Patrick G. Radel, Esq.
Two Minute Tip for a Better IEP: With a Little Help from My Friends
"Friends multiply joy and divide grief." Cicero
What are your most significant school memories? Probably not basic fractions, but definitely your best friend. Maybe you can't recall historical dates, but you can't forget your first date. You never mastered literature, geometry, or physics, but you learned lessons about being a friend, losing a friend, and how to live and work with others.
Many students with disabilities find social situations challenging. They leave school unable to build meaningful relationships, cooperate at work, and sustain systems of support in their lives.
So why don't we talk about social skills at IEP meetings? Parents who worry about this are often told they are more concerned with socialization than education.
In fact, the law says socialization is part of education. Building social skills should be a key piece of the Individualized Educational Plan ("IEP"). The value of consistent, positive peer relationships must be considered when determining program and placement.
A short summary and some suggestions.
Special Education Includes Social Skills.
According to IDEA (the main federal special education law), the IEP must address both academic achievement and "functional performance," which includes social skills. 20 U.S.C. § 1414 (d)(1)(A)(i)(I). The IEP is supposed to prepare students "to lead productive and independent adult lives," which requires working cooperatively and sustaining systems of support. 20 U.S.C. § 1400 (c)(5)(A)(ii).
The federal courts have said an IEP must "target all of a child's special needs, whether they be academic, physical, emotional, or social." Lenn (1st Cir. 1993). Educational benefit means more than "purely academic progress." Roland M. (1st Cir. 1990).
"Learning to associate, communicate and cooperate with nondisabled persons is essential to the personal independence of children with disabilities." Oberti (3d Cir. 1993).
1. Make it a Goal. IEP goals address the most significant needs. If the student struggles with social skills, there should be a specific IEP goal to address that. This will ensure that necessary supports and services are provided (for example, counseling, technology, speech services, social groups). It will also require the school team to monitor progress. There are many good online resources with sample goals.
2. Consistency is Key. Dr. Julie Causton says that friendship = time + shared experiences. Friendships don't form overnight for anyone, but especially for students with challenges. Having classmates who "know" you and understand your communication style and personality is priceless. When discussing removing a student to a "special class," consider the impact on the friendships (or budding friendships) the student may have developed. Ask whether grouping students who struggle with social skills together is the best way to build those skills. Consider the benefits of a general education class in the student's home school, which includes a fairly consistent group of age-appropriate typical peers who live (and play) in the student's community and provide a natural network of support now and in the future.
3. IEPs are not confined to the classroom. Students with disabilities are entitled to equal opportunities to participate in non-academic settings, including extracurricular activities. IEP meetings should include conversations about clubs and sports that might be of interest and IEPs should provide the supports and services the student needs to access those activities. Parents should also consider community opportunities (such as Scouting, summer camps, martial arts, drama) to build skills and create connections (and memories) that last.