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?

Placement in the Least Restrictive Environment (LRE) Encourages Inclusion

A Brief Overview

  • LRE has been an aspect of special education law since 1975, when there was widespread public concern about children with disabilities historically being segregated and denied equitable education.
  • Research shows that children of all abilities learn social skills from one another when they learn side-by-side.
  • Some Washington schools struggle to support access to general education programs and settings for students with disabilities. In 2019, only 56 percent of students with disabilities are included in general education settings for 80-100 percent of the school day.
  • Under federal law, a student is placed in a more restrictive setting when the IEP team agrees that the student needs a different placement for education to be appropriately accessible.
  • Help from a paraeducator might be part of the support services that enable a student to access learning in the Least Restrictive Environment (LRE). Note that a paraeducator is a service, not a placement. Having a 1:1 to help in the classroom does not violate LRE. This topic was included in the resolution of a 2017 Citizen Complaint. Read on for more detail.

Full Article

Some other articles that might be of interest: 

Evaluations Part 2: Next Steps if the School Says ‘No’ to Your Request

Section 504: A Plan for Equity, Access and Accommodations

Schools are responsible to provide a Free Appropriate Public Education (FAPE) for students with disabilities. One of the defining principles of special education law is that students with disabilities have access to general education, with nondisabled peers, to the maximum extent possible. That requirement is called Least Restrictive Environment (LRE).

LRE is a key feature of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) and has been part of disability rights for students since 1975. PAVE has articles about special education history and key principles of the IDEA. The LRE requirements are a response to widespread public concern about children with disabilities historically being segregated in institutions, separated from peers and removed from neighborhood schools.

A student qualifies for the protections of the IDEA and special education services when a disabling condition severely impacts access to learning and specially designed instruction is needed. An eligible student is entitled to a Free Appropriate Public Education (FAPE), delivered through an Individualized Education Program (IEP).

The IEP includes specially designed instruction and goal monitoring, supplementary aids and services, accommodations and intentionally chosen spaces to meet the student’s needs. Those thoughtfully chosen spaces are a student’s “placement.” A decision about placement is made after programming decisions are made by the IEP team.

Parents can learn this terminology to help in their advocacy. Here’s a statement that incorporates key terms: Placement in the Least Restrictive Environment (LRE) is part of a school district’s responsibility when providing a Free Appropriate Public Education (FAPE) for a student who receives special education services.

General Education is the first LRE option

The general education setting is the first LRE placement option, and how placement is designed is unique to a student’s individualized needs. Research demonstrates that students with disabilities perform better academically and learn social skills when they have access to the general education setting with proper support.

According to the Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction (OSPI), which provides guidance to schools in Washington State, “The body of research consistently supports the positive link between access to core instruction in general education settings and improved outcomes for students with disabilities.

“Inclusion is the belief and practice that all students have the right to meaningfully access academic and social opportunities in general education settings.” 

Still, some Washington schools struggle to provide meaningful access to general education programs and settings. In 2019, the state reports that only 56 percent of students with disabilities are included in general education settings for 80-100 percent of the school day.

The 2019 Washington Legislature passed House Bill 1109 to provide $25 million in 2020-21 to  implement professional development in support of inclusionary practices, with an emphasis on coaching and mentoring. Information about the Inclusionary Practices Professional Development Project is available on OSPI’s website.

What the law says

The IDEA states that schools are required to provide FAPE in the Least Restrictive Environment (LRE) “to the maximum extent appropriate.” Each state is required to implement the IDEA. The U.S. Department of Education maintains a website that shares language directly from the federal law. According to Sec. 300.114:

 “Each public agency must ensure that—

  • “To the maximum extent appropriate, children with disabilities, including children in public or private institutions or other care facilities, are educated with children who are nondisabled; and
  • “Special classes, separate schooling, or other removal of children with disabilities from the regular educational environment occurs only if the nature or severity of the disability is such that education in regular classes with the use of supplementary aids and services cannot be achieved satisfactorily.”

LRE decisions follow a 4-part process

OSPI’s website includes information directed toward parents: “Placement decisions are made by your student’s IEP team after the IEP has been developed. The term “placement” in special education does not necessarily mean the precise physical building or location where your student will be educated. Rather, your student’s “placement” refers to the range or continuum of educational settings available in the district to implement her/his IEP and the overall amount of time s/he will spend in the general education setting.”

Selection of an appropriate placement includes 4 considerations:

  1. IEP content (specialized instruction, goals, services, accommodations…)
  2. LRE requirements (least restrictive “to the maximum extent appropriate”)
  3. The likelihood that the placement option provides a reasonably high probability of helping a student attain goals
  4. Consideration of any potentially harmful effects the placement option might have on the student or the quality of services delivered

What if placement in general education isn’t working?

If a student is unable to access learning in an appropriate way (FAPE) because of the nature or severity of the disability, then the IEP team considers alternative placement options. It’s important to note that a student is placed in a more restrictive setting because the student needs a different location within the school, not because it’s more convenient for adults or because it saves the school district money.

According to IDEA, Sec. 300.114, “A State must not use a funding mechanism by which the State distributes funds on the basis of the type of setting in which a child is served that will result in the failure to provide a child with a disability FAPE according to the unique needs of the child, as described in the child’s IEP.”

Placement options are vast

IEP teams consider a wide range of placement options. They may discuss whether there’s a need for a small classroom setting, for example, or home-based instruction. For a child with a behavioral health condition, the team may discuss whether a “day treatment” school staffed with specialists in behavior management might provide the best access to FAPE.

The continuum of placement options includes, but is not limited to:

  • general education classes
  • general education classes with support services and/or modifications
  • a combination of general education and special education classes
  • self-contained special education classes
  • placements outside of a school district
  • home instruction
  • residential care or treatment facilities

School districts are not required to have a continuum available in every school building. A school district, for example, might have a self-contained setting or preschool services in some but not all locations. This gives districts some discretion for choosing a location to serve the placement chosen by an IEP team.

Placement and location are different

Note that the IEP team determines the placement, but the school district has discretion to choose a location to serve the IEP.

For example, an IEP team could determine that a student needs a day treatment/behavioral health-focused school in order to access FAPE—an appropriate education. If the IEP team chooses a Day Treatment placement, then the school district is responsible to find a location to provide that placement. Following this process, a public-school district might pay for transportation and tuition to send a student to a private or out-of-district facility. If a request for a specialized placement is initiated by the family, there are other considerations.

OSPI’s website includes this information:

“… if you are requesting that your student be placed in a private school or residential facility because you believe the district is unable to provide FAPE, then you must make that request through a due process hearing.”

Note: Due Process is part of the “procedural safeguards” available to family participants on the IEP team. PAVE has an article and a webinar about options when family members disagree with the school.

1:1 is a service, not a placement

The IDEA specifies that a more restrictive placement relies on data showing that “the nature or severity of the disability is such that education in regular classes with the use of supplementary aids and services cannot be achieved satisfactorily.”

Supplementary aids and services can include a wide variety of supports. The student might use assistive technology, for example, or teachers could craft unique ways to present the curriculum. The student may get individualized help from an adult.

The LRE requirement means that schools document efforts to enable a student to access general education, however that might be possible. General education access includes classrooms, programs like PE and art, extracurricular activities, recess…. IEP team members can get creative about how to help the student succeed. Some students design their own clever accommodations. Family members and outside therapists or behavioral specialists also contribute ideas.

A common conflict with families and schools is whether a 1:1 paraeducator might enable access to FAPE in general education. Some parents and schools may have conversations about whether a helper might “restrict” a student’s ability to develop independence. Sometimes those conversations lead to misunderstanding about LRE. A 2017 case in Washington addressed the topic and clarified that a 1:1 is a service, not a placement.

In response to a Citizen Complaint filed by parents in the Lake Washington School District, OSPI issued a public report,  with a finding in favor of the family. The parents wanted their child to get help from a 1:1 aide and disagreed with the school that it would “restrict” the student. According to OSPI’s report, parents had requested a 1:1 aide because they wanted the school to provide more support in order to increase the student’s time in general education. School staff on the IEP team said no to the request, citing a belief that a 1:1 aide “is the most restrictive level of service…”

OSPI rejected that argument, stating:

“The District is incorrect in its belief that 1:1 paraeducator support is the most restrictive environment for all students. Paraeducator support is a supplementary aid and service, not a placement option on the continuum of alternative placements….

“Based on the documentation in this complaint, the District did not base its decision to deny the Parent’s request for 1:1 aide support on the Student’s individualized needs. The District erred in failing to properly consider if the Student could participate in a general education setting with the provision of 1:1 aide support.”

LRE does not mean students are on their own

The conversation about what creates “restriction” is complex, and sometimes school staff bring up the concept of “learned helplessness” if they believe that children learn better with less instead of more support. Each conversation and circumstance is unique, but parents can research the topic of learned helplessness to understand various ways that data are interpreted to generate opinions.

Generally, when someone receives help–including education provided by a teacher or a teacher’s aide–that person learns how to do something and eventually models what is taught, with mastery over time. Revoking help before a person is ready to do something independently may create a help”less” situation. A person who cannot perform a task with success and doesn’t get the needed help to get better at the skill may over time give up and become helpless. Some articles on the subject relate to individuals who have been unable to cope or problem-solve independently and therefore “learn” to be helpless.

Parents talking with the school about LRE and appropriate support can do their best to provide accurate and comprehensive information about a student’s unique disability condition and what is needed to meet the student where he/she is ready to learn.

Following are a few additional resources:

An agency called Teaching Exceptional Children Plus features an article by a parent about the value of inclusion in general education. The January 2009 article by Beth L. Sweden is available for download online: Signs of an Inclusive School: A Parent’s Perspective on the Meaning and Value of Authentic Inclusion.

Understood.org offers an article and a video about the benefits of inclusion.

An agency that promotes best-practice strategies for school staff implementing inclusive educational programming is the IRIS Center, a part of Peabody College at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tenn.

Some other articles that might be of interest: 

Evaluations Part 2: Next Steps if the School Says ‘No’ to Your Request

Section 504: A Plan for Equity, Access and Accommodations

Placement: Deciding Where a Student Spends the School Day

Where and when a student goes to school is called the placement. The Individualized Education Program (IEP) describes how much time a student spends in different settings. It also includes a statement about how much time the student spends with non-disabled students.

The IEP Team, including the parent, makes decisions about placement after talking about the student’s needs and goals from the IEP. The placement decision happens after the team has looked at the strengths, needs and goals for the student.

The IEP team chooses a placement that team members believe will meet the needs and goals for the student.

The IEP document usually includes a table or chart, called the “Service Matrix.” This shows where a student spends different parts of the day, who is providing the teaching or service, and the timing. The district includes parents in any decisions about placement. 

Placement discussions can get tricky.  Schools and families sometimes think outside the box to come up with the best fit. Placement options might include:

  • general education classes
  • general classes with support services and/or modifications
  • self-contained special education classes
  • a private school with a program or teaching style that meets a specific need
  • education provided at home
  • online school
  • residential care
  • a treatment facility
  • any combination of the above

School districts are required to provide a placement to meet the needs of a student with an IEP. Districts are not required to offer every program or service in every school building. For example, a district might have a self-contained preschool classroom in one but not every elementary-school building. A student who needs that setting to succeed might get bused to a different neighborhood school.

Placement decisions have requirements. Federal laws that govern special education are included in the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). A major principle of the IDEA is that students with disabilities are educated with non-disabled students “to the maximum extent appropriate.”  This principle is called the Least Restrictive Environment (LRE). ​PAVE has an article with more detail about LRE.

To meet the LRE requirement, schools need to explain in writing why a more restrictive setting is required to meet the needs of the student.  

Parents have a lot to contribute about the strengths and needs of their student. This is important information for any placement decision.

In Washington State, all public schools are overseen by the Office of Superintendent for Public Instruction. OSPI requires that schools and IEP teams consider the following when making placement decisions:

  1. The content of the student’s IEP
  2. The Least Restrictive Environment (LRE)
  3. The likelihood that the placement will provide a reasonably high probability of helping the student attain annual goals
  4. The consideration of any potential harmful effects that the placement option might have on the student or the quality of services needed.

Parents review the placement decision as part of the IEP team to make sure all four factors are considered. This can include a review of the accommodations, services, supports and specialized instruction needs so the student can succeed in multiple settings.  

A conversation about placement can happen anytime a parent or school staff member has a question about whether the placement is working. ​Sometimes families disagree with the student’s placement. Sometimes families believe that the school is not following the placement outlined by the IEP. A parent can always call an IEP meeting to discuss concerns. Teams work together to address concerns raised by any member of the team, which includes the parent.

The IDEA provides parents with ways to formally dispute any action by the school. ​These are called dispute resolution options. ​There are also alternative dispute resolution options available. OSPI provides detail about these options on its website. ​ PAVE can help you understand different options.  

Here are some websites to visit for more information about placement:   

OSPI: www.k12.wa.us

Center for Parent Information and Resources: Parent Center Hub article on Placement and LRE

 

Get Ready for School with IEP Essentials

A Brief Overview

Each student has abilities and skills. A thoughtful Individualized Education Program (IEP) can highlight abilities and provides the supports needed for the student to learn. This article will help parents understand how to participate in the IEP process.

Every part of the IEP is measured against this question: How does this help the student with disabilities receive the support needed to access a Free Appropriate Public Education (FAPE)? Read on to learn more about FAPE and other important parts of special education.

Learn the 5 steps a parent can take as a member of the IEP team. This article will help you gear up for the school year.

The Parent Training and Information (PTI) team at PAVE are here to help: If you need 1:1 help navigating the IEP process, click Get Help! on our website, wapave.org.

Full Article

A new school year is a great time to take a fresh look at your student’s Individualized Education Program (IEP). If your student doesn’t have an IEP and you wonder if a disability might be impacting your student’s learning, this is a good time to learn about the special education process. This article will help you learn the basics. You can also read PAVE’s article about Evaluation, the first step in the IEP process.

As you and your student get ready for school, the most important thing is the “I” in IEP. The “I” is for “Individualized,” so no two IEPs are the same! Your student has abilities and skills. A thoughtful IEP highlights abilities and helps your student access the supports needed to learn. With an IEP, a student with disabilities can make meaningful progress in school.  It also prepares your student for life after high school. An IEP is a team effort, and parents and students who learn about the process and fully participate get on a path for success.

FAPE is an acronym you want to know

When Congress passed the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) in 1990, special education got its most important acronym: FAPE. FAPE stands for Free Appropriate Public Education. The right to FAPE makes the IDEA law unique: It is the only law in the United States that provides an individual person with the right to a program or service that is designed just for that person. This is called an entitlement.

Entitlement means that a student with disabilities is served on an individual basis, not based on a system or program that’s already built and available.

When schools and parents talk about a special education program, they talk about the services and instruction that a student needs to learn in school. Every part of the IEP is measured against this question: How does this help the student receive the support needed to access a Free Appropriate Public Education (FAPE)?

Education is a civil right. Students have the right to access a free, public education through the age of 21. Students with disabilities identified through an evaluation process qualify for FAPE. Let’s take a closer look at the second word in FAPE: Appropriate. When an education is “appropriate,” it is designed to fit a specific student. Like a custom-made garment, it fits the learning style, capacity and specific needs of the student without any gaps.

The IDEA is based on an earlier law: The Education for All Handicapped Children Act of 1975. This federal law was the first one that required schools to create specific educational plans for students with disabilities. In 1972 a Washington, D.C., court said that education should be free and “suitable” for all children of school age, regardless of disability or impairment.

Parents can keep this in mind when they read through the IEP or when they prepare for IEP meetings. They can ask, Is the program or service suitable and appropriate, given my student’s abilities and circumstances?  

To qualify for an IEP a student is evaluated to see if there is a disability that is causing an adverse educational impact. The educational evaluation may show that the student has a disability that matches at least one of the 14 categories that are listed in the IDEA. Those categories are:

Autism

Deaf-blindness

Deafness

Emotional Disturbance

Hearing Impairment

Intellectual Disability

Multiple Disabilities

Orthopedic Impairment

Other Health Impairment

Specific Learning Disability

Speech/Language Impairment

Traumatic Brain Injury

Visual Impairment/Blindness

Developmental Delay (ages 0-8)

 

If the student, with parent input, is determined to “meet criteria” under the IDEA, then that student is eligible for special education services. Special education is a service, not a place.

Current federal law includes six important principles

The IDEA, which has been amended a few times since 1990, includes some important elements for  parents. Here’s a brief overview:

  1. Free Appropriate Public Education (FAPE): Students with disabilities who need a special kind of teaching or other help have the right to an education that is designed just for them.
  2. Appropriate Evaluation: The IDEA requires schools to take a closer look at students with suspected disabilities. That part of the law is called the Child Find mandate. There are rules about how quickly those evaluations get done. The results provide information that the school and parents use to make decisions about how the student’s education can be improved.
  3. Individualized Education Program (IEP): The IEP is an active program, not a stack of papers. The document that describes a student’s special education program is carefully written and is reviewed at least once a year by a team. This team includes school staff and parents/guardians and the student, when appropriate. Learning in school isn’t just academic subjects. Schools also help students learn social and emotional skills and general life skills. Every student has access to a High School and Beyond Plan by age 12 or 13. By age 16, an IEP includes a transition plan for life beyond high school. This helps the student make a successful transition into adulthood and is the primary goal of the IEP.
  4. Least Restrictive Environment (LRE): The IDEA says that students should be in class with non-disabled classmates “to the maximum extent appropriate.” That means that regular classrooms and school spaces are first choice as the “least restrictive” places. If the school has provided extra help in the classroom but the special education student still struggles to be successful, then the IEP team considers other options, such as a structured learning classroom. The school explains placement and LRE in writing on the IEP document.
  5. Parent and Student Participation: The IDEA makes it clear that parents or legal guardians are equal partners with school staff in making decisions about their student’s education. When the student turns 18, educational decision making is given to the student. The school does its best to bring parents and students into the meetings, and there are specific rules about how the school provides written records and meeting notices.
  6. Procedural Safeguards: The school provides parents with a written copy of their rights at referral and yearly thereafter. Parents may receive procedural safeguards any time they request them. They may also receive procedural safeguards the first time they file a citizen’s request in a school year or when they file for due process. Procedural safeguards are offered when a decision is made to remove a student for more than 10 days in a school year as part of a disciplinary action. When parents and schools disagree, these rights describe the actions that a parent can take informally or formally.

Ready, set, go! 5 steps for parents to participate in the IEP process

Understanding the laws and principles of special education can help parents get ready to dive into the details of how to participate on IEP teams. Getting organized with school work, contacts, calendar details and concerns and questions will help. Here’s the basic 5-step process:

  1. Schedule

    Evaluation is the testing that a school completes to determine if a student meets the requirements for an IEP. A teacher, administrator or parent can refer a student for an educational evaluation. If the student has never had an IEP and the parent is making the request, here are a few tips:  Make the request in writing, and know your rights if the school’s answer is no. PAVE provides a sample letter that anyone can use. You can request information and help at wapave.org

    Once testing is complete, the school schedules a meeting to discuss the results and whether a team will move forward in developing an IEP. ​Parents get a written invitation to the meeting. If the date and time don’t work, keep in mind that parents are required members of the IEP team. The school and family agree on a time, and schools document efforts to include parents at all IEP team meetings. You can ask ahead for the agenda to make sure there’s going to be enough time for the topics being discussed.

    The school’s invitation lists who’s going to be there. The team could be very large or very small depending on the needs of the student and the professionals involved. ​Team members include: ​

  • A parent or legal guardian​
  • A District Representative. A school administrator can fill this role, so this person might be a staff member from the district special services office, a principal, a dean or a building administrator. This person needs to know district policies and should have some power to make decisions and implement team recommendations.  ​
  • Experts to explain the testing results. This could be a school psychologist or a specialist such as a physical therapist, occupational therapist, Applied Behavior Analyst (ABA), a nurse, etc.
  • Any individuals with knowledge or expertise invited by the school, the student or family. Therapists, counselors, extended family and friends sometimes attend. ​
  • The student. Self-advocacy is important at all ages, but youth making after-high-school plans are especially encouraged to attend, participate or even lead their own meetings. Many parents bring out photographs of their student to place on the table during the discussion. Don’t be afraid to get creative to make sure that the “I” isn’t left out of IEP! ​

    If your student already has an IEP, a re-evaluation occurs at least once every three years unless the team decides differently. A parent can ask for a re-evaluation for different reasons. Usually, a re-evaluation will not occur more than once a year.

  1. Prepare

    Confirm the time and location for the meeting and read the attendance list. If a key member of the team is going to miss the meeting, you will have to sign consent to excuse that person. Ask to reschedule if you aren’t okay with that person being gone.

    You can ask for a copy of the evaluation results or a draft copy of the IEP before the meeting to help you get ready. You can collect letters or important documents from medical professionals or other providers to help you explain something that’s concerning you. You may write a short list of questions, so you don’t forget to ask something important during the meeting. Another option is to make a list of your student’s strengths and talents, to make sure that the school’s program builds on what already works. You can write a letter of concern and ask for it to be attached to the IEP document. Consider inviting someone to come with you, to take notes and help you stay focused. 

  2. Learn

    Knowing the technical parts of an IEP will help you understand what’s happening at the meeting. Remember that the IEP is a living program, not a document. The document that gets drafted, revised and agreed upon does the best job that it can to describe the positions and intentions of the IEP team. The document is a reference guide for the real-time programming that a student receives at school each day. The IEP is a work-in-progress, and the document can be changed as many times as needed to get it right and help everyone stay on track.

    This list includes the technical elements of an IEP:

  • Present Levels of Performance, statements that describe how a student is doing in academics, and can include Social Emotional Learning (SEL) and everyday life skills
  • Educational Impact Statement, describing the disability and its impact on learning
  • Annual Goals, including academic, social, emotional and functional goals. Goals should be SMART (Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant and Timely). The IEP provides a specific way to check on progress.
  • Assessments: state testing scores, upcoming testing schedules and accommodations for access to the tests
  • Program, Placement, Related Services and Supplementary Aids. Special ways of teaching a student are always included in an IEP. How that instruction and the rest of services get delivered is different in every situation and requires collaboration and creativity.
  • Scheduling Details: time, duration and location for all special education programs
  • Least Restrictive Environment (LRE): Schools explain how much time a student spends in special settings instead of regular settings with general education students. A chart or “service matrix” on the IEP document shows how much time a student spends in each location. This section also describes how the placement meets the LRE requirement “to the maximum extent appropriate.”
  • Extracurriculars and other nonacademic activities and how they are accommodated
  • Extended School Year (ESY), if the IEP team believes it is necessary.
  • Behavior Intervention Plan (BIP), as needed, based on a Functional Behavior Assessment (FBA) and recommendations from professionals who work with the student
  • Transition Plan (required on an IEP at age 16). This can be key to a young person’s future, and families and students need to participate fully. Sometimes counselors from the Department of Vocational Rehabilitation (DVR) or another agency interview the student or even come to the IEP meeting to help.
  • Age of Majority statement and plan for the transfer of rights to the student unless parents have guardianship when a student is 18
  1. Attend

At the meeting, each person should be introduced and listed on the sign-in sheet. Schools generally assign a staff member as the IEP case manager, and that person usually organizes the team meeting. Any documents that you see for the first time are draft documents for everyone to work on. Remember that everyone at the table has an equal voice, including you!

Having a photo of a student who isn’t attending in the center of the table might help remind the team to keep conversations student-centered. Parents can help to make sure the focus stays on the needs, goals, strengths and interests of their student.

One key topic for discussion might be about the goals and how they are written. The acronym SMART can help the team make sure goals are Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant and Timely. Ask how the school is going to keep track of progress. Decide as a team how often you would like progress reports.

You may discuss placement–where the school day will happen. Families and schools talk about how much time a student is spending in the Least Restrictive Environment (LRE):  Remember that LRE is one of the IDEA’s primary principles. Your opinion in this important conversation about inclusion matters! If your student is not participating with non-disabled peers in academic or extracurricular areas, ask for the reasons in writing.

At the meeting, behavior gets talked about if it’s getting in the way of a student’s ability to learn in school. You can request a Functional Behavior Assessment (FBA) so the IEP team can develop a Behavior Intervention Plan (BIP) to support the student. The U.S. Office of Special Education Programs has a document called a Dear Colleague Letter that describes the school’s obligations to provide behavior supports when they are needed. That document includes this statement:

“Parents may want to request an IEP team meeting following disciplinary removal or changes in the student’s behavior that impede the student’s learning or that of others, as these likely indicate that the IEP may not be properly addressing the student’s behavioral needs or is not being properly implemented.”

Specific goals for Social Emotional Learning and self-regulation strategies may be needed for appropriate and meaningful access to education. For more ideas, read PAVE’s article series about Social Emotional Learning

Here’s a list of other topics you may want to consider:

  • Modifications your student may need in class or for fire drills, lunch or recess support, walking to/from classes, etc.
  • Accommodations your student will need in class or for testing, such as earphones or a specific seat
  • Long-term goals: An IEP must include transition goals by age 16, and all Washington schools start Life After High School planning in middle school.
  • Extended time over breaks in the school year: Consider how your student might have a pattern of losing and regaining skills or information over extended breaks from school. You also might want to consider if your student is showing signs of emerging skills that potentially could be lost if an extended break from school happens.

Writing down how you plan to communicate with the school can help you participate in the IEP process. Your plan can be written into the IEP during your meeting. This is an individual education program and the team can agree on what is needed for everyone to work together for success. ​Here are a few ideas for ongoing communication with the school: ​

  • A journal that your student carries home in a backpack​
  • A regular email report from the Special Education teacher​
  • A scheduled phone call with the school​
  • A progress report with a specific sharing plan decided by the team​
  • Get creative to make a plan that works for the whole team! ​

During your meeting, ask questions if you don’t understand something. If it is said in the meeting, it can also be put into writing. For example: “The district doesn’t have the funding to offer that.” You can choose to respond, “Please put that in writing.” Any decisions that impact your student’s education or changes to your student’s IEP must be written down in a form called the “Prior Written Notice.” It is like a thank-you note sent after a party. The note states what happened, why it happened and who participated in the event.

​5. Follow up

Your meeting may resolve your concerns. If it doesn’t, consider adding notes to the signature page. You can ask for a follow-up meeting or write a letter to be attached to the IEP document. Make sure to follow through with whatever communication plan the team agreed to. The IEP team reviews the program at least once a year but can meet and change the program more often, if needed.

This article began with a brief history of special education law. Parents have played an important role in that history, and they continue to impact the way that special education is provided in the schools. A recent court case that started in Colorado went all the way to the Supreme Court. That case, referred to as Endrew F, raised some standards related to the IEP. PAVE published an article on Endrew F that includes resource links and tips for using language from that court ruling to help in the IEP process.

If all of this sounds a little overwhelming, you can break the work into steps. Figure out the best way to help your family stay organized with paperwork and information. Choose a calendar system that helps you track appointments and deadlines. Collect and mark the dates for major school events, such as back-to-school night and parent-teacher conferences.

You can choose to print this article and highlight the sections you want to remember. Tuck the pages into your notebook or file folder, with the most recent copy of the IEP.

Talking about the upcoming year with your student can help to reduce worries.  Talk about new activities, classmates and things that will be the same or familiar. Find out if your school has an open house, and plan to attend. At your visit, talk about the school with your student.  What do they like or not like?  What’s new or different? What questions do they have?  Take pictures during your tour, and you can review them in the days right before school starts.

Try to meet with your student’s teachers and other school helpers, including therapists or even the bus driver, if possible. Helping your student to establish relationships early can ease worries and help the school team know what makes your student unique and awesome. Share a simple “quick reference” version of the IEP or Behavior Plan, if available.  You can also write your own simple list of suggestions for success.

From all of us at PAVE, we wish you a happy and successful school year!

Resources for more information:

Office of the Superintendent for Public Instruction (OSPI) Special Education Resource Library

Open Doors for Multicultural Families: Resources

Center for Parent Information and Resources (CPIR/Parent Center Hub)

Wrightslaw: Tips for Using the IDEA to improve your student’s IEP

Regulations governing the development and content of an IEP are contained in the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA, Public Law 108-446), and in the Washington Administrative Code (WAC 392-172A).

 

 

Inclusion Vs. Self-Contained Opportunities for Students in School

Debate continues even today on whether students should be educated in inclusive programs or self-contained programs.

When looking at the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), the law never uses the word “inclusion,” instead the law refers to “Least Restrictive Environment” or LRE.

For some students LRE cannot be achieved in a fully “inclusive” classroom. There are a number of reasons based on the individual needs of the child.  For instance, in a fully inclusive classroom the level of stimulation may be too high, the classroom size may limit the student’s ability to gain the knowledge they need or there are language barriers.  If a student is deaf and uses sign language, for example, the inclusive class may not have the ability to allow the student to “communicate with their peers in their language or mode of communication.”* However, opportunities for people with disabilities to be educated with their non-disabled peers to the greatest extent “appropriate” for the student with the disability is an essential part of the law. There is the expectation that the student with disabilities is a general education student first. Therefore, removal from the general education environment should only occur when it is determined that even with appropriate aids and services the student will not benefit.

So how is all of this decided and is there a blanket process? The answer is no. Each child’s program and services must be decided on an individual basis. The decision is not “one size fits all’ nor is it a decision that is only made once and then continued for the rest of the student’s educational career. The IEP (Individualized Education Program) Team must consider the student’s placement each year as they review the IEP and develop the new goals. Only after the goals have been created should placement be discussed. Placement does not drive services, but services drive placement options. This means that the parent needs to be a large part of the team discussions and, as appropriate, so should the student. The IEP team should consider the many factors that can have an impact on the quality of the education the student will receive.

To address these different factors the IEP team may wish to consider the following questions:

If the student is going to be in an inclusive class setting:

  • Is the learning environment able to support the child’s academic needs? For some students, the need for more specialized instruction may make learning in the inclusive environment more difficult unless supports are put in place to assist in that instruction.
  • Can the child sustain attention among the 25 to 30 students in the classroom? Classes can be large, especially as students get older, and such increases in student count can cause some students to become anxious or to lose the ability to stay focused. The need for accommodations, such as sitting at the front of the classroom or wearing earplugs, may be needed to support the student.
  • What are some of the unwritten “social skills” that a student is expected to follow and how will the learning of social cues be provided? Social skills are an area that has long been challenging for some people with disabilities. If they have not had the opportunity to learn the social cues they are at a disadvantage that can cause difficulties in learning. Some have the opinion that social cues and social skills need to be a part of the learning environment, not just for students with disabilities, but for all the students.
  • What opportunities will be made possible for the child to display their newly learned skills in different settings or with different people? Studies show that until a skill can be demonstrated in more than one setting, it is not truly learned. Therefore, when considering the inclusive environment, opportunities to demonstrate new skills should be available in different settings.
  • How will the team know if the child is gaining the needed skills outlined in the IEP? Measurable goals require the ability to show data and track progress. When considering goals in an inclusive setting the data collection should not be overlooked. The goals need to be well defined and the tracking needs to be done on a consistent basis using measurements that are understood by all.

If the team is considering a self-contained environment they may wish to consider the following questions:

  • Is the learning environment able to support the child’s academic needs?Research has shown that students who are educated in separate settings from those of their peers without disabilities, have greater learning gaps as they get older. The expectation for learning can be decreased because the student is not challenged at the same level that their peers in the general education setting might be. So, it is important to consider whether the child is being appropriately challenged academically. The team may want to look at the learning objectives for all students of that age or grade and then consider how they can adapt or address those learning objectives in a manner that will support the student.
  • Is the teacher able to address the varied needs of the all the students in the classroom? Many times, a self-contained setting will have students with a wide-range of ages and learning needs. While in an inclusive classroom students will have varied learning styles and skills, the expectation is that the students will all receive instruction in a universal manner that addresses those different learning styles. In the self-contained setting there is still the need for the learning strategies to be universal in their design to provide the greatest opportunity for the student to gain the expected skill.
  • Is there ample opportunity for the student to practice the new skills they have learned? Just as in the inclusive setting, students need the opportunity to test their knowledge and skills with different people and in different environments. If the self-contained setting does not provide for opportunities to test these new skills, it may limit the child’s learning.

The options are there for parents to consider. The questions and how they are answered may help determine the approach that is used to support the student. Remember, that while students with disabilities are to be considered general education students first, it doesn’t mean that the need to look at the full range of placement options shouldn’t occur. The decisions will be made by the team with the expectation that all decisions are based on what is appropriate for that student at that time.

Websites used for this article:

Inclusion vs. Self- Contained Education for Children with ASD Diagnoses

Mainstreaming and Inclusion Vs. Self Contained Classrooms: https://prezi.com/4-eoazdwxtey/mainstreaming-and-inclusion-vs-self-contained-classrooms-for-special-needs-education/

Wisconsin Education Association Council: http://weac.org/articles/specialedinc/

IDEA – http://idea.ed.gov/explore/view