Flip Deficit Thinking IEP Meetings with Productive Positivity

By Dr. Kelsie Reed

As a school psychologist, I participate in most, if not all, IEP meetings at my assigned schools. I’ve experienced productive meetings, collaborative meetings, one-sided meetings, contentious meetings, argumentative meetings, and everything in between.

The common denominator of most unproductive meetings is the hyper fixation on weaknesses, deficits, and challenges without any discussion of strengths or strategies that can be adopted to foster those strengths.

I’m not a parent myself, but I cannot imagine having to attend a meeting about my child where I’m faced with an hour of criticism about their behavior, their ability to learn, or my parenting style. I do believe this would be an incredibly overwhelming experience, especially if I’m not given an opportunity to share who my child is beyond the “numbers.”

But IEP meetings do not (and should not) have to be this way. In my experience, when we take the time to truly talk about the child’s strengths, interests, and curiosities ALONG WITH their needs, we are better able to develop a plan moving forward that everyone feels good about.

So why is it so hard to talk about strengths during IEP meetings? Why is it not commonplace to discuss strengths beyond the surface level mentioning of the student “trying very hard” or “doing their best”?

I think this is the case because we have been trained as educators to believe that the only way to support a student is to identify and remediate weaknesses. I have also come to the understanding that we don’t have any procedures to actively identify, document, and foster strengths.

However, I would argue that a much better way to support a student IS to incorporate those strengths into our understanding of who they are.

For example, I can think of several meetings where students are described as "tattle-tells" or "class clowns." These supposed weaknesses can actually pave the way for the identification of actual strengths.

A "tattle-tell" student may actually be extremely justice-oriented.

How can we foster this skill to allow them to make a positive contribution to the classroom environment? They may thrive as a classroom helper during certain activities.

A “class clown” may be a natural leader.

How can we foster these leadership abilities in a way that benefits the school building? This student may thrive when allowed to begin each class period by telling a joke to their peers.

The more we reframe "negative" attributes into productive ones, the better the schooling experience we cultivate for ourselves and our students.

When we blame ourselves or our students for things that go wrong in our classrooms, we are left feeling unequipped, unsuccessful, and overworked.

When we learn to shift our thinking to focus on the strengths that we possess, the nontraditional strengths our most historically marginalized students and families possess, and the capacity of our schools to cultivate and shine a light on those strengths—we feel empowered and our students feel empowered.

The field of education is experiencing so much right now: the stress of attempting to return to ‘normalcy’ post-school-building closures in 2020, the pressure to be everything for everyone, the blame when things go wrong, and more.

Being an educator can be extremely frustrating at times, and I understand that we all need an outlet to release these emotions. However, the language we allow in our spaces is incredibly powerful.

As educators, we often don’t think about what it means to “flourish” in our role. There is no stopping a person who wishes to flourish. The adversities a situation may bring only serves as an opportunity to do better than you did before.

We have GOT to normalize more strength-based conversations and perceptions of our children—not only for the sake of our students but for the sake of our own sanity as educators.

We spend so much time focusing on what’s wrong with us and what’s wrong with our students, but have you ever wondered what’s “strong” with everyone?

The next time you are in a space that feels incredibly negative, blame-based, and deficit-oriented, I challenge you to simply ask what the child’s strengths are and feel the energy in the room change.

Photo by Pavel Danilyuk via Pexels

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