Since its inception in 1990, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) has remained the guide around which all special education revolves. It provides the foundation for qualifying students to receive a free and appropriate education in the least restrictive environment possible. In the last decade, the percentage of special education students has risen over 30 percent, with over three out of four students with disabilities spending a majority of their day in a general education classroom. Therefore, it is safe to say that almost every classroom in America contains at least one special education student.
Moreover, the number of classified students seems to increase along with mounting teacher frustrations over how to address the multitude of complex issues surrounding each student. In addition, many educators do not have the background or strategy knowledge to solve these problems. Each year I get asked similar questions that you, no doubt, have probably faced at some point in your careers. It is my hope that my insight as a special educator will give you the tools to face these challenges in your classrooms.
An IEP, or Individualized Education Plan, is a legal document that is created for all students who qualify for special education services. Although variations exist from state to state, most IEPs consist of "present levels of educational performance," or PLEPs, which describe specific academic deficits, goals and objectives, related services, and evaluation plans. This document is crucial as it will provide you with information that will guide your instruction and give you awareness about specific student needs.
In contrast, a 504 plan refers to Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act, or Americans with Disabilities Act, which prohibits those with a disability from being excluded from federally funded programs or activities. This includes those with a physical or mental impairment, illness or injury, communicable disease, chronic medical condition (e.g., allergies and diabetes), and/or learning problems. A 504 plans outlines modifications and accommodations necessary for students to perform at the same level as their peers. Examples of modifications include a reduced number of problems, an extra set of textbooks, or a varied instructional format. Accommodations include things such as providing extended time for tests, finding an alternate location that minimizes distractions, and reading tests out loud.
Absolutely. No two IEPs are alike and each contains a wealth of knowledge about the student. Most importantly, in this document you will find student strengths, weaknesses, and goals for the year. Familiarize yourself with each one of them, as you will have to provide data showing student progress. Although this may seem like one more step in your day, there are many online resources such as create-a-graph that make entering data a snap. This is also a great way to share information with students who need a visual representation of their progress.
Depending on the situation, Committee on Special Education (CSE) or Child Study Team (CST) meetings can vary between productive and grueling. As a general education teacher, you are expected to share progress or regression in the form of data that has been taken with fidelity over a period of time. Keeping a file on each student is a quick and easy way to store work samples that highlight success or areas of need. Make sure each paper is dated and is a good representation of student achievement. I love to give my general education teachers progress notes to be filled out at the five-week and end-of-quarter marking periods. Not only do they cover a range of topics, but they contain concrete percentages and teacher comments. These are especially handy during meetings where student placement is being considered. Do not come to meetings empty-handed. If you are uneasy in a meeting, begin by sharing with the group a touching story of recent success before piling on the bad news. Your positivity may be the highlight of the meeting.
In general, special education students should be held to the same set of standards as the rest of the class. However, keep in mind that disabilities manifest themselves in different ways and that what triggers misbehavior for one student may not do so for another. Begin with a concrete set of classroom rules that all students must follow, and allow for wiggle room or warnings for those who need extra prompting. You may also want to have students use a self-regulated “Daily Student Tracking Form” to monitor homework production, classroom participation, preparedness, attendance, and accuracy on tests and quizzes. However, if negative behavior escalates in severity or frequency, a behavior intervention plan (BIP) may need to be written by the special education teacher. Again, this is why data is so important. Statements such as, “Tommy shouts out all the time!” ( as opposed to “Tommy speaks out while I am instructing the class four out of five times”) make a huge difference when looking at student behavior.
For more information, see my posts "Motivating the Unmotivated: Tough Kid Tools That Really Work" and Understanding Special Education: A Helpful Handbook for Classroom Teachers by Cynthia M. Stowe.
I hope that this sheds some light on the mysteries of the IEP and hope to hear from you with any questions or concerns that you may have. We are all in this together!