Monthly Archives: August 2011

What is an Individual Education Plan?

In special education an individual education plan, or IEP, is created for a single student’s learning needs whether these needs are challenging or advanced. An IEP creates a modified curriculum for a student. Modification means the curriculum is tailored specifically to this child’s needs. As a result s/he does not follow most of the regular classroom curriculum. That special needs student may learn the same subject at the same time as his or her peers, for instance transformational geometry strand in mathematics, but the IEP student does not learn or get taught curriculum at the provincial or state level. Rather, the student’s curriculum is modified to assist the student in improving his or her learning skills, or putting advanced (gifted) skills to better use. An IEP requires the consent of the student’s parent or guardian and cannot be put in place without it. Yearly, the school is required to re-test the child in order to determine whether or not the child needs to continue using an IEP.  Watch what is an individual education plan?

An IEP is part of the Education Act in Ontario.  It is a legality and any student who requires curriculum modification is entitled to an IEP by law.  If deemed necessary, the student is also entitled to assistive technology, for example software that translates a student’s speech into text in a word processing program.  This type of assistive technology is especially helpful for children with reading difficulties or phonemic dyslexia. Since assistive technology is very expensive a school requires additional funding to provide AT to its special students.  In that case the school’s Identification, Placement and Review Committee (IPRC)  examines the student’s full academic history, receives feedback from the classroom and special education teacher about the student’s progress, and discusses the situation with the student and/or parents. Watch what are learning disabilities?

All schools are required to establish an IPRC by law. Sometimes consultants from the school board, such as autism specialists, attend the meetings to provide valuable input.  Although parents and the student are invited to offer suggestions about the IEP, the IPRC has the right to reject these suggestions if they are deemed unreasonable, unhelpful, irrelevant, or otherwise.  In that case the family may appeal an IPRC decision to an Ontario tribunal to determine whether or not the IPRC has made a correct decision. If the tribunal supports the school’s decision the parent is permitted to take the matter further and appeal to the Ontario Supreme Court. Watch best practices and accommodations.

Along with IEPS, classroom teachers usually provide accommodations for special students. An accommodation does not require parental or administrator consent and is not a legality. An example of an accommodation includes moving a student’s desk beside the teacher’s; not seating an ADHD child near a window since outside activities are distracting for this student; reducing the number of questions a struggling student answers in math compared to the assignment given to the rest of the class and so on.  Accommodations are not necessarily used for children with IEPs.  They are also used for children with disruptive behaviours and weak academics. Watch learning disabilities accommodations

There is no such thing as Good or Bad Labels…they’re all Bad

I remember when I was working for the Peel Regional Police in Mississauga, Ontario.  I was a secretary in a bureau and one day a police officer strolled into the lunch room grinning from ear to ear. “I just got a phone call from my wife!” He crowed. “The school told her my son is gifted.” Watch What is an IEP?

I wasn’t a teacher then and I had not even been to teacher’s college yet, but instinctively I was dubious about both the label and the telephone call.  As it turns out it was a public school and I was not surprised.  Public schools can be so laissez-faire about serious matters. I wonder if a teacher also calls a family to inform them that their child has a learning disorder or needs to be in special education classes?  Imagine hearing such poignant information over the phone?  You just don’t do that.  My school system (Roman Catholic or Separate) doesn’t permit teachers to simply call up families and say “guess what?…”  It is unprofessional.  It denies the parent the ability to have an extended conversation with the teacher since a mere phone call is not intended to be an in-depth interview. Most of all however using a label about a student misleads parents and students.  It marks students for better or for worse.  Let’s not forget that special education also includes “gifted” children. Watch Special Education Teaching: Understanding Special Education Terms

I can hear opposition to my statement about public  boards and their laissez-faire attitudes. Yes public schools can be wonderful places of learning and they do have terrific teachers but the issue I am discussing here is not about that; it’s about the manner in which a student assessment is communicated to families.  Imagine you are contacted by your doctor’s office and the receptionist informs you that you have cancer.  Just like that.  Wouldn’t it be more prudent for the receptionist to telephone you and ask you to attend an appointment with your doctor?  And yes you want to believe that educational labels do affect families as hard as if someone has cancer.  In fact I have researched families who committed murder after a special education assessment was made about their child.  No joke.  One family murdered its own child; the child had been assessed as low functioning and the parents were ashamed to have him as a family member. This is the incredible impact that schools and educational labels have on families. (Public schools take note:  Watch Special Education Referral

Special education is a label that leaves me feeling ambiguous.  A “gifted” child belongs in special education but most of us forget that and assume the child is behind. Besides every child has gifts to offer the community. Sometimes a family thinks gifted means the child is a prodigy. Wrong. I think it’s time to lose the “special” in special education, too (see my post Taking the Special out of Special Education). How about advanced? And I really have no use for slow learner.  This has to be the unkindest label of all, and again one of the most confusing for families.

Often when a family hears it’s child is a slow learner it is believed the child eventually can catch up to the rest of the class. Wrong.  It means the child will always work beneath curriculum standards for his/her grade level and will always be a step behind his or her peers academically. These are the sort of details parents need to discuss with both the special education and the regular classroom teacher in an interview about a child’s assessment; not a frivolous phone call that leaves many questions unanswered and may be very misleading. I couldn’t entirely pinpoint why that phone call irritated me before I became a special ed teacher.  Now I get it. Watch Special Education Teaching: Defining Special Education

Taking the Special out of Special Education

I teach special education to elementary school children.  They have their own individual education plan (IEP) that differs from the curriculum their peers study.  They, and the class, are well aware of this especially since I am frequently obliged to withdraw children from the regular classroom. The youngest children I work with on average are 7 years old but I do work with children as young as 6.  By 7 children are painfully aware they are different and not in a good way. Their peers are also well aware that students who are withdrawn from the classroom are getting “extra help” because school is “hard” for them. Watch Special Education Teaching: Teaching Students to Accept Special Education Teachers

School is a challenge for everyone, otherwise how will children learn?  It is the concept of withdrawal from classrooms when this is not always necessary as well as labels that concern me.  For instance when a teacher is teaching, say, a math lesson in probability the class and the special education child are all learning this particular lesson.  The special education child has a considerably modified (easier) curriculum with lowered expectations. That being the case why not include the special education teacher into the regular classroom instead of withdrawing the “special” child? The special ed teacher can work with the student within the regular classroom just as easily as in the special ed office. Watch what are learning disabilities?

Schools try to make this happen for their special students. They do make the effort but continually I encounter odd situations where students are withdrawn during a language arts lesson to study math with the special ed teacher.  What?  Why not dovetail the two subjects so the child be included in the classroom with the assistance of the special ed teacher?  Sometimes scheduling is an issue for the teacher however when I was a regular classroom teacher one thing I noticed at the start of the year is that no special education teacher approached me to coordinate our curriculum schedules. At that time I was unaware that special ed teachers had the authority to do this, and since then I approach all of the teachers I will be working with during the year to try and coordinate our schedules. Read Special Education Inclusion

Inclusion is fair.  Inclusion prohibits embarrassment and develops a higher self-esteem in students. Clearly children whose learning issues are strong or severe cannot be included in the classroom. They require an intensive one on one with the special ed teacher so as not to be distracted by the rest of the classroom, but I am not referring to those students. The students who are slightly to moderately substandard in their learning deserve as much inclusion as possible. Treating them like everyone else rather than “special”, an unfortunate lable that everyone knows means “learning difficulty”, may even result in higher report card grades.  High self-esteem is proven to be a positive consequence as it relates to learning. Watch Special Education Teaching: Inclusion in the Classroom

Constructing Education for the Classroom

When you hear the term education what comes to mind?  For me personally I envision the environment where I teach curriculum and the one where I learned it: school. Education of course encompasses so much more than the curriculum handed to us through the Ministry, the school boards, the schools and then filtered by the teachers. Yes, filtered. There is so much academic material to cover each term that the Ministry offers options in Ontario for teachers to choose from: learning units (or lesson unit)s can go in one direction or another depending on the subject matter. In grade 5 for instance rather than studying Egypt in Social Studies the teacher might choose Mesopotamia. The concept of studying the history of a foreign country and the demographic and culture (within the grasp of a 10-year-old and of course scaled down so as to fit within a single semester) is the same, but the topic entirely different. There is choice according to the educator and his or her construct of what the curriculum and the learning year should be. Watch Should sexual orientation be mandated in the Curriculum?

Some teachers give classes a choice. They present the options that are available for study to the class and say “choose one.” I like the democracy behind the choice of subject matter but notice it’s quite like Canadian politics or perhaps national politics in any democratic country: there is choice within limits or limited choice. Is that a true democracy? Is there such a thing inside and outside of school? Do you remember presenting options to your child or perhaps now to your teen? You can have it this way or that way but not both, which do you prefer, and there is no sarcasm or implied punishment. but getting back to education and choice, even when the class chooses its subject matter, the class and the teacher are all working within someone else’s construct of what an education for this grade at this time in history should be. Even the teacher has no choice in that regard. That is the Ontario Ministry at work. Watch Denmark: More democracy in education

Who decides curriculum within the Ministry?  Clearly the team who constructs curriculum and therefore the educational experience, is composed of people with strong academic credentials and who usually possess significant classroom/teaching experience. It would be very difficult, I should think, to format curriculum when one has never been a teacher. That is analagous to performing surgery when one has never been a doctor. Yet for all that, there exist many disconnects between curriculum mandates, curriculum options and the reality of how curriculum unfolds in the classroom. watch barriers to learning

For instance insisting upon the use of CCC in mathematics, a mandated math software program lacks reality in many ways. The teacher is expected to program the difficulty level of 5 individual math strands for every student in the classroom and after assessing results via a print out every 1 – 2 weeks, s/he must adjust every one of those strands per student in the event that the software program is too easy or too hard. The concept behind the laborious CCC is that it offers teachers insight into independent work of children in mathematics and it gives students the chance to work at a competent, individual level while strengthening their math skills. In reality, it is a great deal of busy work for the teacher who has more than enough assessing, evaluating, preparing and programming as it were for every subject in the curriculum as well as the mathematics that will be taught in the classroom separately from CCC. Not surprisingly feedback from many teachers a number of years ago was decidedly ambiguous. And for the Board to take such a survey suggests the Ministry wanted to know why the program was not being used to its full potential (in other words, why teachers considered it to be redundant). Ah, rhetoric. Introduce it into curriculum and you spend millions of dollars on a program that benefits very few and doesn’t produce desired results.  watch Consider Denmark: Education and innovation

This is a wonderful example of someone else’s construct of education. So too is the concept of inclusion vs exclusion. Within curriculum are many, many flaws that systemically exclude people not physically from the classroom, but their mentors and representatives within curriculum itself. For instance why are certain topics not taught or not permitted in a school (eg. religion in public schools). What about the invisibility factor for gay and lesbian students in curriculum, literature, culture and classroom instruction? In fact every subject matter, every material, every manipulative and every suggestion about how to teach a particular subject to a particular age group of children and youth is someone else’s construct. That is one of the many reasons for miscommunication among teachers and parents and teachers and students. It is another reason why a parent’s vision of what their child’s education should be can differ significantly from the reality of what lies within the curriculum. In a democratic country these are forces beyond educators’ and parents’ control. Makes sense.  Right? Watch Perspectives on Inclusive Teaching.