Why Placement Isn’t Where You Start: Understanding the IEP Process

I can’t count the number of parents who have approached me to accomplish a specific placement for their child. Usually it’s because the child of someone else the parent knows has been placed in a particular setting and is doing really well, so the parent presumes his/her child would also do well in that setting. As another example, a child may only be receiving 20 minutes of individual speech-language services a week, which the parents contend is reprehensibly paltry for their language-impaired child.



These parents come to KPS4Parents looking to change their children’s placements or increase the number of related service hours in a specific setting because they think the placements they already have are inadequate. But, most of the time they’re totally missing the point.


It’s not that something isn’t wrong. If nothing was wrong, their children would be making a reasonable degree of progress and they wouldn’t be coming to us for help. But, because they are lay people and they don’t understand the process, they target what is the most observable thing to be targeted – the placement – without understanding all of the more abstract underpinnings of what makes any placement appropriate or not.


This can lead to a lot of pointless arguments and disputes.  Some of these parents will go out and hire lawyers to press the issue only to be dismayed if they don’t prevail.  The problem is not always with the placement or services, per se. It’s very often with the present levels of performance data and the goals. Parents rarely understand just how critically important these foundational pieces are to their children’s success in any placement.


You will note that our last few postings have followed a progression. We started out talking about – child find  and then moved on to the initial assessment process, understanding assessment data, and eligibility.



Special education follows a very linear process. Actually, it’s pretty formulaic. Parents aren’t expected to automatically know this. But, I’ve attended countless IEP meetings where school site staff didn’t seem to know it, either.


The process begins with assessment. Assessment determines whether a disability is present and, if so, fleshes out enough details about what is going on so that the IEP team can determine the child’s present levels of performance. Present levels of performance statements indicate what a child can and cannot do. 


Once the present levels are known, measurable annual goals are written to target deficits in skills and knowledge. The intent is to describe what the desired outcomes of one year’s worth of special education will be.


Once the desired outcomes have been described, services are selected that are necessary to see the goals achieved.Placement is driven by what will see the goals achieved, taking into consideration the services that are necessary to meet them, in the least restrictive environment (“LRE”). LRE means that, to the maximum extent possible, based on the unique needs of the child, the child is to be educated with his/her non-disabled peers and preferably at the same school he/she would attend if he/she did not have a disability. 


The LRE requirement is a huge consideration and is relative to the unique needs of each child.  What is least restrictive for one child may not be least restrictive for another. The most important consideration is “What is the LRE in which a specific child’s goals can be met?

Because special education calls for an Individualized Education Plan (“IEP”), you can’t compare one child’s performance in a particular setting against the performance of another child.  The child’s performance has to be measured against the child’s capabilities and the unique challenges he/she faces. Just because two kids have autism, that doesn’t mean they will both benefit from the same program.


And, it isn’t just parents who can be guilty of putting the cart before the horse. I’ve gone into more IEP meetings than I can count where the education agency has already pre-determined the placement and then proceeds to propose pre-written goals that fit the placement rather than the child.


In fact, I had a meeting just like this earlier this school year (2008-09) and I want to share an out-take from the audio recording of the IEP meeting just to illustrate this point. To give you some context to the recording, the IEP team had just gone over the District’s assessment of the student and the conversation you hear in the recording is what immediately followed the presentation of the present levels of performance.


NOTE: There is no identifying information disclosed that could be used to compromise the child or family’s confidentiality and the family in question has given their consent for us to use this brief segment.? (Please forgive the hum of the air conditioner in the background.)


Those of you who know better, now having listened to this little snippet, are probably dying on the inside right now.  This child has a whole host of claims against his school district and we’re working with the District’s administration right now to achieve remedy to this child’s situation.


Those of you who are advocates for children already know, and parents should take heed, that there are times when it becomes apparent that sanity and logic have gone right out the window and the only thing you can do is sit back with the audio recorder running, ask probing questions, and just collect evidence. This was one of those situations, which is why I sound less than enthusiastic in the recording.


I much prefer to facilitate resolutions that lead to immediate benefit for students than collect evidence of school district personnel ricocheting off of each other like Keystone Cops.? School site staff, including this student’s teacher, didn’t even know what grade this student was in.


At any rate, my point is this: placement comes at the end of the line after everything else has been discussed. Everything else builds up to the placement decision. It’s the very last thing you decide.


Going into an IEP meeting with a specific placement pre-determined is sheer folly.  You’re operating on preconceived notions and you’re not letting the legally prescribed and entirely logical process occur. I’ve seen parents and school personnel alike go in so dead-set on what placement they think a child should have that they don’t listen to a word of the data about what the child’s needs actually are and what is reasonable to expect in terms of desired outcomes.


The other thing that trips up parents and leads to disputes over the wrong issues is a lack of understanding about various different service delivery models.  I’ve seen children with profound language impairments receive very little individual language services, not much more group services, but a whole lot of imbedded language programming in the classroom.


Here’s the thing with teaching skills to children, regardless of their cognitive level: children learn an awful lot by copying whoever they are around. If you put a bunch of kids with speech and language disorders in the same room all day long, they’re all going to start picking up each other’s speech impediments. Language-impaired children need to hear properly spoken language all day long and have their language intervention built into their regular day-to-day activities.  Real life is where the language is needed, not the artificial setting of the speech room.


Some parents seem convinced that if their child receives more individualized language services in the speech room, that’s automatically going to improve their child’s language. But, that’s often not the case.  In my experience, the benefit of individualized speech-language sessions is to pre-teach certain skills and rehearse them before attempting them in real-life, natural settings with other people. Group language instruction can be helpful to rehearse before trying to use skills in the classroom and on the playground, as well.


The issue here isn’t whether the language programming can be successfully imbedded into the day-to-day classroom routine, but rather whether it’s really being done and how the fidelity of that implementation model can be monitored and maintained. This takes us right back to the measureable annual goals.

In order for progress towards the goals to be measured, data has to be collected. We’ll talk more about goals and measurability in an upcoming posting, but I want to make the point here that so long as you have sufficient data collection taking place, you’re going to be able to track whether things are being done properly and whether or not they are working.


You also have to consider that programming embedded in the classroom is less restrictive than pulling the child out of the classroom for services.If the language services are embedded in the classroom, for example, the child can be simultaneously learning the curriculum and improving his/her language skills. If the child is pulled out, he/she loses instruction time in exchange for related service time.


The same scenario can be used for a variety of related services and types of specialized instruction.? Parents need to understand what is actually being offered and focus more on goal attainment, measurability, data collection, and the LRE than anything else.? Once the goals are written in an appropriate manner and in all areas of need, you will find that the amount of service hours needed to pull them off starts to add up.? And, this is where I think the light bulb finally comes on for parents.??


When parents come to me upset about inadequate service hours, I look at the goals. If, for example, the child only has one goal for mastering the /r/ and /l/ sounds, then fifteen minutes a week of speech-language services sounds about right. But if the same child also has huge deficits in grammar and syntax, as well as significant pragmatic (social) language deficits, when the parents are saying “My kid needs more speech-language services,” what they’re really saying is that their child needs help in more areas of speech-language than what his/her goals actually address. 


The next step is to add more speech-language goals in those areas where needs are not being addressed to the child’s IEP. Once those goals have been written, then we can ask the question “Is fifteen minutes of speech-language service per week enough time to see all of the speech-language goals met?|” and the answer is most likely going to be “no.” At that point, the number of speech-language hours can justifiably be increased.

I hope this helps make more sense of things for you. Please do comment to this and our other postings. We appreciate the number of visitors we’re getting to the blog and the emails we’re getting from people, but your comments will really help make this the collaborative tool we want it to become.

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