Extracurricular Activities and IEPs

Supports and Services for Student Participation in Team Sports, After-School Programs, and Other Extracurricular Activities

School based extracurricular activities such as sports teams or after school clubs are often overlooked as an important component to a student’s educational program. Parents are told that special education support and services will not be provided during these activities because they’re either non-academic, are outside the regular school day, or are off-campus. However, it is possible that these activities can be included in some circumstances as part of a student’s educational program or IEP.

When Would a School District Be Required to Provide Students Supports and Services to Participate in Extracurricular Activities?

Parents must be aware that although school-based extracurricular activities can encompass a broad range of activities, not all extracurricular activities will require a school district to provide support and services for a student with disabilities to participate in these activities. A review Office of Administrative Hearings (OAH) cases indicates that the service designed for an extracurricular activity, such as a one-to-one aide or modification to the activity, must be reasonably calculated to enable the child to receive educational benefits.

Extracurricular activities can provide numerous benefits to all students, but to obtain special education supports and services for these activities through your school district, it must at least be shown in the IEP that participation in the activity is a necessary component of Free Appropriate Public Education (FAPE). The activity cannot merely be for purposes of pure leisure or meant to enhance or cultivate a student’s talents. The U.S. Supreme Court held that the offer of FAPE needs to provide just a “basic floor of opportunity,” but it does not need to “maximize the potential” of a student. Board of Education of Hendrick Hudson Central School District, et. al. v. Rowley.

Not only does the service or support for the extracurricular activity have to meet a student’s unique educational needs, but it should also be clearly expressed in the student’s IEP. OAH cases have emphasized that the need for service or support during extracurricular activities should be written into the IEP showing there is a unique need for the student to participate in that activity. If it is not spelled out in the IEP, school districts may not be obligated to provide support or services for an extracurricular activity.

What Are Considered Extracurricular Activities?

Extracurricular activities can include athletic programs and team participation, after-school programs such as clubs in the arts, or leisure activities like chess or book clubs. However, the Individual with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) does not specify which extracurricular activities can be included as support and services for children with disabilities. Federal regulations, on the other hand, do provide a non-exhaustive list of nonacademic and extracurricular services and activities, which include athletics and recreational activities. (Title 34, Code of Federal Regulations Section 300.107(b)). Also, the California Education Code lists related services to include recreation services, specifically therapeutic recreation services, recreation programs, and leisure education programs. (Section 56363; See below)

How Do School Systems Define an Extracurricular Activity in an IEP?

California’s Education Code Section 56363 defines “related services” to include recreation and therapeutic recreation. It goes on to list services included such as adapted physical education, physical therapy, and recreation services. The California Code of Regulations Section 3051.15 lends more guidance by defining recreation services to include, but are not limited to:

  1. Therapeutic recreation services which are those specialized instructional programs designed to assist pupils in becoming as independent as possible in leisure activities, and when possible and appropriate, facilitate the pupil’s integration into regular recreation programs.
  2. Recreation programs in schools and the community which are those programs that emphasize the use of leisure activity in the teaching of academic, social, and daily living skills; and, the provision of nonacademic and extracurricular leisure activities and the utilization of community recreation programs and facilities.
  3. Leisure education programs which are those specific programs designed to prepare the pupil for optimum independent participation in appropriate leisure activities, including teaching social skills necessary to engage in leisure activities, and developing an awareness of personal and community leisure resources.

As you can see in California, an extracurricular activity as a related service should in some way address, facilitate, or support a student’s goals in academics, health, communication, vocational, social, or emotional needs. This would then need to be documented on the student’s IEP. As an integral member of your child’s IEP team, it is important to understand the many benefits of school-based extracurricular activities in order to appropriately advocate for services and supports for your student with various and unique needs. Consider how a team sport or after-school program can assist your student with needs in social skills, executive functioning, vocational skills, communication, physical education, and transitioning to adult life.

What Benefits Do Extracurriculars Have in an IEP?

With each type of extracurricular activity, whether it is for therapeutic, recreational, or leisurely education purposes, there is an opportunity for your child to grow and develop. These programs may allow your child to learn new skills, practice socializing, build their confidence and self-esteem, and express their interests. Whether your child wishes to take part in a drama program or play football, the program can prove beneficial for their long-term growth and education.

Every one of these elements should be considered when you choose to approach your child’s IEP team about requesting services and supports for your child’s participation. You will want to clearly explain how an activity can have a positive impact on your child’s behavior, how participation may meet certain social goals outlined within the IEP, and how the IEP may assist your child throughout the program. You may also wish to speak to coaches, club directors, and other staff to join in the meeting and ask them to explain how an extracurricular can benefit a child and previous cases where they have worked with a child with special needs.

How Will an IEP Team Evaluate What Services My Child Needs to Participate in an Extracurricular Activity?

It is important to remember how a school and IEP will define an extracurricular activity. Oftentimes, these after-school programs are sponsored by the school itself, meaning your child cannot be denied access to a sports team, club, band, or other such program based on their disability. In addition, under FAPE and IDEA, your IEP must extend services and supports to your child so that they can participate in the extracurricular.

However, your child’s IEP may only extend as far as your child’s school, and programs that are offered outside of the school may be considered a separate issue. While federal law may prohibit those programs from denying your child access due to anti-discrimination laws, that does not mean the IEP must provide services or funding for your child to join such programs. However, if an after-school program takes place on school grounds, the IEP may apply, even if the program is not directly run by the school district. In addition, if the program is not run by the school district and takes place at another facility, you may still make a request to allow your child to participate and apply within the IEP to have services and supports extended to the program.

In both instances, the IEP team must evaluate whether or not the program would benefit your child’s development, whether related to physical, emotional, or social growth, and what services and supports would apply to your child’s situation. The IEP team will want to ensure they are providing the right resources that ultimately benefit your child’s development and guarantee that they have a positive experience when participating in an extracurricular.

Are School Districts Required to Give Students a Chance to Try Out for a General Education Sports Team?

School districts must afford students with disabilities an equal opportunity to participate in “nonacademic and extracurricular services and activities.” (Title 34, Code of Federal Regulations Section 300.107) According to a review of OAH cases, even if an extracurricular activity is not considered a related service, school districts still must not discriminate against students with disabilities. Districts must ensure that participatory and eligibility rules in place are not discriminatory against students with disabilities.

Examples of discriminatory actions include choosing to rely on stereotypes or generalizations in deciding whether a student with a type of disability is capable of playing a sport, or failing to make reasonable accommodations to ensure an equal opportunity for a student with a disability to participate. The U.S. Department of Education issued guidance and stated that school districts must engage in a 2-part individualized inquiry to determine if the modification is necessary for the specific student:

  1. Is the modification a fundamental alteration of the nature of the activity such that it changes an essential aspect of the activity, or gives the student with a disability an unfair advantage?
  2. If the school district determines that specific modification is a fundamental alteration to the activity, then has the district considered alternatives?

Alternatives may include athletic activities that are separate or different from those offered with students without disabilities, but these programs and activities must be supported by the school district equally with other athletic activities. Parents should also be aware that health and safety considerations factor into the school district’s decision and can create obstacles for obtaining service and supports for extracurricular activities.

To be an effective advocate for a student, it is important to understand the many factors school districts are to consider in determining whether to provide support or services to facilitate a student’s participation in school extracurricular activities.

For additional information on special education services and supports, or for assistance in preparing for an IEP or due process hearing, contact staff@woodsmalllawgroup.com or call us at (626) 440-0028.