In Ontario, a student who has been identified as Exceptional through an IPRC must have an Individual Education Plan (IEP) developed and maintained. An IEP may also be prepared for students who require accommodations, program modifications and/or alternative programs, but who have not been identified as exceptional by an IPRC.
An IEP identifies the student's specific learning expectations and outlines how the school will address these expectations through appropriate accommodations, program modifications and/or alternative programs as well as specific instructional and assessment strategies.
The Ministry of Education’s IEP Resource Guide identifies some of the IEP basics as follows:
- Reason for developing the IEP
- Student profile
- Assessment data
- Strengths and needs (based on assessment)
- Subjects, courses or alternative programs to which the IEP applies
- Learning expectations
- Instructional and assessment strategies
- Provincial assessment (accommodations and exemptions)
- Transition plan
For students with learning disabilities (LDs), the Ministry of Education, through PPM No. 8 - Identification of and Program Planning for Students with Learning Disabilities, provides specific direction to school boards in the areas of assessment, identification, and program planning.
But beyond IEP basics, are there other considerations to developing an effective IEP? This article assists educators in exploring elements that can contribute to developing an effective IEP, including a focus on age/grade appropriate curriculum, a strengths-based approach and student voice.
Age/Grade Appropriate Curriculum
According to PPM No. 8, the IEP of students with learning disabilities may include the following special education program strategies, with the goal of providing a program that maximizes the student’s ability to access the curriculum:
- Instructional, environmental, and assessment accommodations should be provided, as appropriate, so that the student is able to access grade-level curriculum expectations and to demonstrate learning.
- Modification of learning expectations may include the use of expectations at a different grade level and/or an increase or decrease in the number and/or complexity of expectations.
- Modified learning expectations that are drawn from a lower grade level will only be considered if the student cannot demonstrate learning with the aid of any of the approaches and/or strategies described above.
- Alternative expectations and/or courses that are not derived from an Ontario curriculum policy document (e.g., expectations focused on social skills, self-advocacy, transition planning, study skills) will be developed as needed.
All too often, decisions are made to modify the curricular expectations for students with LDs because they don’t seem to be able to access their age/grade curriculum.
However, students with LDs have average to above average cognitive ability and they have the right to access age/grade level curriculum, with the appropriate accommodations. Modifying curriculum may have cumulative and negative long-term implications for students with LDs. It is important for educators to focus on “curriculum integrity” and not rush to modify.
The following chart, from the IEP Resource Guide, outlines instructional, assessment and environmental accommodations that can help students with LDs access the grade level curriculum and demonstrate learning:
Assistive technology (AT) is an example of one of the most powerful accommodations for students with LDs; AT “levels the playing field”.
A strengths-based IEP utilizes student strengths and abilities to address weaknesses. Helping students identify and leverage their strengths, interests and preferences can lead to more self-awareness and self-advocacy.
Julie Rawe (contributing author to Understood.org), has created a strengths-based fact sheet that provides comprehensive information for educators. Click here to access the fact sheet.
Incorporating a strengths-based approach to IEP planning has the added benefit of essentially creating a growth mindset for how the team plans and develops the IEP. IEP goals are developed based on what the student can do; for example:
Thomas will create a multi-media presentation in science using visual organizers, and text-to-speech software.
A strengths-based approach also lends itself to developing SMART IEP goals: Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Realistic, and Timely.
On a conceptual level, it is generally understood that a collaborative approach to planning benefits both the process and the outcome; this also applies to the IEP planning process. The IEP Resource Guide provides direction that when developing the IEP, consultation needs to occur with parents, the student, previous teachers and other professionals. In reality, however, does the IEP planning team include all stakeholders? Does the IEP process include the most important stakeholder . . . the student? In order to be truly collaborative, the IEP planning process must include input from the student.
The IEP Resource Guide provides clear direction on involving students:
Principals are legally required to ensure that all students who are 16 years of age or older are consulted in the development of the IEP. However, any student for whom an IEP is being developed should be consulted to the degree possible. In the information-gathering phase, students should be encouraged to share their perceptions of their learning strengths and needs, talents, and interests.
Including students in the IEP process has several key benefits: the IEP is student centred and the process promotes both student engagement and student ownership.
Students with LDs can be involved with the IEP process in the following ways:
- Students can share their strengths and needs – as a key component to self-advocacy, students need to know their learning profile
- Students can identify important learning goals
- Students can identify accommodations they need to access the curriculum and demonstrate their learning
Students with LDs can also be involved with participating in the transition planning, as a component of the IEP. For example, grade 8 students at Sagonaska, a demonstration school for students with LDs in Belleville, Ontario, created self-advocacy transition pamphlets to assist in their transition to grade 9. To begin the process, the teacher conferenced with individual students, using the “Understanding LDs” chart (also known as the Waterfall Chart), created by the York Region District School Board, another resource available on the LD@school website. Reviewing the Waterfall Chart deepened each student’s understanding of his or her LDs and the information was visually laid out in a Popplet, a tablet application that enables you to create graphic organizers. This information was then used to create the personalized pamphlets, which included the following areas:
- Student Photograph
- My Hobbies
- My Strengths
- My Needs
- My Goals
- How I Can Help Myself
- How You Can Help Me
- Specific Technology I Use to be Successful
Developing an IEP for a student with a learning disability involves many requirements, with a well-articulated process for developing the IEP, but there are other important considerations. When educators look beyond the basic requirements to focus on curriculum integrity, incorporate a strengths-based approach and actively involve the student, the IEP becomes a key component to student success.