Worried that your child may be retained?

Mother and daughter using smart phoneAt this very moment, many parents are very worried about the possibility that their child might be required to repeat their current grade. Many of these parents have received one or more letters notifying them that their child was at risk for retention because they were not meeting grade-level expectations for learning. These are often form letters that are sent automatically based on the child’s performance on academic testing done at several points during the school year. In many schools, the warning letters do not take into account that the student may have an identified disability.

With only a couple of exceptions, North Carolina’s public school law gives principals sole authority to determine what grade a student is assigned to. The exceptions include 3rd grade, when the Read to Achieve law mandates retention of any child who does not demonstrate “proficient” (grade level) reading skills on the End-of-Grade (EOG) assessment. Principals can request a “good cause exemption” for students who meet certain criteria. Students who have Individualized Education Programs (IEPs) based on disabilities that impact reading are eligible for such an exemption. The tricky thing about this is that the principal is not required to request the exemption. They can still choose to retain students who have this kind of disability. In high school, students are assigned to a grade based on the number and type of course credits they have earned. However, a high school principal can decide to assign a student to a homeroom that is different from the grade shown on their official transcript.

Parents do not have to just sit and wait anxiously for that last report card. There are things that they can do to try to help their child.

If you get a letter in January or February warning you about possible retention, you can contact your child’s teacher(s) to get more information about why the letter was sent. If your child is not learning at the expected rate, you can ask about what actions have been, or can be taken, to help them make more progress. For a child who does not have an IEP, this might mean starting or intensifying research-based interventions as part of a multi-tiered system of support (MTSS).

If your child has disability and receives supports as part of a Section 504 Accommodation Plan, you might want to consider asking for an evaluation to see if the child now needs special education services. If your child already has an IEP, you can request an IEP Team meeting to consider making adjustments to instruction and/or supports to improve learning.

Under any condition, it would still be a good idea to meet with the school principal to discuss your concerns about possible retention. Most public schools are too large to expect a principal to know each child well. You can discuss potential pros and cons for your child. For example, you can explain why it might make more sense to promote your child to the next grade with targeted supports and services, than to require the child repeat the entire curriculum of his/her current grade. You can also take that opportunity to share additional information about your child that the principal can consider as he/she makes their decision.

The principal does have the authority to make the final decision about retaining or promoting your child. However, you can try to influence that decision before it is made. You can also continue to advocate for your child to get the instruction and services that he/she needs next year, regardless of the grade they are assigned.

Get ready for next school year

As one school year winds down, its good to start thinking about the next year. Perhaps you have a child who will simply be moving from one grade to another in the same school. Maybe your child is facing a more dramatic transition such as:

  • Starting Preschool for the first time
  • Entering KindergartenToday's Preparation... Tomorrow's Success!
  • Moving from Elementary to Middle School
  • Beginning High School

It is time to move from thinking to planning!  Take steps to make this transition as smooth as possible by gathering information about what might be coming up, and sharing important information about your child with the right people.

If your child is staying at the same school, find out what might be different for the coming year (e.g. class size, number of teachers/aides, daily schedule, curriculum, meal times, etc.).  Each of these factors could impact your child and may require some changes in how your child’s needs are met.  You might also want to speak with the Principal about the classroom environment and/or teacher styles that are likely to be successful or unsuccessful for your child.  Hopefully the Principal will use this information to make a good match when class assignments are made.

If your child is moving to a new school, you will still want to know the things mentioned above, PLUS:

  • Visit the new school to check out the physical layout and ask about a typical day
  • Think about any possible barriers or challenges that your child might have in the new setting
  • If your child is entering middle or high school, ask about required courses and any options that may exist. Some courses are offered at multiple difficulty levels, and there may be other ways to help make sure that your child gets a course schedule that will work for him/her
  • Request a transition IEP meeting to discuss and make decisions about any changes that may be needed in the accommodations, modifications, supports, services and/or goals
  • For many children, it is helpful for them to have an opportunity to walk through the new school and possibly see their classroom(s) and meet their teacher(s) sometime before school starts. There may also be other steps that you can to help make this transition a smooth one.

Most importantly, stay positive and help your child feel good about the upcoming school year!

Think about summer camps NOW!

Camp Drop Off sign

Many parents are so busy trying to get their child through the school year successfully that they do not think about possible summer activities until summer is almost here. By then, many camps and programs have already filled up. Parents may find themselves in a mad scramble to find ways to keep their child occupied. My biggest tip for parents, especially parents of children with disabilities or special healthcare needs, is to start searching and planning as early as possible!

If you find a program that seems right for your child, but no space is available for this year, find out when you should contact them about enrollment for next year. You can also ask to be put on their email list, if they have one. Use calendars and any other tools that work for you to set up a future reminder.

Each year the Family Support Program at the University of North Carolina School of Social Work creates a directory of summer camps and programs for children who have various disabilities. The 2018 Summer Camp Directory also includes tips for conducting your search and questions to ask to make sure that the program is a good match for your child. In some larger communities a local newspaper, parent magazine or other organization create similar listings of summer camps, programs and activities in that area.

Many local Departments of Parks and Recreation offer summer day camps, and some have “therapeutic recreation” programs designed specifically for children and youth with disabilities.  However, regular camp programs supported by public funds have an obligation to make reasonable accommodations that would make it possible for many children with disabilities to participate in their program.  Some of the Y’s are also making a deliberate effort to be more accommodating of children with special needs.

Call around, talk to friends and acquaintances, check out public libraries, museums, movie theaters, bowling alleys, skate rinks, churches, public and private schools, tourist attractions, scouts, 4-H clubs, etc. for summer offerings that might be of interest to your child.  Parents often have to create a patchwork quilt of activities in order to keep children constructively occupied throughout the summer.  At home, consider using educational websites, software and activity books to keep the young minds active and skills from being lost.  Many disability-related websites also offer summer tips.

The key message is to start planning early… really early! That is when you will have the most options and a chance at getting financial assistance, if needed.  With planning, your child can go from having a ho-hum summer to a truly great one!

“School Safety” and Students with Disabilities

Columbine, Newtown and now Parkland. We knew this would happen… again.  The tragic shooting at the high school in Parkland, Florida was bound to trigger heightened sensitivity to anyone and anything that seems to be even remotely threatening.  While we should all be thinking about what can be done to keep our schools safe, we have to be careful that we do not react in a way that produces, rather than prevents, harm to students.

Some students with disabilities are at particular risk of becoming victims of hyper-vigilant policies and practices.  Recently, a distressed parent called because her son’s school was planning to conduct a “threat assessment” on her son after he drew pictures of guns during class.  My guess is that this was not a new behavior for that child, but it was now considered to be a potential threat after being viewed through post-Parkland “school safety” lenses.  This child had been diagnosed with an Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) and the parent was (rightfully) worried about what he might say when questioned by the school’s guidance counselor and principal.  There are several things about that situation that raise questions, but I will approach the topic at hand with recommendations rather than criticism.

The very first thing to do is talk to your children about school safety concerns and how the behavior of individuals can be seen as a sign of problems or threats.  We want them to recognize danger when they see it. We also want them to avoid doing things that others may see as dangerous. Even if the child does not fully understand why someone would consider their comment, joke, writings or drawings to be threatening, you have to give them specific examples of behavior to avoid.  Mention or representations of guns, knives, bombs, explosions, killing, etc., are topics to be avoided just about every place except home.  Even if the child is studying a particular time of war in a history class, they should limit their comments to the specific questions being asked. For example: DO NOT speculate about what could have happened if the good guys had a super hand-held weapon that could wipe out hundreds of people with the press of a button).  We can encourage other forms of imagination, as well as broader interests for those children who seem preoccupied by violent themes.

If you have a child that likes to carry or use a pocket knife, sticks, rocks or anything else that could be considered to be a weapon, check their pockets and backpacks frequently to make sure that they don’t accidentally or intentionally end up bringing something to school that will get them in trouble.  Keep in mind, when weapons, drugs or serious bodily injury are involved in a disciplinary situation, a student can be moved into an interim alternative educational setting even when the behavior is found to be a manifestation of the child’s disability!  Such removal is not required though, and school administrators have the authority to look at each incident on a case-by-case basis. You may need to remind them of that.

Be proactive! Review your school system’s Code of Conduct and disciplinary/school safety policies.  If you see glaring problems with the policies, address them with your School Board. If the policies include the possibility of a required “threat assessment”, make sure that the assessment must be done by qualified individuals with expertise in mental health and any identified disabilities that a child may have. Even if your school system’s policy does not clearly state such a requirement, you should raise the issue if your child becomes involved in this type of situation.  Some disabilities can impact the child’s ability to truly understand the questions that will be asked during this type of assessment, and how his answers might be interpreted by others.  The disability may also have contributed to the behavior itself.

Those making decisions about how to respond to a potential threat should have enough knowledge and experience to understand all of the factors involved, and take actions that are appropriate to each specific situation.  One-size-fits-all does not work for special education, and it also does not work for discipline or school safety!

What happened to the EC teacher in middle school?

When IEP teams plan for a student’s transition from elementary to middle school, many parents are surprised to find out that their child’s special education services are going to be quite different. Children who have had pullout resource services for years may suddenly be expected to survive in general education core courses without any dedicated special education support time. It is a challenge to explain this reality to parents, while still making them aware of the IDEA requirement that a full continuum of services be made available so that IEP teams can decide what is most appropriate for each child.

There was a time when middle schools had sections of core academic subjects that were taught by special education teachers. These classes typically followed the standard course of study, but the smaller class size allowed the teacher to move at a pace that  students could handle, and to explain concepts in a variety of ways. This worked for a lot of children.

No Child Left Behind (NCLB) changed all of this with its definition of “highly qualified teacher” and requirement that core courses in middle and high schools could only be taught by a teacher who was highly qualified in that specific academic subject. Before NCLB, North Carolina, as did many states, certified special education teachers in “special education” and not each separate academic subject.  Under NCLB in-service teachers had to take specific steps in order to be declared “highly qualified” in a core subject. To make matters worse, one of the options that North Carolina had developed to accomplish this  was rejected by the U.S. Department of Education after many teachers had completed that process. All of this led to a shortage of special education teachers who were available to teach core subjects at the secondary school level.

The solution that most school systems came up with was to have general education teachers serve as the “teacher of record” for these core courses, while having a special education teacher also in the room to provide extra support for students who needed it. These courses are generally referred to as “co-taught” or “inclusion classes.” Most middle schools offer such courses in English Language Arts and Math. Some schools also include Science and Social Studies.

There is no one-size-fits-all when it comes to special education. The inclusion classes meet the needs of some students, while others continue to need additional support. Many schools also offer “curriculum assistance” or “resource support” classes as elective courses. (The actual class titles vary from one school district to the another.) These classes are taught by special education teachers who often introduce study skills, along with other content and strategies that are useful for most of the students to know. However, the chief benefit of these smaller classes is that they provide an opportunity for students to get extra help with their general education coursework as well as their IEP goals.

No Child Left Behind is no longer the law of the land, yet many schools continue to deliver special education services the same as they have for years. Schools and parents  should be aware that the new federal Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) provides room for a wider variety of ways that special education students can be served.

As parents begin to think about their child moving on to middle school, they should consider making contact with staff at the middle school to discuss the existing options. However, they should also keep in mind that if those options do not meet their child’s needs, they can challenge the IEP team and the school system to create additional options. With more choices, IEP teams have a much greater opportunity to create an educational program that will meet each individual student’s unique needs. At the end of the day, that is what special education is all about.

 

Understanding the role of the LEA Representative

In many IEP meetings one of the school system staff members is introduced as “the LEA” without further explanation. If there is a lot of discussion and debate around an issue, it will often appear that this LEA has more influence than most other members of the IEP team. This may not seem fair to parents, who usually are outnumbered in the first place. However, it is important to understand that the LEA Representative does have a unique role in the IEP process.

First, let’s clear up some education jargon. LEA is short for Local Education Agency. Each individual school system that has a central administrator, usually known as the Superintendent, and School Board is actually a distinct LEA. Some LEAs are county-wide, some just cover a particular city, and some are public charter schools. Charter schools will typically have a Board of Directors rather than an elected School Board, and their central administrators have a variety of job titles, such as Headmaster, Dean or Principal.

IEP teams are required to include someone who can represent the LEA. The person who serves in the role of LEA Representative must meet certain criteria:

  • Be qualified to provide, or supervise the provision of special education instruction;
  • Be knowledgeable about the general education curriculum; and
  • Have knowledge of the resources available to that LEA.

Every student with a disability who qualifies for special education services must be provided with a free appropriate public education (FAPE). It is the LEA (school system) that has the responsibility for delivering FAPE to its students. It is also the LEA that is held accountable when that does not happen.

To a large extent, the contents of an IEP define what FAPE looks like for that particular student. This makes the decisions of the IEP team extremely important and legally binding. IEP team decisions are expected to be based on data and the input of every member of the team. Most of the time IEP teams are eventually able to reach decisions that everyone can live with. That’s called reaching a consensus. If the team fails to reach consensus about a relatively minor issue, the matter may be put on hold until more information can be gathered.

When the IEP team cannot come to agreement about a really important proposal, the LEA Representative has the authority to make the decision. This allows the team to move forward with finalizing the IEP so that the student can be served. Having a clear decision also gives the parent the right to formally challenge that decision through one of the options available for resolving special education disputes. Those options are detailed in the Procedural Safeguards Notice* that is often referred to as the “Parent Rights Handbook.” Parents should be given a copy of the handbook at least once each year, but they can ask for a copy at any time.

In rare cases, individuals who serve as the LEA Representative over-use their decision making authority and the IEP team is not able to function properly. If this happens, a higher-level special education administrator should be notified so that corrective action can be taken.

* North Carolina Parent Rights and Responsibilities

What are surrogate parents?

Our federal special education law places a lot of importance on the role of the parent in decision making. It is understood that parents’ number one priority is looking out for the best interest of their child. But what happens to those children who don’t have a parent who can speak on their behalf?

First, let’s look at how the Individuals with Disabilities Education Improvement Act of 2004 defines “parent.”

  • A biological or adoptive parent of a child;
  • A foster parent, unless state law, regulations, or contractual obligations…prohibit a foster parent from acting as a parent (e.g. therapeutic foster parent);
  • A guardian generally authorized to to act as the child’s parent or authorized to make educational decisions;
  • An individual, with whom the child lives, acting in the place of a biological or adoptive parent, or an individual legally responsible for the child’s welfare; or
  • A surrogate parent who has been appointed in accordance with IDEA ’04

For children who are wards of the State, or for whom no parent can be identified or located, or unaccompanied homeless youth, a trained volunteer must be appointed  by the public school system, or local education agency (LEA), to protect the rights of the child in special education processes. The LEA has to develop a procedure to identify children who may need a surrogate parent, and a way to assign surrogate parents to those children. For children who are wards of the State, the judge overseeing their case also has authority to appoint a surrogate parent.

Surrogate parents are involved in the same decisions that require parent participation. This includes decisions related to evaluation, determining eligibility for special education services, development and review/revision of the Individualized Education Program (IEP), educational placement and the provision of a free appropriate pubic education (FAPE). Surrogate parents also participate in the Manifestation Determination Review meetings that look at the possible role of disability when students are facing disciplinary changes in placement.

Surrogate parents must have sufficient knowledge and skills to adequately represent the child so many LEAs provide training to volunteers. Surrogate parents have access to the child’s educational records and should be expected to have some familiarity with the child and his/her needs before attending an IEP or other school meeting.

Good surrogate parents provide an important service to children that may have no other adult who can stand up and speak up for them when critical decisions are made about their education. If you, or someone you know has the time and flexibility to volunteer as a surrogate parent, please consider this as a great way to make a real difference in the life of a child who is facing multiple life challenges in addition to having a disability.

 

Is your child in the right courses?

For students in middle and high school it is extremely important for parents to keep up with the courses that they are taking. The classes should offer the right amount of challenge (not too easy, not too hard). They should be preparing your child for whatever their goals are for life after high school. More importantly, the courses need to be chosen so that they meet the graduation requirements for your school system. With many schools using computer programs to create schedules for students, it’s not hard for the needs of individual students to be overlooked.

For many students who have disabilities, course selection is even more critical. For some students it will be important to make sure that they are placed in the course sections that are co-taught by both regular education and special education teachers. This can offer real-time assistance and support to help students be successful with grade-level material. The co-taught classes can be selected in the areas most likely impacted by the student’s disability. Sometimes the assumption is made that, because the student has an IEP, they should automatically be placed in the lowest level course available. This approach would keep many students from building on their strengths to reach their full potential. Students who need support in some subjects can also take typical or even honors classes in subjects that are areas of strength for them.

These days, most high schools are using block schedules that cover the entire content of a course during a single semester. It may be important to make sure that the courses that will be most challenging for your child are not all piled into the same semester. With thoughtful planning, the school can create a schedule that spreads the work load out more evenly. For example, your child can take two really hard classes at the same time plus a support class and an elective in an area of interest. This kind of planning from the very beginning will usually allow students to complete all of their graduation requirements within 4 years so they can graduate with their peers. Even if they have to pick up a summer class or return for an extra semester, the goal is that the student experiences success and gains knowledge that will help them throughout their life. The extra time will be well spent.

Parents also need to look out for other kinds of scheduling problems:

  • Make sure that courses are taken in the right sequence. The level 1 course should come before the level 2 course.
  • Make sure that your child is not assigned to a course that they have already successfully completed. With rare exceptions, they will not earn course credit the second time around.
  • Make sure that your child was not placed in an elective course that they have no interest in, or one that is a poor fit, just because there was space in that class. Forcing an extremely shy kid to take a drama class will probably not end well.
  •  Make sure that your child is on track to graduate when expected. Your child could be taking math and science classes that are counted as “electives” that do not meet the graduation requirements for that subject area. If your child comes up short by missing even a single graduation requirement, they will not get a diploma. At least once a year have your child’s guidance counselor review the courses that your child has taken and compare them to the courses required for graduation.

Read your child’s class schedule carefully as soon as you get it.  If you see anything on that doesn’t look right, contact staff at the school immediately.  Go to the school in person if you need to.  The sooner any problems are corrected, the easier it will be for your child, and the better their educational experience will be.

Extended School Year (ESY) services

sunExtended School Year or ESY refers to special education and related services that are provided to eligible students beyond the normal school year, based on the student’s  Individualized Education Program (IEP).  ESY is not summer school! Services  are based on each child’s unique needs, so they range widely in terms of the type of service and how it is delivered.  ESY services are often intended to help the child maintain their skills, not make progress. For example, a child may only get physical therapy, and just enough to maintain their range of motion.

During the development of each new IEP the IEP team must decide if the student is, or is not eligible for ESY services.  In some cases, the team will note that ESY is “under consideration” and a future date will be set for the team to come back together and make a final decision.  This gives the team time to collect data or information about the student’s performance to help them determine eligibility for ESY.

Some of the key things for the IEP team to consider are:

  • Whether the student regresses, or slides backward, during long breaks from instruction, and takes an unusually long time to relearn lost skills, or
  • Whether there is a risk that a long break will erase most of the gain that the student made during the regular school, or
  • Whether the student is showing that they are beginning to learn a critical skill, and the “window of opportunity” might be lost if there are long breaks from instruction.

The great majority of students do not qualify for ESY services.  In many cases, however, the team ends up checking “No” on the IEP simply because they do not have enough information to establish that the student needs ESY services.

It’s probably too late to address ESY for the summer of 2017, but it’s not too late to start gathering information and data that the IEP team can consider at the next annual review.  Save a few samples of your child’s school work to show what they were able to do at the end of the 2016-2017 school year.  Keep progress reports, report cards, behavior reports, communication log, correspondence, assessment results, videos… basically anything that will provide documentation of your child’s functioning in the areas of concern.

Find out what kind of assessments will be done when your child returns to school.  If additional skills need to be measured, ask to have some assessment conducted in those areas.  If there are significant concerns about behavior, try to get next year’s teacher to make  written reports to you about how your child’s behavior has been each day.  Whether the teacher makes a note in the child’s assignment book, or completes a printed check sheet of some sort, this will provide information about your child’s performance over time, so that any patterns can be identified (ex. he/she has more behavioral difficulties after long weekends, or winter and spring breaks).

It’s okay to tell the teacher(s) that you want to make sure that enough data is collected during the year to give the IEP team what it needs to make the right decision about Extended School Year services.  Collect your own data by making notes about things that you observe and comments that are made to you over the course of the school year.  Hold onto (or copy) some of the school work and tests that come home.  Hopefully, what you will see is your child making steady progress.  But you will be better prepared, just in case…

Behavior Intervention Plans should include instruction

When students who have disabilities show a pattern of challenging behavior, schools are encouraged to use positive behavior interventions and supports (PBIS). PBIS is an approach to addressing behavior and not a specific “program.” Individual PBIS seeks to find reasons for why a behavior is happening so that effective strategies can be identified that will meet the needs of each unique student.

Unfortunately, there are still too many schools that do not promote the use of PBIS. It is not uncommon to find Behavior Intervention Plans (BIP) that focus mainly on how the staff will respond to behaviors after they occur. Many of those schools respond to challenging behavior with things like silent lunches, in and out-of-school suspensions, behavior contracts, shortened school days, etc. All of these strategies seem to assume that the child will improve their behavior on their own in order to avoid punishment. These actions may work once in a while, with some students. However, they are not likely to be effective when the behaviors are directly or indirectly related to a child’s disability.

Many students with disabilities have developmental delays and/or weak skills in certain areas. These skill weaknesses, or deficits, can contribute to challenging behavior in many different ways. Children who cannot clearly communicate their wants and needs experience a lot of frustration, and may even resort to challenging behavior just to get someone’s attention. Children who lack the social skills to have positive interactions with other children or make friends, often experience rejection, anger, loneliness and frustration. They may even become anxious and stressed when they are placed in social situations because they expect something to go wrong. Some children use behaviors to hide academic skill weaknesses because they don’t want to look “dumb.” Other students may act out simply because they don’t know what else to do when they are given assignments that they don’t understand.

Those were just a few examples of ways that skill deficits may play a big role in why a child might have challenging behaviors. In order to create lasting change it is important to help the child improve their skills. The IEP team should consider using instruction as an important proactive way to help prevent challenging behaviors from occurring in the first place.

IEP goals can be written to improve academic and functional skills. Some of these skills will need to be worked on for a long time. For more immediate relief, children may need to learn to use assistive technology or other strategies to help make up for their weak skills. Meanwhile, children can also be taught better ways to handle situations that are difficult for them. They can learn new things to say or do that are more appropriate than what they are currently doing. These “replacement behaviors” will allow the child to meet an immediate need. Children can also be taught self-regulation and coping skills so that they can function better in a world where things are not always going to go the way that they would like. A lot of this instruction can happen during real-life activities that offer teachable moments. Other skills can be taught and practiced at times when the student is not under stress.

When students begin to use the new behaviors, they may get a natural reward such as a positive reaction from another child, or being able to get a desired outcome. Adults should be sure to praise or otherwise encourage the child so that they see the new behavior as something that works for them.

Challenging behaviors often have ripple effects that are mostly negative. Viewing those same behaviors as a sign that the child needs some instruction can lead to positive ripple effects such as  higher self-esteem, better relationships with others and improved school performance.