Special Education ABCs

The educational program in public school is designed to be effective for most children. Some children, however, are not able to learn in the regular program and require a special instructional program or “special education services.” You as a parent or guardian have a right to refer your child to the district’s “special education committee” for an evaluation if you are concerned that your child is having trouble learning and is not progressing in their academic skills.

Once they receive your written request, the district must arrange for your child to be evaluated by one or more of their specialists, depending on the type of problems your child is having. A meeting will then be held to review and discuss the results of the tests, along with input from the teachers and information provided by the parent(s). The committee will determine if your child is “a child with a disability,” and thereby eligible for special education support.

Every public school district has a committee (called the Committee on Special Education, or CSE, in New York and the Planning and Placement Team, or PPT, in Connecticut) that determines students’ eligibility for special education services and what those services will be.You as parent are, by law, a member of this committee, and have a right to be present at any meetings and involved in the discussion and the decision-making process. You also have a right to disagree with the findings or recommendations of the evaluation, or the committee’s decision, and to request a second opinion, in an Independent Educational Evaluation, or IEE, done by a specialist not affiliated with the district. Sometimes the school district will obtain an IEE (sometimes a neuropsychological evaluation) when they feel that more information is needed in order to design an appropriate educational program.

You as parent or guardian also have a right to request an Impartial Hearing, if you disagree with the Committee’s decisions, or feel that your child is not receiving a “free and appropriate public education” as is his or her legal right. (For a very informative website about special education issues visit www.wrightslaw.com.)

In order to receive special education services, your child must be determined to be “a child with a disability.” This means two things: the child has a condition – one of thirteen conditions listed in the law, and because of that condition, has a need for specialized instruction – that is, has been unable to make appropriate progress in the regular program.

Special Education Law (Section 300.7) defines “child with a disability” as “…a child evaluated in accordance with Secs. 300.530-300.536 as having mental retardation, a hearing impairment including deafness, a speech or language impairment, a visual impairment including blindness, serious emotional disturbance (hereafter referred to as emotional disturbance), an orthopedic impairment, autism, traumatic brain injury, an other health impairment, a specific learning disability, deaf-blindness, or multiple disabilities, and who, by reason thereof, needs special education and related services” (unless the child “only needs a related service and not special education”, unless “the related service required by the child is considered special education rather than a related service under State standards.”)

For children from three through nine years of age the law adds the condition “developmental delays”, which can be in “physical development, cognitive development, communication development, social or emotional development, or adaptive development.” The term “developmental delays” means a weak process that has not developed, but may yet develop.

A “specific learning disability” is one of thirteen conditions, listed above, that a child may have that could qualify them for special education services. Just having the condition does not qualify the child, as indicated by the phrase: “who, by reason thereof, needs…” Whether or not your child “needs” special education services is a grey area that is not precisely defined in the law and must be determined by the Committee (of which, you as a parent, are a member).
You, as parent or guardian, can disagree with the Committee’s decision and request an “Impartial Hearing”, at which a hearing officer, acting as judge, reviews the evidence and determines whether the district was within their rights under the law in making their decision.

The term “specific learning disability” is defined, under Special Education Law Section 300.7, as “…a disorder in one or more of the basic psychological processes involved in understanding or in using language, spoken or written, that may manifest itself in an imperfect ability to listen, think, speak, read, write, spell, or to do mathematical calculations, including conditions such as perceptual disabilities, brain injury, minimal brain dysfunction, dyslexia, and developmental aphasia.” The definition continues, “The term does not include learning problems that are primarily the result of visual, hearing, or motor disabilities, of mental retardation, of emotional disturbance, or of environmental, cultural, or economic disadvantage.”

There are seven areas of academic skill that are taught and assessed as part of the public educational curriculum. These are: Basic Reading, Reading Comprehension, Written Expression, Mathematical Reasoning, Mathematical Computations, Listening Comprehension and Oral Expression. In legal terms, then, your child may have a “specific learning disability” in any one of these areas. The identification of “a specific learning disability” indicates that the child is not making the same progress in acquiring the particular academic skill as their peers, despite having normal intelligence and being exposed to the same instruction.

If your child is determined to be “a child with a disability” and thereby eligible for “special education services”, the district must then develop an “Individualized Education Plan”, or “IEP”, for your child. The IEP is an important document that lists the child’s program and placement (what kind of school or classroom), and services, such as speech and language therapy, occupational therapy, counseling, or small-group special instruction in a particular academic area, along with the size of the group and the number and duration of sessions each week that the service is to be provided.

Placement may be in a regular classroom with pull-out services, in an inclusion classroom where the specialist comes into the classroom, or in a special, small-group class. By law, placement must be in the “least restrictive environment” meaning, essentially, that the program should not be more intensive than necessary. Program modifications are also listed in the IEP. These refer to changes in the methods and materials used for instruction and for measuring progress. Classroom and testing accommodations are listed as well.

The IEP must also list specific educational goals in each problem area. It is very important that the goals be measurable and specific, so that it is clear whether the IEP is working. They cannot state simply, for example, “Johnny will read better,” but must specify what this means and how it will be determined, such as, “Johnny will be able to successfully decode fourth-grade-level reading vocabulary at an 80 percent success rate as assessed on a norm-referenced test.”

Children receiving special education services are evaluated every year as part of a mandatory Annual Review to determine whether or not they are making appropriate progress. Based on this assessment, a new IEP will be generated for the upcoming school year. If the child is making good progress, the IEP may list the same placement and services, although new goals will be generated. If not, services may be changed or added. Special education services can also be reduced if the child is doing much better, or discontinued if they are no longer needed. In this case, the child is “declassified.”

Parents and school districts sometimes disagree as to whether the child is making appropriate progress. Parents have the right to request an Independent Education Evaluation, or IEE (often by a neuropsychologist), in order to get a second professional opinion as to the nature of the child’s learning issues and needs. Parents also have the right to “due process,” to request an Impartial Hearing if they disagree with the decisions made by the district and attempts at resolving the disagreement have failed.

Children who are having difficulties in school may not qualify for special education services because they are managing to make appropriate progress in all seven academic areas with the regular classroom instruction, as demonstrated by their performance in the classroom and on individual educational tests. These children may qualify for support through a Section 504 Accommodation Plan, which is based on the Americans with Disabilities Act rather than Special Education Law, and is administered at the building level rather than the district level. Accommodations, such as extended time for tests, seating near the teacher to reduce distractions, or the provision of classroom notes or outlines, can reduce the obstacles to learning that conditions such as Asperger’s syndrome, a hearing loss, or anxiety disorder can cause.

Children with difficulties that have been associated with “ADHD” often need educational support and accommodations. These can be specified in a Section 504 plan, and will depend on their age and grade, the degree of hyperactivity they experience and the nature of any other difficulties they have. Different problems are apparent at different ages. Very young children have trouble sitting still. Children in the early grades may have difficulty staying focused in class and completing their work independently. Children in middle school and high school have trouble keeping track of their assignments and materials, studying for tests and doing and handing in homework.

Very young children, who are more likely to be hyperactive, need “motor breaks” where they are free to move around to get their wiggles out. It is important to determine whether they also have sensory integration issues that need to be addressed. If they do, an Occupational Therapist should be involved in providing opportunities for appropriate motor activities.

Children at the mid-elementary school level should have preferential seating, not necessarily in the front of the classroom, and non-verbal cuing by the teacher to help them stay focused on the lesson. Small-group instruction, experiential instruction (learning by doing, as in a craft or “lab” experience), participation in dramatization in Language Arts lessons (reading and writing) and discussion-based learning are helpful for them. Computers are very helpful in teaching rote material, such as spelling and math facts. Computers are self-paced, non-judgmental and interactive. Game-like activities make learning fun and retention of skills is good.

Middle school is when ADHD is often identified in children who have managed to do well in elementary school. This is because the demands are much greater on skills that are weak, such as self-initiating and independent work, juggling the multiple teachers and classrooms, assignments and materials, and more reading and writing assignments.

Homework is tough for children with ADHD for several reasons. One is that it demands sustained attention at the end of a day where they have likely used up all of their energy to hold it together. Reading is often not enjoyed by children with ADHD because it requires sustained attention, and they may lose focus before they get to the bottom of the page, necessitating returning to the top to start again. Homework assignments should be flexible in length and format.