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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