Blog Archives

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!

Promotion after Third Grade has become more complicated used to be fairly simple to talk with parents about how promotion and retention decisions were made in North Carolina.  Except for high school students, whose grade classification is based on the number and type of course credits earned, our Public School Law (G.S. 115C) gave school principals sole authority over how students were “classified” or assigned to a grade.  Principals were expected to make this decision thoughtfully, considering factors like classroom work, standardized test scores, teacher recommendations and other relevant information.  If parents were worried that their child might be retained, they were often advised to meet with the principal and share their concerns with the hope of influencing that decision.  This is still good information, unless your child is in third grade.

Recent changes in North Carolina’s Public School Law  (2012-142, s. 7A.1) offer some good, bad and not-so-bad news.  Let’s discuss them in that order.

Good News:  The North Carolina Read to Achieve Program is intended to put intense focus on effective reading instruction in the early grades (K-3) as a means of increasing academic achievement long term.  It has a goal of ensuring that “every child is reads at or above grade level by the end of 3rd grade and continue to progress in reading proficiency so that she or he can read, comprehend, integrate and apply complex text needed for secondary education and career success.”

The positive purposes of this legislation are that (1) difficulty with reading development is identified as early as possible; (2) students receive appropriate instructional and support services to address difficulty with reading development and to remediate reading deficiencies; and (3) each student and his or her parent or guardian be continuously informed of the student’s academic needs and progress.  So far, so good.

Bad News:  In addition to the purposes listed above, the purpose of this law is to determine that progression from one grade to another be based, in part, upon proficiency in reading.  More specifically, the State Board of Education must now require that a student be retained in third grade if they fail to demonstrate third grade level reading comprehension skills on a State-approved standardized test.  Even though this law allows for certain specific “good cause exemptions” from mandatory retention, the Superintendent will now make the final promotion/retention decision.  The Principal can only make a written recommendation to the Superintendent if they determine that a student qualifies for a  good cause exemption and should be promoted.

Not-so-bad News:  Students who are retained under this law will be given the option of attending a 6-8 week “summer reading camp.”  At the end of the camp the students will be tested again and will be promoted to 4th grade if they demonstrate grade-level skills,  either on that test or through a reading portfolio.  If they do not improve their reading skills to that level, they will repeat 3rd grade with a possibility of being promoted mid-year if the are able to reach grade level by November 1st.  Retained students will be provided with intensive reading instruction.  Those students who are given a good cause exemption will also receive instructional supports and reading interventions appropriate for their age and reading level.

Students with disabilities can be considered for a good cause exemption if they have an Individualized Education Program (IEP) that calls for reading interventions and the use of alternative assessments when they participate in the state testing program.  If your child is below grade level with her reading skills, make sure that there is a reading goal on her IEP.  Whether or not she has an IEP, you should monitor your child’s reading progress closely and ask questions if you feel that her skills are developing too slowly.  Maybe something different needs to happen.  Some children have disabilities, such as an intellectual  disability, that make it unrealistic to expect grade level academic skills.  However, it is extremely important that every child be provided the appropriate type and amount of instruction that will allow them to reach their fullest potential.  North Carolina’s public school laws no longer mention “full potential” but, like most parents, that will always be  my goal for each child.

Re-evaluation in high school?

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.

Don’t let the EOGs stress you or your child

If you have a child in grade 3-8, you know about the End-of Grade Tests (EOGs).  Unfortunately, the tests have become a driving force in the education of our children, rather than simply a way to measure student progress.  There will be some changes coming soon that, thanks to a waiver that the U.S. Department of Education has granted to North Carolina, should end the one-size-fits-all performance standard, and allow schools to judge the effectiveness of their instruction by the amount of growth that each student makes from one year to the next.  More on that at another time.

Right now, we have teachers whose job performance rating and chance for bonus pay is being largely determined by how well their students perform on the EOGs.  Students have been practicing for the tests all year, with intense reviews as the test dates near.  They feel the pressure to do well on the tests, or else.  For many students with disabilities, the EOGs offer just another opportunity for them to show that their academic skills are not up to the level of other children their age.  This has got to feel pretty miserable!

We can’t change the world, at least not all in one day.  As parents though, we can help our children come through this process with less stress and minimal damage to their self-esteem.

For starters, make sure that you tell your child that you love them for who they are, not for what they can and cannot do.  Make sure that your actions back this up.  Throughout the school year, praise their effort, motivation, and determination while acknowledging–but not focusing on–the grades that they receive.  This can be part of a lesson in self-determination that your child will learn over time.  They are only responsible for things that they have control over, and how someone else thinks is not something that they have control over.  The flip side of this is that they will be held responsible for things that they do have control over, such as the amount of  effort that they do or do not put forth.

Continue to do all of the usual test day preparation things, such as making sure that your child gets a good night’s sleep and has a good breakfast.  Encourage them to try their best and to use any of the test accommodations that they may have on their IEP or 504 Plan.  When they come home don’t talk about the tests unless they bring it up (other than maybe to check to make sure that the accommodations were provided).  Cramming for the EOGs is generally not helpful, so let your child do other things that they enjoy to keep them from worrying too much about the next day’s tests (they usually don’t get much homework during the testing period) .

After the last test has been taken, celebrate the fact that it’s over and that your child did their best.  Let conversations move on to other things  that are going on.  Let your child experience activities where they have talents or interests.  Make a conscious effort to smile, hug, and praise a little more often.  Allow life to return to normal.

Periodically, remind your child that all anyone can ever do, is the best that they can.  And, as the most important person in your child’s life,  that has got to be good enough for you!