IEP on Pause? How to Support Continuous Learning

A Brief Overview

  • This article provides some considerations for families while students are doing school in new ways during the COVID-19 pandemic.
  • As always, programming for students who qualify for special education services is uniquely designed to address a student’s strengths and needs. Special education law maintains a student’s right to a Free Appropriate Public Education (FAPE), although some aspects of a student’s Individualized Education Program (IEP) may not be deliverable because of health and safety concerns.
  • The Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction (OSPI) in July 2020 issued a guidebook, Reopening Washington Schools 2020: Special Education Guidance, with information for educators and families.
  • Updates and additional handouts for families are available in multiple languages on OSPI’s website: Special Education Guidance for COVID-19.  
  • The Special Education Continuous Learning Plan is provided by OSPI to support but not replace the IEP. Read on for more information about how to make contingency plans so students continue to make progress regardless of where education is provided.

 

Full Article

Some teachers and family caregivers are cooking up clever ways to deliver learning to students during the public health crisis caused by COVID-19. Their recipes for success include carefully built schedules; a mix of curriculum materials that adapt to different settings; regular check-ins between school and family; social-emotional support strategies; and adaptability to address a student’s unique interests, talents, and needs regardless of where education is provided.

If that is not your family’s reality, you are not alone. During this national emergency, families are not expected to have a perfect plan for what to do and how to do it. Neither are schools, which are being asked to redesign themselves by the moment. This article provides some basic considerations for families and schools who serve students with special educational needs. This time of crisis clearly calls for communication, creativity, and unique efforts toward collaboration.

For more about social-emotional support for the family see PAVE’s article, Stay-Home Help: Get Organized, Feel Big Feelings, Breathe. PAVE also provides a library of short mindfulness practice videos for all ages/abilities: Live Mindfully.

School decisions are made locally

Uncertainty about the 2020-21 school year is ongoing. At an Aug. 5, 2020, press conference, Washington State Superintendent Chris Reykdal noted that 2020-21 will be “the most complicated school year in American history.”

WA Governor Jay Inslee stated at the press conference that decisions about whether school buildings are open will be made locally. School board meetings are required monthly and must follow the state’s Open Public Meetings Act (Chapter 42.30 in the Revised Code of Washington). Families can reach out to their local district for information about how and when school boards meet. Public comment is part of each public meeting, and the open meeting rules apply in any space or platform.

No disability rights are waived

Reykdal has encouraged families to stay engaged with their Individualized Education Program (IEP) teams regardless of where the student is learning. “I want to constantly challenge you to work with your school district and reach out,” Reykdal said in April 2020.

“Make sure you understand who is responsible for delivering those services at this time and whether you think that IEP needs to be revisited. That is the right of parents, and that is the relationship that has to happen on the local level. We’ll keep guiding to this. The expectation is clear. We are delivering special education services. We are delivering supports for students with disabilities. There’s no exemption from that. There’s no waiver from that.”

The Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction (OSPI) in July 2020 issued a guidebook, Reopening Washington Schools 2020: Special Education Guidance, with information for educators and families. Included is a section about “recovery services” to support students who have fallen behind because of the pandemic.

TIP: Collaborate, communicate, keep careful records

Documentation about what is happening with the student is key to discussions about the IEP moving forward and whether the student gets recovery services. Family caregivers and school staff can collect and share notes that address these questions and more:

  • Have educational materials been accessible during distance learning?
  • What learning location will work for this student and the family moving forward?
  • When or how often has the school communicated with the family, and what could improve that communication?
  • Does the student have the tools and technology needed for learning?
  • Where has the student made progress? (any bright spots?)
  • Where has the student lost ground? (any lost skills?)
  • What else needs to be addressed to meet the unique needs of this individual student, so the student can make progress appropriate, in light of the child’s circumstances?

Recovery services are not the same as compensatory services

To determine whether recovery services are needed, OSPI encourages IEP teams to:

  1. review progress toward IEP goals, and
  2. assess progress toward grade-level standards within the general education curriculum.

Both points are standard aspects of a student’s right to a Free Appropriate Public Education (FAPE), protected by the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). The IDEA is the federal law that entitles eligible students to an Individualized Education Program (IEP). IDEA rights are not waived due to COVID-19.

OSPI makes clear that recovery services are part of the school day and are not the same as “compensatory services,” which are educational opportunities provided outside of regular school to make up for IEP services that were not provided even though the student was available to receive them. A student may qualify for compensatory services if it is determined through a dispute resolution process that the standard of a Free Appropriate Public Education (FAPE) was not fully met in the provision of special education.

Recovery services, on the other hand, are considered in the context of the national health emergency that impacted all students and staff within the system. OSPI’s 2020 special education guidance document states: “The extent of a student’s recovery services, if needed, must be an individualized determination made by the IEP team, considering individual student needs, in the context of instructional opportunities provided to all students during the school facility closures.”

TIP: Consider a child’s total circumstances

Keep this in mind: A student with an IEP has the right to FAPE—Free Appropriate Public Education. To meet the standard of FAPE, a school provides an individualized program that is “reasonably calculated to enable the student to make progress appropriate, in light of the child’s circumstances.” That phrase is part of IEP case law, from a 2017 Supreme Court ruling referred to as Endrew F.

A child’s circumstances include, but are not limited to:

  • Strengths, talents, assets
  • Disability
  • Family (work schedules, finances, housing…)
  • COVID-related impacts (distance learning, medical fragility of self or family member, grief from a loved one’s death or economic hardships…)
  • Mental health (impacts of social isolation, loss of friendship connections…)
  • Whatever is true for the individual child!

A key question for all IEP teams: How can we create equitable educational opportunities, in light of all of these aspects of the child’s circumstances?

Section 504 protects students too

The Rehabilitation Act of 1973 also provides FAPE protections, and none of those rights are waived because of COVID-19. Section 504 is part of the Rehabilitation Act, so students who receive support through a Section 504 Plan have civil rights protections under that federal law. Students with IEPs have Section 504 protections in addition to the protections of the IDEA.

School staff and families might discuss whether a student on a Section 504 Plan has made adequate progress within the general education curriculum and whether the accommodations and modifications in the plan are correctly adjusted for the student to access learning in light of the pandemic. Families and schools can discuss what additional supports are needed so the student can access the curriculum equitably.

Recovery services may support academics or social emotional learning

OSPI provides a few examples of recovery services to help families and schools think creatively about what is possible:

  • A student who regressed behaviorally during the closure may need new or different positive behavior interventions during the school day.
  • A student who lacked social skills opportunities during the closure may need additional instruction in social communication.
  • A student who lost academic skills during the closure may need additional supplementary aids and services in the general education classroom.

How and when additional services are provided is up to school/family teams to consider and may depend on the district’s reopening schedule. Some recovery services may be deliverable through distance learning, while others may require schools to be fully open.

Focus on key elements of learning

Within the Inclusionary Practices section of its reopening guidance, OSPI highlights four core areas that support planning and teaching students with disabilities in a variety of learning environments:

  • Family Partnerships and Communication to foster continuity of learning, high expectations, and support to students through shared goals and partnerships between home and school.
  • Student Engagement to maintain knowledge and skills, feelings of connectedness, curiosity, and a love of learning while progressing toward benchmarks and standards.
  • Social-Emotional and Behavioral Supports to create positive learning experiences and shared understanding of expectations to help students achieve learning goals.
  • Instructional Delivery and Universal Design for Continuous Learning to create conditions that make learning accessible, stimulating, relevant and rewarding so students will make academic gains and develop self-determination.

TIP: Parents parent, teachers teach

Parents can consider that first and foremost, their role is to parent. When all schools were in distance-learning mode, the Florida Inclusion Network provided Tips for Families in Supporting Their Children with Disabilities in Virtual Formats. Included is this recommendation:

“It can be confusing for students if families try to assume the role of teacher. Explain to your child that their teacher is still their teacher, and that you are in communication with the teacher to help them learn at home.”

Presume competence and maintain high expectations

OSPI’s resource about special education access in the 2020-21 school year contains a chapter called Inclusionary Practices Across the Continuum of School Reopening Models. The first paragraph states (emphasis added):

“In the context of change, students with disabilities are most successful when educators and families presume competence in what they are capable of learning and accomplishing in school. Rather than view student challenges or inability to meet learning objectives in new and different learning environments as a deficit in the student due to a disability, recognize how instruction or environments may be affecting what a student learns and how they demonstrate what they know.

Students learn best when they feel valued and when people hold high expectations. When students cannot communicate effectively, or behavior impedes participation and learning, explore multiple pathways for understanding and assume students want to learn but may have difficulty expressing their needs.”

Least Restrictive Environment (LRE) encourages inclusion

Federal special education law (IDEA) entitles students to individualized education in the Least Restrictive Environment (LRE) to the maximum extent possible. While education is being provided in a mix of environments, IEP teams may need to think in new ways about how the right to LRE is protected.

The National Association of State Directors of Special Education (NASDSE) issued a policy brief regarding LRE in the wake of COVID-19. The brief includes examples of how LRE might be provided for a student in a virtual, hybrid, or traditional model of school. For example, a fictional 3rd grader with special education services to support learning in math and English Language Arts (ELA) could attend a virtual classroom with all students and receive instruction in break-out rooms with math and ELA teachers at additional times.  

The right to LRE is not waived due to COVID-19. “NASDSE stands ready to support its members with the effort of ensuring all students receive FAPE in the LRE,” the brief concludes.

Language access is protected

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

A Continuous Learning Plan may help with organization

A Special Education Continuous Learning Plan is a tool developed by the state in spring 2020 to help IEP teams make contingency plans. The plan does not replace a student’s IEP, but rather documents individual decisions for special education services when a student is not fully attending in-person school.

The plan is part of a downloadable document published April 7, 2020: Supporting Inclusionary Practices during School Facility Closure. Glenna Gallo, assistant superintendent of special education, worked with many agency partners to design the 31-page guidance document. The introductory paragraphs include the following statement:

“Providing equitable access and instruction during these times will require creative and flexible thinking to support continuous learning, where students and educators are in different locations. Educators and families should explore creative ways to respond to diverse languages, cultures, socio-economic status, abilities, and needs.”

Review the Present Levels of Performance

To consider what is most important for learning, regardless of where education is provided, IEP teams can carefully review the present levels of academic achievement and functional performance, which is the first section in a student’s IEP. Special education attorneys Pam and Pete Wright have published books about special education law and maintain a website, Wrightslaw.com. Included during the pandemic is this page: IEPs During the COVID-19 Era: Your Parental Role and Present Levels in IEPs.

PAVE also provides an article and a handout to help families participate in the goal-setting process: IEP Tips: Evaluation, Present Levels, SMART goals.

Request an IEP meeting to clarify how services are provided

Family caregivers can request an IEP team meeting any time there are concerns. For health and safety reasons, the meeting may be virtual, by phone, in a park…. Teams can get creative to meet all needs. PAVE provides an article about requesting a meeting and a letter template to support a written request. An additional article: Quick Look: How to Prepare for a Virtual Meeting.

While reviewing and amending the IEP, the team might consider the “service matrix,” which is the chart on the IEP document that shows how many minutes of each service a student receives, and which school staff are responsible to provide the service. An IEP team might decide to amend the matrix to reflect services provided remotely versus services provided in person at school.

Another option is to document on the IEP matrix the services to be provided when in-person school fully resumes and to use the optional Continuous Learning Plan template to document contingency plans during remote learning.

Before meeting with the school, family caregivers may want to design their own Handout for the Team to share their specific ideas and concerns.

Big Picture goals to consider

OSPI’s guidance includes the following tenets of inclusionary practices:

  • All students feel a sense of belonging and value, as full members of the school community.
  • All students have access to equitable and high-quality, meaningful instruction.
  • Instruction is culturally responsive, and student and family centered.

TIP: When communicating with school staff, families can have these tenets ready and request that each one is addressed somehow through the planning.

Additional ideas to support families

  • If a child is doing school from home, try to set up comfortable, adaptable spaces for learning. Include alternatives to sitting for children who need variety, sensory support or more movement. If the IEP includes accommodations for special seating, consider if those ideas could work at home.
  • On days when school is integrated with home life, establish a schedule that includes breaks (recess/nature walks) and activities of daily living. The amount of academic time needs to consider all impacted family members. Here are sample family schedules: COVID 19 Schedule From MotherlyGet-Organized-Mom.comHomeschool.
  • Make sure each day includes time away from screens to reduce eye strain and fatigue from being in one physical position too long.
  • During academic learning time, limit distractions from siblings, gaming devices, tablets, television shows, etc.
  • Find or create support networks. Some Parent-to-Parent groups are meeting virtually, and individuals can make agreements to check on each other. The Arc of Washington State provides information about regional P2P networks.
  • Be patient with your child, teachers, medical providers, and yourself. No one has ever been here before, and all are trying to figure it out.

PAVE staff are available to provide 1:1 support. Click Get Help at wapave.org to fill out a Helpline Request form. For additional resources related to the pandemic itself, see Links to Support Families During the Coronavirus Crisis.

 

Webinars offer Parent Training to Support Behavior during Continuous Learning

While school facilities are closed because of COVID-19, families impacted by disability face complex challenges. For some, children’s difficult behaviors are a regular concern. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), stress and anxiety in children and youth may show up through unexpected or maladaptive behaviors. Those behaviors might get worse because of fear, isolation, and disrupted lives.

Meanwhile, some of the help that used to be there is gone. At school, students may have gotten 1:1 support or direct instruction to encourage behavioral skill-building. Those aspects of a special education program might be difficult or impossible to provide during social distancing.

While students are learning from home, parents can request individualized support from the school to support behavioral expectations, if behaviors have educational impact. Parent training can be a related service in a student’s Individualized Education Program (IEP). As always, family caregivers can request an IEP meeting to discuss options to support academic and behavioral goals and expectations.

If the student has a Behavioral Intervention Plan (BIP), that document might hold clues about strategies most likely to work. For more ideas about how to communicate with the school in reviewing a student’s program and perhaps also designing a temporary Continuous Learning Plan, parents can refer to PAVE’s article: IEP on Pause? How to Support Continuous Learning with School Buildings Closed.

To generally support caregivers in their various roles during COVID-19, Washington’s Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction (OSPI) offers a three-part webinar designed for families to help with behavior in continuous learning environments. The webinar has been recorded and uploaded to YouTube in sections, so families can access the content at their own pace.

The webinars are moderated by Lee Collyer, OSPI’s program supervisor for special education and student support. Collyer, a parent, describes his own challenges during the pandemic alongside ideas from research-based sources. Families are invited to send questions and comments to lee.collyer@k12.wa.us.

In various forums, Collyer has described his investment in fostering positive behavioral supports for students in order to reduce disciplinary actions. In a May 13, 2020, OSPI webinar about Mental Health and Safety, Collyer said, “My fear is that we’re going to try to discipline our way out of trauma.”

Following is a brief description of each segment of the three-part webinar series, with a link to each specific webinar. If you start with the first one, you will have the option to stay connected and flow through all three. Each segment is 20-25 minutes long, and the first one includes some background information about OSPI and Collyer’s role.

Supporting Positive Behavior in Continuous Learning Environments – Part One

Collyer begins the series by sharing OSPI’s official statements related to mission, vision and equity. He offers reassurance to parents that everyone is learning something brand new together, without time for proper training, and that “We should not let pressure from schools, teachers or school communities dictate what works for our family and what kind of learning we are prioritizing during this time.”

Collyer talks about the value of learning that is imbedded in everyday activities and part of family routines. He shares insights from psychiatrist Bruce Perry and psychologist Ross Greene, both widely regarded authors who apply their research to inform parents. Their names are linked here to practical articles about supporting positive behavior, and both are easily searchable to find additional materials.

The OSPI webinar includes signs of stress and anxiety to consider. Collyer recommends behavior solutions based on skill building: If children do not know how to do something (like behave), the answer is to teach, he points out, not punish. The segment ends by explaining how behavior serves a function and understanding that function is key to reducing escalations.

Supporting Positive Behavior in Continuous Learning Environments – Part Two

The second segment begins where the first leaves off, by discussing the functions of behavior and how to identify them and intervene early. Pre-teaching skills and reinforcing positive behaviors over negative ones in a 5:1 ratio is encouraged: For the best outcome, catch a child doing what is expected and provide encouragement five times more often than calling out an unexpected behavior.

The second segment also provides some specific strategies for home/school communications. Collyer describes the difference between a consequence and problem-solving and offers specific strategies for parent/child problem-solving.

Supporting Positive Behavior in Continuous Learning Environments – Part Three

The third segment begins with information about how a crisis might escalate and how reason and logic are compromised when fear and frustration highjack a person’s response system. Adults may need to consider their own escalation cycles and develop a personal plan for self-control to support children, Collyer says.

He describes how children might be uneven in their development of cognitive versus social-emotional skills and how that might create confusion about the best parenting strategy. How to set limits with considerations for trauma and ways to shift from negative to positive interventions are additional strategies provided in the final segment of this webinar series.

For additional resources from OSPI, visit the page for Special Education Guidance for COVID-19.

 

Help for Military Families: Tips to Navigate Special Education Process in Washington State

A Brief Overview

Full Article

For families new to Washington State, this article includes state-specific information about special education systems. PAVE wants to extend a warm welcome to your entire family and to let you know that our staff is ready to support you. Information about how to contact PAVE for support is included at the end of this article and through the Get Help section of our website, wapave.org.

If your family has moved here to fulfill a military role, thank you for your service!

One of PAVE’s programs, Parent Training and Information (PTI), helps Washington families be the best advocates they can be for children who need special education support. PTI does this by providing information, training, resources, and technical assistance to help parents/caregivers understand their rights and responsibilities, navigate school, and connect with community resources.

Our PTI team of resource coordinators is positioned throughout the state, so be sure to check our calendar of events to see if there might be a training near your local area. We also provide online trainings and articles through the Learning and School section of PAVE’s website.

Another way to find information is to type a key word into the search bar at the top of the PAVE website. Here are a few examples of words that might lead you to the information you are seeking: evaluation, IEP, Section 504, early learning, mental health, social-emotional learning, behavior support, discipline, high school transition, letter to request evaluation, letter to request IEP meeting….

Following is some basic information to help you start navigating Washington systems.

General Education Information:

  • Our State Education Agency is the Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction (OSPI): k12.wa.us.
  • Local Education Agencies (LEAs) are organized as 295 Districts.
  • There are nine Educational Service Districts that partner with OSPI to provide services for school districts and communities and to help OSPI implement legislatively-supported education initiatives.
  • Charter schools have the same responsibilities as all public and non-public entities when serving students with disabilities.
  • The state has multiple Pathways to Graduation and requires a High School and Beyond Plan for all students.

Special Education Information

  • State law related to the provision of special education is part of the Washington Administrative Code, WAC Chapter 392-172A.
  • Special Education process and parent rights and responsibilities are described in a handbook available for download on OSPI’s website: Procedural Safeguards.
  • A child’s right to a timely evaluation and the school district’s responsibility to seek out and serve students with disabilities is described on OSPI’s website as an aspect of Child Find.

Common Questions/Answers and linkages for further information in Washington State

  • Where can parents get information about services for infants, Birth-3? The state’s Department of Children, Youth and Families (DCYF) administers a program called Early Services for Infants and Toddlers (ESIT): Email: ESIT@dcyf.wa.gov, Phone: 360-725-3500
  • What is the agency that administers Medicaid? Medicaid is called Apple Health. Applications are managed through the Health Care Authority (HCA), which oversees various Managed Care Organizations (MCOs) to provide health plan options. For more information, visit: hca.wa.gov or call 1-800-562-3022.
  • Does WA state offer Early Learning programs? Early Childhood Education and Assistance Program (ECEAP) is Washington’s program for 3- and 4-year-old children from low-income families. DCYF provides details about ECEAP and federally funded Head Start programs. Children are eligible for ECEAP and Head Start based on their age and family income. Up to 10 percent of ECEAP and Head Start children can be from families above the income limit if they have certain developmental factors or environmental factors such as homelessness, family violence, chemical dependency, foster care, or incarcerated parents.
  • What is your state’s timeline for an initial evaluation for special education services? A school district has 25 school days to respond to a referral/request for special education evaluation. Once a parent/caregiver signs consent, the district has 35 school days to complete the evaluation. The state requires the district to write and implement an IEP within 30 calendar days after eligibility is determined. PAVE provides a comprehensive article about the evaluation process on our website: Evaluations Part 1.
  • What is your state’s policy on re-evaluations? A parent can request an evaluation any time there are concerns about whether services match the student’s present levels of performance and support needs. PTI provides a sample letter for requesting evaluation.
  • Does your state have unique names for IEP eligibility categories? PAVE’s article, Evaluations Part 1, includes more detail about the 14 qualifying categories of disability. Note that Developmental Delay is a category for children Birth through age 9. One example of a category with a unique name in Washington is Emotional/Behavior Disability, which in federal law is referred to as Emotional Disturbance.
  • Does your state have a unique policy about dyslexia? Washington passed a law in 2018 that requires schools to screen children in kindergarten through second grade for signs of dyslexia and to provide reading support for those who need it. The law takes full effect in 2021-22. PAVE provides an article with links to current state information.
  • What are some of your state’s options for dispute resolution? OSPI provides information about how to request a (free) mediation or facilitated IEP meeting with a third-party facilitator. OSPI also offers options for filing a Citizen Complaint or requesting a Due Process Hearing. OSPI’s Due Process website page includes a link to a legal assistance list.
  • Do principals or school heads in your state have sole authority? Decisions about the provision of special education services are made by an IEP team, which includes parents and specific required staff members (WAC 392-172A-03095). A booklet describing the process of special education and parent/student rights is provided in multiple languages on OSPI’s website: Procedural Safeguards.
  • Does your state use a standard IEP form? No. Many schools use a software program called IEP Online. Each district has a different link to access the specific forms used.
  • What are your state’s graduation requirements? In 2019, the Washington State Legislature provided students with multiple pathways to graduation by passing House Bill (HB) 1599. PAVE provides an on-demand webinar to help with Life After High School Planning.
  • How does your state enforce compliance with Section 504 Plans? OSPI provides a list of Section 504/Civil Rights compliance officers assigned to each school district.
  • Interstate Compact for Military Children. Included are updated contacts.

How to contact PTI for direct assistance

Family caregivers who have questions or want direct support can reach out to PTI by filling out a Helpline Request Form at wapave.org/get-help. Another option is to call our Helpline and leave a message. We can support calls in English or Spanish: 1-800-572-7368, ext. 115.

Here are some questions you might have that our PTI might help answer:

  • How can I be sure my child receives comparable services?
  • What should I do if I think my child might need additional services?
  • How does the evaluation or re-evaluation process work?
  • What are my rights if my child is being disciplined or struggling with behavior?
  • What do I need to know about the roles and responsibilities at the state and local level?
  • What are my options if I’m not satisfied with my child’s IEP or Section 504 Plan or if I don’t think the school is following it?
  • What state agencies are responsible for managing parent complaints?
  • How can I make sure that my high-school child stays on track for graduation?
  • I’ve heard, “We don’t do that in Washington.” Is this true?”

Again, welcome to Washington and we look forward to serving you!

We hope you might enjoy the delicious apples in our state—and save one for the teacher!

Quick Look: How to Prepare for a Virtual Meeting

Schools and families continue to meet virtually to discuss special education services during the closures related to the coronavirus pandemic. Here are tips to help family members prepare for remote meetings to discuss a student’s Individualized Education Program (IEP), a Section 504 Plan, evaluation for special education services or something else related to a special education student’s needs and learning program.

For more comprehensive information, see PAVE’s article, IEP on Pause? How to Support Continuous Learning with School Buildings Closed.”

  • Determine a regular communication plan with the school. That might include email, telephone, text, web-based meetings, U.S. mail, packet delivery by school bus…  whatever works for regularly checking in.   
  • Family caregivers can request meetings. PAVE provides a template to formalize the request: Sample Letter to Request an IEP Meeting. Included with the letter template is detail about who is required to attend IEP meetings, and those requirements have not changed.
  • The Special Education Continuous Learning Plan is provided by the Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction (OSPI) to support but not replace the IEP during the national crisis caused by the coronavirus pandemic. Included in the form is a sample meeting agenda.
  • Consider confidentiality and privacy issues. Ask school staff to describe how privacy and confidentiality are protected through a suggested meeting platform, and make sure to have any passwords or PINs ready to use when you log in or call into a meeting.
  • Before a meeting, ask to sign any necessary paperwork or releases to have special education records sent electronically via email. Special education records can include meeting notifications, IEP or Section 504 documents, assessments, progress reports, Prior Written Notices that describe meetings and planned actions, or other materials that contribute to the program review and goals.  
  • Review records before the meeting and write down questions to ask during the meeting. PAVE provides a Parent Handout Form or, for self-advocates, a Student Handout Form, that can help organize concerns and questions. Another version of a Parent Input Form is provided by the Washington Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction (OSPI).
  • Carefully review goals, services, accommodations, modifications and consider how they might apply or need to be adjusted for current circumstances. Think creatively and prepare to collaborate and request expertise from school staff. Pay special attention to the present levels of academic achievement and functional performance. These present levels statements, within the first pages of the IEP document, describe how the student is doing and where there are challenges. Wrightslaw.com provides tools specifically to support parents in reviewing IEP present levels in preparation for a meeting during COVID-19.
  • Consider whether the student will attend the meeting. A student who is 14 or older is invited as part of the state’s Pathways to Graduation planning. PAVE provides an article: Attention Students: Lead your own IEP meetings and take charge of your future.
  • Communicate early—before the scheduled meeting—to request updates about progress, a student’s present levels of performance, or other concerns. If family caregivers build a handout for the meeting, that can be submitted ahead of time to ensure that this information is part of the agenda.
  • Family members can request a practice session to test the technology. Part of that training might include practice sharing the screen to make sure everyone will be able to view important documents during the formal meeting.
  • As with in-person meetings, family participants can invite support people. A friend or family member might be able to attend and take notes.
  • Refer to parent and/or student input forms to stay on topic and ensure that all concerns and questions are addressed.
  • When the meeting ends, family participants can ask for a copy of the program recommendations page.
  • After the IEP meeting, the school provides a Prior Written Notice (PWN) to the family participants to review meeting notes and any decisions, agreements, or disagreements. Ask when and how the PWN will be provided. Family participants have the right to request amendments or corrections to the PWN.
  • Be sure to leave with a clear action plan. Here are key questions to ask and record:
    • What will happen?
    • Who is responsible?
    • When will the actions happen? Are there timelines?
    • How will we communicate for follow through?
  • As with any meeting, any unresolved issues can be addressed in a follow-up meeting.

To learn more, PAVE provides a six-minute overview of IEP basics and a 30-minute training video about special education.   

School Shutdown: Pandemic Guidance for Families also Impacted by Disability

A Brief Overview

  • Governor Jay Inslee announced April 6, 2020, that Washington school buildings are closed to regular instruction at least through the end of the school year because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
  • During the shutdown, schools and families are seeking creative ways to help all children learn, said Washington’s Superintendent of Public Instruction, Chris Reykdal, who participated in the April 6 press conference with Gov. Inslee.  “Especially during times of uncertainty,” Reykdal said, “students need our support. They need grace, and structure, and routine. Even though the world may feel like it’s upside down, our students need to know that we will move forward.”
  • PAVE’s program to provide Parent Training and Information (PTI) continues to offer 1:1 support by phone in addition to online learning opportunities. Please refer to our home page at wapave.org to “Get Help” or to check the Calendar for upcoming events. A PTI webinar recorded live March 26, 2020, provides information about the rights of students with disabilities.
  • For questions about delivery of special education during the school building closures, families also can visit the website of the Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction (OSPI), which maintains a page, Special Education Guidance for COVID-19. Ways to support inclusion during the closures and a downloadable spreadsheet of online and offline resources for continuing learning are clickable links on that page.
  • Providing families with access to meals has been a priority for schools. An interactive map on the website of Educational Service District 113 includes information from schools across Washington about where meals are delivered and addresses for where families can pick up free food by “Grab-and-Go.”
  • The U.S. Department of Education has created a website page to address COVID-19. Links on the website, gov/coronavirus, include a Fact Sheet titled, Addressing the Risk of COVID-19 in Schools While Protecting the Civil Rights of Students, issued by the department’s Office for Civil Rights (OCR).
  • For additional resources, see Links to Support Families During the Coronavirus Crisis and Links for Learning at Home During School Closure.

Full Article

With school buildings closed to help slow the spread of the novel coronavirus (COVID-19), families have many questions about how children can access meals, childcare and basic education. Recognizing that too much information can be overwhelming, PAVE provides this article to help families with children impacted by disability understand a few key issues during this challenging time. Included throughout are links to information on official websites that are frequently updated.

Nationally, agencies that provide guidance to schools have been in conversation about the challenge of providing equitable education to all students as learning that respects the requirement for “social distancing” becomes the only option. The U.S. Department of Education is tracking much of that work on its website, gov/coronavirus.

Most schools in Washington resumed services with distance learning on March 30, 2020. Some districts planned a later start because of spring break schedules. Chris Reykdal, Washington’s Superintendent of Public Instruction, issued guidance that all schools within the state offer something in order to engage students in learning.

He emphasized that families and schools should maintain an attitude of creativity and patience and that the goal is not to overwhelm parents and students. The guidance is not a mandate for students, Reykdal said, and the state is not directing schools to grade student work during this period of distance learning. The expectation is that districts “are sending opportunities for families and checking in,” he said in comments quoted in a March 30 broadcast and article from KNKX, a National Public Radio affiliate.

Various federal and state laws protect students with disabilities and their right to a Free Appropriate Public Education (FAPE), regardless of the nature or severity of the disability. How to provide education that is appropriate and equitable when school buildings are closed is a national conversation. In Washington State, the Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction (OSPI) is continuously updating guidance for schools and families on these topics.

An OSPI website page devoted to special education topics during the COVID-19 shutdown includes this guidance: “If the district continues providing education opportunities to students during the closure, this includes provision of special education and related services, too, as part of a comprehensive plan.”

In a March 18, 2020, letter to school staff who support Individualized Education Programs (IEPs), OSPI encouraged IEP reviews and evaluations to continue as possible: “School districts are encouraged to continue to hold IEP and evaluation meetings through distance technology whenever possible, and if agreed upon by parents and school staff are available.”

Meals are a top priority

The Superintendent of Public Instruction, Chris Reykdal, provided information March 19, 2020, in a webinar sponsored by the Washington League of Education Voters. Note: the League of Education Voters offers a comprehensive listing of COVID-19 resources.

Reykdal said that OSPI has prioritized food distribution for students as its most important role during the shutdown. He said some districts deliver food to stops along regular bus routes. Others have food pick-up available in school parking lots. For the most current information about how a district is making meals available for students, families are encouraged to check their local district website or call the district office. OSPI provides a list of districts throughout the state, with direct links to district websites and contact information.

An interactive map on the website of Educational Service District 113 includes information from schools across Washington about where meals are delivered and addresses for where families can pick up free food by “Grab-and-Go.”

Childcare options are difficult to design

Second priority, according to Reykdal, is childcare for parents who rely on outside help so they can work. Families are encouraged to contact local districts for current information about childcare. OSPI encourages only small and limited gatherings of children, so provisions for childcare and early learning have been difficult to organize, Reykdal said. He emphasized that public health is the top concern. “We have to flatten that curve,” he said, referencing a widely shared graphic that shows what may happen if the virus is not slowed by intentional measures.

Note that the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid have relaxed rules in order to give states more flexibility in providing medical and early learning services through remote technologies. The Early Childhood Technical Assistance Center (ECTA) has created a webpage on teleintervention. Topics include training for families learning to navigate technology for online learning and appointments.

Equity is required in education

Thirdly, Secretary Reykdal on March 19 addressed work underway to create new models for distance learning. “Everyone needs to be super patient about this because while districts are preparing to deploy some education, it will look different. And there are serious equity concerns we have to focus on. We expect districts as they launch this to have an equitable opportunity for all students. English language learners need special supports. Our students with disabilities need supports.”

At the April 6, 2020, press conference, Reykdal mentioned that some schools may open on a very limit basis in order to provide services to a few children with significant disabilities. He said OSPI would be consulting with schools throughout the state to develop models for best-practice IEP implementation during the national crisis. “Especially during times of uncertainty,” he said, “students need our support. They need grace, and structure, and routine. Even though the world may feel like it’s upside down, our students need to know that we will move forward.”

PAVE is here to help!

PAVE’s Parent Training and Information (PTI) program continues to provide 1:1 support by phone and offers online training. Please check our calendar of events and follow us on social media.

PTI director Jen Cole addressed some topics related to educational access during a March 19, 2020, podcast hosted by Once Upon a Gene. In addition to providing general information about the rights of students with disabilities, Cole shares her own experience as a parent of an elementary-age student with a disability.

PAVE has added new links on our website to help families navigate these new circumstances. On our homepage, wapave.org, find the large blue button labeled View Links. Clicking on that button will open a list of options. Two new options provide guidance related to the pandemic:

  1. Links for Learning at Home During School Closure: This a resource collection of agencies providing online learning opportunities for various ages.
  2. Links to Support Families During the Coronavirus Crisis: This is a resource collection of agencies that provide information related to the pandemic.

Please note that resources listed are not affiliated with PAVE, and PAVE does not recommend or endorse these programs or services. These lists are not exhaustive and are provided for informational purposes only.

OSPI offers guidance for families

The Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction (OSPI) is the state education agency charged with overseeing and supporting Washington’s 295 public school districts and seven state-tribal education compact schools. As communities respond to the COVID-19 outbreak, OSPI offers a downloadable guide for parents and families.

Included is a section for parents of students in special education. While in session, districts maintain the responsibility to provide a Free Appropriate Public Education (FAPE) to students eligible for special education. “Districts should be communicating with parents and guardians prior to, during, and after a school closure regarding their child’s IEP services,” OSPI states.

Parents may want to consider whether compensatory education or Extended School Year (ESY) services will be needed. The general rights to these services are further described in an article about ESY on PAVE’s website.

Making notes in order to collect informal data about any regression in learning during the shutdown may be important later. OSPI’s resource guide states: “After an extended closure, districts are responsible for reviewing how the closure impacted the delivery of special education and related services to students eligible for special education services.”

OSPI reminds families that schools are not required to provide special education services while they are fully closed to all students.

OSPI addresses issues related to racism

In its guidance, OSPI encourages schools to intentionally and persistently combat stigma through information sharing: “COVID-19 is not at all connected to race, ethnicity, or nationality.”

OSPI advises that bullying, intimidation, or harassment of students based on actual or perceived race, color, national origin, or disability (including the actual disability of being infected with COVID-19 or perception of being infected) may result in a violation of state and federal civil rights laws:

“School districts must take immediate and appropriate action to investigate what occurred when responding to reports of bullying or harassment. If parents and families believe their child has experienced bullying, harassment, or intimidation related to the COVID-19 outbreak, they should contact their school district’s designated civil rights compliance coordinator.”

U.S. Department of Education provides written guidance and a video

The U.S. Department of Education provides a website page to address COVID-19. Links on the website, ed.gov/coronavirus, include a Fact Sheet titled, Addressing the Risk of COVID-19 in Schools While Protecting the Civil Rights of Students, issued by the department’s Office for Civil Rights (OCR):

“Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 prohibits disability discrimination by schools receiving federal financial assistance. Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 prohibits disability discrimination by public entities, including schools. Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits race, color, and national origin discrimination by schools receiving federal funds….

“School districts and postsecondary schools have significant latitude and authority to take necessary actions to protect the health, safety, and welfare of students and school staff….As school leaders respond to evolving conditions related to coronavirus, they should be mindful of the requirements of Section 504, Title II, and Title VI, to ensure that all students are able to study and learn in an environment that is safe and free from discrimination.”

On March 21, 2020, the department issued a Supplemental Fact Sheet to clarify that the department does not want special education protections to create barriers to educational delivery options: “We recognize that educational institutions are straining to address the challenges of this national emergency. We also know that educators and parents are striving to provide a sense of normality while seeking ways to ensure that all students have access to meaningful educational opportunities even under these difficult circumstances.

“No one wants to have learning coming to a halt across America due to the COVID-19 outbreak, and the U.S. Department of Education does not want to stand in the way of good faith efforts to educate students on-line. The Department stands ready to offer guidance, technical assistance, and information on any available flexibility, within the confines of the law, to ensure that all students, including students with disabilities, continue receiving excellent education during this difficult time.”

The Department’s Office for Civil Rights (OCR) released a YouTube video March 17, 2020, to describe some ways that OCR is providing technical assistance to schools attempting to offer online learning that is disability accessible. Kenneth L. Marcus, assistant secretary for civil rights within the Department of Education, opens the video by describing federal disability protections:

“Online learning is a powerful tool for educational institutions as long as it is accessible for everyone. Services, programs and activities online must be accessible to persons, including individuals with disabilities, unless equally effective alternate access is provided in another manner.”

Help is available from Parent Training and Information (PTI)

Families who need direct assistance in navigating special education process can request help from PAVE’s Parent Training and Information Center (PTI). PTI is a federally funded program that helps parents, youth, and professionals understand and advocate for individuals with disabilities in the public education system. For direct assistance, click “Get Help” from the home page of PAVE’s website: wapave.org.

PTI’s free services include:

  • Training, information and assistance to help you be the best advocate you can be
  • Navigation support to help you access early intervention, special education, post-secondary planning and related systems in Washington State
  • Information to help you understand how disabilities impact learning and your role as a parent or self-advocate member of an educational team
  • Assistance in locating resources in your local community
  • Training and vocabulary to help you understand concepts such as Free Appropriate Public Education (FAPE), an entitlement for individuals who qualify for special education under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). 

IDEA: The Foundation of Special Education

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

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

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

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

FAPE is an important acronym to learn!

The first principle of the IDEA is the right to a Free Appropriate Public Education, FAPE. Figuring out how to provide FAPE is the work of the school and family team that supports a student with a disability. PAVE provides a video Introduction to Special Education that includes more information about FAPE.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Part C protects children Birth to age 3 who need family support for early learning. ​The disability category of developmental delay overlaps early learning and IEP and can qualify a child for free, family-focused services to age 3 and school-based services through age 8. PAVE has an article about the transition between Part C and Part B services.

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

  • Autism: A student doesn’t need a medical diagnosis to be evaluated in the area of autism. If features from the autism spectrum of disability may significantly impact access to education, then the school can assess those features to determine eligibility and special education needs.
  • Emotional Disturbance: Anxiety, Depression, Serious Mental Illness and/or behavior disabilities can fall under this category, which Washington schools often refer to as Emotional Behavioral Disability (EBD). PAVE has an article about mental health in school.
  • Specific Learning Disability: Issues related to dyslexia, dysgraphia, dyscalculia or other learning deficits can be educationally assessed. A formal diagnosis is not required for a student to qualify under this category. A Washington law taking full effect in 2021-22 requires schools to screen for dyslexia: See PAVE’s article about dyslexia.
  • Other Health Impairment: ADHD, Tourette’s Syndrome and other medical diagnoses are captured within this broad category, often shorted to OHI or Health-Impaired on the IEP document.
  • Speech/Language Impairment: This category can include expressive and/or receptive language disorders in addition to issues related to diction. Social communication deficits might qualify a student for speech services.
  • Multiple Disabilities: Students with complex medical and learning needs can meet criteria in this category.
  • Intellectual Disability: A student with Down Syndrome or another genetic or cognitive disorder might meet criteria in this category.
  • Orthopedic Impairment: OI refers to physical disabilities that impact access to education.
  • Hearing Impairment: Note this is a separate category from deafness or deaf-blindness, as educational testing and identified needs may differ.
  • Deaf blindness
  • Deafness
  • Visual Impairment/Blindness
  • Traumatic Brain Injury: Brain Injury Alliance of WA is a good place for resources to better understand TBI and how to support a student with medical and educational needs.
  • Developmental Delay (ages 0-8): This category can qualify a child for early learning (Birth-3) services in addition to IEP services through age 8. By age 9, a new evaluation may determine eligibility in another category for IEP services to continue.

Educational evaluations ask 3 key questions

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

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

When each answer is yes, a student qualifies for services. In each area of eligibility, specialized instruction is recommended to help the student overcome the impact of the disability in order to access FAPE. PAVE provides comprehensive articles about evaluation and IEP process.

IDEA’s Primary Principles:

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

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

 

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

A Brief Overview

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

Full Article

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

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

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

Evaluation is a 3-part process

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

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

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

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

Bring ideas to the evaluation review meeting

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

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

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

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

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

FAPE is a special education student’s most important right

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

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

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

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

A referral starts the evaluation process

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

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

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

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

Eligibility Categories of Disability

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

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

  • Autism: A student doesn’t need a medical diagnosis to be evaluated in the area of autism. If features from the autism spectrum of disability may significantly impact access to education, then the school can assess those features to determine eligibility and special education needs.
  • Emotional Disturbance: Anxiety, Depression, Serious Mental Illness and/or behavior disabilities can fall under this category, which Washington schools often refer to as Emotional Behavioral Disability (EBD).
  • Specific Learning Disability: Issues related to dyslexia, dysgraphia, dyscalculia or other learning deficits can be educationally assessed. A formal diagnosis is not required for a student to qualify under this category.
  • Other Health Impairment: ADHD, Tourette’s Syndrome and other medical diagnoses are captured within this broad category, often shorted to OHI or Health-Impaired on the IEP document.
  • Speech/Language Impairment: This category can include expressive and/or receptive language disorders in addition to issues related to diction. Social communication deficits might qualify a student for speech services.
  • Multiple Disabilities: Students with complex medical and learning needs can meet criteria in this category.
  • Intellectual Disability: A student with Down Syndrome or another genetic or cognitive disorder might meet criteria in this category.
  • Orthopedic Impairment: OI refers to physical disabilities that impact access to education.
  • Hearing Impairment: Note this is a separate category from deafness or deaf-blindness, as educational testing and identified needs may differ.
  • Deaf blindness
  • Deafness
  • Visual Impairment/Blindness
  • Traumatic Brain Injury: Brain Injury Alliance of WA is a good place for resources to better understand TBI and how to support a student with medical and educational needs.
  • Developmental Delay (ages 0-8): This category can qualify a child for early learning (Birth-3) services in addition to IEP services through age 8. By age 9, a new evaluation may determine eligibility in another category for IEP services to continue.

Child Find requires school districts to evaluate

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

Here are some considerations:

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

Deadlines start when a referral is made

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

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

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

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

What happens next if the school agrees to evaluate?

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

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

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

Don’t be intimidated by fancy language!

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

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

The IEP isn’t a one-and-done project

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

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

What if I don’t agree with the school?

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

Recommended guidelines for requesting an evaluation

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

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

Items to include in the referral letter:

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

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

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

Evaluation for Behavior Supports

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

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

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

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

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

Independent Educational Evaluation (IEE)

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

Here are additional resources:

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

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

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

Smart Kids with Learning Disabilities: smartkidswithld.org

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

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

OR

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