The Whole Child IEP: Creating More Swimming Swans



By Dafina Westbrooks

Westbrook Swimming Swans 300x300“Teachers—who fuel themselves with their belief in the innate intellectual potential of their students and have confidence in their own ability to divine this potential and to propel the students in the direction of learning engagement and growth—are like swans in their element, majestically and artfully gliding through their teaching journey.”

—Yvette Jackson, The Pedagogy of Confidence: Inspiring High Intellectual Performance in Urban Schools (2011, p.167)

As I enter my 9th year in education, I am starting to feel like an expert on smaller things like classroom management and a novice about educational policy and the best ways to use the Common Core State Standards to close the achievement gap. Therefore, I’m constantly looking for the “best educational hacks” that will quickly bring me up to speed on a concept or strategy and radically improve my performance as an educator.

Enter ASCD. My time as an ASCD Emerging Leader has afforded me the opportunity to hear from dynamic speakers like Yvette Jackson about how to fearlessly lead and teach school-dependent children by essentially affirming the worth of the whole child. I was given another lens to further embrace ASCD’s work promoting a whole child approach to education, a movement that advocates what we know implicitly—that true learning only occurs when we all work together to comprehensively address every aspect of a student’s needs.

Now, I’d like to merge that thinking with my experience and role as a special educator. One of the most important roles of a special educator is to create an IEP (individualized education program) for students who are tested and found to have certain disabilities. This legal document essentially outlines what teachers, counselors, parents, and, in some cases, speech, physical, and occupational therapists need to do to help create the best educational outcome for struggling learners.

Most IEPs, and specifically those in New York State, where I work, include these key sections:

  • A student’s present levels of performance in academic and social areas
  • A behavioral intervention plan for students who require it
  • SMART goals that target a student’s academic, physical, and behavioral delays and indicate how academic progress will be measured
  • Recommended services and educational settings (e.g., a student might need a cotaught class, speech therapy, counseling, or a self-contained class)
  • Participation in state and district tests and testing accommodations (e.g., a student might get extra time on state tests)
  • A summary page of all the recommended services and educational functioning levels

After writing hundreds of IEPs, I know the importance of these sections when it comes to creating lessons and strategies to aid students. But what if we included additional information that spoke to the key tenets of the ASCD Whole Child approach? How much more powerful might IEPs be if they actually addressed whether a child is healthy, safe, engaged, supported, and challenged?

I propose adding the following sections to current IEPs to begin transforming them into whole child IEPs:

  • Physical/Health Needs (Healthy): Does the student have a pediatrician? If yes, list the contact information. If a student has ADHD, how is it being managed?
  • Emotional Needs (Safe): Although conventional IEPs do address this area, we could do more to ensure that the student feels the school environment is a place where he feels safe, cared for, and respected.
  • Engagement (Engaged): At what time during the school day is the student most engaged? Which teacher is most effective in capturing the student’s interest? Let’s identify these people and places and make them a part of the student’s plan.
  • Support Network (Supported): This might be the most important new section. Who in the school building and in the student’s life makes her feel loved and heard? Who does she want to impress or turn to when she needs help? It’s amazing how knowing the people who can form this network can be harnessed to help a student succeed.
  • Academic Motivators/Future Aspirations and Connections (Challenged): It is particularly important that a student who knows that he struggles also knows that he has strengths and talents that can be harnessed in and out of the classroom. If I have a student with a learning disability who also aspires to be an entrepreneur, then I need to connect him with community partners to shadow. From there, I can challenge him to build his speaking abilities and strengthen the math and reading skills necessary to thrive in that field.

Back to the swan metaphor: In her book, The Pedagogy of Confidence, Jackson juxtaposed what we see when swans are swimming with what we see when they are walking on land. In the water they are graceful, beautiful, and majestic; on land they are bumbling, stumbling, and awkward. Conventional IEPs are, by necessity, written from the vantage point of teachers who are looking at swans on the land—awkward students who cannot seem to stay in the classroom, are lost at school, and have disabilities.

However, if we embrace whole child IEPs and Jackson’s pedagogical paradigm shift, we are also creating IEPs and services for those same swans once they begin to swim. We are creating environments that give them more opportunities to swim and, in some cases, help them realize that they can swim on their own. Every time we put the student at the center—when we combine data about the student’s academic and behavioral needs with information about the student’s health and who actually makes them feel supported—we are pushing our swans further into the waters of success.


Dafina Westbrooks is a member of the ASCD Emerging Leaders class of 2014.  Dafina currently serves as the Special Needs Manager of grades K-8 at Bedford Stuyvesant New Beginnings Charter School in New York. She was recently awarded the 2015 Outstanding Special Educator Award by the National Association of Special Education Teachers. As an educational advocate, Dafina also shares her views on a wide range of topics as an Educator Voice Fellow for America Achieves New York.


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