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Q&A with educational consultant Allan Blume on well-written IEPs

Allan Blume is an IEP expert. Here, he offers guidance on what it takes to craft a well-written plan.

A well-written Individualized Education Program (IEP) will meet your student’s transition planning goals and needs.

And when it comes to IEP-writing, educational consultant Allan Blume is a master. He consults with schools across Massachusetts on writing IEP plans, and he was an associate professor at Simmons University’s department of special education for 23 years, where he taught courses on IEP development.

He’s also a dad, who comes at the process with compassion and warmth. His youngest son is now 21. But back in elementary school, he had an IEP, too.

“And, even with my knowledge, sitting on the other side of that table and receiving the IEP was still disconcerting,” he says.

If it’s overwhelming for a professional, it’s totally normal for you to feel overwhelmed, too. Here, Allan helps us address some common questions.

What red flags should parents look for when reading an IEP draft?

An over-reliance on jargon. Special education has its own language! Special educators and IEP writers can very easily fall into using jargon with the expectation that people just know exactly what it means. Some people might not even know what the term IEP stands for. [CVI Now]

If there is jargon, make note of that and identify it to the writer or to the team.

To this point: who’s actually writing the IEP?

The IEP is written by a team. The team consists of seven different roles, by federal law. There can be fewer than seven people or there can be significantly more than seven people. But there are seven roles, including parents, a special educator, a general educator, a representative of the school system, and also your student. When students reach the age when transition planning is mandated, consider consulting with a transition coordinator or transition-trained team member from the school, school district or community, such as an advocate, so you know what to look for and what to expect.

The team generates the IEP, and then someone takes that information and writes it. The writer of the IEP varies from district to district. Sometimes it’s the team chair; sometimes it’s a special educator, who’s a member of the team. When parents receive the IEP, there shouldn’t be anything that they haven’t already heard in the context of the team meeting. 

Learn more about your options once you receive the fully written IEP in Starting the IEP process: a guide for CVI families. [CVI Now]

What are the characteristics of a well-written IEP?

An IEP should be clear, concise, and transparent.  

Anyone reading the IEP should be able to find the student’s eligibility category and disability type. They should be able to identify the needs that arise from the disability, such as reading skills, writing skills, social pragmatics skills, motor skills, behavior skills.

Student goals should come from needs that arise from the disability. I ask people to think of it this way: “internal” versus “external.” What are the needs that are internally present as a result of your student’s disability? Those are what the goal areas should be. [Learn more about IEP goals and objectives for kids with CVI.]

Too often, goals are named for curriculum or services that are provided to your student, such as ELA (English Language Arts), speech and language, occupational therapy, or counseling, to name a few. Those are external.

Per the IDEA, goals are created to “meet the needs that result from the child’s disability.”  Needs that arise from the disability are skill-challenge areas such as reading, writing, behavior, communication, social skills, etc. These are present as a result of your student’s disability. 

Goals should address the needs that arise from that disability, not for any services or curriculum that are external to your student.

What changes to the IEP should I expect when my student is “transition-aged” (16 years or younger)?

Foundational pieces of a transition-focused IEP include:

Anyone reading the IEP should know where the student is headed and should see a roadmap within the IEP that supports the student’s post-secondary plans. For example, a student who plans to attend college may need annual goals related to technology skills, executive functioning, self-determination and college-level academic skills; while a student who is interested in community-based integrated employment may need to build communication, self-regulation and on-the-job skills. Annual IEP goals should be based on the student’s disability-related needs and also their post-secondary goals. 

A student’s vision and post-secondary goals must be updated annually. If you have not participated in transition conversations, or if post-secondary goals are not included in your student’s IEP, reach out to your student’s team to start this required part of the IEP process.

When parents read their goals and objectives, what should they expect to see? And what should they do if the goals and objectives are not appropriate and need to be adjusted?

Goal-writing is both an art and a science. When we establish goals for a student, we’re saying: We anticipate your student to achieve that goal within 364 days. Now, there’s no guarantee that your student is going to achieve a goal on the 364th day. Your student might achieve that goal sooner than that, and it might take longer.

The goal might be to improve reading. That’s reasonable. The appropriate focus of a goal would be reasonable if it comes directly from the areas of need that result from your student’s disability.

The focus of a goal comes from needs that arise from the disability: in this case, reading. I encourage team members to think of goals as needs that have been evaluated, formally or informally, arising out of your student’s disability. These needs, or skill challenge areas, become the focus and the names of goals for your student. For transition-aged students, annual goals also arise from post-secondary goals. For example, “improving reading” stems from the disability, however, the area of focus may change if the student needs reading skills for life or reading skills for college. 

The keywords for special education is appropriate, free public education. The word “appropriate” is always going to be open to interpretation. Just because the school or parents want something particular for a student, it might not be the appropriate goal at this moment.

The team really has to have a clear vision and understanding of what’s appropriate for your student in the here and now. If parents believe that something is absolutely inappropriate or appropriate, especially during the time-sensitive years leading to transition, they always have the right to challenge that IEP. 

When parents receive the IEP, they can accept it, they can reject it, they can accept it in part, or they can reject it in part.

If the IEP is accepted, the school district immediately implements it. If the IEP is rejected, whether in full or in part, the team seeks to resolve the rejection, either by proposing a new IEP or possibly through mediation or hearings. When the IEP is accepted in part, the district immediately implements the accepted parts and seeks resolution for the rejected parts.

The IEP is rewritten every year. It’s also re-evaluated every three years, and your student is reassessed to determine if they’re still eligible for special education.

Read more about goals and objectives. [CVI Now]

What questions can parents ask to make the final draft of the IEP stronger?

The parent voice comes in immediately within the Massachusetts form. (Forms differ by state but contain the same standardized information.) It’s the very first voice that we hear in the IEP. At the top of the very first page is a section called parent and/or student concerns. That’s where parents get to identify their concerns for the IEP year. 

Now, as a special educator of over 40 years, and as a parent myself, I know that concerns for parents go well beyond an IEP year! We might be concerned about where a child will eventually go to school or what kind of quality of life they will have later. Those are legitimate concerns that intensify as a student reaches the age of transition to adulthood. But the challenge for us as an IEP team is to narrow down that focus to this IEP year, and that’s not an easy thing to do. Think about your child’s long-term goal and suggest an intermediate step toward that goal to be worked on during the year. Example: You want your child to eat independently. The year-long goal might involve using a spoon.

Parents can also collaborate with their team and child in the vision statement. Depending on the student’s age, the team needs to look one to five years in the future when writing the vision statement.  For younger students, the adults take on a more active role. The team might want to project over a shorter span of time and concentrate on times when the student might be making a transition between schools or classrooms. As the student becomes older and more involved in transition planning, the vision statement becomes the hopes and dreams of the student and not the parent and team and should include desired outcomes in adult living, post-secondary and working environments. Revisions to the vision statement should be made each year even if your student seems pretty set on what they want to do after graduation. A clear link between the student’s IEP objectives and the vision statement should exist. The IEP Is the Road Map, the vision statement is the destination.

When parents read a present level, what should they expect to see? And what should parents do if the necessary information isn’t included?

Present levels of performance precede each annual goal and should identify specifically how your student is currently doing in skill areas like reading, writing, behavior, whatever it might be. This section is also referred to as the “Current Performance Level.”

[This] is where data is very important. I always write this from a strength perspective but supported by data. What is your student currently able to do? Very often, they’re able to do something, but they’re able to do it within certain conditions.

I would never say a student can’t read. That would be a deficit model. I might write, “The student is able to identify individual letters yet is able to form words with the assistance of” … or something like that, quantified with data.

It’s important for parents to be aware that the Current Performance Level is a data-based narrative that identifies the baseline where your student currently resides.

It’s also important for parents to realize, and special educators as well, that the Current Performance Level is replaced by the progress report (sent home with your child’s report card). So it’s really important to look at the most recent progress report. Parents or special educators might go back and look to the Current Performance Level that started the IEP year. My suggestion is that it’s already over and done. Go to the most recent progress report, because the most recent progress report says, “Well, your student was there, but now they’re here.”

The progress reports become more important than the Current Performance Level as the IEP year goes on.

How does this relate to transition? It all relates! No matter what age your student is, a transition-focused IEP is an IEP that is written in a manner that enables the team to track “meaningful progress”. It is an IEP built on your students strengths, needs, preferences and interests.  

Learn more about creating IEP present levels for kids with CVI. [CVI Now]

Anything you wish more parents knew?

My perspective has always been that we’re collaborators. We’re working together. And I know that sometimes it feels like us versus them. It is never meant to be that way.

Parents bring a lot of good information to the table. They’re experts in what they do. They’re experts at being parents. I’m an expert in being a parent as well. But I’m also an expert at being a special educator and an IEP developer. We can share our areas of expertise and bring that to the table for the good of your student. Merely because I have a different point of view about what is appropriate, it doesn’t mean either one of us is wrong. It means we have to reach a point of collaboration and agreement.

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