Rethinking the IEP

Sudha Nair, a special educator and passionate activist from Pune, was struck by the potential of Social Role Valorization back in 2018. She recently attended the four-date deep dive at SRV 3.0 and has put her sharp mind to the task of trying to relate Individualized Education Plans (IEPs) to a meaningful planning process for competency enhancement. She first explored the difference between a document intended to be a roadmap to accomplish goals and a living process that frames a roadmap for a person.

She notes that while the IEP may focus on specific learning objectives, it is likely to completely miss the bigger picture of the student moving toward a life of belonging, acceptance, and the best that life has to offer. She discovered that the IEP is often described as a living document, but wisely notes that a process may be alive but a document cannot. How can you breathe life into a document? Her work is deeply tied to figuring this out. How can we uplift such a document to cause good things to come into the life of a student with a disability?

For Sudha, the potent idea of valued roles being incorporated into such planning has become the focus of her planning processes with parents, teachers, and students. She has opened minds to the ideas that a goal might have associated skills, but a person has roles, not just skills. That’s just real life, and this simple but important idea has escaped many of us.

Sudha writes, “When traditional IEPs are formulated, the focus is on deficiencies and how to overcome them. Yes, we call it objectives and skill development. But this perspective actually narrows the scope of our work to activities. A typical specific objective would be: ‘Will count the number of objects (1-10) and indicate the answer by pointing to the corresponding flashcard on command, independently, 4 out of 5 times.’ Once this goal is achieved, we move onto the next. However, if we are using roles-based planning, the starting point would be the person in his or her community. What is the role the person would mostly likely ease into and fill? Just the addition of two words—‘valued roles’—makes all the difference.”

Sudha is working within her own practice to elevate the IEP to be roles-based, so that instead of focusing on the small sub-skills, she helps teachers and parents to identify roles the student might like to fill—like teacher’s helper or even just the basic role of student, which involves such skills as learning to attend the all-school assembly and learning to distribute items to the rest of the class. Once the role begins to be filled, she can see the growth of some very important elements:

  • Her teacher’s regard and attention,
  • A sense of belonging with her peers,
  • Increased meaningful participation and interaction with her peers,
  • All of this leading to more shared experiences.

However, having valued roles as a default setting gives a clear, defined path from the beginning. No hit or miss. The whole rationale shifts from a deficiency model of a checklist of skills to be achieved to a valued person-centered model of planning. Based on an IEP, goals will definitely be achieved, but belonging, acceptance, and respect may or may not be a happy by-product. A person-centered, roles-based, value-creating program culminates in the good things in life for the people we serve. We are appreciative of Sudha’s role-modeling of the “goals to roles” orientation in her work coaching and facilitating students with disability and their families and teachers.