Reading at the College Level

Once you have organized yourself (link), your materials (link), and found your optimal study environment (link), the next step is to actually study. In a post-secondary institution, independently reading the assigned content is the first step to preparing yourself for in-class learning and studying for exams.

We highly recommend reading the chapter or assigned reading before attending the lecture that will cover the same topic. Proper scheduling using your syllabus is an important step to make sure that you are able to do this. When you read the material prior to the lecture, it allows you the gain exposure to the information more than once. This is especially important because you must be exposed to information multiple times before it transfers to from your short-term to your long-term memory. If you read the chapter before your lecture, you will have at least three exposures to the material: before the lecture, during the lecture, and during your study time after the lecture. It also allows you the opportunity to solidify new concepts prior to the lecture and develop specific questions to ask during the lecture. Accessing the information prior to the lecture also allows you to process the information with respect to your disability. An example of this would be if you have a reading disability, you are able to listen to an audio recording of the chapter.

When reading advanced level texts, it can be more difficult to read the content, understand the vocabulary, and comprehend the meaning. In order to encourage comprehension, is important to preview the text prior to beginning to read it. When previewing the text, you should read the title and the author’s name and think about the source. Next, skim the Table of Contents to see how the chapter relates to other chapters within the book. Begin by reading the abstract, introduction, and summary or conclusion. Then, read the headings and subheadings while looking at the graphic aids and photographs which will help you to determine the majority of information that will be covered in the chapter. Prior to begin reading, decide which portion is the most important or will be covered by the next lecture and prioritize that part of the chapter.

Below is a list of helpful questions to guide you during the previewing process:

  • Why are you reading this text (i.e. class discussion, background information, exam, or a paper)?

  • How long is this reading?

  • What do graphic aids/photographs tell you?

  • Are there any new terms or concepts?

  • What do I already know about this subject?

  • What you need to know about the text?

  • Turn headings and subheadings into questions and try to find the answers when reading.

Then, decide how much you are going to read, read that portion, and take a quick mental break. Before moving on to the next section, it is essential that you are able to answer the questions that you generated prior to reading. If you are unable to answer the questions, then you should reread the section until you have a thorough understanding. If a particular topic proves difficult for you, it is also appropriate to ask your previewing questions during the lecture.

Taking notes while reading can increase comprehension and improve your retention of information. Next week, we will discuss the importance of note taking and methods for taking effective notes.

 

Everything in Its Place: How to Organize Your School Materials

Now that you have your schedule organized, it’s time to think about how to organize your materials.  There’s no one “right” way to do it; you may need to try multiple different strategies and choose the one that works best for you. 

Color Coding.  Color coding can be helpful to make sure you bring the right materials to class.  One way to use the color coding organizational strategy is to assign each course a color.  This means that the book, notebook, binder etc. that you need for each course would be one color.  You can look at your text book cover as a guide of which color to use, or you can use book covers.  If you are disorganized or distracted, it is much easier to pick up every blue item than make a mental list of everything you might need for history class, for example.

All-In-One Approach. While many people find color coding materials helpful, others still have difficulty remembering to bring all of the required supplies even if they are color coded.  If that is the case, it is often easier to keep everything in one large binder.  The challenge here is to make sure that the binder is well organized with specific sections for each course.  It may still be helpful to color code the sections within the binder to foster organization and separation of course materials.  Additionally, it is usually helpful to have small spiral notebooks in each course section for notes.  This keeps all of your notes together and in order. 

Organizing Your Binder.  You will either have multiple smaller binders if you are using one for each class, or one larger binder if you are using a single one to hold all course material.  You should put your syllabus in a protective sleeve in the front of each binder or section.  Next, you should have a color coordinated spiral notebook to keep your notes organized.  Following the notebook, you should insert any in-class handouts so that you can easily access them.

Bag. Many students carry their materials to class, but it may be better to have a well-organized bag.  This will allow you to make sure you have all of the small materials you need like pens, highlighters, calculators, etc.  If you keep them in a specific spot in your bag, you won’t have to remember to take any additional supplies with you.  You will just have to change out the binder and books you need.

Once you find an organizational system that works for you, stick to it and try your best to keep your binders and bags neat.  It can be very easy to simply put papers or notes into your bag or in a book, but the care that you take following your system will save you a lot of time looking for things you need but have lost in the future.  For our next blog post, we will address finding or creating an environment that fosters productivity.

Assistive Technology

As we have been discussing in our most recent posts, accommodations, services available at your postsecondary institution, and private services can all be helpful in addressing the needs associated with your disability.  Another support comes in the form of assistive technology.  Assistive technology is a piece of equipment or product system that you can use to increase, maintain, or improve your functional capabilities.  If you have accommodations through a Section 504 Plan, assistive technology may be included as an accommodation.  Your Accessibility Office should be able to provide you access to some assistive technology.  You may also wish to invest in assistive technology of your own.  Below we will discuss common assistive technology tools that may be able to help you improve your performance as an adult student.

Reading Software.  If you have a disability that affects your reading skills, you will likely benefit from having access to reading software.  This is most helpful when you are able to read along with the text while you listen the audio recording.  Common examples of reading programs are:

  • Kurzweil3000.  This is a cloud-based services for reading.  Many colleges and universities can provide you free access to this program or other similar ones if you have a Section 504 Plan.
  • Learning Ally.  A collection of more than 75,000 digitally recorded textbooks and literature titles in audiobook format.
  • Google Read and Write.  An application that will work for the majority of webpages through Google Chrome. It includes text-to-speech, dictionary, translator, and word predictions.

Writing Software.  If you have a disability, you may wish to seek out assistive technology that addresses your written expression and spelling .  These could include:

  • Grammarly.  This application corrects grammatical mistakes, while also correcting contextual spelling errors and poor vocabulary usage. Grammarly can be useful in combination with a voice-to-text program, such as Dragon Speaking Naturally, in order to catch grammatical errors or determine the appropriate work usage in context.
  • Spelling and grammar checks on your word processing program, such as Word.  If you have a Section 504 Plan to address this area of need, you will likely be able to type in-class assignments and assessments.
  • Dictation.  You may also find dictation will aid you in your writing tasks.  Dictation programs change voice to text so that you can speak what is being written on your word processing program.  Dragon is one company that produces widely used speech recognition programs.

Audio Recording.  Being able to record your lecture can address many needs such as writing, processing speed, and attention deficits.  Check with your institution’s Accessibility Office to learn more about your school’s recording policies.

  • Most phones now have the ability to record.  This may be less obtrusive than other recording tools.
  • Smartpens.  A Smartpen is a pen you can use to write notes that also records audio.  Depending on the type of pen you get, you can transfer your notes with audio to your computer.  Livescribe is one company that produces a variety of smartpens.

Organizational Apps.  If you have a disability that affects your memory or organizational skills, you may find organizational tools helpful. 

  • Write your schedule in your calendar app.
  • Set reminders and alarms for complete tasks.
  • Google Keep.  Google Keep is an app that allows you to make notes to yourself, set reminders, and keep checklists in an organized way.

The information above are just a few of many of the assistive technology available to you.  As technology continues to advance, we are able to seamlessly integrate assistive technology into our lives to meet areas of need we may experience.  Now that we have covered services and technology to help you in your postsecondary career, we will be focusing on strategies you can implement to help you have success as an adult student.

Private Supports for Adult Students

In our previous blog, we discussed the supports that you can access at a postsecondary educational institution. Services, such as accommodations through a Section 504 Plan (link), must go through the Disability Services or Student Accessibility Services office.  Many postsecondary organizations also provide additional supports that all students can access (link), such as the writing center or counseling center.  There are also many services offered privately within the community. Typically, private services may be closer to the direct instructional services that you received as part of your IEP.

Private Tutoring. There are many different types of tutoring that are provided privately; however, they typically fall into two general categories.

  • General Academic Tutoring. The first type of tutoring for adult students is general academic tutoring. General academic tutoring provides overall coaching on study skills that can have an impact on multiple subject areas and enhance learning outcomes. They may provide you with general learning skills, study skills, test taking skills, tools for homework and assignment completion, brainstorming, editing, and accountability to ensure assignments are completed in a timely manner.
  • Subject-Specific Tutoring. Subject-specific tutors fall into two categories. The first category work with students in a specialized academic subject, such as chemistry, psychology, or physics. This type of tutoring focuses on current work in the specific subject area of the tutor’s expertise. The second category of tutors work with individuals who have deficits in specific foundational skill areas such as reading, written expression, or math that impact global educational functioning. The most common deficit is in the area of reading, which impacts the learner’s ability to achieve across all subjects areas. There are many research-based programs that have been proven to help individuals build their skills in the area of reading. At Achievement Advantage, we provide Wilson Reading System tutoring to support and build reading skills for both K-12 and adult students.

Executive Function Coaching. Executive functions are the self-management system of the brain. Many individuals with ADHD and other related diagnosis have weak executive functioning skills that make it difficult in the college environment. Executive function coaching focuses on teaching specific strategies and tools to improve sustained attention, organization/time management, planning, task initiation, task completion, self-monitoring, and emotional regulation. Mastering these skills has a positive impact on educational, occupational, and social functioning.

Private Therapy. Some students may wish to forego the counseling center at their university or may not have counseling services available to them at the school they attend. In these cases, private therapeutic services may be beneficial. When seeking private therapeutic services, the individual has the ability to choose a therapist that specializes in your specific diagnosis or needs.

Private Evaluation. Another service that adult learners may wish to seek privately is a comprehensive evaluation. Many adults seek private evaluation when they begin to struggle to master the content in a postsecondary setting that may reveal an undiagnosed learning disorder. Other adults seek a private evaluation in order to clarify a previous diagnosis that they feel may be incorrect or need updated documentation to substantiate the presence of a disability. Moreover, some adults may seek an evaluation to provide updated recommendations for accommodations and specific intervention services to address the educational needs that they have.

Knowing all of your service options and seeking the appropriate supports is essential for individuals transitioning from K-12 to adult educational options. When both public and private services are combined, students with disabilities succeed at postsecondary institutions at high rates. Next time we will discuss assistive technology that can further aid adult learners with disabilities succeed beyond high school.

 

 

Accommodations for Adult Students

In a previous post, we shared about the differences you will likely see between services and accommodations a student might receive in the K-12 and postsecondary settings.  While students in a college or vocational setting will not be provided direct services to remediate learning deficits like they would with an IEP in the K-12 setting, students with disabilities still have rights that will protect them at the postsecondary level.  Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act makes it clear that “no otherwise qualified individual with a disability in the United States…shall, solely by reason of her or his disability, be excluded from the participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance.”  While an IEP and the services it ensures does not continue once you graduate from high school, under Section 504 an individual with a disability is defined as someone with a physical or mental impairment which substantially limits one or more major life activities.  If you are a student with a disability, your postsecondary institution must provide reasonable accommodation to address your specific disability.  The accommodations you may receive will be linked to your areas of need.  Below are a variety of common accommodations that are frequently used by students with disabilities.  It is important that you meet with the person responsible for providing services to students with disabilities at your educational setting.  They will be able to give you more information about all of the accommodations and services they can offer.

Classroom Accommodations

  • Depending on your disability, you will likely need accommodations within the classroom setting.  These may include:
  • Copy of notes.  This may come in the form of a copy of the teacher’s slides or a copy of notes taken by another student in the class.
  • Assistive technology.  This may include things like typing written responses instead of hand writing them to allow you to spell check them.  You may also be able to audio record class lectures.
  • Preferential seating.  This could vary depending on the type of disability you may have.  For example, if you have visual, hearing, or attention issues related to your disability, you may prefer to sit nearest to the point of instruction.  If you experience anxiety or have a medical diagnosis that might require you to leave the room if you are experiencing symptoms, you might prefer to sit near the end of the row closest to the door.
  • Breaks as appropriate.
  • Extra time to complete in-class assignments. This accommodation may be provided if it takes you longer to complete tasks based on your disability.

Testing Accommodations

  • Taking assessments in a reduced distraction environment.
  • Extra time on assessments.  For most disabilities, postsecondary organizations typically allow an additional 50% to complete assessments.
  • Read aloud.  Tests may be read allowed to students who have significant reading deficits or visual impairments. 
  • Typing written responses.
  • For the next blog, we will share about additional services that postsecondary organizations may offer and how to find private services if you need additional supports.

Self-Advocacy: A Crucial Skill for Individuals with Disabilities

Jennifer Bolander is a special education advocate and owner of Education Advocacy Services LLC, an independent advocacy business based on the west side of Cleveland. She has written advocacy articles for “The Gathered View” (national newsletter of The Prader-Willi Syndrome Association (USA), and “Support Matters” (newsletter for Rare Support, a newly-formed non-profit providing resources and support for the rare disease community). Ms. Bolander has completed advocacy training through Wrightslaw, the Council of Parent Advocates and Attorneys, and the Institute for Special Education Advocacy at William & Mary College of Law.

When a young child is diagnosed with a disease or syndrome which affects his/her education to the extent that they are eligible for an IEP, or they receive accommodations through a formal 504 plan, their path through their school years is helped along by a team of people: their parent(s), therapists, teachers, the school psychologist, and possibly members of their private medical team. These adults are advocating for them, on a regular basis, regarding their particular needs in the educational or medical setting. As a result, it is often the case that they don’t (or aren’t always given the opportunity to) advocate for themselves on a regular basis. However, there will come a point when that child has finished with their education years with their school district, and will then need to know how to advocate for themselves.

Self-advocacy is not an instinctive skill – it has to be taught, explained, and practiced in various settings. Teaching self-advocacy skills must start long before the child is “on their own” at whatever age/level, because advocating for oneself effectively takes practice. While the ultimate self-advocacy responsibility falls on the individual, as they will be the person communicating their needs to college staff and/or workplace management, there are nevertheless multiple parties involved in teaching self-advocacy skills to young adults: the student, their parent(s), school staff personnel, and employers.

The Student:

By the time they are young adults, graduating high school and/or transitioning out of the school-district “cocoon”, the student should be relatively comfortable with advocating for their own needs, so that they can be as independent as is safely possible. Specifically, this means that the individual

  • Should have as comprehensive an understanding of their disability as possible.
  • Should have a comprehensive understanding of the specific challenges they experience as a result of their disability.
  • Should know which disability-based challenges affect specific settings (i.e., some challenges will happen more in one setting than another, whereas other challenges may not be an issue).
  • Should have an understanding of 2-3 specific sources of support – specific professionals in each setting to turn to for direction and help (job coach, CCBDD support person, parent, manager).
  • Should have had a great deal of practice in using appropriate “advocacy language” to verbalize their specific issue as well as specific solutions to that issue.
  • If appropriate from a maturity/cognitive ability perspective, the student should also be taught that as a disabled individual, they have certain automatic protections through Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act, and the Americans with Disabilities Act.

The Parent(s)

  • It is imperative that parents teach and encourage self-advocacy skills with their child starting in their child’s pre-teen years (or earlier). This is necessary not only because it will take time and practice for their child to thoroughly learn good self-advocacy skills, but also so that their child can support their own safety and privacy needs as they are in social situations throughout high school and beyond. It is crucial that young students with specific environmental, social, and psychological needs, become well-versed in what those specific needs are and how best to verbalize those needs in a polite but firm way.
  • Parents will need to get out of the habit of talking to school staff for their student in every single situation. It often happens that an upsetting situation will occur at school, and the student will come home and tell their parent about it. The parent then calls up to the school (or emails) and discusses the situation with the teacher. While in some cases this is fine, this potentially takes a self-advocacy opportunity away from their child – and may not ultimately solve the situation as the parent was not present during that situation anyway. The parent, the student, and the student’s primary school staff person need to discuss and agree on a set of actions the student will take while still at school, to work through upsetting situations and advocate for themselves. The student needs to be empowered to work through their problems and seek out assistance from relevant staff who will in turn support that student’s self-advocacy efforts.
  • Parents will need to educate themselves about legal guardianship. Once their child turns 18, that child (regardless of cognitive level, mental ability, physical ability to care for themselves) is considered a legal adult. In that situation, a parent’s rights to advocate for their child’s needs in any setting may be questioned. While self-advocacy is a crucial skill for every individual with any disability, it is still important that the topic of guardianship be fully explored and discussed so that parents and child have a solid plan.

School Personnel: Teachers, Therapists, Counselors, School Psychologists

  • An important aspect of encouraging a student’s self-advocacy efforts is that the school personnel who interact regularly with that student must be informed about, and be supportive of, that student’s overall self-advocacy goal. It is a learning process to know which issues are truly a problem, and the right ways and times to talk to someone about that issue – thus, school personnel should take each situation seriously and work through it with the student. It does not benefit the student at all to have their efforts disregarded and not taken seriously, after they’ve been told that they need to practice self-advocacy.
  • The student’s self-advocacy plan should be communicated to all relevant school personnel, so that staff members respond appropriately when the student is using their advocacy skills. This effort to keep everyone informed necessitates that the self-advocacy “action pathway” be written down, so that both the student and the staff are following the same plan.
  • Should the student choose to pursue further education at a college or university, both the student and his/her parents should have multiple, comprehensive discussions with the guidance/transition counselor about the following important detail: The IEP does not follow the student into higher education; instead, the student’s needs are accommodated through a formal 504 plan. It is crucial that the student and their parents understand how a 504 plan helps disabled students function and learn in a higher-education setting. The Counselor must also teach the student how to contact the Disability Services office on the campus of their chosen school; the student will need that information as a source of assistance, especially because the student will have multiple professors who will need to be informed each semester about the student’s required accommodations. Part of being an effective self-advocate is knowing how to find the appropriate help!

Employers

  • Individuals with disabilities have certain protections in the work setting as well, specifically through the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990. As students with disabilities transition out of school-district services and into work life, they will generally be supervised to varying degrees by a job coach, who would ensure that the individual is treated fairly and has appropriate accommodations in the work environment. However, if questions arise, a good resource is Disability Rights Ohio, a nonprofit protection-and-advocacy agency: http://www.disabilityrightsohio.org/programs.
  • Individuals with disabilities must have a self-advocacy action pathway for the workplace, just as they had in the school setting. They will need to learn what their specific needs are in that workplace (more time to process directions, written task lists, lots of encouragement, a consistent plan of 1-2 people to whom they can go for help), and to whom they should go when those needs are not being met or something upsetting has happened.
  • However, even with the help of a job coach, and local/state agencies specializing in disability rights, it is still imperative that individuals with disabilities are taught from a young age about their daily challenges and the supports they need to succeed.

The ability to effectively and appropriately advocate for oneself is a crucial, life-long skill which needs to be taught, learned, practiced and supported.  The learning process involves not only the individual with disabilities, but also their support team – their parents, IEP/504 team members, school guidance counselors, staff from local agencies participating in his/her transition process, Disability Services staff at a college/university. It is my sincere hope that this article has helped readers on their or their child’s path to effective self-advocacy!

The Difference Between K-12 and Postsecondary Services for Individuals with Disabilities

As more and more students with disabilities are accessing postsecondary educational options, the need for information and services beyond high school continues to grow. The first step in accessing those services is to understand the similarities and differences in services between K-12 and postsecondary education.  The key lies in the laws that regulate those services.

Similarities Between K-12 and Postsecondary Education

The similarity between K-12 and postsecondary educational settings is that all individuals with disabilities are entitled to accommodations. These accommodations are guaranteed under Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 and the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) which aim to level the playing field between those with and without disabilities. These laws cover individuals from birth to death, so these accommodations are available to those in all educational settings and beyond.

Differences Between K-12 and Postsecondary Education

Although all individuals with disabilities are guaranteed accommodations in all educational and occupational settings, individuals with disabilities may only receive direct services to address their deficits during their K-12 experience. This is because services for individuals from ages 3 to 21 are also covered under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). IDEA ensures that those who met eligibility criteria for special education receive direct instruction supports and services to meet goals outlined in their IEP, in addition to any accommodations they may need. This is a higher level of support than what is provided under Section 504 or ADA. In a postsecondary and work settings, only Section 504 and ADA apply, and therefore adults are only promised access to accommodations.  There is no requirement to provide specialized services beyond reasonable accommodations. For our adult clients, this can be quite the transition.

Now that we under have established an understanding of the differences between services in educational settings, we will continue to talk about services in the college or postsecondary level.

IEP: Accommodations and Modifications

Since we have been talking about IEPs, in this blog we will be discussing an important component of IEPs: accommodations and modifications.  These are listed in Section 7 of your student’s IEP.  While specifically designed instruction includes the services that your student will receive to address their needs, accommodations and modifications refer to changes that can be made in the learning environment and assignments or assessments. 

Accommodations are changes in your student’s learning environment to provide them equal access to grade-level content.  Because everyone who has an IEP has such a unique profile, accommodations may vary widely, but every accommodation should be directly linked to the child’s needs.  For example, some may include additional time on assignments and tests, taking tests in a reduced distraction environment, audiobooks, frequent breaks, etc.  Similar to the specifically designed instruction portion of this IEP section, the team must list each specific accommodation, as well as the amount of time and frequency of the accommodations. 

Modifications refers to changes in the curriculum and assessments.  This means that while accommodations are generally meant to help students be able to access and achieve at grade-level standards, modifications reduce learning expectations.  Modifications tend to be reserved for a small portion of special education students with the greatest levels of need.

Accommodations and modifications are also addressed in Section 12 of the IEP which outlines information about statewide and district wide testing.  The team indicates whether the student will take assessments in each academic area (including reading, writing, math, science, social studies, and other) with accommodations or as a modified assessment.  If taken with accommodations, the team must list detail of accommodations.

Now that we have covered everything you need to know about the important components of an IEP, we will be shifting to what happens after K-12 to focus on adult learners in upcoming blog posts.  

IEP: Specifically Designed Instruction

In our last blog, we discussed the central component of an effective IEP: SMART goals. This week, we will discuss the complimentary portion of the IEP, which is Section 7. This section spells out the specially designed instruction, sometimes abbreviated SDI, that your child will receive to reach the objectives and goals that are described in Section 6. This section outlines what services the child will get, who is responsible for providing these services, the location of the services, and the amount of time that the child will receive these services.

We cannot express the importance of this section enough; this section explains what special education will look like for your child. Each area of specially designed instruction will be linked with the goal or goals that it is intended to address. The most important portion of the section is what specially designed services will be provided to your child. It is imperative that these supports are research-based interventions and services. However, it is not enough that they be research-based. The research must show that they improve the specific deficits that your child is identified as having. There must be a direct link between the need, the goal, and the service that is based on best practice and is supported by empirical literature.

Who is providing that service to your child is just as important. This is frequently driven by the location of services. If your child will receive their services using an inclusion model, typically these services will be the responsibility of the general education teacher and the intervention specialist. If your child is to receive their services in a resource room or self-contained classroom, these services are typically the sole responsibility of the intervention specialist. If your child qualifies for related services, then the provider may be a speech/language pathologist, occupational therapist, physical therapist, or specialized expert such as an orientation or mobility specialist.

Another extremely important factor is the amount of time that your child will be receiving these services. The amount of time your child receives specially designed instruction should be directly related to the intensity of need that the child has. The more intensive the need, the more direct special education services the child should receive. Additionally, the more goals a child has, the more special education services they should receive. After the team details the instructional, behavioral, and functional goals in section 7, the same process will be repeated for any related services that your child qualifies to receive.

Next week we will be discussing the second half of Section 7, which is accommodations and modifications.

How to Make Smart IEP Goals

The goal of an IEP is to explicitly lay out the services and supports that your child will receive in order to meet your child’s educational needs as outlined in the Evaluation Team Report (ETR). The ETR and IEP are inextricably linked due to the fact that only data-supported needs directly stated within your child’s ETR will be addressed as goals in your child’s IEP. That is why we cannot stress enough the importance of a quality evaluation which should lead to a high-quality IEP. It is essential that each need is addressed with a specific goal to improve the child’s skills in the areas of deficit.

As stated in our previous blog, there are many sections that comprise an IEP.

Depending on the nature of your child’s disability, specific sections may hold a higher level of importance than it would for another child or family. No matter what the child’s needs are the most important portion of the IEP is Section 6, which comprises the goals and objectives for the child’s educational, behavioral, and functional goals for that calendar year. These goals are the core of a child’s IEP, and the specially designed instructional services and supports that your child receives in special education are all designed around accomplishing those individualized goals. After ensuring that all each area of identified deficit is matched by a goal, the next step is to evaluate the effectiveness of each individual goal.

Each goal within a child’s IEP must meet the standard that is set out in the acronym SMART:

  • Specific
  • Measurable
  • Achievable/Attainable
  • Realistic and Relevant
  • Time-limited

The first portion of a SMART IEP goal is that the goal is specific. The requirement of specificity applies to the present levels of performance, the goals, and the objectives. The goal must be specific to your child and their needs as well as specific to the academic, behavioral or functional area that will be addressed. A specific IEP goal clearly describes the knowledge or skill that your child will learn and how the team will measure your child’s progress and mastery of that goal.

The second portion of a SMART IEP goal is that the goal is measurable. This applies to both the overarching goal and the underlying objectives required to meet the overall goal. The most important part of a goal being measurable is that you can count or observe the goal. That means that the goal is something that both parents and teachers are able to objectively measure whether or not the child is making progress toward that goal. Most academic goals are easily measurable; however, this is particularly important when assessing the quality of a social-emotional/behavioral or functional goals. The goal should also describe what data collection methods will be utilized to assess your child’s progress toward that goal and how frequently that progress will be reported to you.

The third part of ensuring that your child’s IEP contains SMART goals is that it must be achievable or attainable for your child. This portion of the goal directly relates to the present level of performance for your child. This can be done by comparing how they are currently achieving in that area and determine whether or not that specific goal is achievable for your child within one calendar year. The goal must maintain a balance between being not rigorous enough, too rigorous, and being achievable/attainable.

To ensure that your child’s IEP contains SMART goals, the goal must also be realistic and relevant. The IEP goals and objectives must be crafted to meet the unique needs that result from your child’s disability as identified in the child’s ETR. The means that the goals must be specifically designed to meet the needs that your child’s disability has demonstrated. It is essential that the goals are relevant to the precise needs that have been determined by the team.

The last portion of a SMART IEP goal is that the goal is time-limited. This means that the goal is designed to address what your child needs to learn or do in one year of special education services. A time-limited goal enables the child’s progress to be monitored at regular intervals. Typically, this is done through creating short-term objectives that the child will meet in order to obtain the overall goal.

The next blog installment will discuss the importance of the specially designed instruction section of an IEP.

What should I do if I disagree with the results of my child's evaluation?

Over the past few weeks, we have been writing about the evaluation process and the IEP process that follows when a team decides that a student has a disability.  Many times, the school team and parents agree about whether the child has a disability, and what needs the child has.  When this happens, the team is able to is able to use the information from the assessment to come up with a plan to best meet the student’s needs through the creation of an IEP.

Unfortunately, not all evaluations go as smoothly, and you may disagree with the school’s findings.  Eligibility determination meetings, where teams decide whether students qualify for special education services, can be stressful and emotional.  This is especially true when all team members are not on the same page.  We will be visiting some of the options you have so that you can make the best decision for you and your child during these meetings.

First, do not feel pressure to make a decision in the moment if you do not feel comfortable doing so.  At the end of the ETR, parents are asked to sign and date the document and check the “agree” or “disagree” box.  You may find that the team’s report reflects what you know to be true about your child.  In this case, you may be comfortable agreeing with the evaluation at the time of the meeting.  On the other hand, there may be times in which you know that you disagree with the findings of the report and will choose to disagree.  When you disagree, you will be asked to write a statement to provide information about why you disagree with the findings.  You do not have to do this on the spot; in fact, it is probably a better option to write a letter to the school district once you go home and are able to review the information and organize your thoughts.  Other times, you may not be sure about whether you completely agree or disagree with the findings.  In this case, we recommend that you sign and date the evaluation to indicate that you were in attendance and to note that you will be reviewing the report before making a final decision.  If you are feeling conflicted, you do not need to make any decisions in the moment, even if you feel pressure to do so.  It is reasonable to be able to take more time to look over the information that has been provided in the evaluation to make an informed decision.  While you do not want to take too long to decide, a day or two can make you feel more comfortable in knowing that you are making the best choice for your child.

If you disagree with the ETR, you have the right to an Individual Educational Evaluation (IEE).  IEEs are evaluations conducted by a qualified examiner who is not employed by the school district responsible for the education of your child.  They must be funded by the school district if you disagree with the results of their evaluation.  Often, a school district may be able to provide you with a list of practitioners who conduct psychoeducational evaluations.  You have the right to choose your own evaluator, so feel free to do your own research and decide who you would like to evaluate your child, even if they are not on the list provided by your district.  After the IEE, the team will reconvene to decide if the new information changes your child’s special education eligibility.  The IEEs should provided additional information that will make it clearer whether or not your child qualifies for special education services.  Many disagreements can be rectified through the IEE.  However, if there is continued conflict between you and your team, or you do not feel they appropriately take the information from the IEE into account, you may wish to seek legal counsel to guide you in Due Process.

Difference between an IEP and a Section 504 Plan

Although an Evaluation Team Report (ETR) and an Individual Educational Program (IEP) are required for a child to receive special education and related services, there is another type of plan that is available to support children with disabilities: A Section 504 Plan. This is an individualized plan that serves as a blueprint for specific accommodations and changes to the learning environment that a child requires in order to have access to the curriculum. Under Section 504, there is no list of approved disabling conditions; therefore, it covers a wide variety of disabling conditions. Instead, the law describes a person with a disability as someone who “has a physical or mental impairment which substantially limits one or more major life activities,” has a record of such an impairment, or is regarded as having such an impairment. Frequently, children with diagnoses of attention disorders and medical conditions receive school supports through a Section 504 Plan. Major life activities can include: caring for oneself, performing manual tasks, walking, seeing, hearing, speaking, breathing, learning, concentrating, and working. Common accommodations found on a 504 Plan include: frequent breaks, extended time, small group testing, and prompting/cueing. An evaluation is required to determine if the child meets these criteria and is eligible to receive accommodations through a 504 Plan. Typically, these plans are reviewed and updated on a yearly basis to ensure that they continue to meet the child’s needs.

There are two defining differences between a child who has a 504 Plan and a child who has an IEP: the laws that regulate these plans and the services outlined on the plan. The first major difference is the law under which they are housed. Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 and Title II of the American’s with Disabilities Act (ADA) are federal laws that prohibit discrimination against people with disabilities and provide protection for those individuals. It is under these laws that individuals with disabilities are afforded Section 504 Plans. Individuals from birth to death are covered under these non-discrimination laws. Therefore, the accommodations that are necessary to level the playing field for the individual are provided in a variety of settings across the individual’s lifespan. The special education services outlined on an IEP are protected under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). This is the federal law that ensures special education services are provided to children with disabilities. IDEA has more stringent eligibility criteria; a student must meet the definition of 1 of 13 disability categories and must require specially designed instruction in order to make educational progress. When a student meets eligibility criteria under IDEA, that is when a IEP is created. IDEA is a special education law specifically for school-aged students. Individuals are no longer protected under IDEA once they either graduate from high school or are 21 years of age. This means the protections of IDEA do not extend to college and adult life. Many times individuals who were provided services under an IEP K-12 education are transitioned to Section 504 Plans in college.

The second difference is the content of the plans. A Section 504 Plan is designed to provide equal access to individuals with disabilities and level the playing field with non-disabled people to mitigate discrimination. Therefore, Section 504 Plans are made up of specific accommodation supports for the child. It also specifies who is responsible to provide each support and the individuals who are responsible for ensuring that the plan is implemented. The purpose of an IEP is to design an individualized special education program with specific learning goals and objectives and describe the specially designed services that the child requires to meet those goals. An IEP also provides accommodations that would be incorporated into a 504 Plan, but it goes beyond accommodations with specialized educational services. The law specifies many more components that must be included in an IEP. The contents of an IEP were covered in our last blog. Essentially, a 504 Plan provides accommodations and supports in order to provide the individual access to the educational environment, while an IEP provides specific instructional supports in order to teach specific skills to meet measurable educational and functional goals.

Eligibility under either law requires that the school must provide a Free and Appropriate Public Education (FAPE) for the student and provide additional legal protections based on the identification of child as having a disability. Due to the fact that Section 504’s has a broader definition of disability than IDEA’s definition, this means that many more children are provided protection under this law and are eligible for a plan under Section 504 than are eligible for an IEP. Therefore, many children who are not eligible for special education services or the team does not believe that specialized instruction is necessary are referred to determine their eligibility under Section 504. A Section 504 Plan can provide the appropriate level of support for a student who requires the support of accommodations in order to level the playing field to ensure that they have equal access to the curriculum.

Individualized Education Program (IEP)

Once your child qualifies for special education through the Evaluation Team Report (ETR), the team’s hard work isn’t over yet.  They still need to create an Individualized Education Program (IEP) for your child.  The IEP is a legal document that is the plan of how the team will address your child’s needs and help them make gains.  In Ohio, the IEP must be completed within 30 days of the ETR meeting date. 

At the IEP meeting, you and your child, if appropriate, will meet with your child’s IEP team, which includes a general education teacher, special education teacher, district representative, and any other appropriate related service provider (speech/language pathologist, occupational therapist, etc.).

For most disability categories, the IEP is made up of 14 sections.  There is an additional section for children with visual impairments. 

Section 1: Future Planning
The first part of the IEP includes information about future planning.  This is where the parents’ input about what they hope to see in the future for their child is included.  It should also include information about the student’s interests and what they would like to be when they are adults.

Section 2: Special Instructional Factors
In the second part of the IEP, the team answers “yes” or “no” questions about the child regarding behavior, English proficiency, whether they have visual impairments, communication needs, requires assistive technology, or specially designed physical education. 

Section 3: Profile
The third section addresses your child’s profile.  This should include relevant assessment data, including data from the Evaluation Team Report (ETR) and other standardized and classroom assessments.

Section 4: Postsecondary Transition
The fourth section is only required for those who will be 14 years old during the length of the IEP, but may also be completed for younger students if appropriate.  It includes a statement about the transition services your child will need based on their course of study.  For those older than 16, data from transition assessments will also be included.

Section 5: Postsecondary Transition Services
For those students who are 15 or older, the fifth part of the IEP must be completed.  This included goals regarding postsecondary education and training, employment, and independent living.

Section 6: Measurable Annual Goals
The sixth section of the IEP is the goals that address your child’s needs.  It is important that these are directly linked with the information provided in the ETR so that the team is sure that they are specifically working on the student’s areas of difficulty.  Section 6 will provide information about the area of need, the present level of performance (based on assessment results), a measurable annual goal, and measurable objectives that will help your child reach that goal.  It will also include information about how your child’s performance on this goal will be measured, and how and when they will provide you information about your child’s progress.  Each area of need will have its own goals and objectives.

Section 7: Description(s) of Specially Designed Services
The seventh section of the IEP provides information about the types of services your child will receive, which goals those services are meant to address, who will provide those services, where the services will be provided, and the amount of time and how often they will be provided.  This section not only provides information about how your child’s needs will be addressed by teachers, but also includes information about related services, assistive technology, accommodations, modifications, and medical services your child may require, as well as support that the school personnel may need.

Section 8: Transportation as a Related Service
This part of the IEP determines if your child has any transportation needs do to their disability, and what types of accommodations or modifications may address those needs.

Section 9: Nonacademic and Extracurricular Activities
This section lists ways in which your child has the opportunity to participate in nonacademic and extracurricular activities with peers that do not qualify for special education.

Section 10: General Factors
The tenth section of the IEP ensures that the team has considered your child’s strengths, your concerns, results of evaluations, performance on state or district testing, your child’s needs, and whether your child needs extended school year (ESY) services.

Section 11: Least Restrictive Environment
This section addresses whether your child will attend the school they would be normally attended if they did not qualify for special education services, and whether your child will receive all special education services with nondisabled peers.  If not, the team must provide a justification about why the child needs to be provided services in a different setting. 

Section 12: Statewide and District Wide Testing
This part of the IEP addresses state- and district-wide testing that will take place during the length of the IEP.  It included what types of accommodations will be provided for each area of assessment and whether the student should take a modified assessment.  It also addresses whether your child will be excused form passing state assessments required for graduation.

Section 13: Meeting Participants
All team members who attend the IEP meeting should sign this section of the IEP to indicate their participation in the IEP process.

Section 14: Signatures
Parents will check specific boxes and sign to indicate what services listed in the IEP they consent to.  If your child is 17, you and your child will both sign to transfer safeguard rights to the student once they turn 18 years old.  The team will also indicate if they provided a copy of the Procedural Safeguards Notice and a copy of the IEP to you or when it was sent to you.

Section 15: Children with Visual Impairments
If your child has qualified for special education services due to a visual impairment, the IEP team must complete this section.  It addresses the reading and writing media in which reading and writing instruction will be provided to meet your child’s educational needs.

The School-Based Evaluation Process

After the team agrees a disability is suspected, a school-based evaluation will be initiated. There are three stages to the school-based evaluation process: the planning and consent, the evaluation process, and the eligibility determination. The school-based evaluation process is known as the Evaluation Team Report (ETR). You may also hear it referred to as a Multi-Factored Evaluation (MFE), which is the term used prior to ETR. Through this process, typically, the school psychologist is the team chairperson and is best able to respond to your questions.

Planning and Consent
From the date that the team suspects that your child may have a disability, the school has 30 days to gain your consent for an evaluation. Within that 30-day period, the team will hold at ETR planning meeting. Typically, this meeting consists of you, your child’s general education teacher, intervention specialist, school psychologist, and district administrator. This meeting is designed to gain your informed consent for the school team to conduct an evaluation of your child. At this meeting, the team will discuss which areas of disability are suspected under IDEA. These are the thirteen categories in which the team can suspect that your child meets disability criteria under: Autism, Deaf-Blindness, Deafness, Emotional Disturbance, Hearing Impairment, Intellectual Disability, Multiple Disabilities, Orthopedic Impairment, Other Health Impairment, Specific Learning Disability, Speech or Language Impairment, Traumatic Brain Injury or Visual Impairment Including Blindness. Then, the team will develop an evaluation plan based on the reason for referral and the areas of disability that are suspected. This is done through completing the following documents: Referral for Evaluation (PR-04), ETR Planning Form, Parent Consent for Evaluation (PR-05), and Prior Written Notice (PR-01).

The Referral for Evaluation (PR-04) form explains the reason that your child is being referred for an evaluation. The reason for referral is supported by information regarding your child’s educational history, attendance, background information, health data, and environmental factors. The ETR planning form determines which assessments will be completed and incorporated in your child’s evaluation. This form details all of the assessment areas that are related to the suspected disability categories, whether or not current data is available in those areas, whether or not additional information will be collected in a particular area, and who is responsible for conducting the assessment. The planning form drives the entire evaluation; therefore, it is extremely important that you are comfortable with the things that are detailed on this form, and you agree that it will provide a comprehensive evaluation for your child. The Parent Consent for Evaluation (PR-05) is the document in which you grant your voluntary, informed consent for the school team to put the evaluation plan into action. Signing the consent form also verifies that you received a copy of the A Guide to Parents Right in Special Education, which is a document detailing your rights and your child’s rights through this process, and that you understand the all the information provided. The district should also provide you with a Prior Witten Notice (PR-01), which explains the type of action the district is proposing to take and an explanation as to why the district is proposing that action. We would recommend asking for a copy of the paperwork for your records.

Throughout the evaluation process, new areas of concerns may arise that the team will want to assess further. In order to evaluate additional areas, the team must amend the planning form. Adjustments to the planning form can only be made with your express consent. Another Prior Written Notice (PR-01) should be provided to you detailing the amendments made and the data supporting why additional assessment is necessary.

Evaluation
From the date that you attend the planning meeting and grant your consent for your child to go through the ETR process, the school has 60 days to complete the evaluation and hold an ETR results/eligibility determination meeting. During this 60-day period, the multidisciplinary team will complete assessments in all of the areas indicated on the ETR planning form. Typically, the multidisciplinary team consists of the parent, school psychologist, general education teacher, intervention specialist, speech/language pathologist, occupational therapist, and a district representative. Other team members can be added depending on the areas of concern. Almost all psychoeducational evaluations will include assessment in the following areas: standardized assessment in the areas of cognition, academic achievement, communicative status, and social/emotional skills; information provided by parent; background information; observation; progress in the general curriculum; data from interventions; and vision and hearing screenings. Depending on the referral concerns and the disability suspected the team can also assess: fine motor skills; gross motor skills; adaptive skills; behavior; physical exam/general health; vocational/transition; Braille needs; audiological needs; and Assistive Technology needs. These assessments are almost exclusively conducted in a one-on-one testing session with the individual with expertise in that particular area.  

The ETR document has four separate sections. After completing the testing portion of their evaluation, each examiner completes what is known as a Part 1. A Part 1 is a written report that is divided into three sections. In the first section of a Part 1, each evaluator summarizes the results of the assessments that they conducted with the student. The results section should be data driven. It will provide the standard scores that your child received on the assessment in order to compare them to their same aged peers across the country as well as a narrative description of the assessment given and describe the specific areas of strength and weakness your child demonstrated. The assessor then completes the Part 1 by providing a descriptor of the child’s educational needs based on the testing results and the implications that those needs have on the student’s instruction and progress monitoring.

Part 2 of the ETR is a Team Summary. Each evaluator summarizes their evaluation results, needs, and implications into a team summary that provides a brief overview of the evaluation. This should provide a cohesive summary of your child’s strength and weaknesses in relation to all assessment performed and information gathered.

Part 3 of the ETR is specific to children who are suspected of having a Specific Learning Disability. This portion of the ETR is where the team determines the areas in which the child meets criteria for having a learning disability in: Basic Reading Skill, Reading Fluency Skills, Reading Comprehension, Written Expression, Mathematics Calculation, Mathematics Problem Solving, Oral Expression, and Listening Comprehension. This is also the portion in which the team summarizes the data utilized to support the eligibility decision in those areas utilizing either a response to scientific, research-based intervention or a pattern of strength and weaknesses. The team must also determine that the learning disability is not due to any of the exclusionary factors: a vision, hearing, or motor disability; mental retardation; emotional disturbance; Limited English Proficiency; environmental or economic disadvantage or cultural factors. The team must also document that the student’s underachievement is not due to a lack of appropriate instruction. 

The ETR culminates in Part 4, which is the eligibility determination section. All four of these components comprise a complete ETR.

Eligibility Determination
Part 4 of the ETR remains incomplete until the entire team meets for an eligibility determination meeting, which is held within 60 days you granting consent for the evaluation. In this section, the team must answer three questions in order to determine whether or not a student meets eligibility criteria for special education and related services including: is the determining factor for the child’s poor performance not due to a lack of appropriate instruction in reading and math or the child’s limited English proficiency; does the child meet the state criteria for having a disability based on the data provided in the document; and does the child demonstrate an educational need that requires specially designed instruction. If the answer is yes to all three of these questions, then the child is eligible for special education services under one of the thirteen IDEA categories. Following the ETR meeting, the school has 14 days to finalize the document and send a copy to the parent.

If your child meets eligibility criteria for having a disability under IDEA, then the next step is for the team to create an Individual Education Program (IEP), which we will discuss in our next post.

How do I request an evaluation if I suspect my child has a disability?

In our last blog post, we talked about the steps you should take with your school’s education team if you suspect your child may have a disability.  We suggested that you work with your child’s teacher and the rest of the team first (sometimes called Intervention Assistance Team, RTI Team, MTSS Team or Problem Solving Teams) so that your child can get the extra support they need in school and so the team can gather helpful information about what interventions work best for your student. 

But what should you do if your child is receiving intervention and is not showing appropriate growth or if they stay significantly behind their peers?  In this case, you may choose to request an evaluation to determine if they qualify for special education services.  In Ohio, schools must respond to your request within 30 days of receiving it.  This does not necessarily mean that they must conduct the evaluation, but this begins the process.  It is best to put your request in writing and provide it to your child’s school psychologist, teacher, or principal. 

In order to write the most effective letters, we recommend to include the following:

  •  State that you are formally requesting an evaluation to determine if your student is eligible for special education service.
  • Provide information about your child such as their name, date of birth, school, grade, and teacher’s name.
  • Indicate that your child is not making expected progress, and that you suspect a disability. 
  • Note any specific areas of difficulty your child may be experiencing (academic skills, attention, social/emotional, behavioral, communication, motor, social skills, sensory, etc.).
  • Provide information about what makes you suspect a disability.  This might include:
    • Past and current interventions, and any progress monitoring information
    • Report card information
    • Assessment information from state testing or the classroom
    • Any current medical diagnoses.
    • Any outside support your child receives, such as tutoring, mental health counseling, or other therapies
    • All of the support you provide them because of their difficulties.

Within 30 days, you should be invited to speak with the team.  At that time, you will review the data, and the team will decide if they suspect a disability and whether to move on with an evaluation.  If you have not received a response within 30 days, you should follow up with the school’s principal and/or the superintendent.  If your student has been provided interventions and there is data to demonstrate their difficulties in school, the team will likely agree to an evaluation.  If the team does not suspect a disability, the should come up with a plan on how to address your concerns and schedule a follow up meeting to go over new data based on the plan.

Unfortunately, at times you may find yourself disagreeing with the team.  It is important to know that you have rights and that there are resources for you.  You may opt to pursue a private evaluation.  While this type of assessment would be at your own expense, you also have more input about the evaluation process, and your concerns drives it much more than it might in a school setting.  Additionally, many schools have a parent mentor that is free of charge to you and can offer you information and attend meetings with you.  You may also choose to seek a private advocate.  In this case, make sure that you choose someone with a strong educational background and good reputation in the area.  The Ohio Department also offers information about parent rights on their website that can be accessed by clicking here.  The Ohio Coalition for the Education of Children with Disabilities (OCECD) may also be another helpful resource if you are having difficulty coming to a resolution with the school.

Next post, we will write about what happens during the evaluation process once the team suspects a disability.

What to do if you suspect your child has a disability?

When your child is struggling in school and you suspect that your child may have a disability, it can be an emotional experience and many people will provide you with a multitude of solutions to your problems. As former school professionals, we can provide you with our recommendations from beginning to end.

Our first recommendation is always to start by meeting with your child’s teacher. Your child’s classroom teacher is the most knowledgeable individual about your child in the school building. They spend the most time with them and are should be a centralized hub of data regarding your child’s performance within the school. At the meeting, I would ask a number of questions to determine where your child currently stands in relation to other students in the class, school and nation. Here is a list of questions that we would recommend you ask your child’s teacher during that meeting:

  • What are my child’s current grades?
  • What are my child’s strengths and weaknesses?
  • What data do you have to support those areas of strength and weakness?
  • What does that data mean for my child’s educational performance?
    • How does my child’s data compare to the peers in the classroom, school, and nation?
    • Does the data show that my child is making progress or is my child’s performance stagnant?
    • If your child is making progress, is it considered adequate/does it meet expectations for progress?
    • How is this data used to inform my child’s instruction?
  • What interventions are being implemented in the classroom/what differentiated instruction is my child receiving?
  • Is my child receiving any additional supports targeting their area of weakness?
  • How long has my child been receiving these supports?
  • Do you have any concerns regarding my child’s social/emotional or behavioral functioning?

After meeting with your child’s teacher, where you should be able to collect valuable information regarding your child’s academic performance, we would suggest that you request a meeting with the school’s intervention team. This team is called different things in many different schools. We have frequently seen these teams called: Intervention Assistance Team, RTI Team, MTSS Team or Problem Solving Teams. These teams typically will involve you, your child’s classroom teacher, grade level intervention specialist, school psychologist, and building level administrator. The purpose of these teams is to analyze student data, design intervention specific to the student’s needs, set an intervention goal, and determine how progress will be monitored. Most teams have a format that will guide the meeting. However, these are important questions that you should have the answers to before leaving the meeting:

  • What intervention options are available for my child in the school?
  • What Tier of intervention is my child receiving?
  • What intervention has team chosen for my child to participate in?
  • Is this intervention research-based?
  • Will my child receive this intervention one-on-one or in a group?
    • If in a group, what is the group size?
  • How frequently and for how long will my child receive this intervention?
  • Who will be implementing the intervention?
  • How is my child’s need being specifically met by the chosen intervention?
  • What tool is being used to measure my child’s progress?
  • How often will my child’s progress be measured?
  • How is the progress monitoring tool directly linked to my child’s need and the chosen intervention?
  • What goal has been set for my child to reach as a result of the implemented intervention?
  • When is the team meeting again to discuss your child’s progress?

At the follow-up team meetings, which are typically held anywhere from 6-12 weeks apart in order to allow the team to implement the intervention and collect progress monitoring information, the team will work to determine the effectiveness of the intervention. At this meeting you should have an answer to the following questions:

  • Was the intervention implemented and progress monitored the way that it was designed in the previous meeting?
  • Did my child show positive progress to the intervention?
  • Did my child meet the intervention goal?
  • What was my child’s rate of improvement compared to the expected rate of improvement?
  • As a result of the progress monitoring data, what, if any, changes will be made?
    • Will a new research-based intervention be implemented?
    • Will there be changes in the frequency, intensity or duration of the current intervention?

This process and team meetings will likely occur multiple times before team can determine the most appropriate intervention for your child. While participating with your child in the intervention process, you have the right to request that your child be evaluated to determine the presence of an educational disability at any time. You may also wish to seek a private evaluation in order to determine the presence of a disability at any time.

We will cover more regarding the evaluation process in our next blog, so tune in!

 

Differences Between Public Education and Private Practice Evaluations

Having worked in both public education and private practice as school psychologists, we are often asked about the difference between school and private practice evaluations.  As with most things, there are pros and cons for each.  In this post, we will share some information about each to help you make the best choice for your own situation.

Public Schools
You have the right to request an evaluation from the school district in which your school is located.  The school district has 30 days to respond to your request.  When you speak with the school district, it is important to provide as much information possible about your areas of concern.  A school district may deny your request if they do not suspect a disability based on student data (assessment scores, grades, etc.).  If the team agrees that an assessment should take place, it will be at no cost to the student’s family, and it will be completed by the education team within 60 days of signing consent.  When the team goes over the results, they will determine if the student meets the definition of a student with a disability, as outlined in the Individuals with Disabilities Act (IDEA).  These are educational diagnoses that may differ from medical diagnoses that may be given by counselors, psychologists, or doctors.  Essentially, if the student is determined to have a disability, they will then be provided special education services through an Individualized Education Plan (IEP).

Private Practice
If you choose to pursue a private evaluation, you typically will be responsible for the cost.  While this can be a deterrent for some people, it also allows client additional flexibility and control that they likely will not have in a public school evaluation.  This means that you will be able to choose who conducts the evaluation and your concern drives the entire evaluation process.  You will also receive a diagnosis based on the information found in the evaluation.  As mentioned before, it is important to note that educational and medical diagnoses do differ, and only a school team can decide whether a student qualifies for special education.  However, they will generally use the information obtained during a private evaluation during their evaluation process. 

Additionally, you may get an Independent Educational Evaluation (IEE) from a private practice at your school’s expense.  If the district conducts an evaluation and you disagree with the findings, you have the right to request an IEE, which is completed by a qualified examiner who is not employed by the school district.  Upon completing the IEE, the school team reconvenes to consider the new results and determine whether the student qualifies for special education services.

While we now work in private practice, it has been very helpful to have a background in public education as school psychologists.  With our experience, we are able to conduct evaluations that are accepted by the school team and provide recommendations that educators can easily put in place within the school setting.  It also allows us to better advocate for our clients since with are familiar with what is available in a school setting.  If you are pursuing a private evaluation, please consider the background and reputation of the practitioner so that you are able to get the most helpful services possible.  Those who have worked in public education or who frequently conduct evaluations for school age students will likely be an asset during the entire process.

What is a school psychologist?

In honor of School Psychology Awareness Week, we would like to highlight our chosen profession! At its core, school psychology is a helping profession, which lends itself more to a week of awareness than appreciation-awareness about all of the ways school psychologists are trained to help reduce educational barriers and improve outcomes for clients and their families. According to the National Association of School Psychologist website, school psychologists' graduate training develops knowledge and skills in the following areas: data collection and analysis; assessment; progress monitoring; school-wide practices to promote learning; resilience and risk factors; consultation and collaboration; academic/learning interventions; mental health interventions;  behavioral interventions; instructional support; prevention and intervention services; child preparedness, response, and recovery; family-school-community collaboration; diversity in development and learning; research and program evaluation; and professional ethics, school law, and systems (NASP, 2014). 

Training
School psychologists receive graduate training in education and psychology aimed to develop skills in psychological theory, educational strategies, and assessment. Training includes both coursework and practical experience. School psychologists take classes in child development, assessment, diagnosis, educational skill development, academic interventions, social/emotional interventions, problem-solving consultation, group and individual counseling, diversity, special education laws, and ethical issues.

Currently, there two degree tracks that school psychologists complete: specialist-level or a doctorate. A school psychologist with a specialist-level degree completes at least 60 credits, which takes three years of full-time study, and typically earns either an Educational Specialist degree (Ed.S.) or a Psychology Specialist degree (Psy.S.). Some individuals who received their training in the early stages of the profession may hold a Master's degree. To earn a doctoral degree, school psychologists complete at least 90 credits and write a dissertation, which generally takes between 5 and 7 years. Both those with specialist-level and doctoral degrees end their training with a year-long 1200-hour supervised internship. In addition to competing the coursework and practical components, school psychologists must also pass the Praxis School Psychologist examination (NASP, 2014).

Although all school psychologists receive similar training, work setting often drives the skill set that they use most often. School psychologists may work in public schools, private schools, independent private practice, hospitals, preschools, school district administration offices, school-based health and mental-health centers, community-based day treatment or residential clinics, and juvenile justice programs. We will cover public schools, private schools, and private practice, where the greatest number of school psychologists work. The information below is based on school psychology experience in Ohio. It is important to note that each it may vary depending on the specific state you reside and its laws.

Public Schools
The majority of school psychologists (81%) work in public school settings (NASP, 2017). These school psychologists are licensed by the State Board of Education, and their main role is to support students academically, behaviorally, and social-emotionally within the school setting.

A large part of supporting students happens through Response to Intervention (RTI) and Multi-Tier Systems of Support (MTSS) frameworks. Both RTI and MTSS, which are similar, are tiered systems that use a problem-solving approach to provide increasing levels of support for school-related needs. Fully integrated RTI or MTSS systems address both academic and social-emotional/behavioral concerns.

In the academic RTI/MTSS system, school psychologists use their knowledge of child development, academic skill development, and grade-level curriculum to ensure that effective instructional practices are driving instruction within the general education classroom. School psychologist also use data to determine which students still need additional academic interventions and supports despite receiving quality instruction in the classroom.

On the behavioral side of RTI and MTSS, school psychologists work to implement a multi-tiered approach to social, emotional, and behavioral interventions and supports though the Positive Behavior Interventions and Supports (PBIS) framework. Within this infrastructure, school psychologists and their school teams create school-wide supports to promote healthy social-emotional development and appropriate school behavior through positive strategies. Similar to academic supports, behavioral and social-emotional interventions intensify based on the student's response to the supports provided. If a student fails to respond to the school-wide behavior plan, the student might need an individualized plan. School psychologists are uniquely trained to conduct Functional Behavior Assessments (FBA). During FBAs, data is collected to determine the triggers and consequences of specific behaviors to find out why a student behaves in a certain way and how the behavior is being reinforced. Based on the results, school psychologists and team members create a Behavior Intervention Plan (BIP) to reduce the unwanted behavior by providing ways in which a student can get his/her needs met while behaving in a more positive and appropriate manner. School psychologists may also provide individual or group counseling to students through the intervention process.

School psychologists' skills allow them, along with a team, to design an intervention plan, monitor the student's progress, and evaluate if intervention is being provided with fidelity to determine whether or not a student has responded to the interventions. Based on the team's findings, after receiving intensive interventions, a student may be referred for an evaluation if the team suspects a disability.

School psychologists in the public schools can assess students for a variety of reasons, but the majority of the time they are conducting special education evaluations. School psychologists serve as the team chairperson and case manager of psychoeducational evaluations, known as an Evaluation Team Reports (ETR). These reports are referred to as an ETR because a team approach is used to determine if a student has an educational disability under one of the 13 disability categories defined in Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). The school psychologist and other evaluators on the team provide a description of the child's educational needs and the implications that those needs have on instruction and progress monitoring. Based on those needs and implications, an Individual Educational Program (IEP) is created for the student with specific goals the student will achieve the following year and the services that they need to meet those goals. 

Despite having many responsibilities in a public school setting, the child remains the school psychologist's main focus. Advocating for the best interest of the student is the foundation of all work that a school psychologist does. Family involvement is essential, so a large part of student advocacy involves collaborating with the family. School psychologists also work to link students and families to outside services to ensure that the student’s needs are being met.

Private Schools
The role of school psychologists in the private school setting vary greatly. In private schools, their role is typically shaped by the type of students the school serves and what both the school and individual students need.

Private Practice
School psychologists who work in private practice only need to be licensed by the State Board of Psychology. Most individuals engaged in private practice have licenses from the State Board of Education and the State Board of Psychology.

To gain a license from the State Board of Psychology, a school psychologist must have four years of experience working as a school psychologist and pass an oral exam to demonstrate understanding of laws governing school psychologists. This additional license allows those who work in private practice to provide diagnoses within their areas of expertise.

Depending on their focus, those who work in private practice primarily use their expertise in assessment to conduct comprehensive psychoeducational evaluations. Such evaluations include assessment of intellectual ability, learning patterns, achievement, motivation, behavior, or personality factors directly related to learning problems for both children and adults. These evaluations are conducted based on client self-referral. While assessments are chosen by the school psychologist, the driving force behind the assessment is the client’s presenting concern.

In a school setting, a school psychologist is conducting a psychoeducational evaluation to determine if the student has an educational disability that needs to be addressed through special education. In a private practice, a school psychologist is evaluating based on the diagnostic criteria of DSM-5 or ICD-10 to determine if the client has a disabling condition. A private school psychologist can provide a diagnosis and make recommendations regarding disability categories that the school should assess, but only a school team can determine if a student qualifies for special education services.

School psychologists in private practice also frequently complete Independent Educational Evaluations (IEEs). IEEs are evaluations conducted by a qualified examiner who is not employed by the school district. If a parent disagrees with the outcome of the evaluation that a school district has completed, the parent can request an IEE. School psychologists in private practice are uniquely positioned to complete IEEs because of their familiarity with both DSM diagnostic criteria and educational disability criteria under IDEA.

As part of an evaluation, school psychologists in private practice incorporate recommendations that can be used in educational planning. For K-12 students, this may include strategies for the child's teacher, private tutor, or family members to use at home, such as accommodations and/or direct instruction strategies. For adult clients, recommendations may include accommodations for a Section 504 Plan in the classroom setting or standardized professional assessments as well as strategies/supports for the client to implement themselves or seek out from professionals.

Within their private practice, some school psychologists may provide services that are recommended. School psychologists' training prepares them to provide counseling, academic intervention, behavior intervention, and tutoring services.

They may also provide advocacy services. Having worked both in public schools and private practice, school psychologists understand the complicated special education process. As advocates, school psychologists are available to attend meetings with clients and their educational team to help guide them through the process and act as a bridge between clients and school staff to ensure that their client's educational needs are met so they can achieve their fullest potential.

No matter what setting school psychologists are employed in, their main goal is to help individuals thrive within their educational setting.

References
For more information on school psychologists, please visit the National Association of School Psychologists website at https://nasponline.org.  

National Association of School Psychologists. (2017). A Career in School Psychology: Frequently Asked Questions. Retrieved from https://www.nasponline.org/about-school-psychology/becoming-a-school-psychologist/a-career-in-school-psychology-frequently-asked-questions

National Association of School Psychologists. (2014). Who Are School Psychologists. Retrieved from https://www.nasponline.org/about-school-psychology/who-are-school-psychologists

Welcome

Hello, and welcome to our new blog! 

We are Greer and Jen, Directors and School Psychologists at Achievement Advantage Assessment & Services. 

We are excited for the opportunity to bring an additional resource to parents, clients, and educators by providing blogs related to education and learning exceptionalities, including information about special education law, the evaluation process, instructional practices to best meet the needs of students with learning differences, and much more!

Additionally, we will be inviting guest bloggers who work in the education, mental health, and medical fields to share about their areas of expertise.

Our goal is to provide information that you will find beneficial.  Do you have a topic you would like to learn more about?  Please let us know by contacting us via email at achieve@achievement-advantage.org.  We welcome your input!