The IEP as more than just a form, but an opportunity

This is a post by school psychologist Dr. Peter Faustino. Dr. Faustino served as an expert advisor for the new Autism Speaks IEP Guide and answered many frequently asked questions on camera for the autism community. He is currently the New York delegate for the National Association of School Psychologists and a past president of the New York Association of School Psychologists.

Dr Faustino Video

Years ago I spoke with friend and passionate advocate Gary Mayerson about schools and how Autism Speaks could influence change. We thought about how to enhance services for children and families. As an attorney, Gary believed the legal implications of not following mandates in special education would be the best intervention. As a school psychologist, I believed increased awareness of research to practice and greater staff development would be most impactful. The truth is we were both correct! And the mechanism that ensures special education services for students is the IEP.

An IEP (or Individualized Education Program) is a document that outlines the legal requirements of what your child needs to be successful AND details what individual strengths and challenges make up their unique style of learning.

Because of the complexity in crafting an IEP, Autism Speaks has created an online, interactive guide that provides parents and school professionals with some powerful tools for advocacy.

Opportunity for Inclusivity

The IEP is an opportunity for parents and school professionals to plan together. It is intended to be inclusiveboth the process of developing one and the document itself. How wonderful if the IEP were known as the ‘Inclusive Educational Plan’ as its spirit was intended?

“Inclusive” can describe something that’s extensive and covers everything normally expected and required. It also can describe a group that's particularly welcoming to everyone and that doesn’t exclude anyone.  Your child’s IEP ought to accomplish both of these meanings.

Opportunity for Partnership

While planning is critical for success, action speaks louder than words. The real work behind an IEP is where parents and professionals spend each day teaching children and young adults a new skill and then look back on the week/month/year to see growth. Nothing brings greater joy or excitement than realizing when connections have been made and a goal accomplished. While some of this monitoring is included in annual IEP goals, it is challenging to capture all of the mini-successes over the course of a school year. Here is where the IEP serves as a partnership between the school and family.

The best partnerships are those that emphasize communication and a common purpose. I encourage each of you to reference the IEP often, but more importantly to ask how the journey will look. In other words, how does the IEP come to life?

IEPs and their goals are meant to guide interventions but can’t capture the daily interactions that lead to success.  Here is where time with your case manager or school advocate is critical. Identify the person who understands you and your child the best and discuss expectations beyond the IEP—work hard on a partnership.

Opportunity for Challenging Expectations

Expectations are beliefs we build up in our mind that often tie to strong emotions. When we set clear and reasonable expectations, we find progress and positive feelings about growth. Expectations too high, and we run the risk of being let down and dissatisfied; too low and we meet goals easily and with little drive to push beyond boundaries.

An effective IEP addresses each child’s unique needs. And schools must clear explanations for their decisions on services. IDEA (Individuals with Disabilities Education Act) requires IEPs to be developed with expertise from schools and input from parents.

Opportunity Created

There is a lot to learn about how IEPs are developed, and you play a key role in the process. The more you know, the more involved you can be in ensuring that the IEP is an opportunity created (at least) annually.

As September rings the bell of a new school session, many families will feel all the nervous energy that another year of opportunity brings. Think of this Autism Speaks IEP Guide as a welcome friend on that first day and throughout the school year.

Download our IEP guide.