That perfect IEP

An Individualized Education Program (IEP) is a document designed to provide a clear focus for instruction that is specific to the unique learning needs of a student who has a disability. This important tool serves as a foundation for special education services. Yet, it has become a source of frustration and conflict for parents and professionals alike.

Paperwork is a common complaint of special educators. I’ve heard over and over again, “If only it weren’t for all this paperwork, then I’d have time to really teach.” In the midst of the day to day challenges of teaching special education, rushing to meet deadlines and writing compliant IEPs come with the territory. In most cases, teachers are doing the best they can with the resources they have. Unfortunately, even the best of teachers struggle to write that perfect IEP.

When I was a special education administrator, a large part of my job was working with district representatives to ensure that teachers wrote compliant IEPs. For districts, missing one small detail could mean the loss of funding. For me a loss of funding could mean an unhappy district and ultimately a loss current or future student placements. Dotting every “I” and crossing every “t,” using just the right word, including that special phrase, writing those goals in that perfect format… these all became, seemingly, more important than how to serve the student’s needs. Even if each detail was present, there was no real assurance that the funding would follow. It was all a game in which we all waited with anticipation to discover which numbers or words won the lottery that year.

I HATED having to call another meeting with the IEP team and trying to explain that there were no changes to the overall content of the IEP, but rather we’d made slight corrections to ensure that the IEP was compliant. “We added the phrase ‘adverse impact’ on page 3 or we changed the order of the goals so that they matched the order in the present levels….. Blah, blah, blah…..” What a terrible use of time and how confusing that must have been for so many parents.

In spite of all of this, I believe that we all want the same thing: to meet the unique needs of each student while creating opportunities that foster growth. The IEP should serve as a tool that brings parents, teachers, and administrators together in order to create alignment and focus for each student’s program. Funding and compliance will always be part of the equation. I just wish it didn’t have to be so complicated.


16 thoughts on “That perfect IEP

  1. Yes, it is very disheartening when precious time is wasted due to an error that leaves an IEP out of compliance. Even with numerous staff developments and one on one assistance, the out of compliant IEP continues to be a concern. Just one can cause an issue. What can we do to help teachers be more cognizant in creating a thorough and compliant IEP?

    • In my experience there has often been a significant gap between teacher preparation and the current state or district requirements for writing compliant IEPs. So “highly trained” special education teachers already lack the knowledge when they begin teaching. Additionally, standards for compliance change over time and each district may have a different interpretation of what is required. If we’re ever going to see improvement, then we need consistent communication from the top down and across teacher preparation programs, as well as improved training and mentorship programs.

  2. Wow, great article. I could relate to this completely, eventhough the school I worked at was a private school who determined its own set of guidelines in collaboration with a non-profit umbrella organization that its special education division was part of, and did not have the district or public school regulations you talk about. Nevertheless the pressure and many details specifically testing based, that it created, made for an atmosphere that I often felt was counterintuative and detracted from the actual teaching and positive learning experience that is necessary for students to thrive, and while I definitely understand the need for accountability, and a means to record and communicate students’ needs and progress, the system in place as I saw it, was “overkill”. It would probably be a great contribution if someone could come up with a different system than is in place now. A way that would accomplish what the IEP does, without the time issues and stress it causes teachers and students. Perhaps a more “User friendly IEP” as well as a way to assess progress in more general way. Thanks.

    • Because the IEP is a legal document, I don’t expect to see a change in the system anytime soon. While all of the details can be frustrating, in many ways these very details also protect students and teachers.

  3. Absolutely right; compliance and litigation issues have made the iep basically useless as an instructional tool. Special Ed needs to get over itself and align more with general Ed, not further apart. For example, the difference in being certified in general and special Ed in most states is four courses. How in 2012 cam we allow any teacher to opt out of teaching kids with disabilities by not taking those courses.

    • I agree that as separate entities, special education and general education cannot effectively meet the needs of all students. Certification requirements and training need to incorporate both worlds.

  4. Well…all depends of where you are practicing. I moved from the East Coast , New Jersey – that has one of the best -if not the best – Special services for our kids. They have a case manager that is the one in control of the paperwork, but at the same time , they are responsible for the questions that the parents have. California is a different thing all together,; it is an inclusive state – bravo for that – but what happen??? the goals are the min possible, the Special Ed teacher is now in charge of “language” as they called it, unless your child is in need of a Speech Pathologist, they have no idea about collecting data, where do you go to ask for help ? The case manager is the same Special Ed Teacher…really ??? so you have a problem, who is the one doing the “observation” and how are they collecting date to make the corrective things they need to make for the sake of our kids….I think that is the most frustrating issue in CA. Also who modifies the curriculum? And is the teacher the one that is responsible of the teaching ? so get the training necessary for them to understand how each child is different and how to handle when the regular kids around make fun of the one that needs assistance….lots of challenges….

  5. I can relate to all of the posters’ comments and concerns. Having worked for a few years as a case manager in one of the larger school districts in Wyoming paperwork, scheduling, and presiding over meetings was ALL that I did. I think having case managers is a wonderful solution to taking special education teachers away from planning for and teaching students. It worked great in the district I was in. Where I am now is a very tiny district in Wyoming. As the Director of Special Education I only have 4 staff members besides myself in our department. That enables me as the director to really be the “case manager” for all of our IEPs. Although the teacher writes some of the IEPs I check them all over and make sure they are compliant. Our district (as all of Wyoming will be required to do next year) has adopted Common Core Standards this year. One of the great resources I have gotten for our staff and myself is the book “Aligning IEPs to the Common Core State Standards” by Courtade & Browder. I thought I would share this tidbit with those who are moving toward CCSS. Best wishes and Merry Christmas to you all!

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  7. I was just wondering why you would have a team meeting to change something like the order of goals and objectives on an IEP? Isn’t there a simplified amendment process (with consent of the parents) where meetings do not have to be called unless you’re changing a placement, program, or service? I’m not sure what state you live in, but that seems very out of the way for an entire team of people. Depending on the number of students receiving services in the district, if the number is extremely high, your team would never leave the table.

    • Yes, in the state of Washington there is an amendment process in which a team meeting does not have to be held. However, in cases where a student has “high cost” needs (especially those requiring out-of-district placement), there is a “safety net’ review process in which districts can submit an application to the state in an effort to recoup some of this cost. This application includes the IEPs of these high cost students so extra care is given to every step of the process, particularly the documentation. Erroring on the side of caution, some districts choose to hold a team meeting even for the smallest of changes.

  8. This is an interesting topic, and I have been able to experience it from a unique perspective. Our son was diagnosed while in a parentally placed out of district private school. In Maine that creates layer upon layer of procedural nightmares. So at that time we had no use for the public school special education services that was worth the effort it would have taken.
    So the LEA where our son attended knee they would not have to provide any services, only help develop and ISP and then provide consultation when we needed it. So we removed the fear of “financial liability” for any services they agreed our son needed.
    After a few years our family dynamic along with the private school leadership had evolved to a different place and it was no longer the “least restrictive” environment for our son.
    We had been overly communicative with our home LEA knowing that at some point we may leave the private school and again be eligible (well he was always eligible) but this time it was a pure IEP with a clear diagnosis, service plan, and only the presumptions and actions of the home LEA that could flaw the process.
    We have asked for nothing additional and have neuropsych, behavioral specialist, and pediatric evaluations and diagnosis along with the wisc-iv scores from last spring prior to leaving the private school.
    Does anyone want to guess how well things have gone? It’s amazing how we went into our first meeting with open, honest, nonviolent communication in play at al times, and still somehow the LEA has taken inappropriate and surprising actions.
    The sad thing is that the only explanations that can make sense have to do with a future liability if they can not provide the education our son needs (I owe my wife my life and my sons for being steadfast with his therapy and educational plan as she alone did things she as a mother knew we’re right and I know that friends, family, and even I doubted along the way).
    So the positive thing that this IEP process has created is that I now know my son better than I ever have, I understand the wiring in his brain and where the misfires are and possibly why. I’ve accepted things that I struggled with for years. In a matter of three days (receiving the AWN Friday afternoon for a Monday 9:00am IEP with the districts legal counsel (I.e. Consultant who works for the LEA’s law firm, is a member of the state DOE, did his doctorate study on the psychology, emotions, and motivations in the IEP process, and worked to revise the Maine SPED “MUSER ” guidelines)) my outlook on life an trust in people (the people who are responsible for the well being of my son) has changed. When I work up on Tuesday morning I was a different person than when I woke up just a few days before. I have found focus and clarity and will never probably never have trust with others for a very long time.
    So the IEP process is flawed. The motivations are wrong, and it is disturbing to the core of who I am as a person. And my son is receiving what he needs and is entitled to. The people from the LEA must have a fear because my son qualifies or more, his diagnosis says he could be an ASD who barely functions, but he is not his diagnosis, he has gone from a private wholistic school from age 5-10 with no grades or critical assessments. Where he could take off his socks and shoes and be comfortable. And he has integrated himself in his third week and want to be there longer and to learn more.
    You can sense the fear, i don’t think that they understand how or why.
    So with our open communication, never asking for anything more, and offering communication to help them learn about our son and who he is, how he learns, and what he needs. They violated procedure for no known reason, and the violation brought in their “consultant” against IDEA and ME state law.
    I still don’t know if it is the potential financial liability, the fact that we stood strong and had control of the meeting, or that there was nothing they could contest. Some dynamic though has put them in a bad place. In a way I am glad inexperienced it because I now have true appreciation for my wife an what she saw and did, it still is troubling though because rather than feeling good and being excited to work with them and build relationships that will help my son, we are always on the defense, always being skeptical and wondering what’s next and why?

    So even the development of a great IEP document (which we are still waiting to see) comes with a process that will fail in almost any situation. I can’t think that there is any process with so much differentiated emotion, legal and procedural inconsistencies everywhere, uneducated administrators and parents, and really expect it to be collaborative and without frustration.

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