Tag Archives: IEP Goals

Is the School Following Your Child’s IEP?

The Individual Education Program (IEP) is the cornerstone of special education. It is a legal contract between the school district and parents that defines what specialized instruction, accommodations, and modifications are necessary for a child to receive the Free Appropriate Public Education (FAPE) required by law. Since each child in special education has unique needs, by definition the IEP must be individualized based on what objective testing reveals about a child’s disabilities and capabilities.

A new study, published in February of this year (2018) in the journal, Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis has uncovered disturbing trends in the way that schools create and implement IEPs that appear to violate special education law. This study, titled (with typical academic brevity), “The Dynamic Interaction Between Institutional Pressures and Activity: An Examination of the Implementation of IEPs in Secondary Inclusive Settings,” states that its purpose is to “illuminate a dynamic interaction between institutional pressures and the activity of providing students with a special education.”

The study identified different approaches that two schools took in creating and implementing IEPs that circumvent the intention of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). While this study was undertaken with the goal of influencing the anticipated congressional revision and reauthorization of IDEA and not as an indictment of special education in general, you may want to consider its implications for how your school implements your child’s IEP.

Two Ways to Ignore the Law

In one school, the study discovered that the IEPs for 10th and 11th grade students were written around the school’s existing curriculum for general education. The school would then follow the students’ IEPs, but without acknowledging that the services were simply based on getting the students to pass their general education courses and standardized tests. As a result, the students in special education did not receive the educational services and supports that their disability required. The study cites “institutional pressures” (no doubt including the school budget) as the reason, something the study’s authors point out is not the purpose of an IEP, much less special education.

The second school in the study wrote IEPs for each student that were individualized, but then mostly ignored them. Instead, the school relied on additional staff in the general education classroom as a way to provide more support for the special education students. In addition, these students attended a daily special education “study hall,” where they received more support. While the students in the second school had greater access to the special education curriculum than the first school, it was without the benefit of a program “designed to meet their unique needs,” the purpose of special education. [20 USC § 1400 (d)(1)(A)]

What Can We Learn From This?

It is important to remember that this study had a small sample size and is just the first of several planned studies with the goal of encouraging debate among educators and legislators on how to update special education law. Among future studies, the authors hope to focus on how to improve the creation and implementation of IEPs for special education students included in the general education classroom.

Still, we can extrapolate from this study that even after more than forty years of special education law and practice, there is a lot of uncertainty, and perhaps reluctance, on the part of schools to provide an appropriate education for students with disabilities. This is something that parents must understand and be prepared to deal with.

What You Can Do

Making sure schools are following the law is a responsibility that should not have to be left to parents. Still, the reality is that in addition to parenting a child with disabilities, you also have the job of being a watchdog over the school’s implementation of your child’s education.

Here are some suggestions to help you do that:

  1. Make sure that all services, accommodations, and modifications are clearly defined in the IEP. See our blog article: The Three Essential Parts of an IEP Goal for some tips.
  2. Create a special education “paper trail” by organizing all the paperwork and other communications with the school that relate to your child’s education. Include samples of your child’s work to illustrate any problems or successes. If you suspect problems, you can use your paper trail to provide evidence of your concerns.
  3. Start a parent journal that, among other things, records your impressions of how your child’s IEP is being implemented.
  4. Arrange a meeting with your child’s teacher to make sure the teacher has a copy of the IEP. Go over any sections that the teacher is responsible for implementing and make sure that you both understand them. Discuss possible ways that you can communicate with each other regarding issues or concerns that may come up. Note that teacher meetings are easier to arrange in elementary school than middle or high school.
  5. Request a Team meeting to discuss your concerns about how the IEP is being implemented. Commentary to the federal regulations makes it clear that “The parent can request an additional IEP Team meeting at any time.” Be prepared to persuade Team members of your point of view, as IDEA gives schools the ultimate authority over the content and implementation of the IEP.
  6. Contact your state’s Parent Training and Information center (PTI), which is a federally mandated organization to provide parents support and information on how to make the most of their child’s education. The staff at the center should be able to advise you on your rights under IDEA and suggest a course of action.
  7. Hire an attorney or advocate who can help you sort through the issues and provide guidance. If necessary, an attorney experienced in special education law can help you seek a due process hearing (similar to a trial) to enforce compliance with the law. Make sure this person is fully independent and does not have any conflicts of interest that may prevent this person fully supporting you and your child.

Judith Canty Graves and Carson Graves

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Interpreting the Language of Special Education

Over the years we had many opportunities to read a variety of special education documents. There are all kinds: letters from the school district, progress reports, eligibility evaluations, three-year reevaluations, and of course, Individual Education Programs or IEPs, to name just a few. Parents can quickly become overwhelmed by all this paper, much of which contains confusing jargon and abbreviations that aren’t explained. We know, we encountered it all.

We have written previously about the importance of organizing special education documents in our articles, How to Create a Paper Trail, and How to Use a Paper Trail. In this article, however, we want to alert parents about a tendency for school professionals to use unnecessary and sometimes intentionally obscure language in communicating with parents.

This language can hide the truth about what your child is struggling with in special education. You need to learn how to recognize and interpret this language, which can have a direct effect on the programs and services your child receives.

Special Education “Filler,” a Swamp of Vague Descriptions

Sadly, school culture frequently encourages special education staff to use language in their documents and other communications that can hide the reality of your child’s educational experience. During our years in special education, many of our son’s evaluations and other reports were full of vague, but optimistic sounding descriptions, such as calling him a “hard worker,” or “motivated to learn.”

These reports would usually end with a statement like “He is a pleasure to have in class,” which made us feel good without questioning what these pleasant, but meaningless phrases meant. Ultimately, we realized that they just distracted us from fully understanding how much difficulty he was having in learning to read and write, and the fact that he was below grade level in certain areas.

Author and special education teacher, Jeffrey M. Hartman, in an article on the Edutopia website, Replacing Filler in Special Education Documents describes this problem. Hartman defines “filler” as vague language, meaningless anecdotes, and “thin and insubstantial praise,” that too often appear in special education documents. His point is that this kind of language, without objective data to support it, prevents parents and educators from adequately addressing a student’s academic, social, and emotional needs.

“Being Explicit is More Than a Best Practice”

Mr. Hartman writes that, “Being explicit is more than a best practice. Documents such as reevaluation reports and IEPs demand specific and detailed information.” Anecdotal statements such as “Student struggles with math,” and is a “hard worker,” do not indicate a student’s grade level or what skills a student needs to master, making it harder for IEP Teams to develop realistic and attainable goals that are supported by appropriate services.

The article makes the point that special education teachers wanting to praise their students is understandable for many reasons, not the least of which is that teachers are sensitive to the parents and want to give them “something positive that interrupts the stream of disappointing news about what their child can’t do.” Well intentioned or not, these positive statements can have a negative effect.

Effective Reports Contain Data

Honest evaluations with objective data are what guide IEP Teams to write goals and decide on services that allow a student to make measurable and meaningful progress. Effective IEP goals, for example, begin with detailed descriptions of a student’s Present Level of Performance. Filler does not provide this critical information. In our book, Parents Have the Power to Make Special Education Work, we document many examples of a direct correlation between vague descriptions of performance and ineffective goals.

Question Filler and Sugarcoated Language

The message is that you shouldn’t settle for filler in your child’s special education documents. Question language that appears to “sugarcoat” or obscure your child’s difficulties. While it may be well-intentioned on the part of school evaluators, not dealing directly with your child’s disability only serves to make the process of obtaining appropriate services more difficult and delays getting help for your child.

Getting appropriate and individualized instruction boils down to this: You need to make sure that your child’s special education documents contain specific and explicit language that tells the truth about your child’s special needs and what it will take to help your child make effective progress in school.

Judith Canty Graves and Carson Graves

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Writing a Strong Vision Statement

The vision statement is one of the most important and overlooked parts of the IEP. This statement isn’t a required part of the IEP in the federal law IDEA, but it is required by many states. It’s important because it serves as a guide for developing special education services and goals that will help a student throughout the remaining school years, and ultimately, life after graduation.

What is a Vision Statement?

The vision statement is a collaborative description of what you and the rest of the IEP Team hope your child will be doing in the next one to five years. This description is a guide, not just for the current school year, but also for upcoming years, through graduation and beyond.

When everyone on the Team understands your child’s aspirations, they can write better goals to help achieve them. Many parents don’t understand the significance of this and write brief statements, such as they hope their son or daughter will graduate from high school. Even worse, school personnel might write the vision statement without input from the student or parents. But planning for your child’s future is critical and should start early. Don’t wait until high school to write a vision statement for your child.

How to Write a Vision Statement

Putting serious thought into what you want your child to achieve in the next one to five years is a valuable exercise, because it encourages thinking about the future. Many parents of children with special needs find it hard to think about the future since they are so focused on the present. Looking ahead to the next five years can seem impossible if you’re just trying to get through the week.

Yet, long-range planning is important for parents, because school personnel are primarily focused on short-term goals for the current school year. You are in the best position to consider long-range goals, since you know your child best and are the ones with the long-term commitment. Ask yourself: what are your future plans and goals for your child? What do you see your child accomplishing in the next five years?

If it is appropriate, have an older child discuss with you how he or she sees the future. Consider such things as community experiences, economic independence, acquiring a driver’s license, learning to take public transportation, living independently, further education, or job training. This information will help the Team understand your child’s interests and preferences.

Avoid Vague Vision Statements

Since a vision statement affects many aspects of the IEP, you want your input to be as specific as possible. To help your Team see the whole picture clearly, avoid vague statements such as these we have seen in actual IEPs:

The Team sees [student] having a smooth transition to high school. They would like her to gain the skills necessary to move on to college.

The Team hopes that [student] will successfully complete his goals and make progress both socially and academically.

These statements might sound good, but need specific descriptions of aspirations that are pertinent to your child. This is true even in elementary school, when your child is beginning to develop academic and social skills.

Write a Detailed Vision Statement

A vision statement can be longer than one or two sentences. Once you have a rough draft, be sure to discuss it with other Team members to create the final statement. It is important to have them give their input, because they may have ideas that you might not have considered. Keep in mind that a vision statement is a collaborative effort.

The following example illustrates how details can provide useful guidance for writing goals:

For grade three, we expect [student] to be reading and writing at grade level as measured by testing in the spring. We expect that he will receive the necessary support and specialized instruction to do this. We want him to achieve his potential academically so that he is at grade level every year through elementary school, with objective testing data to back this up.

A vision statement like this focuses your child’s IEP on results as confirmed by testing data, not just teacher observations or wishful thinking. This is an example of how your expectations, combined with an understanding of what the school should do, can improve your child’s chances of getting an appropriate education. You can read more about the importance of objective data for making educational decisions in our article: Levels of Performance and Your Child’s IEP.

How You Can Create Effective Vision Statements

  1. Begin thinking about your child’s future at an early age. You may only be considering the future one year at a time at this point, but even that is important. Realize that the vision statement will need to be updated each year as your child changes and reaches goals.
  2. The vision statement should inform schools of your expectations. Be sure to brainstorm with your Team about appropriate goals for your child and be realistic.
  3. Use independent testing, if possible, to confirm what your child is capable of. Don’t just rely on school testing for information.
  4. If your older child is ready, be sure to have a discussion with him or her about dreams and aspirations. It is important for parents and children to have dreams for the future and talk about what a child is most interested in. Have an older child write his or her own vision statement, if possible.
  5. The vision statement is closely linked to postgraduate transition planning. Be sure to include information about possible college, vocational school, employment, and independent living by the ninth grade IEP.

Judith Canty Graves and Carson Graves

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Avoid “Feel Good” Goals

In examining hundreds of IEP goals, we have noticed that too many just describe hoped-for outcomes and not measurable results. These goals tend to be vague statements of what the IEP Team would like the student to be rather than define a path toward a specific accomplishment. We call these “feel good” goals because they describe achievements that we all want for our children, but they don’t provide guidance as to how the child is going to get there.

Vague Goals vs. Specific Goals

Vague goals, like “[Student] will increase his homework production,” “demonstrate appropriate behavior in the classroom,” or “increase her study skill techniques,” don’t indicate how the goal will be measured (if it can be measured at all), who will assist the student in achieving the goal, or how anyone will even know if the goal has been reached.

Even though these goals may sound good, at the end of the year there will be no concrete evidence to indicate if they have been accomplished. There may even be the temptation to think that the goal has been partially or even fully met, when in fact the opposite might be true.

Goals Gone Wrong

The following are actual goals we have found in IEPs. Only the student’s name has been removed, replaced by [student], and in a few cases bad grammar has been corrected. Otherwise, they are verbatim.

[Student] will become more consistent in completing his required academic work.

[Student] will continue to maintain her independence in the high school setting.

[Student] will demonstrate skills in relaxing to reduce body and mental tension. (One of the benchmarks says that the student will “use sensory diet techniques for achieving body and thought relaxation.”)

[Student] will consistently exhibit responsible behavior in the areas of classroom participation and assignment completion.

[Student] will work to improve the thoroughness of his daily preparation.

While it is easy to see unintended humor in many of these goals, it is worth noting that in just about every case these statements describe what parents and students want from their special education experience. Instead of being goals, however, these statements only project the results of successfully achieving a goal. We have seen these kind of feel good statements appear in far too many IEPs masquerading as goals.

Unmeasurable “Progress”

Without providing any direction, it is almost impossible to determine when, or even if, these feel good goals can ever be achieved in a realistic fashion. The result is that they sometimes end up repeating year after year without any end in sight. This can lead to a lack of motivation, both on the part of the student, who doesn’t have any identifiable path to follow, and school personnel, who don’t have any way to measure progress.

One of our son’s goals for written language repeated word for word in every IEP from 3rd through 7th grades. We routinely got reports that he was making “tremendous progress,” “excellent progress,” or “outstanding progress” toward achieving this goal (these phrases seemed to appear in rotation), yet we never questioned the goal. In hindsight, we now see that this goal was too vague and unmeasurable to be achieved. In short, it was nothing but a feel good goal.

What Makes a Goal Measurable?

The opposite of a feel good goal is one that has the following characteristics:*

  1. It contains a method for measuring whether the goal has been achieved.
  2. The criteria for measuring progress are clearly defined in the goal and do not require any information other than what is contained in the description of the goal.
  3. The measurement can be validated by multiple observers. For example, if two different observers measure the progress of a goal using the criteria described in the goal, they would independently come to the same conclusion.
  4. It is possible to determine how much progress a student has made toward attaining the goal at any time, such as in a quarterly report.

Many of the IEP goals we have seen provide little of this information. Most are impossibly vague, contain no standards by which anyone could determine if the goal was ever achieved, and perversely, often place the responsibility for achieving the goal completely on the student.

What You Can Do

Remember that the IEP is created by a Team that includes you, the parent. Your voice is an important part in any discussion about your child’s goals. Use your voice by assisting the Team in developing goals that are measurable, time-limited, and specific about who is responsible for seeing that the goals are met.

  • Make sure that the current performance level for each goal accurately describes what your child is capable of doing. It should include the most recent testing data (including independent evaluation results) in that skill area, especially the grade level equivalent for your child’s current performance.
  • Have each goal specify valid ways of measuring your child’s progress. Include details for teachers and other service providers to notice and record in their observations.
  • Make sure that all goals are appropriately coordinated with the service delivery grid. The grid should allow ample time for every service. Also notice what type of professional will provide the service. If no one or just “sped staff” is listed, ask for more detail about that person’s role and qualifications. Pay attention to the location, start, and end dates of the service.
  • Have the information in the service delivery grid written into the description of the goal. The grid often appears pages after the goal in the IEP where it can be overlooked by both you and the service providers. The duplication serves to remind everyone that the most important part of a goal is achieving it.

Your participation in the IEP process is critical to ensure that all your child’s goals are realistic, measurable, and come with adequate services to achieve them. This is your child’s right in getting the appropriate education that the law guarantees.

Judith Canty Graves and Carson Graves

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* These four characteristics are adapted from Barbara Batemen’s and Cynthia Herr’s excellent book: Writing Measurable IEP Goals and Objectives.

Levels of Performance and Your Child’s IEP

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An IEP is your child’s roadmap to an appropriate education. No map can help you, however, if you don’t know your starting point. That is why the IEP must contain objectively measured assessments of your child’s abilities before it can be an effective educational roadmap.

There are two places where clear descriptions of your child’s current level of performance should appear in an IEP:

  1. In the curriculum and other educational needs sections of the IEP to describe overall abilities in both academic and functional performance.
  2. Before each IEP goal to indicate current ability in the skill being addressed by that goal.

This information is critical to developing an IEP that accurately assesses strengths and weaknesses and develops goals that are specific to your child’s individual needs.

Overall Academic and Functional Performance

The 2004 re-authorization of the special education laws, IDEA-04, requires that an IEP contain a description of a student’s “present levels of academic achievement and functional performance,” generally known by the acronym PLEP,* although some professionals use the acronym PLOP, or the tongue twisting PLAAFP.

The PLEP describes how the student’s disability impacts his or her overall progress in academic as well as in social-emotional and behavioral areas. Having this information helps your Team identify the appropriate types of instruction and accommodations needed for your child to make effective progress in school.

In describing the general academic curriculum, the PLEP should indicate which specific subject areas, such as English Language Arts, Science and Technology, Mathematics, or Social Studies, are affected by your child’s disability. For each area there should be a description of your child’s current performance in the classroom, such as a listing of recent grades or a summary of your child’s classroom behavior, e.g., “He does not complete homework consistently and assignments are handed in late, or not at all.” The purpose is to indicate how your child’s disability affects progress in the subject area.

For non-academic performance, the PLEP serves the same purpose in describing how your child’s disability affects areas such as social-emotional, adapted physical education, behavior, or extra-curricular activities. The PLEP should include details on specialized instruction, methodology, modifications, and accommodations the student needs to receive in each area.

Importance of Objective Data

It is important that the PLEP reflect the available testing data and diagnosis, and describe how your child’s performance can be objectively analyzed. We have seen many IEPs use only subjective methods, like teacher observations, for determining current student performance, even when testing data was readily available. While classroom observation can be helpful, the PLEP should not rely on it exclusively.

Assessments for IEP Goals

Whereas the PLEP describes how a disability affects a student’s overall academic and non-academic performance, each IEP goal should be preceded by a description of the student’s current ability in the specific skill area covered by that goal. Simply put, if you want to create a realistic and attainable goal for a skill, you first have to know your starting point.

Knowing how far a student is below grade level, for example, helps answer the questions about what kind of specialized instruction is needed and how intensively it should be given. A student who is three years below grade level in math will need more intensive math instruction than one who is only a year below grade level.

The most effective way to determine the current level of performance of your child is through testing. In reading, the Woodcock-Johnson Test or Wechsler Individual Achievement Test (WIAT) are considered good indicators. In non-academic areas, a psychological evaluation can indicate social-emotional or behavioral performance, and a test of fine or gross motor skills can indicate occupational or physical therapy performance. More general assessment methods, such as the completion of a reading skills class or participation in a sports activity, can also be helpful.

Quality of the Assessment Affects Quality of the Goal

There is a definite relationship between the quality of the assessment and the quality of the goal. We have noticed that the less objective the assessment, the more vague and ineffective the goal. In IEPs where the current level of performance for a skill is simply an anecdotal description of behavior without any objective data to back it up, the resulting goal is often so vague that there is little, if any, chance of the student achieving it. In our book we give actual examples of many vague and hard-to-measure goals. In almost every case these goals were preceded by performance assessments that were equally vague.

What You Can Do

  1. Make one of the first agenda items at your annual IEP meeting to identify and describe your child’s current abilities in both academic and social-emotional areas. Focus on how well he or she is accessing the general curriculum. Don’t rely only on grades, however, as in most schools grade inflation makes them an inaccurate yard stick.
  2. Make sure that the IEP contains an accurate description of your child’s disability(ies) and, if you are comfortable including it, the most current diagnosis. If necessary, update this information each year during the annual IEP review.
  3. Before writing a goal, make sure that you and the rest of the Team have a good understanding of your child’s current level of performance in the skill being addressed by that goal. The best descriptions of performance come from objective data found in the most recent evaluations. While anecdotal descriptions can be useful to supplement testing data, do not rely on them exclusively.

When working with your school’s IEP Team members keep the focus on identifying your child’s current ability to access the school curriculum. Only then can the IEP effectively address goals and include the necessary services, accommodations, and modifications needed to obtain the appropriate education that is your child’s right.

Judith Canty Graves and Carson Graves

Parts of this article are adapted from Chapter 6 of Parents Have the Power to Make Special Education Work, published by Jessica Kingsley Publishers.

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* The acronym comes from the language in IDEA-97, which specified that the IEP include a statement of the student’s “present levels of educational performance.” While the language in IDEA-04 changed to include both academic and functional performance, most people still use the old acronym.

Response to Intervention Falls Short

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Last year we wrote about how RTI (Response to Intervention) was being used by some schools to delay, or even prevent, students from being evaluated for special education services (Gatekeeping 101: Response to Intervention). Now it appears that even when used as intended, RTI isn’t achieving the goals that educators promised.

In this followup article, we highlight a recent study sponsored by the U.S. Department of Education that details how students receiving RTI instruction are actually falling further behind grade level rather than catching up. We also have some suggestions about how to proceed if your child is offered RTI instead of special education services.

The Background

RTI was written into the reauthorization of IDEA (the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act) in 2004 as part of an attempt to make the goals of IDEA, which address the unique needs of individual students, more closely conform to the No Child Left Behind Act, which attempts to raise standards for all students uniformly.

Our earlier article explains how the intent of RTI was to screen every student at the elementary school level (ideally in kindergarten or first grade) to identify those who were struggling and, through a standardized series of increasingly more supportive services called “tiers,” bring them up to grade level in basic skills like reading and math. Rather than use the program as it was intended, however, we documented how some schools were using RTI to divert students away from becoming eligible for individualized (and more expensive) special education services.

“Practice Falls Short of Promise”

Adding to our concern about the misuse of RTI as a substitute for special education has come even more discouraging news from a 2015 study sponsored by the U.S. Department of Education that evaluated RTI practices as they are applied to elementary school reading instruction. As described in an article in Education Week magazine, this study examined over 20,000 students in 13 states and found that first grade students who received RTI actually performed worse than a similar peer group that did not. Instead of catching up to grade level, the students receiving RTI lost the equivalent of one-tenth of a school year. To quote one of the study’s authors: “[T]his turns out to be what RTI looks like when it plays out in daily life.”

Why is it Failing?

The Education Week article offers a few insights into what is going wrong:

  • Schools are using RTI “as a kind of general education substitution for special education.” This was the concern we highlighted in our earlier article on special education gatekeeping.
  • Schools are not adequately evaluating students for learning disabilities before initiating an RTI program. Many schools don’t perform any evaluations prior to RTI and therefore don’t know if the interventions they are using are even suitable for the students they are attempting to help.
  • Schools implementing RTI are not clearly separating the broader goals of general education instruction and the more narrowly focused goals of RTI instruction, implying a confusion as to what the program is actually trying to achieve.
  • The RTI instruction in the study was found to be rigid and standardized for all students. In looking at RTI for reading, for example, the study found that the instruction focused on phonics and not reading comprehension, regardless of the individual student’s needs.

In short, RTI, for all its good intentions, is a only a theory without empirical validation. It remains to be seen if this is because the program is inappropriately designed, or if schools are unable or unwilling to implement it appropriately.

What Can You Do?

Like the school we wrote about in our previous article on RTI and gatekeeping, if you are told that your child must first try RTI before the school will consider an evaluation for learning disabilities and special education, consider the following:

  • Very few states have defined any criteria for moving from RTI into special education. If you want to try RTI first, get a written statement from your school describing the criteria for transitioning from RTI to special education. This should include a timeline of how long RTI will be attempted, a definition of the progress expected, and what objective and measurable standards will be used to measure that progress.
  • If you do not feel that RTI is appropriate for your child, it is your right to request an evaluation for eligibility for special education in all areas in which you suspect a disability. The regulation is 34 CFR § 300.309(c), the authorizing statute is 20 USC § 1412(a)(3). The only requirement is that your request must be in writing. The Office of Special Education Programs (OSEP) has warned schools that they must not use RTI to delay or deny “a full and individual evaluation” for special education eligibility.
  • RTI is not a way to diagnose a specific learning disability. You may learn important information about your child through the RTI process, but only an appropriate evaluation performed by a qualified professional can determine the presence of a qualifying disability.
  • RTI and special education are not mutually exclusive. The school can evaluate your child for a learning disability at the same time that your child is receiving RTI instruction. There is an excellent guide for parents on the Wrightslaw website that explains the RTI process in more detail.

As with every other aspect of special education, you need accurate and objective information about your child’s strengths and weaknesses provided by an evaluation. Even though RTI instruction may be high quality and research-based, can it meet your child’s unique needs? Meeting these needs through an individualized education program is your child’s right under IDEA.

Judith Canty Graves and Carson Graves

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Writing by Hand Improves Cognitive Development

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Are you old enough to remember when “penmanship” used to be taught in public schools? We are. We can recall specific classes that focused on teaching the skills of handwriting: both manuscript (printed) letters and cursive. Entire classes were devoted to this skill, with gold stickers on certificates presented to those who produced legible and careful handwriting.

By the 1990s, when our son started school, the word “penmanship” had disappeared from the school curriculum. We kept bringing it up, because legible handwriting did not come easily for him. Some children with good fine motor skills and eye/hand coordination get the hang of it naturally, but for many children with special needs, that is not the case. Without proper intervention, these children will not have good handwriting skills when they become adults.

Why is Handwriting Important?

Recent studies by neuroscientists have established a positive link between learning to write by hand and learning to read in young children. The studies show that similar mental development doesn’t happen when a child learns by typing or tracing letters. This link between handwriting and cognition continues even into adulthood. For example, in the classroom taking notes by hand shows a much greater memory retention of the material than typing notes on a laptop.

Interestingly, the quality of the handwriting, or the difference between writing in manuscript letters or cursive, doesn’t make as much of a difference as the act of actually putting “pen to paper.” According to one expert, “there is something special about handwriting that is distinct from other motor movements.”

The School’s Response

In elementary school, we would ask the school staff to help our son with his handwriting and they would give us a blank look. We would point out that when he was older, he would need to take notes for classes, fill out job applications or medical forms, and write many other documents. He would need to be familiar with cursive handwriting so he could read other people’s writing. At the very least, he would need to be able to write legible manuscript letters if he couldn’t master cursive.

Their response? “Don’t worry, we’ll teach him keyboarding.” They did not see handwriting as an important skill. The only sustained handwriting instruction he got in those critical early years was occupational therapy for fine motor skills provided through his IEP. This helped, but there was no follow through in the general education classroom.

Of course, keyboarding is an important skill in today’s computer literate society, but we strongly feel that every child with the appropriate ability should be exposed to handwriting instruction. Even in an age when everyone “thumbs” text messages on their smart phones, handwriting is still a basic life skill with important benefits for brain development.

A Real Life Example

We experienced an example of the importance of handwriting two years ago, when our son was preparing to take the Graduate Record Exam. He faced a potential obstacle when he read the following on the GRE website:

You will be required to write in cursive (not print) and sign a confidentiality statement at the test center. If you do not complete and sign the statement, you cannot test and your test fees will not be refunded.

Since our son had never learned cursive, reading about this requirement produced a lot of anxiety for him. Fortunately, at the test site he was told that it was acceptable to print the confidentiality statement in manuscript letters, so he was able to take the exam. In fact, the cursive requirement has recently been dropped from the statement. But this is just one example of the importance that society still places on handwriting skills that your child may face in the future as an adult.

The website of the Campaign for Cursive contains other real world examples similar to this and points to peer-reviewed research indicating that the benefits of penmanship include improved neural connections in the brain and better fine motor skills. According to this website, schools today have given up teaching handwriting, offering it only in optional “art” classes.

What Can You Do?

It will take the pressure of parents at both at the local and state levels to demand that schools teach penmanship again. The Campaign for Cursive website has information on contacting your legislators to let them know that you want to see penmanship taught in schools.

Of course, persuading your School Committee and your legislators to change will take time. Meanwhile you can:

  • Read to your preschool child as much as possible. Bedtime is an excellent time for this activity. Demonstrating an appreciation for the written word will motivate your child to learn about writing as well as reading.
  • Find out how your school teaches handwriting, and if available, sign your child up to take optional “art” classes in penmanship. This instruction should begin as early as possible, especially in combination with reading instruction.
  • If your child is in special education, ask for an occupational therapy evaluation to see if you can get services to improve the fine motor skills needed for legible handwriting.

Even in preschool, you should be helping your child master basic skills such as handwriting for success in life as an adult.

Judith Canty Graves and Carson Graves

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Demystifying Speech and Language Services

beach-33 textSpeech and language services were always a mystery for us when our son was in school. Even as he struggled with written composition, our school’s Speech and Language Pathologist would end her evaluations with the statement that “services are not recommended at this time.” We assumed that since he did not have an audible problem with his speech, that he didn’t need any of her services.

We now know that this is a typical reaction of many parents, who like ourselves, don’t understand the wide range of services that a Speech and Language Pathologist can and should provide to students in a school setting. In this article, we want to review some of the most important of these services, describe our experiences with schools attempting to limit them, and make suggestions about how you can advocate for your child to have the services that he or she needs.

The Role and Responsibility of a Speech and Language Pathologist*

A Speech and Language Pathologist evaluates children to determine if there is a communication disorder in areas related to speech, the use of language, and sensory issues that impact communication and interfere with attaining educational goals.

Though there are many detailed aspects to what a Speech and Language Pathologist can evaluate, for the purpose of this article we have simplified them into the following categories:

  • Speech: This includes expressive speech (the quality of audible sounds such as articulation and voice volume and quality), receptive speech (how a person understands and processes verbal communication), and pragmatic language (social communication skills).
  • Language: This includes the comprehension and expression of written language, sequencing of thoughts, syntax and grammar, and understanding symbols and their meanings.
  • Sensory Issues: These include social and emotional deficits that impact communication and even difficulty swallowing pills.

In addition to diagnosing disorders in these areas, a Speech and Language Pathologist provides therapy to help children communicate with their peers, teachers, and families. Therapy can also teach children who are nonverbal how to use communication devices to express themselves.

In other words, speech and language services are not just about speech, they are about learning how to communicate with others in many different ways, with both expressive and receptive language, speaking, writing, and assistive technology. The professional organization for Speech and Language Pathologists in the United States takes the position that it is the responsibility of its members to provide a full range of these services to improve the “literacy achievement of… those who struggle in the school setting.” For more detailed information about this organization and what it expects from its members, visit the website of the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association.

Eligibility for Speech and Language Services

Given the wide range of speech and language services that are available, it is no exaggeration that they are often key to providing an appropriate education to many children with disabilities. Getting schools to provide these services as part of special education, however, isn’t as simple as you might think. In fact, we have found that schools may limit what speech and language services they will provide.

Our school district, for example, claimed that its Speech and Language Pathologists were available only for obvious expressive language deficits, like significant articulation problems or stuttering. We believe that the reason for this is that speech and language services can be intensive and therefore expensive for schools to deliver.

This is a concern for parents, because more and more children, especially those on the autism spectrum, need speech and language services to help with the less obvious, but no less important, pragmatic language or written expression deficits. Because most parents don’t fully understand the nature and importance of pragmatic language, or the connection between written and expressive language, it is easy for schools to convince parents that their child doesn’t need these services. After all, for a child with multiple learning disabilities, what parent wants to hear that there is yet another therapy to schedule for their child?

How Schools Take Advantage of Parents’ Ignorance

This was the situation we found ourselves in during one of our Team meetings in elementary school. Although testing had indicated that our son had difficulty with pragmatic language and written expression, the school’s Speech and Language Pathologist concluded her report by stating that since he didn’t have a noticeable problem speaking, she could not recommend any speech and language services. We actually felt relief that this was one area we didn’t have to worry about, and focused the rest of the meeting on occupational therapy and reading instruction. Unfortunately, the school let our ignorance relieve them of the cost of providing services that our son clearly needed and that they were obligated by special education law to provide.

By the time our son was in high school, we had an independent Speech and Language Pathologist evaluate him. She produced a very detailed report that said he needed intensive and frequent services with a Speech and Language Pathologist to help with pragmatic language and writing skills. We submitted this independent report to our director of special education, who then held a meeting with us and the school’s Speech and Language Pathologist.

During this meeting, which lasted over an hour, the school’s Speech and Language Pathologist reviewed our independent report (she hadn’t done her own testing), and once again we heard the phrase “services are not recommended at this time.” While giving her report, we noticed that she never made eye contact with us, but looked directly at the director of special education as if to make sure that she was saying only what was expected of her.

During another meeting, which the director also attended, we brought up the issue of pragmatic language instruction and she told us that the school’s Speech and Language Pathologist wasn’t necessary because “the students teach each other pragmatic language skills.” In her mind, it seems, our town’s high school was full of certified Speech and Language Pathologists.

Schools Warned by the Department of Education

Diverting students away from speech and language services is apparently becoming a common practice with schools. In 2015, the US Department of Education issued a guidance letter that alerted schools to reports that a growing number of children with Autism Spectrum Disorder may not be receiving needed speech and language services. The letter also said that some schools were not including Speech and Language Pathologists in evaluation and eligibility determinations or in meetings to develop IEPs.

The letter goes on to remind schools that when they conduct an initial evaluation for special education eligibility, the school must assess in all areas of the suspected disability, including “communicative status,” if appropriate, and that IEP meetings must also “include an individual who can interpret the instructional implications of evaluation results,” in other words, a properly trained Speech and Language Pathologist.

What Can You Do?

From all of the above, it may seem that the deck is stacked against parents. We can’t disagree, so we have the following suggestions to help you obtain needed speech and language services for your child:

  • Be aware of possible communication disorders your child may have beyond obvious expressive speech problems. Consider having an independent speech and language evaluation performed to confirm the full range of your child’s needs. If appropriate, have your independent Speech and Language Pathologist attend a Team meeting to interpret the data and advise on his or her recommendations.
  • When any speech and language evaluation is performed, especially the school’s, it should be comprehensive in all areas of a suspected disability according to Part B of IDEA. This should include an assessment of the communicative status of your child. See the US Department of Education guidance letter of July 2015.
  • Think about your child’s sensory needs and how they affect communication. If swallowing is a problem, for example, a Speech and Language Pathologist should be able to help with that. This type of service is included under IDEA.
  • If speech and language services are in your child’s IEP, make sure that the service delivery grid specifies a Speech and Language Pathologist to provide them. “Sped. Staff” is not acceptable, as it could be anyone. Neither is a “Speech and Language Assistant,” who in many states is not required to have formal training. The Speech and Language Pathologist should be certified by your state department of education as well as by the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association (ASHA).

Obtaining appropriate speech and language services for your child is not an easy task. Determining what your child needs through testing and knowing what a properly trained speech and language pathologist can do, however, are important steps in the process. Remember that your research and advocacy now will pay big dividends for your child’s education in the future.

Judith Canty Graves and Carson Graves

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* The inspiration for the subhead title and much of the content of this section comes from a document published by the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association (ASHA): Roles and Responsibilities of Speech-Language Pathologists in Schools. This document is considered an official policy statement of the ASHA, the professional organization for certified Speech and Language Pathologists in the United States.

Understanding Accommodations and Modifications

Of all the terms in special education, two of the most confusing for parents are “accommodation” and “modification.” We always saw these terms on our son’s IEP and, like most parents, never fully understood what they meant. This is unfortunate, because knowing the difference can have a significant impact on a child’s education. Both accommodations and modifications function together in a student’s IEP or 504 plan, but you need to understand how they affect your child’s curriculum and academic progress.

What is an Accommodation?

An accommodation is something that changes how a student learns, but doesn’t change the instruction itself. For example, an accommodation might mean that a student is seated at the front of a classroom to compensate for a hearing or vision deficit, but the student participates in the same curriculum as the rest of the class. Or, a student might be given extra time on tests to accommodate an executive function disorder, but the teacher still expects him or her to answer the same questions as all the other students.

Accommodations can also include the use of an assistive device, such as a specialized chair or desk, a computer, or a pencil grip. The curriculum remains the same as for the other students in the class, so teachers should have high expectations that a child with accommodations will be able to learn the material.

What is a Modification?

A modification changes what a student is expected to learn. Modifications alter the curriculum or the instruction for a student with disabilities. For example, the student might be given easier questions on a test or shorter and simpler reading assignments. In general, a student who receives modifications is not held to the same standards as his or her general education peers.

Other examples of modifications might be for a student with a math disability to do fifth-grade math in a seventh-grade math class. Or, a student might be required to know half the words on a spelling test that the other students are learning.

One important aspect of modifications is that they should be, in the words of a recent U.S. Department of Education advisory letter, “aligned with State academic content standards for the grade in which a child is enrolled… so that the child can advance appropriately toward attaining those goals during the annual period covered by the IEP.” The letter also reminds IEP Teams to create goals that are “ambitious but achievable” and to estimate how much progress toward reaching grade level that the student will make.*

In other words, modifications should not “dumb down” the curriculum so that a student can appear to be successful without actually making meaningful and effective academic progress.

Our Experience with Modifications

As we write in our book, our son has a language based learning disability that affects his reading and written composition. By the time he became a fluent reader in the fourth grade, he was behind in his writing ability. After all, if you can’t read, you can’t write. By the time he reached middle school, the academic demands were much greater than in elementary school.

Our school kept telling us that his writing problems were due to fine motor deficits, not a learning disability, despite independent testing that clearly showed the disability. Testing also showed that he was reading and comprehending at a college level, but his written composition was well below grade level.

Instead of giving him appropriate instruction, however, the school’s solution was to have him write as little as possible. In middle school, we began to get progress reports that indicated he had been “excused” from his written assignments. It was clear that the school was modifying his curriculum rather than trying to teach him how to write. There was no attempt to have him make progress toward writing at grade level. This was without ever having discussed writing modifications in our IEP meetings.

When confronted about this, the district’s director of special education proposed a formal modification for our son’s IEP that would excuse him from ever writing more than a single paragraph. After all, she continued, once he graduated from high school he could choose a college major in a subject that didn’t require any writing. Then, when he graduated from college, he could apply for jobs that didn’t involve having to write. In her mind, the solution was that simple. Interestingly, when he did eventually attend college, he majored in English literature and Classical languages, both of which require a great deal of writing.

Accommodations and Modifications Can Alter Expectations

Based on our experience, we want parents to be vigilant and pay attention to how accommodations and modifications can affect the school’s expectations for their child. We came to realize that “excusing” assignments was a modification and not an accommodation, one that made no attempt to allow our son to advance toward his grade level of writing ability. Such a modification was not part of our son’s IEP and it was inappropriate for a student who had the ability to do the assignments with the proper instruction and accommodations.

Modifications can be appropriate in certain circumstances but they are no substitute for proper and effective accommodations designed to help a student learn. Improperly used modifications can lower a teacher’s expectations for what a student can do, something we discuss in a previous blog article, The Problem With Low Expectations. This article documents how certain school systems around the country misuse modifications to make the schools look better on standardized tests than they would have otherwise, and to reinforce low expectations and stereotypes for students with special needs.

Your Child’s IEP Must Clearly Specify the Difference

When discussing accommodations and modifications with your child’s IEP Team, we recommend that you:

  • Make sure that any proposed accommodations and modifications are clearly spelled out in your child’s IEP.
  • Be aware of how the proposed accommodations and modifications align with your state’s academic content standards and still meet your child’s unique needs. These standards should available on your state’s department of education website.
  • Determine how the proposed accommodations and modifications will help close any grade level gap in your child’s performance. The accommodations and modifications should support IEP goals that are “ambitious but achievable.”
  • Use independent testing to verify what your child is capable of doing before you agree to any proposed accommodations and modifications. Don’t just rely on school testing, especially if you feel that the testing doesn’t fully describe your child’s strengths and weaknesses.

Schools are required by law to use appropriate accommodations and modifications for children in special education, but it is unfortunately your responsibility to see it is done correctly.

Judith Canty Graves and Carson Graves

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* United States Department of Education Office of Special Education and Rehabiltative Services, Dear Colleague Letter on Free and Appropriate Public Education (FAPE), November 16, 2015 (accessed on 1/27/2016)

The Role of a Special Education Advocate

When we entered special education many years ago, we had never heard of a special education advocate. And if we had, we probably wouldn’t have hired one because we felt comfortable with our son’s Team members. Later, however, we realized that we had missed important opportunities by not having an experienced professional explain our son’s rights and the school’s responsibilities to us.

Going It Alone (Our Experience Without An Advocate)

In the early days of elementary school, the general education teachers were warm and nurturing. Teachers only had one class of about twenty children all day long, so the demands on them weren’t as great as on teachers in middle school and high school.

The special education teachers also seemed to make an extra effort to get to know us and our son. We were impressed by their sincerity and their efforts. But we discovered that sometimes the school culture and the administrative bureaucracy get in the way of that idealism.

By middle school, we found the nurturing environment and attitude fading away. The entire school culture changed. There were multiple teachers and much larger classes. Getting an appointment to meet with our liaison or the general education teachers was almost impossible. We found fewer opportunities to be involved in school life and to get to know the teachers and the other students.

Now we realized we were in trouble. Our son wasn’t making progress and the teachers didn’t have time to meet with us. By seventh grade we noticed that the goals in our son’s IEP were being changed without our knowledge or a Team meeting to discuss them. A friend suggested a special education advocate who she had used. We contacted that person and made an appointment.

What Does An Advocate Do?

We began by reviewing our son’s educational history with the advocate. Fortunately we had kept all his paperwork. The advocate helped us organize everything in chronological order, then she reviewed our son’s IEPs. Finally she explained to us that the school had committed multiple violations of the special education laws. Our trust in the school district was crumbling with each passing day.

We began to realize how naive we had been in those early years. Although everyone had been very nice, they had ignored opportunities to recommend needed services at a critical time for learning and sometimes even violated explicit special education laws. While it is possible that some of the school personnel simply did not know the law and what was required of them, it is also possible that they chose to not follow the law in order to save time and money on special education services the school should have provided.

Now we understood the importance of working with an experienced advocate. Had we been working with her in elementary school, she would have noted the violations and advised us on our rights when it could have helped our son the most. She also had a lot of experience working with other families in our town and would have helped us avoid certain situations unique to our school district.

How to Find an Advocate

There are no licensing requirements for special education advocates like there are for most other professionals you will encounter in special education. It is critical to check the training and credentials of anyone you are considering. In many states the federally funded Parent Training and Information Centers (PTI) offer advocate training classes. The Yellow Pages for Kids, maintained by the Wrightslaw website at www.yellowpagesforkids.com lists PTIs, advocates, and other professionals in every state. Finally, ask other parents with children in special education about advocates they have used.

Once you have one or more names of advocates you can contact, arrange for an interview, either on the phone or in person, and ask questions such as the following:

  • Confirm the advocate’s training and credentials. They should match what you have already discovered through your research.
  • Describe your child’s problems and listen carefully to the advocate’s responses. Try to get a sense of his or her style and personality and whether or not you feel comfortable with that person.
  • Ask if he or she has worked collaboratively with your school district in the past. Someone who knows the people and programs in your district already has a head start.
  • Finally, ask for references and talk to other parents who have used this advocate. Ask if the kind of help you are seeking is similar to what the advocate helped them with.

Although an advocate’s fees can be quite reasonable compared with other special education professionals you may encounter, if finances are an issue, there is a federal program, Protection and Advocacy for People with Disabilities, that can provide free advocacy help. The website: www.parentcenternetwork.org, contains links that will help you locate a group in your area.

How to Work With an Advocate

The role of a special education advocate is to help you understand the laws and advocate for an appropriate education for your child. There are many ways to achieve this goal. The two most common are:

  • You can work with an advocate behind the scenes. This can help maintain your relationship with school personnel if you fear they might feel threatened by the presence of an outside professional.
  • Have the advocate attend Team meetings and negotiate for appropriate services and accommodations. The advocate can help you understand the sometimes hidden dynamics in the room and keep the meeting on track. For more on how this can work, see our earlier post Surviving Team Meetings.

In some states special education advocates specialize in either legal or educational advocacy. A legal advocate, often referred to as a “lay advocate,” is not a lawyer, but has specialized training in legal matters that pertain to special education. Lay advocates can attend Team meetings, write letters, and negotiate with schools to help resolve problems. In some states they can even represent parents in due process hearings. Educational advocates specialize in making recommendations about accommodations and services based on a student’s disabilities. In general, there can be a lot of overlap between the functions of lay and educational advocates.

Ultimately, if you can only hire one professional, consider hiring a special education advocate.

Judith Canty Graves and Carson Graves

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