Vermont students now can more easily qualify for special education services.
A rule change went into effect July 1 that opens eligibility for students presenting deficits in functional skills. This change has been nearly two decades in the making following a federal definition interpretation change, according to Karen Price at Vermont Family Network, a federally-designated support center in Vermont for families of children with disabilities or health needs.
Price said this is a monumental change that has the potential to identify students earlier, get them the services they need sooner, as well as provide better long-term outcomes for children and families.
“The change should result in children being identified earlier. Because what we have found, especially with children with specific learning disabilities, is that children are often able to hide their difficulties earlier − they tend not to fall into that bottom 15th percentile,” Price said. “By the time they fall into that bottom 15th percentile, it’s been going on for a while and so they’re not getting the help that they need as early as they could have.”
Here are what parents should know about the rule change and what they can do to find out if their child qualifies for special education.
Special education eligibility broadened to include functional skills
Prior to now, a child could receive special education services if their academic performance has habitually fallen in the bottom 15%. Allowing for functional skill deficits, and in particular social or behavioral impacts that prevent a child from succeeding, means more students could qualify for supports in the classroom. A student with high-functioning autism or dyslexia, which are often diagnosed later, may be able to access help sooner.
“For example, you can have a kid who is really bright and they score really well on testing but they don’t make it into class, they are unable to finish their classroom assignments due to something else, and those are the kids that have fallen through the cracks,” Price said. She said it may seem common sense that maximizing a person’s potential in life includes much more than academics.
“This really means a lot to the parents of children who have dyslexia and other learning disabilities, it will be easier for them to qualify and they will qualify younger,” Price said.
While an adverse effect in functional skills can be more difficult to prove than comparing grades, the child’s team will need to show there is a consistent deficit when compared to peers that seems likely tol persist over time.
What rule change means for this school year and what parents can do to find out if child qualifies
Price said this first year of implementing the rule change could be bumpy as laws and regulations don’t cover everything and that unknown complications could arise. The change was delayed a year to give schools time to prepare. In particular, the schools will be responsible for data collection over time that includes monitoring how the student responds to interventions.
Families that believe their child may now qualify for services can request an evaluation. Price said, by law, an evaluation cannot be delayed because schools are closed during summer break.
For those who have tested recently but did not qualify, families can request a records review. In this instance, no further testing is needed, but the evaluation results will be looked at again using a different lens to determine eligibility.
Does that mean more students will be in need of special education services even while Vermont faces paraeducator shortage?
Does this rule change mean many more Vermont students will require special education services, and will that tax an already fragile sector where there aren’t enough staff providing special education services in schools already?
Not necessarily, according to Price, but it really remains to be seen.
Price said it is likely this new interpretation of adverse effect will identify the same children, just earlier.
Many children presenting behavioral challenges have eventually qualified for special education due to “emotional disturbance.” Price said this can be a wrong diagnosis and the result of how a child acts whenever they have a deficit in another area that hasn’t been addressed. She believes broadening eligibility will catch many of these students earlier and can better pinpoint the actual deficiency, targeting supports before it becomes an emotional disturbance. This has the added benefit of providing interventions sooner, which could mean the student’s supports may be ended earlier as well.
In addition, Vermont has implemented a program called multi-tiered system of supports (MTSS) which is a framework designed to target students falling behind in certain areas at more regular intervals and provide interventions. MTSS functions by helping all students, which includes those receiving special education services. The theory is that over time MTSS will meet student’s needs and lessen the amount of special education services required.
Where to get help
Price said rule changes and understanding special education eligibility can be intimidating and complicated for parents, who are their child’s best advocate.
Parents have many rights to ensure their child is getting an equitable education, but they may be unaware of what they are or how to exercise them. For instance, last year a parent input form was incorporated into a students’ Individualized Education Program (IEP), the document that lays out the types of special education support a student will receive.
The Vermont Family Network is a resource that can help a parent or caregiver navigate special education for their child. Find them at vermontfamilynetwork.org, call their helpline at 802-876-5315 or send an email to [email protected].