Tips for Communicating as a Member of the IEP Team

A Brief Overview

  • When families and schools meet to discuss a student’s special education program, they can find Common Ground by remembering that everyone wants the student to receive a Free Appropriate Public Education (FAPE).
  • Two short videos, A Tale of Two Conversations, provide a quick look at how a meeting might feel like one long argument or a helpful collaboration. The difference starts with preparation and approach.
  • Read on for tips about getting ready for a collaborative meeting.
  • The Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction (OSPI) also provides information about parent and student rights.

Full Article

Whether on Zoom or around a conference table, sitting down with a team of professionals can feel intimidating to families. When a child’s Individualized Education Program (IEP) is on the agenda, emotions can overtake a meeting. Getting defensive or angry does not usually help, however. This article provides tools for staying organized, open minded, and on topic to improve the work of meetings—and student outcomes.

A basic special education vocabulary boosts empowerment, and empowered families generally feel more confident at their meetings. Here is a key word to know:

Free Appropriate Public Education (FAPE)

A student with an IEP has the right to FAPE. That right is protected by federal law—the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). To meet the standard of FAPE, special education services are accessible to the student. Accessible means the services work as designed to enable progress appropriate, in light of the child’s circumstances.

A student receiving FAPE with appropriate, accessible services demonstrates steady progression toward mastery of skills. Those skills are being taught with specially designed instruction (SDI). As skills are learned, progress is measured through goal tracking. Meaningful progress indicates that the student is accessing FAPE.

Mastery can enable a sense of belonging. When the student feels capable, connected, and responsible within the school community, things generally run more smoothly for everyone.

In other words, FAPE is the result when everyone works together for the benefit of the student and meaningful learning happens. When a student is successful, the IEP team has done its job well and everyone can celebrate!

Here is a more formal way to talk about FAPE: Under the IDEA, FAPE requires an IEP reasonably calculated to provide progress appropriate, in light of the child’s circumstances.

FAPE provides a place to begin

When families and schools meet to talk about a child’s services, everyone can begin with FAPE as the overarching goal. FAPE provides Common Ground for the discussion. Everyone on the team wants FAPE:

  • The school district is required by law to provide FAPE to IEP-eligible students.
  • Teachers are happy when their students are successful.
  • The family wants a child to learn in a meaningful way.
  • The student wants to feel confident and proud.

Common Ground is not always where meetings begin

Problems arise in meetings when school staff and/or family members start the conversation far from Common Ground. The Center for Appropriate Dispute Resolution in Special Education (CADRE) has designed a curriculum to support families and schools in their discussions. Two short videos, A Tale of Two Conversations, provide a quick look at how a meeting might feel like one long argument or a helpful collaboration. The difference starts with preparation and approach.

To avoid a meeting that feels like a fight, the parent may want to start the meeting with some general comments to help school staff better understand the student and to gently remind the team that years of parenting have led to some expertise about a specific child.

For example, an IEP or a behavior plan might say that a student is “defiant” or “refusing” to do work. Those types of statements can make a parent feel defensive. Showing up angry probably will not lead to a productive meeting. Instead, a parent may come to the meeting prepared to explain that the student lacks confidence and would rather appear defiant than “stupid.” Maybe the parent has been able to talk to the student about their frustrations and can bring statements or requests directly from the student.

Another way to find common ground is to prepare open-ended questions and bring those to the table first, before offering suggestions or requests. For example, if a parent shows up and demands a 1:1 right at the start of the meeting, the conversation might quickly devolve into an argument about resource problems. If a parent comes ready to talk about what is not working for the student and concerns for their child’s learning and well-being, there is an opportunity to build empathy and problem-solving.

Climb mountains as a team

Firm predetermined “solutions” from any side can position school staff and family members far from collaboration, like the peeks of two mountains unable to ever meet in the middle.

Consider collaborative problem-solving as a project that starts at the intersecting bases of two mountains, on Common Ground. Shared expectations and assumptions are a good place to begin for an open-minded discussion. Here are a few conversation starters to consider:

  • According to these progress reports, the student is getting good at … How might we use that emerging skill to scaffold skill-building in this other area?
  • My student is not making as much progress as I expected in this area… Can we talk about strategies for improving progress?
  • This assignment, grade, or record shows that the student struggles to … Is there another approach to services or placement that we have not considered yet as a team?
  • I notice that this IEP goal is written to help the student “stop” doing an unwanted behavior. Can you help me understand the skill that is being taught, and can we rewrite the goal to focus on measuring progress toward the expected skill or behavior?
  • From what I see here (data/evidence/observations), this service is not working or is not accessible to the student. My theory about this is… Does anyone here have a different theory about what might be going on?

Here are some big-picture concepts for productive collaboration:

  • Trust is at the heart of positive working relationships.
  • Family members and educators can develop trust by showing personal regard, respect, transparency, and integrity. These may be particularly important for trust to grow among people of different cultures.
  • Blaming, bringing up the past repeatedly, minimizing another’s opinion, or rushing a conversation can create barriers to collaboration.
  • A neutral third party may be needed to resolve issues and rebuild relationships.

Prepare for the meeting

Request any documents that are going to be discussed at the meeting ahead of time. Review the documents in preparation for the meeting and mark down any notes for discussion. Whether meeting to discuss an IEP, a Section 504 Plan, behavior, ancillary services, or something else, families are better served when they prepare. To help families organize their concerns and requests, PAVE offers a format for designing a Handout for the Team Meeting. An alternative version supports self-advocates: Students: Get Ready to Participate in Your IEP Meeting with a Handout for the Team.

Leave with an action plan

At the end of the meeting, review what has been decided and be sure to make notes about any action steps, deadlines, or assignments. Be sure to note:

  1. What is the action?
  2. When will it happen?
  3. Who is responsible?

Schedule a follow-up conversation or a plan to communicate about anything that is not firmly decided. After a formal meeting, the school sends parents a Prior Written Notice (PWN) to describe any changes being made to a student’s services and when those changes will take effect. Parents with their own notes about the action plan will better understand how to read the PWN and whether there are unresolved topics.

Procedural Safeguards provide additional options

If a meeting leaves too many issues unresolved, parents can review their procedural safeguards to make a choice about what to do next. A copy is offered by the school at all formal meetings, and parents can also request a copy any time. The Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction (OSPI) also provides information about parent and student rights.

Parents have the right to disagree with the school and to pursue resolution by:

The collaboration strategy being explained. Meet on common ground. A depiction of two mountains are shown, one represents family and the other mountain represents the school. Both family and school push against each other to form a smaller overlap triangle called FAPE - that represents the common ground.

Special Education Process Demystified in 10 Steps

Here is basic guidance about how special education works. For a bit more detail, visit the 10-Step Guide to the Special Education Process provided by Washington’s Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction (OSPI). Procedural Safeguards protect family and student rights throughout the process.

  1. Referral: Is there a known or suspected disability condition that may significantly impact educational access? If yes, family or anyone with knowledge of the student can request an evaluation from the school district in writing.
  2. Consent to evaluate: The school district has 25 school days to consider the referral and whether to evaluate. Family signs consent for an evaluation to begin.
  3. Initial Evaluation: The district has 35 school days to conduct an evaluation that comprehensively addresses all areas of suspected disability.
  4. Initial Evaluation Report: Family and school meet to review the findings. Discussion includes:
    1. What did the evaluation find?
    1. Is the student eligible?
    1. What category of disability is the right fit for eligibility?
    1. What services is the student eligible for?
    1. Does the family have suggestions for goal areas or accommodations that school staff can consider for the initial IEP draft?
  5. Eligibility and Consent: For special education and related services to begin, family signs consent.
  6. Creating an Individualized Education Program (IEP): An IEP team meets within 30 days of the eligibility determination to write the IEP. 
    1. A DRAFT IEP may be reviewed and discussed. Family can request a copy of the DRAFT before meeting.
    1. The team decides what the final IEP includes.
    1. School provides family with Prior Written Notice after the meeting to reflect the discussion and actions being taken.
    1. Family has an opportunity to request further changes or more meetings.
  7. Special Education Begins: All teachers and service providers receive a copy of the IEP and implement the services, accommodations, and other elements of the program.
  8. Progress Monitoring and Annual IEP Review: The IEP team meets to discuss the program at least once a year. Changes can be made then or any time a team meeting is called because of concerns raised by the family or school.
  9. Reevaluation: The student is re-evaluated at least every 3 years to determine ongoing eligibility and to assess any needed changes to the program. If a student’s needs change, reevaluation can happen sooner.
  10. Transition: By the time a student turns 16, the IEP must have a plan in place for when the student will either graduate from high school or continue to receive school-based services, an option through age 21. Postsecondary goals drive the IEP process from that point forward.

Toolkit Basics: Where to Begin When a Student Needs More Help

When a student has unmet needs and may need new or different school-based services, what to do next can feel confusing or overwhelming. PAVE provides this toolkit to support families in taking initial, critical steps. These guidelines apply regardless of where school happens.

Is Disability a Factor?

Before acting, the family can consider disability and its impact. PAVE’s overview article about the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA: The Foundation of Special Education) describes 14 disability categories. If criteria are met in one of those categories, a student is eligible for an Individualized Education Program (IEP). An IEP team that includes family caregivers determines how special education services are provided.

IDEA and/or Section 504?

If a student does not meet IDEA eligibility, the student may still have disability protections under Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973. A family can consider whether disability impacts a “major life activity” that overlaps with school impact. If so, a Section 504 Plan supports the student with accommodations that enable equitable access to school. A student with an IEP has protections under IDEA and Section 504; accommodations are built into the IEP. PAVE provides an article: Section 504: A Plan for Equity, Access and Accommodations.

Request Evaluation

If a student has not been identified for school-based services, the first step is to request an educational evaluation. State deadlines apply to formal requests. PAVE provides an article with basic information about that process and a sample letter format for requesting a free evaluation from the school district: Sample Letter to Request Evaluation.

Request IEP Meeting

Families can request an IEP meeting to discuss the program any time there are concerns. PAVE provides an article, which suggests a format for making the request and includes information about meeting requirements: Sample Letter to Request an IEP Meeting.

Prepare for the Meeting

Whether meeting to discuss an IEP, a Section 504 Plan, behavior, ancillary services, or something else, families are better served when they prepare. To help families organize their concerns and requests, PAVE offers a format for designing a Handout for the Team Meeting. An alternative version supports self-advocates: Students: Get Ready to Participate in Your IEP Meeting with a Handout for the Team.

IEP Process Demystified in 10 Steps

To describe the process of IEP from initial evaluation through high-school transition, PAVE provides a simple list, Special Education Process Demystified in 10 Steps. For a bit more detail, visit the 10-Step Guide to the Special Education Process provided by Washington’s Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction (OSPI). Procedural safeguards protect family and student rights throughout the process. A copy of the procedural safeguards is offered at all formal meetings.

Sample Letter to Request Evaluation

When a student is struggling in school and there is reason to suspect the challenges are disability related, anyone can refer the student for an educational evaluation. The final section of this article includes a sample letter for requesting a no-cost evaluation from the school district. PAVE provides an article with more detail: Evaluations Part 1: Where to Start When a Student Needs Special Help at School.

Rights are upheld during COVID pandemic

No rights are waived during the COVID-19 pandemic. Schools and families can collaborate to determine what data is needed and how to be creative about collecting data if person-to-person contact needs to be limited or avoided for health and safety reasons. An agency called Presence Learning is among those offering teletherapy training and support for special education teams during COVID-19.

The Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction provides guidance to schools in Washington, where local districts establish and regulate policy. OSPI on July 10, 2020, issued an updated Question and Answer document about special education services delivery during the pandemic, including this statement (page 19):

“OSPI does not support unilateral district decisions to delay all meetings during COVID-19. IEPs and evaluations that were delayed due to COVID-19 should be prioritized for timely completion during summer and/or fall 2020 and follow those decisions with a prior written notice to the parent.”

Request evaluation formally, in writing

State-specific deadlines apply when a school district receives a formal request to evaluate a student. In Washington, evaluation deadlines are described in the Washington Administrative Codes (WAC 392-172A-03005). In short, a school district has 25 school days to respond to a request, 35 school days to complete an evaluation, and 30 calendar days to write and implement an Individualized Education Program (IEP) for an eligible student.

Family caregivers/guardians must sign consent for an evaluation to begin. How signatures are provided during the health emergency can be discussed to avoid slowing the process.

Make a special education referral in writing. This is important because:

  1. There will be no confusion about how/when/why request was made.
  2. The letter provides critical initial information about what is going on with the student.
  3. The letter supports a written record of family/school interactions.

The school district is required to collect and consider school, medical and other records provided by the district and/or the family. Families may choose to disclose all, a portion, or none of a student’s medical information. Schools may not require disclosure of medical records.

If the family wishes, letters about diagnoses, concerns, and recommendations from outside providers may be attached to the evaluation request. The district is responsible to review all documents and respond with written rationale about how the information is incorporated into recommendations.

Prior Written Notice (PWN), IDEA, FAPE, and Child Find

After receiving an evaluation request letter and supporting documents, the district is required to respond formally, through a Prior Written Notice (PWN), within 25 school days. A PWN is a legal requirement any time there is a proposal to initiate or change the identification, evaluation, or educational placement of a student through a special education process. These provisions are from the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). In Washington State, PWN requirements are described in WAC 392-172A-05010.

A PWN is required if the school district agrees or refuses to initiate or change the identification, evaluation, or educational placement of the student. A PWN is also required any time there is a change or a refusal to change any aspect of how the district provides Free Appropriate Public Education (FAPE) for a student with a disability.

The right to FAPE is federally protected by the IDEA. A non-discriminatory evaluation process is part of the protections for a student with a known or suspected disability that may significantly impact access to education (Child Find Mandate). Child Find protections apply whether there are academic and/or non-academic school impacts. Note that another foundational principle of the IDEA is parent/student participation in special education process. The IDEA protections cover the decision process about whether to evaluate.

Special Education is a service, not a location within the school

Please note that a request for special education evaluation is NOT a recommendation to remove a student from the regular classroom and move them into an exclusive learning environment. Federal and state laws require that students eligible for special education services receive their education in the Least Restrictive Environment (LRE) to the maximum extent appropriate.

Special Education is a service, while LRE refers to placement. PAVE’s article provides further information: Special Education is a Service, Not a Place.

General education classrooms and spaces are the least restrictive. A child may be placed in a more restrictive setting if an IEP team, which includes family participants, determines that because of the child’s circumstances and capacities, FAPE is not accessible even with specially designed instruction, accommodations, modifications, ancillary aids, and other documented attempts to support a Free Appropriate Public Education (FAPE) within the general education environment.

Parents can appeal decisions and/or seek a 504 plan

If a student is evaluated and determined ineligible for IEP services, the family has a right to appeal the decisions and/or to seek an Independent Educational Evaluation (IEE). The rights are similar if the district refuses to conduct an initial evaluation. See PAVE’s article: Evaluations Part 2: Next Steps if the School Says ‘No’ to Your Request.

Family caregivers also can work with the school to develop a Section 504 plan, which accommodates a person with a disability that impacts a major life activity (learning, walking, speaking, writing, socializing, etc.). Section 504 is an aspect of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, which protects the civil rights of individuals with disabilities against discrimination throughout the lifespan. See PAVE’s article for more detail about Section 504 rights, which also protect students who qualify for an IEP: Section 504: A Plan for Equity, Access and Accommodations.

Sample letter for a special education referral

Below is a sample letter that family caregivers can use when writing a request for an educational evaluation:

Your Name
Street Address
City, State, Zip
Date

Name (if known, otherwise use title)
Title/Director of Special Education/Special Services Program Coordinator
School District
Street Address
City, State, Zip

Dear Name (if known, otherwise use title):

I am requesting a full and individual evaluation for my (son/daughter), NAME, (BD: 00-00-0000), for assessment as a special education student as stipulated in the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, (IDEA, Public Law 108-446), and in the Washington Administrative Code (WAC 392-172A).

I have concerns that (NAME) is not receiving full educational benefit from school because of [his/her] struggles with [brief sentence that summarizes the bullet points listed below].

I understand that the evaluation is to be in all areas of suspected disability, and that the school district is to provide this evaluation at no charge to me. My reasons for requesting this evaluation are: (be as specific as you can).

  • Use bullet points if the list is long.
  • Use bullet points if the list is long.
  • Use bullet points if the list is long.

My [son/daughter] has been medically diagnosed with [DIAGNOSIS, if available…Or, you might write: My son is awaiting a medical evaluation for … note that a medical diagnosis is not required for schools to conduct an educational evaluation].

I have attached documentation from [list any outside providers who provided letters or reports]. Please take note that [Dr. NAME] recommends [highlight any specific recommendations from those attached documents] because [reason].

I understand that I am an equal member of the team for development of an Individualized Education Program (IEP) and that I will be involved in any meetings related to evaluation, identification of disability, provision of services, placement, or other decisions regarding my child’s access to a Free Appropriate Public Education (FAPE). I would appreciate meeting with each person who will be doing an evaluation before [name of child] is tested so that I might share information and history. I will also expect a copy of the written report generated by each evaluator so that I might review it before the team meeting.

I understand you must have my written permission for these tests to be administered, and I will be happy to provide that upon receipt of the proper forms.

I appreciate your help in behalf of [child’s name]. If you have any questions please call me at [telephone number] or email me at [email address, optional].

Sincerely,

Your Name

CC: (Names and titles of anyone else you give copies to)

You can email this letter or send it by certified mail (keep your receipt), or hand carry it to the district office and get a date/time receipt. Remember to keep a copy of this letter and all school-related correspondence for your records. Get organized with a binder or a filing system that will help you keep track of all letters, meetings, conversations, etc. These documents will be important for you and your child for many years to come, including when your child transitions out of school.

Please Note: PAVE is a nonprofit organization that provides information, training, individual assistance, and resources. PAVE is not a legal firm or legal service agency, and the information contained in this handout is provided for informing the reviewer and should not be considered as a means of taking the place of legal advice that must be obtained through an attorney. PAVE may be able to assist you in identifying an attorney in your area but cannot provide direct referrals. The contents of this handout were developed under a grant from the US Department of Education. The contents do not represent the policy of the US Department of Education and you should not assume endorsement by the Government.

IDEA: The Foundation of Special Education

A Brief Overview

  • The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) is a federal law that entitles children to special education services if disability significantly impacts access to education and a specially designed program is needed.
  • Key concepts are from the Education for All Handicapped Children Act, passed in 1975. The United States celebrated 45 years of special education law Nov. 29, 2020. In recognition, the Office of Special Education Programs (OSEP) offers an historical infographic: OSEP Fast Facts: IDEA 45th Anniversary.
  • The IDEA is unchanged during the pandemic. Although education is delivered in a variety of new ways, student rights and protections are intact. For more information, PAVE provides a training video: Student Rights: Special Education During COVID-19 and Beyond.

Full Article

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.

Key concepts came 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 services to all children with eligible 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 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.

No rights are waived due to COVID-19

The IDEA 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).

No federal or state laws are altered because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Although education is being delivered in a variety of new ways, all student protections and special education rights are intact.

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 an Individualized Education Program (IEP) team that includes school and family.

The local school district is responsible to provide FAPE through an IEP, which includes specially designed instruction, services, accommodations, and anything else that the team identifies as necessary to provide the student with education that is accessible, equitable and appropriate.

Part of FAPE is ensuring that the student finds meaningful success, in light of the circumstances. If a neighborhood school cannot provide the services and programming to guarantee FAPE within the general education classroom, then the school district is responsible to create a program within a placement that does meet the student’s needs. Keep in mind that Special Education is a Service, Not a Place: see PAVE’s article with that statement as its title.

The IDEA considers the whole life of a person with a disability

The IDEA is written in three parts: A, B and C. 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 9. PAVE has an article: Early Intervention: How to Access Services for Children Birth to 3 in Washington.

To qualify for an IEP, a student meets criteria in one of the IDEA’s 14 disability categories:

  • Autism: A student does not need a medical diagnosis to be evaluated by the school. If features from the autism spectrum may significantly impact access to learning, then the school can assess those features to determine eligibility and special education needs.
  • Emotional Disturbance: Psychological or psychiatric disorders (anxiety, depression, schizophrenia, post-traumatic stress, etc.) can fall under this category, which Washington schools often refer to as Emotional Behavioral Disability (EBD). Please note that all eligibility categories are intended to identify the needs of students and are not intended to label children in ways that might contribute to stigma or discrimination.
  • 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 (how a student is able to produce sounds that are understood as words). Social communication deficits also 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: Whether permanent or fluctuating, a hearing impairment may adversely affect a child’s educational performance.
  • Deafness: A student unable to process linguistic information through hearing, with or without amplification, may be eligible for services under this category.
  • Deaf blindness: A combination of hearing and visual impairments establishes a unique set of special education service needs.
  • Visual Impairment/Blindness: Partial sight and blindness may fit this category when, even with correction, eyesight adversely affects a child’s educational performance. Washington State’s Department of Services for the Blind (DSB) is an agency that provides youth and adult services for individuals who are blind or low vision.
  • Traumatic Brain Injury: Brain Injury Alliance of WA is a 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 to access FAPE. PAVE provides various articles about the evaluation process, including a sample letter to refer a student for services.

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 (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.
  3. Individualized Education Program (IEP): An IEP is a dynamic program, not a packet of paper or a location (Special Education is a Service, Not a Place). The program is reviewed at least once a year by a team that includes school staff and family. 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. Areas of need may be academic, social and emotional skills, and/or 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.” Regular classrooms and school spaces are the least restrictive. If the school has provided extra help in the classroom but the special education student still struggles to access FAPE, then the IEP team considers other options. 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 complaint with the state. Procedural safeguards are offered when a school removes a student for more than 10 days in a school year as part of a disciplinary action. When parents and schools disagree, these rights describe the actions that a parent can take informally or formally.

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

Transition Training Series: Preparing for High School and Beyond (In English and Spanish)

English Video

Last month, PAVE partnered with Clark County to start the Family Training Series for families and educators supporting individuals with disabilities.  It is offered by the Clark County Developmental Disabilities Program, the Clark County Parent Coalition, the Vancouver, Camas, and Evergreen School Districts, PAVE, and ESD 112. While the information in the sessions are targeted for families and educators, it is valuable information for any county you find yourself in! Below is this training in Spanish.

Additional ideas and information are provided by ReadyWA.org, a coalition of state education agencies, associations, and advocacy organizations focused on student success beyond graduation. The agency provides an article: High School and Beyond Planning: What’s New for 2020-21. The article includes a section about aligning general education future planning with the IEP transition planning process and includes links to key documents in English and Spanish.  

Video en español

El mes pasado, PAVE se asoció con el Condado de Clark para iniciar la Serie de Capacitaciones para familias y educadores que apoyan a las personas con discapacidades.  Este entrenamiento fue ofrecido por el Programa del condado de Clark para discapacidades del desarrollo, la Coalición de Padres del Condado de Clark, los Distritos Escolares Vancouver, Camas y Evergreen, así como organizaciones como PAVE y ESD 112. ¡Aunque que la información de las sesiones está dirigidas a familias y educadores, es información valiosa para cualquier condado en el que usted se encuentre! Este video está en español para el apoyo de familias latinas.

Usted puede encontrar sugerencias e información en ReadyWA.org, que es una coalición de agencias estatales de educación, asociaciones y organizaciones que tienen como propósito ayudar a los padres de familia a defender a los derechos de sus hijos. También les ayuda a enfocarse en el éxito estudiantil que va más allá de la graduación de secundaria. Esta misma, proporciona un reportaje llamado:  High School and Beyond Planning: What’s New para 2020-21. Este reportaje incluye una sección que prepara a las familias en como planificar el proceso de transición del IEP e incluye enlaces o links claves proporcionados en inglés y español.

Special Education is a Service, Not a Place

A Brief Overview

  • A student with a disability has the right to a Free Appropriate Public Education (FAPE) in the Least Restrictive Environment (LRE). General education is the LRE.
  • Services are generally portable, and special education is delivered to the student to enable access to FAPE within the LRE to the maximum extent appropriate.
  • Federal law protects a student’s right to FAPE within the LRE in light of a child’s circumstances, not for convenience of resource allocation.
  • No student rights are waived due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The National Association of State Directors of Special Education provides a brief about LRE during the pandemic. The NASDSE brief includes examples of what LRE might look like for students doing distance learning or in a hybrid model of learning.

Full Article

An ill-informed conversation about special education might go something like this:

  • Is your child in special education?
  • Yes.
  • Oh, so your student goes to school in that special classroom, by the office…in the portable…at the end of the hall…in a segregated Zoom room?

Regardless of whether education is happening in a school building or virtually, this conversation includes errors in understanding about what special education is, how it is delivered, and a student’s right to be included with general education peers whenever and wherever possible.

This article intends to clear up confusion. An important concept to understand is in the headline:

Special Education is a service, not a place!

Services are portable, so special education is delivered to the student in the placement that works for the student to receive a Free Appropriate Public Education (FAPE), in light of the child’s circumstances. A student with a disability has the right to FAPE in the Least Restrictive Environment (LRE).

General education is the Least Restrictive Environment. An alternative placement is discussed by the student’s Individualized Education Program (IEP) team if access to FAPE is not working for the student in a general education setting with supplementary aids and supports.

Here is some vocabulary to further understanding:

  • FAPE: Free Appropriate Public Education. The entitlement of a student who is eligible for special education services.
  • IDEA: Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. The entitlement to FAPE is protected by this law that allocates federal funds to support eligible students.
  • LRE: Least Restrictive Environment. A student eligible for special education services has a right to FAPE in the LRE to the maximum extent appropriate. General education is the least restrictive, and an alternative placement is discussed when data indicate that supplementary aids and supports are not working to enable access to FAPE in general education.
  • IEP: Individualized Education Program. School staff and family caregivers make up an IEP team. The team is responsible to develop a program reasonably calculated to enable a student to make progress appropriate toward IEP goals and on grade-level curriculum, in light of the child’s circumstances. Based on a student’s strengths and needs (discovered through evaluation, observation, and review of data), the team collaborates to decide what services enable FAPE and how to deliver those services. Where services are delivered is the last part of the IEP process, and decisions are made by all team members, unless family caregivers choose to excuse some participants or waive the right to a full team process.
  • Equity: When access is achieved with supports so that a person with a disability has a more level or fair opportunity to benefit from the building, service, or program. For example, a student in a wheelchair can access a school with stairs if there is also a ramp. A person with a behavioral health condition might need a unique type of “ramp” to access equitable learning opportunities within general education.
  • Inclusion: When people of all abilities experience an opportunity together, and individuals with disabilities have supports they need to be contributing participants and to receive equal benefit. Although IDEA does not explicitly demand inclusion, the requirement for FAPE in the Least Restrictive Environment is how inclusion is built into special education process.
  • Placement: Where a student learns. Because the IDEA requires LRE, an IEP team considers equity and inclusion in discussions about where a student receives education. General education placement is the Least Restrictive Environment. An IEP team considers ways to offer supplementary aids and supports to enable access to LRE. If interventions fail to enable access to FAPE, the IEP team considers a continuum of placement alternatives—special education classrooms, alternative schools, home-bound instruction, day treatment, residential placement, or an alternative that is uniquely designed. 
  • Supplementary Aids and Supports: The help and productivity enhancers a student needs. Under the IDEA, a student’s unique program and services are intended to enable access to FAPE within LRE. Note that an aid or a support—a service that enables access—is not a place and therefore cannot be considered as an aspect of a restrictive placement. Having a 1:1 to support a student, for example, does not violate LRE. This topic was included in the resolution of a 2017 Citizen Complaint in Washington State. 

Note that the IDEA protects a student’s right to FAPE within LRE in light of a child’s circumstances, not in light of the most convenient way to organize school district resources. Placement is individualized to support a student’s strengths and abilities as well as the needs that are based in disability.

Tip: Families can remind the IEP team to Presume Competence and to boost a student from that position of faith. If the team presumes that a student can be competent in general education, how does it impact the team’s conversation about access to FAPE and placement?

What does FAPE within LRE mean during COVID?

No student rights have been waived at the federal or state level due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Regardless of whether a student with an IEP receives learning from home, at school, or in a hybrid model that includes both, FAPE in the Least Restrictive Environment is a protected right under the IDEA.

The National Association of State Directors of Special Education (NASDSE) provides a brief about LRE during the pandemic. The NASDSE brief includes examples of what LRE might look like for students doing distance learning and/or receiving some learning within school.

“The removal from the general education environment only occurs if the nature or severity of the disability is such that education in the general education classes with the use of supplementary aides and services cannot be achieved satisfactorily,” the NASDSE brief states.

“It is important to note that while the COVID-19 pandemic has not changed the individual student’ right to LRE it has changed how the general education system operates. These operational changes require school systems to determine how they will maintain each individual student’s LRE in the new context in which they are operating.”

Tip: Family caregivers can ask what general education looks like for students in the environment of distance, in person, or hybrid learning and how a special education student is supported to access what all students are receiving.

LRE does not mean students with disabilities are on their own

To deliver FAPE, a school district provides lessons uniquely designed to address a student’s strengths and struggles (specially designed instruction). In addition, the IEP team is responsible to design individualized accommodations and modifications.

  • Accommodations: Productivity enhancers. Examples: adjusted time to complete a task,  assistive technology, a different mode for tracking an assignment or schedule, accessible reading materials with text-to-speech or videos embedded with sign language…
  • Modifications: Changes to a requirement. Examples: an alternative test, fewer problems on a worksheet, credit for a video presentation or vision board instead of a term paper.

Note that accommodations and modifications are not “special favors.” Utilizing these is an exercise of disability rights that are protected by the IDEA and civil rights/anti-discrimination laws that include the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 (particularly Section 504 as it relates to school) and the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA—particularly Title II).

Related Services may support LRE and other aspects of equitable access

An IEP may include related services (occupational therapy, speech, nursing, behavioral health support, parent training, etc.). For some students, related services may be part of the support structure to enable inclusion in the Least Restrictive Environment. If an IEP includes related services, then the IEP team discusses how and where they are delivered.

How related services are delivered during the COVID-19 pandemic requires an IEP team to consider medical concerns within the family and community and options for in-person, in-home and/or online delivery (telehealth). If related services are included in the IEP, then the school district is responsible to provide them unless an IEP team determines an alternative way to enable access to FAPE.

Here are a few examples of related services during the pandemic:

  • A medically fragile student requires nursing support while accessing virtual classes with peers (synchronous learning) or while working through a curriculum packet (asynchronous learning). A nurse at home becomes part of the family’s “COVID cohort” to meet health and safety guidelines.
  • A student with behavioral health needs struggles to access distance learning (school refusal), and parents lack skills to support behavior during learning time. The IEP is amended to include parent training for positive behavioral interventions and supports as a related service.
  • A student with receptive and expressive language deficits needs ongoing speech therapy to continue making meaningful progress on IEP goals and within the general education curriculum. Speech services are provided through telehealth.

A student in homeschool can receive Related Services from district

Note that a student enrolled in a homeschool can dually enroll in the local district to receive Related Services. A district is responsible under the IDEA’s Child Find Mandate to seek out and evaluate children who have known or suspected disabilities that may significantly impact access to learning, regardless of whether they are enrolled in public school. Here are resources for more information about homeschool process and requirements:

Questions to consider

Here are a few questions IEP teams might consider when discussing LRE, inclusion, placement, and Related Services during COVID-19:

  • What does general education look like for same-age peers in the environment of distance, in person, or hybrid learning?
  • How is a special education student supported to access what all students are receiving?
  • Is an IEP team meeting needed to discuss the student’s placement? (See PAVE’s article: Sample Letter to Request an IEP Meeting)
  • If a student will not return to the school building even if the district opens for some in-person instruction, then does the IEP team need to discuss how to provide access to general education (LRE) and IEP services from a homebound placement?
  • Does service delivery make room for a flexible schedule? Guidance from the state’s Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction (OSPI) provides for adaptability in how attendance is tracked and how a student can demonstrate participation. Likewise, Related Services may need to adapt to fit a schedule that works for a family with multiple considerations.
  • If delivery of an IEP service is not possible within health and safety guidelines, what else can the school district propose to provide access to learning/FAPE/LRE?

Glossary of Key Terms for Life After High School Planning

ADA: Americans with Disabilities Act. Prohibits discrimination against individuals with disabilities in all public and private places open to the general public.

Adult Services: Programs available to support individuals after they become legal adults at 18.

Age of Majority: In Washington, 18. An adult is responsible for educational, vocational, financial, and other decisions unless other arrangements are made through legal means.

Aging Out: The process of ending the school year in which a student turns 21 and is no longer eligible for special education (IEP) services.

Compensatory Services: Extra educational services provided because an IEP team or another agency with authority determines that a student with a disability did not receive a Free Appropriate Public Education (FAPE).

DDA: Developmental Disabilities Administration. A state agency that provides a variety of employment, personal care, supportive housing, and other services based on eligibility. Transition-age youth may be eligible for a school-to-work program if one is available in their region.

DSB: Department of Services for the Blind. A state agency that provides vocational services and orientation and mobility training for individuals with visual impairments.

DVR: Division of Vocational Rehabilitation. A state agency that provides employment services to individuals with a wide range of disability circumstances. Students still enrolled in school might receive Pre-Employment Transition Services (Pre-ETS), and young adults also might apply for 1:1 support with an Individualized Plan for Employment (IPE). The agency has a wait list, called Order of Selection, for 1:1 IPE support but not for Pre-ETS.

Educational Evaluation: Used to determine eligibility for school-based services. A wide variety of assessments, questionnaires, and other tools determine how disability impacts a student’s ability to access academic and non-academic areas of education and whether specially designed instruction is needed to access FAPE.

Equity: A quality of fairness that is present when someone with a disability has appropriate, individualized help to enable the same access to opportunities that are available to individuals without disabilities.

ESSA: Every Student Succeeds Act. A 2015 law that reauthorized the 50-year-old Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), the nation’s education law that provides equal opportunity for all students.

FAPE: Free Appropriate Public Education. Learning that is equitable, accessible, and meaningful. FAPE is what a student with a disability is entitled to receive from the school, based on documented, individualized needs.

High School and Beyond Plan (HSBP): a future planning tool that is required for all Washington State students, beginning no later than 8th grade.

IDEA: Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. Federal law that grants funding to states to support educational programming for eligible students with disabilities. IDEA Part B supports children 3-21, and Part C supports children Birth-3.

IEP: Individualized Education Program. A unique school services plan for a student who is eligible based on disability circumstances, managed and documented by a team that includes family members and professionals.

IEP Transition Plan: A component of the IEP that is required by age 16 but can be added any time the student and IEP team are ready to discuss future goals and incorporate them into the student’s program, with goals and progress monitoring that consider life plans.

Inclusion: An environment where individuals with disabilities and without disabilities are learning or working together. The IDEA requires schools to deliver FAPE in the Least Restrictive Environment to encourage the inclusion of all students in general education spaces.

Individualized Plan for Employment (IPE): A service plan with support from a vocational rehabilitation agency.

Kevin’s Law: A Washington State law stating that a student receiving special education services has the right to participate in commencement ceremonies with same-age peers, regardless of when a diploma is earned.

LRE: Least Restrictive Environment. IDEA requirement that students receive special education services in general education settings to the maximum extent appropriate. Schools document why a student is unable to access FAPE within LRE (general education) before placing a student in a restrictive setting.

OCR: Office for Civil Rights. An enforcement agency that manages formal complaints and provides information about civil rights that protect individuals from discrimination based on race, gender, disability, and other factors. The U.S. Department of Education Office for Civil Rights is a federal agency with the responsibility of ensuring equal access to education through the enforcement of civil rights.

OEO: WA Governor’s Office of the Educational Ombuds: State agency that provides free online resources and 1:1 support for families navigating educational systems. 

OSEP: Office of Special Education Programs. Federal agency within the US Department of Education that is responsible to administer the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA).

OSERS: Office of Special Education and Rehabilitative Services. US Department of Education program with a mission “to provide leadership to achieve full integration and participation in society of people with disabilities by ensuring equal opportunity and access to, and excellence in, education, employment and community living.”

OSPI: Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction. Washington’s educational agency that partners with the state’s nine Educational Service Districts (ESDs) to provide guidance to Local Education Agencies (LEAs) that include 295 districts and 6 state-tribal education compact schools.

PAVE: Partnerships for Action, Voices for Empowerment. A non-profit agency that supports Washington families impacted by disability. A PAVE program is Parent Training and Information (PTI), which provides information, training, resources, and technical assistance to help family caregivers, students and professionals understand rights and responsibilities within education systems.

Person Centered Planning: A method for helping an individual explore and celebrate life goals while building specific action steps and gathering people to offer support.

Pre-Employment Transition Services (Pre-ETS): Provided for groups of students by a vocational rehabilitation agency. In Washington DVR provides Pre-ETS for many disabilities, and DSB provides Pre-ETS for students with visual impairment. Included are job exploration, work-based learning experiences, counseling about educational opportunities, workplace readiness training, and instruction in self-advocacy.

Prior Written Notice (PWN): A required document that schools provide families after formal meetings. The PWN summarizes what was discussed and any agreements, disagreements, action items, or amendments to a student’s Individualized Education Program (IEP). A family/school communication plan can be designed at a meeting and documented in the PWN.

Procedural Safeguards: Written description of special education process, student/family rights, and options for dispute resolution.

Recovery Services: Additional educational opportunities considered to support students significantly impacted by the national health emergency caused by COVID-19.

School-to-Work: Programs available in many counties for students eligible for support from the Developmental Disabilities Administration (DDA).

Secondary Transition: Planning for and progressing through the change from high school to adult life.

Section 504: Part of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973.  Provides anti-discrimination protections for individuals with disabilities throughout the lifespan.

Self-Advocacy: Ability to share thoughts and feelings, understand rights and responsibilities, make independent choices, and ask for help when needed.

SMART Goals: Specific, Measurable, Achievable, and Relevant goals set within a specific span of Time.

Synchronous/Asynchronous Instruction: Educational methods during distance learning. Synchronous instruction is provided when school staff directly interact with students in “real time,” whereas asynchronous instruction is recorded, independent, or parent-supported learning without school staff directly present.

Transition Services: Programming uniquely designed to support a student in preparation for adult life. Needs,  strengths, preferences, and interests are considered for development of specially designed instruction, related services, community experiences, employment and other postschool adult living objectives. If appropriate, services include acquisition of daily living skills and provision of a functional vocational evaluation.

You can download this information below:

IEP on Pause? How to Support Continuous Learning

A Brief Overview

  • This article provides some considerations for families while students are doing school in new ways during the COVID-19 pandemic.
  • As always, programming for students who qualify for special education services is uniquely designed to address a student’s strengths and needs. Special education law maintains a student’s right to a Free Appropriate Public Education (FAPE), although some aspects of a student’s Individualized Education Program (IEP) may not be deliverable because of health and safety concerns.
  • The Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction (OSPI) in July 2020 issued a guidebook, Reopening Washington Schools 2020: Special Education Guidance, with information for educators and families.
  • Updates and additional handouts for families are available in multiple languages on OSPI’s website: Special Education Guidance for COVID-19.  
  • The Special Education Continuous Learning Plan is provided by OSPI to support but not replace the IEP. Read on for more information about how to make contingency plans so students continue to make progress regardless of where education is provided.

 

Full Article

Some teachers and family caregivers are cooking up clever ways to deliver learning to students during the public health crisis caused by COVID-19. Their recipes for success include carefully built schedules; a mix of curriculum materials that adapt to different settings; regular check-ins between school and family; social-emotional support strategies; and adaptability to address a student’s unique interests, talents, and needs regardless of where education is provided.

If that is not your family’s reality, you are not alone. During this national emergency, families are not expected to have a perfect plan for what to do and how to do it. Neither are schools, which are being asked to redesign themselves by the moment. This article provides some basic considerations for families and schools who serve students with special educational needs. This time of crisis clearly calls for communication, creativity, and unique efforts toward collaboration.

For more about social-emotional support for the family see PAVE’s article, Stay-Home Help: Get Organized, Feel Big Feelings, Breathe. PAVE also provides a library of short mindfulness practice videos for all ages/abilities: Live Mindfully.

School decisions are made locally

Uncertainty about the 2020-21 school year is ongoing. At an Aug. 5, 2020, press conference, Washington State Superintendent Chris Reykdal noted that 2020-21 will be “the most complicated school year in American history.”

WA Governor Jay Inslee stated at the press conference that decisions about whether school buildings are open will be made locally. 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. Public comment is part of each public meeting, and the open meeting rules apply in any space or platform.

No disability rights are waived

Reykdal has encouraged families to stay engaged with their Individualized Education Program (IEP) teams regardless of where the student is learning. “I want to constantly challenge you to work with your school district and reach out,” Reykdal said in April 2020.

“Make sure you understand who is responsible for delivering those services at this time and whether you think that IEP needs to be revisited. That is the right of parents, and that is the relationship that has to happen on the local level. We’ll keep guiding to this. The expectation is clear. We are delivering special education services. We are delivering supports for students with disabilities. There’s no exemption from that. There’s no waiver from that.”

The Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction (OSPI) in July 2020 issued a guidebook, Reopening Washington Schools 2020: Special Education Guidance, with information for educators and families. Included is a section about “recovery services” to support students who have fallen behind because of the pandemic.

TIP: Collaborate, communicate, keep careful records

Documentation about what is happening with the student is key to discussions about the IEP moving forward and whether the student gets recovery services. Family caregivers and school staff can collect and share notes that address these questions and more:

  • Have educational materials been accessible during distance learning?
  • What learning location will work for this student and the family moving forward?
  • When or how often has the school communicated with the family, and what could improve that communication?
  • Does the student have the tools and technology needed for learning?
  • Where has the student made progress? (any bright spots?)
  • Where has the student lost ground? (any lost skills?)
  • What else needs to be addressed to meet the unique needs of this individual student, so the student can make progress appropriate, in light of the child’s circumstances?

Recovery services are not the same as compensatory services

To determine whether recovery services are needed, OSPI encourages IEP teams to:

  1. review progress toward IEP goals, and
  2. assess progress toward grade-level standards within the general education curriculum.

Both points are standard aspects of a student’s right to a Free Appropriate Public Education (FAPE), protected by the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). The IDEA is the federal law that entitles eligible students to an Individualized Education Program (IEP). IDEA rights are not waived due to COVID-19.

OSPI makes clear that recovery services are part of the school day and are not the same as “compensatory services,” which are educational opportunities provided outside of regular school to make up for IEP services that were not provided even though the student was available to receive them. A student may qualify for compensatory services if it is determined through a dispute resolution process that the standard of a Free Appropriate Public Education (FAPE) was not fully met in the provision of special education.

Recovery services, on the other hand, are considered in the context of the national health emergency that impacted all students and staff within the system. OSPI’s 2020 special education guidance document states: “The extent of a student’s recovery services, if needed, must be an individualized determination made by the IEP team, considering individual student needs, in the context of instructional opportunities provided to all students during the school facility closures.”

TIP: Consider a child’s total circumstances

Keep this in mind: A student with an IEP has the right to FAPE—Free Appropriate Public Education. To meet the standard of FAPE, a school provides an individualized program that is “reasonably calculated to enable the student to make progress appropriate, in light of the child’s circumstances.” That phrase is part of IEP case law, from a 2017 Supreme Court ruling referred to as Endrew F.

A child’s circumstances include, but are not limited to:

  • Strengths, talents, assets
  • Disability
  • Family (work schedules, finances, housing…)
  • COVID-related impacts (distance learning, medical fragility of self or family member, grief from a loved one’s death or economic hardships…)
  • Mental health (impacts of social isolation, loss of friendship connections…)
  • Whatever is true for the individual child!

A key question for all IEP teams: How can we create equitable educational opportunities, in light of all of these aspects of the child’s circumstances?

Section 504 protects students too

The Rehabilitation Act of 1973 also provides FAPE protections, and none of those rights are waived because of COVID-19. Section 504 is part of the Rehabilitation Act, so students who receive support through a Section 504 Plan have civil rights protections under that federal law. Students with IEPs have Section 504 protections in addition to the protections of the IDEA.

School staff and families might discuss whether a student on a Section 504 Plan has made adequate progress within the general education curriculum and whether the accommodations and modifications in the plan are correctly adjusted for the student to access learning in light of the pandemic. Families and schools can discuss what additional supports are needed so the student can access the curriculum equitably.

Recovery services may support academics or social emotional learning

OSPI provides a few examples of recovery services to help families and schools think creatively about what is possible:

  • A student who regressed behaviorally during the closure may need new or different positive behavior interventions during the school day.
  • A student who lacked social skills opportunities during the closure may need additional instruction in social communication.
  • A student who lost academic skills during the closure may need additional supplementary aids and services in the general education classroom.

How and when additional services are provided is up to school/family teams to consider and may depend on the district’s reopening schedule. Some recovery services may be deliverable through distance learning, while others may require schools to be fully open.

Focus on key elements of learning

Within the Inclusionary Practices section of its reopening guidance, OSPI highlights four core areas that support planning and teaching students with disabilities in a variety of learning environments:

  • Family Partnerships and Communication to foster continuity of learning, high expectations, and support to students through shared goals and partnerships between home and school.
  • Student Engagement to maintain knowledge and skills, feelings of connectedness, curiosity, and a love of learning while progressing toward benchmarks and standards.
  • Social-Emotional and Behavioral Supports to create positive learning experiences and shared understanding of expectations to help students achieve learning goals.
  • Instructional Delivery and Universal Design for Continuous Learning to create conditions that make learning accessible, stimulating, relevant and rewarding so students will make academic gains and develop self-determination.

TIP: Parents parent, teachers teach

Parents can consider that first and foremost, their role is to parent. When all schools were in distance-learning mode, the Florida Inclusion Network provided Tips for Families in Supporting Their Children with Disabilities in Virtual Formats. Included is this recommendation:

“It can be confusing for students if families try to assume the role of teacher. Explain to your child that their teacher is still their teacher, and that you are in communication with the teacher to help them learn at home.”

Presume competence and maintain high expectations

OSPI’s resource about special education access in the 2020-21 school year contains a chapter called Inclusionary Practices Across the Continuum of School Reopening Models. The first paragraph states (emphasis added):

“In the context of change, students with disabilities are most successful when educators and families presume competence in what they are capable of learning and accomplishing in school. Rather than view student challenges or inability to meet learning objectives in new and different learning environments as a deficit in the student due to a disability, recognize how instruction or environments may be affecting what a student learns and how they demonstrate what they know.

Students learn best when they feel valued and when people hold high expectations. When students cannot communicate effectively, or behavior impedes participation and learning, explore multiple pathways for understanding and assume students want to learn but may have difficulty expressing their needs.”

Least Restrictive Environment (LRE) encourages inclusion

Federal special education law (IDEA) entitles students to individualized education in the Least Restrictive Environment (LRE) to the maximum extent possible. While education is being provided in a mix of environments, IEP teams may need to think in new ways about how the right to LRE is protected.

The National Association of State Directors of Special Education (NASDSE) issued a policy brief regarding LRE in the wake of COVID-19. The brief includes examples of how LRE might be provided for a student in a virtual, hybrid, or traditional model of school. For example, a fictional 3rd grader with special education services to support learning in math and English Language Arts (ELA) could attend a virtual classroom with all students and receive instruction in break-out rooms with math and ELA teachers at additional times.  

The right to LRE is not waived due to COVID-19. “NASDSE stands ready to support its members with the effort of ensuring all students receive FAPE in the LRE,” the brief concludes.

Language access is protected

Some families face barriers related to language access. Under state and federal law, all parents have the right to information about their child’s education in a language they can understand, and students have a right to accessible learning materials. The Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction (OSPI) provides guidance about language-access rights in multiple languages.

A Continuous Learning Plan may help with organization

A Special Education Continuous Learning Plan is a tool developed by the state in spring 2020 to help IEP teams make contingency plans. The plan does not replace a student’s IEP, but rather documents individual decisions for special education services when a student is not fully attending in-person school.

The plan is part of a downloadable document published April 7, 2020: Supporting Inclusionary Practices during School Facility Closure. Glenna Gallo, assistant superintendent of special education, worked with many agency partners to design the 31-page guidance document. The introductory paragraphs include the following statement:

“Providing equitable access and instruction during these times will require creative and flexible thinking to support continuous learning, where students and educators are in different locations. Educators and families should explore creative ways to respond to diverse languages, cultures, socio-economic status, abilities, and needs.”

Review the Present Levels of Performance

To consider what is most important for learning, regardless of where education is provided, IEP teams can carefully review the present levels of academic achievement and functional performance, which is the first section in a student’s IEP. 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.

PAVE also provides an article and a handout to help families participate in the goal-setting process: IEP Tips: Evaluation, Present Levels, SMART goals.

Request an IEP meeting to clarify how services are provided

Family caregivers can request an IEP team meeting any time there are concerns. For health and safety reasons, the meeting may be virtual, by phone, in a park…. Teams can get creative to meet all needs. PAVE provides an article about requesting a meeting and a letter template to support a written request. An additional article: Quick Look: How to Prepare for a Virtual Meeting.

While reviewing and amending the IEP, the team might consider the “service matrix,” which is the chart on the IEP document that shows how many minutes of each service a student receives, and which school staff are responsible to provide the service. An IEP team might decide to amend the matrix to reflect services provided remotely versus services provided in person at school.

Another option is to document on the IEP matrix the services to be provided when in-person school fully resumes and to use the optional Continuous Learning Plan template to document contingency plans during remote learning.

Before meeting with the school, family caregivers may want to design their own Handout for the Team to share their specific ideas and concerns.

Big Picture goals to consider

OSPI’s guidance includes the following tenets of inclusionary practices:

  • All students feel a sense of belonging and value, as full members of the school community.
  • All students have access to equitable and high-quality, meaningful instruction.
  • Instruction is culturally responsive, and student and family centered.

TIP: When communicating with school staff, families can have these tenets ready and request that each one is addressed somehow through the planning.

Additional ideas to support families

  • If a child is doing school from home, try to set up comfortable, adaptable spaces for learning. Include alternatives to sitting for children who need variety, sensory support or more movement. If the IEP includes accommodations for special seating, consider if those ideas could work at home.
  • On days when school is integrated with home life, establish a schedule that includes breaks (recess/nature walks) and activities of daily living. The amount of academic time needs to consider all impacted family members. Here are sample family schedules: COVID 19 Schedule From MotherlyGet-Organized-Mom.comHomeschool.
  • Make sure each day includes time away from screens to reduce eye strain and fatigue from being in one physical position too long.
  • During academic learning time, limit distractions from siblings, gaming devices, tablets, television shows, etc.
  • Find or create support networks. Some Parent-to-Parent groups are meeting virtually, and individuals can make agreements to check on each other. The Arc of Washington State provides information about regional P2P networks.
  • Be patient with your child, teachers, medical providers, and yourself. No one has ever been here before, and all are trying to figure it out.

PAVE staff are available to provide 1:1 support. Click Get Help at wapave.org to fill out a Helpline Request form. For additional resources related to the pandemic itself, see Links to Support Families During the Coronavirus Crisis.