Family Advocacy and Student Rights

PAVE provided a virtual parent training in collaboration with the Washington State School for the Blind, posted to YouTube May 24, 2021. This Talk o Tuesday presentation includes an overview of student rights, IEP trouble-shooting tips for family advocates, and key information about the process of an Individualized Education Program (IEP). A few tips are specific to students with visual impairment, and most of the information is relevant to any family whose student has special education needs.

Support for Youth Whose Post-High School Plans were Impacted by COVID-19

A Brief Overview

  • Students who did not make adequate progress on IEP goals due to COVID-19 may be eligible for Recovery Services. IEP teams are responsible to make individualized, student-centered decisions about this option for additional educational services.
  • Students who turned 21 and “aged out” of their IEP services during the pandemic may be eligible for Transition Recovery Services. Read on for information and resources.
  • Transition Recovery Services are funded through a combination of state and federal sources, including through the American Rescue Plan. Transition Recovery will be an option for several years—beyond Summer 2021.

Full Article

For students with disabilities, getting ready for life after high school can include work-based learning, career cruising, job shadowing, college tours, training for use of public transportation, community networking, agency connections, and much more. A student’s Individualized Education Program (IEP) is built to guide a student toward unique post-graduation goals.

COVID-19 halted the high-school transition process for many students. IEP teams are required to consider Transition Recovery Services to help those students get back on track toward post-secondary goals, including if they “aged out” by turning 21.

Transition Recovery Services are funded through a combination of state and federal sources, including through the American Rescue Plan. Transition Recovery will be an option for years—beyond summer 2021.

Keep in mind that Transition Recovery Services are uniquely designed for a specific student, and the “school day” may look quite different than traditional high school.

Eligibility for Transition Recovery Services is an IEP team decision

To consider Recovery Services, the IEP team reviews what a student was expected to achieve or access before COVID-19. The team then compares those expectations to the student’s actual achievements and experiences. If a service was “available,” but not accessible to the student due to disability, family circumstances, or something else, the team considers that.

Recovery Services are provided to enable students to get another chance on their transition projects and goals. According to guidance from Washington’s Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction (OSPI), IEP teams are responsible to discuss these topics in good faith and not rely solely on specific data measures for decision-making:

“Recovery Services should focus on helping the student achieve the level of progress on IEP goals expected if the pandemic had not occurred. These services should not be based on a percentage or formula calculation; the timeline and amount of recovery services should be an individualized decision for every student with an IEP.”

Keep in mind that schools are required to include family members on the IEP team. OSPI’s guidance also states, “Parents and families are key partners in identifying the need for Recovery Services, as they generally have current information about the student from the time of the school facility closures and since. As with all special education processes, school districts must provide language access supports, including interpretation and translation as needed, to support decisions about recovery services.

“School districts must ensure parents have the information and supports necessary to participate in the decision-making process.”

Here’s a set of questions for IEP teams to consider:

  1. What did we hope to accomplish?
  2. What did we accomplish?
  3. What was the gap, and how can we fill that gap?

OSPI’s guidance was shared with families at a May 26, 2021, webinar. OSPI shares its webinars publicly on a website page titled Monthly Updates for Districts and Schools.

Every IEP team should talk about Recovery Services

OSPI makes clear that school staff are responsible to discuss Recovery Services with every family that is part of an IEP team. “Families should not have to make a special request for this process to occur,” according to Washington’s Roadmap for Special Education Recovery Services: 2021 & Beyond.

The urgency of the discussion depends on a student’s circumstances. IEP teams supporting students at the end of their high-school experiences may need to meet promptly. Other teams may wait until the new school year or until the annual IEP review.

According to state guidance, “To be clear, OSPI is not requiring districts to immediately schedule and hold IEP meetings for every student with an IEP. These decisions may need to take place prior to the start of the 2021–22 school year, prior to the annual IEP review date, or could happen at the upcoming annual review date if the district and parent agree.”

The key question to bring to the meeting

TIP: Families and schools will consider this big-picture question, so write this one down and carry it into the IEP meeting:

“How will the school provide the services that the individual student needs to complete all of the experiences and learning that the IEP team had planned before a pandemic interrupted the high-school transition process?”

Transition Recovery Services are documented with PWN

OSPI guides IEP teams to document a support plan for a post-21 student through Prior Written Notice (PWN), which is a way schools notify families about actions related to a special education program. The school is responsible to provide PWN to family participants after any IEP meeting.

TIP: Review the PWN carefully to ensure that the discussion, decisions, and action steps are accurate. Family members can submit amendments to a PWN.

The IEP document itself cannot be amended to include post-21 services because federal law supports the right to a Free Appropriate Public Education (FAPE) for eligible students only through age 21.

What can families do?

  1. Reach out to the IEP case manager to discuss when to meet to discuss Recovery Services as part of a team meeting. If there is urgency, make that clear in a written request.
  2. Ask for documentation about progress made toward IEP annual and post-secondary goals during COVID-impacted school days. If there is no documentation, ask for a review of pre-pandemic data and an evaluation to determine present levels of performance.
  3. Share observations about what worked or didn’t work during remote or hybrid learning, and any missed opportunities caused by the pandemic. Ask for the school to formally document family and student concerns as part of the IEP team record.
  4. Procedural Safeguards include family rights to dispute resolution, including the right to file a formal complaint when there is reason to suspect a special education student’s rights were violated.

What if my student’s Transition Plan wasn’t fully formed?

An IEP can include transition planning any time the student, family, or teachers decide that life planning needs to be considered as an aspect of IEP services. The IEP Transition Plan aligns with a student’s High School and Beyond Plan, which Washington requires to begin before a student leaves Middle School. Therefore, some IEPs include a transition plan by about age 14.

Federal law (Individuals with Disabilities Education Act/IDEA) requires an IEP to include a Transition Plan by age 16. Although students aren’t required to participate, schools are required to invite students to participate in IEP meetings once transition is part of the program. PAVE provides an article to encourage youth participation on the team.

If the Transition Plan didn’t get built in a timely way due to the pandemic, IEP teams can begin that process and then consider whether Transition Recovery Services are warranted.

How are graduation requirements impacted by COVID?

On March 2, 2021, Governor Jay Inslee signed into law HB 1121, which allows for individual students to waive credit or testing requirements if their ability to complete them was disrupted by the pandemic. Temporary waivers were granted in 2020, and the new law gives the State Board of Education (SBE) permanent authority to grant school districts emergency waivers for cohorts of graduating seniors into the future. Schools are expected to help students meet requirements before falling back on the emergency waiver as a last resort.

To meet graduation requirements in Washington State, students choose from Graduation Pathways. For a student receiving special education services, the IEP team (including student and family) determines which pathway a student will follow and the target graduation date.

All students have the right to participate in Commencement

Students with disabilities have the right to participate in commencement ceremonies with same-age peers regardless of when they complete requirements for a diploma: See information about Kevin’s Law.

What to Know about Adapted Physical Education in Washington State

A Brief Overview

  • Physical Education (PE) is adapted in four primary ways to support students with disabilities. Read on for more detail.
  • Federal law protects the rights of students with disabilities to access PE, and Adapted PE (APE) can be provided as a service on a student’s Individualized Education Program (IEP).
  • How often Adapted PE is provided is an ongoing conversation. Read on for information about how advocates are addressing the topic in Washington.
  • The Society of Health and Physical Educators of Washington (SHAPEWA.org) provides more information about Adapted PE, teacher trainings, and best practices.

Full Article 

Physical Education—what older generations called “gym class”—is part of school for all students. Instruction is provided for development and care of the body. Classes can support motor skills, physical fitness, athletic games, social play skills, teamwork, and much more. How the PE curriculum is adjusted to be appropriate and accessible to students with disabilities is the work of specialists in Adapted Physical Education.

PAVE reached out to two experts in the field to provide content for this article. Toni Bader and Lauren Wood are Adapted Physical Education teachers in the Seattle Area. Both are advocates supporting the advancement of Adapted PE options in Washington State. Their credentials and email addresses are listed at the end of the article.

How Adapted PE works

According to Bader and Wood, best practice for an Adapted PE teacher is to utilize four main types of adaptations and modifications:

  1. Environment: the PE space can be adjusted to function for all learners.
    • Size: The size of the activity area and/or the activity group can impact how accessible the programming is for some students.
    • Stimulus: Lighting, sound, and visuals all impact a person’s sensory experience. Shifting those stimuli thoughtfully can impact accessibility.
  2. Instruction: APE teachers gather information about individual students to ensure that instructions are accessible to everyone, regardless of whether they need verbal instructions, gestures, pictures, written words, demonstrations, and/or videos.
  3. Equipment: In light of their disability circumstances, some students may need their PE equipment to move more slowly or to be bigger, smaller, more tactile, more visually stimulating, or something else. An Adapted PE instructor works to figure that out. 
  4. Rules: To ensure that PE is inclusive, rules of the games may need to be added or taken away.

What does Adapted PE look like?

The point of Adapted PE is to individualize the general PE curriculum so that it is accessible for all students, regardless of their ability. How it looks varies a lot depending on the student, but here are a few examples of Adapted PE in action:

  • A third grader with Autism Spectrum Disorder uses a play script on her communication device to invite other students to play tag with her.
  • A high-school senior with Down syndrome is introduced to adult recreation opportunities in his community so he can continue building healthy habits beyond graduation.  
  • A seventh grader with Cerebral Palsy attends general PE class. The Adapted PE teacher, general PE teacher, and the physical therapist collaborate to create an exercise plan to strengthen the student’s legs while using his gait trainer (walker).

IEPs can include Adapted PE as a service

Eligibility for an Individualized Education Program (IEP) is determined through evaluation. The process helps to determine whether a student has a disability, whether the disability has a significant impact on learning, and whether the student requires Specially Designed Instruction (SDI) and/or related services in order to access a Free Appropriate Public Education (FAPE). FAPE is the entitlement of any student, ages 3-21, who is eligible for school-based services delivered through an IEP.

If a student’s access to PE is significantly impacted and the student needs the curriculum to be individualized in order to learn the skills that are part of the curriculum, then Adapted PE can be provided as a direct IEP service. IEP teams discuss how Specially Designed Instruction (SDI) is delivered for each individual student, and Adapted PE teachers are key members of the team.

If Adapted PE is part of a student’s IEP, the student will have individualized APE goals. The APE teacher can write the goals, deliver the services, monitor progress, and attend IEP meetings as a service expert.

Barriers to Adapted PE services

A problem in Washington State is that there are too few Adapted PE teachers. Recruitment is discouraged because Washington does not yet recognize Adapted PE as a specific subject matter/content area to endorse on a teacher’s professional certificate. The lack of state endorsement means that:

  • An Adapted PE teacher cannot independently provide services to students.
  • Evaluations and IEPs may not fully assess or document student needs because this expertise is missing. 
  • Individualized programming may be underserved by general education PE teachers or special education teachers who lack specialized PE training. 
  • Opportunities for inclusion are diminished.
  • Safety may be compromised for general education and special education students.
  • Students with disabilities may not learn to access physical fitness safely and joyfully.
  • The state lacks data about Adapted PE programming and how/where it is delivered.

Advocacy is underway

Bader and Wood, who provided information for this article, are Adapted PE teachers working with state policymakers in Washington to develop an APE or specialty endorsement.

“We want to ensure all students with disabilities are receiving high quality physical education programming by a teacher who is specifically trained to provide SDI and evaluation in the area of Adapted PE,” Wood says.

“Having educator preparation courses that lead to an Adapted PE endorsement or specialty endorsement will support teachers in providing safe and meaningful physical education and will positively impact our students, staff, communities, and overall culture.”

To learn more about Adapted PE, families may reach out to:

Staff and Board Members at SHAPE Washington

Steps to Read, Understand, and Develop an Initial IEP

A Brief Overview

  • A first-time IEP document is a lot to absorb. This article provides tips to help family members read through a draft IEP and prepare to participate on the IEP team that finalizes the Individualized Education Program before services begin.
  • Remember, the school’s first version is a DRAFT, and family members of the IEP team have the right to participate in program development.
  • Under state and federal law, parents have the right to information about their child’s education—including IEPs—in a language they can understand. The Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction (OSPI) provides guidance about language-access rights in multiple languages.
  • Parents or guardians can request a specific method for regularly checking in with school staff.  A weekly or bi-weekly email is common, or parents can arrange to get something in the backpack, a phone call, a text…. Ask for what works and be sure the agreement is included in the Prior Written Notice (PWN), a formal letter sent to parents after meetings and before (prior to…) implementation of services.
  • Services are ongoing unless a parent officially signs a document to revoke services or if a new educational evaluation finds that the student is no longer eligible.

Full Article

After a student is determined eligible for an Individualized Education Program (IEP), the process of building the IEP can feel intimidating. This article provides tips to help family members read through a draft IEP and prepare to participate on the IEP team that will finalize the program before services begin. The process is the same regardless of the age of the student. IEPs can support students ages 3-21, in preschool through high school graduation or aging out at 21.

Washington State requires schools to start IEP services within 30 calendar days of the eligibility finding. That means school staff generally start drafting the IEP right after the school and family meet to talk about the evaluation and the student’s eligibility. A family member can ask to extend the 30-day deadline, but schools cannot delay the process without parental consent.

Tip: If the school wants to have a meeting to discuss eligibility and IEP development all at once, parents can request a two-meeting process instead to have time to digest the information and fully participate in decision-making.

What is the student’s eligibility category?

Take note of the eligibility category that entitles the student to an IEP. This category is decided during the evaluation review meeting. Sometimes more than one of 14 possible categories applies, and the IEP team chooses the category that seems the best fit.

Once chosen, the category is less important than the services that are needed for a student to access meaningful learning. Parents may want to be aware of implicit biases associated with certain eligibility categories and ensure that school staff are talking about the whole child and not using labels to fit children into pre-built programs. For example, there’s no such thing as a “Behavior IEP” or an “Academic IEP.” Individual children have programs built to meet their needs, based on evaluations that highlight their strengths as well as deficits. Read on for information about the rights of children with disabilities to be served as general education students first—in the Least Restrictive Environment (LRE).

The eligibility category is listed on the “Cover Page” of the IEP document, near the name, birth date, and other personal details about the student. PAVE provides an article, Evaluations Part 1, that describes the evaluation process and includes a list of 14 eligibility categories that apply in Washington State.

Know what’s in the IEP before you meet

The IEP document is a lot to absorb, and family members are more prepared to support their child when they review the IEP draft before meeting with the IEP team for the first time. The document may be 10-20 pages long (or longer), but don’t be intimidated! A child’s education is worth taking time to read for understanding.

Be sure to ask for a copy of the IEP draft with enough time to look it over before the meeting. Some IEPs have only a few services and goals while others are quite complex. The amount of time a family needs for review also might depend on whether the document is translated into a language besides English.

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

Below are suggestions for looking through the IEP to prepare for a meeting. Use this list like a map guiding you through the IEP document.

Start with the Service Matrix

The Service Matrix is about halfway through the IEP and looks like a chart/grid. These are the suggested services. Remember, the school’s first version is a DRAFT IEP, and family members of the IEP team have the right to participate in program development.

  • The services are how a student receives Specially Designed Instruction (SDI) in each area where the student has significant deficits that make them eligible for special education.
  • Notice how many minutes are being offered to support learning in each area of SDI. The SDI supports at least one goal for each subject area, so consider whether there’s enough time for the learning that will support progress (read on for more about goals).
  • The Service Matrix includes Related/Ancillary Services if the student is eligible for them. These are therapeutic services, such as occupational, physical, or speech therapy. Mental health counseling and parent training (for example, to learn behavioral strategies) may be listed as Related Services.
  • Sometimes Related Services are offered through “consultation,” meaning that a specialist will make recommendations to school staff but won’t work directly with the student. Notice how services are listed and whether you agree that they will meet the student’s needs.
  • If a child will transition to a different level of school within the year, there may be two grids. One grid is for the rest of the current year, and the other grid is for the next academic year at the new school. Service minutes are often slightly different for elementary, middle, and high school.
  • Consider whether the IEP team will schedule a “transition conference” to talk about the switch to a new level of school and how services might change.
  • The grid includes a location for each service. Notice whether the student is going to be pulled out of class to receive a service or whether the services will be “pushed in” to a general education classroom.
  • Make note of any questions or concerns about the Service Matrix that you want to include in your agenda for the IEP meeting.

Refer to the Present Levels statements

The Present Levels of Academic Achievement and Functional Performance (PLOP for short) are within the first few pages of the IEP. This is the part of the IEP with the most room for paragraphs about what’s going on. These statements come mostly from evaluation, and parents, teachers, and service providers may contribute language and information to enhance them. This section of the IEP explains why the student needs services.

  • Consider whether the Service Matrix adequately addresses the needs identified in the Present Levels.  
  • Goals are described within the Present Levels and again in another section of the IEP that is just for goal setting. Make sure nothing is left out and that language is consistent throughout the IEP.
  • Read the goals carefully. The Present Levels statements provide a “baseline,” to show where a student starts before new learning begins.
  • Are the goals SMART (Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, Time-Bound)?
  • In particular, is each goal Achievable with the instructional time offered through the Service Matrix?
  • Are any goals too easy?
  • Students with IEPs are entitled to a Free Appropriate Public Education (FAPE). FAPE includes the right to an IEP that is reasonably calculated to enable progress appropriate in light of the child’s circumstances. Are the goals set at the right level to support meaningful progress?
  • Parents can suggest changes to the goals at the IEP meeting.
  • Parents can ask what teaching strategy (SDI) will help the student reach the annual goals. Here’s a way to ask: “Can you help me understand HOW you will be teaching my child, so I can use similar words and strategies when I’m helping my child learn?”
  • A general description of the teaching strategy can be incorporated into the Present Levels statements.
  • PAVE provides an article with more tips about goal setting.
  • Write down questions and concerns about Present Levels or Goals for the team meeting.

Compare Service Matrix and LRE statement

The Present Levels, Goals, and Service Matrix are the heart of a student’s Individualized Education Program (IEP). After reading through these sections,notice if any of the student’s services are listed as “concurrent,” which means they are provided within general education (push in). Notice also which services are being offered in a separate (pull out) classroom. Then keep going in the IEP document to find a statement about the student’s Least Restrictive Environment (LRE).

  • A student is entitled to FAPE in the Least Restrictive Environment to the maximum extent appropriate.
  • Consider whether the IEP team has adequately considered that special education is a service, not a place.
  • Are there additional creative ways to consider how services might be “push in” instead of “pull out” to support more inclusion, if appropriate, to meet the student’s needs?
  • The LRE page includes a grid to mark what was considered and chosen as a range/percentage of time that a student will spend in special education versus general education.
  • Consider whether you agree with the LRE determination and note any concerns for the IEP team to discuss.

Read the list of accommodations.

Accommodations are designed to enable a student with a disability to access learning in ways that are equitable. Equity doesn’t mean equal. Equity exists when a student gets support (like a wheelchair ramp, toileting plan, earphones, or a break-space option) to access what typically developing classmates can access without support.

  • Consider how the accommodations will look and feel to the student. Will the student be able to understand and self-advocate for them, or will the student need more coaching from teachers for the supports to be meaningful?
  • If possible, collect student input or ensure the student can attend the IEP meeting to participate in discussion about their supports and services.
  • Are the supports individualized and thoughtful or pulled from a pre-built list? Be sure they address needs identified through evaluation and by the student, family, and other people who truly know this student.
  • A student does not need to be “eligible” for an accommodation. There simply needs to be demonstrated impact on a “major life activity.” See PAVE’s article about Section 504.
  • The accommodations section of an IEP or a Section 504 Plan can travel with a student into higher education, vocational education, or work.
  • Is there anything the student needs that is missing? The Present Levels section at the front of the IEP might provide insight.
  • “Teacher check for understanding” is a common school accommodation. Parents may want to ask how the teacher will develop a system for doing that.
  • Parents can ask how the school will share the list of accommodations with all relevant staff. For example, does a bus driver, school nurse, or lunch server need to read this list? Would it be reasonable for the student to hand-carry a handout version?
  • If the student will transition into a new level of school within the year, consider how to discuss the accommodations with the new teaching team next term.
  • Notice if there are any “modifications,” which would include changes to the expectations—such as doing a shorter assignment or showing work in an alternative format. Does anything need to be added?
  • Make note of any concerns related to accommodations or modifications and plan to share those with the IEP team.

Accommodations for state testing

Note any concerns about how a child will be accommodated on standardized tests. Students with IEPs may be allowed extra time, an alternative place or time to take the tests, or something else. Try to imagine the experience of testing from the student’s perspective and consider how accommodations will enable the student to demonstrate knowledge.

Communication and Prior Written Notice (PWN)

Parents can request a specific method for regularly checking in with school staff.  A weekly or bi-weekly email is common, or parents can arrange to get something in the backpack, a phone call, a text…. Ask for what works. At the IEP team meeting, the group can agree on a communication strategy.

A communication agreement is formally written into the Prior Written Notice (PWN), which the school sends to parents after the IEP meeting.

A parent can request further changes to the IEP and note any disagreements by submitting a note to attach to the PWN, which becomes part of the formal IEP document. The PWN includes detail about what the IEP team has agreed to implement and when services are scheduled to begin.

Sign Consent for services to begin

Once the team agrees on a final version of the IEP, a parent must sign consent for services to begin. From that point on, families have the right to request an IEP team meeting any time there are concerns about progress or services. The IEP team is required to meet at least once a year. At meetings, family participants sign to show their participation and attendance.

Services are ongoing unless a parent officially signs a document to revoke services or if a new evaluation finds that the student is no longer eligible. A new evaluation is required at least every three years to determine ongoing eligibility and any necessary changes to the student’s program. A parent who disagrees with a school district evaluation can request an Independent Educational Evaluation (IEE) at district expense. See PAVE’s article: Evaluations Part 2.

Mental Health Education and Support at School can be Critical

A Brief Overview

  • Alarming statistics indicate the pandemic has worsened behavioral health outcomes for young people. Governor Jay Inslee on March 14, 2021, issued an emergency proclamation declaring children’s mental health to be in crisis.
  • Students eligible for special education services through the federal category of Emotional Disturbance are more than twice as likely as other disabled peers to quit school before graduating.
  • These outcomes make adolescence a critical time for mental health promotion, early identification and intervention. Read on for further information and resources.
  • Seattle Children’s Hospital has a referral helpline. Families can call 833-303-5437, Monday-Friday, 8-5, to connect with a referral specialist. The service is free for families statewide.
  • Help is available 24/7 from the Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-TALK.
  • Text HEAL to 741741 to reach a trained Crisis Text Line counselor.
  • For youth who need support related to LGBTQ issues, the Trevor Projectprovides targeted resources and a helpline: 866-488-7386.
  • A place to connect with other families is a Facebook group called Youth Behavioral Healthcare Advocates (YBHA-WA).

Full Article

Alarming statistics indicate the COVID-19 pandemic has worsened circumstances for young people who were already struggling to maintain mental health. Washington’s most recent Healthy Youth Survey, from 2018, revealed that 10 percent of high-school students had attempted suicide within the year. Governor Jay Inslee on March 14, 2021, issued an emergency proclamation declaring children’s mental health to be in crisis.

The governor’s order requires schools to provide in-person learning options and directs the Health Care Authority and Department of Health to “immediately begin work on recommendations on how to support the behavioral health needs of our children and youth over the next 6 to 12 months and to address and triage the full spectrum of rising pediatric behavioral health needs.”

The Children and Youth Behavioral Health Work Group (CYBHWG) was created in 2016 by the Legislature (HB 2439) to promote system improvement. CYBHWG supports several advisory groups, including one for Student Behavioral Health and Suicide Prevention. The work groups include representatives from the Legislature, state agencies, health care providers, tribal governments, community health services, and other organizations, as well as parents of children and youth who have received services. Meetings include opportunities for public comment. Meeting schedules and reports are posted on the Health Care Authority (HCA) website.

A press for more school-based services

Advocacy for more school-based mental health services comes from the University of Washington’s SMART Center. SMART stands for School Mental Health Assessment Research and Training. The SMART center in 2020 provided the legislative work group with a report: The Case for School Mental Health. The document includes state and national data that strongly indicate school-based behavioral health services are effective:

“Increased access to mental health services and supports in schools is vital to improving the physical and psychological safety of our students and schools, as well as academic performance and problem-solving skills. Availability of comprehensive school mental health promotes a school culture in which students feel safe to report safety concerns, which is proven to be among the most effective school safety strategies.”

The statewide Student Behavioral Health and Suicide Prevention advisory group has recommended widespread implementation of Multi-Tiered Systems of Support (MTSS). Through MTSS, schools support well-being for all students through school-wide programming and offer higher levels of support based on student need. Social Emotional Learning (SEL) is a key component of an MTSS framework, which also creates a structure for providing Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports (PBIS) at various levels of need.

The Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction, the guidance agency for Washington schools, prioritized 2021 budget requests to Empower all Schools to Support the Whole Child, including through MTSS. In January, 2021, OSPI was awarded a five-year, $5.3 million grant from the U.S. Department of Education to build regional coaching capacity to support districts in their MTSS implementation. As a local control state, Washington districts determine their own specific policies and procedures.

TIP: Families can ask school and district staff to describe their MTSS framework and how students are receiving support through the various levels/tiers.

Special Education is one pathway for more help

Students may access mental health support through the special education system. Emotional Disturbance is a federal category of disability under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). Appropriate support can be especially critical for these students: According to the U.S. Office of Special Education Programs (OSEP), students eligible for school-based services under the ED category are twice as likely to drop out of high school before graduating.

Note that a student with a mental health condition could qualify for an IEP under the category of Other Health Impairment (OHI), which captures needs related to various medical diagnoses.

In Washington State, the ED category is referred to as Emotional Behavioral Disability (EBD). If the student’s behavioral health is impaired to a degree that the student is struggling to access school, and the student needs specially designed interventions, then the student may be eligible for an Individualized Education Program (IEP). Keep in mind that academic subjects are only a part of learning in school: Social Emotional Learning (SEL) is part of the core curriculum. 

An educational evaluation determines whether a student has a disability that significantly impacts access to school and whether specially designed instruction and/or related services are needed for the student to receive a Free Appropriate Public Education (FAPE). FAPE is the entitlement of a student eligible for special education services and an IEP team determines how FAPE/educational services are provided to an individual student.

Behavioral health counseling can be part of an IEP

Counseling can be written into an IEP as a related service. When included in a student’s IEP as educationally necessary for FAPE, a school district is responsible to provide and fund those services. School districts can receive reimbursement for 70 percent of the cost of behavioral health services for students who are covered by Medicaid and on an IEP.

A student with a mental health condition who doesn’t qualify for an IEP might be eligible for a Section 504 Plan. A disability that impairs a major life activity triggers Section 504 protections, which include the right to appropriate and individualized accommodations at school. Section 504 is an aspect of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, a Civil Rights law that protects against disability discrimination. Students with IEPs and 504 plans are protected by Section 504 rights.

Behavioral Health encompasses a wide range of disability conditions, including those related to substance use disorder, that impact a person’s ability to manage behavior. Sometimes students with behavioral health disabilities bump into disciplinary issues at school. Students with identified disabilities have protections in the disciplinary process: PAVE provides a detailed article about student and family rights related to school discipline.

Placement options for students who struggle with behavior

IEP teams determine the program and placement for a student. In accordance with federal law (IDEA), students have a right to FAPE in the Least Restrictive Environment (LRE) to the maximum extent appropriate. That means educational services and supports are designed to help students access their general education classroom first. If they are unable to make meaningful progress there because of their individual circumstances and disability condition, then the IEP team considers more restrictive placement options. See PAVE’s article: Special Education is a Service, Not a Place.

Sometimes the IEP team, which includes family, will determine that in order to receive FAPE a student needs to be placed in a Day Treatment or Residential school. OSPI maintains a list of Non-Public Agencies that districts might pay to support the educational needs of a student.

A precedent-setting court ruling in 2017 was Edmonds v. A.T. The parents of a student with behavioral disabilities filed due process against the Edmonds School District for reimbursement of residential education. The administrative law judge ruled that the district must pay for the residential services because “students cannot be separated from their disabilities.”

Strategies and safety measures for families

With the release of the Healthy Youth Survey in Spring, 2019, the state issued a two-page Guide to Mental Health Information and Resources to provide more detail about the survey and to direct families and school staff toward resources for support.

Included is a list of factors that help youth remain resilient to mental health challenges:

  • Support and encouragement from parents/guardians and other family members, friends, school professionals, and other caring adults
  • Feeling that there are people who believe in them, care about them, and whom they can talk to about important matters
  • Safe communities and learning environments
  • Self-esteem, a sense of control and responsibility, and problem-solving and coping skills
  • Having an outlet for self-expression and participation in various activities

The handout includes tips for parents and other adults supporting teens who feel anxious or depressed:

  • Bond with them: Unconditional love includes clear statements that you value them, and your actions show you want to stay involved in their lives.
  • Talk with teens about their feelings and show you care. Listen to their point of view. Suicidal thinking often comes from a wish to end psychological pain.
  • Help teens learn effective coping strategies and resiliency skills to deal with stress, expectations of others, relationship problems, and challenging life events.
  • Have an evening as a family where everyone creates their own mental health safety plan.
  • Learn about warning signs and where to get help
  • Ask: “Are you thinking about suicide?” Don’t be afraid that talking about it will give them the idea. If you’ve observed any warning signs, chances are they’re already thinking about it.
  • If you own a firearm, keep it secured where a teen could not access it. Lock up medications they shouldn’t have access to.

State options for behavioral health services and support

For Washington children and youth with Medicaid insurance, the highest level of community-based care in behavioral health is provided through Wraparound with Intensive Services (WISe). The WISe program was begun as part of the settlement of a class-action lawsuit, TR v Dreyfus, in which a federal court found that Washington wasn’t providing adequate mental-health services to youth. WISe teams provide a wide range of therapies and supports with a goal to keep the young person out of the hospital.

Young people under 18 who need residential care to meet medical needs may be referred to the Children’s Long-Term Inpatient program: PAVE’s website provides an article about CLIP.

If a person ages 15-40 is newly experiencing psychosis, Washington offers a wraparound-style program called New Journeys. This website link includes access to a referral form.

The Family, Youth and System Partner Round Table (FYSPRT) provides a meeting space for family members and professionals to talk about what’s working and what isn’t working in mental healthcare. FYSPRT groups provide informal networking and can provide ways for families to meet up and support one another under challenging circumstances.

Federal parity laws require insurers to provide coverage for behavioral health services that are equitable to coverage for physical health conditions. The National Health Law Program (NHLP) provides information and advocacy related to behavioral healthcare access and offers handouts to help families know what to expect from their insurance coverage and what to do if they suspect a parity law violation:

Family Initiated Treatment (FIT) is an option in Washington

Youth older than 13 have the right to consent or not consent to any medical treatment in Washington State. Parents and lawmakers throughout 2018-2019 engaged in conversations about how that creates barriers to care for some teens struggling with behavioral health conditions. The Adolescent Behavioral Health Care Access Act (HB 1874), became law in May 2019. PAVE provides an article about the law and its provision for Family Initiated Treatment.  

Places to seek referrals and information

Seattle Children’s Hospital in 2019 launched a referral helpline. Families can call 833-303-5437, Monday-Friday, 8-5, to connect with a referral specialist. The service is for families statewide. In addition to helping to connect families with services, the hospital is gathering data to identify gaps in care.

PAVE’s Family-to-Family Health Information Center provides technical assistance to families navigating health systems related to disability. Click Get Help at wapave.org or call 800-572-7368 for individualized assistance. Family Voices of Washington provides further information and resources.

Key Resources

For information, help during a crisis, emotional support, and referrals:  

  • Suicide Prevention Lifeline (1-800-273-TALK)
  • Text “HEAL” to 741741 to reach a trained Crisis Text Line counselor
  • Trevor Project Lifeline (LGBTQ) (1-866-488-7386)
  • The Washington Recovery Help Line (1-866-789-1511)
  • TeenLink (1-866-833-6546; 6pm-10pm PST)

Further information on mental health and suicide:  

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.

Depending on a student’s suspected areas of disability (see categories listed below), the district may need medical information. However, the school cannot delay the evaluation while requiring parents to get that medical information. If medical information is necessary for an eligibility determination, the district must pay for the outside evaluation. OSPI includes more detail about these requirements in a Technical Assistance Paper (TAP No. 5).

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 does not need a medical diagnosis to be evaluated by the school. If features of autism may significantly impact access to learning, then the school can assess those features to determine eligibility and special education needs. See PAVE’s  article about Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) and resources for families.
  • 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. If medical information is necessary for an eligibility determination and not already available, the school district must pay for the outside evaluation.
  • 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 0-9): This category can qualify a child for early learning (Birth-3) services in addition to IEP services through age 9. By age 10, 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 Assessment (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 Behavioral 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 families disagree with the school district’s evaluation, they can request an Independent Educational Evaluation (IEE). When granting a request for an IEE, the school district provides a list of possible examiners and covers the cost. To deny an IEE request, the district initiates a due process hearing within 15 calendar days to show that its initial evaluation was appropriate. PAVE provides an article with more information and a sample letter for requesting an IEE.

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

PAVE’s Parent Training and Information (PTI) team provides 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!

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:
    • What did the evaluation find?
    • Is the student eligible?
    • What category of disability is the right fit for eligibility?
    • What services is the student eligible for?
    • 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. 
    • A DRAFT IEP may be reviewed and discussed. Family can request a copy of the DRAFT before meeting.
    • The team decides what the final IEP includes.
    • School provides family with Prior Written Notice after the meeting to reflect the discussion and actions being taken.
    • 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.