The TRUTH about Individual Education Plans

It’s only fair that I be honest right from the start. I don’t enjoy creating individual education plans. I have a hard time deciding what goals to choose, especially when a student’s needs are high. I want to do it all and be all I can, for the student who needs me most.  I hate how scripted and hemmed in I feel by IEPs – always striving to be clear and concise while incorporating the correct terminology and prescribed components. Frustration grips me at times when I am trying to transform ideas into meaningful SMART goals. Instinct about what I really want for a student clashes with the question of how I can put that knowledge into a well written goal and subsequent objectives. I especially hate trying to decide how I will measure the goal! I find writing individual education plans tiring and mind bending at times.

You might think that having researched IEPs for years, written books and consulted in the development of them, I would hold some perverse pleasure in the documents. No, quite the opposite; the more I learn, the more I confound my own ability to create a simple and authentic product. Lurking in the shadows of my awareness is the suspicion that no one will really even look at the IEP when it is complete. Does anyone actually pore over it and integrate its ideas into daily practice? I cringe considering the answer. Despite my feelings, I must concede that the core of my beliefs as an educator center on individualizing education based on the unique qualities of each student.

In the essence of who I am there lies an unchanging, profound desire to make someone feel good about themselves. Twenty some years of teaching has not changed this deep drive within me. Even the crappiest of days can be transformed by one small moment when a student looks into my eyes and I witness the unmistakable glow that proclaims, “I get it!” This declaration reflects the deeper and unspoken thrill of the words, “I am smart!”

So what does this love for growth have to do with an individual education plan? Everything.  An IEP will only be as valuable to the degree that it reflects a genuine desire to help a child be his/her best self. Let’s be clear, and maybe a little harsh: if you are going to view the IEP as a formal hoop completed with as little time, energy and enthusiasm as possible, in order to appease some external force, then I suggest the final product will indeed be quite uninspiring. It will be done. You will have fulfilled your duty. But, you will have missed an opportunity to transcend the drudgery.

An individual education plan gives us an occasion to use the gifts that brought us to a career in education: creating a vision for another person’s life, thinking through the steps of getting there, and finally, crafting activities and strategies to facilitate growth towards the vision. Without meaning to diminish our role as teachers, many students will have theroadmap intellect and skills to achieve their goals with minimal direct intervention from us. But, as you are well aware, there are students who need our skills, our creativity and our compassion more than others in order to grow towards their potential.

IEPs can make a difference when they are viewed with a growth mindset: the core belief that intelligence and abilities can be developed (Dweck, 2007). Personal growth in ourselves and in our students is not only possible, but, expected. When we allow ourselves to dream with and for the child, we create far more than a legal document, but a roadmap of the best travel plans we can conceive. And we begin the journey one small step at a time.

I wish you a rich journey; a journey of growth and development for both you and your student!  🙂


An exceprt from Been There. Done That. Finally Getting it Right. A Guide to Education Planning for Students with Autism.



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