Tag Archives: least restrictive environment

Podcast: Placement & the Least Restrictive Environment

On January 1, 2009, we originally published “Placement & the Least Restrictive Environment”. Throughout this school year, KPS4Parents is recording many of our past text-only articles as podcasts so that busy parents, educators, and interested taxpayers can download them and listen to them at their convenience.

As always, feel free to comment on our content. We appreciate the input of our readers and listeners to bring you the information you seek. You can either comment below or email us at info@kps4parents.org.

Click here to download the podcast “Placement & the Least Restrictive Environment.”

Placement & the Least Restrictive Environment

We’ve mentioned placement and Least Restrictive Environment (“LRE”), in previous postings. Today’s posting focuses specifically on these aspects of special education.

 

As discussed previously, placement is the last decision made by an Individualized Education Plan (“IEP”) team and is that setting in which a student’s measurable annual goals can be met using the services determined necessary by the IEP team and which is the least restrictive when compared to all other possible educational settings in which the goals could be met using the services determined necessary. In other words, once you’ve figured out goals and services, the IEP team has to examine all of the possible settings in which the services could be provided and the goals met, then pick the one that is the least restrictive.

 
“Least restrictive” is a relative term specific to the individual child. What may be least restrictive for one child may not be least restrictive for another. The language found at 34 CFR ? 300.114 states that:  “To the maximum extent appropriate, children with disabilities … are educated with children who are nondisabled;”  and “Special classes, separate schooling, or other removal of children with disabilities from the regular educational environment occurs only if the nature or severity of the disability is such that education in regular classes with the use of supplementary aids and services cannot be achieved satisfactorily.”

What this means in plain English to parents is that if your child’s needs can be met in the regular education setting with push-in supports, the regular education setting is the LRE. The public schools cannot segregate special education students from the regular education setting purely on the basis that these students have disabilities. The needs created by their respective disabilities have to be so severe in nature or so unique to serve, that the necessary services cannot feasibly be pushed into the regular education setting and met with success.

So, how do you know when it’s time to consider pull-out options or alternative placements to the regular education setting? It all depends on the child.

Let’s say, for instance, that you have a teenage daughter with significant social anxiety. She’s become a recluse and refuses to go to school at all and refuses to go places with the family except at night with a hoodie pulled over her head. Her IEP includes a behavioral goal targeting attendance, since this is an area of measurable need that requires specific attention in her IEP.

Clearly, regardless of how academically capable she might be, you’re not going to successfully place her on a comprehensive high school campus in a whole bunch of different classes throughout the day and passing in the halls between classes, much less lunch and PE.  A very small class with pushed-in mental health services on a continuation school campus may be more appropriate.

 

 

As another example, let’s say you have an 11-year-old son with delayed cognition, impaired attention, and mild autistic like behaviors, most of which involves perseverative thought, ritualistic behaviors, and inappropriate dialoging skills. While it would be possible to push an appropriate curricular program into the regular education setting, the reality is that the inattention could easily make the regular education setting highly distractible to this young man and his behaviors could require constant adult redirection. It could quickly become an exercise in frustration for everyone involved and derail not only this young man’s receipt of an education, but also that of his classmates. But, if you don’t know for sure that this is what will happen, you should at least try it. Then, at least, if things don’t work out, you know you that your decision to move the child to a more restrictive setting is informed and everyone knows that a less restrictive setting proved unsuccessful.  You should never presume the worst automatically when considering placement options.

 

A young man like this might actually benefit from spending at least part of his day in either a Resource Specialist Program (“RSP”) or a Special Day Class (“SDC”) setting. Perhaps, his day would end up being divided among the regular education, RSP, and SDC settings. That’s the thing about placement: you can mix and match components to come up with the most appropriate combination for each individual child. But, this requires flexibility on the part of the public education system and special education placements designed with this mix-and-match type of planning in mind.

 

It has been my unfortunate experience in many situations that placements have been offered by public education agencies based on what they already have in place rather than that necessarily serves as the LRE for a particular student. In fact, almost one year ago, we launched web site devoted to this very issue regarding the schools located in San Luis Obispo County, CA, http://www.slocoesdc.info.

 

This web site was inspired by the cases of children coming from tiny rural K-8 districts in SLO County that only offered placement up to RSP. Students of these tiny districts who needed more intensive placements than RSP usually had only one other choice: a Severely Handicapped SDC operated by the San Luis Obispo County Office of Education (“SLOCOE”). Of course, this wasn’t appropriate if the students weren’t severely handicapped.

 

There were no in-between placements being offered or created to meet the needs of students who needed more than RSP but not so restrictive a level of intervention as a Severely Handicapped SDC. While neighboring districts offered Learning Handicapped SDCs, SLOCOE did not and neither did these children’s home K-8 districts. Some of these children would have been most appropriately placed in a Learning Handicapped SDC but were not placed in these classrooms due to inter-agency politics, even when these Learning Handicapped SDCs were operated on the same campuses as the Severely Handicapped SDCs to which they were being bused every day.

 

When http://www.slocoesdc.info failed to facilitate productive discussions between local schools and parents to address this serious placement issue, KPS4Parents filed a compliance complaint with the California Department of Education (“CDE”) against San Luis Obispo County Special Education Local Plan Area (“SLOSELPA”) alleging that the full continuum of placements was not being made to all the children served by public education agencies within SLOSELPA’s jurisdiction, as is required by State law. The matter remains pending at this time and, according to our last conversations with CDE, its Focused?Monitoring and Technical Assistance?(“FMTA”)?Unit is working with SLOSELPA to address this concern.

 

The point, here, is that placement and the LRE requirements are complex issues that involve constantly changing needs that public education agencies have to address from one school year to the next. Creating cookie-cutter solutions isn’t the answer. There are people working in public education who actually think that placement is (or should be) driven by the IQ score of the student. There remains entrenched in some public education agencies the mentality that actually educating children with special needs is an unachievable goal and an utter waste of time and resources and, as such, warehousing such children and minimizing their expense to the public agency is the most prudent form of administrative stewardship that can be exercised.

 

There are sometimes teachers and other school site staff who just don’t want to have to work as hard as the situation actually requires. So long as they go through the motions and enough kids leave their classrooms knowing at least something more than they knew when they first arrived, these “educators” believe they have earned their paychecks and no one can expect any more of them than that. 

 

I once had a student we represented enrolled in a mainstream computer class where she was receiving a “C” as her grade. She was, however, bombing out all of her other mainstream classes. Thinking that maybe the computer teacher had found some way to get through to her somewhat, we invited him to this young lady’s IEP meeting so he could share his insights with the rest of us. Unfortunately, once he got to the meeting, he admitted that he gave “Cs” to all of the special education students who enrolled in his class because they at least showed up and he didn’t know what else to do with them. The young lady’s special education case carrier, who was also her RSP teacher, was horrified. 

 

There wasn’t much need for me to stick around after that. The school site special education team jumped all over the situation, reassessed this young lady to figure out what was going on, and developed a much more appropriate IEP after that.

 

Reassessment is often a perfectly appropriate way to respond to a failed placement. If a special education program fails, it’s because there was a variable that either wasn’t known or was ignored as was, therefore, left unaddressed. In many instances, the variable simply was not identified, making reassessment or additional assessment necessary.

 

Everything in special education is dependent upon thorough, accurate assessment data. It’s the foundation upon which present levels are identified, goals are written, services are selected, and placement is chosen.? Assessment conducted in an effort to ascertain why a child is not responding to intervention should include observations and analyses of the settings in which the child is succeeding and not succeeding. That way, when the IEP team sits down to revise the IEP, it has data about all kinds of things that will help in determining what placement is the LRE.

How Special Education Services are Supposed to be Selected

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.

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.