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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
So many parents will be able to relate to your experience. Beautifully written!
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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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!
From late winter through the end of the school year, many parents of kindergarten-eligible children wrestle with the option of keeping them in preschool for one more year. The child may have a late birthday that would make them among the youngest in their class. Many parents assume that boys have a particular challenge with maturity that might make them good candidates to sit out a year and continue their social development before going on to the “big school.” As always, these are very personal decisions that parents have to make based on their knowledge of their child and a host of other factors.
For parents of children who experience disabilities or significant developmental delays, things are a bit more complicated. Many of these children already receive special education services as preschoolers. Even if their child is making progress, many parents think about what is typically expected in a regular kindergarten class these days and they don’t see their child as being able to meet those expectations. Some children are also small for their age, can’t communicate well, have poor motor skills or are medically fragile. The parents may conclude that their child is just not “ready” for kindergarten, and therefore should remain in preschool. This may sound logical, or make sense on a parent gut level, but there is still more to consider.
1) The child may not continue to receive the special education services that they now get as a preschooler. The special education funding that comes from the Federal special education law, IDEA, is connected to the different parts of the law. In general, a school system cannot use preschool money to serve school-aged children, and they will not be able to draw down funds for a school-aged child unless the child is enrolled in school. That basically leaves no special education funds available to serve a school-aged child who is not enrolled in school, except for in a couple of specific rare circumstances. Unless you have another way to obtain the services that your child needs, you may have to weigh the cost of not having services against the benefit of more time.
2) Are you just delaying the inevitable, or will this extra year be a game-changer? Some children may be behind in their development due to challenges that have been reduced in terms of impact. For example, a child may have had a visual, hearing, or motor problem that has been corrected or compensated for. Other children may have experienced medical conditions that limited their ability to interact with the world and do the developmental work of childhood. For these children, having a year to grow and gain skills under much improved circumstances may make a tremendous difference in their overall functioning. One could still debate whether planning for two years in kindergarten to allow time to catch up, would be just as, or more beneficial than the extra year in preschool.
3) All children should be expected to make progress in their development if they are provided with stimulation and proper nutrition. Many children, however, will probably continue to be functioning well below their typical peers, even after an extra year. A 5-year-old with a chronic condition, who is functioning at the 3 year-old level, will probably still not be ready for kindergarten a year from now. He’ll just be a year older.
4) Is kindergarten ready for your child? That’s the real question. Don’t think of school as a one-size-fits-all situation that your child has to fit into. As a child with a disability and an individualized education program (IEP), your child is entitled to a free appropriate public education that meets her unique needs. You and the rest of the IEP team will decide what that should look like for your child. Your child can get extra support in the regular education setting, in a special education setting, or a combination of the two. She can spend time with typically-developing children and still get the special education and related services that she needs. She can have modifications and accommodations that will allow her to access her education and participate in school activities in a way that makes sense for her. An individual health plan can be developed to address any special health or medical needs.
Instead of trying to keep your child out of school until you can make a round peg fit into a square hole, you and your child’s IEP team can design a heart-shaped hole that the child you love can fit into with relative ease. School doesn’t have to be scary.