Students with Abilities: An In-Depth Look at Individualized Learning Plans (IEPs)

We can all name people with differential abilities who lead successful lives: Stephen Hawking, Hellen Keller, and Tommy Hilfiger. Much like many of us, these household names would not be who they are without specialized support from educators and their community. At this moment, we have the opportunity to do the same for over 7.0 million students in the United States. 

Currently, 14% of the nation’s school-going population receives special education under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). IDEA provides free and appropriate services to prepare students for matriculation into a postsecondary institution, employment, or independent living (According to the National Center for Education Statistics). Disabilities are widely defined under IDEA to provide services for a number of different challenges a student may face. Under IDEA, a child with a disability includes “an intellectual disability, a hearing impairment (including deafness), a speech or language impairment, a visual impairment (including blindness), a serious emotional disturbance (referred to in this part as “emotional disturbance”), an orthopedic impairment, autism, traumatic brain injury, [a] health impairment, a specific learning disability, deaf-blindness, or multiple disabilities.” 

Disabilities are widely defined under IDEA to provide services for a number of different challenges a student may face.

One of the main components of IDEA is the Individualized Education Plan (IEP). It is a unique plan that outlines students’ educational objectives within the public education system. According to the Center for Parent Information & Resources, an IEP’s main purpose is to set annual learning goals and communicate the services provided by the school district. And while an effective IEP can be helpful in communicating a student’s strengths and weaknesses, poorly written IEPs can be detrimental to a student’s success. 

“After performing behavioral observations, I found that children were completely different from what was written in the IEP,” states Amanda Hernandez, the Maximizing Out of School Time (MOST) Coordinator. Hernandez’s work at the Ann Storck Center, an organization that serves children and adults with developmental disabilities in South Florida, involves running after school, summer camp, and spring break programs for students with different learning abilities. She uses students’ IEP as a pivotal piece of putting together the puzzle of classroom set-up. “It can be as simple as one child can hold a pencil to color while another child may not have that ability. So, we have to tailor the activity to finger painting or using a rock crayon to accommodate a child. Or, it may be as complicated as determining where a student’s intellectual and behavioral abilities fit best.” As such, IEPs provide important contextual information that keeps students on track. Unfortunately, this isn’t always the case. “Out of ten kids, I have maybe 5 or 6 students who come to our facility with inaccurate IEPs,” Hernandez says.  

“Out of ten kids, I have maybe 5 or 6 students who come to our facility with inaccurate IEPs.”

– Amanda Hernandez, MOST Coordinator

Inaccurate IEPs aside, according to the writer of The Atlantic’s The Special Education Charade,” the road to acquiring an IEP is also a battle. In her article, Tracy Thompson describes  IEPs as “one of the greatest pitfalls of the country’s school system.” She explains the many difficulties that arise when trying to request the best education for her child with a learning disability; from campus psychologists who have little time to evaluate students to an aversion to placing children in special education, the process is far from easy. Frustrated with the process, some parents decide to test their child privately, which can cost upwards of $2,000. Other parents must simply wait for their child to fail to prove to teachers and administrators that their child is more than just immature or lazy.

Once students are finally able to acquire an IEP, studies show teachers often do not have the resources to properly assist students with disabilities. Examining the Quality of IEPs for Young Children with Autism intended to develop an IEP evaluation tool and test its effectiveness. The study enlisted 35 teachers with students, aged 3 to 9, with autism. They developed specific parameters necessary for student success and evaluated IEPs based on those objectives. While evaluating IEPs, they found that the “IEP quality was generally quite poor.” The study stated that one of their most significant findings was that most of the IEPs’ objectives “did not accurately reflect state standards or, when they did, tended to be adopted without individualization to the child.” 

However, not all is lost! The study concluded that IEPs can be effective if teachers are trained to use IEPs as a tool to design and implement practices that will facilitate learning and ensure “proper procedures have been followed.” In addition, they suggested more accountability and evaluation check-points for both teachers and the IEP objectives. They believe their tool could be a useful resource in implementing more constructive change. 

As a community of specialists and educators, we must work together to improve the educational outcomes of differently-abled. We must continue to develop IEPs and train our teachers on best practices for engaging with these students as these students have so much potential. If we do, we will see just how much differently-abled students have to offer! 

Students with Abilities: An In-Depth Look at Individualized Learning Plans (IEPs)

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