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Avoid Special Education Misunderstandings: Choose words carefully

Vector member chat iconEffective communication is important to good working relationships between parents and schools. This is especially true when it comes to communication about special education. Parents are often the first to express concerns about their child’s development or learning. Parents are also required members of any group that makes decisions about special education evaluation, eligibility or development of the Individualized Education Program (IEP) for an eligible student with disability. Whether you are at the beginning of the special education process or an IEP team veteran, it is important to use words that express your thoughts accurately.

Remember that communication is a 2-way street. There is a message that is sent and a message that is received. Unfortunately, they are not always the same thing. The chart below gives examples of words or expressions that may seem similar, but could mean something very different when used in special education-related conversations. Using the wrong term can lead to confusion, frustration and/or an unintended result.

Asking for extra help or tutoring for a struggling student.

This could lead to adjustments by the general education teacher, a referral to the school’s intervention team, or the parent might be told about tutoring available through the school or how they can find a private tutor.

Request for a special education evaluation or special education services.

This will trigger a formal process to gather information and determine if the student is eligible for special education services.

 

Home Bound

The student is enrolled in a public school that typically provides limited educational services either in the home or another community setting.

Home School

In N.C., home schools are considered private schools. Public school systems are not required to provide instruction except under certain circumstances.

Revoke consent for special education services.

All special education services will stop. Parents cannot hold school system responsible for providing FAPE.

Refuse a specific special education service while keeping other services and supports.

IEP Team must consider options and decide how to ensure that the student receives FAPE. There should not be an automatic “all-or-nothing” threat.

Making progress

Student is improving their academic or functional skills.

Catching up

Student is improving at an accelerated rate that will close the skill gap with typical peers over time.

If you are communicating with others and the response is not what you expect, check to make sure that they understood you correctly. It may be necessary to clarify what you mean. Consider using different words or giving an example.  Words do matter!

What is a Facilitated IEP Meeting?

Did you know that the Exceptional Children Division of the North Carolina Department of Public instruction (NCDPI) has a group of trained individuals who can serve as independent facilitators for IEP meetings?

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You will not find IEP meeting facilitation mentioned in the N.C. parent rights handbook because it is not a requirement of the federal special education law, IDEA. However, North Carolina is among many states who offer facilitation as a way to help IEP teams work through challenging situations. Facilitators are often able to help keep problems from getting to the point where formal dispute resolution steps are necessary.

IEP Team members are expected to work together and make good decisions on behalf of children who have disabilities. Sometimes, however, IEP team members have different ideas about what is in the child’s best interest. At other times, emotions, personality conflict or past experiences make it difficult for teams to have serious discussions without meetings becoming uncomfortable or unproductive.

NCDPI has cross-trained selected individuals who have backgrounds in special education or professional mediation to serve as IEP meeting facilitators. These independent facilitators are not employed by NCDPI or by any school district, but NCDPI does pay them for their services.

When to consider requesting a facilitator:

  • It has been difficult for the IEP team to make decisions, even after much discussion
  • Previous IEP meetings have been tense; Team members feel they are not being heard
  • The IEP meeting will have many participants, and complex issues to address.

 

How to request a facilitator:

 

What to expect:

  • The Facilitator will contact the school and family to identify the issues and create an agenda for the IEP meeting. They make sure that the meeting time is long enough to address each issue.
  • Ground Rules are established and the Facilitator will “run” the meeting. Facilitators do not have a say in IEP team decisions. They keep the team focused on the child, and the purpose of the meeting. They make sure that everyone has a chance to ask questions, provide information and offer ideas for consideration.
  • If necessary, the Facilitator will create a list of follow-up Action Items. Individual team members take responsibility for each item on the list, and a target date for completion is set.

 

If all goes well, the FIEP process can serve as a model of how the IEP team can work together effectively to help each student get the free appropriate public education that they deserve.

Be informed before giving consent

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When it comes to special education, there are several points at which parent consent is required before things can move forward. Some school teams do a better job than others at making sure that parents fully understand the documents that they are asked to sign and what they mean for their child. Before you sign anything, make sure that you have all of the information you need to make a good decision. You have a right to have this information provided to you in a way that you can understand. This could mean using an interpreter or having documents translated into your primary language.

Evaluation:

Parent consent is required before schools can do any testing on a child that goes beyond what they normally do with all students. When a child is being evaluated for special education, the Consent for Evaluation form should list every area that the evaluation will include, such as Psychological, Educational, Motor or Speech-Language. Each of those areas can involve a variety of assessments. Parents have a right to more details about their child’s evaluation.  For example, will the psychological evaluation include social-emotional/behavior and/or intellectual assessments? Will the motor evaluation focus on fine or gross (large) motor skills, or both? Will the educational evaluation only look at the academic skill area where there is the greatest concern, or will it assess all of the basic skill areas so that academic strengths can also be documented and other possible weaknesses identified? It is better to ask questions before giving your permission, than be surprised or disappointed after the evaluation is completed.

Release of Information:

Sometimes parents are asked to give permission for schools to get information from professionals who work with your child outside of school. Make sure that you read any release form carefully so that you know what kind of information is being shared and under what conditions. Sometimes the school may only need to have your child’s doctor complete a form, or to get a written evaluation report from a private psychologist. There may be other situations where the school nurse may want to be able to talk to a medical provider to clarify details about the child’s healthcare needs while at school. A good guideline is to make sure that the school is able to get the information that is needed to serve your child, while still protecting your right to privacy.

Consent for Special Education Services:

Schools cannot provide special education services to a child without parent consent. Parents are only asked to give written consent for special education services one time unless the child moves into another school system. That one consent form gives permission for the school system to provide the services and supports on the child’s IEPs for as long as they continue to be eligible for special education. Parents do not have to consent to each separate service. In fact, parents cannot pick and choose which services they are willing to accept. They must work with other members of the IEP to create an educational program that is appropriate for their child. If necessary, there are many ways to try to resolve special education disagreements.

Providing consent is a choice. The very fact that you are asked to provide permission for something means that you have the option of saying “yes” or “no.” You also have the option of revoking, or cancelling, your consent if you change your mind later. However, you should make sure that you understand what will happen if you revoke your consent and what it could mean for your child. It is best to become as informed as possible before making any major decision about your child. Their education is no exception.

Understanding the role of the LEA Representative

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* North Carolina Parent Rights and Responsibilities

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

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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.

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.

 

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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