

Second priority, according to Reykdal, is childcare for parents who rely on outside help so they can work. Families are encouraged to contact local districts for current information about childcare. OSPI encourages only small and limited gatherings of children, so provisions for childcare and early learning have been difficult to organize, Reykdal said. He emphasized that public health is the top concern. “We have to flatten that curve,” he said, referencing a widely shared graphic that shows what may happen if the virus is not slowed by intentional measures.

Note that the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid have relaxed rules in order to give states more flexibility in providing medical and early learning services through remote technologies. The Early Childhood Technical Assistance Center (ECTA) has created a webpage on teleintervention. Topics include training for families learning to navigate technology for online learning and appointments.

Equity is required in education

Thirdly, Secretary Reykdal on March 19 addressed work underway to create new models for distance learning. “Everyone needs to be super patient about this because while districts are preparing to deploy some education, it will look different. And there are serious equity concerns we have to focus on. We expect districts as they launch this to have an equitable opportunity for all students. English language learners need special supports. Our students with disabilities need supports.”

At the April 6, 2020, press conference, Reykdal mentioned that some schools may open on a very limit basis in order to provide services to a few children with significant disabilities. He said OSPI would be consulting with schools throughout the state to develop models for best-practice IEP implementation during the national crisis. “Especially during times of uncertainty,” he said, “students need our support. They need grace, and structure, and routine. Even though the world may feel like it’s upside down, our students need to know that we will move forward.”

PAVE is here to help!

PAVE’s Parent Training and Information (PTI) program continues to provide 1:1 support by phone and offers online training. Please check our calendar of events and follow us on social media.

PTI director Jen Cole addressed some topics related to educational access during a March 19, 2020, podcast hosted by Once Upon a Gene. In addition to providing general information about the rights of students with disabilities, Cole shares her own experience as a parent of an elementary-age student with a disability.

PAVE has added new links on our website to help families navigate these new circumstances. On our homepage, wapave.org, find the large blue button labeled View Links. Clicking on that button will open a list of options. Two new options provide guidance related to the pandemic:

  1. Links for Learning at Home During School Closure: This a resource collection of agencies providing online learning opportunities for various ages.
  2. Links to Support Families During the Coronavirus Crisis: This is a resource collection of agencies that provide information related to the pandemic.

Please note that resources listed are not affiliated with PAVE, and PAVE does not recommend or endorse these programs or services. These lists are not exhaustive and are provided for informational purposes only.

OSPI offers guidance for families

The Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction (OSPI) is the state education agency charged with overseeing and supporting Washington’s 295 public school districts and seven state-tribal education compact schools. As communities respond to the COVID-19 outbreak, OSPI offers a downloadable guide for parents and families.

Included is a section for parents of students in special education. While in session, districts maintain the responsibility to provide a Free Appropriate Public Education (FAPE) to students eligible for special education. “Districts should be communicating with parents and guardians prior to, during, and after a school closure regarding their child’s IEP services,” OSPI states.

Parents may want to consider whether compensatory education or Extended School Year (ESY) services will be needed. The general rights to these services are further described in an article about ESY on PAVE’s website.

Making notes in order to collect informal data about any regression in learning during the shutdown may be important later. OSPI’s resource guide states: “After an extended closure, districts are responsible for reviewing how the closure impacted the delivery of special education and related services to students eligible for special education services.”

OSPI reminds families that schools are not required to provide special education services while they are fully closed to all students.

OSPI addresses issues related to racism

In its guidance, OSPI encourages schools to intentionally and persistently combat stigma through information sharing: “COVID-19 is not at all connected to race, ethnicity, or nationality.”

OSPI advises that bullying, intimidation, or harassment of students based on actual or perceived race, color, national origin, or disability (including the actual disability of being infected with COVID-19 or perception of being infected) may result in a violation of state and federal civil rights laws:

“School districts must take immediate and appropriate action to investigate what occurred when responding to reports of bullying or harassment. If parents and families believe their child has experienced bullying, harassment, or intimidation related to the COVID-19 outbreak, they should contact their school district’s designated civil rights compliance coordinator.”

U.S. Department of Education provides written guidance and a video

The U.S. Department of Education provides a website page to address COVID-19. Links on the website, ed.gov/coronavirus, include a Fact Sheet titled, Addressing the Risk of COVID-19 in Schools While Protecting the Civil Rights of Students, issued by the department’s Office for Civil Rights (OCR):

“Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 prohibits disability discrimination by schools receiving federal financial assistance. Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 prohibits disability discrimination by public entities, including schools. Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits race, color, and national origin discrimination by schools receiving federal funds….

“School districts and postsecondary schools have significant latitude and authority to take necessary actions to protect the health, safety, and welfare of students and school staff….As school leaders respond to evolving conditions related to coronavirus, they should be mindful of the requirements of Section 504, Title II, and Title VI, to ensure that all students are able to study and learn in an environment that is safe and free from discrimination.”

On March 21, 2020, the department issued a Supplemental Fact Sheet to clarify that the department does not want special education protections to create barriers to educational delivery options: “We recognize that educational institutions are straining to address the challenges of this national emergency. We also know that educators and parents are striving to provide a sense of normality while seeking ways to ensure that all students have access to meaningful educational opportunities even under these difficult circumstances.

“No one wants to have learning coming to a halt across America due to the COVID-19 outbreak, and the U.S. Department of Education does not want to stand in the way of good faith efforts to educate students on-line. The Department stands ready to offer guidance, technical assistance, and information on any available flexibility, within the confines of the law, to ensure that all students, including students with disabilities, continue receiving excellent education during this difficult time.”

The Department’s Office for Civil Rights (OCR) released a YouTube video March 17, 2020, to describe some ways that OCR is providing technical assistance to schools attempting to offer online learning that is disability accessible. Kenneth L. Marcus, assistant secretary for civil rights within the Department of Education, opens the video by describing federal disability protections:

“Online learning is a powerful tool for educational institutions as long as it is accessible for everyone. Services, programs and activities online must be accessible to persons, including individuals with disabilities, unless equally effective alternate access is provided in another manner.”

Help is available from Parent Training and Information (PTI)

Families who need direct assistance in navigating special education process can request help from PAVE’s Parent Training and Information Center (PTI). PTI is a federally funded program that helps parents, youth, and professionals understand and advocate for individuals with disabilities in the public education system. For direct assistance, click “Get Help” from the home page of PAVE’s website: wapave.org.

PTI’s free services include:

  • Training, information and assistance to help you be the best advocate you can be
  • Navigation support to help you access early intervention, special education, post-secondary planning and related systems in Washington State
  • Information to help you understand how disabilities impact learning and your role as a parent or self-advocate member of an educational team
  • Assistance in locating resources in your local community
  • Training and vocabulary to help you understand concepts such as Free Appropriate Public Education (FAPE), an entitlement for individuals who qualify for special education under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). 

Attention Students: Lead your own IEP meetings and take charge of your future

A Brief Overview

  • By the time you are 16 years old, the school is required to invite you to your IEP meetings. You can attend any time, and leading your own meeting is a great way to learn important skills.
  • If you need more help at school or aren’t learning what you need to learn, then your IEP might need some fixing. Your voice matters on the IEP team.
  • A website, I’m Determined.org, provides videos of students describing their goals. You can also print a goal-tracking worksheet from that website.
  • Read on to learn more about the parts of an IEP and how to get more involved in your own education.

Full Article

If you are a student with an Individualized Education Program (IEP), read this article to find out how you can be a leader on your IEP team. Your future is counting on you!

By the time you are 16 years old, the school is required to invite you to your IEP meetings. From that year on, your school program is matched to your long-term goals. It’s important to plan your time carefully so that every school day gets you closer to where you want to be when you are an adult. 

Learn to be a self-advocate

 An advocate (pronounced ad-vo-cut) is someone who asks for something in a public way. Public schools get money from the government, so they are considered public entities. When you ask the school to provide you with something that you need to succeed, then you are being a self-advocate.

The word advocate can also be an action word (a verb), but then it’s pronounced ad-vo-cate (rhymes with date). You advocate for yourself when you ask for what you need to succeed.

Here’s another way to use this hyphenated word: You can say that you “practice self-advocacy.” Leading your own IEP meeting is a great way to practice self-advocacy and develop important adult skills.

Your Transition Plan focuses on where you want to go

 The part of the IEP that focuses on your adult goals is called a Transition Plan. The Transition Plan is added to the IEP by the school year when you turn 16. The plan includes details about:

  • when you plan to graduate (you can stay in school through age 21 if your IEP goals require more time)
  • what jobs you might choose
  • whether college is part of your plans
  • what lifestyle you imagine for yourself (will you drive, cook, shop, live alone?)
  • how school is getting you ready for all of that

The Transition Plan is all about you and your future. You can start taking charge of your future by going to your IEP meetings. You may want to lead all or part of the meeting, and you have that right.

The law says it’s all about you

Your rights as a student with an IEP are part of a federal law called the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). The IDEA says that schools must include family members and students on the IEP team. If you don’t play on the team, you can’t win the game, right? This is more important than a game—it’s Your Life!

The IDEA is a unique law because it says you get what you need in order to access school and learning. Getting an education that is specially designed just for you is called an entitlement. What you are entitled to is called FAPE, which means Free Appropriate Public Education.

You can become a leader on your IEP team by learning more about FAPE and how to talk about what it means to you. Public education is free for all school-age students in the United States, but consider this question: What makes your education appropriate?

Here are some questions to help you think and talk about FAPE:

  • What is it like to have a disability?
  • What about your disability makes school hard?
  • What do you need at school that helps you learn?
  • Are you getting better and better at the skills you need to be good at?
  • Are your teachers helping you see what you do well?

If you are learning important skills at school, and your learning is helping you build on your strengths, then you are probably getting FAPE. If you need more help or aren’t learning the skills that you need to move forward, then your IEP might need some fixing. Keep in mind that the school is responsible to provide you with FAPE. You have the right to ask for FAPE.

Learn what your IEP can do for you

Here’s a starter kit to help you understand what your IEP says and how you can ask for changes. When you go to your IEP meeting, you have the right to ask the teachers and school administrators to help you read and understand your IEP.

These are some important parts of an IEP:

  • Category of Disability: This is on the “cover page” of the IEP document. It lists the type of disability that best describes why you need individualized help at school. You should know this category so you can understand how and why teachers are supposed to help you.
  • The Present Levels of Performance: This is the long section at the beginning of the IEP that describes how you are doing and what the school is helping you work on. The beginning of this section lists what you are good at. Make sure that section is complete so you can be sure the teachers help you build on your strengths.
  • Goals: When you qualified for an IEP, the school did an evaluation. You showed that you needed to learn certain things with instructions designed just for you. To help you learn, the teachers provide Specially Designed Instruction. They keep track of your progress toward specific goals in each area of learning. You can learn what your goals are and help track your progress. A website, I’m Determined.org, provides videos of students describing their goals. You can also print a goal-tracking worksheet from that website.
  • Accommodations: You can ask for what you need to help you learn in all the different classrooms and places where you spend the school day. Do you learn better if you sit in a specific part of the classroom, for example, or if you have a certain type of chair? Do you need to be able to take breaks? Do you do better on tests if you take them in a small, quiet space instead of the regular classroom? Do you need shorter assignments, so you don’t get overwhelmed? Helping your teachers know how to help you is part of your job as an IEP team member.

Get Ready for Your IEP Meeting

You can get ready for your IEP meeting by looking over the IEP document.  You may want to ask a family member or a teacher to help you read through the document. If you don’t understand what’s in your IEP, plan to ask questions at the meeting.

PAVE provides a worksheet to help you prepare for your meeting. It’s called a Student Input Form. You can use this worksheet to make a handout for the meeting or just to start thinking about things you might want to say. If you don’t want to make a handout, you might draw pictures or make a video to share your ideas.

These sentence starters might help you begin:

  • I enjoy…
  • I learn best when…
  • I’m good at…
  • It’s hard for me when…
  • I want more help in these areas…
  • I like school the most when …
  • Teachers are helpful when they…
  • I want to learn more about …
  • It would be great if…

You may want to think about your disability and how it affects your schoolwork. You could work on a sentence or draw a picture to help the teachers understand something that is hard for you. These might be the parts of a sentence that you can personalize:

  • My disability in the area of …
  • makes school difficult because…

Your handout can include a list of what you want to talk about at the meeting. Here are a few ideas, but your options are unlimited:

  • A favorite class, teacher or subject in school?
  • A time during the school day that is hard for you?
  • Your IEP goals?
  • Something that helps you feel comfortable and do well?
  • Something you want to change in your school schedule or program?
  • Graduation requirements and when you plan to graduate?
  • Your High School and Beyond Plan? (see information below)
  • Anything else that’s important to you?

High School and Beyond Plan

Maybe you started talking about what you might do after graduation when you were in middle school. Washington State public schools are required to help all students begin a High School and Beyond Plan by 8th grade. Ask a teacher, a school counselor and/or your parents if you haven’t started one of those: It’s required so you can graduate from high school.

It’s never too soon to think about what you want to do in the future. When you start building an IEP Transition Plan, it’s critical to think and talk through your ideas and how you see yourself moving forward. Here are some starter questions: 

  1. Where am I now? (strengths, interests, abilities)
  1. Where do I want to go? (aspirations, dreams, expectations)
  1. How do I get there? (goals, courses, activities, helpers, accommodations)

Here are some additional questions to help you plan:

Jobs, Trades, & Work

  • What jobs would be a good fit?
  • What training and/or supports will you need?
  • Does your IEP include community work experience?

Education after high school

  • Do your personal goals include college or technical school?
  • What accommodations will you need?
  • Have you contacted Disability Support Services on campus?

Living arrangements

  • Will you live with family, a friend or on your own?
  • How will you cook, clean, shop, & get around town?
  • Does your IEP have goals for Independent living?

Community experiences

  • What will you do for fun?
  • Will you join a club or support group?
  • How will you make friends and keep in touch?

It’s never too soon to plan ahead!

Setting goals and making some plans now will help your school and family help you make sure you’ve got the right class credits, skills training and support to make that shift out of high school easier.

Being a leader at your IEP meeting is a great way to build skills for self-advocacy and self-determination, which is another great two-part word to learn. Self-determination means you make choices to take control of your life. At your IEP meeting, you can practice describing what helps you or what makes your life hard. You get to talk about what you do well and any projects or ideas that you get excited about. In short, you get to design your education so that it supports your plans to design your own adult life.

Here are links to more ideas and tools to help you get involved in your own future planning:

The Center for Change in Transition Services has a toolkit for youth

Youthhood.org also has resources designed just for you

 

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 unique, 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. PAVE has an article about special education history.

This article provides an overview 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 access to an appropriate education.

FAPE is an important acronym to learn!

The first principle of the IDEA is the right to a Free Appropriate Public Education, FAPE. Figuring out how to provide FAPE is the work of the school and family team that supports a student with a disability. PAVE provides a video Introduction to Special Education that includes more information about FAPE.

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 to guarantee FAPE, then the school district is responsible to create a program and placement that does meet the student’s needs. PAVE has an article about the placement decision process.

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 for 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 considers the whole life of a person with a disability

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 in Part A: ​

“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. The six principles listed at the end of this article 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. PAVE has an article about the transition between Part C and Part B services.

To qualify for an IEP, a student meets criteria in one of the IDEA’s 14 disability 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). PAVE has an article about mental health in school.
  • 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. A Washington law taking full effect in 2021-22 requires schools to screen for dyslexia: See PAVE’s article about dyslexia.
  • 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.

Educational evaluations ask 3 key questions

The disability must have an adverse impact on learning. Not every student who has a disability and receives an evaluation will qualify for an IEP. Following procedures described by the IDEA, school districts evaluate students to consider 3 key questions:

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

When each answer is yes, a student qualifies for services. In each area of eligibility, specialized instruction is recommended to help the student overcome the impact of the disability in order to access FAPE. PAVE provides comprehensive articles about evaluation and 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. PAVE has an article about 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 child’s education can be improved. See PAVE’s article about evaluation process.
  3. Individualized Education Program (IEP): An IEP is a dynamic program, not a packet of paper. PAVE provides a short video overview of IEP process. 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 life after high school becomes 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 and state regulations about IEP team membership make 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 (WAC 392-172A-03100).
  6. Procedural Safeguards: The school provides parents with a written copy of their rights at referral and yearly thereafter. A copy of the procedural safeguards is available online from the Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction (OSPI), the guidance agency for Washington schools. Parents may receive procedural safeguards from the school any time they request them. They also may receive a copy if they file a Citizen Complaint or Due Process. 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 a webinar called Parents as Partners that describes some of the procedural safeguards and offers communication strategies when parents and schools disagree.

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.

 

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.

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).