The first year of teaching involves an overwhelming number of new things: work environment, curriculum, coworkers, and students, not to mention figuring out how to make the copier work after it’s jammed in three places.
For first-year special education teachers, the busiest time of year is often the spring, when students’ individualized education programs (IEPs) are due in quick succession.
The following tips can lower the high cognitive load for new special education teachers during this busy time and ensure a successful end to the school year with all IEPs in compliance.
Don’t Overestimate The Power of Scheduling
Create a spreadsheet or document for each student who needs a meeting, including columns for the compliance date, the meeting notice, a draft IEP, a finalized IEP, and a prior written notice. If the student needs more documents, make more columns: For example, FBA, BIP, consent to contact outside agencies, Medicaid consent forms, and evaluations might have their own sections. As items are completed, check them off to ensure that the process stays on track.
Once your spreadsheet is intact, schedule each IEP meeting at least two weeks before the compliance date. Routinize the process by determining the ideal time of day for each general education teacher. For example, the second-grade teacher may prefer to meet during her prep time on Mondays, while the third-grade teacher may prefer to meet after school on Tuesdays.
From there, determine the week when each meeting will be held. For any specific student, identify three times when the whole team is free, including service or administrative team members who need to be involved. Reach out to the parent or guardian and offer the most preferred date/time. If the parent or guardian is not available, provide the next two options. In most scenarios, having three times when all team members are free ensures that the family member has some choice and minimizes back-and-forth.
When contacting families, ask all necessary questions to ensure their full involvement. For example: Will you need an interpreter? Would you prefer to participate in person or virtually? Will anyone else be attending the IEP meeting with you? (spouse, advocate, etc.). Would you prefer that the draft IEP be sent digitally or as a hard copy? (If digitally, be sure to confirm the email address.) Would you like your student to participate in the meeting? Do you have any concerns that you are hoping to address in the meeting?
Create a System to Monitor Progress Toward IEP Goals
Take a few hours of prep time to determine how many data points you need for each student, and create necessary materials for progress monitoring. Batching this work and creating materials in advance will allow you to do similar progress monitoring for students with similar goals and create systems that work within your classroom.
Choose one day per week to monitor progress, and be sure to get students excited and involved. Create systems for independent work within your room; for example, in a resource room setting with students working on academic goals, you might create a “Show What You Know” day. Students can choose an independent reading level book to read in the classroom while you work one-on-one with each student, monitoring their progress toward reading fluency.
Prepare General Education Teachers
Plan ahead for how you would like to get general education teachers’ input prior to IEP meetings. Coordinate with other special education teachers in your building to ensure that each of you has the same expectations. For example, create a simple teacher report document that is used for every IEP meeting, and ask general education teachers to fill it out with recent academic and social and emotional information. Provide an exemplar (filled out) teacher report so that teachers can see the expectations, and request their forms far in advance of the IEP meetings with a clear deadline for completion.
You can be sure that new general education teachers are ready for IEP meetings by showing them the meeting agenda and indicating which sections they will be responsible for discussing. Share insight into the types of questions they might receive about accommodations or student progress to give them time to prepare.
Protect Prep Time
It is crucial to ensure that you are completing compliance work during the school day to avoid overwhelm during this busy time of year. As a special education teacher, you can easily lose precious prep time responding to student behavior or supporting a student in another teacher’s room. If you want to avoid writing IEPs at 9 p.m. or on a Saturday, work hard to protect your prep time. If there are paraprofessionals on the team, utilize them to support students in other classrooms. Alternatively, inform the leadership team of your heavy compliance workload, and request additional support with student behavior.
If needed, move to a different space in the building to have privacy to complete your work. You might need to get creative here; I have written IEPs in a back stairwell or a hidden corner of the school library!
Finally, be sure to batch your work. IEP season requires a significant amount of parent contact; complete these communications via email or text if possible during your prep time. Perhaps your district requires signed IEPs to be uploaded to a specific website; wait until you’ve held a few meetings, and then scan and upload all of the documents at once.
The spring semester can feel turbulent, but by taking a few proactive steps to organize and streamline work, special education teachers can spend their time and energy writing clear and legally defensible IEPs that truly showcase students’ abilities and needs, as well as indicate the services and programming needed to ensure students’ success.
Creating clear systems and routines means that all members of the IEP team, including families, general education teachers, and related service providers, are fully included and involved in advocating for each student.