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Replacing Filler in Special Education Documents

Jeffrey M Hartman

I'm looking to share what the field has taught me.
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Mom, dad, and boy speaking with teacher around a table

Special education teachers want to celebrate the achievements of their students, but doing so can be difficult for those students who struggle to make progress. Consequently, teachers have a tendency to inflate the smallest successes. For some students, finding these successes takes some reaching.

The Limitations of Praise

Wanting to praise students is understandable. Most special education teachers enter the field with a desire to help. Self-esteem can be fragile in students with special needs, so praise can be as vital as food. Their parents might need support as well. If nothing else, those parents might like to hear something positive that interrupts the stream of disappointing news about what their children can't do.

Praise does indeed have its place. It can be specific or general, verbal or written, public or private. Deft teachers create opportunities to praise, even when the praise is for something trivial. But as helpful as it might be for students to hear it, this type of thin and insubstantial praise doesn't belong written into special education documents such as reevaluation reports and IEPs.

Too often, special education documents include descriptions of students being "hard workers" and "enthusiastic about learning." Such statements lack specificity. The performance data in these documents must be detailed and norm-referenced. Stating that a student is "a pleasure to have in class" might make a parent smile, but this isn't helpful in planning future instruction.

The reevaluation report is meant to indicate whether or not the student continues to need special education services. Teachers need to report how the student is performing compared with non-disabled students of the same age. For services to continue, a gulf between actual and expected performance should be obvious. This might force teachers state what a student can't do. Though possibly uncomfortable for all parties, this is necessary.

Collecting Data

Present-level statements in the IEP must coincide with the reevaluation report. The IEP can go farther for students of transition age. Present levels under transition can include detailed narratives about highly specific abilities. Statements can include a student's ability to give personal information, use a phone, or describe his or her disability.

To help ensure worthwhile reporting, teachers can use a checklist of age-appropriate skills. Generic versions of such lists are readily available by searching for developmental or life-skills checklists. Commercial versions are available through publishers such as Curriculum Associates. State standards can be used as guides as well. Teachers can track what each student on a caseload has accomplished by a given age. The results can become a student's present levels. Though time consuming, compiling mounds of data on special education students is essential. Not only does it substantiate educational placements and planning decisions, but it also serves as indispensible evidence if a case is being heard for due process. The longer the checklist, the more data will be available.

Such a list should include whatever assessments the district uses (KeyMath, Brigance, CareerScope, and so on) along with state-level results, if available. Other items to include on the list will vary by age or disability. Lists for some students could include money handling or dressing skills. Registering to vote or completing FAFSA forms might be appropriate for other students. The point is to have a collection of measurable abilities that can appear in relevant documents.

Measurable Goals and Explicit Information

Presenting this information clearly is equally important to having it. Teachers can include positive statements about skills, such as, "Juan can correctly pronounce 15 of 25 words selected from the Dolch list," or "Jennifer can write her Social Security number correctly in three out of five consecutive trials." These statements easily can be rewritten as measurable goals matched neatly to present levels. For example: "Given 25 Dolch list words, Juan will correctly pronounce 20 words in three consecutive trials."

If anecdotal information is included, it should be specific. Perhaps a student is helpful in the classroom. This should be quantified. A student might be assigned five daily chores, and the teacher can use the list to record how many chores this student completes, or how many redirections are needed. The records can become additional present-level information. If a student has a negative attitude about school and this affects performance, the teacher can quantify this through a survey about school satisfaction. Again, the results would be easy to transfer.

Being explicit is more than a best practice. Documents such as reevaluation reports and IEPs demand specific and detailed information. Filling or padding these documents with unquantifiable praise doesn't help anyone make or implement plans for students. Contrarily, documents loaded with praise but lacking substance could end up hurting everyone involved. Poor planning tools could affect student outcomes. In a larger scope, an entire district could suffer should a parent wish to use weak documents as evidence in a due process case. Clear and thorough data can protect against legal entanglements while effectively supporting positive student outcomes.

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Jeffrey M Hartman's picture
Jeffrey M Hartman
I'm looking to share what the field has taught me.

As mentioned in the article (3rd paragraph, specifically, but also 2nd paragraph), praise in the classroom is important and recommended. Students need it whether or not they have IEPs. Some students with IEPs require it as an accommodation. However, praise that lacks specificity is misplaced when included in reevaluation reports and IEPs. These are places for clear data rather than uplifting comments. The nature of special education is such that hard data will likely show gaps between expected and actual achievement. Without these gaps, special education services wouldn't be needed. The documents have to show this. As mentioned in comments above, that doesn't mean teams have to belabor the gaps. They can discuss successes and how to build on these. Such conversations should inform the goals and accommodations as much as the demonstrated gaps do. Yes, praise in the classroom. Yes, discuss successes during meetings. No, don't rely solely on positive statements in the legal documents. These need clear, measurable data or they have little value.

Melanie Link Taylor's picture
Melanie Link Taylor
Educator, Blogger, Southern California

Special Education was also my field. I appreciate your observation that praise must be practical, specific and helpful toward the goal of identifying the steps to achievement for the student. An environment with inflated support slows the student's executive functioning development, and as the grade levels progress, significant growth and independance is imperative. Vague praise will confuse the student, and when they are put into, say Grade 9 (which is like a blender set on puree), they are thinking they are capable without the specific knowledge, skills, and training to achieve.

Jeffrey M Hartman's picture
Jeffrey M Hartman
I'm looking to share what the field has taught me.

I repeatedly saw situations like what you describe. The most troubling cases involved students on the cusp of graduation who had warped notions of their abilities. Sadly, efforts to channel ambition towards something aligned with aptitude elicited harsh responses from other teachers, parents, and the students themselves. Transition can be undermined through a combination of misinformation and denial.

jlindsey8010's picture

Your post is full of straightforward, honest opinions that hit the nail on the head, while also opening the door for discussion regarding some practices in Special Education. I am relatively new to the field of Special Education; however, in two years I have seen IEPs that are full of the filler comments that you describe in your post. I have also seen IEPs that have standard based goals with measurable criteria that have limited opportunities for praise. I have conducted many IEP meetings, which provide further insight into this discussion. I feel that you can successfully implement IEPs that are based on quantifiable results, like they are supposed to be, while also being charismatic enough to increase the parents' and student's confidence and self worth with a positive attitude regarding the academic or behavioral situation. I think opening the meeting by pointing out quantifiable results that are due to the student's efforts and hard work is key. If this result is simply an improvement on a weekly test by several points, it still sets a tone for the meeting and the implementation of the IEP that you are the child's advocate and are focused on meeting their needs and guiding them to success. After this opening, a positive tone is set and you can discuss any problem areas that may be somewhat sensitive in nature. Then, at the end of the meeting you can close on what the student WILL and CAN do by working towards meeting the desired, quantifiable results mentioned in the success criteria of the IEP goals. This being said, building a strong relationship with the parents that is both professional and open makes the implementation of successful IEPs much easier. Reading the comments from the parents make it obvious that IEPs and meetings full of negativity and pessimism can drastically impact the children and the parents of those children.

Jeffrey M Hartman's picture
Jeffrey M Hartman
I'm looking to share what the field has taught me.

Thank you for the detailed comment and a belated welcome to the field. Having run a few hundred IEP meetings, I agree that focusing the conversation on accomplishments and how to build upon those accomplishments is definitely the best course. Documents can and should reflect the details of these positive conversations while including the raw (and absolutely vital) performance data. As mentioned in some of the comments about, harping on deficits isn't necessary during the meeting. Teams can and should make meetings an opportunity to recognize what a student has achieved and might be able to achieve with the right interventions.

By a wide margin, most of the meetings I ran as SEL/LEA designee had an upbeat tone while remaining transparent and honest. In truth, when there was a problem, it typically involved a sour personal relationship between the parent and a teacher or therapist, or a request by the parent that the school had limited ability to fulfill. Meetings seldom became tense during the meeting and much more often were chances to resolve tension that had been brewing.

I wish you the best as you continue with your career.

jlindsey8010's picture

Thanks for your informative reply! I definitely agree that the meetings should be a time for both recognition and looking at how far one could go with further interventions. It is also good to see the emphasis on one of the most often overlooked aspects, the parent relationship. I think when the relationships are open and working towards the betterment of the student, student learning can increase tenfold. Thanks for the wishes, and best of luck to you. I will continue to follow this page and your writings!

Elaine's picture

As a program specialists for exceptional children department, I have to constantly remind the teachers that I work with to always prepare parents at the beginning of their child's special education journey. I remember as a teacher, having to tell parents scores that they were not expecting but they respected the truth and they knew maybe college wasn't the right choice for their child and I would suggest a trade school. I wasn't "downgrading" them but I being realistic in their journey.

Jeffrey M Hartman's picture
Jeffrey M Hartman
I'm looking to share what the field has taught me.

I definitely prefer sharing a harsh truth than placating with a misleading embellishment. Special education teachers are often saddled with delivering disappointing news. The challenge is finding a way to inspire some glimmer of hope and reminding that "different" doesn't have to mean "less than."

Rose's picture

I agree with this post. Though it is hard for parents to hear the reality of their child's progress, the present levels need to be straight forward and based on the data. In the child's profile I like to add if my students are willing to do their school work and if are always willing to do what is asked of them. I note this because I want the team to know these students are trying when they are being tested therefore the data is accurate. I have students who are not willing to do their work will sometimes have a behavior which will effect their data.
Very well written post!

Jeffrey M Hartman's picture
Jeffrey M Hartman
I'm looking to share what the field has taught me.

Thank you, Rose. I like your take on why you make note of student effort. That is a smart idea.

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