How to Create Strengths-based IEPs
If asked, special educators can describe a range of characteristics about their students, emphasizing both strengths and needs. However, when asked to self-assess the Individualized Education Programs they’ve written, they often find limited information about their students’ strengths — and a lot of information about student weaknesses. This is an eye-opener for teachers who pride themselves on being effective advocates for their students.
Strengths-based IEPs are Essential
Everyone knows the IEP meeting is taking place because the student has a disability that adversely affects their education. Everyone also knows a student’s strengths can be leveraged to support self-esteem and growth. This knowledge is essential to the development of a high-quality IEP — but this section is skimmed over in many IEPs, leaving vital information on table. This is so wrong for so many reasons:
If we want kids to increase their participation in their IEPs and help them develop resilience and growth mindsets, we must reframe how we describe their assets and needs in both words and actions.
If we want parents to increase their participation in their child’s IEP, we need to do a better job of demonstrating we believe their kids are more than their disabilities!
If we want to increase the use of high-probability strategies, we must be clearer on what a student can do and what we want them to do next!
Strengths, Interests and Preferences
So, how can we shift from IEPs based on deficits to IEPs based on strengths? Let’s take a lesson from the “transition planning” playbook by engaging each student to consider their strengths, interests and preferences (S-I-P). Why? Because we know that, as students develop self-awareness, they are better able to set goals and determine what is required to achieve those goals. It also allows educators to intentionally use this information to better support the student. If we know this to be true for transition-age students, why not apply this for all students, regardless of age?
To reverse the current trend, cast a wide net to identify student strengths, interests, preferences, personal attributes and personal accomplishments, and consider the various types of strengths we all possess. Let’s look at some examples:
The student excels at — James is highly regarded by his peers as a leader.
The student does at grade/age level — Rachael can make appropriate inferences when reading grade level text.
The student does relatively well — Stephen’s auditory comprehension is a relative strength when compared with reading comprehension.
Knowledge of student interests allows teachers to help students make personal connections to the activity at hand. These connections help students sustain their efforts, and often help them persevere through challenges that might otherwise overwhelm them. Think about the child interested in space, who perseveres in reading complex text on the topic even though he struggles with comprehension, or the student who loves sports and can relate it to batting statistics even though he has a math disability.
Knowledge of student preferences allows teachers to create choices for students. Some students prefer to work alone; others are drawn to group work. Some students prefer to read text in hard copy; others prefer reading on a screen. Increasing options for choice-making is an evidenced-based practice that leads to increased engagement in the learning process. For example, a student may be willing to take greater academic risk and delve deeper into a topic when given the choice to make an oral vs. written presentation. That doesn’t mean the student won’t have to demonstrate his writing skills at other times, but if the primary purpose of the task is not about writing, providing choice can be very powerful.
Reframing Our Thoughts and Processes
A well-written IEP is the product of a well-executed process. Everyone can work toward shifting from deficit-based to strengths-based IEPs.
Prior to the IEP Meeting:
Provide students with explicit time to identify their strengths, interests and preferences. This ensures their voice is included in their IEP, and serves the dual purpose of on-going self-awareness and self-advocacy training.
Give parents guiding questions to consider about S-I-Ps. They bring the unique perspective of seeing their child in multiple non-school environments.
During the IEP Meeting:
Begin every IEP meeting with a discussion on S-I-Ps. Go around the table and have everyone contribute with examples.
Even if the student is not present, bring their thoughts from your prep sessions. A student’s own words will always have a more powerful effect on the adults in the room then the special educator’s.
Relate subsequent sections of the IEP back to the S-I-Ps. Reframe statements that are deficit-based to strengths-based whenever possible. Talk about what the student can do and what the student will do next.
The Final IEP
“Sam frequently misbehaves and is violent.”
“When frustrated, Sam may throw objects or push over his chair.”
Tell the Right Story
Nothing here should be construed as sugar-coating. The IEP process would not be happening at all if the student did not have identified needs and challenges. However, we have opportunities to Tell the Right Story — that this child is complex and has a jagged profile which includes needs as well as assets and talents. How we choose to emphasize, organize and describe them can make a powerful difference.