Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Tailoring the Strengths and Weaknesses Part of the IEP to your Aspie Child

How an Individual Education Plan (IEP) is Structured
An IEP is designed to be a "flow-on" document where the issues are identified up-front and the remainder of the document covers methods of dealing with them.

The IEP will start with a bit of information about the child, the diagnosis, who is present at the meeting, etc. I'm not going to cover this bit as it's simply box-ticking on the form.

The first part of the IEP will attempt to ask and answer two questions;
1. What are the child's strengths and interests?
2. What are the perceived weaknesses of the child?

It is important to get these questions properly answered as the entire remainder of the IEP will reference them. This post will attempt to provide some background on the sorts of things that should be in these areas with particular emphasis on their relevance to the aspergers condition.

Keep in mind though that aspergers manifests itself differently from one individual to another and that all children will have different strengths and weaknesses. Your child's IEP should look considerably different from that of another child. They're individual education plans, after all.

What are the child's strengths and interests?
In this section, you should be making a note of things such as;
  • particular subjects that the child is good at
  • specific abilities which the child can draw up (eg: artistic talents)
  • specific abilities which are part of the aspergers condition and which are demonstrated in the child (for example; good long term memory).
  • the best learning patterns for the child; ie: they are very "visual".
  • specific interests - for example; the child loves transformers, dinosaurs etc.

What are the perceived weaknesses of the child?
In this section, you need to be quite specific. Simply saying "English" isn't sufficient - you need to cover things such as;
  • subject areas - specific parts of a subject, spelling - (part of English) for example
  • social skills - since these are part of the criteria for aspergers, it's expected that they will make an appearance somewhere as a weakness - again, be specific - for example; problems making friends, is very different from problems playing with other children.
  • issues with children taking things literally - this is a well documented asperger trait that you should be aware of. In particular, this can cause issues in religion classes and when classmates make general comments to your child. We recently had some issues with our child taking religious instruction too literally.
  • emotive concerns - remember that children with aspergers aren't always great at showing emotion but they DO still FEEL those emotions. If your child is unhappy about coming to school, there could be an emotive reason behind it.
  • muscular issues - aspergers is known for hypotonia (low muscle tone), this may affect performance at sports and even sitting/standing posture.
  • memory and concentration issues - common asperger traits are poor short term memory and high distractability. These interfere with a child's ability to stay focussed and to carry out multi-part instructions. It is expected that they will appear in the IEP at some point, again, be specific.
  • comorbid conditions - many aspergers children have additional issues including learning problems, add/adhd, bipolar disorder and dsylexia amongst others. You need to ensure that these are referenced in the IEP.
  • medication - if your child is on any medication, for example; Ritalin, you should make sure that it gets mentioned here.
  • routine fixations - aspergers children can often display great resistance to change. If this is affecting your child at school, make sure that it's listed in the IEP.
  • meltdowns - if your child's meltdowns are an issue or if they are increasing, even if this is only happening at home, get it listed on the IEP. Increased meltdowns could indicate that the child is under stress. It could also mean that it's only a matter of time before your child has a meltdown at school. Forewarned is forearmed, and teachers who have been made aware of the condition are more likely to be sympathetic to your child.
Your IEP shouldn't have all of these strengths and weaknesses, just the ones which apply to your child. A large IEP can be unweildy, so if you find that you have more than about five of each, you might want to restrict the IEP to the most critical concerns first, with the option to review in six to twelve months.

In my next post, I'll look at ways in which the IEP can address the weaknesses by drawing on the strengths.

Thursday, June 12, 2008

The all-important Individual Education Plan (IEP)

The IEP is a critical document resulting from the Individualized Education Program in use at schools worldwide. In short, it results from an IEP meeting and is a unique "plan of attack" for your child's education utilizing your child's strengths and targeting their weaknesses.

Over the last few weeks, we've been struggling with my child's second IEP. The process is long and I've learnt a lot. This topic is going to take several posts. To start with, I'm simply going to try and establish the importance of the IEP and the reasons why schools struggle against it. In later posts, I'll cover good and bad things to have in an IEP and how it could be tailored for Aspergers children.

A warning: Parents, do not approach the IEP meeting as if it were simply a normal school meeting. It's a critical and legal part of your child's education. You need to get it right.

So, How important is this IEP thing Anyway?
Schools tend to underplay the importance of the IEP because realization of that importance by parents can lead to increasing demand on teaching staff.

In truth, the IEP is a legal document and must be treated with caution.

In the US and the UK, the IEP is law and there are obligations for parents and school. Unfortunately, in Australia, the Education Act 2004 seems to mostly gloss over the points.

In particular, it says that

Everyone involved in the administration of this Act, or in the school education of children in the ACT, is to apply the principle that school education

(a) recognises the individual needs of children with disabilities;
(b) should make appropriate provision for those needs, unless it would impose unjustifiable hardship on the provider of the school education.

In other words, it suggests that the IEP is a great thing but that it is (almost) at the discretion of the school - who else defines "unjustifiable hardship"?

Why do Schools Try to Resist or Circumvent the IEP?
An individualized educational plan means one that is designed to meet the unique educational needs of one child. The biggest problem with schools is that they have limited resources and many more children than teachers. For this reason, it's often difficult for teachers to adapt their teaching practice to suit particular individuals on a daily basis.

Imagine the quite common scenario where a primary school teacher has 30 students, including four on IEPs. Such adaptation is difficult for teachers. The situation becomes even more complicated in secondary years when teachers and classes start to move around.

Schools and teachers will try, as much as possible to remain in control of IEPs and make them less individual and more generalized. This cuts down on work and makes the "IEP" more achievable - unfortunately, at the expense of the individuals who require special needs attention.

One common IEP resistance tactic is to create a special needs class with a very small number of children. These children are then taught as a group, not individuals. There's no doubt that a smaller class can help a child to learn but it's a mistake to regard this as "following" an IEP.

The Remedial Effect
Even worse, there's a problem I like to call "the remedial effect" whereby the special needs class is reduced to the pace of the slowest child. The problem here is that some children with special needs may be academically advanced. They may be on IEP's for social reasons. Aspergers children often fit into this category.

Remedial groups prevent these children from following normal academic studies - effectively hampering their learning. There's also a good chance that they won't gain a lot of social skills from these classes because they have been created on an academic basis.

The remedial effect is the inevitable result of attempting to generalize several IEPs.

In my next post, I'll try to look at the IEP itself.