IDEA: The Foundation of Special Education

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.

Some important concepts carried over 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 to all children with 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 that’s 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.

The local school district is responsible for providing the program—specialized instruction, services, accommodations and anything else that the team has identified as necessary to provide the student with access to an appropriate education.

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 the school and family team that supports a student with a disability. PAVE provides a video Introduction to Special Education that includes more information about FAPE.

Progress measurements are guaranteed under the IDEA to ensure that the student finds meaningful success, in light of the circumstances of disability. If a neighborhood school cannot provide the services and programming to guarantee FAPE, then the school district is responsible to create a program and placement that does meet the student’s needs. PAVE has an article about the placement decision process.

The federal law 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).

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

The IDEA is written in three parts: A, B and C. Part A describes the general goals and purpose of the law. 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 8. PAVE has an article about the transition between Part C and Part B services.

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

  • Autism: A student doesn’t need a medical diagnosis to be evaluated in the area of autism. If features from the autism spectrum of disability may significantly impact access to education, then the school can assess those features to determine eligibility and special education needs.
  • Emotional Disturbance: Anxiety, Depression, Serious Mental Illness and/or behavior disabilities can fall under this category, which Washington schools often refer to as Emotional Behavioral Disability (EBD). PAVE has an article about mental health in school.
  • 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. Social communication deficits 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: Note this is a separate category from deafness or deaf-blindness, as educational testing and identified needs may differ.
  • Deaf blindness
  • Deafness
  • Visual Impairment/Blindness
  • Traumatic Brain Injury: Brain Injury Alliance of WA is a good 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 in order to access FAPE. PAVE provides comprehensive articles about evaluation and IEP process.

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. PAVE has an article about 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 child’s education can be improved. See PAVE’s article about evaluation process.
  3. Individualized Education Program (IEP): An IEP is a dynamic program, not a packet of paper. PAVE provides a short video overview of IEP process. The document that describes a student’s special education program is carefully written and needs to be reviewed at least once a year by a team that includes school staff and parents/guardians. 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. Learning in school isn’t just academic subjects. Schools also help students learn social and emotional skills and 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.” 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. 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 Citizen Complaint or Due Process. 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 a webinar called Parents as Partners that describes some of the procedural safeguards and offers communication strategies when parents and schools disagree.

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.

 

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

Evaluations Part 1: Where to Start When a Student Needs Special Help at School

A Brief Overview

  • Special Education is provided through the Individualized Education Program (IEP) for a student with a qualifying disability. The first step is to determine eligibility through evaluation. This article describes that process.
  • Specially Designed Instruction (SDI) is the “special” in special education. The evaluation determines whether SDI is needed to help a student overcome barriers of disability to appropriately access education. Learning to ask questions about SDI can help families participate in IEP development. Read on to learn more.
  • Parents can request an evaluation by submitting a written letter to the school district. PAVE offers a template to help with letter writing.
  • For more detail about what happens when a student qualifies for special education, PAVE’s website includes a short video, Overview of IEP Process; a more detailed on-demand webinar, Introduction to Special Education; and an article about IEP Essentials.

Full Article

If a student is having a hard time at school and has a known or suspected disability, the school evaluates to see if the student qualifies for special education. If eligible, the student receives an Individualized Education Program (IEP). Information collected during the evaluation is critical for building the IEP, which provides specialized instruction and other supports in a unique way for each student.

The school follows specific deadlines for an evaluation process, which are described in the state laws provided in the links connected to each of these bullet points:

  • The district must document a formal request for evaluation and make a decision about whether to evaluate within 25 school days (WAC 392-172A-03005).
  • After consent is signed, the school has 35 school days to complete the evaluation (WAC 392-172A-03005).
  • If a student is eligible, the school has 30 calendar days to hold a meeting to develop an initial IEP (WAC 392-172A-03105).

Evaluation is a 3-part process

Not every student who has a disability and receives an evaluation will qualify for an IEP. The school district’s evaluation asks 3 primary questions in each area of learning that is evaluated:

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

If the answer to all three questions is Yes, the student qualifies for an IEP. After the evaluation is reviewed, the IEP team meets to talk about how to build a program to meet the needs that were identified in the evaluation. Each area of disability that meets these three criteria is included as a goal area on the IEP.

The needs and how the school plans to serve those needs gets written into the section of the IEP document called the Present Levels of Academic Achievement and Functional Performance—sometimes shortened to Present Levels of Performance (PLOP). Becoming familiar with the PLOP section of the IEP is important for family members who participate on IEP teams. IEP goals flop without good PLOP!

Bring ideas to the evaluation review meeting

After an initial evaluation is finished, the school arranges a meeting to review the results and determine whether the student qualifies for services. The evaluation review meeting can include time for family members, students and outside service providers to share ideas about what’s going on and what might help. PAVE provides a tool to help parents and students get ready for this and other important meetings by creating a Handout for Meetings.

Read on for ideas about what to do if the school determines that a student doesn’t qualify for IEP services and parents/caregivers disagree or want to pursue other types of school support.

If a student qualifies for special education, new input can be added to information from the evaluation that is automatically included in the PLOP. The present levels section of the IEP is important because it provides space to document the creative ideas that will support the student at school. This section can provide answers to this question: How will the school support the student in meeting annual goals?

Remember that the 3-part evaluation determines whether the student needs Specially Designed Instruction (SDI). SDI is the “special” in special education. SDI is provided through individualized teaching methods, and its success is tracked and measured through progress on the IEP goals.

Progress monitoring is required annually but can be done throughout the year with a communication strategy designed by the school and family. That communication strategy can be written into the IEP document. PAVE’s article about SMART Goals and Progress Tracking can help families better understand how to participate in follow-through to make sure that the special education program is helping the student make meaningful progress.

FAPE is a special education student’s most important right

Whether the student makes meaningful progress is also a measure of whether the school district is meeting its obligation to provide a Free Appropriate Public Education (FAPE), the primary entitlement of a student who qualifies for special education under criteria established by the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA).

PAVE provides an article about the history of special education with more detail about how FAPE became the standard for special education service delivery.

When a student is evaluated, the results are reviewed by a team that includes school staff and the family. The team discusses whether the student qualifies for special education. If yes, then the IEP process begins to determine how best to deliver FAPE. In other words, how will the school district provide an appropriate education to meet a student’s unique needs, in light of the circumstances of disability?

PAVE provides an article describing the IDEA and its six primary principles as the Foundation of Special Education. In addition to FAPE, the primary principles include: appropriate evaluation, IEP, parent and student involvement, education in the Least Restrictive Environment (LRE) and Procedural Safeguards, which provide dispute options and protections to make sure schools follow federal and state rules.

A referral starts the evaluation process

A parent/guardian, teacher, school administrator, service provider or other concerned adult can refer a student for evaluation. PAVE’s recommended guidelines for requesting an evaluation in writing are included later in this article.

If the school agrees to evaluate, a variety of tests and questionnaires are included. The evaluation looks for strengths and difficulties in many different areas, so input from parents, teachers and providers is critical. Generally, the evaluation reviews developmental history and assesses cognition, academic achievement and “functional” skills. Listed below are some common skill areas to evaluate:

  • Functional: Functional skills are necessary for everyday living, and deficits might show up with tasks such as eating, handling common classroom tools or using the restroom.
  • Academic: Testing in specific academic areas can seek information about whether the student might have a Specific Learning Disability, such as dyslexia.
  • OT and Speech: Occupational Therapy and Speech/Language can be included as specific areas for evaluation, if there is reason to suspect that deficits are impacting education.
  • Social-Emotional Learning: Many evaluations collect data in an area of education called Social Emotional Learning (SEL), which can highlight disabilities related to behavior, social interactions, mental health or emotional regulation. It’s common for parents to fill out an at-home survey as part of an SEL evaluation process.
  • Autism Spectrum: Testing can look for disability related to autism spectrum issues, such as sensory processing or social difficulties. Testing in this area can be done regardless of whether there is a medical diagnosis.
  • Adaptive: How a student transitions from class-to-class or organizes materials are examples of adaptive skills that might impact learning.

Please note that strengths are measured alongside challenges and can provide important details for a robust program. The first part of a present levels statement can always include statements about what the student does well.

Eligibility Categories of Disability

Areas of evaluation are associated with the 14 categories of disability that are defined as “eligibility categories” under the IDEA. These are broad categories, and sometimes there is discussion about which is the best fit to capture information about a student’s unique situation. Please note that there is no such thing as a “behavior IEP” or an “academic IEP.” After a student qualifies, the school is responsible to address all areas of need and design programming, services and a placement to meet those needs. An IEP is an individualized program, built to support a unique person and is not a cut-and-paste project based on the category of disability.

This list includes some common diagnoses and/or issues that come up within each of the IDEA’s 14 categories.

  • Autism: A student doesn’t need a medical diagnosis to be evaluated in the area of autism. If features from the autism spectrum of disability may significantly impact access to education, then the school can assess those features to determine eligibility and special education needs.
  • Emotional Disturbance: Anxiety, Depression, Serious Mental Illness and/or behavior disabilities can fall under this category, which Washington schools often refer to as Emotional Behavioral Disability (EBD).
  • 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.
  • 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. Social communication deficits 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: Note this is a separate category from deafness or deaf-blindness, as educational testing and identified needs may differ.
  • Deaf blindness
  • Deafness
  • Visual Impairment/Blindness
  • Traumatic Brain Injury: Brain Injury Alliance of WA is a good 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.

Child Find requires school districts to evaluate

Appropriate evaluation is a key principle of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). The IDEA includes a mandate called Child Find, which requires school districts to seek out, evaluate and serve students ages Birth-21 who have known or suspected disabilities that may impact school success or access. PAVE has an article about the Child Find Mandate, which applies to all children, including those who go to public or private schools. Children who are homeless or wards of the state are included, as are children who move a lot. Children who are “advancing from grade to grade” are included in the mandate, if they may have disabilities that impact learning in non-academic areas of school.

Here are some considerations:

  • Child Find mandates evaluation if there is reason to suspect a disability.
  • Students who are failing or behind their peers might have challenges related to language or access to school that don’t indicate a disability.
  • Parents who don’t understand the school’s reason can request a written explanation.
  • Schools cannot refuse to evaluate because of budgetary constraints. They also cannot refuse because they want to try different teaching strategies. School staff might use the term Response to Intervention (RTI). Although the school might benefit from a review of its methods, RTI is not a basis for refusing to evaluate a child for a suspected disability.

Deadlines start when a referral is made

When a student is referred for an evaluation, the school follows a schedule of deadlines. Parents can mark a calendar to track these timelines. To make sure deadlines are followed, PAVE recommends that formal requests and communications are made and stored in written form. Parents can always request a written response from the school or write down a response made verbally and send a “reflective” email that includes detail about what was discussed or decided. That reflective email creates a written record of a conversation.

Districts have 25 school days to respond to a request for evaluation. Some schools invite parents to a meeting to discuss concerns. Being prepared with a written statement can help. Parents can also share information from doctors or outside providers.

Before a school evaluates a student, the parent/guardian signs consent. If school staff recommend an evaluation and parents do not agree or sign consent, then the school does not conduct the evaluation. Please note that parents are consenting to the evaluation, so that parents and schools can make an informed decision about what to do next. Parents can choose at the next step whether to sign consent for a special education program to begin.

If a parent initiated the referral and the school doesn’t respond or denies the request for an evaluation, the parent can request an answer in writing. PAVE provides an article about what to do if the school says no to your evaluation request.

What happens next if the school agrees to evaluate?

If all agree that an evaluation is needed, and a parent/guardian signs a formal document giving permission, then the school completes the evaluation within 35 school days.

In compliance with the IDEA, an evaluation for special education is non-discriminatory. If the child cannot read, for example, the testing uses verbal instructions or pictures. The child’s native language is honored. Schools have a variety of tools available to eliminate bias. Parents can take action if they disagree with the way testing was done or the way it was interpreted.

The IDEA requires schools to use “technically sound” instruments in evaluation. Generally, that means the tests are evidence-based as valid and reliable, and the school recruits qualified personnel to administer the tests. The IDEA is clear that a singular measure, such as an Intelligence Quotient (IQ) test, does not meet the standard for an appropriate evaluation.

Don’t be intimidated by fancy language!

The formal language of the IDEA and the evaluation process can feel intimidating, but parents need to remember that they have a critical role as the experts and long-term investors in their child. If the evaluation data is confusing, parents can ask the school to provide charts or graphs to make it clear. Parents have the right to ask questions until they understand the evaluation process and what the results mean.

A primary goal of evaluation is to identify a child’s strengths and needs in the general education environment. Regular classrooms are the Least Restrictive Environment (LRE) unless a student is unable to succeed there. The evaluation determines whether a student needs extra help in the general education setting, and the IEP team uses information gathered through evaluation to recommend and develop an initial program.

The IEP isn’t a one-and-done project

The IEP shifts and changes with the needs of the student, so the initial evaluation is only the beginning. A new evaluation is required by the IDEA at least every 3 years, but a new evaluation can be initiated earlier if there’s a question about whether the program is working. The school and family are always collecting new information and insights, and the IEP adapts in real time with new information.

For example, the school might document that a student is failing to access learning in general education despite help that was carefully designed to make the setting accessible. Then the IEP team, which includes a parent or guardian, might discuss placement in a more restrictive setting.

What if I don’t agree with the school?

Parents can always ask school staff to describe their decisions in writing, and parents have rights guaranteed by the IDEA to informally or formally dispute any decision made by the school. The Center for Appropriate Dispute Resolution in Special Education (CADRE) offers a variety of guidebooks that describe these options. In Washington State, the Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction (OSPI) provides state-specific guidelines for dispute resolution. PAVE provides an on-demand webinar about conflict engagement: Parents as Partners with the School.

Recommended guidelines for requesting an evaluation

Make the request in writing! PAVE provides a sample letter to help.

  • Address the letter to the district’s special education director or program coordinator.
  • Deliver the request by email, certified mail, or in person. To hand-deliver, request a date/time stamp or signature at the front office to serve as a receipt.
  • Track the days the district takes to respond. The district has 25 school days (weekends and holidays excluded) to respond.

Items to include in the referral letter:

  • The student’s full name and birthdate.
  • A clear statement of request, such as “I am requesting a full and individual educational evaluation for [the student].”
  • A statement that “all areas of suspected disability” be evaluated.
  • A description of concerns. Include any details provided by the student about what is working or not working at school, during transportation or related to homework. Consider all areas of school, not just academic ones.
  • Include any detail about past requests for evaluation that may have been denied.
  • Attach letters from doctors, therapists, or other providers who have relevant information, insights, or diagnoses (NOTE: medical information is offered voluntarily and not required to be shared).
  • Parent/legal caregiver contact information and a statement that consent for the evaluation will be provided upon notification.

After receiving a letter of request for evaluation the school district has the responsibility to:

  • Document the referral.
  • Notify parent/caregiver, in writing, that the student has been referred for evaluation.
  • Examine relevant documents from family, the school, medical providers, and other involved agencies.
  • Tell parents/caregivers in writing, within 25 days, about the decision to evaluate or not. This formal letter is called “Prior Written Notice.”
  • Request formal written consent for an evaluation.
  • Complete the evaluation within 35 school days after consent is signed.
  • Schedule a meeting to share evaluation results with a team that includes family to determine next steps.
  • Initiate development of an IEP, if the student qualifies.

Evaluation for Behavior Supports

Sometimes a Functional Behavior Analysis (FBA) is conducted alongside an educational evaluation when behavior is a primary feature of a child’s difficulty at school. The FBA uses tools and observation to identify triggers and unskilled coping strategies that can help explain areas of need for learning. The FBA provides the foundation for a Behavior Intervention Plan (BIP), which supports positive choices. BIP goals and strategies prioritize social skill development and emotional regulation tools. The BIP can be a stand-alone document or can be used with an IEP or a Section 504 Plan (see below). PAVE provides a variety of articles about Positive Behavior Interventions and Supports.

A student may qualify for a Section 504 Plan, if not an IEP

Section 504 is part of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973. This Civil Rights law protects individuals with disabilities that severely impact “major life activities,” such as learning, breathing, walking, paying attention, making friends… The law is intentionally broad to capture a wide range of disability conditions and how they might impact a person’s life circumstances.

Sometimes students who don’t qualify for the IEP will qualify for accommodations and other support through a Section 504 Plan. PAVE has an article about Section 504, which provides an individual with protections throughout the lifespan. Note that Section 504 anti-discrimination protections apply to students with IEPs and Section 504 Plans. Key protections provide for equitable opportunities, access and non-discriminatory policies and practices. These protections might be part of the discussion if a student, because of disability, is denied access to a field trip, extracurricular opportunities, a unique learning environment or something else that is generally available to all students.

Section 504 includes specific provisions to protect students from bullying related to disability conditions: A US Department of Education Dear Colleague letter about bullying describes those protections as an aspect of a school district’s responsibility to provide FAPE.

Independent Educational Evaluation (IEE)

If parents/caregivers disagree with the evaluation or the school’s decision to decline support services, they can pursue a request for an Independent Educational Evaluation (IEE). Making this request in writing encourages a professional response. When granting a request for an IEE, the school district provides a list of possible examiners and covers the cost. If the school district denies an IEE request, the district initiates a due process hearing within 15 calendar days to show that its initial evaluation was appropriate.

Here are additional resources:

Washington laws regarding evaluation are in 392-172A, 03005-03080, of the Washington Administrative Code (WAC)

Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction (OSPI): k12.wa.us

Center for Parent Information and Resources (English and Spanish): Parentcenterhub.org

Smart Kids with Learning Disabilities: smartkidswithld.org

PAVE’s Parent Training and Information (PTI) team can provide you with 1:1 support and additional resources. Here are ways to Get Help:

Call 1-800-5PARENT (572-7368) and select extension 115, English or Spanish available, to leave a dedicated message.

OR

Go online to fill out a form to Get Help! Use the Google translate to make it to the language you use the best!

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.
  • By June 2020 the state’s Dyslexia Advisory Council will recommend specific methods to help schools implement new programs, train staff and share resources with families. The council is responsible to share resources and best-practice strategies for students at all levels, not just those who are identified before third grade.
  • 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

By June 2020 the state’s Dyslexia Advisory Council will recommend specific methods to help schools implement new programs, train staff and share resources with families. The council is responsible to share resources and best-practice strategies for students at all levels, not just those who are identified before third grade.

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:

 

Introduction to Special Education

 

The process of special education can feel overwhelming for parents already working hard to manage home and medical challenges. This presentation is for parents of students ages 3-21, with known or suspected disabilities, who may have unique educational needs that require additional supports and services through an Individualized Education Program (IEP) or a Section 504 Plan. This information can help parents participate in decision-making with schools by understanding basic principles of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973.

For an additional video about communication strategies for collaborating with the school, watch PAVE’s video, Parents as Partners with the School.