When my daughter initially showed difficulty in school—in grade two her reading was coming slowly and she had trouble writing letters and spelling words—one of the first of many, many acronyms we heard tossed about was “IEP.” She’s our first-born, so we were completely new to the school system and had no idea what an IEP was or how it might benefit her. We soon learned that IEP stands for Individualized Education Plan and is a term used in many provinces (some provinces use names like Personalized Learning Plan, or PLP; Individualized Program Plan, or IPP; and Inclusion and Intervention Plan, or IIP). But knowing what the term stands for isn’t the same as understanding how it affects a kid’s school experience. I spoke to experts across the country to get a better handle on this piece of paper that’s meant to help my daughter learn.
What is an IEP?
Canada’s education system is based on the principle of inclusion—that is, all students deserve opportunities to learn to their abilities in as conventional an environment as possible. In the past, kids with special education needs may have been bused to different schools or placed in separate programs within their local schools.
These days, though separate programs still exist, a student with special needs, including learning disabilities, can be taught in a regular classroom with the help of an IEP, which helps customize teaching methods for kids who learn differently. “It’s a tool for any child who is struggling at school,” says Lawrence Barns, president and CEO of the Learning Disabilities Association of Ontario, whose son has a learning disability. “An IEP outlines the supports, strategies and interventions a child might need to access the curriculum,” says Lynne Wawryk-Epp, a registered psychologist in Saskatoon. IEPs also exist to bridge other circumstances—like intellectual disability, behavioural issues, giftedness or physical disabilities—that can create barriers to learning. But the focus here is on kids with learning disabilities—like dyslexia (difficulty with reading), dyscalculia (trouble with math) or executive-function disability (difficulty with planning and attention). These kids are smart, of average IQ and have the capability to learn but simply process information differently.
Although the concept of the IEP is the same across the country, the minutiae of one—what goes into it, and how and when it’s developed—vary by province. The way IEPs are used can even differ by school board or by the schools within one board. For example, some teachers might give a kid a bunch of accommodations—like special materials to guide his printing (paper with a dotted middle line or raised lines to help a kid with fine motor or visual-spatial issues figure out where to put the letters on the page) or extra support in reading—without them being formalized in an IEP, while other teachers will record everything. Some schools wait for testing to officially diagnose a learning disability before putting an IEP in place, while others will move forward on the assumption that accommodations will help the child, regardless of a diagnosis.
How do you know if your kid needs an IEP?
Our daughter was slow to learn the alphabet and begin reading, which we knew from the inevitable comparisons to her friends and from conversations with her teachers. Then in grade two, she started showing anxiety about school and didn’t want to go, which was out of character. “The trigger point for the IEP process is when you notice your child struggling at school or the teacher sees they’re not quite where their peers are in one or several subjects,” explains Barns. A chat with the teacher will probably lead to a meeting with one of the school’s special education instructors and possibly a member of the administration (principal or vice-principal), who is there for guidance and to keep a record of decisions that are made.
There is a process in place for developing your kid’s IEP, though it varies by school district or board. Ask your kid’s teacher for guidance, or do a little online research via your education ministry’s or local learning disability association’s website. Another invaluable resource: parents in the school who have gone down this road before you and, if you have them, friends who happen to be elementary school teachers. At this point, you might also consider a having a psychoeducational assessment done.
A psychoeducational assessment is an in-depth view of your kid’s cognitive, academic, social, emotional and behavioural functioning. A psychologist evaluates thinking, reasoning and problem-solving skills, processing, memory and academics, including reading, writing and math skills. “It gives a huge amount of data that provides a baseline for where their needs are,” says Wawryk-Epp.
Psychoeducational testing is a process—our daughter’s took six hours spread over two days, and included oral and written tests and games for her and a few meetings with me and my husband. At the end of it, the psychologist might diagnose a learning or intellectual disability, or might not diagnose anything at all. The final report is comprehensive and may be written in confusing jargon. The language psychologists use to diagnose learning disabilities can also vary—for example, one report may designate a kid as dyslexic, while another might describe his challenge as “a learning disability in the area of reading.”
Psychoeducational assessments can either be administered free within the school system by a psychologist who works for the board or done privately (and paid for out-of-pocket). Generally in Canada, your kid doesn’t need a psychoeducational assessment before getting an IEP, but the emphasis placed on the importance of testing seems to fluctuate across the country. School board–funded testing often doesn’t take place until after grade three—most kids have evened out in their learning by then, so it’s more obvious who might be struggling. Even then it could still take months or years, depending on how long the wait-list is. Private assessments generally range from $1,500 to $2,500, so it’s an option limited to families who don’t want to wait and have the money (or decent medical benefits with coverage for psychological services). It’s one of the great inequities in the public system, says Annie Kidder, executive director of People for Education, a non-profit in Ontario that conducts research and makes policy recommendations for public education. “With a private psychoeducational assessment, you can skip the queue and get resources faster,” says Kidder. There’s virtually no wait—find a psychologist who does the testing and book an appointment. We got our assessment and results within two months of making the call.
What does an IEP say?
Once your school determines that your kid has learning needs that go beyond what a teacher would normally provide, the teacher will work with you and a resource or special education teacher (who, depending on your school’s funding, may work full- or part-time) to develop an IEP.
The plan follows a template (Google “IEP template” + your province for an idea of what it might look like) and generally covers a few areas: your child’s strengths and weaknesses; the goals for the term; what accommodations will be made to help your kid, like extra time on tests or someone to write his math answers; what type of support he’ll receive on top of what he’s getting from the classroom teacher, such as one-on-one reading with a resource teacher; and how his progress will be measured.
Just like the kids they serve, no two IEPs are alike. “The great thing about it is that it’s a flexible document made for that child,” says Barns. You should be asked to give input as the IEP is developed, which Barns says is important. “There are emotional insights on the child that the parents will have, that maybe the teacher won’t.” If you’re not invited to participate, let your teacher know you would like a meeting to discuss things before you’re asked to sign off on it.
Accommodations VS modifications
Two of the most important words in an IEP are often overlooked by parents, according to Barns. Based on either the psychoeducational assessment or recommendations made at the school level, your kid’s IEP will stipulate that he gets either “accommodations” or “modifications” for certain subject matter, or he might receive a mix of both.
Accommodations might include giving a student extra time for tests; the right to provide answers verbally or have the teacher write them down if reading and writing are challenging; or the use of assistive technology, like word-prediction software. On an accommodated plan, kids are expected to learn the curriculum at their grade level.
A modified plan means more rigorous plan of attack. “When you’re on a modified plan, you’re not meeting the curriculum goals for that grade level,” explains Wawryk-Epp. According to the experts, students with learning disabilities should not have modified IEPs because they are capable of learning the curriculum. The difficulty is not in their ability to learn, but in the way they learn. “For example, if a student has poor vision, they’re given glasses,” says Barns. “They’re still learning the same content, but the glasses help them.”
Some experts believe that modified IEPs are more appropriate for students who don’t have the same capability to learn as their peers do, due to an intellectual disability or developmental delay. Yet modified programs may also be recommended for kids with learning disabilities—and depending on the province, this could affect their long-term learning and academic achievement. In the early years, your kid’s school might recommend modifications for a subject like reading, because he may still be learning the basics, until he’s caught up. On the modified plan, he’ll be evaluated at a lower grade level—so he’ll see a B instead of a C on his report card, which can be very helpful in building self-esteem. Some teachers use modifications solely to help boost a struggling kid’s confidence. But parents of students on modified programs should be wary: Because this track essentially identifies your kid as not keeping up with the curriculum, retaining modifications throughout his elementary years could affect his high school trajectory. If your school suggests a modified plan, Barns urges parents to ask what the timeline and strategy will be to bridge the gap and get your kid back up to grade level.
What happens to the IEP at the end of the school year?
An IEP is a prime example of a living document: It’s updated at specific points throughout the year, can be revised at any time if a parent or teacher feels it could be improved, and carries forward to the next grade. The master copy is on paper and lives in your kid’s school file, but parents get a copy, too.
To make sure the IEP best serves your kid, it’s up to you as parents to keep an ongoing dialogue with teachers year to year. Just like reading glasses, that IEP will support your kid through elementary school, on to high school and beyond.
The IEP process is daunting. But remember, the more you know and understand, the better you will be at helping your kid. In some sense, says Kidder, all students deserve IEPs. Barns agrees: “It’s just a personalized road map to learning.”
How to talk to your kid about their IEP
It’s tough to hear that your kid has a learning disability (LD)—and you’re a grown-up. So how do you begin to broach the subject in a way she understands? According to Lynne Wawryk-Epp, a registered psychologist in Saskatoon, it’s never too soon—she spends time talking to every kid once she’s completed their psychoeducational assessment. Annie Kidder, executive of People for Education, a non-profit in Ontario, recalls that when her daughter was tested in grade three, she told her parents she already knew she was different. Kids often have a sense, so having someone explain it to them and tell them it’s OK is helpful. “It’s important that kids understand how they learn,” Wawryk-Epp explains, both for their own self-esteem and so they can eventually advocate for themselves.
Regardless of whether your kid has had a formal assessment, you can—and should—have an open dialogue with her about her LD and what the teacher will do day to day to support her in the classroom. Here’s how to start talking.
1. Begin with her strengths, Wawryk-Epp suggests. If she loves drama and storytelling, emphasize her creativity and confidence in sharing her ideas, then move on to how and why her brain works differently in other areas.
2. Emphasize that having a LD doesn’t mean she’s not bright—it actually suggests she’s as smart or smarter than the average person. “It was really important to my son to know, even though you have a learning disability, it has no effect on your intellect. We would say, ‘Your brain is wired differently, so you don’t learn the way other people learn. But that doesn’t mean you can’t learn,’” says Lawrence Barns, president and CEO of the Learning Disabilities Association of Ontario.
3. Learn about the concept of neuroplasticity—the brain’s ability to adapt and change—and explain it to your kid. Remind her that it’s important we work on our weaknesses, says Wawryk-Epp: “I relate it to hockey. If you want to skate faster, then you do drills to improve your skating. If you want to improve your working memory, you do activities for that.”
4. Even with an IEP, school can be a struggle for kids with LDs, so it’s crucial to focus on things your kid excels at too, says Barns. For his son, it was sports. Find something your kid feels great doing and nurture it to help keep up her self-esteem.
Signs your child might have a learning disability
When your kid initially starts school, especially if he’s your first, you don’t have a good sense of what is normal and when to worry. No one wants to be the parent freaking out about her kid’s academics—in kindergarten. But registered psychologist Lynne Wawryk-Epp says it is possible to spot signs of learning difficulties early on, and parents and teachers would be wise to look out for them. “We need to be much better at screening kids in kindergarten and grade one who are at risk for learning disabilities,” she says, adding that early intervention can make a huge difference in a kid’s self-esteem and can help bridge the learning gap sooner. Learning challenges are not typically recognized until an assessment is done in grade three or four, Wawryk-Epp says. In the meantime, many teachers and parents just assume it will eventually “click”—but by this point, your kid can be trailing far behind his peers. Here are some very early signs to watch out for in your kindergartner.
1. She has trouble with rhyming. For example, you say, “Jack and Jill went up the…” and she can’t fill in the blank, even though you’ve said the rhyme many times before.
2. She can’t remember her date of birth.
3. She can’t recite the alphabet in kindergarten (especially if she’s been exposed to it at home, preschool or daycare).
4. She can’t identify or name letters by the time she leaves kindergarten.
5. In grade one (or later grades), she can’t remember all the months of the year or days of the week.
5 ways to advocate for your kid
You’re grappling with the emotions of discovering your kid has a learning disability and suddenly find yourself trying to decode the foreign language of IEPs. You might also worry that your school isn’t doing enough, or doing the right things, for your child. But your experience can be influenced by how you present yourself and your kid’s needs. Here’s some encouragement from the experts.
1. Get to know the system and work with it
When I learned that a potentially beneficial reading program wasn’t available at my daughter’s school, my instinct was to march into a meeting and demand it be offered. But a special-education specialist working for the school board advised me to ask: “What do you have?” rather than insisting this other program was what my kid needed.
“I’ve watched parents take both routes—some go in yelling, while others work with the system,” says André Deschênes, executive director of the Learning Disabilities Association of New Brunswick. With 35 years’ experience behind him (he worked as a methods and resource teacher for 20 years), he says the key is to do your research so you’re getting as much as you can out of the existing system. “Don’t go into meetings ignorant,” Deschênes says. Use the online workshops available through learning-disability associations, get to know common terminology from the education ministry’s website, and find out what rights and options your kid has.
2. Don’t play the blame game
“Most teachers know—and will probably agree—your kid needs more. But they’re all overwhelmed,” Deschênes says. Instead of pointing out what your kid’s teacher isn’t doing, he says, try framing it like this: “I’m uncomfortable with my child experiencing failure here, here and here. How can we best help my child achieve?” Then, suggest or ask for solutions that fit within the system. “You want allies,” agrees Annie Kidder, executive director of People for Education, a non-profit in Ontario. She recommends asking the teacher how you can work together to help your kid succeed. When people call her office to inquire about what their legal rights are, she knows they’ve taken a polarized approach—and she acknowledges that you may need to be assertive. “Be forceful in a measured way, if and when it’s needed,” Kidder says. “You know what they say: The squeaky wheel gets the grease.”
3. Memorize these questions
A likely scenario (it happened to me): You’re in a meeting with eight other people, all of whom know the system and the terminology, and are making decisions about your kid in front of you. It’s confusing and overwhelming, and you’re not even sure what questions to ask. Lawrence Barns, president and CEO of the Learning Disabilities Association of Ontario, suggests keeping these two handy: “What are the outcomes?” and “What are the consequences?” Then, even if there are words you don’t understand, you’ll likely be able to filter through them, Barns says. This is important, because decisions being made can impact where your kid is taught (in the classroom or a specialized program) and what is expected of her.
4. Trust your gut
Many people—and many opinions—are involved in the development of an IEP, but of them all, you know your child best. “You might have a wonderful teacher and a wonderful school, and everybody’s working hard. But your kid might come home and dissolve into tears every night,” says Barns. “Ask yourself whether you’re seeing improvement and if your kid’s self-esteem is OK.” If not, then it’s time for a meeting to see what can be changed.
5. Be reasonable
Remember that you’re dealing with a public system with limited resources. Yes, your kid deserves support, but you’re still going to come up against wait-lists and unavailable programs. Deschênes says there’s usually a reality check of sorts that happens once parents have a private assessment done and are handed a list of remediations in the final report. “You’re the client. Of course the psychologist is going to put all sorts of things in there that could help,” he says. But when the school can’t deliver everything on the list, there’s naturally a letdown. Focus on what is available, and keep in mind that the support your kid needs may not end at the IEP. You might consider private, specialized tutoring or group programs with other kids with learning disabilities that can help improve your kid’s mental health and self-esteem
Common accommodations for kids with learning disabilities
* Extra time for completing assignments or tests
* Access to a laptop in class and for homework, and assistive technology like voice-to-text or word-prediction software
* Sitting at the front of the class
* Photocopies instead of copying from board
* The opportunity to give answers orally instead of writing them down
* Instructional tools, like graphic organizers (a visual display that shows relationships between facts, concepts or ideas)
* Alternate teaching methods, like “chunking” (breaking down information into small pieces)
A version of this article appeared in our October 2016 issue with the headline, “A hand-holding guide to IEPS,” p. 66.