By Camy Kobylinski, NJEA staff

Camy Kobylinski is an associate director in the NJEA Professional Development and Instructional Issues Division. She can be reached at

Educators are always considering and planning for the future hopes of their students. Schools are continually selecting programming and curricula with these positive student outcomes in mind. Special education goes a step further by highly individualizing and tailoring programs for students’ specific needs. Additional assessments are conducted to help guide a complex decision-making process. Although we gather and maintain a lot of evaluative information for students with disabilities, this information may be clinical and not user-friendly for families and students. While necessary, the information reported may tend to highlight the disability and deficits over the human needs, preferences and interests of the student.

One mindset that leads to a more holistic method for planning is a person-centered approach. Person-centered approaches have been used successfully in medical, professional and educational settings. In schools, the approaches may be used in a variety of situations including instructional design and assessment, program planning and during individual planning for students with disabilities. Person-centered approaches are particularly useful in planning for students preparing to transition from school to community life, because of the focus on building upon the strengths, interests and abilities of the individual rather than on weaknesses or remediation. Participants in person-centered planning consider the individual’s lived experience and their dreams for the future. Common language is emphasized as opposed to clinical or educational jargon. These approaches elevate the voice of the student and of families. Indeed, they may make it possible for the student to facilitate discussion at their own planning meeting.

In preparing for a person-centered planning meeting, information is gathered in answer to questions such as:

• Who are the important people in this person’s life?

• What are the person’s special qualities, capabilities, talents, etc.?

• What are the person’s preferences in day-to-day life; their interests, hobbies, likes, dislikes?

• What is their vision for their future in terms of employment, living arrangements and participation in their community?

The questions should be simplified and broad-based to include all participants. Responses to the questions may be captured in a planning document. The resulting plan or personal profile is a concise, positive snapshot of the individual. It should be easily understood by those outside of the school setting. The plan is used as a springboard for discussion at a meeting. The team members listen deeply for understanding. Discussion in a person-centered planning session is solutions-oriented and looks to use all resources including natural supports in the home and community. The team identifies what the person needs to perform at their optimal level. Educators may use the plan to inform goal writing, transition planning and even the entire IEP process.

An IEP resulting from a person-centered planning approach may look very different from one that is planned using a more traditional process. Instead of choosing only academic goals from a curriculum sequence that may not have meaning for the student, goals would address skills and knowledge that are needed in real world settings such as the home or worksite.

Teachers and other school employees who work with students with disabilities may consider advocating for more person-centered approaches within their school community. In New Jersey, the Department of Education has partnered with The Bogg’s Center at Rutgers-Robert Wood Johnson Medical School to encourage and support schools and families to use person-centered approaches, especially for students of transition age. The project, Person Centered Approaches in Schools and Transition (PCAST), is described in detail on the department’s special education page under Learning Opportunities. For more information about how your district might be selected to participate in the PCAST project, contact Bob Haugh at There is no cost to the school district to participate in the project.

Samantha is 17-year-old student who enjoys crafts, music and animals. She lives with her mother and younger brother who find her to be kind, funny and hard-working. She may be unsure of herself in new surroundings but does well when she has support from a familiar person. She hopes to work in a retail store in the future. Samantha is job sampling at a local dollar store with the support of a job coach.

A traditional IEP goal might look like this:

When presented with 10 addition problems with sums from 5 to 20, Samantha will answer 80 percent correctly in three out of four trials by the end of the 18/19 school year.

While a goal derived from a person-centered planning process might look like this:

When presented with a carton of merchandise, a visual model and verbal prompts, Samantha will place merchandise on shelving correctly in three out of four trials by the end of the first semester.

Both sample goals are specific, measurable, attainable and time-limited. However, the second goal is more relevant to Samantha’s current job placement and her desire to work in a retail store. After the first semester, the goal might be modified with an emphasis on increased independence and accuracy. The team is hoping to find a craft store for Samantha’s second semester job experience. Without a person-centered planning approach, some of Samantha’s wishes may not have been fully recognized.

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