UW–Madison’s Andrea Ruppar is the lead author of a new book released this spring that is titled, “Equitable and Inclusive IEPs for Students with Complex Support Needs.”
Ruppar’s work provides a “step-by-step guide” for creating student-centered IEPs — or individualized education programs — for students who receive special education services in schools.
“The book describes a set of effective practices that administrators and special educators can use as a guide,” says Ruppar, an associate professor of special education with the School of Education’s Department of Rehabilitation Psychology and Special Education. “The book centers on the most current and evidence-based practices in the field of special education that also align with what we know is ethical and effective.”
According to Ruppar, kids with complex support needs — whose disability labels are usually some combination of intellectual disability, physical disability, health impairments, or autism — are often excluded from general education. This is due to the need for specially designed instruction and supplementary aids and services throughout the day.
However, research demonstrates that separate environments are not necessary to support student learning. In fact, such efforts unnecessarily separate students with complex needs from their peers without disabilities. The steps, resources, and ideas this book provides will allow teachers and parents to best support their students and create an accessible educational experience for them in the least restrictive environment.
The book highlights a range of helpful strategies and practices, including efforts related to: assembling an effective IEP team; deciding how to make data-based educational decisions; collaborating with families during IEP development; and more. The book provides reflection activities, resources, references, downloads, amongst others.
“Parts of the book serve as a reference guide,” Ruppar says. “It’s a summary of research translated into a series of actionable steps a team can take.”
The book is co-authored by Jennifer Kurth, an associate professor of special education at the University of Kansas.
Ruppar explains that she became interested in this subject earlier in her career when she was working with autistic children as a music teacher. Then, after she became a special education teacher, she discovered the difficulty of creating IEPs “because of competing interests of the legal aspects, individual and collective interpretations of policies and best practices, and the reality of what might be best for a child.”
Ruppar says that the book is written for educators and school administrators, those who are studying to become teachers, and families of children with complex support needs. Children with complex support needs only represent about 1 percent of students with disabilities. Because of this, many educators don’t have experience working with these children.
“For any educator working with a student who has complex support needs, the first place to start is with the family,” says Ruppar. “If the family and school are not working together, it’s going to be quite difficult for the student to make meaningful progress toward important goals.”
She adds: “What we hope is that educational teams could pick this up, and start to craft an equitable and really meaningful educational program for their students.”
To develop the text, Ruppar and Kurth studied IEPs and identified common errors that led to inequitable access opportunities. They discovered that it was clear when an educator was using a “systems-centered” rather than “student-centered” approach. Ruppar reveals that there were “documents where students are essentially blamed for the problems that they have in school — rather than using the IEP as a tool to ensure that schools are designed for kids to learn.”
Ruppar and Kurth wrote the book to help teams understand how to create student-centered IEPs, which prioritize important goals, build on students’ strengths, and offer students the chance to learn in the least restrictive educational environment.
Ruppar also played a leading role in publishing another recent book, “High Level Practices and Students with Extensive Support Needs.” Ruppar co-edited this work, which was released earlier in 2023, with: Robert Pennnington of the University of North Carolina-Charlotte; Melinda Jones Ault of the University of Kentucky; Ginevra Courtade of the University of Louisville; and J. Matt Jameson of the University of Utah. This work examines similar themes and “detailed supports for implementing (high-leverage practices) to ensure every student has access to all aspects of their school community.”
Ruppar adds, “I think conversations around equity right now are really pushing the field forward in thinking about how many students are marginalized in schools, and ways we can create more equitable and inclusive systems for all students.”