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Fringe Benefits of the IEP: Individualized Educational Program

Kathryn L. Stout, B.S.Ed., M.Ed.
Published: June 1998
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Special education teachers have had to specify objectives by writing IEPs for students for years. Now many homeschoolers must do the same. But even if it’s not required, understanding what it is and how it’s done can help every homeschooling parent develop a skill essential to effective teaching: targeting the problem and breaking it into small steps that will allow the student’s efforts to result in a series of successes. Students must discover that their initial frustration can, with effort, end in success in order to become confident in their own ability to learn. So, even if a teacher does not have to develop an IEP, she should make it a habit to think as if she must.

What is an IEP? With only one student in mind, the teacher targets specific weaknesses (in any area, not just academics), decides on an attainable goal, or goals, in each area, and lists how the attainment of that goal will be measured.

For example, if the student has difficulty reading words phonetically, the broad objective of learning to read would be broken down into small, sequential steps, each explaining how the student will be judged. One step could begin, "The student will read words with single vowels," which breaks down the phonics. By adding "in a word list made up of 50 first grade level words" the testing situation is clarified. Then, an acceptable level must be determined, again by the teacher, but usually 80% or above is expected. The final objective would be written " The student will read words with single vowels from a word list of 50 first grade words with an accuracy of 85%." The teacher may also decide a time limit is necessary and could add "within 20 minutes" or whatever she considers realistic.

Whether writing an IEP or just identifying targets, the objectives in the Design-A-Study guides give you a place to start. Then add the testing situation and percentage of accuracy. For example, the reading comprehension skill of identifying a main idea could be chosen from Critical Conditioning. Next, the teacher finds materials for practicing identification of a main idea. Can he identify the main idea of a paragraph? If not, that’s the place to start. What will determine his success—choosing the correct answer from three or four possibilities, or telling the main idea without any choices at all? The first is easier. Once he can do that, he should prove he doesn’t need "hints." As the teacher supervises practice, she should automatically require 80% or better before moving on to something more difficult—from a few choices to none, from one paragraph to the main idea of a short, 3-4 paragraph composition, and so on.

Maximum Math includes tips for identifying the source of difficulty for incorrect math problems and providing a remedy. This involves the same pattern of thinking used to develop an IEP. When a word problem stumps the student, for example, the teacher should discover why. Is that math word problem too difficult because the student can’t read all of the words? Because he can read the words but doesn’t understand what they mean—what he is being asked to find out? Does he know what is asked, but isn’t sure whether to add, subtract, multiply, or divide—requiring an explanation of how and why? Or can he do all of that, but gets the answer wrong because he made an error in his computation and needs practice polishing those skills?

Once the difficulty is identified, the teacher looks for practice problems isolating that target. If reading is the trouble, she can read the problem to the student (noting the need to work on reading skills separately). To help him understand what he can read, she should show him specific techniques while supervising his practice with word problems in which the computation is especially simple. (That is, the word problem would involve simple addition or subtraction at a grade level below his usual work in order to be certain that that part of the problem would not cause confusion.) If difficulties occur because of poor skills in computation, the teacher may choose to do two things: allow the use of a calculator to solve word problems in order to be certain he can think a problem through at his own grade level and will not fall behind in that skill, and target the weak computation skills for extra practice outside of word problems. (Using daily, timed, drill sheets in math facts, for example.)

Getting to the source of the difficulty is always the first step. Practice, then, focuses on that weakness without cluttering it up with anything else that will cause confusion or frustration. That’s why students with difficulty in handwriting should dictate compositions, and verbally answer workbook questions, practicing handwriting by itself. And students with difficulty in reading should learn concepts and information in other subjects by listening, watching, and/or doing—not by reading textbooks, while they spend extra time practicing phonics. And that’s why students with difficulty paying attention need interesting resources, reminders, and specific, short-term goals to help them stay on task no matter what the subject of study.

Every student is an individual in need of his own educational plan, even when it is not necessary to write everything with the testing (or performance) situation and percentage of accuracy. Target each student’s weaknesses, develop specific strategies for improvement, and mentally decide what will be considered an acceptable level of achievement. Adjust the way the student learns other skills or subjects, so that he can pursue areas of interest and develop his talents and abilities without interference from that weakness—whether it’s academic, or a personality trait. Then the student will not only become confident in his ability to learn, but will be more properly prepared for success in his future.

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