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Five Strategies to Limit the Burdens of Paperwork

The ERIC Clearinghouse on Disabilities and Gifted Education (ERIC EC)
E-mail: webmaster@hoagiesgifted.org
Internet: http://eric.hoagiesgifted.org
ERIC EC Digest #E654
Authors: Lynne Cook and K. Sarah Hall
December 2003

While the need for paperwork in special education is often viewed as burdensome, it has value and cannot be eliminated. There are strategies that teachers can use to handle paperwork more effectively and efficiently without reducing its value. It is first important to have a clear understanding of exactly what is meant when people refer to "paperwork." Interactions with teachers in hundreds of schools suggest that burdens associated with paperwork include collecting data from multiple records and professionals, arranging meeting times, making parent contacts, exchanging information with other professionals—all activities that require paperwork and may interfere with instructional time (Cook & Hall, in press). Perhaps, then, when teachers refer to "paperwork" they are also referring to other related challenges. If this is the case, "paperwork" serves as a "proxy" term that includes other associated activities.

If we accept that paperwork can be used as a proxy for associated time-consuming tasks, there is also a possibility that paperwork may become a general proxy for much non-instructional time. Encroachments on the time teachers spend on instruction derive from numerous factors, including standardized testing days, pre-holiday days, classroom schedules and arrangements, and so forth. "Down time," long settling-in routines, and repeated directions are all non-instructional activities that take time away from teaching (Smith, 2000).

This digest describes five approaches to coordinating and deriving meaning from what otherwise may seem to be disjointed paperwork tasks and documents. First, paperwork makes the most sense when we focus on the student's progress and use the curriculum as a reference point. Second, analyzing how one source of information can be used to communicate with different audiences can increase efficiency. Third, time-saving techniques can be applied to informal record-keeping such as progress monitoring, scheduling, and maintaining work samples and anecdotal records. Fourth, having a clear understanding of exactly what is needed to comply with legal policies can limit unnecessary work. Finally, having students take active roles in their own individualized education programs (IEPs) can help to ease the burden on teachers.

Strategy 1: Focus on the Student

When we allow ourselves to focus our primary attention on the needs of the students, we can make the most sense out of paperwork requirements. Our commitment to students requires that we take the time to step back, reflect on their needs, and provide leadership in developing and implementing the instructional plan. The time we spend reflecting and planning at the front end of the process will ensure that greater benefits are derived from subsequent time spent doing paperwork.

Think about the student's needs and consider the nature of the information that must be collected and systematically maintained for instructional as well as various compliance reasons, such as planning for, monitoring, and reporting student progress. When we ask ourselves what information will be needed, we can design strategies to collect information that will meet multiple needs. For example, what are the common data elements needed to fulfill IEP data requirements, make quarterly progress reports, or communicate with other professionals? Is it possible that data collected for local progress monitoring or assessment results can be used for these purposes?

It is helpful to remember that all instructional goals and objectives need to be developed and planned against a reference point—the curriculum. And, most typically, this will be the general education curriculum unless an approved alternative curriculum has been agreed upon. When proficiency measures and monitoring forms are available through the district, they can save time and help to maintain a closer alignment with general education frameworks and practices.

Strategy 2: Use One Source of Information to Communicate with Different Audiences

It is a useful exercise to think about how one could use a single data source as the basis for communication with different audiences: parents, teachers, other professionals, and students. One example would be to use curriculum-based assessment (CBA) as part of IEP evaluations and re-evaluations. Often, busy professionals grab a single measure, generally a standardized test, to assess students. But language in the reauthorization of IDEA (1997) includes, "use a variety of assessment tools and strategies to gather relevant functional and developmental information (20 U.S.C. sec. 1414 (b)(2)(A))…and assessment tools and strategies that provide relevant information that directly assist persons in determining the educational needs of the child." (20 U.S.C. sec. 1414 (b)(3)(D)). CBA or criterion-referenced measures are in line with this directive and also provide valuable information for designing and redesigning instruction and monitoring of student progress. Furthermore, if CBA is conducted in specific areas of student need as described in IEP goals, the results would be appropriate for quarterly progress reports to parents and for communication with other professionals. That is four for the price of one—efficiency at its finest!

Strategy 3: Save Time in Keeping Informal Records

Because grading, promotion, graduation, and program changes are based on individual goals and related progress, individualized and often informal records must be kept for students. These typically include informal monitoring of student progress, student schedules, work samples and anecdotal records.

Evaluating, recording, and maintaining student records may create additional paperwork. A number of time-saving suggestions are offered by Kronowitz (1992), including the following:

  • Plan to assess every other response (e.g., odd numbered or even numbered items) on activities with multiple examples of similar tasks or problems
  • Use a scoring key and have students score their own work
  • Create portfolios and progress charts that allow students to complete selected recording tasks themselves.
Also consider commercial, technologically based proficiency measures. Many textbooks are accompanied by proficiency measures, some of which may be completed by the student electronically. When this is appropriate and available, the computer maintains the scores and can generate many different types of data reports including item analysis, progress reports and so on.

Strategy 4: Understand Formal Paperwork Requirements

Considerable documentation is needed to comply with federal, state and local policies for educating students with disabilities. The IEP and the individualized family service plan (IFSP) are two critically important documents that have been expanded significantly in recent years. Other formally required documents include reports from locally adopted progress monitoring systems, testing and assessment results, reports for related services providers, and other required student performance reports such as behavior reports or medical observations.

Misconceptions about the actual requirements associated with IEPs and IFSPs abound. For example, behavior plans are now included in both IEPs and IFSPs in many states, but behavioral plans only need to be included in an IEP if a child's behavior impedes his or her learning or that of other students. And, although transition plans are required for students at a certain age, it may not be necessary to prepare a separate transition document if the services needed by the student can be addressed in the IEP.

Often, to protect themselves from litigation, state and local educational agencies require additional documentation beyond that required by federal regulations, and this results in even more paperwork. In discussing the U.S. Department of Education, Office of Special Education Programs' review of paperwork required by states, the National Education Association (NEA) reported that "One IEP package that was sent in was 43 pages long…the educators were told that most of what they were documenting was unnecessary under the new federal law" (Green, 2000). In fact, the Department of Education's sample IEP form is only 5 pages long.

In many districts, teachers are joining with local administrators to streamline paperwork and related processes. Schools are also developing creative ways to provide financial support for tracking paperwork, including paying part-time aides and clerical workers for additional hours of support and making arrangements for release time. Some solutions by districts, including hiring substitutes to cover classrooms so teachers can attend IEP meetings, recognize the time constraints on teachers, but do not succeed in increasing teacher time in instruction.

Strategy 5: Encourage Student Participation in IEPs

When the IEP is incorporated into lesson planning so that students take an active role in developing and monitoring their own educational programs, student skills in such areas as self-determination, awareness, and advocacy are developed (National Information Center for Children and Youth with Disabilities [NICHCY], 2002). This also provides a means of remaining focused on the student while maintaining legally compliant documents.

There are a variety of ways students can participate in the IEP process. The format and procedures for participation must be tailored to the student's age and degree of disability. NICHCY (2002) has published activities, audiotapes, and workbooks to encourage collaboration between teachers and older students with disabilities. A Student's Guide to the IEP (http://www.nichcy.org/pubs/stuguide/st1book.htm) provides step-by-step guidelines for walking students through the process of participating in the writing of their own IEPs. In general, the idea is to begin the process of IEP planning at the beginning of the year. After discussing what an IEP is and some of the language that is used, older students may participate in reviewing their own IEP. It's a good idea to discuss key ideas with them, such as what the general education curriculum is or terms such as "present level of performance" and "accommodations." With students who are able, we can take it a step further by having them revisit their IEPs periodically to provide feedback based on guided discussions. Sample questions for these discussions include

  • Are there goals, objectives, or benchmarks that students have met that need to be updated?
  • Are there other goals or objectives that the student would like to address?
  • Is the student able to recognize the connections between goals and objectives or benchmarks and his or her schoolwork?
This process may take the form of class discussions, individual seatwork, one-on-one conferences with the teacher and/or paraprofessional, and even homework with parental support. Then, when it comes time for an annual review, the teacher can draft various sections of the IEP using data gathered throughout the year, rather than in a last minute dash to the deadline. In all of this, privacy issues and age appropriateness play a major role and, as always, it is a good idea to inform parents of the plan and include them in the process if they are able to participate.

While paperwork can't be eliminated from the special education teacher's role, there are many forms of assistance to be drawn upon. Those mentioned in this digest are a few of the solutions developed by creative teachers and administrators to address the paperwork burden in special education.


Cook, L., & Hall, K.S. (in press). Making paperwork work for you and your students. In J. Burnette & C. Peters-Johnson (Eds.). Thriving as a special education teacher. Arlington, VA: The Council for Exceptional Children.

Smith, B. A. (2000). Quantity matters: Annual instructional time in an urban school system. Educational Administration Quarterly, Supplement, 36(5), 652-683.

Kronowitz, E. L. (1992) Your first year of teaching. (2nd ed.). White Plains, NY: Longman.

Green, M. Y. (2000, November). Taming the paper tiger. NEA Today Online, Cover Story. Retrieved October 11, 2002, from http://www.nea.org/neatoday/0011/cover.html

National Information Center for Children and Youth with Disabilities (NICHCY). (2002). A Student's Guide to the IEP. (Retreived October 11, 2002, from http://www.nichcy.org/pubs/stuguide/st1book.htm.

This digest is based on Cook, L. & Hall, S.K. (in press). Making Paperwork Work for You and Your Students. In J. Burnette and C. Peters-Johnson (Eds.), Thriving as a Special Education Teacher. Arlington, VA: Council for Exceptional Children.

ERIC Digests are in the public domain and may be freely reproduced and disseminated, but please acknowledge your source. This digest was prepared with funding from the Institute of Education Sciences (IES), U.S. Department of Education, under Contract No. ED-99-CO-0026. The opinions expressed in this publication do not necessarily reflect the positions or policies of IES or the Department of Education.

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