Underachieving Students and the Child Study Team:  Determining Eligibility for Special Education Services

The ACIE Newsletter, May 2004, Vol. 7, No. 3

By Kristine M-W. Woelber

Kris Woelber (M.Ed.  in Special Education: Learning Disabilities, M.A. in ESL) has been a special education teacher for 12 years.  Her areas of certification are learning disabilities, emotional / behavioral disorders, elementary, and ESL education.  After teaching for four years overseas, Kris became the special education teacher and team leader at Normandale French Immersion Elementary School in Edina, MN.  Her recently completed M.A. research explores the processes and practices of one child study team whose task it is to determine special education eligibility.

From a special education perspective, the immersion education setting brings to light the daily challenges of teasing apart issues of language development and academic challenges that arise due to a learning disability.  The challenges that multidisciplinary teams face when determining if students qualify for special education services are many.  For educators making these decisions in an elementary language immersion setting, the issues become even more difficult and complex.  This study addresses the nature of the decision-making process in determining eligibility of special education services for elementary French immersion students with learning disabilities in accordance with a state department of education’s categorical label of Specific Learning Disability (SLD).  The research question explored in this study is: What is the nature of the decision-making process in determining eligibility for special education services in one early total French immersion school in the U.S.? The aim of this study is to observe and document this decision-making process.

A preliminary review of immersion, foreign language, and English as a second language research on this topic revealed the limited volume of detailed, immersion-specific information currently available to educators.  Moreover, all of the existing research involving immersion programs came from studies carried out in Canada.  Thus, any explanation of the process of adhering to a particular state’s guidelines throughout the prereferral process, a U.S.-specific consideration, was lacking.  For example, this study’s state guidelines specify three preconditions for student eligibility for special education services under the categorical label of SLD.  There must be:  1) a discrepancy in ability (I.Q.) and academic achievement, 2) evidence of severe underachievement in the classroom setting, and 3) a noted information processing condition.  Providing evidence for all three of the domains in onecontent area, such as math, reading and / or written language, qualifies a student for special education services under the categorical label of SLD (Minnesota Department of Children, Families & Learning, 1999).


The research methodology that corresponds to this research question is the case study – a research design particularly well-suited to exploring educational phenomena.  In this instance, the focus is on the policies and procedures of the school’s Child Study Team (CST) that result in a multidisciplinary team assessment and determination of SLD special education services.  Thus, the CST’s decision-making process and comprehensive assessment practices make up the bounded unit, or rather, the case understudy.  To strengthen reliability and validity, the case study approach entails a rich description of this process, enabling the reader to make comparisons across settings.  Additionally, triangulation – whereby the researcher seeks multiple participant perspectives on a case through a variety of data collection techniques – strengthens study finding (Merriam, 1998).

Individual interview and focus group data, as well as current document review are used to construct a holistic description of one immersion school’s process and reflect the observations and understandings among various CST members, as well as parents whose children qualified for SLD services.  CST members included the school principal, psychologist, special education teacher, speech / language pathologist, social worker, Foundations of Learning / Success Center lead teacher, nurse and three immersion teachers.  As the school’s special education teacher and coordinator of the CST, the researcher’s own observations and understandings are also incorporated into the study.


This study takes place in a K-5 early total French immersion school in the Midwest.  Established in 1990, K- Grade 2 students in this school receive academic instruction only in their second language, French.  Specialist classes, such as art, music and physical education are instructed in the students’ first language, English.  As of third grade, English language arts instruction is scheduled 70 minutes a day; this amount of English instruction continues throughout the fourth and fifth grades.  This school adheres to the same curriculum that is followed by the other five elementary schools in this suburban district; however, most subject matter curriculum is taught in French.  Approximately 575 students attend this school.  Over 95% of the student body speak English as their first language and English is also the language spoken in their homes and in the community at large.  The majority of parents have no formal education in the language of French; they have chosen this program in an effort to provide their child with an education that includes the goal of proficiency in a second language.  There are approximately 35 teachers on staff and 25 students per class.  Other demographics that shed light on this student body are as follows: 1% are eligible for free or reduced lunch, 5% receive special education services, 2% speak a language other than English at home; and 95% are European American.


Results from this case study indicate that ten identifiable phases guide the decision-making process of the CST at this site.  These ten phases occur within a broader framework that includes three key events: 1.  Initial CST Meeting, 2. Follow-Up Activities for Initial CST Meeting, and 3. Implementation of Assessment Procedures.  An overview of these findings is presented below.  This report outlines what occurs in each of the ten phases and then discusses the main strengths and gaps of the current decision-making process as articulated by study participants.


    1. The teacher observes low student performance.
      • The referring teacher completes a pre-referral form for the next CST meeting agenda to discuss the student concerned.
    2. Gathered data are shared at the initial CST meeting.
      • The referring teacher presents her concerns about the student.
      • Specialist questionnaires, work samples, cumulative and health office files, and general parent concerns are discussed.
      • CST brainstorms classroom interventions / accommodations to be tried.
    3. Initial CST meeting concludes with follow-up plans in place.
      • CST determines who will be in contact with the parents.
      • CST determines if the student’s progress will be monitored while documenting interventions or schedules a parent meeting with select members of the CST.


    1. A meeting with the speech / language pathologist occurs (if determined necessary).
      • The speech / language pathologist will meet with a student who shows signs of significant receptive and / or expressive language processing weaknesses.  This observation is for the purpose of evaluating language development and making recommendations regarding the need for further assessment.
      • Written parent consent is necessary for the speech / language pathologist to meet with the child.
    2. Progress is monitored and interventions are documented.
      • This phase lasts for six to eight weeks.
      • At the end of the monitoring period, CST may meet again to discuss progress, and / or a parent meeting will be scheduled with select members of the CST and the referring teacher.
    3. Parent meeting is held.
      • All CST information is shared.
      • Any family / genetic learning difficulties and the home environment are discussed.
      • The child will continue to be monitored while interventions are documented or assessment procedures begin.


    1. An assessment plan is developed and an evaluation is completed (if determined necessary).
      • The multidisciplinary team creates an assessment plan that states the people involved and their responsibilities.
      • Parents give written consent to proceed with the evaluation.
      • Evaluation is completed according to due process timelines.
    2. All information is pulled together for the assessment feedback meeting.
      • A multidisciplinary team reviews the SLD eligibility worksheet in conjunction with assessment results and observations in both languages to determine if the student qualifies for SLD special education services.
      • Student progress is considered in Foundations of Learning / Success Center, if applicable.
      • Emotional / behavioral indicators are considered that may stem from the demands of a second language learning environment.
    3. Individualized Education Plan is developed.
      • If the student qualifies for special education services, another meeting is held to draft an Individualized Education Plan.
      • Services are provided in English with the special education teacher.
      • French paraprofessional support is provided for any special education student needing academic assistance, as well.
    4. The appropriateness of the immersion setting is discussed.
      • An opportunity is provided to dialogue with parents about this topic.
      • A support document titled “Possible Factors Influencing Student Performance in French Immersion” is used to facilitate this discussion (Vancouver School Board, 1995, pp.  1-3).  To review this document see p. 13.  For information on using the document or to order a copy for your school, see sidebar.


During data analysis, recurring themes identified by study participants emerged.

These themes highlighted both the strengths and gaps of the current decision-making process.  As for strengths, participants spoke to the value of having a process in place for seeking comprehensive, systematic input from professionals.  The school’s CST provided this with a multi-dimensional, clearly defined system for these immersion teachers to follow.  During the early phases of the process, the CST served to gather comprehensive student data, provide non-judgmental collegial support for teachers, and filter premature concerns, especially those of parents.  In the later stages of a comprehensive student assessment, the multidisciplinary team continued to probe for supporting information such as a genetic history of learning disabilities in the family, inattention, weak language processing skills or lower cognitive abilities.  In preparation for the assessment feedback meeting, CST members considered the effectiveness of support services already being offered.  They also made certain that assessment data included both first and second language learning tasks.  Gleaning additional information from a speech / language pathologist student observation, or a student interview with the social worker, was also found to be insightful.

An additional strength voiced by participants involved the availability of academic support services within the school in English and French.  Even before struggling students were recommended for an assessment, they had access to Foundations of Learning (FOL) / Success Center services.  FOL is an academic support program available during the school day for students who are underperforming in the areas of math and language arts.  It is separate from special education services.  Thus, during the time between the initial referral to the CST and in some cases the ultimate identification of a child as learning disabled, additional learning supports were present.  Remediation was also provided in French and / or English by licensed teaching staff or French paraprofessional support for as much as thirty minutes per day or week, depending on need.  Soliciting feedback from the FOL staff and support services teachers during the assessment phase was seen as invaluable.  Such feedback provided key information about the student’s status within the grade-level FOL group, for example, information about how a particular student was meeting projected trimester benchmarks relative to other struggling peers.  This helped team members distinguish between students that were likely experiencing a delay in their skill development versus those that were possibly learning disabled as evidenced by severe underachievement as well as an observable information processing condition.

A third strength repeatedly noted by study participants was the CST’s ongoing and sensitive interaction with the child’s parents.  Parents were involved every step of the way.  In the initial phases of the decision-making process, parents often needed a knowledgeable sounding board for their immediate concerns regarding language immersion issues.  A spokesperson from the CST, often the CST coordinator, psychologist or classroom teacher, helped the parents deal with these initial pressures and uncertainties.  Throughout the process, team members sought to help parents balance their concerns about academic achievement with a more developmental perspective.  They emphasized that some children take longer than others to learn to read and to grow into being a student.  Furthermore, years of experience in the immersion setting had led educators at this site to believe that the timeline for expected “typical” academic benchmarks may need to be extended when students are learning in a second language.  They find that it is important to inform parents that students with learning difficulties may need even more time to learn than other children (Mabbott, 1994); but this need not prevent them from learning a second language.  The CST was effective at addressing parent concerns and reducing the number of premature assessments and unnecessary transfers out of the program.


While several strengths were readily identified, participants also raised concerns and cited deficiencies in the current process.  For example, several CST members felt that there was insufficient information and discussion about a particular teacher’s curriculum planning and instructional practices.  Team members were often unclear about the kinds of instructional strategies that should be recommended for students who struggle academically.  Participants stated that it was a delicate balancing act to support a teacher and be sensitive to their needs, while at the same time advocating for changes within their classroom environment, and / or in their style or approach to teaching students who are struggling academically.  The current process could more thoroughly emphasize, as Baca (1990) would propose it should, the need for varied teaching strategies, learning activities and multiple ways to modify curriculum.  To improve, team members need to be more diligent in systematically using documents that offer specific suggestions and provide teachers with research-based instructional ideas.

In addition to the issue of instituting appropriate instructional adaptations, participants discussed concerns about testing practices.  Before beginning the assessment process, parents are informed that best practice in immersion schools, as well as second language research recommend that testing for possible learning difficulties be conducted in the child’s first language (English) in combination with other assessment tools that include a sampling of skills in both languages (Alberta Education, 1997).  To ensure reliability and validity, a number of state-mandated standardized testing instruments must be administered in English.  A standardized assessment in French-only is not advisable (Demers, 1994; Swain 1984; Wiss, 1987) until such instruments represent a national sample of French immersion children (Wiss, 1987).  However, reflecting on what would be considered best assessment practices in an immersion setting, French language diagnostic tests currently being used with Canadian French immersion students should be explored for possible use within this immersion program.  With these data a more complete profile of the child’s strengths and weaknesses in both languages would likely be obtained.

Alberta Education (1997) highlights the importance that “tests be interpreted by someone with a good theoretical understanding of the immersion approach, someone who is able to judge whether and to what degree the difficulties encountered are caused by transfer and interference between languages or by the natural delays to be expected during the first few years of instruction in a second language” (p.108).  This school’s CST is made up largely of monolingual English speakers, with little to no prior education in French or the language immersion context.  Given the importance of noting an information processing condition as part of meeting SLD criteria, it is interesting that this issue did not surface as a special challenge when determining eligibility for immersion learners   Because processing information is inextricably linked to processing language, determining an information processing condition for a learner who is processing information in a second language would seem highly complex.  In retrospect, this general oversight may reflect a lack of awareness of the complexity of processing a second language and its impact on learning and assessment results.  Second language programs, such as immersion schools, need to be sensitive to this information by providing training and support for a monolingual staff.  Close dialogue with bilingual people who are knowledgeable about second language acquisition and immersion education is necessary for special services teams in order that they might be more accurate with assessment procedures and interpretation of assessment outcomes.


Finding clarity within the complexity of these issues requires communication with the parents and a wide variety of educational specialists, observations of the child in diverse settings, viewing work samples in both languages, and proceeding with caution.  Comprehensive input and assessment data enrich the discussions when discerning if a child’s problems are environmental, developmental or related to neuropsychological functioning.  Initially, such information helps to determine if an assessment was appropriate; in the end, it helps to determine eligibility for SLD special education services.

It is hoped that all immersion schools have parent-sensitive Child Study Teams and interim support services available in both languages of instruction, but the reality may not be so.  Professional support services such as these are key to accurately diagnosing second language learners, or rather foreign language learners in the immersion context, with learning disabilities.  It can only be hoped that school districts will make the CST process a priority with each building staff and provide the necessary training and time for teachers to become effective problem solvers in their efforts to advocate for and instruct all dual language learners appropriately.

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