Our unforeseen path to special education

We’d heard it a few times from well-meaning people: that boys who had been slacking at school for years would wake up sometime during tenth grade and get their act together. We waited for that with Nathan. It didn’t happen. Instead, despite meds, tutoring, and some therapy, the spring semester of his sophomore year was more of the same: head on desk. Hit-or-(mostly)-miss homework. Failing grades.

At the time, I hadn’t known that (a) a student could enter special education this late in his school career and (b) a student of at least average intelligence could qualify for special education. They are both true, and what follows is how it played out for Nathan.

As described in a previous post, the school staff had come up with a 504 plan at the end of freshman year. As Nathan’s sophomore year went on, everyone involved could see that accommodations and modifications wouldn’t make much difference for a guy who was so disengaged. At a meeting with school staff in March, they suggested that Nathan be assessed to determine whether he qualified for special education.

The assessment was a lot more involved than teachers and parents sitting around the table saying, heck yeah, he qualifies. It was a multidisciplinary assessment, which has to be conducted according to the guidelines in the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). It took around two months for staff to complete the assessment and put the report together. So if you are looking into special education, most likely the decision will be made a few weeks or months after you first discuss it with school personnel.

Nathan’s multidisciplinary assessment included a review of his school records and being observed by the school psychologist during a class. Nathan also took a bunch of cognitive and academic tests, for which he was pulled out of class, a little bit at a time. I never knew whether to trust the results of these tests because Nathan was not motivated to do his best on them, just as he was unmotivated to do any schoolwork. In fact, the special education teacher who administered the tests to him had to call me one time. Nathan had run out of gas and was refusing to finish one of the tests. She put him on the phone, and somehow I said something that persuaded him to finish. The teacher later told us, “I’ve been doing this for 20 years, and NEVER had a student more resistant to taking the tests.” He ranked first in something – too bad it was in being noncompliant! (He never talked back to school personnel or acted out; he was not a behavior problem that way.)

Anyway, the tests Nathan took were: the Cognitive Assessment System; the Woodcock-Johnson III (for reading and math); the Oral Reading Fluency; and the Maze (not what you’re thinking, but a test to see if he could pick the best of 3 words to fit in a certain place in a sentence.)

My husband and I were also given some paperwork to complete. We filled out a Behavior Assessment System for Children (BASC), as did two of Nathan’s teachers and, in some categories, Nathan himself. We also filled out a Conners’ Parent Rating Scale.

The Multidisciplinary Assessment Report was given to us at a meeting in May. They showed that cognitively and academically, Nathan was in the average range except for a weakness in Planning. These results did not qualify him for special education.

However, the Social-Emotional-Behavioral Domain was a different story. The outcome of the BASC, Conners, observations, and history all indicated that Nathan had an emotional disturbance (known as ED – and this ED has nothing to do with, shall we say, the problems of couples). On the BASC, he ended up with “clinically significant” scores in several categories, with the highest (worst) score in “Withdrawal.”

There are guidelines in the Educational Code for determining whether a student has an emotional disturbance that qualifies him or her for special education. Nathan met 4 of the 5 elements of the ED code definition: inability to learn not otherwise explained, inability to maintain satisfactory interpersonal relationships, inappropriate types of behavior or feelings under normal circumstances, and a general pervasive mood of unhappiness or depression. (He missed out on #5: developing physical symptoms or fears associated with school or personal problems). A student only needs to meet one of the elements to qualify. Furthermore, the disturbance has to meet three criteria: it occurs for a long period of time, to a marked degree, and adversely affects educational performance. In Nathan’s case: check, check, and check.

Because Nathan’s needs couldn’t be met with modification of the regular instructional program (the 504 plan), our average-and-in-some-ways-brilliant son qualified for special education. And that made this meeting in May our first IEP meeting.

A student must have an Individualized Education Plan, or IEP, before he or she starts in special education program. I touched on IEPs in a previous post.  An IEP outlines the type of instruction the student will receive, identifies where the student has deficits, and sets measurable benchmarks to be achieved within a specified timeframe.  The plans are reviewed and adjusted as needed at least once a year.

(Many websites devoted to learning disabilities, special needs, etc.  do a fantastic job explaining what you need to know about IEPs. There are links to such sites in the posts referenced above, plus more links on the Resources page.)

In Nathan’s IEP, the document outlined the results of the assessment, then identified three benchmark goals for him. One example: Nathan “will increase classroom productivity with 70% accuracy in 4 of 4 trials.” The plan gave him a year to accomplish that goal.

The next page of the plan answered the big question: what kind of schooling would Nathan receive? A concept called Least Restrictive Environment, or LRE, comes into play here. LRE is also part of the IDEA, and means that the student should be placed as close to a normal school setting as his or her condition allows. A student could be in the same classes as before, but with aids of various sorts – this would be the least restrictive environment for a student in special education. More restrictive would be placement in a special classroom, or in a special school. The most restrictive setting would be in an institution.

The IEP team decided that Nathan might do best in a Special Day Class (SDC) with an ED emphasis. His current high school did not have such a classroom, but the high school 3 miles further away did. He would therefore go to a different school for his last two years of high school. Furthermore, his new special education teacher offered 2 classes in summer school. This would give Nathan the chance to ease into his new situation when the campus and classroom had fewer students, plus he could make up some of the credits he was missing.

A few weeks later I was able to meet the teacher (Mr. F) and see what the classroom was like. There were fewer than 15 students in the class. Unlike Nathan, most of the students in the class acted out their anger or annoyance: Mr. F told me he had to break up fistfights on a weekly, sometimes daily, basis. He also told me students in the class were in grades 9-12. Mr. F adjusted what he taught, the best he could, to match each student’s grade level and capabilities. A teacher’s aide was always around to help. The students hardly ever had homework (!) They were in this classroom for 5 of the 6 periods, but had to take one regular class (usually PE or an elective) each semester.

I didn’t come away feeling warm and fuzzy about the situation, but at least it held the promise of Nathan receiving more attention from staff who would be better attuned to his needs. And, no more homework! But, if this placement didn’t work out, we could go back to the IEP drawing board.

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About janet565

I've lived in the Inland Empire of Southern California since 1982. Born and raised in New Jersey, I've also lived in upstate New York and in Oregon. My profession involves maps and geography, which is usually very interesting. My hobbies are pretty boring - none of them involve tigers (or ligers) or jumping out of aircraft - so they do not bear mention here. I hope you find the blog useful, and wish you well....

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