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Tuesday, May 31, 2016

6 Options for Resolving an IEP Dispute

From Understood

By Andrew M.I. Lee
May 25, 2016

At a Glance
  • It’s common for disputes to happen between parents and a school about a child’s services or placement.

  • The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act gives you several ways to resolve the dispute.

  • The options for dispute resolution range from informal negotiations to a formal due process hearing, which is like a courtroom trial.

No matter how good your relationship with a school, there may come a time when you and the school disagree over what’s best for your child. Conflicts can arise over the amount or quality of services the school is providing in your child’s Individualized Education Program (IEP).

And sometimes, it may be about your child’s placement.

The good news is that the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) gives you several ways to resolve disputes. Here are six options for resolving an IEP dispute.

1.) Informal Negotiation: Talking With the School During IEP Meetings

You’re part of the IEP team. In fact, you can call an IEP team meeting at any time. This brings together you, your child’s general and special education teachers and the school to discuss your child’s education.

Just calling this meeting is powerful way to jump-start a solution. Perhaps your child’s IEP requires an hour of speech therapy a week. But you find out that the school has skipped several weeks of therapy. You can call an IEP team meeting immediately to discuss how to fix this problem.

2.) Mediation: A Voluntary Process With Third-Party Help

If the IEP process isn’t working, you can ask for mediation. This is a free, confidential and voluntary process where you sit down with the school and a neutral third party, called a mediator, to work out a solution.

The mediator doesn’t take sides or tell you what to do. Instead, the mediator tries to help you reach a solution with the school that works for everyone. You can ask for mediation at any time. The decisions are legally binding.

3.) Due Process Hearing: Starts With Formal Complaint, Ends With Decision

Due process is a formal way of resolving disputes under IDEA. You start this process by filing a due process complaint. This is a written document that spells out your dispute with the school. The complaint must state a violation of IDEA. It might be in reference to your child’s eligibility for special education services, or it could be in reference to the types and quality of services received.

Learn about the details of due process, including your rights. You can also take a look at a sample due process complaint letter. Find out what happens at a due process hearing. Due process is a serious and involved legal process.

It’s a good idea to speak with a special education lawyer before you file a complaint.

4.) Civil Lawsuit: Going to Court After Due Process

If you don’t win the due process hearing, you have the option of filing a lawsuit in state or federal court within 90 days. (The school can also file a lawsuit.) This is one the most extreme legal options and requires a lawyer. You can only file a civil lawsuit after you’ve gone through due process.

5.) State Complaint: Asking the State to Step In
In addition to the options above, you can also file a state complaint about a school’s violation of IDEA within one year. This is basically a letter to the state department of education asking for an investigation.

Organizations and groups of parents can file state complaints. For instance, you can get together with other parents and file a state complaint if you see a school issue that affects more than just your child.

Once a complaint is filed, the state may investigate and decide if the school violated IDEA. States have their own rules on how these complaints are handled.

6.) Office for Civil Rights (OCR) Complaint: Going to the Feds

Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act protects students with IEPs from discrimination. Section 504 gives you even more options. The most important is a complaint to the Office for Civil Rights (OCR) of the U.S. Department of Education.

An OCR complaint has to be filed within 180 days of the school’s violation. Just like with a state complaint, an OCR complaint may lead to an investigation of the school. Visit OCR’s website to learn more.

Knowing your options for dispute resolution is important to effectively advocate for your child. You may want to get tips on informal IEP negotiation. And take a look at a graphic that outlines your options.

Key Takeaways

  • Due process starts with a formal complaint and results in a decision from an impartial hearing officer on a dispute with the school.

  • You also can file a complaint with state or federal education authorities for violations of IDEA in your school.

  • Sometimes you can get your concerns addressed just through informal negotiations at IEP meetings.


Andrew M.I. Lee, J.D. is an editor and former attorney who strives to help people understand complex legal, education and parenting issues. More by this author

Physical Restraint Common at (Georgia's) Psychoeducational Schools

From The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

By Alan Judd
May 8, 2016

With a tiny sliver of students, special behavioral programs record five times more restraints than all other Georgia schools combined. 

Chaos erupted one day last October at a special school for behaviorally disabled children.

A student at the Harrell Learning Center in Waycross threatened a teacher and tried to push through others to get at her. The boy repeatedly struck one staff member in the head and neck “at full force,” the school reported. “The student also was attempting to scratch the staff member’s eyeballs out.”

Under attack, staff members reacted by grabbing the boy and holding him against his will. They let him go only when he stopped resisting. By then, paramedics had arrived.

Scenarios much like this have played out nearly 10,000 times since 2014 in Georgia’s psychoeducational programs, the schools of last resort for children with severe behavioral and emotional disorders, an investigation by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution found.

Last year alone, the 24 psychoeducational programs, with 3,400 students, recorded almost five times more restraints than all 2,300 of Georgia’s other public schools combined.

State education regulations permit physical restraints only when a student’s behavior causes “immediate danger.” Teachers and other school employees must discern, in an often-heated moment, whether an outburst truly imperils the student or others.

That decision can have profound consequences. Trying to restrain a child may escalate the conflict. Excessive force could result in abuse charges against school personnel. Not acting could cause a student to spiral out of control. And experts say any physical restraint presents the opportunity for harm.

“Any time you put hands on a kid, there is some level of increased risk of someone being hurt,” said Dan Crimmins, director of the Center for Leadership in Disability at Georgia State University.

Yet the Georgia Department of Education does not routinely review restraints. In fact, it gathers no data on the practice from the psychoeducational programs, even though abuses there inspired adoption of the restraint regulations.

This absence of oversight underscores the leeway that officials grant to the psychoeducational programs, formally known as the Georgia Network for Educational and Therapeutic Support, or GNETS. No other state operates a separate school system for students with disabilities.

Georgia does not compile test scores or graduation rates or other school-performance measures for GNETS programs. It does not track racial disparities in GNETS enrollment. It does not collate the programs’ reports of student injuries or arrests or other data, as it does to determine whether regular schools operate safely.

Such information would seem relevant, considering that a majority of students in GNETS programs have emotional or behavioral disorders and many are autistic. Often, unwanted contact from another person can trigger outbursts.

“We’re talking about really vulnerable kids,” said Leslie Lipson, a lawyer with the Georgia Advocacy Office, which represents disabled people in institutions. “The more vulnerable the kids are, the less information is collected.”

“It’s not just that they’re not counting,” Lipson said, “they’re not analyzing.”

Using open-records laws, the Journal-Constitution collected summaries of restraint episodes from 23 of the 24 GNETS programs. (One said it could not provide the data in a format similar to the others.) The newspaper also examined court cases and other documents concerning restraints as part of a broad review of the GNETS programs.

Georgia places a disproportionate number of African-American children in the GNETS programs, the review found. After a separate investigation, federal authorities last year accused the state of violating the rights of students with disabilities by relegating them to schools with no children who aren’t disabled. Together, the two examinations depict widespread segregation in the GNETS programs, both by disability and by race.

State education officials defend their oversight of the programs, which are considered among the most-restrictive alternatives for Georgia’s special-education students.

GNETS programs award no diplomas, so there is no graduation rate to calculate, officials say. All data on individual students — test scores, absentee rates, safety information, and more — applies to the schools they previously attended, not to their GNETS programs. Consequently, the programs don’t appear at all in the state’s school-accountability reports.

School districts have the responsibility to track the progress of students they place there, said Debbie Gay, the state’s special-education director. And because state officials don’t consider placing a student in GNETS to be punitive, Gay said, there is no need to supervise how school districts choose students for the programs.

She used an often-repeated description of the psychoeducational network:

“GNETS is a program,” she said, “it’s not a place.”

The Journal-Constitution found in a recent investigation that, in practice,
the GNETS programs segregate students not only by disability but also by race.
But in school-accountability reports, state officials don’t even acknowledge
that GNETS exists.
Photo: Hyosub Shin / AJC


It is, however, where Jonathan King died.

The 13-year-old from Hall County attended the Alpine GNETS program in Gainesville, which served students from 14 school districts in northeast Georgia. (Alpine is now known as Futures and is based in Cleveland, Georgia.)

Jonathan’s teachers said they sent him to “time out” 19 times over 29 days in the fall of 2004.

Actually, they locked him behind a metal door in an 8x8 concrete-block room that most resembled a police station’s holding cell. It had no windows or furniture, no bathroom or running water.

On November 15, 2004, a staff member gave Jonathan a multicolored rope to hold up his drooping pants. Shortly after that, a teacher sent him, yet again, to seclusion.

Even though Jonathan had threatened suicide twice, no one took away the rope when he entered the seclusion room. He used it to hang himself.

The state Board of Education alluded to Jonathan’s suicide when it approved the restraint regulations – nearly six years after he died.

The regulations — which apply to all schools, not just psychoeducational programs — permit physical restraints only after other behavior-management strategies fail and only in emergencies. Students may not be held in a prone position or in any other way that might restrict breathing. Restraints must end as soon as a student stops resisting.

All mechanical restraints, such as handcuffs or chairs with locking seatbelts, are banned, as are chemical restraints, such as sedatives or other medications.

The regulations also prohibit seclusion if it “isolates and confines” a student in a place the student is “physically prevented from leaving.” Rooms like the one the Alpine Program called its time-out area are no longer allowed.

For the most part, the regulations are carried out through an honor system. The state education board could withhold funding from schools that violate the regulations, but it set up no way to monitor compliance. The Education Department tells schools to complete a report on each restraint and to produce monthly summaries, but it collects none of those documents; instead, they stay in the school districts where they originated.

Decisions on how to use information from the reports are “relegated to the local school boards,” said Gay, the special-education director.

Matt Cardoza, the Education Department’s communications director, said officials follow up on complaints about restraint of special-education students that are filed through a formal dispute-resolution process. He said the agency also trains GNETS staff members in proper restraint techniques. The training supplements instruction that some GNETS programs give their staffs in behavior-intervention strategies.

Although Georgia is the only state with a psychoeducational network, it is one of 18 that permit physical restraint only to contain immediate threats. Along with Hawaii, it is one of only two that ban seclusion for all students.

Most other states don’t regulate the practices at all. Neither does the federal government. Congress has examined restraint and seclusion, and a Senate committee issued a report in 2014 saying both techniques may cause physical or psychological harm. The committee recommended doing away with the practices altogether.

Two years later, Congress has taken no action.

Jonathan King committed suicide at
age 13 in 2004 after being sent to a
GNETS program's seclusion room.
Photo: Special to AJC
'Zen' and 'Opportunity'

Even with the regulations in place, it is not clear that physical restraints have become less common – or that prohibited practices have ceased.

Eight of the 24 programs restrained students at least 20 times a month in the past two years, according to data collected by the Journal-Constitution. Five programs documented at least 40 restraints a month.

Elam Alexander Academy in Macon, the largest GNETS program with an enrollment last fall of 371, averaged 80 restraints a month, its reports show. That amounts to about 21 restraints for every 100 students each month.

The smallest GNETS program — Woodall, based in Columbus — restrained students at a much higher rate.

Woodall’s enrollment, as of last October, was just 27. But over the past two years, it has restrained students an average of almost 23 times a month —the equivalent each month of 84 restraints per 100 students.

Some GNETS programs say they restrain students no more than a few times each month. One, the Flint Area Learning Program in southwest Georgia, says it hasn’t used restraint even once during the past two years.

But the restraint reports don’t necessarily give a complete picture.

At the Sand Hills program in Augusta, for example, sheriff’s deputies help maintain order. They respond to classrooms when a middle- or high-school student needs to be restrained, or to any classroom when a student is out of control for 10 minutes or more, according to a document Sand Hills filed with the Education Department.

State regulations do not require schools to report student restraints by police officers.

The programs often say they used restraints to stop “physical aggression.” Few reports reviewed by the Journal-Constitution, however, addressed the events that led to the aggression.

For instance, the NorthStar GNETS program, based in Jasper, reported only that it restrained students who tried to “avoid task” or “obtain attention.”

Many restraints clearly occur amidst violent episodes. But in some cases, applying restraint may have incited or intensified the violence.

In January, 2015, two students got into a fight at Harrell Learning Center. When a staff member intervened, one of the students “became extremely aggressive with staff and continued to go toward the other student and did not show any signs of de-escalation,” a report said. The same student, the report added, made “significant verbal threats.”

The fight became “so intense that there was a lot of blood involved,” the report said, “and staff was also attempting to get the student in control in order to get him medical attention due to the amount of blood he had coming from his nose.”

No GNETS programs acknowledged using seclusion or other banned techniques to punish or control students during the past two years. But court cases and interviews with lawyers who represent disabled people suggest that some programs have simply rebranded their seclusion rooms to sound less menacing.

“Zen rooms,” “be-quiet rooms,” “calm-down rooms” and “opportunity rooms” now keep students isolated, although not necessarily behind a locked door. GNETS programs may station staff members at the entrance to an isolation area to keep students from returning to their classrooms, said Chris Vance, an Atlanta lawyer.

“They hire big people to restrain little kids,” she said. “They call these things therapeutic placements. There’s nothing therapeutic about them.”

A locked metal door guarded the seclusion room
at the Alpine GNETS program in Gainesville
where Jonathan King hanged himself in 2004.
Photo: Gainesville Police Dept. / Special to AJC
Vance pointed to a case last year in which she represented the family of a10-year-old who had been repeatedly strapped into a chair in a Houston County classroom.

The boy, identified in court as “C.C.,” is autistic and has a speech impairment and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. When he tried to leave his classroom or caused other disturbances, teachers sometimes placed him in a “calming area,” according to court records. Other times, they used a seatbelt to restrain him in a chair from which he could not escape.

A state administrative law judge, Kristin L. Miller, ruled that the school district violated the state’s restraint regulations. She scoffed at the district’s claim that teachers placed the boy in the chair for his own protection.

“Rather,” Miller wrote in an order last December, “its purpose was simply to secure C.C. in his seat as a convenience for his teachers.”

Part One of a Three-Part Series

Monday, May 30, 2016

Leaving Special Ed Behind

From Smart Kids with LD

By Ellen H. Parlapiano
May 10, 2016

"It’s all about trusting your child’s abilities, and allowing him to take steps toward independence, while putting protections in place in case he stumbles."

At a Glance
  • As your child becomes adept at managing his learning differences he may reach a point where he no longer needs Special Education support.
  • Transitioning out of the system is a process that should be done gradually while establishing a safety net to ensure success.

It was one of the proudest yet most nerve-wracking moments of my life when my eighth-grader was declassified from Special Education. Though I knew my son was ready, it was still hard to leave behind the occupational therapy and resource-room help that had been his lifeline. But by using self-advocacy skills and retaining important accommodations, Matt was able to soar without Special Ed, leading him to believe that being declassified was one of his greatest achievements.

Knowing When the Time is Right

We spend so much effort securing services for our children with LD or ADHD that it’s sometimes difficult to know when they’ve reached a point where they can do without that support. Often, as in my son’s case, the school will suggest terminating services if triennial testing shows significant improvement.

But sometimes, the child will lobby to exit the system. This is common in middle school, when kids become acutely self-conscious, and don’t want to do anything that sets them apart from their peers.

If you believe your child is ready to handle school without Special Education support, the key to successful declassification is to step back slowly. Don’t pull services away abruptly, but do allow your child some autonomy if he or she is ready.

Here are six points to keep in mind when deciding:

1.) Look to the Past. Don’t focus only on the current year’s performance or test scores. Make sure there is a pattern of consistent improvement over the past several years.

2.) Envision the Future. Do you and your child’s team agree that he can handle increasing academic demands as he progresses through higher grade levels? While there’s no way to know for sure, can you envision him stepping up to more rigor on his own, or will he need support to keep up? And, if so, what kind?

3.) Set Up Safety Nets. When the time comes, request an IEP meeting to discuss the process of transitioning, while still providing accommodations and monitoring. Your child may no longer be eligible for occupational therapy, but other accommodations and modifications may always be necessary.

When Matt was declassified, we kept testing accommodations and the use of a computer and calculator on his transitional IEP throughout high school. Before doing away with resource-room services, we cut back to every other day in ninth grade.

When your child exits special education, it is essential to put in place a 504 plan. Although it does not call for services, a 504 plan will protect your child’s access to needed accommodations in school, on standardized tests such as the ACT or SAT, and in college.

4.) Listen to Your Child. Kids know when it’s time for a change. A friend’s child had been receiving daily resource-room help since second grade. By seventh grade, he wanted out. “He had high-achieving friends, and felt stupid in the resource room,” said his mother. “He became so unhappy there, his self-esteem plummeted.”

She hired tutors at home, and worked with the school to phase out the resource room by eighth grade. As a safeguard, she kept him classified until midway through ninth grade.

When another child we know developed a tic after years of being on Ritalin, doctors wanted to switch him to Adderall and anti-depressants. “Jeffrey cried and said, ‘I can’t do this any more,’” recalled his mother.

He begged to try eighth grade without medication and his parents agreed, as long as his grades weren’t affected. He did so well, he made the National Honor Society and eventually graduated with the highest grade-point average in his class.

5.) Work with the Teachers. Communication with the school is especially important when your child is transitioning out of the system. At the beginning of each school year, consider scheduling meetings with all his teachers to explain his learning style and particular challenges. Even better if he’s able to join that conversation. Encourage your child also to act proactively in other ways, including setting up regular teacher meetings in the classes that are likely to present the greatest challenges, going in early or staying after for extra help, etc.

6.) Foster Self-Advocacy Skills. Children must understand their strengths and weaknesses, and be able to speak up for themselves. When a friend’s son was put in a low-level math course because of weak standardized test scores, he insisted on taking an algebra readiness test. He scored high enough to get in the more advanced class. He ended up finishing high school with honors calculus and AP physics on his transcript.

It’s all about trusting your child’s abilities, and allowing him to take steps toward independence, while putting protections in place in case he stumbles.

The author is a journalist and author who writes frequently about learning disabilities.

Related Smart Kids Topics

Why Young Kids Learn Through Movement

From The Atlantic

By Lara N. Dotson-Renta
May 19, 2016

"...  it is necessary to recognize that the classroom has been significantly altered by increasingly rigorous academic standards in ways that rarely align with how young children learn." 

One of my children is spinning in a circle, creating a narrative about a princess as she twirls. The other is building a rocket ship out of a discarded box, attaching propellers made of cardboard and jumping in and out of her makeshift launcher. It is a snow day, and I’ve decided to let them design their own activities as I clean up and prepare a meal.

My toddler becomes the spinning princess, imagining her character’s feelings and reactions. What seems like a simple story involves sequencing, character development, and empathy for the brave princess stuck in her tower. The rocket ship my first grader is working on needs a pilot and someone to devise the dimensions and scale of its frame; it also needs a story to go with it. She switches between roles and perspectives, between modes of thinking and tinkering.

This kind of experiential learning, in which children acquire knowledge by doing and via reflection on their experiences, is full of movement, imagination, and self-directed play. Yet such learning is increasingly rare in early-childhood classrooms in the U.S, where many young children spend their days sitting at tables and completing worksheets.

Kindergarten and preschool in the U.S. have become more and more academic, rigorously structuring kids’ time, emphasizing assessment, drawing a firm line between “work” and “play”—and restricting kids’ physical movement.

A study from the University of Virginia released earlier this year found that, compared to 1998, children today are spending far less time on self-directed learning—moving freely and doing activities that they themselves chose—and measurably more time in a passive learning environment.

With so few years under their belts, my 3- and 6-year-old daughters are still learning to inhabit their bodies. They are learning how to maneuver themselves physically, how to orient themselves in space. As Vanessa Durand, a pediatrician at St. Christopher’s Hospital for Children in Philadelphia, says, freedom of movement is necessary for children to meet their developmental milestones:

“Children learn by experiencing their world using all of their senses. The restriction of movement, especially at a young age, impedes the experiential learning process.”

Movement allows children to connect concepts to action and to learn through trial and error. “If you walk into a good kindergarten class, everyone is moving. The teacher is moving. There are structured activities, but generally it is about purposeful movement,”comments Nancy Carlsson-Paige, a professor emerita of early-childhood education at Lesley University and the author of Taking Back Childhood, describing the ideal classroom setup.

In the classroom culture she advocates for,

“[Kids] are getting materials for an activity, they are going back and deciding what else they need for what they want to create, seeing how the shape of a block in relation to another block works, whether they need more, does it balance, does it need to be higher, is it symmetrical. All of these math concepts are unfolding while kids are actively building and moving.”

Research has shown time and again that children need opportunities to move in class. Memory and movement are linked, and the body is a tool of learning, not a roadblock to or a detour away from it.

Any parent who has brought home a kindergartener after school, bursting with untapped energy yet often carrying homework to complete after a seven-hour day, can reasonably deduce why children today have trouble keeping still in their seats. Many children are getting 20-minute breaks, or none at all. (In Florida, parents whose children have no recess have been campaigning to legislate recess into the curriculum.)

Recess, now a more frequent topic of research studies, has been found to have “important educational and developmental implications.” Schools that have sought to integrate more movement and free play, such as short 15-minute recess periods throughout the day, have seen gains in student attention span and instructional time. As Carlsson-Paige points out, “Recess is not a separate thing in early-childhood education.”

Ben Mardell, a professor of early-childhood education at Lesley University and the project director of the Pedagogy of Play initiative at Harvard’s Project Zero, observes that even when adults do incorporate play into learning, they often do so in a way that restricts free movement and agency.

“The idea that there should be formal instruction makes it no longer play,” says Mardell. “In play the player is choosing to participate, choosing a goal, and directing and formulating the rules. When there is an adult telling the kids, ‘This is what we are supposed to do,’ many of the important developmental benefits of play get lost.”

The role of play has been established not just as a part of learning, but as a foundation for healthy social and emotional function. The National Association for the Education of Young Children has published widely circulated position papers on the need for developmentally appropriate teaching practices and for reversing the “unacceptable trends in kindergarten entry and placement” that have been prompted largely by policy makers’ demand for more stringent educational standards and more testing.

Some teachers are enacting changes, seeking ways to bring movement back into the classroom. Lani Rosen-Gallagher, a former first-grade teacher for New York City public schools and now a children’s yoga instructor, explains the shift in thinking: “I would have [my students] get out of their seats every 15 minutes and take a Warrior Pose or Lion’s Breath, and then I could get 15 more minutes of work out of them.”

This kind of movement, she said, also gives children space to develop self-awareness and self-regulation, to get to know themselves as thinking individuals by connecting with the body.

Play-based preschools and progressive schools (often with open room plans, mixed-age groups, and an emphasis on creativity and independence) are seeing increased popularity. Enrichment programs engaging children in movement with intention (yoga, meditation, martial arts) are also gaining traction.

These kinds of methods seek to give children back some of the agency their young minds and bodies crave, as less play and mobility lead to an uptick in anxiety in ever-younger students and even, according to Durand, a growing number of cases of children who need to see occupational therapists.

Mindfulness practices such as guided breath and yoga can help mitigate the core symptoms of ADHD in children, (an increasingly common diagnosis), while the arts encourage self-expression and motor-skill development.

Emily Cross, a professor in the School of Psychology at the United Kingdom’s Bangor University, explains the impact of movement on memory and learning: New neuroscience research, she said in an email, shows that active learning—“where the learner is doing, moving, acting, and interacting”—can change the way the brain works and can accelerate kids’ learning process. While passive learning may be easier to administer, she added, it doesn’t favor brain activity.

Cross, whose research focuses on pre-teens and young adults, said she’s found “very clear evidence that when learners are actively engaged with moving their own bodies to music, in time with avatars on the screen, their performance is vastly superior to when they’re asked to engage in passive learning … [There are] striking changes in brain activity when we combine dance and music in the learning context.”

In other words, people absorb a newly acquired skill-set better while doing, engaging their bodies rather than simply observing.

These research findings echo the observations and methodologies of educators who promote active learning. As Sara Gannon, the director and teacher at Bethesda Nursery School, a highly regarded play-based preschool in New Haven, Connecticut, that favors experiential learning over direct instruction, in an email notes:

“Unfortunately, there has been so much focus on forcing the academics, and young children are being asked to do what they are just not ready to do ... Of course, we do teach letters and sounds, numbers and quantities—but through experiences and within a context. That means, hands-on: counting the number of acorns a child found on the playground, building with unit blocks, sounding out a child's name as they learn to write it, looking at traffic signs on a walk.”

Yet while such developmentally oriented programs may benefit children, for now they’re unlikely to become widespread given the current focus on assessment and school readiness, particularly in underserved communities.

As my girls continued creating their own activity stations and imaginary worlds, the contrast between how children operate versus what is often expected of them was apparent. It would be unwise and impractical to pretend that children do not need any structure, or that academic skills are unimportant in school.

Yet it is necessary to recognize that the early-childhood classroom has been significantly altered by increasingly rigorous academic standards in ways that rarely align with how young children learn.

"The Condition of Education: 2016"

From Jim Gerl's Special Education Law Blog

By Jim Gerl, Esq.
May 27, 2016

The National Center for Education Statistics of the Institute for Education Sciences has just released The Condition of Education: 2016. The 347-page report contains a wealth of data about public education in the United States.

Read the entire report here. A summary of the highlights is available here.

Here are some excerpts:
  • From school years 1990–91 through 2004–05, the number of children and youth ages 3–21 who received special education services increased from 4.7 million, or 11 percent of total public school enrollment, to 6.7 million, or 14 percent of total public school enrollment.
  • Both the number and percentage of students served under IDEA declined from 2004–05 through 2011–12. There was evidence that the number and percentage of students served leveled off in 2012–13 and 2013–14. By 2013–14, the number of students served under IDEA was 6.5 million, or 13 percent of total public school enrollment.
  • In school year 2013–14, a higher percentage of children and youth ages 3–21 received special education services under IDEA for specific learning disabilities than for any other type of disability. A specific learning disability is a disorder in one or more of the basic psychological processes involved in understanding or using language, spoken or written, that may manifest itself in an imperfect ability to listen, think, speak, read, write, spell, or do mathematical calculations.
  • In 2013–14, some 35 percent of all students receiving special education services had specific learning disabilities, 21 percent had speech or language impairments, and 13 percent had other health impairments (including having limited strength, vitality, or alertness due to chronic or acute health problem such as a heart condition, tuberculosis, rheumatic fever, nephritis, asthma, sickle cell anemia, hemophilia, epilepsy, lead poisoning, leukemia, or diabetes).
  • Students with autism, intellectual disabilities, developmental delays, or emotional disturbances each accounted for between 5 and 8 percent of students served under IDEA
  • Students with multiple disabilities, hearing impairments, orthopedic impairments, visual impairments, traumatic brain injuries, or deaf-blindness each accounted for 2 percent or less of those served under IDEA.
  • In school year 2013–14, children and youth ages 3–21 served under IDEA as a percentage of total enrollment in public schools differed by race/ethnicity. The percentage of students served under IDEA was highest for American Indian/Alaska Native students (17 percent), followed by Black students (15 percent), White students (13 percent), students of Two or more races (12 percent), Hispanic students (12 percent), Pacific Islander students (11 percent), and Asian students (6 percent). In most racial/ethnic groups, the percentage of children and youth receiving services for specific learning disabilities combined with the percentage receiving services for speech or language impairments accounted for over 50 percent of children and youth served under IDEA.
  • The percentage distribution of various types of special education services received by students ages 3–21 in 2013–14 differed by race/ethnicity. For example, the percentage of students with disabilities receiving services under IDEA for specific learning disabilities was lower among Asian students (22 percent) than among students overall (35 percent). However, the percentage of students with disabilities receiving services under IDEA for autism was higher among Asian students (19 percent) than among students overall (8 percent). Additionally, of students who were served under IDEA, 8 percent of Black students and 7 percent of students of Two or more races, compared to 5 percent of students served under IDEA overall, received services for emotional disturbances.
  • Among children and youth who received services under IDEA, the percentages of American Indian/Alaska Native students (10 percent), Pacific Islander students (8 percent), and students of Two or more races (8 percent) who received services for developmental delays were higher than the percentage of students overall receiving services for developmental delays (6 percent).
  • Separate data on special education services for males and females are available only for students ages 6–21. Among those 6- to 21-year-olds enrolled in public schools in 2013–14, a higher percentage of males (16 percent) than females (9 percent) received special education services under IDEA. The percentage distribution of students ages 6–21 who received various types of special education services in 2013–14 differed by sex. For example, the percentage of students served under IDEA who received services for specific learning disabilities was higher among female students (44 percent) than among male students (37 percent), while the percentage served under IDEA who received services for autism was higher among male students (11 percent) than among female students (4 percent).
  • Educational environment data are available for students ages 6–21 served under IDEA. About 95 percent of children and youth ages 6–21 who were served under IDEA in 2013–14 were enrolled in regular schools. Some 3 percent of students ages 6–21 who were served under IDEA were enrolled in separate schools (public or private) for students with disabilities; 1 percent were placed by their parents in regular private schools; and less than 1 percent each were in separate residential facilities (public or private), home-bound or in hospitals, or in correctional facilities.
  • Among all students ages 6–21 who were served under IDEA, the percentage who spent most of the school day (i.e., 80 percent or more of time) in general classes in regular schools increased from 33 percent in 1990–91 to 62 percent in 2013–14. In contrast, during the same period, the percentage of those who spent 40 to 79 percent of the school day in general classes declined from 36 to 19 percent, and the percentage of those who spent less than 40 percent of time inside general classes also declined, from 25 to 14 percent. In 2013–14, the percentage of students served under IDEA who spent most of the school day in general classes was highest for students with speech or language impairments (87 percent).
  • Approximately two-thirds of students with specific learning disabilities (68 percent), visual impairments (65 percent), other health impairments (64 percent), and developmental delays (63 percent) spent most of the school day in general classes. In contrast, 16 percent of students with intellectual disabilities and 13 percent of students with multiple disabilities spent most of the school day in general classes.
  • Data are also available for students ages 14–21 served under IDEA who exited school during school year 2012–13, including exit reason. In 2012–13, approximately 396,000 students ages 14–21 who received special education services under IDEA exited school: almost two-thirds (65 percent) graduated with a regular high school diploma, 14 percent received an alternative certificate,1 19 percent dropped out, 1 percent reached maximum age, and less than one-half of 1 percent died.
  • Of the students ages 14–21 served under IDEA who exited school, the percentage who graduated with a regular high school diploma was highest among White students (72 percent) and lowest among Black students (55 percent). The percentage of students served under IDEA who received an alternative certificate was highest among Black students (19 percent) and lowest among American Indian/Alaska Native students (9 percent). The percentage of students served under IDEA who exited special education due to dropping out in 2012–13 was highest among American Indian/Alaska Native students (27 percent) and lowest among Asian students (9 percent).
  • The percentage of students ages 14–21 served under IDEA who graduated with a regular high school diploma in 2012–13 differed by type of disability. The percentage of students ages 14–21 served under IDEA who graduated with a regular high school diploma was highest among students with visual impairments (77 percent) and lowest among those with intellectual disabilities (43 percent).
  • The percentage of students served under IDEA who received an alternative certificate was highest among students with intellectual disabilities (33 percent) and lowest among students with speech or language impairments (9 percent). The percentage of students served under IDEA who dropped out in 2012–13 was highest among students with emotional disturbance (35 percent) and lowest among students with autism (7 percent).
Check out this report for all sorts of other education data.

Sunday, May 29, 2016

I’m High-Functioning Autistic. Here’s What the Neurodiversity Movement Gets Wrong.

From Pacific Standard Magazine

By Gwendolyn Kansen
May 25, 2016

I think it’s great that people want to normalize autism. But sometimes they gloss over how disabling it can actually be.

Autistic people might actually have some advantages if it weren’t for the stigma. Many of us have a unique objective edge that makes us great at math, science, and music. Yes, we have to endure a lot of social challenges. But if people were to look past that, we could use our talents to make the world a better place.

Enter the neurodiversity movement. Many autism advocates (especially self-advocates) see it as the next step in human rights. They don’t see autism as a disorder. They see it as a normal cognitive variation associated with a unique set of strengths and weaknesses. They think autism should be removed from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, just as homosexuality was in the 1970s.

As an autistic person, I respect the movement. I do. I’m thrilled to see our community having a voice.

But I think there’s a lot that they’re missing.

First off, many of us aren’t high-functioning enough to benefit from depathologizing autism. The neurodiversity movement doesn’t have much to say about lower-functioning autistics, who are decidedly less inspirational.

There’s a saying that autistic kids don’t grow up. And many don’t. They live in group homes, where they have to be watched like hawks so they don’t wander off and drown. They can’t talk to you. Some can’t even shower by themselves. And they certainly can’t offer nuanced opinions about a cure.

Some members of the neurodiversity movement will tell you that “most” autistic people don’t want to be cured — but some studies show that over half of us have an IQ below 70.

It’s not just about IQ either. Many higher-functioning autistics also can’t live alone. They’d forget to lock the door or turn off the stove. They might also need legal guardians to make decisions for them when they can’t assess consequences well enough.

And there are plenty of otherwise capable autistic people who can barely function because of depression, fatigue, and a plethora of co-morbid disorders. The divide between low and high functioning isn’t as clear as people think.

Autism isn’t just a social disorder. Our processing functions are entirely different. Our “highly restricted, fixated interests” (we call them special interests) could come from the fact that our brains aren’t as interconnected as other people’s. We have more connections within some brain regions, but fewer between them. That makes it not only easier, but necessary for us to focus on a few specific things.

In other words, we’re great with details. But we miss the big picture.

Seeing things in fragments means we have to put more of our attention toward the surface of what’s going on. We miss important nuances, including body language. I suspect I only process about 25 percent of what someone tells me.

This obviously hurts my social life. But what’s worse is that I can’t trust my own judgment. Neurodiversity advocates gloss over the fact that people like me have to be on guard every minute. And we’re still about four times more likely to be raped and far more likely to be killed than our non-autistic peers.

I’ve never had an awful experience, but I did have a boyfriend in high school whom I would have seen right through if I wasn’t autistic. He was a pathological liar and he tried to turn me against my family. I didn’t have friends in school to tell me he was off, so it just ended up being a humiliating experience that subtly destroyed my trust in people for a long time.

Our executive functioning problems are just as bad. I’ve been fired from almost every job I’ve had because of my low energy and problems transitioning between tasks. I’m skeptical about how many of us can be consistently productive.

Even Specialisterne, an organization that helps autistic people find employment, places only one out of six people who start its program. And those are data-entry jobs.

But by far the worst thing about autism is the meltdowns. They’re terrifying. Kayden Clarke was having one when the cops came to his house on a suicide call. Clarke pulled a knife on the cops when they arrived. They shot him.

There are autistic people who scream for hours on end, attack their social workers, and kill their parents.

How can anyone claim these are just normal cognitive variations?

People tend to think of autism as a mysterious disorder with no relation to any other problem. But research points out that it’s not as isolated as we think. Autism actually shares chromosomal links with four other mental disorders: schizophrenia, attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder, major depression, and bipolar disorder.

If autism is really a double-edged sword, then it’s the sharpest one I’ve ever seen.

There’s a reason autism used to be called “childhood schizophrenia”: because it looks like schizophrenia. The negative symptoms that mimic schizophrenia — flat affect, poor eye contact, difficulty expressing emotion — are the first things that psychiatrists noticed in autistic patients.

Schizophrenics and autistic people alike have less gray matter in the limbic system, which is responsible for emotions and memory. And both disorders manifest a deficiency in proteins that help code experience into long-lasting lessons in the brain.

One hallmark of autism is the inability to transfer previously learned rules into new situations. If you’re autistic, you’ve probably experienced this inability in social settings. And then there’s the fact that autistic people are 12 times more likely to have a sibling with schizophrenia. Children with early-onset schizophrenia have a 28 to 55 percent chance of having autism.

Neurodiversity advocates want to distance autism from any mental-illness associations. But really, we could get more funding if we joined forces with the mental-illness community.

Autism Speaks is unpopular with autistic people because it spends way more money looking for a cure than it does on helping us right now. But it’s by far the wealthiest autism organization in the country, with $12,692,758 in net assets as of 2014. The Autistic Self-Advocacy Network, which supports the neurodiversity campaign, could barely cover its own expenses with the $599,124 it earned last year.

The National Alliance on Mental Illness, on the other hand, had $8,586,669 in net assets in 2014. It has chapters everywhere, has established support groups for over 98,000 people, and runs awareness programs in high schools.

Some neurodiversity advocates go so far as to equate a cure with genocide. They feel they wouldn’t be the same person without it. I’ve never felt that way. I still feel autism keeping me from achieving my potential. When I got a scholarship to a pre-opera program, I found I couldn’t keep up with the conductor’s cues and I couldn’t handle the bright lights on stage.

Granted, autism might be why I’m good at music in the first place. A lot of us have gifts we can’t use. A friend of mine loves politics, but he couldn’t pass the psych portion of the National Foreign Service exam. If autism is a double-edged sword, as they like to say, then it’s the sharpest one I’ve ever seen.

A cure isn’t really feasible anyway. There are thousands of genes that can cause autism. Most researchers are focusing on drug therapies to target certain genes. Mount Sinai’s Seaver Autism Center is having a lot of luck with an oxytocin study for children. Autism Speaks is trying to map out the genome itself to see which genes are most implicated.

I’m not scared of the genetic research. Gene editing could eventually help a lot of people, even given the obvious human-rights implications. It would be foolish not to look at the benefits of having autism in the gene pool. 
But we also have to consider all the people that it’s hurting.

We can’t have a truly productive discussion about autism acceptance by sugarcoating the condition. Not until we accept every part of autism will we start finding solutions.

Does Mindfulness Actually Work in Schools?

From The Atlantic

By Emily Deruy
May 20, 2016

Scholars want to know whether the practice helps young kids of color succeed academically.

A research team in Chicago has spent a year studying whether students who are taught to be in touch with their emotions do better academically. And they say the initial results are promising.

Perhaps counterintuitively, when kids take a break from a classroom lesson on the solar system to spend a quiet moment alone watching a three-minute nature video, or participate in a teacher-guided breathing exercise with their class after lunch, they seem to become better overall students.

That’s likely because the children have a renewed sense of focus, they handle transitions from one lesson to the next better, and they need less time to regroup if they become upset about something, said Amanda Moreno, an assistant professor at the Erikson Institute, a child-development-focused graduate school in Chicago.

Moreno and her team received $3 million, most of it from the U.S. Education Department, to study what is known as “mindfulness” in more than 30 high-poverty Chicago public schools over the course of four years. They are watching approximately 2,000 kindergarten through second-grade students.

My colleague took an in-depth look at mindfulness here, but the basic idea is to allow kids, as Moreno told me, to “slow down and not be on automatic-pilot and not be overwhelmed by all the things they could be focusing on.”

The idea has been popular in some public and private schools for years, but there’s been little in the way of evidence to back it up as an effective academic intervention, and where studies exist, they’ve tended to focus on older students.

Erikson says its ongoing research is the largest mindfulness study of children funded by the federal government ever conducted and the only in the country to focus specifically on whether mindfulness exercises improve academic achievement for young kids of color from low-income families.

That focus is important because, if mindfulness proves effective, low-income children of color may stand to benefit disproportionately. Children growing up in poverty are more likely than their affluent peers to be exposed to violence and to experience long-term stress that can derail academic progress.

Some research has suggested that children living in high-stress environments (drug-addicted parents, abusive caretakers, neighborhood gun violence) are constantly on edge, ready to fight or take flight, which can lead to outbursts in class that turn into suspensions and even expulsions, all detrimental for learning.

And, recent brain science suggests that exposure to stress can shorten periods of brain development, meaning it’s especially crucial to limit stress in the early years when brain growth is rapid.

When disadvantaged kids aren’t focused in class, achievement gaps can widen, and, Moreno suggests, purely academic attempts to close those gaps miss the significant impact that the state of a child’s emotional and social well-being can have on his ability to learn math. For kids who have suffered from prolonged stress or trauma, mindfulness seems to offer a way of “short-circuiting” the fight-or-flight response, Moreno said. It helps kids with the greatest self-regulation challenges adapt to slower, more methodical classroom settings.

Moreno said she’s heard from teachers with students who have gone from five or six tantrums a day to none because they know they can go to their classroom’s “calm spot” whenever they feel like they’re spiraling out of control.

Moreno pushes back at the idea, levied by critics of mindfulness in the classroom, that it is a craze designed to turn kids into compliant robots or a form of victim-blaming.

“[Proponents] see mindfulness as a way to amp up an education system that will create compliant students who can manage their own behavior, focus on their assignments, and calm themselves when angry or frustrated with school. Such students can then turn into passive, unquestioning consumers and cooperative workers who will help their corporate employers better compete in the global economy,” wrote David Forbes in Salon.

That is not the case, Moreno said. Kids aren’t supposed to be robotic or unquestioning, but an angry or frustrated kid isn’t going to be able to learn as well as a calm, focused kid, so mindfulness is intended to give kids the tools they need to be active classroom participants. In other words, children are supposed to fail occasionally, Moreno said, but they need help learning tricks and techniques for getting back on track.

“Mindfulness helps reduce their suffering,” she said.

But does mindfulness really work for little kids? Initial results seem to indicate it can when it’s taught in an age-appropriate way, said Moreno, who has a background in developmental psychology and insists she is “not a yogi.”

The traditional concept of social-emotional learning, a broad category that’s become an education buzzword these days, can be tricky for little kids to embrace because it asks children to think about how they acted in the past and how they’ll behave in the future.

Consider a playground spat. After recess, a teacher might say to a first-grader, Why do you think you shoved Johnny off the swings and what would you do next time? Moreno says that’s not a bad thing and it’s proven effective in some cases, but there’s not solid data to suggest specific academic gains.

Moreno says the Erikson study is more of a “complete equation” because it aims to take a particular type of social-emotional learning (mindfulness) and target it directly into classroom activities to study the academic impact.

"When disadvantaged kids aren’t focused in class, achievement gaps can widen."

Around kindergarten, kids’ ability to control their thinking in a way that helps them achieve their goals begins to be tested in a classroom setting. If I focus on what my teacher is drawing on the board, I’m going to be able to do this worksheet in front of me. Where kids haven’t succeeded, and have acted out or spaced out instead, the response has often been, calm down and pay attention, which is way too abstract for most kids (and, let’s be honest, adults).

So, some schools in Chicago are trying a mindfulness approach, which is more visceral and less cerebral. It might go something like this: A teacher asks a student to turn off the lights. She puts a “Do not disturb” sign on the door, and then calmly reads from a script that asks students to breath in and out, and focus on that sensation.

Other exercises might ask a student to focus on a particular feeling, or a single emotion. By doing so, the theory goes, the kids are able to make bite-size, manageable work of the things that demand their focus throughout the day.

Moreno acknowledges that it’s not easy to measure the impact of such abstract ideas as mindfulness or, more broadly, social-emotional learning. But researchers can get at the answer by both testing kids’ math and reading abilities, and by surveying them about their sense of belonging, looking at how teachers handle discipline, how much time students are spending on-task, and assessing executive functioning.

That last measure is often done using something called the Flanker test, which helps give researchers a sense of cognitive flexibility, something Moreno and other researchers think mindfulness has a positive impact on. Moreno and her team also talk to teachers about their ability to teach well to get a sense of whether mindfulness helps prevent burnout, something that is more prevalent in high-poverty schools than at well-resourced schools.

In the first year, Moreno’s team says the mindfulness program seems to be helping schools that already have a good sense of community, where teachers and students are supportive of each other and committed to learning, go from “good to great.” For the schools that are really struggling, the program “can only do so much,” she acknowledged.

In the Chicago study, the kids are even encouraged to get up in the middle of a lesson if they feel they need to and “refocus” by visiting their classroom’s designated “calm spot.” In an age where teachers face incredible pressure to make sure their kids are reaching certain academic markers, Moreno said that mindfulness was sometimes a tough sell in the beginning.

But after a year, she says feedback has been positive and there are signs that suggest mindfulness decreases suspensions and expulsions by giving kids the tools to process their emotions in a productive way. “We should not be using imperfect skills as reason to disqualify kids from membership in the group,” she said.

Ultimately, she said, the students in her study have been spending anywhere from 10 to 12 minutes per day on mindfulness exercises. But classes appear to be gaining more instruction time as a result because there are fewer outbursts and disruptions. Some teachers have told her that where their classes used to need half an hour to settle down after lunch, a three-minute mindfulness exercise is now enough.

(Moreno was careful to say that the team is still testing this theory, and it’s too early to know for sure yet.)

And the notion that mindfulness requires those practicing it to be entirely quiet is false, she said. Kids in Chicago have been participating in music scribble exercises, where they listen to everything from African drumming to classical tunes and then scribble what they feel on paper, one of many practices developed by the Luster Learning Institute that the study utilizes. Some do stretching exercises, she said. A representative from Chicago Public Schools was not immediately available for comment.

Moreno is pleased that mindfulness is something the government and Chicago schools are open to studying. Teachers face so much pressure to “go, go, go,” she said, that the fact that the school system and Education Department are recognizing that educators need to focus on children’s inner lives to get anything into them academically is “powerful.”

But the practice may find its way into more schools around the country because the nation’s new federal education law asks schools to consider some non-academic measures, such as school climate, in evaluating how students are doing.

“There’s a productivity to it and a humanity to it, and people are beginning to realize the two are quite compatible and necessary for each other,” Moreno said.

She and her team are under no illusion that mindfulness is going to solve all of a school’s problems, and she’s upfront about the fact that the study is in the early stages. But Moreno’s initial results do seem to indicate that where little kids feel comfortable making mistakes because they have tools for getting back on track that don’t involve a trip to the principal’s office, they are better prepared to succeed as students.


This story is part of our Next America: Early Childhood project, which is supported by a grant from the Heising-Simons Foundation.