The IEP-IP Dilemma Breakthrough : Why IEPs Have Failed So Many Children

Historically, it has always been easier to tell what was wrong in educational settings, such as classrooms, than to come up with solutions to fix them and the IEP is no exception. The latest incarnation of the Individual Education Plan template is a nearly eight page document crammed with all kinds of goodies in even more detail than the last one. It is a bureaucratic delight because it gives the impression that everything is being taken care of. Apparently there is still another one on the way as of the Fall of 2010.

However, if you look carefully, and not even so carefully, you will find that the student demands are clear and that the onus is on the child: "Jack will develop problem-solving decision-making skills; Jill will develop appropriate social skills and Mike will develop greater organizational skills for homework and personal work space." Exactly, how is this going to happen?

If you look at the teaching strategies and accommodations box it looks as if there is an answer to this question: the teacher is going to teach all of these skills and then assess progress – well in our experience this simply does not happen in the non-academic areas. By analyzing this process closely it became apparent to me why this was failing to help the student and in fact was often making the situation worse. I will tell you about what I refer to as my breakthrough but I want to present an overview as a context to begin with.

1- Brief History Background (Overview)

Until the late 1990s, in Ontario, the official requirement of an individual education plan for every student with exceptionalities was implied in a Ministry document called Schools General. It was, however, not enforced. In 1998 the province revised and reissued its regulation governing the identification and placement of students with special needs (Reg.181) this time making IEPs a clear and official requirement.

When the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act was passed in the states, from which their IEPs were dervived, in 1977, educators did the predictable human thing according to Barbara Bateman and changed their practice as little as possible. Bateman is an expert in special education and education law. She tells us that they added IEPs to “business as usual.” There is reason to believe that this happened in many instances in Canada as well.

In one form or another IEPs have come into use in Canada, the US and England, to name the primary users that come to mind. In its basic terms the IEP should tell you where a child is, where he/she should be going, how she'll/he’ll get there, how long it will take, and how you will know he/she has arrived. It should always be based on what the child needs not what the school can provide.

IEPs have proven to be the modern day scourge of classrooms with kids who learn differently. While there are no two alike you are likely to see many that look very much alike! There have been documented instances where, except for the student's name, the IEPs were exactly the same!

Individual Education Plans are meant to be built as a Collaborative Process accomplished in Close Communication with the student and the student’s parent as a team approach. The reality, in our experience, is much different; this despite the fact that : Principals are legally required to ensure parents are consulted in the development of the IEP.

The actual practice involves school personnel constructing the IEP with very varying degrees of parent input and none given to the student as far as I know. Parents usually receive a form at home asking them to check boxes which refer to whether they want to make any comments or suggestions re the IEP which has already been put together. This is not active collaboration.

On page 14 in the IEP 2004 Resource Guide you will find this critical statement which I have yet to see happen:

Principals are legally required to ensure that all students who are 16 years of age or older are consulted in the development of the IEP. However, any student for whom an IEP is being developed should be consulted to the degree possible.

Let’s take a look at :The Role of the Student on the IEP team on Page 19 (The Individual Education Resource Guide - 2004 - Ontario Ministry of Education)

The student:

• helps the team identify his or her preferred learning styles and modalities;

• understands what accommodations are to be provided (e.g., individualized

teaching and assessment strategies, human support, individualized


• assists in setting annual program goals and learning expectations;

• demonstrates an understanding of the IEP and works actively to achieve

goals and expectations;

• monitors progress towards goals and maintains awareness of how grades

and/or marks will be generated for the Provincial Report Card;

• considers the information in the IEP when developing and reviewing his

or her annual education plan (in Grades 7–12).

The nature and extent of a student’s involvement in the IEP process will

vary. However, members of the IEP team should ensure that students

understand the purpose of their IEP and how the goals and expectations in

the plan are individually tailored, evaluated, reviewed, and updated. They

need to be aware that their achievement of the learning expectations will be

reflected in their Provincial Report Card. Students must understand that

they can participate in the IEP process and that it is important for them to

take an active role in their learning. As part of the self-assessment process,

students should, where possible, fill in page 3 of the Provincial Report Card.

To the best of his or her ability has your child (student) been involved in the IEP process as outlined by the Ministry of Education document statement above?

2-Now, let's turn to IEPs according to the famous Dr. Suess and analyze them accordingly.

Do you like these IEPs?

I do not like these IEPs  I do not like them, Jeeze Louise - We test, we check, we plan, we meet  but nothing ever seems complete. Would you, could you, like the form? I do not like the form I see. Not page 1, not 2, not 3 nor even 8. Another change, several brand new boxes. I think we all have lost our rocks. Could we all meet here or there?

We could not all meet here or there. We cannot all fit anywhere. Not in a room, not in a hall, there seems to be no space at all. Would  you, could you meet again?  I cannot meet again next week. No lunch, no prep - please hear me speak. No, not at dusk and not at dawn at 4PM I should be gone. Could you hear while all speak out? Would you write the words they spout? I could not hear, I would not write                                                                                                                                                                                           

This does not need to be a fight.
Sign here, date there,
Mark this, check that.
Beware the student's ad-vo-cat(e).
You do not like them
so you say
Try it again! Try it again!
and then you may.
If you let me be,
I'll try again
and you will see.
I almost like these IEP's
I think I'll write 6003.
And I will practice day and night
Until they say
"You've got it right".

3-It's time to see why he says: I do not like these IEPs.

You know when I first set out to share my breakthrough idea I found myself thinking about the IEP in a circumscribed way – a major missing piece of the puzzle found. However, in putting together my thoughts for today I began to view the whole document and process in a philosophical light. I see it as needing more humanizing elements as well as becoming a certified user-friendly document. I guess I’m talking about reform here!

Let’s look at the Sample IEPs on page 59 in the Resource Guide.
A quick look at Sample 1 shows how dry and sterile the document is.
A major example of this begins with the famous Strengths and Needs box which is nothing more than a recitation of terms meaninglessly lifted from assessment reports.

Let’s think about strengths and needs for a minute. What is meant by these words? Do we mean strength of character, being a strong person in relationships, moral strengths or positive assets as a human being in general? Surely these are all personal strengths. Or is a child to be diminished to a series of skills as we see on page 59? (Expressive language skills, visual memory skills and visual figure ground skills – do you know what the last one means? I don’t.)

In the needs category (p59) we have a series of mechanical skills to which the child is reduced. How about needs encouragement to build up his writing skills by sitting down and talking to him and perhaps a focus on reading materials which include his skills and interests in soccer?

In Weber and Bennett’s book Special Education in Ontario Schools 4th Edition, by contrast to the treatment of these items in the resource guide, here’s what they do with strengths and needs.

Areas of Strength:
Unusually good with animals
Natural athlete (small size limits achievements)
Will stay on tasks when supervised
Artistic, esp. in crafts

Areas of Need:
Very distractible
Impulsive, erratic, impetuous
Social skills, esp. with peers
Language arts, esp. written
Basic math operations

Another take on this might be:
Is an exceptional artist
Is a competitive figure skater
Makes friends easily and likes to help others
Enjoys talking about his hobby of photography
Will stay with a project until he finishes it

To feel that she is an active group member
To know he can get help when he requires it
To build up his self-esteem
To have challenges that he can be proud of

I would go further and use a combination of the child’s name and the appropriate pronoun, for example, Joseph is an exceptional artist and he is a competitive figure skater. Many of us have become so used to the clinical, sanitized version of the words and terms used in IEPs that we lose some of the sense of the child we are hopefully listening to. Remember the last line of the definition of advocacy that we have written on our brochure: “advocacy is intervention when the voice of a child is not being heard.”

* Johnny is competitive
* Johnny loves to play basketball
* Being allowed to play basketball makes Johnny want to do better in school
* Johnny gets up every morning to practice basketball.
Next, make a list of things that are difficult for your child. Here are some examples:
* Johnny struggles in reading, science, and math
* Johnny and I work up to 3 hours a night on reading, science and math homework
* Johnny receives tutoring which we pay for in reading, science and math
* Johnny often gets D’s and F’s in reading, science and math
* Johnny is not allowed to be on the school’s sports teams because of his poor grades.
Next, make a list of what your child needs from the school. Look at your lists of strengths and challenges. Make your list of needs fit the strengths and challenges. Here are some examples:

* Johnny needs special help in reading, science and English
* Johnny needs to have his grades take into consideration his effort
* Johnny needs to be allowed to play on school sports teams so he will be motivated to do well in school -- and not drop out
Write only what is most important. Your goal is to get the IEP team to focus on the important areas. You can also write goals in your report.
Make enough copies of your report so everyone who attends the IEP meeting has a copy. After you think you've made enough copies, make a few more. You want to be sure you have enough copies of your report to go around.

Student’s Strengths and Needs

After the template directs the user to print out what it refers to as areas of strengths and needs the items listed remain static and stagnant. Nothing happens with them. To energize them and make them dynamic the user how the strengths and needs meaningfully connect to the IEP of the particular child. For example, Student A’s visual memory skills could be challenged by asking him to apply those skills to his difficulties with listening. Here are a couple of suggestions. Or, Mary’s strong computer keyboarding skills will be directed towards building her organizational skills by using Computer Program ABC.

This would go a long way in providing the classroom teacher some suggestions and direction as well as supplying parents concrete ideas about how to support and supplement their child’s classroom learning.

In our experience there seems to be much resistance to IEPs and this can be due to concerns about accountability and a resistance on the part of some teachers who don’t see any value in them. If done properly they are very high maintenance documents and they require a lot of work from the staff.

Two of the most challenging issues in connection with IEPs are a reluctance to deal with the issue of meaningful assessments of a student’s progress and the larger issue of conscientiously implementing the IEP as a whole.

4-Okay-From Dr. Suess we now turn to IEPs according to Dr. Forman which in some ways agrees with Dr. Suess.

First my goal:
I am going to try to get this right over the next twenty minutes 2 times out of three or 4 times out of five –whichever comes first.

To begin with, any parent exposed to the IEP process (and the IPRC) should be given a heavy-duty orientation to these procedures which fully explains the process, the implications, how it is supposed to work and a description of the meaningful, active role of the parents. Parent’s involvement is mentioned at different times in the resource book but the parents who visit us don’t share this experience.

The IEP keynotes how the student is expected to progress through the Ontario curriculum and the necessity of consultation with parents and students throughout its development and implementation. Parents must know that: Principals are legally required to ensure that parents and students 16 or older are consulted in the development of the IEP.

What is much less well-known and rarely practiced in our experience pertains to the statement that: Any student for whom an IEP is being developed should be consulted to the degree possible.

With this background and some ground rules in place let’s move to my revelation. The essence of what I refer to as a “breakthrough” in the brochure material speaks to what I have added to the IEP acronym and that is the letters IP which stand for Instructional Program. Let me explain.

The first law written in stone is the question: how does the child’s disability/exceptionality affect his/her involvement and progress in learning and, therefore, his/her access to the curriculum? What we need to know at the outset is: what is the body of deficits, other than straight academic requirements, that the student brings to the classroom and how do they interfere with learning.

Let’s prepare a list of non-academic deficits that relate to the nature of the child’s exceptionality under consideration:

Memory Skills Problem Solving Skills Self-Regulatory/

Self-Advocacy Issues Organizational Skills Self-Help Skills Social Skills

Attention Skills Anger-Management Skills Concentration/Distractibility

Issues Time Management Skills

Now what typically happens to ameliorate these shortcomings since they play a crucial role in the entire learning process so much so that they may significantly impede the child’s access to the curriculum which is the cornerstone of the education process.

After reciting the child’s needs the template moves on to the category of Accommodations. Now on p. 29 there is a comprehensive listing of Accommodations – Instructional, Environmental and Assessment. The instructional accommodations are not explained and so the reader is left to figure out exactly what they mean. Do the parent and the student know what they mean and, equally important, are they both actively involved in sorting out those accommodations that best fit the educational requirements of the child?

To facilitate this process and make it meaningful I have taken the form and converted it into a checklist which should be actively shared with parents and students. I have made copies for all of you.

Looking on page 60 in the sample IEP we find a list of 10 instructional accommodations for student A. These accommodations apply to this student only in the academic areas – core French, History/Geography and Reading Print and yet in the Needs Box we learn that student A has deficits in the areas of organizational skills and memory skills among others. This is the point at which IEPs falter. Students who continue to attempt to compensate for the above losses cannot function adequately with regard to the demands placed on them in their academic subjects. Even if the accommodations were fully and consistently implemented, which is not what we generally see, the students still would experience frustration and a sense of being overwhelmed.

The reason IEPs are failing, even where there are attempts to make them work, is that the deficits that students present with, relating directly to their identified special needs situation, do not have a dedicated year-long Instructional Program which is tailored to the student’s unique learning profile.

Each deficit area should be presented to the children in the same format accorded the academic subjects. So, for example, you decide on the topic to be taught and you develop as you would say English. It would have the following headings: Key Topics, Methodology, Resources and Texts and Assessment and Evaluation. Let me give you a Cadillac example.

In the February, 2008 Issue of Learning Disabilities Research and Practice there is a research paper titled: The Effects of Mnemonic Interventions on Academic Outcomes for Youth with Disabilities: A Systemic Review. A mnemonic is typically defined as a word, sentence, or picture device or technique for improving or strengthening memory. Mnemonics is now solidly grounded in the psychological literature on associative learning.

They go on to say that it can be argued that a student’s success in school is in large part incumbent on his /her ability to retain and recall factual content information in content exams. Mnemonic strategies can enhance students’ abilities to encode and recall factual information, thereby improving their performance in classroom and standardized tests. Mnemonic strategies have been shown to be particularly effective for instruction in youth with disabilities.

Academically, students with disabilities face more challenges than their nondisabled peers. For example, students with learning and emotional/behavior disorders often experience problems with attention, memory, and higher level thinking skills. It is clear that mnemonic strategies have been proven to be extremely effective in helping people to remember things. In particular, mnemonic strategies have been found to be successful for special needs students in math, science and in vocabulary instruction.

The Key Topics of this curriculum could include improving attention, memory, recalling factual information and improving higher level thinking skills.

So what would be the Methodology for this curriculum? Students will provided detailed mnemonics training with a variety of techniques and continuous evaluation to determine success.

Those who study mnemonics tend to focus on three types of mnemonic instruction: letter, keyword and pegword. Perhaps the most well-known mnemonic is the letter method in which an acronym is used to stand for factual information, such as the mnemonic “HOMES” to designate the names of the Great Lakes or “FOIL” to aid in remembering a procedural sequence in Algebra. The keyword method connects an unknown word to a known word via two links – similarity in sound (acoustic link) and a mental image of the interaction between the two words (imagery link).

Here is an example of how the keyword method works: to learn that oxalis is a clover-like plant, a student can first be provided with an acoustically similar keyword, such as ox. In this case, ox is a good keyword because it sounds like oxalis and is easily pictures. Next, a picture can be shown in which an ox is eating clover-like plants. Learners are told, when asked for the meaning of oxalis, that they should first think of the keyword, ox, then think back to the pictures of the ox, think of what else is happening in the picture and provide the response, a clover-like plant.

The pegword method transforms numbers into rhyming words (e.g., 1 is a bun, 2 is a show and 3 is a tree .. 10 is a hen) to help sudents retain and recall ordered lists of content information. Most often, the pegword strategy is combined with the keyword strategy to facilitate the recall of new information and its associated numerical value. All the studies referred to in this paper argued that memory-associative techniques improved students’ short and long term recall of curricular material.

And next the Resources and Texts for the curriculum. There is an extensive list of resources for memory training using mnemonics.

And the final stage of the Curriculum would be Assessment and Evaluation. This would involve the ongoing process of evaluating the students progress in the course material and in its direct application to the body of the core curriculum of the student’s grade.

Exploratory Questions:

1-How do we organize and structure the IEP-IP?
2-How do we bring into practice and implement it?
3-What are some of the outcomes we expect and how might they influence the
course of the child’s overall school program?
4-What are some of the problems we may anticipate and how may they be
5-What are your thoughts about the overall concept of the IEP-IP?


The role of the student and parents on the team