Children with diverse needs — the value of small steps

By Kylie Bice

I meet and work with lots of parents, teachers and education assistants who feel discouraged and demoralised by the seemingly small amount of progress a child with disability is making. 

Some even tell me they are making no progress at all. While it is true that sadly some children do have degenerative conditions where diminishing progress is a reality, this is not true for the vast majority of children with diverse needs.

It is next to impossible to define and celebrate the small steps without an effective Individual Education Plan (IEP) or similar documented or personalised plan. A well-structured IEP with well-written goals is crucial to ensuring that everyone (including the student) understands the progress that is planned and made. Just having an IEP document, however, does not automatically mean that any of the above can be achieved. There are a number of key elements that must be in place in both special and mainstream schools in order to ensure that an IEP is helpful to educators, rather than just another paperwork task to complete.  There are many factors that contribute to effective IEPs for diverse students, although in my experience with a range of schools, there are two key elements that must be in place in schools in order to have an efficient and effective IEP system:

IEP goals must be well-written.

Writing goals according to the SMART principle is not new (Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic, Timely), however I still see so many IEP goals that are either vague, too broad, unattainable within the time frame, or actually a strategy or instruction for the child to behave. A poorly-written goal such as: will improve his reading ability, or, will consider the feelings of others, reinforces to teachers that IEPs are a waste of time as these goals are not helpful to implement strategies, monitor progress or when it comes time for reporting. Education Assistants and parents often tell me that goals such as these add to the feeling of hopelessness and a sense that the child is making no progress. Goals that are specific and measurable, such as: will demonstrate understanding of narrative structure by being able to put pictures from a familiar story in sequence, with verbal prompts related to “first”, “then, “next”, “last” are able to be consistently measured and reported by all staff, and can be easily revised as they are or are not attained. I encourage all teachers to be critical reviewers of the goals they have written, and to be proactive in seeking advice, support and feedback from others to improve and refine goal ideas.

There needs to be a cyclical IEP process that is tangible to teachers.

This is a key element that helps to achieve the above, especially in schools where teachers may not be familiar with IEPs and goal-writing. A cyclical process that is transparent and explicit to teachers acts as evidence of the need for the IEP in the first place. For example, teachers need to see that when it comes time for formal reporting, the ease of this task is directly impacted by the the degree to which the IEP goals were specific and measurable. Having a cyclical process such as this makes teachers immediately accountable and in my experience is the most effective way to engage mainstream teachers in the IEP process. Designing, implementing and monitoring an easy-to-use and efficient IEP progress requires a case manager who is motivated and well-informed. If such a role is not available, then I encourage teachers to keep their IEP documents with their daily planning notes, to scribble on them and edit, and to have them with you as you are writing individual reports and feedback. By doing this, you will have a mechanism by which to reflect on your goals over time and hone your goal-writing skills.

Many parents tell me that the battle to remind others to have hope for their child, is relentless and often soul-destroying. I have also heard the disillusioned sighs of loyal education assistants wonder if they are 'getting anywhere' with a student. I hear from many teachers (especially those in mainstream environments) who see IEPs as just another paperwork task that takes away from their teaching and preparation time, and quietly wonder what purpose these documents really serve. The reality is that people who work with children, adolescents and adults with diverse needs over many years (myself included), would not do this job if we could see over and over that we are wasting our time and that no progress is possible.  The fact is, there are many teachers, therapists, doctors, specialists and researchers who keep on talking about ways to teach, interact with, and support young people with disability because we see over the decades that there is hope.  Hope that people with disability do learn, do grow, do experience love, self-fulfilment, hope, employment and success.  Yes it is to varying degrees, and no one strategy works for everyone, but the journey does not have to be a hopeless one.

I'm not going to say it's easy, I know too many exhausted teachers, education assistants and parents to misrepresent the journey in that way.  But I have also seen the big picture over time and this is what I encourage educators to remember:

  • Compare each child to no-one but him/herself. It is a dangerous and demoralising game to compare ourselves and our students to others or to society's definition of 'normal' or 'successful'.  We can only ever be ourselves. IEPs are meant to be exactly that…individual.

  • Stay focused on the small steps and make them smaller still if they are not being achieved.
    I too often see parents and particularly education assistants despair because the IEP goals are too big or vague and so there is no sense of progress. While it is important to have high expectations for students and not limit the possibilities of their achievement, we must still break down goals into small steps in order to see and celebrate progress. Teachers…this is one of your key roles in the IEP process.

  • Have 'the big picture' handy when it's needed, but put it away in the day-to-day. This is related to the above point.  The ‘big picture' is important for planning, reflecting and celebrating over time, but it can be discouraging too and can stop us from celebrating the small steps.

  • Celebrate each step achieved as a major milestone (no matter how small it may seem to others).
    This reminds those working with and parenting a child that progress is being made - check out this blog post from 'Autism with a side of fries' for an example!

  • Keep records of progress in way that is easy and efficient for you - how much, how often, when, what etc. It doesn't matter how formal (school reports) or informal (video diary, blog, notes in your daily planner). This helps a lot with the 'one step forward, five steps back' phenomenon. It is so hard to see progress in the day-to-dayness, and this helps to reflect progress accurately over time.

  • If you feel as though nothing is working, try something different.  
    If you are too tired or too close to the situation to think of a different strategy, then ask for help from colleagues, experts or someone who can look at situation objectively.  It is true that in all Australian school sectors, there is a great deal of expertise available to you, often at no cost, please keep asking until you find it!

  • Seek support if you are feeling exhausted, discouraged, hopeless, sad or angry.
    It's hard work. No matter how independent or experienced you are, learning how to develop a community around you is a vital skill when working with diverse students.  Whether it's therapy, funding, counselling, food, prayer, a listening ear, a babysitter, strong coffee, ideas, encouragement, a night out.  Look after yourself and ask for help.  Please.  Just ask and keep asking.

There is hope. Hang in there, watch for it, hang on to it!

I am thankful to have had the benefit of working with young people with disability over time, both with individuals and collectively, and this has given me the gift of being able to see what can be achieved over time. The things that a parent or early primary teacher says a child can't do at 7 years old, I see a young person being able to do in later years, plus so much more! 

Yes, it takes hard work, persistence, patience, energy, appropriate intervention and teaching, and so often it feels exhausting and as though no progress is made, but overwhelmingly this is a good news story. Keep the big picture in mind, but always value and see the beauty in the small steps!

Kylie Bice