Children on individual education plans: What parents need to know, and 4 questions they should ask


Already a month into the school year, and after two years of disrupted learning by COVID-19, students with special education needs have been deeply affected.

Individual education plans (IEPs) have become a crucial part of the education system. And the number of students on IEPs is growing across Ontario public schools.

IEPs are created for students who are defined as exceptional, in order to consider their individual needs (whether behavioural, communicative, physical, intellectual) and support their optimal learning potential.

An exceptional student in education refers to a child who has been identified as gifted or as having a disability. Many children who are not identified as exceptional can still have an IEP that is “non-identitified.” This allows them to receive special supports within their educational journeys.

If an IEP is inaccurate, a child’s learning needs will not be met. IEPs are meant to be constructed by a team of professionals in collaboration with parents, as each stakeholder has different information about the child.

Parents who have busy schedules may not feel as though they can make a valuable contribution to their child’s education and discussions about an IEP. Or they may lack the awareness of their parental rights when it comes to participating in the IEP process. This means they may be wrongly left out of the conversation.

What are IEPs?

Individual education plans are used to identify and plan annual goals for students who may require extra supports or individualized learning. If done incorrectly, IEPs can create hostility between experts and parents where certain students become misrepresented, segregated and stigmatized in the classroom.

Inaccurate IEPs often set low expectations and misrepresent a child’s needs and abilities. Imagine this scenario: A child shows difficulty reading out loud in class and is offered one-on-one reading support. Upon discussion with the child and parents, it becomes apparent that the child reads well at home out loud and only “freezes” when asked to read out loud in front of classroom peers because of extreme nervousness.

In this case, an inaccurate IEP may reflect a need for reading support when in reality the child may require supports for anxiety. Accurate IEPs are important to ensure a child’s appropriate needs are met.

As a classroom teacher and doctoral student researcher, I believe parents can support their children if empowered to understand how IEPs are key to meaningful learning.

Here are four questions parents can ask to ensure that the IEP accurately represents their child’s learning needs.

1. How is my child being perceived?

As mentioned above, not all IEPs are written to support children who have been assessed as having a disability — but many are.

Disability is conceptualized in two main ways in research: the medical model and the social model. These two models are important to distinguish as many students on IEPs have a disability diagnosis.

The medical model assumes that disability is an abnormality that requires “fixing,” whereas the social model positions disability as a difference in people. The social model shifts from fixing the child to fixing the conditions of the learning environment. The medical model assumes a deficit view of the child’s ability where the social model emphasizes supports a child needs to learn.

I advise both teachers and parents to adopt a social model outlook in order to ensure the classroom environment reflects and adapts to the learning needs of the child in order to provide them with a quality education.

Classroom adaptations of material and learning expectations (like access to material at their modified learning grade level), assessments (like access to accommodations for using speech-to-text software during tests) and the overall classroom environment (like flexible seating and quiet spaces) permit your child to address their needs and individual learning goals, enhancing their performance and success.

2. How does the IEP attend to my child’s needs?

Children have a variety of needs that are unique and require distinctive attention. Some of these needs might include but are not limited to: anxiety, behavioural, communication, academic and social needs. The needs of your child must be reflected in the IEP to ensure that the classroom is adapted to support their day-to-day needs, wants and interests.

For instance, if your child needs help moving from one class or space to another, their IEP should recognize this and address how their transitions will be supported both verbally and visually. Such supports might include things like a printed or posted schedule, adults redirecting your child to appropriate tasks or spaces and modelling how to transition between tasks and spaces with pictures and videos throughout the day.

3. What do the words in the IEP mean?

Education-specific jargon is used to construct IEPs: words like “accommodations,” “modifications,” “differentiated instruction.” Parents should be encouraged to ask questions about IEPs and what they mean. Understanding the terms will help ensure your child’s learning and growth are accurately supported.

4. What is this going to look like in the classroom for my child?

The way an IEP is written may differ greatly from how it is actually enacted. This is why it is important for parents to work in collaboration with education professionals when creating an IEP over time.

Parents should ask how the resources and tools outlined in the IEP are going to be used or applied in the classroom, and should ask teachers for examples of how educators will engage the supports with the child.

The takeaway

When parents or caregivers participate in the process of drafting an IEP, it can limit the misrepresentation of their child’s needs. Misrepresentation can impact a child’s attitude towards learning, identity as a learner and learning outcomes.

IEPs are working documents. They are meant to be flexible and adaptable so if the strategies proposed do not work, they can change. Parents, experts and teachers need to create spaces for open dialogue, without judgement, to support children’s learning.

Author Bio: Tori Trajanovski is a PhD Student, Faculty of Education at York University, Canada