IEP’s: Is the Pursuit of Flexibility Meeting Best Practice Standards?
One of the most valuable characteristics of an effective school social worker is the ability to be flexible. My short time in the field has already taught me that my Outlook calendar is only an “ideal” itinerary of what my day will bring.
The office in which I work appears to have a revolving door that brings in a stream of students, nurses, administrators, counselors, teachers, and other social workers bearing gifts in the form of actionable items that add to an ever-growing “To Do:” list.
Trips across the school are rarely follow direct paths and often contain numerous detours and layovers.
And let’s not forget the formidable crisis situation with its power wipe out an entire day’s agenda with a single wave of its hand.
Indeed, flexibility and its sisters: time management, prioritizing, and the ability to say “No” are the indispensable survival tools of the school social worker.
But what of those things that can’t be rearranged? More specifically, how does a school social worker meet the requirements of the IEP in a profession that demands flexibility?
There are two ways that I have witnessed school social workers making IEP requirements more flexible:
- Establishing annual minutes as opposed to weekly or monthly minutes
- Defining the minutes as Counseling Services rather than Social Work Services
These approaches may indeed increase flexibility and are within the confines of IDEA 2004, but they also create opportunities for abuse.
Annual Minutes vs. Weekly or Monthly Minutes
Weekly minutes are difficult to adhere to–especially with shortened weeks, holidays, conferences, and the aforementioned crises situations. However, using annual minutes can may permit a social worker to have a lackadaisical attitude towards providing timely services.
“I’m really busy this week. I’ll just double up on his/her sessions next week.”
With annual minutes, a social worker could, theoretically, avoid seeing students with low minute requirements for long periods of time. For example, a student with annual minutes that average 15 minutes per week could be seen for 30 minutes a week for only half of the school year.
The reverse situation may also occur. The students may receive services that exceed his/her minute requirements in a particular week/month. The social worker may then feel justified in delaying the next appointment due to other pressing needs of the school or another student.
Counseling Services vs. Social Work Services
IDEA defines counseling services as follows:
(2) Counseling services means services provided by qualified social workers, psychologists, guidance counselors, or other qualified personnel. [§300.34(c)(2)]
Using counseling services allows for a greater number of professionals to meet the student’s minutes, but it also raises a number of concerns.
Assigning counseling services does not define who will be responsible for delivering the services.
Can a student see a guidance counselor one week, the psychologist the next, and the social worker the week after and have all meetings count towards minutes?
Are the guidance counselors able to provide counseling minutes if they don’t have a state counseling licence?
If staff other than the social workers are providing services, are they also tracking on the IEP goals and quarterly updates? Do they attend the IEP meetings?
Deciding to use counseling services, like using annual minutes, appears to create an environment where best practices are more easily compromised.
It is possible to maintain best practices even while employing these strategies. The terms of the IEP do not dictate the level of integrity within the school social worker. I believe many school social workers would continue to provide the best services possible, no matter the terms of the counseling minutes. I also believe, however, that when there is potential for abuse, there are those who will exploit it. Maintaining accountability helps ensure that children with disabilities will get the appropriate services.
I am a school social work intern with limited experience in the complexities of IEP’s. I am merely making observations and synthesizing classroom knowledge in an effort to better understand the issues impacting best practices. I realize that I may have overlooked information that could add to or better explain the preceding discussion. I welcome any comments or criticism from more experienced social workers that can shed additional light on the issues of using annual minutes or assigning counseling services rather than social work services.
Here’s a re-post of a discussion on this article in the NASW LinkedIn Group:
Chris Morawski: Very interesting thoughts. This may feel somewhat like a cop out response, but here is how I feel about therapy service time. It depends on the child. The whole point of an IEP is to address the individual issues of each child. I believe there absolutely are children who will benefit from talk therapy, but when that happens is not as critical. You can do annual minutes and fudge the schedule when necessary. At the same time there are children who are in an external situation or a mental health state where that will not work. I think as you get more experience, you get a feel for the difference. This is exactly why there are not hard and fast rules about the details of specific IEPs. If the team agrees that it should work, you can meet the needs of the child and your own time considerations.
Scott Carchedi: Chris, thank you for your thoughtful reply. I understand your point about the difference in the urgency of each child’s needs. I also understand that not all children respond to talk therapy. My past experiences have been solely in clinical work. In that setting, treatment plans were adjusted according to the child’s response to the interventions–albeit much, much more frequently than annual reviews. I guess I’m wondering why the IEP would not have consultation minutes instead of direct service minutes if the child would benefit from irregular sessions?
Chris Morawski: I have not been involved with an IEP team where intensive counseling services were in discussion but as I understand, it’s a function of the bureaucratic requirements. Because IEPs must be approved whenever they are changed, you can’t update them the way you would a treatment plan in a practical way. So some teams are a little heavy with resources when they might be needed. Once they are in the IEP they have to be provided, but if the resources are not in the IEP, you are at the whim of fluctuating school resources. For example, a student who really should be speaking with a social worker or psychologist may end up being seen by a guidance counselor if the IEP isn’t specific. Also you need to keep in mind that the people who did the assessments on the child are not always heavily involved with the IEP process. At times it is only the special education coordinator, teachers, and parents having the discussion based on reports. Yes ideally, therapists should be involved, but they are not always.
Scott Carchedi: Thank you, Chris. You’ve helped clear up a murky issue.
Just a note, recording the minutes as “counseling” minutes is NOT the way to go. Guidance counselors do not receive nearly the same training as do school social workers, for one. I speak as one who worked with a guidance counselor & had to instruct her on crisis counseling and determining lethality in suicide thoughts & gestures before I left the building to attend a workshop… She was newly graduated, and only had a very few courses in actual “counseling.” Just not a good idea for the benefits of your students, but also for the preservation of school social workers with our very specialized skills and training.
@MKLMSW Those are my concerns exactly. Where I see this taking place is the result of a district wide decision to use “counseling minutes”. I was not around when the decision was being made and I am not completely aware of the rationale behind it.
@ScottCarchedi They are trying to replace SSW’s with the people they employ to also be in charge of state testing, etc…
@MKLMSW I’ve heard some grumblings of social workers feeling like school counselors and school psychs have been encroaching on their territory, but these were conversations in passing. Being new to the field, I don’t have a strong understanding of how things have changed (and are currently changing). I’m also not clear on the motivation to replace SSW’s. Is it coming from the school counselor and psych organizations wanting a bigger piece of the pie? Or is this a funding issue and administrators are trying to cut costs?What would be the benefit to the replacing us with the people who are also in charge of state testing? Perhaps you could elaborate on your understanding of these threats.