Tips for Communicating as a Member of the IEP Team

A Brief Overview

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

Full Article

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

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

Free Appropriate Public Education (FAPE)

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

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

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

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

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

FAPE provides a place to begin

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

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

Common Ground is not always where meetings begin

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

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

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

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

Climb mountains as a team

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

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

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

Here are some big-picture concepts for productive collaboration:

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

Prepare for the meeting

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

Leave with an action plan

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

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

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

Procedural Safeguards provide additional options

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

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

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

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

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

Is Disability a Factor?

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

IDEA and/or Section 504?

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

Request Evaluation

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

Request IEP Meeting

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

Prepare for the Meeting

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

IEP Process Demystified in 10 Steps

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

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

A Brief Overview

  • Districts are responsible to provide a Free Appropriate Public Education (FAPE) to students within their boundaries with known or suspected disabilities that significantly impact access to learning. Read on to learn more about FAPE and student rights.
  • Federal and state requirements to ensure that children with qualifying disabilities can access early learning services and make the transition to school-based services if eligible at age 3 are still in place, without waivers. PAVE provides an article: Early Intervention: How to Access Services for Children Birth to 3 in Washington.
  • Students retain the right to access high-school transition and vocational rehabilitation services. PAVE provides an article: Ready for Work: Vocational Rehabilitation Provides Guidance and Tools.
  • Families might be interested in attending a school board meeting to learn more about decisions being made at this time. Read on for more information about Open Meetings.
  • The final section of this article includes creative conversation starters, some ideas and prompts that might help your family prepare to talk with school staff.

Full Article

With schools closed and lives disrupted by the COVID-19 crisis, families impacted by disability have unique questions. This article includes key information about student rights and creative conversation starters that family caregivers might consider when planning to meet with school staff over the phone, through written communication or over a web-based platform.

Student rights have not been waived

Students with disabilities have protections under federal and state laws. Those rights and protections are not waived during the school building closures. While schools are operating, districts are responsible to provide a Free Appropriate Public Education (FAPE) to students within their boundaries with known or suspected disabilities that significantly impact access to learning. The protections of FAPE include the right to:

  • Appropriate evaluation if there is a known or suspected disability condition that may impact educational access (Please refer to PAVE’s articles on Evaluations Part 1 and Child Find for more information)
  • Specially Designed Instruction (SDI) in areas of learning with significant educational impact from the disability and an identified need for SDI
  • Meaningful progress toward goals, which are developed to measure the effectiveness of Specially Designed Instruction (SDI)
  • Accommodations (extra time, videos with captioning or embedded sign language interpreting, accessible reading materials, other Assistive Technology…)
  • Modifications (shorter or different assignments, testing, etc.)
  • Special services (speech/language, occupational or physical therapy through video conferencing, for example)
  • Not get bullied or discriminated against because of a disability circumstance

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

In accordance with the IDEA, the IEP includes a description of the student’s present levels of academic achievement and functional performance. Special education attorneys Pam and Pete Wright have published books about special education law and maintain a website, Wrightslaw.com. Included during the pandemic is this page: IEPs During the COVID-19 Era: Your Parental Role and Present Levels in IEPs.

The Wrightslaw page encourages parents to read and re-read the present levels statements before meeting with the school. These statements form the basis for the student’s goals and other services. Up-to-date and comprehensive data within the present levels section of the IEP can be key to a successful outcome.

Wrightslaw encourages family caregivers to provide input for the present levels statements and to request further evaluation if the statements are incomplete or out of date. Creativity and collaboration are encouraged to allow for data collection while school buildings are closed: “Parents, never forget why you are essential members of your child’s IEP team. You are essential because your job is to represent your child’s interests. So, you need to be an active member, not a spectator. Your goal is to work with other members of the team to develop IEPs tailored to meet your child’s unique needs.”

No Waivers to Early Learning Requirements

Federal and state requirements to ensure that children with qualifying disabilities can access early learning services and make the transition to school-based services if eligible at age 3 also are still in place, without waivers.

Washington’s Department of Children, Youth and Families (DCYF) provides COVID-19 guidance for families of children in early learning through the Early Support for Infants and Toddlers (ESIT) program. Included is information about the Individual Family Service Plan (IFSP), how to manage a transition from IFSP to school-based services during the pandemic and tips for telemedicine appointments and protection of confidentiality.

The Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction (OSPI) provides guidance to schools in Washington. In early May 2020, OSPI issued guidance specifically related to early childhood programs during the COVID-19 closure. In particular, the document addresses a child’s rights through the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA).

Services for children Birth-3 are defined by IDEA’s Part C, and school-based services for children 3-21 are defined by IDEA’s Part B. About 3 months before a child with an IFSP turns 3, the school district is responsible to evaluate the child to determine eligibility for an IEP. PAVE provides a general article about the early learning transition process.

According to OSPI guidance, “School districts are expected to move forward with initial Part B evaluations as specified in the Early Childhood Transition from Part C to B Timeline Requirements. School districts must make reasonable efforts to comply with the requirement and may utilize alternative means for conducting virtual assessment and IEP team meetings, such as telephone or videoconferencing.”

Communication is key

How a student of any age accesses FAPE during a national health crisis is a work-in-progress that requires communication and collaboration between schools and families. On its website page titled Special Education Guidance for COVID-19, OSPI provides links to numerous documents that guide schools in best-practice for outreach to families.

On May 5, 2020, OSPI issued a Question & Answer document to address special-education delivery. “This is a national emergency,” the document states, “and districts should be communicating with families and making decisions based on student need and how those services can be provided. There is no one right way to provide services.”

Keep notes about student learning

Schools and families are encouraged to keep notes about student learning and access to educational services. Parents can ask the district to define its official dates of operation. When a school is officially closed, the district is not responsible to provide FAPE, according to OSPI guidance.

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

“If the school is open and serving other students, the school must ensure that the student continues to receive a Free Appropriate Public Education (FAPE), consistent with protecting the health and safety of the student and those providing that education to the student.”

IEP and Section 504 meetings are encouraged, and teams can discuss whether Recovery Services are needed to make up for services not provided or accessible due to the circumstances of the pandemic. Documentation from families and schools will support conversations about what was needed and what was provided. Families can collect and share their own observations about progress toward goals and whether materials provided by the school have been accessible.

Families can reach out to School Boards and Counselors

Families are meeting these emergency circumstances from a wide range of places economically, medically, emotionally, and logistically. School districts statewide have different staffing arrangements and approaches, and Washington schools are locally managed and overseen.

Families might be interested in attending a school board meeting to learn more about decisions being made at this time. Families have the option of making public comment at meetings to share thoughts or concerns. School board meetings are required monthly and must follow the state’s Open Public Meetings Act (Chapter 42.30 in the Revised Code of Washington).Families can reach out to their local district for information about how and when school boards meet. The Washington State School Directors’ Association provides a guidebook about the rules for Open Public Meetings. The rules apply in any meeting space or platform.

For additional support, families might consider reaching out to the school counseling office. The president of the Washington School Counselor’s Association, Jenny Morgan, provided comments in a May 7, 2020, webinar moderated by League of Education Voters. She said school counselors provide a broad range of services, from academic advising to social and emotional support. The American School Counselor Association provides a handout describing the roles of a school counselor.

Morgan says school counselors are uniquely trained to address the academic, career, and social/emotional development of all students through a comprehensive school counseling program. “We are advocates for your child’s educational needs,” she says. “Please do not hesitate to reach out to your school counselor for assistance and support. We are here for you.”

Creative conversation starters

Here are some ideas and prompts that might help your family prepare to talk with school staff. Keep in mind that some answers will not be easily provided, and conversations are ongoing.

  • My child struggles to understand social distancing. What strategy can we use to teach and practice this skill so it will be ready to use when schools reopen?
  • What social story does school staff have to share that will be accessible for my student to understand the coronavirus and why we need to stay home and practice good hygiene?
  • How can the school help my student cope with a high level of anxiety, grief, fear (any emotion that significantly impacts a student’s ability to focus on learning)? Which school counselor can help?
  • My child is turning 3 this month. Who can we talk to at the school district to help get our child ready for preschool? 
  • My student does not want to do school right now. How can we work together to motivate my student to participate in learning and do the work?
  • My student wants to cook, research cars, talk about space flight, do craft projects, walk in nature, play with the family dog, plant a garden … right now. How can we make sure that continuous learning objectives match my child’s natural curiosity?
  • My student loves to play the drums (or something else specific). How can drumming and music (or any interest) be part of the math (or other subject) assignment?
  • The homework packet, online platform, etc., is not accessible to my child. How can we work together and create a learning plan that will work for our family at this time?  
  • My child has a health condition that creates a greater risk for COVID-19 exposure. What could school look like for my child if buildings reopen but my child cannot safely re-enter a traditional classroom?
  • My student is in high school. How can we work together to make sure that the IEP Transition Plan and the High-School and Beyond Plan align? Can we invite the school counselor to our next meeting if we need more help?
  • Can my student do a self-directed project or an alternative assignment to earn a grade or meet a specific objective? Is there a modified way to demonstrate the learning, perhaps through a video, an art project, or a conference with the teacher?
  • Who is the transition counselor assigned to our school by the Division of Vocational Rehabilitation (DVR)? What tools and people can my student work with right now to explore career options and prepare for adult life?
  • What can school staff do to make sure that my student’s current education includes progress toward independent living goals? (Note: PAVE’s article, High School Halt, includes more information on topics impacting graduating seniors and youth transitioning through high school and beyond.)

During the coronavirus pandemic, families with students of all ages and abilities are figuring out strategies for coping with the disruptions. This article may provide some help: How to Get Organized, Feel Big Feelings, and Breathe during the crisis.

PAVE provides ongoing 1:1 support. Fill out a Helpline Request online or call 800-572-7368. Language access services are available.

Sample Letter to Request Evaluation

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

Rights are upheld during COVID pandemic

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

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

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

Request evaluation formally, in writing

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Parents can appeal decisions and/or seek a 504 plan

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

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

Sample letter for a special education referral

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

Your Name
Street Address
City, State, Zip
Date

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

Dear Name (if known, otherwise use title):

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sincerely,

Your Name

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

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

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

IDEA: The Foundation of Special Education

A Brief Overview

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

Full Article

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

Key concepts came from the Education for All Handicapped Children Act, passed in 1975. That was the first United States law that required schools to provide special education services to all children with eligible disabilities. PAVE has an article about special education history.

This article provides an overview of the IDEA, which is unique as a law that provides an individual entitlement. Entitlement means that a child with unique needs gets those needs served on an individual basis, not based on a system or program already built and available. The strengths and challenges of a specific student are assessed, and a team including family members and professionals works together to design a program.

No rights are waived due to COVID-19

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

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

FAPE is an important acronym to learn!

The first principle of the IDEA is the right to a Free Appropriate Public Education, FAPE. Figuring out how to provide FAPE is the work of an Individualized Education Program (IEP) team that includes school and family.

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

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

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

The IDEA is written in three parts: A, B and C. The right of a child with disabilities to receive an education that prepares that child for adult life is stated in Part A: ​

“Disability is a natural part of the human experience and in no way diminishes the right of individuals to participate in or contribute to society…

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

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

Part C protects children Birth to age 3 who need family support for early learning. ​The disability category of developmental delay overlaps early learning and IEP and can qualify a child for free, family-focused services to age 3 and school-based services through age 9. PAVE has an article: Early Intervention: How to Access Services for Children Birth to 3 in Washington.

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

  • Autism: A student does not need a medical diagnosis to be evaluated by the school. If features from the autism spectrum may significantly impact access to learning, then the school can assess those features to determine eligibility and special education needs.
  • Emotional Disturbance: Psychological or psychiatric disorders (anxiety, depression, schizophrenia, post-traumatic stress, etc.) can fall under this category, which Washington schools often refer to as Emotional Behavioral Disability (EBD). Please note that all eligibility categories are intended to identify the needs of students and are not intended to label children in ways that might contribute to stigma or discrimination.
  • Specific Learning Disability: Issues related to dyslexia, dysgraphia, dyscalculia, or other learning deficits can be educationally assessed. A formal diagnosis is not required for a student to qualify under this category. A Washington law taking full effect in 2021-22 requires schools to screen for dyslexia: See PAVE’s article about dyslexia.
  • Other Health Impairment: ADHD, Tourette’s Syndrome and other medical diagnoses are captured within this broad category, often shorted to OHI or Health-Impaired on the IEP document.
  • Speech/Language Impairment: This category can include expressive and/or receptive language disorders in addition to issues related to diction (how a student is able to produce sounds that are understood as words). Social communication deficits also might qualify a student for speech services.
  • Multiple Disabilities: Students with complex medical and learning needs can meet criteria in this category.
  • Intellectual Disability: A student with Down Syndrome or another genetic or cognitive disorder might meet criteria in this category.
  • Orthopedic Impairment: OI refers to physical disabilities that impact access to education.
  • Hearing Impairment: Whether permanent or fluctuating, a hearing impairment may adversely affect a child’s educational performance.
  • Deafness: A student unable to process linguistic information through hearing, with or without amplification, may be eligible for services under this category.
  • Deaf blindness: A combination of hearing and visual impairments establishes a unique set of special education service needs.
  • Visual Impairment/Blindness: Partial sight and blindness may fit this category when, even with correction, eyesight adversely affects a child’s educational performance. Washington State’s Department of Services for the Blind (DSB) is an agency that provides youth and adult services for individuals who are blind or low vision.
  • Traumatic Brain Injury: Brain Injury Alliance of WA is a place for resources to better understand TBI and how to support a student with medical and educational needs.
  • Developmental Delay (ages 0-8): This category can qualify a child for early learning (Birth-3) services in addition to IEP services through age 8. By age 9, a new evaluation may determine eligibility in another category for IEP services to continue.

Educational evaluations ask 3 key questions

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

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

When each answer is yes, a student qualifies for services. In each area of eligibility, specialized instruction is recommended to help the student overcome the impact of the disability to access FAPE. PAVE provides various articles about the evaluation process, including a sample letter to refer a student for services.

IDEA’s Primary Principles:

  1. Free Appropriate Public Education (FAPE): Students with disabilities who need a special kind of teaching or other help have the right to an education that is not only free but also appropriate, designed just for them. Under IDEA rules, schools provide special education students with “access to FAPE,” so that’s a common way to talk about whether the student’s program is working.
  2. Appropriate Evaluation: The IDEA requires schools to take a closer look at children with potential disabilities (Child Find Mandate). There are rules about how quickly those evaluations get done. The results provide information that the school and parents use to make decisions about how the child’s education can be improved.
  3. Individualized Education Program (IEP): An IEP is a dynamic program, not a packet of paper or a location (Special Education is a Service, Not a Place). The program is reviewed at least once a year by a team that includes school staff and family. Every student on an IEP gets some extra help from teachers, but the rest of the program depends on what a student needs to learn. Areas of need may be academic, social and emotional skills, and/or general life skills. By age 16, an IEP includes a plan for life beyond high school, and helping the student make a successful transition into life after high school becomes a primary goal of the IEP.
  4. Least Restrictive Environment (LRE): The IDEA says that students should be in class with non-disabled classmates “to the maximum extent appropriate.” Regular classrooms and school spaces are the least restrictive. If the school has provided extra help in the classroom but the special education student still struggles to access FAPE, then the IEP team considers other options. The school explains placement and LRE in writing on the IEP document. PAVE has an article about LRE.
  5. Parent and Student Participation: The IDEA and state regulations about IEP team membership make it clear that parents or legal guardians are equal partners with school staff in making decisions about their student’s education. When the student turns 18, educational decision-making is given to the student. The school does its best to bring parents and students into the meetings, and there are specific rules about how the school provides written records and meeting notices (WAC 392-172A-03100).
  6. Procedural Safeguards: The school provides parents with a written copy of their rights at referral and yearly thereafter. A copy of the procedural safeguards is available online from the Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction (OSPI), the guidance agency for Washington schools. Parents may receive procedural safeguards from the school any time they request them. They also may receive a copy if they file a complaint with the state. Procedural safeguards are offered when a school removes a student for more than 10 days in a school year as part of a disciplinary action. When parents and schools disagree, these rights describe the actions that a parent can take informally or formally.

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

Home for the Holidays: The Gift of Positive Behavior Support

A Brief Overview

  • This article provides examples and simple guidance about how to be more strategic in parenting a child who struggles with behavior—during the weird winter of 2020 and beyond.
  • PAVE consulted with University of Washington positive behavior support expert Kelcey Schmitz for this article.
  • Anticipating trouble and making a best guess about the behavior’s “purpose” is a great place to start.
  • Listen and look for opportunities to praise expected behavior. It’s easy to forget to pay attention when things are going well, but keeping the peace is easier if praise is consistent while children are behaving as expected.
  • Read on to gift the family with a plan for improving holiday happiness.

Full Article

Holidays can be challenging for families impacted by disability, trauma, grief, economic struggles, and other stressors. Holiday season 2020 has its own flavors of confusion. Families with children who struggle with behavior may want to head into the winter with plans in place. Anticipating where trouble could bubble up and developing a strategy for working it out provides all family members with opportunities for social-emotional growth, mindfulness, and rich moments.

PAVE consulted with a University of Washington (UW) expert in positive behavior supports to provide insight and information for this article. Kelcey Schmitz is the school mental health lead for the Northwest Mental Health Technology Transfer Center, housed at the UW School Mental Health Research and Training (SMART) Center. An area of expertise for Schmitz is Multi-Tiered Systems of Support (MTSS), a framework for schools to support children’s academic, social, emotional, and behavioral strengths and needs at multiple levels. An MTSS framework makes room for Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports (PBIS). When done well, PBIS teaches and reinforces positive social skills, communication strategies and “restorative justice” (working it out instead of punishing).

“This holiday season may present additional challenges given the pandemic,” Schmitz says. “Families, like educators, need to go back to the basics during times of stress and uncertainty. Remembering core features of PBIS at home, such as predictability, consistency, safety, and positive interactions are going to be key. In fact, lessons learned during stay-at-home orders during the pandemic can and will carry us through the holidays and beyond. Never before have routines, regulation, relationships, and reinforcement been more important for everyone in the family than they will be this winter.”

Schmitz has provided articles and content to support PAVE families over the years and offers the following tips for navigating the holidays by using PBIS strategies at home.

Make a list and check it twice to know what troubling behaviors are about

Whatever the holidays mean and include, family routines can shift. Food can look and taste different. The house may be decorated in a different way. School takes breaks. Weather changes, and sunrise and sunset are closer together.

Children may struggle with changes in routines, different food items on the menu, overstimulating environments, long periods of unstructured activities, or sensory issues that make long pants, socks, gloves, coats, and hats feel like shards of glass.

Keep in mind that all behaviors serve a purpose; they are a way for the child to solve a problem. Without appropriate social skills, children will do what is necessary to have their needs met in the quickest way possible. However, adults who can predict problem behaviors may also be able to prevent them.

TIP: Anticipate trouble and make a best guess about the motivation

Set your child (and family) up for holiday success by thinking ahead about the types of routines and situations that might be challenging. Craft a plan to intervene early, before a full-blown escalation.

Create a best guess statement to better understand the relationship between an unwanted behavior and the child’s environment. Summarize what usually happens by describing:

  • The behavior (tantrum, hitting, refusal)
  • Circumstances that set the stage (what’s going on right before the behavior?)
  • What happens after the behavior (time out, angry adults, something removed or given)
  • A best guess about the child’s motivation/the “purpose” of the behavior (to get something or get out of something)

Here is an example:

At Grandma’s holiday gathering, an adult encourages a child to try a food, demands a “please” or “thank you,” or scolds the child. Note if the child is tired, hungry, or uncomfortable in an unusual or unpredictable situation. These are the circumstances that set the stage.

The child cries and yells loud enough to be heard in another room (description of the behavior).

During the child’s outbursts, others leave her alone (what happens after the behavior).

Best guess about the purpose? The child may want to avoid unpleasant people, food, or situations.

Making a good guess about what causes and maintains the behavior (crowded or overstimulating environment, being rushed, being told they can’t have or do something they want, different expectations, demands, exhaustion, hunger) can support a plan and potentially avoid worst-case scenarios.

Determining the purpose or function of a behavior may require a closer look at what typically happens (what others say or do) after the behavior occurs. The behavior may be inappropriate, but the reason for it usually is not.  Most of the time there is a logical explanation. Here are some questions to help think it through:

  • Does the child get something–or get out of something?
  • Does the child generally seek or avoid something, such as:
    • Attention (from adults or peers)?
    • Activity?
    • Tangibles (toys/other objects)?
    • Sensory stimulation?

Make a list and check it twice: Prevention is key

Many behaviors can be prevented using simple proactive strategies. Adults can use their best-guess statement to build a customized strategy. Here are some starter ideas that might help prevent or reduce the intensity, frequency, or duration of unwanted behaviors:

  • Make sure the child is well rested and has eaten before going out.
  • Bring food that is familiar and appealing.
  • Anticipate challenges, and plan accordingly.
  • Pre-teach family expectations (respectful, responsible, safe) and talk about how those expectations work at grandma’s house: “When someone gives you a present, say thank you and smile at the person who gave you the gift.” For information about developing family expectations, see PAVE’s article, Tips to Help Parents Reinforce Positive Behaviors at Home.
  • Encourage the child to bring a comfort item (toy, book, blanket).
  • Give more “start” messages than “stop” messages.
  • Teach a signal the child can use to request a break.
  • Create a social story about family gatherings; review it regularly.
  • Rehearse! Practice/pretend having a meal at Grandma’s house, opening gifts, playing with cousins, and other likely scenarios.
  • Arrive early to get comfortable before the house gets crowded.
  • Create a visual schedule of events, and let the child keep track of what’s happening or cross off activities as they happen.

Respond quick as a wink: Reward replacement behavior

An essential prevention strategy is teaching what to do instead of the unwanted behavior. “What to do instead” is called replacement behavior. To be effective, the replacement behavior needs to get results just as quickly and effectively as the problem behavior.

For example, if a child learns a signal for taking a break, adults need to respond to the signal just as fast as they would if the child starts to scream and cry.

Responding quickly will strengthen the replacement behavior and help make sure that the unwanted behavior is no longer useful.

Here are steps to help teach replacement behaviors:

  1. Demonstrate/model the wanted behavior
  2. Provide many opportunities for practice
  3. Let the child know they got it right (as you would if they learned a skill like riding a bike, writing their name, or saying their colors)

Praise a silent night

Inspect what you expect. Listen and look for opportunities to praise expected behavior. It’s easy to forget to pay attention when things are going well, but keeping the peace is easier if praise is consistent while children are behaving as expected.

Evidence indicates that children’s behavior improves best with a 5:1 ratio of positive-to-negative feedback. Increasing positive remarks during difficult times—such as holidays and pandemics—might reduce escalations.

Provide frequent, genuine, and specific praise, with details that help encourage the specific behavior being noticed. For example, say, “You did a nice job sharing that toy truck with your cousin!”

All is calm: Intervene at the first sign of trouble

Be ready to prompt appropriate behavior, redirect, or offer a calming activity when there are early signs of agitation or frustration.

  • Provide early, clear instructions about “what to do instead,” using language and modeling consistent with what was pre-taught and practiced (see above).
  • For example, if a child is getting frustrated, say, “Remember, you can give me the peace signal if you need a break.”
  • Redirect the child to another activity or topic when appropriate and practical.
  • Hand the child a comfort item (stuffed animal, blanket).
  • Show empathy and listen actively: “It seems like you’re having some big feelings right now. Want to talk about it?” After listening, maybe say, “Wow, that’s a lot to feel.”

Do you hear what I hear? Heed alarm bells when plans need to shift

Not all challenging behaviors can be prevented, and adults may overestimate a child’s ability to control emotions. A child experiencing significant distress may be unable to process what is going on around them and follow what may seem like simple instructions.

If an adult’s best efforts are unable to prevent or diffuse a behavior escalation, a graceful exit may be the best strategy. It’s important for adults to remember that a child’s crisis isn’t their crisis. An adult’s ability to remain level-headed is critical, and children may ultimately learn from the behavior they see modeled.

Wait for a child to calm down before addressing the issue: An overwhelmed brain is not able to problem solve or learn. Later, everyone can review what worked or did not work in order to adjust the strategy for next time.

Believe: Be a beacon for hope

Support a child to learn, practice, and perform behaviors that enable fun, rich family experiences. The work may feel challenging—and the scale of the project may be impacted by a unique set of tough circumstances—but expecting and accepting the challenge enables the whole family to move toward new opportunities. Trust that the work will pay off—and relish the moments of success, however large or small. Believe that consistency and predictability can make a big impact this holiday season and beyond.

Here are a few points to review:

  • What might seem fun and relaxing to adults, could be overwhelming and upsetting to children.
  • Children are more likely to exhibit the behavior that will most quickly get their needs met, regardless of the social appropriateness.
  • Acting out is typically a symptom of an underlying issue – it’s important to examine the root of the problem for long-term positive results.
  • Prevention strategies and intervening early can be very effective, but they are often underutilized. Plan ahead to eliminate, modify, or neutralize what might set off behavior.
  • Support wanted behaviors by teaching them, practicing them, modeling them, and making them consistent sources for praise and encouragement.

Resources:

COVID-19 Handbook and Family Binder (multiple language options) from the Autism Intervention Research Network on Behavioral Health (airbnetwork.org)

The Comprehensive, Integrated Three-Tiered Model of Prevention (ci3t.org) provides videos and other COVID-Related Resources for Families in English and Spanish

The Center on Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports (PBIS.org) provides a downloadable booklet (English and Spanish) for Supporting Families at Home with PBIS

Parent Training Modules from Vanderbilt University’s Center on the Social and Emotional Foundations for Early Learning (CSEFEL), available in English and Spanish

YouTube video interview with Mark Durand, author of Optimistic Parenting: Hope and Help for You and Your Challenging Child

Special Education is a Service, Not a Place

A Brief Overview

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

Full Article

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

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

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

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

Special Education is a service, not a place!

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

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

Here is some vocabulary to further understanding:

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

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

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

What does FAPE within LRE mean during COVID?

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

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

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

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

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

LRE does not mean students with disabilities are on their own

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

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

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

Related Services may support LRE and other aspects of equitable access

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

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

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

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

A student in homeschool can receive Related Services from district

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

Questions to consider

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

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

Dyslexia Screening and Interventions: State Requirements and Resources

A Brief Overview

  • Washington passed a law in 2018 that requires schools to screen children in kindergarten through second grade for signs of dyslexia and to provide reading support for those who need it. The law takes full effect in 2021-22.
  • Schools already can evaluate students to identify learning disabilities and design interventions, regardless of whether the student has a formal diagnosis of dyslexia or another condition. Specific Learning Disability is one of the general categories of disability that may qualify a student for an Individualized Education Program (IEP).
  • The Revised Code of Washington (RCW320.260) requires schools to provide support to students identified as having dyslexia through “multi-tiered” programming. That means schools provide different levels of help for all students who need it, regardless of whether the student qualifies for special education.
  • In Summer 2020, the Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction released a handout for families: Understanding Literacy Screening. The two-page document defines key terms and describes student rights and the process of literacy screening in simple terms. A Dyslexia Fact Sheet provides additional information.
  • Listen to a young adult talk about her life as a student with dyslexia in a 15-minute online video: Succeeding with Dyslexia.

Full Article

A child who struggles to read can quickly fall behind in school. Nearly every academic area includes some reading, and children might become confused or frustrated when they don’t get help to make sense of their schoolwork. Behavior challenges can result, and sometimes schools and parents struggle to uncover the root of the problem.

October is Dyslexia Awareness Month, providing an opportunity to consider what is being done to evaluate and serve students who struggle to read because of disability.

Washington State has committed to helping more students with a law that requires early dyslexia screenings and interventions. The law takes full effect in 2021-22. State lawmakers in 2018 passed Senate Bill 6162 to require schools to assess children from Kindergarten through second grade. Schools who start using the state-recommended literacy screening tools before 2021-22 are considered “early adopters.”  

Child Mind Institute offers a Parent Guide to Dyslexia. Included are a few examples of signs parents might look for to consider whether dyslexia might be impacting a child.  

A young child with dyslexia may:

  • Have trouble learning simple rhymes
  • Be speech delayed
  • Have a hard time following directions
  • Have difficulty with short words or omit them (and, the, but are examples)
  • Have trouble differentiating left from right

In school, children with dyslexia are likely to:

  • Have significant difficulty learning to read, including trouble sounding out new words and counting the number of syllables in words
  • Continue to reverse letters and numbers when reading (read bear as dees, for example) after most kids have stopped doing that, around the age of 8
  • Struggle with taking notes and copying down words from the board
  • Have difficulty rhyming, associating sounds with letters, and sequencing and ordering sounds
  • Have trouble correctly spelling even familiar words; they will often spell them phonetically (cmpt instead of camped)
  • Lack fluency in reading, continuing to read slowly when other kids are speeding ahead
  • Avoid reading out loud in class
  • Show signs of fatigue from reading with great effort

Dyslexia affects the brain’s perception of written language

The Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction (OSPI), which oversees schools and agencies providing education to Washington public-school students, provides detail about the work of an advisory council that formed in Fall 2018 to plan for the state’s implementation of the dyslexia screening law. Early work included a definition of dyslexia, which is a disability that affects the way the brain perceives written language. The state’s definition is similar to a definition promoted by the International Dyslexia Association.

According to Washington State’s definition:

“Dyslexia means a specific learning disorder that is neurological in origin and that is characterized by unexpected difficulties with accurate or fluent word recognition and by poor spelling and decoding abilities that are not consistent with the person’s intelligence, motivation, and sensory capabilities. These difficulties typically result from a deficit in the phonological* components of language that is often unexpected in relation to other cognitive abilities. Secondary consequences may include problems in reading comprehension and reduced reading experience that can impede growth of vocabulary and background knowledge.”

*The term “phonological” refers to patterns of sounds and word parts.

Through its website, OSPI provides a free downloadable Dyslexia Resource Guide. A print copy can be purchased for $10, and instructions for ordering are included on the website page.

A Learning Disability can qualify a student for an IEP under federal law

An evaluation to determine whether a student has a learning disability is part of the protections of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), a federal grant program that provides money to schools to guarantee that students with disabilities received a Free Appropriate Public Education (FAPE) to meet their unique, individualized needs.

The IDEA lists Specific Learning Disability as one of the 14 general categories of disability that may qualify a student for an Individualized Education Program (IEP), if the disability significantly impacts access to education and requires specially designed instruction. Schools can evaluate students to identify learning disabilities regardless of whether the student has been diagnosed as having dyslexia.

Despite the IDEA, many states have struggled to identify dyslexia early enough to provide appropriate interventions before a student falls behind. On October 23, 2015, the US Department of Education issued a Dear Colleague letter to encourage schools nationwide to do more to identify and serve students with dyslexia. In its opening paragraph, the letter states that parents and other stakeholders were concerned that schools were reluctant to identify and serve students who might have specific learning disabilities:

“The purpose of this letter is to clarify that there is nothing in the IDEA that would prohibit the use of the terms dyslexia, dyscalculia, and dysgraphia in IDEA evaluation, eligibility determinations, or IEP documents.”

Since 2015, nearly all states have passed laws to require schools to assess students and provide support for those who need help learning to reading because of dyslexia.

After passing the 2018 law, Washington formed the Dyslexia Advisory Council and included school administrators, non-profit organizations, school psychologists, special education and elementary teachers, parents, literacy specialists, experts in English language learning, state leaders and others. In June 2019, the council published a list of six recommended tools and resources to help schools screen for dyslexia. A downloadable list of the recommended screening tools is available through OSPI’s website.

The council chose screening tools intended to:

  • Satisfy developmental and academic criteria and consider typical literacy development and a specific child’s neurological development
  • Identify areas of weakness that can predict future reading difficulty: phonological awareness, phonemic awareness, rapid naming skills, letter sound knowledge, and family history of reading and language difficulties

The state’s law is described in the Revised Code of Washington (RCW 28A.320.260). In summary, schools are required to provide support to students identified as having dyslexia through “multi-tiered” programming. That means schools provide different levels of help for all students who need it, regardless of whether the student qualifies for special education. The intention is to intervene before students fall significantly below grade level. Students who don’t respond well to the initial extra help are evaluated to see if more specialized instruction—at a higher level/tier—is needed. The state requires that schools use the screening tools identified and recommended by OSPI.

Students can get various levels of help

According to the Revised Code of Washington: “If a student shows indications of below grade level literacy development or indications of, or areas of weakness associated with, dyslexia, the school district must provide interventions using evidence-based multi tiered systems of support, consistent with the recommendations of the dyslexia advisory council under RCW 28A.300.710

“The interventions must be evidence-based multisensory structured literacy interventions and must be provided by an educator trained in instructional methods specifically targeting students’ areas of weakness.”

State law requires that schools provide instruction in the Least Restrictive Environment (LRE) to the maximum extent appropriate. A higher level of support may be provided after further evaluation and determination of need, and schools are required to include families in the process:

“For a student who shows indications of, or areas of weakness associated with, dyslexia, each school district must notify the student’s parents and family of the identified indicators and areas of weakness, as well as the plan for using multitiered systems of support to provide supports and interventions. The initial notice must also include information relating to dyslexia and resources for parental support developed by the superintendent of public instruction.

“The school district must regularly update the student’s parents and family of the student’s progress.”

National resources include comics and videos

Dyslexia awareness is promoted by the National Center on Improving Literacy (NCIL), which provides resources designed to support parents, teachers, and policy makers. On its website, the agency includes state-specific information, recommends screening tools and interventions and provides research data about early intervention. Through social media, the agency in October promotes a hashtag campaign, #DyslexiaAwareness.

NCIL provides a unique resource in the format of an online or downloadable comic book: Adventures in Reading Comic Books stars Kayla, a girl with dyslexia.

Here are a few video resources:

 

High School Halt: Ways to Support Youth Working on Adult Life Plans During COVID-19

A Brief Overview

  • The pandemic and its impact on education may feel especially confusing for youth working toward graduation and life-after-high-school plans. Read on for information about how to support young people working on their diplomas and goals for college, vocational education, independent living, and more.
  • The state continues to navigate questions related to graduation pathways and credit requirements for students impacted by COVID-19. This article includes links to resources where information is regularly updated.
  • Students learning from home may need support to organize their days and incorporate the activities of daily living into their educational programs. This article includes some ideas for organizing at-home learning.
  • Another article from PAVE provides more information about vocational rehabilitation options for young people, during COVID and beyond: Ready for Work: Vocational Rehabilitation Provides Guidance and Tools.

Full Article

The COVID-19 pandemic and its impact on education may feel especially confusing for those who are working toward graduation and life-after-high-school plans. Parents and students may be wondering what will enable students to complete work toward their diplomas, meet college admission requirements or continue work toward vocational and/or independent living goals.

Since March 2020, the National Technical Assistance Center on Transition (NTACT) has provided webinars and other materials to promote home-based learning for transition-age youth with disabilities. This article includes some of NTACT’s ideas. The agency’s website provides webinar recordings and additional materials: Transition Resources in the 2020-2021 School Year.

In collaboration with the Center for Parent Information and Resources (CPIR/ParentCenterHub.org), NTACT provides an interactive tool for young people: Secondary Transition Considerations and Guiding Questions for Youth Exiting from High School. Throughout the document, a young person is guided to a variety of links and resources based on the way questions are chosen and answered. For example, “Things you can do now to help meet your postsecondary employment goal” provides a set of suggestions:

“Make a list of your career interests, the best work location for you, and types of jobs that best fit your skills. If you aren’t sure what jobs or careers interest you, explore your options at ‘Get My Future’ on the Career One Stop website.”

Graduation requirements shift

The Washington State Board of Education (SBE) provides information about graduation impacts of COVID-19. SBE in summer 2020 began a rulemaking process to provide districts more flexibility to:

  • Award credit based on demonstration of mastery or competency
  • Offer courses that meet more than one subject area graduation requirement
  • Waive the Washington state history requirement for some students impacted by school closures or other disruptions. Waivers are individually determined.

The State Legislature passed a law in response to coronavirus (EHB 2965) that supported emergency waivers for the graduating Class of 2020. The goal was to ensure that students on track to graduate would not be held back because of the pandemic.

Graduation standards and requirements also are impacted by a 2019 law that provides multiple pathways toward a diploma. The Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction (OSPI) offers a website page describing the Graduation Pathways, with toolkits for families and students.

For a student eligible for an Individualized Education Program (IEP), the IEP team determines what criteria are met for the student to earn a diploma and the timeline for graduation. Families are encouraged to reach out to IEP team members, district staff, and school counselors to collaborate on how the IEP and graduation targets are adjusted in light of the pandemic.

Recovery services and/or compensatory services may be available

The Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction (OSPI) provides a 60-page booklet: Reopening Washington Schools 2020: Special Education Guidance. The guidance defines recovery services, as “additional, supplemental services needed to address gaps in special education service delivery due to COVID-19 health and safety limitations, of which districts had no control.”

Compensatory services are provided as a remedy when a school is found through a dispute resolution process to have denied a Free Appropriate Public Education (FAPE). By federal law (Individuals with Disabilities Education Act/IDEA), a student with an IEP is entitled to FAPE, which provides an individualized program to enable progress appropriate in light of a student’s unique circumstances. Those circumstances include strengths and assets, disability condition, family considerations, the pandemic, and more.

Students in transition programs who aged out during Spring 2020 may be eligible for recovery and/or compensatory services. Other students who missed key learning also could be eligible. Families can reach out to their IEP teams and/or district special education program staff to discuss options. Data about school/family communications, accessibility of educational materials, and IEP/transition services provided/not provided will contribute to conversations about recovery/compensatory services.

Creativity may be needed to ensure educational access in all areas of learning, including those related to the transition into adulthood. OSPI’s guidance includes a section on Graduation & Secondary Transition, with step-by-step instructions for educators supporting youth with transition programming:

“Secondary transition is more than providing pathways for the individual’s movement from high school to employment,” the guidance states. “It is a comprehensive approach to educational programs, focused on aligning student goals with educational experiences and services. When we move these activities to the continuum of reopening models, we have to stretch our thinking about how this can be done.”

What about college admission requirements?

Students who are college-bound may have questions about admissions requirements and whether they can still be met. The National Association for College Admission Counseling has encouraged colleges to be flexible and has created a central resource for information related to Coronavirus and College Admission.

How can I help my student organize the day to include learning?

NTACT offers a range of downloadable Transition Focused Instructional Resources, including tools to help with scheduling and others for helping young people stay socially connected. In a March 24 webinar, the agency encouraged creative ways to support regular work in each of the key areas of learning for a student with an IEP:

  • Life skills
  • Self-determination
  • Self-advocacy
  • Desire to work
  • Enriching experiences
  • Appropriate goals

Teachable moments might include real-life situations related to the pandemic and a new routine. Students still can have the opportunity to make choices and to live with the consequences of choices and actions. For example, a student-made meal might not be gourmet but can be enjoyed on its merits of life-skill-building and risk-taking.

How can the IEP support work at home?

NTACT recommends development of a consistent routine and documentation of daily work and any progress or regression. To help with planning, anyone supporting the student can take a close look at the current IEP.

The Present Levels of Academic Achievement and Functional Performance, which are built from evaluation results, can provide inside about the student’s strengths, interests, and capacities. Annual goals will highlight the areas of specially designed instruction being provided through the IEP. Consider how instruction might be adapted for at-home instruction—or whether a more suitable goal might be considered. School staff and family members can collaborate to set up a shared approach.

For a student older than 16, a post-secondary transition plan is included in the IEP and includes projections about adult goals and the skills being worked on to get there. NTACT provides Choice Boards to support ongoing work in three key areas that are aspects of a transition plan:

  • Career exploration
  • Education and training
  • Independent living

The Choice Boards are pre-loaded with resource linkages and suggestions.

Think into the future

PAVE provides a webinar and a comprehensive article about life-after-high-school planning with further guidance about the transition process in general. More time at home together might give families a good opportunity to sit back and consider key questions to help the student make future plans:

  1. Where am I now?(strengths, interests, capacities—the Present Levels of Performance in the IEP)
  2. Where do I want to go?(aspirations, dreams, expectations—Transition Plan Goals in the IEP)
  3. How do I get there?(transition services, courses, activities, supports, service linkages, community connections, help to overcome barriers—Annual Goals, Accommodations and other provisions included in the IEP)

What can we do at home today?

Consider how transition programming can be adapted to current circumstances so a young person continues to be connected to important relationships and inspired toward the future. Daily successes are to be celebrated, and high expectations elevate everyone. Below are some typical home-based subject areas that might support learning and skill-building, with a few linkages to resources that might help.

  • Leisure and Recreation
  • Home Maintenance
    • Organizing
    • Cooking
    • Cleaning
    • Yard Work
  • Personal Care
  • Finances
    • Budgeting—Cents and Sensibility from the Pennsylvania Assistive Technology Foundation provides an approach for individuals with autism.
    • Practice with money by paying for things throughout the day
  • Communication
    • Letter and email writing
    • Webinars
    • Phone calls/interview a friend or relative about their career path and write about it?

Other places that provide vocational questionnaires and forecasting tools

  • AgExplorer.com helps students imagine themselves in fields related to farming and beyond
  • ExploreWork.com helps students with disabilities consider their strengths and interests and how to relate them to work options
  • RAISECenter.org offers a variety of tools related to vocational rehabilitation. (RAISE stands for Resources for Advocacy, Independence, Self-determination and Employment.)
  • CareerOneStop.org, sponsored by the US Department of Labor, provides career assessments through its website and a mobile app.
  • Options for further information related to higher education
  • ThinkCollege.net
  • OffToCollege.com
  • ParentCenterHub.org provides a library of college preparation resources related to specific disability categories

For additional ideas about supporting a student with in-home learning please refer to PAVE’s Links for Learning at Home During School Closure.

Please note that any resource list provided by PAVE is not exhaustive, and PAVE does not endorse or support these agencies. Links are provided for information only.