CRITERION 5: Observation


The public agency must ensure that the child is observed in the child’s learning environment (including the regular classroom setting) to document the child’s academic performance and behavior in the areas of difficulty.

(b) The group described in §300.306(a)(1), in determining whether a child has a specific learning disability, must decide to—
(1) Use information from an observation in routine classroom instruction and monitoring of the child’s performance that was done before the child was referred for an evaluation; or
(2) Have at least one member of the group described in §300.306(a)(1) conduct an observation of the child’s academic performance in the regular classroom after the child has been referred for an evaluation and parental consent, consistent with §300.300(a), is obtained.
(c) In the case of a child of less than school age or out of school, a group member must observe the child in an environment appropriate for a child of that age. (§300.310)



This requirement makes clear that information from an observation from either prior to or after a student’s referral for suspected SLD must be gathered as part of the data used for eligibility decision making. Such observations could have been done during general education instruction/interventions conducted through the RTI (or MTSS) process. However, if the observation conducted prior to referral did not provide information specific to the area(s) of academic difficulty (i.e., those areas listed in Criterion 1) for which the student has been referred, the school team should require an additional observation. There are many types of classroom observations. While the regulations do not prescribe the type of observation to be conducted, the following methods may be appropriate:


  • behavioral observation procedures (e.g., event recording, time sampling, interval recording) that result in quantifiable results;
  • methods that relate the student’s classroom behavior to instructional conditions, and teaching practices and opportunities for engagement;
  • methods that address referral questions, instructional practices, and instructional fidelity (see sample questions below).


Information gathered during direct observations should assist in the documentation (Criterion 6) to determine the involvement of other factors relative to the student’s underachievement and lack of response to intervention (Criterion 3) and whether appropriate instruction was provided (Criterion 4).


Most important, the observation should provide information that is data driven, empirical, and objective. The observation should be sufficient to produce a detailed analysis of the instructional process, the classroom environment, and the student’s level and type of engagement. Simple narratives do not provide adequate or objective information. Observations across instructional settings (e.g., different classes) are especially valuable, as are observations by different team members. The observations must be conducted by a qualified observer. In all cases the observation must not be conducted by the person delivering instruction.


  "Qualified" refers to an individual who has received direct instruction in a particular skill, has received feedback on the performance of that skill by an individual who has mastered the skill, and has had the opportunity to practice that skill in order to perform it accurately in a consistent manner.


Questions the school team might consider regarding the results of an observation include the following:


  • Was the student’s performance and behavior in the area of concern “typical” during the observation compared with how the student performs at other times?
  • What learning skills were difficult for the student?
  • What student strengths were noted during the observation?
  • Was the student engaged and cooperative during instruction in comparison to peers?
  • Did the students have opportunities to participate or respond in the instructional dialogue and activities?
  • Did the student’s behaviors interfere with learning to such an extent that they might be the primary reason the student is not making sufficient progress?
  • Did the student have the prerequisite skills to perform the tasks being observed?
  • Are the data collected during the observations consistent with other formal and informal data about the student in the area(s) of concern?
  • What is the relationship between the targeted student’s performance and behavior to other students?
  • How is the student’s behavior similar or different from classroom peers?


(Adapted from Wisconsin’s Specific Learning Disabilities [SLD] Rule)


A primary purpose of the observation is to determine the relationship between behavior and student academic performance (SLD is an academic performance–based disability). Therefore, all data collected should be in the context of academic performance. Specifically, when student behavior is observed during academic tasks, data on the accuracy, amount, and completion rates of the academic performance should be collected concurrently. Clearly, some students may present with high rates of off-task behavior, yet answer questions accurately, complete written work accurately, and do so with sufficient levels of productivity. The collection of student behavior data without the collection of student academic performance data will result in with false-positive errors (e.g., assuming the behavior interfered with academic performance/accuracy when it did not).


While not required by this criterion, when using an RTI-based SLD identification framework, it would be particularly useful to require an additional observation of an intervention. Some states using an RTI-based process require observation during both general classroom instruction and during the delivery of an intensive intervention.


Given recent findings by researchers indicating that poor intervention integrity is the rule rather than the exception, an observation to determine that the intervention was implemented in the strongest way possible and that the student was well engaged during the intervention would provide critical additional information (Kovaleski et al., 2013).






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