How to Develop a Strength-Based IEP

Nov. 11, 2020Updated Oct. 7, 2022

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.

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.

Creating a vision statement

Imagine raising your child as a beautiful, scenic, adventurous road trip. Destination: adulthood. Once there, your child may engage in a number of different activities — leisure, community engagement, college, trade school, employment, supported employment. The key to a successful trip is to sustain high expectations for your child so they have as many options as possible once they’ve arrived. Which opportunities does your child need during their journey to learn the skills necessary for living a meaningful, fulfilling, self-directed life? What beliefs and barriers will need to be removed to provide your child with the most dynamic path?

You have mapped out 13 stops along the way — grades K–12. Your child will need to develop important skills at each of these stops. At each stop, the IEP team joins you until you arrive at the next one. Some of these team members ride along to several stops with you; others are there for just one. At each stop, you and the team identify strengths, set goals, and determine the barriers to learning and the types of services and supports needed to get to the next stop, and ultimately the final destination. What are the most important skills your child will need as an adult? How can the goals set at each stop along the way build off of one another so that your child can be successful? What barriers exist that inhibit learning? When barriers are identified, what alternative routes can you provide so that your child is able to reach the same destination or achieve the desired goal? At first, your child takes a more passive role in the planning process, but as they grow, you and the team rely on their input to help determine the plan. In doing so, you send the message that your child’s voice matters, that they are valued, and that they are capable.

Seeing the IEP process as a series of stops on the way to a meaningful, fulfilling, self-directed life will help the IEP team consider each IEP annual goal and objective as a stepping stone, and each service and support as a guidepost. When you sit down to prepare for your child’s IEP, take time to write a few sentences about your hopes for your child and what you believe they can achieve. What are their lifelong objectives? Once you’ve identified the opportunities you’d like for them to work toward, think about what goals you’d like to focus on this year. How can you build an IEP that will support your child in achieving and building toward those goals? When the team takes the time to envision and reflect on your collective hopes for your child, it makes the IEP more than just a document, but a tool for optimizing a child’s success and life outcomes.

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

If you need inspiration for your child’s vision statement, follow Dr. Solone’s instructions in this video.

Taking a strength-based approach in special education

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.

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 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.




The benefits of strength-based IEPs

Creating a vision statement

Taking a strength-based approach in special education

Examples of strength-based accommodations

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