Early Learning Toolkit: Overview of Services for Families of Young Children

New parents have a lot to manage. Concern about whether a child’s growth and development are on track can be confusing. This toolkit provides places to begin if caregivers suspect that a baby or young child may need services due to a developmental delay or disability.

How do I know if my child is developmentally delayed?

Washington families concerned about a child’s development can call the Family Health Hotline at 1-800-322-2588 (TTY 1.800.833.6384) to connect with a Family Resource Coordinator (FRC). Support is provided in English, Spanish and other languages. Families can access developmental screening online for free at Parent Help 123 developmental screening tool.

In addition, several state agencies collaborated to publish Early Learning and Development Guidelines. The booklet includes information about what children can do and learn at different stages of development, from birth through third grade. Families can purchase a hard copy of the guidelines from the state Department of Enterprise Services. Order at: myprint.wa.gov. A free downloadable version is available in English and Spanish from the website of the Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction (OSPI): Early Learning and Development Guidelines.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) manages a campaign to Learn the Signs. Act Early. The website includes tools for tracking milestones and materials for families to learn more and plan home-based activities to promote skill development.

Birth-3 services are provided by ESIT

In Washington, the Department of Children, Youth and Families (DCYF) administers services for eligible children from birth to age 3 through Early Support for Infants and Toddlers (ESIT). Families can contact ESIT directly, or they can reach out to their local school district to request an evaluation to determine eligibility and consider what support a child might need. ESIT provides information on a page called Parent Rights and Leadership, with procedural safeguards described in a brochure that can be downloaded in multiple languages.

Evaluation determines eligibility

After a referral is accepted, a team of professionals uses standardized tools and observations to evaluate a young child’s development in five areas:

·       Physical: Reaching for and grasping toys, crawling, walking, jumping

·       Cognitive: Watching activities, following simple directions, problem-solving

·       Social-emotional: Making needs known, initiating games, starting to take turns

·       Communication: Vocalizing, babbling, using two- to three-word phrases

·       Adaptive: Holding a bottle, eating with fingers, getting dressed

Services are provided through an IFSP

Children who qualify receive services through an Individualized Family Service Plan (IFSP). Early learning programs are designed to enable success in the child’s natural environment (home, daycare, etc.), which is where the child would be if disability was not a factor. PAVE provides more information: Early Intervention: How to Access Services for Children Birth to 3 in Washington.

 IDEA includes three parts

The federal law that protects children with disabilities and creates a funding source for services to meet their individualized needs is the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA).

  1. Part A includes general guidance about the rights of children 0-21 with disabilities.
  2. Part B protects eligible students ages 3-21 with the right to school-based services delivered through an Individualized Education Program (IEP).
  3. Part C guarantees the right to early intervention services for children Birth-3 who meet eligibility criteria.

PAVE provides an overview article about the federal law and its primary features: IDEA: The Foundation of Special Education.

Child Find protects the right to evaluation

Under IDEA, school districts have the affirmative duty to seek out and evaluate children with known or suspected disabilities who live within their boundaries. That affirmative duty is protected through IDEA’s Child Find Mandate.

Child Find Mandate protects:

  • Children Birth-3 with known or suspected disability conditions that may significantly impact the way they learn and engage within their natural environment
  • Students 3-21 who may be significantly impacted in their ability to access grade-level learning at school because of a known or suspected disability condition

If these criteria are met, the school district in which the child lives has the duty to evaluate to determine eligibility for services. For more information, PAVE provides an article: Child Find: Schools Have a Legal Duty to Evaluate Children Impacted by Disability.

Information for children 3-5 or older

Children with early intervention services are evaluated to determine whether they are eligible for school-based services when they turn 3.

If a child did not receive early intervention services but disability is suspected or shown to impact learning, a family caregiver or anyone with knowledge of a child’s circumstances can request that the school district evaluate a child 3 years or older to determine eligibility for school-based services. PAVE provides information about how to make a formal written request for an educational evaluation: Sample Letter to Request Evaluation.

Preschool children have a right to be included

If eligible, students 3-21 can receive free services through an Individualized Education Program (IEP) served by the local school district. PAVE provides guidance for families new to the process: Steps to Read, Understand, and Develop an Initial IEP.

The Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction (OSPI), provides guidance specific to Early Childhood Special Education. Districts must consider how to include preschool students with non-disabled peers. General education classrooms are considered the Least Restrictive Environment, and LRE is a primary guiding principle of the IDEA.

There are 14 IEP eligibility categories

Students 3-21 may be eligible for IEP services if they meet criteria in a category defined by federal and state regulations. A PAVE article provides more detail about each of these categories and describes the evaluation process: Evaluations Part 1: Where to Start When a Student Needs Special Help at School.

Below is a list of IEP eligibility categories. The Washington Administrative Code (WAC 392-172A-01035) lists state criteria for each category.

Developmental Delay is an eligibility category for Washington students through age 9. At that point, an evaluation would need to show eligibility in one of the other 13 categories for the student to continue receiving IEP services.

Please note that a medical diagnosis is not required for a school district to determine eligibility, which is based on three criteria:

  1. a disability is present
  2. a student’s learning is significantly impacted, and
  3. services are necessary to help the child access appropriate learning.

All three prongs must be present for a student to be eligible for an IEP in one or more of these disability categories:

  • Autism
  • Emotional Disturbance (In Wash., Emotional Behavioral Disability)
  • Specific Learning Disability
  • Other Health Impairment
  • Speech/Language Impairment
  • Multiple Disabilities
  • Intellectual Disability
  • Orthopedic Impairment
  • Hearing Impairment
  • Deafness
  • Deaf blindness
  • Visual Impairment/Blindness
  • Traumatic Brain Injury
  • Developmental Delay (ages 0-9 in Wash.)

PAVE is here to help!

Parent Training and Information (PTI)is federally funded to provide assistance for family caregivers, youth, and professionals. We know educational systems use a lot of complicated words and follow regulated procedures that can feel confusing. We do our best to help school-and-family teams work together so students with disabilities can access their right to a Free Appropriate Public Education (FAPE). Learn more about PTI and click Get Help to receive individualized assistance.

Early Intervention: How to Access Services for Children Birth to 3 in Washington

A Brief Overview

  • Early intervention services help infants and toddlers with disabilities or delays to learn and catch up in their development. This article covers some basics about services for young children in Washington State.
  • Families concerned about a child’s development can call the Family Health Hotline at 1-800-322-2588, with support in multiple languages. Parents can complete a developmental screening online for free at Parent Help 123.
  • Early Learning and Development Guidelines are downloadable from the Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction. Hard copies can be purchased at myprint.wa.gov.
  • PAVE provides an article for next steps after age 3: What’s Next when Early Childhood Services End at Age 3? Another PAVE article for families new to special education: Steps to Read, Understand, and Develop an Initial IEP.
  • PAVE’s Parent Training and Information (PTI) staff help families understand and navigate service systems for children 0-26. Click Get Help at wapave.org or call 800-572-7368.

Full Article

New parents may struggle to know whether their child’s growth and development are on track. They may have a feeling that a milestone is missed, or they may observe siblings or other children learning and developing differently. Sometimes a parent just needs reassurance. Other times, a child has a developmental delay or a disability. In those cases, early interventions can be critical to a child’s lifelong learning.

Seek guidance from a Family Resource Coordinator (FRC)

Washington families concerned about a young child’s development can call the Family Health Hotline at 1-800-322-2588 (TTY 1.800.833.6384) to connect with a Family Resource Coordinator (FRC). Support is provided in English, Spanish and other languages. Families can access developmental screening online for free at Parent Help 123 developmental screening tool.

Several state agencies collaborated to publish Early Learning and Development Guidelines. The booklet includes information about what children can do and learn at different stages of development, focused on birth through third grade. Families can purchase a hard copy of the guidelines from the state Department of Enterprise Services. Order at: myprint.wa.gov. A free downloadable version is available in English and Spanish from OSPI’s website on a page labeled: Early Learning and Development Guidelines.

Washington early services are provided by ESIT

In Washington, the Department of Children, Youth and Families (DCYF) administers services for eligible children from birth to age 3 through Early Support for Infants and Toddlers (ESIT). Families can contact ESIT directly, or they can reach out to their local school district to request an evaluation to determine eligibility and consider what support a child might need. The ESIT website includes videos to guide family caregivers and a collection of Parent Rights and Leadership resources, with multiple language options.

Early intervention services are provided in the child’s “natural environment,” which includes home and community settings where children would be participating if they did not have a disability. According to ESIT, “Early intervention services are designed to enable children birth to 3 with developmental delays or disabilities to be active and successful during the early childhood years and in the future in a variety of settings—in their homes, in childcare, in preschool or school programs, and in their communities.”

Early services are delivered through an IFSP

Children who qualify receive services through an Individualized Family Service Plan (IFSP). The right to an IFSP is protected by Part C of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). The IDEA is a federal grant program that provides funding for states to implement early learning and special education programs. Part B of the IDEA protects an eligible school-age student’s right to an Individualized Education Program (IEP). Part A includes general guidance about the educational rights of children 0-21.

Family caregivers, childcare professionals, teachers, or anyone else can refer a child for an early learning evaluation if there is reason to suspect that a disability or developmental delay may be impacting the child’s growth and progress. The school district’s duty to seek out, evaluate and potentially serve infants, toddlers or school-aged students with known or suspected disabilities is guaranteed through the IDEA’s Child Find Mandate.

First Step: Evaluate to determine eligibility

Early intervention is intended for infants and toddlers who have a developmental delay or disability. Eligibility is determined by evaluating the child (with parental consent) to see if the little one does, in fact, have a delay in development or a disability. Eligible children can receive early intervention services from birth to the third birthday. 

After a referral is accepted, a team of professionals uses standardized tools and observations to evaluate a child’s development in five areas:

  1. : Reaching for and grasping toys, crawling, walking, jumping
  2. : Watching activities, following simple directions, problem-solving
  3. : Making needs known, initiating games, starting to take turns
  4. : Vocalizing, babbling, using two- to three-word phrases
  5. : Holding a bottle, eating with fingers, getting dressed

The tools used to evaluate a child provide scores that are compared with the scores of children who are typically developing. Eligibility is met based on one or more of these conditions:

Next Step: Develop a service plan

If an infant or toddler is eligible, early intervention services are designed to meet the child’s individual needs. Options might include, but are not limited to:  

  • Assistive technology (devices a child might need)
  • Audiology or hearing services
  • Speech and language services
  • Counseling and training for a family
  • Medical services
  • Nursing services
  • Nutrition services
  • Occupational therapy
  • Physical therapy
  • Psychological services

Services are typically provided in the child’s home or other natural environment, such as daycare. They also can be offered in a medical hospital, a clinic, a school, or another community space. 

Individualized Family Service Plan (IFSP): What is the plan?

The IFSP is a whole family plan, with the child’s primary caregivers as major contributors to its development and implementation. Parents/custodial caregivers must provide written consent for services to begin. In Washington, Family Resource Coordinators (FRCs) help write the IFSP. Team members may include medical professionals, therapists, child development specialists, social workers, and others with knowledge of the child and recommendations to contribute. 

The IFSP includes goals, and progress is monitored to determine whether the plan is supporting appropriate outcomes. The plan is reviewed every six months and is updated at least once a year but can be reviewed at any time by request of parents or other team members. The IFSP includes:

  • The child’s current developmental levels and needs in physical, cognitive, communication, social/emotional, and adaptive areas
  • Family information: resources, priorities, and concerns of parents/caregivers.
  • Major results/outcomes expected from the child and family
  • Specific services:
    • Where services are provided—any services provided outside the child’s “natural environment” of home/daycare/community require a statement explaining the rationale for the placement
    • When the child receives services—the number of days or sessions for each service, and how long each session will last
  • Who pays for the services
  • Name and contact information for the Family Resource coordinator (FRC) responsible for IFSP implementation
  • Steps to begin at age 2.5 to support the child’s transition out of early intervention and perhaps into school-based services.
  • If relevant, additional services or information for the family—such as financial guidance or parenting support

Dispute resolution options are available

If parents have a concern or disagree with any part of the early intervention process, they can contact their Family Resource Coordinator (FRC). If issues remain unresolved, families may choose from a range of dispute resolution options that include mediation, due process, and more. ESIT provides access to a downloadable parent rights brochure with information about dispute resolution options in multiple languages.

Most services are free to families

Washington State provides most early intervention services at no cost to families of eligible children. Some services covered by insurance are billed to a child’s health insurance provider, with the signed consent of a family caregiver. The early intervention system may not use health care insurance (private or public) without express, written consent.

Part C of the IDEA requires states to provide the following services at no cost to families: Child Find (outreach and evaluation), assessments, IFSP development and review, and service coordination.

More resources

  • Learn the Signs. Act Early. The website includes tools for tracking milestones and materials for families to learn more and plan home-based activities to promote skill development. “Early intervention services can change a child’s developmental path and improve outcomes for children, families, and communities,” the CDC encourages. “Help your child, help your family! Families benefit from early intervention by being able to better meet their children’s needs from an early age and throughout their lives.”
  • The Center for Parent Information and Resources (CIPR—ParentCenterHub.org) provides an Overview of Early intervention.
  • The US Department of Education Office of Special Education Programs (OSEP) provides funding for the Early Childhood Technical Assistance Center (ectacenter.org), based at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. The center builds state and local capacity to improve outcomes for young children with disabilities and their families.
  • PAVE’s Parent Training and Information (PTI) staff provide information, training, resources, and technical assistance to help family caregivers, students and professionals understand rights and responsibilities within education systems, including those for early learning. For support, complete an online help request at wapave.org or leave a message at the helpline: 1-800-572-7368/press 115.

Family Advocacy and Student Rights

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

Summer Reading Tips for Families

Summer days offer time to focus on play, creativity, and family fun. If most days also include time for reading, children will better maintain skills they’ve been working on during the school year. Here are tips for families to keep kids engaged in reading.

Check your child’s reading level

If possible, ask a teacher for information about the child’s reading level before school’s out. This information will help you use any reading guides provided by the school or library. Here’s another option: Learning Heroes (bealearninghero.org) has a Summer Stride program to guide families in how to gauge a child’s skill levels.

Follow your child’s lead

Ask a librarian to show you where to find books in your child’s general reading level, then turn your child loose to explore. Children will often gravitate to books that look interesting and accessible.

Don’t worry if the child wants to explore a book that seems too easy or too hard. Keep in mind that the point is to keep the child interested in reading. Sometimes children need something easy to keep it fun, and sometimes the subject of a harder book makes it more fascinating.  

Some children choose comic books or books with diagrams, which are rarely included on teacher lists but can keep kids going to the library. Consider whether guilt-free reading options might reduce battles and keep eyes engaged on the page.

Pull words from the page

Some children prefer or need books that are more interactive. Here are some options:

  • A read-aloud, with an adult or child doing the reading
  • Read together and share questions and answers along the way
  • Act out a book
  • Participate in a read-a-thon
  • Check out audio books
  • Seek programs that show words and provide narration

An agency called Bookshare provides e-books for children with learning disabilities, vision problems, or conditions like cerebral palsy.  The agency provides alternative reading options, such as braille, audiobooks, large print books, and more.

Be a model reader

Children learn reading habits from their family, and when adults show they love to read children will often model that behavior. Happy reading this summer and always!

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

A Brief Overview

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

Full Article

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

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

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

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

Eligibility for Transition Recovery Services is an IEP team decision

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Every IEP team should talk about Recovery Services

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

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

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

The key question to bring to the meeting

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

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

Transition Recovery Services are documented with PWN

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

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

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

What can families do?

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

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

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

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

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

How are graduation requirements impacted by COVID?

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

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

All students have the right to participate in Commencement

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

What to Know about Adapted Physical Education in Washington State

A Brief Overview

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

Full Article 

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

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

How Adapted PE works

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

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

What does Adapted PE look like?

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

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

IEPs can include Adapted PE as a service

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

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

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

Barriers to Adapted PE services

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

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

Advocacy is underway

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

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

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

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

Staff and Board Members at SHAPE Washington

What Parents Need to Know when Disability Impacts Behavior and Discipline at School

A Brief Overview

  • Discussion about school-based discipline was pretty quiet during the pandemic. The topic is resurfacing as schools begin to reopen for in-person instruction. Read on for information about student rights in Washington and what families need to know when behavior impedes learning and disability may be a factor.
  • Schools are required to provide education and support before resorting to discipline. This article includes resources and information to help families ensure that students receive best-practice services and that disciplinary actions are non-discriminatory.
  • If the school calls to send a child home due to behavior, parents can ask whether the student is being suspended. If the school is not taking formal disciplinary action, parents are not required to take a child home. If the action is a suspension, specific rules apply. Read on for more detail. PAVE also provides a video with information about what to do if the school wants to send a child home due to behavior.
  • Families can seek individualized assistance by clicking Get Help from PAVE’s website, wapave.org.
  • Read on for information about Procedural Safeguards, which are downloadable through the Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction (OSPI), Washington’s lead educational agency.

Full Article

Behavior is a form of communication, and children often try to express their needs and wants more through behavior than words. When a young person has a disability or has experienced trauma or other distress, adults and authorities may need to put in extra effort to understand. Missed cues and unmet needs can result in unexpected and sometimes explosive behaviors, which may lead schools to suspend or expel students. Best practice is to meet behavioral health needs and support students before disciplinary action is necessary.

Unfortunately, not all students are adequately supported. Before the COVID-19 pandemic, state data indicated that students with disabilities were disciplined at least 2.5 times more often than non-disabled peers (See WA State Report Card). For students with disabilities who are Black, Indigenous, or People of Color (BIPOC), the numbers are consistently higher.

Although no one can predict what will happen as schools reopen for in-person services, research clearly indicates that children’s behavioral health has worsened during the pandemic. Governor Jay Inslee on March 14, 2021, issued an emergency proclamation declaring children’s mental health to be in crisis.

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

As schools reopen, the topic of how to support expected behavior and avoid disciplinary removal from the classroom is resurfacing. Read on for foundational information about student and family rights in Washington.

What is exclusionary discipline?

Any school disciplinary action that takes a student away from their regularly scheduled placement at school is called exclusionary discipline. Out-of-school suspensions, expulsions, and in-school suspensions count. Another element is isolation/restraint, which is an emergency response to imminent danger and not disciplinary. See below for more detail.

Families can empower themselves to advocate for their students by learning the federal framework for school-based services. Students who receive accommodations and supports through a Section 504 Plan have anti-discrimination protections from the Rehabilitation Act of 1973. Students with an Individualized Education Program (IEP) have Section 504 protections and specific rights and protections from the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA).

Exclusionary discipline may violate FAPE

A student with an identified disability may be suspended for a behavioral violation that is outlined in district policy. State guidance is for schools to suspend students only if there are significant safety concerns. Schools are limited in their ability to exclude students from school because of behaviors that “manifest” (arise or express) from disability.

Students with identified disabilities supported through either an IEP or a 504 Plan are afforded access to a Free Appropriate Public Education (FAPE). Disciplinary actions that deny access to FAPE may be discriminatory. In other words, if a student with disabilities has unmet needs and is consistently sent home instead of helped, the school may be held accountable.

Read on for information about Procedural Safeguards, which are downloadable through the Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction (OSPI), Washington’s lead educational agency.

Unexpected behavior may indicate a disability and need for services

School districts have a duty to evaluate students to determine eligibility for special education if they have learning challenges or exhibit behavior that may indicate a disability. Under IDEA, this responsibility is called Child Find.

The Office for Civil Rights within the U.S. Department of Education in December 2016 issued a two-page Fact Sheet that includes this statement: “A student’s behavioral challenges, such as those that lead to an emergency situation in which a school believes restraint or seclusion is a justified response could be a sign that the student actually has a disability and needs special education or related aids and services in order to receive FAPE.”

Manifestation Determination

To avoid FAPE violations, schools are required to document missed educational time and meet with family to review the student’s circumstances if the time a student has been suspended or otherwise removed from their academic placement for discipline adds up to 10 days. That meeting is called a Manifestation Determination. Manifestation Determination is a distinct process for students with known or suspected disabilities and is separate from general education disciplinary hearings or procedures.

Under Section 504, schools are bound to consider disability-related factors through Manifestation Determination if the disciplinary removal is for more than 10 consecutive school days or when the child is sub­jected to a series of removals that constitute a pattern. OSPI provides a guidance form for Section 504 circumstances.

For a student with an IEP, removal from regularly scheduled classes for more than 10 days per school year constitutes a “change of placement” and a Manifestation Determination meeting is held to determine whether the disciplinary removals resulted from the school’s failure to implement the IEP. OSPI provides a guidance form for IEP circumstances.

During a Manifestation Determination meeting, a student’s circumstances and services are reviewed. An IEP can be amended to provide additional support. For students not yet identified for special education services, this meeting can initiate or expedite an evaluation if the school district knew or should have known that the student needed special education services. 

Family members are included in this process. According to WAC 392-172A-05146, “If the school district, the parent, and relevant members of the student’s IEP team determine the conduct was a manifestation of the student’s disability, the school district must take immediate steps to remedy those deficiencies.”

If the conduct is determined to be unrelated to disability, then school personnel may use general education discipline procedures. The school must still provide any special education services that the student has already been found to need. The IEP team decides the appropriate alternative setting and special education services to meet the student’s needs while suspended.

Note: With the exception of a firearm violation under federal law, school districts are not required to suspend or expel students for any behavioral violation. State law explicitly encourages school districts to consider alternative actions before administering suspension or expulsion. If a student’s conduct involves weapons, illegal drugs, or serious bodily injury, a student may be removed for up to 45 school days regardless of whether the student’s behavior was a manifestation of disability. However, a manifestation determination meeting still is required within the first 10 days of removal from school and educational services are provided.

Schools are required to support behavior and work with families

Schools are required to provide education and support before resorting to discipline for children who struggle with behavior because of their impairments. Under the IDEA, when behavior impedes the child’s learning or that of others, the IEP Team is required to consider the use of positive behavioral interventions and supports, and other strategies, to address that behavior. When necessary (for FAPE), the team must include those supports in the IEP.

These requirements are described in a federal Dear Colleague letter from August 1, 2016: “We are issuing this guidance to clarify that the failure to consider and provide for needed behavioral supports through the IEP process is likely to result in a child not receiving a meaningful educational benefit or FAPE.”

The letter, provided by the U.S. Department of Education, recommends specific alternatives to disciplinary removal and includes detail about the rights of families when there are behavioral concerns: “In general, IEP Team meetings provide parents (who are required members of the team) critical opportunities to participate in the decision-making process, raise questions and concerns regarding their child’s behavior, and provide input on the types of behavioral supports their children may need.”

When a student is suspended, the school is required to submit a report to the family and the state. That report must include an explanation of how school staff attempted to de-escalate a situation before resorting to disciplinary removal. OSPI provides information for schools and families related to state guidance and requirements. A one-page introductory handout for parents is a place to begin.

As a local control state, individual school districts determine their specific policies related to disciplinary criteria and actions. According to OSPI, school districts are required to engage with community members and families when updating their discipline policies, which must align with state and federal regulations.

In general, Washington rules:

  • Encourage schools to minimize the use of suspensions and expulsions and focus instead on evidence-based, best-practice educational strategies
  • Prohibit schools from excluding students due to absences or tardiness
  • Limit use of exclusionary discipline for behaviors that do not present a safety threat
  • Prohibit expulsion for students in kindergarten through grade four (children in that age range cannot be excluded from their classroom placements/suspended for more than 10 cumulative days per academic term)
  • Require schools to provide educational access while a student is suspended or expelled

Schools must provide educational services during a suspension

State law requires that all suspended and expelled students have an opportunity to receive educational services (RCW 28A.600.015). According to the Washington Administrative Codes (WAC 392-400-610) educational services provided in an alternative setting must enable the student to:

  • Continue to participate in the general education curriculum
  • Meet the educational standards established within the district
  • Complete subject, grade-level, and graduation requirements

The American Civil Liberties Union of Washington provides a free, downloadable Parents’ Guide to Public School Discipline in Washington. Part III includes information about laws and procedures that are specific to students in special education. The ACLU guidebook encourages parents to gather as much information as possible when a student is disciplined:

“It is important to fully understand the type of proposed discipline, the underlying behavior, how the behavior relates to the student’s disability, and what additional supports may be available in order to fully advocate for your student.”

Schools can assess the behavior (FBA) to make a plan (BIP)

Regardless of whether the student has qualified for services, best practice is for the school to conduct a Functional Behavioral Assessment (FBA) following a significant disciplinary action. An FBA can be done for students with or without IEPs or Section 504 Plans.

The FBA is used to develop a Behavior Intervention Plan (BIP), which helps a child learn expected behaviors and prevent escalations. The BIP identifies target behaviors that disrupt learning and calls out “antecedents,” conditions or events that occur first—before the targeted behavior. A BIP supports “replacement” behavior so a student can develop skills for expected learning behaviors.  

In addition to a BIP, a student receiving special education services whose behavior impedes their learning may need Specially Designed Instruction (SDI) to support skill-development in an area of education called Social Emotional Learning (SEL). If targeted SEL instruction is needed, the student will have specific IEP goals to support the learning.

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

All students access behavioral supports when schools use Multi-Tiered Systems of Support (MTSS). Families can ask school staff to describe their MTSS structure and how students receive support through Tier 1 (all students), Tier 2 (targeted groups), and Tier 3 (individualized support). An element of MTSS is Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports (PBIS), which also supports students across levels of need.

PAVE provides an article with more information about MTSS/PBIS and how to support expected behaviors at school.

Do you need to pick up your student if the school calls?

In its guidance booklet, ACLU addresses the question, “Do you need to pick up your student every time the school calls?” A parent can ask whether the student is being suspended.  “If your student has not been officially suspended,” ACLU advises, “The school cannot force you to pick up the student.

“If you choose to pick up your student when he or she has not been suspended, the school may not record the removal from class and may not trigger additional protections (such as Manifestation Determination Hearings) that apply when students with disabilities are removed from school for 10 days or more.”

The ACLU guidebook includes a list of supports parents can ask for: “The law requires behavior supports to be based on evidence, and so you can ask for additional expert evaluation to determine whether the behavior supports offered to your student are appropriate.”

PAVE provides additional information about what to do if the school calls in a video.

Guidance related to isolation and restraint

The state has specific rules related to the use of isolation and restraint, which are implemented only when a student’s behavior poses an imminent likelihood of serious bodily harm and are discontinued when the likelihood of serious harm has passed. Isolation and restraint are not used as a form of standard discipline or aversive intervention.

The Washington State Governor’s Office of the Education Ombuds (OEO) offers an online resource page that details state guidance related to isolation and restraint. Included is this statement:

“Schools in Washington State are not allowed to use restraint or isolation as a form of discipline or punishment, or as a way to try to correct a child’s behavior. Restraint and isolation are only allowed as emergency measures, to be used if necessary, to keep a student or others safe from serious harm. They can continue only as long as the emergency continues.”

School districts are required to collect and report data on the use of restraint and isolation. That data is posted on OSPI’s website as part of the School Safety Resource Library. 

Emergency Response Protocol (ERP)

If emergency responses and/or severe disciplinary actions become frequent, schools might ask the parent/guardian to sign an Emergency Response Protocol (ERP) for an individual student. Families are not required to sign this.

The ERP explains what the school’s policies are related to isolation and restraint and what the training requirements are for staff authorized to conduct isolation and restraint. Parents can request a copy of the district’s general education policies on this topic. The ERP can include a statement about how parents are contacted if the school uses isolation or restraint.

Reporting requirements

Schools are required to provide a report to the parent/guardian and to the state any time formal disciplinary or emergency actions are taken. Following are statements from the Revised Code of Washington (RCW 28A.600.485):

“Any school employee, resource officer, or school security officer who uses isolation or restraint on a student during school-sponsored instruction or activities must inform the building administrator or building administrator’s designee as soon as possible, and within two business days submit a written report of the incident to the district office. The written report must include, at a minimum, the following information:

  • The date and time of the incident
  • The name and job title of the individual who administered the restraint or isolation
  • A description of the activity that led to the restraint or isolation
  • The type of restraint or isolation used on the student, including the duration
  • Whether the student or staff was physically injured during the restraint or isolation incident and any medical care provided
  • Any recommendations for changing the nature or amount of resources available to the student and staff members in order to avoid similar incidents”

The RCW also states that school staff “must make a reasonable effort to verbally inform the student’s parent or guardian within 24 hours of the incident and must send written notification as soon as practical but postmarked no later than five business days after the restraint or isolation occurred. If the school or school district customarily provides the parent or guardian with school-related information in a language other than English, the written report under this section must be provided to the parent or guardian in that language.”

Equity work in student discipline is ongoing

A graph that shows disparity in discipline is provided on OSPI’s website, which includes training and materials for schools to support improvements. “Like other states, Washington has experienced significant and persistent disparities in the discipline of students based upon race/ethnicity, disability status, language, sex and other factors,” OSPI’s website states. “While overall rates of exclusionary discipline (suspension and expulsion) have declined over the last decade, significant disparities persist. These trends warrant serious attention from school districts, as well as OSPI, to work toward equitable opportunities and outcomes for each and every student.”

Steps to Read, Understand, and Develop an Initial IEP

A Brief Overview

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

Full Article

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

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

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

What is the student’s eligibility category?

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

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

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

Know what’s in the IEP before you meet

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

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

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

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

Start with the Service Matrix

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

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

Refer to the Present Levels statements

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

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

Compare Service Matrix and LRE statement

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

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

Read the list of accommodations.

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

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

Accommodations for state testing

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

Communication and Prior Written Notice (PWN)

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

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

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

Sign Consent for services to begin

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

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

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

A Brief Overview

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

Full Article

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

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

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

Evaluation is a 3-part process

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

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

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

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

Bring ideas to the evaluation review meeting

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

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

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

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

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

FAPE is a special education student’s most important right

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

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

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

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

A referral starts the evaluation process

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

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

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

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

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

Eligibility Categories of Disability

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

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

  • Autism: A student does not need a medical diagnosis to be evaluated by the school. If features of autism may significantly impact access to learning, then the school can assess those features to determine eligibility and special education needs. See PAVE’s  article about Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) and resources for families.
  • Emotional Disturbance: Psychological or psychiatric disorders (anxiety, depression, schizophrenia, post-traumatic stress, etc.) can fall under this category, which Washington schools often refer to as Emotional Behavioral Disability (EBD). Please note that all eligibility categories are intended to identify the needs of students and are not intended to label children in ways that might contribute to stigma or discrimination.
  • Specific Learning Disability: Issues related to dyslexia, dysgraphia, dyscalculia, or other learning deficits can be educationally assessed. A formal diagnosis is not required for a student to qualify under this category. A Washington law taking full effect in 2021-22 requires schools to screen for dyslexia: See PAVE’s article about dyslexia.
  • Other Health Impairment: ADHD, Tourette’s Syndrome and other medical diagnoses are captured within this broad category, often shorted to OHI or Health-Impaired on the IEP document. If medical information is necessary for an eligibility determination and not already available, the school district must pay for the outside evaluation.
  • Speech/Language Impairment: This category can include expressive and/or receptive language disorders in addition to issues related to diction (how a student is able to produce sounds that are understood as words). Social communication deficits also might qualify a student for speech services.
  • Multiple Disabilities: Students with complex medical and learning needs can meet criteria in this category.
  • Intellectual Disability: A student with Down Syndrome or another genetic or cognitive disorder might meet criteria in this category.
  • Orthopedic Impairment: OI refers to physical disabilities that impact access to education.
  • Hearing Impairment: Whether permanent or fluctuating, a hearing impairment may adversely affect a child’s educational performance.
  • Deafness: A student unable to process linguistic information through hearing, with or without amplification, may be eligible for services under this category.
  • Deaf blindness: A combination of hearing and visual impairments establishes a unique set of special education service needs.
  • Visual Impairment/Blindness: Partial sight and blindness may fit this category when, even with correction, eyesight adversely affects a child’s educational performance. Washington State’s Department of Services for the Blind (DSB) is an agency that provides youth and adult services for individuals who are blind or low vision.
  • Traumatic Brain Injury: Brain Injury Alliance of WA is a place for resources to better understand TBI and how to support a student with medical and educational needs.
  • Developmental Delay (ages 0-9): This category can qualify a child for early learning (Birth-3) services in addition to IEP services through age 9. By age 10, a new evaluation may determine eligibility in another category for IEP services to continue.

Child Find requires school districts to evaluate

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

Here are some considerations:

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

Deadlines start when a referral is made

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

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

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

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

What happens next if the school agrees to evaluate?

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

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

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

Don’t be intimidated by fancy language!

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

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

The IEP isn’t a one-and-done project

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

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

What if I don’t agree with the school?

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

Recommended guidelines for requesting an evaluation

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

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

Items to include in the referral letter:

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

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

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

Evaluation for Behavior Supports

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

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

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

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

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

Independent Educational Evaluation (IEE)

If families disagree with the school district’s evaluation, they can request an Independent Educational Evaluation (IEE). When granting a request for an IEE, the school district provides a list of possible examiners and covers the cost. To deny an IEE request, the district initiates a due process hearing within 15 calendar days to show that its initial evaluation was appropriate. PAVE provides an article with more information and a sample letter for requesting an IEE.

Here are additional resources:

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

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

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

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

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