Person Centered Approach to Schools and Transitions- How is it Different?

Planning for a student’s future is the most important job a school district has. This process must include a healthy relationship between all sides of the table. IEP meetings can become very intense. Parents are often anxious regarding the future of their child and school districts want to provide the right services with their available resources. I have been attending IEP meetings for years and I have seen transition planning meetings become an overwhelming experience for all.

As an administrator and teacher, I have seen some transition planning processes that are very well thought out and thorough. Others lacked depth, individuality, and knowledge of available services. One of the best methods of planning for any child’s future is Person Centered Approach to Schools and Transitions (PCAST). I attended a one-day seminar provided by the NJ Department of Education and I was hooked. I immediately ran into the director’s office and begged to have them come to our district for training.

“A person-centered plan can help those involved with the focus person see the total person, recognize his or her desires and interests, and discover completely new ways of thinking about the future of the person.” — Beth Mount & Kay Zwernik, 1988. This is a slight variation on adult person-centered planning that has been done for years.

If you are just starting the planning process or if you are experiencing unexpected struggles, PCAST may be your answer. The main premise of the program is to identify what is important to the learner and what is important for the learner. There is a heavy emphasis on student-led meetings. For students that may have never attended their own IEP meeting, simply being present and having input on any topic is a great start.

The physical experience of a PCAST meeting is also different. The table is removed and staff, parents, student, and friends sit in a semi-circle around an array of poster paper. All attendees ideas and planning maps are documented on the poster board. A mediator is recommended to document the collaboration process. Laptops are not encouraged. Everything should be written for all to see. This eliminates the my side and their side discomfort. Everyone, including the student, is physically focused on the needs and future of the learner. At a training I attended, it was highly recommended to play uplifting background music before the meeting and to offer snacks. This keeps the mood light and positive.

The student has a say in the people that attend the meeting. They can recommend a group of people that know them the best, such as classmates, neighbors, friend’s parents, employers, and more. All attendees complete a questionnaire about the student. The main focus of the entire meeting is what the learner is able to do. There is no dwelling on test scores that only identify limits. This meeting, while acknowledging the negative, moves the focus to how to support the student’s strengths and goals.

To request a PCAST meeting the first step for a parent is to discuss this option with your case manager or district director of student services. The district may need time to arrange for additional training for their staff. The training is often free of charge. The second step is to begin to involve your student in decision-making processes if they are not involved already. Remember, this meeting will not result in a final product. The transition planning is an ongoing process. Many of the self-advocacy skills can be developed in the classroom and at home. Ensure that the student’s desires are respected and to not be afraid to look deeper into their desires to determine what needs to be accomplished to bring their future to fruition.

Videos, webinars, and additional links are provided below.

PCAST link

NJ DOE Video Link


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