Jack is a 9-year-old boy in 4th grade that loves Legos, wrestling, and art. He would love to draw comic books when he grows up. He is competitive (especially with soccer), but also compassionate, is a helpful big brother to his sister, and tries to help his mom with the chores.
Jack also struggles with paying attention, especially in the classroom, and is often forgetful; misplacing or losing homework, pens and pencils, and even his house key. He is often very impulsive and acts without thinking, such as getting up from his seat without permission, talking during class, touching or taking other student’s personal items, and has taken risks during recess where he will do wild things on a dare, like jumping off playground equipment.
Does this sound familiar? Jack is a fictional character, but he represents children who have behaviors that might be addressed in an IEP or a 504 Plan. If you’re seeing similar behavior in your child, or have other concerns, read on.
In Part 1, we introduced the IEP process as it relates to mental health needs of children and got our feet wet discussing evaluations and criteria for services (you can find that article here). Now in Part 2, we will move past the appetizers and on to the main course: The IEP itself.
Is this an IEP?
After you’ve formally submitted your concerns in writing and asked the district for an IEP, there are several different types of meetings that are IEPs or IEP-like and this can be confusing to just about everyone.
Here are some typical meetings a family with an IEP may attend:
- Initial Assessment Plan Meeting: Discusses need and plan for evaluations.
- IEP Assessment Review: Reviews evaluations and related data.
- Initial Eligibility Review: Usually part of Assessment Review/Initial IEP.
- Initial IEP: Establishes and formalizes the needs, goals, and services.
- Annual IEP: Reviews prior needs, goals, and services and student’s progress and sets new goals and services for the year.
- Triennial IEP: Every 3 years, student’s eligibility and needs are reassessed and reviewed. Otherwise similar to Annual IEP.
- “Emergency” IEP: Set into motion by parental or district request; 30 days.
- 30-Day Placement/Transfer IEP: Following change in districts or placement.
- (Re-)Assessment Plan Meeting: Held prior to any new assessments, including prior to the Triennial IEP.
- Individual Transition Plan (ITP) Meeting: Usually part of Annual/Tri IEP when student turns 16 to identify transition out of high school.
- Request for an IEE Review: When the family asks for an IEE at district expense.
- Manifestation Determination Review: When major disciplinary action is considered (More on this below).
- 504-Plan Meetings: Same Categories as IEP meetings (generally)
Who’s who at an IEP meeting
When an IEP meeting is called, the child’s IEP team is assembled. Typically, this includes a general education teacher, a special education teacher, a school psychologist, a representative for the district (usually a Program Specialist [PS] but could also include the Director of Special Education or even the District Superintendent).
The meeting may also include a school administrator, a school counselor, a specialist (such as an OT or SLP), school district staff (such as a District Psychologist or a Board Member), a Translator, and/or the school district’s Attorney.
On the family’s side, family is obviously allowed, and with prior written notice, the family’s attorney or advocate, specialists (such as OT, SLP, or Behaviorist – especially if they conducted an IEE), Regional Center case worker, foster system/DCFS/CPS social worker, psychotherapist (hey, that’s me!), psychologist, psychiatrist, medical personnel, such as a pediatrician or physician’s assistant, clergy, a family translator, family friend, or anyone who may be beneficial to the child’s.
Well, All That Sounds Intimidating . . .
Yup, it sure does. Not only have I been through this with dozens of kids that I have worked with, but also as a parent. The process can be intimidating, especially when parents are there for the first time and sitting across from the IEP team who is expressing what they think is best for your child using legal and technical language.
Often it feels like you are hearing the school district say “Jack is an adorable boy who blah, blah, blah. Reasons, reasons, reasons, reasons, reasons – and that’s what we think would be best for your child, wouldn’t you agree?” “Umm . . . yes?” “Great! Sign here…”
So, how can we make sense of this experience? Well, a great deal of what makes this feel so intimidating are the same laws that are there to protect your child, but there is also a method to the IEP madness: so let’s break this down into bite-sized chunks.
While these were primarily covered in Part I of this article, I will say that in the meetings is where they become important.
You may have your own assessments and evaluations and the school district will have performed their own evaluations (or will be planning to). The IEP Team is required to consider all relevant assessments provided.
Please Note: Not All Evaluations Are Equal! There are dozens, if not hundreds of peer-reviewed, evidenced-based measures for everything imaginable related to your child’s functioning. Some may be screeners, which sample a small taste from a wide range of abilities, while others take a deep dive into a specific skill set or ability. Some are meticulously performed by experienced professionals with alphabet soup after their names, while others are self-report or parent-report measures, asking questions like: “Does your tween roll their eyes a) frequently b) sometimes c) nearly not always d) carrot.”
As you review the IEP and the evaluations the district presents, make note of any additional supporting information you may have provided the district, such as an outside diagnosis or evaluation and whether it has been referenced in the school district’s evaluations or the IEP itself. If for any reason the information is not identified or identified incorrectly, you have the right to ask that it be added to the “notes” section of your IEP.
This is where the rubber meets the road: Does your child meet criteria to receive an IEP and special education instruction? Does your child meet criteria to receive a 504 Plan and classroom and/or educational accommodations?
The answers to these questions are found in the evaluations provided to, or conducted by, the district, as well as documented observation or recorded behaviors in the appropriate environment. The criteria for receiving an IEP is more stringent and must qualify under the 13 categories we identified in Part 1. Much like the evaluations: Not All Criteria Are Equal! Pay attention to what criteria the district is using to justify the IEP and/or 504 Plan.
Districts will often favor giving Speech Language Impairment (SLI) or Specific Learning Disability (SLD or LD) as criteria over others. However, if a child has significant speech delays and significant ADHD, and the district selects criteria as “SLI” you have a right to ask for the criteria to be changed to Other Health Impairment (“OHI”), as it will probably need to be addressed longer than the speech issues.
If the district denies your request, ask that the exchange be written into the notes section of the IEP.
Now things get a little simpler (hopefully). The IEP will have student goals based on needs identified in the evaluations. The goals are usually that the student needs to do more of something they do too little of (e.g. spelling words, responding to questions, complete homework), or that the student needs to do less of something they do too much of (e.g. getting out of their seat, talking during class, name-calling).
In the IEP goals section there will be a “baseline” area, which should have the current value for how much of the thing is happening now (e.g. “currently, Jane is turning in only 2/5 homework assignments a week, with only 50% correct.”).
The goal section should have a new target goal for the coming year based on the baseline (e.g. “over the next year, Jane will use the “Check-In, Log-In, Turn-In” method to increase her turned-in assignments to 5/5 per week at 75% correct.”). That is a logical progression Baseline to Goal.
Services & Accommodations
Hand-in-hand with goals are both placement and services/accommodations. A “service” usually consists of a specialist or specialists who provide targeted interventions to address student needs. They may be Speech & Language Pathologists, Occupational Therapists, Physical Therapists, or any other service identified as necessary to address the student’s academic needs.
Services can be “push-in” (they come to the classroom) or “pull-out” (they take the child from the classroom”) and can often be group, small group, or 1-on-1. If services are needed, the service provider or a qualified assessor within the same field will be the one who creates the goal for the IEP.
Accommodations, on the other hand, are changes made to the classroom environment; such as untimed tests, smaller class size, larger font handouts, ear protection to reduce auditory distractions, a standing desk, walking breaks, and any other change needed to support the child.
Placement refers to the literal place in which your child will be sitting. The rule with placement is our friend the LRE (Least Restrictive Environment). When deciding placement, the district must consider the following:
- Independence and Structure
- Time With Peers
- Environmental Design
- Educational Benefit
- Non-Academic & Academic Benefit
Looking at the LRE diagram, we can see at the top of the LRE list is a General Education (“Mainstream”) Classroom at your child’s home school, that is no different than any other class.
As we look down this list, you will notice that there will be a new placement, followed by the same placement with “Related Services.” In these instances “Related Services” refers to any combination of accommodations, push-in/pull-out services, and aides.
A Resource Specialist Program (RSP) is a very common solution proposed by the district to assist a child who needs some assistance with the general education curriculum, such as difficulty finishing homework, or a significant deficit in a couple specific areas of need, like reading or math and science. RSP acts as an additional support reinforcing those areas of need, sometimes like a “study hall” where a student can do homework and take tests, or where a child can receive help building missing skills from prior grades, or reinforcing new skills that have trouble sticking for whatever reason. Mild-Moderate Special Education Classes (MM) are usually a smaller class size and make up a partial-day or full-day setting for a child struggling with the Gen Ed curriculum or setting.
For the vast majority of students, MM placement or lower will be sufficient to meet their needs. Please be aware that many districts change the names of programs to try and reduce stigma.
You may see names like “Learning Center,” “Special Day Class,” “Independent Living Skills,” or “Independent Learning Instruction” as euphemisms for RSP, MM, or MS classes – and to further confuse things, you may see RSP used to define an MM class!
Typically, when discussing mental health, Gen Ed/MM, and a change in school placement, there may be reasons why a district may want the student to switch campuses, such as to receive specialized services or due to an incident or experience at a specific location.
In more rare cases, when a child is struggling with more severe, persistent mental health concerns, especially when co-occurring with other genetic or developmental disorders, or when the child presents a danger to themselves or others, the most restrictive environments of residential in-state or residential out-of-state schools may be considered.
So what happens after goals, services and accommodations and placements are set? What if you disagree with any of those? What is a BIP? Can I find out ASAP? Stay tuned for Part 3!
Please note: This article is meant to be informational and does not constitute legal or educational advice or expertise. Should you have any questions about your legal or educational rights, please contact your local school district and/or legal resources specializing in special education law.
Steven D’Antoni is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist in The Guidance Center’s Long Beach Outpatient Program, where he helps guide children and families struggling with mental health conditions or abuse toward positive and productive futures. Before D’Antoni joined The Guidance Center team in 2017, he worked with children and adults with severe and chronic mental health conditions, as well as in a county-wide pilot program to identify and treat youth with prodromal psychosis. D’Antoni earned a Master of Arts degree in Clinical Psychology at Pepperdine University.