Understanding Child Find & When SSTs are Not Appropriate

Update:

On January 4, 2013, a due process decision was issued in California that addresses “child find” and the use of SSTs, which you can read by clicking here. This case illustrates much of what is discussed below and provides good legal language that makes clear what “child find” is and what school districts’ obligations are to comply with the federal “child find” requirements.


Everyone involved in the special education process needs to fully comprehend what the federal “child find” requirements are, what that means for them and children who depend on them, and how they can best support a functioning “child find” system. In a nutshell, “child find” is the federal mandate requiring education agencies to actively seek out, identify, and serve all the children in their respective jurisdictions who are eligible for special education. The federal regulations can be found at Title 34, Code of Federal Regulations, Sections 300.111 and 300.131.

Legitimately, general education teachers are already over-burdened. They often have too many kids in their classes and not enough support from their administrations. But, that’s the nature of the job. I don’t like it and I’m more than happy to do what I can to improve the situation, but I certainly can’t fix the whole thing all by myself.

The problem I have with the “we already have to do so much” mentality that many teachers have is that they are compartmentalizing all of their various obligations to their students as though they are autonomous of each other and must be dealt with separately when many of them can actually be combined into one activity.

Children are incredibly complex organisms, their complexities markedly different from those of adults based on the fact that children are growing, where adults are aging. Neurologically, what’s going on in their brains is nothing short of breathtakingly incredible. To watch a child at play is enjoyable enough because children are beautiful, but appreciating the kinds of data that a child is taking in and wondering what he must be doing with it inside his head is both humbling and mesmerizing to me.

This is a mindset I think anyone going into a career as a K-12 educator needs to have. I think a great many people do have that mindset when they begin their careers, but over the years they get worn down and burned out by education agency internal politics, mindless bureaucracy, and parents complaining to them about negative outcomes resulting from or influenced by the agency’s internal politics and mindless bureaucracy.

Part of the petty politics that can come along with any organization is the decisions by top management to stay silent on a regulatory requirement so that the staff doesn’t incur the expenses that compliance would have otherwise entailed. In other words, they deliberately keep their people clueless to save money.

In my experience, this is what has largely happened with “child find” and general education teachers everywhere. They have never heard of “child find.” (Granted, in some places it goes by other names, such as “search and serve” or “seek and serve,” but even in those places where it’s called something else, it’s administration that calls it something else; the teachers still have no idea what it is, much less how to implement it. (The federal regulations actually use the language “child find” to refer to the process.)

If I were a classroom teacher and I realized that I was being deliberately kept ignorant of an obligation placed on me by federal law to the detriment of my students, I’d be pretty upset. I don’t know exactly what happens to people, but especially when they are just starting out in their careers and are still a little Pollyanna-ish about life but have absolutely no clout and are at the mercy of their employers’ whims as to whether they have a job or not, there has to be a fracturing of the soul at some point for some of those people when they realize that what they signed up for and what they wound up with are two very different things.

>For some people, that results in burn-out. Burned out people either stay and weigh the system down further with their defeated attitudes or they leave and go on to some other type of career. Other people manage to somehow rise above it and accomplish amazing things in spite of all the toxicity going on around them.

I realized a long time ago that I could best serve the situation by working outside of the system. I have all the respect in the world for the people who go to the front lines every day, make a positive impact on the lives of youngsters, and manage to come back at the end of the day still grounded and at peace.

Which is why this whole “child find” issue royally chaps my hide. Good teachers are being denied the tools and resources they need to educate their students. Apathetic teachers are being encouraged to remain apathetic. The public education system exists to educate children and yet educational services are being denied to children for fiscal reasons while administrative and legal costs soar out of control.

Many education agencies have subscribed to the “Student Study Team” model of addressing parent and teacher concerns about student performance, though there is nothing in the federal law that calls for Student Study Teams or SSTs. Most general education teachers from education agencies that utilize SSTs believe that only the SST can refer a child for special education assessment or that the proper response to a request by a parent for assessment of his or her child is to call an SST meeting.

The federal regulations governing the assessment process can be found at . You will note in neither the “child find” regulations cited above nor the assessment regulations cited here are there any references to SSTs.

SST meetings are not required by the special education assessment process called for by the IDEA. They are often just internal policies created by the education agency, not the law, though this varies from state to state.

SSTs can serve many legitimate purposes and I’m not bad-mouthing the SST concept per se. But, I do have a criticism of the practice of using SST meetings as a stall tactic or as an opportunity to try and talk a parent out of pursuing assessment. That sort of thing is only done in bad faith and has no place in our institutions of learning.

In California, it’s flat-out against the law. If a parent makes a written referral for assessment, the local education agency has 15 calendar days to get an assessment plan out to the parent. Period. Title 5, California Code of Regulations, Section 3021(a) requires local education agencies to honor all referrals for assessment, regardless of who they come from.

I went looking online to see how other states are doing things and stumbled across a very interesting publication put out by the Idaho Department of Education. Idaho Special Education Manual, 2007. I was fascinated by its description of its Problem-Solving Teams as part of its special education process. These are essentially SSTs being used as a pre-screening tool to make sure that special education referrals aren’t being made willy-nilly, but you can see from the description of the Problem-Solving Teams and their procedures how they could be used to delay the referral process when parents make referrals.

What I find troublesome about the way Idaho has worded things in this Manual (beginning on page 6), is that people might be erroneously led to believe that the Problem-Solving Team is the only way a special education referral can be made. That simply isn’t true under the federal regulations.

There was no language in the section devoted to referrals that described what to do in response to a parent referral. But, there is language that says parents can call a Problem-Solving Team meeting to discuss their concerns, which puts them through the paces of a potentially lengthy process before a referral for assessment is made (if it ever is) by the Team.

If I were a parent of a child with disabilities in Idaho, I would need a really compelling reason to go through the Problem-Solving Team process to achieve a referral if federal law permits me to simply write one up myself and bypass the Problem-Solving Team referral process altogether. My advice to parents in Idaho is to go ahead and make the referral and skip the whole Team thing if you’re already really sure that your child has a disability that impacts his/her education.

If you are a parent in Idaho, or anywhere else, making a referral for your child to be assessed for special education, just make sure you document when you made your referral so you can establish when exactly the Procedural Safeguards actually took effect. The date you put on the letter isn’t enough. You need proof of delivery.

If you’re a teacher, take it upon yourself to become familiar with “child find” and learn how you can best implement it in your classroom. Realize that children with hidden disabilities, like learning disabilities and emotional health problems, usually look “normal” and have average to above-average intelligence.

Just because they “look okay” doesn’t mean they aren’t eligible for special education. How are they functioning in the classroom? Are there certain things they just don’t get? Are their respective weaknesses so severe that it’s impacting their academic performance or how they interact with others in the school setting?

Try to put yourself in your student’s shoes. Where is the breakdown occurring and how do you think that makes your student feel? There are some helpful tips at LDOnline.org on how to recognize signs of a possible learning disability according to grade level.

The best thing any of us can do is continue to learn and grow so that we can equip ourselves with the knowledge and tools we need to make the special education process more effective and collaborative. When the “us-versus-them” mentality is gone and parents don’t have to maneuver around sordid education agency politics and manipulated policies to achieve appropriate services for their children, we’ll have made tremendous headway.

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