Category Archives: IEPs

Interpreting the Language of Special Education

Over the years we had many opportunities to read a variety of special education documents. There are all kinds: letters from the school district, progress reports, eligibility evaluations, three-year reevaluations, and of course, Individual Education Programs or IEPs, to name just a few. Parents can quickly become overwhelmed by all this paper, much of which contains confusing jargon and abbreviations that aren’t explained. We know, we encountered it all.

We have written previously about the importance of organizing special education documents in our articles, How to Create a Paper Trail, and How to Use a Paper Trail. In this article, however, we want to alert parents about a tendency for school professionals to use unnecessary and sometimes intentionally obscure language in communicating with parents.

This language can hide the truth about what your child is struggling with in special education. You need to learn how to recognize and interpret this language, which can have a direct effect on the programs and services your child receives.

Special Education “Filler,” a Swamp of Vague Descriptions

Sadly, school culture frequently encourages special education staff to use language in their documents and other communications that can hide the reality of your child’s educational experience. During our years in special education, many of our son’s evaluations and other reports were full of vague, but optimistic sounding descriptions, such as calling him a “hard worker,” or “motivated to learn.”

These reports would usually end with a statement like “He is a pleasure to have in class,” which made us feel good without questioning what these pleasant, but meaningless phrases meant. Ultimately, we realized that they just distracted us from fully understanding how much difficulty he was having in learning to read and write, and the fact that he was below grade level in certain areas.

Author and special education teacher, Jeffrey M. Hartman, in an article on the Edutopia website, Replacing Filler in Special Education Documents describes this problem. Hartman defines “filler” as vague language, meaningless anecdotes, and “thin and insubstantial praise,” that too often appear in special education documents. His point is that this kind of language, without objective data to support it, prevents parents and educators from adequately addressing a student’s academic, social, and emotional needs.

“Being Explicit is More Than a Best Practice”

Mr. Hartman writes that, “Being explicit is more than a best practice. Documents such as reevaluation reports and IEPs demand specific and detailed information.” Anecdotal statements such as “Student struggles with math,” and is a “hard worker,” do not indicate a student’s grade level or what skills a student needs to master, making it harder for IEP Teams to develop realistic and attainable goals that are supported by appropriate services.

The article makes the point that special education teachers wanting to praise their students is understandable for many reasons, not the least of which is that teachers are sensitive to the parents and want to give them “something positive that interrupts the stream of disappointing news about what their child can’t do.” Well intentioned or not, these positive statements can have a negative effect.

Effective Reports Contain Data

Honest evaluations with objective data are what guide IEP Teams to write goals and decide on services that allow a student to make measurable and meaningful progress. Effective IEP goals, for example, begin with detailed descriptions of a student’s Present Level of Performance. Filler does not provide this critical information. In our book, Parents Have the Power to Make Special Education Work, we document many examples of a direct correlation between vague descriptions of performance and ineffective goals.

Question Filler and Sugarcoated Language

The message is that you shouldn’t settle for filler in your child’s special education documents. Question language that appears to “sugarcoat” or obscure your child’s difficulties. While it may be well-intentioned on the part of school evaluators, not dealing directly with your child’s disability only serves to make the process of obtaining appropriate services more difficult and delays getting help for your child.

Getting appropriate and individualized instruction boils down to this: You need to make sure that your child’s special education documents contain specific and explicit language that tells the truth about your child’s special needs and what it will take to help your child make effective progress in school.

Judith Canty Graves and Carson Graves

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Writing a Strong Vision Statement

The vision statement is one of the most important and overlooked parts of the IEP. This statement isn’t a required part of the IEP in the federal law IDEA, but it is required by many states. It’s important because it serves as a guide for developing special education services and goals that will help a student throughout the remaining school years, and ultimately, life after graduation.

What is a Vision Statement?

The vision statement is a collaborative description of what you and the rest of the IEP Team hope your child will be doing in the next one to five years. This description is a guide, not just for the current school year, but also for upcoming years, through graduation and beyond.

When everyone on the Team understands your child’s aspirations, they can write better goals to help achieve them. Many parents don’t understand the significance of this and write brief statements, such as they hope their son or daughter will graduate from high school. Even worse, school personnel might write the vision statement without input from the student or parents. But planning for your child’s future is critical and should start early. Don’t wait until high school to write a vision statement for your child.

How to Write a Vision Statement

Putting serious thought into what you want your child to achieve in the next one to five years is a valuable exercise, because it encourages thinking about the future. Many parents of children with special needs find it hard to think about the future since they are so focused on the present. Looking ahead to the next five years can seem impossible if you’re just trying to get through the week.

Yet, long-range planning is important for parents, because school personnel are primarily focused on short-term goals for the current school year. You are in the best position to consider long-range goals, since you know your child best and are the ones with the long-term commitment. Ask yourself: what are your future plans and goals for your child? What do you see your child accomplishing in the next five years?

If it is appropriate, have an older child discuss with you how he or she sees the future. Consider such things as community experiences, economic independence, acquiring a driver’s license, learning to take public transportation, living independently, further education, or job training. This information will help the Team understand your child’s interests and preferences.

Avoid Vague Vision Statements

Since a vision statement affects many aspects of the IEP, you want your input to be as specific as possible. To help your Team see the whole picture clearly, avoid vague statements such as these we have seen in actual IEPs:

The Team sees [student] having a smooth transition to high school. They would like her to gain the skills necessary to move on to college.

The Team hopes that [student] will successfully complete his goals and make progress both socially and academically.

These statements might sound good, but need specific descriptions of aspirations that are pertinent to your child. This is true even in elementary school, when your child is beginning to develop academic and social skills.

Write a Detailed Vision Statement

A vision statement can be longer than one or two sentences. Once you have a rough draft, be sure to discuss it with other Team members to create the final statement. It is important to have them give their input, because they may have ideas that you might not have considered. Keep in mind that a vision statement is a collaborative effort.

The following example illustrates how details can provide useful guidance for writing goals:

For grade three, we expect [student] to be reading and writing at grade level as measured by testing in the spring. We expect that he will receive the necessary support and specialized instruction to do this. We want him to achieve his potential academically so that he is at grade level every year through elementary school, with objective testing data to back this up.

A vision statement like this focuses your child’s IEP on results as confirmed by testing data, not just teacher observations or wishful thinking. This is an example of how your expectations, combined with an understanding of what the school should do, can improve your child’s chances of getting an appropriate education. You can read more about the importance of objective data for making educational decisions in our article: Levels of Performance and Your Child’s IEP.

How You Can Create Effective Vision Statements

  1. Begin thinking about your child’s future at an early age. You may only be considering the future one year at a time at this point, but even that is important. Realize that the vision statement will need to be updated each year as your child changes and reaches goals.
  2. The vision statement should inform schools of your expectations. Be sure to brainstorm with your Team about appropriate goals for your child and be realistic.
  3. Use independent testing, if possible, to confirm what your child is capable of. Don’t just rely on school testing for information.
  4. If your older child is ready, be sure to have a discussion with him or her about dreams and aspirations. It is important for parents and children to have dreams for the future and talk about what a child is most interested in. Have an older child write his or her own vision statement, if possible.
  5. The vision statement is closely linked to postgraduate transition planning. Be sure to include information about possible college, vocational school, employment, and independent living by the ninth grade IEP.

Judith Canty Graves and Carson Graves

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