Children’s emotional, behavioral and mental health problems can sometimes affect their ability to learn and be successful in school. Some children and youth with mental health challenges may require extra support and/or special education services in order to be successful while others may not. Just having a mental health diagnosis or other disability does not automatically make a young person eligible for special education. Their mental health problem or disability must also significantly affect his or her ability to learn and make progress in the general education curriculum.
An overview of the requirements of public schools to provide special services and supports to children with disabilities is listed below. It includes information about eligibility that can help you decide whether or not your child may qualify for additional services at school.
Each public school is required by federal law to provide special services for children with disabilities, who without special education or support services would otherwise be unable to progress in their education. These services include special education services through the Individual with Disabilities Education Act or IDEA and accommodations though Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act.
Special education services are defined as individualized instruction that is specially designed to meet the unique needs of qualified children. Special education may include more than just academics and can include things like social skill instruction if needed to address the child’s needs.
In order to be eligible for special education services in Michigan, your child must be between the ages of birth and 26 and must not have graduated from high school. If your child is currently under three years old and is eligible for services you may receive Early Intervention Services provided by Early On of Michigan.
Students are found eligible for special education in Michigan under disability ‘categories’. Many children with serious mental health issues that affect their ability to be successful at school qualify for special education under the categories of Emotional Impairment or Other Health Impairment, but children but may also qualify for special education under other categories. Visit the Michigan Alliance for Families website for information and for a more detailed descripiton of all eligibility categories at: http://www.michiganallianceforfamilies.org/education/eligibility/
Once a child qualifies for special education, the Individual Education Plan (IEP) must address all of the child’s needs regardless of the category they were found eligible under.
Requesting an Evaluation
If you believe that your child may have a disability due to their mental health condition, you may request that the school system evaluate your child to determine whether he or she is eligible for special education or other services or supports. Your child’s teacher or another professional (such as a school social worker) may also make this request. Regardless of who requests the evaluation, you will have to consent to the evaluation in writing before the evaluation can take place. Once a request for an evaluation is made and you sign permission, the school has 30 school days after the day you gave your written consent to complete the assessment.
The evaluation will be performed by a variety of people including a school social worker, a school psychologist, teachers and others depending on your child’s individual needs. The evaluation will consist of a series of tests that will help the team learn more about your child’s abilities, behavior, and day-to-day functioning at school. The evaluation will also include information about your child’s educational and medical history, social and emotional development, and how they function at school in all settings.
After the Evaluation
Within 45 school days of the day you consented to the evaluation, the school should arrange a meeting with you, the members of the Evaluation Team, your child’s teacher(s), and any other service providers who may be involved. You may ask for a copy of your child’s test results prior to the meeting so you have time to review them. When you meet with the team you will all discuss the results of the evaluation and reach a decision about whether your child is eligible for special education services.
Eligibility for special education services is determined by answering the following three questions:
- Does your child have a disability?
- Does that disability prevent your child from making effective progress at school?
- Does your child require specialized services in order to benefit from what is being taught at school?
If you determine as a group that your child is eligible to receive special education services, you will all work together to create an Individualized Education Plan.
The Individualized Education Plan (IEP)
is the plan of services and supports that will help your child to learn and be successful at school. This plan will be created by your IEP Team which will include a number of people including you, your child (if appropriate), a special education teacher, a general education teacher, a school representative qualified to provide or supervise special education programs and one who is knowledgeable about curriculum and public resources; a member of the Multidisciplinary Evaluation Team (if this is an initial IEP) and a school psychologist or someone who is able to interpret the evaluation results.
After eligibility is established, the team must consider a variety of things as they work to create the plan, including: your child’s strengths, your concerns as a parent, the results of the evaluations, and, your child’s academic, behavioral, social, functional and communication needs.
After discussing your child’s needs in all of the above areas, the team will create a Present Level of Academic Achievement and Functional Performance (P.L.A.A.F.P.) statement, which will describe how your child is doing right now.
The Present Level of Academic Achievement and Functional Performance or PLAAFP statement should list your child’s strengths, needs and include a description of how your child is doing in comparison to his or her peers, grade level expectations and age-appropriate developmental and behavioral skills. It should also address all areas of development where your child may need support, including academic, behavioral, social, communication, sensory and daily living skills. It should describe how your child’s disability affects his or his involvement in the general education curriculum and school activities, as well as, its affect on your child’s ability to learn and do the types of things that other kids of their same age can do. The PLAAFP statement should describe the strategies and supports that help your child to learn and the things that interfere with their success. It should also include information from their most current evaluations.
The PLAAFP statement is very important! The information within it is used to help develop the goals and objectives for your child. It will also help the team to identify the specific services and supports including special education, accommodations and modifications (things your child may need to help them be successful in the classroom like changes to instruction, materials, the classroom environment) and supplementary services (aids, technology, services or supports for school personnel) your child may need in order to be successful.
The next task of the IEP team will be to develop goals for your child to meet over the next year. Goals are written statements that describe what the student will learn, what skills they will gain, or what they will focus on for the next year. Each concern identified in the PLAAFP statement should have a corresponding goal to address it.
IEP goals and objectives should address all areas of need for your child, including academics, social needs, behavioral or organizational concerns, and communication needs. Remember goals are based on individual needs and can be created to help with difficulties with learning, social interactions; strategies to recognize and address anxiety, opposition, impulsivity, social skills, staying on tasks, etc.
Goals are very important as they ‘drive’ the focus of special education services and supports and decide specifically how your child will benefit from special education. The goals described in your child’s IEP should be very clear, concrete, and well defined. You should be able to easily recognize when your child is making progress. Your child’s school will measure your child’s progress toward these goals and will provide you with written progress reports right along with your regular report card.
Questions you might want to ask about the goals created for your child:
- Is the goal tied to my child’s participation in or progression in the general curriculum?
- Will it help my child to benefit from or participate in instruction or classroom interactions?
- Is it reasonable as well as challenging?
After creating goals and deciding which services and supports are necessary to meet your child’s needs and reach those goals, the IEP team will then discuss where your child will receive these services.
Your child’s school is required to provide special education services in the “least restrictive environment (LRE), which means that your child will spend as much time as possible learning in regular education classes with his or her classmates at your home school. If possible the school will provide the services your child needs within the school setting. If all of your child’s needs cannot be met in that setting they will inform you about other options. Once the plan is complete the school will begin to implement the services and supports for your child.
At least once a year your child’s IEP team will sit down together and review the IEP, your child’s progress toward their goals and make any changes that are necessary.
Addressing Behavioral Issues in Your Child’s IEP
If your child struggles with behavioral issues in school you may want to request a Functional Behavioral Assessment and Positive Behavioral Supports. It is important to keep in mind that behavior is often a form of communication and is used to get something, control something, or escape something.
Before you begin to create positive behavior support plan or goals it is often helpful to get a solid behavioral evaluation with recommendations. Functional Behavior Assessments are evaluations and observations that seek to understand the child’s behaviors and why they do what they do. They also look at the interaction between a child and their environment. After a series of observations, the evaluator can create an informed hypothesis (or best guess) of why they think the behavior is occurring and then this information can be used to help create goals to try to positively change behavior.
Creating Successful Positive Behavior Support Plans
One important thing to keep in mind is that positive behavior support plans are not discipline plans. The basis for creating a Positive Behavior Intervention Plan should be focused on teaching new behaviors and skills and should also include the instruction and assistance needed to help the student to use and practice the skills they have been taught to make better choices and have better outcomes. If you are concerned that your child’s plan seems more like a discipline plan than a positive behavior support plan it may be helpful to ask what skills are being taught, practiced and reinforced. Positive behavior plans should be proactive and include planned interventions and instruction. Plans may also sometimes include modifying the environment, especially if your child has sensory or other issues that may have a negative affect on their behavior. Positive behavior interventions should be designed to change outcomes by preventing behavior from occurring, reducing the severity of the behavior, or de-escalating behavior before it becomes extreme.
When helping to create a successful behavior plan for your child remember that your input can be critical as you know your child best!
Issues with Discipline at School including Suspension & Expulsion
If your child is eligible for special education and/or if your child’s school is aware that he or she has a disability, there are limits to the school’s ability to suspend or exclude your child from school for behavior related to your child’s disability. If the school wants to exclude your child for more than 10 days, the school must hold a meeting to determine whether your child’s behavior was a result of their disability. If it is then your child cannot be excluded from school unless you agree to the arrangement (or unless the situation is one involving a weapon or drugs). The team must also assess if the student’s IEP was being implemented correctly and if the current behavioral plan was appropriate.
If your child’s behavior is not a result of a disability, the school can exclude him or her for more than 10 days. If your child is receiving services and is excluded from school for more than 10 days the school district must continue to provide the services from their IEP. The services may however be provided in an alternative setting.
For more information regarding school discipline, suspension, expulsion and safeguards for students with disabilities and those receiving special education, click here: http://www.michiganallianceforfamilies.org/education/discipline/.
Resolving Disagreements with the School
When you are seeking special education services for your child or when the school is providing these services, sometimes problems or disagreements arise about what should be happening to support your child. When disagreements occur it is always best to try to resolve the problem by speaking with your IEP team and sharing your concerns. However if you are unable to work the issues out in this way, there are other formal and informal options for resolving disagreements including working your way up the ‘chain of command’ at your school, requesting mediation to resolve a problem and filing complaints. For more information about dispute resolution options please visit Michigan Alliance for Families http://www.michiganallianceforfamilies.org/education/disputes/ or Michigan Special Education Mediation Program http://msemp.cenmi.org.
What if my child does not qualify for Special Education?
If your child is not eligible for special education services, they may still be eligible for a Section 504 Plan (described below) or general education supports.
If you child is found ineligible for special education based on their evaluation results and you disagree with the determination you can formally disagree and ask for a second opinion. For more information about that process, visit Michigan Alliance for Families http://www.michiganallianceforfamilies.org/education/evaluation/.
Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act
Some students with disabilities are able to succeed in school without special education as long as the school provides them with the support services they need. Under a law known as Section 504 part of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 (a civil rights law that prohibits discrimination on the basis of disability and guarantees individuals with disabilities equal access to an education) schools are required to make the accommodations and modifications necessary to help these students learn.
Any child who is eligible for special education services will also be protected under Section 504, but Section 504 covers a broader range of students with disabilities than the special education laws cover. If your child has a physical or mental disability, she or he may be eligible for a 504 Plan. Section 504 defines disability as having a physical or mental impairment, which substantially limits one of more major life activities.
Planning for Services and Supports under a 504 Plan
Similar to the process schools follow for special education planning, the school will put together a team of people (including you) that will decide whether your child is eligible for Section 504 services. If he or she is eligible the team will then create a written plan that details the services and supports that are necessary for your child to be successful.
Want to Learn More?
For additional information about Special Education and Section 504 supports and services visit Michigan Alliance for Families, Michigan’s statewide Parent Training & Information Center at:
Michigan Alliance for Families receives federal funding to help families in Michigan better understand and navigate the educational system.
If you find yourself struggling to help your child’s school accommodate for your child’s mental health needs please contact ACMH and a Family Resource Specialist will try to connect you to the information you need. In addition, if you child receives private or public mental health services it may be helpful to ask your child’s therapist to be a part of the education planning process.