Is There an Elephant in the Room During Your Child’s IEP Meeting?: Funding Programs With Peanuts

Elephants are best observed in their natural habitat.  Or in the zoo.  Then again, there are still a number of elephants found in the circus.  However, within special education meetings, sometimes, elephants are also in the room.  Here’s what I am talking about:

Recently, I participated in five IEP meetings which featured the following scenario: A highly intelligent or above-average student, who is capable of academic achievement comparable to his or her peers, though struggles with anxiety due to sensory over-load or / and task completion.  Each of these students is socially appropriate in all settings outside of school and within some of their classrooms in school. The impact of anxiety often highlights behaviors which get in the way of learning, and in these situations, each student presented “flight or fight” responses.  At the same time, the students presented working memory or processing-speed gaps, anxiety related to written expression, and an unusually high level of distractability requiring extensive redirection, prompting, and reinforcement. In all of these cases, the students would likely best be served in the General Education setting if they had direct support provided by a skilled adult, addressing anxiety, self-regulation, and re-direction.  However, within the context of today’s classrooms, where there are so many students who require on-going accommodations, real-time intervention, and never-ending prompting by the teacher,  it has become an impossible job for one classroom teacher to manage all of her/his students’ needs.  So we recommended a trained Instructional Assistant to assist with redirection, focus strategies, behavior charting, and emotional self-regulation techniques as needed.  However, in each situation, each district pushed back upon the proposal, through their representative, by stating the following:

a. “Para-professional / Instructional Assistant support in the classroom creates dependence between the student and the adult; this will impede emotional growth.”

b. “Socially, when a student is seen by his/her peers as the primary focus of this Para-professional, this sets the student up in a negative way and will hinder their social relationships, which can have long-term impact.”

c. “Students who require this level of re-direction and prompting, are best served in a Self-Contained classroom, with fewer students with the approrpiate supports in place [Instructional Assistants].”

It was as if each district was working from the exact same play-book.  And they may be.

So I want to go on record and assure that this specific article is an opinion piece, based upon years of experience as an Education Advocate.  It’s not fact, nor research-based. And I truly understand that there are mulitple perspectives within each of the meetings I attend.  My truth is not THE TRUTH.  Then again, it’s a mesage that I believe needs to be shared honestly, openly, and without compromise.  The intent is to inform.  And ideally, create a new perspective leading to change.

During these meetings, the elephant in the room was clear and evident: Each district was willing to forego the most appropriate placement, the General Education classroom, for Self-Contained settings. And sold their decision under the “least restrictive” umbrella. However, I believe there is a deeper explanation for their decisions and it’s financial.  So let’s take a look at the common denominators found within the five students highlighted in these meetings first:

a. Each student was socially appropriate outside of school; but required specially designed instruction in Social Skills and Emotional Self Regulation in school

b. Also, their profiles highlighted a need for social interaction and engagement; for each was well-liked by their friends and thrived within these relationships.

c. Due to an extraordinary level of hyper-sensitivity and sensory awareness, each would shift unconciously to “fight or flight” responses when anxious; as a result, the need for assistance presents itself; for Executive Functions like impulsivity, distractability, and poor cause & effect planning kick-in.  Also, typical fight or flight behaviors, like elopement, work refusal, or aggitation develops.

In each case, the district representative connected the dots as follows

  1. Student demonstrates anxiety = Inconvenient behaviors, 2, Behaviors = additional intervention required (Instructional Assistant), 3. IA / Para support is only available in the Self Contained Classroom  4.  Students requiring Instructional Assistant support = Placement in Self Contained Classroom.

As a result of this instructional resource model, allocating Instructional Assistants in a Self-Contained Classroom, the “push out” approach is favored and inclusion is diminished.

Don’t read this wrong; in many situations, students do need to be placed in Self-Contained Classes for this learning environment, due to smaller classes or a more controlled setting, may be most appropriate.  However, in these five situations, the students have demonstrated success in a variety of GE classrooms, and are highly successful within social settings outside of school.  And when I review the relationship between their anxiety and the specific content within each classroom where there is a struggle, what I discovered are the following:  [Keep in mind, this is an opinion-piece; these are not facts agreed uppon by all members of the IEP Team]:

Writing is a major component of each class.  

Also, inconsistent class management practices are discovered including gaps in transitions between activities.

High level of auditory instruction with limited visual scaffolding.

Use of cooperative learning strategies with limited guidance / structure.

And most importantly, an emphasis on “task” supercedes the value of “relationship”; in four out of five situations, the student doesn’t feel liked by the teacher. [Though the teachers in each case appear kind and considerate; however, each expressed a high level of frustration, a desire to implement the curriculum, and were worried about falling-behind; a couple even talked about “testing” which were scheduled later this month]. 

Does this sound familiar to you?  I come across this all the time.

I have been listening to Special Education staff and Coordinators lecture on “least restrictive” placement for years.  Specifically, the following: “When a child requires a One to One Instructional Assistant within the General Education setting, this is more restrictive than being placed in a Resource Room or a Self-Contained Class”

However, I do not agree with this logic as a blanket statement of truth. ‘

In these five cases,  the benefits of inclusion, working from a “push-in” model of intervention, would be most appropriate.  For inclusion, the least restrictive, has been researched and reviewed for decades.  And in many cases, the evidence supports this form of intervention as a “best practice”. Research as well as common understanding highights the impact of Instructional Assistants in the classroom as a valuable resource. However, there are costs associated with inclusion and this presents the elephant in the room:

Staffing: Hiring additional Instructional Assistants (IA) is an added expense

Training: Training the IA in behavior management, curriculum and differentiation, as well as specific accommodation strategies for each disability, are also added expenses.*

Professional Development: Establishing quality time for IAs and staff to meet and share curriculum, interventions, and information about each student is also an added expense. **

* “In the absence of relevant training IAs tend to play a ‘mothering’ role (there are very few men), developing a close and caring relationship which can easily become one of dependency. Without expert support they lean more to a nurturing than a learning role and find it difficult to extend challenge and risk taking. There can also be a tendency for TAs to ‘isolate’ ‘their’ child from group or whole-class learning contexts.” [from Costs of Inclusion, McBeath, Dalton, Steward, and Page]

**“Differentiation of the curriculum is typically left to the discretion of IAs. Their care and concern in assuming these responsibilities (very often in their own time) is not matched by the expertise needed to make a classroom lesson relevant or accessible to a child with special needs; requires collaboration with teachers]” [Costs of Inclusion]

So when the IEP Team creates an “individualized education plan” for each student, the intent of the law supports a collaborative process amongst staff, parents, and others who are knowledgeable or engaged within the student’s life.  By doing so, this likely would encourage creativity, innovation, and resourcefulness, through the creation of a partenership.  The notion of financial implications or limitations is not supposed to be a part of the intervention process.   So what happens in these meetings, at least within the five I am highlighting, district representatives deflected their concern for Para / Instructional Assistant support through the “least restrictive” guideline. Instead of stating the obvious, “We don’t have the budget for a Para”, we heard a passionate plea for “doing what’s best for your child” and how “One to One support would create a intelible level of dependence; something one may never recover from”.

In review of inclusive practices, such as One to One support in the General Education setting, or Instructional Assistant support of smaller groups within the classroom, there are endless resources and references to these practices as being effective, preferred, or “best practices”.  I also know that placement of a Para professional within any situation does not guarentee success for there are a number of variables to consider such as training, professional development, experience, understanding of the specific disabilities and related strategies, as well as the inter-relationship between the student and the support staff member. These are all important considerations. So when I write about the elephant in the room, I am absolutely certain that not all students require an Instructional Assistant within the General Education setting.  But there are times, when this is certainly the least restrictive intervention possible. So in these moments, I really don’t want to hear the district hide it’s agenda within the cloak of “least restrictive”.  In fact, it’s so interesting that the intent of least restrictive placement and it’s history within Special Education law (PL 94-142 and IDEA] was created to protect students from inappropriate placement by districts in highly restrictive settings, like institutions or self-contained classrooms to encourage access the General Education setting.

So in these situations, when the elephant is in the room, highlight the following: An Instructional Assistant or any other form of General Education support, is just that, a support or resource, it is NOT placement.  It would be no different then the following scenario: Imagine a hearing impaired student requires a FM device to amplify the instructional audio from the teacher.  So instead of accessing General Education through the application of an FM device at their school, which is common practice, the district decides to place all students requiring an FM device within one classroom in the district because “these rooms are wired for sound” and would be the only location where FM devices are available”.    It’s simple as this.  Para-professional support serves as an aide, not a placement!

For more information about supporting your child within the IEP process, and the elephant in the room, you can reach us at:

Thank you.



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