By Katie Lepi
December 30, 2013
IEPs, or “Individualized Educational Plans,” are the documents that drive instruction for special needs students. They can have a wide range of specifications, from access to a speech or occupational therapist to extra time on tests.
They address any need a student might have in order to be successful in the classroom, and can be long-term or a few years until no longer necessary. Although they are essential and lifesaving to many students, often they put students in categories.
“I’m a….” Creating Labels
Special educators know how difficult it can be to reach students. Students have many and different needs. As educators, we must be attentive to every one. The law requires teachers to service students according to their IEP. Teachers get nervous, sometimes, because those not following the IEP are legally liable. This causes many new teachers to be afraid of the IEP process.
The truth is, in my entire time teaching, most of the IEP meetings in which I’ve participated have been very positive experiences. Sometimes, I’ve been invited by the student directly because he or she wanted me to be part of the IEP team. That’s a vote of confidence.
There can be difficult meetings at times because families want the best for their children. That’s why it’s essential to understand IEPs – the process, the legalities, and some technology interventions that could potentially help students.
Students have the legal right to be in the “least restrictive setting” in which they can thrive. IEPs are designed in such a way as to make this happen. Schools do this in several ways. Some give students aids to help them, like extra time on tests, teacher modifications of material, or technology to assist them. Others put students in an “inclusion classroom.”
Inclusion is when a special educator and a content-area teacher team up. The reason it’s works is because, in theory, no one is supposed to be able to distinguish the treatment of the special needs students from the other students. Inclusion provides two specialists to work with all students, a content area teacher and a special educator. Both teachers help all students. When done well, the special ed labels disappear.
It’s a good thing when we use strategies and technology to help those labels disappear. When they do, kids behave differently. They realize everyone needs assistance in certain areas, and they are uniquely poised to use their talents to conquer the world.
Secrets For Not Being Overwhelmed By IEPs
1. Read them all. I read every IEP. Then I file them in a file, so I can pull them if necessary to refresh my memory or to note if student progress has exceeded expectations–in other words, is the IEP matching student growth?
2. Note the “big stuff.” If there’s something big on an IEP, I memorize that. I file that in my mind. With a large number of students, it can be a challenge, but it’s necessary.
3. Treat all my students as if they have IEPs. This might sound odd, but hear me out on this one. IEP’s are “Individual Educational Plans.” All students need something. If I teach all students to self-advocate – ask me for what they need, I’m giving every student individual treatment.
At the same time, I am always following students’ IEPs. Every student gets what he or she needs to succeed, and nobody is called out. It never feels like we’re saying, “Hey you with the IEP that says you get extra time on tests and have to sit in the front row? Are you all set?”
Too many IEPs make special needs students readily identifiable. That defeats the purpose.
In my class, anyone can have extra time on my tests if they’ve been working the whole time. I can change seats, extend deadlines, or allow them to do the assignment in a way that makes more sense to them. When students advocate for themselves, they’re learning valuable skills. Someday, they’ll be talking to a boss or a team of coworkers. They’ll need to speak up.
Why is it So Important to Look Beyond the Labels?
Often the labels lead us down the slippery slope of categorization. I wrote this in a recent article in Edudemic asking the question of whether students should be grouped by ability level. When we see kids as ADHD, OCD, Autistic, or limited, we miss out on their inner great.
I joke with one OCD student. She organizes me. I tell her how much her special abilities are a real gift to me. It’s true. I’d be buried in my desk without her encouragement. She even gives me strategies to keep organized. I should probably pay her as a consultant.
A friend of mine, John Saddington, was diagnosed on the autism spectrum as an adult. Anyone who has worked with students with autism knows that they are very rigid in their ways. John sometimes misses a joke or two–autistic people either cannot or struggle to read social cues. John does things his way.
John is also a success in the highest levels of tech, writing, consulting, and entrepreneurship. People across the nation seek his advice on blogging, programming, starting companies, and life success.
John’s advantage is that he didn’t receive his diagnosis in school. Although that would have given him a head start in inner awareness, it might also have dampened his creative spirit had he been put in the “autism” box. Perhaps he would not have been challenged to reach his potential.
That happens inadvertently in schools as we try to help our students. Sometimes we help too much, and students get the “I can’t” syndrome.
Being diagnosed as a child may have helped John. I’m sure he would have loved to know why the other kids did things differently in school or didn’t relate to his way of doing things. I’m convinced it would have made him a different person. I wonder where he’d be now. This is why it’s so important to put the diagnoses aside and say “You’re great at this. Let’s go with it.”
IEP or not, everyone needs special treatment once in a while. Teachers shouldn’t fear the IEP any more than they’d fear helping any student in need. We all do it, every day.
But somewhere in this journey, we must teach students to help themselves. That’s the true goal. Then, students–IEP or not–rise to the highest level of success.