Tag Archives: special education

A New Kind of Book Club

mountain-clouds-8-textWe recently had an idea that we would like to share with parents whose children (or grandchildren) are in special education. Have you ever considered starting a book club to read and discuss books on special education? We recently read about a parent group that was reading Pete and Pam Wright’s excellent book, From Emotions to Advocacy. That was our first book on special education and it really opened our eyes to the reality of special education and advocating for our child.

Instead of joining a book club to read the latest fiction, why not join with like-minded parents to read and discuss books on special education or any other books that would help you advocate for your child’s education? At the end of this article, we’ll suggest some of the most useful books we have come across.

How to Begin

Once you choose a book, your group can plan to read one chapter a week and discuss it at the next meeting. Books by Pete and Pamela Wright and also our book, have a lot of important information and ideas for parents, so it is important not to try to cover too much in one meeting. The weekly discussion could also include a brainstorming session about how you can use the information from that chapter to improve your child’s experience in special education.

Here’s an example: In Chapter 11 of Parents Have the Power to Make Special Education Work, we write about transition planning and graduation. This is a topic that even parents of middle schoolers need to start thinking about, since effective transition planning should begin in the IEP meeting preceding a student’s entering ninth grade.

In this chapter, we explain why planning ahead is important, and we discuss the details of transition planning and services. We also describe what we call “the graduation game,” which is how some school districts give inflated grades and overly optimistic progress reports to ensure that a student will graduate easily and on time. Many parents don’t understand that for schools, graduation ends their obligation to provide special education services, so there is a great incentive to graduate students, whether they are prepared for the next step in their lives or not. We end the chapter with eight points describing what parents can do to prepare for transition planning and graduation. This section can be a good starting point for a group discussion.

Some Book Suggestions

You may already be thinking of some books that you would like to read and discuss in your book club (Parents Have the Power to Make Special Education Work is a good place to start!), but in case you would like some suggestions, here are a few of our favorites, and why we like them (we’ve provided Amazon links to these books for your convenience only; we have no financial interest in selling them):

  • From Emotions to Advocacy by Pam Wright and Pete Wright. The Wrights are in the forefront of helping parents understand and deal effectively with special education. This is one of their best books for parents. The Wrightslaw web site is likewise one of the best Internet resources for parents.
  • Writing Measurable IEP Goals and Objectives by Barbara Bateman and Cynthia M. Herr. This is a clear and concise guide to one of the most important parts of the IEP. It contains useful examples that you can follow.
  • Straight Talk About Psychological Testing for Kids by Ellen Braaten and Gretchen Felopulos. This book provides clear explanations of how psychological testing works and how testing can identify specific learning disabilities. The authors go into the issues of interpreted scores, deciphering jargon-filled reports, and making sure that a report contains useful recommendations. There is also a discussion of how to choose the right professional to conduct tests.
  • How To Compromise With Your School District Without Compromising Your Child by Gary Mayerson. This is an engaging and candid text, written by a special education lawyer who is also the parent of a child with special needs. The book is full of first-hand accounts of dealing with school districts. Many of these accounts read like verbatim descriptions of encounters we have had with our school district, illustrating how the problems in special education are universal.

Coming Together to Increase Your Power

These are just a few examples of books that you may find helpful in increasing your understanding of special education and advocacy for your child. By reading and discussing such books with other parents, we think you will find that there really is strength in numbers and discover a great source of emotional support. We hope this idea will work for you!

Judith Canty Graves and Carson Graves

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Parents As Equal Participants in Team Meetings

equal participant 2 textThere is a lot of misunderstanding about the role of parents at Team meetings. In our conversations with other parents and in too many online sources, there is frequently a misconception that IDEA gives parents an equal voice with school personnel in deciding what services or educational placement their child needs. The phrase that is most often cited is “equal participant,” which many parents assume means that the school must accept their suggestions at Team meetings.

The Opportunity to Participate, Not Decide

While IDEA does require that parents be “afforded the opportunity to participate” in all Team meetings [34 C.F.R. § 300.322 (a)], the right of participation is not the same as the right of decision making. The law, in fact, only requires schools to schedule meetings so that parents have the opportunity to attend and for schools to consider any information (such as independent evaluations) or concerns that the parents bring to the meeting. “Consider,” however, does not mean “accept.”

IDEA is clear that the school has the ultimate responsibility to ensure that a student’s IEP includes the services and placement needed for a free appropriate public education (FAPE). Because the law makes the school responsible, the law must also give the final decision on what constitutes FAPE to the school. If parents disagree with the school’s decision, the law provides a due process remedy, either through mediation or a hearing.

Unfortunately, pursuing due process rights can be expensive, time-consuming, and have an uncertain outcome. This means that short of going to mediation or a hearing, you must arrive at Team meetings prepared to be as persuasive as possible in advocating for the services and placement you feel are necessary for your child.

What Can You Do?

Some recommendations we have are:

  • If the Team won’t agree to all your suggestions, try to come to a mutually agreeable compromise. Remember that your goal is to achieve the best possible result for your child’s education, not to “win” a contest with the school.
  • Have a relative or trusted friend attend the meeting as a note taker so that all important agreements are recorded and the subject of a follow-up letter to your special education liaison. This will prevent later misunderstandings about what was agreed to. You can record a Team meeting, assuming your state allows this, but our experience is that this is not always the best option. (See Recording Team Meetings, Not That Simple)
  • Become familiar with any federal or state law that might impact the service or placement you want to have included in your child’s IEP. Sometimes school personnel and administrators aren’t familiar with the laws that regulate special education. A citation, gently delivered, can work wonders in breaking down uninformed resistance. If the resistance is intentional, making the Team aware of the law will work toward your advantage before a hearing officer, if it comes to that.

The bottom line is that thoughtful preparation is the best way to become “more equal” in helping your child obtain an appropriate education.

Judith Canty Graves and Carson Graves

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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.

Special Education Etiquette

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Special education can be both rewarding for parents and a source of frustration when things don’t go the way they should. While some experts believe that conflict between parents and schools is normal and inevitable,1 it is too easy to become frustrated with the special education system and take it out on the individuals in the system you encounter most often.

The Individual is Not the System

It can be unfair, however, to confuse the individual with the system. Teachers and other professionals who choose special education as a vocation usually do so out of a genuine interest in helping students and can be as frustrated by the system as parents. Whenever you are tempted to display your anger and frustration, our best advice (paraphrasing investor Warren Buffet), is to remember these two rules:

  1. The special education experience is not about you, it is about your child.
  2. Never forget rule number one.

What we mean by this is that no matter how many violations of the special education law the school commits and no matter how angry that makes you, do not take the situation personally. Always do your best to maintain a cordial relationship with the people who are teaching your child, providing services to your child, or administering the program your child attends. You need their help for your son or daughter to get an appropriate education.

Seek Appropriate Remedies, Not Confrontation

Confrontation only makes school personnel defensive and less cooperative and puts your child in the middle of an uncomfortable situation. To quote one expert: “Unless you are prepared to remove your child from public school forever, you need to view your relationship with the school as a marriage without the possibility of divorce.”2

If necessary, you can seek remedies for problems in a due process hearing, but if you do, the hearing officer will want to know that you first have made every effort to cooperate and try reasonable suggestions that school personnel offer. It is fine to point out problems and seek to negotiate solutions, but if you go to a hearing with a history of confrontation and lack of cooperation, that will inevitability be factored into any judgement the hearing officer makes.

What Can You Do to Maintain an Appropriate Relationship?

In short, there is no downside to being polite, even if you feel that the courtesy is not reciprocal. To that end, we have the following suggestions to help you maintain an appropriate relationship with school personnel:

  1. Treat the people working with your child as you would like to be treated. What you perceive as lack of cooperation may be the result of being overwhelmed by having to work with too many students or being hamstrung by lack of resources, rather than an intentional slight. It doesn’t help to be rude or dismissive of people who are doing their best in less than ideal circumstances.
  2. Don’t assume that school personnel understand all the details of your child’s disability. Be willing to spend some time educating Team members about your child’s particular needs. Sometimes parents mistake a lack of understanding as a lack of cooperation.
  3. Prioritize what is most important for your child’s education and do not make a habit of complaining about small procedural errors or trying to control all the details of your child’s school life. Save your energy and credibility for the important problems. Ask yourself if you would rather be angry or get appropriate services for your child.
  4. Find a forum other than a Team meeting to express anger or frustration. Use a spouse or trusted friend for animated discussions about things you feel the school is not doing appropriately. A trained advocate can be a good sounding board for your concerns as well as a source of advice for how to proceed when you encounter roadblocks.
  5. Keep an open mind at Team meetings and consider all suggestions thoughtfully, even ones with which you might disagree. If you find a discussion over a disagreement becoming too heated, or if a Team member starts to lose emotional control, ask for a short break or, if necessary, ask that the meeting be reconvened at a later date.
  6. Even if your school is not following the letter of the special education laws, your job is to insure that your child gets the help he or she needs, not to point out the school’s failures, or worse, try to get the school to admit its failures. School districts, like all bureaucracies, will hardly ever do that. To this end, concentrate on the solutions to problems, not on the failure that might have caused the problem.

None of this means that you have to accept improper behavior from school personnel or not stand up for the rights of your child. Your goal is to create a positive working environment in which you can advocate for your child and successfully negotiate for appropriate services and supports.

Judith Canty Graves and Carson Graves

The above article is adapted from Chapter 2 of Parents Have the Power to Make Special Education Work.

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1. Wright, Pam and Pete Wright, From Emotions to Advocacy, Second Edition, (Hartfield, VA: Harbor House Press, 1999), p. 41.
2. WrightsLaw, “Parent/School Relationship: Marriage Without the Possibility of Divorce.

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 Yin and Yang of Inclusion

mt-p-textInclusion is a special education term that parents hear a lot, and one that they need to understand. As we look back over the 41 years of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), we have come to realize that the word inclusion has had many meanings and interpretations over the decades. These interpretations have shifted the intent of inclusion from one that favored an appropriate education for students with disabilities to one that for all intents and purposes seeks to deny them the education that is their right. This is what we call the yin and yang of inclusion.

First, a brief history. The federal special education law, originally called the Education for All Handicapped Children Act, was passed in 1975. Prior to that monumental event, the general assumption was that children with disabilities could not learn. Expectations were low for these children. Public schools had the right to exclude them, so millions of children languished at home or in institutions.

As Special Education Attorney Robert Crabtree wrote in the foreword to our book:

The movement in the early 1970s to expand and deepen the legal rights of children with disabilities had its roots in the eloquent language of the U.S. Supreme Court written on behalf of another disenfranchised school population, children of color. In Brown v. Board of Education (1954) the Court declared: “…in these days, it is doubtful that any child may reasonably be expected to succeed in life if he is denied the opportunity of an education. Such an opportunity …is a right which must be made available to all on equal terms.”

It was in the 1970s that parents, advocates, and lawmakers began to work together to include children with disabilities in the public schools. Attorney Crabtree, with his law partner Lawrence Kotin, wrote the Massachusetts special education laws, Chapter 766, which later became the model for IDEA.

With the passage of the federal special education law in 1975, inclusion had begun for children with disabilities. Over the decades, it became a standard practice to include all children in the general education classroom, no matter how severe their needs were. Many children with special needs could be in a full inclusion setting all day or most of the day with little or no specialized instruction. Schools began to see the cost benefit of keeping these children in a general education classroom for most of the day compared to expensive individualized services.

With time, schools began to insist that “inclusion” always meant the general education classroom, leading University of Texas professor of special education, Jessica R. Toste, to write recently that: [I]nclusion is often falsely translated to mean the “place” where teaching and learning occurs.* This was the attitude we experienced when our son was in the public schools.

If inclusion is not executed carefully, however, many teachers without training in special education can find themselves teaching both mainstream children and children with disabilities at the same time. Without the proper training or without the right kind of support, the results are often dismal. In her article, Professor Toste cites a high dropout rate, criminal activity, behavior problems, underemployment and even unemployment for students with learning disabilities who do not receive an appropriate education.

The problem is that IDEA does not adequately define the term “inclusion,” it just says that students must be educated in the “least restrictive environment.” This lack of rigorous definition allows schools to interpret inclusion in a manner that is most favorable to their budgets, regardless of what effect it might have on the students in their charge. They can save money by insisting on including students with disabilities in the general education classroom as a substitute for providing individualized education with highly qualified teachers to meet the unique needs of each child in special education as required by IDEA.

The circular irony of the history of inclusion can be summed up as:

  • In the early years of IDEA, the law forced schools to include students with disabilities in the general education classroom.
  • Now, many schools use the law to force students with disabilities to remain in the general education classroom even when it does not allow them to receive an appropriate education.

Special education is supposed to consider appropriate services and placement for each child at no cost to the parents. Schools are expected to define the “least restrictive environment” for each child according to individual needs and not assume that full inclusion is always the answer. They are required to offer their students a “continuum of alternative placements,” not just assume that the general education classroom is always the least restrictive environment. Parents need to know, and more importantly expect, that full inclusion in the general education classroom is not the only option. In the law, “inclusion” does not always mean “place.”

Parents, be vigilant and ask questions to determine if your child will receive the proper specialized instruction by a qualified professional. That is what the law says your child should have. That is the fair and true meaning of inclusion.

Judith Canty Graves and Carson Graves

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* Toste, Jessica R., “The Illusion of Inclusion: How We Are Failing Students with Learning Disabilities,” The Huffington Post, 11/13/2015. Accessed on December 12, 2015 at http://www.huffingtonpost.com/jessica-r-toste/the-illusion-of-inclusion_1_b_8530372.html

Thoughts on the 40th Anniversary of IDEA

Lincoln WinterLast month the Individuals with Disabilities Act (IDEA) reached an anniversary milestone of 40 years. We have been reflecting on this law, the enormous impact it has had on education, and the daunting task of fulfilling its promise for all students with disabilities.

The civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s inspired parents and advocacy groups to believe that students with disabilities had a right to the same educational opportunities as their non-disabled peers. As a result, the level of school participation for the disabled increased at both the state and local levels. Despite this progress, by 1970 only 20 percent of students with identified disabilities were being educated in public schools. Many state laws specifically excluded students who were deaf, blind, “mentally retarded,” or “emotionally disturbed” (to use the terms of that era as they were written into the laws) from getting any public education at all. Many students who were turned away languished at home or in institutions.

Massachusetts was the first state in the country to pass a comprehensive special education law, known as Chapter 766. At the federal level, the legal recognition of the rights of students with disabilities occurred in 1975 when Congress passed the Education for All Handicapped Children Act. This law was modeled after Massachusetts’ Chapter 766.

The law required schools to provide a “free appropriate public education” to students with a wide range of disabilities. It also required that districts provide this education in the “least restrictive environment,” a mandate that opened the doors of mainstream classrooms to the 80 percent of students with special needs who had up to then been excluded. Later this law was given the name we know it by today, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.

We are grateful that public education became available to all students 40 years ago, but we also recognize that much more work needs to be done. Because IDEA does not give specific definitions to terms like “appropriate education” and “least restrictive environment,” school districts and parents frequently disagree about the meaning of these concepts. The main reason for this conflict is that funding for special education is so inadequate.

In 1975, Congress authorized the Federal government to pay for 40 percent of all special education costs. Since that time, the government has funded less than 20 percent of these costs. The rest of the money to pay for special education comes from either individual states or local communities.

The intent of IDEA is for schools to provide special education services to students with identified disabilities at no cost to the parents. But this takes money and IDEA has never been fully funded. Thus school districts and parents clash when a child’s needs require expensive services.

For the parents, the stakes are incredibly high, as their child’s future depends on an appropriate education. For school districts with constrained budgets, there is pressure to serve students in the most cost-effective way.

In addition, political groups, at both the state and local level, can apply great pressure to school districts. Some residents in towns complain that their tax dollars are used to pay for the educations of less-deserving children in special education. Funds to train teachers for educating special needs students or to hire highly qualified staff are often limited. As a result, the public school budget sometimes limits special education services to a “one size fits all” approach that ultimately fits no one.

All these factors can influence the education that individual students receive. Parents are frequently unaware of these political pressures and wind up feeling confused and frustrated by the special education experience. The result is that many children with disabilities do not receive an education that is appropriate to their needs.

Ultimately, while the implementation of IDEA is far from ideal, we want to acknowledge the anniversary of the law that opened the doors of public education for the many deserving children who might otherwise have been excluded from the classroom. We also want to reaffirm our goal of educating parents about their children’s rights so that their children might realize the education promised to them 40 years ago. We should remember that everyone benefits when all members of our society receive an appropriate education.

Judith Canty Graves and Carson Graves

Question: Has your family benefited from IDEA? In what ways could your experience have been better? You can tell us through our Contact page. Let us know if we can share your story with our blog readers.

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