On Aug 12, 2021
As I shared last school year, writing individualized education programs (IEPs) can get a bad reputation. Before, educators were concerned about writing IEPs during remote instruction, but now we must work with all the changes involved with going back to in-person teaching and learning. Especially now during the back-to-school chaos, educators have so much on their plates, and it can be difficult to find the time to author a comprehensive document. Perhaps this is the first time in over a year that you are starting back with in-person students, and you are working hard to build relationships and create a positive classroom culture, with little time to spare. You may feel overwhelmed with an uptick in referrals after remote schooling, and it can feel complicated to write and implement long-term plans when everyone has faced so much change during the past school year. However......now is actually the perfect time to focus on your IEP process and create a system that will last you throughout this new school year and even beyond. This fall is a fresh start, and many of your students’ IEPs may require significant changes to represent the challenges of the past year. We have the opportunity to help bridge the gap between home and school by investing in meaningful IEP updates. This blog provides a step-by-step guide for writing IEPs for in-person learning and best practices for before, during, and after your IEP meetings.
Throughout the IEP process, I like to view each student as a puzzle where the IEP team gets to gather the pieces to create a program that will provide meaningful instruction and tailored support. I also love hearing what families and students self-identify as opportunities in their futures and figuring out a plan for how to help them reach their goals. As the pandemic changed us as educators, our students may have changed in many ways as well. We need to reflect these changes not just in present levels and academic data, but also regarding their interests, hopes, and dreams for their futures.
Creating IEPs is the essence of being a special education professional. While it might feel like just another document to complete, the implications can be life-changing for our students. After all, the IEP is supposed to outline the student’s learning journey for an entire year and needs to be designed specifically for the needs of each student in order to ensure his or her success.
While the basics of the IEP process will stay the same, there are certain considerations that might be helpful for this unique fall season. The steps below are to help special education professionals conceptualize and make changes to the IEP process during this time of change in education.
Step One: Gather Assessment Data
The first step is always to gather data on the IEP student. Gathering data from multiple sources and IEP team members is crucial in creating a fair representation of the student’s present levels, especially when there may be significant changes after a year of remote or hybrid instruction. It may also be more challenging this year to find up-to-date assessment data for new students, as many districts may not have completed achievement testing during the disorder of the last school year. This makes it even more important to have data from a variety of resources. Continue to find and use data from the sources below.
I always start with the most current evaluation or reevaluation data that contains ability testing, such as with the Woodcock-Johnson® IV (WJ IV). This assessment is an effective, efficient way to explore cognitive ability, achievement, and oral language proficiency. I have found the use of the WJ IV Interpretation and Instructional Interventions Program™ (WIIIP®), a program that streamlines results and research-based intervention and accommodation suggestions, to be very helpful. Not only does it clearly show assessment results, but the report provides ideas for the IEP team to discuss regarding effective teaching strategies to close gaps in student learning. You can read a sample report here. I would often use the intervention suggestions as a start when formulating IEP goals for my students. When you view the sample report linked above, be sure to take notice of the section titled “Interpretive Overview of Scores.” I find this narrative summary of the student’s performance to be a great starting point for describing present levels of performance. Having this narrative text generated as a starting point allows me to focus on editing and adding details to fully reflect the nuances of my student instead of spending time simply writing narrative descriptions of their assessment scores. If the student still needs to be evaluated remotely, you can work with your IEP team and follow the guidelines for remote assessment here. Another common test of ability to look for is the Cognitive Abilities Test™ (CogAT®). The Battelle Developmental Inventory, Third Edition (BDI-3) is often used for younger students and assesses communication, social-emotional, adaptive, motor, and cognitive abilities.
Search for the most recent achievement testing, which depends on your state and district. Examples include the IowaFlex™ and easyCBM assessments, which highlight student achievement and growth over time. These are usually the type of assessments districts will have students do a few times per year to measure progress.
Move on to IEP progress reports and goal data. What was the student working on last year and did they meet those goals? Especially after remote instruction and the summer break, I would make sure to reassess student goal progress.
Include data from classroom and curriculum assessments. Does this data correlate with achievement testing over the past year?
Include current grades and credits if the student is in high school and working towards a diploma. This gives insight into things such as motivation, work completion behavior, and the mental health of the student. For example, if you have a student who has been in high school for three years but has only earned 4 credits, significant changes must be made. I also liked to include a plan of classes the student needed to graduate.
Make sure to remember behavior data, especially if the student has a behavior plan or other behavior supports in place.
Communicate with associated services, such as speech, to discuss recent goal progress and make sure it is included in the IEP draft.
Incorporate observational data from all who work with the student, including any general education teachers, and information about grade-level benchmarks to prove disability.
Transition data also needs to be updated for students who are of age using the procedure for your district.
Step Two: Communicate with the Family and the Student
To have an effective IEP meeting, communicate with students and parents before the meeting. Parents can be overwhelmed by the structure and information delivered at IEP meetings and may have many questions after a year of remote or hybrid learning. Of course, you will send home the invitation and any forms you need to be signed; also make sure parents and students are ready for an in-person IEP and know what to expect. It may seem like a lot of upfront work to discuss so many things with parents prior to the meeting; however, it will set your meeting up for success.
Topics to discuss with parents (or guardians) and the student (if appropriate) before the meeting:
- Ensure parents have received the invitation and know where to go for the meeting.
- In addition to a rough draft of the IEP and any additional forms your district gives parents before in-person IEPs, also give the parent a schedule of the meeting prior to the date so they know how the meeting will run. Here is an example agenda.
- Empower parents to ask questions and/or create a question list before the meeting so that they feel confident and prepared.
- Make sure parents know key terms in their child’s IEP. I once had a meeting where I thought the guardian understood the entire meeting, only to have her ask at the end what it meant for her student to have an IEP. Now, I always make sure parents have a tip sheet like this before meetings that gives IEP basic information, and I sometimes send a list of IEP terms and definitions
- In the last few years, I started working with my team to give parents a quick synopsis of the data gathered prior to the meeting as well. It can be difficult for parents to hear their student is not meeting grade-level expectations in front of many others. By giving them a quick overview of data they will be able to come to the meeting with an understanding of where their child is educationally. Send home test results and evaluations prior to the meeting so they can see scores for themselves in advance. As a special education professional, you have had training on reading and analyzing assessment results, while parents may need more time to go through the data.
- Especially now, consider parent input on home behavior and remote learning realities. What aspects of remote learning worked for their child at home? What did not? What are their concerns about their student attending full-time in-person school again? This information helps us create appropriate accommodations and supports.
- Tell parents to begin thinking about input on goal preferences (see Phase Three).
- Complete any parent transition surveys or assessments for our older students.
- Students can be included in most of these conversations depending on age and parent choice if the student is under eighteen years old. Students can prepare work they would like to show at the meeting. Student preferences should be known, which can be accomplished with students of almost all ability levels through different communication technology and supports.
- Ask students what they feel are their strengths and weaknesses; students are often correct.
- Ask what they liked and did not like about remote or hybrid learning so that you can incorporate supports that matter to the student.
- Make sure students who meet age requirements complete your district-approved transition assessments and surveys, along with informal discussions regarding their dreams for the future. One of my favorite back-to-school activities is creating “dream boards” where students make a poster encompassing their hopes and future plans. This is a great prop for students to bring to their IEP meeting to show the IEP team.
- Overall, the more involved the student is in their IEP, the better they will be at advocating for what they need to succeed.
Step Three: Revise IEPs for In-Person Learning
Perhaps this past year your district made IEP changes due to remote or hybrid learning. Now that students are most likely returning to in-person instruction, and you may have new data to inform your IEPs, pay special attention to these IEP areas that may need revision.
When writing goals, the content of what you want the student to accomplish may stay the same, but you may need to adjust the criteria, method, and schedule for in-person learning. Students may be able to handle more now that they will be returning to school and will have direct teacher contact. Caregiver input here is invaluable, as you will need to know about goal progress at home. The considerations below may be helpful when creating and revising student goals.
- For learners with more significant needs, consider continuing to partner with families regarding daily living skills. Examples of this type of goal could include counting items around the house, reading to family members or pets, reading and cooking recipes, making choices, following one and then multistep directions, following routines or schedules, hygiene skills, or household chores such as vacuuming or doing dishes. These types of daily living skills are also necessary for many of our students who need transition skills activities.
- Remote learning created an opportunity for us to focus on technology skills, such as writing emails, logging into programs and websites, playing games online, creating resumes and cover letters, typing, and internet safety. These are still important skills now that students are back to in-person school. How can you continue to use technology in new ways in your classroom?
- Thankfully, we can now look at social skills goals and make them applicable to the classroom again. Activities such as creating and reading social stories, practicing or role-playing different social interactions, and playing games with friends definitely translate easily to in-person learning.
- Consider how data will be collected and monitored, perhaps leaning into student data collection this fall, to increase student confidence and work on a growth mindset.
While the needs of the transition plan may stay the same, you may need to think about restructuring activities so that they can be done during in-person learning. For example, if the student needed a community-based activity of going to the grocery store according to their transition assessment, and the student worked on skills such as creating a grocery list, online grocery shopping, or using coupons without leaving their home during remote instruction, they now can start going to the actual grocery store with school staff. As with updating goals, the student need does not need to change, just sometimes the approach that enables working towards those skills can expand now that you most likely have more options available.Accommodations and Supports
Caregiver input regarding how accommodations and support worked at home will be very important. What worked for the student at home? Where did the student need more support? Some of my previous students told me they liked at-home learning because they were able to take multiple breaks, type work instead of handwriting, and utilize text-to-speech software easily. This resource is an extensive list of accommodations that could be useful for figuring out accommodations that could help your students. Remember, accommodations are not “one size fits all.” Just because one student may need extended time on assessments, that does not mean all on your caseload do. Make sure accommodations and supports are individualized and actually make sense for the student individually. I also like to make sure I get student input, if appropriate, regarding accommodations. For example, one student of mine absolutely refused to leave the general education classroom for assessments (even though he probably would have benefited from a smaller testing environment). He ended up having different ideas of how he could succeed on assessments, such as having extended time, where he would finish assessments with me during study skills. What a win all-around: the student was able to advocate for himself to get the support he needed and we avoided behavior issues on test days.Behavior
Just as you may have seen different behavior from students during remote learning than you saw at school, there may be a period of adjustment with going back to in-person instruction where students need more support. Students may have difficulty with schedule changes, waking up earlier, miss their families, experience social anxiety being around peers again, feel bored or unmotivated, or struggle with mental health. While some may need revisions to behavior plans, others may need the section regarding positive behavior intervention and supports (PBIS) changed to reflect in-school strategies.
Step Four: Use Best Practices for Holding IEP Meetings
Below are best practices for holding IEP meetings that I have compiled over the last few years:
- Security and student privacy concerns have to take top priority. Please follow your district guidelines when sending student documents and inviting IEP team members. Also, note that states have different laws regarding recording meetings. As always, follow your district plan.
- Ensure that all parties attend the meeting or are appropriately excused from the meeting via written document in advance.
- Get to the meeting early so that you can troubleshoot technology issues and set up. I try to sit on the same side of the table as the student and their family, so they do not feel there is a “school v. home” mentality.
- The case manager should run the meeting, with a schedule of topics and a loose timeline so that the meeting does not run overtime. Introduce everyone and make sure all sign in.
- Start the meeting in a positive way by talking about the student’s strengths and asking the student to share something about school that they are proud of.
- Pause throughout the meeting and ask if anyone has questions, especially while discussing student data. This section of the IEP can be overwhelming for caregivers.
- If you are leading the meeting, specifically ask for team members’ points of view and give them time to respond. It can be intimidating for some to speak up.
- Take the time to help guardians find where sections are located in the IEP—it’s a big document!
- Do not let the meeting be overrun by negativity. This is the time to make a plan of action, not to ruminate on things that may have happened with the student. If you have a person on the IEP team who may do this, meet with them before the meeting so they can tell you these things in advance.
I continue to be in awe of all educators who have been navigating in-person, hybrid, and remote learning while reaching all of your students to the best of your ability. Remember, the IEP process is in general the same, with only small changes for moving between remote and in-person learning. By putting in the up-front work to our IEPs this fall we can help students be on the right track towards their goals and dreams for the rest of the school year.