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We Need to Talk About Social Skills Development and IEPs

“Friends multiply joy and divide grief.” Cicero

What are your most significant school memories?  Probably not basic fractions, but definitely your best friend.  Maybe you can’t recall historical dates, but you can’t forget your first date.  You never mastered literature, geometry, or physics, but you learned lessons about being a friend, losing a friend, and how to live and work with others.

Many students with disabilities find social situations challenging. They leave school unable to build meaningful relationships, cooperate at work, and sustain systems of support in their lives.

So why don’t we talk about social skills at IEP meetings?  Parents who worry about this are often told they are more concerned with socialization than education.

In fact, the law says socialization is part of education.  Building social skills should be a key piece of the Individualized Educational Plan (“IEP”).  The value of consistent, positive peer relationships must be considered when determining program and placement.

Special Education Includes Social Skills

According to IDEA (the main federal special education law), the IEP must address both academic achievement and “functional performance,” which includes social skills.  20 U.S.C. § 1414 (d)(1)(A)(i)(I).  The IEP is supposed to prepare students “to lead productive and independent adult lives,” which requires working cooperatively and sustaining systems of support. 20 U.S.C. § 1400 (c)(5)(A)(ii).

The federal courts have said an IEP must “target all of a child’s special needs, whether they be academic, physical, emotional, or social.” Lenn (1st Cir. 1993).  Educational benefit means more than “purely academic progress.” Roland M. (1st Cir. 1990).

“Learning to associate, communicate and

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