Can / should / must a special education Team specify a teaching methodology in an IEP? More specifically, if a student with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) requires Applied Behavior Analysis and Discrete Trial Training (ABA / DTT) in order to make effective progress, should the Team include the ABA/DTT methodology in the IEP? Must the Team include ABA/DTT in the IEP?
The very definition of the term Special Education would seem to indicate that IEP’s can and should name specific methodologies. Both federal and New Hampshire law define “Special Education” as “specially designed instruction, at no cost to the parents, to meet the unique needs of a child with a disability….” 34 CFR 300.39(a)(1); Ed 1102.05(c). Specially Designed Instruction is then defined as:
(3) Specially designed instruction means adapting, as appropriate to the needs of an eligible child under this part, the content, methodology, or delivery of instruction–
(i) To address the unique needs of the child that result from the child’s disability…
34 CFR 300.39(b)(3); Ed 1102.05(c). In Massachusetts, the definition is slightly different: “Special education shall mean specially designed instruction to meet the unique needs of the eligible student or related services necessary to access the general curriculum and shall include the programs and services set forth in state and federal special education law.” 603 CMR 28.02(20).
Guidance provided by the federal Department of Education states, “if an IEP Team determines that specific instructional methods are necessary for the child to receive FAPE, the instructional methods may be addressed in the IEP.” 71 FR 46665 (2006). On the other hand, that same guidance also states, “There is nothing in the Act that requires an IEP to include specific instructional methodologies… The Department’s longstanding position on including instructional methodologies in a child’s IEP is that it is an IEP Team’s decision.”
But what if the Team makes the wrong decision? What if a child requires a specific methodology in order obtain a meaningful benefit from their educational program? Surely the courts can help, right? Not necessarily. The U.S. Supreme Court has stated that
[C]ourts must be careful to avoid imposing their view of preferable educational methods upon the States. The primary responsibility for formulating the education to be accorded a handicapped child, and for choosing the educational method most suitable to the child’s needs, was left by the Act to state and local educational agencies in cooperation with the parents or guardian of the child.
Board of Educ. v. Rowley, 458 U.S. 176 (1982). So, parents should not expect a court to overrule methodology choices made by IEP Teams.
Luckily for parents, though, the administrative agencies in each state which adjudicate special education matters are not part of the state or federal court systems. They are, in fact, administrative bodies of state governments. The difference might seem minor, but it is, in fact, very important. Notice that Rowley does not leave the methodology decision just to the IEP Team (i.e. the “local educational agenc[y]). Instead, it leaves the decision to “state and local educational agencies…” Furthermore, the decision must be made “in cooperation with the parents or guardian of the child.” In New Hampshire, special education disputes are not initially adjudicated in the court systems; they are adjudicated by the New Hampshire Department of Education. Similarly, in Massachusetts, the administrative body that hears special education disputes is called the Bureau of Special Education Appeals (BSEA), which is part of the Massachusetts Department of Administrative Law Appeals (DALA).
Courts have even recognized the difference in knowledge and expertise between the state administrative law judges / hearing officers and judges within the state or federal court systems. For example, in Deal v. Hamilton County Bd. of Educ., 392 F.3d 840 (6th Cir. 2004), it was stated,
[T]he ALJ is a representative of the state presumed to have both the educational expertise and the ability to resolve questions of educational methodology that the federal courts do not have. While the district court always is required to give due deference to administrative findings in an IDEA case, even greater weight is due to an ALJ’s determinations on matters for which educational expertise is relevant.
Id. at 865.
New Hampshire Case Law
I recently litigated a case in New Hampshire which dealt with the issue of whether an IEP of a student on the autism spectrum should be updated to reflect the need for the ABA/DTT methodology. Student v. School District, IDPH-FY-16-02-020 (NH Dept. of Educ. May 9, 2016). The result was very positive for the parents. In this case, it was well documented through private evaluations and reports that a kindergarten student with very limited verbal skills required ABA/DTT in order to learn. The student’s neuropsychological evaluation stated that the student required a minimum of 25 to 30 hours of individualized, ABA/discreet trial based therapy per week, with placement in a full-time, full-year program utilizing 1:1 ABA, with staff being ABA-trained and BCBA supervised.
The school district even recognized the importance of ABA/DTT for the student. For example, Team meeting notes documented that the student was “rapidly gaining skills during ABA in a structured one-on-one setting.” A Written Prior Notice documented, “The team recognizes that [Student] has benefited from discrete trial instruction by a trained therapist with oversight by a BCBA… [Student] is acquiring skills rapidly in a one-to-one setting using ABA and Discreet Trial Methodologies.” Perhaps most importantly, the district’s program actually included ABA/DTT, as well as other methodologies.
Despite such clear evidence, and even admission by the school district, about the need for Applied Behavior Analysis / Discrete Trial Training, the school district refused to commit to any ABA/DTT services in the IEP Service Delivery Grid. In order to ensure that the student received the required services, the parents kept the student at home, arranged for full-time private ABA/DTT services at home, and eventually filed for a due process hearing.
The hearing officer differentiated this case from other methodology cases by clarifying that this was not a dispute about the need for ABA/DTT. The district admitted that the student needed ABA/DTT, and even admitted that the program included some ABA/DTT. Instead, this was a case about the Team refusing to document the need for ABA/DTT within the IEP. In his decision, the hearing officer stated:
[T]he dispute here is more about the school district’s reluctance to put specific language in an IEP about a service and a particular methodology that the Team agreed would be provided. The school members of the IEP team did not want to include any specific amount of ABA/DTT services in the IEP because they did not want to “tie their hands” and it was “not good practice” to include methodology in an IEP. That led to uncertainty about how much and what kind of special education services the student would receive.
While the cases say that methodology does not have to be included, they do not say that it cannot be included. There is nothing in the law that would prohibit the school from including a methodology in an IEP. Methodology is part of the definition of special education and specialized instruction in the IDEA and its regulations, 34 CFR § 300.30(b)(3), and it seems that it should be part of the listing of the amounts of special education services a student will receive when part of those services will knowingly be from some method like ABA/DTT… [I]f a team agrees that a student requires ABA/DTT services, which it did here, those services should be included in the IEP.
Id. The Massachusetts Bureau of Special Education Appeals (BSEA) has established similar case law. For example, in the case In Re: Middleborough Public Schools, 9 MSER 244 (2003), the school district raised similar arguments as the NH case just described. “The School argues that this is purely a question of methodology, that the choice of educational methodologies belongs solely to the school, and cannot be dictated by Parents or a hearing officer.” Id. The hearing officer stated that the school district was taking a general principle and carrying it too far. While it is true that courts generally defer to educators on the issue of methodology, this general principle does not apply when the IEP itself is inappropriate. Interestingly, the hearing officer got even more specific regarding ABA/DTT methodology, when she stated,
Additionally, courts seem to address ABA/DTT differently from other methodology disputes. In numerous cases courts have held that there is a “window of opportunity” for children with PDD/autism spectrum disorders to develop language and behavioral skills. If the evidence—including expert testimony– shows that ABA/DTT is necessary for FAPE during that window, courts have ordered schools to provide it. See, e.g., T.H. v. Palatine , supra.
Educators, collaborating with parents and guardians, generally determine methodology. If a specific methodology is necessary for a student to receive a Free and Appropriate Public Education (FAPE), that methodology should – and I would argue must – be included in the IEP. Courts generally will not overrule the methodology decisions of school districts. However, the administrative bodies that adjudicate special education cases are not part of the court system; they are considered part of the “state educational agency” as described in Rowley. Hearing officers have expertise in educational matters, and while they may generally defer to the “local educational agencies,” they do have the right and responsibility to override a methodology decision if such methodology is required for FAPE.
The Law Office of James M. Baron represents students and parents in special education and other school-related legal matters throughout Massachusetts and New Hampshire. Please visit http://www.lawbaron.com, or call 781-209-1166 for more information.
Medically speaking, there are countless types of disabilities. Educationally speaking, the number disability categories is much more limited. What sometimes causes confusion and frustration for parents and school personnel alike is that the definition of disabilities under state and federal laws differs from the medical definitions used by doctors under the DSM-5 manual.
For a child in Massachusetts to qualify for an IEP, he or she must have at least one of the following specifically defined types of disabilities: Autism, Developmental Delay, Intellectual Impairment, Sensory Impairment (Hearing Impairment or Deaf, Vision Impairment or Blind, Deafblind), Neurological Impairment, Emotional Impairment, Communication Impairment, Physical Impairment, Health Impairment, or Specific Learning Disability. 603 CMR 28.02(7). Although this might seem like a very limited list of disabilities, they are, in fact, very broad categories that cover a wide variety of conditions. The specific definitions under Massachusetts education law are as follows:
(a) Autism – A developmental disability significantly affecting verbal and nonverbal communication and social interaction. The term shall have the meaning given it in federal law at 34 CFR §300.8(c)(1).
(b) Developmental Delay – The learning capacity of a young child (3-9 years old) is significantly limited, impaired, or delayed and is exhibited by difficulties in one or more of the following areas: receptive and/or expressive language; cognitive abilities; physical functioning; social, emotional, or adaptive functioning; and/or self-help skills.
(c) Intellectual Impairment – The permanent capacity for performing cognitive tasks, functions, or problem solving is significantly limited or impaired and is exhibited by more than one of the following: a slower rate of learning; disorganized patterns of learning; difficulty with adaptive behavior; and/or difficulty understanding abstract concepts. Such term shall include students with mental retardation.
(d) Sensory Impairment – The term shall include the following:
Hearing Impairment or Deaf – The capacity to hear, with amplification, is limited, impaired, or absent and results in one or more of the following: reduced performance in hearing acuity tasks; difficulty with oral communication; and/or difficulty in understanding auditorally-presented information in the education environment. The term includes students who are deaf and students who are hard-of-hearing.
Vision Impairment or Blind – The capacity to see, after correction, is limited, impaired, or absent and results in one or more of the following: reduced performance in visual acuity tasks; difficulty with written communication; and/or difficulty with understanding information presented visually in the education environment. The term includes students who are blind and students with limited vision.
Deafblind – Concomitant hearing and visual impairments, the combination of which causes severe communication and other developmental and educational needs.
(e) Neurological Impairment – The capacity of the nervous system is limited or impaired with difficulties exhibited in one or more of the following areas: the use of memory, the control and use of cognitive functioning, sensory and motor skills, speech, language, organizational skills, information processing, affect, social skills, or basic life functions. The term includes students who have received a traumatic brain injury.
(f) Emotional Impairment – As defined under federal law at 34 CFR §300.8(c)(4), the student exhibits one or more of the following characteristics over a long period of time and to a marked degree that adversely affects educational performance: an inability to learn that cannot be explained by intellectual, sensory, or health factors; an inability to build or maintain satisfactory interpersonal relationships with peers and teachers; inappropriate types of behavior or feelings under normal circumstances; a general pervasive mood of unhappiness or depression; or a tendency to develop physical symptoms or fears associated with personal or school problems. The determination of disability shall not be made solely because the student’s behavior violates the school’s discipline code, because the student is involved with a state court or social service agency, or because the student is socially maladjusted, unless the Team determines that the student has a serious emotional disturbance.
(g) Communication Impairment – The capacity to use expressive and/or receptive language is significantly limited, impaired, or delayed and is exhibited by difficulties in one or more of the following areas: speech, such as articulation and/or voice; conveying, understanding, or using spoken, written, or symbolic language. The term may include a student with impaired articulation, stuttering, language impairment, or voice impairment if such impairment adversely affects the student’s educational performance.
(h) Physical Impairment – The physical capacity to move, coordinate actions, or perform physical activities is significantly limited, impaired, or delayed and is exhibited by difficulties in one or more of the following areas: physical and motor tasks; independent movement; performing basic life functions. The term shall include severe orthopedic impairments or impairments caused by congenital anomaly, cerebral palsy, amputations, and fractures, if such impairment adversely affects a student’s educational performance.
(i) Health Impairment – A chronic or acute health problem such that the physiological capacity to function is significantly limited or impaired and results in one or more of the following: limited strength, vitality, or alertness including a heightened alertness to environmental stimuli resulting in limited alertness with respect to the educational environment. The term shall include health impairments due to asthma, attention deficit disorder or attention deficit with hyperactivity disorder, diabetes, epilepsy, a heart condition, hemophilia, lead poisoning, leukemia, nephritis, rheumatic fever, and sickle cell anemia, if such health impairment adversely affects a student’s educational performance.
(j) Specific Learning Disability – The term means a disorder in one or more of the basic psychological processes involved in understanding or in using language, spoken or written, that may manifest itself in an imperfect ability to listen, think speak, read, write, spell, or to do mathematical calculations. Use of the term shall meet all federal requirements given in federal law at 34 CFR §§300.8(c)(10) and 300.309.
New Hampshire and Federal Education Law
Unlike Massachusetts, New Hampshire education law simply defers to the federal educational definitions of disability, but then adds two more categories not found in the federal law. The federal special education disability categories are as follows: mental retardation, a hearing impairment (including deafness), a speech or language impairment, a visual impairment (including blindness), a serious emotional disturbance (referred to in this part as “emotional disturbance”), an orthopedic impairment, autism, traumatic brain injury, an other health impairment, a specific learning disability, deaf-blindness, or multiple disabilities, and who, by reason thereof, needs special education and related services. 34 CFR 300.8. The extensive definitions are as follows:
(i) Autism means a developmental disability significantly affecting verbal and nonverbal communication and social interaction, generally evident before age three, that adversely affects a child’s educational performance. Other characteristics often associated with autism are engagement in repetitive activities and stereotyped movements, resistance to environmental change or change in daily routines, and unusual responses to sensory experiences.
(ii) Autism does not apply if a child’s educational performance is adversely affected primarily because the child has an emotional disturbance, as defined in paragraph (c)(4) of this section.
(iii) A child who manifests the characteristics of autism after age three could be identified as having autism if the criteria in paragraph (c)(1)(i) of this section are satisfied.
(2) Deaf-blindness means concomitant hearing and visual impairments, the combination of which causes such severe communication and other developmental and educational needs that they cannot be accommodated in special education programs solely for children with deafness or children with blindness.
(3) Deafness means a hearing impairment that is so severe that the child is impaired in processing linguistic information through hearing, with or without amplification that adversely affects a child’s educational performance.
(i) Emotional disturbance means a condition exhibiting one or more of the following characteristics over a long period of time and to a marked degree that adversely affects a child’s educational performance:
(A) An inability to learn that cannot be explained by intellectual, sensory, or health factors.
(B) An inability to build or maintain satisfactory interpersonal relationships with peers and teachers.
(C) Inappropriate types of behavior or feelings under normal circumstances.
(D) A general pervasive mood of unhappiness or depression.
(E) A tendency to develop physical symptoms or fears associated with personal or school problems.
(ii) Emotional disturbance includes schizophrenia. The term does not apply to children who are socially maladjusted, unless it is determined that they have an emotional disturbance under paragraph (c)(4)(i) of this section.
(5) Hearing impairment means an impairment in hearing, whether permanent or fluctuating, that adversely affects a child’s educational performance but that is not included under the definition of deafness in this section.
(6) Mental retardation means significantly subaverage general intellectual functioning, existing concurrently with deficits in adaptive behavior and manifested during the developmental period, that adversely affects a child’s educational performance.
(7) Multiple disabilities means concomitant impairments (such as mental retardation-blindness or mental retardation-orthopedic impairment), the combination of which causes such severe educational needs that they cannot be accommodated in special education programs solely for one of the impairments. Multiple disabilities does not include deaf-blindness.
(8) Orthopedic impairment means a severe orthopedic impairment that adversely affects a child’s educational performance. The term includes impairments caused by a congenital anomaly, impairments caused by disease (e.g., poliomyelitis, bone tuberculosis), and impairments from other causes (e.g., cerebral palsy, amputations, and fractures or burns that cause contractures).
(9) Other health impairment means having limited strength, vitality, or alertness, including a heightened alertness to environmental stimuli, that results in limited alertness with respect to the educational environment, that–
(i) Is due to chronic or acute health problems such as asthma, attention deficit disorder or attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, diabetes, epilepsy, a heart condition, hemophilia, lead poisoning, leukemia, nephritis, rheumatic fever, sickle cell anemia, and Tourette syndrome; and
(ii) Adversely affects a child’s educational performance.
(10) Specific learning disability.
(i) General. Specific learning disability means a disorder in one or more of the basic psychological processes involved in understanding or in using language, spoken or written, that may manifest itself in the imperfect ability to listen, think, speak, read, write, spell, or to do mathematical calculations, including conditions such as perceptual disabilities, brain injury, minimal brain dysfunction, dyslexia, and developmental aphasia.
(ii) Disorders not included. Specific learning disability does not include learning problems that are primarily the result of visual, hearing, or motor disabilities, of mental retardation, of emotional disturbance, or of environmental, cultural, or economic disadvantage.
(11) Speech or language impairment means a communication disorder, such as stuttering, impaired articulation, a language impairment, or a voice impairment, that adversely affects a child’s educational performance.
(12) Traumatic brain injury means an acquired injury to the brain caused by an external physical force, resulting in total or partial functional disability or psychosocial impairment, or both, that adversely affects a child’s educational performance. Traumatic brain injury applies to open or closed head injuries resulting in impairments in one or more areas, such as cognition; language; memory; attention; reasoning; abstract thinking; judgment; problem-solving; sensory, perceptual, and motor abilities; psychosocial behavior; physical functions; information processing; and speech. Traumatic brain injury does not apply to brain injuries that are congenital or degenerative, or to brain injuries induced by birth trauma.
(13) Visual impairment including blindness means an impairment in vision that, even with correction, adversely affects a child’s educational performance. The term includes both partial sight and blindness.
New Hampshire specifically references the federal definition (Ed 1102.01(t)(1)), but then also includes developmental delays and acquired brain injury as two additional categories. Ed 1102.01(t)(2 – 3).
The Law Office of James M. Baron represents students and parents in special education and other school-related legal matters throughout Massachusetts and New Hampshire. Please visit http://www.lawbaron.com, or call 781-209-1166 for more information.
A statute of limitations defines how long you have to bring a legal action. With special education matters, if you are going to file for a due process hearing, the general rule is that you have 2 years to file for a hearing regarding any alleged violation. 20 U.S.C. § 1415(b)(6)(B). If you make a unilateral placement (i.e. make a “unilateral” decision to enroll your child in a private school without school district approval), NH has significantly limited the time period that is allowed for filing for a hearing related to that placement. In particular, New Hampshire allows just 90 days for filing for a hearing regarding the unilateral placement. RSA 186-C:16-b. The 90 days runs from the date the unilateral placement is made. Further complicating this is that the date of the unilateral placement is not always clearcut. For example, is it:
- The date that the parents applied to the private school?
- The date that the private school accepted the student?
- The date that the parents returned the acceptance letter to the private school?
- The date that the parents sent in their first deposit to the private school?
- The date that payment was made in full?
- The date that the parents notified the public school district that they were withdrawing their child from the public school, and enrolling him or her at the private school?
Parents might have a bit of a reprieve from the 90 day burden if the school district did not provide the parents with notice of their special education rights, which they usually do at least annually. If notice was not given, then the 90 days would not start running until proper notice is given to the parents.
The exact wording of the NH law is:
186-C:16-b Due Process Hearing; Appeal. –I. Any action against a local school district seeking to enforce special education rights under state or federal law shall be commenced by requesting an administrative due process hearing from the department of education within 2 years of the date on which the alleged violation was or reasonably should have been discovered.
II. Notwithstanding the provisions of paragraph I, any action against a local school district to recover the costs of a unilateral special education placement shall be commenced by requesting an administrative due process hearing from the department of education within 90 days of the unilateral placement.
III. Where the parent, legal guardian or surrogate parent has not been given proper written notice of special education rights pursuant to 20 U.S.C. section 1415(d), including notice of the time limitations established in this section, such limitations shall run from the time notice of those rights is properly given. The department of education shall make available a model notice of rights which school districts may use as one means of complying with this paragraph.