The Social/Emotional Component of Special Education Eligibility

One question that we have gotten more than once during our presentations on “Empowering Parents in Special Education,” has to do with the relationship between social and emotional deficits and eligibility for special education.

For example:

“My child’s eligibility meeting for special education is soon and I would like to know the extent to which the law requires social and emotional concerns to be included as eligibility criteria for an IEP.”

Another form of the question is:

“My school tells me that my child’s documented disability doesn’t qualify him for special education because he is at or above grade level in his academic skills, despite the fact that he has had many behavior problems that have led to suspensions from school.”

The Laws Require Social/Emotional Assessments

With the caveat that we are not lawyers, we would refer readers to the federal regulation 34 CFR § 300.304 (c)(4), which states: “The child is assessed in all areas related to the suspected disability, including, if appropriate, health, vision, hearing, social and emotional status, general intelligence, academic performance, communicative status, and motor abilities.” (emphasis added)

Some states have even stricter requirements. For example, in Massachusetts, 603 CMR § 28.04 (2)(a)(2)(ii) states that the school is required to perform an educational assessment that includes “an assessment of the student’s attention skills, participation behaviors, communication skills, memory, and social relations with groups, peers, and adults.” (again, emphasis added)

These regulations suggest that assessing a child’s social and emotional status is important in determining eligibility. This is not to say that social/emotional concerns are a learning disability as defined by either IDEA or state special education laws (each state has different criteria), but that they are strongly related to the presence of a qualifying disability and that schools should be evaluating them and formally assessing their relevance in any determination of eligibility for special education services.

Testing for Behavioral and Social Functioning

According to Ellen Braaten and Gretchen Felopulos, two staff psychologists at the Massachusetts General Hospital for Children and authors of Straight Talk About Psychological Testing for Kids, the two most commonly used tests for assessing behavior and social interaction are the Child Behavior Checklist (CBCL) and the Behavior Assessment System for Children, second edition (BASC-2). Each test includes multiple check lists, one for parents to fill out, one for teachers, and one for the student (self report). In addition, the evaluation report for the student should include clinical observations of behavior and social functioning under the heading “Behavioral Observations” or “Behavioral/Social Functioning.” Informal observations by teachers or other school staff who are not trained in performing psychological evaluations are not considered a valid assessment of social and emotional functioning.

The bottom line for parents seeking special education services for their child is that they should expect the school to formally evaluate social and emotional performance as part of a suspected disability in any determination of eligibility.

Effective Progress Includes Social and Emotional Issues

As a post script, it should be noted that once a child is on an IEP, IDEA requires schools to address the social/emotional issues before the school can demonstrate that the child is making effective progress. Again, many state laws are even more specific in that regard. Massachusetts requires that the child have “documented growth in the acquisition of knowledge and skills, including social/emotional development…” 603 CMR § 28.02(17)

Judith Canty Graves and Carson Graves

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