If you, like me, are over the age of 30, you probably do not remember having students with disabilities in any of your classes throughout the entirety of your school years.
This is because educational inclusion is a relatively new concept. Though the concept of "least restrictive environment" was first put forth in 1975, most of us were long outside of our school years by the time students with disabilities were routinely included in the general education classroom.
Prior to this, most students with disabilities were educated in self-contained special education classrooms or in special schools that were intended solely to serve students with disabilities.
The IDEA mandate for "least restrictive environment" (or LRE) sets the expectation for how and where students with disabilities are to be educated in their local school system.
“To the maximum extent appropriate, children with disabilities, including children in public or private institutions or other care facilities, are educated with children who are not disabled, and special classes, separate schooling, or other removal of children with disabilities from the regular educational environment occurs only when the nature or severity of the disability of a child is such that education in regular classes with the use of supplementary aids and services cannot be achieved satisfactorily." Section 612(a)(5) (italics mine)
Yes, you read that correctly! Students with disabilities, to the maximum extent appropriate, are to be educated with children who are not disabled.
As such, a student's LRE, or Least Restrictive Environment, is the most inclusive placement possible that still meets the student's needs.
I like to think of LRE as the center of a Venn Diagram that has "student's needs are met" in one circle and "student is included with peers without disabilities" in the other. For some students, the two circles overlap-- this would be full inclusion. For others, the circles are totally distinct, i.e. for the student's needs to be met, s/he doesn't have any interaction with students who don't have disabilities (as is often the case for medically-fragile and homebound students).
LRE is not "inclusion" or "the general ed classroom" or any particular space in a school building. LRE is a spectrum, with full inclusion on one side and full exclusion on the other, and a lot of different stages and options in between.
What is an appropriate LRE for one child may not be appropriate for another, even those who have the same diagnosis.
But how do we make sure that a proposed placement truly is the LEAST restrictive possible?
We work OUT, not IN!
While many school teams do not function this way, it is appropriate and necessary that the operating expectation is that all students can be educated in an inclusive setting. As such, when discussing placement, the team must start from a place of full inclusion and move to more restrictive environments as dictated by the student’s needs.
What often happens instead is that the school team will start with an assumption that the student will be in a restrictive environment, such as a self-contained special education classroom, and will then try to figure out how to build in inclusion time for an hour here and an hour there—perhaps at lunch or in a special like art.
This is NOT how it's intended to work. Because children with disabilities are to be educated with children who are not disabled (and again, that's language from IDEA), school teams must work OUT from a place of inclusion, rather than IN to a place of inclusion.
So what options are there in terms of special education placement? First, know that anything is possible if the student’s needs dictate it (and as a result, I hate prescribing options because these are not hard-and-fast). However, since this can be a confusing concept for some parents to wrap around, here's how I see it from most inclusive placement (at the top) to most restrictive placement (at the bottom):
1. Full inclusion in a general education setting
2. General education classroom with "push-in" support (from a teacher or therapist)
3. General education classroom with "pull-out" support (i.e. the student is pulled out for certain subjects, interventions or therapies)
4. 50/50 split between general education and special education
5. Most of the day in special education with some inclusion time here or there (typically specials, lunch, recess)
6. All day in a special education classroom
7. Special school
8. Homebound or hospital-bound placement
You want to start at number 1 and only move down as far as necessary to get your child what they need. Often school teams try to start at 5 or 6. Many, many, many students with different diagnoses and needs can be served in placements 1-4. I get incredibly wary of schools who want to put kids in a 4, 5, or 6 placement before they've even tried a less restrictive environment.
That said, some kids truly do need a more restrictive environment, and for them, a number 6 or 7 placement is the least restrictive they can go while still having their needs met. In these cases, their LRE would be that special classroom or special school.
So what do you do if you feel like your child's LRE isn't truly the least restrictive possible?
That's more than I can include in one blog post! Check out the IEP Guru Digital Course for full lessons on inclusion and all-things-IEP!
Ahh yes, the acronyms again! I swear there are more acronyms in special education than in any other field. I could write an entire email that would include 25% text and 75% acronyms and it would take a CIA code-cracker days to read it.
My hope is that (if you've been following IEP Guru for awhile) you could crack that code in under an hour.
Today I going to discuss the second most important acronym in special education after I.D.E.A. (the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act)...
We're talking about F.A.PE.-- free, appropriate, public education.
F.A.P.E. is the foundation upon which special education is built. F.A.P.E. ensures that our kids with disabilities are able to access their right to an education just like those without disabilities. F.A.P.E. means that the learning of our students with special needs matters as much as it does for any other student.
But what is F.A.P.E, really? And what does a free, appropriate public education mean?
Let's break it down into it's relevant parts:
1. Free: This is the easiest of the bunch! All children, disability or not, are entitled to a free education funded by local and state government (and in reality, the taxpayers). No matter where they're educated (in their neighborhood school, in a specialized school, or even at home for students who are medically fragile), and no matter how much that education will cost (due to additional staffing needs, specialized software, etc)-- children with disabilities have a right to be educated for free just like their peers who don't have disabilities.
2. Appropriate: Here's where it gets messy. In addition to a free education, students have a right to receive an appropriate education. But who decides what's appropriate? For many, many years this was up in the air and left to the discretion of IEP teams and individual districts. In 2017 however, a formalized consensus was given by the United States Supreme Court in their Endrew vs. Douglas County decision:
"The Court held that to meet its substantive obligation under the I.D.E.A., a school must offer an IEP reasonably calculated to enable a child to make progress appropriate in light of the child’s circumstances. In clarifying the standard, the Court rejected the “merely more than de minimis” (i.e. merely more than trivial) standard applied by the Tenth Circuit. In determining the scope of F.A.P.E., the Court reinforced the requirement that “every child should have the chance to meet challenging objectives." (Emphasis mine)
What does this look like for your child? Check out this blog post for an excellent resource about how to apply this information to ensure your child's educational program is appropriate for him or her.
3. Public: This simply means that a student with a disability is entitled to be educated in a public school (and ideally with their neighborhood peers), unless a more appropriate placement is determined by the IEP team. This provision ensures that students with disabilities are no longer automatically segregated to a specialized school like they were historically. But what if it's determined that a student is not receiving an appropriate education at the public school? If the parent can prove it, then the district is required to provide reimbursement for a private education so that the education is still free and appropriate, as the student is entitled. (This can be hard to swing though-- check your procedural safeguards for information about reimbursement for private schooling).
4. Education: What does your child's education really have to cover? What sort of education must be provided? I.D.E.A.'s definition says that students with disabilities are entitled to "special education and related services designed to meet their unique needs and prepare them for further education, employment and independent living." Note-- this doesn't just include academic standards! A student with a disability is entitled to an education that also prepares them for employment and independent life.
That's today's summary of F.A.P.E! If nothing else, it's worth taking a survey of your child's current educational program and asking yourself whether it meets these basic benchmarks. If it falls short, you have some advocacy work ahead to ensure that your student is truly getting what they are entitled to; it's important to maximize those entitlements because at age 22 they dry up!
If you're concerned that your child might not be receiving what they should be out of the IEP process, or if you're unsure about how to go about advocating for their needs, please check out our IEP Guru resources page to start getting the help you need!
Hooray! It's the first installment of our new weekly series, The ABCs of SPED. And today, we're talking Access.
Let's talk about the myriad ways you may have heard this phrased used in your special education journey:
And there are infinitely more examples! Access, both as a noun and as a verb, has become a buzzword in special education circles.
But what does access really mean?
EduGlossary says it best: "In education, the term access typically refers to the ways in which educational institutions and policies ensure—or at least strive to ensure—that students have equal and equitable opportunities to take full advantage of their education."
Put more simply (via Dictionary.com), access is "the state or quality of being approachable."
So what does this mean for you, and for your child?
First, all conversations around the education of your child should focus on the concept of access.
Access should be the lens through which all educational decisions are made. When weighing a certain accommodation, or addition, removal, or change of services, we must always ask:
"Does this provide my child with greater access to the content, experiences, and opportunities that s/he would have if s/he did not have a disability?"
"Does this provide my child with greater access to the skills or experiences s/he will need in order to reach his/her full potential?"
Access is about getting your child what they need to be successful.
Here's a great image that illustrates this point:
Access asks us consider not only what services or supports the school needs to provide, but also what barriers the school needs to remove, in order for your child to have equitable opportunities for participation.
So here's your homework!
In your next meeting, ask your child's IEP team to define how a certain goal, accommodation, or support works to increase your child's access. If they can't articulate clearly how it provides greater opportunities for your child, ask for something different.
Like this content and want to learn the rest of the ABCs? Be sure to follow us on Facebook or subscribe below!
I'm hoping, if you've been in this special education world for a while, that you've followed the trajectory of one of the most important court cases in years:
Endrew F. vs. Douglas County School District
There are LOTS of things that I go round and round about with parents, teachers, coworkers and peers. But one, more than any other, has been this:
What does it mean when the law says a child with a disability is entitled to a free, appropriate, public education (FAPE)?
For me as an advocate, what I think is "appropriate" tends to be a much higher bar than what the school team thinks is "appropriate." And for years there was never really an answer to this discrepancy. Until recently.
The Endrew F. case finally gives us a benchmark for how to define "appropriateness" under the law.
Here's the summary (taken from the U.S. Dept. of Education-- full F.A.Q. document here):
"The Court held that to meet its substantive obligation under the IDEA, a school must offer an IEP reasonably calculated to enable a child to make progress appropriate in light of the child’s circumstances. In clarifying the standard, the Court rejected the “merely more than de minimis” (i.e. more than trivial) standard applied by the Tenth Circuit. In determining the scope of FAPE, the Court reinforced the requirement that “every child should have the chance to meet challenging objectives." (Emphasis mine.)
YES! This is a WIN for kids.
However, I recognize that this statement above is pure legalese. And how does one put this all into practice, exactly?
Y'all know I'm not about reinventing the wheel if someone else has done a fantastic job before me, and in this case, Understood.org has knocked it out of the park.
Their Endrew F. Advocacy Toolkit provides two crucial resources to help you get a better IEP for your child in light of this monumental court case:
> First, the toolkit includes a PDF download of "Talking points" which identifies 8 themes that emerge from the court decision and provides a succinct reference and an explanation for each one.
> Second, the toolkit includes a worksheet for you to take to your next IEP meeting with sample language (i.e. a "suggested script") for how to bring up each talking point.
This is GOOD STUFF. Can you tell I feel passionate about it?
Do me a favor and check out this resource. The only benefit I'll get is knowing that your child is on his or her way to having more appropriate educational services...and that is more than enough for me!
Have questions about how to use this resource or want to share your thoughts? Visit us on our Facebook page to start chatting!
Sometimes I talk with parents who aren't sure about their child with a disability being an inclusive classroom.
They're worried that their student won't get the level of attention that they need, that she or he may be a distraction to other students, that their student may participate in unsafe behavior because of the materials that are available, or that she or he will feel left out if they cannot understand the content being taught.
As such, I want to take some time to address why and how inclusion benefits children with disabilities as well as those without disabilities.
A quick disclaimer here-- I know that a fully inclusive environment is not possible and/or not the right placement for every student. That said, I do believe that every child can benefit from inclusive experiences, even if they are not spending their school day in a general education classroom.
So let's get to it! How does inclusion benefit children with disabilities?
Most notably, inclusion benefits students with disabilities because it surrounds them with appropriate modeling from typically-developing peers. This means that our students with disabilities in an inclusive classroom see both academically and socially how a student their age that does not have a disability solves problems, attends to the rules, and interacts with adults and other children (among other things).
We want to begin teaching social skills as early as possible for our students with disabilities, and it's much easier to teach social skills in the natural context where we expect students to perform those skills and where there are social implications for performing those skills (aka in an environment with their peers).
Additionally, inclusion benefits children with disabilities because it's a practice field for the post-school world.
Here's a challenge for you to remember this Friday: the goal of raising kids is to raise adults.
Whether we like it or not, we live in a world that has been structured for folks without disabilities. While we are constantly working to increase acceptance and accessibility, we must also prepare our students for the current reality of the world we live in. When we segregate students in school, we deprive them of the ability to practice existing in a world in which not everyone is like them.
At the end of the day, if we want our children to work, if we want them to participate meaningfully in their community, if we want them to someday live on their own, then they're going to need to learn how to live in a world that accommodates them but does not solely cater to them. And an inclusive classroom is a natural place to start.
It's also important to recognize that inclusion is best-practice because it benefits ALL students, including those without disabilities.
One of the common arguments against inclusion that I hear from schools is this: a student with a disability shouldn't be allowed to participate because to do so would jeopardize opportunities for development for the students without disabilities.
Some common fears include that an inclusive classroom will dumb down the content for the other students, that the other students will pick up poor behavior from a student with a disability, or that the student with a disability will take attention away from the rest of the students.
While these things are possibilities, they are not inevitabilities.
Research shows that inclusion, when implemented appropriately, benefits all children. Research shows that inclusive classrooms provide more support than a traditional classroom, both in terms of personnel and in terms of diverse instructional strategies. As a result, students with diverse learning needs who aren't in the special education system benefit from the strategies and supports provided that are intended for students with disabilities.
This phenomenon is called Universal Design for Learning. It’s similar to the benefit that folks without disabilities who use strollers or rolling suitcases receive from the curb cuts that are intended for users in wheelchairs. We all benefit from the extra accommodations that are provided, even if they're not specifically provided for our use. Because of the extra support that occurs in an inclusive classroom, academic achievement improves among all students.
Additionally, as I referenced above, inclusion benefits children without disabilities because it prepares them for a world that includes those who are different from them. It teaches empathy, understanding, and combats discriminatory attitudes. From Gibbons et al., “[Inclusion] provides structured opportunities for us to work and interact with diverse students, in order to adequately prepare to engage in a diverse global society.”
There's a reason why inclusion is such a buzzword-- it benefits all students when implemented appropriately and with the correct supports.
Do you have thoughts about inclusion? I'd love to hear them! Hop on over to our Facebook page to share!