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Strategies for Successful IEPs

The only battle more epic than Batman vs. Superman might be “parent vs. teacher” in a special education IEP (Individualized Education Plan) meeting.

My First IEP

I’ll never forget one particular IEP… I was accused of “not having the student’s interests in mind.”

iep meeting

Parental goals can vastly differ from teachers’ suggested courses of action.

David had ADHD and a learning disability in written expression.  David’s greatest challenge was remembering what he had for homework and when he had upcoming tests and quizzes.  David’s Mom and I agreed that David needed to keep track of what was assigned for homework in class.  But, that’s about ALL we agreed on.

David’s Mom was pushing for David to use the calendar app on his phone.  She reasoned, David loved technology and loved using his phone.  She felt he would be more motivated to record due dates and quiz/test dates on his phone than in a paper planner.

I was pushing for David to use the paper-based planner.  I noticed every time David pulled out his phone in class, he succumbed to the many other things calling for his attention.  Things like incoming texts waiting to be read, the notification for his favorite game, unread emails, etc. would pull him off task.  Even if David did make it to his calendar app, the numerous steps (i.e. clicks, scrolls, text input, etc.) to record a calendar event was time consuming.

Because I understand the brain biology of ADHD, I knew David needed to reduce the number of steps to complete the task of recording the homework assignment.  This could best be accomplished with a paper planner instead of using a smart phone.

While I was focused on brain biology, Mom was focused on David’s interest in technology.  This snowballed into a long, drawn-out discussion.  Translation: accusations from David’s Mom that I had absolutely no regard for her son’s best interests.  Really?!

Parental Goals vs. Teacher Suggestions

Not all IEPs are outwardly argumentative or confrontational.  But it is common for parents to have goals about their child’s accommodations that differ from the teacher’s suggested course of action.

What’s ironic is that both parties involved truly want the same outcome: success for the child.  But, the path to get there can be highly contested.

Why is that?

These factors contribute to the parent vs. teacher struggle:

  1. Parents are emotionally attached to the outcomes (understandably so). But, this elevates the intensity of discussions.
  2. Teachers have undergraduate/graduate degrees or other specialized training that parents may not have. It’s not to say that parents’ input is invalid. Rather, parents may not understand the context surrounding why teachers are making educational recommendations.
  3. The process a parent goes through from suspecting their child is struggling to getting an actual diagnosis is very daunting. It’s usually a long, confusing, conflicting, costly, and frustrating experience.  Parents are anxious for actions and results.
  4. Doctors/psychologists have widely differing opinions on the diagnosis and treatment of ADHD, Autism, and Learning Disabilities. This leads to conflicting information and viewpoints for all participants of an IEP.

How to Minimize the Struggle Between Parents and Teachers in an IEP:

  1. Educate the parent on the brain biology of learning disabilities. Then, propose accommodations that align with brain biology.
  2. Focus goals on what’s really important… the child’s success in the real world.

Educating Parents on Brain Biology

Often times, parents receive a diagnosis (and subsequently a label) for their child from their doctor or psychologist.  This usually includes tips/suggestions for behavior modification (which feel impossible) and may even include a prescription for medication (which feels scary).

What the parents need most, and usually do NOT receive, is a thorough explanation of what is happening in their child’s brain to explain why their child is struggling. Without this knowledge, every strategy seems like a “shot in the dark.”

Educating the parent on brain biology and how their child’s disability impacts brain function establishes a common ground. From there, it becomes easier to determine mutually agreeable strategies. Once everybody understands and agrees on the science, agreeing on the strategies and accommodations comes much more easily.

Focus on the Highest-Level Goals for Real World Success

Grades, test scores, and graduation often dominate the focus of IEPs.  It’s understandable because grades are the most readily available data points. Test scores are often on the minds of teachers and administrators. While, every parent of a child with a learning disability worries about graduation and what comes next.

However, if we are truly working in the best interest of the student, our focus would extend to the student’s success in the real world (i.e. career, adulthood, etc.). If we asked ourselves, “What kind of skills will he/she need to be successful in the real world?” we’d probably come up with a list like this:

  • Organization
  • Time management
  • Communication (written and verbal)
  • Problem solving
  • Accessing necessary information
  • Setting goals
  • Learning new skills/information

Unintended Consequences

If we shift our focus to preparing the student for the “real world”, there are some unintended consequences:

  1. Improvement in grades, test scores, and graduation rates. When we teach students the soft skills they’ll use in the workplace, we also prepare them to be successful in school.
  2. Increased engagement. “Why do I have to learn this?”  This question is usually at the front of students’ minds and it is very valid. By teaching the skills listed above in the context of “real world success,” students don’t question their importance. Instead, they are more likely to implement these skills. 
  3. Students gain confidence and motivation. Once students start implementing skills and experiencing success, there’s a snowball effect of confidence-building and motivation.  Students begin to believe a rewarding future is within their reach.

Our Gift to You

To help parents and teachers understand the brain biology of learning disabilities, we created a short series of animations explaining how the brain and learning works, and the impact of learning disabilities, ADHD, and Autism.

We invite you to use and share these videos to educate others and begin the process of building strategies and accommodations based on brain biology.  To access our Brain Biology of Learning Disabilities, click HERE.

Skills for Real World Success

To address building skills for real world success, we invite you to learn more about our SOAR® Learning & Soft Skills Curriculum by clicking HERE.

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