I disagree with the evaluation performed by my child’s school. Can I get an independent evaluation from a qualified person who doesn’t work for the school?

Yes.   You can seek an independent evaluation at public expense if:

(1) You feel that your child has been wrongly classified or inappropriately placed, or

(2) You believe the IEP is not a quality plan because the school district has made its decision based on an inaccurate or incomplete evaluation of your child.

The independent evaluation can be used to obtain appropriate educational services for your child.  Even though there is nothing that indicates that parents must formally notify the school district of their intent to obtain an independent evaluation at district expense, attorneys usually recommend that they do so. The district has two options once they have been notified: to reimburse you for the evaluation or go to a hearing to prove that the district’s evaluation is appropriate.  If the district elects to go to a hearing, and the hearing officer determines that the school’s evaluation is appropriate, you still have a right to the independent evaluation, but not at public expense. Regardless of who pays, the local agency must consider the results of an independent evaluation in any decision regarding the provision of a free appropriate public education to your child, even if the district has not assessed your child in that particular area.  The results may also be presented as evidence at a due process hearing

Do I need permission from the school district to obtain an independent educational evaluation (IEE) for my child?

No, you do not need permission from your school district to proceed with an IEE. There seems to be a lot of confusion among special education personnel about this issue; the law is clear. The school district is only required to provide parents with names of qualified evaluators if you should desire their list. A school district’s list of qualified examiners is by no means complete. The tendency is to include practitioners who are the least expensive (i.e. licensed educational psychologists or LEPs) and not necessarily those who may be the most qualified (i.e. Licensed Psychologists whose training is with children).  You may also want to ask the practitioner whether they currently work in the K-12 educational system, or if much of their work is contracted through the public school system, as many people view this as a conflict of interest.

The Director of the U.S. Office of Special Education Programs (OSEP) clarified the law regarding IEEs in a letter to one of the California Department of Education’s Assistant Superintendents (Alice Parker). This letter clarifies that parents have the right to choose their own private evaluator and that that evaluator does not have to be one on the district’s list (given the examiner meets agency criteria).  You can view this letter by clicking on the icon below:

Can you perform an independent educational evaluation? Why might I need a private assessment?

Yes. My qualifications meet and exceed those of district school psychologists.

The sources of confusion around an educational evaluation are myriad.  Here are some things to keep in mind: 

Although your school’s assessment may be sufficient in some cases, in many cases it is not.  Why?  It is rare to find a licensed psychologist working in the educational system and therefore, your child will most likely not be assessed by a doctor (see “Common Questions”). Qualification (or not) for special education does not constitute a diagnosis.

A huge source of confusion is the fact that the categories of disability in special education and the criteria used to identity those categories often bear little resemblance to the criteria that doctors use (e.g. DSM-IV; Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fourth Edition, which contains the diagnostic criteria for all accepted mental disorders, including those that may qualify for special education) to diagnose.  Most licensed psychologists, pediatricians, and other doctors have little understanding of special education categories, while school personnel have little understanding of clinical diagnoses.

I have experience working within the special education system at the state, county, and district level, and am available for consultation and advocacy work with parents, and for independent assessments. I am an expert in both the psychiatric diagnoses of childhood disorders, as well as the educational classifications of these diagnoses.

If you decide that my services are appropriate for your needs, the next step is face-to-face consultation.  I will review previous assessment results (if any) and consult with you about possible next steps, including delineation of assessment options. I will do my best to assist you in advocating for your child.

PLEASE NOTE: If you expect your school district to pay up-front for an IEE performed by me, you must obtain their agreement to do this.  See my “Guide for Parents & 3rd-Party Payors.”

Is the school evaluation a diagnosis?

 Qualification (or not) for special education is not a diagnosis; this misperception is quite pervasive. Special education categories are not diagnostic; indeed, some of them do not even remotely resemble any diagnostic criteria used by doctors.  The purpose of the IEP team (which always includes the parent) is to decide whether or not a child qualifies for special education, and if the decision is made to qualify him/her, what remediation will be provided in the context of the child’s education

Special education categories are legal categories, not diagnostic ones.  The complexity of special education categories hinges on the fact that they are legal categories and not psychological/medical diagnoses (in reality, the diagnostic systems used by doctors are infinitely more complex). However, although there are only a handful of special ed categories, the broad “criteria” used in these categories makes them arbitrary.  Arbitrary legal categories combined with lack of a doctor’s diagnosis is a guaranteed recipe for mass confusion (not only for parents, but for special educators as well).  It leads to far more costly legal battles than would likely be the case if a more sane approach was implemented. 

Take for example the special ed category of “emotionally disturbed” (which is perhaps the most arbitrary and downright vague of the special ed categories). A doctor may diagnose a child with an emotional disorder such as Major Depression or Generalized Anxiety Disorder.  That same child may or may not qualify as “emotionally disturbed” according to special educators.  Conversely, a doctor may assess and then subsequently not diagnose a child with an emotional disorder.  That same child may or may not qualify as “emotionally disturbed” according to special educators. Not qualifying for special education allegedly means that the child’s education is not impacted. Without a doctor’s diagnosis first, however, the arbitrariness of “qualification” grows exponentially. (BTW, some researchers estimate that more than half of any given public high school population would “qualify” as “emotionally disturbed” given the vague “criteria”).  Hence, the decision to qualify (or not) seems to be up to the discretion of the school district, and not objective criteria. Although the parent can fight the decision, they must be prepared to fight an often expensive legal battle.

A possible solution for the future   “Qualifying” for special ed is arbitrary as it now stands.  The IEP team is supposed to elucidate educational impact of “disability” on a child, then plan and provide educational remediation although they are not qualified to diagnose said “disability.” Before fumbling through the IEP process,therefore, it would make sense to obtain a diagnosis from a doctor (pediatrician, licensed psychologist, or child psychiatrist) first.  The IEP team would then be doing what it should be doing: elucidating educational impact (if any), then planning and providing educational remediation.   Instead, the IEPs purpose has gotten hopelessly mixed up with misconceptions about “diagnosis” when the IEP team is an educational team.  If the law stipulated that consideration for special ed qualification first required a diagnosis by a doctor, a variety of ills would be remedied, including: 1) the parents would receive an unbiased diagnosis from a licensed doctor, which would be beneficial to them whether or not their child subsequently “qualified” for special education; and 2) special education personnel could concentrate on what they were trained to do: Remediate educational difficulties.  Other positive side effects may be 1) substantially more trust between parents and educators, resulting in 2) fewer costly legal battles, resulting in 3) more money for training special educators in research-based remedial techniques.

School district personnel insist that my child should be on Ritalin. Are they allowed to say this?

Although we have freedom of speech in this country (e.g. your neighbor or friend could express whatever opinion they wanted to), those who are operating within the confines of their chosen profession (e.g. educators talking to parents) should be very careful about practicing medicine and/or psychology without a license. It is the job of a licensed physician to prescribe medication, and licensed psychologists are permitted to discuss the appropriateness of a prescribed medication or to suggest a medication to the physician. Licensed psychologists are also permitted to discuss medication with patients.  Although properly trained licensed psychologists have gained prescription privileges in New Mexico and Louisiana, in California it is currently illegal for anyone other than a physician to actually prescribe medication (See the Board of Psychology’s “Statement on Medication” for more information). 

In the unlikely event that the “school district personnel” in question was either a licensed physician or licensed psychologist, they would then be within their rights to discuss medication with you (This discussion would, of course, be in the private confines of a formal doctor-patient meeting). Otherwise the “school district personnel” are out of bounds.

Additionally, as of 2004, IDEA explicitly prohibits school personnel from requiring that a child obtain a prescription as a condition of attending school or receiving special education services. It’s unbelievable that additional legal code had to be written regarding this, as it is already illegal to practice medicine without a license!

I have a child with autism, who was recently tested by the school. I am currently trying to find an advocate close to my area because I want my district to provide ABA. ABA was recommended by my local parent group.  I am in _____.  I was hoping that you might be able to refer me to someone.

Although an “advocate” may be helpful in some cases to help guide you through the IEP process, I don’t often recommend people who are “only” advocates because having a (sometimes marginal) knowledge of the IEP process is not usually enough to obtain what may be appropriate for your child. For example, you will notice that my website banner says “child advocate.” My usage of this term means that, although I have much more than a peripheral knowledge of the IEP process, my main impetus is the best results for the child.  I “advocate” in the context of being a psychologist who actually assessed and diagnosed that particular child. Another reason that I don’t often recommend “advocates” who are not either attorneys or psychologists is that anyone can claim the title “advocate,” and therefore the consumer is not protected by any kind of licensing board (I make exceptions for experienced parents who will help you through the process at no/minimal charge, as well as the folks who work through the Area Boards).  Further, when I worked in the educational system, I was sometimes exposed to “advocates” who appeared to be interested in something other than the best interests of the child and unduly prolonged the process (while the parents were paying them by the hour). Filibustering is not the best approach while your child is languishing in educational limbo. 

When there are legal entanglements around an IEP, it may be a better choice to hire an attorney than an “advocate.”  Even then, I think it is critical for the attorney to obtain an assessment and diagnosis from a licensed psychologist before embarking on recommendations.  Often people mistakenly believe that “more is better” and that by obtaining a laundry list of services from the school district they have “won.” Although sometimes the complexity of a child’s problems warrants a “laundry list,” often it is better to target one or two issues at a time, and obtain the most beneficial services.  Remediation should not be a willy-nilly process. Like adults, children’s processing capacities are not limitless. Funds for special education services are not limitless either. It is entirely feasible, even given these limitations, that the child “wins.”

There is an unfortunate trend for some support groups for parents of children with autism to bypass the professionals and make diagnostic recommendations that may or not be in the best interest of the child (40 hrs/wk. of ABA, for example).  These groups are without a doubt well meaning, but they cannot purport to have the knowledge and training of an M.D. or Ph.D.  Although ABA may be valuable for some children, it is not always the best (and it is certainly not the only) option.  Companies have sprung up virtually overnight who provide ABA services, and there is a lot of money in it. Sometimes the “credentials” of those working at these companies are shaky at best. Perhaps it is my training as a scientist that makes me naturally suspect of vendors who make claims about expensive treatments to desperate parents. All this to say that it is best to obtain advice about treatment from an unbiased professional, preferably the diagnosing doctor.

If you disagree with your school district’s assessment, you can obtain an independent educational evaluation (IEE; there is information about IEEs above). If you agree with their evaluation but not with their recommendations, it may still be valuable to obtain a private assessment with an emphasis on recommendations (I’m attaching the link to your county’s psychological association). Make sure the doctor has experience with autism and with special education.  S/he should then be able to help you decide if hiring an attorney or if further negotiations without an attorney would be best in your case.

Some practical advice for IEP meetings:  Setting the tone.

When I worked in the special education system, one of my least favorite things was watching overwhelmed and intimidated parents meekly acquiesce to the process of the IEP meeting when they are VIP-status team members (take it from Dr. M.: you as the parent are the most powerful person at IEPs!). Although as a psychologist I made an effort to meet or talk to parents privately before the meeting to discuss my often sensitive findings, unless I “chaired” the actual IEP meeting (which was my preference, but was a decision made by administrators), I had less control over the proceedings than the parents who attended.  A parent can and should be in control of the IEP meeting to the extent that 1) you have all your questions answered to your satisfaction, and 2) you have all items on your “agenda” addressed.

 [Important Aside:  It is usually better to take the paperwork home to review and think about before you sign anything except the attendence sheet.  Upon getting the paperwork home, for example, you may find that key issues and concerns have not been noted and should be added. You can write your own addendum on a piece of paper if you wish, stating that you want it to become part of the IEP document (include the date, etc.). If applicable, you may also want a special education attorney to review the IEP paperwork]

Unfortunately, IEP meetings often seem to progress willy-nilly without any specific agenda.  However, you, as the parent and as a crucial player according to law, should come prepared with your own agenda whether or not school personnel are organized enough to do so themselves.  Often there is an “unspoken agenda” that everyone but the parent knows about. Obviously even a written agenda cannot obliterate an unspoken agenda.  But if you’re prepared, at least you will not have to “think on your feet.” 

Don’t feel pressure to be “nicey-nicey.” It may seem counterintuitive, but if you encounter difficulties in the future, it may be easier to make your voice heard when your demeanor has been professional. IEP meetings aren’t informal gatherings and shouldn’t be treated as such.  You will be signing legal documents that will greatly impact your child, and you will have to take in an enormous amount of information in a short amount of time (always ask if you don’t understand and never sign anything unless you are satisfied that you do understand; do not under any circumstances feel stupid for not immediately understanding what others have spent years doing for a living). In my opinion, there is no reason that IEP meetings cannot be both friendly and professional.  When I chaired meetings, I considered them to be important enough to warrant formal presentation status, complete with a typed agenda given to each member of the team.  I was acutely aware that I was a public servant, and the parent (taxpayer) was paying my salary.

My purpose here is to not go into the “meat” of IEP meetings, as the process has been explained often and well elsewhere.  However, as a psychologist, I do have some ideas to offer about setting the stage so that you feel more comfortable. It was my firm belief when I chaired meetings that an attempt should be made to “level the playing field” during the first 10 minutes so that those who weren’t school personnel (parents, advocates, outside service providers) felt comfortable, welcome, and most importantly, part of the team.  I also believed that a certain level of comfort can be provided simply by comporting the meeting professionally.  I call this “setting the tone.” Unfortunately, you may have to do this for yourself.  Here are some key aspects:

    1. Formal introduction of each team member.  Name, title, relationship to the student. You may want to ask (because this information is rarely offered even though it should be standard procedure) what academic degree(s) or license(s) the person possesses, especially if they’ve assessed your child.  Ask for their card if you desire; this makes them easier to contact later if you have any questions. Never be afraid of sounding stupid if you ask “what is it exactly that you do?”

    2. Statement of confidentiality; reminding the team that anything discussed during the meeting stays at the meeting.  I’ve personally never seen anyone else do this, probably because I was the only one ethically bound to do so.  However, it is especially important to remind those who are not bound by a strict professional code of ethics that information shared at the meeting isn’t open to discussion in the teacher’s lounge or across their backyard fence. The parent of a minor can, of course, discuss the proceedings with whomever they wish. For the rest of us, though, discussion is limited to only those who personally provide services to the student for the sole purpose of information-gathering in the best interests of the child.  In other words, gossip isn’t kosher. 

    3. Providing the parent(s) a copy of procedural safeguards.  Asking the parent or guardian whether they’ve ever been exposed to the procedural safeguards before, and briefly explaining key aspects if they aren’t familiar with them.  Encouraging them to read them thoroughly when they have the opportunity to do so.

    4. Stating the purpose of the meeting (initial evaluation, triennial, manifestation determination, etc.) including: an explanation of what this particular type of meeting is supposed to accomplish, as well as the possible outcomes of the meeting and the ramifications of those outcomes. It always amazed me how infrequently this is usually done.  In business, if you held a meeting with a client and didn’t formally introduce the players, the purpose, and the anticipated outcome, the client would understandably take their business elsewhere.

    5. Inviting non-school team members for their input. Asking the parent and/or persons accompanying the parent (including the student themselves, if present) if there is anything not covered in the written agenda that they would like added to it. 

    Now the “body” of the meeting can begin by addressing parental questions and concerns.

It is unlikely that any or all of the above items will be addressed during the first few minutes of your IEP meeting.  It will likely be up to you to politely interject questions and make statements such as:

“I see that you don’t have a written agenda outlining the components of this meeting.  Can someone please catch me up on what the specific agenda is for this meeting?”

“I don’t think I’ve met everyone here. Could the other team members please introduce themselves and tell me your official title, as well as what level of formal training you have and in what field?”

“I feel a little uncomfortable talking about these things. Is what we talk about confidential?  Is it shared with anyone else outside of this meeting?” (If information is shared, with whom and why?)

“I know that I will be reviewing legal documents today.  Can someone please explain my rights to me before we begin?”

“I’m a little confused about the purpose of this meeting.  Could someone please explain in detail what a (triennial, manifestation determination, etc.) is?”

“Thank you for explaining what a (triennial, manifestation determination, etc.) is.  Could you please tell me a little more about the determination process?  What are the legal ramifications of any decision made here today?”

“Unfortunately, I am not as knowledgeable about this process as those of you who attend these meetings all the time. As a part of the IEP team, I’d like to understand (insert your question) before we proceed in order that I may fully participate.”

Neuropsychology Questions

What Disabilities Are Assessed?

 

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