Planning Alternative Futures With Hope: Connecting Students to Their Goals and Dreams at a Distance

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Checking in with students is extra important during distance learning and the pandemic. This case study describes how educators can turn the act of checking in with students into a deeper and more tangible empathy-building opportunity. This practical guidance can help ensure that we meet the social and emotional needs of students while also making progress on learning goals and responding to the needs of the entire family.

It’s important for teachers and other adults supporting students to understand how students are feeling in order to provide the best possible support for them, both academically and emotionally. It’s also important that the teams around a student understand what the student wants to do in the future, to connect with the student personally and while designing lessons, and to ensure that they and their families are connected to the right resources to set them up for success and active engagement in their learning and postsecondary pathway.

In this case study, I describe the use of the PATH process* and the good day/bad day model to support students and families in distance learning and beyond. Educators can use the PATH process and the good day/bad day model to support students in concrete planning to achieve their goals, while also checking in on students’ social and emotional needs.

Recently I had a session with a 15-year-old boy named Daniel who has autism, ADHD, and anxiety. My goal was to model for other educators the practical use of this process with students. I worked with Daniel to support him in creating a PATH plan to help him visualize and understand how it is still possible to work towards his “dreams” and goals while life is at a distance. There are eight steps in this process, which functions much like an interview. Most importantly, my goal was to truly listen to Daniel and his mom so we could make distance learning more responsive to this family’s needs.

“It’s really important that we have advocates who are willing to share their perspective with people who are going to become teachers, and that we don’t lose sight of the student’s internal dreams at this time.”

The PATH Process

The first step is to hear about students’ dreams. These are their desired achievements, in which they visualize the future in an ideal world with no barriers. In my session with Daniel, I asked him what his thoughts would be for after high school. He told me his dream would be to go to college. To make the dream concept more concrete, I pressed him further on why he would want to go to college, and he explained that he’d like to become a computer programmer. It is critical to start from this step, as the rest of the plan will try to refer back to what the student is passionate about.

The second step is to talk with the students about their goals. Goals should reflect students’ dreams, and should be positive and achievable. In this case, I asked Daniel what he would need to do in the next year or two years in order for him to feel that he has achieved his goal. He immediately identified the need for classes in computer programming, both a class he’s taking now and the next in the series. We also discussed, with some scaffolding from Daniel’s mother and from me, the potential for Daniel to meet a computer programmer and learn more about what the job entails. This step helps when we start thinking about deliberate actions that can be taken, and in which the student can feel supported as he is moving toward his dream.

The third step in the process is to talk with students about the now. At this point in the conversation, you discuss how students are feeling right now, in the moment. This might include talking about life situations that are contributing to the student’s feelings, and barriers they might be experiencing that are keeping them from achieving their goals. During my conversation with Daniel, it was apparent that there was a lot of anxiety surrounding the current situation, a feeling that Daniel named explicitly.

This “now” conversation is a great place to talk with students about what a good day and a bad day look like for them right now. I call this the good day/bad day model, and it can be used to support students who need extra scaffolding when visualizing or verbalizing what is or is not working for them as they move toward their dreams. When I talked to Daniel about what his “good day” would look like, we talked about what it might look like to do school work on a good day. Would he need extra help, or did he feel like he could do the work independently? Daniel was able to express to me that a good work day might look like some help from teachers for work if he felt he needed it, but that he was also able to do his work independently. Talking about the now is especially important during the switch to online learning, where all members of a student’s team may not be privy to the totality of the student’s circumstances. It is also easy to see how this good and bad day conversation could be helpful in a more traditional school setting, where the parent and family may be the ones who aren’t aware of what a day in the life of the student looks and feels like to that person.

The fourth step is to enroll. In this step, you help students make a commitment to the PATH process. As a part of this step, you establish the resources the student will need to meet their goals and achieve their dreams. These resources might be physical or relational. When I was discussing with Daniel how he might achieve his goal of getting in contact with a computer programmer, we were able to find a computer programmer he would be able to connect with. With Daniel’s mom being able to make this connection, we established that his mom would be the support system to help get Daniel to the resources he needs. Typically we revisit these plans every six weeks or so. This parent has incredible capacity, but every family is different. I try to adjust my support based on family needs, not just student needs.

The fifth step in the process is stronger. In this step, educators talk with students about what or who they need to keep them strong, and ways that they can build their strength. In my conversations with Daniel, he identified video games and food as the items he was relying on to get him through the challenges of online learning. It was also apparent that his family and community were checking in on him throughout the pandemic.

The sixth step in the process is about reflecting on the goals identified and thinking about what that means for the next 6 months. This will include identifying, describing, and charting actions they will need to take to reach their goal, and who might help them with these actions. Sometimes this is done with the student, but in my example with Daniel, I could tell that he was starting to lose attention with the Zoom format. I volunteered to chart Daniel’s responses into a more graphic format so he could use them during his IEP team meetings to develop more explicit actions.

The seventh step is to think concretely about actions they can take to make progress toward their goal in the next month. This step is important because it helps the educators determine what students and families truly need to move forward. Implementing PATH with Daniel will mean checking in with his family weekly and referring to the document we created. Since we had our conversation early on in the pandemic, there were a lot of unknowns about what the road forward would look like. In our conversation, I made sure to assure Daniel and his mother that a plan would be figured out.

PATH is adaptable to distance learning and honors the fact that distance learning alone is a transition for our families that we must address. It also honors the entire family and community that surrounds the student by gathering their input, and by committing to designing a learning experience customized to the student’s dreams, goals, and interests.

*The PATH process was originally developed by Jack Pearpoint, John O’Brien, and Marsha Forrest in the 1990s in Toronto, Canada, and was based on their earlier model called MAPS. It was originally developed as a person-centered planning process designed to empower people with disabilities as they co-plan their way forward with their network of community/support.


My big picture takeaways

From Daniel and his family, I learned that many of our students are struggling without access to their regular schedule or a teacher-driven schedule. It might help to create student-friendly checklists or schedules with our students and their families so that they can follow along at home. Often as teachers, we’ve asked that students participate via video if they’re able to access it. It’s important to give students with learning differences a choice in how they participate. Seeing multiple faces on the screen can be very distracting while they’re trying to keep their attention on the lesson.

What we are still figuring out

How to continue to individualize distance learning for families, though we believe empathy interviews are a good first step.

What I would tell other leaders during this time

This is a wonderful time for true collaboration with families. In special education, we’ve often paid lip service to this. But now we truly cannot move forward without family partnerships. I am energized and galvanized by this.


In this case study, Sarah Barnes-Shulman describes one method of interviewing parents and students to gain a better understanding of the challenges they may be facing. This interview guide provides information about the structure of one such example.
Sarah introduces Daniel and his mother to the PATH process at the start of the interview. This graphic provides an illustration of the process.
In the case study, Sarah merges the PATH process with a good day/bad day interview tactic. This resource provides further information to help elicit information from the interview subject.
This case study was grounded in finding what supported Daniel. This toolkit includes further resources that can be used to determine the goals and needs of a student.
The student and parent featured in this case study experience a lot of the same challenges and needs as other students in high school. This resource from the National Technical Assistance Center on Transition not only provides resources for postsecondary preparation, but also provides support on addressing challenges of online learning.
The case study focuses on a student with autism and his support system, and what they’ve been doing during the shift to online learning. This featured resource discusses seven strategies to help support kids with autism during this transitional time.

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