I have been teaching special education in Ontario for almost 20 years, and I have found that too often parents are left feeling powerless in meetings about their own children because they do not understand the educational shorthand (or edu-babble) that is being used by all of the professionals in the room. My job, as an educator, is to help students and parents navigate the often rocky waters of school; I will try to do the same for you here.
First, a disclaimer: I assume that most places in Canada and the US have similar laws about and formats of IEPs, but I can’t be sure that everything I say will be transferable across provinces and states; I can only say that it is currently true for Ontario.
IEP stands for Individualized Education Plan. It is meant to outline the changes students need to their educational experience in order to make it relevant and responsive to their needs, representative of their strengths, and to help them be successful. It is meant to be a collaborative effort between the school and the parents (and student, if he or she is 16 years old or older). Although – practically speaking – it is written by school personnel, parents legally need to be given a voice in the development of the IEP, and this is documented on the consultation page. In many schools and school boards, a letter is sent home near the beginning of the year asking for your feedback about your child’s strengths and needs and what your goals are for your child for that year. This counts as your input, even if you do not return the form. It is my strong advice that you always engage when invited to join conversations about your child’s education, whether through meetings, phone calls, or forms. Otherwise, decisions get made without you present and they may not represent your wishes. While the school has done its duty by sending home a form for your written input, feel free to schedule a meeting with school personnel if you have more detailed issues to discuss or just feel that an in-person conversation will better meet your needs.
IEPs must be sent home to parents within 30 school days of the beginning of a new identification or placement (including a new school year). They are also working documents, so if the IEP is not meeting your child’s needs or if you are unsatisfied with how it was developed, it can be changed at any time.
When goals or teaching strategies are outlined in the IEP, the school (specifically the principal) is legally responsible for ensuring that they are happening. An IEP is not a day-by-day (or even month-by-month) lesson plan; it is a roadmap of what your student’s program will focus on for an entire term. Some expectations (such as behavioural goals) may be addressed every day, while others (such as a specific math goal) might be the focus for a short period of time during the term.
Different Types of IEPs
Your child may be on an IEP for two reasons: 1) he or she has a formal educational identification (e.g., learning disability, intellectual disability, giftedness, behaviour, physical disability, blind/low vision, deaf/hard of hearing, etc.); or 2) the school feels that your child requires significant changes to the program that require an IEP, so they implement a non-identified (or informal) IEP to meet those needs. Practically speaking, there is no real difference between these two documents: they both outline what teachers need to do to plan for and accommodate the needs of your child. Legally, though, there is a difference. Students with formal identifications are required by law to receive an IEP even if you change schools; however, schools make professional judgments about non-identified IEPs, so if you move, a new school may not choose to develop one.
An accommodated IEP is developed if a student is able to meet the expectations of the curriculum at the appropriate grade level to the depth and breadth required of all other students but simply needs accommodations in order to do so. For example, if a student needs instruction in American Sign Language but can complete all aspects of the curriculum, that student would receive an accommodated IEP. Other common accommodations include Braille or large-font texts, access to a computer or assistive technology, extra time for tests/assignments/exams, a quiet place to write tests or exams, or access to a study hall. Teachers can give accommodations to any student, but if your child requires them (especially if they have been specifically prescribed by a physician, psychologist, occupational therapist, speech pathologist, or physiotherapist), inscribing them in an IEP guarantees access across all contexts. It means that one grumpy or “old school” teacher does not have the ability to deny access to these accommodations. In short, an accommodated IEP is not a change to what is taught, just how it is taught.
A modified IEP is developed if a student requires a change in the curriculum expectations. These changes can include using expectations from a previous grade level, choosing only some of the expectations at the appropriate grade level, or modifying the depth or breadth of the expectations. Many high schools will not modify IEPs because they stream students into different levels of courses based on their academic strengths and needs, so if a student requires modifications, the assumption is that he or she is in a level that is too difficult. While modifying high school courses can affect the school’s ability to grant the credit, there is a small margin of leniency, so if there is a specific need that can be addressed through a slight modification of the course expectations, you might be able to negotiate this with the high school special education department or administration. To summarize, a modified IEP is a change to what is taught to make it more relevant and appropriate to your child’s needs.
An alternative IEP is developed if a student is working on expectations that fall outside of the curriculum documents. For example, a student with a moderate or severe intellectual disability might be working on identifying and printing her name and recognizing environmental signs such as STOP, EXIT, WASHROOM as her literacy goals and working on sorting objects by colour or comparing two objects by size as her math goals. These are functional goals, but they do not represent any grade level’s literacy and math curriculum, so they would be alternative goals. Other alternative “courses” could include social skills, fine or gross motor, behaviour, learning skills, enhanced (or gifted) learning plan, or vocational skills.
Many IEPs are a mixture of the three types. A student might need modifications in language, math, science, and social studies, accommodations in health and music, and an alternative page for focus/attention.
Your child’s strengths and needs should appear on the first page of the IEP. If you have a formal assessment from a psychologist or other professional, the most important strengths and needs from those reports should appear on the list. Others are determined based on your input and the teachers’ professional judgment. Strengths should guide what types of accommodations and teaching strategies are chosen so that your child can be maximally successful in meeting the selected goals. Goals should be informed by your child’s specific needs. If, for example, your child’s greatest needs are in literacy and self-regulation, you should expect to see these areas addressed through specific goals on modified and alternative pages.
Keep in mind that an IEP does not represent everything a child will be learning that term; it does represent what the teacher will be assessing that term and can be adjusted if the goals do not end up being appropriate for the child. IEPs are meant to be working documents so that they can be responsive to changing strengths and needs in students. Major changes to set IEP goals, however, should be done through consultation between the parent and school and, if appropriate, reference new professional reports.
We know that children rarely develop symmetrically. That is, they may have trouble mastering math facts and understanding ideas related to numbers, but they could be very successful in geometry or graphing. The same goes in most subjects: a child may struggle with decoding words but show great depth of understanding of texts read aloud. For this reason, be suspicious if a school declares that your grade 5 child is working “at a grade 2 level” across the board. While some students with intellectual disabilities may actually be working on all grade 1 or pre-grade 1 expectations throughout much of elementary school, students with learning disabilities or slower-paced learner profiles will have some academic strengths and needs within each subject, which should be reflected in their IEPs. I often have students who are decoding texts at a grade 2 level, demonstrating reading comprehension at a grade 3-4 level, and engaging with oral and visual texts at a grade 5-6 level. It would be misleading to say that they are a grade 2 level reader. Likewise, they might spell at a grade 1 level but organize ideas for writing at a much higher level, and, with accommodations such as voice-to-text software, can compose texts at a grade 3-4 level. IEPs are sensitive enough documents to be able to capture this uneven cognitive profile—and they should.
Why Isn’t My Child Getting As?
If your child is on modified expectations you cannot interpret the report card without reference to the IEP, so these documents should be held side-by-side for reading. The marks on the report card represent how the child did on the specific curriculum expectations addressed, so you need to see the IEP to understand which expectations were being assessed.
One thing that is important to understand is that parents and teachers view marks differently. Many parents think of marks as prizes to be earned: an A represents hard work and success, whereas a D represents poor work habits and lacklustre performance. Teachers do not see grades that way; they are simply a short-hand for communicating how students are performing on their given goals. An A means that they are exceeding the goals, a B means that they are achieving them, a C means that they are approaching the goals but not quite achieving them, and a D means they are not achieving the goals. For children working on grade-level curriculum goals, an A signifies that they are exceeding what is expected for students in their grade (although not necessarily working on material from a higher grade), a B means that they are right on target, and so on. However, children on modified IEPs have goals that are specifically designed to meet their needs, so if they are achieving As, they are exceeding their personal goals, which begs the question: Why weren’t the goals updated to provide a more appropriate level of challenge and keep the learning at the “just right” level? Ideally, students working on modified goals should achieve grades from a C- (approaching the goals but not quite mastered and/or independent yet) to B+ (has met the goals and is ready for a greater challenge next term). To be clear, generally an A means that the goals are too easy, and a D means that they are too difficult.
In my career as a special education teacher, I have given a child on an IEP a D only once. The goals were set according to what my assessment told me he should be able to achieve. His performance when he was present indicated that with very specific teaching methods and a lot of guidance, he could grasp the concepts being presented. However, he missed over 50 days of school that year, he never once completed homework, and he put forth very little effort when he did attend class, often closing his eyes in class and rarely volunteering answers. In retrospect, I might have given him an I (for insufficient evidence to assess), but this was in the years before the current report cards, and it was unusual to give a student a non-mark. I suppose I could have lowered his expectations to help him achieve Cs and Bs, but I don’t feel that it would have helped him to artificially inflate his marks, and it might have suggested to his mother that she did not have to worry about him as much because his grades were still passable.
The best outcomes for children happen when caregivers and schools are on the same page and communicating effectively. If there is something that you don’t understand about your child’s IEP, or if there are items that you think are either not appropriate for your child’s current needs or should be on the IEP but are not evident, call up your child’s teacher and discuss these issues. There is no shame in not understanding the educational jargon that teachers use (I certainly don’t understand most of what my mechanic says to me), and any reasonable teacher will be more than happy to collaborate with you. And if there are items on the IEP that are not being realized in class, bring that up to the teacher’s attention, too. If you don’t get the traction you desire from meeting with the teacher, I’m sure that the school administration would be more than happy to help you advocate for your child. The principal signs the IEPs; it is his or her responsibility to ensure that they are being followed.