It's anxiety time. Summer is around the corner, and the crunch of Individualized Education Plan (IEP) season has started. You, like untold thousands of parents of struggling learners, might be antagonizing over another summer slide: "This summer, will Harold again forget so much of what he learned that he'll struggle for months to relearn it? Will this cement his resistance to learning?"

The summer slide

It might. Having to spend two or more months relearning what so many of his peers already know may isolate and embarrass him, push him further and further behind them, and intensify his frustration and feeling of inadequacy.

But if he's properly educated over the summer — in ways that adapt to his IEP's Present Levels of Academic Achievement and Functional Performance (PLAAFP), his social and motivational needs, and his comfortable independent and instructional levels he's unlikely to suffer the summer slide.

Reading disabilities

Let's look at reading disabilities, which include dyslexia and difficulties with reading comprehension.

If Harold's program focuses on worksheets and round-robin reading, where children take turns reading orally, will that work for him? Will dependence on any commercially-packaged program do? Will lots of lecture and intense seat work accelerate his achievement?

The answers: No, no and no. Such programs can open the door to the summer slide.

Worksheet after worksheet after worksheet and interminable rounds of round-robin reading often bore or embarrass struggling readers, entrenching unhealthy habits and sapping their motivation to learn. Moreover, no compelling body of independent research supports avalanches of worksheets or the effectiveness of round-robin reading. The same holds true for dependence on any one commercially-packaged reading program or dependence on lengthy lectures and intense seat work.

Professor Richard Allington, an outstanding researcher and policy expert on reading difficulties, offers this set of instructional recommendations that should characterize the vast majority of extended school year (ESY) reading programs. He recommends that "Every day every child ...

  • Reads something they choose (increases motivation)
  • Reads something accurately (e.g., 99 percent word recognition)
  • Reads something they understand (e.g., 90 percent reading comprehension)
  • Writes about something that is meaningful to them (that they can relate to)
  • Talks to peers about their reading and writing
  • Listens to a fluent adult read aloud (which models desired reading rate and expression)."

In addition to these instructional recommendations, recommendations that can turn attitudes of defeat into highly-motivated "Yes, I can. Yes, I will" attitudes, it's important that struggling readers also have plenty of time for physical activities they enjoy, such as running, playing basketball or exercising to motivating music.

But do enjoyable physical activities just waste time or do they offer critical benefits? According to the Journal of Clinical Psychiatry's Primary Care Companion, "Exercise improves mental health by reducing anxiety, depression, and negative mood and by improving self-esteem and cognitive function. ... Aerobic exercises, including jogging, swimming, cycling, walking, gardening and dancing, have been proved to reduce anxiety and depression."

All in all, this can lessen resistance to reading instruction while strengthening motivation.

Extended school year eligibility

Widely believed myths assert that only two types of struggling learners are eligible for ESY services: students with severe (extreme) disabilities and students with severe regression problems so severe that it will take them far more than three months to relearn what they forgot. As many state departments of education have informed schools and parents, these widespread beliefs are wrong. Teams must consider additional factors.

To this end, the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction issued a memorandum listing factors the Federal courts had ruled important in considering ESY eligibility. In other words, IEP teams cannot summarily dismiss these factors as irrelevant to ESY decisions.

"Consistent with the Seventh Circuit, the Tenth Circuit explained in Johnson v. Independent School District Number 4, 921 F.2d 1022 (10th Cir. 1990), that multiple factors are relevant in considering a child's need for ESY services. The court listed possible factors to consider, including but not limited to: the degree of impairment, the degree of regression suffered by the child, the recovery time from this regression, the ability of the child's parents to provide the educational structure at home, the child's rate of progress, the child's behavioral and physical problems, the availability of alternative resources, the ability of the child to interact with nonhandicapped children, the areas of the child's curriculum which need continuous attention, the child's vocational needs, and whether the requested service is extraordinary for the child's condition, as opposed to an integral part of a program for those with the child's condition."

Wisconsin's memorandum continued:

"This list is not intended to be exhaustive, nor is it intended that each element would impact planning for each child's IEP. Accordingly, the department recommends that districts consider all appropriate factors in determining whether the benefits accrued to a child during the regular school year will be significantly jeopardized if the child is not provided ESY services."

Not surprisingly, other states, like New Jersey, have published similar documents. Moreover, with the Supreme Court's March 2017 decision, Endrew F. v. Douglas County, and students' anguishing struggles to retain and apply knowledge and skills, it's possible (but uncertain) that IEP teams may endorse more ESY programs.

As Endrew F. v. Douglas concluded:

"The IEP must aim to enable the child to make progress. After all, the essential function of an IEP is to set out a plan for pursuing academic and functional advancement. ... When all is said and done, a student offered an educational program providing ‘merely more than de minimis’ [trivial or minor] progress from year to year can hardly be said to have been offered an education at all. For children with disabilities, receiving instruction that aims so low would be tantamount to 'sitting idly ... awaiting the time when they were old enough to drop out' ... Every child should have the chance to meet challenging objectives."

The crush of time

In March or sooner, parents and school personnel should begin to explicitly discuss the specifics of learners' ESY needs. If disagreements arise, this will prevent many problems caused by the "crush of time," a phenomenon often responsible for poor decisions or an inability to appeal a school's decision.

In Ruesch v. Fountain, the federal district court concluded:

"The deferral of decisions on a systematic basis must cease. Because of the academic year calendar, decisions must be made on the best available data if complete information is not available sufficiently early to preserve the ability of the child to pursue procedural rights of review. Disabled children can no longer have their right to obtain appropriate ESY during the summer recess blocked by [a district's] delays in making decisions."

2 suggestions

Suggestion 1: To start the eligibility and program planning processes, I recommend that in mid-February you mail and email a request for an ESY to your child's case manager.

In your request, ask for copies of and an explanation of all the district's objective progress monitoring data on your child for the last three years. Also, request a meeting to analyze and discuss the data with a district representative who knows your child and fully understands the data. If possible, carefully consider the data for spring and fall as this information may answer any questions about summer regression and fall recoupment.

Suggestion 2: Don't quickly review your child's IEP and progress reports. Instead, study them carefully and study his quarterly progress for each goal (and in some states, objectives). This includes any of his teachers' comments. Ask yourself, "Did he clearly meet his goals? Is there a clear trend?"

Additional comments

For many struggling learners, including struggling readers, quality ESY programs are essential. Some school administrators and IEP team members agree and advocate for quality ESY programs. Others simply adhere to pressures to save money and "keep the flood gates closed."

Thus, it's critical for parents of struggling learners to keep monitoring their children's progress, understand their needs, educate themselves about special education laws and establish ongoing communication and positive relationships with their children's IEP teams.

Though these tasks take considerable work and will not eradicate all anxiety from your life, they will greatly increase your odds of getting whatever ESY program your child needs. Knowing your child's rights, knowing what your child needs and taking appropriate actions should help to lessen your anxiety about his ESY. Good luck.