Category Archives: Advocacy

Consider the whole child when disciplining students with disabilities at school

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.

It’s Transition Fair time!

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.

You can have influence beyond the IEP Team

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!

Look beyond the school building for resources

We often have to remind parents of children who receive special education services that it is the school district as a whole that is responsible for providing a free appropriate public education (FAPE) for their child. They are not limited to the resources within their child’s specific school building. This would seem like a no-brainer, but it is surprising how often that detail is missed when an IEP team or other school staff are trying to address the needs of a student who has a disability.

School staff will sometimes only think about the personnel that is currently assigned to that school when they are considering instructional strategies, adult-to-child support, equipment and assistive technology, behavioral interventions and supports, etc. Sometimes good ideas are dismissed because “we don’t have the resources for that.” Lack of resources is not a legitimate reason to fail to meet a child’s educational needs, but it is also a reality that resources are not unlimited.

One of the qualifications to serve as the LEA Representative on an IEP team, is for that individual to have knowledge of the resources of the entire school district or Local Education Agency (LEA). The LEA Representaive should be able to tell the team about LEA staff with special expertise who can be brought in as consultants who can provide ideas, training or help create a plan of action. Behavior Specialists and Psychologists can lead the functional behavior assessment (FBA) process and help develop positive behavior support plans. Reading specialist can help identify which reading program might be a better fit for a particular student. Specialists can also help staff better understand a particular disability, how it may impact the child in question, and offer research-based interventions and strategies that have been proven to be effective. Many school systems have staff who can conduct assistive technology assessments and help identify devices or equipment that might be appropriate for a specific child. Other specialist have much to contribute as well.  Somebody just needs to invite them in!

There may also be specialized programs offered within a school system that not everyone knows about. In a worst-case example of that, there was child who received only very limited home bound services for months due to his behavior. The school had told the parent that they had tried “everything” before removing the child from the school.  After the parent sought help from the Parent Training and Information Center, an IEP meeting was held with several Exceptional Children’s Department central office staff members present.  It turned out that the school district had three different alternative education programs that could have provided this child with a full-time education in a less restrictive setting. These programs were not considered because the people in the school building were not aware of them.

Many state education agencies also offer consultants who can be called on for help, often at no cost to the school district. There may be centralized funds that can be used to meet a student’s disability-related needs. There may also be clinicians and programs available within the local community that can help either during or outside of school hours.

The bottom line is that school teams should keep looking and asking questions until they find something that will work for the child.  When they have tried everything in the school building tool box without success, they should go out and get more tools. Giving up or settling for anything less than true FAPE is not an option.

Make sure that your child understands his accommodations

For many students who have disabilities, the accommodations that are provided through their Individualized Educational Program (IEP) or Section 504 Accommodation Plan are extremely important to their school success. The accommodations are the things that are being done in a different way because of the impacts of the child’s disability.  Accommodations could involve changes in the physical environment, school assignments, how the student participates in school activities, instructional materials, how much time a student is given to complete a test or assignment, additional supports, etc.  The range of possible accommodations is mind-blowing, but they are selected based on the unique needs of each individual student.

young student looks at ipad

Children should be told about their accommodations as soon as they are old enough to understand what they are and why they were chosen for them.  Many parents are not comfortable talking to their child about his or her disability.  They worry that it might negatively impact the child’s self-esteem. This concern suggests that the child is unaware that they have a disability.  Even if the child does not know the name of a “condition” that they may have been diagnosed with, most kids are very aware of the things that they have trouble with.  They know that it’s harder for them to write neatly, read, do math, remember things, see the board, walk fast, speak clearly, and so on. If they do have a diagnosis, learning that there’s a reason for why they struggle with certain things can come as a big relief.  Even if there is no diagnosis or other explanation for why, it is generally helpful to have others at least acknowledge that things are difficult, and that it’s not their fault.

Talk to your child about how each accommodation is expected to help and how it should be implemented.  Explain that sometimes a teacher or other school staff member might not be aware of the accommodations. Talk to him about how to handle situations where an accommodation is not provided. Discuss or role play what your child can do or say to let the adult know that he is supposed to have extra time, be moved into a separate room for a test, etc.  Let your child know that it is also important for him to tell you when accommodations are not followed. You want to be able to address any problems as soon as possible.

Speaking with your child about her accommodations also gives her a chance to tell you about what is, and is not, working for her.  It could be time to take another look at different ways that your child’s needs can be met, and maybe see if another accommodation would be more appropriate at this point.  IEPs and 504 Plans are fluid documents and student input can sometimes make the difference between whether you have a document that looks good on paper, or one that actually works for your child.

Having these conversations, and preparing your child to handle “what if…” situations, can help your child learn how to effectively advocate for himself.  That is an important life skill that he needs to start learning as early as possible.

 

Back to school: Look closely at your child’s class schedule

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 level1 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.

Let’s Get Physical (Education)!

In most states physical education is part of the standard school-age curriculum.  In North Carolina, all students in kindergarten through 8th grade have physical education at least once per week, with daily opportunity for other outside activity.  Students who have disabilities are also expected to participate in some form of physical education.

Some students have disabilities that require some accommodations in order for them to successfully participate in a typical physical education (PE) class.  Other students require specially designed physical education, based on the unique needs associated with their disability.  If the student has an Individualized Education Program (IEP) the goals for special physical education (sometimes called “Adapted PE”) will be determined by the IEP team, just like goals for other academic or functional skills.  Needed accommodations for physical education will also be documented on the IEP or Section 504 Accommodation Plan.

While this seems pretty straight-forward, there are a couple of specific situations that were unclear enough that guidance was sought from the U.S. Department of Education.  In both cases, the children involved were at an age or grade where physical education was not an automatic part of the regular education program for students without disabilities.

Most high school students are only required to take one physical education class in order to meet graduation requirements.  The high school may offer additional PE classes as electives, but those classes are not required.  In most public preschool programs the children will usually have the opportunity for play and outdoor activity, but it is not part of a structured physical education program.

Does this mean that school systems do not have to provide physical education services for students who have disabilities in preschool, or after the PE graduation requirement has been met?  As with most things having to do with students who have disabilities, the short answer to that question is, “it depends.”

The U.S. Department of Education issued two letters in 2013 which clearly made the point that, if a student with a disability has an IEP that calls for specially designed physical education as a way to meet their unique needs, the school system must provide that service, either directly or through another public or private program.  The letters further clarify that, in this situation, the right to a free appropriate public education, in conformity with the IEP, would include special physical education regardless of the location where most of the student’s services are delivered.  Even students who participate in a community-based transition program would be entitled to special physical education services if it is listed on their IEP.

Ultimately, the decision about whether a student with a disability requires specially-designed physical education rests with the IEP team.  The IEP team is also responsible for determining the accommodations that will allow a student with a disability to participate successfully in a PE elective course, whether that course is taken out of interest or as a way to maintain an adequate degree of fitness.  The school district’s responsibility is to implement the IEP.  It’s really not that complicated after all.

 

Don’t forget to plan for non-academic school time!

Part of the excitement of going back to school is thinking about the fun parts of the school experience.  Many children look forward to playing with friends during recess, having lively conversations at lunchtime or on the school bus, and field trips that bring history, art and science up close and personal.  Many schools also offer extra-curricular activities that range from sports, music, and drama to special interest or service clubs. It is through these activities that many students form lasting friendships, discover gifts and talents, or gain experiences that help prepare them for future careers.

Students that have disabilities should be encouraged to consider becoming actively involved in all parts of school life. By law (Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973), they should be given an equal opportunity to participate, but sometimes that message is not clearly communicated to the students, or to the adults that make the extra-curricular activities possible.  In some schools, notices about club sign-ups, team tryouts or driver’s education courses are not even distributed in the special education classrooms.  It’s hard to make a choice when you don’t know what the options are.

School staff may need to be more intentional in their effort to publicize these opportunities throughout the entire student population.  Parents can also ask about what’s going on at their child’s school and the process for becoming involved if their child has an interest in a particular activity.

Some students with disabilities may need accommodations, assistive technology or other supports to successfully participate in their chosen extra-curricular activity. They may also need accommodations for some of the non-academic parts of the regular school day.  IEP teams and 504 committees sometimes overlook these times when they are discussing the child’s educational needs. In some cases, this amounts to a missed opportunity to enhance the child’s school experience by supporting them through their disability-related challenges, or continue to work on IEP goals in a non-classroom setting. For other children, such an oversight can set them up for avoidable social or behavioral difficulties.

The good news is that IEPs and Section 504 accommodation plans are living documents that can be revised whenever the need to do so arises.  Teachers, coaches and other adults also have the freedom to make many accommodations on their own when they identify a need for them.  It almost goes without saying that a child may need different types of support for different activities.

The I’m Tyler video http://imtyler.org/index.php/video/  does a powerful job of making the point that students with disabilities are capable of participating in a wide range of activities when the adults around them focus more on what they can do than on what they can’t do.  A little effort, imagination and open-mindedness goes a very long way toward giving students with disabilities the chance that they deserve to experience each day as full members of their school and larger communities.

Dissecting a Victory

So many parents will be able to relate to your experience. Beautifully written!

autismblues

So today was the big day. We had our eligibility meeting at the school to determine if our fourth child, a third-grader, qualified as being on the autism spectrum according to the school district’s definitions. And I’m happy to report that the IEP team (consisting of the school psychologist, the speech therapist, our son’s teacher, the assistant principal, our private psychologist, and Katie and me) all agreed that he met the district’s criteria for being identified as ASD.

A Good Day.

On one level, not much has changed as a result of this new designation. He is still receiving the same services he received under his previous designation as “Language Impaired.” We’ll revisit his Individualized Education Plan later in the school year to see if he needs more help than he’s currently receiving.

But having him identified as being on the autism spectrum is also a safeguard for the future…

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Don’t let YOUR disappointment cause your child to fail!

As parents, we are convinced that we know what’s best for our child, or at least what they need.  When it comes to school, we may have very strong opinions about how our child learns best, how much structure they need, what kind of teacher they would work well with, what kind of classroom setting would work, or the amount of support that they need.  This is especially true for children with disabilities who may require an Individualized Education Program (IEP) and specially designed instruction to meet their unique needs.  Wouldn’t it be simpler if we could just tell the school what to do?

Unfortunately (or maybe fortunately in some cases), that’s not how educational decisions are made.  Parents have a voice in developing their child’s IEP, but they do not have the power to control the decisions of the IEP team.  The IEP team may decide to agree or disagree with any suggestion that a parent makes.  Other decisions, such as school assignment, teacher assignment, curriculum, school bell schedule, and graduation requirements are usually made with no input from parents at all.

make lemonade out of lemonsIt is sometimes difficult to accept decisions that you honestly feel are not in your child’s best interest.  But, if you want your child to have a fighting chance to be successful in a less-than-ideal situation, you will need to be careful about the spoken and unspoken messages that you send your child.  If she hears you using catastrophic language and talking a lot about how terrible things are going to be at school, it will be very difficult for her to expect to have a good experience.

I worry about children who spend all summer listening to their parent wage battle after battle in a losing effort to overturn some school-related decision. Maybe they wanted their child to be promoted, or maybe they wanted to keep them at the same grade instead of being “pushed through” to the next one.  Maybe they wanted to keep their child with the same effective or caring teacher as last year, or maybe they wanted to get away from one that they felt was not a good match for their child.  Maybe they wanted their child at the neighborhood school, but the special education class that he needs is at another school, or maybe they were hoping to transfer out of a school with a bad reputation or one that was in the wrong part of town.  Maybe their request for an important accommodation, piece of assistive technology, or one-on-one support person was denied.  Whatever the issue is, the child may have heard or overheard the parent repeatedly talking about how awful it was going to be for their child if _________ did or didn’t happen.  Some parents even promise their children that,”I’m not going to let them do this to you.” What happens to your child if you lose your battle and things don’t go the way you want?

It is great, and often necessary for parents to advocate for their child’s education.  However, there is a right way to do it and a point at which you need to shift your focus toward helping your child accept and be comfortable with the situation that they will walk into when they return to school.  To the extent that you can, keep you child out of your conflict with the school. Try to have conversations when you know that your child (or his/her siblings) is not going to hear you or see your look of frustration afterward.  Communicating with the school in writing helps with the first part of that suggestion, but you still must watch your body language and what you say to others about the situation.

If it becomes clear that you have a less than 70% chance of getting what you want for your child, then you should make a deliberate effort to help your child be open-minded about what might happen in the future.  Every option has pros and cons.  Try to think and talk about some possible positives of  things going the other way. For example, if your transfer request was turned down, you can talk about the shorter bus ride, the friend from last year that will be at that school, the fact that the school is newer, has a better playground, or the fact that your child already knows their way around the building.  If your child was retained, you can talk about how this will give him a chance to catch up with his skills and be a much stronger student when he does move on to the next grade, the fact that he can still spend time with his friends outside of class, or how he will have a head start on his classmates because he won’t be hearing everything for the first time.

Even while you are hoping for the best, you should prepare your child for the worst.  Do your very best to help your child go into the next school year with hope that things will go well.  Continue to work on academic, organizational or social skills over the summer to help your child become a stronger student.  Look for ways that you can work with the school to create a successful experience for your child, even if things didn’t exactly go the way you wanted them to.  Helping your child develop resilience, the ability to bounce back from hardship, will be a greater gift than smoothing out every potential bump in the road to adulthood.  You know what they say, “when life gives you lemons, make lemonade.”  What you definitely don’t want, is to have your child go to school looking and feeling like he just sucked on a giant lemon!