A good school doesn’t just plan your child’s day-to-day progress — it helps you start planning for their future, and never stops. Every day is a chance for growth and achievement and an opportunity to help your child move closer to his or her individual academic and social goals. If you’re familiar with special education, you’re well-acquainted with the term IEP – Individualized Education Program. But you may not know exactly how a properly-implemented IEP can benefit your child.
Students with special needs face unique challenges. Whether they be academic, social or behavioral, these challenges are what effective teachers and specialists excel at helping your child navigate and overcome. And every year, when your child’s IEP team meets to evaluate his or her progress, you should feel welcomed and encouraged. Even though IEPs are standard for students with special needs, they’re all as individual as the students themselves. Here’s what an enjoyable, effective IEP experience can look like…
1. Relationships are the priority
At the heart of every student success story are positive relationships; not just between the student and his or her teachers and peers, but between the entire learning community that provides support throughout the journey. During your child’s IEP meeting, you won’t just get to know this community — you’ll become a part of it. No one knows your child better than you do, and the jobs of educators, therapists and administrators are to ensure that every tool and strategy available are used to help your child succeed. To cultivate and harness that potential, an effective staff will work closely with you — rather than for you — as a part of the team rooting for your child’s success.
2. The focus is on needs, not expectations
Special education students are part of an extraordinary population of individuals whose needs are truly unique. And while the entire approach to helping those students succeed is goal-driven, the most valuable discoveries are the tools and paths that work for your child — as an individual — so that his or her success can continue beyond the grade-school level. At your child’s IEP meeting, collaboration to maintain success in the classroom is viewed as a constant process. By working with educators, you’ll learn what types of strategies work and don’t work for your child so that they can be honed as early and often as possible to create capability rather than dependency.
3. SMART goals are the standard
SMART stands for: Specific, Measurable, Attainable/Achievable, Relevant and Timely. By making your child’s academic, social and behavioral goals as clear as possible, they become more achievable. Breaking them down into these categories will allow the celebration of achievements and the identification of challenges as they arise, all while maintaining a larger focus on overall growth. Because SMART goals are proven to highlight challenges, they allow the teachers to focus on your child’s specific instructional needs. And, at your IEP meeting, these needs will be explained in a way that helps everyone (you included!) plan for a successful academic and behavioral future.
4. Creativity is embraced
While an IEP is a legal document, it’s not barred from creative thinking. You may have heard the term “differentiated instruction” with regard to special education. Basically, it’s an acknowledgement of the fact that every student learns differently. Every student has specific aptitudes and talents that make his or her educational journey unique. An IEP meeting is the perfect time to discuss your child’s interests, likes, dislikes, and any other relevant information that will help educators appeal to his or her unique learning style. In addition, learning more about your child as a person allows educators to think outside the box, modify requirements, or do whatever else is necessary to help your child succeed. Some methods of differentiated instruction and/or accommodation include:
• Allowing the use of a Fidget or other sensory items
• Allowing tests to be taken in a different quiet room and/
or giving extended time
•Allowing a student to take a break in a quiet area when needed
• Allowing a student to type instead of hand-write
• Implementing a visual schedule, agenda, visual timer,
labeled folders, etc. to help with organization
• Implementing a parent/teacher communication system,
possibly through a journal sent back and forth from school
5. You get to know everyone
At least, get to know everyone involved in your child’s educational journey. While your child’s IEP meeting may not be attended by every single one of his/her/their teachers, you will be acquainted with every aspect of their progress monitoring plan, and how the collective school staff will help your child succeed. In short, you should leave your child’s IEP meeting knowing exactly who will be guiding, assessing, and encouraging your child every step of the way. And, if you have any questions or concerns, they can be addressed by specific personnel, including the teachers, therapists and administrators who work with your child.
6. Reasoning is explained and clarified
IEPs can be confusing. They’re filled with acronyms, jargon and legal language that is necessary, but not always clear. Understandably, it’s frustrating when a recommendation is made for your child and you don’t know why. And it’s important to know that you have the right to ask any questions you may have before, during or after the IEP meeting. An effective IEP will consist of recommendations made deliberately, and with explicit purpose. Explaining the premise of each goal, objective and strategy is how educators establish trust with you and your child. When students (and parents) understand the thoughtfulness behind a proposal, everyone involved becomes a member of a team working toward common goals. Through clarity and cooperation, those goals can be accomplished.
7. Your feedback is welcomed
Though your child’s primary role at school is that of a student, children have rich social and emotional lives outside of the classroom. By seeking and embracing new ways to help students reach their potential in every part of their daily lives, in and out of the classroom, they can grow beyond any perceived limits. Learning how they study, behave and interact with peers during non-school hours is essential to their growth, and lets your IEP team know what’s working and what’s not. There’s no better source for that information than you.
Matt Christensen is a seventh-grade Intervention specialist at Julie Billiart School Lyndhurst. Matt has also published a children’s book called Bunny & Doggo: Friends Fight Depression, which is aimed at normalizing the conversations about mental illness between kids, adults, and all the people it affects. Julie Billiart Schools is a Catholic, independent day school, located in Lyndhurst, Akron and Westlake, that serves students in kindergarten through eighth-grade with