Every transition student is unique. They have different strengths, interests, and talents, and different challenges too. And like most young adults, they spend a lot of time thinking about their future. What kind of job would they enjoy? How will they get around town? Should they think about college classes? Every transition student will have different answers to these questions.

To help students define their goals, and outline steps to achieve them, transition specialists often use a process called Person-Centered Planning (PCP). This type of planning brings together a student’s support network, from every part of their life. As a team, they work together with the student to outline their goals and dreams, as well as the steps needed to achieve them.

Toni DePeel, one of Oregon’s Pre-Employment Transition Services Coordinators (Pre-ETS), appreciates how Person-Centered Planning highlights a student’s strengths. “We turn the focus on the individual, not on expectations that other people may have. The person-centered approach gives each person the chance to have a voice in decisions that impact their life,” said DePeel.

This spring, the COVID -19 pandemic prevented face-to-face gatherings—including planning meetings. Transition professionals had to shift the meetings from in-person to online. The challenge was to find ways to keep the personal, supportive feel of the group, while connecting from a distance.


Person Centered Planning brings together a team

Normally, this kind of planning brings together the student’s family, teachers, caregivers, job coach, the Pre-ETS Coordinator, and any others who know the student well—even a good friend. It’s an opportunity for everyone involved to get to know one another, so they can become a stronger support network for the student. The whole meeting usually lasts two hours (including a break with the student’s favorite snacks!)

The session always begins with positive statements about the student’s personality and mindset. These qualities are listed on large paper and posted on the wall. Next, the group works through a series of topics, and maps out the answers on large sheets of paper. These sheets are thought of as planning maps, which give direction and show the way to achieving the goals. On each mapping sheet, each team member contributes what they know about the student. Map topics include the student’s…

  • Positive thoughts
  • History and experiences
  • Strengths, gifts, and capacities
  • Preferences and interests
  • Community presence
  • Possible futures
  • Essentials for success (what works and doesn’t work)
  • IEP considerations
  • Career plans and ideas for employment
  • Steps to get there

As a Pre-ETS Coordinator, DePeel works with students between the ages of 14 and 21 who are experiencing disabilities. She tries to be sure that students receive all the help that is available, including PCP meetings, before they turn 21 and age out of the transition program. DePeel explained the importance of doing this work during the transition years. “Person-Centered Planning not only helps students define their employment goals so that we can get him or her set up for Vocational Rehabilitation (VR)services, but it also gets their support people invested in their success,” she said.


Shifting from in-person to virtual meeting

When DePeel and her colleagues began preparing for online Person-Centered Planning, they found several challenges. While the same group of people were involved, and the goals of the meeting remained the same, some things were definitely different. The technology seemed to distract people from focusing on the student.

One solution came from the work of Joslyn Bigalow, a creative teacher in Oregon City who was trained in PCP. Bigelow designed slides for virtual PCP meetings that made it easier to communicate. “The first slide explained all the tools and buttons on the video conference app,” said DePeel. They also outlined virtual meeting protocols, like keeping the camera on and using the chat feature. The chat box allows people to ask questions and comments to the moderator, without interrupting the speaker. With a few tweaks, they learned how to bring the team together virtually, even as they stayed in separate locations.

The online meetings still begin with sharing the student’s positive qualities, and the team works together to create the same maps to outline the student’s strengths and goals. The map topics are sent out in advance, to allow team members time to think about what they want to share. Each person prepares their responses, which are added to a slide presentation. As they review and discuss the slides, the student and team focus on defining the actions, the timelines, and the resources needed for each step.


Will future planning meetings stay virtual?

It might seem easier for each person to stay where they are, but there are challenges to virtual planning. Sometimes communication is less clear, because it’s harder to see the speaker’s expression and body language. Sometimes looking at a screen is tiring, or background noises are distracting. If a student has had a negative experience with online classes, they may assume that a virtual planning meeting will feel the same way. DePeel encourages students to stay open-minded, because this is different from classroom learning. “Our only focus is to support the student, and the student is at the center of it all,” she said.

DePeel does see some benefits to the virtual meetings. Team members can participate from any location, which saves the time needed to commute to a meeting. The online meetings are shorter, because more work is done ahead of time. And finally, virtual planning meetings make Person-Centered Planning easier for students in rural areas, who may be unable to travel.

Is that enough reason to continue holding virtual planning meetings, once the social distancing guidelines are lifted? DePeel would disagree. She is confident that most Person-Centered Planning will be held in person, and that will be a welcome return to normal. But virtual meeting will continue to serve a purpose too. The Pre-ETS Coordinators, along with Transition Network Facilitators, Pre-ETS support staff, and PCP-trained teachers, will be ready to make every PCP meetings as productive as possible.

Photo by Gabriel Benois on Unsplash