The IEP is the core of special education services. Creating an IEP should be a multistep and thoughtful process involving structured collaboration. From the creation of the IEP, teams are charged with the effective delivery of services. An IEP is only as effective as the members of a given IEP team, though. Implementation depends on factors that aren’t always anticipated while the team is gathered at the IEP meeting.
Schools are complicated places. The professionals working in them are human (for now). These professionals find themselves pulled in multiple directions as they attempt to serve students. They get distracted, frustrated, and exhausted. They also make judgments as they prioritize their responsibilities. The most immediate, pressing matters tend to force all other responsibilities out of the way. Unfortunately, this can mean crucial components of a well-designed IEP can get neglected.
Such negligence typically isn’t willful. It’s usually circumstantial. Team members find themselves using a form of educational triage to get through their days. Special education teachers might face this possibility more than other team members. They might be IEP coordinators, but often they’re charged with teaching content as well. When team teaching or even teaching outright to small classes of students with IEPs, the time spent planning, grading, and physically instructing can supplant time spent orchestrating the provisions of IEPs. These teachers might end up addressing what accommodations they have the time to address, selecting either the most crucial ones or those they can arrange in the shortest order. Indeed, some IEPs call for accommodations that require more of special education teachers than they have time to provide, even though their primary responsibility (despite what principals assign them to do) is ensuring the implementation of all parts of the IEP.
Others factors beyond the team’s control can interfere with implementation. As mentioned, an IEP might demand more from the special education teacher than is practical or feasible. Teams might underestimate the difficulty of providing a particular set of accommodations, or they might include accommodations that really aren’t reasonable just to placate a parent. In other scenarios, something mandated by an IEP might not be possible because a program might cease to be available or a staff member who would’ve provided it might get cut. Situations like these don’t constitute negligence, but they can result in important parts of the IEP getting neglected. An special education teacher might be unable to address the IEPs of several students if he or she has one particularly needy student whose behavior or health needs create daily emergencies. Sometimes the needs of such students trump all other concerns. Again, educational triage like this isn’t willful or accidental negligence, but it can result in one or more students not getting what their IEPs detail.
A different scenario is less excusable but also likely. A special education teacher might come to devalue the IEP and dismiss its worth. To such a teacher, the IEP might appear to be a formality, but not a necessary instructional tool. It might be something to write and check off of a to-do list rather than something to implement. Some experienced teachers might feel they can respond to the needs of students without having to use IEPs as guides. With or without experience, a callous few might see the IEP as an intrusion rather than the basis for services. While the majority of special education teachers probably don’t feel this way, the attitude isn’t rare.
Ask a special education teacher to describe the most tedious aspect of the job and the answer likely will have something to do with paperwork. Everything that happens in special education involves documentation. Some aspiring teachers enter the field unprepared for this aspect of the job, while some veterans decry the need for such ever-increasing detail. Nearly everyone agrees the mass of paperwork can overwhelm those who have to process and respond to it. At the center of this red tape tornado is the IEP.
To many special education teachers, the IEP is the embodiment of paperwork imbroglio. An IEP can be dozens of pages long. The information within can be redundant by design. Teams must write IEPs to be highly specific using what can feel like cumbersome parlance. They must base the IEP on mounds of student data. After creating the IEP, teams must document progress towards goals and objectives. Paperwork begets paperwork. All of this paperwork must be in accordance with inflexible timelines. Some special education teachers become resentful of having to manage this beast. Even though these teachers often get extra preparation periods for paperwork completion, a common complaint is the lack of time for dealing with it all. Cynics (realists?) will cite the number of hours they’re contracted to work and cut their losses regarding what they can’t finish. Unsavory paperwork might be saved for another time day after day.
Just as the IEP can lapse as a priority, the IEP meeting runs the risk of becoming an event rather than a juncture in an ongoing conversation. Again, due to lack of time or lack of understanding, many special education teachers view the IEP meeting as a once-and-done event to get through and put behind them. Special education teachers often have apprehension about the IEP meeting. They approach the meeting expecting too much to be riding on it. Not that the meeting isn’t important, but it isn’t intended to be the beginning or end of the collaboration with the rest of the team, especially the parent. Teams can meet as often as needed. The conversation about a student’s education is meant to continue through progress monitoring and reporting. Even if an IEP meeting is productive and all parties leave the meeting satisfied with the program, the meeting isn’t the end of the team’s partnership. The meeting should be one face-to-face moment in a continuing discussion.
The special education teacher isn’t the only team member who might struggle to adhere to the IEP. Most students with IEPs receive instruction in general education classes. The general education teachers working with these students are all expected to provide the specially designed instruction detailed in the IEP. The special education teacher is to assist with this, in some cases being the one providing it. However, the general education teacher might be expected to provide the accommodations. Ensuring this happens—and happens effectively—is a perennial issue in special education. The general education teacher might not have the flexibility or expertise to properly implement the IEP. Worse than this, the general education might view having to accommodate for special education students as an intrusion. Deliberate neglect of IEPs by general education teachers is a legitimate issue in some schools.
All of this is troubling for students and parents. The program that drives special education services can get cast aside following the meeting to create it. Crucial services can get put on hold, as items teams will get to when they get the chance. Whether by uncontrollable circumstance or cold refusal, IEPs can go neglected. Of course, team members from the school aren’t the only ones who might neglect IEPs. Students infrequently know much about their own programs, which could be a failing of other team members. Many parents don’t know enough about their children’s IEPs to be able to recognize if schools are being negligent, thus allowing schools to get away with it.
Teams disregard IEPs for many reasons, some more forgivable than others. Students run the risk of missing needed services as team members fail to implement IEPs. Schools run the risk of getting hit with compensatory education suits depending on what team members neglect and how involved the parents happen to be. All invested parties need to remember that IEPs are living programs, not just official documents. They should be regarded as user guides for how to meet student needs. Having systems for keeping IEPs on the forefront of daily instruction is crucial for teams looking to avoid the trap of neglect.