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


Does Your Child Have A Positive Behavior Plan?

Does your child struggle with behaviors that others may not understand? Is your child constantly being punished?

All IEPs allocate a portion to discuss behavior plans that may be needed for a student. More often than not, many of the strategies are progressively punitive. This means that the first step is moving from green to red, the the next consequence will result in removing a portion of the day that the student finds enjoyable, and so on. While a small group of students may find this effective, there is very little research that punitive actions will replace bad behavior.

Here are tips to consider if your child’s behavior is impacting their education.

  • What is the function of the behavior? Many behavioralist would argue that all behaviors have an antecedent. This means that behaviors (good or bad) are done for a reason. In and ideal situation, if the antecedents are addressed, the behaviors should no longer be present. Consider having an Functional Behavior Analysis done to help identify the function of the behavior. These assessments can be done by a behavioralist and can be paid for by the school district. The observation component will be done in various settings.
  • Is the behavior a result of the child’s disability? Many factors should be considered when making this determination. Do not wait until the behavior has become an issue and the student is now being considered for school-wide consequences. This can be considered during an FBA and sharing information about the disability that impacts your child’s behavior can be helpful. This is when a good relationship with the CST helps. Don’t be afraid to provide additional research to parents, teachers, and case managers. No one can possibly read every piece of research that is available. Having discussions prior to a manifestation determination meetings can be very impactful.
  • Is your child ever rewarded for doing what is right? More and more schools are moving towards Multi-teired Systems of Supports (MTSS). One of the models is Positive Behavior Supports in Schools (PBSIS). This program should be done on a school-wide level and then additional supports should be provided to students, classified or not, to help them find strategies for replacing negative behavior with positive. Many schools use a token reward system where students are provided with a ticket when they are “caught” following the school rules. This reinforces positive choices.
  • Be consistent! One of the major struggles with parents and teachers is to find balance between everyday unavoidable occurrences and structure. If the behavior was wrong yesterday, it is wrong today, and it will be wrong tomorrow. Work with a behavioralist to determine the best method of building continuity between home and school.
  • Teach your expectations. Teaching expected behavior is often over looked, especially as children become older. It is assumed that they should know appropriate behavior. Teachers, school staff, and family members should teach and model appropriate behaviors in a variety of environments.

To help your child, communication is invaluable. Sharing inform about your child and how their disability impacts their behavior will help to avoid unnecessary punitive consequences. Focus on your child’s strengths and reinforce when they exhibit appropriate behavior.

Remember that a child’s worth is not determined through their behavior. Identify the behavior as good or bad, if necessary, but never the child.