As practitioners in special education, we are all familiar with IEP meetings. Meetings often follow a familiar format in which we begin by greeting families, exchanging pleasantries, and collecting signatures for attendance and provision of the procedural safeguard notice (PSN). Within this introductory content, however, I would argue that we continually miss an opportunity to address a valuable tool. That quick stroke of the pen for PSNs is often an automatic process, but are we truly looking at what these documents contain? How families receive them? And—dare I say it—have we read them ourselves?
As practitioners we tend to move through the signing of PSNs with little thought. Often, the brevity of signing is due to time constraints: team members must hurry to the next student on their caseload, parents need to return to work, and we worry about unnecessarily dragging on meetings. We also may not cover the content for fear of exacerbating an already tense situation, or worse, overwhelming a parent who is being confronted for the first time with the acknowledgement that their child may have a disability. While these concerns are certainly valid, they should not supersede a parent’s right to understanding their procedural safeguards. As we move through meetings there is a tendency to assume that signing for receipt of the PSN also indicates understanding of it. These disparate actions, however, should not be conflated.
PSNs are mandated through IDEA and are often written in a manner that is so complex that, in order to understand them with 100% comprehension, an individual requires a reading level equivalent to a graduate or professional degree. When we consider that most individuals in the US read at an 8th grade level or below, the disparity is startling. While a few states have made attempts at family friendly versions (good job Ohio) the vast majority remain inaccessible to the majority of families. Until sweeping changes are made at the federal or state level, most PSNs will remain inequitable.
Why does understanding the PSN matter? It matters because we know that when parents understand their rights, it results in better outcomes for students. We also know the value that parents bring as members of the IEP team and the critical need for informed decision-making. Practitioners cannot be held solely responsible for ensuring that parents understand their rights, however, there are simple and measurable actions we can take to address understanding of PSNs. The following are the top 5 dos and don’ts for procedural safeguard notices:
1. Present the PSN as if it doesn’t matter.
This document is important and simply the context in which it is received can impact readability. Talk about it seriously. Avoid:
- Jokes–“If you need something to fall asleep to, read this!”
- Flippant remarks–“A bit of housekeeping before we get started.”
- Outright dismissals–“I know no one reads this but I have to offer you a copy.”
2. Ask parents to read what you have not read.
These documents are difficult to read, even for professionals. Take some time to look through it. Do you understand it? Do you know the contents? Some practitioners have reported sharing information they believed was in the document but, upon actually reading it, were surprised to learn it was not. We cannot advocate for families if we do not know the content ourselves.
3. Assume that parents are familiar with the PSN.
Even if the family has spent years involved in the special education system, that does not necessarily mean they understand the notice, have read it, or know its contents. Participation is not a guarantee of knowledge.
4. Minimize the benefits of parents knowing their rights.
Parents who know their rights have significantly more positive relationships with school staff, fewer school conflicts, more adherence to IDEA for their child, and better student educational outcomes. Unreadable procedural safeguard notices mean that families who know their rights can gain one set of services and those who do not may end up with an entirely different set of services for their child. It is unreasonable and inequitable that knowledge of rights is the key to providing effective services rather than the true needs of the child.
5. Assume that parents have access to other resources.
You might be fortunate enough to work for a district or organization that offers supplemental resources. You might also assume that families can find and have time to read sites like Understood or Wrightslaw. For many families, however, these resources are unavailable, inaccessible, or just as confusing as the PSN (this may be especially true for families whose preferred language is not English). Offer support with the knowledge that you may be the only resource a family has.
1. Learn the contents of the PSN.
All states must follow IDEA regulations about required contents of the PSN. As you learn the contents, do so with the mindset that when families know their rights they become better informed participants. When families are informed then they can make key decisions about their child’s education. This approach is important as family members must be seen as equal members of the IEP team, not us as the experts and them as the guest.
2. Create time within IEP and related meetings to address the PSN and its contents.
Instead of quickly obtaining a signature so the meeting can move to the ‘real’ subject matter, reframe the PSN as an important tool for families that you will work together to navigate. As these documents can be particularly long, it may be appropriate to begin with an overview of contents. During the overview, notice if a particular section has real-world application for a child (such as procedures for discipline) or a family shows specific interest in a topic (such as how to obtain an independent evaluation).
3. Be mindful of your own writing and its readability level.
Use the readability function on your word processor to help keep your own writing of reports and IEPs at a 7th grade level or below. For example, MS Word offers readability statistics with Flesch Reading Ease and Flesh-Kincaid Grade Level. You can read more about these tools here. If you must use a technical term be sure to define it.
4. Become aware of parent information meetings within your organization and community (or help to create one!).
Does your district or organization offer opportunities for parents to learn their rights? If they do, make sure you know when and where these are offered. Offer to assist families in signing up so that they can attend. If no such meetings are offered, become an advocate and inquire about the possibility of creating them (or adding the content into other existing meetings). Have consideration for creating accessibility including:
- Recordings for those who cannot attend
- Multiple days and times during non-work hours
- Options for childcare
- Printed materials for review
- Contact information for further one-on-one support
5. Encourage families and fellow practitioners to speak out about the inequity of PSNs.
Little will change unless we make our collective voices heard. Begin by encouraging coworkers and families to partner with reputable and long-standing organizations that are known to advocate for children with disabilities. A good start for finding these partnerships is to locate your state’s federally mandated Community Parent Resource Center (CPRC) or federally designated Parent Training and Information Center (PTIC).
As practitioners we strive to serve not only students, but their families as well. IDEA has designated PSNs to serve as a primary source documents for informing parents of their rights. It must, therefore, be made equitable and accessible to all parents who receive it. Until we have achieved this goal, those of us on the frontline who distribute PSNs can use these recommendations to help guide and inform families.