Kelly Scott Moroz, January 2011Effective Individualized Program Plans

If you work with school-aged children and teens, there is a good chance that you have heard of, come across, or been asked for your input into an Individualized Program Plan (IPP). An IPP, in essence, is a tracking and monitoring document that helps to understand a child’s current levels of functioning, outlines where the child’s school challenges exist, provides clarity around the desired goals at various time increments throughout the year (especially at year’s end), and lists the strategies to be put in place to bring the child to these desired levels. An IPP also lists any accommodations (e.g., additional test taking time, having their written responses scribed, etc.) that will be put in place to minimize the impact of a child’s condition or disability on his or her school day, as they work to overcome these challenges. This article is intended to provide a deeper understanding of the support an IPP can provide, as well as to provide strategies to enhance the meaningfulness of the IPP process.

When a child meets certain criteria, typically based on the results of a Psychoeducational assessment, he or she can qualify for a certain code to more specifically highlight these challenges. Whether an assessment is sought out by parents privately or conducted by a psychologist within the child’s school board, the completed Psychoeducational report is usually evaluated by personnel at the school and district level; a decision is then made to determine whether or not the Alberta Education Coding criteria has been attained to qualify for this more intense form of monitoring and support. Should specific coding criteria be met, then it becomes the joint responsibility of the teacher, other support personnel at the school, and the child’s parents to create the IPP. Probably the most beneficial part of this process, in my opinion, surrounds brainstorming how best to track the child’s progress, and then deciding upon which strategies and accommodations will be most beneficial and practical to execute. This is often where a psychologist with an education specialty is brought into the mix; to present the child’s current levels of functioning, to describe what a typical day in the child’s life might entail, and to illustrate how his or her condition could lead to challenges in different areas of school life (e.g., during tests, when in gym class, during circle time, at recess). IPP review meetings serve as a time to celebrate favorable gains, and to adjust strategies that have not resulted in desired levels of success. When viewed this way, the creation and follow through of an IPP can be an exciting and thought-provoking process. Given the level of thought and effort put into these desired outcomes, I find that IPPs that focus on a few concrete ideas at one time are those that are most successful.

There are, however, many barriers that can markedly decrease the productivity of IPP meetings and resulting documentation. In my experience, these challenges are most apparent in selecting objective methods to track progress, strategy generation that might come off as generic and miss out on the unique needs of each individual, and a lack of planning around the feasibility of accommodations, particularly in situations whereby there is not a teacher assistant in the classroom to follow through on the documented accommodations. In other words, though it would seem fair for children with Reading Learning Disabilities to have assignments and tests read to them on a daily basis, the reality is that children with Learning Disabilities are not eligible for support in the form of a physical presence (e.g., a teacher assistant) in the classroom. Though direct (and often external) reading intervention will need to be pursued, the team of the parents and school personnel will need to figure out strategies to decrease the amount of reading required each day, such as utilizing computer software that scans text and dictates the text to the child via headphones, or having a parent volunteer dictate text books into a digital voice recorder. Accommodations can truly be effective outside of the Provincial Achievement Tests that occur once every three years in a child’s life, however, it requires an accurate depiction and awareness of the child’s learning environment as well as knowledge of potential resources to bring these ideas through to fruition.

Providing objective measures of progress seems more amenable to conceptualization in some situations than in others. Utilizing reading levels once again as an example, there are standardized measures that many teachers or school resource personnel have been trained to administer, so as to track a child’s immediate sight word memory, decoding skills, and reading comprehension levels. These measures can be utilized at any time during a school year, with no real practice effect to enhance performance. Reading, spelling, and mathematics achievement, as well as the number of school days missed or assignments not handed in tend to be areas that are more amenable to concrete and accurate tracking tools. Outside of these academic areas, monitoring progress in other very important areas of functioning, such as behavioural, emotional, or social growth can be a very difficult task. How can other skills, such as more appropriately interacting with peers or listening to teacher’s instructions, be tracked with more precision than a gut feeling? My advice in these situations is to agree upon what the behaviour in question should look like (e.g., engaging in chit chat with peers, being able to repeat back instructions in his or her own words), and then to select randomized times throughout the day to ‘look out’ for the behaviour in question. Many teachers I have worked with find it helpful to incorporate some form of a reminder on their watch or cell phone that will alert them to rate the behaviour in question every so often (e.g., a reminder set every 75 minutes in a day). Usually, a small recording tool, such as a scribbler or sticky note pad, alongside either a checkmark or number rating system, significantly helps increase the follow through of this idea.

The most under-utilized portion of the IPP document, in my opinion, often presents in the description of strategies to help reach the target goals. When this area of the IPP is sparse, it can seem to suggest that the child is expected to reach these levels spontaneously or through maturity. Unfortunately, by the time the child has reached the stage whereby an assessment, coding, and resulting IPP document has been put into place, long gone are the speculations that the child will outgrow his or her issue independently. This tends to be the area where the support of a child psychologist is needed most; to be able to put ideas into place at the moment of execution, in the child’s naturalistic environment. In several respects, this situation presents as an opportunity that rarely exists within our profession. There are few situations whereby we are able to document our ideas and rate their successes so concretely. My hope with this article is that should you be asked to support a child in this way, that you will feel more equipped to encounter success.

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