Despite the high quality of many universal offerings in schools, many students, due to disability or other conditions, require additional supports, often translated into the format of an Individualized Education Plan (IEP). IEP’s have several alternative designations in different countries, and follow different procedures, but, in general, we are talking about a document that determines, for a specific student, the necessary accommodations for their academic and social needs and characteristics. This document, based on an evaluation of the students’ development and the characteristics of its life context, defines what are the specific goals that that student is trying to achieve, as well as the strategies and activities that are going to be provided to achieve those goals. Despite the general recognition that online education has affected the educational process of students with SEND, there is limited information concerning the specific aspects in which IEP development and implementation have been impacted. Saetra (2021), in a study conducted in Finland, identified factors to be considered for fully digital teaching. Most importantly, the need to ensure that students with IEPs not only learn how to use digital tools, but also learn when to use them and how they can work as tools and resources in their education. Nevertheless, the author also recognizes that the general approach to IEP implementation, more as an administrative document than a pedagogical planning guide, can have an increased impact when talking about implementing accommodations in an online setting.
An IEP can be considered a roadmap, including three central dimensions: a) a specific departure point (the child’s present level of performance); b) a personal destination – measurable goals; c) an individualized route and vehicle – needed supports and services (Sanches-Ferreira et al., 2013).
Jung and his collaborators (2008) divide the planning process in seven steps, detailed in Table 2.
Table 2. Fidelity of implementation checklist (Jung et al., 2008)
1. Refine IEP goals
Is the short-term objective likely to be achieved within 4 to 6 months?
Is the goal necessary for development or for better functioning in routines?
Is the goal clearly related to a family priority or concern?
Does the goal include a rationale, circumstances, and criteria for success?
2. Analyse baseline functional skills
Has the team discussed with the family the child’s behaviour as well as antecedents and consequences?
Have the team members observed the child’s behaviour relative to the objective for an understanding of the function of the behaviour?
3. Identify natural learning opportunities
Has a routines-based interview been conducted?
Has the team identified settings, activities, routines in which learning could occur?
Has the team identified settings, activities, and routines in which instruction would be difficult and should be excluded?
4. Select empirically based strategies to facilitate learning
Have the developmentally enhancing techniques the family and general education teacher use been identified and shared with all team members?
Have empirically based strategies been selected that apply to the objective?
Do the strategies clearly indicate the specific roles of the implementers?
5. Ensure Fidelity of Instruction
Did the planner get input from all team members?
Did the planner explain the instructional plan to all implementers and include concrete examples?
Did the planner demonstrate intervention strategies for the implementers?
Did the implementers demonstrate instruction for the planner?
Did the planner observe the implementers and offers suggestions if needed?
Did the planner convey a confidence in implementers’ ability to use the new strategy?
6. Design a data collection and analysis system
Is the data collection system simple and understandable?
Does the data collection system match the individualized education program (IEP) goal?
Does the system allow for data collection by all involved with the family (formally or informally)?
Does the system include a method to graph progress?
7. Evaluate the plan
Did the teachers ask the family to share their evaluation of the child’s progress?
Did the teacher review the data with the family?
Did the teacher and family make modifications as needed?
We opted to present this model, here, because it is based on the existence of a close collaboration between the school team of professionals and the family and directs much attention to the exploration of learning opportunities that happen in the child’s natural context (i.e., the home, or the classroom). We will discuss each of the seven steps, with suggestions and recommendations for the development and implementation of online IEP’s.
Refine IEP goals
The definition of intervention goals is a fundamental step in the provision of individualized plans. Indeed, a clear and shared vision of what is to be achieved is an important way to guarantee the active involvement of all the stakeholders in a specific case. The definition of a good quality intervention goal requires a close collaboration between the professionals and the family. This collaboration will promote the definition of goals that are relevant for the child’s future and for the family, connect the goal with the specific life circumstances of the family, and present the goal in a S.M.A.R.T. format. A SMART goal is Specific; Measurable; Attainable; Routines-based; Tied to a functional priority (Jung, 2007). For example: “Maisie will indicate her preferred activity, interaction, or object by using a sign or word at least five times each day during meals, free play, (…) so that she can become more independent and so that others will be able to meet her needs” (Jung, 2007, p. 55).
Using this orientation, IEP goals in an online environment, besides the specific areas relevant for the development of the student, should focus on the promotion of the independent use of technologies, as the computer or tablet, and the needed technologies.
Use videoconferencing platforms to develop intervention goals with the family, considering the child’s characteristics, and the routines of the family. Clearly explain the relevance of the goal, if not immediately evident.
Analyse baseline functional skills
In many cases, the information and data concerning the student’s behaviour before the lockdown must be reconsidered, because the child and the family are not following the same routines and the people with whom the child interacts are also different. Previous information, therefore, is no longer useful as the basis for the definition of a baseline and must be complemented with the status under lockdown situation.
This might require the development of functional analysis of behaviour, i.e., the determination of the function of the behaviour through the observation of what precedes and what usually occurs immediately following the behaviour. Since the presence of teachers and other professionals in the house of the student is not possible under lockdown, close and clear communication between family and professionals is the best option to understand the behaviour of the child (Stenhoff et al., 2020).
Use videoconferencing platforms to communicate with the family, engaging them in the process, explaining what data should be collected, and collaboratively analysing the families’ observations. A Learning Management System could also be useful to deposit instruments and other resources, promoting structured collaboration with the family.
Identify natural learning opportunities
In a lockdown situation, when many parents and caregivers must balance their professional duties with family tasks, supporting the online learning of their students might be a challenge for many. As such, it is important that the IEP team and the family go over the families’ routines to understand in which of them instruction can be embedded, providing brief teaching moments during the day and the week.
Use videoconferencing platforms to communicate with the family to understand their availability to work with the student and the routines where that work can take place. It is important that the family doesn’t see this task as an additional requirement on their daily schedule, but to take advantage of their daily routines.
Select empirically based strategies to facilitate learning
In line with the description of step 3, it is important to identify which educational strategies the families already use, although, probably, in an intuitive and non-intentional way. This way, the strategies to be implemented can be aligned with the practices already in place. It is the teacher’s role to define additional strategies and to present them to the family in a clear way, using lay terms.
Use videoconferencing platforms to communicate with the family to identify commonly used educational strategies and to recommend additional ones.
Ensure fidelity of instruction
This step refers to the need to present instruction in the way it was designed by the team. Jung and collaborators (2008) recommend four strategies: (a) provide a checklist identifying the critical features of the strategy; (b) provide concrete examples of how the goal is addressed using the strategy; (c) model the use of the selected strategy; (d) offer to watch other team members using the selected strategy and provide feedback.
Use videoconferencing platforms to communicate with the family, clearly presenting what they should do to implement the educational strategy selected. Video recordings of the instruction can be used by the family and the IEP team to adjust and fine tune the implementation of the strategy. A Learning Management Platform can be used to promote the collaboration between family and the professionals.
Design a data collection and analysis system
A fundamental part of the IEP planning is the data collection because it is fundamental to understand the child development and to adjust the IEP. Nevertheless, it is a task that must be carefully planned to guarantee: (a) that the data collected is valid, i.e., that it measures the goal that it was designed to measure; (b) applicable, i.e., that the family consistently collects the intended data in the designed manner.
Use videoconferencing platforms to communicate with the family, co-constructing the appropriate system to collect data about the education process.
Evaluate the plan
In periods of uncertainty, as it happens during a lockdown, when families and schools are adjusting themselves to new routines and practices, there is an increased need to periodically evaluate the IEP, to understand if the goals that have been designed maintain its relevance, or if other priorities have emerged. Team meetings are fundamental at this point, and all participants should meet periodically.
Use videoconferencing platforms to organize meetings between the IEP team and the family, to evaluate the plan, based on the data collected and in a reflection about the pertinence of the defined goals.