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.
The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) gives parents of children with disabilities several rights and protections. One of these is the right to request an Independent Educational Evaluation (IEE) at the school system’s expense if they disagree with an evaluation that was conducted by their public school system. The IEE is intended to provide a “second opinion”, and would be limited to the same areas of focus that were included in the school evaluation. For example, if the school evaluation included psychological, educational and speech/language assessments, the IEE would only include psychological, educational and/or speech/language evaluations. The parent would not be able to add an occupational therapy evaluation and have the school system cover that cost as part of the IEE.
Most of the time, there is no need for an IEE. A properly planned and conducted school evaluation will typically give the IEP team the information that is needed to make decisions regarding a child’s eligibility for special education services, and to develop an appropriate individualized educational program (IEP) to meet that child’s specific needs. However, there are other times when a parent may want to consider the option of requesting an IEE.
If a child is found to be not eligible for special education services based on a school system evaluation, an IEE may provide additional information for the team to consider and perhaps change the eligibility decision. Sometimes the test scores will be higher or lower, or they may show a larger gap between the child’s general ability and his functioning in an area where there are concerns. The independent evaluator may use different tests or assessment methods that provide additional insight into the nature of the child’s difficulties and the pattern of strengths and weaknesses. This new information may tip the balance, and convince the team that the child does meet the eligibility requirements for special education services.
In some cases the school’s evaluation has resulted in scores that meet the eligibility criteria, but the team feels that there is not enough evidence that the student requires “specially designed instruction.” Team members may cite an acceptable level of performance, or a belief that factors other than a disability (e.g. excessive absences or a lack of appropriate instruction), may be responsible for the child’s weaknesses. In this situation, a second round of testing is not likely to change the eligibility decision.
For a child who gets, or already has, an IEP, there may be other decisions that are influenced by initial or re-evaluation results. The need for related services, certain accommodations or supports may be based, in part, on information gathered during a school evaluation. Inaccurate evaluation results may result in low expectations, disability issues that go unrecognized (and unaddressed) or even placements in more restrictive settings. The IEE could provide data that could prove to be a “game changer.”
The school system may provide a list of local clinicians who are qualified to conduct the requested evaluations, in an effort to assist parents in obtaining the IEE. However, parents are not limited to the persons on the list. They can select any professionals who are qualified to conduct the evaluation(s). The school system cannot establish an arbitrary dollar limit on the cost of the evaluation. The school system also cannot require the independent evaluators to only use certain assessment tools. Typically, billing arrangements are set up before the actual evaluation is scheduled, and the school system will receive a copy of the evaluation report. Note: When parents pay the cost of a private evaluation themselves, they can control whether or not that information is shared with the school.
If you feel that the school’s evaluation does not paint an accurate picture of your child and his or her needs, then an IEE may offer one of the best chances of obtaining the information needed to possibly change the outcome when the IEP team reconsiders important decisions.
Answer: No. The type of support that a student requires has nothing to do with the degree to which her educational placement is considered to be “restrictive” under IDEA, the Federal special education law.
IDEA requires that students with disabilities are served in the Least Restrictive Environment (LRE) where their needs can be successfully met. The continuum of alternative educational placements that goes from least restrictive to most restrictive is based on the amount of time that the student is removed from the regular education setting and non-disabled peers. The continuum includes the following placement options: Regular, Resource, Separate, Separate School, Residential, Home/Hospital. Each step along the continuum reflects less and less contact with typical children, and would be considered to be more restrictive than the ones listed before it and less restrictive than the ones listed after it.
Children can receive special education services in the regular education classroom, in a special education classroom or therapy room, or in the total school environment. Some students receive a lot of special education services, accommodations and supports in the regular education setting and are not removed from their non-disabled peers at all. This would still be considered to be the least restrictive placement on the continuum.
Some parents who ask about a one-on-one assistant for their child are told that this kind of individual support would be the most restrictive setting for their child, and that moving the child into a separate classroom or separate school would actually be less restrictive. This is simply not true, and probably reflects a lack of information on the part of the person making that statement.
If this happens to you, talk to someone who would be expected to have a greater understanding of special education rules and regulations. Even if you have to speak with the Director of Exceptional Children’s services for your entire school system, it will be good for them to know that there is a need to correct misinformation. This may not get a one-on-one assistant for your child, but at least the decision would not be made for the wrong reason. The IEP team has an obligation to consider the use of supplementary aids and services that could increase the amount of time that a child with a disability would be able to be educated with non-disabled children.
When parents make a referral to have their child evaluated to see if they need special education services, they are sometimes told that the school must first complete a process called RtI. In North Carolina RtI stands for Responsiveness to Instruction. In many other states RTI is short for Response to Intervention. Either way, RtI offers a process for selecting and implementing interventions to help students who are struggling academically or behaviorally. RtI also includes regular monitoring of the student’s progress.
Details may vary from one school system to another, but there are parts of RtI that should be present:
- Decisions are made by a team of people who can offer a variety of knowledge and experience.
- Interventions should have been shown to be effective through scientific research.
- Data is collected about how the student is responding to the interventions.
- The student’s progress is tracked over a period of time.
- There are multiple “tiers” and the interventions become more intensive as the student moves to a higher tier due to inadequate progress.
- At the final tier the data collected, along with other information, can be used to determine that the student qualifies for special education services.
When done well, RtI provides an opportunity for students to get the help that they need without having to declare them students with disabilities. This helps prevent the over-identification of students and keeps more special education resources available to those students who really do have disabilities. One possible down side of RtI is that moving through the tiers of interventions can take several months. When a parent sees their child continue to struggle, that can feel like too much precious time is being lost.
The Exceptional Children Division of the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction has issued guidance to all school systems in the state. Schools have been reminded that North Carolina’s Policies Governing Services for Children with Disabilities* require that when a written referral for special education services has been received, schools have a maximum of 90 days in which to complete needed evaluations, determine eligibility, and put an Individualized Education Program in place for any student who qualifies for special education services.
The 90-day time limit applies even when the student is involved in the RtI process. Period.
If you are worried that RtI will create an uneccessary delay to your child getting the special education services that you feel he needs, make a written request to have him evaluated to see if he is eligible. Interventions are required for some categories of eligibility, but they can be implemented during the time that the evaluation will take place.
We are just about at the halfway point in the school year. Report cards will be coming home. If your child receives special education services you should also get a report on his/her progress on their IEP goals. This is a great opportunity to think about how things are going and whether or not some changes need to be made. Ideally, we would all like to have a happy, socially-successful child who is learning and developing at or above the expected rate in all areas. If that describes your child, you should give a word of thanks to all who have helped make this happen!
If your child’s grades are lower than you think they should be, try to get to the root of the problem. Is your child having difficulty learning the material being taught? Is he doing poorly on tests even though he seems to understand the work? Is she doing fine on tests, but has a low grade average because of zeros for several school assignments that were never completed or turned in? Has your child missed a lot of instruction because of disciplinary actions that have taken him out of the classroom too many times?
Even if the grades are okay, there may be other reasons to be concerned. The grades may seem to be inconsistent with what you see when your child is doing home work. The progress on IEP goals may be moving much slower than expected. Instructional assessments may show that the gap between your child’s skills and the achievement standard for his grade is getting wider instead of more narrow. Is your child saying, or showing, that she does not want to go to school? Are you getting more reports about problem behavior at school?
If you do see any red flags, the first action to take is to try to understand what is working and exactly where there may be some problems. Talk to your child and your child’s teacher(s). Ask what you can do at home to help your child be more successful. Work with the teacher(s), other school staff, and the IEP team as appropriate to come up with solutions to any problems that are identified. Make adjustments in terms of instruction, materials, strategies, accommodations, services, supports, environment…whatever makes sense for your child at this time. Keep an eye on things to see if there is improvement or a need to try something else.
The Individualized Education Program (IEP) that describes special education services and supports for a qualifying student with a disability is created by an IEP Team that is defined by federal law. The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) lists the core membership of an IEP team as including the parent, a special education teacher, a regular education teacher (at the student’s assigned grade), and a representative of the Local Education Agency (school system). The student is a required member of the IEP team when their transition to adulthood is being discussed. In addition to this bare-bones requirement, there are others who can or must be invited under varying circumstances.
Whenever evaluation results are being discussed, the IEP team should include individuals who are qualified to interpret those evaluation results and the educational implications of them for the child. Most parents can read evaluation reports with some degree of understanding, but the IEP team needs input from individuals who are in a position to connect the dots and make sense of the various pieces of information available when an evaluation has been conducted.
When children are aging out of the Infant-Toddler Program and are being considered for eligibility for Preschool services, the Child Service Coordinator or previous service providers can be invited to the IEP meeting. If you want to have your child’s Service Coordinator or others attend an IEP meeting, invite them directly yourself because the school system may not automatically send them an invitation.
At an annual review when the IEP is being totally re-written (rather than amended), all of the people who are currently providing special education services to the child will normally be invited to the meeting. Sometimes a related service provider (e.g. speech, occupational or physical therapist) will submit written information and some proposed goals when they are unable to attend an IEP meeting. If you feel that it is important that specific school system staff members (regular education teachers, clinicians, administrators, classroom assistants, etc.) participate in the IEP team discussion, communicate that to the person who is coordinating the meeting so that they are invited and the meeting scheduled at a time when they can attend.
In addition to the required IEP team members, the school system and the parent each have the right to invite others who they feel can contribute to the IEP process. Individuals who have particular knowledge of the child or specific expertise can be involved upon request. For example, grandparents, Sunday School teachers, tutors, behavior specialists, psychologists, individuals who have disability-specific information, or private service providers can become invited members of a child’s IEP team. These individuals can either attend in person, submit written input, or participate via conference call or another technology-supported means.
When your child’s next IEP meeting is being planned, communicate with the meeting coordinator to make sure the all of the right people are at the table to create an educational program that effectively addresses your child’s unique educational needs.
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.
There is a lot of useful information on school and school system websites, but sometimes it is difficult to find exactly what you are looking for. Some websites are definitely more user-friendly than others. I’ll share some basic “how to” suggestions that I personally use. In order to save space, I will use LEA (Local Education Agency) to refer to school systems.
Working with families of children with special needs, we frequently suggest that a parent share their concerns with someone in the central office of the LEA’s Special Education Department. On the Home page for the LEA’s website, there is usually a tab near the top of the page, or an option listed on the menu located on the left side of the webpage, that will allow you to select “Departments” by clicking on that word. That should give you an alphabetical listing of the various school system departments. Most North Carolina LEAs, have an “Exceptional Children” (EC) department, but some call it “Special Education.” If you don’t find one title, check under the other one.
When you click on EC, you will usually go to a page that will offer general information or an overview of the EC Department and the services provided to students. Somewhere on that webpage, there may also be a list of staff, with job titles and contact information. If you don’t see one, look for an option to click on that says something like “staff directory”, “contact information”, or “staff contacts.” Larger school systems tend to have more staff, so there may be Behavior Specialists, Program Manager/Specialist for specific disabilities, EC Zone Coordinators, or perhaps Program Managers for Preschool, Elementary, Middle or High Schools. There will always be a Director who oversees all special education services for the entire school system, although the job titles vary a bit.
The department list can lead you to other information as well. Information about the general education program and graduation requirements can usually be found under “Curriculum and Instruction.” School system policies, such as the Code of Conduct (discipline guidelines), are often found under the heading of “School Board” or “Board of Education.” Information about Schools, Transportation and Student/Pupil Assignment can be found under those headings. If you can’t find what you are looking for on a menu, tab or department list, try entering that topic in the “Search” box that can usually be found near the top of the website Home page. The Home page should also have a general telephone number for the LEA, most often located near the top or bottom of the page. Calling that number should allow someone to direct your call to the right place, based on what you tell them.
It might be a good idea to visit the website of your child’s school and the one for the LEA before there is an urgent need, so that you can get familiar with what’s available and how things are organized. If you don’t use computers very much, it may be helpful to have a student or another person assist you. Most young people who have grown up with the internet take to it like a duck to water. It’s time to start getting your feet wet!
It’s time for back-to-school and also a good time for parents to review their child’s IEP. First of all, it’s probably been a while since you looked at it and time has a way of fading memories. Secondly, you should check to see if that IEP will meet your child’s needs for this new school year. If you feel that changes are needed to the IEP, you can request an IEP team meeting. Here are some key sections of the IEP to read over:
Present Level of Academic and Functional Performance (PLAAFP). Depending on how long ago the IEP was written and the amount of progress your child has made, these statements may provide a poor description of your child. One would hope that this year’s teachers would look at the IEP progress reports as well as the IEP, but you can’t count on that. If there is a real disconnect between the PLAAFP and your child’s current functioning, you should communicate that to the teachers so that they can plan appropriately.
Annual Goals. For each annual goal, check to see if your child is making progress at a pace that will allow him to reach that goal by the time the IEP expires. If progress has been much slower than expected, you may want to talk with the teachers or therapists about what can be done differently to get better results (e.g. Different strategy? More service time? Individual vs. small group instruction?). If your child has already reached the goal, consider setting a new goal at a higher level. Is there a skill area not currently covered by the IEP that should be added?
General Education Program Participation. Are any changes needed in the parts of the school day that your child is in the regular education or special education setting? Do the accommodations, modifications, supports and/or assistive technology match up with what your child will need this year? The expectations and demands change as students move from grade to grade. Your child may be in a new school building. If your child’s functioning has changed for better or worse, she may need different types of support now.
Specially Designed Instruction and Related Services. As you think about the previous parts of the IEP, consider whether any changes are needed in the amount, frequency or location of your child’s special education and related services.
At the very least, looking over the IEP will remind you of what’s on it. That should help you make sure that things are put into place properly at the beginning of the school year to give your child the best chance for success. That will be a whole lot better than trying to fix things after there is a problem.