Students Should Know What's in Their IEPs

May 26, 2021 12:00:00 AM

by Andrew Pillow

If you work in special education, then you have likely worked on an Individualized Education Plan (IEP). IEPs are plans developed to ensure that students with identified disabilities receive the instruction and accommodations they need to become successful. These are essentially legally binding documents, and they contain confidential information. IEPs are not top-secret but they are only shown to people on a need-to-know basis.

In case it wasn’t clear from the title: The student who is the subject of the IEP needs-to-know what is in it.

Special education should not be taboo but unfortunately, that is the way a lot of teachers and administrators treat it. Nobody wants a student to feel bad or feel like they can’t achieve on the same level as their peers. So, they tip-toe around the conversations involving needs and accommodations. [pullquote position="right"]You would be surprised at how many students are pulled for small group testing and have no idea why.[/pullquote]

I have had this situation before. Occasionally our school will receive students from a school with a less transparent special education program. When those students are pulled for testing or some other accommodation, they have asked why. One such example I remember vividly:

StudentMr. Pillow, why I always gotta go with you when we take a test?

MeYou have to go with me because you get extended time according to your IEP.

StudentWhat is that?

Me: Didn’t you sit in on those meetings with your mom when they talked about it?

StudentNot for no extra time.

Me: You know how you always take a little bit longer on your exit ticket? This makes sure you get that time.

Student: So, I been having that the whole time?

MeWhole time you been here. And most of the time at your last school too.

StudentThey ain’t do that at my last school…

That last sentence of that exchange is the actual reason students need to know what is in their IEP. It is certainly better for me as his teacher to not have to argue with him to get him to come when it is time for testing. He mostly needs to know so that he can ensure his needs and accommodations are being met. And apparently, this student not knowing kept him from getting that extra time accommodation at his previous school. In my experience with this particular child, he definitely needed the extra time he was legally entitled to receive.  

In full transparency, every conversation with students that have IEPs doesn’t go as well as the one above. Even students who are aware that they need accommodations don’t necessarily like using them or even acknowledging them. Such topics are unfortunately taboo among a lot of students. You should do your best to frame it in a way that makes it easier to digest but [pullquote]at the end of the day, they need to know what is written about them … even if it isn’t what they want to hear.[/pullquote]

A teacher should never be in the position to have to explain an IEP to an unaware student on the fly. At my school, we encourage families to have the student be in the IEP meetings and not just sit in the meeting silently either. The process works better when they are active participants. This way they won’t be surprised about what is in the document, and you get more buy-in when giving them their accommodations and pushing them to their goals.

Education is primarily student-teacher relationship-driven. How can a school effectively teach a child if the student is unaware of the major document governing their education?

Andrew Pillow

Andrew Pillow is a fifth grade social studies teacher at KIPP Indianapolis, a charter school where he has taught since 2011. He is also a former Teach Plus Policy Fellow and he has taught technology and social issues.

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