Friday, July 31, 2009

Breaking Down the IEP: Frequency, Location and Duration

The IEP document must include a statement of the special education, related services and program modifications to be provided to the student. In regards to those components, the statute includes an additional requirement that designates specific details about the services that must be included.

The IDEA requires the written IEP document to include:
"the projected date for the beginning of the services and modifications... and the anticipated frequency, location and duration of those services and modifications."
20 U.S.C. section 1414(d)(1)(A)(VIII).

When will the services and modifications described in the IEP begin?

The projected start date describes when the IEP will be "in effect" for this student. In many instances, an IEP can begin to be implemented right away. However, in some instances, the IEP team may be meeting for the purposes of determining services that are to begin at a later date, for example the following school year.

In any event, the IEP document needs to specifically state when the services are to begin. The District is required to implement that IEP consistent with the start date and in a manner that does not delay the provision of FAPE to the student.

What will be the frequency and duration of the services?

This is the "how often and how much" portion of the IEP. Once services are identified as necessary for the child, the IEP team needs to determine how often the child will recieve those services and how much time will be provided for each service. This determination should be individualized, and based on the child's identified unique needs, not based on a policy or district administrative decisions. For example, how often a child should recieve speech therapy should be based on his/her unique needs in the areas of speech, language and communication, how those needs impact his/her ability to access the curriculum, how these needs impact his/her functional skills, interactions with peers, etc, and other individual factors like attention span, or how the child generalizes skills. It should not be based on a district determination that all children with this disability recieve 2 times per week of speech therapy.

Whatever the IEP team determines, the IEP document must include a statement that is specific as to the frequency and duration of the services, so that all of those involved in developing and in implementing the IEP fully understand exactly what is to be provided.

What will be the location of the services?

Location can relate to several different considerations. Location may mean whether the service is to be provided within the child's classroom setting or whether the service is to be provided in a separate setting, like a therapy room, clinic setting, or counseling office. Location may mean whether the service will be provided at the school the child attends or at a private or non-public agency's office, like the office of a private speech pathologist or occupational therapy. Finally, location may mean the actual school that the child will attend and where the child will recieve services, although this definition of location causes much debate.

The IEP document is required to specifically identify the location of the services. Although there are many different things the IEP team should consider in determining location and how it should be described, the team should avoid generalized statements like "a district school location" and try to include specific information that gives the parents and other team members enough detail to understand what is being provided.

Importance of this information

"The amount of services to be provided must be stated in the IEP so that the level of the agency's commitment of resources will be clear to the parents and other IEP team members." Appendix A to 34 C.F.R. part 300, at Q35. This required content serves the purpose of clarifying the District's implementation duties, so that all persons working with the child understand what is to be provided and at what rate. It also serves the purpose of providing parents with enough information to meaningfully participate in the development of the IEP and fully consider the appropriateness of what is being offered. A parent may agree, for example, that her child requires speech therapy, but without knowing how much speech therapy is offered, it would be impossible for the parent to know if the IEP was appropriate.

The requirement that the IEP document location of services is a cause of much debate. Location in terms of in-class versus out-of-class (or the "push-in" model versus "pull-out" model) may be debated between parents and educators. In recent years, more emphasis has been placed on providing "push-in" services within the classroom setting or other natural environments. While this model is supported by the idea of providing services in the least restrictive environment, parents often feel that their child cannot fully benefit without more individualized services outside of the classroom setting.

Location in terms of the physcial school site is also a debate. In many cases, judges have agreed with school districts that the specific school site is an administrative decision, and that therefore failure to designate the specific school is not a FAPE violation, depsite the requirement that the IEP designate the "location" of services and program modifications to be provided. In some specific cases, however, the failure to identify a specific school has been found to deny student a FAPE. See, for example, A.K. v. Alexandria City School Board, 484 F.3d 672 (4th Cir 2007).

As with any component of the IEP, if the team determines that a specific location is requried to provide the student a FAPE, then that location needs to be specifically identified. In any case, some information describing the location of the services, along with the frequency and duration of the services, must be provided to conform to the statute and allow parents to meaningfully participate in the process.

Breaking Down the IEP: State- and District-wide Assessments

The IDEA requires that the written IEP document include:

"a statement of any individual appropriate accommodations that are necessary to measure the academic achievement and functional performance of the child on State and districtwide assessments...; and if the IEP team determines that the child shall take alternative assessment on a particular State or districtwide assessment of student achievement, a statement of why (AA) the child cannot participate in the regular assessment; and (BB) the particular alternative assessment selected is appropriate for the child."
20 U.S.C. section 1414(d)(1)(A)(VI)

What are state and district-wide assessments?

A lot can be written and discussed about the topic of state-wide and district-wide assessments, especially in regards to "high stakes testing." Because this blog post is focused on what is required content in the IEP related to such assessments, only a brief overview is provided: State-wide assessments are standardized measures utilized by school districts throughout the state to determine a child's academic achievement within a particular grade level. These assessments are determined by state law or the state department of education, and are utilized to measure a school's performance. Some states mandate specific tests that are used as part of the determination of whether a child moves from grade to grade, or whether a student earns a diploma. Because performance on these tests has such an impact, these tests are referred to as "high-stakes testing." District-wide assessments are standardized measures utilized within a local education agency / school district, as determined by district policy. These measures may be given at the end of the year, or periodically throughout the year. Sometimes, they are directly tied to the curriculum a school district is using. Periodic or yearly district-wide assessments are used for a variety of reasons, such as determining a child's progress, determining which students require intervention within the general education program, etc.

What individually appropriate accommodations are necessary and how should they be documented?

The IEP document must include individually appropriate accommodations based on the particular student's unique needs that are necessary on district-wide or state-wide testing. Accommodations should be those which the child needs in order to have an equal opportunity to participate in the assessment, and so that the assessment measures the child's academic achievement with minimal impact by that child's disability. If, for example, a child is extremely distracted in a large group setting, a separate testing area may be necessary.

The IEP document should be specific about these accommodations, avoiding generic language that is not easily interpretted by anyone reviewing and implementing the accommodations. It should specifically spell out what accommodations are needed and how those accommodations will be provided / implemented.

Will accommodations affect how the tests are normed or graded?

Another issue that could be discussed in length, but will only be discussed for purposes of this post briefly, is the issue of how accommodations affect the norming or grading of an assessment measure. This is a question that parents should ask during an IEP team's discussion of accommodations. Accommodations that seriously change what is actually being measured are actually modifications, and these may mean that the test is not "normed" or even that it is not reported for purposes of the school district's accountability reporting. If you want to see what your child knows as compared to same-grade peers, normed assessments may give you a good indication, assuming that appropriate accommodations have been given to give your child a fair chance. In any event, this is a discussion that impacts the parents ability to fully participate and understand what accommodations are appropriate, and so this discussion should be held when the IEP team is determining what to document about accommodations.

What are alternative assessments and how are they to be documented in the IEP?

Alternative assessments are related to the provision of alternative curriculum standards that are modified, rather than based upon grade level curriculum standards. If a child is recieving alternative curriculum rather than general education curriculum with modifications, accommodations and supports, then the IEP team may determine that the child should participate in alternative assessment measures, rather than the standardized district-wide or state-wide testing. Again, this is an issue that can and should be discussed in length elsewhere. For purposes of this blog, it is important for IEP participants to understand what should and must be documented with regards to this issue.

The IEP document must include a statement of why the student cannot participate in the regular district-wide or state-wide assessment. This statement should be specific to the child and based on the individual child's unique needs, rather than a generic statement. A statement, for example, that "because of Child's autism, the statewide testing is not appropriate," is not a clear statement of why the child cannot participate. This statement would seem to indicate that no child with autism could participate, which is certainly not the case for any disability. Therefore, the statement should include specific information regarding that particular child, and why the child cannot participate. Specific information will be useful down the line because as the child's needs change and he/she makes progress, it will be easier to reevaluate whether the regular standardized measure is now appropriate.

The IEP document also must specify what particular alternative assessment was selected and why that particular alternative assessment is appropriate for that specific student. Again, this statement should be based on the child's individual needs, rather than generic language about an assessment measure. It is interesting to consider that the IDEA requires such a statement, given that most districts utilize one alternative assessment measure that is used for all students who cannot participate in regular testing. The language of the required content in regards to alternative assessments implies that the IEP team is to make an individualized determination and to document a clear explanation of how that determination was based on the child's individual needs.

Fast Fact Friday: School of Residence

The terms "neighborhood school," "school of residence," or "home school" are often used interchangeably by school districts, parents and others. A child's "school of residence" is the specific school site that he or she would attend if not disabled. "School of residence" is determined by a district procedure that is used to determine what school each child in the district is assigned to, usually it is determined geographically according to the address of the parents. This is the school you would enroll your child in if there wasn't an IEP in the mix.

There is no absolute requirement that children attend their school of residence, even if they are fully included in a general education setting. The choice of appropriate placement depends on the child's unique needs as determined by the IEP team. Some school districts have policies that require all kids with IEPs who are placed in general education to be placed in their home school. Although this may be beneficial to some kids, there are parents who have concerns about the lack of an individualized decision in these situations. On the other hand, many parents may be in a school district that does not have such a policy, but instead may have a practice of grouping kids with IEPs at particular school sites that have inclusion support and other services. Parents in those districts may be concerned about the fact that their child then cannot be included in their "neighborhood school" with kids from their community.

Ultimately, parents have to be included in any team that is making placement decisions about their child. A child's school of residence is one placement consideration on the continuum of available options, and parents should think about the positive benefits of placement in the neighborhood school and discuss these benefits with the team.

Thursday, July 30, 2009

Breaking Down the IEP: Explanation of Non-Participation in Regular Education

Many of the other required content components of a written IEP document are directed at how a child can and will participate in the general education curriculum and regular education environment.

To recap: PLOP must state how a child's disability affects his/her involvement and progress in the general curriculum. Goals must be included that enable the child to be involved in and progress in general curriculum. The statement of special education and related services must include those services that are required to enable the child to progress in general education curriculum as well as to participate in activities with and be educated with non-disabled peers. Supplementary aids and services must be included that allow the child to participate in general education to the maximum extent appropriate. Even supports necessary for staff can be related to a child's participation in general education.

After all of that effort to include components geared towards inclusion in general education, it logically follows that if a child is still unable to participate in general education to any extent, that should also be documented.

The IDEA requires that the written IEP document include:
"an explanation of the extent, if any, to which the child will not participate with nondisabled children in the regular class and in activities[]."
20 U.S.C. section 1414(d)(1)(A)(V)

Look to your state's education code as well, as there may be additional language requiring documentation of a child's non-participation in general education. California law, for example, required the District to "document its rationale for placement in other than the pupil's school and classroom in which the pupil would otherwise attend if the pupil were not handicapped. The documentation shall indicate why the pupil's handicap prevents his or her needs from being met in a less restrictive environment even with the use of supplementary aids and services." Title 5, California Code of Regulations, section 3042(b).

In any event, the IEP document must include at a minimum an explanation that describes the extent to which the child will not participate in a regular class and activities. This can be done a number of ways. The IEP document may include a percentage of time, that indicates for X% child will be placed in general education classes, and for X% child will be placed in a special education setting. The IEP document may list specific time periods, subjects or classes, such as "child will participate in a general education class / setting for homeroom, math, science, social studies, computers, lunch and recess; child will participate in a special education classroom for language arts and reading." The IEP document needs to be clear so that those developing and implementing it understand how much the child is not to participate in the general education setting. It is also good practice to indicate the explanation, or justification, for removal from that setting.

The requirement refers not only to a regular classroom, but also to regular activities. Therefore, the extent to which the child will not be able to participate in regular education activities should also be documented in the IEP. This may include extracurricular and nonacademic activities in some cases, or may indicate recess, assemblies, etc.

These requirements are built into what is to be included in the IEP document in order to prompt the IEP team to fully consider LRE. If the IEP team needs to document an explanation for the child's nonparticipation in a general education setting, the theory is that it will give more careful consideration to the determination that the child should be removed from that setting.

Remember, like all required content, this statement should give parents enough information to fully participate in the development of the IEP. Parents need to understand when, why and how a child will be removed from the least restrictive environment in order to fully consider such an option.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Related Services: Services for Parents

Although not often included within an IEP document there are related services provided for under the law that are specific to Parents. The 2006 IDEA Part B regulations made it clear that while the 2004 statute did not include these services, the Department of Education believed that retaining the parent services were necessary in order to provide parents with counseling and training necessary to support the implementation of their child's IEP. See Analysis of Comments and Changes to 2006 IDEA Part B Regulations, 71 Fed. Reg. 46573 (2006).

There are five types of related services that an IEP team may find are appropriate for parents:
1) Counseling and guidance of parents regarding hearing loss and the related service of audiology. 34 CFR 300.34(c)(1).
2) Parent counseling and training. 34 CFR 300.34 (c)(8) This includes assisting parents in understanding the special needs of their child, providing parents with information about child development, and helping parents to acquire the necessary skills that will allow them to support the implementation of their child's IEP.
3) Planning and managing a program of psychological counseling for children and parents. 34 CFR 300.34 (c)(10).
4) Group and individual counseling with the child and family. 34 CFR 300.34 (c)(14).
5) Counseling of parents regarding speech and language impairments and the related service of speech pathology. 34 CFR 300.34(c)(15).

A parent may be eligible to receive sign language training in order to have the necessary skills to implement the child's IEP. See 34 CFR 300.34(c)(8). Although not automatically provided to parents of a student who is deaf or who has speech deficits, it is required when an IEP team decides that such training is needed for the student to benefit from special education. See Letter to Dagley, 17 IDELR 1107 (OSEP 1991); see also Letter to Anonymous, 19 IDELR 586 (OSEP 1992).

Hearing officers have also found that a LEA has to reimburse parents for private evaluations of students finding that the assessment was required to help parents acquire the necessary skills that will allow them to support the implementation of the child's IEP. See Hawaii Dep't of Educ., 102 LRP 3706 (SEA HI 2000) (finding that the state education department had to reimburse parents for testing and evaluations of their child performed by a private evaluator).

Parent training can also be provided in the home setting. In re: Student with a Disability, a hearing officer determined that an IEP for an 8-year old with Autism was not sufficient because it did not include parent training. In that case the IHO cited New York state regulation that mandated parent counseling and education for the purpose of enabling parents to perform appropriate follow-up intervention activities at home for children who were classified as autistic. The IHO concluded that the evidence overwhelmingly pointed to the need for training to enable the parent to perform follow-up ABA therapy in their home. Furthermore, the IHO disagreed with the district's position that simply informing the parent that she could come to school and observe ABA instruction was sufficient to satisfy its IDEA requirements. See In re: Student with a Disability, 102 LRP 8600 (SEA NY 2000).

Under some circumstances, transportation services are also available to parents when a student is placed at a residential placement. The IDEA does not set a minimum on the number of parents visits that a LEA is expected to fund to the residential facility. If a state or district policy on the number of trips does exist, however, it must allow for a case-by-case determination of how much visitation is necessary given the student's unique needs. A district may be required to fund a number of visits to a placement in order for parents to participate in other related services. In New Prairie United School Corporation, the court found that the district was obligated to fund either 12 parental visits to the school annual or 12 visits home, where parental visitation allowed for parents to participate in a family therapy program and training. See New Prairie United Sch. Corp., 30 IDELR 346 (SEA IN 1999). In Aaron M. by Glen M. and Lindy M. v. Yomtoob, the court found that parents were entitled to six trips per year to son's out-of=state residential placement in order to learn skills and strategies to work with their son. See Aaron M. by Glen M. and Lindy M. v. Yomtoob 38 IDELR 122 (N.D. Ill. 2003).

Breaking Down the IEP: Statement of Program Modifications

In addition to special education, services and supplementary aids and supports that are provided directly to the child, as discussed in the previous report, the written IEP document also includes those supports that are provided to school personnel. These modifications and supports may be critical to the child's ability to progress in his/her program and to the determination of the child's least restrictive environment, and this factor should not, therefore, be glossed over by the team or in the document.

The IDEA requires the written IEP document to include:

"a statement of the program modifications or supports for school personnel that will be provided for the child (aa) to advance toward attaining the annual goals; (bb) to be involved in and make progress in the general education curriculum... and to participate in extracurricular and other nonacademic activities; and (cc) to be educated and participate with other children with disabilities and nondisabled children in the activities described in [the IDEA]."
20 U.S.C. section 1414(d)(1)(A)(IV)

Program Modifications

Modifications generally involve changes to the program in terms of what a child is expected to produce or demonstrate within the curriculum. A change in the child's instructional level (i.e. reducing the grade level of what is presented) or a change in the content (i.e. reducing the amount or changing what is presented) can be program modifications. Likewise, if the format or performance criteria for tests and other curriculum-based achievement measures is substantially changed, so that what is being expected / tested is actually different, that would be considered a program modifications.

Modifications can be distinguished from reasonable accommodations. Accommodations can also be important to a child's individualized plan, but do not involve substantial alteration of what is expected in terms of performance and achievement within the curriculum. Accommodations may involve differences in how material is presented, how homework is given, how a test format looks, the setting, timing, etc. Accommodations in a classroom may involve preferential seating, repeated directions and reminders, etc, to assist the child in having an equal opportunity to learn.

Supports for School Personnel

These supports include "services that are provided to the teachers of a child with a disability to help them to more effectively work with the child." Comments to 1999 regulations, at page 12,593. These services could include collaboration and communication with other providers or supports provided within the classroom. "Supports for school personnel could also include special training for the child's teacher... [such training] would normally be targeted directly at assisting the teacher to meet a unique and specific need of the child, and not simply to participate in an inservice training program that is generally available within a public agency." Comments to 1999 regulations at page 12,593.

There is a difference, therefore, in training that is provided to everyone, versus training that is provided to this particular teacher based on this particular child's needs. However, even if the teacher is attending an inservice that is available to others, there may be an argument for having this documented in the IEP. The team needs to remain focused on the unique needs of this child, and if the teacher requires additional inservice training to meet those needs, training he/she would not require if this particular child were not to be placed in his/her classroom, then this is an appropriate part of the IEP document.

Relationship to Child's Goals and Individual Program

Program modifications and supports for personnel that should be included in the written IEP are those that are necessary for the child to make progress towards annual goals and towards general education curriculum. The IEP team needs to consider the child's individual goals, and how those goals will be met. Does the teacher require training, support or assistance to be able to provide the research-based specialized instruction that the team has determined to be appropraite? If so, that may need to be added to the IEP.

Relationship to General Education Curriculum and Least Restrictive Environment

The relationship between program modifications and supports for personnel to a child's access to the general education curriculum is so important that the IDEA specifies that the general education teacher participating in the development of the IEP must be involved in the determination of such modifications and supports, as well as any supplementary aids and services provided to the child. See 34 C.F.R. section 300.324(a).

Modifications to the program may be required in order for the child to be involved in and progress in the general education curriculum, and the necessity of such modifications should not be considered evidence that general education curriculum isn't appropriate. Rather, the IEP team needs to decide, and document, what modifications are appropriate on an individual basis so that the child can access the general education curriculum in a manner that is appropriate to his / her unique needs and learning difficulties while still allowing for progress.

A school district may state that if a child requires program modifications, rather than merely accommodations in the classroom, then it is not appropriate for that child to be in a general education classroom. This position is not consistent with the IDEA's preference for least restrictive environment, or with the statute's requirement that the written IEP document include a statement of program modifications that allow for the child to be involved in the general education curriculum and to be educated and participate with nondisabled peers.

Likewise, the IEP team needs to fully consider, and clearly document, supports for personnel that are required in order for the child to access general education curriculum and to access the Least Restrictive Environment. Maybe the general education teacher needs some in-service training related to the child's disability or to behavioral strategies or communication strategies so that the child can be in the general education classroom; if the training is required specifically to meet your child's individual needs, this in-service should be documented as a support for the personnel. Perhaps the teacher needs additional assistance in the classroom, even if the child does not individually require a 1:1 aide; if so, this support should be documented in the IEP. Even something like consultative time from the child's related services providers may be considered an important support for the teacher and staff. It is important that the general education teacher be an active participant in these discussions, and that the IEP document clearly indicate what supports will be provided.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Breaking Down the IEP: Statement of Special Education and Related Services

Inherently, an Individualized Education Plan should include documentation of the program to be offered to the student. The IDEA requires the written IEP document to include:
"a statement of the special education and related services and supplementary aids and services based on peer-reviewed research to the extent practicable, to be provided to the child, or on behalf of the child...(aa) to advance appropriately toward attaining the annual goals; (bb) to be involved in and make progress in the general education curriculum... and to participate in extracurricular and other nonacademic activities; and (cc) to be educated and participate with other children with disabilities and nondisabled children in the activities described [in the IDEA]."

20 U.S.C. section 1414(d)(1)(A)(IV).

Description of special education and related services

"Special education" includes the specially designed instruction or other specialized program to be provided to the child in order to allow that child to make progress in general education, advance towards goals, and participate in activities with peers. Specially designed instruction is a hot topic, because often when discussing instruction, issues of specific curriculum or methodologies arise.

For purposes of the IEP document, the IDEA requires a specific statement of the special education to be provided to the child. While "methodology" and specific "curriculum" may be generally within the discretion of the District, if a student requires a specific program in order to receive FAPE, it may be necessary for that program to be described in the IEP document. In any event, the IEP should contain some description of what is to be provided.

Related services include those specific services that are included in a child's program in order to meet the child's needs and provide him/her educational benefit. If a related service is required in order for the child to receive a FAPE, it should be described in the IEP document, along with details about when and how this will be provided, as will be discussed in a future post. Related services include those services listed in the IDEA, such as speech therapy, occupational therapy, etc.

The US Department of Education has clarified that
"the amount of services to be provided must be stated in the IEP, so that the level of the agency's commitment of resources will be clear to parents and other IEP team members. The amount of time to be committed to each of the various services to be provided must be (1) appropriate to that specific services, and (2) stated in the IEP in a manner that is clear to all who are involved in both the development and the implementation of the IEP."

Appendix A to 34 C.F.R. part 300, at Q.35.

The IEP document needs to state with specificity what services will be provided to the child. Some school districts believe that if a services is just a "part of their program" it doesn't have to be listed, but this isn't necessarily true and does not comport with what the statute requires. If the child is to be provided APE, for example, to meet his or her needs, the IEP document should state so, even if every other child in that class also happens to be provided with APE as part of the program.

Description of supplementary aids and services

Supplementary aids and services include related services, accommodations and supports, consultative services for teachers, etc. The statute specifies that supplementary aids and services to be provided to the child or on behalf of the child should be described in the IEP document. Examples of supplementary aids and services provided on behalf of the child may include training for a teacher or aid in a particular program or about a particular disability.

The phrase "supplementary aids and services" is also referred to within the language regarding Least Restrictive Environment, and it is important therefore to remember that within the requirement for a description of supplementary aids and services, the statute specifies that such supports be provided to "be involved in and make progress in general education curriculum." The presumption for Least Restrictive Environment requires that an IEP team consider the "full range of supplementary aids and services, that if provided would enable the child to participate in the general education environment," before moving that child to a more restrictive setting. See Questions and Answers on the LRE Requirements, OSERS, OSEP-95-9. Therefore, when discussing this portion of the IEP's required content, the team needs to document specifically what supports are required to ensure that the child be placed in the LRE and continue to receive an educational benefit there.

Supplementary aids and services is defined broadly as including any "aids, services and other supports that are provided in regular education classes or other education-related settings to enable children with disabilities to be educated with nondisabled children to the maximum extent appropriate." 20 U.S.C. section 1401(29). Any supplementary aids and services used to support the child in the LRE must be described in the written IEP document.

"Based on peer-reviewed research to the extent practicable"

The written IEP document includes a statement of special education and related services "based on peer-reviewed research to the extent practicable." The only guidance as to what "to the extent practicable" means is found in the Analysis of Comments and Changes to 2006 IDEA Part B regulations:
"The phrase to the extent practicable generally means that services and supports should be based on peer reviewed research to the extent that it is possible, given the availability of peer reviewed research."
71 Fed. Reg. 46565 (Aug. 14, 2006)

The Education Department explained that peer-reviewed research refers to "research that is reviewed by qualified and independent reviewers to ensure that the quality of the information meets the standards of the field before the research is published." Analysis of Comments and Changes to 2006 IDEA Part B Regulations, 71 Fed. Reg. 46664 (2006).

Although the substantive issues related to instruction and services based upon peer-reviewed research, and what that means in terms of what should be provided to an individual child, is a different topic altogether, peer-reviewed research is relevant to the discussion of required content for the written IEP. Because the statute specifies that an IEP is a written document that includes a statement of special education and related services based upon peer-reviewed research to the extent practicable, the written document should in fact address whether research supports the program offered by the school district. The decision of whether to write in a specific methodology into the IEP document is an IEP team decision. However, regardless of what methodology is utilized, the IEP document itself should document that it is based upon peer reviewed research, where applicable.

Relationship to Goals, General Education, and Progress

The requirement is that the IEP document special education and related services that will enable the child to make progress towards goals, participate and make progress towards general education curriculum, and be educated with and participate in activities with disabled and non-disabled peers. The IEP team must consider the goals that have been developed for the child, the child's unique needs related to his or her disability, and the child's needs related to how he/she will progress in general education curriculum, when determining what special education, related services, and supplementary aids and supports must be provided. To be clear, the IEP document should specify how the services, instruction and support will enable the child to meet his/ her goals and make progress towards general education curriculum.

This portion of an IEP's required written content may be the most complicated, and the most difficult to get right. Ultimately, if the IEP team remains focused on the child's needs, and how those needs relate to the services, instruction and supports being offered, then the document will be able to reflect clearly what will be provided and how that program provides FAPE. It is important, as with all portions of the IEP, that the District remember that ultimately, the IEP document needs to be clear enough to be understood by all of those involved in developing it and anyone potentially involved in implementing it. If sufficient details are included so that everyone can fully understand the special education and related services being offered, and parents can fully consider all aspects of the program, then a good clear IEP has been written.

Friday, July 24, 2009

Fast Fact Friday: Core Academic Subjects

The IDEA refers to the No Child Left Behind for a definition of the term "core academic subjects." See 20 U.S.C. section 1401(4). No Child Left Behind provides the following definition:

CORE ACADEMIC SUBJECTS- The term core academic subjects' means English, reading or language arts, mathematics, science, foreign languages, civics and government, economics, arts, history, and geography.

20 U.S.C. section 7801.

The relevance of defining core academic subjects is that under the IDEA and NCLB, a special education teacher who teaches core academic subjects to students with disabilities must be "highly qualified" in the subject he/she teaches. To meet the requirements, the teacher must be "highly qualified" as a special education teacher, meaning that he/she meets the certification, education and licensing requirements under the IDEA and state law, plus meet the requirements to be considered "highly qualified" in the subjects themselves. This does not apply to teachers who are exclusively teaching students who are assessed using alternative achievement standards.

Special education teachers in self-contained classroom settings may be teaching multiple subjects to their students. The IDEA addresses this situation by setting specific standards relevant to any special education teacher who teaches two or more core academic subjects exclusively to students with disabilities. Those teachers meet applicable standards if they either (i) meet the requirements of NCLB for highly qualified teachers; (ii) for teachers who are "not new," demonstrate competence in all of the core academic subjects in which the teacher teaches in the same manner; or (iii) for teachers who are new and are "highly qualified" in math, language arts or science, demonstrate competence in other core academic subjects in which the teacher teaches. 20 U.S.C. section 1401 (10)(D).

Students with disabilities need to learn and progress in core academic subjects, and the purpose of incorporating these requirements into the IDEA was to ensure that students with disabilities have the same right to competent, qualified instruction in the core academics as their non-disabled peers.

Related Services: Counseling

Under the IDEA Counseling is a related service, defined as services provided by qualified social workers, psychologists, guidance counselors, or other qualified personnel. See CFR 300.34(c)(2).

Related services include psychological counseling when it is required for a student to receive FAPE. See 34 CFR 300.34(c)(10). A school district, however, may be required to provide psychological counseling services even in situations where counseling is not needed primarily for educational purposes. In Doe v. Anring, the court found that psychotherapy and group therapy were required to assist the student to benefit from special education and were therefore "related services" under federal law. See Doe v. Anrig, 558 IDELR 278 (D. Mass. 1987).

If a student has emotional and behavioral disorders they may be entitled to receiving counseling services for therapeutic as well as educational benefit. If a student is emotionally or behaviorally disturbed, the connection between improving emotional difficulties, coping skills or social skills and increasing a student's ability to benefit from special education is fairly clear. In Sacramento City Unified School District, the student in question had intellectual abilities in the high average range but his classroom performance was below his ability. He displayed little to no behavior issues within the confines of the structured classroom setting but out of the classroom his behaviors included physical abuse of other children. The court found that he qualified for special education and related services, including counseling. See Sacramento City Unified School District, 509 IDELR 171 (SEA CA 1987).

Psychotherapy can either be a related service or a medical service, for which the LEA would not be responsible. The distinction is drawn based on the identity of the provide and the relation of the therapy to the child's educational needs. Typically, services that can only be provided by a psychiatrist are classified as medical services. If the psychotherapy services can be provided by other professionals, such as social workers, psychologists or guidance counselors, then those services will be considered related services if they are required to assist a child benefit from his or her special education.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Breaking Down the IEP: How Progress Will Be Measured

A student's IEP goals must be clearly measurable and must address that student's unique needs arising from his / her disability. Goals are the central part of an IEP; they set standards for what the child will learn and achieve under the proposed program. Essential to a parents understanding of the child's progress and the appropriateness of the program, therefore, is how progress will be reported. The IDEA requires a statement within the written IEP document regarding this.

Specifically, the IDEA requires:

"a description of how the child's progress towards meeting the annual goals... will be measured and when periodic reports on the progress the child is making toward meeting the annual goals (such as through the use of quarterly or other periodic reports, concurrent with the issuance of report cards) will be provided."
20 U.S.C. section 1414(d)(1)(A)(III).

How will progress be measured?

This is closely related to the discussion of how goals should be written so that they are measurable. The starting place for determining how progress will be measured is within the goal itself - make sure it is clear what accuracy level the child will be expected to achieve to meet the goal; include a reliability indicator, such as 3 out of 4 trials, if appropriate, and make sure that the specific skills themselves are clear.

Determining "how" progress will be measured also involves deciding how information regarding progress will be gathered. Will there be specific data collection that indicates specifically how a child performed on the skill for each trial? Will classroom work samples be sufficient to track progress on a skill? Should the teacher utilize an assessment measure to indicate the child's achievement level to determine progress? The IEP team needs to consider how information will be collected, and make sure this is clear in the IEP. Although observational information may be useful for future IEP meetings, a subjective measurement of progress should be avoided as a sole indicator whenever possible.


Child's annual goal = read 50 new sight words from a 2nd grade high frequency word list with automaticity as measured by teacher collected samples

Progress measured by: teacher samples
Teacher indicates directly on list of high frequency words the words that student reads, and adds these up. The list itself is a record of student's progress.

Child's annual goal = remain on task for at least 10 minutes during a teacher-directed desktop assignment or activity, with no less than 2 verbal prompts in 3 out of 4 trials as measured by data collection charts.

Progress is measured by:
Data collection chart
Date: 06/12
Lesson: Math
Time on task: 6 minutes
prompts: 3

When will progress be reported?

The IEP document needs to specifically identify when "periodic reports on the progress" towards the child's annual goals will be produced and provided to parents. These periodic reports can be concurrent with the issuance of report cards, but should include specific information related to the child's specific goals. Because the IDEA now only requires short term objectives for students who are provided with alternative assessment measures, it may be difficult to quantify a child's progress towards the ultimate goal for the periodic report. If objectives are included in the IEP, the periodic report can tell parents whether or not the child has met the objective for that time period. If not, then information about how the child has progressed should still be made availalble.

Providing sufficient information within a periodic report of progress goes back to the goals itself being measurable. If the goal has a clearly measurable, objective standard that can be quantified or recorded in some way, then the child's current level on that same objective standard can be reported for a periodic report.


Child's annual goal = read 50 new sight words from a 2nd grade high frequency word list with automaticity as measured by teacher collected samples

Periodic Report for First Reporting Period

periodic reports on the progress the child is making toward meeting the annual goals (such as through the use of quarterly or other periodic reports, concurrent with the issuance of report cards) will be provided

Relationship to Other Procedural Safeguards

School districts are obligated to revise a child's IEP as appropriate "to address any lack of expected progress toward the annual goals and in the general education curriculum, where appropriate." 20 U.S.C. section 1414(d)(4)(A)(ii)(1). This means that if during the time period covered by an annual IEP, the student is not making expected progress, the District should convene the team to discuss whether adjustments to the goals or the program are required. It is important that the goals themselves are clearly measurable, and that there are reporting periods clearly identified for when progress will be reported, so that if the child is not making progress, the team, including parents, are aware of this. If the IEP does not clearly establish how and when progress will be measured, the team may not be aware until the next annual IEP that the child is not making adequate progress. This may cause a loss of educational benefit, in that the District thereby did not revise the IEP as appropriate to meet the child's needs and enable him/her to meet the annual goals.

Ultimately, an important purpose of making sure that the goals are measurable and that progress is reported periodically is to ensure meaningful parent participation in the process. Parents cannot fully participate in ongoing discussions regarding their child's program or annual IEP meetings if they do not know whether or not the child is making expected progress. If parents are fully informed regarding their child's progress, or lack thereof, under the special education program being provided, they are more able to understand the appropriateness of the program being offered, and to ask for additional services or supports when needed.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Related Services Hiatus

Due to some circumstances beyond my control - namely that I stayed up late baking a fabulous rainbow birthday cake - I'm going to have to delay the post by one day. Check back tomorrow for a post on Counseling.

Breaking Down the IEP: Measurable Annual Goals

The IDEA requires the written IEP document to include measurable annual goals to address the child's unique needs. Goals are based upon the child's present levels of performance, and should drive the child's services. Therefore, goals are often consider the "core" of the student's IEP.

Specifcially, the IDEA requires:

"a statement of measurable annual goal, including academic and functional goals, designed to (aa) meet the child's needs that result from the child's disability to enable the child to be involved in and make progress in the general education curriculum; and (bb) meet each of the child's other educational needs that result from the child's disability."
20 U.S.C. section 1414(d)(1)(A)(i)(II).

What are Annual Goals?

OSEP and the Appendix to the IDEA 1999 regulations both have defined annual goals as "statements that describe what a child with a disability can reasonably be expected to accomplish within a 12-month period, in the child's special education program." Letter to Butler, 213 IDELR 118 (1988); Notice of Interpretation, Question 4, Appendix A to 34 C.F.R. part 300 (1999 regulations).

What needs should be addressed?

Proper and complete identification of a child's unique needs is key to writing good goals for the IEP. Evaluation data, input from persons working with the child, and information about what the child should be able to do at this grade level, all may be relevant when developing proposed annual goals. If the team has considered all relevant information and drafted clearly stated and sufficiently comprehensive PLOP, then identifying areas that need to be addressed in annual goals will be much easier. By definition, goals should address a child's unique needs related to the following:

(1) IEP must include both academic and functional goals

As discussed in the previous posts, IEP teams are now explicitly required to address both academic and functional areas when developing a program for the child. "Educational benefit" has long been defined as including both academic and non-academic areas. Since ultimately the IEP must be reasonably calculated to provide educational benefit to the student, it logically follows that all components of educational benefit should be considered when determining what goals are necessary, even if those areas are not strictly related to academic progress.

Academic goals relate to what the child will be expected to learn and accomplish in the coming year in the areas of reading and language arts, math, social studies and history, and science.

Functional goals related to what progress the child will be expected to make in the coming year in areas, skills and activities that are non-academic and related to the child's day to day functional skills, like behavior, communication, independent living skills, social skills, etc.

(2) "Enable the child to make progress in the general education curriculum"

The IDEA specifically states that goals must be included for each child with a disability to meet the child's needs arising from the disability in order to enable that child to make progress in general education curriculum. There is nothing in the statute that indicates that this provision only requires to students who are in a general education classroom, or to students with a certain level of general intelligence and ability, or that it does not apply if the student has a "severe" disabilty.

The decision of what progress towards general education curriculum would be appropriate is of course an individualized decision based upon factors related to that individual child. Certainly, not every child will be able to meet grade level standards. However, every child can be given the opportunity to make progress in general education curriculum appropriate to their individual strengths and needs. Because this debate is a frequent issue in IEP meetings, it has been addressed more thoroughly in a previous blog post.

(3) "Meet other educational needs that arise from the disability"

The term "educational" is broader than merely academics. Educational benefit can include both academic and non-academic areas. It is important to remember this framework when considering the need for goals to "meet each of the child's other educational needs."

Other educational needs may include speech, language or communication deficits, social skills difficulties, behavioral needs, recreation and leisure, independent living, motor skills, etc. Focus on the "big picture" of what an educational program should be accomplishing, and utilize assessment data, PLOP, and input from team members to determine what areas need to be addressed.

Remember that the IDEA says "each of the child's other educational needs," not "the most important needs." The IEP team needs to make sure that the goals are attainable and appropriate, and it therefore may not be appropriate to have a huge amount of goals. However, when the District says "we only write goals to address the most important areas," or "we have to prioritize and pick only some areas of need to address," this isn't exactly conducive with the IDEA's language. Instead, the IEP needs to include a goal for each area of educational need a child has that arises from that child's disability.

What does it mean for goals to be "measurable?"

To be measurable, a goal must be written clearly with sufficient information to allow an objective person to understand what skill is being addressed and exactly what should be accomplished in order for the child to reach the goal. IEP teams should be wary of goals that are vague or that contain broad generalized statements about "improving" in an area or "increasing" a skill, without specifying what that means. A goal that says that the child will "improve" in his/her skills in a specific area provides little more information than what area of need is being addressed. Ask yourself how the child will improve, how it will be demonstrated, and what specific skill is being addressed.

If the IEP team has developed clear statements of the child's PLOP, writing measurable goals will be much easier. The PLOP can be used to establish clear baselines as a "starting place" for the proposed goals. If the baseline is clear, it is easier to determine how to write an annual goal that will ensure progress and will be measurable. For example, if the PLOP indicates that the child's current fluency rate is at 50 words per minute, the IEP team has enough information to draft a goal that would be at a higher rate, and has specific enough data to make that goal measurable (i.e. the child will read at a rate of 100 words per minute).

Avoid goals that are subjective, because these will not be clearly measurable by whomever is implementing the IEP. A good point of reference is to think "if I had to take this IEP to a new school district who had not been involved in this meeting, would they know how to implement this goal and measure it?"

Measurable Goal: Child will engage in a conversation with a peer for 5 minutes, demonstrating at least two conversational turns and remaining on topic.
Vague / Not Measurable: Child will improve conversational skills with peers.

Measurable Goal: Child will demonstrate ability to read 50 new grade level sight words with 90% accuracy in 3 out of 4 trials.
Vague / Not Measurable: Child will increase reading of sight words.

What is the relationship between goals and services, instruction & the provision of FAPE?

IEP goals should drive specialized instruction and related services. The goals establish what the child is expected to learn and accomplish within the special education program. Once the goals have set forth a roadmap for the child, the IEP team must consider what specialized instruction and related services will be required to get there.

An IEP that is found to have insufficient or inappropriate goals will in many cases be found to deny a student FAPE. This is because when the IEP goals are not based on the child's needs, the program itself likely will not be able to meet the child's needs and provide educational benefit. Goals, therefore, have vital importance to the development of an overall appropriate program for an individual child!

Monday, July 20, 2009

Breaking Down the IEP: Present Levels of Performance

When an IEP team is convened to discuss the program and services for a student with a disability, the school district is responsible for ensuring that a written document is created. An IEP is defined as "a written statement for each child with a disability that is developed, reviewed, and revised in accordance with [the IDEA]." 20 U.S.C. section 1414(d)(1)(A). There are specifically delineated portions of this "written statement" that make up required content for an IEP.

The first on the IDEA's list of required content is "present levels of performance;" often referred to by its acronym, "PLOP."

PLOP means:

"A statement of the child's present levels of academic achievement and functional performance, including (aa) how the child's disability affects the child's involvement and progress in the general education curriculum; (bb) for preschool children, as appropriate, how the disability affects the child's participation in appropriate activities; and (cc) for children with disabilities who take alternative assessments aligned to alternative achievement standards, a description of benchmarks or shortterm objectives."

Present levels of academic achievement

Academic achievement refers to a child's performance in academic areas, including reading and language arts, math, science, and history or social studies. This refers to what your child knows and can do at the present time as related to the core academic subjects. PLOP in academic achievement should provide the team with information about what the child's skills are. How are the child's reading and math skills as compared to the general education curriculum standards? Did your child meet his / her previous goals related to academics? What level were those goals set at, and if your child did not meet the goals, what level did he/she reach? What does your child's report card say about their performance?

Present levels of functional performance

Functional performance refers to a child's skills and achivement in areas that are "not considered academic or related to a child's academic achievement." See Commentary, Federal Register, at page 46661. Functional skills include areas such as daily living activities, motor skills and communication. Because PLOP must address both academic and functional performance, the IEP team needs to consider all areas of need arising from the child's disability when developing PLOP, regardless of if these areas directly impact academic achievement. Consider factors such as your child's ability to communicate in the classroom and with peers, your child's motor skills needs, any difficulties with organization or work habits, how your child socializes, etc. Ask the teachers for input about how your child "functions" on a day to day basis as compared to other kids his/her age.

How the child's disability impacts involvement and progress in general education

The requirement that PLOP specifically address how the disability impacts involvement and progress in general education curriculum should be considered when developing both PLOP for academic performance and PLOP for functional performance. When considering a child's academic achievement, for example, it is important to compare this to what the child is expected to do / learn in order to make progress in general education curriculum. If your child's disability affects his / her reading skills to the extent that this impacts her progress towards general education curriculum standards, for example, this needs to be noted in the PLOP. In the areas of functional skills, any functional performance deficit that affects how the child can participate in the curriculum should be noted as such. Additionally, the IEP document should consider, as a whole, how the disability impacts involvement in general education. Does the child's disability require a specialized setting or specialized instruction that cannot be provided in general education? Does the child's disability require modifications to the general education curriculum? These are issues the team should be considering when developing PLOP.

Preschool children

There is nothing in the law that states that IEPs for preschool children do not have the same requirements for content as for other students. There is, however, a consideration in the requirement for PLOP regarding preschool children in terms of access to age appropriate activities. For preschool children, it may be the case that they are not yet being taught "general education curriculum," and there may not be specific curriculum standards that apply. Instead, there may be "readiness skills" and developmentally appropriate activities, designed to get the child ready for a Kindergarten program. The IDEA recognizes this, and requires that when appropriate, the IEP document include a statement of PLOP related to how the child's disability impacts his/her ability to be involved in age appropriate activities.

Alternative achievement standards

Prior to IDEA 2004, the IEP was required to include a statement of goals that includes objectives or benchmarks towards meeting those goals for all students with disabilities. IDEA 2004 removed this language under "goals" and instead included additional language under the provision for PLOP. Students who are assessed using "alternative measures" that are aligned to alternative achievement standards, rather than general education standards, require shortterm benchmarks in order to measure their progress towards goals. Although this is now included under PLOP, it will be fully discussed in the next blog post in this series, which addresses goals.

Importance of PLOP to the IEP process

A clear and accurate statement of a child's present levels of performance, both in academic and functional areas, is the foundation for establishing a good IEP. PLOP provides the team with a baseline from which to develop goals, consider necessary services, discuss appropriate specialized instruction, and ultimately develop a program that will meet the child's unique needs and provide educational benefit. If the PLOP is vague, inaccurate or incomplete, then the IEP will likely not address each of the child's unique needs arising from his/her disability.

A sufficient statement of the child's PLOP is also critical for meaningful parent participation. Without accurate and complete information about how a child is performing and functioning, it would be impossible for a parent to be fully informed and to meaningfully participate in discussions regarding the child's unique special education needs.

For example, in an Oregon case, the ALJ concluded that the school district denied FAPE to the student, based in part on the finding that the district repeatedly failed to report the student's current performance or issue reports that documented progress towards IEP goals. The ALJ noted that mere identification that the child had "ongoing educational difficulties" was not enough for a statement of PLOP, noting that the parent did not have enough information regarding how the PLOP was related to the child's IEP goals. The ALJ found fault with the district's "recycling" of PLOP from year to year without updating the information.
Ashland School District, 47 IDELR 82 (SEA OR 2007).

In a New Mexico case, an appeal officer found that the District had denied FAPE to a student because the parents were denied meaningful participation in the IEP process. The IEP documents failed to include a statement of the student's present levels of performance, particularly in the area of reading, and did not include adequate information to allow the parent to fully participate in the development of a program. Because the IEP lacked information about the student's PLOP, parent had an erroneous belief that he continued to require a restrictive placement in a separate facility to recieve adequate specialized instruction. Although the district "recommended" a less restrictive setting, it continued to place the child in the specialized program due to the parent's request. The judge noted that this placement was inappropriate, and that the parent only requested it because of the lack of information she was provided regarding her child's current academic performance.
Rio Rancho Pub. Schs., 40 IDELR 140 (SEA NM 2003).

How specific should PLOP be?

The statement of PLOP should be specific enough to clearly establish with sufficient detail what the child's particular needs are in each area. Vague statements are not sufficient to lay an adequate foundation for a good IEP. The child's levels of performance need to be clearly defined so that anyone reading the IEP and working with the child has sufficient information to be able to address those needs and measure progress.

For example, in a New York case, the state review officer determined that the school district's IEP was inappropriate because the document did not contain sufficient details regarding the child's present levels of performance and specific special education needs. The IEP in question stated that the child had "difficulties" in motor skills and functional communication, but did not identify any specific difficulties that arose for this child. The vagueness of the statement of PLOP meant that the goals were not designed to match the student's actual needs, and therefore there was not a sufficient "foundation" for development of an appropriate program.
In re Child with a Disability, 50 IDELR 236 (SEA NY 2008)

Where information is derived from

Information contained within a statement of PLOP may come from a variety of sources, such as progress reports from previous IEP goals, report cards demonstrating a student's academic achievement in the classroom, informal observations, data collection, formal evaluations, teacher input, etc. Remember those things that the District must "consider" when developing the IEP, as discussed in the previous post. The District should take into consideration a variety of sources of input to develop PLOP that accurately, completely and specifically identifies the child's strengths and weaknesses in each area.

Parent participation in development of PLOP

Parent participation is critical to the development of a procedurally and substantively appropriate IEP, and there is nothing to support an argument that parents should not participate in the development of PLOP. As discussed in the previous post, the "concerns of the parent" are a part of what must be considered when developing the IEP. If the parent concerns are relevant to what the child's current levels of performance and achievement are, it would be appropriate for these concerns to be considered when developing PLOP. On a logical basis, it would be irrational for the District not to include relevant and accurate information provided by the parent in relation to what the child currently knows and can do.

Parents should prepare for the IEP meeting by carefully considering for themselves what the child's PLOP are in areas related to academics and functional skills. Look over information you have been provided throughout the year from your child's teachers and service providers. Make sure you have copies of any statewide or standardized testing results, report cards, progress reports, and evaluations. Make a list of what you see as important performance and achievement information from this information, and use that as a "checklist" when discussing PLOP with the IEP team.

Finally, the discussion of a child's PLOP can be a good indicator of how the remainder of the IEP team meeting is going to go. If the District is not allowing parents to actively participate and provide input, or is not giving the parents sufficient information, during this part, that may be an indication that the District is not going to have a meaningful meeting that involves everyone and develops an appropriate program. Disagreements are certainly possible regarding what a child's actual levels of performance and achievement are, a meaningful discussion of those disagreements should take place. If the parent believes that the IEP document is not accurately describing a child's needs and PLOP, it is likely that the parent also won't believe the IEP is designed to meet the child's needs. Ultimately, everyone needs to be proactive, information needs to be fully shared, and sufficient details need to be provided so that the PLOP really does lay the foundation for an appropriate program.

Saturday, July 18, 2009

Breaking Down the IEP: What Must Be Considered?

An IEP is an individualized plan developed by a team of individuals to address a child's unique needs and provide for goals, services and special education to meet those needs. Because it is individualized, inherently, specific information about the individual child must be discussed and taken into consideration. This information can come from a variety of sources, including evaluation data, classroom data, parents, teachers, etc. Because the IEP is developed by a team of individuals, all of those members should have input into the development of the IEP, based on their knowledge of the child and their specific role in the process.

The IDEA includes a specific list for what the IEP team is required to take into consideration. See 20 U.S.C. section 1414(d)(3).

(i) the strengths of the child

Although the child's unique needs, i.e. deficits, are the core of what must be addressed in an IEP, it is important that the team take into consideration the child's strengths as well. An individual child's specific strengths can be very relevant in the discussion of what type of specialized instruction would work for the child, how the child can be included in general education, etc. It may not be appropriate, for example, for a child who has a strength in math skills to be in a specialized setting the entire day, rather than being included for a math class.

Remember that the "strengths of the child" should be based on that particular child, not solely on what may be considered a "strength" for that age or grade level. This is called a "relative strength."

(ii) the concerns of the parents for enhancing the education of their child

Consideration of the concerns of the parents in the development of the IEP is, in my opinion, one of the most important provisions of the IDEA. Other portions of the IDEA echo this requirement, instructing school districts to include parents in the IEP team and to include parents in any team that makes a placement decision about their child. Procedural safeguards and other requirements are all based on this central idea: that parent participation is key to the development of an appropriate IEP.

Meaningful parent participation is not just about whether the school district invites the parents to the meeting and whether the parents show up. The requirement that the "concerns of the parents for enhancing the education of their child" indicates the importance of meaningful parent participation - their concerns must actually be taken into consideration by the IEP team when the IEP is being developed.

IEP teams and school district representatives can only take into consideration parent concerns if they have an open mind about those concerns, and about any requests that the parents may make to the team and district. The IEP team should listen to the parents, and should have a meaningful discussion about any concerns raised, including how those concerns will be addressed in the IEP.

Parents should be proactive in preparing for participation in IEP meetings. Make a list of your concerns related to your child's education. Consider what concerns you have regarding your child's social skills, peer interactions, academic achievement, attention and behavior, and other areas relevant to the IEP development. Consider how those concerns relate to other data and information you have; like, for instance, if your concerns regarding your child's academic achievement are supported by findings from a recent assessment or by progress reports from the child's classroom. Finally, think about what you would like to see included in the IEP to address these areas, and whether you have any concerns about the provision of any specific instructional programs or services. These are the types of concerns that should be shared with the team in order for meaningful parent participation to occur.

(iii) the results of the initial evaluation or most recent evaluation of the child

Evaluations are critical to the development of an appropriate IEP that truly addresses the child's unique educational needs. The IDEA specifies that to be appropriate, an evaluation or assessment must be sufficiently comprehensive to identify each of the student's unique special education and related services needs. The school district must utilize evaluation tools and strategies that are effective in
gather[ing] relevant functional, developmental and academic information... that may assist in determining... the content of the child's individualized education program, including information related to enabling the child to be involved in and progress in the general educatin curriculum, or for preschool children, to participate in appropriate activities.
20 U.S.C. section 1414(b)(2)(A)

Evaluation data should be useful in determining what the child's unique needs are, what their present levels of performance (PLOP) are, what changes should be made to any specialized instruction or related services being provided, what areas need to be addressed in goals, and what supports a child may need to be involved in general education.

The IEP team is required to consider information from the evaluation of the child, including the initial evaluation or most recent reevaluation conducted by the school district. Because of this requirement, it may not be adviseable in many circumstances for parents to agree to waive triennial re-evaluations by the school district when the time arises for those evaluations. The IEP team needs current evaluation data regarding a child's unique needs, and that evaluation data is not solely for the purpose of establishing eligibility, but also for guiding the team about what the program must address in order to be approrpiate.

It is also important to note that elsewhere in the IDEA, there is a requirement that the results of any independent educational evaluation, whether funded by the school district or by parents, also be taken into consideration. 34 C.F.R. section 300.502(c) specifies that the results of an independent educational evaluation or private evaluation "must be considered... in any decision made with respect to the provsion of FAPE to the child." Since the IEP team is making decisions with regards to the provision of FAPE, the IEP team is charged with considering the independent assessment.

(iv) the academic, developmental and functional needs of the child

Ultimately, the core of what the IEP team needs to consider is the unique needs of the child, including academic, developmental and functional needs. In each of these areas, the child's unique needs must be considered in relation to how those needs affect the child's ability to access an educational benefit, with the understanding that "educational" means more than merely academic progress.

Academic needs include how your child performs in core academic subjects, and may also include how other areas affect your child's ability to learn academic skills (like attention, behavior, etc). Evaluation data and teacher input are critical for identifying and determining a child's unique needs in the area of academics. It is important to look both at relative deficits, that is areas that are deficit based on this particular child's other strengths and overall abilities, as well as more broad areas of deficit, including those areas that are deficit when compared to what the child should be expected to do at this grade or age level. In order to truly understand a child's academic needs, all of this information should be considered.

One place to look for guidance in determining your child's academic needs is your state's academic content standards or grade level curriculum standards, especially if your child's IEP states that he/she is expected to meet grade level standards. Are there areas identified as expectations for your child's grade level that he/she struggles with? What about the curriculum standards for the grade level below; are there standards that your child has not yet met or made progress towards? Although the District would not ulitmately be required to ensure that your child meet all grade level content standards, this information can still be useful as a point of discussion when identifying a child's academic needs.

Developmental needs can include areas related to child development appropriate to your child's age, such as motor skills, language and communication, cognition, and social skills. Think about the things that you tracked when your child was a toddler, the "developmental milestones." These are generally within broader areas that are under the umbrella of "developmental skills." If your child has a delay in the development of age-appropriate skills in these areas, then that may be an indication of unique need that should be considered by the IEP team.

Functional needs can include those related to deficits in skills or activities that are nonacademic, but are related to the child's ability to function in day to day life activities and routines. Functional skills are those skills, beyond academics, that a child is going to need to acquire to "make it" once he/she leaves school. Remember that one of the purposes of the IDEA is to ensure that children with disabilities are educated appropriately and thereby prepared for "further education, employment and independent living." 20 U.S.C. section 1400(d)(1). Functional skills must be developed in order to prepare students for such endeavors, and therefore need to be addressed in the IEP.

Friday, July 17, 2009

Breaking Down the IEP: Introduction

A child's Individualized Education Plan (IEP) is developed by a team of individuals, that includes the child's parents (IEP Team). The IEP document itself can be a confusing, overwhelming document, and parents need to fully understand the document in order to give informed consent. The IEP document essentially will contain written information about what program the school district intends to offer for your child, and in many instances it may be the only place that information is contained in written form.

IDEA and state laws include specific requirements for what must be included in an IEP document, as well as requirments for what must be considered when developing the IEP. In these blog posts, we will break down those requirements and talk about each item individually in terms of its importance to the overall IEP for the child. Please leave comments if you'd like to see any specific topic further explored as a follow up!

Fast Fact Friday: Who is a "Parent" Under IDEA

The IDEA defines "parent" as:
(A) a natural, adoptive or foster parent of the child (unless a foster parent is prohibited by State law from serving as a parent);
(B) a guardian (but not the State if the child is a ward of the State);
(C) an individual acting in the place of a natural or adoptive parent (including a grandparent, stepparent, or other relative) with whom the child lives, or an individual who is legally responsible for the child's welfare; or
(D) [] an individual assigned under either [section 1415(b)(2) or section 1439(a)(5)] to be a surrogate parent.
20 U.S.C. section 1401(23)

What happens when the parents are divorced?

If the parents of the child are divorced, both parents are considered a "parent" under the IDEA and have all of the parental rights established by the IDEA's procedural safeguards, unless a court order or state law specifies otherwise. The IDEA specifically allows for a judicial decree or court order to identify the person who is to act as the parent of the child and to make educational decisions on the part of the child. 34 C.F.R. section 300.30(b). If divorced parents both maintain shared legal and physical custody, each may be able to make educational decisions. If, however, a divorced parent does not have legal or physical custody, they may not be entitled to participate in the educational process. The siutation can be unclear in circumstances where parents share legal custody but not physical custody, or the other way around.

The best scenario would be for parents to ensure that the educational rights pertaining to the child are specified in a divorce agreement or addressed by the Court in its order.

What happens when the parents are unknown?

Section 1415(b)(2) includes a requirement that the local education agency establish procedures to protect the rights of the special education student "whenever the parents of the child are not known, the agency cannot after reasonable efforts locate the parents, or the child is a ward of the State." In these circumstances, the agency must assign a surrogate to act as the parent. School districts must establish a method for determining whether the child requires a surrogate and for assigning a surrogate parent. See 34 C.F.R. section 300.519. The surrogate cannot be an employee of the school district or any other agency involved in the education of the child, and must have "knowledge and skills that ensure adequate representation of the child."

Two circumstances are specifically addressed further: First, if the child is a ward of the State, the statute specifies that the surrogate may be appointed by the Judge overseeing the child's care. Second, if the child is an unaccompanied homeless youth, the school district is specifically responsible for appointing the surrogate. See 20 U.S.C. section 1415(b)(2).

Parents, including surrogate parents under the IDEA, or a divorced parent with legal and physical custody, have rights and responsibilities as determined by the procedural safeguards of the IDEA, and must be included and involved in all matters related to the identification, evaluation, placement and provision of FAPE to the child.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Private Placements Part 3: Locate an Appropriate Unilateral Placement

In a unilateral placement case, when parents are seeking reimbursement for a private school placement, parents must demonstrate that the private placement the child is attending is "appropriate" for that child. This presents what the courts have deemed a "stringent but not impossible" task. Parents meet this burden by demonstrating that the private placement meets the child's needs and provides the child with educational benefit. Courts will look at whether the placement reasonably serves the child's individual needs.

This analysis is obviously fact-sensitive and varies in every single case. The "appropriateness" of the private placement is something parents need to keep in mind at every stage of this process, from deciding to disagree with the district's proposed placement, to searching for an appropriate alternative, to deciding if/when to seek reimbursement.

Things to Consider:

There are many things parents can consider when deciding on a placement. Its helpful to start out with a list of your child's unique needs as a starting place so that you can keep in mind how the different components of various options may (or may not) meet those needs. Then make a list of the things that would be required to be in a program for it to be appropriate for the child. Utilize your experts and evaluators during this stage if possible.

Examples of factors to think about include:

* Class size: does your child need a small class size with fewer peers? higher teacher:student ratio?

* Campus size / setting: does your child get overwhelmed in a large campus setting? are there safety concerns that may arise in larger settings?

* Specialized Instructional Methods: what specialized instructional programs does your child need? for example, does your child need specialized instruction for reading and is it available at this placement?

* Behavioral Components: what type of behavioral program does your child require? will class-wide behavior modification work? does your child require staff with certain training or experience to address his/her behavior?

* Social Skills Components: does your child need social skills instruction as part of a classroom curriculum component? in-the-moment training and facilitation throughout the day? does your child need access to appropriate social-models in terms of peers?

* Training of Staff: does your child require access to staff with specific training or experience working with kids with particular needs / disabilities?

Thinking about topics like these will help parents to ensure that if they are in the situation of having to choose a private alternative for placement, that placement is one that meets the child's needs so as to be considered "appropriate" when they are later seeking reimbursement.

Remember that the appropriateness of the private placement is only one factor, and only applies if the District's proposed placement is found to be inappropriate. While making a list of your child's unique needs and considering these factors when analyzing placement offers and options naturally will lead to some comparison between the District's placement and the private one, remember that comparing them is not the analysis the court will use. It is not enough simply to show that the private placement is "better," because ultimately you must show that the District's placement was not appropriate.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Related Service: Assistive Technology

When people first think of assistive technology they think of the actual devices that a student uses in the classroom - ranging from a laptop computer to a pencil grip. But some devices requires that the student's IEP actually include a direct service in order for them to access those devices.

Under the IDEA assistive technology service means any service that directly assists a child with a disability in the selection, acquisition, or use of an assistive technology device. See 20 U.S.C. 1401(2); 34 CFR 300.6. As with other services if the student is identified as needing special education and related services they are entitled to an individual evaluation for possible assistive technology devices. See Maynard Sch. Dist., 20 IDELR 394 (SEA AR 1993).

As with other services, it is the IEP team that makes the determination about whether a child requires either AT devices or services in order to receive a FAPE. See 34 CFR 300.324(a)(2)(v); see also Letter to Anonymous, 24 IDELR 854 (OSEP 1996). If the team determines that a student with a disability requires a device or service to receive a FAPE the District is obligated to provide that device or service. OSEP has stated that when a child requires AT the IEP document must include a specific statement of such AT devices or services. See Letter to Anonymous, 18 IDELR 627 (OSEP 1991).

As with other areas of special education a parent can not unilaterally determine the device or service but rather the team makes a determination about what is appropriate. If there is a dispute, however, parents have the ability to present evidence that the preferred device or services is appropriate and the district's proposed device or service is not. Furthermore, while the cost of a device is a relevant in determining what AT devices or services to provide it cannot be the determining factor. See Greenwood County Sch. Dist., 52 IDELR 355 (SEA CA 1992). A school district, however, has no obligation to pay for AT services if there is an alternate funding source, such as private insurance or Medicaid.

Typically an AT service is linked to a particular AT device that an IEP team has determined is appropriate for a student. For example, if an IEP team determines that a student requires an augmentative communication device in order to benefit from his or her education then the district may need to provide direct instruction in that device to the student and/or training to other instructors and service providers on that particular device. On the other hand, if an IEP team determines that a student requires access to a computer in the classroom the student may not require an AT service to access that device.

Private Placements Part 2: When an alternative may be necessary

Unilateral placement cases are highly fact-specific and each case is unique. It is advisable that a parent seeking to place their child unilaterally and obtain reimbursement for the costs of that placement obtain assistance from a special education attorney or highly experienced advocate from the initial stages of this process. An attorney or advocate can assist the parent with following all of the necessary steps in the process along the way.

The previous post in this series talks about when and how a parent gives notice to the school district of their decision to place their child unilaterally at a private school. Prior to reaching the point of providing notice, parents must go through the process of determining that a private placement is necessary for their child. The case law recognizes that such a determination is made at the parents' financial risk; that is, there is no guarantee that the parent would ultimately be reimbursed. Therefore, the determination to take such a step should only be made when it is necessary, and must be done cautiously. This second part of the "private placement" blog series discusses factors and situations that may give rise to such a determination.

Parents have attempted to work with the District to find another suitable alternative

Generally, parents should not rush into a unilateral, private placement without first trying to work within the District's system to locate an appropriate alternative. This doesn't mean that every child has to necessarily "try" the District's proposed classroom before the private placement occurs. But it does mean that parents should work cooperatively with the District, attend and participate in IEP meetings, voice their concerns about placements proposed by the District, go and observe District programs when possible, and provide the District with input from private experts or independent evaluators. If the District has not been given the "opportunity" to provide the student with an appropriate program, ultimately it is likely that a judge will find that reimbursement is not appropriate.

Private placement should be considered, therefore, in situations where the parent has actively and cooperatively participated in IEPs and placement discussions and has made efforts to work with the District to secure an approrpiate publicly funded placement. Many parents only turn to a unilateral placement after visiting / observing all of the recommended placements by the District, having multiple meetings with the District about placement, voicing their concerns, etc, and then determining that there is no appropriate option within the District's alternatives and private placement is therefore necessary. To read an example of such a case, see Board of Education of the City School District of the City of New York, 39 IDELR 56 (SEA NY 2002).

The District delayed completion of or implementation of an appropriate IEP, thereby denying educational benefit

In some circumstances, the district's unjustifiable delay in completing or implementing an IEP may cause such a loss of educational benefit to the student as to support the need for a private placement and reimbursment to parents. Consider whether the district has failed to complete an IEP at all, leaving it "in limbo" such that the student has no program in place. If this has happened, parents may be faced with a choice between leaving their child with no specialized program, or unilaterally placing the child in an appropriate program and seeking reimbursement. If the issue is not development of the IEP, but implementation, it is important to look at whether the component that has not been implemented was essential to the IEP, and the lack of that component meant that the program itself was no longer appropriate. Again, parents are then faced with a difficult choice between allowing their child to continue in the inappropriate program or unilaterally placing him/her. The cases on this issue are very fact specific, so it should not be simply assumed that any time the district fails to implement the IEP, unilateral placement will be justified. Again, it would be a good idea to have an expert opinion regarding the impact of the delay or non-implementation. For examples of such cases, read Board of Educ. of Chatham Cent. Sch. Dist., 39 IDELR 144 (SEA NY 2003 and Ms. M ex rel K.M. v. Portland Sch. Comm., 39 IDELR 33 (D. Me. 2003).

Student has made no progress in the District's program

When a student has already been in a specific program offered and provided by the school district, and that program has proved to be inappropriate or ineffective, it may be time for parents to consider an alternative. This scenario necessitates looking objectively at the data and information about the child to adequately determine if there has been progress or not, and therefore usually requires an expert's opinion. If the student has been in the program / methodology, ask yourself if he/she has made little to no progress in the specific area being addressed. Also, it is important to look at what the District knew or should have been aware of with regards to the lack of progress. Is this a situation where ongoing progress reports, IEP documents and other data were demonstrating for a significant amount of time that no progress was being made, yet the district ignored such data and continued to offer the same kind of program? Or is it a situation where there was no clear data on an ongoing basis, so maybe no one was aware of the lack of progress until the child was reevaluated much later? An alternative placement may be more appropriate in a situation where not only was the district's program ineffective and inappropriate, but the district also continued to offer said program despite indication that it wasn't working. For an example of such a case, read Draper v. Atlanta Indep. Sch. System, 108 LRP 13764 (11th Circuit 2008).

In some cases, there may be data and evidence that not only establishes lack of progress, but actual regression in some areas. If the child is regressing, rather than progressing, under the district's program, then parents may need to look for an alternative. In these situations, expert opinion would be critical to establish regression. Also, you should consider factors such as whether the district knew the child was regressing, how they responded, and whether they are now offering something different. Fo an example, read J.P. v. County Sch. Bd. of Hanover County, Va 46 IDELR 133 (E.D. Va. 2006).

District has offered a prospective placement that is not appropriate

Commonly, parents consider unilateral placements because of a dispute about what the district has offered prospectively. When the district's IEP and placement offer will not meet the child's needs or enable him/her to obtain educational benefit, the parents may need to consider rejecting that offer and unilaterally placing the child. Again, this is a very fact sensitive scenario, and the parents must consider the IEP offer carefully. An expert who can not only evaluate the child's unique needs, but also observe the proposed placement will most likely be necessary. It is important to look at what the child's identified unique needs are and evaluate the proposed IEP on whether or not it will meet those needs. Consider if there is a specific type of setting, for instance, that the child requires, or whether the child needs a therapuetic component to address his/her social / emotional needs. The totality of the factors will be considered in these situations to determine if the district offered FAPE, and ultimately if the parent is entitled to reimbursement for the unilateral placement. For examples of such cases, read Lamoine Sch. Comm. v. Ms. Z. ex rel N.S. 42 IDELR 172 (D. Me. 2005) and Board of Educ. of the City Sch. Dist. for the City of N.Y. 35 IDELR 28 (SEA NY 2001).

Remember that whatever situation arises that causes parents to consider a unilateral placement, parents need to be careful and consider all of the district's options before making such a decision. Consult with experts, providers and persons who know your child. It may also be necessary to consult with a special education advocate or attorney.

The next blog in this series will discuss another issue in private placement cases, which is consideration of whether the unilateral, private placement is appropriate.