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.
This is the time of year when one school year winds down and we 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. Or maybe your child is facing a more dramatic transition such as:
- Starting Preschool for the first time
- Entering Kindergarten
- Moving from Elementary to Middle School
- Beginning High School
It’s 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 be other steps that can be taken to help make this transition a smooth one.
Most importantly, stay positive and help your child feel good about the upcoming school year!
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.
Most of the time I think of parents as my primary audience when writing an Ask ECAC blog post. This time I would like to “flip the script” and address the educators and other professionals who have a lot of influence on the type of experience parents have as they participate in their child’s education. First, I’ll share a personal anecdote and then I’ll offer a few ideas that I think might make a positive difference for many parents.
When my son started high school there were several indications that things were not going to go as smoothly as they had with his older sister. The first clue was his class schedule that had everything wrong except for the PE class. Apparently the school had made the assumption that, because my son had an IEP, he needed to be placed in the lowest level courses that were available. There were a couple of bumps after that, but let’s fast forward to October when I received an Invitation to Conference notice about his upcoming IEP annual review meeting.
There was a name on the list of invitees that neither me nor my son recognized. When I asked his EC case manager who that person was, she responded, “That’s the regular education teacher that we use for IEP meetings.” It was clear that she was not prepared when I suggested that it would be better to invite at least one of the seven regular education teachers that had him in their class. When I later came to the school for the IEP meeting, the case manager had actually left the school grounds and two of the teachers had to leave before she returned. She started circulating the signature page of the IEP while we were still on page one. When she asked why I didn’t sign it and pass it along, I explained that we were not finished developing the IEP. Her reply, “that’s what we’re doing now,” referring to the fact that she was reading the draft that she had prepared, without so much as a pause that would allow anyone else to offer input, let alone invite us to participate. When I asked how case managers were assigned, she was eager to get rid of me as a parent who “asked too many questions.”
The new case manager was a teacher that I knew and loved from her previous work with my daughter. As generally wonderful as she was, I was surprised one day when I came for a scheduled IEP meeting and watched her scramble to find a room and round up the appropriate staff. I didn’t say anything, but she responded to my very expressive face by saying that, “you have to realize that only about 20% of parents come to IEP meetings.” I was shocked to hear this because I know that 99% of parents care about their kids and want what’s best for them. How could it be that so few of them come to high school IEP meetings?!
Admittedly without having conducted peer-reviewed research on the matter, I utilized my 25 years of experience working with parents to come to the conclusion that the poor attendance rate was largely the result of the experiences that the parents had up to that point. Many of these parents had been trained to believe that their input wasn’t needed or welcome. They showed up at meetings only to be read to and handed copies of a document that they really did not help create. When they made suggestions, most of them were shot down for reasons that they did not understand or agree with. Some of the IEPs have become so repetitive and/or generic that the meeting feels like a mere exercise in compliance. In some cases, there are parents whose children exhibit behavioral challenges, who have grown weary of hearing about how terrible their child is, or worse, made to feel like people consider them to be a lousy parent. Who would take time out of their life and make the effort to go the school for that?
If you are reading this, you are probably one of the good guys who try very hard to not do the things that I mentioned. However, you may know folks who have gotten into some bad habits, or you may be in a position to have a positive influence on staff that are involved with IEP meetings by raising awareness and cultivating good habits using formal (e.g. staff development) and informal (e.g. modeling, peer-mentoring) strategies. Parents will engage in the IEP process if they feel valued! Some very obvious “Don’ts” are imbedded in the text above.
Here are some “Do’s” that should help staff establish and maintain a productive working relationship with parents, based on mutual respect:
- At the beginning of the school year, initiate communication with parents so that know who you are, what role you play in their child’s education, and how they can reach you. Clearly express that you want to hear from them if there are questions, concerns or information that they feel you should know regarding their child.
- When you are planning for an IEP meeting, let parents know what is on the agenda (sometimes the check boxes don’t provide enough information for a parent to really know what to expect). Ask parents if they have any additional matters that they would like to discuss or people that they want to have invited.
- Make sure that enough time is allotted for the meeting so that important discussion isn’t curtailed and the meeting doesn’t feel rushed. Nothing says, “I don’t care” like starting a meeting with, “we only have 20 minutes so let’s move on.”
- Allow a few minutes for the parent to tell you about their child and what they think makes him special and unique. It not only helps the parent feel that you truly care about that child, but may also reveal information that could be useful to the IEP team and others who work with him/her.
- Send the parent a draft of the IEP proposals in advance of the meeting and invite them to think about any changes or additions that they would like to see. This gives the parent time to digest what is proposed, get clarification if needed, and come into the meeting with the same information as everyone else. Remember, information is power, so share it.
- Pause at the end of each chunk of the IEP, look at the other team members (make eye contact with the parent) and ask if anyone has any comments or suggestions. At points you can shorten this to a pause, look around and “Is this okay?”, but you want to set the tone with very deliberate invitations for parent input–not just with the parts of the IEP that require it.
- Recognize that the parent knows their child best and regard the information that they share as data that has as much value as the data generated by school staff. If there are important discrepancies between how the parent describes their child’s skills or behavior and what is seen at school, rather than declare that the only thing that matters is what happens at school, try to find an explanation. This could lead to a better understanding of the child and more effective educational planning.
- Be open to the parent’s ideas for accommodations, modifications, supports or strategies. Even if there seem to be some problems with the original suggestion, an earnest discussion about why the parent thought that it was a good idea can lead to another suggestion that the team can reach consensus on. That would feel so much better than simply being told “No.”
Just as negative experiences can discourage parents from attending IEP meetings, positive experiences can get them back in the game. The stakes are too high to simply allow parents to sit on the sidelines. The right coaching and teamwork can lead to the result that everyone wants: the child wins!
Our federal special education law, IDEA, requires that a re-evaluation occur every three years for all students who receive special education services. This does not mean that every child has to go through the full battery of tests and assessments that were done when the child was first evaluated to see if they eligible for special education services. What it does mean is that the IEP team must have a discussion about whether additional evaluation information is needed to determine:
- If the student continues to be eligible for special education and related services;
- Present level of academic achievement and developmental needs;
- Whether changes need to made to the student’s special education and/or related services.
If some additional assessment information is needed, the IEP team then decides the areas in which the child will be evaluated. The re-evaluation can include some or all of the initial testing, or may include new areas where there are concerns. if the parent gives permission, the school will move forward with the evaluations. The IEP team will meet again to discuss the evaluation results and what they mean for planning the child’s education.
When the re-evaluation meeting happens in high school, the team often decides that no evaluation is needed. This can cause problems later if the young person tries to access adult services or accommodations with outdated documentation of their disability. For example, most colleges will only accept evaluations that have been conducted within the last three years. Some will want the evaluation to be current within one year in order to consider accommodations for a student that has a specific learning disability. Students who are seeking accommodations on tests like the SAT and ACT also have to provide current documentation of their disability.
Another reason to think about conducting some evaluations in 8th grade or high school is to gather information that could assist with planning for the student’s transition to adulthood. Students who have an IEP that meets their needs in a typical school situation may need to learn new skills in order to function as independently as possible as an adult. having current information about the student’s skills and functioning can help the student and IEP team identify appropriate post-secondary goals and the transition services and activities that could help the student reach those goals. Occupational therapy, assistive technology, and vocational evaluations may be important for some students as the focus shifts from how the student participates in the classroom to how they can access and function within the larger community. The evaluation results may impact several parts of the IEP.
Do not allow the re-evaluation meeting to become a compliance exercise. Have real discussion about how obtaining additional assessment information about that particular student might be truly beneficial. Also remember that, even if the rest of the IEP team does not feel that new evaluation information is necessary, the school is required to conduct the evaluation if the parent requests it.