In developing individualized educational plans (IEPs) for students, federal regulations require an annual review of the program, and further require that parents be contributing members of the IEP team. Depending on the size of the school district, annual review meetings begin anytime from January to June and are conducted for all students with handicapping conditions within a district. Some districts review students throughout the school year, annually from the date a child is classified; others meet each Spring to determine or design the educational program for the following school year. Regardless of the cycle a district uses, stakeholder involvement in the process is the key to building an IEP that meets the very special needs of each student.
Students should be encouraged to attend their annual reviews, beginning at an early age. After all, it is their future that is being discussed. More often than not, they are the most articulate at speaking to their own strengths and weaknesses with regard to learning. The annual review meeting should begin with student strengths—where they are meeting with success from their point of view, and where they need support. This input should then be weighed against the assessment data—and gaps, if any, should be strengthened through the annual review process to continue to support student strengths, and remediate weaknesses.
Parents and guardians are vital to the annual review process. A careful, objective review of the student’s year assists in parents being able to come to the table with observations and recommendations based on reflection rather than emotion. Parents should come ready to listen attentively, and reflectively - understanding that those who come to the meeting have their child’s best interest at heart. Stone, Patton, and Heen (2000) speak about how listening can impact and transform conversations. They remind us to ‘negotiate our way to curiosity’ (p.169) by focusing on the truth that there is always more to learn. Remember that if it becomes emotional, which it often can when speaking about your child, to ‘give a headline of what you’re thinking’ (Stone, et al, 2000). Let the team know how you feel at the moment—surprised, a bit defensive, or even disagreeable. By getting your feelings out, you will then be able to listen.
Teachers and service providers have the responsibility to attend the annual review with data, both quantitative and qualitative that adds to the recommendations for the plan for the student. They should be fully aware of the student’s current program, supports, and services. They should be armed with data that support the recommendations that they make, and certainly should know the student, and have a relationship with that student. I often recommend that the teacher for whom the student is doing well be invited as well as the teacher for whom the student has difficulty. They too, should be ready to listen. Active listening, repeating back understanding, and the ability to speak to the strengths of the student (not just the shortcomings) are also important. If a problem is to be discussed at the meeting, it should always be with a suggested solution, or at least a clear sense of what has been tried, so as to guide the team towards making solid recommendations for the future.
All stakeholders should be led by the chairperson of the meeting. This is sometimes an administrator, sometimes a school psychologist or other staff, but always someone who keeps the meeting respectful, is skilled at active listening, and who assures that all are heard. It is the responsibility of the chairperson to determine, with the team, the least restrictive environment where the student can grow, moving forward. The goal of all educators for all students is to create independent learners, as they move towards graduation from high school. Through the scaffolding of services, some creativity, and yes, even some reduction in services, teams build programs that incrementally raise the bar for students. It is up to the chairperson to assure that the environmental, academic, social/emotional, and management needs of the student are discussed. It is imperative that as the student demonstrates success they assist in urging that independence in our students with learning disabilities, so they can begin understand their own strengths. The chairperson works to build consensus as the team builds a program that supports the student’s learning.
All stakeholders planning to be involved in an annual review this spring should:
review active listening strategies (https://www.mindtools.com/CommSkll/ActiveListening.htm).
come prepared with facts, and willing to listen to the other side—parents and teachers will have different takes on many things — they are each looking through a different lens, and that understanding makes for a much more effective meeting.
take the time to prepare—list strengths and weaknesses of the current program, and come with ideas for improvement.
be willing to give some things up or change some things up to assist in moving the student towards independence. Build in data collection to assure that changes are monitored, and a meeting can be held early on if the recommendations do not play out the way they were intended.
Villa and Thousand (2005) make a good point when they remind us that: ‘Specialized instruction should be available to any child who may wish or need it, but should never be based on a label attached to a child. Schools that embrace a belief that learning can occur in many ways and in many different places have no trouble creatively designing ways to individualize for students’ (p.188). Annual review teams that gather with strengths of the student in mind, willing to listen without emotion, and have a solid idea of what works for the child seem to have no problem designing successful programs for their students as well. The annual review process should be replete with celebrations. Be sure that this is your experience.
Stone, D., Patton, B. & Heen, S. (2000). Difficult conversations: How to discuss what matters most. New York, NY: Penguin Books.
Villa, R.A. & Thousand, J.S. (2005). Creating an inclusive school (2nd ed). Alexandria, VA: ASCD Books.
Lois R. Favre, Ed. D. is Assistant Superintendent for the Lakeland Central School District in Westchester County, New York. She is a national and international presenter and writer on leadership, differentiation, inclusion, co-teaching, and special education topics. She serves on the Executive Board of Directors of the International Learning Styles Network, and as an Associate Editor for Insights on Learning Disabilities.