Saturday, July 3, 2010

Translating and Supercharging Your Child's IEP

The Steps to Supercharging and IEP

If you would like to supercharge your child’s school learning plan, you should start by translating the learning goals and objectives on the Individual Education Plan (IEP) into something you can understand and work with yourself.  These documents tend to be written in jargon, run on sentences, and generally in a manner which is very hard to understand.  You should expect that after you translate, the learning plan seems logical to you. If it does not, then it is reasonable to ask for more information until it does seem logical.  I look for this kind of logic:

1)      Are the learning goals and objectives at the right level for the child?   I think of this as the not too easy and not too hard test.  When in doubt, discuss this issue longer.  Look at the literature on how children develop in various areas like fine motor skills, language, and thinking skills.  Most IEP’s are a funny mix of too hard and too easy, in my estimation.   Contrary to many parents belief, it slows learning down if you try to teach a child skills that are too hard.  Imagine trying to learn Calculus before learning how to multiply.  On the other hand, in a year’s time, you should expect to see some significant learning.  I often see that a child is expected to be at “age level” on some skill in a year and this sounds great, but if a child is five years old, for example, and is communicating at a two year old level, then this means it took that child five years to learn two years of communication skills.  How likely is it that over the next year, the child will gain four years worth of communication skills?  If you are going to make a wild guess about how much a child can learn in a year (and this is what IEP writers are being asked to do) then, in this care, making a guess based on what typical three year olds learn makes sense.  One can re-write the IEP if a child makes a year’s worth of gains in less than a years time.  The too easy problem is when there is really nothing of substance on the IEP or whatever is there should take much less than a year to accomplish.  IEP's do not list everything that is taught in a year but should provide some reasonable markers of significant learning.
2)      Do the skills listed seem like something that would be really helpful for your child to learn?  Discuss any skills that do not seem important.  This is the So What? rule.  Would it really matter if my child learned this skill or not when one considers the larger picture?  For example, if a learning goal is to have your child learn to identify shapes, is that an important skill at this time?  Is this vocabulary more important than, say, learning the names of the other children in the class?  There are usually so many skills that one could teach a child that it is helpful to think like this.  In another little twist on this question of  learning important skills,  I remember one of my professors saying that for a learning objective to be reasonable, it had to be something “that a dead person could not do”.  This would not be a memorable comment except that I often see learning objectives like “Child will sit for for five minutes at the table”  Or, “Child will not hit or bite classmates”   Dead people can be still and not bite.  Skills that might be reasonable and developmentally appropriate are “Child will listen and learn at group time and table time….”  Sitting is easy to measure but if no learning is going on while the child is sitting he or she would be better off moving.  The social interaction skill that a child might need to learn if he or she is hitting and biting might be the skill of expressing anger with words or the skill of walking away from another person when angry or the skill of asking a friend to play.  The result of learning these skills would be less hitting, ideally.  It is not appropriate to waste a child’s time teaching him and her skills that are of little importance and all the skills that we teach need to be written as active skills rather than passive skills because while teaching the “dead people” skills, you run the risk of teaching the child with autism to shut down mentally. We really want a child with autism to engage more fully and more effectively in the social world and every skill that leads the child into more and better social interaction, is a reasonable skill, in my judgement.

What can happen if you translate an IEP and try to turn it into your own living, working document?  Well, by contrast, here is what typically happens: IEP’s are written and then forgotten by all unless there is a problem or until there is another IEP meeting.  When you translate the document and start using it to help your child learn, then the IEP becomes a meaningful useful document.  I am suggesting that you translate the goals and learning objectives, then think about the logic and reasonableness of these objectives, and finally ask yourself “How can I help my child learn these things?”    Here are the steps to doing this: 
  1. Translate.
  2. Put one translated learning objective up somewhere where you will look at it often.  Below the learning objective, write down how you will teach this skill.  Make a little, mini learning plan for teaching your child just that one skill.   
  3. Work on teaching your child this skill for a few days.  It does not matter if you are successful or not in those few days because even in that amount of time you will have learned many important things.  Maybe you will have learned that the skill you chose is not developmentally appropriate, or important at this time and decide to go on to a different learning objective.  Maybe you will see easy ways to help your child learn this skill and fast forward the process in a way that the school professionals never could.  Maybe you will be working on this one important skill for months and learn that you need much more information and many more skills to be successful in helping your child with this skill.  It does not matter because no matter what happens, you will have started the process of supercharging your child's learning plan.  
  4. If you can’t figure out how to teach the skill, ask the school staff how they are teaching this skill and how you could teach it at home.  You will find out, at this point, whether or not they have a strategy and if it is being carried out at this time.  They might suggest you start with a different learning objective.  They might have a terrific plan and you will find this out.  If they have a good strategy, use that strategy and if they don’t have any real strategy, ask them to spend a little time figuring this out.  Eventually, you should be able to find a teaching strategy to try at home and if it is not possible, something is wrong.  The learning skill might be too hard or need to be broken down into smaller steps.  Breaking skills into  learnable steps is one of the most important things that good special educators do.  If you leave with a clear idea of how to teach even the first step, go and try to do this.  Come back for the second step later. Teaching important new skills to a child with autism is often a slow and very incremental process but when many people in the child's life are involved, teaching this way becomes a powerhouse of a train and everyone become aware of how that learning train is moving forward. When you as a parent get involved in this way, you inspire and encourage everyone on the child's IEP team to lend support to your child's learning.  
  5. If you are making progress in teaching the skill right away, keep at it until your child has learned the skill in several environments, with different people, in different situations.  Once you know your child has learned the skill, inform the rest of the team and ask how they are doing with it at school.  Teach them how you accomplished it at home, if you have been having more success than they have.  Expect everyone to move on to something else.

I am not encouraging parents to become highly adversarial but rather become highly involved.  I am encouraging you to walk beside your IEP team and encouraging them to walk beside you.  My own experience is that the first parent who wanted to work this way with me was unpleasant about it but luckily, I had the maturity to see the advantage of our new collaborative approach. I let the angry comments directed my way roll off.  I was the parent of a child who required extreme parenting and understood the desperation behind some of the less than friendly moments we had.  This parent is still, in my mind, the most important contributor to my success as a professional.  Since that time, and increasingly as the years go by, I ask for full involvement from parents.  As you, as a parent, become engaged in thinking about the plan and teaching skills on the plan, the IEP becomes a living document and every discussion you have with your child’s school team after you have this level of hands on experience, serves to supercharge the learning process at school as well as at home.  

Example: Translating the IEP

Let’s try to translate the goals and objectives on an IEP. 

Occupational Therapist Annual Goal: Improve fine motor and self-help skills for academic success
1.      Child will use a spoon consistently to feed himself when presented with such a food choice.
2.      Child will initiate a vertical and horizontal stroke when presented with the opportunity
3.      Child will string at least four blocks/items when presented
(There is more on the IEP about how these objectives will be evaluated, the criteria for achievement and schedule for re-evaluation but I will ignore these parts in order to make the process simpler.)

Teacher Annual Goal: To increase pre-academic skills to help child to be more successful in the classroom.
1.      Child will be able to sit for up to 5 minutes at a time
2.      Child will be able to recognize his name and be able to put in the chart.

Speech Language Pathologist Annual Goal: Child will produce one to two word utterances to indicate his wants and needs by verbal, pictorial, and/or gestured productions with 70% in 10 trials.
1.      Participation in sound and gestural placement skills when presented with visual, tactile and verbal cues to develop imitation skills.
2.      Development of an object/verbal exchange system to obtain desired items
3.      Develop attention on tasks by staying engaged in an interactive activity with staff and/or peers for 4 minutes.
4.      Child will choose named object from a field of 8.
5.      Child will identify familiar objects and/or pictures from the classroom curriculum by speech, sign, or picture communication system.

Below is the translation, in my own words:

Occupational Therapy Learning Plan:
Improve the way the child moves, handles objects, and does things independently
    • Use a spoon
    • Write lines on a paper
    • String four blocks on a string
Teacher Learning Plan for Classroom Time:
Improve in the foundation skills that will help the child learn academics in a classroom.
    • Sit for five minutes
    • Recognize his name and put it on a chart
Speech Language Therapist Learning Plan:
Child will be able to communicate using one or two words but the words can be in the form of speech, sign language, gestures or picture symbols. 
    • Imitate sounds and gestures
    • Hand over a picture  in order to get the object in the picture
    • Interact with staff or a peer for 4 minutes
    • Indicate in some way that he understands an unspecified number of words that represent familiar objects



Deb said...

Thanks so much for this! We will be doing my son's first IEP in October in preparation for preschool and these points are very helpful as we approach the process!

Paulene Angela said...

This is bedtime reading, looks super interesting, thanks so much for the post. Looking forward to this evening.

ibeeeg said...

This is a fantastic post...thanks so much! We have now dealt with 4 IEPs and I have not once come across an explanation...a understand these things better. Thanks. I think this will do me a world of good in trying to be better advocate and particpant with my son's needs.