Saturday, February 16, 2013

How I love thee, IEP!

I’m sure by now, parents and teachers reading this are already wondering where on earth I’m going with this. No one loves IEPs. At best, they’re useful tools, and at worst, they’re paper-heavy nonsense that does neither the child nor the teacher any good. But hear me out...

For those who aren’t inside the world of Special Ed, an IEP (Individual Education Plan) is a legal document that describes what modifications to the curriculum or accommodations in teaching methods are required by a child with special education needs.  It can include anything from sitting at the front of the class to being provided with notes to highlight, from reducing the amount of work that is required at a child’s given grade level to completely changing the grade level of expectations that their working on, to adding things that aren’t in the curriculum at all, like learning to tie their own shoes or communicate by selecting a picture of something they want.  Who writes them and what is included is supposed to be fairly standard, but can in reality vary wildly, and can sometimes put teachers, parents and students at odds with each other over how it is being followed on a daily basis.

For instance, a mainstream student in Grade 5 or 6 that has been identified as having a learning disability specific to writing and spelling may have on their IEP that they are to have access to technology for written tasks. Sounds good, right? As a parent, if you know your child has all the content knowledge in the world but has trouble with physical handwriting or spelling, you want to be damn sure they have a computer in front of them for everything from taking science notes to writing essays to answering short-answer questions in their math work. And rightly so. As a teacher, if you have 4-5 kids with that same accommodation (don’t laugh, it happens often!), and only 2 ancient computers in your room, only 1 of which works at any given time, and no laptops, and the support teacher only sees your kids for one period a day, how on earth are you supposed to implement that accommodation fairly at all the times the students need it. Also, FYI, you are legally required to provide that for the child, if it’s on their IEP. Impasse, right? Right.  Until technology is more widely available to all students, or until IEPs automatically come with all the materials needed to make the accommodations possible, there will always be ongoing battles between parents and school boards about how students with IEP’s are supported. An between parents and teachers, because let’s face it, not all accommodations are about technology, and many things go undone in support of IEPs, either because the teacher doesn’t know they’re on there or they’re too busy/lazy to do them every day.  Teachers are not saints, and some aren’t even that good of teachers!

However, most parents and teachers recognize that IEPs are the first step in giving a kid with special needs the tools they need to be successful, and work hard together to try and ensure that the IEP is being implemented. Still, that doesn’t make them loveable things... So here’s why I love IEPs – this month, anyway!

In Room 10, all my kiddo’s are on alternative expectation IEPs – while some of them include academic skills like reading, writing and math, they are mostly composed of functional communication goals, behaviour goals and social or life skills. They’re specific – I meet with each student’s parent at the beginning of each year to take a look at last year’s IEP, talk about what has changed or hasn’t, and what kind of things we would collectively like to work on for the coming year. It’s a luxury – teachers in classes where kids are on “grade level” IEPs really don’t have the flexibility that I do – they are basically deciding what within their specific curriculum to focus on, and it doesn’t make for the same level of collaboration and input as we get in Room 10. But my kiddos are specific, every last thing is discussed and detailed, from how they are expressing themselves and their wants and needs to what they long-range goal of their programming is. Even then, they’re still only snapshots of what a kid is learning – measurable pieces of a much larger picture of what goes on all day every day.

Report cards and IEPs went home a few weeks ago, which means the inevitable scramble of updating the IEPs, rifling through daily notes to collect information and reporting on how they’re doing on the goals we set. Last year, I had to write all the IEPs from scratch – revamp, revise and re-evaluate another teacher’s idea of what the kids could and could not do (most of which I didn’t agree with!) and take a guess as to where we were going to be headed for the year.  This year, they were my own, and I made an awesome, delicious discovery – our program is WORKING!

Sunshine, who last year, was working on matching and identifying her classmates’ names, is now working on building sentences and adding sight words to her ever-growing vocabulary.  I did a blog about her reading program here. She can receptively identify all her numbers from 1-5, and is using almost 10 3-word expressions spontaneously.

Little Guy had NO academic programming when he arrived last year.  His only goals were to sit for eating or working for up to 2 minutes at a time, and to reduce behaviours of running away and throwing things. This year, running and throwing aren’t even ON his IEP anymore, he sits for 15 minutes at a time for both snack and work activities, and is participating in circle by using the iPad to tell us the weather in the morning.  He can match, sort and do puzzles like a champ.

Mouse is a tricky one... Of all my kiddos, she’s the most “in her own world”, so we’ve had a really hard time getting her to show us what she can do, or engaging her in anything outside of her own stims and fidgets. In an academic sense, it’s hard to track a lot of growth, but because of her IEP, I’m able to realize things like the fact that she now looks up and waves when I call her name during morning circle, and will get up without prompting to help place calendar pieces. She can match by shape and colour, and is learning to use the iPad to request for her snack. And she’s learned to skate!  The first time we took her last year, we had to hold her up from behind and skate her around, and now she goes like gangbusters with just someone to hold her hands – maybe not a school skill in the traditional sense, but a huge accomplishment nonetheless!

Giggles was the inspiration for this post, to be honest, because it was as I wrote her IEP that I realized just how the IEP allowed me to think about the growth she’s had. Now, I’m not going to take credit for it – she’s only with us 2 days a week, and I know her IBI team have been working hard the rest of the week, because we’ve been talking and working together over the past two years.  She’s also grown up a lot! When I first met her, she spent a good part of the day flopped on the floor, giggling. She ran away at every opportunity, could not been within arm’s reach of other children, and would pinch, grab, pull hair and poke at people’s eyes. This is not the same child!  She can read familiar words, name almost anything you show her, and knows her numbers up to 10. She sings along with all our songs, follows multi-step instructions, and is our STAR when we’re out in the community – we never have to worry about her running away or behaving inappropriately.  When I wrote her IEP for this term, I actually took behaviour completely off of it, and put in a new strand for social skills, instead. There’s not enough behaviour to even make it worthwhile to track anymore! *happy dance* This week, when she came in, she finished her morning routine and then headed toward the carpet and reached for Sunshine as though to pinch her (they have a love-hate relationship!).  I interrupted her by saying “Do you want to say good morning to Sunshine?”, to which she responded by saying “Good morning Sunshine! High five?” GAVE her the high five, and then went merrily on to her preferred activity!!! I almost died of happiness!

Anyway, all this to say that without the IEPs, I wouldn’t have the same chance to sit down and actually think about and see in a concrete way how far they’ve each come. To reflect on how much they’ve learned, and to think about how to move them on to bigger and better things. So thank you, IEPs... As much as I hate you every year in September – and every time report cards roll around – your usefulness far outshines your annoyance, and allows me to celebrate the amazing progress that the kiddos have made, even if it is just a snapshot of a much larger picture.