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 our understanding of disability. Taking a strength-based approach to special education challenges 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 start by focusing on the whole child, strengths first. They look outward to identify which barriers to learning may prevent a student from making further progress (e.g., in communication, physical mobility, sight, reading skills, and more). 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 your child’s access to the curriculum through their strengths. 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.
What is a strength-based IEP and what are the benefits?
Because IEPs are often the first documents that teachers read when they get new students, they tend to shape the first impression teachers get of our kids. Dr. Solone tells us 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 asks, do these student profiles provide information that will help these students thrive? Unfortunately, without showing teachers your child’s whole self, the answer is usually no. And that’s where strength-based IEPs come into play.
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. As Dr. Solone says, “Creating strength-based IEPs will help people see your children as individuals who make up an important part of our community and society.”
In short, strength-based IEPs foster greater self-determination, independence, and academic skills.
- 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.
Keep in mind that while 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, it does not require a special form or document. Any parent can ask that the team take this approach during their IEP meeting.
Focusing on your child’s strengths
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. Prioritizing your child’s strengths helps educators develop appropriately challenging IEP 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.
- 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 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.”
In this clip, Dr. Solone describes how strength-based IEPs utilize your child's strengths in order to make progress in their areas of need:
How to incorporate a strength-based approach into your child’s IEP
To start, you can push the IEP team in the direction of a strength-based approach by modeling inclusive language in your conversations and requesting changes to any language in the IEP document that 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.
The IEP team can also 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.
(Many other examples can be found in our article on accommodations.)
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 obligation 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.
Some examples of how to turn strengths into IEP goals
Wondering how to turn your child’s strengths into IEP goals? In our IEP Exploration series with Dr. Solone, parents shared how they created strengths-based IEP goals:
- 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 nonspeaking but 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.
- Yet another parent shared that a goal for her child is to memorize phone numbers using music because of that strength.
- Get creative! If your child responds to music or is skilled at singing or playing an instrument, you can incorporate music into their goals.
Creating a vision statement
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.” When writing your strength-based vision 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.
If you’re struggling to create a vision statement or strength-based goals, Dr. Solone recommends visualization exercises to help parents connect with their goals for their children’s futures. You can try visualizing words that describe how you want others to view your child, such as “capable,” “independent,” and “happy.” You can try visualizing your child going to school without fear of bullying, shaming, or being left out. Or, you can visualize your child happily graduating high school, and all the emotions that accompany that moment. If you need inspiration for your child’s vision statement, follow Dr. Solone’s guided visualization in this video: