The Critical Ingredient that Should Be Part of Every IEP

Almost every month I encounter a version of the same scene.

The parents of a child I’ve seen in my psychology practice ask me to accompany them to a meeting at their child’s school to discuss their child’s IEP.  The Individualized Education Program is the plan dictating the services and accommodations to help the child thrive. Sitting beside the parents, I scan the faces of the men and women sitting around the table, all gathered to discuss the young child who has been diagnosed with some sort of developmental challenge—autism or ADHD, or a combination of behaviors that don’t yet fit a particular a diagnosis.

The classroom teacher shares the results of educational testing and her observations of the child. A school-district psychologist discusses another report, and then others—a speech therapist or occupational therapist, perhaps—weigh in.  Everyone has a perspective and a plan that makes sense through the prism of his or her own specialty.

Too often, though, something missing. Our educational systems frequently fail to address address a common denominator that underlies every IEP goal. This essential factor? Emotional regulation, the child’s ability to feel safe, calm and alert in mind and body.

A large body of evidence has shown how critical it is for a child to feel safe and engaged in nurturing relationships. But the concept doesn’t easily fit into standard IEP categories. Trained in specific subspecialties, professionals lack a common understanding of how a child’s emotional state affects the ability to learn and function socially.

Consider Eddie, an eight-year-old with autism who didn’t speak. With the help of a personal aide, he was able to function well in his public school special education classroom, and he seemed happy to go off to school each day.  But a few months into the school year, the aide broke her leg, and the school had to assign him a new helper.

That’s when the trouble began. Eddie started hitting other children, and himself. Suddenly his ability to feel emotionally safe, and understood—to be emotionally regulated, was compromised. Eddie’s behaviors were responses to the stress he felt but was unable to communicate.

My wish for families during this IEP season is that emotional regulation, supported by engaged relationships, finds it way into every discussion about a child.  A child’s ability to feel safe and engaged provides a solid foundation for all areas of learning and socialization.

Every IEP team should consider the following:

  1. Safe, trusting relationships enhance a child’s ability to learn and grow.
  2. Teachers and aides are critical to supporting a child’s emotional regulation.
  3. Before implementing a behavior plan, it’s essential to support emotional regulation and the child’s ability to communicate.

Our most powerful tool to support children is contained in relationships and the therapeutic use of ourselves—as parents, professionals and society. It’s called human kindness and understanding.

I invite you to join me on my Facebook page, where I post helpful resources for parents and professionals.


Lillas, C., & Turnbull, J. (2009). Infant/child mental health, early intervention, and relationship-based therapies: A neurorelational framework for interdisciplinary practice. New York: Norton.

Porges, Stephen W. (2011). The Polyvagal Theory: Neurophysiological Foundations of Emotions, Attachment, Communication, and Self Regulation. New York: Norton.

Siegel, D. (1999). The Developing Mind:Toward a neurobiology of interpersonal experience. New York: Guilford Press.

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