Yes, the student is a member of the Individual Education Plan (IEP) team. This may seem like an obvious statement, because isn’t the student the reason the IEP team exists in the first place? However, the truth is many times the thoughts, feelings, insights and opinions of the student in relationship to their education are not considered. Currently, the law requires case managers to invite their students to the IEP meetings by the time they are 16 years of age. Prior to this, there is no requirement that students be a part of their IEP. In my opinion, by not including them in their IEP, we as educators and parents are missing out on a valuable source of information.
In fact, I feel so strongly about this that it was the focus of my dissertation. There is a great deal of research that supports positive outcomes for students that are involved in their IEP meetings. The focus of my dissertation was on how students experience participating in this process. My goal being to give students with disabilities a voice to express how their involvement impacted them personally.
This participation is obviously not without concern for some families. However I think that this is something that should be revisited every year when their IEP comes due. We need to be listening to our children and students; even the smallest contribution is better than none at all. There are many students in elementary that could easily participate in their IEP meetings but because it is not required and generally not the norm, it is often not done.
The purpose behind including students when they are older is to promote the development of advocacy and self-determination skills. Again, the research suggests that this is what occurs when students are involved. However many students opt not to be part of the meetings when they turn 16 because up to that point they had not been involved and it can seem very overwhelming. There is a great article about this by Van Dycke, J. L., Martin, J. E., & Lovett, D. L. (2006) called, Why is this cake on fire? Inviting students into the IEP process. Basically, it makes a comparison between birthdays and IEP meetings and how odd it would be to show up to your birthday party for the first time at the age of 16 and see lit candles on a cake. Clearly this would be an unusual experience and possibly quite confusing.
So what if we did included students earlier? What if during the elementary years we provided instruction and support around students participating in their IEP. It could definitely start out small; maybe focus on one or two modifications that the student feels is helpful for them in the classroom. Such as having extra time to take tests or getting regularly scheduled sensory breaks. Not only would the student have been able to express what they find most helpful to support their learning but they would also be starting to develop the self-determination skills necessary for transition into adulthood. Additionally, they would be less reliant on adult support such as paraprofessionals in the classroom. They would have deeper and more personal understanding of the accommodations and modifications that they have identified helpful to them. This would support independence and advocacy rather than dependence and discouragement.
This independence is crucial for all students but I would argue that is even more crucial for students with disabilities. Something that I have witnessed time and time again is how often it is assumed that students with disabilities are not able to do things. This assumption is dangerous because it has the potential to send students down a developmental path that does not promote independence. Something that I often say to the paraprofessionals I work with is that the students they support will not always have someone sitting right there ensuring their success and quite frankly they shouldn’t. Instead I emphasize a focus on having our students develop skills that will support their independence.
As a parent I felt this way too. I didn’t want my son to have someone sitting next to him at every moment in class. Instead I wanted him to learn the skills necessary to be successful independently. At my request my son did participate in his IEP meetings once he was in 6th grade. It is something that I am thankful he could be a part of because it helped him to realize that he was just as responsible for his educational success as everyone else on his IEP team. In fact when he entered college he turned down the opportunity to receive disability services to support his learning. I asked him why and he said, “I’ve got this mom” I attribute that confidence to his involvement in his IEP and being able to be an active participant of the team.
The term “active participant” is significant because all students are truly considered a part of their IEP team. However, most are not an “active participant”. My hope would be that this trend could shift and that students could start to be a part of their IEP meetings much earlier in their educational career. They have just as much of a right as any other student to express their needs, wants, hopes and dreams!
Further information in our Advocacy resources.
Van Dycke, J. L., Martin, J. E., & Lovett, D. L. (2006). Why is this cake on fire? Inviting students into the IEP process. Teaching Exceptional Children, 38 (3), 42-47.