12 Ways to Make Individual Education Plans Useful and Meaningful

by Jennifer Krumins

An Individual Education Plan or a plan by another name is a definite record of a plan of action for the educational program of a student. It is a roadmap that states where a student is at currently and where the student is going as a “whole” individual. By whole, I mean, not just academically but emotionally, behaviorally, socially and cognitively. An effective IEP is a culmination of collaborative sharing of insights and ideas, goals, objectives and resources. An IEP is also a legal document that is mandated in Canada for students that have special needs.

Settings goals, working to achieve them, celebrating success and learning from failure are all fundamental components of life. As Dr. Samuel Johnson stated, “Our aspirations are our possibilities.” When we hold ourselves to higher standards and take steps towards attaining our objectives, we are far more likely to arrive at our chosen destination. Whether we are thinking about the education of a 4-year-old or a 40-year-old, the essence of education is setting goals and objectives and working to reach them.

This is especially true in the area of special education €goal setting and individualized planning is especially important for student success and is embedded into special education law in Canada. Whether we call them individual education plans, program plans, or special education plans, goal setting is their foundation. Each board or ministry may have their own version of the Individual Education Plan, but the components are essentially the same.

Students who require extra support due to significant learning challenges, modified curriculum and/or specialized equipment should have the benefit of an individual plan that sets goals, and identifies the supports, resources and effective teaching and assessment strategies that are needed in order to achieve those goals. These are too often created in September or when a student enters the school, reviewed once or twice and then tucked neatly away in the student records file. Unfortunately, the value of the document is often lost when it is not used regularly.

It is true that by simply completing the document, having parents sign it and reviewing it at the end of reporting periods, we educators have complied with our legal responsibility. But the individual education plan is an ethical responsibility as well. It is a tool that is intended to benefit the student. It can provide teachers with a sense of direction and fulfillment as each objective is met. The IEP is intended to be useful. It is up to teachers and parents to work together to make the document useful – €it is only as meaningful as we choose to make it. With countless demands on their time and resources, the paperwork that teachers complete must be meaningful. How can we accomplish that? Here are twelve tips to creating educational plans as living documents that help children to reach their full potential.

1. DECIDE to make it useful; set goals for the student, together with support staff and parents. Choose goals that are critical learning experiences. Individual Education Plans are not full program descriptions. You will always teach much more than is in the IEP.

2. Decide on one or two goals per subject area and semester; when we concentrate on a limited focus it increases our attention to the goal and brings a sense of accomplishment as we achieve it. A long list of goals is cumbersome and overwhelming.

3. Make the goals SMART!

S = Specific – name exactly what someone would see if the goal was being met

M = Measurable -€“ identify concrete criteria that can be counted (number of times in a week/day, duration, percentage of times observed)

A = Action – start with a verb that shows what the student will do

R = Realistic – create goals that reflect the reality of the student’€™s unique needs, learning style and disability rather than some external standard set by the government

T = Timely – set a time limit so that demonstration of the skill can be measured when the time is up

4. Once the official document has been completed, keep a copy of the student’€™s goals and objectives in chart form in a binder on your desk or post the current objectives on a chart where they can be reviewed frequently.

5. In high school settings, create a “Travel Card” (an mini IEP) that the student brings with him/her to each class. This chart would combine a record of the annual goal and the current objective with a simple tracking system whereby the teacher or the student records that day’€™s progress toward the objective.

6. Create a simple tracking sheet or anecdotal record chart that matches the specific objective or expectation and find opportunities to collect and record the data (keep these on a clipboard or in a binder).

7. In order to make the IEP goals meaningful (and accountable) for parents and students, post the goals and objectives inside a student binder that goes home with the child so parents have easy access and are kept informed.

8. On the actual IEP document,” pencil in” anecdotal notes as observations are made and data is collected. Sometimes we mistakenly feel that the IEP is “pristine” and untouchable.

9. On the actual IEP document, record dates and comments as objectives are achieved.

10. Record on sticky notes or on the IEP itself, a note when it is observed that the objective needs to be broken down into simpler steps or modified in some way. Again, the IEP is supposed to be a “working” document. It should be useful.

11. Record on the IEP document successful/unsuccessful teaching strategies and resources as they are identified.

12. Ask for parents’€™ ideas and input, and communicate with them informally and often about the student’€™s progress. When changes are made to the goals and objectives let parents know.

Individual Education Plans are the roadmap to a student’€™s success. Storing it in a filing cabinet diminishes its effectiveness. Teachers have the power to make this tool genuinely useful.

Anything worth doing is worth planning


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  1. hcg diet plan December 14, 2012 at 5:15 pm - Reply

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  2. Cameron Bennett October 16, 2017 at 5:44 pm - Reply

    I like that you mention to set just a couple of goals for the semester and work to accomplishing those rather than making a long list. It can be frustrating for kids to be in situations where they don’t feel like they can learn at the same pace or in the same way as others, so I really like the idea of individualized education. Everyone learns differently, so it’s a good way to see what works best with your child to help them become better students.

  3. Jennifer November 22, 2017 at 12:54 am - Reply

    Thank you for sharing your thoughts Cameron!

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