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Initiating an Individualized Education Program |®

Initiating an Individualized Education Program

When should a teacher assume a child requires an individualized education program (IEP)? Actually, according to Sheldon Horowitz, director of learning disability resources for the National Center for Learning Disabilities (NCLD), a teacher should never assume a child requires an IEP. Rather, what a teacher might ask is why “after having tried different strategies and approaches, the child is still not making progress,” and then consider alternatives, one being an IEP, he says.

The NCLD defines an Individualized Education Program as “the cornerstone of a quality education,” designed to meet the particular needs of each child. Determining whether a child might benefit from an IEP requires following a few logical steps. The objective is to ensure that decisions are made and resources are deployed that enable each child to achieve their full potential, while remaining as fully integrated into the daily school routine as possible.

Contact the Parents

If you think an IEP is in order, check with a school administrator to understand the correct process. In general, though, the first step a teacher should take is to contact the parents, says Suzanne Bowers, executive director of the Parent Educational Advocacy Training Center in Falls Church, VA.

“Parents are essential partners with schools,” Horowitz says. “They need to be included in decisions about scheduling, homework, test-taking and accommodations, course selections — everything.”

Gather Information & Resources

“The next thing we would recommend is to gather any and all information on the child,” Bowers says. This information should include anything that helps identify or illustrate areas in which the child is struggling. But don’t forget to also point out the child’s strengths, Bowers stresses. It’s all critical to seeing the whole child.

Then bring in the specialists — those individuals within the school or school system who assist in determining the right course of action. These specialists include reading teachers, speech-language pathologists, special-education teachers and psychologists.

Teachers should share their observations and concerns with the specialists and ask for input and recommendations about alternative instructional approaches and learning supports that work.

Identify Interventions

Having pinpointed any areas of concern, the next step is to identify research-based interventions that promote growth, says Beth Erber, a resource teacher in North Carolina’s Buncombe County Schools. Throughout, data on each intervention should be gathered and documented.

Erber emphasizes that it’s important to realize that this process is for any child who fails to make progress for any reason. “It may lead to an evaluation for special-education services, or it may not,” she says.

Horowitz adds that if the child is not found to be in need of special education but could still benefit from support, the school can provide services and accommodations through a 504 plan, which is very similar to an Individualized Education Program. A 504 plan allows for accommodation (like extra time for test taking), while an IEP involves specialized instruction for the student (like meeting with a speech pathologist).

Ideally, interventions should be conducted in small groups, so that the child isn’t singled out, says Erber. “Sometimes the interventions are part of the whole-group lesson. In many elementary classrooms today, students are working in different small groups all day long, so interventions are part of the normal schedule,” she says.

Throughout the process, Bowers suggests encouraging the child’s input, as appropriate. Initially, that may be in a very informal fashion, asking her what she wants to do when she gets older or what her favorite subjects are and why. Later, she might participate in the formal meetings.

Open and Honest

Over time, Horowitz says, children should be taught to describe the nature of their learning disability or attention disorder and to understand their rights, both within the school and when they go out into the world seeking further education and jobs.

Researchers and practitioners agree that the worst part of having a learning disability or other disorder that impacts learning and attention is “not knowing why, despite their cognitive ability and hard work, they are not able to succeed,” says Horowitz. “Having a name — yes, a ‘label’ — is, for most students, a relief.”

But, he cautions: “It’s critical that the label be used only to provide access to needed services and supports.” Never diminish high expectations for a child’s achievement.

Taylor Sisk is a North Carolina–based writer and editor who writes frequently on mental health issues for statewide and national outlets.

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