Tools of the Trade: Prior Written Notice

When parents participate in an IEP meeting, they’re often given a document called Procedural Safeguards. It may seem like such a small part of the sometimes overwhelming mounds of IEP paperwork that you might be tempted to ignore it. But don’t. Tucked within the Procedural Safeguards is an important tool called Prior Written Notice.

What is Prior Written Notice?
Prior Written Notice, or PWN, is a written record of certain decisions made by the school that impact your child’s education. Whenever the school changes your child’s special education program, or refuses a parent’s request to provide services, PWN (or PWNR – Prior Written Notice of Refusal) must be sent to the parents.

The federal law states Prior Written Notices must be sent before the school initiates any changes, or within a reasonable amount of time if a request is denied. The actual amount of time allowed differs according to each state’s law, and should be stated within the Procedural Safeguards.

Why is PWN Important?
For starters, it allows parents to be better involved in their child’s education by providing detailed information about school decisions. Since it’s in writing, it creates a record – a paper trail – of decisions made that can be used in a legal proceeding if parents decide to pursue a due process hearing. Finally, PWN discourages decisions made subjectively, too quickly, or those made with prejudice.

What’s Contained in PWN?
Here’s a scenario: your child is in his first year of middle school and his social skills challenges are interfering severely in his ability to interact appropriately in class and with his peers. You call an IEP meeting to discuss the possibility of the school incorporating regular social skills training into his program. By the end of the meeting the school denies your request.

The PWN should include all the following pieces of information about what the school is either proposing – or in this case, refusing – to do. Read these seven PWN criteria carefully; they are powerful tools IDEA set up to make schools accountable for their decisions:

  • Description of the action proposed or refused by the school.
  • Explanation of why the school wants to initiate action or why they refuse the request.
  • Statement about what other options were considered, including all ideas contributed by IEP team members, including parents, and why they were rejected.
  • List and description of all evaluations, tests, records, or reports the school used to make their decision. (Decisions must be based on data and assessments, not on money, lack of staff, or subjective comments on the child’s perceived ability.)
  • Description of all other factors that were relevant to the school’s proposal or refusal.
  • Notice to the parents that procedural safeguards are available and how to get them.
  • Statement about whom the parents may contact to get help in understanding their rights under IDEA.

Can Parents Request PWN?
Parents most definitely can – and should – request PWN if 1) you learn the school has made changes in your child’s services or special education program without first sending PWN; or 2) anyone from the school informed you of changes being made in your child’s program either in person, at a meeting, or over the phone.

Be sure you make your own request in writing. Remember the experienced words of Pete Wright from, “If it was not written down, it was not said. If it was not written down, it did not happen.” This is why it’s so important to be sure you receive PWN, and to put any requests you make – whether for PWN or services – in writing.

The National Dissemination Center for Children with Disabilities (NICHCY) offers a publication at called “Communicating with Your Child’s School Through Letter Writing.” This informative document shows a sample letter you may copy for requesting PWN.

PWN Tips
In How to Use a Parent IEP Attachment (, Judy Bonnell recommends creating a simple form to help you keep track of all requests and changes addressed by the IEP team. Bonnell’s form includes columns for proposal, accepted, rejected, reason accepted or rejected, start date, and responsible person. You’ll also find a printable “Record of Proposals” at

PWN as a Proactive Tool
Under IDEA law, the IEP team must formally consider – and accept or reject – any suggestions made by a team member. This means that parents may present their proposals and they have the right, not only to a formal discussion of the proposal, but also an explanation from team members about its merits, shortcomings, and other options. Most importantly, these discussions and decisions fall under PWN requirements. Either take a PWN form with you to the meeting and fill it out as the discussion unfolds, or follow-up with a written request for PWN afterwards. Make PWN an ally as you advocate for an appropriate education for your child.

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Excerpt reprinted with permission from a featured article in the May/June 2011 issue of Autism Asperger’s Digest magazine. Learn more at

Copyright © 2011 Autism Asperger’s Digest. All Rights Reserved.

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About Melissa

Melissa is the mother of two children on the autism spectrum and strives to provide information about all aspects of autism through her blog, The Autism Education Site. Follow Melissa on Twitter. Like me on Facebook.

© Melissa Hincha-Ownby and The Autism Education Site, 2008-2014.