• Natalie Hawkins

Empowering Special Ed Students through Student-Led IEPs

I am pleased to share this blog post is written by Laura Lorenzen, the founder of District Special Education Partners. I hope you enjoy reading and find benefit from her writing, as I know I have.



In my nearly 20 years working in special education, one of the most impactful practices I’ve seen for building students’ self-awareness, motivation, feelings of self-worth, and ability to self-advocate -- all essential ingredients for present and future success -- is also one that is woefully underutilized. The practice I’m referring to is Student-Led IEPs, in which students participate in a meaningful way in developing their IEP and participating in, and sometimes even leading, their IEP meeting. For students with disabilities, the Individual Education Plan (IEP) is the single most important document determining the scope and structure of educational services they will receive. Yet traditionally, students with disabilities have limited or no role in the development of their IEP and, especially for elementary and middle school students, remain largely in the dark about their IEP, the nature of their disability, and the accommodations, learning strategies, goals, and services that adults have determined are in the child’s best interest. When the student’s voice is missing from IEP development, educators and parents must make educated guesses about what that student needs, without getting confirmation from the very person -- the student -- who is best equipped to tell them. Moreover, students miss out on critical opportunities to build self-awareness and learn to self-advocate. By sitting on the margins of this process, students often develop a negative self-perception of themselves and feel helpless to address their own needs. When given the opportunity to help create and implement their IEPs, students become better advocates and take greater ownership over their learning. Consequently, they are more likely to stay invested in their education and achieve their educational goals. With support and guidance, students of all ages can participate in developmentally appropriate ways in their IEP.

Ways that Student-Led IEPs Benefit Students The process of identifying their strengths and challenges requires students to reflect honestly on their abilities. What do they like about school, and what do they find hard? How do they learn best? What accommodations in the classroom have they found most useful? What things are counterproductive or even harmful? As students reflect, they are learning about themselves, and their parents and the school team are also learning. I’ve been in many meetings where the accommodations on the IEP were changed after hearing from the student. We added supports that the

student thought would help them and took out accommodations after hearing that the student would not want to use them. The IEP became stronger, and students learned that their input mattered and that they could exercise control over their education. When students are engaged in creating their IEP goals, they develop a clearer picture of the skills they need to work on and strategies that will best help them achieve their goals. Most impactful is when they work with the teacher to monitor their progress toward achieving the goal. I’ve seen students’ motivation increase dramatically once they engaged in a process of assessing their data and seeing their personal growth. Student-led IEPs dramatically change the dynamics of IEP meetings and positively boost perceptions of the student’s ability. Students become motivated to achieve their goals and take pride in their progress, parents are often astonished at seeing their child confidently express themselves at the meeting and -- perhaps for the first time -- feel pride in their child as a learner, and teachers build relationships with families and become better able to effectively support their students.

District Special Education Partners provides professional development and coaching for schools and special education teams on high quality practices in special education, including how to implement an effective Student-Led IEP program; positive and equitable practices in behavior intervention; creating high quality IEPs; and building collaborative relationships with families.

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