Several of our prior postings have emphasized that services are selected based on what will see a child’s annual IEP goals accomplished. Placement is determined based on how the services necessary to achieve the goals can be delivered in the least restrictive environment possible, so a discussion of services has to include some discussion of placement, though we’ll be talking specifically about placement in our next posting.
Today’s posting concentrates specifically on the process that an IEP team goes through (when things are done properly) to identify the services necessary to achieve a child’s annual IEP goals and how they can be described in the child’s IEP.
As we discussed in our posting, “Why Placement Isn’t Where You Start: Understanding the IEP Process,” before parents can legitimately advocate for more service hours of any particular kind, they have to examine the goals and ask themselves, “Is the amount of services being offered consistent with what needs to be done to achieve the existing body of goals?” If the amount of service hours matches what is necessary to achieve the goals the child already has, the next questions are “Are more goals needed? Have we failed to address a need?”
This is often where the real problem lies when parents are insisting on more service hours in any particular area of need. For example, I’ve heard more than once, “My child can’t write! He needs more OT!” but there are not sufficient writing goals in the child’s IEP. So, we have to back up and address the goal deficiencies so we can then increase the OT hours to see the new additional goals met.
Parents really need to understand this because there are instances in which less-than-ethical education professionals will play games. Here’s what it looks like:
Parent: “My child needs more speech-language services!”
Ed Pro: “But the speech-language services we’ve offered to your child are appropriate to meet his goals.? What would more speech-language services accomplish?”
This is a loaded question! If you know the rules, you interpret this question to mean, “Do you think your child needs more speech-language goals “If you’re a lay person, however, you’re likely to miss the subtleties, become incensed, and cry out, “My child is non-verbal! He needs more speech-language services!” If game-playing is going on, the conversation will stalemate as a vicious circle of “He needs more!” and “What would that accomplish ” without any explanation forthcoming from the educational professionals about how goals drive services, so more services require more goals.
Once the goals have been hammered out, then it’s time to determine services. This includes not just how much time will be devoted to services necessary to meet the goals, but also the location and method of delivery. A comprehensive speech-language service model may include a small amount of time in individual speech-language services, some group speech-language services, and speech-language programming embedded in the classroom setting, for example. 34 CFR 300.320(a)(7) requires that the frequency, duration, and location of each type of service offered be described in the IEP.
In this example, this means that the frequency, duration, and location of the individual speech-language services would have to be described separately from the frequency, duration, and location of the group service and the frequency, duration, and location of the embedded speech-language services. Even though they all address speech-language needs, each type of intervention is distinctly different from each other and, therefore, must be regarded as an individual service offering.
Parents should be leery of an offer in a situation like this where the IEP states something like: “90 minutes per week speech-language services, individual/group/embedded programming.” This language fails to delineate the frequency, duration, and location of each aspect of the speech-language intervention, meaning that the delivery of the services is left entirely up to the discretion of school site staff.
The problem with this lack of specificity is that it is the nature of a government bureaucracy, which the public education system is, to default to whatever requires the least amount of effort on the part of the government workers. What is provided to a child becomes driven by how existing resources within the education agency have been allocated rather than the unique needs of the student. This is why federal law mandates that frequency, duration, and location be specified in the IEP in the first place; Congress had to have been aware of this aspect of bureaucracy when it crafted the Individuals with Disabilties Education Act (“IDEA”).
Yet another consideration is where the services will be rendered. Another point made in our posting, “Why Placement Isn’t Where You Start: Understanding the IEP Process,“ was that placement comes at the end of the line for a very logical reason. You have to know what you’re trying to accomplish before you can determine where you can accomplish it. That means you need to know what services need to be delivered. Once you know what the services are, you can figure out what placement is the least restrictive environment in which the services can be rendered relative to the unique needs of the individual child.
In our example above, we described some individual speech-language, some group speech-language, and some embedded speech-language programming in the classroom setting. But, what classroom setting is appropriate and how much of the services are to be pushed into the classroom rather than provided in individual and group services? What is the relative value of being surrounded by typical peers and their age-appropriate language skills versus a special day class with speech-language programming built into the curriculum by default? Can embedded speech-language services be successfully pushed into a regular education setting with 1:1 aide supports or can the services be more successfully delivered in a special education class?? Do the embedded speech-language services need to happen all day long or just part of the day?
You can see that making determinations regarding services require a lot of thought. An awful lot of variables have to be taken into consideration, not the least of which are the goals that the services are meant to accomplish. The tolerance levels of the child for various stress levels and sensory input have to be considered along with the LRE requirements. Special education students cannot be pulled out of the regular education setting unless there is absolutely no way to feasibly push the services they need into the regular education setting.
Even in special education settings there is a continuum of placement that has to be made available with the least restrictive setting chosen relative to each child. This means that a blend of various settings may be necessary to offer the services in the LRE. For example, a child could receive some services pushed into the regular education setting for part of the day, other services in one special education setting for another part of the day, and yet another special education setting for the rest of the day.
Until the services are identified, placement decisions cannot be made, though it is perfectly fine to discuss services and placement at the same time so long as the team maintains proper perspective. Because they are so intertwined, it’s actually pretty hard to discuss services without also discussing placement.
The caution that has to be taken when discussing services and placement together is making sure the IEP team doesn’t limit services based on how resources have already been allocated within the education agency. When the team starts talking about the need for counseling services three times a week for a student and the school psychologist says, “But I’m only on this campus once per week,” you’ve got a problem to overcome.
What goes into the IEP and what must be provided must be based on the needs of the child. If the way staff and resources have been allocated do not support what the student needs in order to meet his goals, the staffing and resource allocations have to change; the services offered to the child should never be short-changed on the basis of resource allocation issues.
This is not to discount the enormity of the responsibility of education agencies to deliver on these requirements. Education agencies that actually pull it off are accomplishing miracles on a daily basis and their teams of professionals are mostly unsung heroes that deserve at least as many accolades as the entertainment industry heaps upon itself through its various awards ceremonies.
Coordinating the services required by all of an education agencys special education students to be delivered in what represents the LRE for each individual child can seem to be the logistical equivalent to Santa delivering presents to every child on the planet in one night. This is why States’ education agencies are still on the hook for the provision of a Free and Appropriate Public Education (“FAPE”) to their constituent students and local education agencies should be hitting up their State education agencies for as much help as possible.
Our next posting will focus more specifically on placement. Please comment on today’s posting and let us know your thoughts.