What are the three prongs of eligibility in the school setting that help a student qualify for services?
For anyone who has had an outpatient provider, a parent, a teacher, etc. ask why a certain student does not qualify for services, it is important to know that in the school setting eligibility is based on three prongs. It is not just the presence of a disability.
Prong 1 addresses the question, “Is there a disability”? Is the child eligible for a speech-language impairment under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA)? We need a good assessment that takes into account the student’s academic and functional performance, as well as their language knowledge, in order to make this determination.
In schools, we also have to determine which disability is the most applicable under IDEA's 13 categories of disability. This is equally important. For example, we need to be able to differentiating a real lack of pragmatic knowledge from other deficits that may impact the ability to consistently demonstrate pragmatic knowledge, or other syndromes or conditions that have similar characteristics.
In terms of eligibility, there is some variation from state to state, and to a certain degree, from district to district. Generally, the findings must fall within the moderate range.
Prong 2 asks, “Is there an adverse effect on educational performance?” This is why the assessment data needs to include information related to academic and functional performance. Again, this may seem like an odd question to anyone not in the school setting, it is possible to have an impairment that is not affecting the student academically or functionally yet, especially in younger grades.
Also, the IEP goals in the school setting have to relate to educational performance in some way. For example, many parents ask the IEP team about helping their child develop friendships. It is important to talk about the development of skills that are necessary for having friends as well as being a friend. In other words, it is difficult to have friends if the student cannot jointly attend to an activity with his/her peers, or if they struggle to have conversations. So, the SLP can address those needs through the IEP by working on joint attention, perspective taking, improving the ability to ask questions, and so on.
What is educational performance? What does that term really mean? IDEA does not use the word “academics” to define educational performance, nor is it defined by the Office of Special Education Programs. In fact, both of these federal entities have chosen consistently not to define it. The Office of Special Education Programs wants schools to consider progress with both academic and non-academic skills when determining whether a child's impairment adversely affects his or her educational performance.
To round out the three prongs of eligibility, the third prong is determining if specially-designed instruction or services are needed in order to help the student make progress in the general education curriculum. This is where we begin considering services: which services; who is going to provide the service; the amount of service; where the service will be provided; and so on.
So, when thinking about the three prongs of eligibility, these are three very complex questions.
Please refer to the SpeechPathology.com course, Pragmatics and Social Communication: Educational Impact, for more in-depth information on how social communication impacts the goal of education and the difference between academic performance and functional performance.