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Student Involvement in IEPs: Ten Tips to Help Middle School Students Get Started – Part 1

By July 15, 2021NESCA Notes 2021

By: Kelley Challen, Ed.M., CAS
Director of Transition Services; Transition Specialist, NESCA

Federal law requires that students with Individual Education Programs (IEPs) be invited to attend their transition IEP meetings. In Massachusetts, this means that students approaching the age of 14, often 8th graders, should be invited to attend their IEP meetings to start the process of transition planning if this has not already begun. For many, the idea of a middle school student attending an IEP meeting, an activity that can often be intimidating and upsetting for parents, can initially be overwhelming. And historically research has indicated that when students do attend team meetings, they have the lowest level of satisfaction about their IEP meeting of any team member and they feel the least comfortable sharing their thoughts and suggestions in the meeting.[i] However, research across the country has also shown that students can learn skills to actively participate in their IEP meetings, especially when they are directly taught terminology, roles, and how to participate, and when team members expect student participation.[ii] Student participation in IEPs is not only important because it is federally mandated, it is also essential because the IEP is supposed to be based on the student’s strengths, interests, preferences, and needs as well as the student’s post-high school goals—and because it’s the student’s life! For those reasons, I am choosing to focus this blog (and some future blogs) on tips for helping middle school students to become involved in their IEP processes.

  1. Explicitly learn about the IEP document and process—There are clear rules and vocabulary used to govern the IEP process. However, these are wholly unfamiliar and strange to anyone who has not participated in the process before (and even perplexing for those of us who have a lot of experience at team meetings). Therefore, one of the most critical ways to prepare a student to attend transition IEP meetings and to be a self-directed member of their IEP team is to equip them with knowledge of the vocabulary and rules that govern the process. One organization that has created useful materials for helping to teach students about the IEP process is which has documents designed to assist students in understanding the IEP ( and preparing for the IEP (, but it may also be important to reference and simplify certain sections of the IEP Process Guide ( If students are not ready to review their entire IEP (which many students are not), it may be helpful just to think about the present levels of performance, strengths, or accommodations.
  2. Talk about strengths—While it’s critical that students be able to talk about their strengths and challenges, sometimes it’s easiest to start with strengths. People can have all kinds of strengths, such as character strengths, social strengths, language strengths, academic strengths, technical strengths, extracurricular strengths, and more. For kids who have a hard time with open-ended questions, there are checklists that can be found or completed online, such as character strengths inventories, transferable skills checklists, and strengths worksheets. There are also activities that can be useful for documenting strengths over time, such as this Strengths Chain activity (, keeping a running list or journal of strengths and accomplishments, or building a deck of strength cards. All students need help learning to describe their strengths, especially the first time. Some students may have a hard time identifying the strengths they see in themselves, but may have an easy time sharing what other people say about them or compliment them on. Talking about strengths is not a one-time activity. Make sure that you are talking about and referring to the student’s strengths often while also highlighting how various members of the household or students in the class have different strengths and skills.
  3. Talk about challenges!—While transition planning is a strengths-based process, an IEP is based on a student needing specialized instruction and related services because the student has a disability and would struggle to make effective progress in school or the general education curriculum without special education. If we are going to ask students to be actively involved in a process of goal-setting based principally on their having a disability and related challenges, it is critical that the student has the opportunity to talk about what is hard for them and what they want to get better at… in their own words. At the same time, it is important to normalize the fact that all people have challenges, learn different information at different rates, and need help (and tools) to function successfully. Ultimately, being able to use a diagnostic label and understand the impact of a diagnosis on functioning is important, but what is more important is being able to describe what is hard on a daily basis and what makes those difficult activities easier. For some students, it is helpful to read a book or watch a television show or movie with characters who face similar struggles and to label similarities between the youth and the character. Some of the same checklists mentioned for documenting strengths can be helpful for identifying areas of challenge or undeveloped skills. It may also be helpful to start filling in a worksheet similar to this one-pager ( or this self-awareness worksheet ( Just as with strengths, it is important to talk about and refer to specific challenges that each person in the household or class faces.
  4.  Complete interest and preference inventories—Learning to engage in self-assessments and talk about those self-assessments is an important part of transition planning and IEP participation. There are so many fun interest and personality quizzes online that can be taken in minutes. Some examples include these personality tests from National Geographic Kids (, this free personality type explorer (, or even the O*Net Career Interest Profiler ( Have the student take the test—and take these tests yourself—and talk about how your results are similar or different and how well the student thinks the results of the assessment capture them. Think about whether there are strengths or challenges to add to their running lists or worksheets based on their experience taking these inventories.
  5. Talk about the student’s goals for after high school—Students have the right to input as much as possible into their postsecondary vision statement, no matter how realistic or unrealistic their input is. The only way that they can be prepared to provide input at a team meeting is if they have spent some time thinking and talking about their post-high school goals and learning about their choices and options. Just recently, my colleague Becki Lauzon wrote a blog with important discussion points for talking about post-high school goals with students, which can be found here. A robust transition planning process should include helping a student to have detailed goals for their future education or training, employment, independent living, and community engagement; however, initial discussions might just include ruling in or out things like obtaining a high school diploma, continuing learning after high school, having a paid job, driving a car, and living with other people. In middle school, the goal of talking with a student about their postsecondary vision is just to help the student learn to comfortably engage in those discussions and to find out where future work needs to be done in order to help the student build a more complete picture of their adult postsecondary life.

Every student is different and is able to engage in the process in different ways and at different times, but I hope that there is at least one tip in these blogs that is useful for you. Next month, I will be writing a second blog with more tips for engaging middle school students in the IEP process.

If you are interested in having your child work with Kelley Challen or another NESCA transition specialist to plan and prepare to be part of their IEP meeting, please fill out an intake for our transition consultation and planning services or our student coaching services today!




About the Author
Kelley Challen, Ed.M., CAS, is NESCA’s Director of Transition Services, overseeing planning, consultation, evaluation, coaching, case management, training and program development services. Ms. Challen also provides expert witness testimony in legal proceedings related to special education. She is also the Assistant Director of NESCA, working under Dr. Ann Helmus to support day-to-day operations of the practice. Ms. Challen began facilitating programs for children and adolescents with special needs in 2004. After receiving her Master’s Degree and Certificate of Advanced Study in Risk and Prevention Counseling from Harvard Graduate School of Education, Ms. Challen spent several years at the MGH Aspire Program where she founded an array of social, life and career skill development programs for teens and young adults with Asperger’s Syndrome and related profiles. She additionally worked at the Northeast Arc as Program Director for the Spotlight Program, a drama-based social pragmatics program, serving youth with a wide range of diagnoses and collaborating with several school districts to design in-house social skills and transition programs. Ms. Challen is co-author of the chapter “Technologies to Support Interventions for Social- Emotional Intelligence, Self-Awareness, Personality Style, and Self-Regulation” for the book Technology Tools for Students with Autism. She is also a proud mother of two energetic boys, ages six and three. While Ms. Challen has special expertise in supporting students with Autism Spectrum Disorders, she provides support to individuals with a wide range of developmental and learning abilities, including students with complex medical needs.


Neuropsychology & Education Services for Children & Adolescents (NESCA) is a pediatric neuropsychology practice and integrative treatment center with offices in Newton, Massachusetts, Plainville, Massachusetts, and Londonderry, New Hampshire, serving clients from preschool through young adulthood and their families. For more information, please email, call 617-658-9800 or complete our online Intake Form.