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Is Your IEP Process Person-Centered?

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by Devin Taylor

The phrase “person-centered” isn’t new. In fact, it’s been around for nearly a century.

Having first appeared in reference to a therapeutic approach developed by American Psychologist, Carl Rogers, this term can be attributed to the Humanist movement of the 1940s. 

The World Health Organization defines person-centered care as: “empowering people to take charge of their own health rather than being passive recipients of services.” 

So where does this ideology fit in Special Education? 

To truly serve its purpose, Special Education requires an integrative approach incorporating student health, personal care, and therapeutic needs into an encompassing plan to meet the student’s overall educational goals. Since academic progress does not exist independent of these factors, an Individualized Education Program is about more than the student’s academic needs. It is about all of those needs which impact a student's ability to access education in the school system. An effective IEP addresses the needs of the whole child.

The phrase “whole child” is a commonly uttered one, here at Spero Academy. It generally refers to our approach to the social and emotional needs of the child and the relationship between these needs and their ability to access education and grow academically. But when it comes to person-centered thinking, as described by the Department of Education, there’s another piece to the equation. Person-centered thinking doesn’t just focus on what is important for an individual; it is concerned with what is important to them. 

So when you begin the IEP process for one of your students, how do you ensure that the needs of the whole child are being addressed from start to finish? What are the crucial components of a person-centered IEP?

Based on suggested practices from the Minnesota Department of Education and guidance from the team at Spero Academy, here are some tips for fostering a more person-centered IEP process from start to finish.


1. Consult the family about services already in use

By inquiring about services provided at home and in the community, you open the door for the family and/or student to communicate their desires with regard to how services are delivered in the school setting. This may also provide valuable insight for educators to use in creating goals that are culturally relevant to the student and their family.

2. Share the evaluation before the meeting date

If time permits, consider providing the family with a copy of the evaluation and assessment before the meeting. This gives them time to review and digest the information, so that they may come to the meeting on equal footing and ready to advocate for the student’s needs and strengths.

3. Create an agenda (and stick to it!)

This may go without saying for most educators, but a written agenda is a vital tool in a meeting of individuals with varying roles, perspectives, and priorities. By having a clear written agenda, you can ensure all bases are covered, all voices heard, and all objectives are met within the allotted time frame.

If possible, disseminate the agenda a week prior to the meeting. As with the evaluation and assessment, this will give the family an opportunity to review the agenda and make sure it aligns with the preferences, needs, and goals of the student and their family.

Once approved, let the agenda do its job and keep the meeting on track. This will ensure that the student and their family have adequate opportunity to comment and provide input.

4. Don’t skip the team member introductions!

Yes, you want to make sure you have adequate time to discuss all the important points, but all of those important points can be a lot for parents and guardians to take in. By taking just a few minutes for each member of the IEP team to introduce themselves and state their roles, you are providing the family with important knowledge regarding who will be responsible for the action items discussed, who can be contacted for follow-up, and how each person serves the interests of their child. 

Having team members who are well acquainted with the student share what they admire about them is a useful exercise to begin the meeting on a personal, positive, and strength-oriented note.

5. Plan goals that reflect the interests and desires of the student and their family

The Minnesota Department of Education notes that ownership and personal interest from the student increases the likelihood of positive outcomes. This is especially true in the case of outcomes that are deemed most important by the student and their family. One way to foster this is to ask the student and their family to share their vision and then plan goals that reflect this. Make sure that all input from the student and their family is visible in the written IEP that is created.

Beth Ellsworth, a first grade teacher at Spero Academy describes their own approach to writing an IEP that truly reflects the student, their needs and desires, and that of their family:

"I want to be very intentional about including what a parent has shared with me that is important to them," says Ellsworth. "I strive to capture something of each child's personality in the IEP. When their next teacher reads it, I want them to see the individuality of that student." 

6. Maintain ongoing communication

A successful IEP meeting depends as much on what happens after the meeting as the meeting itself. By keeping communication regular and consistent, the whole team will be better able to make sure things are happening according to plan. This means being timely in your replies, making it a point to respond to emails and phone messages within twenty-four hours (excluding weekends). This way, you can prevent communication gaps and oversights while protecting your own time and boundaries as well. 

Boundaries are important, both for you and your families. Avoid sending or responding to messages on the weekend or using your personal phone to make calls. Establish office hours when you will be available to communicate with parents and make sure these hours are clearly communicated to families. 

This is not to say that all communication must occur through formal, one-size-fits-all protocol. For many families, frequent informal communication is necessary to build trust and comfort within the parent-teacher relationship. The team at Spero Academy recommends sending out a parent questionnaire at the beginning of the year to get a sense of each family's communications needs and preferences. You can then start the year with frequent communication, utilizing platforms that work for each family. 

For small class-sizes, like those at Spero Academy, sending daily or weekly updates to each family on their student is a great way to keep parents in the loop. This will prevent them from being blindsided by information come IEP time. It also ensures that parents aren’t just hearing from their child’s teacher when there is a problem. 

Class newsletters can also be used to provide regular communication, both about the events of the past week and what is to come. Educational platforms like Seesaw offer an easy and engaging way to send information, communication, and pictures. Maintain your boundaries and avoid connecting through personal social media. 

If you’re ever unsure which method of communication is appropriate to the situation, check with your mentor, principal, or special education team. 

For more thoughts on building relationships with families, check out these ideas from the minds at Edutopia. 

Remember, the IEP process can be daunting for students, families, and teachers alike. Focusing on the personhood of the student involved and prioritizing their perspective and preferences will help everyone involved remain cognizant of what truly matters both to and for the student. From evaluation to implementation, these simple steps will help bring a more person-centered experience to the whole IEP process.

For more information or questions on this subject, contact the Person-Centered Practices in Education Leadership Team