Thank you so much to Meg from MilKids Education Consulanting for this wondering guest post all about IEPS! As a special needs mom I have been to a lot of these types of meetings and they can feel so scary. There is a lot to know about them and this post gives any special needs parent a good idea about what to expect.
The elusive IEP, or individualized education program, is a tough beast to pin down. It comes in so many different forms, with literally infinite varieties. It looks different every single time, understandably it is a challenging thing to fully grasp.
Luckily, you have an expert IEP tracker on hand to tackle all of your questions and concerns.
First things first: what in the goodness is an IEP. Basically, it is a plan to help students who fall into one or more of 13 specific disability categories. That disability or disabilities also has to adversely affect that student’s academic progress. This plan specifies what kinds of services, like OT, PT or speech, the student qualifies for and what kind of academic program would be best.
The academic program explains where the student will be taught certain subjects: in the regular class with or without modifications, in the regular class with an aide, or in a separate smaller group with a special education teacher. A student could receive instruction in any or all of these places.
So, now that that’s out of the way. Let’s get to the nitty gritty, from a teacher’s point of view.
I want to help your child. I want to help him get the broadest, best education possible. But that education is different for every single kid. Might some kids go to Ivy League colleges and be elected president after receiving special education services? Sure. Might other kids have the goal of learning to dress themselves or use the bathroom appropriately? You bet. Most students in the special education system will fall somewhere in the middle.
Part of the process of special education is getting real with yourself and your expectations for your child. This will be hard. I understand. We all want our kiddos to achieve at the highest level, graduate from college, get married, have an awesome job, and raise a family. Unfortunately, for many severely disabled children this might not always be possible. It is a challenge to let go of those dreams, and create new ones. I once had a parent of a severely autistic student, who needed help bathrooming in the third grade and was working below a first grade level, ask me if I thought he might be a good candidate for a college that specialized in educating students with specific learning disabilities. That kind of disconnect between what your child is actually doing and capable of, and what you wish they were able to do, is extremely dangerous mentally, emotionally, and to your role as a parent.
Once we are all on the same page in terms of the child’s ability and reasonable expectations, we can proceed to the discussion of services, modifications, and accommodations. Let me be clear, these services are not intended to fix your child or to magically make your child excel at something that is currently hard. They are designed to help your child grow, to achieve at her highest level possible. This won’t happen overnight, or maybe ever. An accommodation or modification doesn’t mean the work is easier or graded differently. It means that the work has been adjusted to best meet your child at her educational ability right now.
One of the big things that we hear in IEP meetings is homework. Homework does not stop because of an IEP. It might be shortened. It might be different than the rest of his peers. It might even happen every other night. But there will be homework as determined by the teaching team, in consult with the special service providers.
The other thing we hear a lot is about specifics. Lots of IEPs are worded vaguely. They have to be. Teachers need to be able to adjust education tactics mid-year, while still progressing toward a specific goal. For example: Using a teacher created tool to monitor work progress, Johnny will complete 75% of his assignments in a given grading period on time. The quantitative part at the end is pretty specific: 75% of assignments must be on time.
The teacher created tool is where a lot of people get hung up. Many parents, and teacher, want a specific tool to be written down. Like this: Using a work assignment checklist (see attached), Johnny will complete 75% of his assignments in a given grading period on time. But this way would be a disservice to the child and the teacher. Let’s say that right now, X method is working to get Johnny to finish his work. But in a month, he’s no longer responding to this. If it is written into the IEP, it cannot change.
Let me repeat: IF IT IS WRITTEN INTO THE IEP, IT CANNOT CHANGE.
Not without a meeting to discuss new findings, rewrite that particular goal, and assess how other goals might be affected. That’s a lot of hassle over wording. In other words, let the teachers have the freedom of flexibility to change the program while still meeting the goal.
Let’s look at it this way: what if you had to create a nutrition plan that would last you all year. In order to change that plan, you needed to convene a meeting with your doctor, nutritionist, personal trainer, and the head of your doctor’s practice. In September, you really like mangoes. So you wrote them specifically into your plan: will eat 3 mangoes each day. But in December, you got really sick of them. If they are written into your food plan, you must eat them. How much better would it have been if you wrote: will eat 5-6 fruits or veggies each day. Now, you are working toward the same goal (eating healthy fruits and veggies) while still allowing yourself to be flexible in what you are consuming.
Once everyone agrees on everything, or agrees enough that the document can be signed, the meeting is over and the IEP is “live.” That means from this day until one calendar year from now, this is the IEP that rules the roost. It dictates everything about your child’s day in school: who he sees for the core subjects, what special services he is receiving and how often he gets these services, testing modifications or accommodations, and his academic placement (inclusion, general education, or substantially separate).
Now, you need to monitor to make sure that all of these things are happening correctly all of the time. Might a few slips happen? Of course! Teacher are, believe it or not, human. We get sick, have a meeting that can’t be rescheduled, or need to swap a schedule around sometimes. But if your child’s services are being provided correctly the majority of the time, that’s great!
As a parent, monitoring what is going on with your kid in school is super important.
You need to know. Here’s the dirty secret schools won’t tell you: they are routinely understaffed or staffed to just meet the needs of their kids.
Paraprofessionals have ultra tight schedules. They work with Child 5 from X-Y, then move to classroom 123 from Y-Z. They rarely get breaks, they juggle different grades, different children, different schedules. I know. I did this. It is hard. And they are paid unbelievably poorly. Schools hire just enough to cover the students that absolutely MUST have an aide, with very little wiggle room.
Special service providers, like PT, OT, and Speech, also have very tight schedules. They must see a large caseload of children with all different disabilities over the course of a 40 hours week. All of the children have a different number of hours that must be provided, and many see more than one specialist. It is common to see OT and PT on many IEPs since they often teach similar skills. In addition to all of that time, students must still receive core instruction, go to their PE and arts teachers, and eat lunch.
Schools do not hire extra PTs, OTs, SLPs, or paras. They hire just enough to meet their needs based on the data from the prior year and the students who enroll over the summer. What does this mean for you? Scary things.
Let’s say that your child has previously been able to keep up with the work, but this year is completely unable to do so. He’s in a class without a para or a co-teacher. Even if the special education teacher and the general education teacher agree that this is a child who would benefit from an aide, he probably won’t be getting one.
If at any point you feel that your child’s needs aren’t being met, or the learning environment is no longer appropriate, you can request a meeting to discuss outplacement. Outplacement is when the school district pays for your child to be educated in a private school that specializes in what your child needs. This happens ONLY when the least restrictive placement cannot be provided by the school system. Sometimes, schools might bring this up, especially if a child is a danger to himself or others on a very regular basis. The most important thing to remember is that a school cannot place your child anywhere without your consent, and your consent may be withdrawn at any time.
So, after all of that, I hope that IEPs are somewhat more clear. There are a lot of parts to the federal and state laws that govern special education. There are exceptions and loopholes, and there are many, many pages of forms that are required to be filled out and steps to be followed before we arrive at a completed IEP.
Even with all of that, it is worth it. It is worth the fight by parents and teachers of children to ensure that each and every child is getting the education he or she richly deserves.
Meg Flanagan is a special and elementary education teacher who holds an M.Ed in special education and a BS in elementary education. In addition to classroom experience, she has also worked in private tutoring and home schools. Meg is passionate about education advocacy for all children, but especially for children with special needs and children of military and state department personnel. You can find Meg online at MilKids Education Consulting, as well as on Facebook and Twitter.