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November 1, 2001
Vol. 59
No. 3

Putting the I in the IEP

Students with learning disabilities need to understand their strengths and weaknesses to become involved, active learners.

Special educators spend hours each year developing individualized education programs (IEPs) for students identified with learning disabilities. The programs are written, approved, and filed. Then staff members leave, students change grade levels, and parents shift their level of involvement—and we start the process over again.
A student's daily life is affected by the goals, strategies, accommodations, and implementation of his or her individualized program. Yet, many students are not invested in their own individualized education programs; they don't think the programs are useful nor do they feel any ownership of them. The programs are something done to and for them, but not with them. Many students never see their written programs or, if they do see them, the students don't understand what the programs mean. Many students can't even identify their learning disabilities and don't know why they are receiving special education services or what strategies they need to use to succeed.
If students are going to succeed in post-secondary programs—or in the world of work—they need to understand their learning disabilities and be able to advocate for the necessary modifications. Students need to be able to analyze situations, identify whether their abilities are being tapped, know what strategies to use to compensate for their disabilities, and, when necessary, ask for modifications.


Karin was a secretary in a doctor's office. She hadn't told her boss that she had a learning disability. She had excellent people skills and was a conscientious employee, but she had difficulty writing phone messages accurately. She transposed numbers, so phone calls could not be returned. Her errors increased her stress, causing even more errors. She thought about tape recording her phone calls, but knew that was illegal. She was worried about getting fired.
Karin enrolled in a course on self-advocacy for adults with learning disabilities and brainstormed ideas to compensate for her disability (Arnold, 1996). She approached her supervisor with a proposal to use a pen tape recorder to record only her voice during phone calls. She would repeat back the phone number to the caller to verify it and then, after the call, check the number she had written against the tape-recorded version to make sure she had written it correctly.
Karin developed these strategies so that her disability would not interfere with being an effective employee. Her supervisor appreciated Karin's level of commitment and her ingenuity. Our individualized education process in schools should train students to do what Karin did. Unfortunately, too often, the process sends the message that others—teachers and parents—must take care of the students' problems.

Involving Students

At Montclair Elementary School in Prince William County, Virginia, we decided to change this scenario. Montclair includes students with moderate learning disabilities in general education classrooms, so we decided to teach 4th grade students with learning disabilities about their individualized education programs and involve them in setting goals and in developing and implementing their programs.
Students with special needs already know a great deal about their disabilities—they just don't know that they know. Students can identify when they get frustrated or in which activities they excel. At Montclair Elementary, a multiple-intelligences theme school, students are expected to reflect on their strengths and weaknesses, and staff members help students create their cognitive profiles.
The teachers openly discuss test modifications—such as extended time or having the test read aloud. For example, when the 4th grade class takes a social studies test, the teacher tells the students, "Today we are going to take our unit test. This is not a reading test. If you would like to be tested on your knowledge of the social studies unit but not on your reading, please come to the back of the room to have the test read to you." Students with individualized education programs can decide, along with everyone else, if they want to have the test read. They learn to analyze the situation and make good decisions while considering their strengths, needs, and comfort levels.
Students need self-advocacy skills to reach the first step on the ladder to independence; with these skills, they are more likely to be confident learners and to have high expectations. We need to be just as explicit in teaching these skills as we are in teaching decoding or math facts. And what better way to do that than involving students in developing their individualized education programs.

Self-Advocacy Circle

  • Reflecting: Students list their strengths and weaknesses, then reflect on which weaknesses prevent them from doing their best and brainstorm how they can overcome those weaknesses.
  • Goal setting: Students decide how their strengths can support or build on their weaknesses and set goals for which skills they would like to improve.
  • Speaking up: After the students set their goals, they decide how they want to notify their teachers about their strengths and weaknesses. The students come up with the specific words that they need to describe why they may need classroom modifications and accommodations to accomplish their goals. They rehearse the language that they will use to negotiate modifications with their teachers.
  • Checking: The students share their ideas with their teachers and then monitor the teachers' behavior to make sure that the plan that they negotiated together is implemented appropriately.
We practiced the method through role-play. An entire class that included students who were and were not in special education acted out a scene. We then discussed how individuals had acted and analyzed their body language and the outcomes of their behaviors. After 10 hours of using this model—integrated throughout the day in different subjects—our students were able to identify and use the four components of the self-advocacy circle.
A 4th grade student demonstrated her ability to use the self-advocacy circle during a writers' workshop. During this class, the students responded to a writing prompt. The classroom teacher passed out a standard web for pre-writing, with a central circle and four lines radiating. Students were to listen to the prompt and then begin pre-writing. When the teacher finished reading the prompt, she walked to the back of the room. Megan, who has a learning disability involving written expression, normally took a long time before beginning to write. Both the classroom teacher and the special education teacher had tried a series of interventions, but nothing seemed to speed up the process. After learning the self-advocacy circle method, Megan left her seat to talk to the teacher. She said,I understand the prompt, and I have ideas, but I just can't get them down on this web. May I have a blank piece of paper to make my own outline so I can get started more quickly?The teacher praised Megan for using the self-advocacy circle, reviewed the steps that Megan took for self-advocacy, and then handed Megan the blank piece of paper. Megan returned to her seat and began writing immediately. She accomplished the task and felt empowered by speaking up.

Writing Their Own Plans

As students became more comfortable with the self-advocacy circle, they were introduced to their individualized education programs. They reviewed their programs in small groups for part of each day for a week, dissecting the format and analyzing the language (McGahee-Kovac, 1995). They dis-cussed how a person's disability affects his or her life and then examined the effectiveness of the modifications that were available to the students at Montclair Elementary School.
Next, each student set a goal for each academic area. The students determined which goals should be included in their individualized education programs and stated why. For example, one student said that she wanted to be "good at" reading. Another student wanted to improve his spelling. When we dis-cussed long-term goals, one student wrote that he wanted "to go to college to be an engineer." During the goal-setting discussion, students articulated how they saw themselves in the future, encouraging staff members to think about the future of these students beyond the academic year. The students were not just developing their individualized education programs, but they were also beginning to think about transition plans.
In the group setting, most students wrote general academic goals. During one-on-one sessions, they were more specific. Matt, who has a language-related learning disability, decided that he would like to help physically write part of his individualized program. He used some of the same wording from the previous year's annual goal to write his new goal. His teacher enlarged a blank copy of the goal page with the aid of a poster maker and laminated it so that Matt could use it more than once. With guidance and support, Matt dictated his goal. Matt then asked the teacher to record what he had dictated onto the poster-size goal page, and Matt transferred what he had dictated to the official goal page.
Did Matt write his goal himself? Yes. Did he require teacher support and direction? Yes. But Matt clearly felt ownership of the completed document.
Now that the students are involved in the development of their programs, they can take an active role at the individualized education program meeting. The students read their goals and demonstrate their self-advocacy and ownership of the process. A student who was preparing for this first meeting wrote in a reflection, "This process has helped me to think about my goals. I can fight my weaknesses through the invidualized education program."
Many times students with learning disabilities are just trying to get through each day. Our students have learned that they can use their individualized education programs to set goals for themselves, work toward those goals in productive ways, and use strength-based strategies to succeed. We have learned that it is well worth the time and effort to turn the passive program recipient into an active, involved learner who can write personal goals and be an effective self-advocate.

Apponi, T. (1984). Self-advocacy: How to be a winner. Washington, DC: National Information Center for Handicapped Children and Youth.

Arnold, E. (1996). Potentize: Taking action to unlock potential. Rochester, NY: Arncraft.

McGahee-Kovac, M. (1995). A student's guide to the IEP. Washington, DC: National Information Center for Children and Youth with Disabilities.

Jennifer Piehler Zickel has been a contributor in Educational Leadership.

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