Understanding the Individual Education Plan (IEP):

"Putting the Pieces Together"




MAY 1, 2023

When we were kids, my mom loved buying puzzles to keep me and my brothers busy. I remember one set in particular belonging to our youngest sibling - it was a series of four puzzles depicting scenes from the ‘80s animated classic: The Real Ghostbusters ( ...a moment of silence for the nostalgia of ‘80s Saturday morning cartoons... ). It was one of our favourites to work on, so the boxes were pulled out often.

One day, while setting out to once again begin working away on those puzzles, we found that there was only one box. We dumped the pieces onto the floor anyway, and quickly realized something was off. There were a lot more pieces than usual, and the colours and images were all mixed up. It was frustrating! My mother, we had learned, had put all the pieces into one box because the others had gotten damaged from wear and tear. 

As we sorted the pieces into familiar groups of characters and colours, we began to enjoy the extra challenge, which gave new energy to our interest in and love for those puzzles!

Preparing myself to write about this episode of the Beyond the Bell podcast, brought to mind that experience with the mixed-up puzzles. It occurred to me that it was a perfect analogy for how some students with special needs may feel in a traditional classroom setting.

The puzzle pieces our mom mixed up, are like the pieces of information that make up each student’s unique approach to learning. Without the right support and guidance, students with special needs may struggle to make sense of the information presented to them.

Individual Education Plans (IEPs) can help by providing students with the specific tools and accommodations they need to succeed. Just like how my brothers and I needed to sort the different puzzle pieces to create a coherent picture, teachers and IEP teams can work together to identify a student's strengths and challenges and find the right combination of strategies to help them succeed.

Chantelle’s guest today is Cheryl Luymes. Serving as Simcoe Muskoka Catholic District School Board’s (SMCDSB) Special Education Coordinator, Cheryl provides support for students from Kindergarten to Grade 12. She collaborates with special education resource teachers (SERTs) and the program team to equip classroom teachers with the tools they need to effectively support students with special education needs.

Chantelle: Cheryl, can you give our listeners 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 requires some special programming to make sure that they’re getting the most out of their time in the classroom. Several different pieces of information are used to help create the IEP for each student; some pieces are school based, some might be from a doctor, psychologist, speech language pathologist, and of course the parents. 

Chantelle: Could you talk about accommodations and modifications?  What are they? What’s the difference between the two?

Cheryl: Accommodations are the “how”, and there are three areas of accommodation: instructional, environmental, and assessment. An example of instructional accommodations would be the strategies used to teach material to the student. Environmental accommodations would be anything in the classroom environment (for example placing tennis balls on the legs of classroom chairs to help reduce noise).  Assessment accommodations, are supports put in place to help students demonstrate learning. Modifications are the “what” - what is expected of the student, what needs to be changed in order to meet the overall goal for the year.

Chantelle: We’ve talked about the school team, and parents and caregivers in terms of communication around an IEP - what does the conversation look like with students?

Cheryl: We want our kids to be able to advocate for themselves by the time they leave in grade 12. It’s really important to involve the student in the IEP process as soon as possible. In a post-secondary institution, the parents are no longer the ones that advocate for their child; the student has to advocate for themselves. Colleges and universities have changed over the years, they have departments that are dedicated to supporting those students with special education needs. But it is up to the student to really take leadership when self-advocating. Our job in elementary and secondary school is to get them there, and involving them early is the best way to do that.

Chantelle: The IEP is a living document that changes over time; items added as required, and removed as needs evolve. It’s important to talk to students about what their learning needs are - and it’s ok if that conversation hasn’t happened yet. There’s time and opportunity now! Just as important, is talking to our kids about strategies that are helpful, so they can learn to be self-advocates in elementary school, secondary school and certainly beyond.

With the right pieces in place, students with special needs can achieve their full potential and reveal the big, beautiful picture of their unique abilities and strengths. You can find the big picture of this episode by clicking the link below, or looking for Beyond the Bell wherever you stream your podcasts.

Also, check out the very handy IEP Parent Resource Guide that Cheryl mentioned, on the SMCDSB website: https://bit.ly/3NosJ0K

Listen to the full audio version on Beyond the Bell Podcast below: