Can my child be denied an IEP because his grades are okay?

My friend’s first-grade child was recently denied an IEP because he has grade-level academics. His severe ADHD results in frequent classroom outbursts, hours in the principal’s office, learning delays, anxiety-driven school refusal, low self-esteem, and excessive hours of tutoring but school staff said he could not qualify unless he was failing academically. The law states otherwise.

A bright student can still qualify for an IEP if their disability hurts their educational performance.

Denying an IEP based solely on school grades may be the most common misunderstanding of special education eligibility. IDEA (the Federal law that outlines special education) clearly states that a student does NOT need to be academically behind to qualify for an IEP.

Each State must ensure that FAPE is available to any individual child with a disability who needs special education and related services, even though the child has not failed or been retained in a course or grade, and is advancing from grade to grade.

Being smart, scoring highly on tests, or maintaining grade-level academics are not valid reasons to deny an IEP to a student.

What qualifies a student for an IEP?

There are two components to IEP eligibility.

IEP eligibility has two components. First, the IEP team must determine if your child qualifies under one of 13 disability categories as defined by IDEA and your state’s educational definitions. For example, ADHD typically qualifies under the disability category of “Other Health Impairment.”

Second, the IEP team must determine if the disability has adverse effects on a child’s educational performance. Sometimes a student will have a recognized disability but it does not affect their ability to access general education. Both components must apply to qualify for an IEP.

What are “adverse effects on educational performance”?

A disability can hurt a child’s functional skills, behavior, and social-emotional health.

Educational performance includes all aspects of a child’s functioning at school. After all, a child’s ability to access general education curriculum depends on their emotional health, age-appropriate social skills, and their ability to conduct appropriate classroom behavior, stay organized, follow rules, and so on. Many IEP teams mistakenly limit their assessment to only someone’s academic scores instead of conducting a holistic review.

A disability can adversely impact a child’s ability to learn in the general education environment when it….

  • Impairs functional skills, including fine motor. Is your child frequently late, disorganized, and forgetful? Do they struggle to follow rules consistently? Could your “messy writer” benefit from specialized time with an Occupational Therapist? Difficulty with writing impacts almost every activity at school.
  • Causes “behavioral problems.” Behavioral problems are in scare quotes because if these stem directly from the disability, then adding supports that address the disability will eliminate them. Children effectively lose hours of classroom instruction due to punishment (being sent to the principal’s office every day or suspension). A lifetime of being coded as “bad” leads to low self-esteem and dislike of school.
  • Leads to poor emotional health. Children also miss classroom instruction because they are spiraling from anxiety or sensory overload. Some children use all their effort to function at school and emotionally fall apart once they come home.
  • Hinders social skills. Can your child effectively and appropriately communicate with peers? Inappropriate or delayed social skills can hurt academic progress since students often work in pairs or small groups. Social alienation and bullying also dramatically impact a student’s ability to engage at school.
  • Limits academic progress. Being at “grade level” does not give us an idea of how your child is actually learning. For example, do you see growth in writing or reading skills since last year?
  • Creates a gap between performance and ability. Maybe your child can meet grade-level academic expectations…but is still failing exams or constantly missing homework.

How do we measure or document problems?

Two school children sit at their desk while a teacher helps one with their assignment.
Two school children sit at their desk while a teacher helps one with their assignment.

Your child’s school work and grades certainly do count as data points. So do disciplinary records.

Before your IEP eligibility meeting, the school staff likely conducted a battery of formal assessments on your child. Structured classroom observations should be included so that the specialists can observe your child on a typical day. The school psychologist and any other qualified staff will discuss the formal results of those assessments at your meeting. Ask as many questions as you need to get a full picture of your child’s broader educational performance at school. Make sure they have evaluated all areas of suspected need.

Outside clinician reports can inform the IEP team on the student’s needs. These can be medical reports, assessments from other professionals (OT, SLP, psychologists) or even therapy progress reports. Try to submit these for review before the eligibility meeting to allow the team to review them.

Interviews should be conducted with parents, teachers, and sometimes the student. Although it can be uncomfortable to discuss, parents need to be honest about their child’s struggles and provide their own data, observations, and suggestions.

For example, explain if your child requires an excessive amount of support at home. Most teachers have a general idea of how long a homework assignment should take. Does your child take much longer than that? Do you spend hours working with your child at home or hire tutors?

You should have copies of every single report discussed at this meeting.

What if the school still denies our child an IEP?

There are ways to support your child in school, even without an IEP.

An IEP team decision involves parent input. You can voice your disagreement at the eligibility meeting. Ask for a written, detailed explanation and documentation for the rejection.

Sometimes, student needs can be met with a 504 plan or specialized instruction within the general education curriculum. Some parents try these avenues, carefully taking data and making observations in case these do not deliver results. This information can inform a follow-up IEP assessment.

However, if you still believe your child needs an IEP now, you can request an independent educational evaluation (IEE). This request must come in writing. An IEE is a set of assessments like the ones conducted by your IEP team. However, these will be done by an unaffiliated professional who can act as a neutral party. The IEP team will reconvene to discuss the new results.

Some schools may file a due process hearing if they do not believe an IEE is required. They may also charge the cost of an IEE back to the parent.

It may help to consult with a Special Education advocate at this point to avoid a lengthy, stressful lawsuit. If the parent and school staff still do not agree on eligibility, there may be a mediation process within the school district. If all possible avenues are exhausted, parents then proceed to file a due process lawsuit.

The bottom line is, IEP eligibility must be determined after a holistic assessment of a child’s educational performance — NOT by a review of a child’s grades.

Education, productivity, and pop culture writer.

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