One is the Costliest Number

One of the most expensive and invasive services a school can offer to a student with an IEP is a one-to-one assistant or personal care assistant. What could put more of a strain on a school’s resources than assigning one member of the staff to one student? Occasionally, a student will exhibit needs intense enough to justify such a costly service. Determining necessity and feasibility makes for a complicated and often controversial set of decisions.

Parents routinely request this level of support. Sometimes they demand rather than request. The parent input section of evaluations and IEPs often includes statements about how students need one-to-one help to be successful. Well, almost every student would benefit from having a specifically assigned adult for support throughout the school day. Most students don’t need this, though. Schools don’t have an obligation to provide the best possible education, just one that is appropriate. Nonetheless, convincing a parent his or her child might not absolutely need one-to-one support can be difficult.

Of course, some students do need it. In particular, students with emotional disturbances, behavior disorders, or other conditions that affect behavior are likely candidates. When behaviors interfere with learning and safety to a degree that progress isn’t possible, teams might have to consider one-to-one support as an option. Such an intense level of service could be what helps a student remain focused and engaged in the general education environment. It can be the service that ensures a free appropriate public education.

Another way of looking at it is the school community at large might need the support. This might resonate with any school employee who has experienced what can happen on a day the one-to-one for a student with behavior issues is absent. Depending on the student, the school day can become a wash, with several staff members consumed in an effort to contain a volatile student. Instructional time and even safety for other students can be compromised. Schools might struggle similarly with students prone to such behavior until teams agree a one-to-one is needed. They might struggle while waiting for a one-to-one to be assigned, too. The point of the service is to support the student, but the result might be a quieter, more functional school day for everyone else.

The rational mind might wonder what the hell students who are so disruptive are doing in schools. Why should schools have to commit such resources to students who can’t be assisted otherwise, students who can’t function in any sort of typical school environment without such a pricey service? The simple answer is the law demands they are taught with their peers to the greatest extent possible. If a one-to-one is necessary for this, the school needs to provide it. The more esoteric answer is these students are entitled to an education despite the conditions that cause their behaviors. Excluding them because of behaviors caused by an underlying condition would be discrimination. One might ask, “What about everyone else’s rights?” Whether or not this is a satisfactory answer, the one-to-one is there to help ensure everyone else can have his or her right to an education unimpeded by the behavior of one disruptive student. This one-to-one is part of a system of supports used to balance the needs (read: behavior issues) of students with disabilities and the students around them.

That system of supports frequently involves outside agencies. The IEP team might determine the need for a one-to-one. The school usually has the responsibility of providing it. However, an agency might end up providing it instead. An interagency team could decide a wraparound service needs to be in place that includes school hours. If the IEP team signs off on it, the agency likely will provide a therapeutic support staff worker or similar service provider. This will be on the agency’s dollar, which is supported through the family’s insurance. Should the recommendation indeed make its way into the IEP as a statement of need, the school has an obligation to supply a substitute in the absence of the person appointed by the agency. Providing this can be tricky, but the school has to do it.

Appointing a one-to-one comes with a host of potential pitfalls. To start, when schools use their staff members for these positions, someone tends to get pulled from some other post where that someone had been needed. The staff members who are used as one-to-ones might not have the most sophisticated training to support their new positions and instead might be poorly prepared for such a role. Many school-appointed one-to-ones are marvelous additions to teams and do a tremendous service for schools, students, and families. To be frank, however, many of the individuals who end up in these roles aren’t well suited in terms of temperament, reliability, and overall professionalism. The positions don’t pay well and the work can be highly challenging, leading to a shallow pool of capable candidates. When schools outsource the service, as many are beginning to do, every person coming through the door is a wildcard.

Therapeutic support staff workers usually have more training and higher salaries than school-appointed one-to-ones. They can bring a greater degree of clinical fidelity and efficacy to their work. The agencies they serve tend to require more of them than schools require of one-to-ones. The supportive program they offer should align with what the school is offering, but most of the time it is more specific and exacting. Again, many of these workers are effective professionals who help students steer straight. Some are liabilities per their incompetency. Crucially, they’re not school employees. This often creates discord regarding professional expectations.

Even with effective staff in place, one-to-one support can become a crutch for students. It generally can’t be replicated for adults in work or school settings. It reduces the possibility of fostering accountability for behaviors. The later into schooling it goes, the more reliant students are likely to be on it. Rarely does it help change a set of behaviors. Efforts to do that might be built in to programming, but the point is to mitigate the effects of behaviors on learning, or even to lessen the impact of behaviors on everyone’s safety. The service might do these things, but isn’t likely to completely extinguish behaviors or address the internal conditions that could be causing them.

One-to-one support is suitable and possibly necessary for students with the most disruptive and difficult to manage behaviors. These students are the least likely to be able to participate functionally in productive adult lives. The service typically doesn’t increase the likelihood of post-secondary success. It’s a bandage at best that keeps disruptions from bleeding all over the school day. Following a fundamental relationship in special education, it’s another example of the students with the least potential getting the most expensive support. Each person can decide whether or not this relationship is justifiable. Keep this mind, though: “justifiable” gets into conceptual territory, while “necessary” deals with the practical here-and-now. Ask a school to remove all the one-to-ones in the building for a week and see what everyone has to say about the need for the service Friday afternoon. Like it or not, it’s here.


One is the Costliest Number

One thought on “One is the Costliest Number

  1. Back in the 1960’s the schools were segregated. I was put into the “advanced placement” classes and I recall feeling embarrassed over it. There was one class of “special ed.” I felt embarrassed to say those words. I noticed that there was a variety of students in the special ed classes, not just MR students but some with LD or some with medical issues that required that they be placed in smaller classes with more adult supervision, and some that misbehaved. Being “held back” was viewed negatively among students and the school community at large, but usually the student benefited because he or she was older and more respected among his peers Our “special ed” teacher was so patient. Everyone loved him. Many begged to be switched to his classes. One thing I recall fondly about my elementary school was that the building smelled like an old library, full of books, and somewhere in the building was a “fallout shelter.” I don’t believe it was ever used, but we used to think about it a lot when we read our favorite science fiction books and watched TV shows such as The Time Tunnel and Lost in Space.


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