A seemingly simple solution that would lead to profound benefits for students with disabilities
October 29, 2020
Over the last 13 years, I have spent countless hours in Individualized Education Program (IEP) meetings, first as a general education science teacher, and now as a special education attorney. For those who are not familiar, students with disabilities who receive special education services have an IEP, which is developed in an IEP meeting.
If you were to walk into a room in the midst of an IEP meeting, here are some things you would likely see and hear:
- At least four adults, the majority of whom work for the school district
- Someone from the school district typing into a form projected on a screen
- Attendees not looking at each other
- Conversation almost exclusively about the answers to the questions on the projected form
The federal law governing IEPs, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), looms large in these meetings, dictating the essential elements, including: by when meetings must occur, required members, how individuals are invited, and what information about a student is obtained and documented. The IDEA is complex, and in order to promote compliance, state departments of education across the country have created forms for school districts to use to create IEPs for students that meet its requirements. Often seating in the room is arranged to promote viewing the forms on the screen rather than conversation among participants.
In my experience, the structure of the forms dictates the flow of the meeting. These meetings can be long and tedious, ripe with conversation among the special education staff about logistical details no one else is expected to understand. Experiencing these meetings both as a general education teacher, and now through the eyes of parents of students with disabilities, is jarring. Educational and legal jargon bounce around the room. The contents of the form scroll by. Except for the most skilled multitasker, one must choose between listening to what is being said and reading what is on the screen. Everyone has time constraints. The general education teacher was pulled from his planning period. The administrator is already late for another meeting. The special education teacher has three more IEPs to draft for upcoming meetings before the end of the day. The parents are missing part of their work day to be there. The students, when they are even there, often have no idea what’s going on.
There are so many forms to complete, and the urgency in the room is get to through them all. Being able to check off that the IEP team has completed each required form is the point of the meeting, right?
Of course not.
5th grader Sophia is reading on a first-grade level.
Liam can’t focus in his large classes.
Aria keeps getting suspended because she throws things after she’s been bullied by her classmates for her stutter.
Jackson isn’t getting his classroom materials in Braille until weeks after his teacher has moved on to a new topic.
In the midst of the jargon and the compliance concerns, the student often gets lost. The most effective IEP meetings I have been in have started with a conversation. The participants look at each other. They discuss why they are there, share updates, and state what they hope to accomplish. A shared purpose, with the needs of the student at the forefront, is transformative. Suddenly, the participants stop thinking about what else they could being doing and start providing meaningful input, the kind that goes beyond the words on the forms and actually follows the student to the classroom.
That’s the point.
“In the midst of the jargon and the compliance concerns, the student often gets lost.”
This might sound too simple to bring about real change. An example might help. I was working with a middle school student who was new to her school. Though she was bright and engaging, she had completely shut down in her new setting. She was skipping her classes and spending her days sitting in the office of a trusted school staff member. When the IEP meeting began, the mood in the room was despondent. It was clear she was not making any progress. The general education teacher in the room said that the student had not completed a single assignment for him.
We all knew there was a lot of special education paperwork to update and a reevaluation to open. Instead of starting there, the student’s family took the opportunity to provide critical background information about the student. They shared how isolated and lonely she was feeling. They described the student’s strengths that this school team had not yet had the chance to see. I felt the mood in the room lift from despair to possibility, and the team began to connect. A couple days later, the general education teacher reached out. He had been able to ask a peer to help the student with her work in the class, and the two of them became fast friends. She had started to attend class, and now had people to eat with in the cafeteria.
This strategy may be simple, but it can be profound. Anyone in the room can spark this change, whether it's the parent, a teacher, or an administrator, by simply requesting to start with an actual conversation about the student. Once the team does that, the forms seem to complete themselves, and everyone leaves with the satisfaction of knowing they did their part in ensuring that the student is at the heart of the meeting.
Stephanie Klitsch is the assistant director of the Education Law Program at Council for Children’s Rights. She was a 2007 TFA corps member teaching in Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools.
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