“…what have we become when we refuse to offer resources, accommodations, or experiences if they aren’t outlined in the IEP? What are we really teaching at that point?”
My dad is somewhat muscle-bound. You know how you can hold out your arms with your palms down then flip them to be palms up? He can’t really do that. He’s restricted by the muscles in his forearms built up from years of hard work. I remember my mom teasing him when I was a kid about being muscle-bound. I remember her saying she never even knew it was a “real thing” until she met him. It’s a funny story I feel is worth sharing because a) my dad’s probably not going to read this (although my mom will and she will definitely rat me out) and b) it’s a nice analogy for a not-so-nice problem that seems to be taking root in our SPED classrooms. We are becoming IEP-bound. And just like my dad, who can’t flip his palms all the way, we’re beginning to be inhibited by the very thing that is supposed to be empowering and driving our learners.
It seems a little crazy, right? Who would, knowingly, deny a child-a child with special needs no less-anything they needed to learn and grow? It turns out a lot of people would…and do. Please hear me when I say I don’t think these people have ill intentions at all. In fact, I believe some, if not most, have very, very good intentions. They feel that any time spent on things not detailed in a child’s IEP is probably a waste of time. They want every minute of that student’s day to be filled to the brim with meaningful and data-driven activities. They adhere to the IEP stringently in order to maintain instructional integrity because they believe IEP says “this is what this child needs to learn…nothing more and nothing less.” They probably really do have the child’s best interest in mind. They’re still wrong, though. When we start to deny field trips into the community that are both fun and instructional simply because not every student in that class has correlating goals relevant to the trip, or they do have the goals but are not ready to generalize, we start to drift from the original intent of the IEP. If a student fatigues in the afternoon and needs an extra 20 minutes to have structured downtime and that downtime isn’t mentioned in the IEP, the student should still be allowed to rest when they need to rest or we’re essentially punishing them by not meeting their needs simply because the paperwork doesn’t support it. Ask yourself, what have we become when we refuse to offer resources, accommodations, or experiences if they aren’t outlined in the IEP? What are we really teaching at that point?
The IEP should be the very minimum of what that child is entitled to. It should be a blueprint that sketches out the structure of our instruction thereby allowing us to fill out the basics with more exposure, more experiences, and more opportunities to generalize or build. The IEP is the framework for how we spend time at school, however, it is up to us to make sure we are going above and beyond that framework every single day. We can’t allow ourselves to provide the minimum (outlined in the IEP) and call it good. If a student isn’t being given a myriad of opportunities to learn in a variety of styles and settings every day they walk into our classrooms, then we are failing them. Even if the IEP doesn’t direct us to and even if you aren’t “required” to, friends, we have to provide exposure and experiences or we aren’t doing our best work. It really is that simple.
“…students are human beings first and not every aspect of their vast range of needs can be covered in a single document.”
It’s great in theory. But, what does it mean in practice? In our time-crunched world, inundated with paperwork upon paperwork and literally hundreds of goals to take data on each week, I know adding extra anything feels overwhelming and futile. It doesn’t have to be. It doesn’t have to be exhaustive and it doesn’t have to be all-encompassing. It just means we don’t restrict kids from participating in activities or outings based on what isn’t in their IEP; it means we allow kids to do what they need to do (whether that means a few extra moments to rest or eat or play or access to a quiet space when they need to decompress) within reason and provided it causes no harm; and it means we remember that students are human beings first and not every aspect of their vast range of needs can be covered in a single document.
I’ll leave you with this-adhere to the IEP, take the data, hit the goals…but also work in a little time to rest, take a class nature walk, go on a community trip that exposes your students to a bigger world, and have fun. Laugh with your students, be silly and a little crazy with them. Let them know you like them and who they are. You have the power to make learning functional AND FUN! And just because there isn’t a specific dedicated goal in place for said activity doesn’t mean it isn’t meaningful or isn’t instructional. So, bake cookies with them, listen to music, do yoga on a rainy afternoon, make up a secret class hand-shake and tell knock-knock jokes with wild abandon…even if it isn’t in anyone’s IEP.