A publication of the Association of California School Administrators
A publication of the Association of California School Administrators
Empowering futures
Fostering belonging and engagement in IEP teams for enhanced self-determination in students with disabilities
By Heather DiFede, Jennifer Yales, Leo Mapagu, Noreen Rodriguez Lippincott and Sara Wildman | March | April 2024
Over the past several decades, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) has evolved to establish a set of mandates aimed at ensuring that IEP teams actively promote equity for students with disabilities. However, the emphasis on procedural-based obligations within IDEA can sometimes overshadow the underlying equity principles it was designed to address. IDEA sets up the mandate, however, it is left to us as practitioners to define what participation and collaboration will look like. This has led to wide degrees of variability on what engagement looks like across Individualized Education Program (IEP) teams. An unintended consequence of this variability can lead to gaps in opportunity, access and outcomes for students. It is crucial to recognize that the ultimate goal of the IEP process is to unite a collaborative team, ensuring that students with disabilities receive the services necessary to access and progress in their education.
This article highlights the anticipated outcomes of the High-Quality IEPs grant project, recently launched in July 2023, emphasizing the significance of involving IEP team members in a meaningful manner throughout the entire process — prior to, during and following the IEP meeting. Establishing a culture of collaboration and meaningful interaction among team members not only demonstrates the utmost level of engagement but also serves as a role model for students, showcasing the valuable contributions each member, including the students themselves, can bring to the table. These collective contributions play a crucial role in nurturing students’ confidence and self-esteem, while simultaneously equipping them with a robust skillset for success in post-secondary endeavors.
In December 2022, the California Department of Education (CDE) Special Education Division (SED) and the California Collaborative for Educational Excellence (CCEE) announced the opportunity for LEAs to apply for grants to be Special Education Resource Leads for special-education-related professional development and technical assistance. This brought about the opportunity for County Offices of Education, Special Education Local Plan Areas or a partnership of the two to apply to be a Resource Lead for the purpose of supporting professional development for SELPAs across the state of California. More specifically, the Special Education Resource Leads would work collaboratively with the Statewide System of Support, COEs, SELPAs, districts, charter schools and external partners such as family support organizations to build the capacity of the system at the local and regional levels to improve outcomes for students with disabilities. Grants were awarded in the areas of:
  • Capacity builder.
  • IEP best practices.
  • Alternative Dispute Resolution (ADR) procedures and practices.
  • Universal Design for Learning.
  • English language learners.
At the forefront of these efforts is the focus on “improving outcomes for students with disabilities.” Moreover, an integral component of that work is building partnerships within the California educational community to band together to improve outcomes for students with disabilities throughout our large state. The importance of partnerships, including the need for equitable participation and collaboration to create meaningful IEPs for students with disabilities, is what led East County SELPA and Santa Clara County SELPA to partner in applying to become a Resource Lead. Once selected, they formed the High Quality IEPs (HQ IEPs) Project. As the HQ IEPs project leads this work, a cornerstone of its theory of action is to approach training and resources from a lens of supporting meaningful engagement and participation in the IEP process for families, educators and students.
Establishing opportunities for meaningful engagement with families and students throughout the IEP journey is crucial for fostering relationships and enhancing positive outcomes. Genuine engagement is not automatic and can be subject to misinterpretation. The following illustrates a continuum of engagement between families, students and educators, highlighting the various stages, from basic information dissemination to a collaborative space where parents, students and school staff collectively lead efforts. Recognizing the diverse layers of engagement enables us to enhance our level of involvement by elevating the diverse voices, knowledge and contributions of all IEP team members.
For each student with a disability, there is a team of multiple members coming to the IEP table with different experiences and perspectives at least annually to support the student. The U.S. Department of Education, Office of Special Education Programs (OSEP) sets forward a list of federal mandates to states to ensure the implementation of IDEA. These mandates require this team to, in theory, drive equity for students with disabilities through their compliance. This is how our IEP forms have grown over the years as they are attempting meet the needs of both the team and the federal requirements of IDEA. Each state then monitors the implementation of IDEA (by collecting data from completed IEPs) and compares that data to the State Performance Plan, which outlines the state’s individual targets as a way to monitor for compliance. As a result, this has created a focus on compliance and can lead us to lose sight of the equity themes these compliance items are trying to address. We become more focused on the compliance obligations of IDEA and we move our substantive obligations to the back. What does this mean and why is it important?
Procedural obligations are specific requirements of the law that must be included when developing an IEP. Equally important, IEP teams also have a requirement to develop and implement a plan designed to provide educational benefit for the student, which is our substantive obligation. For example, from a procedural standpoint, the IEP team must include specific team members as outlined by Sec. 300.321. What is created, the actual content of the IEP, to meet the specific needs of the student in order to receive a “free appropriate public education,” is our substantive obligation. When IEPs are not customized to each student’s unique needs, we encounter substantive violations. More specifically, we lose sight of the individuality of the student and limit their right to co-design their educational pathway, and therefore their right to self-determination.
Knowing and understanding the strengths and needs of the student is the responsibility of the team that supports them. This responsibility starts with a culture that is predicated on the notion that all of us belong and all our students belong, which includes the gifts and contributions we bring. “Belonging is being accepted and invited to participate; being part of something and having the opportunity to show up as yourself” (Wise, 2022). When we do not feel as if we belong, but rather “othered,” we “restrict the movement of whatever group is not being invited in” (Wise, 2022). When we “other” our families and students, intentionally or not, we treat them as less than or different and ultimately inferior. Below, let’s talk specifically about how we can create belonging through meaningful participation as an IEP team and for our students.
Meaningful participation: IEP team
Since its inception in July 2023, the HQ IEPs Project has sought out the perspectives of parents and educators by gathering their insights and experiences regarding the IEP journey through a statewide distributed survey. Additionally, data has been gathered from the CDE, complemented by research findings from the field. In the course of our research, it has become evident that there exist varied definitions and interpretations of both “meaningful” and “participation.” Below are essential concepts that we believe encapsulate what meaningful participation could resemble and evoke during the IEP journey.
  • Foster communication that is clear, timely, respectful, understanding and increases connection.
  • Create opportunities for collaboration across time and space.
  • Encourage active participation that involves not just inviting one to be physically present but actively contributing, sharing thoughts, ideas and feedback.
  • Demonstrate shared decision-making, recognizing that each member comes with an area of expertise, and with that expertise, information is shared and collectively decisions are made.
  • Be deliberately inclusive by intentionally and proactively creating an environment, culture, or system that embraces and accommodates the diversity of individuals.
  • Provide psychological safety, where individuals feel comfortable expressing their thoughts, ideas, concerns and opinions without fear of negative consequences.
  • Acknowledge the process is iterative and not linear, recognizing the collaborative process will need time and space to refine and improve over time.
  • Finally, be present by being in the moment.
The HQ IEPs Project, composed of a diverse set of educators, some of whom are themselves parents of children with disabilities, recognizes that the various members of the IEP team enter into this journey with varying levels of exposure and expertise. Special education staff and administrators have the opportunity to develop these skills through multiple IEP meetings held each year for every student with an IEP. For parents and students, they typically only attend one IEP meeting a year — their own. While general education teachers may attend multiple IEP meetings in a year, they are often not provided direct support in how to meaningfully participate in the IEP process. The HQ IEPs Project is dedicated to reinforcing the notion that every member of the IEP team has the capacity to make meaningful contributions, starting with their unique understanding of the student. To support this vision, the project has begun to develop resources to intentionally include the perspectives and stories about the student from each member of the team. For example, the Building on My Strengths Protocols provides a systematic approach for families, students and educators to document data and insights regarding the student’s strengths, preferences, interests and needs, thereby offering a more comprehensive and nuanced collective perspective of the student.
In further support of the IEP journey, the project has developed checklists tailored for families, students and educators. These checklists guide participants through each stage of the process — before, during and after the IEP meeting — with the goal of fostering opportunities for contribution and engagement at every step. The shared knowledge and experiences gained can then be leveraged to inform the development of present levels, goals, services and accommodations that support the student in the least restrictive environment.
Establishing opportunities for meaningful engagement with families and students throughout the IEP journey is crucial for fostering relationships and enhancing positive outcomes.
Meaningful participation: The student Creating opportunities for meaningful participation must include our students with disabilities as well. The HQ IEPs Project theory of action is that if students are more engaged in their education, including their IEP meetings, students can build autonomy, opening up the student to greater opportunities to experience high levels of self-determination and well-being. Fostering self-determination contributes to an increase in self-esteem. Elevated self-esteem, reflecting one’s intrinsic value, acts as a catalyst for increased confidence, forming a positive cycle that reinforces the students’ sense of self-worth and empowerment. Acquisition of these skills begins in early childhood and is influenced by adult behaviors and intentional teaching. The supportive and nurturing environment created by adults plays a pivotal role in shaping a student’s self-perception and their ability to navigate the challenges and opportunities that unfold during their educational journey. Many of the strategies that educators across the state are already utilizing can be leveraged to increase that sense of belonging and self-determination in our students. In 2002, the Virginia Department of Education was asked to develop self-advocacy materials for students with disabilities, and as a result, the I’m Determined project started. The project shares that there are nine elements which lead a student to be self-determined.
  • Choice making: The skill of selecting a path forward between two known options.
  • Decision making: The skill of selecting a path forward based on various solutions that have each been thoughtfully considered.
  • Problem-solving: The skill of finding solutions to difficult or complex issues.
  • Goal setting and attainment: The ability to develop a goal, plan for implementation, and measure success.
  • Self-regulation: The ability to monitor and control one’s own behaviors, actions and skills in various situations.
  • Self-advocacy: The skills necessary to speak up and/or defend a cause or a person.
  • Internal locus of control: The belief that one has control over the outcomes that are important to his or her own life.
  • Self-efficacy: Belief in one’s own ability to succeed in specific situations or accomplish specific tasks.
  • Self-awareness: Basic understanding of one’s own strengths, needs and abilities.
Creating self-determination skills in our students with disabilities can not only assist them in becoming an active member of the IEP team but develop their voice and agency in their own education, and ultimately their employment. Building on the continuum of engagement discussed earlier, Dr. Thoma and Dr. Wehman (2010) share seven stages of a student-directed IEP continuum. As students are provided more opportunities for meaningful engagement throughout their individual IEP journey, this will assist in removing barriers and build self-determination skills.
It’s never too early to begin teaching our students the skills necessary to increase self-determination and participate in their IEP journey. The level of acquisition of these skills will vary by student and can be individualized based on age, grade and abilities. For example, with regards to building on a student’s choice-making skill, we can allow our youngest students to choose a favorite work sample or activity they’d like to have their teacher or parent share at the IEP meeting. As the student ages, choice making may be allowing the student to decide which part of the IEP they’d like to attend and what and how they’d like to contribute. At the secondary level, students can choose which part of the IEP they’d like to lead. Choice-making skills are just one example of the nine elements that build self-determination skills and how these skills can increase engagement of students in the IEP journey. Collectively, over time, these skills will assist students with preparing for real-world decision making, encourage them to set goals and foster a sense of collaboration in their educational journey in preparation for the future. We strive to move beyond the mere procedural obligation of informing team members and completing IEP documents for procedural compliance and instead cultivate an environment of shared leadership and belonging, with a particular emphasis on involving students to the greatest extent possible. The richness of diverse perspectives and experiences within the team is vital for crafting an Individualized Education Program that truly ensures individualized educational benefit for students. Throughout the grant cycle, the HQ IEPs Project eagerly anticipates active engagement with administrators, teachers, students and their families. Our focus is on expanding the foundation of the IEP process and fostering stronger connections and collaborations. We envision a transformative journey that involves every member of the IEP team, shifting away from the transactional nature of the experience to one filled with multiple transformative moments. This journey is designed to enhance the self-determination skills of our students. As we continually develop additional resources and support for all IEP members, our commitment is to avoid this becoming just another fleeting initiative. Instead, we aspire for it to be an enduring approach to the IEP process, making a meaningful and sustained impact on our students. This approach seeks to complement and build upon the effective strategies already employed by educators and provide relevant and actionable resources for IEP teams. Please visit highqualityieps.net and check back often for the resources mentioned in this article and the many more to come. References HQ IEPS Project. High Quality IEPs | Supporting High Quality IEPs. (n.d.). https://highqualityieps.net/ I’m determined. I’m Determined. (2022, November 29). http://www.imdetermined.org/ Thoma, C. A., & Wehman, P. (2010). Getting the most out of IEPS an educator’s guide to the student-directed approach. Paul H. Brookes Pub. Co. Wise, S. (2022). Design for belonging: How to build inclusion and collaboration in your communities. Ten Speed Press. Heather DiFede, Jennifer Yales, Ed.D., Leo Mapagu, Noreen Rodriguez Lippincott and Sara Wildman are on the High Quality IEPs Resource Leads Project Team, a partnership between East County and Santa Clara County Special Education Local Plan Areas.