Strength-Based IEPs: How Focusing on the Whole Child Can Transform Your IEP

This year, we launched our long-anticipated IEP Exploration series with Dr. Caitlin Solone, education advocate, teacher-educator, and faculty at UCLA, to explore how focusing on the whole child can transform our IEPs. As many of us know too well, society tends to take a deficit-based approach to disability, which creates a limited view of what children with disabilities can achieve in school and throughout their entire lives. By building IEPs that are focused on children’s strengths rather than deficiencies, we can help create a learning environment that allows our children to grow into the capable people they are.

Consider some of the negative phrases that IEP teams often associate with children: 

 

These words don’t have to define our kids. With the support of Dr. Solone and all the parents who joined us, we now have several tools and strategies at hand that we can bring to future IEP meetings. As Dr. Solone said, “Creating strength-based IEPs will help people see your children as individuals who make up an important part of our community and society.”

The first step in building a strength-based IEP is to create a vision statement for your child. We’ll walk you through the steps you need to get there.

 

 



Because IEPs are the documents that teachers first read when they get new students, IEPs shape their first impressions of our kids. Dr. Solone explained that many educators are trained to write IEPs that only focus on the details of a child’s disabilities and the tasks they’re unable to do, which forms the trajectory of that child’s entire school career.

Traditional IEP language often includes statements like, “Charlotte has a five-second attention span,” or “Annica has severe autism and frequent tantrums, bites and kicks when frustrated, and does not have a conventional means of communication.” Dr. Solone asked, do these student profiles provide information that will help these students thrive? Unfortunately, without showing teachers your child’s entire being, the answer is usually no. And that’s where strength-based IEPs come into play.

  • Strength-based IEPs foster self-determination, self-efficacy, self-control, and academic achievement
    • They are effective because they focus on the whole child — not just a child’s disabilities. 
    • Focusing on the whole child means writing IEPs in a positive way that honors a student’s abilities, possibilities, interests, and support needs

 

 




Explicit and implicit biases, or conscious and unconscious attitudes and beliefs, shape how we all understand disability — and this includes how schools and IEP teams decide what our children are or are not capable of.

  • As parents and members of our children’s IEP teams, asking ourselves questions to shift our own perspectives will help us pinpoint and communicate our child’s strengths to the rest of the IEP team — thus challenging the biases that are limiting how our children are perceived in school.
  • This means changing our mindset and language from “My child can’t complete this task” to “How can we make it possible for my child to complete this task?”
    • Ask yourself, “What are my child’s strengths? How can we use those strengths to support this specific IEP goal?”
  • When you’re identifying your child’s strengths, remember to focus on the whole child — not just percentages, numbers, and data from school records.
  • Once you identify your child’s strengths, own the fact that you know your child’s abilities and passions better than any other person on the IEP team. As one parent shared with us, “We know better than anybody if our child can be pushed or challenged further, and that should be reflected in the IEP goals.”
     


 

 

  • During our small-group explorations, one parent of a child with dysgraphia shared that her son is a great typist. Yet, before distance learning, her child “was forced to write a sentence five times before he was allowed to type. It was like he was being punished, instead of encouraged to learn his way. Now that he’s distance learning, typing is the only option, so he’s typing all of his work and thriving.” Typing is clearly one of this child’s strengths, and should be presented to the IEP team as a skill to help him achieve writing goals.
  • Another parent shared that her child is nonverbal and has a goal to improve his reading skills. His existing strengths are that he makes good eye contact and can communicate with sign language. The ability to sign is a strength, so the parent can develop a goal for her child to learn more signs.
  • A parent shared that one of her son’s strengths is that he is a visual learner, which led to that parent developing a goal for him to recognize days on a visual schedule and comprehend the preferred activity that will happen that day.
  • Another parent shared that their child has severe dyslexia, but as a result is also a strong visual learner. Using this information, the parent can start with small reading goals that play to their kid's abilities: sight word lists, audiobooks about topics that interest them (like movie directors!), and eventually, finding a reading remediation program that works with these strengths. (None of us should have to do this alone!)
  • Remember that strength-based IEPs are not just for academic goals! One parent shared that her child is friendly and loves helping others — two wonderful attributes. The parent said an area where her child can improve is asking about other kids’ interests instead of focusing on his own. The parent left our exploration with a goal for her son to ask other children about their interests and report them back.
  • Another parent developed goals to improve their child's social skills — particularly their reciprocal communication. A strength is that they’re friendly, so a new goal is to instigate playing a game with one of their friends.
  • Art and music can also be part of your child’s strength-based goals. One parent shared that a goal for her child is to memorize phone numbers using music. Another shared that her child has newly started communicating — mostly through art — which prompted her to create goals related to art therapy, art clubs, and art projects. Get creative! If your child responds to music or visual art and is skilled at singing, playing an instrument, illustrating, or painting, you can incorporate music and art projects into their goals. 

 




Developing a strength-based IEP includes writing a vision statement about the future you want for your child. “It’s what we want out of life for our child and what our child wants out of life,” Dr. Solone said. Unfortunately, vision statements are not automatically included in IEPs; in fact, Dr. Solone has never seen them included in any California school district, which is all the more reason for us to advocate for their inclusion. If vision statements were incorporated into every child’s IEP template, we as parents would have a new way to communicate goals to the IEP team and receive more effective support. As one parent put it, a vision statement represents a “stepping stone to a successful life.”

Begin creating a powerful vision statement with this template. (You'll need to make your own copy of this document in order to write on the template, so click "File" and then select "Make a copy" from the drop-down menu.) When you’re writing your statement, consider using these kinds of phrases:

  • Obtain meaningful employment
  • Volunteer in the community
  • Take part in meaningful social activities
  • Develop meaningful friendships
  • Pursue post-secondary educational opportunities

“Establishing a vision statement early [in a child’s life] helps the IEP team stay grounded in what matters and the destination where you and your child want to go,” Dr. Solone said. Transition plans later in a child’s school career often include similar ideas as a vision statement, but as Dr. Solone said, this “transition period” really starts before kindergarten, because K–12 education in its entirety helps students transition into adulthood.

  • If your child’s school does not include a vision statement in their IEP, you can request that it go into the parent comment section or addendum, or be added as its own section. Dr. Solone recommends asking your child’s IEP team if they’d like to collaborate on the vision statement with you, but it’s perfectly acceptable to write it on your own if there is resistance from the team.
  • Practice writing a vision statement before your next IEP meeting
    • Write at least one goal you would like your child to work on in the coming year that will help you reach the end goal you envision for your child.





Dr. Solone led us in a visualization exercise to help parents connect with their goals for their children’s futures. When you need inspiration for your child’s vision statement,
follow Dr. Solone’s instructions in this video.

  • During our explorations, one parent visualized her son picking up his backpack and happily going to school without fear of bullying, shaming, or being left out.
  • Think of one word that describes how you want others to view your child. Multiple parents said they wanted their child to be seen as capable, independent, and happy,  as well as creative, artistic, imaginative, and kind.

We are so grateful for every parent who explored strength-based IEPs with us, shared their experiences in IEP meetings, and amazed us with stories of all that their children can and want to do.

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