Inquiring About I.E.P.s

Since I started teaching 13 years ago, I.E.P.s (Individual Education Plans) have changed. I’ve changed with them. I have helped write I.E.P.s for students that are identified as gifted, learning disabled, autistic, M.I.D. (mild intellectual disability), or anywhere in between. I take this process very seriously. As someone that was on an I.E.P. myself from Grade 2 through high school, I understand the value in having this document reflect student needs and abilities, and what the student needs to be successful.

This is where I struggle. I want to set high expectations for students. In the past, I’ve modified at grade level AND below grade level, and there’s been very specific reasons that I’ve made both of those choices. Honestly, I don’t think that the level matters. I’m going to work with all students to have them meet and surpass all expectations, regardless of if they’re on an I.E.P. That’s what I do: I teach.

I think that levels can matter to students though. When students are modified at grade level, many feel as though they’re doing what their peers are doing, but with the supports that they need. From what I’ve seen in the past, many of these students believe more in themselves and their abilities, and this perception, seems to make an impact on performance. When students are modified below grade level, they sometimes feel as though they’re not capable of doing what others can do. The fear of being “different” can impact academic performance. Now these are generalizations, and this is not always true, but I’m very cognizant of this as an educator. I want students to believe in themselves because I believe in them!

Last year, at one of our PA Day inservices, we watched this video on Visible Learning by John Hattie.

Hattie makes many interesting points in the video that are further emphasized in this paper of his on the influences of student learning. First he discusses the power of “labelling.” He talks about the impact of labelling a student as learning disabled versus not labelling them. I understand his point, but I also know that in our school system, this label helps students get the support that they need. I’m wondering though if it’s less about the label, and more about how others view the label. As teachers, I think that we need to remember that students with learning disabilities have “average to above average intelligence.” As indicated in this Wikipedia article, students may struggle with learning in a typical manner, but they can still learn. Hattie’s stories of success show this to be the case too.

Then there’s the fact that “individualisation” has limited impact on student learning. From our discussion at last year’s PA Day session, “individualization” would be like giving a student an independent program. In my mind, I think about a duotang of worksheets all at a different grade level, and maybe all at the grade level where that student can work independently, but with limited opportunities for growth. If I’m modifying way below grade level, how do I ensure that I don’t do this?

I guess in the ideal world, I’d love to create an I.E.P. where grade levels are irrelevant, and instead, I just look at what I can do to help students learn the most, grow the most, and do better than they ever thought possible. With assistive technology, recording reading materials, open and closed task options, and choice of how to demonstrate learning, I think that this is more than a utopian ideal. Can we get past the grades though? If we can’t, is modifying “at grade level” the thing to do, or should we be modifying “below grade level?” If we modify below grade level, how do we still scaffold student learning to increase success? Please help me as I continue to inquire about I.E.P.s.


14 thoughts on “Inquiring About I.E.P.s

  1. A timely and worthy topic (again) Aviva! Like you, I am less concerned about whether modifications are to grade level or below grade level – and more concerned about how the student views themselves as a learner and how he/she adapts and thrives under the modifications. I think sometimes the labels we assign are more of a hindrance to students. As I shared with my PLT recently, I am somewhat concerned when educators talk about students in terms of their labels. Labelled students are too easy to dismiss, make excuses for, and plan with low expectations in mind. Speaking about a student in terms of their achievements, strengths, needs, and supportive strategies is much more empowering. I was on an IEP my entire school career, as have some of my own kids. I distinctly remember which educators in my life and my kids’ lives treated us like labels and those that treated us like people…individuals. Not on an individual plan, but as distinct creatures with our own profiles unlike anyone else. One thing I can say about an IEP – the label may be necessary, but most of the paperwork that follows that label deal with the individual – or should. If only all educators remembered all those other parts of the IEP.

    • Thank you so much for the comment, Kristi! I completely agree with what you’ve said here. I’m also really bothered when I hear educators talk about students in terms of the label. This is usually when I say, “Oh do you mean ___________?,” and bring the conversation back to the name. We teach students, and they should always be identified by their name, not a label.

      Going back to a topic that we discussed fairly recently on “student choice” and “student voice,” I wonder if a focus on this would help make all students successful regardless of needs or identifications. Then if we’re modifying at, above, or below grade level, we’re looking at what the students can do and how we can help them achieve more. Maybe these two blog posts have more in common than I initially thought. 🙂


  2. First of all, thank you for taking IEP’s seriously. I have always enjoyed the thought process that you put into planning for your students. Ultimately we want them to experience success and grow in their learning….I don’t think there is a definite answer to your questions. Grades will be there, at least for a little while longer I am sure. I have struggled with the same thoughts that you have. For what it is worth I think math is the area where it might be necessary to modify to a different grade level to fill in the gaps. In other subjects you can probably modify to grade level if your expectations and strategies are well thought out. You are right, we want them to feel included, supported and successful, I think that means making a decision on a student by student basis.

    Thanks for starting the conversation about a timely and important topic.

    • Thanks for the comment, Marsha, and the kind words! I’m actually finding that it’s language or where language intersects math, that I need to look at modifying below grade level. Maybe it comes down to what Kristi discussed in her comment: regardless of how we modify, we really do need to look beyond the label and what we can do to increase success for all students. I think this could be the start of a great conversation (in our schools and online).


  3. Just to take this to the extreme, don’t you think every student should have an individual plan? The concepts of accommodating and modifying suggest that there is really only pathway and that we need to find a way to steer/guide/support students back to the correct pathway (convergent thinking).

    Not that I am advocating for the elimination of the formal IEP, but maybe we need to think of the plan as more of a tool to use students’ strengths to scaffold their learning to address their areas of need… and don’t we all have areas where we need to grow? I certainly do! Shouldn’t we all have IEP’s?


    • It’s kind of funny, Paul, because I was actually thinking the same thing as I wrote this last night. I remember a similar conversation on Twitter a while ago on this very topic (between Val Bennett and Heidi Siwak). It’s an incredibly interesting thought. Maybe this again goes back to the idea that we create this “IEP for all” as we provide student choice, student voice, and differentiated instruction in the classroom. Then we can scaffold the learning and push it forward. Hmmm … an interesting thought!


  4. I was actually thinking that there are times I could use an IEP. I was not assessed using one as a student but I have a child that is. You referred to being identified by labels and I wish the labels were seen in a more positive light. For example, if we say, “oh he/she’s,LD” are we assuming they are simply not going to get it? If we say, “oh she/he’s gifted” are we assuming the student is super bright? I really don’t see these labels as any different that the labels we put on others when we see them wearing clothing that doesn’t match what we think is ‘cool’. Labels are judgements to me. I don’t like judgements much myself.
    However, I do believe in the IEP. You mentioned Hattie and I believe (please don’t quote me) he is the one who talks a lot about ways to help students achieve their best. The very first strategy he describes is to have students indicate what they think they are able to achieve. As a teacher, you push them just enough to go further and you then connect with the student to show them how far they actually went. The really significant step, the place to determine if the child has learned, comes when the child identifies WHY they thought they could only achieve what they did. This self evaluation/reflection/metacognition is key for our students on IEPs. We don’t need to focus on grade levels. Asking students what work they can do and pushing them will produce students that are motivated to do more.
    I am a huge supporter of having students involved in writing their IEPs. I know we include parents, LRTS, previous teachers ect but the actual child also should have a say in what they think they can do. Being modified is not an option for them but what/how they are assessed on can be an option. An area to consider for this approach is to include the student and let that student know it’s the reflection that will become key.
    One final–hopefully not as jumbled up–thought: If we are focusing on inquiry in our classrooms, why does an IEP need to be created as anything other than modified at grade level?

    • Thanks for your comment, Tammy! I completely agree with you here, and I’m so glad that you mentioned students that are identified as “gifted,” as this is something that I didn’t address in my post and was thinking today that I should have done so. I think you’re right: it’s how we respond to the labels that seem to make the difference.

      You are also right about Hattie. I love the idea of getting students involved in making the IEP. What a great opportunity for self-assessment (and in a very meaningful way). Have you ever done this in the past as a classroom teacher)? How would you suggest going about doing this? I know that in my classroom, not all of the students are on IEPs, but maybe this becomes just part of “goal setting”: something I do try to do with the students. Hmmm … you have me thinking!

      You also make a great point about modifying at grade level if what we’re doing is inquiry based anyway. Inquiry makes things interesting when it comes to assessment and evaluation. Maybe this really is the way to help narrow the gap.

      Thanks for giving me so much to think about!


      • I have not used this strategy to it’s fullest in my classroom but I have used it in conjunction with the Thinking Matrix. I like providing tasks and letting the students decide where they need to begin according to the matrix. From here, I will push them along. I missed doing the reflection piece though. That is an area I wished I had spend more time. I think I would have seen greater movement.

        In terms of giving students a voice on their IEPs, I did this all the time as a LRT. I think it is important, with parental permission, to include the students. They need to understand what and IEP is and how it’s use will benefit them. If they are not heard in the actual make up of the IEP, how do we actually know it’s what’s best for them? As a parent, I might think my child needs something that they never uses but it’s on the IEP because I’m mom and I say so. The child knows what he/she needs and her/his voice should be evident in the IEP.

  5. Thanks for expanding on this more! I really like your IEP idea, and I’m definitely going to talk to the LRT about how we might be able to do this in the future. What a great way to get students involved in determining what they need and what works best for them!


    • So, because I have the same issue as my son (apple and the tree—-I know), I can’t let this one go.

      IEPs are very important to me but I think there is a HUGE misunderstanding in the ‘why’ of their creation. They are created to meet the needs of the students. Period.

      You talked about modifying above and below grade level and while I understand the reason we all wonder about that, I would like to take you/us beck to looking at curriculum. Curriculum is split into Thinking, Knowledge and Understanding, Communication and Application. If we use the curriculum to assess our students, the only area we may need to use the IEP is in the Knowledge and Understanding portion. All other areas can be tackled with inquiry based learning.

      I think of the parents that wanted to accelerate their child from grade 6 to grade 7 math. I asked why and they said because their child could do it ans should do it. The child was smart enough. I brought out the curriculum and showed them there was not that much of a difference in the actual expectations. The parents were surprised. When I showed them the achievement charts at the front, I was able to then give them a persepctive about how their child was being challenged.

      I often think we, teachers, forget to go back to our curriculum because something fancier has come along.

      • Thank you Tammy for bringing us back to the curriculum! As someone that’s taught many grade levels, your example is a great one because the expectations are so similar. Looking at these expectations, making the changes as needed, and then using inquiry based learning is a great system to use (overall, I think). What about the child that really struggles with the thinking, application, or communication expectations? Maybe this child can meet the Knowledge and Understanding expectations through rote memorization, but has difficulty explaining his/her thinking or applying his/her learning. How does inquiry work for this child? Would this child then need further modifications in the IEP? I’d love to hear your thoughts on this. Honestly, I almost always modify at grade level for similar reasons and in similar ways to what you explained in your comment. I’m just struggling with these one or two unique situations.

        Thanks for the continued dialogue!

  6. Hi Aviva! Ahh- a topic so close to my heart! I’ve been working on my 143 IEP’s for weeks now! And well, they’re not just MINE, I’m simply the Case Manager on them. I love the dialogue I have with the teachers about what to put on the IEP for modifications and which SMART goals to include for those on an Alternate program. It really gets them to reflect about their own practice and what they want for the student. I always include the student in the IEP. So many say …oh, I don’t need that … (I’m at secondary so they’ve been at school for 10+years!) Many of the 9’s are quite surprised that I ask them for input. Many say they didn’t know they had an IEP. Many of them talk about being seen as ‘different’ by their peers. So many conversations! As for modifying at or below grade level – I think I’d draw a line. At the left side, I’d put where the student is (what can she do now) at the right side, I’d put where I want her to end up. How far apart are these realities? Can you get it done in a year? Is the right hand side what she needs to progress to next year and be successful? Or would that be too huge a gap? Not sure if I’m making myself clear? At Secondary, we modify at grade level (kind of tricky when they come into grade 9 having done grade 6 level work in grade 8). Okay, I’ve taken up enough space …

    • Thank you so much for comment! I loved your line exercise: maybe this would help best determine if to modify at or below grade level. That being said, if in high school, you only modify at grade level, I wonder if we need to keep this in mind. This may help narrow the gap before getting to high school. Maybe it’s a matter of offering more options on how to share learning, so that all students can access the content and show what they know. So much to think about …


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