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Using Strengths to Set Goals on IEP's

April 14, 2016 by ·

Written by special guest blogger: ​Katie Curran, MAPP

Teacher Helping Pupils Studying At Desks In ClassroomIf you have a child with special needs or work as a special educator you are familiar with IEP’s (Individualized Education Plan).  Part of the IEP process is preparing for the meeting that will set the educational focus for the upcoming months for the child with special needs.  The room will be full of professions – speech pathologists, teachers, occupational therapists, paraprofessionals, principals, case managers, and parent(s). But, who is missing?

You guessed it…the student!  I have been attending IEP meetings for 15 years and have only seen a handful of meetings where the student was invited and supported in being there.  Imagine, all of the important people in your life get together and make a plan for the next 12 months of your life, and then don’t include you in the meeting! Time and resources should be applied to help students attend.

Let’s talk about why the student is typically left out.  They are left out because these meetings, much like the IEPs themselves, are deficit-focused.  In the first 5 minutes, someone will share a “Strengths and Weaknesses” narrative which leads to several smiles and sighs at the “strengths” noted.  Check the box, we are done with strengths.

The remainder of the meeting is focused on all the things the student cannot do, goals to help them do them, and behavior problems that are preventing learning.  Year after year, goal after goal, the child’s IEP is based on weaknesses.  Now, you might be saying – “that’s right, we are trying to help them catch up.”  But is this the best way?

Take a look at a typically-developing child.  If a child excels in math, no one would dare say, “we don’t need to put him in math class, he is already good at that.  Let’s give him double world languages instead.”  Nor do we say to the child who is demonstrating great creativity or curiosity about the world, “you don’t need that science robotics camp you are creative enough as you are.”  Instead, we seek out extra math and look for opportunities to nourish and grow his or her character strengths of creativity and curiosity.  How does that student feel in math class or robotics camp? Probably – successful, energized, and happy!

All too often we do the opposite to kids with special needs.  Look at any IEP and answer this: How many of the goals are based on the student’s strengths versus weakness?  The school day will be mostly focused on goals about areas of deficit.  How does that student feel – frustrated, sad, like a failure?  Is this the best way to help these students flourish?  No, we can do better.

The VIA Survey of character strengths is the ideal place to start. It helps professionals by providing a tool that brings character strengths to the forefront of the IEP process.  As a positive psychology consultant, I work with schools and families to prepare students for their IEP process by implementing the following steps:

  • Step 1 – Invite the student to the meeting. Make accommodations.
  • Step 2 – Before the meeting, educate the student about the IEP process.
  • Step 3 – Have the student take the VIA Youth Survey at Parents, teachers, and support persons can use this free supplemental support guide to help the student, regardless of disability, take the test in as valid of a way as possible.
  • Step 4 – Start the meeting by sharing signature strengths (including the student as much as possible).
  • Step 5 – As a team, set at least 3 IEP goals that focus on growing signature strengths. (See Sample Goals below)
  • Step 6 – Post the student’s strengths in the classroom and encourage conversation with peers and teachers about them.

Sample Goals

  1. The student will independently complete written and photographic entries into a gratitude journal on his iPad using the “Happy App” with 90% accuracy on 4 of 5 opportunities.
  2. The student will deploy her love of learning strength by learning to use Pinterest to independently select art projects, recipes, or science experiments that a she finds curious and interesting with 90% accuracy on 3 consecutive opportunities.  She will be provided with weekly opportunities to express her creativity by completing those projects with teacher support.
  3. The student will use his creativity and leadership strengths to design and learn how to independently guide a series of 15-20 “energy breaks” for his peers.  He will be given weekly opportunities to demonstrate his zest strength by independently leading his peers in high energy/fun breaks when requested by the teacher.
  4. The student will enhance her hope/optimism by learning and applying Goal Setting Theory (i.e., what goals are, why they are important, how to set goals, how to track progress, and how to modify goals) and then writing 3 long-term goals (i.e., IEP goals) and chunking them into short-term (i.e., weekly goals).

New Research on Character Strengths and Disability

  • Carter, E. W., Boehm, T. L., Biggs, E. E., Annandale, N. H., Taylor, C. E., Loock, A. K., & Lie, R. Y. (2015). Known for my strengths: Positive traits of transition-age youth with intellectual disability and/or autism. Research and Practice for Persons with Severe Disabilities, 40(2), 101-119.
  • Niemiec, R. M., Shogren, K. A., & Wehmeyer, M. L. (2017, in press). Character strengths and intellectual and developmental disability: A strengths-based approach from positive psychology. Education and Training in Autism and Developmental Disabilities.
  • Shogren, K. A., Wehmeyer, M. L., Lang, K., & Niemiec, R. M. (under review). The application of the VIA classification of strengths to youth with and without disabilities.


VIA Institute on Character

VIA Youth Survey – Supplemental Guide for Youth with Disabilities

About the Author:

Katie CurranKatie M. Curran, MAPP is founder and executive director of Strength Based Behavior Consulting in the New York City area. She consults widely to private and public schools on the application of positive psychology. She is an international leader in the application of character strengths. Her work background and training includes the University of Pennsylvania, Princeton Child Development Institute, Kennedy Krieger Institute, and Stanford University Graduate School of Business.

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