Guest Author - Kristie Melkers
Generally speaking, we tend to be a deficit-oriented society, honing in on the observable differences in one another and often placing either a positive or negative judgment on those differences. For students who have a disability, ordinary day-to-day endeavors such as learning and socializing can be challenging, if not downright discouraging, especially when the appropriate considerations and supports have not been fully identified and/or implemented. Despite these learning differences, however, and our natural tendencies to place a negative value on them as we seek also to remediate them, it is vitally important to remember that students with disabilities are students first—students who have hopes, dreams, interests, likes and dislikes just as any other student does.
The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act of 2004 repeatedly emphasizes the importance of focusing on the student’s strengths in the development of the Individualized Education Program (IEP). Decades of research has revealed the necessity to maintain high expectations, to give students with disabilities access to the general curriculum with the appropriate supports, and to educate students to the maximum extent possible alongside their typical peers. The IEP team can ensure that these criteria for high expectations are met most appropriately when they recognize both the student’s strengths and needs, and are able to match this information to various learning opportunities within the school setting.
Take, for example, a young student with a severe learning disability who loves science and is fascinated by listening to historical facts and biographies. Perhaps this student benefits from part of his day being spent in a special education resource room to receive intensive support in math. The IEP team as a whole agrees that this placement is appropriate, but wants to consider a regular classroom setting for other portions of the school day. A decision to place this student in a regular science and history class with the appropriate supports and services is one that will likely prove beneficial because the team is capitalizing on the student’s strengths and interests while taking into account the learning and social needs the student has as well.
Consider the student who has an emotional disability that results in her having a difficult time expressing herself when she becomes anxious. Her threshold for anxiety is quite low which quickly results in her “shutting down” and completely disengaging from her learning activities. The team knows, however, that this student has a strong interest and natural talent in drawing and creating other artwork. The team can incorporate the opportunity for the student to express herself when she becomes anxious by creating images on paper or using other art media to alleviate her distress and help her return to her learning more quickly.
The energy and focus that IEP teams generate towards providing the appropriate educational program for students with disabilities are well-spent when considerations such as these are made. Students are more successful and engaged in learning, school staff feel confident administering a quality program and seeing their students succeed, and parents see the clear evidence of progress and the continued or renewed presence of a love of learning that can so easily fade away.
The opportunities to embed a student’s strengths into his or her IEP are endless. For many students, doing so may mean the difference between making strong progress towards the general curriculum and witnessing the gap in achievement become disappointingly wider. Focusing on students' strengths and allowing those strengths to guide IEP decision-making is certain to make a difference in any student’s school and life experience.