Person Centered Planning

Person Centered Planning

I heard this quote not long ago: ”People spend more time planning their family vacations than they do planning for their lives.”

I’ve seen some pretty elaborate vacation plans, but I hear a lot less about life plans.

A form of life planning is what I refer to when I talk about person-centered planning.

I find it simultaneously easy and difficult to wrap my head around person centered planning.

On the one hand, it makes total sense … of course people need to be at the center of their life plans!

On the other hand, all the health, education, and social service systems can make the process seem complicated and overwhelming. How can you plan for an individual within large systems?

Confusion and uncertainty make it less likely that individuals and their caregivers will embark on this type of planning.

So, let’s break it down.

Person centered planning is a set of approaches to help increase the independence and self-determination of individuals who have historically been disempowered.

This process was initially championed in the disability community for this reason; however, the process was expanded to address the needs of any individual who desires support with a life plan.

I often contrast the term person-centered with system or service-centered.

Person-centered means we listen, respond to, and create a life plan based on an individual’s hopes, dreams, and goals.

In contrast is creating a life plan based on what’s available through a system or service delivery model.

We know one size does not fit all, so why do so many settle for this approach?

Sometimes an individual may to appear to settle because he or she may not have a traditional means of communication to say, “I don’t want that.”

Other times, people appear to settle because they don’t have a support system in place to help discover alternatives.

Another quote I hear a lot is, ”If you’re not planning your life, someone else will.”

Person-centered planning is really about choice, opportunity, relationships, and possibility. 

Two pioneers and thought leaders of person centered planning, John O’Brien and Connie Lyle O’Brien, developed the Framework for Accomplishment, and identified 5 Key Valued Experiences that individuals with disabilities often need assistance with:

  1.  Sharing ordinary places
  2.  Making choices
  3.  Develop abilities
  4.  Grow in relationships
  5.  Be treated with respect and have a valued social role

These 5 valued experiences seem pretty basic, but for many people, achieving them throughout their lives is an uphill climb.

Person-Centered Planning helps create the opportunity for these valued life experiences. It creates the space on center stage for someone who may not usually be listened to; it helps start a conversation.

While there are many processes that support person-centered planning, they all share a philosophical background that says an individual is at the center of decision making, and family members (and trusted others) are partners in this process. 

Give a Little “Wait Time”

ClockI recently suggested one of my clients “Give a little wait time,” when she shared her concerns about her 3-year-old son and his challenges with expressive language. I’ve used this expression for many years, and recently considered how it applies not just to young children with language challenges, but to all of us.

In my world of education, wait time is the space between a teacher’s direction, question, or a conversational turn and a response. For those of us with intact language, the wait time is really quite negligible; conversations flow, things happen, questions are answered effortlessly. But for children and adults with language differences, this may not always to the case. More time may be needed to respond, process, formulate, or act.

For an individual who needs more time to respond, and doesn’t receive the space to do so, it can be pretty frustrating. What typically happens when someone doesn’t respond in a timely fashion (as randomly defined by us at that moment) is that the question, direction or comment is re-issued. Again, and again.

Consider being on the receiving end of this. Some people might choose to tune out; others might shut down. Still others may become agitated. And communication breaks down.

My friend who is a speech-language pathologist uses the expression, “slow-down communication,” which is another way to say, “Pace yourself by allowing some space for responding.”

When I suggest a parent give a little wait time, I recommend counting silently to at least 7 before communicating the next direction, question or comment. In my own teaching career, I once had a student for whom I waited out to see what his unique response time was. It approached 20 seconds! Let me tell you, 20 seconds feels like an eternity, but how important was it that I learned this about him? I’m sure he was relieved, too, that he’d have the space he needed to respond.

Granted, 20 seconds is probably not the norm, but I challenge you to identify what the wait time is for your child or students. Then, use that information to provide the space for a response.

How does the concept of wait time extend beyond supporting individuals with language challenges? I think about my own life, and my clients’ lives, and realize there are times when we all need extra space between to respond. We often need time to pause to think, time to process, and even time to dream. I find this particularly important when I’m learning new things or needing to make a big decision. I have to consciously pause and sit with the information, the question or the decision at hand. That space between can act as a safeguard to avoid reactive decisions or actions, which often end up not serving us as well as we would like.

So, give it a try for your child, your students, yourself. A little wait time can go a long a way to strengthening communication, honoring another person, and honoring yourself.

Educational Accommodations- Just the Facts

In an earlier blog post titled Educational Accommodations – Let’s change the HOW, I shared why it is important to include detailed, specific information when it comes to your child’s individual Educational Accommodations. Since that post was published, parents have asked for more information about how to do this. Below I have outlined the steps for creating your very own Accommodation Fact Sheet for your child.

Accommodations are like cookie recipes. All cookie recipes have a name and some common ingredients, but beyond that, each one is different. Unique ingredients or techniques are what make the cookies distinctive.

Below are tips for parents who want to make sure their child’s accommodation information can be easily shared between teachers:

  1.  Identify which accommodations your child’s education team uses. Begin with your child’s Individual Education Plan or Accommodation Plan. Is there a common name for each accommodation or a specific name?
  2. For each accommodation on your list:
    1. Describe what the accommodation looks like. Can you take a picture?
    2. When it’s used?
    3. Where it’s used?
    4. How often it’s used?
    5. Who is responsible (your child, teachers, support staff) for ensuring it’s used?
    6. Why is it used? What’s the reason behind the accommodation? Connect the dots between the accommodation and your child’s needs.
  3. Compile the answers above in an easily accessible, easy to read document.
  4. Share your child’s accommodation fact sheet with new teachers/ staff.

When is a good time to begin working on this Fact Sheet? I believe anytime you feel it is needed, but especially at the time of your child’s IEP meeting or 504 meeting. Another good time to use your Accommodation Fact Sheet is before the end of the school year, if your child will have a new teacher in the coming year.

How you approach this with your child’s teacher matters, too. As a parent, you really are your child’s historian. Gathering the information enables you to share your child’s history, i.e., what’s been done in the past, and what works.

Below are a couple conversation starters to help you approach your child’s teachers:

“Gabe has had an incredible year and we really don’t want to lose any information as he transitions to his new class next year. I’m putting together a fact sheet about Gabe, and want to include his accommodations with a bit more detail. Can we schedule a time to talk for 20 minutes so you can fill in the gaps I might have?”


“Jessica’s accommodations are working so well. She will attend a summer camp this year, and I really want her the summer camp staff to know what’s been working for her. I’m putting together an Accommodations Fact Sheet for the camp. Can we schedule a time for me to visit the classroom and take pictures of her visual schedule? There’s also a couple things I don’t know how to describe. Can I send you my questions?”

Educational Accommodations-What’s In A Name?

an educational accommodationIn the world of special education, we talk a lot about “accommodations” for learners with disabilities. Accommodations are defined as changes that help a student overcome or work around the disability. For example, allowing a student who has trouble writing to give his answers orally is an example of an accommodation.  It’s all about changing HOW children access the curriculum, whether it’s Earth Science, Geometry, or Language Arts.

For parents and teachers, this concept of changing the HOW is a relatively familiar one in the context of accessing curriculum, social opportunities and activities of daily living. Many wonderful accommodations are being used in our educational systems, but through the years, I’ve discovered that simply attaching a name to an accommodation does not guarantee its success or how it’s used.

I totally agree that naming accommodations is a good idea; however, I believe it’s critical to take it one (or two) steps further.

Here’s what I mean. Below is a list of some common accommodation names:

  • Extended time
  • Visual supports
  • Use graphic organizers
  • Organizational support
  • Word processors for written work
  • Reducing the number of practice problems
  • Oral responding.

Great names, but guess what? These names don’t tell me what to do for your child. There’s a lot of guesswork that needs to happen to wisely match “support with organization” for your particular child.

So what’s the deal? Well, systematized, electronic, individual education plans sometimes don’t seem to provide space to elaborate on the named accommodation. Accommodations are often found near the end of the IEP document, and therefore, may appear to not carry as much weight as the goals and objectives. These of course, are just my observations. But the bottom line is that everyone using accommodations for your child/student needs to know more about the accommodation than just its name.

What can you do? This is a great opportunity for parents and teachers to collaborate. For each named accommodation, describe what it looks like and how it’s implemented. If you can take a photograph of it, I recommend you do that, too. Think of the accommodation as a recipe. List what you need, how to do it and the expected outcome.

With additional information, you can create an easy-to-use supplemental document that clearly defines the named accommodation. Start small and build on it. If parents and teachers work together on one accommodation at time, a usable document is perhaps just a grading period away.

Here are some of the great benefits to creating this supplemental document:

  1.  The hard work teachers and staff are doing is documented once (and revised as needed).
  2. It saves time at future IEP meetings.
  3. New teachers or multiple teachers will have the information they need to be successful from the start.
  4. It takes the guesswork out of interpreting what the previous IEP team intended.
  5.  The supplemental document can also be used to help teach your child more specifically about his/her learning needs and act as a springboard for self-advocacy.

Another Perspective on “Transition”

The word ”transition” can be highly charged because each of us assign it different meanings and responsibilities. This can lead to fears and frustrations that may be unnecessary.

In the (special) education world, the most common use for the word transition is:

  •  By the age of 16, a student must have a TRANSITION plan, as part of his or her individual educational plan.

I both agree and disagree.

Yes, there is a legal requirement that says a student’s individual education-plan must address transition and post-secondary goals; however, I believe it’s NEVER TOO EARLY to begin thinking about post-secondary goals. I often try to imagine what the federal meetings were like when committee members decided that age 16 is the magical age to plan the rest of your life.

Ah, but I digress.

Instead of relying solely on the definitions created by a committee, I’m offering an alternate understanding of Transition that comes from a parent of a child with multiple disabilities. As soon as she said it, I loved it!

Transition is anytime you and your child take a step in a direction you’ve never been before.

While this is a broad understanding, it rings true. And if we perceive transitions as new steps in new directions, we can see that transitions are constant.

How will this new perspective help you navigate through transitions? Rather than thinking of an upcoming transition as a major event, recognize that it is part of the constant flow of change, growth and the passage of time. How you handle the flow of changes can become a part of your plan, rather than a major event that stresses you out.

Most people prefer routines; they’d much rather face the challenge they know rather than one they don’t.

But new events, opportunities, and challenges arise every day. You need to prepare for them so that you don’t come completely undone when it comes time to step in a new direction.

The following “Transition Tools” may help you go with the flow when it’s time to change things up:

  1.  Clarity rules, and so does calm, clear thinking. First, become aware that your clarity is essential to planning and decision making for your child. Give yourself 10 minutes to be quiet and still so that you can think clearly before you take action. Keep track of your thoughts and ideas in a journal, a voice memo, on your iPhone, or your laptop.  You’ll be glad you did.
  2. Get support. No one ever has to go it alone. And there’s no shame in asking for help when it comes time to move through life’s transitions. When you have help and support, you make more progress.
  3. Honor where you’ve been, where you are, and what’s possible.  The expression, “You’ve come a long way, baby,” is true. You have come a long way, whether your child is 3 or 23. To use the experience you’ve gained, take a moment to reflect on it; otherwise, it’s lost.

By considering the word transition in a new light, you can shift your perspective. Then, changes become more manageable. Rather than being another hurdle to manage, change can become an opportunity for growth.

You can decide what it means to you. And that’s empowering.

May You Never Lose Your Way

folded mapTo Marilee,
May you never lose your way.

This was the inscription in my 16th birthday present: The Northern Virginia/Washington DC area street-map. Back then, this street map was a like a prized GPS system of today.

I’ve since recycled the well loved, well-worn book, but held fast to the treasured inscription; it has stayed with me, always.

In my mind, my dad and maps always went together. As a Naval aviator, my dad relied on maps. Later, as an engineer and systems analyst, he seemed to always “map things out.” His brilliant math tutoring skills were legendary, and I still remember him saying, “Let’s just map out this problem.” He’d even go so far as to draw trains to help me visualize those confounding calculus problems!

My dad was also an inventor, scout master and baseball coach. All of these roles required planning, and his passion for a plan clearly influenced my life. 

Maps and plans were also a big part family road trips. I remember the time I was allowed to manage the “AAA Trip Tik” from the back seat.  That was such an honor, that I felt I had won the lottery!

As I write this, I realize that maps (and planning) have always been a part of my life. And while my dad taught me quite a bit about maps, navigation and planning, I recognize, too, that I’m “pre-wired” for planning.

My dad was so many things to me: my hero, my teacher, my co-inventor of stories & inventions; The Answer Man (he was Google before there was Google!); and a model to stay young at heart, have a destination, work hard, and be generous.

Dad was also what I’d call cool under fire. I realize now his steady, even approach to life was largely due to knowing where he was and where he was going at all times. Even during his last few weeks of life, he remained calm. He openly shared with us that he knew where he was, and that he had chosen to discontinue his cancer treatments. He said he knew where he was going – to his true home. He was grouneded in his faith until the end.

If you have no destination, any road will do.

This was a quote I heard him say often as I was growing up. He was right, of course.

It should come as no surprise that I have turned my own love of maps and plans into supports for my clients.

I use maps to visually plan a way to a new destination — whether it be a smooth transition to middle school, integrating a new diagnosis into life or considering an adult child’s post-school options.

A plan reveals how you get there, day by day, step by step. Without it, the big vision can quickly become overwhelming.

When you can “see” the way to reach a destination, getting there becomes much easier. Future maps empower parents and children, and helps them maintain focus on what matters most.

My dad shared maps with me so that I would never lose my way; I share maps with my clients so they can find their way more easily.

An Easy Way to Dump Labels & Tell Your Child’s Story

an easy way to dump labelsDesigner labels, educational labels, disability labels … labels are everywhere!

Labels appeal to the part of brain that likes to organize and categorize. And while labels can be helpful, they certainly can’t tell the whole story.

The truth is, it’s the whole story that matters. Your child is so much more than their disability or educational label. 

It’s easy to get bogged down with labels. But, I’ve come up with a way to help families and individuals dump the weight of labels so they can begin a meaningful dialogue about their child. I call it capacity search.

We use capacity searches in person-centered planning because they honor the individual and the belief that “No contribution is too small.”

I borrowed that quote from Beth Mount, an early pioneer of Person-Centered Planning.

What are your child’s contributions? 

What gifts does your child bring to the world? 

Sometimes the answer is really obvious; other times you need a moment to reflect.  Either way, listing their gifts is a useful activity to do from time to time

To provide some structure for my private coaching clients, I offer a simple A-Z list or a 1-10 list for them to write out their child’s gifts.

Remembering that no contribution is too small, we look at who their child is, from every perspective and angle, and make notes.

It’s a helpful exercise to do before a doctor’s appointment, a school meeting, or perhaps, just when you are feeling overwhelmed by the systems.

How to Use Your Capacity Search

First, you sit with it. Soak it in during those times when you feel “label overwhelm.”

Second, you use it. You include your list in your child’s Positive (GIFT) Profile.

Why? Because your child’s gifts matter; they are part of your child’s story, and the people in your child’s life need to know— and quite honestly—want to know.

Communicating about your child’s gifts gives you an opportunity to lead and shape the conversations around your child.

It gives a peek into the future; it may open up a life path, or a door of opportunity.

So, give this exercise a try.  Share it with a friend or loved one.  You’ll be glad you did!

Communication Clarity Reduces Unwanted Stress

communication clarity reduces unwanted stress

Good communication is the hallmark of the best relationships, especially when it comes to parent-teacher relationships.

But what does good communication look like? The way we communicate has changed dramatically through the years. Back in my classroom days, we used paper and pen to send notes. Today’s teachers and parents communicate in many different ways, including e-mail, text messages, and even Twitter.

Clarity is Key

More important than the means in which you communicate is what you communicate about. Do your communication efforts build relationships and promote learning?

I strongly encourage parents and teachers to get clear about what information needs to be exchanged, and at what intervals. Without knowing what the other party needs or wants to know, the default can easily become information overload, or a focus on what’s wrong vs. what’s going right.

Parents, if you are not getting the kind of information you want from your child’s teacher, let her know what you prefer to know about.

For example, if you don’t want a daily report of your child’s challenging behaviors, ask instead for the teacher to share positive accomplishes, such as the number of words your child used, or whether there was social initiation and/or appropriate play with toys.

Teachers, knowing whether your student had adequate sleep, or if any unique events occurred over the weekend could help with your student’s lessons throughout the day. Be sure to ask for information that matters most to your students’ participation at school.

After you decide what you would like to know more about, decide on the frequency of communication. Keep in mind that communication should be doable for both teachers and parents in terms of time and method. Not every parent/teacher communication system will look the same. A bi-weekly phone call may be enough for one family, while a structured daily checklist might work for another.

How will you know if it’s working? You will know when both parties use the system consistently. If it’s too complicated, or contains information that neither party desires to know, the plan won’t work.

Celebrating accomplishments and completions, and committing to an effective, clear communication plan are two great ways to ensure you continue to have a successful school year.

Do you use a unique system to communicate with your child’s teachers? Tell us about it!

What’s New and Good?

Are you tired of hearing the word “busy” when you ask someone how they are doing?  Me, too.  A few years ago, I made a conscious decision to take the word “busy” out of my response vocabulary when someone asks me how I am doing. (I also re-direct people away from that word during coaching calls.)

Many parents call me for consultations, and the first words out of their mouths are, “I know you’re really busy, but  …”

I quickly come back with, “Aren’t YOU busy, too?” Of course they are! All parents are busy, especially parents of children with disabilities and learning differences.

But, the word busy doesn’t really tell me about what’s going on in a life that I care to know more about. 

My coach and mentor introduced me to a fantastic, new way to greet people.  Anytime I talk to her, the first question she asks me is, “What’s new and good?”

What a game changer! To answer with a rehearsed, “Busy,” simply doesn’t work. In fact, I have to slow down for a millisecond and think to myself, “What IS new and good right now?”

Her follow up question is even more engaging.

“What’s good about that?”

This line of questioning works so well, that I’ve adopted it with the families I serve, their children, and young adults.

It’s actually quite fun to ask people these two questions. When I asked E., a young man who happens to have Asperger Syndrome, what’s new and good during a Skype call, at first he blurted out, “Fine,” without thinking. Then, he paused and said, “No, wait! What did you say?”

I repeated the question and he shared something with me. Then, he asked me, “Why did you ask THAT question?”

I told him it was a way for me to truly know more about his life, a life I cared about, and a way for him to focus on what is going “right” in his life.

Later, E’s mom shared with me that she started using this question with him after school.  At first he balked, ‘But that’s Marilee’s question!”

Now, it has become part of their new routine. As a result, E’s mom has learned a lot more about what is going on in her son’s life. One simple change strengthened their communication and relationship.  Not bad, huh?

I invite you to get out of the rut and change up your conversation routines. Ask people “What’s new and good?” and see what happens. You may be pleasantly surprised.

I hope you will share what happens.

Oh, and for the person having a really bad day who responds with “NOTHING!”  (Nothing is new and good?), you can simply smile and say, “I’m sorry to hear that.”

So, give it a try with your kids, your students, and your family members, and see what unfolds.  I can’t wait to hear what kind of responses you receive.

The No. 1 Tip to Build Inclusive Classrooms

Smiling womanLast year, I was asked how I managed to help build an inclusive community for my students when I had a self-contained classroom. I was grateful for the opportunity to reflect on this question, as I made many discoveries.

One of those discoveries involved SMILING, and I think that’s worth sharing.

In my early teaching career, the typical practice was to place students with more significant disabilities in a self-contained setting.

Back then, there was not a strong culture of inclusion. I knew if I wanted opportunities for my students to get to know other students on campus, I had to start with a grassroots effort.

Sure, some of my mentors at the University suggested I, “sneak them in;” others had more complicated ideas. I decided it would start with the relationships I could build first with the school staff. 

I did little things in the first year: I included myself in the whole school. I made our head custodian my best friend (cookies and kindness); and I joined the second-grade team once a month on a Saturday to plan a month’s worth of lessons.

Every one of these things mattered as I built relationships. The teachers and staff needed to know who I was before they ever began considering my students. The last thing I wanted was a blank stare and a “Who?” when the time came to ask about having one of Ms. Emerson’s students join the Science lesson in the general education class.

Remember, inclusion was not really on anyone’s radar. (Except mine, of course. Yes, I had progressive-thinking mentors). To integrate and include my students into a traditional classroom, I had to start at the very beginning.

Fortunately, we’ve come a long way in education since my early teaching days. Yet, we still have quite a long way to go. But I do think one of my strategies is still a good fit for today and always.

If you want to encourage more inclusion, you first must build relationships.

Relationships matter — to the adults, the kids, the parents. As a special education teacher who will need to collaborate with other teachers and staff, you must know that your relationship with others affects your students. I’m not suggesting you need to bake cookies every week, but I do encourage you to take a little time to invest in those relationships.

I’ve found that, in the end, it always comes down to relationships.

After folks began to know me, they had to learn about what I did and who my students were. I taught a class that was designated for children with the label of autism.  Most of my students had some pretty sophisticated behavioral & communication challenges.

But, every one of my students had the ability to join in and belong to their school community in their own way.

Unfortunately, what a lot of teachers and staff saw (and heard) from my students were not my students’ most stellar moments: a scream; a tantrum; a dash from the classroom.

And what probably puzzled them the most was my SMILE and my stories.

You see, when I was outside of my classroom, I always SMILED. A big, happy I LOVE MY JOB MORE THAN ANYTHING kind of smile.

Apparently, my constant smile got some peoples’ attention. They would see me smile when I was alone, when I was walking down the hall with a student who was exercising his lung capacity, when I was joyfully playing with kids on the playground.

The attention came from the question: “Why is SHE so happy?”

I didn’t know it then, but, my unshakeable smile was the biggest public relations ambassador for my students and my best marketing tool. 

People started asking questions about my students. Some of the first questions were more unsettled curiosity about me:

  • “Is she crazy?”
  • “What’s with all that smiling?!”
  • “Why do you look so happy when your students have so many tantrums?”

I LOVED getting asked questions about my smile and demeanor because they gave me an opening to share with others about all the amazing things my students could do when they weren’t having a tantrum.

I also shared what they were learning to do instead of having a tantrum, and what those tantrums actually meant (just communication, my friend). 

After I built relationships with teachers and staff, and convinced my interested audience that my job was the best one at school, the invitations started to roll in.

  • “Hey, we’re having a Dr. Seuss party. Can your 2nd graders join us?”
  • “Can your class eat lunch with ours?”
  • “Why don’t you go on grade-level field trips? Can we change that?”
  • “Your students have to go to music! Can they join my class?”

And so it began. These were the tiniest roots of an inclusion movement at an old elementary school. And it all started with relationships and smiles. I believe the inclusion movement at that school was strengthened by my commitment to not complain about my students in the teacher’s lounge, or in front of others who were not part of my support group.

Pretty cool, huh? With very little effort, I convinced the teachers they I had the best gig in town: I worked some pretty amazing students.

I encourage teachers who are trying to build a more inclusive school community to consider these ideas:

 1.   Build relationships. In the end, they are what matter most.

2.   Smile, no matter what.

3.   Always share the very best about your students with others. Try to not complain about them in a public forum. In fact, save the complaining for your trusted inner circle.

If someone had told me while I was getting my special education degree that I was also getting an education in public relations and marketing, I would have laughed. But as it turns out, those were exactly the skills I used to build a more inclusive school community.

Share your SMILE.