SOMERSET, NJ - A paradigm shift was on display at Franklin High School as students with special needs presented their person-centered plans on Tuesday.

The year-end event allowed students to highlight their strengths, personalities and individual support needs with other students and district administration.

Students embodied a reversal of the dominant philosophy behind how systems support individuals by sharing individual goals that ranged from becoming a train engineer to working construction and starting families – all by centering their approach on their personal strengths and needs.

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“If you think of it as a continuum, and all the way over here is a very systems-centered mindset where if you have this label you go here, that tends to be a deficit-based model,” said Michael Steinbruck, the PCAST project leader at Rutgers’ Boggs Center on Developmental Disabilities. “But this is a strength- and vision-based model where we understand a person's strengths and what's deeply important to them. Then we back out of that to say ‘How can we build on these strengths and how can we prioritize the deficits that are in the way and help them move toward their future?’”

The driving force behind this new approach is the person-centered plan, which is informed by the Person-Centered Approaches in Schools and Transition (PCAST) program.

The PCAST paradigm flips the old way of doing things on its head. By reversing the traditional hierarchy of support systems, a person-centered approach encourages anyone involved in an individual’s life to become involved, which results in better information trickling down to leadership.

“It’s not how we’re used to thinking in any system, education or otherwise,” said Steinbruck.

This approach extends far beyond helping students with special needs. It’s an approach that’s designed for all students and can be applied to any situation where someone needs support, be it in education, health care, or even in corrections by helping restore people into their communities.

Steinbruck works with Franklin schools through a partnership that’s funded by the state Department of Education. The Boggs Center also works with families and educators across New Jersey to help them build the capacity in schools to facilitate person-centered plans and classroom development.

The project began in Franklin three years ago with individual plans and has since moved into classroom work.

“For every one of these kids we’ve broken down the skills and tools we use in facilitating individual plans and created lessons for educators to create a structure so they can grow the plans over time in the classroom,” said Steinbruck.

Students develop plans fluidly throughout the year with input from their families, teachers, and paraprofessionals. Plans are jargon-free and accessible to so anyone in an individual’s life can contribute to them. 

“This is the real stuff that you can use to understand and support people,” said Steinbruck.

Some students participate in an employment sampling program at the school, and their person-centered plans enable staff to tailor that experience to better understand their interests and what their needs are in the community, which then goes on to inform the entire program design.

To Steinbruck, each district has to start somewhere, but this approach is ideally suited to be deployed at scale.

“You envision a future where kids are coming into pre-K or early intervention, whether they’re classified or not it doesn’t matter, and there’s a stronger, more collaborative relationship with families and with students,” said Steinbruck. “Where students are more involved and at the center of their planning because we know through research that students who participate and even lead their planning have better post-school outcomes.”

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