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Finding the Sweet Spot in the IEP

Updated: Aug 4, 2023

Over the years, I have seen my share of IEPs that are 50 pages, 60 pages, even 70+ pages long. I can best describe these documents through a variety of idioms -

“Check out this laundry list!”

“I guess we’re throwing everything at the wall and seeing what sticks.”

“This IEP contains everything but the kitchen sink!”

IEP teams adopting an “everything but the kitchen sink” approach make the faulty assumption that more is better - more goals, more therapies, more consults, more accommodations! But in our race to add more to a child’s program, we lose sight of the most essential skills that the child truly needs. When dozens of IEP goals are developed that span every potential concern, a child may make some progress on all goals, but not meaningful progress on the most important ones. One cannot really improve in something if the focus is on everything.

Additionally, the development of too many goals inhibits a team’s ability to deliver services in the least restrictive, inclusive environment. When energies are devoted to “fixing” every area of deficit through whatever means necessary, it often comes at the expense of curricular access. Students are pulled out of general education to receive specialized services with the intention of “fixing” the deficit. We remove a child, then remediate, then attempt to return them to general education, but the return is thwarted because they have fallen behind during their absence from class. The cycle goes on and on. Rather than concocting a expansive list of goals, related services and accommodations, target the most important skills and teach them across multiple environments.

An additive approach to IEP development can also lead to over-supporting a student. When we provide services to a child that are unnecessary, we risk creating learned helplessness. Students may become over-reliant on paraprofessionals, accommodations, or other services. Such supports can also create a stigma, socially isolating children and separating them from their peers.

However, this does not mean that we forego supports in favor of developing independence - a balance is needed. DeWitt (2014) called this idea “The Goldilocks’ Principle…[finding] the balance between what is too soft, too hard and just right.” And...since we are talking in idioms...I’ll call this idea the “sweet spot” in the IEP.

When we find the sweet spot in an IEP, we provide the “just right” amount of goals, accommodations, and services to focus our efforts without diluting them. We are intentional with our services and laser-focused on the outcomes. We provide just enough supports for students to engage in productive struggles, but not too many that they are sheltered from challenges, and not too few that they are easily frustrated.

When developing the IEP, try asking the following questions to focus your energies:

  • What skills would you like to see the student develop that will have the most impact on their life?

  • What are the greatest areas of need identified by the data?

  • What are the most important skills for the student to learn this year?

  • What is a challenging, yet attainable, task that we would like to see the student achieve within a year’s time?

  • If we implement this (therapy/program/accommodation), will there be an area of the student’s programming that will be sacrificed?

More is not always better. So rather than concocting a laundry list of services or throwing everything but the kitchen sink into the IEP, find the sweet spot instead.

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