When you first learn about Individualized Education Plans or IEPs, they can seem very overwhelming and stressful.  However, like most scary things, the more you learn about what they are, why people have them, and what they look like, IEPs get a little less scary, and you can see the value of them for a student with special needs. 

Currently, most education systems are designed so students in a class will be taught the same lesson, using the same strategies, be expected to learn the same things and have their learning be assessed in the same way. 

For some students this instructional method is fine, and they can fit into this system just the way it is. 

For some students, only a few minor tweaks or adaptations can be made to how they are taught to meet the learning outcomes for the grade. 

For others, the learning outcomes are not appropriate for what they can or need to do; for these students, modifications are made. 

The fit of the school system for students ranges from a perfect fit to none at all, and everything in between.  The point of an IEP is to address the student’s personal needs and provide them with the best opportunity for success in the school system.

An IEP is a student-centred document that becomes the student’s educational blueprint for the year.  It documents the specific educational goals for a student with special needs, lists the objectives created to reach these goals, and it describes the commitments the educational system agrees to put in place to assist the student in meeting these goals and objectives.

Even though each IEP is unique to the student it is created for, all IEP should follow the same five-step process. It is created by a team that has been selected specifically based on the student’s needs.

This team may include the classroom teacher, a case manager, the principal or vice principal, specialist staff that work with the student, the school counsellor, community specialists, the student’s parents or guardians, and in some cases the student themselves.

The ultimate goal is for an IEP to be a dynamic and cyclical process of planning, monitoring and evaluating.

The actual IEP itself will vary in length depending on the student’s needs.  The length of the IEP will depend on the number of personal goals and objectives a student has and any accommodations or modifications that must be made for the student.  An IEP is only required if a student with special needs requires changes to the standard curriculum. 

There are some students with special needs who follow the standard curriculum and only require the use of strategies (such as being allowed to wear noise-canceling headphones in class).  If these students do not require any accommodations or modifications to the standard curriculum, they do not need an IEP.

There are many students with special needs who only require some minor adjustments to their learning outcomes.  There are also many students with special needs who do not require any modifications to the standard curriculum but require accommodations to be made in the way they receive the information or the way their knowledge of this information is assessed.  In these cases, the IEP can often be a concise, one-page document. Students with more complex special needs will require a more detailed and comprehensive IEP. 

There are also students who have complex needs; these students require a significantly different educational program.  The IEP that is created for these students will likely be a lengthy document to address all the student’s needs, goals, accommodations and modifications.  When creating these IEPs, the team needs to make a concentrated effort to keep the plan manageable.

IEPs are needed so that teachers understand the ways the educational program is different for a student with special needs from the other students in their class.  It provides the teacher with a way to monitor the student’s growth and progress towards their personal goals and objectives. IEPs provide teachers with a document they can reference what strategies, adaptations and modifications are to be used with the student.  This is especially important because it means that if the assigned classroom teacher is absent, the substitute teacher or teacher-on-call can reference the IEP if they require clarity on how to work with the student.

IEPs provide an ongoing record for a student with special needs, assists with ensuring the continuity of the educational program and creates a plan to help students go through the different transitions they will experience during their educational career.

*Please note the information about Individualized Education Plans was based on information for students attending school in British Columbia. Individualized Education Plans are commonly used in educational settings, but the information here may not be consistent with the requirements of education systems outside of British Columbia.

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