Strengths-Based IEPs: What You Need to Know

By Julie Rawe
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At a Glance

  • A strengths-based IEP uses student abilities to help work on weaknesses.

  • IEP goals are built around what the student can do and how the team can use those abilities.

  • Helping students identify and leverage their strengths, interests and preferences can lead to more self-awareness and self-advocacy.

Imagine an Individualized Education Program (IEP) that focuses as much on your child’s strengths as it does on your child’s weaknesses. Unfortunately, that’s not the norm for most students yet.

In a typical IEP meeting, not much time is given to looking at a child’s strengths. Strengths are covered at the beginning of the meeting, and the rest of the time is focused on deficits.

But more and more schools are shifting the focus from deficits to a strengths-based approach. This kind of IEP gives much more weight to a student’s strengths, interests and preferences. The team not only identifies strengths, but leverages them to help address weaknesses.

Here’s what you need to know to help develop a strengths-based IEP for your child.

What Strengths-Based IEPs Are

A strengths-based IEP looks at abilities as well as weaknesses. It looks at what students can do, what the team wants them to do next, and how strengths might be used to set goals to help address a particular need.

A strengths-based IEP often boils down to a shift in mindset. Schools have been focused for many years on areas of need because that’s what qualifies kids for IEPs. But by shifting the focus and putting a big emphasis on strengths, this new kind of IEP helps adults—and kids—see that there’s more to these students than their weaknesses.

To do this, IEP teams often need to gather more information. This likely means asking students to help identify their strengths, interests and preferences. Students can also help the team think about how to use these strengths to develop strategies for success. And this process promotes self-awareness and self-advocacy that can help kids in school and beyond.

How Strengths-Based IEPs Work

There’s no one way to develop a strengths-based IEP. But here are some common elements and approaches.

Use a strengths finder before the IEP meeting. These kinds of student self-assessments can help IEP teams develop a strengths-based IEP. A strengths test not only tells the IEP team about kids’ abilities. It also tells the kids about their own abilities. And these insights can be a guiding force throughout the IEP meeting.

Find out if your child’s school already has access to a strengths finder. If not, you and your child’s case manager can look for a free strengths assessment online. (You can also try a fun hands-on activity to help identify your child’s strengths.)

Give students a leadership role in IEP meetings. Having students actively participate in parts of the IEP meeting can help in many ways. For example, students can lead the part of the meeting where they share what they discovered about themselves when taking the strengths test.

Student involvement in IEP meetings can deepen the discussion about strengths. It can also give kids a sense of ownership when they get to help make decisions about their IEP.

Student-led IEPs also underscore the importance of self-awareness. This can help kids think about new ways to develop their strengths and work on their weaknesses.

Many parents encourage kids to attend at least the first part of the IEP meeting. This is when the team discusses a student’s strengths, interests and preferences. Older students are more likely to participate in or lead more parts of the IEP meeting.

Reframe the way the IEP team talks about strengths. Too often, IEP teams discuss a student’s strengths by saying things like “What I like about Elana is…” And these kinds of comments can be hard to connect to the rest of the IEP in actionable ways.

But IEP teams can reframe the strengths discussion so it focuses on abilities: “What does Elana do well?”

The paragraphs in the IEP’s present level of performance are likely to be the first things new teachers read about your child. Emphasizing strengths throughout this section as well as weaknesses not only sets a positive tone. It helps teachers get a better sense of how to help your child move forward.

For example, if Elana struggles in math, what does she do well in that subject? Can she work independently? Does she prefer to work in groups? Is she able to use a calculator? Strengths-based IEPs aim to start with a strength for each of the skill sets discussed in this section.

Weave strengths into IEP goals. This is the heart of a strengths-based IEP. IEP goals are built around what the student can do and how the team can use that ability to work on an area of weakness.

It’s important for IEP goals to be SMART (Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Results-oriented and Time-bound). Incorporating your child’s strengths into SMART goals can make the goals even stronger. It helps kids see how to make progress by leveraging what they’re good at.

Here are a few examples of how a strengths-based IEP goal could differ from a SMART goal that isn’t strengths-based:

SMART IEP goal SMART strengths-based IEP goal

By May 15, Elana will know from memory all products of two one-digit numbers with 90% accuracy in four out of five tries.

Elana will use her skills with a times table to help transition by May 15 to knowing from memory all products of two one-digit numbers with 90% accuracy in four out of five tries.

Sam will learn the class vocabulary words with 90% accuracy in three out of four weekly opportunities.

Sam will use his creativity and interpersonal skills to develop and lead his peers in a class vocabulary game with 90% accuracy in three out of four weekly opportunities.

Given fourth-grade level (4.0) reading material, Nura will write three details from the passage in her own words with 85% accuracy on three out of four consecutive assignments.

Given fourth-grade level (4.0) reading material on nonfiction topics, Nura will deploy her love of learning and her interest in science and history to write three details from the passage in her own words with 85% accuracy on three out of four consecutive assignments.

Aidan will complete his science lab reports on time and with 85% accuracy in three out of four consecutive assignments.

Aidan will use his preference for hands-on learning and his skills with technology to dictate his notes during science lab and complete his science lab reports on time and with 85% accuracy in three out of four consecutive assignments.

The common goals and the strengths-based goals set the same expectation for student progress. But only the strengths-based goals use the student’s abilities and interests to help chart a path to progress.

The Potential of Strengths-Based IEPs

Strengths-based IEPs aren’t widely used yet. But as more schools make strides in student-led IEPs and other areas, they may inspire more districts to rewrite their IEP templates. Adjusting these templates can help ensure that strengths are discussed throughout the IEP meeting, not just in the first section.

In the meantime, you don’t have to wait for your child’s school to change its IEP template. There’s a lot you can do right now.

For starters, you can get answers to common questions about having your child attend IEP meetings. You can also learn more about how to develop SMART IEP goals, and then help steer the IEP team to include strengths in at least a few of your child’s goals. And you can advocate for more teacher training in strengths-based IEPs at your child’s school or in your local district.

Start a conversation about strengths-based IEPs in our Working With Schools online community group. And explore 10 ways to be an effective advocate for your child at school.

Key Takeaways

  • Strengths tests and self-assessments can help deepen the discussion about strengths.

  • Strengths-based IEP goals use a student’s abilities, interests and preferences to help chart a path to progress.

  • Involving students in IEP meetings can help the team think about ways to develop strengths and work on weaknesses.

About the Author

About the Author

Julie Rawe 

is a senior editor at Understood.

Reviewed by

Reviewed by

Brian Stack, MEd 

is the principal of Sanborn Regional High School in Kingston, New Hampshire.

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