Skip to Main Content

SMARTER Steps®: Sculpting Special Needs Students Through The IEP

March 29, 2016Kelly Ott
Sculpting Students Through their IEP
Sculpting Students with an IEP

Sculpting Special Needs Students When Designing the IEP

We can sculpt our students by designing an IEP with the end result as our vision. How does an artist develop a sculpture? The three dimensional figures can be constructed by adding material (modelling), removing material (carving) or intermediate techniques such as molding, casting or stamping. While this is a very simplistic view of sculpting, it is important to understand that the end product is a summative derivation of the artist’s vision.

The Merriam Webster Dictionary defines STRUCTURE as the aggregate of elements of an entity in their relationships to each other. If we apply these concepts to our students with special needs, we can appreciate that they too are a structure comprised of a collection of related elements. In order to view a student through an artist’s lens, we would need to consider each student as a masterpiece under construction and sculpt it from all the essential elements.

As educators, our challenge often resides in the fact that we do not consider the product as an aggregate of multiple elements and their relationship to each other. An educator’s vision of the end product is often substantially more limited and narrow than the artist’s vision.  To demonstrate this statement, let’s review the idea of a student’s Individualized Education Program (IEP).

People often think that the “P” in IEP stands for “Plan” but it does not. The legal definition is program. That may not seem like a big difference but we assure you it matters.  A plan means a general outline with activities that are sketched out in various details.  It tends to answer the question “What will we do?” and there is definitely a certain amount of planning needed to work with a student with special needs.  In contrast, a program refers to a schedule and it is time-bound with specifics related to measurable outcomes. It answers the question, “What will be the results?” It may still seem like splitting hairs, but how can we truly develop a work of art in each child if we are not considering the relationship between all elements of a child’s learning?

  • Do you think the artist’s focus is on “what he will do” or “what will be the end result”?
  • How do you think education would differ if we approached a child’s education from the standpoint of the completed product?

These thought provoking questions can help us reflect on our practices. As special educators, we are quite efficient with identifying barriers to learning or areas of educational need for our students. There are endless resources available through screenings, tests, work samples, etc., to help us identify a student’s disability.  As a result, we tend to focus on the areas of deficiency or gaps in a student’s learning when compared to norms. Quite often the educational plan we develop is molded on these foundational pieces. But ask yourself, is that plan a comprehensive program? Does it define what we will do or our desired end result?

In order to develop a comprehensive educational program for students with special needs, we must build on all elements of learning and their intertwined relationships. While we may be good at identifying areas of weaknesses, can we recognize student’s strengths, abilities and passions? Aren’t those elements an important part of developing the entire structure? Here is where we can significantly broaden our lens and use these foundational elements of each student to help mold and shape our end product.

So how do we use a student’s strengths, abilities, and interests to build better educational programs for each individual with special needs? Educators can use these positive elements to help develop exceptional educational programs.  Here are some tips to consider to help gather the desired information:

  • Conduct student strength surveys from multiple sources including students, parents, and teachers
  • Investigate student learning styles to help identify preferred and effective modes of learning (auditory, tactile, visual, perceptual motor, social, etc.)
  • Identify accommodations or modifications that can be used to help scaffold more independent skills rather than bypass or band aid skills.
  • Investigate instructional techniques or materials that help build on a student’s strengths and abilities. High interest materials can help motivate students persevere through difficult levels of instruction.
  • Conduct interest inventories to help identify areas of interest and topics that can be used as learning tools, resources, and motivators.

So how can you use these or other contributing elements to develop comprehensive educational programs for students? Share your comments below!



About the Author:  Kelly Ott has over 22 years experience as a licensed speech language pathScreen Shot 2015-06-17 at 8.52.36 PMologist, consultant, educator and administrator. Kelly has served children and adults with a diverse range of speech, language, swallowing, learning, and communication needs. She has provided direct speech pathology services, specialized tutoring services, educator professional development training, business communication and presentation training. Kelly is dedicated to providing students, educators, and parents with specialized strategies for achievement.