Literary Mama writing about the many faces of motherhood
The IEP, or “Inadequacies Effectively Presented”


Each year in early June, as my daughter eagerly awaits the end of the school year, with all its parties and victories, and makes plans for summer and friends, I must complete a very different set of arrangements for my son. Before the school year ends, Evan's specialists, teachers, and I gather in a small room on the elementary school campus for his annual Individualized Education Plan meeting. While a balmy June breeze comes through the open door, a team of twelve, including the special education director, principal, and myself assess Evan's year in terms of goals and progress, success and failure.

Yes, it's the inevitable (and sometimes dreaded) IEP, a staple of special education everywhere. There's an anonymous Dr. Seuss parody of an IEP that makes its way around inboxes this time of year, one that accurately describes a parent's mood in the face of this annual meeting and assessment. In the parody, a voice akin to that of the Cat in the Hat proclaims,

I do not like these IEPs
I do not like them, Jeeze Louise!
We test, we check,
We plan, we meet,
But nothing ever seems complete.

In the special education system in this country, every child (and parent) must undergo this yearly planning meeting, one that can sometimes last many hours. The child's progress is charted, weighed and measured according to quantifiable results. In the first half of the meeting we review the past year's goals to determine whether or not the child has met them. In the second half of the meeting, the team creates goals for the following year. The process is both exhaustive and exhausting, and I have yet to meet a parent who emerges from these planning meetings without a sense of both victory and defeat. Victory for what the child has accomplished, and defeat for how much more is ahead.


For me, the cruelest twist of the IEP is that the kids who falter most under measurement are the ones measured so often, and with such rigor. My daughter, in general education, gets three report cards a year, with one parent-teacher conference thrown in for good measure. My son, who comes up short on nearly every yardstick except the happiness quotient, has a twenty-page document that follows him throughout his day. Even if I wanted to pretend for a moment that my son isn't a walking bundle of deficits, the IEP brooks very little denial.

The IEP goals we create in our meeting each June become the backbone of Evan's educational day, and many activities are geared towards meeting those goals. "Will engage in cooperative learning activity with one peer over the duration of the activity one time per day for one of out of three trials," structures Evan's free time. A good day is one in which he meets that goal (with minimal prompting); a not-so-good day is one which there has been "some" or "little" progress towards the goal. Quarterly, numerical reports come home that rank his progress, with a "5" being the brilliant "This goal has been met," to a "3" offering the ominous "Progress has been made towards this goal, but goal may not be met by the time the IEP is reviewed." Even worse of all is the dreaded "2": "Progress is not sufficient to meet this goal by the time the IEP is reviewed. Instructional strategies will be changed." Ouch.


The success and failure at the heart of the IEP process inspires the anxiety and dread I feel in the same balmy June days that bring restless anticipation to my daughter and the end of her school year. The days leading up to the IEP are tense as I look back over the previous year's goals and objectives. There is often an email flurry about the following year's goals. Sometimes there are changes in classroom setting or routine or personnel. No matter what, once we are all in the room together, with the plan before us, there is no getting around the issues of progress, success, or failure.

In our school district there comes a point in the meeting when we must read aloud the previous year's goals and take official note of whether or not my son has met them. This would be a time where I feel inclined to put my fingers in my ears and sing nonsense syllables, hoping to avoid the truth. Except that I know, from all the documentation and progress reports I've already received, exactly how the story goes. Some years the tally is impressive. We read the goals and the service providers announce that they have been, "Met, met, met, met."

Others, not so good. "Well, we worked on this goal a lot, and he got the first part of it, but not the whole goal, and he needs lots of prompting, so I'd give him a three out of five and say, um, partially met." In the years Evan fails to meet his goals, I often wonder, "Why do we even bother? What's the point?"

This year's IEP meeting was one of those mixed bags. Evan was happy to be at school. He made an excellent transition to a new classroom, teacher, and fellow students. All the social goals that have to do with the bigger picture? Evan met them like a champ. Academically? Not so good. Didn't learn to match shapes or accurately trail a line of Braille. Still can't give, when asked, "Just one." Some progress on speech but only partially met his assistive technology goals.

The news was sobering. As with almost every IEP, Evan's inadequacies had been very explicitly presented. Even so, as we left the meeting, I resolved to focus on his success: Evan learned his way from the classroom to the cafeteria and sat at the benches during lunch like a big kid. He got to know a new group of friends and sat in circle time with the kindergartners. Maybe he didn't learn to track Braille, but he did figure out how to turn the pages of a book. If we weren't measuring him every day, with a twenty page document, we could honestly call the year a resounding success.

Perhaps in some ways the IEP process is full of defeat, but for every defeat there can also be a victory. This year as I left the IEP meeting I set my own goal: I would not dwell on Evan's limitations -- those goals only partially met or not met at all -- but on what he had achieved. I would try to meet that goal 80% of the time with minimal assist. If I were to give myself a progress report, I'd say I measured a three out of five. With room for improvement.

Vicki Forman is the author of This Lovely Life: A Memoir of Premature Motherhood and
teaches creative writing at the University of Southern California. Her work has been nominated for a Pushcart and has appeared in Philosophical Mother, The Santa Monica Review, Writer to Writer and Faultline. She lives in Southern California with her husband and child.

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Well said Vicki. I had always dreaded IEP's, felt like they were picking on my daughter and focusing too much on her inadequacies and lack of progress academically. You also feel outnumbered at those meetings. So, like you, I set my own set of goals, not academic but more day to day survival in the real world skills. And today at age 25, those are the skills that really matter, not whether she can do Grade 9 math or knows her North American History, etc.
Thanks for this insightful and eloquent column, Vicki. These are two statements in particular I wanted to comment on: "For me, the cruelest twist of the IEP is that the kids who falter most under measurement are the ones measured so often, and with such rigor. " Unfortunately, in what I call our "every child left behind policy," this attitude toward people persists well into adulthood. As an adult born with a disability and then also having a chronic illness, yes, this gauntlet continues to have to be run for any kind of public assistance one is duly qualified for that would help one achieve supported self-determination more effectively, and, ironically, the point of the process almost seems to be to justify withholding such support when at all possible. We need to change this for our children, and our grown children, and ourselves, even little by little, as we can. Secondly: "If we weren't measuring him every day, with a twenty page document, we could honestly call the year a resounding success." Yes, yes, yes!!--as the previous commenter mentiones, the things that her daughter achieved that help her now as an adult cannot truly be measured by a collection of facts checked off in a bureaucratic system whose primary goal is to continue to secure funding for itself. Caught in that system, teachers and parents alike can easily becomes so constrained by it that we end up feeling diminished instead of encouraged by the real successes that do occur, because the primary (unspoken) goal of the current system is to measure if the "progress" has paid for itself so the money can continue to be given out accordingly, for something that we just want to give our children because it's what they need, not because they have or haven't met a goal. . .it's sad. . .and thank you for your bravery, truthfulness and positive resolve in the face of it, and for sharing this reality with a wider audience.
It never seems fair to me that IEP's don't include nearly enough balance of social skills with measurable academics or motor/cognitive skills. As Karen said, some of those "non-academic" skills are the really important ones later in life. I'm always intrested to read how other parents and schools approach IEP's. Ours felt like a simple "rubber stamp" party with no room for discussion, changing goals, or true collaboration. But,as you know, that's why we pulled my son out of school!
Yes, yes, a thousand times yes! I will post on our blog.
Having been at IEPs on "both sides of the table," as it were, I try to learn from the mistakes of my brother's IEP teams. I do the best I can to keep jargon out of it, and I work very hard to present things in a positive light when possible (e.g. "So and so met five of her goals, and has made some progress on the last" sounds so much better than "she did not meet one of her goals"). When it's not possible, when a child doesn't meet their goals, I present it to parents as heavily dependent on me: *I* didn't find a way to present a concept that made sense to a student. It's not that a child *can't* do something -- it's just that I couldn't find a way to make it meaningful. If Johnny can't count beyond four, it's because I didn't find something even *more* exciting than those four Spongebobs for him to count. And so on. (A little totally unsolicited advice, for tracking a line of Braille -- can Even track something tactile from left to right? Like, say, a straw laid out on a table? You could start with something very obvious and continuous like that. I would add a row of closely spaced hot glue gun dots to that so he gets used to the bumps, then gradually move to something less "obvious" -- so from a straw to, maybe, a thick piece of cardboard with real Braille cells on it. And from that, a paper folded two or three times to highlight the concept of "one line." Just an idea. :-) )
That is it in a nutshell!!! Amen!!! You hit it on the nose again :) We have ours next week...I am still on the "don't like" side... but nearing the "hate" side ;)
I don't like IEPs. Not one little bit. But you're right. It's so important never to lose sight of success--no matter how small or how large. Thanks for a great column, Vicki.
All I can say is AMEN sister! You summed it all up so well. I have always said that some day I am going to get myself hired by the state or federal agency that oversees this process and re-vamp it. There has to be a better way to do all of this so that it is better for all.
This is not so much directed at Vicki's particular situation in the column as it is generally directed to the frustrations of all who commented. The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) was a major advance in civil rights for disabled children when it was passed a couple of decades ago. I, too, hate the IEP process and wonder how it could go so wrong with a law that actually gives my child a right to an education. Sometimes I think that the individual therapists and teachers have a problem seeing the forest for the trees. In my house, we've worked hard to try to get the school system to focus the individual efforts of the teachers and staff on a few over-arching and larger goals. In our case, we've tried to evaluate what is essential in allowing our son to move forward in a global fashion with education. He is very locked in, with difficulty moving his arms and hand drag that makes it difficult to use a touch screen device, and have successfully argued that communication with non-technological eye gaze, computer-linked eye gaze and other communication strategies be employed to get him to a better place to receive an education. In some cases, staff are too focused on appropriate "developmental" goals for children whose medical conditions do not track with fulfilling typical "developmental" trajectories. Some children with disabilities develop atypically, and often, school staff, who have limited neurological training and background, are just incapable of recognizing that. Use your doctors and the best medical developmentalists (i.e. not educational ones) to argue for skipping the stuff that doesn't matter to your kid. Don't let your kid get pigeon-holed by what are often out-dated developmental arguments and strategies.
This dreaded, annual event always give me hives and insomnia for days. Your sensible approach to the dreaded goals/progress reports helps me view it in a new way. Thanks
"I would try to meet that goal 80% of the time with minimal assistance." I LOVE that! You are awesome! And such perfect timing! Our IEP is today - wish us luck!
Oh Vicki, another right on post. I was just trying to explain to a friend of mine, a fellow special needs mama, about how frustrating its is to constantly evaluate our kids from a deficit model, always working on what they cant do instead of celebrating what they can. Your post has me in tears because you get it, you sooooo get it. And god does it help to connect with other parents who understand.
Always the stellar mommy. Report cards are a drag. Coincidentally, today I was having a convo w/ my mother (the preschool teacher) about how silly a lot of our primary school standards are. The fact that we are pushed/forced to spend hundreds of hours of our lives (if not thousands) studying things that don't stimulate us... things that we have no interest in retaining. For me, it was chemistry, trigonometry and the like. I wish I could've spent those hours focusing on the things that I loved, the things that make me happiest. School is often an exercise in patience, no?
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