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“Don’t Be Misled by These Words in an IEP”

The more specific an IEP is, the better the chance a child will get the right accommodations. Be on the lookout for these vague words in IEP meetings.

IEP meetings can be tricky and confusing for parents. Teachers and school staff use a lot of educational jargon, rely on acronyms, and throw out program and curriculum names. Any given meeting might include three or four clinicians who speak one after the other.

Being able to absorb and understand what an occupational therapist, speech language pathologist, social worker, and a classroom teacher have to say at a meeting is a tall task. It can be challenging for any parent to keep up. To make matters worse, there is a 20- or 30-page document sitting in front of you,  full of dense information, numbers, diagnoses, and more jargon.

IEPs are long and technical. They include a lot of information about the student, their accommodations, goals, and needs. Here are some common words that appear in IEPs that can confuse parents:

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Frequency Words: Often, sometimes, rarely, frequently. These words can be misleading. They are written from the perspective of the author, usually a special education teacher. If a teacher writes, “Jessica often needs more time to complete her work,” it can be confusing. Most people will look past this and think that she needs prompts.

In order to understand Jessica’s needs, the language needs to be more specific. How long is class? Perhaps 45 minutes. How many times does she need a prompt in class? Perhaps 25 times. How does this compare to the rest of the class? Twenty-five prompts in 45 minutes may be “often” to some people, “sometimes” to others, and “rarely” to another group. Push the school to put in language that indicates specific duration and exact frequency instead of the vague frequency words like “often” or “frequently.” This will help paint a more accurate picture of the student.

Attention Words: Distracted, off-task, not doing what he’s supposed to. Again, these words are in the eye of the beholder. If an IEP says, “In math class, Steve gets distracted when the bell rings,” it can mean a variety of things. Steve could be asleep, zoned out, throwing pencils, kicking another student’s seat, yelling across the room. I could go on.

Distracted and off-task do not do the behavior justice; they do not describe exactly what is happening. These same words may also be used to describe the student’s effect on other students. “Laura’s behavior can cause other students to be distracted.” This is a broad statement. A more helpful version is: “Laura will yell out to her classmate across the room and cause other students to notice her and stop working. This happens about two or three times each day during the 15-minute ‘Do Now’ part of our math lesson.”

[“The Big Secret to a Productive IEP Meeting”]

Redirecting Words: Reminders, Prompts, Encouragement. These words leave a lot to the imagination. A prompt could be a look, a nonverbal cue like pointing at the child, or a verbal prompt. The severity, frequency, and duration of the reminders given to the student are important information to include in an IEP. It is the only way to accurately describe the struggles, typically attention-specific, that a student will have throughout a class period and school day.

When a parent comes across vague words like the ones mentioned above, they should ask the teachers and school staff to clarify what they mean and how the behavior is exhibited at school. Having the school define these terms will give parents a better understanding of their child’s needs throughout the school day.

What’s more, it will lead to a more productive IEP meeting, and, ultimately, a more effective IEP document.

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