IEP Goals Determine Services & Placement

If you’ve read or listened to our past posts and podcasts, or have otherwise been educating yourself on the special education process, hopefully by now you understand that special education is supposed to follow a particular procedural flow. This is not only the method supported by best practices, but also the method required by federal law.

To recap, assessment data provides the present levels of performance and baselines necessary to formulate educationally appropriate IEP goals for an individual learner. The goals describe what the IEP is supposed to make happen. Once the enormous milestone of developing the IEP goals has been achieved, then it’s time to figure out what services are going to be necessary and where they can be delivered in order for each goal to be met. This is where things can suddenly go off the rails.

It does no good to articulate sensible outcomes in measurable terms if effective services aren’t put into place to actually work on them and make them happen. Goals are just hopes if you don’t have a plan for the services you will need to meet them, and hope is not a strategy. But, this is often where things can get tricky in developing an IEP.

There are two common reasons for why things can go wrong at this stage: 1) everybody means well, but they don’t know what they’re doing; or, 2) something fishy is going on. In the first instance, it’s usually a matter of training. In the second instance, somebody is gaming the system in pursuit of an agenda in which the student is ancillary, but not the point.

In many instances, where this process gets tripped up actually starts with the development of the IEP goals. When the IEP goals are improperly written and/or necessary goals are excluded altogether, determining what services are necessary to deliver appropriately ambitious educational benefits to each student becomes compromised.

I’ve had many parents come to me over the years saying things like, “My kid needs more speech and language. He doesn’t know word meanings, can’t follow instructions, and can’t express himself, but he’s only getting 20 minutes of speech per week.” They look at increasing the service minutes in speech as though that’s going to somehow magically translate into working on all areas of his speech/language needs, when the real issue is that there is only one speech goal in the IEP for articulation and the rest of their child’s speech/language needs have no goals.

Because there are no goals for anything else, the number of speech/language service minutes is limited to how much time is reasonable to pursue the one goal that is there for articulation. 20 minutes per week to work on nothing but articulation isn’t automatically off-base.

What these parents really mean, when they say their kids need more speech and language services, is that the IEP is not targeting all of their speech/language needs. If that’s true, then the IEP team has to go back and look at the data to determine what other areas of speech and/or language should also be targeted by explicit intervention, then write goals to those specific areas of intervention need.

Once those new goals are written, the IEP team can then look at how many service minutes will be necessary to meet each goal. In addition to service minutes, which are expressed in terms of frequency and duration, the location of where the services will be delivered has to be determined.

It isn’t automatic that related services, like speech/language or occupational therapy (OT), get delivered in a pull-out setting. The location of services, like all other parts of an IEP, must be individualized to the unique needs of the student.

Pull-out services require the student to be removed from the classroom, often during instruction, and can interfere with learning. It’s a balancing act to find the right time to pull a student out of the regular class routine to go participate in direct pull-out services.

Push-in services bring the intervention into the student’s classroom and make it part of the classroom experience. Sometimes, this can be small group instruction with a reading specialist when the general education class is broken into small reading groups as a normal matter of instruction. This weaves the special education into the general education situation so that students with reading challenges are facilitated in participating with everyone else.

Embedded services are much like push-in, but they are intertwined with the instruction throughout the entire school day as a matter of instructional design for the classroom. An example of this would be embedded speech/language instruction and Applied Behavioral Analysis (ABA) in the program design of a school specifically for students with autism who cannot successfully function and learn on an integrated campus.

In this example, because it can be reasonably expected that all of the students in such a special school will need these supports according to the research and evidence-based practices, they are woven into the instructional design of the program. They are part of how the instruction is delivered on a continual basis.

In such cases, the integration of speech/language and ABA have to be used to describe the placement rather than parsed out as individual related service minutes, because they are part of the placement design that makes that particular placement appropriate for certain students. In this instance, they are not discrete services provided outside of or in addition to what is otherwise happening in the classroom.

Which leads into the next phase of the process, which is placement. Placement is the last decision to be made by the IEP team. There’s a really good reason for this. Placement is supposed to be determined by what is the Least Restrictive Environment (LRE) in which the services can be delivered such that the goals are met.

Special education is a service, not a place. The whole point of the IEP is to meet the IEP, but it is discrimination on the basis of handicapping condition to automatically remove kids from the general education setting for instruction just because they have disabilities. Unless removal to a more restrictive setting is the only way for the goals to get met, it’s not the LRE.

LRE is relative; what is restrictive for one student may be empowering for another. A student with autism who can nonetheless function in the general education setting with push-in ABA supports, for example, would be inappropriately placed in a school for students with autism.

Sometimes parents mistakenly think a special school is better because it’s focused on the specific types of needs their child has. But, it’s only better if the student cannot otherwise be successful in a less restrictive setting. Restrictiveness of setting is directly related to the severity of the student’s needs and the intensity of instruction necessary to meet the IEP goals.

Sometimes, creating an appropriately hybridized placement offer for a student who needs some pull-out services, but can otherwise participate in general education the rest of the school day, is such a difficult thing to coordinating in a particular school’s pre-existing culture that special ed staffs find it more convenient to put kids in more restrictive settings. This gives special ed staffs more control over the quality of the instruction and allows them to prevent their kids from being harmed by discriminatory general education practices, but it segregates their students on the basis of handicapping condition.

Sheltering students with disabilities from abuse by sequestering them from bigots inadvertently reinforces discriminatory practices that keep people with disabilities from equally accessing the world at large. Preventing the abuse of students with disabilities through diversity appreciation instruction, as well as proactive, research-based Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports (PBIS) on a schoolwide basis, makes far more sense.

The LRE laws exist for this reason. Rather than sequester students with traits in common to prevent them from being bullied by the rest of the students, it is more appropriate to teach all of the students how to get along with each other. Appropriate programming results in general education students looking out for their peers with special needs rather than picking on them and mocking them. It facilitates unity in the school community.

Because LRE is relative to each student, no parent should go into the IEP process demanding a placement because somebody else’s kid got it and they’re doing great there. Somebody else’s kid is not your kid. You don’t base IEP placement decisions for your child off of what somebody else needs or gets; you base it on your own child’s unique, individual learning needs as targeted by the IEP goals.

Most school districts will tell you that the “continuum of placement” for special education is whatever they already have. That’s only partly accurate. What the school district already has is part of the continuum of placement, but if the placement the student needs doesn’t already exist within the district, the placement has to be outsourced or created.

It’s appropriate for the school district to describe the types of placements it already has. These can include, but are not limited to: general education placement with push-in supports; pull-out to a special education class and/or therapies for part of the school day for targeted specialized support, with placement in general education for the rest of the school day; full-time placement in a special education class; and placement for all or part of the day in a non-public school.

But students are not limited to the types of placements already put in place within a school district. Sometimes, the closest appropriate school is so far away that the child and a family member live in a nearby apartment or other local housing arrangement during the week and go home on weekends, with their local school district funding the housing and travel expenses as related transportation services in the student’s IEP. There’s caselaw around this issue in favor of students (see, for example, Ojai vs. Jackson).

There is no master list of all the “types” of placements that can be offered to a special education student. Like every other part of an IEP, placement is supposed to be tailored to the student, only with the LRE requirements relative to what services it will take to meet the goals in mind. Sometimes, IEP teams have to get creative to meet highly unique individual student needs.

Other times, the types of supports a student needs are relatively common such that there are entire classrooms that provide those kinds of supports to all of their students. Resource Specialist Program (RSP) services are the most commonly delivered special education services. These are the least intensive forms of special education services provided.

Most students on IEPs have relatively mild learning disabilities that make RSP support a useful tool in helping them maintain grade-level performance. They are usually mostly in the general education setting with some special education supports and plenty of them go on to college and successful careers.

Many of these students glide through the K-12 system with an IEP that no one knows about but their families and teachers. Most of their peers have no idea and their closest friends realize it’s no big deal and don’t care.

Further, it is becoming less stigmatizing to be on an IEP than it used to be, so students are being more forthcoming with their peers about their special education statuses, just as matters of fact, without judgment entering the picture. If only the adults could follow their lead.

Anne M. Zachry, M.A. Ed. Psych. on Linkedin
Anne M. Zachry, M.A. Ed. Psych.
Anne M. Zachry, M.A. Ed. Psych.
Anne has been a special education and disability resource lay advocate since 1991, a paralegal to attorneys working in special education and disability rights law since 2005, and an educational psychologist, behavior analyst, and curriculum developer since 2013.

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