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  • Denver Leigh

The Power of the PLAAFP: Seven strategies for developing an efficient IEP

Updated: Jan 26, 2022

Written by Melissa N. Walsh Co-Authored and Edited by Denver Leigh and Jessica Lenhart

The world of special education is ruled by the Individualized Education Plan (IEP) which is inherently full of many important components, not to mention a few notable confusing acronyms. The broad span of the IEP can often feel overwhelming to the educational practitioners who are responsible for developing them. Teachers cite a lack of training and the time-consuming nature of developing the IEP as barriers to creating a quality document (Capizzi, 2008; Jung et al., 2008). Likewise, parents can feel lost in trying to navigate the complex language and the scope of the IEP.

It is no secret a well-written IEP is integral to providing high-quality special education services to students with disabilities. Every IEP must include a statement of the student’s present level of academic achievement and functional performance. This section known by the acronym PLAAFP, includes descriptions of the student’s present strengths, interests, progress, and needs. This information details how the student’s disability impacts their involvement and progress in the general education curriculum or participation in age-appropriate activities (Capizzi, 2008; Hedin & DeSpain, 2018; Heroux, J., 2018). It is important to note the PLAAFP gives information about how a student is performing academically in various subject areas, as well as how they function in daily routine activities. Functional skills can vary based on the individual student. Common functional skills and activities include problem-solving, organizing, dressing, eating, and using the bathroom. Additionally, it can include social skills such as making friends and communicating with others. Descriptions of how a student behaves in various settings is included as a functional skill as well. Ultimately, the PLAAFP should paint a clear picture of how the student is performing within the school environment on any given school day. As a teacher myself, I love the process of writing the PLAAFP as it affords me the opportunity to really outline what a student can do, what they currently know, and areas in which they need to be supported. Reflecting upon a students’ strengths and needs is both necessary and rewarding for me, as it allows me to see how to continue to build upon a student’s current skills and abilities. The PLAAFP’s importance cannot be overstated as it is the foundational guideline for selecting and designing an educational program to meet all of a student’s unique academic and functional needs (Capizzi, 2008; Hedin & DeSpain, 2018; Heroux, J., 2018; Yell et al., 2016). As an educator, I take seriously the role of the PLAAFP in guiding the direction for the student’s educational program. The insight and the level of detail that I incorporate into the PLAAFP are directly related to the quality of the entire IEP and ultimately, the quality of the student’s educational program.

Given the importance of the PLAAFP it is of the utmost importance that educators have the skills necessary to develop a high-quality PLAAFP statement. While this can seem daunting, educators need to know that a well-written PLAAFP is easily achievable. It is imperative IEP teams make certain the content of a student’s IEP is relevant and appropriate to the student’s needs. A way to ensure this relevancy is to use multiple, current data sources to adequately indicate a student’s academic and functional levels of performance (Capizzi, 2008; Hauser, 2017; Yell et al., 2016). Depending too much on one type of assessment or on outdated data can skew our perception of student achievement and result in an ineffective IEP.

My colleagues and I collect data on students throughout the entire school day for each subject area. This data is collected through a balanced assessment system that utilizes formative, benchmark, and summative assessments. The data collected is analyzed and incorporated into the PLAAFP statement when the IEP is being developed.

Formative assessments allow a teacher to gather data on an on-going basis about student learning and progress. These typically include well-crafted questions, exit tickets, quizzes, performance checks, do-nows, and anecdotal observations. Formative assessments are an important part of the daily instructional process as they are typically incorporated seamlessly into classroom practice. Formative assessments are powerful because they provide information while instruction is taking place which allows the teacher to adjust the lesson while it’s happening to maximize learning for the students. As an educator, I work hard to capture and consistently use the data available to me through daily formative assessments including incorporating relevant information in the student’s PLAAFP statement.

Teachers should beware of adding their opinions, values-based or vague descriptions when analyzing daily classroom data. This ultimately undermines the foundational nature of the PLAAFP. Ensuring the objectivity of what is included in the PLAAFP only serves to strengthen the effectiveness of the student’s educational program.

Benchmark assessments are utilized to determine student progress on academic standards at specific points in the school year. These are typically administered at the beginning, middle, and end of the year. Benchmarks are helpful in identifying students’ academic strengths and weaknesses which helps guide future instruction. Educators analyze which questions students miss and create individualized instructional opportunities based on their needs. The information gathered from the benchmarks is pertinent when writing the PLAAFP as this helps determine relevant educational goals and objectives for the student.

Summative assessments measure student mastery of academic content and standards. Popular summative assessments include the end of the chapter and end of unit exams, research reports, and standardized state assessments. Much like the benchmark assessments, I use the data from the summative assessments to help determine which academic standards a student needs further support to achieve.

Pertinent information from diagnostic assessments may also be included in the PLAAFP as these provide information about what the student knows and can do before instruction begins (Capizzi, 2008; Hauser, 2017; Jung et al., 2008; Maryland Online IEP, n.d.). Diagnostic information is typically acquired by a learning consultant or psychologist on the child study team (CST). Examples of popular diagnostic assessments include the Woodcock-Johnson and the WISC. Depending on the format of the IEP, a summary of results from the diagnostic assessment is typically included by the evaluators; however, it should also be communicated within the PLAAFP to help parents and educators understand how to apply the data and recommendations to the student’s educational program.

Educators may feel overwhelmed with the task of collecting, analyzing, and including so many different types of data in the PLAAFP. However, the current and diverse assessment information is paramount to developing the measurable goals and objectives in the IEP (Capizzi, 2008; Heroux, 2018). A well-written PLAAFP statement with current data allows educational practitioners to measure a student’s progress and compare it to previous levels. Viewing this as a baseline of a student’s performance will ultimately allow the school to show that the IEP resulted in meaningful educational growth (Hauser, 2017; Maryland Online IEP, n.d.; Yell et al., 2016). Additionally, when analyzing the data, we are best able to determine which interventions are needed for a student moving forward. The PLAAFP ultimately provides a roadmap for educators to determine the direction and scope of what the student needs.

Often educators will leave information from the previous year’s PLAAFP and simply add to it for the current year. This inclusion of old, outdated information results in a very confusing IEP that is irrelevant and ineffective. It is important to remember the PLAAFP is the foundation of the IEP, so the information must be relevant, objective, and current.

The IEP process is naturally overwhelming for families of students with disabilities. As an educator, I am always looking for ways to make the process easier to understand for parents. First and foremost, it is essential that the PLAAFP is written in a family-friendly language (Capizzi, 2008; Yell et al., 2016). I make a concerted effort to go easy on the acronyms and I work hard at explaining the information in a manner that everyone can easily understand. Making the PLAAFP more comprehensible doesn’t take away from the inherent need to ensure that the information is precise enough so that a goal can be developed and progress can be monitored (Heroux, J., 2018; Maryland Online IEP, n.d.; Yell et al., 2016). Heroux (2016) suggests offering parents a one-page, quick reference guide of frequently used terms and acronyms prior to an IEP meeting.

*For quick reference, the Printable Toolbox page on the Advo-Kids website has a guide you may find helpful. Follow this link to access the guide and download The ABC’s of Special Education.

Yell et al., (2016) recommends asking a colleague to read the PLAAFP statement with the student’s name omitted. I always find it helpful to draw upon the perspective and expertise of my colleagues when writing IEPs. I often run ideas by them regarding what data to include and how to word the information being captured and communicated. Are they able to identify the strengths and weaknesses of the student based on what you have written? Their feedback can help identify whether the PLAAFP is written with adequate detail.

Insight from parents contains a wealth of information about their child that we educators may not always have ourselves. As an educator, I value the parents’ perspective and seek to gain their point of view through many different means, such as frequent phone conversations, e-mail exchanges, surveys, and parent-teacher conferences. Including information from the parents’ perspective only serves to strengthen the PLAAFP statement. Information parents may be asked to supply includes: insight about motivation, attention, and engagement (Capizzi, 2008; Hedin & DeSpain, 2018; Heroux, 2018; Maryland Online IEP, n.d.). To avoid this common mistake of not including parental input, establish your systems of communication upfront and keep a running record of your engagement with parents. Their knowledge is invaluable to the IEP process.

*For quick reference, the Printable Toolbox page on the Advo-Kids website has a guide you may find helpful. Follow this link to access the guide and download the Parent Input Organizer.

Writing an exceptional and effective PLAAFP statement doesn’t need to be an overwhelming process. Remembering to include individualized, well-documented, and relevant data-based information will create a strong foundational document to guide the educational plan for the student. This level of individualization and detail as it pertains to a student’s present levels sets high expectations for their achievement. Likewise, it holds educators to a standard of excellence and fidelity in implementing a high-quality educational program for students with disabilities.

The Power of the PLAAFP Seven Strategies
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References Capizzi, A. M. (2008). From assessment to annual goal: Engaging a decision-making process in writing measurable IEPs. Teaching Exceptional Children, 41(1), 18-25. Hauser, M. D., (2017). The essential and interrelated components of evidence-based IEPs: A user’s guide. Teaching Exceptional Children, 49(6), 420-428. Hedin, L., & DeSpain, S. (2018). Smart or not? Writing specific, measurable IEP goals. Teaching Exceptional Children, 51(2), 100-110. Heroux, J., (2018). Understanding and developing high-quality IEPs: Strategies for pre-planning, drafting, collaborating, and facilitating. Retrieved from Jung, L. A., Gomez, C., Baird, S. M., & Keramidas (2008). Designing Intervention Plans: Bridging the gap between individualized education programs and implementation. Teaching Exceptional Children, 41(1), 26-33. Maryland Online IEP. (n.d.) Learning Modules: PLAAFP. Retrieved from Yell, M. L., Katsiyannis, A., Ennis, R. P., Losinski, M., & Christle, C. A. (2016). Avoiding Substantive Errors in Individualized Education Program Development. Teaching Exceptional Children, 49(1), 31-40.

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