On Sep 25, 2020
Writing individualized education programs (IEPs) can get a bad reputation. Especially now during remote learning, educators have so much on their plates, and it is difficult to find the time to write a large document and even more frustrating when you can have trouble contacting team members. It is also complicated to write plans when the future is so uncertain and IEP regulations seem to change daily.
However, in the past few years I have seen some real positives in the IEP writing process. I like to view each student as a puzzle where I need 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 an educator, is there anything better than seeing a student eventually reach their dreams? The best text message I ever received was from a student I served during my teacher training. Five years after I worked with her, she texted me to share that she had been accepted to college when she never thought she would. These are the moments that keep educators like me inspired!
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 writing IEPs will stay the same, there are certain considerations to keep in mind for remote or hybrid learning. The steps below are to help special education professionals conceptualize and make changes to the IEP process during this time of virtual instruction.
Step One: Gather Assessment Data
Exactly like in times of in-person education, 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, even though it may be more difficult when working remotely. Using remote learning tools and safe administration practices with PPE, continue to find and use data from the sources below.
Step 1: 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. If the student 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.
Step 2: 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.
Step 3: Move on to IEP progress reports and goal data. What was the student working on last year and did they meet those goals?
Step 4: Include data from classroom and curriculum assessments. Does this data correlate with achievement testing over the past year?
Step 5: 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.
Step 6: Make sure to remember behavior data, especially if the student has a behavior plan or other behavior supports in place.
Step 7: Communicate with associated services, such as speech, to discuss recent goal progress and make sure it is included in the IEP draft.
Step 8: Incorporate observational data from all who work with the student, including any general education teachers, and information about grade level benchmarks to prove disability.
Step 9: Transition data also needs to be updated for students who are of age using the procedure for your district.
Step Two: Communicate with the Parents and the Student
To have an effective meeting, especially if it is virtual, communicate with students and parents before the meeting. Parents can be overwhelmed by the structure and information delivered at IEP meetings and technical difficulties may make it more challenging to ensure understanding. Of course, you will send home the invitation and any forms you need signed; have in-depth conversations in order to make sure parents and students are ready for a remote IEP. 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 are set up with the technology necessary for the meeting. While a video conference where you can share your screen would be preferable, some parents may prefer a simpler phone conference call. Make sure they know how to access the meeting and share tips if they are interested.
- 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 to give parents a quick synopsis of the data I 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 have been working for their child at home? What have not? 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 like and miss about school 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 activity could be done at home and shared at the virtual meeting.
- Overall, the more involved the student is in their IEP, the better they will be at advocating for what they need to succeed.
"As an educator, is there anything better than seeing a student eventually reach their dreams?"
Step Three: Revise IEPs for Remote Learning
While there currently is not one right answer regarding how to change IEPs for remote or hybrid learning, you will have to follow your school and district lead. This could change in the near future and a best practice may arise for educators to follow. However, student needs based on gathered data will remain and you may be expected to proceed as usual and/or adapt to a virtual learning environment. Below are suggestions for areas of the IEP you may consider revising in these uncertain times.
When writing goals, the content of what you want the student to accomplish will stay the same, but you may need to adjust the criteria, method, and schedule for remote learning. Think about what is feasible for remote learning given that the teacher will not be with the student at all times. What can their family handle? Parent input here is invaluable, as you will need parents to be invested in the goals you create together. For more tips on engaging parents, check out this article for tips on creating connections with parents during remote learning. The considerations below may be helpful when creating and revising student goals.
- For learners with more significant needs, consider relating goals to daily living skills the family is already doing, especially if the student shows behaviors connected to typical classroom work at home. 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 creates 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.
- To take the place of in-person, at-school social skills, students could help create and read social stories, practice or role play different social interactions with family or via video conference, play games with family, work on video conference greetings, etc.
- Consider rotating goals, focusing on a few at a time. While this would involve changing the timing for documentation on your goal page, it may make goals more achievable. Look at making goals accessible for different environments, though no less individualized and appropriate, such as if the goal were for the student to write in complete sentences. This goal can then be utilized in any subject they are working on, making it easier to obtain data at home.
- Consider how data will be collected and monitored, ensuring it can be done in different learning environments.
2. Transition Plan
While the needs of the transition plan will stay the same, you may need to think about restructuring activities so that they can be done during remote learning. For example, if the student needs a community-based activity of going to the grocery store according to their transition assessment, the student could work on skills such as creating a grocery list, online grocery shopping, or using coupons without leaving their home. As with changing goals, the student need does not change, just the approach that enables working towards those skills.
3. Accommodations and Supports
If the student receives an accommodation or support at school, it is important to consider how to translate that to at-home learning. For example, if a student requires checks for understanding after learning new material, the teacher could quickly message, email, or phone the student. Many accommodations can easily be built-in to remote teaching, such as including word banks or equations/formulas on online work. Some accommodations will require communicating with the family; for example, if a student requires manipulatives to complete math problems, work with the family to find items around the house. Remote learning may actually make some accommodations easier, such as being able to take a break when needed, typing work instead of handwriting, and utilizing text-to-speech software to read, to list a few. While this resource is not specifically for virtual learning, it is an extensive list of accommodations that could be useful for figuring out how to translate accommodations from school to home.
4. BehaviorYou may see different behaviors from students during remote learning than you see at school. Students may have difficulty with schedule changes, miss their school staff and friends, 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 at-home strategies.
Step Four: Considerations for Holding Remote IEP Meetings
IDEA law states that it is acceptable to hold virtual IEP meetings. Below are best practices I have compiled over the last few years:
- Security and student privacy concerns have to take top priority. Please follow your district guidelines on selecting a host website for your meetings and sending student documents. 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.
- Sign into the meeting early so that you can troubleshoot technology issues and help others.
- The case manager should run the meeting, with a schedule of topics and a loose timeline so that the meeting does not run overtime. Everyone is stressed for time during the pandemic.
- Even though the meeting is remote, still dress and act in a professional manner (as I am sure you already would do!).
- Start the meeting in a positive way by talking about the student’s strengths and asking the student to share something about school they are proud of.
- Pause throughout the meeting and ask if anyone has questions. Sometimes it is easy to talk quickly when not in person.
- 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 during conference calls.
- Share your screen with the team if possible so everyone can see what you are talking about. It can be difficult for parents to find where sections are located in the IEP even during in-person meetings.
As you have already done the impressive work of moving your classroom online, hopefully holding remote IEPs will not seem like a daunting task. Remember, the IEP process is in general the same, with only small changes for remote learning. By putting in the up-front work to our IEPs we can help students on the right track towards their goals and dreams, even while not in our physical classrooms.