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ECATS is Here!

semi opened laptop computer turned on on table

Photo by Junior Teixeira on Pexels.com

It has taken years of planning and preparation, but the Every Child Accountability and Tracking System (ECATS) is finally operating in all North Carolina public schools that serve students in grades K-12. ECATS is a data system made up of three modules: Special Education, Service Documentation, and Multi-Tiered Systems of Support (MTSS). ECATS provides a way to capture high quality information in a consistent way for a variety of purposes.

The Special Education module will help the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction (NCDPI) better do its job of monitoring and assisting Local Education Agencies (LEAs). The goal is that children with disabilities receive a free appropriate public education in the least restrictive environment. NCDPI also has to collect data and make reports to the U.S. Department of Education.

Changes were made to several special education forms as part of the transition to ECATS. When their child’s Individualized Education Program (IEP) is re-written, parents will notice that some sections of the form have been moved around and/or changed in some way. The new IEP form still contains all of the information required by federal and state laws.

The biggest change is that all of the child’s Present Levels of Academic Achievement and Functional Performance (PLAAFP) statements are clustered together in the one section of the IEP. The new IEP form has a place to list the results of an initial evaluation or re-evaluation, as well as other data. For each skill area included in the evaluation, the IEP Team then has to decide (and document) if the student requires specially designed instruction (i.e., special education) in that area. Sometimes the answer will be “yes,” and sometimes it will be “no.”  For students with existing IEPs, there should be PLAAFP statements for all skill areas where there are concerns.

The Annual Goals are also clustered together, but in a different section that will probably be two or more pages after the PLAAFP. This may make it more challenging to compare the proposed goals with the relevant PLAAFP statements. That comparison helps determine whether the goal is appropriately ambitious, yet reasonable for the student.

Parents can request a hard copy of the draft IEP so they can have the PLAAFP statements in front of them while the annual goals are developed. Other IEP team members may find this helpful as well.

Change happens, but it is easier to accept when you are prepared. If you would like to look at the new Exceptional Children Forms, you can find them here:

https://ec.ncpublicschools.gov/policies/forms/state-forms-directions

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…

Can my child keep OT if we drop his other special education services?

questions-and-answers

Question:

My preschooler has an IEP because of developmental delays. He gets one session of occupational therapy (OT) each week and speech therapy twice a week. A special education teacher also comes to our house twice a week to work with him. I was told that the speech and OT would not continue if the special education instruction was stopped at my request. Is that true?

Answer:

For most children, services such as speech therapy and occupational therapy are considered to be Related Services. Here is the official* definition:

“Related services means transportation, and such developmental, corrective, and other supportive services as are required to assist a child with a disability to benefit from special education.”

Technically, a child does not need a related service if there is no special education service for them to benefit from. This is why stopping the special education instruction would cause your child to also loose the speech and OT services. This does not mean that your child is magically “cured” and no longer has delays in those skill areas.  It does, however, mean that the IEP team will probably not agree to an Individualized Education Program that leaves out the specially designed instruction that qualified your child for services in the first place.

Please note: For children whose category of eligibility for special education is Speech or Language Impairment, speech therapy is their specially designed instruction, not a related service.

If you have specific concerns about the special education service that your child is getting, it would probably be best to express those concerns to see if an acceptable solution can be worked out. For example, if you feel that the instruction is not benefiting your child, or perhaps is focused on the wrong skills, this matter can be discussed with the IEP team. It might be possible to make changes to the annual goals or other sections of the IEP  to make services more effective or more useful. If you have a problem with a particular teacher who works with your child, this would be considered a personnel matter that you can discuss with the Preschool Coordinator for your school system.

If your concerns can be adequately addressed, it should be possible for your child to continue to receive the complete package of services and supports that his IEP team determined were needed for him to receive a free appropriate public education (FAPE). That would be a real win-win situation.

Second Semester, Second Chance

It’s report card time and time to see how the first half of the school year went. If your child’s report card reflects solid grades and good work habits, some sort of celebration is in order. One of my co-workers learned that her daughter earned a 96 in an advanced math class. She offered to buy ice cream, but her daughter wanted her bedroom painted instead.  Fair enough!

If, on the other hand, you were disappointed in your child’s progress or performance, there is still time to turn things around. You and your child can press the reset button by looking for ways to improve on things that you have been doing. Think about changes that can be made on many possible  levels.

  • If your child has poor sleeping habits, try establishing a bed-time routine that gradually steps down the amount of activity and stimulation in the household. A well-rested brain functions better.
  • If your child wastes time in the evening and then stays up late doing homework, set a firm cutoff time to stop working, shut down the computer and place everything in the backpack (which will “live” in a designated spot in another room).  Then start winding things down toward bedtime. Provide prompts and reminders earlier in the evening to serve as fair warning.                            It may take a couple of incomplete assignments or disappointing test grades to get the real message across. Don’t cave in though, because it is essential that students develop good work habits, including learning how to effectively manage their time, if they are going to be able to sustain their success throughout the school and college years. Showing up for class exhausted and inattentive will eventually take its toll. Throwing together projects at the last minute and cramming for tests will also lead to poorer quality results that your child will take less pride in. I know this first-hand from my experience as person who went through school with undiagnosed ADHD.
  • If your child is overwhelmed by an over-packed schedule that doesn’t leave enough time for schoolwork and “down time,” consider taking a break from one of the activities.  Unless your child is talented enough that a sport or cheerleading scholarship is a real possibility, they might be better off burning the candle from only one end. Keep the activities that give them joy, and  set aside those that are on the schedule just because of habit.
  • If your child has an IEP or Section 504 accommodation plan, review it to see if it adequately addresses her current needs. It might be time to update the accommodations and supports to match performance expectations that tend to get higher each year. Get your child’s input so that any changes are going to be ones that they think will be helpful and will cooperate with.
  • Re-establish lines of communication with teachers and other school staff. If your child will have different classes for the 2nd semester, there may be new teachers who may not be aware of his special needs or the fact that you are a concerned and involved parent who expects to be considered an equal part of your child’s educational team. Set a positive tone and let them know that you are looking for this semester to be better than the last one.
  • Look for any other areas where a change for the better might be possible: diet and nutrition, general health and well-being, mental health, organization (personal and/or household), social skills, etc.  Consult with trusted friends, family and professionals to see if they have any suggestions.

If things are going great, keep doing what you are doing.  If not, try something different that might lead to better results. Remember, there can be no growth without change!

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.

Curriculum modifications can go both ways

In order for many students with disabilities to be educated in the general education setting, some adjustments are required as far as what each particular student will learn or be able to do. The student should not be denied the opportunity to be in classrooms with typical children just because modifications are needed. This concept is part of the IDEA requirement that students with disabilities be educated in the least restrictive environment where their needs can be met.

Q: What about children who spend most of their day in an exceptional children’s classroom where their skills are at the top or bottom of the range for that class?

A: The instruction can be modified, as needed, for students within an EC classroom to ensure an appropriate amount of challenge and progress.

The “I” in IEP means that instruction can be individualized to address the unique needs of a student with a disability.  The child’s learning should not be put on hold until lower-functioning classmates catch up.  We expect typical students to make a year’s worth of progress over a year of school. We should also expect that students who have disabilities will make as much progress as they are capable of over the course of each school year.  We would be doing the student a disservice if we settled for “some” progress if the child is capable of much more.

If you are the parent of a child in an EC classroom who you feel is not being challenged, try to get as much information as you can about what is being taught in that class.  Ask whether, or how, the lesson planning and instruction accounts for the fact that the students are probably not all on the same level with any of their skills.  The answer to the question should not be that “there is one curriculum and I have to teach the same things to all of the children.” One size does not fit all, and is not an appropriate approach to special education. Instruction should be differentiated to meet the needs of each individual  child.

In some schools there may be multiple EC classrooms, either self-contained or resource rooms where the kids switch in and out. It is possible for a student at the separate level of service to get instruction from teachers in different rooms.  For example, a child may get most of her instruction from a primary EC teacher, but go work with another EC teacher in a subject area where she has skills that are much higher than her classmates. On the flip side, a child can be assigned primarily to one classroom, and also go to another classroom for instruction at an appropriate, but lower level of difficulty.

Flexibility within and between EC classrooms can offer students with significant disabilities the opportunity to benefit from an educational experience that adequately addresses their strengths as well as their weaknesses.

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.

 

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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