Policy/Program Memorandum No. 8: Identification of and Program Planning for Students with Learning Disabilities
On August 26, 2014, the Special Education Policy & Programs Branch (SEPPB) of the Ministry of Education announced a revised Policy/Program Memorandum No. 8: Identification of and Program Planning for Students with Learning Disabilities. (Click here to access a copy of PPM 8.)
The previous PPM 8 on Learning Disabilities was published in 1982 and the field of learning disabilities (LDs) has seen major advancements since that time. In 2011, the Ministry convened a Learning Disabilities Working Group comprised of educators, internationally recognized researchers, psychologists and key stakeholders, including the Learning Disabilities Association of Ontario (LDAO), to inform the development of the revised PPM and a resource document for educators.
According to SEPPB, PPM 8 was updated to:
- reflect the advancement in research on LDs in school settings and consensus among experts on LDs;
- integrate developments in special education policies and school board practices in supporting students with LDs;
- promote consistency in the identification of students with LDs;
- support wide use of evidence-informed data based approaches to effective assessment and instructional approaches;
- promote implementation of an integrated process of assessment and instruction as described in the Ministry’s Learning for All, K-12 (2013) publication;
- eliminate deficit-based language and to ensure equity for students with LDs; and
- align the key policy directions in the PPM with other Ministry policies and initiatives.
The introduction section of PPM 8:
- sets out requirements for school boards for the identification of and program planning for students who have LDs;
- provides the Ministry’s definition of the term learning disability, which must be used by an Identification, Placement, and Review Committee (IPRC) in the identification of students who have LDs; and
- points out that information in the “Program Planning” section on pages 4–6 also applies to any other students who demonstrate difficulties in learning and who would benefit from special education programs and/or services that are appropriate for students with LDs.
Important Points to Note:
The revised PPM 8 uses the term learning disabilities (plural) except for the definition.
The definition is for identification of students in the school system, which is not the same as diagnosis of learning disability(ies).
Definition of the Term Learning Disability
PPM 8 defines learning disability as one of a number of neurodevelopmental disorders that persistently and significantly has an impact on the ability to learn and use academic and other skills and that:
- affects the ability to perceive or process verbal or non-verbal information in an effective and accurate manner in students who have assessed intellectual abilities that are at least in the average range;
- results in (a) academic underachievement that is inconsistent with the intellectual abilities of the student (which are at least in the average range) and/or
(b) academic achievement that can be maintained by the student only with extremely high levels of effort and/or with additional support;
- results in difficulties in the development and use of skills in one or more of the following areas: reading, writing, mathematics, and work habits and learning skills;
- may typically be associated with difficulties in one or more cognitive processes, such as:
- phonological processing;
- memory and attention;
- processing speed;
- perceptual-motor processing;
- visual-spatial processing; and
- executive functions (e.g., self-regulation of behaviour and emotions, planning, organizing of thoughts and activities, prioritizing, decision making)
Important Points to Note:
The definition twice states that a student’s intellectual abilities must be in at least the average range to be identified by an IPRC Committee as Exceptional Communication – Learning Disability.
The definition follows in stating that a student must demonstrate academic underachievement inconsistent with their intellectual abilities, or academic achievement that can be maintained by the student only with extremely high levels of effort and/or with additional support.
The list of academic areas affected goes beyond reading, writing and mathematics to include work habits and learning skills.
The definition recognizes the involvement of difficulties in cognitive processes (called psychological processes in the LDAO definition).
The definition also references co-existing conditions or disorders:
- may be associated with difficulties in social interaction (e.g., difficulty in understanding social norms or the point of view of others); with various other conditions or disorders, diagnosed or undiagnosed; or with other exceptionalities;
as well as exclusionary factors:
- is not the result of a lack of acuity in hearing and/or vision that has not been corrected; intellectual disabilities; socio-economic factors; cultural differences; lack of proficiency in the language of instruction; lack of motivation or effort; gaps in school attendance or inadequate opportunity to benefit from instruction.
Recognition and Identification of LDs
PPM 8 points out that:
- many students with LDs have already shown precursors or signs of learning disabilities before they enter school – such as language delays; difficulties with rhyming, counting, or fine-motor skills, or behavioural manifestations;
- early screening and interventions are important in determining whether a student’s difficulties in learning may be due to LDs.
This is part of an integrated process of assessment and instruction, following the Tiered approach outlined in Learning for All: A Guide to Effective Assessment and Instruction for All Students, K–12, 2013. Click here to access the “Learning for All” document.
PPM 8 acknowledges that:
- although LDs are more commonly evident in primary grades, they may become evident at any stage in a student’s development and that for some students, LDs may only become apparent as they progress through the later elementary or early secondary grades, when academic work and social demands increase in complexity.
An important principle, in line with the LDAO definition, is stated in PPM 8:
- learning disabilities range in severity. Their impact may vary depending on the environmental and cognitive demands on the student, the instructional strategies employed, and the individual student’s profile and age.
PPM 8 says that a student should be considered for more in-depth assessments:
- if assessment and instruction, including early intervention strategies, have been tailored over a period of time to a student’s strengths and needs;
- if the student’s progress has been closely monitored and assessed; and
- if the student persistently demonstrates key characteristics of potential LDs.
School boards are encouraged to use a multidisciplinary approach to assessing and identifying learning disabilities, and assessments typically should include the following:
- information provided by the parent(s) or guardian(s), the student, and the educator(s) (e.g., the language spoken at home, developmental history, observations in the classroom);
- educational history; medical information (e.g., information on vision, hearing, and physical condition); and
- educational assessments and/or other professional assessments (e.g., psycho-educational and/or psychological assessments, other assessments by health professionals).
PPM 8 acknowledges that the effects of learning disabilities may be influenced by outside factors which can make it more difficult for the student to compensate, such as:
- various factors and conditions (e.g., physical limitations, gender, cultural differences) that are not aspects of learning disabilities should also be taken into account when determining whether a student has a learning disability; and/or
- such factors and conditions may further complicate the recognition and identification of learning disabilities, and they may contribute to or exacerbate the challenges that students with LDs may face.
The results of the assessments must inform the development of the student’s Individual Education Plan (IEP). Assessment results should inform the description of a student’s strengths and needs and be used to determine special education programs and/or services for the student.
PPM 8 states that the determining factor for the provision of special education programs or services is not any specific diagnosed or undiagnosed medical condition, but rather the needs of individual students based on the individual assessment of strengths and needs.
Therefore the information presented in the Program Planning section can apply not only to students who have been identified as exceptional by an IPRC, but also to any other students who demonstrate difficulties in learning and who would benefit from special education programs and/or services that are appropriate for students with learning disabilities.
Important points in the Program Planning section:
- Special education programs may be delivered through a range of placements.
- Special education programs and/or services should be made available by the school board to help students with LDs to access the Ontario curriculum expectations.
- Since students who have LDs have at least average intellectual abilities, the special education program and/or services they receive should reflect and nurture these abilities.
- Principals should ensure that parents/guardians, students (where appropriate), and relevant school personnel are invited to participate in the IEP development process.
A Tiered Approach:
PPM 8 talks about using a tiered approach to program planning, as outlined in Learning for All: A Guide to Effective Assessment and Instruction for All Students, K–12, 2013. Click here to access the “Learning for All” document.
First steps may include Universal Design for Learning and Differentiated Instruction, and options of:
- instructional, environmental, and assessment accommodations;
- modification of learning expectations; and/or
- alternative expectations and/or courses that are not derived from an Ontario curriculum policy document (e.g., expectations focused on social skills, self-advocacy, transition planning, study skills)
Note: Modified expectations that are drawn from a lower grade level are most often not appropriate for students with LDs, especially in intermediate and secondary grades where technology supports can help students access grade level curriculum.
However, for students with LDs, a tiered approach will also involve:
- high-quality, evidence-based assessment and instruction systematically provided and responding to an individual student’s strengths and needs;
- the nature, intensity, and duration of interventions always determined on the basis of evidence gathered through frequent and systematic monitoring of the student’s progress; and
- systematic, sequential instructional approaches which use specific instructional interventions of increasing intensity to address targeted learning needs of students with LDs.
Note the use of the terms evidence-based, systematic, sequential, specific instructional interventions and increasing intensity. These are all terms that come from research on what works for students with learning disabilities.
In their article, Creating Opportunities for Intensive Intervention for Students with Learning Disabilities, in Teaching Exceptional Children, Nov./Dec. 2009, pp. 60 – 62, Lynn S. Fuchs and Douglas Fuchs of Vanderbilt University state the following:
When we use the term intensive intervention, we refer to two kinds of practices. The first involves tutoring programs that rely on complicated instructional routines and many hours of teaching over long periods of time. The second type of practice is the use of ongoing progress monitoring to systematically experiment with different instructional components, using the resulting progress monitoring data to inductively tailor individualized programs. Research shows that both kinds of instructional intensity can reduce severe academic failure dramatically, in some studies to as low as 2% of the general population.
According to PPM 8, transition planning must be considered as part of the IEP development process when developing programs for students with LDs (in accordance with Ontario Regulation 181/98) (Click here to access Ontario Regulation 181/98) and Policy/Program Memorandum No. 156 (Click here to access PPM 156), “Supporting Transitions for Students with Special Education Needs”, February 1, 2013, and Creating Pathways to Success: An Education and Career/Life Planning Program for Ontario Schools – Policy and Program Requirements, Kindergarten to Grade 12, 2013). Click here to access the "Creating Pathways to Success" document.
Transitions for students with LDs occur in a variety of contexts: upon entry to school; between grades; from one program area or subject to another; changes in school supports and/or services; when moving from school to school or from an outside agency/facility to a school; from elementary to secondary school; and from secondary school to the next appropriate pathway (e.g., work, further education, apprenticeship).
For more information on transition planning, read this LD@School article: "Introduction to Transition Planning for Students with LDs".
The requirements set out in PPM 8 took effect January 2, 2015. School boards and the Ministry are to monitor the implementation of the requirements of this memorandum through existing accountability mechanisms.
Finally, PPM 8 points out that the field of learning disabilities is constantly evolving as new strategies, tools, and technologies become available. School boards are encouraged to make use of a growing body of knowledge about educational practices, tools, and strategies that are effective for students with learning disabilities.
PPM 8 suggests that school boards may seek community partners who can provide support for students with LDs and their families.
Note: LDAO and its local chapters can be very useful community partners. Click here to access the LDAO chapters website.