Much of my work here at the ApaCenter consists of helping students and their families cope with learning disabilities at school and at home. I conduct assessments to diagnose learning disabilities and provide a picture of a student’s strengths and weaknesses, I give recommendations for helping the student be more successful in school, and I provide consultation and advocacy to make sure the student’s needs are met. When you suspect that your child has a learning disability, there are several things you need to know in order to ensure that your child’s needs are met at school. Before I go on to describe these things, let me give you a little background first.
There are several laws that govern the education of students with disabilities in the United States, including The Individuals With Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) and section 504 of the Americans with Disabilities Act (504). According to IDEA, local school districts are responsible for identifying students with disabilities within their jurisdiction, and for providing a Free and Appropriate Public Education in the Least Restrictive Environment. This means that a student with a disability should get an education, free of charge, designed to meet their individual needs, as much as possible in the general education classroom with same-aged peers. Students are identified with a disability through a Full Individual Evaluation (FIE), conducted by a multidisciplinary team (consisting of a school psychologist, speech therapist, occupational therapist, general and special education teacher, etc., depending on what the referral question is). When a child is suspected of having a disability and is referred for an assessment, the school district has 60 calendar days to complete the assessment. Parents can refer for an assessment, as well as the student’s teacher. As soon as the parent signs the consent form to complete the assessment, the 60 day clock starts ticking. As long as students are in special education, they should receive a new FIE every three years. Once a year the Admissions Review and Dismissal (ARD) committee meets to determine whether the student continues to meet eligibility for special education and to design the student’s Individual Education Plan (IEP). Parents are important members of the ARD committee, and nothing can happen without their consent. Parents can also call an ARD meeting at any time if they wish to make changes to their child’s IEP.
The only catch with IDEA is that a student only qualifies for special education if there is an “educational need.” So if your child has a disability and is really struggling, but is barely passing with all Cs, the school would say that your child does not qualify for special education services because there is no educational need; your child is passing. It may also be that your child is very gifted in some areas but has a learning disability that he or she is compensating for, resulting in average school performance (and possibly a lot of frustration for your child). In these cases, your child may still be able to get accommodations through section 504. These accommodations could include (depending on your child’s need) extended time on tests, taking tests in a quiet room, being able to take frequent breaks, having access to snacks, etc.
When IDEA was reauthorized in 2004 schools were allowed to use another way of identifying students with disabilities besides providing a Full Individual Evaluation, which is called “Responsiveness to Intervention” or RTI. RTI is a school-wide system that is implemented to identify students that need help as early as possible and ensure that all students get the help they need, so that students who do not qualify for special education or 504 don’t fall through the cracks. RTI usually consists of three tiers of intervention. The first tier is to provide high quality, evidence based instruction to all students, and to regularly track the students’ progress. The bottom 25% of the class in a given subject area would then receive tier 2 intervention, which is a more intense, small group setting instruction within the general education setting. Students who do not respond to tier 2 instruction (i.e. the fail to make sufficient progress) would qualify for tier 3 intervention, which is basically a referral for special education evaluation and possibly special education services.
Although the concept of RTI is very good and helpful, it can have unintended negative consequences for some families. Many of the families I work with run into this situation: they suspect their child has some type of learning disability, and they would like to have their child evaluated for 504 or special education services. However, the school tells them they have to go through the RTI process first, and their child cannot be evaluated at school for another year or so. Apparently is so common that RTI is used to delay identification of children with disabilities for special education eligibility that the Department of Education came out with a statement recently that schools are not allowed to use RTI to delay assessments for special education referrals. So as a parent, you should know that you have the right to refer your child for an evaluation to determine if he or she has a (learning) disability and once the referral goes through, the school should complete the evaluation within 60 calendar days.
So, to recap:
- School districts are responsible for identifying students with disabilities within their jurisdiction, including children who are younger than kindergarten age, and children who go to private schools or are home schooled.
- Once a child is referred for an evaluation the school should complete the evaluation within 60 days.
- RTI cannot be used to delay an evaluation.
- If your child does not qualify for special education he or she may still be eligible for 504 accommodations.
At the ApaCenter we can help you if you need a consultation, if you have concerns about your child, or if you are having difficulty getting services for your child at school.