How to Incorporate Student Strengths in IEPs (and Real-Life Examples) - Stanfield


How to Incorporate Student Strengths in IEPs (and Real-Life Examples)

It’s a hot afternoon in your school. The day is almost over, but you have one more meeting to attend. 

The IEP meeting. The dreaded IEP meeting.

Essentially, this is like a giant puzzle of education being pieced together. The IEP, as you know, is a document that’s designed to make sure that every child, including those with special needs, is given the tools and opportunities to achieve their full potential. 

Writing and presenting IEPs is something many educators dread, simply because they love and cherish their students, and don’t want to make the entire IEP meeting a parade of a student’s shortcomings and failures.

So how do we make sure an IEP doesn’t just list a child’s challenges but, importantly, their unique talents and capabilities?

Here’s the thing: IEP writing is a craft, not a checklist. It’s about cleverly weaving together the strands of strengths and supports to create a plan that propels each child forward. You need to paint with broad strokes to make sure you’re painting the full picture.

In this post, we’ll give you that broad set of brushes you need. That way, you can color each IEP with the most vibrant colors possible – and actually start enjoying all those IEP meetings you need to attend. 

Understanding Strengths: More than Meets the Eye

students walking to class

Before we write an IEP, we need to change our viewfinder. We all wear glasses that are accustomed to seeing problems, deficiencies, and difficulties. 

What if we hit the ‘reset’ button and refocus? Imagine our spectacles are now tuned to see potential, abilities, and the greatness that lies within each child.

The IEP process is, at its core, about crafting an individual plan to give students a fair shot at success. But it often gets entangled in jargon and legalese that can miss the forest for the trees –  your student’s unique strengths.

To emphasize these strengths, begin by using refocusing prompts during meetings and writing sessions. “What are this student’s areas of success?” can be a powerful question.

Data can help here, but remember, data doesn’t just reside in test scores and numbers. Consider anecdotal notes, observations, and informal assessments that highlight a skill performed well.

Understanding a student’s strengths can be challenging, but using data in the broader sense, and not just for identifying weaknesses, can shift the IEP process from deficit-based to asset-based.

How to Write IEP Goals With Their Strengths in Mind

teacher playing with student

Writing IEP (Individualized Education Program) goals can seem like a big task, but when you focus on a student’s strengths, it can become a lot easier and more meaningful. Here are a few tips to help you craft IEP goals that truly support each student’s growth and success – and honor their strengths. 

Remember, we’re focusing on what students can do and building from there. Here we go!

Start by Getting to Know Your Student

The first step is to really understand who your student is. Spend time learning about what they like, what they’re good at, and what makes them happy. This isn’t just about academic skills; it’s about their hobbies, interests, and even their favorite subjects. The more you know about your student, the better you can tailor their IEP goals to fit them perfectly.

Focus on Strengths, Not Just Need

It’s easy to focus on where students need the most help, but every student has areas where they shine too. Start there. Ask yourself, “What is my student really good at?” 

Maybe they’re great at telling stories, maybe they’re super organized, or maybe they have a knack for making friends. Use these strengths as a starting point to build their goals.

Set Clear and Achievable Goals

When you write a goal, make sure it’s something the student can realistically achieve. The goals should be specific and clear, like “Johnny will be able to add numbers up to 20 with 90% accuracy.” This way, Johnny knows exactly what he’s working toward, and so do you.

Use Action Statements

To incorporate a student’s strengths into an IEP, use positive statements to describe how these strengths can be applied to their educational program.

When you’re writing IEPs, use language that reflects a student’s capabilities. Instead of “Johnny struggles to sit still,” consider “Johnny demonstrates enthusiasm and energy for hands-on learning experiences.”

Here are some examples of positive statements in IEPs:

  • Sophia will use her exceptional organizational skills to manage her tasks efficiently and meet deadlines.
  • Liam’s strong recall in mathematics will support his learning in geometry, where spatial relationships play a key role.
  • Emma will leverage her natural leadership qualities to encourage group participation during team-centric projects.

It may seem like a small step, but using examples like these can set the tone for an IEP that celebrates the student’s abilities and sets a positive vision for their educational path.

Make It a Team Effort

Involve the student in setting their own goals. Ask them what they want to get better at and include their ideas in the plan. This makes them feel important and shows that their opinion matters. 

Also, work with parents and other teachers to understand the student from different perspectives and to ensure everyone is on the same page.

Parents are especially helpful here – after all, they’re the experts on their children, after all. Listen to their insights and understand their perspective on what their child does well. There’s a good chance that this is where you’ll get the clearest picture of a child’s strengths. 

You don’t have to stop at parents (or even other teachers), though. Consider including peer evaluations when it makes sense, too. 

Use Positive Language

Always word goals in a positive way. Instead of saying what the student won’t do, focus on what they will do. 

For example, instead of “won’t disrupt the class,” try “will raise a hand to speak during class discussions.” This positive approach helps build confidence and emphasizes what the student is working toward.

Break Down Big Goals into Smaller Steps 

Some goals can seem really big and a bit scary. Breaking them down into smaller, doable steps can make them seem more manageable. 

For example, if the goal is to read a chapter book, start with reading a page a day, then a chapter a week, and build up from there.

Choose Goals that Are Important for Life

Think about skills that will help your student in the real world. Again, do this with their strengths and interests at the forefront.

This could be learning how to make friends, how to manage time, or how to ask for help when they need it. These skills are just as important as academic goals and can make a big difference in a student’s life.

Remember, you need to make the strengths relevant, both to the student as well as to their goals. Once you know a student’s strengths, the next hurdle is figuring out how to use them in the IEP. It’s like having a bunch of puzzle pieces but not being sure where they fit. 

The key, again, is to connect these strengths to the student’s goals. For instance, if a student is really creative, see how that creativity can help them with a subject they struggle in. 

Balance Out the See Saw

Sometimes, it’s tough figuring out how to balance focusing on a student’s strengths with addressing their needs. Think of it like a seesaw. On one side, you have all the areas a student excels in, and on the other, the areas they need a bit more help with. 

Your goal is to make sure that seesaw is as balanced as possible. Try starting meetings by talking about what the student is good at before moving on to the challenges. This way, everyone can keep a positive mindset while still making a plan for growth.

Celebrate Achievements, No Matter How Small

Every time a student reaches a milestone, celebrate it! This could be as simple as a high-five, a sticker, or some time to talk about what they did well. Celebrations make students feel proud and encourage them to keep working hard – both on things they’re already good at (their strengths) as well as their weaknesses. 

Regularly Review and Adjust Goals

Just like how you grow and change, students do too! Their strengths when they’re eight years old might be different when they’re ten. This means you have to be like a gardener, always checking in and adjusting the soil or water as needed. 

Regularly review the IEP to see if new strengths have popped up or if old ones have evolved. This keeps the plan fresh and tailored exactly to the student.

Encourage EVERYONE To Focus on Strengths

Sometimes, the hardest part is making sure everyone (parents, teachers, and the student) stays focused on strengths. It’s easy to get bogged down with worries about what’s difficult. 

Imagine you’re the leader of a cheer squad, and it’s your job to keep everyone cheering about the positive stuff, not just thinking about the hard parts. Regular reminders of a student’s successes and how they’re using their strengths can keep everyone motivated and positive!

Keep the Big Picture in Mind

Remember, the ultimate goal is to support your student in becoming the best version of themselves. Each IEP goal is a step toward that. Keeping the big picture in mind will guide you in choosing goals that truly matter and will have a lasting impact on your student’s life.

You’ve Got This! Mastering the Art of the IEP

happy student smiling in library

The IEP is a canvas on which the past, present, and future of a student are artfully conceived. It holds the potential to shape destinies and carve pathways. Approaching it with a focus on strengths transforms a bureaucratic obligation into a true labor of love.

In the end, we are not writing IEPs; we are writing promises. These are promises to acknowledge the strengths within, promises to develop potential, and above all, promises to ensure that each child, no matter their challenges, has the opportunity to shine.


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