Understanding the Individual EducationPlan (IEP): "Piecing it Together" 

 Show Transcript

Welcome to Beyond the Bell podcast, where you will get an inside look into school life. We cover school related topics that support your child's education and well-being. As you listen along, we hope you'll gain insights for navigating school with your child and leave with a deeper sense of connection between school and home. Here's your host, Chantelle Quesnelle.

Chantelle: Hello, Simcoe Muskoka families, and welcome to another episode of Beyond the Bell. This episode helps us go beyond the bell and into the individual education plan or IEP. 

Our guest today is Cheryl Luymes. She is our Special Education Coordinator. In this role she supports students from kindergarten all the way through to grade 12 and works with special education resource teachers, or SERTs, to further their professional development, keeping them up to date on new information from the Ministry of Education and connecting special education resource teachers with board and community supports available to them. She also works closely with our program team to ensure that classroom teachers have the information and tools they need to support students with special education needs in our classrooms,

and throughout the school.

Cheryl has been with the Simcoe Muskoka Catholic District School Board for 31 years and has been working in special education for over 14 years. Welcome, Cheryl. 

Cheryl: Thank you, Chantelle. 

Chantelle: So we know it's important that parents and caregivers understand the information contained in their child's individual education plan and that they are part of its development along with the school team. So in this episode, Cheryl and I are going to help equip parents and caregivers with some foundational information about the IEP and answer some common questions that we hear.

So let's get started. Cheryl, we're talking about the IEP Today individual education plan. Can you give our listeners our parents and caregivers a quick overview? What exactly is an IEP? 

Cheryl: So an IEP is a document that helps the classroom teacher understand the strengths and needs of a student who might have had some struggles in the classroom and require some special programming to make sure that they're learning to the best that they can in the classroom. 

Chantelle: So it's, it's a, it sounds like it's a document or a guide that classroom teachers can use to support their child's programming in school with resources or strategies they may need to help them access their learning.

Cheryl: Right. So a student might have been struggling in, in this, in their school, in their class, and the decision was made by the school team in collaboration with the parents that an individual education plan was, is needing, is needed to make sure that there are specific strategies in place to support the student’s needs so that they can demonstrate their learning to the best of their abilities. 

Chantelle: Ok. And at Simcoe Muskoka Catholic, Cheryl, does a student need a diagnosis for example, to have an IEP? 

Cheryl: No, a student does not need a diagnosis. If a student were to have a diagnosis, then they absolutely would have an IEP, but many students would have an IEP developed simply because the school team has recognized that the student is, is struggling. They've done some assessment, they've brought some information to the team meeting and in conjunction with the parents, they're collaborating on developing a plan that can help support that student and whatever they're experiencing in terms of their needs in the classroom. 

Chantelle: Yeah. What are teachers looking for when they're trying to decide, you know, around what might fit for strategies they would use for every student in the classroom or whether that student is struggling to an extent where that team meeting or an IEP would need to, you know, be considered.

Cheryl: So teachers often use strategies that are effective for all students, but for some, they're really, really essential, and it's important that they're documented on the IEP because some students may require say an activity or an assignment that's broken down into smaller pieces so that they don't get overwhelmed. That may be a benefit for all the students in the class, but it's essential for that student. And, and then it would be documented as an accommodation strategy in the IEP. So that teacher would know, “oh, I need to make sure that I'm breaking down the assignments so that into small manageable pieces so that the students able to demonstrate their understanding and their learning.”

Chantelle: Great. It sounds like sometimes, you know, observations and experiences in the classroom are used to inform an IEP. But what are some of the different pieces of information that are used to really help create that IEP for a student? 

Cheryl: We're using all different kinds of assessment information. So there may be information from a family doctor that's provided. There may be information from a speech language assessment that was done. There may be information from a diagnostic assessment that was done in class as well that helps inform where, where the student is having some strengths and where the student is, having some struggles and how we can support the student best. 

Chantelle: Right. Ok. So it comes from a lot of different places. It sounds like some of them school based, some of them might be from a doctor, psychologist, speech language pathologist. And I also heard it's important that parents are part of that process too. So what information might they bring to that IEP meeting?

Cheryl:  The parents,, know their child best. So when they come to the, team meeting, they're going to be bringing information about, what things work at the home, what the things that they, they know about their child, they, they really do know their child best and that's what we'd be looking for, what information they can share about their child and their, their learning. 

Chantelle: Right. And so, although an IEP is a document, I wonder what does that document look like over time? 

Cheryl: It is a document that is definitely changing over time, we often call it a, a living document or a working document because as new information is learned about the child, then the IEP will be adjusted and, and changed to meet the needs. 

Chantelle: Maybe you could share a little bit more about that difference between strategies that a classroom teacher might use for any student who's, who's having difficulty versus when a strategy becomes essential. Can you talk a little bit more about the difference between those things? 

Cheryl: Sure. A student who perhaps struggles with time, they they they are slow to process information and they need more time to really be able to demonstrate their learning. Then an assessment accommodation might be that that student has more time to complete the assessment. So the teacher may think that a class needs more time in general, but when we have that assessment accommodation on there, then we know that that student really does need that extra time because maybe they have a slower processing speed and they take a little bit more time. And we want to give them that time that they need to demonstrate their learning. 

Chantelle: You spoke a little bit about accommodation. So I'm wondering if we can talk more about accommodations, some parents and, and our listeners might have heard of the word modifications, but let's dive a little bit deeper into the difference between those two things and what those things really are. 

Cherly: Sure. So accommodations are kind of “the how”: how we teach the strategies we use. So for example, we have three different areas of accommodations. We have instructional, environmental, and assessment. So the instructional accommodations would be, what are the strategies we're using to teach the material to the student, the curriculum to the student? Environmental accommodations would be anything in the classroom environment. So for example, students who might have trouble with their hearing may need to have that outside noise kind of diminished. So we might put those little tennis balls in the bottom of the classroom chairs and that's in a an environmental accommodation to help reduce the noise in the in the classroom. They may need a quiet space to work. So if they're working on something, and they need to be away from distraction, we might have them work in a different area where there is less distraction for them to focus. And then we have assessment accommodations which are similar to the instructional accommodations, but these would be having to do with actual assessment. So what, where we would be breaking down things if they needed it, broken down into smaller pieces where we might be using, for example, text to speech or speech to text for some students who require that accommodation in their assessments that would also be there. All right. So that's the accommodations piece. 

Chantelle: Yeah. And when parents are looking at their child's IEP, they would see these different types of accommodations listed. 

Cheryl: Yes. Yeah. So these are the essential components that are absolutely necessary for that student because of their profile, what they need and, and what their strengths are. 

Chantelle: Right. And then what about modifications? 

Cheryl: So modifications is more under “the what”, what part of the IEP.

Chantelle: So combinations were the how and now we're going to the what for the modifications.

Cheryl: Right, the modifications.

Chantelle: Ok.

Cheryl: So when we talk about an IEP that has modifications, it means the student isn't working at the same grade level that their peers are, they may have modifications where they're working at a lower grade level in language. For example, if they're in grade six, perhaps they're still working on those skills that are taught in grade three. So they would be modified and on their IEP that way, so they, they're a little bit more detailed. You would have an overall goal for the year with specific expectations for the student to, to demonstrate their learning over the course of the year. 

Chantelle: Right. So it sounds like on that IEP as a parent, when we're looking at it, we would see accommodations that might be in these different categories. But then we also, if it was required essential for our child, that there might be modifications and within those modifications, there'd be specific goals. 

Cheryl: Yeah, there'd be an overall goal for the year, an annual program goal and then there would be specific expectations. So how are they achieving that overall goal? So these would be learning expectations for the course of the year and they, they may evolve a little bit as the year goes on. The overall goal, goal generally doesn't change, but the specific learning expectations may change as the year progresses.


Chantelle: And what type of information is used to help figure out that level of modification that a student might have?

Cheryl: That's where we'd be looking at that assessment strategy. So the assessment information, sorry, the so the diagnostic assessments from the classroom teacher, the psychoeducational information that may come come from a psychoeducational assessment or speech language pathology assessments. We'd be looking at all that information to try and understand where the student is in their previous, year’s work class work when we start off the new school year to see where they left off and where we're moving them forward.

Chantelle: So, Cheryl, we've talked a little bit about accommodations and, and modifications and I'm just wondering if there's anything else that you'd want our parents and, and caregivers to know about, these topics on the IEP. 

Cheryl: Yeah. So we, we mentioned that accommodations are kind of the, how, how we teach.  The modifications are the what we teach. There's also a section for alternative expectations. So some students may have alternative expectations in their IEP. These are goals that would be outside of the kindergarten to grade 12 curriculum areas. So things like if a student required the use of an augmentative or alternative communication system, so that would be part of an alternative goal when we're working on teaching them how to use that alternative or augmentative communication system. Some students may require some specific teaching around self-regulation and that might occur as an alternative goal in the IEP. They may have some needs around personal care and that also could be an alternative expectation in the IEP. So these are some areas outside of the curriculum where we are focusing on those skills and concepts at school to help reinforce that learning. 

Chantelle: Yeah. Can I jump in there. I'm wondering, you know, what sort of things is the school team considering when deciding if an alternative goal goes on an IEP or not?

Cheryl: Usually we are looking at you would have a larger team meeting and definitely the parents are part of that team meeting and they're sharing their goals for the student as well. So that would incorporate into the whole larger school team, you know, looking at the school team with any community agencies and the parents together deciding what are the most important things to be working on outside of that curriculum of K-12. And those would be the things we'd be working on together as a school team in conjunction with the parents.

Chantelle: Right? And I know you listed some examples there about what those goals might be, but it sounds like those goals are also determined if it, it really is a priority for that student to focus on those additional pieces. 

Cheryl: Right. Yeah. Yeah. And they would have it, it really helps with that communication between the home and the parent and the, the home parents and guardians and the school team back and forth communicating especially in those alternative curriculum areas. It's, it's important that they, we're all working collaboratively together on those areas. 

Chantelle: Sure. And so what does that communication look like around the IEP and how it's going? Yeah. So the IEP would be updated three times a year. So initially at the beginning of the year, within the first 30 days of the school year, the IEP would be in place and the parents would be having information and I would have be, be shared the information about what's on the IEP and providing any feedback, any recommendations, any updates to the school team.

And then again, the IEP would be updated around the first term report card time and at the end of the year in June as well in elementary school. In secondary, we would be updating the IEP at each point in the semester. So at the beginning of the semester, and then again in February, when we begin the second semester, we'd be updating the IEP, sending at home for feedback from the parents guardians about the IP any updates, anything they want to share any changes they'd like to see. 

Chantelle: Yeah, so when that update comes home or they're invited into a conversation around those updates, any sort of tips or advice that you'd ask that you'd give to parents or caregivers around what, what should they be looking for? What, what questions might they want to bring forward to the team? 

Cheryl: Yeah. So they want to make sure that the accommodations that are in place make sense that they are definitely needed by the student, the student needs have not changed. Or if there has been changes that we make sure that we're sharing any assessments that have been completed with the school team or sharing any changes in the student's profile with the school team.

So anything about their interests, what their what their strengths, what they're involved in outside of the school, those are all really important pieces of information that help us get a real full picture of the student and make sure that we're capturing that on the IEP,

Chantelle: Right? And Cheryl, does an IEP ever like stop, do we ever, I don't know what the correct word- like retire an IEP?

Cheryl: Yeah, discontinue?

Chantelle: Discontinue. There you go. 

Cheryl: Yes. Yes, for sure. 

Chantelle: Yes, ok! 

Cheryl: Because the Children, the child is changing and, and their needs change and there may come a time when they no longer need those special accommodation strategies or instructional strategies and, and they have, you know, they're able to demonstrate their learning without that special individual education plan.

So then the school team would meet in conjunction with the parents and, and decide that the IEP is no longer needed. 

Chantelle: Is that something that happens often or typically when an IEP gets started, is it often needed for the long term? 

Cheryl: Usually when an IEP is started, it's needed for the long term. But yeah, it's, it's not very often that the IP is discontinued, but often it's in collaboration with the parents and the student. And they've decided that this, they don't need it anymore. They don't want to have the IP. And so then it would go through the school team process to discontinue the IEP.  It's a meeting process.

Chantelle: Right. And so when that updated IEP comes home, the parents might be looking at, ok, what are the changes that have been made to the accommodations and, or modifications or alternative goals? And to look to see um are those strategies still useful that those modifications and goals still make sense? And then to ask questions if there's anything that they don't understand or don't see reflected in that document.

Cheryl: For sure, yes. And always to keep that line of communication open with the school team, and feel free to connect and and schedule meeting with the school team. If they have questions or concerns.

Chantelle: We've been talking a lot about the school team and parents and caregivers and in terms of that communication and, and helping parents really understand the different aspects of an IEP, but I'm wondering what does this conversation look like with students? 

Cheryl: So that's a really good question. What we want is we want students to really, in the course of their school days from kindergarten to grade 12, we want them to start becoming their own self advocates and to become, you know, being able to advocate for what they need by the time they leave us in grade 12. So we want to involve the student in the IEP process as soon as possible so that they are consulted, they're sharing what they feel their strengths are, what they feel they need in order to do the best that they can in, in, in the classroom. So the having a student being part of that is really, really important. We want to encourage students to be part of the team meeting process and part of that IEP development as they move through the grades from kindergarten to grade 12 because postsecondary, it's, it's changed, right? When you go to a postsecondary institution like a college or a university, the parents are no longer the ones that advocate for their child. Now, the, the student has to advocate for themselves. So, and they have changed, the universities and colleges have evolved over the years, and they have departments that are dedicated to supporting students with special education needs. But it is relying on the student to really take the um leadership when they are involved in advocating for their needs, for example. My daughter for-  has had an IEP since she was in kindergarten and she's now at York University, and she has to advocate for herself now, but she does, it's a pretty seamless process once you get started and there's lots of resources and supports at the university as long as you are aware of them, and you reach out, they really do help, the students learn to be, become self advocates as well. But, but I think in our job in, in our, elementary and secondary schools is to help students become those self advocates and getting them involved early is, is the best way to do that. 

Chantelle: Yeah. And I'm even thinking regardless of what postsecondary looks like, even if it is more if they go right into different jobs and in and into work that there are strategies that might be present in their IEP that they could use in a kind of daily life and self-directed learning and what that the tasks look like at their job that there are some pieces in there that might help them continue on. Right?

Cheryl: For sure. Yeah. So some students may just need that list, you know, written down to know what they have to do step by step. So as long as they're outside the school system, and they have that, that knowledge that that strategy works for them, that they can keep them focused and keep them on task, then having, then they know that they need this list so they can ask their employer or their wherever they are to, to make sure that they're providing what they need to be successful. 

Chantelle: Yeah. And how empowering that is to know what those strategies are because we all have those strategies, and sometimes we're able to kind of know some of those things intuitively and, and sometimes we need some support and guidance and, you know, have learned those skills over time and need to think a little bit more about how to generalize those skills or apply those skills outside of specifically the classroom setting, I suppose.

Cheryl: Yeah, for sure. As educators, that's part of our job is to teach students how to be good self advocates and as parents as well. So, help students to understand what they need and how to ask for what they need. 

Chantelle: I'm imagining Cheryl, there might be some listeners right now who have heard this conversation. They're like, oh, I haven't had a conversation with my child about their IEP or I don't really know what that would sound like. I think I really want to reassure parents that there's always time and there's so many different ways to get that conversation started or go about that process of whether it's really naming it as the IEP or whether it's starting talking about strategies to use in the classroom, but that there, there's a lots of different starting points for parents and it's ok if that hasn't happened yet, there's time and opportunity now. 

Cheryl: Right. Yes. 

Chantelle: Yeah. Is there any recommendations that, that you might have or that you've used yourself to get that conversation started. 

Cheryl: Well, just inviting their child, making sure their child comes to,, a team meeting at the school when, when they can, they may not come for the whole team meeting, they may just come for part of it when they're talking about: Oh, you know, you do, you're doing, these are some of your strengths. You do really well at this., These are some areas we're working on, you know, some of the, some of the areas that you need to work on and these are some of the ways that we're working on it. What do you think? Like getting them just to think about that? 

Chantelle: Yeah. 

Cheryl:  that in that team meeting format can be beneficial for the student to hear that. 

Chantelle: Sure. And then I imagine they're also hearing from the team, their teachers, their principal, the parents about the things that are their strengths and things that they're really proud of. But then also seeing all those adults as these allies and people that are there to support their learning. And that could be sometimes maybe a mindset shift in those relationships if that's the first time they've been part of that type of conversation. Cheryl, I know that we have lots of different resources on our board website. I'm wondering where you might direct parents to that have listened to this episode and have some more questions or want to know specifically about the resources available at Simcoe Muskoka Catholic. Where would they go to find out more?

Cheryl: When you're navigating at the board website? You would go to the programs tab at the top and go to special education and on that tab, you're going to see the parent guide to the IEP, the parent guide to the IPRC and the parent guide to special education. So all of those are there for you to have a, a look at and help you understand those components of special education at Simcoe Muskoka. 

Chantelle: Sure. And I think it's really important for our listeners to be aware that different school boards operate a little bit differently sometimes. And so some of these things might be standard across school boards, some of these things that we're talking about might be specific to Simcoe Muskoka Catholic. Is that right? 

Cheryl: Yes. For there are some, some slight differences from board to board. For sure. Yes. 

Chantelle: And so we have those resources listed on the website that parents could explore more Cheryl. We have covered quite a bit today and I always do my best to try to give a brief kind of overview or summary, but we went over what is an IEP talked a little bit about how an IEP is developed and who's part of that conversation and what information sources are used to really inform that IEP. We talked about accommodations being “the how” and the modifications being “the what,” and that there's also often or can be alternative goals. The fact that an IEP is a living document that gets updated regularly and to take time to see those changes and celebrate the things that are no longer lead needed and really become aware of the things that might be needed to be added in or that might be required for your student. And then also the importance of talking to students about what their learning needs are, what those strategies are that are very helpful for them so that they can learn to become self advocates both in elementary and secondary but certainly beyond.

Cheryl: Yeah, that's, that sounds like that's what we talk about. 

Chantelle: That’s the summary! Awesome. And that there are resources available on our website if  parents want to dive a little bit deeper and have a look over, they can go back to those and then maybe come back to this episode for that recap. And that's a helpful resource that's out there. So thank you so much for your time today, Cheryl. I hope our listeners really found this kind of IEP 101 discussion really helpful, and it gave them an inside look into special education services at our board, specifically understanding the IEP. And so, thanks so much for your time. It was great having you. 

Cheryl: Thanks Chantelle. 

Chantelle: Alright everybody. Stay tuned for the next episode of Beyond the Bell. 

Thanks for listening to Beyond The Bell Podcast. We hope you found today's episode helpful. Beyond The Bell is brought to you by the Simcoe Muskoka Catholic District School Board and our Catholic Parent Involvement Committee. It's hosted by Chantelle Quesnelle. Pauline Stevenson is our executive producer. Episodes are produced and edited by Portage Creative. You can find our show notes in previous episodes on our podcast website, beyondthebell.ca.

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