First things first – I am a huge checklist person. If you are talking to me, and I am spacing out – I am most likely working through a checklist in my head. I love the feeling of “closure” – the rush of finishing something on my checklist. Checklists keep us organized and sane (for the most part unless you take them too far like I do). The IEP process requires many administrative tasks such as distributing questionnaires and scheduling along with substantive writing demands. To keep all of these spinning plates in the air along with your instructional demands, you can adopt these check lists into one that fits the specific needs of your school (an education specialist I worked with had generously brought the template from her last school). I recommend using this as a Google Doc to allow you to update in real time each beautiful check off the list.
When I first began teaching, I perceived Individual Education Programs as a cursory exercise that I had to complete every year for legal compliance. After the IEP meeting, my case manager would print a copy and file it away. There the IEP would sit collecting dust. Of course, the student would be receiving necessary services and teachers were aware of the accommodations; however, the effort put into the IEP was not being fully maximized.
At a different school, one of my principals asked me to create a system that allowed us to keep track of the efficacy of interventions or the student’s progress towards goals. I had a rather complicated binder system that I will not bore you with – in summary, the binder system allowed for us to gather data; however, there were many late nights printing and collating following a new IEP. Even though the system was not perfect, I began to see that IEPs as more than a stack of papers – the “Program” piece also known as the “P” in the IEP acronym began to resonate more with how I thought of the process. The IEP was not something that should be visited the week or day before a meeting – service providers should be sharing data and collaborating the entire year, so that the IEP is a living, breathing document that was constantly being referred to and the student’s ability to meet its goals.
At my last school, the former education specialist created a Google Forms system, which in my mind was revolutionary. Service providers could download the Google Form to their forms and enter data easily. The data would populate into a spreadsheet where we could check weekly on how the student with working towards each goal. The Google Forms system eliminated some of the problems of the binder system:
- After the IEP, the Google Forms could be easily updated and reshared with service providers without having to print out several copies of the IEP to update binders in several classrooms.
- All of the data aggregates to a Google spreadsheet, so you wouldn’t need to sort through several binders from different service providers.
- Work phones should have a lock, and therefore, students’ information is safe. In the past, all teachers with these binders needed a locked cabinet.
When implemented with fidelity, this data tracking system will allow you to write more thorough present levels, which will serve as the foundation of necessary goals, services, and the best LRE for the student. I recommend filling out a Google Form directly after working with the student to not forget all of the information, which I do after five minutes. Tracking behavioral interventions is especially helpful with this system when LRE placements can be contentious. Line graphs, comprised of data, either show if behavior is improving or regressing. Google Forms also creates a great system for tracking service provider minutes.
Prioritizing Stakeholder Participation
The most frequently cited violation of parent’s rights is predetermination (Zirkel & Hetrick, 2016, p. 226). Interviewing parents through a questionnaire or having an informal meeting with them can help provide valuable input. Parents are experts on their children, and considering their input is not only a legal requirement – it is a best practice. Sending the IEPs in advance or scheduling a follow up meeting are all ways to ensure parents have to time to digest the information and ask questions or provide crucial feedback.
Implementing a Student-Centered and Strengths-Based Approach to IEPs
When I worked in a high school, I also understood that many of my students were going to have to articulate their accommodations to a vocational training program, community college, or university and therefore, included transition goals scaffolding towards a student running his or her IEP. When completing field work at a school for transition age youth (18-21) for my moderate to severe credential, I was shocked to learn that the minority of the parents did not seek conservatorship for these students, which meant students were signing their own IEPs and did not necessarily have a parent attending an IEP. Having the “end” in mind for our students as early as pre-school allows for a person-centered approach to the IEP process. It is not just about checking compliance boxes – it is about meticulously planning for how this student will be part of the community. Also, seeing the future that awaits students after they leave the K-12 nest made me realize that I needed to include students in the IEP process as soon as possible.
I am a huge proponent of student-led IEPs. Students are the most important stakeholder, yet sometimes their participation is an afterthought in the meeting. For high school students, I like to include transition goals building towards students running their own IEPs by senior year. I also explain to students the underlying purpose of these goal — the inevitability of informing agencies and educational institutions of their accommodations. While working in elementary school, I also had elementary school students present a powerpoint at the beginning of the meeting detailing their strengths, goals, and preferences. Here is an example of a simple powerpoint a student could present, which could be modified for different grade levels. Having students present at IEP meetings as early as elementary school provides exposure to the IEP process, allows for them to have a meaningful role in it, and is an opportunity for the teacher to foster awareness by explaining to the student his or her goals and accommodations. Of course, students’ reading or verbal abilities or even anxiety levels can make this difficult. I practice with students and provide lots of visuals, so students can speak off the cuff if they have reading difficulties.
And last but certainly not least, IEPs are an opportunity to celebrate every student success – no matter how minor. Too often, I read IEPs that embrace the “deficit model” of everything a student is unable to do. I love reading present levels about what the student CAN do, what progress the student has made, and in what areas the student can be pushed further. IEPs should be “strengths-based” in that we celebrate positives and growth – even the most minor victories – along with discussing how we can continue to support, guide, and challenge a student.
Where did I find this cool stuff?!
Zirkel, P. A., & Hetrick, A. (2016). Which procedural parts of the IEP Process are the most judicially vulnerable? Exceptional Children, 83(2), 187–200.