Leading By Example

Leading By Example

Problem solving is such an important life skill. IEP teams are no stranger to problems… so what are we doing to model collaboration and problem solving for students? How are we involving students in the problems that we are trying to resolve?

“Every opportunity to problem-solve provides students with a chance to practice the important skills required to solve real-life every day problems.”


A Lesson in Listening

“Whenever I choose to share a post, I worry a little and wonder how my ramblings and perspective may come across to others. I want this blog to be a place for honest conversations and perspective sharing, a space that open doors to communication and brings insight into the realities that others experience, and that promotes empathy and collaboration between families and professionals…..”

A Scrapbook for Special Education

“After over two hours of sitting at a table among dedicated team members, I could hardly believe the book we had written. This book of nearly 50 IEP goals outlined every hope and desire of one incredibly passionate mom, a mom who would not settle for anything less than the absolute best for her kid.

While the teacher and the therapists at the table struggled to imagine how any student would ever meet this many goals in one year, there was something special about that moment. We knew that this mom needed to see her hopes on paper. She needed us to experience the urgency that she felt every day as she imagined her child’s future….

Inclusion (Part 1): When Numbers Fail to Tell the Story

“As late as the middle of the 1970s, an estimated 1 million kids with disabilities didn’t even attend school (NEA, 1999).” We’ve come a long way since the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) was enacted. IDEA was the beginning of what continues to be a fight for inclusion and for the rights of students with disabilities.

In an effort to understand our progress in this fight, I spent a good portion of my day yesterday immersing myself in the numbers. Perhaps, my biggest take away is that we’re actually keeping data on the matter. The lack of data on students with disabilities prior to IDEA is further evidence of the separation and isolation experienced by so many for so long. Thanks to the DAC (Data Accountability Center, 2005-2011), I learned that since 2005, 15% more students (ages 6-21) receive their education in a regular classroom for at least 80% of their day. To my surprise, not a whole lot has changed for students who receive services in separate facilities.

What do these numbers really tell us about the effectiveness of inclusion today? While I’m sure a master statistician would have more to say on the matter, I’m not convinced that the numbers will ever tell the full story. If we’re pushing for an increase in the sheer numbers of students spending time with general education peers, then we’re on the right track. But numbers don’t give us information about the quality of each student’s experience or whether or not their placement is truly the best match for their unique needs.

Effective inclusion is a process in which certain guidelines and questions must be considered.

I – Individualized

Special education is built on an individualized approach to instruction. In the same way, what inclusion means for one student may be different than what it means for another student. The level and method to which a student interacts with the general education community must be purposeful, realistic, and supportive.

  • Do the environments support the IEP goals?
  • Do the accommodations/modifications support meaningful participation?

N – Necessary

Every student with special needs has the right to be part of the greater educational community. The process of determining the least restrictive environment is absolutely necessary, but there must be a clear rationale for every placement decision. Without an intentional discussion about what this placement will look like or feel like for the student, all we’re left with is a percentage of time…  just another number.

  • Are the student’s rights on the table?
  • Does discussion about placement include thoughtful discussion about implementation?

C – Collaborative

Inclusion invites teams to collaborate on a deeper level. The general education perspective can only enrich the expertise of the IEP team and vice versa. However, collaboration takes time and a conscious effort on the part of each team member.

  • Are team members on board with the plan?
  • What resources are needed to support each team member in fulfilling their role?

L – Listening

Inclusion must be adapted in response to the strengths, interests, and needs of the student and the community. In education, it’s easy to jump on the inclusion bandwagon. If we emphasize an outcome without responding to the experience of the student, then we’re missing the whole point.

  • What is the student telling you about their experience?
  • Is it too much, not enough?

U – Understanding

Effective inclusion requires understanding from leadership and administration. There are real issues and challenges that require creativity in the use of resources and the management of logistics. There is a learning curve and change takes time.

  • What challenges or logistics need to be addressed to support the student or the team?
  • Who needs to be informed and what needs to be shared?

S – Safe

Safety of the student must always be considered. Some students may have difficulty with the number of transitions, the sensory input, and the level of information to be processed within a general education environment. Additionally, general education students may need to be prepared or taught certain skills. If peers don’t understand the disability or if they aren’t given information for what to expect, the student may also be at risk for bullying.

  • What information or preparation will support the safety of the student?
  • Does the environment support engagement and learning?

I – Ingenious

Inclusion challenges educators to think outside of the box, utilizing resources and technology in new ways.  Inclusion challenges us to connect creative solutions to real world issues of accessibility. If an accommodation doesn’t promote access in a general education classroom then how can we expect it to promote access in life?

  • Is the team open to possibilities?
  • Is there another approach, tool, or resource that will support a positive outcome/experience?

O –Ongoing

A student’s placement should never be static; rather, it should always be moving toward the next step as the student gains new skills. If there is a lack of progress, it may be time to take a step back and to re-evaluate the placement. If the skills aren’t generalizing, then additional support or teaching may be needed.

  • Is the student making progress?
  • Are new skills generalizing to each setting?

N – Natural

A student’s experience should be natural, not forced. If the student is resisting the environment or activity, then the team needs to consider whether or not the situation is realistic and meaningful.

  • Is the experience a match for the student’s needs, strengths, and interests?
  • What is the student drawn to?
  • What environments or relationships are familiar or comfortable?

Everyone wants to feel included, to be part of something, to be valued for their unique contribution. If there is anything to be gained by inclusion, then it is a commitment to promoting a sense community and connection that is meaningful for every student. And when the numbers fail to do so, may our shared experiences tell the story.


Data Accountability Center. (2005-2011). Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) Data. U.S. Department of Education, Office of Special Education Programs. Retrieved from https://www.ideadata.org/default.asp

NEA. (1999, May). Inclusion Confusion. NEAToday Online, 1. Retrieved from http://lobby.la.psu.edu/063_IDEA/Organizational_Statements/NEA/NEA_Today_Inclusion_Confusion_0599.htm

“Us versus Them” in Special Education (Part 3): Navigating the System

Speaking up in a culture of “us versus them” begins with courage and a willingness to venture into a world that is not our own. Yet, courage will only get us so far. Overcoming a fear of flying, may get us to a seat on the plane. But without a plan, we’re sure to get lost and a new set of fears and emotions are bound to follow. On any journey, it’s best to chart your course beforehand and to plan accordingly.

The Destination
If we want to go to France, we know that we will need a plane ticket. But a plane ticket won’t guarantee that we reach our destination. We must be specific about where we want to go. Otherwise, we might end up with a ticket to China.

In the same way, in advocating for the needs of a student, we must be specific about the outcome that we are looking for while also considering the means to reach that outcome. For example, a teacher may advocate for a 1:1 paraprofessional for a student who is demonstrating aggressive behaviors. Is the 1:1 paraprofessional the destination or is it the means to another outcome? A request like this becomes compelling when the requestor can articulate how the means supports the ends.

A Tour Guide
When traveling, a tour guide helps us to know which roads to take and what to pay attention to along the way. If our destination is France, then we want a tour guide who can translate for us and who knows how to get us from the airport to the next stop.

In the school system, knowing which tour guide to turn to for support and direction depends on the roles and the hierarchy for decision-making that are defined by a school or a district. While the principal or vice principal may be the leaders within a school building, they may or may not be the best person to seek out for guidance. It is important to determine who handles decisions related to your specific concern. Is it a building decision, a department decision, a district level decision? When in doubt, contact the special education office in your district. Administrators can be very busy, so when possible work with the office manager or director’s assistant to understand the appropriate process.

An Itinerary
An itinerary provides an order to things and helps us to prioritize steps along our journey, ensuring that we experience the best possible outcome. If we want to tour the Eiffel Tower, then we need to plan our trip so that we arrive in Paris in time for a tour.

If a teacher waits until an IEP meeting to discuss concerns about a student’s behavior and the need for additional support, the decision-maker may not even be in the room. If this person is in the room, they may feel caught and ill-prepared to respond. It is important to consider what conversations and preparation needs to occur before making a request. Scheduling a meeting or a phone conference can be especially effective in promoting a space for active listening.

A Map
A map provides a common language. There is always more than one road to the destination and a rationale for which road to take. If we get to France and are without a tour guide, the map is our tool to finding our way.

In special education, data is our map. Clear data is a common, objective language that provides information about what has occurred to date. Data defines our current location. It is a tool for determining a common destination and gives us information to guide our next steps.

When we’re lost and confused by what seems to be endless dead ends in the system of special education, we must return to our map. We must be willing to ask for help and be open to more than one way of reaching our destination.

A New Year for Resolutions and IEP Goals

2013: another New Year and a time to reflect on the past, to examine the present, and to look forward to what may be possible for the future. Simply stated, it’s time for that New Year’s Resolution. New Year’s Resolutions are intended to provide a determined course of action that leads to a positive change. Yet, for many, these resolutions are soon abandoned and forgotten. Of the 45% of Americans who usually make New Year’s Resolutions, only 8% are successful in achieving their resolution. There must be a common factor among those who are successful. According to a 2007 study, setting simple, measurable goals with benchmarks and accountability among friends and family make a positive difference.

So, what does any of this have to do with IEP goals? Just like resolutions, IEP goals are much more likely to be successful when they have the following characteristics:

1. Meaningful
A meaningful goal has a clear function and purpose that if achieved will have a positive, observed impact on the student’s success. A resolution that is chosen for you without your input or the input of those who know you best is destined for failure. Yet, IEP goals are frequently written without considering the student’s point of view. A student should be given opportunities to participate in the development of their IEP goals to the greatest extent that they are able. Even if the student is non-verbal and has limited cognitive skills, consider what will make the greatest difference for that student. Seek input from every member of the IEP team to ensure that the goal is just the right match

2. Focused
When we speak of resolutions, we’re usually speaking of one goal. It makes sense to have more than one goal in an IEP because we’re usually addressing multiple skills or areas of learning. However, we have to be careful about the number of skills that are reasonable to work on at one time and in the course of one year. When there are too many goals, the student’s program may lack a clear focus and a lack of progress tends to follow.

3. Measurable
The resolution to lose weight is much more likely to be successful if you break it into smaller measurable goals (like losing one pound per week). IEP goals that are measurable and have clear benchmarks that bring focus to a student’s program. The data that we so often speak of is a tool, an indicator of when goals are appropriate and when they need to be adjusted.

4. Attainable
Attainable goals are based on pre-requisite skills and emphasize a progression of learning. If you have never learned to swim and set a one year resolution to swim in the Olympics, you’ll probably quit pretty quick. Every IEP has a section where present levels are documented as a foundation for new goals. When there is a missing skill between a student’s current skill level and the next skill to be learned, we are setting the student up for failure.

5. Supported
We know that resolutions have an improved rate of achievement when there is a support system in place. The IEP team is intended to provide a similar kind of support and accountability. A team that is aligned on a focused end goal encourages and participates in the implementation of the IEP. This means that the IEP goals must be clearly communicated among team.

If you are a member of an IEP team, I would encourage you to take a look at that IEP. Are the goals meaningful, focused, measurable, attainable, and supported? If not, take the opportunity to review and to respond to what is needed. It’s never too late to adjust that plan!


When the IEP Becomes a Sword…

A parent struggles to convince the IEP team, “It’s not working. He needs something different. He CAN’T go back.” The parent is advocating for an out-of-district placement, a potentially costly situation for the district. Meanwhile, the district administrator is concerned about least restrictive environment, arguing that the student is making sufficient progress.  For the parent, “sufficient progress” feels like a slap in the face. On the few occasions that her son even walks through the school doors, he spends much of the time hiding under his desk.

After implementing every strategy in his toolbox, the teacher feels stuck and unsure of how to support this student. Yet, he knows he can’t admit that especially now that there are attorneys involved. The conversation has shifted from “what can we do” to “what must be done.”  The IEP, once a tool, has now become a sword. Regardless of any good intention on the part of the school or the parent, the fight now takes priority, empathy is in the back seat, and the listening at the table dwindles. Decisions have already been made.

Situations like this always have layers of concerns and many variables that for whatever reason cannot or will not be spoken at the IEP table. I just don’t understand why it has to reach this level of crisis. Isn’t there more that can be done to be proactive, to spare these already vulnerable youth from more anxiety and frustration?

Unfortunately, all too often students have to fail before they get help: the data has to show that interventions have been unsuccessful over a period of time, the student’s behaviors have to be disruptive enough to be noticed, or the test scores have to show just enough discrepancy to meet eligibility for services.  By the time all of the data lines up just right, the problem has already worsened.

I refuse to accept that this is how it has to be.