Special education can be confusing, not only to parents, but to teachers, administrators, and worst of all, the students who are swimming in this turbulent ocean. To start with, frustrated parents often agree to putting their children in special education without even knowing an IEP (Individualized Education Plan) is indeed special education. And once their children are a part of this system, they often feel confused by the rights they have for their children's education.
All too often, substandard services are given and the student fails to make adequate progress. The education system we use is antiquated, and the special education services students receive rarely go to the heart of the matter and work at correcting skills that are missing.
These kids desperately need heavy doses of visual and auditory skills, presented as easy subs-skills so they can build up their learning foundation step-by-step. They need brain integration activities, memory building, and a reading system that is non-traditional...one that teaches them to learn through movement, color, pictures, and crossing the midline of the body.
Traditional Methods Don't Work
Instead of giving the student this comprehensive set of exercises that has been proven to work, the student receives a watered-down curriculum, and sometimes receives speech or occupational therapies. The problem is that the therapists classes are overloaded and IEP meetings and documentation take up the bulk of the therapist's time.
The student suffers.
Further, the student only receives piecemeal doses of therapies and instruction. Rarely are the therapies tied together in a purposeful, sequential combination. This is crucial to a child's success, because there is a hierarchy to learning. even those activities and skills the student receives that are tied together are usually lumped together in a few goals on the child's IEP.
The goals on the student's IEP rarely contain enough skills to make enough progress for an entire year. "I've never seen an IEP with even twenty goals on it. Can you imagine thinking that these few goals are enough for a student's year of growth?" Lisa explains. "If we only focused on a few general goals at Harp, we wouldn't have the progress that we do."
What is an IEP?
IEP stands for Individual Education Plan. An IEP contains written goals for the student in hopes that the student will receive proper intervention for academic success. An IEP team meets at least once a year to review the student's progress and to see if any of the goals have been met or if the goals need to be revised. The team should agree on any changes to the IEP.
The concept of an IEP is elusive and sounds good on paper, but all too often unrealistic, undefinable, and unapproachable goals are written. In addition, there might not be enough goals to last the student an entire year, and the goals might be too easy or too difficult. Parents will often agree to whatever the team suggests because they want the best for their children and trust the schools to make those decision. Often, vague goals are written and once they're on the IEP, they stay there year after year while the child fails to make academic progress.
"It's like they're speaking another language," a parent once told Lisa after an IEP meeting. "They throw around big words I don't understand and I just end up nodding my head because I don't want to look stupid. They're the experts, the educators, so I trust they'll make the right decisions."
"Never trust your child's future to someone who isn't demonstrating the best and highest intentions for your child. After all, you are the best advocate for your child. You know your child better than anyone else," Lisa advises.
An IEP is a legal and binding document between the parent and the school. You, as a parent, don't have to agree to placing your child in special education if you feel it isn't a good fit for your child. Or, if your child is currently placed in special education, you have the right to take your child out of it.
Sometimes, parents think their children are just getting some special help from other teachers and their children are actually placed in special education. Keep in mind that schools receive extra funding for special education students and that it isn't always a good fit for every student who qualifies.
Qualifying for Special Education
Students can't be randomly placed in special education, and keep in mind that it's a lengthy process once you get the ball rolling for qualifying your child for special education. This process usually starts when you and/or your child's teacher notice that your child is falling behind in school.
Children can qualify for special education through other measures than academic, such as medical reasons, autism, ADD/ADHD, hearing impairment, blindness or vision impairment, or for diseases such cerebral palsy or muscular dystrophy. But for our purposes, we'll be dealing with academic qualifications for special education.
Once you and the teacher decide that you've tried everything and the student isn't making progress,
an SST(Student Study Team) will be organized. This will usually consist of you, the teacher, an administrator, and any other personnel who might be involved, such as the speech therapist or occupational therapist. The idea of the SST is to design a support system for students having difficulty in the regular classroom. At this point, strategies for the child's academic success will be put in place and a "watch and see" approach will be taken.
Depending on what the SST team decides, a certain amount of time is given with new strategies imposed in hopes that your child makes progress. If enough progress is made, the student remains in the mainstream (traditional) classroom. However, if the student fails to make progress, the team will decide if the student should be tested to qualify for special education services.
Once the special education testing is referred, the school has fifteen school days to set up an IEP meeting to discuss the referral and what possible evaluations should be used. For any IEP meeting, including this first one, the school must provide written notice in at least seven days in advance. If, for any reason, the school decides to not have the IEP meeting, they still have an obligation to have your consent to evaluation form within fifteen school days.
When you consent to have the evaluations done on your child, you'll sign the consent to evaluate form and wait to have the evaluation done on your child. Usually, a school psychologist will perform these tests over a series of days so your child won't be too stressed out or fatigued.
The school has forty-five days to complete the evaluations and hold an eligibility meeting. A copy of the evaluations that were given must be sent to you at least three days before the IEP meeting so you'll have a chance to read over the results and/or find someone who can help you interpret the data and results.
The Independent Educational Evaluation (IEE)
You have a right to request an Independent Educational Evaluation (IEE) if you don't agree with the evaluation that was provided. This is an additional and different evaluation that is no additional cost to you as the parent or guardian. If this is something you feel is best for your child, you need to put the request in writing and give it to the school. The school has thirty calendar days to respond in writing to the IEE request. The school can either approve the request or file a due process hearing to show that the IEE isn't needed.
Special Education Placement
You'll be invited to an IEP meeting once the test results are in and the IEP team will discuss the test results and whether or not your child qualifies for special education. If your child doesn't qualify, you might be able to get a 504 Plan for your child where some modifications and accommodations can take place in the classroom.
If your child qualifies for special education, it will be up to you whether or not placement is a good fit. You know your child better than anyone and if you need to speak up to have questions answered, that's okay. If it doesn't feel like it's a good fit or if you need more time to think about the severity of the placement, then by all means, ask for more time.
If you agree to the IEP placement (special education), another IEP meeting is to be conducted within thirty calendar days to determine the services that the child needs. The IEP, once created, is to be started as soon as possible. It is not to take place later than thirty calendar days after determination, so it's up to you as the parent to stay on top of the school to make sure that deadlines are met.
At the IEP meeting, the team will decide the amount of services your child will receive. For instance, your child might receive three thirty-minute pull-out sessions per week in reading and math. If you feel that your child needs more time, feel free to speak up. Your child might also qualify for speech therapy or occupational therapy, and those amounts of time will be discussed.
In addition, you'll make goals for your child. These can often be confusing and vague, so once again, speak up if you'd like to change a goal or add/subtract from it. IEP goals include three components that must be stated in measurable terms. First, the goal must include the direction of behavior, such as increasing, decreasing, or maintaining. Next, the goal must include the area of need, such as reading, math, social skills, writing, etc. Finally, the goal must include the level of attainment, such as to reach grade level or work independently.
Your child is entitled to a Free Appropriate Public Education (FAPE). Keep in mind that a free education might not be the best education for your child and that there are always choices in finding the best education.
Accommodations and Modifications
If necessary, accommodations and modifications will also be determined at this first IEP meeting. Accommodations allow your child to complete the same tasks as non-learning disabled peers but with some variation in time, format, setting, and/or presentation. The purpose of an accommodation is to provide your child with equal access to learning and an equal opportunity to show what he knows and what he can do. An example of an accommodation would be to allow your child more time on taking a test than the other kids in the classroom.
Modifications are changes in what your child is expected to learn based on her individual abilities. Some examples of modifications include letting your child use different books, less homework, pass/no pass grading options, revising instructions into simpler language, and daily feedback on your child's performance.
The goal should be to use accommodations and modifications in the beginning of your child's journey to grade level or higher achievement and then to "wean" her from them. Eventually, your child will enter the work force and it's hard to find an employer who will offer these services. Of course, some children might need more modifications and accommodations than others, so it is on an individual basis that these services are used.
Your child's IEP must be current at the start of each school year. In addition, the IEP, including your child's goals and services is to be reviewed by the IEP team once a year. This is called your child's annual IEP meeting and it's a time to check in with your child's progress, change any services that need it, discuss progress or lack of it, and connect about anything else that might be necessary.
The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) requires schools to reevaluate kids with IEPs at least once every three years. This is known as a triennial reevaluation or review. The purpose of the triennial is to see if your child’s needs have changed and often just to check to see if your child still qualifies for special education services.
If you're experiencing problems in getting placement or testing for your child, you can request that your child is tested by writing a requisition (a simple request in writing) and giving it to the school. The school district has thirty days to set up an SST meeting and begin the testing procedure. If the school district doesn’t do this, then they are out of compliance.
At this point, or at any other point along the way if the school district is out of compliance, you will have to decide if you want to hire an advocate or an attorney. This can be costly, but many times, the school district is required to pay for services or testing that the child needs. Keep in mind that you and your child have right and if the school or school district is being difficult, then you have choices to make.
If your child's existing IEP isn't being followed, then you might have compliance issues as well. IT is always best to speak with an expert on special education law if this is occurring, as your child's education is at stake.
Tips for Successful IEP or SST Meetings
Be honest with your concerns and desires for your child
Bring any pertinent outside testing, interventions, or applicable information or documentation
Make a list of questions ahead of time and bring them with you
Stay calm and unemotional
If asking for a specific service, accommodation, modification, or goal, state why it's necessary
Remember that you are your child's best advocate
Ask questions if something is unclear
Most teachers, administrators, and staff are usually there for your child's best good. They are often trapped by an antiquated system and it's not their fault unless they expose themselves as doing something shady or unprofessional
You have a right to bring others to an IEP meeting. It is only polite to let the case manager know ahead of time to arrange proper seating
Advise the school in writing twenty-four hours in advance that you will be recording the IEP meeting. Be sure to record every meeting and remember, if it wasn't recorded or written down, "it didn't happen"
If you aren't happy with the consensus of the meeting, you have the right to pull your child from special education or find an advocate who can help you with legal issues
Be professional, courteous, and polite to everyone even if there is "bad blood" between you and someone there
If you feel unclear about something or don't understand the language being spoken, speak up and ask for clarification
If you feel the meeting is being rushed, ask for more time or for a continuation meeting to make sure your child's needs are being met
Be sure that your child's goals, objectives, modifications, and accommodations have been dealt with on the IEP
Concluding the IEP Meeting
When everyone is in agreement that the IEP meeting is over, you'll be asked to sign a form indicating that you participated on the IEP team. You will then be asked to sign a document stating that you received your procedural safeguards and understand your rights. AT the beginning of the meeting, you should have been given information on your procedural safeguards. If you didn't receive this information or didn't understand them, then you don't have to sign this document. It's perfectly acceptable to ask for clarification at this time.
Next, you'll be asked to sign the IEP document. This means that you agree with the IEP in its entirety and give your consent to implement the plan as it is written. If there is something you don't agree with or aren't happy with, you have the right to not sign the document. Of course, if you don't sign it, your child won't be receiving services until it is signed.
If you agree with the IEP with the exception of something, then you can write in the parts you don't give your consent to and give consent only to implement the parts you agree on. One way to do this is to write on the IEP signature page that you partially consent and then attach an addendum that explains your disagreement. You don't have to do this at the IEP meeting since you're allowed to take the IEP home to study it.
As the parent or guardian, you can withdraw your consent to special education at any time by giving written notification to the school. You can also call for an IEP meeting at any time if you aren't happy about something that is going on, if there have been changes in your child's life that might affect schooling (divorce, death, etc.) or if you've found something you'd like to implement.
To call for an IEP meeting, you must notify the school in writing and the school has thirty days to arrange the meeting. If they fail to do this, then they are out of compliance. Also, keep in mind that when scheduling IEP meetings, the school is to take your schedule into consideration (within reason).
If you feel you need more time to before you sign the IEP, ask the team if you can take it home for further review and agree on a time that you will return it with your answer. You have the right to take the document home to study it and receive council if you'd like.
Finally, be sure that you receive a copy of your child's IEP and remember that it can be revised at any time through an addendum IEP meeting. (as mentioned above)
Special Education Records
If your child is in special education, there will be cumbersome records and files that are kept. You as a parent have the right to inspect and review any educational records that your child might . The school must comply with your request without unnecessary or undue delays before any IEP meeting.
If you don't need the information for the IEP meeting, then the school must get you the records no more than forty-five days before the request was made. Schools may charge your a fee for copying of records, but you have the option of reviewing and inspecting them on the school site at no cost.
The Least Restrictive Environment
When you agree to having an IEP for your child, he is placed in special education and usually receives pull-out sessions with a Resource teacher. Or, your child might be placed in Special Day Class, which isn't a pull-out program but where your child is placed in a special education classroom where there are usually less students but they don't receive a mainstreamed education. This means they aren't in a regular classroom.
Interventions received through special education services vary according to different school districts and states, but the hope is that the student receives help in the least restrictive environment possible. This is part of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). IDEA states that children who receive special education should learn in the least restrictive environment. This means they should spend as much time as possible with peers who do not receive special education. This regular classroom time is often referred to mainstream education.
Disputes Over IEPs
If the you disagree with a decision of the IEP team, there are processes to take in order to resolve the issues. This process is called a due process hearing. Following are some rules and guidelines that apply for the due process hearing.
You must file within two years of when the disagreement happened
Once the due process hearing request is sent to the school and the Department of Education, the school has ten days to respond to the issues that are raised in the request
If the school doesn't think that the request has all the information that is required, they have fifteen days to let the hearing officer know that they believe the request is defective
The hearing officer then has five days to determine if the complaint meets all the requirements
If there isn't enough information, the school can agree to let the parent add more information if the hearing officer can allow more information to be included - this needs to be done at least five calendar days before the hearing is scheduled.
The school must schedule a dispute resolution session within fifteen calendar days of receiving the due process hearing request
If a resolution is reached, the school has thirty calendar days implement those changes
If the resolution session isn't successful, the pre-hearing conference and hearing are to be held within thirty calendar days
At least five days before the hearing, both sides must give all evaluations to the other side, including any recommendations provided - if this isn't done, then can't be used at the hearing
Once the hearing is over, the hearing officer has fifteen calendar days to give their written decision.
The Pitfalls of Special Education
A student with an IEP will have extra protection if the parent wants to litigate, but most of the time the student is taken out of the classroom and receives a watered down curriculum. The student is made to be comfortable, often working on the same skills year after year.
They keep falling behind and can rarely exit from Special Education or reach grade level status. This becomes a huge problem when the student is expected to pass an exit exam to pass high school. The way it works, the student must pass the exit exam to receive a diploma. If he or she can’t pass the test, then a certificate of completion is given.
This limits the student through life.
If your child is struggling in school but doesn't qualify for an IEP, you can opt to still get extra help from the school (providing she is legally enrolled and attending a public school in the United States) with a 504 Plan. The 504 Plan is a plan developed to ensure that your child receives accommodations that will ensure success by accessing the learning environment.
Some examples of accommodations that might help your child would be:
shortening a spelling test so he doesn't have so many words to memorize
giving her more time to complete tests
allowing him to use audio books for his homework
allowing her to use a word processor when writing assignments
using a communication system between you and the school so assignments will be turned in
verbal testing instead of written testing - your child just has to show that he knows and understands the material
modified grading systems
reduced homework assignments
Of course, there can be a multitude of other accommodations used to fit your child's personal needs. A 504 Plan is less cumbersome than an IEP, but it won't give your child the protection of an IEP if you choose to litigate.
Sometimes, modifications can be placed in a 504 Plan, but usually they are reserved for IEPs. Usually if a child needs modifications, she will qualify for an IEP.
If you choose to go the 504 Plan route, you will meet with the school once a year to review the plan. A 504 Plan can be used for other issues besides learning. Hearing impairment, vision impairment, ADD/ADHD, mild autism, or medical conditions can also qualify your child for a 504 Plan.
Keep in mind once again that accommodations and modifications should be used as a stepping stone and not an end game. The world won't give your child these "crutches" but your child shouldn't suffer at school because of a learning difference. With technological advancements, students are able to navigate the world much better but our goal is to have every child graduate high school with skills for life.
The Special Education Classroom
Most children in special education are in a pull-put program where they leave the mainstream classroom and go to a resource teacher for extra help. This can be helpful, but it interrupts learning. The student leaves, usually during the middle of a lesson. Hopefully, it's only science or social studies, but it's often difficult to coordinate schedules so this can happen. All too often, the student misses out on parts of important reading, writing, math, or spelling lessons.
When he comes back to the classroom, it's often in the middle of a lesson. The teacher, however well-meaning and skilled, has a difficult time presenting the lesson again so the child can understand it. Also, the special education student, who obviously has a difficult time with learning to start with, might miss out on key components of the lesson, such as guided or independent practice.
Even worse, the special education student knows she's leaving the regular kids. She often feels embarrassed, ostracized, and even outraged as she stands up in the middle of a lecture and leaves the classroom. From there, she goes to a room where the children rarely engage in higher-level thinking, lively academic debates, or have even grade-level expectations.
If your child is in Special Day Class, it's even worse. These kids are locked in a room with the same kids day after day and rarely receive mental stimulation, teaching of important sub-skills that build a learning foundation, visual or auditory skills training, or work with brain integration.
Too often, kids get pigeon-holed in the special education classroom. They fail to make enough progress to get them to grade level when they were already significantly behind to start with. A common custom with school districts is to wait until the child is two years or more behind academically before providing an IEP or testing for special education.
This is ludicrous!
By the time the lengthy testing and enrolling process is completed, the child is close to three years behind academically. Then, with either a pull-out program or Special Day Class, the student gets a watered-down curriculum, loose and sometimes downright lazy goals, and never comes close to catching up.
The student becomes a part of the less is more mentality and can never catch up. Each year that passes at least doubles in severity. Not only does the student have last year's lack of progress, she has this year's. This compounds to the point where the student is six or seven years behind.
It's no secret that children who are in special education classes are bullied more than their mainstreamed peers. Just by the term "special" in the word special education, these kids are set apart from their peers. When they get up and leave class, everyone knows where they're going. When children are placed in Special Day Classes, they rarely get exposed to grade-level material, higher-level thinking skills, and how to socialize properly.
This isolated setting of only being around others who have similar learning issues isn't conducive to helping children hone their social skills. And social skills are crucially important for life!
Children walking to special education classrooms become targets for bullies and often are unsupervised, leaving them vulnerable against attacks. Often, they lack the verbal skills to tell what happened and end up enduring the abuse. Or, they don't want any more attention drawn the themselves so suffer silently. Even when these kids have the courage to tell what happened, either the adults don't believe them or fail to act properly.
Even when the bullies are disciplined properly, there is often retribution and the children live in fear.
"I listened to a podcast where an autistic boy was brutally beaten by a gang of boys. He was twelve years old and had to be hospitalized. The problem continued even though the boys were disciplined. I wouldn't cast judgment on anyone, but I can't believe these parents let this poor child go back to that school. There are so many options for kids who are bullied," Lisa relates.
Social skills are important for any kids but especially so for children who struggle to learn. We need to find a better system to meet their needs so they can have the social confidence to