If your child just got their first IEP, short for Individualized Education Program, or if they’ve had one since kindergarten, you know it’s kind of a double whammy. Yes, it’s a great tool to make sure children who qualify for special education get the support they need. But it also makes them stick out in the classroom, and for teens and tweens that can be a real drawback.
For those less familiar with the IEP concept, it’s a plan that sets goals and standards for kids with documented learning disabilities, and also outlines the services they will be provided, as dictated by the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. It involves a team of educational professionals, as well as the parents and often the child, too. And it’s reviewed at least once a year.
The IEP includes details about each student’s accommodations, such as longer time to complete tests, extra breaks, voice-to-text technology, audiobook access, color-coded materials or alternative activities. (50 high school accommodations.)
As a teenager, my son hates that his accommodations emphasize his differences and challenges. He worries about looking “dumb” or “wimpy” or, even worse, like he’s asking for some kind of privilege or advantage over his classmates. As he becomes more mature and independent, I worry that he’ll refuse his accommodations because of the social stigma.
I, on the other hand, can clearly see the benefits of his accommodations. Where he was once more than a year behind academically, with accommodations he’s now able to keep up with grade-level work and make significant improvements, including reading above grade level and even making honor roll.
Also, when his accommodations are used consistently and across the board, I’ve seen how his stress levels and frustrations seem to lighten and his whole attitude improves.
What to tell your teen about their IEP
To help him get the most out of his IEP, here’s what I often remind him:
1. You learn differently. Your body and mind are unique. Your accommodations are just helping you demonstrate your knowledge to your teacher. That way, he or she can see all the great stuff happening in your head that might not come out so easily on paper.
2. Accommodations are your right. They’re not a privilege or a punishment. They’re in place to help you, not embarrass you. Your classmates don’t have the exact challenges as you but everyone has strengths and weaknesses, and sometimes we all need a lift to get us where we’re going.
3. Your parents, teachers and aides can’t always tell if you’re struggling. If your IEP isn’t helping or isn’t being applied, you need to speak up — a note or private conversion is perfectly fine. But if you don’t let us know what’s going on, we can’t get you the help that you need and deserve.
4. Give us your suggestions on how to manage your challenges. Is your head hurting at the same time every day, and you need a break? Would a shorter vocab list save you hours of studying? Do you need someone to read the directions out loud or repeat them so you can understand? Would a private signal help you give messages to your teachers without voicing your issues in front of your classmates? You know — better than anyone else — what you need.
5. Asking for help is hard. When you do it, you’re being brave and you’re helping your best self shine through. I’m so proud of you!
Even if your child doesn’t have an IEP, it’s still really important to remind them that some children learn differently. And that’s OK. It doesn’t mean they’re dumb or slow or naughty.
We all have strengths and weaknesses, and sometimes, we all need a boost.