Archive for Tuesday, May 6, 2008

Double Take: Parent asks how IEP can cover sports participation

May 6, 2008


Double Take application due Friday

It's time again for the annual Double Take essay contest to find next year's co-author. Once again the Family Therapy Institute Midwest and Central National Bank have put together a scholarship fund of $1,100 for the co-author's freshman year in college. Family therapist Wes Crenshaw's co-writer should be a senior - or exceptional junior - in the 2008-2009 school year at a Douglas County school. The one-year commitment also requires maturity, strong writing skills, an open mind and column ideas for at least six to 10 times a year. The deadline to enter is 5 p.m. Friday.

For further application guidelines, including a 400-word response to a column "question," visit "Students invited to apply to Double Take post."

Dear Dr. Wes & Julia: My son is 14 and in eighth grade. He has attention-deficit disorder and bipolar disorder. In seventh grade, all he'd do was sit in his room and play video games. He had only one friend. Then along came weight training and a growth spurt. That combination gave him a boost in self-confidence. Then the track coach recruited him, and that gave him an even bigger boost. That was the first sport my son had ever played and he earned a spot on an invitational meet and won a medal. Thanks to that coach he came out of his room and started to enjoy life. He has now done football, wrestling and basketball. He's even talked about going to college. Then we heard that once he's in high school next year, the Kansas State High School Activities Association won't let him play sports if his grades are poor, which, given his problems, will be difficult. We were advised to put sports participation in his IEP, but the school says that won't make any difference. I don't understand how this is helpful or fair to my son.

Wes: Nationally this policy is usually referred to as "no pass no play." It's based on the notion that athletic participation can be an effective reward for passing grades. It traces back to Texas in the early 1980s, when sports so dominated some schools that kids were being allowed to play simply because they were good athletes, setting aside the real point of school - to learn. However, as even a quick check of the Internet will reveal the policy has many critics that share your concern.

Unfortunately, as with most adaptations of psychology by politicians, this one misses some important points - especially for kids with special needs and those on IEPs. First we must consider whether participating in sports or any school activity actually motivates students, and if so how we would use that power strategically. I know of no research that actually supports this hypothesis. I can see how coaches could motivate players by benching them during weeks where their grades were poor, but that isn't the same thing as being excluded for the season.

Second, one would have to determine what a reasonable level of achievement would be. According to KSHSAA, Scholarship Requirements Rule 13, all students involved in governed activities must pass five or more classes in the previous semester and be enrolled and passing five new courses not previously passed. While schools are able to set a higher standard if they wish, this one certainly isn't very high. In fact, it only pertains to the very lowest-scoring students in the school - and sadly the ones most prone to give up and drop out. So we'd also need to ask if participation could save a teenager from dropping out and if so, whether that is a worthy struggle for an otherwise failing student. Here, the research suggests that participation does decrease dropout rates, but it can't make any judgment as to the worth of that endeavor.

The final issue is whether a child on an IEP should have this requirement waived. KSHSAA does not make any exceptions or accommodations for IEP students. However, if the school recognizes a learning disability - which they have apparently done with your son - then I believe that is a significant shortcoming in the association's policy. In fact, even my brief online review indicated that many states do waive eligibility requirements for IEP students.

Of particular interest is a case in Iowa in 2003 that reversed the Iowa High School Athletics Association's denial of eligibility because athletic participation had been written into the youth's IEP. While KSHSAA holds that it is a privilege to participate in sports, it is one that is being offered by a public school and should be subject to accommodation. Of course, you could ask the school to modify your son's IEP to inflate his grades or bring the work down to a more manageable level, but I'm concerned about the message that would be sending to him and whether that could be good for his ultimate education. Instead I suggest - as did a recent letter to this column - that you petition the state on your child's behalf. If enough parents do this, I suspect it could make a difference.

Exercise is crucial in improving teen mental health. Our increasingly sedentary teen culture creates both physical and mental health concerns. For many kids exercise for its own sake is an unlikely proposition, so the competition and teamwork of junior and senior high sports is an ideal way to get the job done.

Julia: I would agree that your son shouldn't be held back from something he enjoys and benefits from by a piece of paperwork. However, paperwork can be a major player in determining people's eligibility for a number of activities. If all the head honchos see are a few bad grades, they will probably ax your son without a second thought.

There are a few things that might help in ensuring your son's continued involvement in sports. First, don't take what your school says as the end-all-be-all of your son's situation. Investigate, take matters into your own hands, and only decide that something "won't make a difference" when you yourself know it won't. Wes found a lot out about this issue just by scanning the Internet. You could do the same. Read the case Wes found, and see if you can't find any other cases that match yours and how those cases turned out. Using other similar stories to your advantage could bolster your case.

The next thing to do is get in direct contact with the people in charge - via e-mail, phone, even letter if necessary, so that you know and get the information directly from them. When it comes to presenting the advantage of sports to your son, make your case so that the two are linked: He enjoys sports, he is better in social and school situations because of his involvement, etc. Prove that the sports could lead to better grades and not the other way around.

Next week: A frustrated parent asks about co-parenting after divorce.

- Dr. Wes Crenshaw is a board-certified family psychologist and director of the Family Therapy Institute Midwest. Julia Davidson is a Bishop Seabury Academy junior. Opinions and advice given here are not meant as a substitute for psychological evaluation or therapy services. Send your questions about adolescent issues (limited to 200 words) to All correspondence is strictly confidential.


illinijones 9 years, 9 months ago

Maybe they should focus on the students academics??? If passing classes is a concern then my priority would be her son graduating from high school! If he has emotional issues as opposed to a learning disability, the student should have the neccessary accomodations included in his IEP. Once the emotional issues are under control, academic issues can be solved!

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