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What is an IEP, who needs an IEP and when?

What is an IEP?

IEP stands for “individual education plan”.

The “IEP process” is the ongoing collaborative process by which IEPs are developed, implemented, and reviewed. (See Collaboration - the heart of the matter and The IEP process - building true collaboration)

The table below summarises what an IEP is (its key characteristics), contrasted by what it is not. Also see section Contents of the IEP.

Addressing confusion around IEPs

The 2010 literature review reveals that, nationally and internationally, confusion has grown around IEPs and their use. It also records various barriers to effective IEP practices, including schools:

  • not including the student enough or paying sufficient attention to their particular goals and aspirations
  • not involving and supporting parents/caregivers and whānau enough in the IEP process
  • placing too much emphasis on creating IEP documents that are overly long and unwieldy
  • using IEP documents as “tick box” plans instead of embedding them in everyday practice.

An IEP is…

An IEP is not…

  • a plan that shows how the school programme will be adapted to fit the student
  • a document that shows how the student will fit the curriculum
  • a plan that brings together knowledge and contributions, from the student and those who best know them, about the student’s learning needs, aspirations, personality, and cultural background
  • a document prepared by professionals to be signed off by a student’s parents/caregivers
  • an individualised supplement to the full-class learning programme, which enriches the student’s classroom, school, and community experiences
  • a different, separate curriculum
  • a forward-looking plan that records student achievements, where they want to go, what supports are needed (including support for team members), and what success might look like
  • a document that lists barriers to learning with no solutions
  • a document written specifically for funding or referral purposes
  • a succinct outline of a few priority learning goals and strategies to meet them within the classroom programme
  • an exhaustive list of learning goals, activities, teaching strategies, and resources covering all the key competencies and learning areas
  • a ‘living’ document that team members regularly update to reflect the student’s changing development and that the team refers to for guidance on their responsibilities and needs
  • a document that is completed at a meeting and then not looked at or used until the next meeting

Teachers [in New Zealand] often viewed IEPs as an administrative task, rather than as a tool to develop more effective instruction and learning. Mitchell et al., 2010, page 18

IEPs suffer from having multiple purposes ascribed to them, the same IEP document frequently being expected to serve educational, legal, planning, accountability, placement, and resource allocation purposes (Mitchell et al., 2010, page 22).

What works

The research indicates that the emphasis needs to shift to collaboration and teaching and learning.Sections Collaboration - the heart of the matter and The IEP process - building true collaboration of this resource include various strategies for achieving effective practice. In particular, see Facilitating collaboration.

Who needs an IEP and when?

Two primary age children are sitting in a gymnasium floor, rolling a ball between them

The special education needs of many students can be met by class- and school-wide strategies. Only some students with special education needs require an IEP, and few need one that captures every aspect of their learning.

Use IEPs only when additional teaching strategies are needed to address a student’s particular learning goals. (See section Adaptations and differentations). Before considering these alternative approaches, apply the full range of regular teaching strategies (for example, co-operative learning, experiential learning, buddy systems).

IEPs are necessary only when:

  • accurate and up-to-date assessment (see Assessment - what, who, and how) indicates that optimal teaching and learning require differentiations within the New Zealand Curriculum or Te Marautanga o Aotearoa
  • barriers to learning have been identified, requiring adaptations to regular teaching strategies or to the school or classroom environment (see Adaptations and differentations…)
  • times of transition require extra attention to planning, teaching, and learning.

Transitions

Transitions include times when a student enters school, changes class, changes school, or prepares to leave school. IEPs can be designed specifically for these transitions. When this is the case, they are sometimes called Individual Transition Plans.

The 2010 literature review states: 'The literature suggests that key components of transition planning are individualised planning, active involvement of student and family members, interagency collaboration, and transition-focused instruction.' Mitchell et al., 2010, page 22.

IEPs in secondary schools

Research into IEPs in secondary schools has raised questions around their usefulness at this level, especially because of the many teachers involved. The literature review suggests having a lead teacher who takes responsibility for collecting assessments and other information from all teachers of the student. This suggestion applies across all school settings.

The review also cites recent moves in the United Kingdom to:

  • reduce the number of students for whom IEPs are developed
  • focus instead on whole-school strategies for meeting special education needs (for example, by adapting regular teaching strategies)
  • introduce the idea of “group education plans” for students with similar needs. 

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