Like many parents, my friend, a mother of three, has worried since the Covid-19 school closures about how to help her children with three grades of schoolwork while also balancing her own work responsibilities. Every week, it’s been a juggling act. However, her biggest concern doesn’t have anything to do with assignments. Instead, she’s worried that her oldest child will lose the progress he recently made on his individualized education program (IEP) goals.
She isn’t alone. With schools closed across the country, delivering services for students with disabilities has been a pressing and ongoing issue. Compliance with IEPs is a particular concern, as schools are required by federal law to deliver services in alignment with each student’s IEP, and while children are at home, it is not possible to perfectly replicate the services that happen inside schools. Further, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA)—the legislation governing IEP services—doesn’t include guidance for prolonged school closures. Educators and families are both operating in uncharted territory.
Fortunately, the Department of Education (DOE) released new guidance granting schools, teachers, and specialists unprecedented flexibility in adhering to students’ IEPs in March. This permission to be flexible leaves many questions, however: Most important, how can we do right by our students and support them remotely? The short answer is, it is complicated, and we're still figuring it out together. As teachers work more closely than ever with families to support their children’s learning at home during Covid-19, here are six considerations to navigate IEP goal conversations with families.
Health and Connection Come First: While meeting IEP goals is certainly important during this time, the health of and connection with families are more so. Explore what each student needs to be healthy at home (or in their place of care) by checking in with their family to make sure that everyone is safe, healthy, and fed.
If needed, help connect families to resources like Feeding America, partner food banks, or community health centers. Many children received food and health support (mental and physical) through public schools, so the Covid-19 closures, coupled with rising unemployment, have increased the needs of students and their families. Recognizing that students cannot learn as well if they are hungry or feel unsafe, one special education teacher I spoke with is doing weekly runs to drop off hygiene items and nonperishable foods for the children in her caseload.
Get Everyone on the Same Page: Start by asking the family if they have a copy of their child's IEP. If they cannot find a copy, send one, and schedule a phone meeting one week later to talk through the document. On a call together, acclimate families to the IEP, pointing out key sections and helping locate the IEP goals that typically follow the Present Levels of Performance (PLEP). While this article addresses IEP goals specifically, IEPs also include important information about accommodations, modifications, and related services, which are all being interpreted and translated for the new learning-from-home reality.
Ask students and caregivers how they are feeling—and honor those feelings—and answer any questions they have about IEP goals, school progress at home, or special education services. Emphasize that persisting toward IEP goals and scaffolding practice won’t look the same as when children are in school, and that’s OK.
Translate Goals to the New Reality: Work with caregivers and students to determine what goals and benchmarks can look like at home. Talk through how to translate school practices to remote learning, and be open to revisiting these targets, given the family’s—and student’s—shifting reality. If an elementary student has a social skills goal measured by turn taking and sharing in peer group settings, for example, the family might start by writing a social story about the importance of sharing and turn taking, then seek out examples where this skill applies at home (e.g., "This is a good time to practice sharing by giving your brother a turn with the iPad [or bicycle], and then it will be your turn”).
In many districts, videoconferencing is becoming an important service-delivery method to help meet IEP goals. But before offering video support, find out if the family you are working with has a reliable connection and a device with that capability. If not, either help families find these resources (some schools and organizations are providing free hot spots and computers to families during Covid-19), or choose a different communication method.
Provide Tools and Strategies to Help: Share insights and learning strategies that work for the students in your caseload. These might include making daily schedules with visual cues, offering sensory breaks, using if/then boards, and creating memory jogs such as acronyms and/or silly melodies.
It can also be beneficial to connect families to community organizations and parent support groups that specialize in serving neurodiverse populations. The Council for Exceptional Children is offering free membership through May 30, 2020, to anyone who needs access to their resources and discussion forums. For families with reliable technology, there are also several apps and technical tools available to help.
Schedule Communication: Close each communication with clear steps for how to stay in touch, and schedule a specific date for your next conversation. Each family will have different tools and methods that work for them, depending on their circumstances. More than ever, connection and communication have become equity considerations in providing education services. Being in this together—which is the only way—means meeting families halfway through the avenues and schedules that are possible for both parties.
It’s also important to remember to document all of your conversations with families and students, which is required compliance under IDEA. Even though services are being delivered in different ways right now, documenting is a continued best practice. When schools reopen, this documentation will be helpful for reporting and addressing services.
Think Outside of the IEP: Encourage families and students to work with what they know and have available at home. Suggest reading together, getting fresh air, creating art, playing games, and practicing life skills. Many of these activities actually directly help with IEP goal attainment, and support children’s academic and social and emotional development.
Finally, give yourself grace, too. It’s OK to feel like you’re fumbling—we’re all practicing educational services in ways that none of us planned or prepared for. At the end of the day, know that continuing to put students first is our best educational compass for these uncertain times.