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IEPs: Busting common IEP myths

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If someone says something that makes special education sound bad or negative, chances are it’s just not true. 

There are a lot of myths about IEPs, or Individualized Education Programs. And these incorrect or outdated ideas can keep some kids from getting school supports that can help them thrive. On this episode of Understood Explains, host Juliana Urtubey will bust common myths and explain the facts. 

Timestamps

[00:38] Myth #1: My child will be labeled forever

[02:10] Myth #2: My child will be in a separate classroom

[03:15] Myth #3: IEPs are only for kids with severe physical or intellectual disabilities

[04:17] Myth #4: Many kids with IEPs misbehave on purpose

[05:34] Myth #5: My child needs to wait to get evaluated for special education services

[07:13] Key takeaways

Related resources

Episode transcript

Juliana: If someone says something that makes special education sound bad or negative, chances are it's just not true. On this episode of "Understood Explains," we're busting IEP myths. 

From the Understood Podcast Network, this is "Understood Explains IEPs." Today we're separating fact from fiction. My name is Juliana Urtubey and I'm your host. I'm the 2021 National Teacher of the Year and I'm an expert in special education for multilingual learners. And speaking of languages, I want to make sure everyone knows all the episodes this season are available in English y en español. OK, let's get started. 

[00:38] Myth #1: My child will be labeled forever

Myth number one: My child will be labeled forever. This isn't true, but it's super, super common for families to worry about the stigma that may come along with special education. Stigma is often based on ideas about special education that simply aren't accurate, or, in some cases, are no longer accurate. Special education today is a lot different and a lot better than what you may have experienced or observed when you were in school. 

Having an IEP, or an Individualized Education Program, no longer means setting low expectations. Every child's IEP goals need to be tied to grade-level standards, and schools are working hard to keep all kids on track to graduate with a regular diploma.

Now, coming back to the myth about labeling your child forever: It's just not true. If your child qualifies for an IEP, that doesn't mean they will always need special education. 

Let's say your child has dyslexia. After a year or two of specialized reading instruction, your child may not need these services anymore. No more IEP. So, getting an IEP does not mean getting a lifelong label. And there's one other point I want to make about labels. 

Getting supports through special education might actually help your child avoid negative labels. Struggling students who aren't getting enough support in school often act out in class, and they may even get labeled as a "bad kid" by some people. Behavior is one of the most important pieces of the IEP puzzle. It's also one of the most misunderstood. We're going to talk more about behavior later in this episode. 

[02:10] Myth #2: My child will be in a separate classroom

Myth number two: My child will be in a separate classroom. So, this is a really common fear, but you can actually look up federal data on how many hours a day students with IEPs spend in regular classrooms. And it may surprise you to learn that two-thirds of all kids with IEPs spend 80 percent or more of the day in regular classrooms. In other words, most kids in special education spend most of the day in general education classrooms. 

Now, don't get me wrong — separate classrooms can be very helpful for some kids based on their needs. But for most kids, getting an IEP does not mean spending all day or even half the day in a special education classroom. In my 12 years as a special educator in Nevada, most of my students would come into my resource room for 30 or so minutes for one-on-one or small-group instruction. 

I also spent a lot of time in regular classrooms, working alongside general educators. And one reason I really enjoyed co-teaching with general educators: It gave us time to plan together how to support each child and celebrate their progress. 

[03:15] Myth #3: IEPs are only for kids with severe physical or intellectual disabilities

Myth number three: IEPs are only for kids with severe physical or intellectual disabilities. Once again, not true. Half of all students with IEPs qualify for special education because they have a learning disability or a speech or language impairment. Only about 6 percent of kids with IEPs qualify for special education because of intellectual disabilities. 

Now, this myth about needing to have a severe disability often goes along with another misconception, which is that kids who are smart don't need special education. But this is not true. There are plenty of kids who are very strong in some areas, but need an IEP to make progress in other areas. 

"Twice exceptional" is a term you'll often hear to describe students who are gifted and also have a disability. And these twice-exceptional, or 2e students, are an important reminder about something I said in an earlier episode: Having an IEP is not a sign of low intelligence.

[04:17] Myth #4: Many kids with IEPs misbehave on purpose

Myth number four: Many kids with IEPs misbehave on purpose. So, this myth is really common when it comes to kids who have ADHD. And it can show up with other kinds of learning and thinking differences, too. Oftentimes, adults are convinced that a child doesn't really have a disability and that ADHD is just an excuse for off-task behavior. 

Likewise, some people think kids act in certain ways so they can get accommodations, like extra time on tests. They think that these kinds of supports are a form of cheating, or coddling, or getting out of tasks that kids don't want to do. But struggling students are often trying as hard as they can. They have a need that's not being met, and it's very common for these kids to have trouble expressing themselves. Maybe they're feeling an emotion they don't have words for. 

Maybe what an adult sees as defiance is actually a child who's overwhelmed with frustration or fear of failing yet again. Whatever it is, remember that behavior is a form of communication. Your child is trying to tell you something. Getting an IEP can help you understand what's causing the misbehavior, and help your child learn how to replace those challenging behaviors. Later this season, we'll have a whole episode on how IEPs can help with behavior. 

[05:34] Myth #5: My child needs to wait to get evaluated for special education services

Myth number five: My child needs to wait to get evaluated for special education services. So, this myth is often related to another common misconception — that kids will grow out of whatever they're struggling with. But there are four really important things I want you to know about special education. 

First, research shows that students have a better chance at success in school when their struggles are identified sooner rather than later. Waiting to see if they will grow out of it can actually make it harder for a student to make progress and feel successful in school. And I'm not just talking about academics. 

Meeting kids' needs sooner can also help them socially and emotionally. The longer kids go without the right support, the more likely they are to believe really negative things about themselves. Like, "I can't learn, so why try?" 

Second, you can ask the school to evaluate your child for special education at any time and for any reason. Third, the law is very clear that schools need to be actively looking for kids who might need special education. If the school suspects your child may have a disability, the school can't delay the evaluation for special education. It can't sit back and wait. 

And the fourth and final thing I want to say about possibly waiting to evaluate has to do with multilingual students. Learning English at school is not a reason to delay getting an evaluation for special education. 

Schools can use the evaluation to see if kids are having trouble learning skills like reading or math in their home language. Evaluations can also factor in important details, like if a student missed a lot of school. We're going to talk more about evaluations in the next episode. 

[07:13] Key takeaways

All right, so we've busted a lot of myths on this episode. Let's go over the facts once more.

  • If your child qualifies for an IEP, that does not mean they'll be labeled forever or that they'll always need special education.

  • Most kids with IEPs spend most of their day in regular classrooms, and half of the kids who qualify for special education have either learning disabilities or speech and language impairments. 

  • IEPs are definitely not just for kids with severe physical or intellectual disabilities.

  • Struggling students may look like they're choosing to misbehave, but they're often trying as hard as they can, and they don't know how to tell you what kind of support they need. Behavior is a form of communication. 

  • And finally, if you or the school suspects your child has a disability, you don't have to wait to get an evaluation for special education. The sooner your child gets the help they need, the better.

OK, folks, that's it for this episode of "Understood Explains." In the next episode, we'll take a closer look at how schools decide if a child qualifies for an IEP. 

You've been listening to "Understood Explains IEPs." This season was developed in partnership with UnidosUS, which is the nation's largest Hispanic civil rights and advocacy organization. Gracias, Unidos! 

If you want to learn more about the topics we covered today, check out the show notes for this episode. We include more resources as well as links to anything we've mentioned in the episode. Understood is a nonprofit organization dedicated to helping people who learn and think differently discover their potential and thrive. Learn more at understood.org/mission


Credits

Understood Explains IEPs was produced by Julie Rawe and Cody Nelson, with editing support by Daniella Tello-Garzon. 

Video was produced by Calvin Knie and Christoph Manuel, with support from Denver Milord.

Mixing and music by Justin D. Wright.

Ilana Millner was our production director. Margie DeSantis provided editorial support, and Whitney Reynolds was our web producer. 

For the Understood Podcast Network, Laura Key is our editorial director, Scott Cocchiere is our creative director, and Seth Melnick is our executive producer.

Special thanks to the team of expert advisors who helped shape this season: Shivohn Garcia, Claudia Rinaldi, and Julian Saavedra.

Host

  • Juliana Urtubey, NBCT, MA

    is the 2021 National Teacher of the Year. As a special educator, she believes all kids have a right to be included and celebrated in what she calls a “joyous and just education.”

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