Life After High School: A Two-Part Training to Help Families and Young People Get Ready

Making the move from high school to what happens next can be confusing. Making that transition during a worldwide pandemic has added challenges. This training provides key information for families to ensure that school-based services are providing what students with disabilities need to launch adult lives that meet their goals for further education, work, and independent living. Attention families with younger children: It’s never too soon to start learning this information!

Part 1 of this two-part presentation provides foundational information about the rights of students with disabilities, with some content related to COVID-19. Students with disabilities are entitled to a Free Appropriate Public Education (FAPE), and that includes a well-planned journey through school, graduation, and whatever happens next. Accessibility and equity are rights throughout school and adulthood. Look and listen to learn more.

Part 2 provides key information about tools for students moving toward graduation and beyond. For example, IEP transition planning is linked to the High School and Beyond Planning process for Washington students. This training provides information about service agencies that support students while they are in school and into adulthood, with resources and places to go for further support and information.

Families and young people can reach out for individualized assistance from our Parent Training and Information (PTI) staff at PAVE. Click Get Help or call 800-572-7368.

After you view the video, please take a quick moment to complete our survey. Your feedback is valuable!

Long COVID May Cause Disability and Eligibility for Services

Some people infected by the SARS-CoV-2 virus experience long-term symptoms—called Long COVID. If lasting symptoms significantly impact a person’s life, their ability to work, or their access to school, disability laws are in place to protect and support them.

Among federal laws that support disability rights are the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 (which includes Section 504), and the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). Note that Part B of the IDEA supports special education services for ages 3-21, and Part C provides early interventions for children birth-3.

Disability protections are also provided by Section 1557 of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services with the Civil Rights Division of the Department of Justice provide guidance on the HHS.gov website: Guidance on “Long COVID” as a Disability Under the ADA, Section 504, and Section 1557.

The federal Administration for Community Living (ACL) published a resource that is a place to begin learning about where support is available: How ACL’s Disability and Aging Networks Can Help People with Long COVID. For people whose work is impacted by Long COVID, the U.S. Department of Labor’s Office of Disability Employment Policy provides information related to job accommodations, employee benefits, worker’s rights, and more.

If a student with Long COVID is impacted, they can be evaluated to determine eligibility for school-based services. For students already identified for school-based services, Long COVID might entitle the student to additional or adjusted services. The Office of Special Education and Rehabilitation Services (OSERS), issued a Fact Sheet July 26, 2021, explaining the rights of children who may have a disability condition related to Long COVID. The rest of this article focuses on protections for children and students.

Section 504 support

Section 504 is part of the Rehabilitation Act and includes protections for individuals accessing a public space, service, or program. A person of any age with a disability has the right to accommodations and modifications if their disability condition significantly impacts a major life activity, such as breathing, walking, learning…. Section 504 guarantees equitable access to opportunities publicly available to people without disabilities. If COVID infection has caused a disability condition because of its lasting impacts, then Section 504 protections may apply.

In school, a Section 504 Plan provides a student with support in general education. Criteria are broad and determined if the student has a disability condition that impacts any aspect of their educational access. If so, the student is eligible for support to meet their needs.

For example, a student with Long COVID might have impacts to their breathing, walking, attention span, or stamina. They may need accommodations for a late start, a shortened school day, a reduced workload, or a place to rest while at school. If mental health is impacted, they may need social-emotional or behavioral supports to continue accessing their general education curriculum and class spaces.

School-based IEP services

If evaluation determines that Long COVID impacts a student (ages 3-21) to such a degree that special education and related services are necessary, then the student may be eligible for an Individualized Education Program (IEP). One eligibility category for IEP services, for example, is Other Health Impairment (OHI). For a full list of eligibility categories see PAVE’s article: IDEA: The Foundation of Special Education.

An educational evaluation determines:

  1. Is there a disability?
  2. Is there significant educational impact?
  3. Does the student require Specially Designed Instruction and/or Related Services?

If Long COVID has created a condition in which all three criteria are met, then the student receives services with an IEP. If the student already has an IEP and a COVID infection has created new barriers to learning, then a new evaluation may be needed to determine what additional services the IEP team can consider.

Here are a few examples of how Specially Designed Instruction (SDI) and Related Services might be included in an IEP to support a student with Long COVID:

  • A teacher provides instruction differently to support a student whose ability to focus is significantly impacted by Long COVID. Progress toward a skill of attention/focus is tracked to see if there is improvement or if something about the teaching strategy needs an adjustment.
  • A teacher helps a student learn emotional coping strategies after Long COVID caused severe anxiety and mood dysregulation. A goal is set to track progress on this social emotional learning (SEL) skill.
  • A physical education teacher provides a specially designed PE program for a student with Long COVID whose symptoms get worse with physical exertion. Goals are set, and progress is monitored. See PAVE’s article about Adapted PE.
  • A student with lingering physical symptoms of COVID receives physical or occupational therapy as a Related Services through the IEP.
  • A student with psychological impacts from the illness receives counseling as a Related Service on the IEP.

Of course, this is a short and incomplete list of possibilities. IEP teams are responsible to develop programming that is individualized to meet a student’s unique and specific needs. Evaluation data is critical in development of the services and programming, and families have the right to request an Independent Educational Evaluation (IEE) at district expense if they don’t believe the district’s own data is accurate or comprehensive enough to develop an appropriate IEP.

The primary entitlement of a student receiving school-based services is FAPE—Free Appropriate Public Education. FAPE means that services enable progress that is appropriate in light of the child’s circumstances. If Long COVID has disabled a student’s ability to access school appropriately, then they may be entitled to FAPE. The services that provide FAPE are determined individually and by a team that includes family participants.

Early intervention services

Health officials are reporting developmental delays related to COVID infections. Young children, Birth-3, who have been ill with COVID and have ongoing symptoms may be eligible for disability protections from the IDEA Part C, which provides federal funds for early intervention services delivered through an Individualized Family Service Plan (IFSP). According to the OSERS document about Long COVID:

“A child suspected of having a disability should be referred as soon as possible, but in no case more than seven days, after the child has been identified. With parental consent, a timely, comprehensive, multidisciplinary evaluation must be completed, and if the child is determined eligible, a child and family assessment must be conducted to determine the appropriate early intervention services and supports for the child and family.”

Resources to help you

PAVE provides resource collections to support families of children in various ages and stages:

PAVE’s Family-to-Family Health Information Center (F2F) provides direct assistance for questions related to health and wellness, insurance, and access to medical services. For questions about early intervention or school-based services, our Parent Training and Information (PTI) staff can help. Click Get Help from our home page at wapave.org to request individualized support.

Recovery Services: What Families Need to Know as Schools Reopen

A Brief Overview

  • Students who did not make adequate progress on IEP goals due to COVID-19 may need Recovery Services to get back on track. IEP teams are responsible to make student-centered decisions about this option for additional educational services.
  • Not all students need Recovery Services, but the state has made clear that IEP teams must discuss progress made and missed for each student: “Families should not have to make a special request for this process to occur,” according to OSPI guidance.
  • Students who graduated or turned 21 during the pandemic may be eligible for Transition Recovery Services. Please see PAVE’s additional article: Support for Youth Whose Post-High School Plans were Impacted by COVID-19.
  • Read on for tips to get ready to talk about Recovery Services with the IEP team.

Full Article

The 2021-22 school year comes with a unique set of challenges due to the COVID-19 pandemic and the diverse ways it impacted families and schools. For students who did not receive the Individualized Education Program (IEP) services they needed for appropriate progress, IEP teams are responsible to get students back on track.

The term “Recovery Services” was designated by Washington’s Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction (OSPI) to describe additional special education services for students who lost progress or failed to make appropriate gains in learning because of the pandemic. Recovery Services are designed to meet the needs of individual students, and IEP teams that include family participants determine what services are necessary based on formal and informal data and team discussions.

State and federal dollars have been allotted to support student recovery, including through the American Rescue Plan. School districts are required to submit a formal plan before accessing these federal funds. Before making their final plans publicly available districts are required to seek public comment. Information about these requirements is described in a publication from OSPI: Academic and Student Well-Being Recovery Plan: Planning Guide 2021 For School Districts, Tribal Compact Schools, and Charter Schools.

OSPI’s guidance provides detail about state requirements for districts to consider social emotional learning, student well-being, and equity issues related to the disproportionate impact of the pandemic on different populations—not just academic recovery.

TIP: Families impacted by trauma, death, or other challenges during the pandemic can review their district’s Recovery Plan and consider whether their student’s needs are likely to be met. If there are concerns that support will fall short, meet with school and district staff to request a more individualized, equitable approach. For students with IEPs, needs related to specific losses and trauma can be discussed in the context of an IEP Recovery Services plan.

For the most updated information and guidance about accessing materials in a language other than English, visit OSPI’s website: Novel Coronavirus (COVID-19) Guidance & Resources.

How are Recovery Services determined?

To determine Recovery Services, IEP teams consider key questions:

  • What did the IEP team hope the student would accomplish by now? (Expected progress, skills, and services if there had been no pandemic)
  • What did the student accomplish or access? (Actual progress or regression and services delivered)
  • What is the gap, and how can the team design Recovery Services to fill that gap?

Compensatory Services are different

Another option for extra help is Compensatory Services. Compensatory Services are typically provided as the result of a complaint process if the school failed to serve a student’s IEP. In resolving a Due Process complaint, for example, an administrative law judge might order a school to provide Compensatory Services.

A court ruling or formal complaint process is not required; an IEP team can use its own discretion to develop and provide Compensatory Services if a student’s needs went unmet. The US Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights recognized early in the pandemic that additional services would likely be necessary when schools resumed in-person instruction and issued this statement in a March 16, 2020, fact sheet:

“The Department understands that there may be exceptional circumstances that could affect how a particular service is provided. If a student does not receive services after an extended period of time, the student’s IEP Team, or appropriate personnel under Section 504, must make an individualized determination whether and to what extent compensatory services are needed consistent with the respective applicable requirements, including to make up for any skills that may have been lost.”

IEP teams also can discuss ESY

The fall return to school is a good time for IEP teams to consider whether a student experienced learning losses during summer break. By tracking how long it takes to recover a skill, the IEP team can discuss whether the student might need Extended School Year (ESY), typically provided next summer. ESY is a unique process for students with IEPs, and ESY services are determined based on a specific discussion about regression and recoupment. To better understand those terms and how ESY is determined, see PAVE’s article: ESY Helps Students Who Struggle to Maintain Skills and Access FAPE.

IEP teams can discuss Recovery Services, Compensatory Services, and Extended School Year in determining what a student may need to recover learning that was unavailable or inaccessible due to the pandemic or a student’s unique circumstances.

Recovery Services are student- and family-centered

Not all students need Recovery Services, but the state has made clear that IEP teams must discuss progress made and missed for each student in the context of COVID: “Families should not have to make a special request for this process to occur,” according to OSPI guidance.

Like Compensatory Services and ESY, Recovery Services are generally provided outside of regular school. Their focus is helping the student achieve at the level expected if the pandemic hadn’t happened. Recovery services are not calculated as a 1:1 replacement for missed IEP service minutes. According to OSPI:

“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.”

Extra services ensure access to FAPE

All options for additional school services are related to the provision of a Free Appropriate Public Education (FAPE). FAPE is what students eligible for special education services are entitled to. FAPE is ensured when an IEP is reasonably calculated to enable progress appropriate in light of a child’s circumstances. That specific language comes from a 2017 Supreme Court ruling referred to as Endrew F.

TIP: Here’s a way to talk about Recovery Services using this information: Students who didn’t make appropriate progress on their IEP goals because of the pandemic now are entitled to additional services to access their right to FAPE.

Recovery Services are documented in a PWN

When they are delivered outside of regular school hours, extra services are documented in a Prior Written Notice (PWN), which is a record of an IEP meeting and pending program changes. A PWN is often attached to the IEP when the school shares a copy with the family. As with the IEP itself, family members of the IEP team can request changes or amendments to a Prior Written Notice (PWN).

When documenting Recovery Services, the PWN includes specific details about how, when, and where services are delivered; an explanation about why the services are necessary; data that influenced the decision; and additional options discussed and considered to meet student needs.

In rare cases an IEP team may determine that a student needs Recovery Services to be scheduled within the regular school day. In those cases, Recovery Services are listed in the IEP itself, with detail about when, where, and for how long the services are provided.

Recovery Services honor Least Restrictive Environment (LRE)

The federal law that governs special education is the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). IDEA requires that special education services provide FAPE in the Least Restrictive Environment (LRE) to the maximum extent appropriate. To honor a student’s right to LRE, an IEP team is responsible to organize Recovery Services into time slots that don’t interfere with the student’s LRE. Note that these decisions are based on student needs and capacities and not the resource interests of the district or school.

If, for example, a student’s IEP says the student is included in general education for 80 percent of the school day, Recovery Services cannot be scheduled to pull a student out of a general education class and placed in a special education classroom, thus reducing the LRE percentage.

For more information about LRE, see PAVE’s article: Special Education is a Service, Not a Place.

Here are examples of Recovery Services outside of regular school:

  • Additional in-person instruction before or after school
  • Additional special education services during scheduled summer, winter, or spring breaks
  • Additional special education services on district release days
  • Additional in-person or teletherapy services (Speech, Occupational Therapy, Physical Therapy…) before or after school or during school breaks
  • Additional high-school transition program services, including services that may be provided beyond age 21 and/or high-school graduation (see PAVE’s article: Support for Youth Whose Post-High School Plans were Impacted by COVID-19).
  • Additional remote services before or after school or during school breaks, if the student has demonstrated adequate progress from services provided remotely. These might be provided online or through packets or other accessible means.
  • Additional in-person structured play groups or peer social groups before or after school or during school breaks, particularly to support lost progress in areas of Social Emotional Learning (SEL)

Tips to help families prepare to talk about Recovery Services with the IEP team:

  • Read and re-read the most current IEP: PAVE provides an article for navigating the document–Steps to Read, Understand, and Develop an Initial IEP. If family has lost track of the current IEP document, request one from the school or district office.
  • On the IEP Cover Page, note the IEP’s annual review date and whether meetings were held on schedule during the pandemic.
  • Note whether the student is due for an educational evaluation, required every three years. Family can request a new evaluation any time there are concerns that information about the student is outdated or inaccurate.
  • Read each IEP goal carefully. Goals are written to establish whether a teacher’s Specially Designed Instruction (SDI) is effectively helping a child learn a needed skill or concept.
  • Consider whether there are questions about how instruction is specifically designed to meet a need or teach a skill, so the learning is accessible to the student.
  • Reach out to the IEP team case manager or to individual teachers/service providers to request documentation about progress made toward each IEP goal.
  • If progress wasn’t monitored, make a note to discuss this lack of progress monitoring with the IEP team.
  • Write down and prepare to share family/student observations about what worked or didn’t work during alternative school delivery during the pandemic. Reflect on this question: Was the learning accessible?
  • Request an IEP team meeting within a time frame that makes sense. Some teams will want to meet before the school year begins, while others may wait until the school year is underway or until an annual review date later in the school year.
  • Consider inviting district special education staff into the meeting if additional expertise or problem-solving support is needed.
  • At the meeting, ask for family/student concerns to be included in the Prior Written Notice (PWN), a required document generated each time an official IEP team meets to discuss a student’s program and services.
  • Prepare to discuss transportation needs for access to Recovery Services. Transportation options may include district transportation; regional, shared agreements; private transportation; or parent reimbursement for travel costs. Transportation is an IEP related service and part of FAPE delivery.
  • For students near the end of high school or who graduated or turned 21 during the pandemic without achieving or receiving everything that was expected, Transition Recovery Services may be available. See PAVE’s article: Support for Youth Whose Post-High School Plans were Impacted by COVID-19.
  • Consider a student’s strengths and how Recovery Services build on those strengths to support student resilience and well-being. Will the services instill a sense of pride, belonging, and accomplishment? Ensure that the student’s emotional well-being is honored and that the extra help does not feel like punishment.

For additional information, OSPI provides a downloadable document: Washington’s Roadmap for Special Education Recovery Services: 2021 & Beyond.

The U.S. Department of Education’s Return to School Roadmap includes national guidance for educators and families.

PAVE’s Parent Training and Information (PTI) staff can help with questions about school-based services. For questions related to health and wellness, insurance, and access to medical services, PAVE’s Family-to-Family Health Information Center (F2F) provides assistance. Click Get Help from our home page at wapave.org to request individualized support.

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).
  • Family caregivers can request support and training from A Common Voice, a statewide non-profit staffed with Parent Support Specialists who have lived experience parenting a child with mental illness or behavioral health challenges. Contact Jasmine@acommonvoice.org/253-732-4944.

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!