The law requires that students classified as special education have an individualized education program (IEP). Everything must be documented, and the responsibility for providing special education services specified in the IEP is in the hands of the school staff.
Each child who has an IEP also has an IEP team. The team includes the child and his or her parents, the child’s teachers, a counselor, an administrator, and a special education coordinator or teacher. I recently attended an IEP team meeting for a student at the high school where I teach Spanish. I listened attentively to the special education coordinator, who sat behind a laptop reviewing evaluations, the student’s progress in the core classes, and the appropriateness of the interventions prescribed for her learning disability. One by one, the elements required in an IEP meeting were completed.
One issue was the student’s enrollment in a career and technology course. After some discussion, the assistant principal asked, “What changed to make us want to remove the student from this course?” The meeting was suddenly transformed from a check-the-boxes session to something more meaningful, with the focused goal of determining how we could help this student succeed. The parent was able to provide some insight as to what the situation was and what was being done to ameliorate it at home. The special education teacher was able to shed light on the child’s history and share the concerns of the school. The rest of us, including her parent, offered several workable solutions. Together the group came up with a solid plan that would help the student without removing her from a class she loved.
This IEP meeting had changed from a mandatory evaluative process into a meaningful discussion.
General Education Teachers and IEPs
So how do teachers make their participation in IEP meetings more authentic, and how can we improve our state of preparation for students with an IEP?
The purpose of the IEP meeting is to determine if special education services for the student should be retained, increased, or dismissed. So the first thing we should do to prepare for that meeting is to ask ourselves, “Are the modifications or accommodations I provide to the student appropriate?” It goes without saying that we should know what modifications and accommodations are already prescribed in the IEP and that we have asked ourselves, “Have I faithfully implemented them?”
Next, and most importantly, we should ask ourselves, “Have I done everything I can to help this student succeed?” I know I have felt like giving up on students that didn’t seem to respond, and especially students that resented my attempts to intervene. If we are honest with ourselves, the answer to the last question above should always be a resounding no. We should adopt the Response to Intervention (RTI) mentality—we should document the intervention and the result. If the intervention does not work, then we refine the intervention until we see results.
This is the power of planning and designing targeted lessons to meet the needs of particular students. Well-designed project-based learning opportunities are perfect for helping students feel engaged, excited, and self-motivated in their learning.
How do we design these opportunities? First we check to see if the student is in the optimal seating arrangement. Yes, move the student into a seat where he or she will not be distracted or tempted to distract others, but more importantly find a setup that will inspire the student to learn best. If we have to arrange the classroom multiple times till we find the best place, we do it.
Then look at what we can do to help the student focus on learning. Provide students with authentic learning tasks that will channel their abilities—and behavior—in productive ways. The more targeted this intervention is to the students’ interests, the better. Sometimes student leadership opportunities will also provide results. For example, I recently designed a unit in the Spanish class I teach that helped me focus several special education students’ capacity to lead other students in productive ways. We have to trust students to lead, and that means releasing a bit of the reins of our own leadership.
Bringing Your Best to IEP Meetings
Before the advent of computer-created forms, it was not unusual for IEP meetings to last several hours. Now a meeting may be scheduled for just a single class period during the day, to take advantage of teacher conference periods. The forms are already filled out and only await approval from the IEP team. Because of this, we may hesitate to talk about our real concerns or question the current placement or accommodations for fear that doing so will prolong the meeting beyond our allotted time. I believe that this is detrimental to the IEP meetings.
Along with advocating that the team not watch the clock, here are important tenets for team members to follow:
- Bring the learning goals and plans, and when it is your turn, share your vision for how to help the student strive to reach those goals.
- Bring some solid strategies and suggestions—and go big.
- Share what you believe.
- Ask the hard questions.
- Say what needs to be said.
- Fully participate.
- Work to inspire others on the team to create a plan that really works for the student.
The IEP meeting should not be treated as a formality. It was designed to be a method for setting the educational course for students facing educational challenges. We have a legal and moral obligation as teachers to assist all students with their specific learning challenges.