IDEA and English Language Learners

Transforming Schools for English Learners: A Comprehensive Framework for School Leaders

Administrators play an important role in shaping the policies and procedures for identifying the language and academic needs of English language learners (ELLs), particularly those that might have disabilities. In this excerpt from Chapter 7 of Transforming Schools for English Learners: A Comprehensive Framework for School Leaders, Debbie Zacarian offers an overview of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) and how it relates to ELLs.

What Is The Individuals With Disabilities Education Act?

In 1975, Congress enacted the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), which addresses the rights and educational needs of children with disabilities. The law has been amended several times, most recently in 2004. IDEA spans students’ education from birth to age 21. Under its regulations, each state is responsible for ensuring that its children receive a free evaluation to determine whether there is disability and the types of services that are needed when a disability is found.

It also requires that free services be provided when a disability is identified. IDEA applies to any state or local educational agency that accepts federal funding. The intent is that infants, toddlers, and students with disabilities will receive an education and related services that are designed and delivered to meet their individual learning needs so that they may be prepared for further schooling, work, and independent living (Hoover, Klingner, Baca, & Patton, 2007).

IDEA addresses several types of disabilities. From birth to age 3, these include delays in “cognitive, communicative, physical, social, emotional, and/or adaptive development as well as a physical or mental condition that is likely to cause a developmental delay” (National Dissemination Center for Children with Disabilities, 2009, p. 1). For ages 3 to 21, there are 13 different disability types: “autism; deaf-blindness; deafness; emotional disturbance; hearing impairment; mental retardation; multiple disabilities; orthopedic impairment; other health impairment; specific learning disabil­ity; speech or language impairment; traumatic brain injury; or visual impairment, including blindness” (National Dissemination Center for Children with Disabilities, 2009, p. 1). Students may also be classified by the severity of the disability, which generally ranges from mild to moder­ate to severe to profound.

English language learning is not a disability and cannot be regarded as such. However, one of the most significant reasons that ELs are often mis­diagnosed as having a disability is that some of the disability types, such as emotional and behavioral disabilities, mild to moderate mental retar­dation, speech impairment, and specific learning disability, are socially constructed categories (Baca, 1990). That is, these disabilities are often diag­nosed based on perceptions about how students interact with their envi­ronment or, conversely, how the environment interacts with them.

All too often, when the environment is not conducive to the linguistic and cultural needs of students, it is more likely that a student will be referred for a spe­cial education evaluation and a disability will be diagnosed. Indeed, approximately 90% of students with disabilities fall into these socially constructed categories (Baca, 1990).

Prior to the most recent reauthorization of IDEA, students could not receive supports or interventions unless they were diagnosed with a disability. This traditionally included the application of the Wechsler Intelligence Scale for Children (WISC-IV) and an evaluation of student per­formance in class, on report cards, and on other standardized tests. Propo­nents of the reauthorization argued that these tests were often biased against students from diverse cultural and linguistic communities and resulted in the misdiagnosis and labeling of students with disabilities (Artiles, Trent, & Palmer, 2004; Donovan & Cross, 2002; Klingner & Edwards, 2007).

The most recent reauthorization of IDEA allows schools to provide interventions before a student is referred for a special education evaluation. The purpose of these early interventions is to better ensure that students receive the supports that they need when they are needed so that fewer students will be referred and misdiagnosed as having a disability, especially students from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds.

Student Scenario: Li

Let’s look at two scenarios of the same student, Li, a five-year-old kin­dergartener, to illustrate the types of interventions that are now allowed under IDEA. As you read the first scenario, ask yourself if you think that Li has a disability or whether the problem is socially constructed. If it is the latter, what might the school have done to more effectively provide for Li’s instructional needs? As you read the second scenario, pay close attention to the steps that Li’s teacher takes to provide interventions that she and others think will be helpful. We begin with a short description of Li, which is followed by a description of the two different responses that the school took to address her behavior.

Li was born in a rural province outside of Beijing. Shortly after she was born, her parents moved to the United States to complete their graduate studies and left Li in China, entrusting her to the care of her paternal grandparents. During her first five years, Li spoke solely in Mandarin, her grandparents were her sole caretakers, and she did not attend preschool.

In August of her fifth year, her grandparents lovingly put Li on a plane bound for the United States, where she was reunited with her parents. Her parents’ plan was for Li to begin attending kindergarten in the local public school a few weeks after her arrival. Thinking that it was important for Li to begin speaking in English, her parents decided that it was important for them to communicate with her solely in English.

When Li arrived in the United States, she was unable to understand her parents or the English-speaking environment in which they lived. In frustration, she spent her first few weeks crying, having temper tantrums, and begging that she could return to her grandparents. When Li began attending kindergarten, she was placed in an English-only classroom where she was the sole Mandarin speaker. Because of limited time and scheduling conflicts, Li’s school allotted one 20-minute block of time per week for Li to receive ESL classes. The school justified this action based on the belief that kindergarten classes included a language-rich environment where ELs would flourish and that five-year-olds learned English quickly and without much help.

During Li’s first month in school, she rarely interacted with her peers, and when she did, it was usually to grab something from them. Her teacher frequently observed Li kicking other students and being unable to perform most of the tasks that were assigned. At the end of Li’s first month in school, her teacher held a parent conference to express the concerns that she had about Li’s poor academic progress and inappropriate behavior. At the meeting, Li’s parents told the teacher that Li was a “difficult” child.

Example 1

Thinking that a referral might be helpful, the teacher suggested that Li be referred to see whether she had a special education need. Her parents agreed with the teacher, thinking that the school knew what was best for their child. During the ensuing weeks, Li was tested in English by the school psychologist, speech and language therapist, and special educa­tor to determine whether she had a disability. By the end of her first term in kindergarten, Li was diagnosed as having significant emotional and cognitive disabilities. In addition to her kindergarten teacher, she began working with a speech and language therapist, the school counselor, and a special educator in an all-English learning environment. She rarely attended her kindergarten class with her peers. Rather, the specialists with whom she worked took Li out of class, where she received a variety of sup­ports that they believed were targeted for addressing her disabilities. When her teachers met with Li’s parents at the end of the school year, they recom­mended that Li repeat kindergarten. Her parents agreed with this plan.

Example 2

Li’s teacher asked the school counselor, psychologist, speech and language therapist, and special educator to join her in meeting with Li’s parents. Wanting more information about Li, the group asked her par­ents to describe what she had been like as a younger child. When they learned that Li had lived with her paternal grandparents in China and had not lived with her parents until just prior to enrolling in kindergarten, they asked if Li had heard or spoken English prior to arriving in the United States. They also asked Li’s parents if she had attended preschool. The teachers and specialists learned that Li spoke only in Mandarin, had not attended preschool, and had not had much contact with her parents during her first five years of life. A much clearer picture of Li emerged as a result of the meeting. Several prereferral interventions were recommended, including that Li speak in Mandarin at home and that her parents meet with the school counselor to discuss various parenting strategies.

In addi­tion, a Chinese interpreter was employed to work in Li’s kindergarten class to help Li understand her kindergarten environment and to support her in communicating with her teacher and peers. The school psychologist and counselor often visited with Li while during her lunch and helped her engage more appropriately with her peers. Li also received a more appro­priate amount of instruction in English language development: an hour per day from an ESL teacher. The kindergarten and ESL teachers collaborated closely and often codelivered lessons that they thought would benefit Li and her classmates. For example, during a unit about what makes a family, Li and her peers were encouraged to bring in family photos, draw pictures of their home, and use these visuals to talk about their family. Li brought in several photos of her grandparents and parents and drew some beautiful pictures of her home in China and in the United States. She readily shared these with her peers and began to converse in English more fluently.

By the close of her kindergarten year, Li was able to communicate in English, was working well with her peers, and was making remarkable progress. Her parents and teachers were delighted with her accomplishments, and plans were made for her to attend the first grade.

The two scenarios about the same student provide us with very helpful information about what is allowed under IDEA as well as the types of interventions that are important to consider. In the first scenario, Li’s teacher observed her behavior and performance in class and decided to refer her for a special education evaluation for two reasons: inappropriate behavior and poor school performance. When Li’s parents commented that she was a “difficult” child, it confirmed the kindergarten teacher’s assump­tions that Li had behavioral issues. Li was also tested solely in English despite the reality that she had not yet had the opportunity to learn English and was not able to do ordinary class work in English.

It is likely that she was tested using a discrepant model whereby her performance on tests (such as the WISC-IV) was used to compare how well she did in compari­son with particular test norms. As stated earlier, the process of misidentify­ing and making assumptions about ELs is an altogether common dilemma and has led to national concern about the high incidence of overidentifying ELs as having disabilities. The first scenario provides an example of mis­identifying an EL as having a disability as well as a rush to judgment.

The second scenario shows us the steps that can be taken to help a student such as Li be successful in school.

Providing sound general education programming before referring students for a special education evaluation

In the second scenario, Li’s school took time to examine the effectiveness of its programming. It found that it was not providing ELs in kindergarten with enough ESL instructional time. It increased Li’s ESL class time from 30 minutes per week to an hour per day. Also, it was seen that Li could not grasp the instructional program because it was delivered solely in English. A bilingual Mandarin/English-speaking translator was employed to help Li meaningfully understand the instruction and communicate with her peers and teacher. The school did this because it needed to look more closely at the type of programming that has been found to be the most successful, and its application of this proven-effective model.

Various specialists intervened immediately in the general classroom setting to help Li behave more appropriately with her peers and to learn. The examples of the interventions that were employed reflect the types of activities that are allowed under IDEA. The intent of interventions is to prevent students from being overidentified as having disabilities by imme­diately providing supports that will help them be successful in school. With Li, the school provided a tiered RTI model. Each of the interventions occurred in her general education classes and did not require her to be referred for special education or diagnosed with a disability.


Transforming Schools for English Learners: A Framework for School Leaders. (2011). Zacarian, Debbie. Chapter 7: Identifying and Working With English Learners With Learning Differences and Learning Disabilities. Corwin: Thousand Oaks, CA.  pp. 129-146.


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