Considering Alternative Placements
Some children who have mental health needs or who meet the eligibility for EBD receive their education in separate programs. It is possible that some children need this type of setting to function successfully. However, such restrictive placements are appropriate only if a child’s needs indicate the setting is appropriate.
Services must be provided in a child’s least restrictive environment (LRE). The general education classroom in the regular school is the preferred placement, with services and accommodations provided there. Accommodations and services include positive behavior supports, adjustments in the curriculum, or assistance from a special education teacher. If a child still is not successful, the team may then consider a different setting. Some children with mental health disorders really need special treatment settings. However, no child should spend his or her entire school career in such settings if the parents and child want to try a less restrictive program.
Parents should ask questions before deciding what to do about placing their child in a more restrictive setting. It will be useful to know what interventions have been tried to keep the student in a regular school setting, and what worked or did not work.
Questions to think about when considering a more restrictive placement are:
- What are my child’s problem behaviors?
Terms like “acting out” or “disrespectful” are vague in describing behavior. Specific examples of my child’s behavior are more helpful. Individuals respond differently to the same behaviors. What is considered disrespectful in one setting may be ignored in another.
- What data has been collected on the problem behaviors?
How serious are the behaviors? How do they compare to the behaviors of others in the same place?
- How do different environments affect the behaviors?
Where do the major problems occur? Why? Are the problems related to the size of the class, to student-teacher differences, or to the curriculum?
- Are there places where the behaviors are not a problem?
Why? Knowing where good behavior occurs can give parents and staff ideas about how to provide that same support in other places.
- What positive interventions have been used to correct the behavior?
Positive interventions include demonstrating examples of appropriate behavior, rewards or incentives, or modified curriculum.
- What interventions were the most useful?
What interventions were the least useful? What else could be tried? If school staff do not have more ideas, could mental health specialists be asked to generate additional suggestions?
- How often will the IEP team review a more restrictive placement?
What is the role of families in the review?
- Will a more restrictive environment allow for more intensive interventions to work on the problems my child is having?
Will the placement result in resolving the problems earlier?
Some parents agree that their child needs a different setting or program but are not sure what is appropriate. Before agreeing to a change, parents should visit the proposed setting or program. It will be important to talk with staff and view the program while school is in session.
Questions to think about when the school suggests a move to a more restrictive placement:
- Can my child be placed in the setting for a trial period of several weeks or a month?
Why or why not?
- How long does an average student stay in the setting?
The school will have records of the program’s success rate and should willingly share this data with parents.
- What is a typical school day like in the new setting or program?
- Do most students transfer back to their home schools or home districts?
Will there be a transition plan to help my child re-enter the home school successfully?
- Is the academic program strong in the proposed setting or program?
Does it use the same curriculum as my child’s regular school? Does it meet the state graduation standards and local district expectations? Does it have a good academic record?
- Does the new setting or program use the same grading schedule as the regular school?
What will this mean for transferring credits? Are there credits that will not transfer? Why?
- Are activities relating to my child’s special skills (sports, band, etc.) available in the new setting or program?
If not, how will the school meet these needs?
- Does the school provide vocational evaluation, vocational training, or work experience?
Some students do well in programs that provide a balance between academic and vocational services.
- What are the criteria for leaving the program once my child is placed?
This is really the role of the IEP team. Determinations should not be based on “program rules,” but on the collaboration and decision making of the IEP team. Parents are members of the team that makes this important decision, and they have the right to agree or disagree with team recommendations.
Some children may need a more intensive program, such as day treatment, to meet the emotional and behavioral needs of the child. The focus of a day treatment program is to stabilize the child’s mental health. This is a site-based placement that includes mental health therapy and behavioral skills training for children and youth who are not succeeding in their regular school setting due to mental health, emotional, or behavioral challenges.
In some day treatment programs, part of the day is spent on mental health treatment provided by mental health professionals, and the remaining hours are spent on academic instruction provided by licensed teachers. Day treatment programs are held Monday through Friday with the overarching goal to return the child to a less restrictive program.
There are also day treatment programs that provide mental health services only. In this case, academic education is provided by the resident district in a separate location.
Questions parents should consider include:
- Does the day treatment program include education?
- If it does include education, what subjects will be taught and how will my child make progress toward graduation?
- How will the day treatment program communicate with the resident school district regarding course work and credits when my child is discharged?
- If the day treatment program does not include an educational component, how will my child receive instruction on their academic subjects?
- Who is responsible for transporting my child to day treatment?
Children receive services in the least restrictive setting in which they can be successful. When a child cannot succeed in any of the available regular school settings, the IEP team may consider residential placement.
Residential treatment centers are places where education and mental health services generally have equal importance in a child’s day. Placement in a residential treatment center for educational reasons must be done at no cost to parents. If the placement is made by a different agency for mental health reasons, the school district is responsible for the education services, but not the cost of room and board, therapy, or medical treatment.
There may be opposing viewpoints:
- Some may argue that therapy is a related service and should be provided by the school. If the student needs a residential placement to make academic progress, then the school should pay for the placement.
- Others may suggest that therapy is not “educational” but is “medical treatment.” They may believe that schools are not required to provide those services.
Most parents and professionals agree that the responsibility of education is to prepare youth to achieve the standards that will permit them to graduate and move into their chosen post-high school environment (college, vocational training, community living, employment, etc.).
When the school has tried various settings and programs, and a youth has not made expected educational progress because of his or her disability, the school’s obligation is to continue to explore alternatives. Any programs in this instance would be at no cost to the youth or parents, including day treatment programs or residential treatment.
Sometimes youths will be placed in secure or nonsecure residential placements because they have broken the law. Regardless of why youths with disabilities are placed in juvenile or adult correction programs, they have the same legal rights as all other children to an appropriate education. Services must be sufficient to permit them to maintain their grade placement in school, meet state educational standards, and receive special education and related services that meet their needs. What is different about this kind of placement is that it is determined by the courts and not by an IEP team. The role of the IEP team is to determine the services that will be needed in a correctional placement.
Education Services in Alternative Placements
Not all students in separate programs, day treatment, correctional, or residential placements need special education or related services. All, however, are entitled to an appropriate education program. This includes children in temporary residential placements, such as shelter care.
Attitudes about the importance of education vary widely among residential treatment centers. Some may try to maintain a student at or near grade level. Others provide services that permit students to study for a General Educational Development (GED) exam. Still others believe that education is not very important when a child is in crisis and may provide only minimal educational services.
Publicly funded educational programs in residential placements must meet state academic standards. Many teens need to earn credits to graduate from school. Some youth must repeat a grade because credit classes were not provided in their residential program. This should not be true if parents plan carefully. The following questions can help families decide if the residential center has an appropriate school program for their child:
- How much time each day will be spent on academic instruction?
- Is the teacher licensed in the areas of the student’s need?
Although there are many fine teachers in residential facilities, not all hold special education licensure. If a student with an IEP is placed in a residential facility, he or she must be provided services that meet state standards, including having the teachers meet licensing requirements.
- What subjects will be taught?
Is the curriculum the same as is used in the home school district? If not, why not? Is the teacher licensed in the instructional areas for which he or she is responsible?
- Does the residential program have a current credit transcript for the child?
What credits do high school youths need to earn to graduate from their home district? Are these courses available in the residential setting? If not, why not?
- Will the credits earned in a residential program be accepted in the home district?
How do I know? Who makes these decisions?
- How will the residential facility obtain a copy of my child’s current IEP?
- How often will the placement be evaluated?
Returning to School
Careful planning is essential for students who are returning from a separate program placement. Parents need to know in advance when the move is anticipated so they can help plan the transition to home and school.
Questions to think about are:
- Will my child go back to school full-time or part-time?
If the residential program is located near the child’s regular school, a transition plan may call for the student to gradually return to school by spending an hour or two a day there. Such collaboration may help to ease the stress of leaving a familiar program for one that provides less support.
- Will a teacher or therapist from the separate setting, treatment program, or residential setting attend the discharge planning meeting?
This kind of planning can make the return home smoother and less stressful.
- If a disability is suspected, does my child need to be evaluated for special education and 504 eligibility and services?
- If my child has a 504 Plan or an Individualized Education Program (IEP), is it updated to reflect the current needs of my child?
- Has the separate setting or program kept a record of credits for the home school district?
Will the staff make a written recommendation for a promotion to the next grade?
- How will records be transferred from the separate setting or program to the home school?
If possible, parents may want to hand-carry a copy of the records to the home school. This will help to avoid unnecessary delays in placement.
- In a situation where my child is discharged from a separate setting or program, will my child be placed in a “homebound” program?
Most children and youth need social and peer relationships. Students who are released from residential settings should be placed immediately in a school program. When a child is released from a residential setting without notice, a short-term “homebound” program may be used until school staff locate or develop an appropriate school program.
This practice should not be necessary if the IEP team meets before the release date. If parents agree to a temporary homebound program, it should be for no more than a week or two. The homebound placement requires formal parental consent and a signed, time-limited IEP.
- Will it be useful to create a support plan to help with re-entry?
When a student returns to the home school after a long absence, it can be hard to fit into school activities without support. A “buddy” system with another student or regular meetings with the guidance counselor are examples of support systems.
Next Section: Navigating the Education System Summary