It’s all about striking the right balance. A lot of food for thought!
Oh I know. Plenty of people care. I don’t.
Surprise, surprise. I am out of sync again.
In education there is an unhealthy and imbalanced emphasis on only doing research-based and evidence-based strategies in schools. We have some completely unreasonable belief that if we standardize enough, if we only apply research-based interventions, kids will learn more, better, faster. If we quit wasting time piddling around with any old teaching strategies and only do what the research says is effective, then we will surely do better in all the areas we so desperately want to do better in.
In an ideal world, when baking a delicate cake, that is the most effective me do it. Follow the research. Use a specific recipe. Maybe my oven is wonky or does not maintain the correct temperature on certain days. I know this about my oven, I have some guesses as to why it…
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What is the difference between “placement” and “assignment” when it comes to students who have disabilities? This topic should actually fall under the heading of: Questions parents don’t ask because they don’t know what they don’t know.
“Placement” and “assignment” are often used as though they mean the same thing in conversations about the education of typical students. However, there are some very real differences in how these words are used when talking about students who receive special education services. There are also big differences in how decisions about placement and assignment are made.
Special education placement describes the type and amount of special education and related services a student receives based on their Individualized Education Program (IEP). The IEP will also describe the location where the services will be delivered. The IEP will state whether the services will be provided within the general education setting, special education setting, or the total school environment. The team of people who create each student’s IEP includes the child’s parent(s), a general education teacher, a special education teacher, and someone who can represent the local education agency (LEA) or school system. The IEP team can include other individuals, depending on what is being discussed or when invited by the parent or school.
Students with disabilities must be educated alongside students who don’t have disabilities as much as possible, as long as their needs can be met. The IEP team has to explain why a student is removed from his non-disabled peers and why they cannot be adequately served in the general education setting, even with the use of supplemental aids and services. The least restrictive environment for each student must be determined based on the unique needs of that particular student and not factors such as age or type of disability.
Some students with disabilities stay in the general education setting all day long, some removed for a short time each day, and other students require a specialized environment for most of their day. There is a wide range, or continuum of alternative educational placements that the IEP team can consider. The amount of time that the student is removed from their non-disabled peers will determine whether their placement on the continuum is described as regular, resource, separate, separate school, residential, home/hospital, etc. The IEP team, including the parent(s), has full responsibility for deciding special education placement.
Educational assignment refers to administrative decisions that are made by people who have been given certain authority to make them, as well as the guidance of school board or other policies. For example, principals typically have the authority to assign students to specific teachers. In North Carolina, principals also have sole authority over each student’s grade assignment or classification, including promotion and retention decisions.
Most school systems have a written policy that details how students are assigned to particular schools. In addition to a “home” school based on the student’s address, there may be other school options that parents can apply for by following certain steps. There may even be an appeal process if the request to change schools is denied.
If the IEP team has decided that a student’s disability-related needs require a specialized setting at, or beyond, the “separate” level of service, that student will be administratively assigned to the school closest to home where his or her needs can be met. School system administrators can decide where to locate various specialized classrooms, and they can be moved from one school year to the next. In most cases, parents of these children will not have a choice about which school their child will be assigned. Parents also do not have a right to pick and choose their child’s teachers.
If there are special considerations that make the standard administrative process or the resulting decision, not appropriate for your child, find out who has the authority to do something different. That would be the contact point where you should focus your efforts to advocate for your child. Communicate with the decision maker(s) to help them better understand all of the issues involved. If necessary, reach out to the school board members and others who actually create the policies that everyone else has to follow.
The IEP team process gives parents a clear role in making decisions about special education placement decisions, but parents can sometimes influence administrative decisions as well. It is important to be clear about which decisions you are talking about.
At least once each day we get a call from a parent who is trying to find an advocate for their child. Often they want one to go to IEP meetings with them. We explain that ECAC is a Parent Training and Information Center and that our goal is to help parents become effective advocates for their own children. We then offer to try to help and invite them to tell us what is going on with their child. Most of the time the parent will proceed to tell their story and we go on to provide individual assistance in whatever form is needed for that specific situation.
A few parents, however, will go right back to their original position. They declare that they need an advocate and, if we won’t go to the IEP meeting with them, they ask us to identify someone else who will. Those calls sadden me because the parent usually ends the call without giving us a chance to help them.
“Advocates” come in lots of different forms and a parent’s experience with them can vary tremendously. Some organizations will allow their staff or volunteers to go to IEP meetings with parents. There are educational consultants and other professionals who will serve as advocates for a fee. There are also individuals who have made helping families with school issues a personal mission.While it may meet a parent’s immediate need for support, sometimes using an outside advocate does not result in long-term benefit to the parent or student.
Occasionally, an advocate will take an adversarial approach that increases tension and creates additional barriers to communication and collaboration between home and school. Such situations are never in the best interest of the student. If you ever find that you have associated yourself with someone who seems more interested in winning a fight than with improving your child’s education, you should seriously consider limiting the potential damage by not inviting them back for a repeat performance.
Another problem that often happens with professional advocates is that they tend to keep knowledge to themselves rather than pass it on to the parents. This generally means that the parents do not learn the skills that they need to handle future issues on their own.
Working with your parent training and information center will help you better understand educational jargon, special education processes and policies, the rights that you and your child have, and how you can help shape your child’s educational experience. It is our job to make sure that you have the information and skills that you need to successfully advocate for your child today, tomorrow and every day after that. Everyone knows that knowledge is power. YOU are your child’s most important advocate. Be a powerful one!
By Debra Pickens
“If you don’t ASK, they won’t TELL!”
Have you ever had a feeling in your gut that something wasn’t right? When the Director of Disability Services told me that they didn’t know the Braille special math code, and that my son should drop College Algebra, I knew immediately why I had that feeling in my gut. “Here we go again, I thought. Another battle to fight!”
My son Billy was born on February 13, 1997 with Norrie’s Disease. He is totally blind with progressive hearing loss. Billy received early intervention services in the home and daycare. We established his IEP when he turned three and most of his one-on-one Specialists transitioned with him to public school, where they had a Visually Impaired (VI) resource room with a full-time Teacher of Visually Impaired (TVI).
Billy learned how to read and write Braille early. With the help of the TVI, Braillewriter and Braille Note taker, Billy was on the A/B Honor roll throughout his 12 years of public school. He graduated with a 3.5 GPA and a strong desire to attend a four-year college. He knew that there would be obstacles, and he had learned how to advocate for himself. What he didn’t know is that he would not have ACCESS to his academic materials in a timely manner when school started.
We met with The University’s Disability Services in late June and Billy’s counselor emailed his accommodation letter out to all of his professors early July. The letter told them “What” to do but not “How” to do it. When school started at the end of August, we found that his College Algebra class would be conducted mostly online, which was not in the course description when he registered. If you don’t ASK if it is an online course, then they want TELL you. We immediately reached out to the Director of Disability Services for guidance. Her advice was to drop the course until they could figure out how to get him ACCESS to the material. We knew that was not an option. He only had registered to take 12 hours and if he dropped the course, then his financial aid would not be granted.
The second suggestion was to audit the course or take an incomplete until he could obtain ACCESS to the material. Billy decided that he wanted to try using a one-on-one personal assistant to read to him and assist him in navigating the online system. This did not work because his one-on-one personal assistant did not know how to teach him College Algebra. We are still working with the Director of Disability Services to receive his quizzes and tests in Braille, which is his preferred method of communication.
The next battle was with his Theater class. The “Plays” were emailed to him as photo copies or in a pdf document. The documents would not translate to Braille on his Braille Note taker. We didn’t know to Ask them to convert to a format, which could be saved on a digital card and transferred to his Braille Note taker for him to read it in Braille, and they didn’t Tell us. He sat in class one day while the rest of the students were taking a quiz and he didn’t have ACCESS to the quiz in Braille. The inexperienced professor told Billy that she had reached out to Disability Services to ask “What” and “How” to get him ACCESS to the material and no one had responded.
By this point, Billy was overwhelmed and finally reached out to Mom for help. I communicated with the Director of Disability Services via email, telephone and face-to-face. I found out that all of the information submitted to be brailled a month ago had not been brailled yet, including the syllabuses for his classes. All of his professors were willing to make accommodations for Billy, but didn’t know “How” to do it. The Director of Disability Services had to reach out to them individually and explain the process of getting Billy ACCESS to his course materials.
The technology battle is still ongoing. Billy met with the AT Specialist at the University several times, but the AT Specialist did not know how to use this specialized equipment and Billy had a hard time understanding his accent. We had to request training through Division of Services for the Blind (DSB) and we are still waiting on a response. In the meantime, we paid for an AT Specialist who knows Billy’s specialized equipment to travel to Charlotte and train Billy on how to use some new technology. I regret that I did not include more detailed technology goals within his IEP starting in middle school.
The Orientation and Mobility (O&M) battle was by far the worst transition experience we both encountered. I sent Billy’s class schedule to DSB in early July. He was referred for O&M services in late July. He did not start receiving services until late August. She worked with him only 3 hours per day for about 3 days and she was not available during Billy’s first week of school. I had to pay for him to have a one-on-one personal assistant to help him get around the campus during that first week. The O&M Specialist was also not trained to teach someone who was born Blind and needed sensory orientation as well as mobility directions. Once again I had to pay for someone to come from out of town to train Billy on how to use the GPS Trekker.
Along the way I began to question whether or not college was for Billy? Now I know that, regardless of the obstacles we face, with or without a disability, it is okay to REST but you should never QUIT! Therefore, when I wake up in the morning, I will continue to ASK and FOLLOW UP until I find someone who can TELL us not only “What” to do but “How” to do it!
On average, about 20% of the students in our public schools have some sort of chronic health condition. Some of these students have Individualized Education Programs (IEPs) because they require specially designed instruction, but many of them do not. Because students have a wide variety of special needs, sometimes a combination of multiple issues, there are also several different options for meeting their educational and health-related needs. The following list will reflect the range of possibilities going from the most common and least restrictive, to the less common and more extreme. A professional school nurse and the child’s personal healthcare providers will play important roles in each of these situations.
- There are many students who do not require any action on the part of school staff other than to monitor and document the administration of medications that are taken at school. In order for this to happen, parents must provide the school with written documentation of medical need from a physician, physician assistant or nurse practitioner (hereafter referred to as “doctors”). They must also give their written permission for school staff to administer the medication.
- Emergency Care Plans are developed for students who have a health condition that can potentially lead to a medical crisis. In the case of some students who are at risk of a life-threatening allergic reaction, there should be an on-going effort to reduce the child’s exposure to the allergen involved, but also a plan that includes actions that staff should take immediately if there is a serious reaction to accidental exposure. The plan may include things like administering Benadryl, giving an Epi-pen injection, calling 911 and/or notifying the child’s parents. Some students have a seizure disorder that requires the immediate administration of specific medication in order to prevent major escalation of symptoms and possible long-term complications.
- Individual Health Plans (IHPs) describe how a student’s special health care needs will be met while they are at school. The plans are written by the school nurse, other school staff and the child’s parents, using information provided by the child’s doctor(s). The IHP will identify the child’s health condition(s), describe how the child is impacted by it, clearly state the actions that should be taken by school staff to manage or treat the condition, and how to respond if the child shows specific signs of distress or unusual developments occur. IHPs are also written for students who self-monitor their health condition and self-administer medication.
- Section 504 Accommodation Plan. Some students have health conditions that require some adjustment in the way things are normally done in order for that student to have an equal opportunity to access, participate in, or benefit from the public education program. For example, a child with asthma may be allowed to take breaks during intense physical activity like PE class, or a child who has difficulty regulating body temperature may need a climate-controlled school bus. Some children may need shortened school days because of low stamina, and others may need flexibility with the school system’s attendance policy due to frequent health-related absences. Each school system creates its own Section 504 Policy within federal guidelines. A child must be determined to be eligible under Section 504 before an accommodation plan will be developed to address that child’s specific needs.
- Individualized Education Programs (IEPs) are developed for children who have been found eligible for special education services because of disabilities that may or may not be related to a health condition. The IEP describes the services, supports and instructional goals required for the student to receive a free appropriate public education. The plan can include accommodations similar to those of a Section 504 Plan, but it may also include health or nursing services that are part of the student’s IHP. The IEP may include annual goals for the student to learn how to better participate in his own health care. The school nurse can also provide technical assistance and training to other school staff who will be working with the student.That service should be documented on the IEP. Sometimes, especially when the student’s health condition is totally unrelated to the disability that the special education focuses on, the IEP will simply mention implementation of the IHP to make sure that school staff are prompted to read the IHP and understand any responsibilities that they may have.
- Medical Homebound Instruction is sometimes required when a student is unable to attend school for medical reasons. Very specific documentation from a doctor is required, and there is usually an expectation that the student will have to be out of school for an extended period of time. If medical homebound services are approved by the school district, arrangements are made for a teacher to provide instruction in the child’s home or another setting outside of school. Because homebound services are considered to be extremely restrictive, the child’s situation is reviewed on a regular basis to see if the child is still unable to attend school.
Medical needs and special health conditions should never stand in the way of a child getting a free appropriate public education. What it takes will vary from one child to the next, but there is an option that is right for each child who wants to learn. When parents, schools and medical providers all work together anything is possible!
One of the most basic advocacy tips for parents is to make contact with your child’s teachers at the beginning of the school year, or anytime new teachers or service providers become involved. One purpose for this initial contact is to introduce yourself, exchange information about how each of you prefers to be contacted, and to establish a good working relationship long before there are problems to tackle. Another important purpose for this first contact is to share some vital information about your child, such as the fact that the child has a disability and an Individualized Education Program (IEP) or Section 504 Accommodation Plan. Sometimes classroom teachers are not made aware of these things right away.
Beyond the nuts and bolts of diagnoses, accommodations, modifications, special education services and such, it is important to make sure that the people who will be working with your child have a sense of who that child is as an individual, unique human being. Some parents simply write a letter, others have created brochures and PowerPoint presentations. ECAC has developed a couple of tools that make it easy for parents to share important information about their child with others.
Painting the Big Picture This is a worksheet that offers a way to quickly share information about things such as your child’s likes, dislikes, strengths, successes, challenges, as well as your dreams and visions for your child’s future. In each section there is also a place to share tips and successful strategies (what works) that help your child overcome difficulties and build relationships with others. There is even a place to capture Other Helpful Information that doesn’t fit anywhere else. This could include information about special healthcare needs, dietary restrictions, fears, unusual responses and things that can be done to calm your child when he/she becomes upset. Having a written document to refer back to will give teachers and others a big head start as they get to know your child!
ECAC’s Student Snapshot serves the same basic purpose as Painting the Big Picture, but it mainly focuses on the most important information that will make the biggest difference for your child. Areas of concern could include things like emotions, communication, sensory issues, medical conditions, academic needs, etc. In addition to teachers and other school staff, ECAC’s Student Snapshot can be shared with childcare providers, summer camp staff, Sunday School teachers, Scout leaders, etc. It provides a description of something that the adult may notice, an explanation of what that probably means, along a suggestion or two. Statements could go something like this:
When you see that I’m not raising my hand to answer questions, I’m probably not confident that my answer would be correct and I don’t want to embarrass myself. You can help by only calling on me when I do raise my hand.
If I ask to use the bathroom in the middle of an activity, it means that I cannot wait until the next break. You can help by letting me go immediately so that I do not have an accident.
If I’ve been having problems with asthma lately and I seem unusually hyperactive, it may be a reaction to the medicine that helps me breathe better. Please try to be patient and find ways to keep me occupied so that I don’t drive you crazy.
Teachers can also share these tools with parents so that they can get to know their students more quickly. It would also send a clear message to parents that you care about their child. Regardless of who reaches out first, sharing important information will help the people in a child’s life work together as a team. This will give the child a much better chance to have a successful experience.
Children with disabilities may get into trouble every now and again, just like other children. When it comes to the discipline of students who have disabilities, public schools have a special obligation to consider the possible role of the child’s disability. There are federal and state laws that provide guidance in this area.
Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 prohibits any program that receives any federal funds from discriminating against an “otherwise qualified” individual based on their disability, when it comes to accessing, participating in, or benefiting from that program. If a student is punished for a behavior that is caused by his disability, that could be considered discrimination. In order to be sure that such discrimination does not happen, schools should take a look at any possible connection between the behavior in question and the student’s disability when making decisions about discipline. Many school systems use a process that is similar to Manifestation Determination Review (MDR) that is described in the Individuals with Disabilities Education Improvement Act of 2004 (IDEA ’04). Each school system must develop its own Section 504 policy so you would need to check with your local school system to learn the details about how the discipline of students with disabilities is handled.
IDEA ’04 and state special education laws, allow school officials to consider the discipline of students who receive special education services on a case-by-case basis. This allows them to consider things like the nature of the child’s disability, the functioning level of the child, the intent of the behavior and other relevant factors. This flexibility is there to help make sure that schools respond to violations of the code of student conduct in an appropriate way, especially when a change in placement is being considered.
If a decision is made to change the placement of a child with a disability (as defined by IDEA), the school must hold an MDR meeting to determine whether the behavior in question was caused by, or had a direct and substantial relationship to the child’s disability. The group, which includes the parent, a representative of the school district, and relevant members of the child’s IEP team, will also consider whether the behavior or violation was the direct result of a failure to properly implement the child’s IEP. If the answer to either of these questions is “yes”, then the behavior is determined to be a manifestation of the child’s disability and the child is returned to his or her previous placement and provided with appropriate positive behavior intervention and supports.
Sometimes the team that conducts the MDR looks too narrowly at the child’s disability. They may only consider the child’s category of eligibility for special education services. Instead, the team should review all relevant information in the child’s special education record, including the child’s IEP, along with teacher observations and any relevant information provided by the parents. As an example, a child’s category of eligibility could be specific learning disability, but consideration of the child’s “disability” should also include possible impacts of ADHD and anxiety disorder diagnoses. The team should look at the whole child as they make a decision about whether the behavior was a manifestation of the child’s disability, just as they should consider the whole child when determining eligibility for special education, or when developing the IEP.
If you are the parent of teen-aged child who receives special education services, you have probably heard about something called Transition to Adulthood. Basically, schools are required to really think about what should happen in the last few years of school to prepare a student with a disability for their adult life. Regardless of whether they plan to go straight into the workforce, go to college or get other training, or continue to work on independent living skills for a while, there are steps that can be taken to make the transition out of high school a smoother one.
Many school systems offer Transition Fairs to provide an opportunity for students and parents to learn more about various options for adult services, post-secondary education and other community resources, all in one place. Sometimes the transition fairs will also include information sessions on topics that range from understanding Social Security benefits to job interview skills. Even if your child has a bit more time before she leaves school, it is always good to know what’s out there and learn what steps you should take, and when to take them.
Unfortunately, some school systems do a better job of getting the word out about transition fairs than others. Some will target certain groups of students and neglect to inform the parents of other students who have IEPs. Students with disabilities who spend most of their time in the general education setting often don’t get notices about a transition fair that may be going on in their community. Spring is the time of year when many of these transition fairs take place. If you haven’t heard about any in your area, ask your child’s special education teacher, case manager, guidance counselor, or the transition coordinator for your school system. Even if there are no plans to hold a transition fair this year, your questions may give them the idea to have one next year. It’s a win either way.
As the parent of a child with a disability, your first responsibility is to make sure your child gets the healthcare, support and education that meets his or her needs. Participating as an active and effective member of your child’s IEP team, and forming good working relationships with the staff at your child’s school are key ways to accomplish this. However, there are decisions that are made on lots of different levels that also can impact your child’s education and opportunity to be fully involved in their community. Think about how you might be able to influence some of those decisions in a positive way.
- School Improvement Teams and Parent/Teacher Organization- You can make sure that school building-level decisions take students with disabilities (SWD) into consideration. Decisions about equipment purchases, school activities and even procedures for communicating with parents can make a difference in whether SWD are looked at as an equal part of the school community or are overlooked altogether.
- School district Parent Advisory Boards- Parents have an opportunity to discuss issues, solve problems and do future planning with special education administrators at the same table.
- Local School Board- They set policies that apply to the whole school district and also approve budgets for how funds will be spent. Most school board meetings provide a time for public input, and Board members can be contacted individually as well. You can express an opinion, point out a problem, or even ask for their assistance.
- Task Forces- From time to time school systems or other governmental entities will create a task force to address a particular issue. These groups are usually made up of a variety of stakeholders. Most of the time there is an opportunity for parents or citizens to volunteer to participate on them.
- State legislators and the State Board of Education make critical decisions about funding, curriculum, staff qualifications, graduation requirements, public preschool programs, discipline rules, and so much more. Join an email list that will allow you to keep up with things that are being proposed, so that you have a chance to offer your input before the decision is a done deal.
- Get involved with local support and advocacy groups. There is power in numbers and this is also a way to share information about things that may be important to you or your child.
These are just a few examples of ways that you can make your voice heard and make sure that the people with the power to make decision think about how those decisions may impact people who have disabilities. So tune in, look around, ask questions and step up to make a difference in how the system works. Don’t watch things happen. Make things happen!