Ordinary People, Extraordinary IEPs

  • Posted on: 19 March 2015
  • By: Tina McCoy

It’s easy to feel overwhelmed during ‘IEP Season’, but you don’t have to be a superstar (or suddenly have more planning time) to develop IEPs that will serve your students well all year long. Thinking of an IEP as a Leadership Tool can minimize needless stress and help ordinary people work together to develop extraordinary IEPs.  

Keep in mind these ‘Ten Tips’ and you’ll be on your way to crafting better IEPs that will provide the direction and clarity that all members of the IEP team need to coordinate their actions and improve the quality of the services they provide to students with disabilities. 

  1. Do the groundwork. You have a year’s notice for an annual IEP review, so plan accordingly and don’t wait until the last minute.  Notify participants at least a month before the current IEP is due to expire, document progress on the current IEP, gather relevant data and begin to update a draft copy.  Being proactive will allow you ample time to be thoughtful and thorough when you collaborate with other team members.
  2. Keep your purpose in mind. Good writers adjust their style according to purpose and audience. Who will be reading and using the IEP? Classroom teachers, paraprofessionals, related service providers, parents and others. Write to communicate clearly to them, using language that is concise and easy to follow.  If all users can easily understand the IEP and their part in carrying it out, the IEP is well written.
  3. Build a strong foundation. The student profile, parent concerns, special factors, and questions regarding how a student’s disability impact his ability to access and progress within the general curriculum (and engage in other age-appropriate activities) are portions of the IEP that lay the foundation.  Give these sections the attention they deserve through very careful consideration and attention.  If you thoroughly address these sections, it will be much easier to prioritize in subsequent sections of the IEP.
  4. Pull the threads through. If strengths, needs or other issues are identified in the foundational sections of the IEP, make sure they are addressed later. Student strengths may be integrated into transition plans or accommodations. Areas of need can be addressed through goals, modifications, accommodations or services. Don’t identify a need then simply ‘drop it’. Make the IEP a coherent document with important concepts running through it in the appropriate sections.
  5. Keep the big picture in mind.  It’s easy to think only about the next few months or the next year, but it’s always helpful to consider a new IEP in context.  The educational years will fly by.  Are you planning to teach independence? Is the student’s program preparing him for success after school? How is his performance compared to his non-disabled peers?  Such questions promote a healthy sense of urgency and should permeate educational planning.
  6. Develop goals that measure progress. Don’t just articulate how the IEP team hopes the student will achieve.  Delineate where the student is functioning now, and how he will function in a year’s time compared to his current level.  This may seem like a small difference, but it’s not.  Gauging progress is key to determining whether or not the services and supports outlined in the IEP are actually working!
  7. Make accommodations and modifications crystal clear. Clarity promotes accurate follow through and consistency. Craft language that could pass a ‘stranger test’ (any person reading the information should interpret it in the same way), and organize the information in a way that is easy to follow. Include those accommodations and modifications that are necessary and no more. In most cases, less is more.
  8. Help make sense of assessments. Accommodations for testing should be similar to those that are used on a regular basis, and no more.  The goal is to get an accurate picture of a student’s performance, so plan accordingly.  Don’t automatically assume that a student should be removed from the regular classroom. It may be quieter than a smaller room filled with distractible students.
  9. Plan services and supports carefully. Make sure that the services and supports outlined in the IEP are reasonably calculated to allow the student to achieve annual goals and progress within the curriculum.  Refrain from ‘status quo’ or ‘this is how we do it’ thinking.  After all, simply writing a goal doesn’t do much for the student.  Supports and services should be carefully planned to help move the student sufficiently forward.

10. Hold the IEP team accountable for decisions. Many questions in the IEP format, as well as the structure of the Written Prior Notice, as purposefully designed to facilitate sound decision-making. Use these questions and the special education process to guide discussion and promote self-accountability for teams. Lead explicit discussions about what is being proposed, why, and what other alternatives could be considered.  Teams can’t be on ‘autopilot’ when making these important decisions.

In summary, the most extraordinary IEPs are not the most complicated ones. They are the IEPs that get right to the heart of what students need, and help teams of everyday people work well together in a consistent and coordinated fashion. Re-conceptualize the IEP as a leadership tool, and you’ll be on your way to writing better IEPs that will leverage positive changes for your students.