Navigating Special Education in Private School

A Brief Overview

  • When a family chooses to enroll their student with disabilities in a private school, they have different rights. Those rights are summarized in this article and further explained by U.S. Department of Education guidance issued in February 2022.
  • School districts are responsible to seek out and evaluate all students suspected of having disabilities impacting their education, including those who are home schooled or placed in private schools by their parents. That right is mandated by Child Find.
  • Public schools are responsible to re-evaluate students eligible for services at least every 3 years and to include them in their “child count,” regardless of where they attend school and whether they receive any services.
  • Upon recommendation by an IEP team, a school might place a student with specific needs into a private school in order to provide a Free Appropriate Public Education (FAPE). Private placement based on an IEP team process is different, and this article is not about those placements.

Full Article

When a family chooses to enroll their student with disabilities in a private school, they have different rights. The vocabulary is also different. Here are some key terms:

  • Equitable Services: Special education services provided to privately enrolled students. Equitable services are the responsibility of the public district where the student’s private school is located.
  • Services Plan: The arrangement agreed upon by the private school, the public school, and the family. A Services Plan can include services at the private school, a public school, or somewhere else; transportation necessary to access services is generally the responsibility of the public district. 
  • Consultation: Federal law requires public school district staff to meet consistently with private school providers and parents/stakeholders in the community to discuss which services to prioritize for children with disabilities placed by their families into private schools in the area.
  • Proportionate Share: Federal law requires public school districts to set aside funds to serve students with disabilities enrolled by their parents in private schools. The amount of the set-aside funds is determined through a calculation called “proportionate share.” Families/stakeholders can ask for specific details about the local requirements for proportionate share by attending a consultation (see above definition).

Evaluation rights are upheld

Like all children in the United States, students placed in private schools are protected in their right to be evaluated if there is reason to believe a disability condition might impact how they learn and participate in school.

That protection is mandated by Child Find, which is part of the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). A comprehensive evaluation determines whether a student is eligible for special education services because of a disability that impacts the student’s access to education to the extent that Specially Designed Instruction (SDI) is needed.

A parent has the right to request an Independent Educational Evaluation (IEE) at public district expense if they disagree with an evaluation conducted by the public district.

Private school students have an Equitable Services plan, not an IEP

If their parents choose to enroll them in private school, a student eligible for services under IDEA is not served through an Individualized Education Program (IEP). They instead are served through a plan for Equitable Services.

What those services provide depends on what the student needs, resources available, and priorities identified within the local community. They might include special education services in a specific area of learning and/or related services provided by a professional, such as an occupational, physical, or speech-language therapist.

What rights to parents have?

Federal law protects parents in their right to participate in the development of an Equitable Services plan. According to federal guidance (question E-3), “Given the emphasis on parent involvement in IDEA, the Department believes that parents should have the opportunity to participate in meetings to review and develop the services plan for their child.”

Parents have the right to file complaints if they disagree with the way services are provided. In Washington State, that process is called filing a Community Complaint. Other dispute resolution options are somewhat limited. For example, the right to file Due Process is limited to complaints related to Child Find. Mediation is offered only for complaints related to Child Find or a Community Complaint, and a family cannot demand compensatory services if a district has run out of proportionate share funds. Compensatory services are additional services provided when a student was available to receive services as written by a program or plan; however, the school failed to provide them.

Where services are provided depends on a range of circumstances. The U.S. Department of Education advises public school districts to serve students at their private schools. Here is language from the February 2022 guidance (Section F):

“The Department generally believes that, unless there is a compelling rationale for these services to be provided off-site, [Lead Education Agencies/public school districts] should provide services on-site, at the child’s private school, to not unduly disrupt the child’s educational experience.”

It’s possible that students with disabilities in private schools may not receive any special education services. One reason might be that their family doesn’t want them. In those situations, the local public district is still responsible to keep track of that student and include them in their records—called a “child count.” The district is also responsible to re-evaluate those students for eligibility at least every 3 years.

Not all needs must be met through Equitable Services

The public school district or “lead education agency/LEA” responsible for services to privately enrolled students is the LEA where the private school is located, not necessarily the district where the student lives. This includes situations where a student goes to school in another county, state, or even country (a Canadian student attending a U.S. private school, for example, may access Equitable Services).

The local district is not responsible to provide services that cost more than the funds they have available through their “proportionate share” formula. Another reason certain services are not provided may be that stakeholders in the community decide to prioritize certain services over others during their “consultation” process. For example, a consultation may result in a district choosing to fund speech/language services but not occupational therapy.

In summary, there is not a guarantee of equitable access to all aspects of school and learning within a voluntary private school placement.

Keep in mind that the word “equity” does not mean equal. In general, equity is provided when a person who needs assistance gets the help they need to access an opportunity that people who don’t have disabilities can access without that assistance. In the case of Equitable Services, the term suggests equity but does not guarantee equity.

Parentally placed private school students do not have IEPs or receive FAPE

Equity is guaranteed for public school students with disabilities who are eligible for IEPs. The public-school student’s IEP is designed to support their access to a Free Appropriate Public Education (FAPE). Equity and help that enables appropriate access to school are part of FAPE. So is an individualized education designed to enable progress appropriate in light of the child’s circumstances.

Private school students are not entitled to FAPE or its specific entitlements and protections.

What if a child attends a private school as part of their IEP placement?

This article is about IDEA protections for students who are placed in private schools by their parents/caregivers because of a family preference. Under different circumstances, a student might go to a private school because their IEP team decides they need to be there in order to receive a Free Appropriate Public Education (FAPE). Those students retain all of the rights of a public education student under special education law.

Reminder: A student placed in private school by their parents does not have an IEP and is not entitled to FAPE.

All students with disabilities have the right to accommodations

Private schools are required to provide accommodations to children who qualify for them under Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 and the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). Examples might include a ramp for a child in a wheelchair, Braille texts or audible books, additional time or an alternative space for testing. Each school has a staff member assigned to support compliance with these federal requirements.

PAVE provides on demand video trainings: Student Rights, IEP, Section 504 and More.

Supporting literacy: Text-to-Speech and IEP goal setting for students with learning disabilities

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

This video provides information about two primary ways that schools can support students with learning disabilities that impact literacy:

  • Text-to-Speech (technology that provides audio-visual communication)
  • Specially Designed Instruction (SDI)

Student learning accelerates when both strategies work together, and this video provides tips for making that happen.

Washington passed a law in 2018 requiring schools to screen young children for the indicators of weaknesses associated with dyslexia and support literacy across all grades. The law took effect in the 2021-22 school year. PAVE provides an article with more information: Dyslexia Screening and Interventions: State Requirements and Resources.

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

Behavioral Health Toolkit for Navigating Crisis, School-Based Services, Medical Services, Family Support Networks, and More

You can print this toolkit as a PDF! Click to download.

When a child struggles to maintain emotional well-being, the whole family is impacted. Parents can feel confused about where to go for help. This toolkit provides an overview of information about crisis response, school-based services, medical systems, family support networks and places to advocate for systemwide improvements. For individualized, non-emergency support, please click Get Help and someone from PAVE will contact you.

Family Voices of Washington, PAVE’s Family-to-Family Health Information Center, is another place for information and resources.

What is Behavioral Health?

Behavioral health is a broad term describing services for people with conditions based in the brain that impact their behavior. People with depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, substance use disorder (SUD), or another condition may require different levels of behavioral health help. Some developmental conditions, such as autism, may impact a person’s behavioral health. A person with more than one condition may have a “dual diagnosis.” The Child Mind Institute is a place for information about childhood symptoms, diagnoses, and options for treatment and support.

Plan ahead for a crisis

If you or someone you care for experiences a behavioral health condition, it’s helpful to develop a crisis plan. Make sure important phone numbers are easy to find quickly.

If calling 911 is your best option, clearly state that there is a behavioral health medical crisis and request officers with Crisis Intervention Training (CIT).

TIP: Here’s how to quickly ask for behavioral health help when calling 911: “We need CIT-trained officers to respond to a behavioral health medical emergency.”

After stating that, do your best to quickly summarize the emergency and what type of help is needed. State clearly that you are calling for medical help and that you are not calling to report a crime.

Call 800-273-8255 for Suicide Prevention Lifeline: After July 16, 2022, call 988

By July 16, 2022, a new option is to call 988 for behavioral health crises. The national 988 network expands the Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 800-273-8255.

In 2021, Washington passed a law (HB 1477) to rebuild the crisis response system as part of the 988 rollout. The state’s Crisis Response Improvement Strategy (CRIS) has multiple committees to encourage broad participation in the work.

Until 988 is fully operational, crisis telephone numbers are different for each county. The Health Care Authority (HCA) maintains a list on a website page titled Mental Health Crisis Lines. Access to Youth Mobile Crisis services depends on the area in which you live. It’s best to find out what’s available before you need emergency help so you know what you can ask for.

More resources for crisis and other help are listed at the end of this article.

How to seek help at school

Often a child’s behavioral health needs show up in school. Students might access services through the special education system or in other ways.

When behavior gets in the way of a student’s education, schools are responsible to figure out what the child is trying to communicate and teach the child what to do instead. The process of figuring out why a child may be acting out is called a Functional Behavioral Assessment (FBA). Information from the FBA is used to develop a Behavior Intervention Plan (BIP). PAVE provides a video called Behavior and School: How to Participate in the FBA/BIP Process. Any student whose behavior impedes learning can be assessed, not just students with special education programs already in place.

Here’s more important vocabulary: MTSS stands for Multi-Tiered Systems of Support. MTSS is based on a public health approach to ensure that schools make student well-being a priority. An MTSS framework can include teaching and social-emotional supports at multiple levels, called tiers. In a school that implements the MTSS framework, adults who teach and support students are organized to respond to the academic and social-emotional needs of all students.

TIP: Ask your school about MTSS and how “tiers” (different levels) of support are organized and available to help your student. You can also ask about your school’s Social Emotional Learning (SEL) curriculum and how SEL education is provided to your student.

PAVE provides a collection of articles about Social Emotional Learning (SEL):

Behavioral Health might be addressed through special education

Emotional Disturbance is a federal category of disability under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA): Washington State refers to this category as Emotional Behavioral Disability (EBD). Autism, Other Health Impairment (OHI), and Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI) are also categories for special education eligibility (described in WAC 392-172A-01035). Any category may overlap with behavioral health.

PAVE provides a Sample Letter to Request Evaluation to support families in taking the first step in determining whether a student may be eligible for special education services. A Sample Letter to Request a Functional Behavioral Assessment is another tool for families.

A student who meets criteria in any category is served through an Individualized Education Program (IEP). A student who is determined to have a disability that impacts learning but who does not demonstrate a need for Specially Designed Instruction (SDI) may have accommodations and supports with a Section 504 Plan.

Note that counseling may be provided as a Related Service for students receiving special education services (described in WAC 392-172A-01155). School districts can receive reimbursement for school-based health services for students who are covered by Medicaid and on an IEP.

PAVE provides Toolkit Basics to help families understand student rights and how to navigate school-based systems. Another article provides more specific information related to behavioral health: Mental Health Education and Support at School can be Critical.

PAVE provides a video: How to Navigate School for Youth with Mental Health Concerns, recorded in collaboration with NAMI Washington, the statewide affiliate for the National Alliance on Mental Illness. NAMI Washington provides training and information and helps connect people with affiliates for training and support throughout the state.

How to seek medical services for children and youth in Washington State

Seattle Children’s Hospital has a behavioral health referral helpline. Families can call 833-303-5437, Monday-Friday, 8-5, to connect with a referral specialist. The service is free for families statewide and provides information regardless of the child’s insurance coverage.

Wraparound with Intensive Services (WISe) is the most intensive outpatient program available for children and youth eligible for Apple Health. Here’s a link to PAVE’s article: WISe Provides Team-Based Services for Washington Youth with Severe Behavioral Health Disorders.

For children on Apple Health who need residential services, the state’s option is the Children’s Long-Term Inpatient Program (CLIP). PAVE provides an article with more information: Children’s Long-Term Inpatient Program (CLIP) Provides Residential Psychiatric Treatment.

If a person ages 15-40 is newly experiencing psychosis, Washington offers a wraparound-style program called New Journeys. This website link includes access to a referral form.

Families who want to better understand how to communicate with a loved one experiencing psychosis can seek resources from the University of Washington Spirit Lab, which operates a Psychosis REACH program to train families in using Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) to work with their loved one with a mental illness condition that includes delusions and hallucinations.

Family Initiated Treatment

In Washington State, the age for medical consent is 13. Sometimes getting a young person 13-17 into behavioral health treatment includes barriers related to the youth’s inability to see their illness or understand their need for care. Family Initiated Treatment (FIT) is an option in some circumstance. PAVE’s article provides more information about FIT and the law that authorizes it: Adolescent Health Care Act Provides Options for Families Seeking Mental Health and Substance Use Help for Young People Resistant to Treatment.

Federal parity laws require insurers to provide coverage for behavioral health services that are equitable to coverage for physical health conditions. The National Health Law Program (NHLP) provides information and advocacy related to behavioral healthcare access and offers handouts to help families know what to expect from their insurance coverage and what to do if they suspect a parity law violation:

Families with private health insurance who believe their provider has violated parity laws related to behavioral health services can file complaints with the Office of the Insurance Commissioner or call the Consumer Hotline: 800-562-6900.

Family Support

PAVE’s article about WISe includes a section for History, Advocacy, and Family Support. In addition to PAVE, here are some family-serving agencies:

  • Family, Youth, and System Partner Round Table (FYSPRT). Regional groups are a hub for family networking and emotional support. Some have distinct groups for young people.
  • Washington State Community Connectors (WSCC). WSCC sponsors an annual family training weekend, manages an SUD Family Navigator training, and offers ways for families to share their experiences and support one another. With passage of HB 1800 in 2022, WSCC is working with the Health Care Authority to build a statewide website (Parent Portal) to help families navigate behavioral health services.
  • COPE (Center of Parent Excellence) offers support group meetings and direct help from lead parent support specialists as part of a statewide program called A Common Voice.
  • Healthy Minds Healthy Futures is an informal network on Facebook. Advocates in the group initiated work to build the Parent Portal that WSCC (see above) is now working on with the Health Care Authority and other invested stakeholders.  

System work is underway

In 2022, the state passed HB 1890 to create a strategic plan for addressing the behavioral health needs of children, youth transitioning to adulthood, and their caregivers. That work is managed by the Children and Youth Behavioral Health Work Group (CYBHWG), created in 2016 by the Legislature (HB 2439). The CYBHWG welcomes family engagement in its activities and meetings. CYBHWG supports several advisory groups, including one for Student Behavioral Health and Suicide Prevention. Meeting schedules and reports are posted on the Health Care Authority (HCA) website. Public comment is included at every public meeting.

The needs are now

When a child or youth is struggling with a behavioral health condition, the available options don’t always meet the needs. Washington State’s 2021 Healthy Youth Survey shows that seven out of ten students in tenth grade report feeling nervous, anxious, on edge, or cannot stop worrying. Eight percent report they tried suicide within the past year. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), only about half of young people who need behavioral health services get them.

Data from the state’s Healthy Youth Survey show that students with disabilities struggle more than most. Also over-represented among students who say their mental health is a struggle are girls, students from lower income households, and students whose gender or sexuality is non-binary. Non-binary refers to more than two things; it’s a term often used when discussing people who identify as Lesbian, Gay, Bi-sexual, Transgender, Queer, or questioning (LGBTQ+). LGBTQ+ youth can seek crisis help and more from The Trevor Project.

“Reports of our children suffering with mental health issues are a worrisome public health concern,” said Umair A. Shah, MD, MPH, Washington’s Secretary of Health. “Mental health is a part of our children’s overall health and well-being. It is imperative that we all continue to work together to fully support the whole child by providing information and access to behavioral health resources to youth and the trusted adults in their lives.”

Resources for crisis help and more

Parent Participation in Special Education Process is a Priority Under Federal Law

A Brief Overview

  • Schools are required to accommodate parents to ensure their attendance and participation at meetings where their child’s special education services are discussed. Those rights are affirmed in a court decision from 2013: Doug C. Versus Hawaii.
  • A meeting that includes family is a higher priority than a renewal deadline.
  • If a deadline is missed, a student’s IEP services continue uninterrupted while meeting schedules are arranged to include family participation. The student’s eligibility does not expire.
  • The Washington Administrative Code (WAC) describes the participation rights of parents (WAC 392-172A-05001).
  • Failure to accommodate parent access to meetings when a child’s eligibility or services are discussed is a denial of the student’s right to a Free Appropriate Public Education (FAPE).

Full Article

Parents have the right to participate in all meetings where a student’s special education services are discussed. Those rights are protected by federal and state laws.

Students have a right to attend meetings about their school services at any age. Schools must invite students once their Individualized Education Program (IEP) includes a Transition Plan—a legal requirement by the school year when a student turns 16. The student is not required to attend but must be invited and accommodated to participate if they choose to.

A court decision in 2013 includes statements that family rights are more important than other legal requirements, such as renewal deadlines. More information about that case, Doug C. Versus Hawaii, is included later in this article.

Accessibility is a right

When inviting families to participate in meetings, the school is required to accommodate their needs related to scheduling, language access, parent or student disability, or something else. If a parent is ill, for example, the school is responsible to wait until the parent is well enough to meet. The school is responsible to provide a meeting format to meet the family’s needs, including through in person, virtual, or telephone attendance with any interpretation services needed for full participation.

IEP eligibility and services do not lapse or expire because the school delayed a meeting to accommodate the family. If a deadline is missed, a student’s services continue uninterrupted while meeting schedules are arranged to include family participation.

Here are examples of meetings where a parent/guardian must be invited and accommodated to participate:

  • Referral meeting to discuss whether to evaluate a student for eligibility
  • Evaluation review meeting
  • IEP meeting
  • Placement meeting
  • Transition conference to discuss moving into a new school or level of school (preschool into kindergarten, for example)
  • Meeting to discuss a Functional Behavioral Assessment (FBA) or Behavior Intervention Plan (BIP)
  • Meetings related to discipline, truancy, or complaints about Harassment, Intimidation, and Bullying (HIB)
  • Any other meeting where school-based services are discussed

What does the state say about parent rights to participate?

The Washington Administrative Code (WAC) describes the participation rights of parents (WAC 392-172A-05001).

The WAC explains that schools are not required to invite parents for “informal or unscheduled conversations involving school district personnel and conversations on issues such as teaching methodology, lesson plans, or coordination of service provision. A meeting also does not include preparatory activities that school district personnel engage in to develop a proposal or response to a parent proposal that will be discussed at a later meeting.”

The WAC includes information about a parent’s right to visit school: “A parent of a student eligible for special education services may request permission to observe their student’s current educational placement, and to observe any educational placement proposed or under consideration either by a parent or a group that makes decisions on the educational placement of the parent’s child, in accordance with applicable school district policy and state law.”

Here is a key statement from the WAC related to parent participation:

“The parents of a student eligible for special education services must be afforded an opportunity to participate in meetings with respect to the identification, evaluation, educational placement and the provision of FAPE to the student.”

What is FAPE?

The statement above includes the word FAPE. FAPE stands for Free Appropriate Public Education. FAPE is what a student with a disability is entitled to receive. The school district is responsible to deliver FAPE.

The district must ensure that students with disabilities receive accessible, equitable, and appropriate services: All are elements of FAPE. PAVE provides a video training with more information about these key features of student rights: Student Rights, IEP, Section 504, and More.

An IEP provides FAPE through specially designed instruction and goal setting, progress monitoring, supplementary aids and services, accommodations, a thoughtfully chosen placement, and more. The IEP team meets to discuss all of this and make sure FAPE is being provided. Parents are equal partners for discussing all aspects of a student’s education.

TIP: Ask for a draft copy of the IEP or any other documents that will be discussed with enough time to review them before a meeting. The draft IEP is unfinished until it’s been reviewed and finalized in a team meeting that includes family participation.

Families have always been a priority under the law

The collaborative process of an IEP team that includes the family has been part of special education since federal laws were written to protect a student’s right to receive an education designed just for them. Parent participation is one of six primary principles of the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA).

Here’s more language that describes FAPE: The IEP must be “reasonably calculated to enable a child to make progress appropriate in light of the child’s circumstances.”

This phrase—progress appropriate in light of the child’s circumstances—comes from another court decision, referred to as Endrew F. That Supreme Court decision established that meaningful progress must be tracked and monitored, and that the IEP must be adjusted if meaningful progress isn’t being made.

The IEP meeting is where families participate in tracking and monitoring that progress. Parents contribute important information about the progress or unmet needs of their children. Their observations provide critical information for team decision-making, and the federal laws were written to acknowledge the value of those contributions. That’s why parent participation is required for FAPE

TIP: Here’s a way to talk about parent rights within the process of special education: Failure to accommodate parent access to meetings when a child’s eligibility or services are discussed is a denial of FAPE.

What if parents cannot attend a meeting by the required renewal deadline?

Legal protections for students and families require a timely process. Schools are responsible to host a meeting that includes the family to update a student’s IEP at least every year. The IEP lists an “annual renewal date” on its cover page.

The school is also responsible to re-evaluate the student at least every three years to determine ongoing eligibility and to ensure that information about the student’s strengths and needs is up-to-date and the student is appropriately served through the IEP.

Sometimes there is a conflict when an evaluation or IEP renewal date sneaks up on the team and meetings aren’t scheduled early enough to accommodate the family and meet the deadline. It’s also possible that a family emergency or illness could prevent their timely participation.

In those situations, federal law has made it clear that the family’s participation is more important than the re-evaluation or IEP renewal deadline. The school can document the reason that the deadline is delayed, and a student’s services can continue without interruption until the meeting happens with family participants.

A student’s IEP eligibility does not expire because an evaluation is delayed, and the IEP does not lapse. Families can share this article and information about the federal court ruling if there is confusion.

What did Doug C. Versus Hawaii say?

The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals handed down a decision on June 13, 2013, that reversed rulings by lower courts. The final ruling meant that the school in Hawaii was held accountable for having an IEP meeting without a parent. 

The court explained that schools must include parents at meetings unless they “affirmatively refused to attend.” Other legal language uses the phrase “good faith effort” to describe how schools must attempt to include families.

In the case of Doug C., the court found the school did not try hard enough to include the parent. In a hearing, the parent was able to share documentation showing he had provided the school with explanations each time he was unable to attend a meeting at the school’s suggested time and location. One documented explanation was that he was ill. In that case, the school held the meeting without him because they believed the IEP was about to “expire.”

The court said this rationale was based on a flawed premise. Earlier court rulings already had found that services do not end because an IEP renewal deadline is missed.  

In its decision, the court stated, “Parental participation is key to the operation of the IDEA for two reasons: Parents not only represent the best interests of their child in the IEP development process; they also provide information about the child critical to developing a comprehensive IEP and which only they are in a position to know.”

A place to get more information about court rulings related to special education is Wrightslaw.com. A Wrightslaw analysis of Doug C. Versus Hawaii includes a question-and-answer summary of the case. Here are highlights from that information:

Question: If a meeting is held after an annual renewal deadline, do IEP services lapse?

Answer: No. A child’s IEP does not lapse. Continuing to provide services based on the most recent IEP does not deny FAPE or “deprive a student of any educational benefit,” the court determined. The court further explained that there is no basis for assuming a school cannot provide services for a student whose annual IEP review is overdue.

Question: If there are scheduling conflicts, is priority given to school staff or the parent?

Answer: Priority is given to the parent. The court stated, “The attendance of [the]. . . parent, must take priority over other members’ attendance . . . an agency cannot exclude a parent from an IEP meeting in order to prioritize its representatives’ schedules.”

Question:  If the school has a meeting without the parent, can they make it okay by having another meeting within 30 days?

Answer:  No. The court found that parental involvement after-the-fact is not enough because “the IDEA contemplates parental involvement in the creation process.”

Question:  If a school district violates a procedural safeguard, such as parental involvement in meetings, does there need to be another finding of fault to show denial of FAPE? For example, would a court need to show that a child wasn’t receiving meaningful educational benefit from the services?

Answer:  No. The court does not need to determine a second violation. The denial of a parent’s right to participate in meetings is a violation of FAPE.

A parent’s right to participate in IEP process is part of the Procedural Safeguards that are written into the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). Schools are responsible for sharing a copy of the Procedural Safeguards at every formal meeting or whenever a parent requests them.

A copy of the Procedural Safeguards is downloadable from the website of the Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction (OSPI). An OSPI page titled Parent and Student Rights lists multiple translated versions of the Procedural Safeguards available for download.

FAPE Fits Like a Proper Outfit

Have you ever felt like your student’s Individualized Education Program—their IEP—just isn’t a good fit? This short video provides an analogy to help families and schools talk about improvements.

Here are the words that go with the video:

Imagine if the school was responsible to provide a suit of clothes for your student. The clothes must fit in size and style. Let’s pretend your child is eligible for this specially tailored suit because clothes off the rack fit so poorly that the child won’t leave home. This problem is impacting everything.

This is sort of like the school’s responsibility to provide a child who has an IEP with FAPE. FAPE stands for Free Appropriate Public Education. The services delivered through an IEP make education appropriate because they are tailored to fit the child based on their strengths and needs. FAPE is what makes school accessible for a student with a disability.

Let’s go back to pretending that the school must provide a well-fitting suit. Imagine that the school opens a closet and says, “Let’s see what we have in here.” What they pull out might be too big, too small, outrageously mismatched or in colors and patterns that make your child grimace and refuse to get dressed. They might find bits and pieces that work, but chances are high that they won’t be able to put together a whole outfit without trying a little harder and getting out the sewing machine.

That’s like the work of an IEP team—to pull out the tools everyone needs to creatively build a program that is a good fit for the student.

The school is responsible under federal law to provide eligible students with FAPE. Tailoring a program to meet individualized needs in light of the child’s circumstances is part of FAPE. If you think your school is digging around in a closet trying to find a program for your student that is ready made, you can remind them that an IEP is individually tailored to fit the student.

Our Parent Training and Information team at PAVE hopes your IEP team designs a program that outfits your child for a successful journey through education. If you’d like our support, click Get Help from PAVE’s website, wapave.org.

Disability Rights for Littles: Key Information for Families of Babies, Preschoolers, and Primary-School Children

This two-part video series provides information about the rights of babies, toddlers, and young children with developmental delays or disabilities.

Part 1 provides information about early support services for babies through age 3. An interactive exercise is included to help families better understand how to participate in development of functional outcomes as part of the Individualized Family Service Plan (IFSP). The video includes information about how early support services are provided and delivered in Washington State and where to begin. Keep in mind that early services are provided in the natural environment—places where babies and toddlers would spend their days if there was no disability.

Part 2 includes information about the transition from early services into preschool and primary school. Families will learn how decisions are made about eligibility for an Individualized Education Program (IEP) and how to participate in educational decision-making for their child. Inclusion in general education is covered, with information about federal requirements for services in the Least Restrictive Environment, to the maximum extent appropriate. The video explains the components of an IEP and provides advocacy tips to support parents and children throughout their educational years.

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

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

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

You can print this toolkit as a PDF! Click to download this page

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 in an article and a two-part video series: 

 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.

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

A Brief Overview

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

Full Article

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

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

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

Evaluation is a 3-part process

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

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

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

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

Bring ideas to the evaluation review meeting

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

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

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

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

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

FAPE is a special education student’s most important right

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

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

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

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

A referral starts the evaluation process

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

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

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

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

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

Eligibility Categories of Disability

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

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

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

Child Find requires school districts to evaluate

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

Here are some considerations:

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

Deadlines start when a referral is made

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

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

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

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

What happens next if the school agrees to evaluate?

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

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

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

Don’t be intimidated by fancy language!

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

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

The IEP isn’t a one-and-done project

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

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

What if I don’t agree with the school?

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

Recommended guidelines for requesting an evaluation

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

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

Items to include in the referral letter:

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

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

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

Evaluation for Behavior Supports

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

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

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

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

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

Independent Educational Evaluation (IEE)

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

Here are additional resources:

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

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

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

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

OR

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