IEP 101: How to Develop a Strength-Based IEP
Students with disabilities have historically encountered low expectations from educators and administrators due to the misinformation and deficit-thinking that has shaped societal understanding of disability. Strength-based IEPs are an approach to special education that challenge this limiting mindset by focusing on and utilizing the skills your child already has.
Instead of blaming a student’s lack of progress on their disability, strength-based IEPs first look outward to identify which barriers to learning may prevent a student from making further progress (e.g., communication, mobility, physical environment, sight, reading skills). Then, the IEP team uses your child’s existing strengths, abilities, and interests to think creatively about how to best minimize those barriers and increase their access to the curriculum through their strengths. No matter the academic subject, a strength-based approach helps the team develop an IEP that holistically and accurately reflects your child’s present levels so that they can continue to progress. We reached out to Dr. Caitlin Solone, education advocate, teacher educator, and faculty at UCLA, to find out how to take a strength-based approach to the IEP.
The benefits of strength-based IEPs
By not focusing on limitations or deficits, strength-based IEPs position students with disabilities as valuable, capable, and contributing members of their classrooms and school communities.
Prioritizing your child’s strengths helps educators develop appropriately challenging goals and objectives in their curriculum. It also ensures that services and supports provided for your child will work to actively enhance skills and eliminate barriers to learning.
Creating a vision statement
Taking a strength-based approach
Creating a strength-based IEP may require the IEP team to shift their mindset and language to not stigmatize disability or ignore your child’s skills, but the actual procedure does not require different forms or documents.
You can push the IEP team in the direction of a strength-based approach by modeling inclusive language in your conversations with the team and requesting changes to any language in the IEP document that focuses on limitations. Talk about how the team can support your child in doing their best and how you all can work with your child’s strengths — not about how your child can “overcome” a disability that’s innately part of who they are. The idea of overcoming implies that your child’s disability is something to fix and focuses on limitations.
Your child’s strengths and needs will be detailed in the Present Levels of Performance (PLOP) section of the IEP. One way to model inclusive language is to make sure the description of your child in the PLOP section begins with listing their strengths (e.g., they are hard working, love science, are always quick to help a friend) instead of describing their limitations (they struggle with behaviors, reading, etc.). Building the IEP around a student’s strengths changes a team’s approach and expectations for that child for the better.
IEP goals should be written using the SMART — specific, measurable, achievable, relevant, timely — design. The team can employ a strength-based perspective by writing goals that include information about what is already working. For example, a goal might begin by listing specific supports, accommodations, and strategies a child uses successfully, such as a graphic organizer, math manipulatives, etc., that may be incrementally removed or adjusted as the child masters the skill. For more information about strength-based strategies and accommodations, see below.
The IEP team will need to prioritize strength-based assessment measures and consider input from every person on the team — and they must especially prioritize input from those who know your child best: you and your child.
You can provide strength-based information about your child’s progress by:
- Tracking new skills they’ve acquired year by year.
- Keeping a general list of your child’s strengths, accomplishments, and interests that you can share with the IEP team.
Examples of strength-based accommodations
- If a student doesn’t use verbal language to communicate, but that student likes images and has no difficulty with fine motor skills, then the team could implement a picture exchange system or iPad as a communication system. This method allows the student to express their wants, needs, and emotions while utilizing their strengths.
- If a highly verbal student has difficulty with fine motor skills and spelling, the student may be permitted to type, use spell check software, or dictate using speech-to-text to compose their writing assignments.
- For students who excel at comprehension but struggle with reading, provide and encourage access to audio recordings through digital libraries such as Bookshare and Libby.
- If a student likes math and is able to grasp math concepts but has a hard time with basic arithmetic, you may provide them with an accessible, easy-to-use calculator or a calculator app on their device.
Remember, if the IEP team tells you that your child “can’t” meet a certain goal or can’t execute a certain skill because of their disability, you have the right to advocate for a strength-based curriculum by providing examples of your child’s abilities. For example, if the school argues that your child doesn’t need assistive technology (AT) due to their intellectual disability, you can respond by saying something like, “My child can make choices, so she needs an AT program that lets her pick from auditory multiple choice steps.”
It is the school’s job to use your child’s strengths to make the curriculum accessible and their goals appropriately challenging, and an IEP meeting is the perfect place to bring that up.