What Part of the IEP Process Is the Most Frustrating for You as a Special Education Teacher?

Mary McLaughlin
Special Education Teacher

I got a new student in late March of a particular school year and as I sat down to review the out-of-state Individualized Education Plan.

The student was sort of a mystery. He was a cute little strawberry blond-haired boy with those adorable red silicone break-resistant glasses. Kids and glasses…every time I see a little one sporting glasses, my heart is theirs. They look adorable, I know they're getting the attention they need because someone thought to get them an eye exam and glasses, and honestly, all the cool people are sporting the swankiest of frames. Yes, I've worn glasses since the age of five. Now my age starts with a five and I'm still sporting specs. I digress…

On a warm southern Spring morning, I opened my classroom door after hearing a firm set of three knocks. Generally speaking, this is my cue that it is the school secretary visiting my room for some form of official business. The second I opened the door and saw our school's guiding light, a set of parents, each with a firm grip on the hands of the child standing between them, and a wiggly and very noisy boy sporting red round silicone specs, I know a new student was entering our classroom-without notice. No time to have a desk or chair ready, no time to inform my other dozen Special Needs kids who don't always do well with change or disruption, and no information about the child because as soon as they literally shoved him in the door, they left the building.

Fortunately, the office personnel got a phone number.

During the first few weeks, I used it A LOT. A. LOT. A. LOTTTTTTTTTTTTTT.

They had enrolled this child at school but had no copy of an IEP for me to preview. The boy's previous school district was apparently the kind that opts out of returning the phone calls of the teachers in new districts who call ONLY to seek information so we can better understand how to best support the our new students. Oh, and it might be fun for us to know what the young one's goals and specific needs are.

After quite some time, the paperwork came. Who knew that the student had a seizure disorder? Uh, not me…cuz no one told me. Had to find out that one the hard way. Who knew the kiddo pulled hair ALL THE TIME? Not me…until one moment when a handful of my hair stylist's best work was lying on the table in front of me. Who knew that one of his 16 goals (that's right, SIXTEEN) goals was to learn and recite his ABC's? Kind of hard when you're non-verbal. What about on a device loaded with picture-based software? What a great idea! Nope, not noted in the IEP. Who knew the child was not potty trained? Uh-not us…until we started to smell something ferocious. There were numerous other needs of which we should have been informed but, due to a communication breakdown, did not. On our side, we were all left working with what we had, figuring out what we needed to know, observing, anticipating needs, and teaching a child who was quite honestly, kinda naughty. But gee whiz, was he a cutie!

As this student began to learn his way in our classroom, we were fastidiously working on paperwork to write an IEP for our state and school, one with reasonable goals, one with achievable goals, and one with the tools listed that he would need to achieve those goals.

This story is not an isolated story in my experience. Years ago, back when our phone screens slid and revealed a miniature keyboard, I was a school administrator and one of my roles was to supervise the Special Education Department. The two Special Education Teachers were quite simply the most creative, informed, resourceful people I knew and in tandem with their teaching skills, forget it! They ruled the school! I could ask a question about an IEP issue and one could, not even kidding, cite the paragraph from IDEA. When asked how she could do that, she said because she had looked it up so many times that it became entrenched in her brain. Impressive.

I decided to fire up the good old email machine and ask these two people if I was alone in my discomfiture of the situation with Little Man Glasses and his goal-heavy IEP and lack of response from his previous district and teacher.

Getting the guidance and direction I knew would be received, we began discussing the whole idea of the IEP and how many facets this document takes on. Like a brilliantly cut diamond, this document impacts every single stakeholder of the child's education FOR the child's education, yet so often, it just simply feels like…no one really cares. Just sign here.

I dislike the fact that when I buy a car, there are numerous documents to be signed. The salesperson works hard to earn their commission when this Motor City born-and-raised gal enters the showroom. It is true that I nave very little knowledge about the inner workings of my newly-purchased vehicle (I know blow-by in an engine is bad; I know changing the oil fastidiously is good; I know that once the computer goes out, you're done; I know enough to look but not touch without proper direction; I know I like a rippin' sound system and air conditioning is a must.) but I mean to tell you, my 846 questions WILL be answered, I WILL understand the answers, there WILL be evidence for those answers, and if I have to pay my car payment in a timely manner then you'd best believe the car dealership is going to treat me respectfully and with dignity every time I walk through the doors for service or to have more questions answered; otherwise, we're going back to the beginning of contract-writing. No questions….and if you give me, as a female, any grief or treat me like I'm an idiot, I'll bring in an advocate-a 6-foot-4 hulking former Green Beret who knows a thing or two about cars. While that is a last resort, sometimes we need an advocate. I really wish I knew a woman who owned a dealership or a car repair shop. Dang, that would make this analogy SO MUCH MORE relevant to the times in which we live-but I don't, so clearly we need more woman in auto-related fields. I digress…again.

At any rate, why do people give more credence to their car purchases than to their kid's IEP process? I mean, really… which is ultimately THE MOST important? (the correct answer here is YOUR KID.)

I decided to take my thoughts and questions to that great social experiment we like to call Facebook. I belong to a Special Education forum on this fabulous social media platform and I asked those in this group a very simple question: What part of the IEP process is the most frustrating for you?

Their responses were numerous but amazingly similar:

  • Parents…WHERE ARE YOU?? Why aren't you attending EVERY meeting called on behalf of your child?
  • Parents…why do you ask for meetings to be rescheduled numerous times but then don't show up to the appointments? Your attendance is wanted and valued.
  • Parents…why do you bring advocates who are arguing for what YOU want and not for what is best/most appropriate/most necessary for the student/your child?
  • Teachers: there is no need for double-digit numbers when writing goals. No need for twelve or eleven or twenty-two goals.
  • Teachers: proofread the paperwork you have completed. It is understandable that if a meeting is held in January, you may accidentally write last year's date, but to have no dates is unacceptable.
  • Teachers: don't copy/paste from other students' IEP's to save time…and if you do, PLEASE proofread. Billy's name is not Suzie.
  • Teachers/administrators: attend the meetings. Get a sub. If you can't attend or can only stay briefly, have a written statement to be shared at the meeting identifying the progress and other information requiring to be shared.
  • Everyone: don't bring food/drinks to the meetings.
  • Turn off /silence your cell phones and focus on the child being discussed.
  • Everyone: be one time for the meetings. Start on time.
  • Everyone: be open to discuss anything. The IEP is about the child's needs and if everyone is honest with each other, the needs can most fully be met. When people are in denial about a child's needs, needs are left unmet.
  • Everyone: be civil even if there is cause for disagreement. Calm demeanors create a more productive session. If need be, table the discussion for another day which is determined prior to departing.
  • Administrators: don't say, "I don't know anything about the Special Education Department. I trust my teachers." You only make yourself appear uneducated and foolish.
  • Special Education Team: SHOW UP EVEN IF YOU'RE A CONTRACT WORKER. If you are an Occupational or Physical Therapist, chances are growing that these services are contracted out by school districts as a cost-saving measure. Coordinate with your company's leadership so you can attend these meetings be it in person, by conference call/Skype. Your lack of presence does not demonstrate a commitment to the child-from the perspective of the parent.
  • Teachers: don't write so many goals!!! If you are unsure as to an appropriate number of goals, contact someone in your school or district who has been doing this for longer than you and seek their direction.
  • Teachers: write goals that are GOOD goals, not broad or too-general. Make them specific, measureable, achievable, and time-bound. A good goal: Given instruction in writing and sentence starters, Suzie will complete a journal using options or her own thoughts with 90% accuracy in 5 out of 5 trials by the end of the second nine weeks of school.
  • Special Education Team: one of my friends made her point with an eloquence for which only she can espouse… "Ooooh, girl, their PLAAFP had BETTER line up with their goals and vice versa otherwise the whole thing is just a ridiculous mess and makes no sense! Everything has to correlate!!" Additionally, the PLAAFP "had better" reflect data collected during formal assessment time, informal assessment times, and any-other-assessment-times. My Really Smart Friend Dawn, whose role as a compliance officer in her district causes her to review IEP's written by Special Education Teachers across her district on a daily basis. From her perspective, if the PLAAFP and the goals aren't aligned, nothing matters. Nothing is in synch. It's like wearing golf apparel to play hockey. It's just not going to work out well for anyone.

Culling through all the comments posted on Facebook and discussing the issue with my colleagues has led me to one single word: synchronicity. If the team and its efforts which are surrounding the child aren't synchronous, nothing is really going to matter. A car running low on oil will run for a while but eventually, it the engine will seize and the car will be no good to anyone.

I cannot agree more fully with Jim Jeffords if I tried. He said, "We have a responsibility to ensure that every individual has the opportunity to receive a high-quality education, from prekindergarten to elementary and secondary, to special education, to technical and higher education and beyond." Source - https://www.brainyquote.com/quotes/jim_jeffords_169011?src=t_special_education

Stay in touch with the team, work together, and keep the child's needs at the forefront of every decision made and while the path of synchronous efforts may not be straight or narrow, you will be together.


Mary McLaughlin

Mary McLaughlin

Mary has always loved learning, but was a struggling learner who couldn’t read until one day, the right teacher came along with the right methodology, and everything clicked for Mary. Understanding the struggles of children who just “don’t get it,” Mary has spent her career supporting children with learning difficulties and finding ways to excite them about education. Over her career, Mary has taught Second Grade, Third Grade, and served as a Middle School Administrator in Michigan, most often in the urban setting. In 2015, Mary relocated to Arkansas in search of new opportunities and is excited at all that has been placed before her. She currently teaches Special Education in a self-contained setting for children in grades 2-4.
Mary McLaughlin