Why tone and intent matter in developing IEPs

The identification of a learning disability and a subsequent special education plan isn’t always a win-win for kids, especially if an unwanted result is that a child feels “pathologized” or marked out by it. 

Parents and school psychologists play a big role in setting the tone used by teachers, other members of the school community, and by the students themselves.  

From the start of the Individualized Education Plan (IEP) process, there are a few core points to keep in mind. 

Remember the purpose of an IEP

The whole point of giving students more support is to help them say and think they “can” – not “can’t.” 

Unfortunately, plenty of evidence exists that identifying the need for special education frequently results in stigma and low expectations directed toward the student. A study published in 2013 suggested that students subjected to these will in turn begin to have similarly low expectations of themselves and their own capabilities.

As a parent, you may want to consider whether your student is old enough or mature enough to read any psychoeducational reports, or weigh any risks that they may internalize what is said.

Regardless of your decision, psychoeducational reports and subsequent IEPs are most helpful when members of the IEP team identify both areas of strength and areas of growth.

Strength-based assessments (SBA) allow for a more well-rounded understanding of the student by including their unique strengths and abilities. This approach also reflects an appreciation for the ecological and contextual variables students bring to school. SBA is a more proactive approach and lends itself to a more optimistic view of the student

In reality, the diagnosis of a learning disability isn’t meant to be proscriptive – nor, in reality, does the research suggest it is predictive. Studies instead suggest that effort and endurance are more strongly associated with good academic results than the results of assessments are, and that these characteristics, in turn, can be fed by an emphasis on positive psychology. 

Examine tone at the “micro” or situational level

Tone issues don’t just concern how an IEP is written. Relating to the above point, it can also have a lot to do with the way parents, teachers and psychologists engage with students – for example, speaking to them encouragingly versus condescendingly. 

Here’s a scenario: Following a functional behavior assessment (FBA), Sam’s IEP included a goal for him to sit in class for increasing amounts of time without feeling the need to leave class to walk around or go to the bathroom. 

For the first two months, the IEP team (which, of course, includes Sam) decides that his goal is to sit in class for at least 15 minutes before decompressing or cooling off outside. 

Soon after the first IEP meeting, however, Sam decides he needs to leave class after having been there for only 5 minutes. His teacher and the school psychologist both respond critically to Sam not meeting the goal. Maybe trying to motivate him, they openly express doubt that he can ever achieve it. 

His teacher likely felt frustrated and sidetracked by the disruption caused by Sam leaving class. And the psychologist might feel they are being “realistic” by casting doubt on the viability of this goal. 

But instead of Sam feeling supported and gradually empowered, everyone on the IEP team feels set back and defeated – and Sam starts to doubt his own ability to achieve. The functional behavior assessment begins to look as if it ended up causing another problem, rather than solving the original one. 

It’s helpful to check in with ourselves if we struggle with frustration or anxiety and this influences how we interact with a child. If our expectations of a situation are negative, or influenced by our own emotion, this in turn can have a negative impact on how the IEP is executed.

Consider how IEP meetings can be improved

Previously, we’ve written a handy guide to maximizing your time at an IEP meeting. A few points are particularly suitable for ensuring they are healthy, deliberative spaces for everyone. 

First, while it may be natural to feel frustrated when disagreements arise, it is important, as a parent and your child’s advocate, not to lose your cool. If you need to, ask for a break and take some time to collect your thoughts. When it comes to an IEP meeting, we typically also advise parents or guardians that they should ask about obtaining physical copies of reports prior to the meeting so that they can prepare their own questions accordingly, such as how a child’s strengths in one area could be built upon to support less strong points in another. 

Stay on-subject, as well, and try to prevent anyone from jumping around to other points of discussion. It’s preferable for someone to hand out or display an agenda at the start of the session to help everyone stay on topic.

Reach out for support in IEP planning

Being generally more mindful of our words and actions through each step of the IEP process can go a long way toward setting a tone of success for kids needing support. 

When the IEP process is new to you and your family, or if you need a professional to serve as a sounding board and answer any questions you might have, schedule a call with us to speak with the Psyched Services psychology team.

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