Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Deciding on the Least Restrictive Environment as a Team

One of the hardest parts of my job is trying to determine if a child fits into our Intellectual Disabilities program or not. Students whose IEP teams decide (and go through a lengthy process) are bused to our school to be a part of our program (we are not their neighborhood school). So as the year goes on we are asked to go observe students at other schools whose school teams feel they may benefit from a different placement.

Of course it isn't our decision alone to make, but we are a part of the discussion on whether or not a child will benefit from a more restrictive environment. It isn't a decision that can be taken lightly because deciding to move a child to a more restrictive environment has long term consequences. It means the student will use a different curriculum, be exposed to different peers, will attend a whole different school, and will have an entirely different school experience.

Even in the most clear-cut case I feel it should be a decision that is agonized over because the team should look at the student's needs, not what paperwork and procedure imply.

How do you decide a student is ready to leave his or her base school and be a part of a self-contained setting? Are the students learning in their current environments? Are they engaged? Are lessons meeting their needs? Are they making progress? Do they have peers? 

What is best?
The tricky part is it is easy to look at a student in their general education environment and say "this isn't working- the student isn't making progress- this setting isn't appropriate." Yet it is harder to look into the future and see whether an ID placement is the right place for a student. There are no crystal balls to predict how a student will do and what the right choice will be.

Will the child have peers in the new placement? Will they make progress? Will their behaviors improve? Do they absolutely, without a doubt require intellectual disabilities services that can only be provided in a self-contained setting to make progress with their life skills? These are questions that are difficult to answer- an IEP team can only speculate. But if a team does not truly look at these questions and ask "will this placement truly be better than what is in place now?" a child can get lost in the wrong placement.

ID classrooms work at a different pace, focus on different skills, and approach lessons in different ways. For some children it is exactly what they need, and for others it can be limiting. The team has to consider whether or not moving a student will actually limit the child's academic ability, or enhance it. 

As a member of the team I always feel better about the decision when every step of the placement process is done in a full-collaborative discussion- where everyone, even those members who strongly believe a student belongs in one placement or another- take the time to discuss every option available. Even in the most extreme cases- when it is obvious to everyone at the table what the "right" decision is- it is reassuring to have a team openly and genuinely discuss concerns. No decision is ever going to be perfect. If a team is willing to recognize concerns with every side and then come to a decision I personally feel better about the decision a team is making for the student's future.

It is hard to always remember as an IEP team that we are talking about a child. Often we can get caught into "the child's label says x so we need to do x". Or, "My principal says x so that's what we have to do." It is hard to break those mindsets down and turn them into a discussion about what is best for the individual child- the child that will one day be an adult- a child whose future belongs to us. 

Lately my program has had numerous students come up as candidates for our program. When we go and meet each student we fall in love- they are the students we were meant to work with- they are the students we got into teaching to teach. Of course we want them. But we also want to have a true discussion on what is best for them. It is never an easy answer, and constantly becomes a nagging question we struggle with late into the night as we try to determine what is really best for the child.

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