Tomorrow Is Too Long to Wait for Inclusion

Frequently Asked Questions about IEPs

parents shaking the hand of a teacher in a classroom

By Amanda Morin, Understood.org

There’s a lot to know when your child has an Individualized Education Program (IEP). From the legal to the logistical, here’s a look at five common questions parents have about IEPs and, more importantly, some answers to help.

  1. I don’t think everybody uses IEP the same way. What exactly is an IEP?

IEP stands for an individualized education program, which is the blueprint for your child’s special education experience.  But sometimes people also use “IEP” to refer to the legal written document that that contains all the information about your child’s program. Technically, that document is an IEP plan.

People may also use IEP to refer to the team who helps puts the program into place (“she’s on my child’s IEP”) or the meetings held to review the program, (“we have an IEP this afternoon”). But those references are shorthand for “IEP team” or “IEP meeting.”

  1. I heard my child’s IEP is supposed to be standards-based. What does that mean and how do I know if it is?

Each state has standards that lay out what students are expected to learn in math, reading, science and other subjects by the end of each year. A standards-based IEP means the program aligns your child’s learning needs and goals with the academic standards for your state.

Schools haven’t always tied IEPs to grade-level standards. But a 2015 guidance letter from the U.S. Department of Education made it clear that all IEPs must be tied to state academic standards.  If your child’s IEP isn’t tied to state standards, it violates her legal right to a free and appropriate education (FAPE).

You may wonder how your child will meet grade-level standards if she’s behind. Every IEP has a few key parts:

  • Your child’s present level of performance
  • Annual goals for your child
  • Special education supports and services to help him reach the goals
  • Accommodations and modifications to help your child progress
  • Measurements for your child’s progress toward goals

In a standards-based IEP, those are all aligned with state academic standards. If, for example, your child has dyslexia, her present level of reading performance will be measured by what grade level she’s reading at.

Her annual goals will be written to meet standards for her grade. And any services, supports, and accommodations she receives are intended to get her to meet those grade-level standards. She may not reach that goal, but it’s important that her educational experience is aiming to get her there.

  1. I keep hearing about “smart goals.” What makes a goal “smart?”?

SMART isn’t referring to whether or not a goal is clever or not, although SMART goals are very well-written. SMART stands for the key components of a well-written goal:

  • Specific: This means the goal is specific in naming the skill or subject area and how your child will achieve the targeted goal.
  • Measurable: This means the goal states the way your child’s progress will be measured. That can be done using standardized tests, curriculum-based measurements or screening.
  • Attainable: This means the goal represents progress that may be ambitious, but still realistic for your child.
  • Results-oriented: This means the goal clearly lays out what your child will do to accomplish it and explains what she’ll be able to do once the goal is met.
  • Time-bound: This means the goal includes a time frame in which your child will achieve it, given appropriate supports and services. It also explains when and how often progress will be measured.
  1. We just had an IEP meeting and I feel good about the accommodations for my child, but how will I know if they’re working?

You can begin by talking to each teacher to make sure he understands the accommodations and when to use them. Ask him to give you an example of how it would look in a normal class period to see if you’re on the same page.  And check with your child to see if she knows what her accommodations are when they’ll be used and how she can access them.

If you’re not comfortable that the teachers or your child are using the accommodations appropriately (or at all!), ask that an IEP team member makes it a priority to follow up. After that, you can keep track of your child’s progress in general and special education via homework, progress reports and by how she’s acting and reacting to school. If it’s not going as well as you expected, it’s a good idea to revisit the accommodations.

  1. What do I do if I don’t agree with a decision the rest of the team makes during the meeting?

You don’t have to agree to the entire plan, but you need to make that clear in writing. In most states, there isn’t a section for you to sign and approve the IEP because the federal law doesn’t require a parent to sign. When the very first IEP is finalized, you do have to sign to provide permission to provide services, but after that, the law doesn’t require your signature.

Once the IEP plan is completed, the school will send you a prior written notice explaining what actions were taken and the decisions that were made. When you get the prior written notice, it will provide a date on which the new IEP will begin.

If you disagree with any of the services or background information, it’s best to write a letter explaining what you disagree with or the services you are declining. You may want to call another meeting to discuss the issue again. If the team still doesn’t agree, you have to decide if you want to pursue the issue through due process.

There’s a lot to learn about IEPs, and it can be tricky to track. With a better understanding of how the program works, what the IEP plan should include, an understanding of your legal rights and the school’s responsibilities, you’re off to a good start!

Photo Credit: Innovation_School/Flickr

a-morin-headshot-2Amanda Morin is a parent advocate and former teacher. She worked in classrooms and as an early intervention specialist for 10 years. Since 2007, she has been working as an education writer and, more recently, as a parent advocate to empower parents and affirm the pivotal role they play in their child’s education.
During her years as an early childhood educator, she taught kindergarten and worked with infants, toddlers and preschoolers with disabilities. She provided education and training to parents of children with disabilities and led multidisciplinary teams in developing and implementing Individual Family Service Plans.
Morin received a bachelor’s degree in education from the University of Maine and special education advocacy training from the Council of Parent Attorneys and Advocates.
She is the author of three books: The Everything Parent’s Guide to Special Education, The Everything Kids’ Learning Activities Book and On-the-Go Fun for Kids: More Than 250 Activities to Keep Little Ones Busy and Happy—Anytime, Anywhere!
She also writes for Understood.org.

How to Find Free Money for Your Classroom or Professional Development

How to Find Free Money for Your Classroom or Professional Development
The post was originally published at Special Education Tools.

Do you want free money for your classroom or professional learning? It is easier than you think.

I know what you’re thinking: “What? Is this some sort of teacher scam to get me to buy some new teaching thing?”

Well, no. Not unless you really want to. In which case, I have this WONDERFUL bridge I’d like to sell you… 😉

A couple of days ago,  with minimal effort on my part,  I was able to secure $26,000 in tech funding for my school.

In May, I secured about $2,000 funding for me to attend professional development (PD) on blended learning and teaching computer science.

In June, I was given funding to attend a week-long PD at The Tenement Museum through Facing History and Ourselves.

In November of 2013,  I was given funding to attend the Journalism Educators Association biannual convention in Boston and the summer convention in Las Vegas.

Last summer I got (and am still receiving) a free subscription to the Wall Street Journal and The New York Times and free accompanying PD to learn how to use both of those tools.

Sign up for EVERYTHING!

How did I do it? Simple: by signing up for as many educational email lists, twitter feeds, and actual postal mail lists as possible, and simply reading my mail periodically. That’s it. I stay on top of information and erase/toss out information I don’t want.

Start Nationally

How do I find the lists? I start national, then go local. Nationally, I keep an eye on the following (related to my disciplines of ELA, U.S. History, SpEd, Journalism, and Computer Science):

Loads of U.S. History-related websites

Loads of English Literature-related websites

Go Local

Locally, I follow mostly (related to my disciplines of ELA, U.S. History, SpEd, Journalism, and Computer Science)

Local Museums of all sorts

Local Colleges of all sorts — vocational and liberal arts and technical

Event listings (from colleges, from meetup.com)

As you can see, I get a lot of information, all of the time. I also try to attend conferences during much of the summer, and I’ve recently discovered the wonderment of Twitter. I’ve learned a lot about opportunities through twitter chats.

Keeping on top of lists and information delivered to me regularly is also a great way to find student opportunities to enter poetry contests, math contests, public speaking contests. Through my procrastination careful monitoring of postal mail and email, I have forged (some tenuous, some very strong) relationships with all sorts of local institutions.

Use an Email Sorting Program

How you go through your email once you have gotten on to all of these lists is a very personal thing. But, since I’m a big fan of gamifying and automating many aspects of my life, I like to use The Email Game to keep my gmail inbox clean.

There are lots of other approaches to try, such as the Inbox Empty method, which will help you get through your ten billion email messages, as well.

So, to return to what I was saying earlier in this post… no. You don’t have to buy anything.

Just sign up!

This year, I have gotten about $35,000 in free PD, technology, and other goods and services just for a few minutes a day of erasing and saving email.

Photo Credit: Tracy O/Flickr

You can, too! If you need help, reach out to me @spedtools, and I’m super happy to help.

When Helping Students Holds Them Back

When Helping Students Holds Them Back
A version of the post was originally posted at Why Haven’t They Done That Yet?

By Michael Ryan Hunsaker, Ph.D.

What I have come to notice in my time in special education is that we love to be helpful. In fact, we sometimes get a little too enthusiastic in our helpfulness. I saw a tweet today that really drew my attention. This is totally taken out of context, but that is how I read it:

If You Love Them, Set Them Free

This struck me because we often hold students back and deny them certain rights by nature of our “helping”. We choose to help people by doing things for them. We choose to help people by telling or dictating to them what they should be thinking or saying. We squash their creativity, we belittle them, and we condescend. In the course of our helping, we are actively holding them back. We are preventing them from growing as people.

The help I am specifically referring to is the provision of special education services, particularly in self-contained classrooms. We often look at our assessments and fear that our students will fail in general education classrooms unless they score 100% correct on every benchmark, and even if they do they must do it quickly and with automaticity. These students have to have perfect behavior, all of the time, even when stressed or when things are difficult. Anxiety and depression have to dissipate. They must show perfect attending, even when the teacher is not speaking and other students are being disruptive. Being a normal kid is not good enough. Perfection or bust!

Inclusion in General Education Full Time Is the Goal

The perspective that students must be perfect in order to be in general education worries me. I have seen the potential in students that other teachers did not. I spoke with the parents about this potential and some were terrified of taking any chances with their child’s education. This is a commendable worry for a parent, but as I see it, moving students into more inclusive placements full time is the goal. In fact, it is something every child is entitled to.

My perspective comes from growing up with an autistic twin brother. Kyle had a host of adaptive functioning problems. Kyle had uncontrollable obsessive and compulsive behaviors. Kyle could be aggressive if he lost his temper. Kyle had a need to pace and stim. Kyle was nonverbal (although he used a computer to communicate). And yet, none of that ever held him back. My parents did not ever let the narrative of a broken little kid enter into the picture when it came to Kyle. And quite frankly, neither did Kyle.

Kyle’s Placement in More Restrictive Environments Prepared Him for Inclusion in General Education

My thought processes always seem to come back to Kyle. When Kyle was little, he needed a lot of help. A preschool that specialized in Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) was there to teach him the basics of attending and social skills, as well as how to cope with his urge to become physically aggressive with the teachers for disciplining other students. Elementary and middle school was there to help Kyle learn basic study skills and get the hang of communicating with others using his augmentative communication devices. In high school and post-secondary, Kyle needed training in job skills and to get out into the community. Academically, Kyle didn’t need help. In fact, in his first grade teacher wrote in the notes of Kyle’s IEP something to the effect: Kyle doesn’t test at all, but there is so much in him. We just need to keep teaching him new things and who knows where Kyle will end.

When Kyle was going to enter the fourth grade, the decision was made to hold him back into third grade again. But, he was to continue to receive spelling and math in general education. The rationale was that if he could spell, he could read (Kyle could spell any multi-syllabic term or random word perfectly on the first try). Kyle was held back to repeat the third grade because fourth grade is when school becomes more about abstract and higher-order thinking and Kyle was not quite ready. However, when Kyle reached fifth grade, the decision was made (by Kyle himself…he let mom know what he wanted) that Kyle needed to embrace the challenges of general education. More clearly, Kyle told mom he wanted normal school. So my mother gave him access (she put her foot down and made it happen). Fifth grade was good. Sixth grade was hard, and Kyle really came into his own in seventh grade. It did not matter that Kyle was non-verbal, it did not matter that Kyle was unable to write with a pencil or pen, it did not matter that Kyle walked down the halls with his ears plugged and his backpack and laptop bags swinging loosely off his arms. Kyle was determined to succeed in “normal” school. And he did.

Kyle Had Success Despite the Lack of Support

Interestingly, once Kyle entered the mainstream he never looked back. There was no resource support for him. We would have loved for there to be, but he was not performing at a low enough level to qualify under the discrepancy model (to be fair, he would not have qualified under any model, students with A’s and B’s do not receive resource support services). My mother sat down with Kyle for hours after school to help re-teach and act as a scribe for Kyle’s homework. Kyle got good grades in general education classes. He was happy. He made friends. In short, he thrived. All this was done in the 1980’s and 1990’s, long before we had the support we celebrate for autistic students today. In fact, my mother had to be rather blunt and stubborn with the school district to make sure Kyle had access to general education. It was unprecedented, and in many ways still is to some extent. So, on top of all of his accomplishments, Kyle was a pioneer. He did not let his challenges hold him back and my mother made sure that low academic expectations did not exist to hold Kyle back either.

Often time, what I find is that students that have been in special education classes (self-contained classrooms) since the beginning of their educational career are often closer to accessing the general education curriculum than students that only receive resource services. Specifically, students in resource can be 1.5-2 years behind their peers academically; whereas students in self-contained classrooms can sometimes be at grade level or only 0.5-1 year behind their general education peers. That says to me that those students approximately 1 year behind in their academics need resource services, not special classrooms. Anything more is too restrictive an environment than the students deserve. Even if the student has behavioral challenges to overcome it can often be solved by inclusion in a general education classroom.

Here Are Six Ways That I Can Achieve My Goal of My Students Moving into More Inclusive Settings.

1) I look at the student’s placement scores, irrespective to diagnosis, placement, behavioral history, and social skills

When I see a student is academically successful (within 1-1.5 years of grade level), it means I need to start planning for a paraeducator to assist with any potential behavioral issues in an inclusion setting. Based upon my experience in the resource setting, 1-1.5 years behind grade level is not enough to place a student in a self-contained classroom for academics. If a student tests within those levels, I can act as a resource teacher for them to provide a reteach, but they need to be out in a general education classroom to receive their core instruction.

2) I look at the behavioral history of the student

I usually try to talk with the previous year’s teacher to see what really sticks out in their mind. I have observed that students will have a lot of narratives written in their files as well as IEP goals written focused on behavior that are not at all that prevalent. Then, I get into data collection mode. I break out my Behavioral First Aid Kit, and start collecting data like crazy. If I see it, I write it down.

3) I specifically assess any sensory needs

It is important that I address the sensory needs of the student. These needs can be typical to students on the autism spectrum or sensory integration disorder. The need for fidgets, a pen to twiddle, or thera-putty to help ease the stress for students and can be vitally important for them to function in the general education classroom.

4) I look at the classroom management system and students in general education

I want my kids to succeed. So, I will make sure that my students get access to the teacher with the best management skills and teaching practices possible.

5) After all of these steps… I finally dig into the IEP and memorize their psychological/cognitive profile as well as any diagnoses

This just helps inform me how to better process my notes from my data collection steps. It also helps me identify potential issues that I may have overlooked. I do not do this step earlier because I would rather not bias my data collection.

6) I collect as much data as I can on my student’s performance in the general education classroom

The only difference between this and the earlier data collection step is that I focus on how much support each student needs. Do they need behavioral support? Do they need help with assignments (beyond what their elbow buddy provides)? Do they need a gentle nudge to remain focused? These collect this data daily for two weeks and then I fade back to random ten to fifteen minute data collection period cycled across days weekly and then every other week. These data collection sessions continue until the student is transitioned out of the self-contained classroom and into a general education.

Using a Self-Contained Setting to Determine If a Student Is Ready for General Education Is Doing It Wrong

I feel the more typical method of evaluating behavior in the self-contained classroom, to determine if the students are ready for general education, is often unfair. What I mean by unfair is that oftentimes the students that act out in the special education classroom due to boredom are being deprived the very challenges that they need to better themselves. In this way I feel I am giving students the chance to succeed when presented with a challenge, and I am collecting data that will serve useful to provide strategies the students may need when the going gets tough. I have adopted this approach because it is both fast and efficient. My goal is to get students into the mainstream as fast as possible because the longer they are in an inclusive setting, the more data I can collect and the greater number of strategies I can devise to help them achieve success. Providing too much support with a self-contained placement or even paraeducator support is not helping students achieve independence. Sometimes the best thing to do is let our students fly on their own.

Photo Credit: gem fountain/Flickr

MRHMichael Ryan Hunsaker is a neuroscientist applying his skills to Special Education. He blogs about his curiosity and excitement at WHY HAVEN’T THEY DONE THAT YET? Follow him on Twitter @mrhunsaker.

10 Behavior Management Strategies: A Special Educator’s Manifesto

Nicole Dempsey

A version of this post was originally published here.

By Nicole Dempsey

If I could go back in time, what behaviour management advice would I give to myself as a newly qualified teacher (NQT)?

As I see it, behaviour management, is the thing that sets the school teacher apart from the many other imparters of information. The rest—tutors, lecturers, instructors and so on—rarely, if ever, experience the same combination of circumstantial factors that a teacher finds in the classroom. She is significantly outnumbered by students who have not been given the choice to be there or not (although, one would hope, they might be persuaded to opt in to their education!) What’s more, they’re active, chatty, and eager to play—in other words, they’re children. It does seem like the odds are stacked against the teacher from the start!

I’m confident that many perceive the main thing that teachers do to be… teaching! In reality, no teaching will be effective until behaviour is adequately managed. This doesn’t even mean bad behaviour, just human behaviour, and again, the behaviour of human children! Effective behaviour management is crucial, and it would be much more straightforward, especially for those new to the profession, if there were a widely-acknowledged and 100% effective way of doing it… but that doesn’t seem to be the case.

Previously, when I’ve blogged about behaviour management, I’ve focused on the importance of the behaviour management policy to ensure social inclusion for the most vulnerable learners, and I stand by the importance of those policies. In the UK, Ofsted (Office for Standards in Education, Children’s Services and Skills) assesses schools in various domains. In Ofsted’s assessments of school policies on behaviour, there is little notable difference between the policies of schools rated good/outstanding and those rated inadequate/requires improvement (RI). There are pockets of exceptional behaviour management in failing schools and examples of ineffective behaviour management—or, at least, practice that is open to debate—in those deemed to be successful. Clearly, it is neither the behaviour management policy nor the judgement of Ofsted that is the be-all and end-all of effective management in our classrooms.

Things are about to get personal.

…because it is personal. Of all the aspects of being a teacher—pedagogy, management and teamwork, pastoral—none is affected by individual personality so much as behaviour management.Behaviour Management Style While a strong policy and a school with high overall ratings (according to Ofsted… not necessarily my favourite measure of success!) are an essential basis, there will always be diversity and disparity in how staff approach day-to-day needs in the classroom. In my opinion, this isn’t a problem. Surely the students deserve and benefit from having varied experiences across the school day. And, just like an isolated Ofsted outcome or school policy is not “the answer,” neither is homogeneity of approach. Our students will move on to live in a diverse and complex society. Any school has its share of the “don’t smile ‘til Christmas” crew, the matey and jovial types, and everything in between. Does effective behaviour management exist at one point on that spectrum and nowhere else? I don’t believe it does. So, assuming a strong policy and shared values, are the issues and complexities of behaviour management actually the issues and complexities of striking a balance between expectation and your own personality, personal values and interpretation of that expectation? A delicate balancing act between consistency and individuality? Between parity and variety? Every teacher has to find this balance—your own personal behaviour management sweet spot in which learning can take place. And this is the great skill of a school teacher, the thing that sets it apart from other, similar roles. But it’s also the thing that makes it really, really hard.

This brings me back to my original question: If I could go back in time, what advice would I give to my NQT self when it comes to behaviour management?

Somewhere in the overlapping space between the context, the shared values of society, and my own personality, I was able to find my own style of managing my classroom. This isn’t about a piece of policy or an idea I hold in my mind… this is about managing behaviour when faced with the stark reality of a room full of children. It is how I meet expectation whilst staying true to my own identity and values. It’s how I strive to strike a balance between consistency and variety for the students I teach. It’s what I wish I could tell my NQT self because it’s what I tell myself now, every day. I need the reminder, because I don’t necessarily achieve it… on a good day, I hope I get close!

I’ve developed my own “Behaviour Management Top Ten.” But even the most important strategies and reminders represent my aspiration for each day and not what I am able to accomplish. It’s the rule book I’ve given myself, the way I set the scene for learning in my classroom, and the self-administered mental admonishment I give myself when I get it wrong. These are the guidelines that exist in the space between expectation and my personality. My list won’t work for everyone but I think each teacher will have his or her own version (and I’d love to hear them!). Not “behaviour management in the black box,” but “behaviour management in my black box.”

Here is advice to my former self as an NQT and the list that captures my current approach to behaviour management:

My Behaviour Management Strategies Top Ten

  1. Be crystal clear.
    Lead with the student’s name. Ensure that you’ve got his or her attention before you start imparting wisdom or giving instructions. Don’t use sarcasm, idiom, rhetoric or other non-literal language… say what you mean. Don’t use “please” unless it’s a plea; use “thank you” for expectations. Explain why you’re doing something. If you can’t think of a reason why, then don’t do it.
  2. Draw your line and stick to it.
    Children make mistakes in the grey area between the line you have drawn and the line you enforce. Once you’ve said something is going to happen, it has to happen, so be careful about what you say! No idle, excessive, or unrealistic “threats” you don’t intend to carry out—only clear, fair, real, causes and effects. If you say “no talking” and then allow a bit of whispering as long as they’re getting on with their work, and then on another day say “no talking” and actually want them not to talk at all… how are they supposed to know the difference? If they talk in the second instance, the error is yours, not theirs. If they’re allowed to talk a bit, say so! If they’re not, enforce it. If you create a grey area between the instruction and the reality of the situation they will make mistakes within that uncertain space. And it will be your fault. What’s more, you’ve made yourself unreliable.
  3. Know when not to stick to it.
    I’m reminded of a kid I used to teach who was in year 8 at the time. He was the archetypal class clown—nothing bothered him, and he was a right old pain in the neck. Without the support of a strong behaviour management superstructure within that school, I had exhausted everything in my repertoire. I tried keeping him back at the end of the lesson. He was not bothered. I gave detentions. He was not bothered. And then I informed him that I would ring home and speak to his dad. In an instant the tone of the situation had changed. He was crying, he was on his knees with hands clasped, imploring me—voice catching on each sob—not to ring his father. He’d behave himself. He was sorry. I didn’t know what his father might do if caught in the wrong mood. In that instant, every interaction I’d ever had with that child flashed across my mind: I thought of the cocky swagger as he showed off a black eye or bruised lip and the claims that we should see the state of the other boy. I thought of all the times he showed that nothing could bother or hurt him. He seemed to be untouchable and devoid of remorse or self-care. Despite all this, he had the most amazing attendance… he never missed an opportunity to be in school, no matter how badly it seemed to be going.
    I had drawn my line.
    I did not stick to it.
  4. Don’t get into a dialogue.
    If the student has some say in what is happening, it’s appropriate to have a conversation about it. If the student has no say, there is no need to talk it over. If you, as the adult, have decided that things need to happen a certain way (silence in a test, safety in the classroom, non-optional tasks/homework, treatment of the other students, et cetera), then allowing a dialogue gives them the false impression that they have some control. It’s undermining your own position of authority, and it’s creating a grey area in which mistakes are easy for students to make. That isn’t fair.
  5. Never back a child into a corner.
    The get-out clause. No matter what’s happened, or how far a situation has escalated, there should always be a “way out” for the child. There should always be the opportunity for the student to make a positive choice to take back control and move on from the situation. This doesn’t mean the student is “getting away with it.” It means he or she will learn from it. Tell the student that the behaviour is unacceptable and that the resultant sanction isn’t going to go anywhere. But also provide options for moving forward in a positive way. Then, once the sanction has been completed, the slate is wiped clean.
  6. Give them a range of options (all of which are acceptable).
    Being in control isn’t the same as being controlling. You’ve got to be in control; they’re young, there are loads of them, and you’re responsible for their safety and well-being. But within this, they also need to learn to be autonomous, independent, and self-regulating. They can still have choice… genuine choice… if all the options are acceptable to you!
  7. Winning an argument with an angry and upset child is NOT winning.
    In spite of best endeavours, sometimes you will end up in a heated confrontation with a student; they’re only human and you’re only human. It will happen—hopefully very rarely. RemindBe-haviour Statements yourself: Who has the power and control in this situation? Who is the most vulnerable? Who is feeling the most distress and fear? Approaching this situation with kindness and compassion, putting the issue to one side for the moment, is not backing down or giving in. The best outcome is the one where the child has learnt something valuable that’s going to serve him or her well in adulthood. The student does not need a lesson that people will be dominating and controlling but that people will be helpful and guide him or her to the right outcome. In a high-intensity situation, the rational thought processes are bypassed in favour of a more primal “fight or flight” mechanism, and no one is in the right frame of mind to learn at that point. De-escalate the situation. Be the reassuring, safe, trustworthy adult. Deal with the problematic behaviour when your message might actually be heard. And when it does and you still have the trust and respect of that child—then you have won.
  8. They can only be as trustworthy as you trust them to be.
    Children learn in the gap between what they can already do and the opportunities they have to try something new. So take risks! The bigger the risk, the bigger the learning opportunity, and even though there will be times that it all goes wrong, that in itself is part of the learning process (for you as well as the student!). Send the naughty kid on an errand, give the least able a position of responsibility, give the notorious bully a caring role. And then, be there when they’ve proven that they’re better than anyone, even they, ever thought they could be… or dust them down and set them off again.
  9. Remember that you’re pretending.
    The moment you lose your temper is the moment you lose control, and for their safety and your own sanity, you must be in control (not controlling!). Give the response that teaches them how their actions can make those around them feel: Are you angry? Or are you disappointed? Annoyed? Inconvenienced? Emotionally hurt?
  10. THE GOLDEN RULE: Unconditional Positive Regard.
    When they’re problematic, make mistakes, don’t know something or don’t approach something in the way that they should, you are the person who is there to pull them through. You’re the adult. You chose to be there. You work for them. On that basis, is there or should there be anything they can do that changes your commitment? If you aren’t there for them… why are you there? Show them how you want them to behave. Be their champion!

This is the advice I would give to my NQT self because it is the advice I give to myself now, every day. My personal behaviour management manifesto for fairness.

What’s yours?

Editor’s Note: We kept the author’s spelling of “behaviour” for the article but intentionally changed the spelling to “behavior management strategies” for the title so we could promote these ideas to an American audience. 

Nicole Dempsey is the Individual Needs Coordinator (INCo) at Dixons Trinity Academy; an outstanding mainstream secondary free school in Bradford, northern England.
At DTA, all systems have been designed to meet the needs of all students as an intrinsic part of the main offer by being flexible and responsive to the needs of each individual child. All children deserve access to highly qualified subject specialist teachers. The  level of individualisation and responsiveness afforded to the least able and most vulnerable students is the entitlement of all of our students.
Whatever it takes for as long as it takes. When they need it and because they need it.

15 Things I’ve Learned in 15 Years as a Special Education Teacher

15 Things I’ve Learned in 15 Years as a Special Education Teacher

As a special education teacher, you’ve chosen a two-for-one career. Like every educator, you have state and federal requirements to meet and document, but in your other role as the Individualized Education Program (IEP) manager, you guide one-of-a-kind students toward their individual goals. There is no doubt you’re in for a challenge in this dual role, and it will keep you on your feet.  I’ve learned to save time and energy where I don’t need to spend it so I can use it where it really counts.

In my fifteen years as a special educator, I’ve learned an infinite number of lessons. I know you don’t have fifteen years to read an article, though!  So, here are the 15 most important tools and tips that will help you make it through the day, the school year, and even your next IEP meeting.

  1. Find the right tools – Given your many responsibilities, your survival depends on organization and efficiency. The right tools can shave hours from your workday. My favorites improve both communication and follow-through. They include Google Calendar, Gmail with Boomerang, 3×3 stickies, manila folders, and a small file cabinet.
  1. Use a note-taking template – Documentation is critical, but you can easy to overlook it. Pre-filled templates save time when you’re collecting data. Start with your students’ names, add their benchmarks/goals, leave space for the date, and include a “What Happened” column. Coding your entries will speed your data-mining later. Example: A for academic, B for behavior, C for conversation.
  1. Learn the lingo – Special education abounds with acronyms. But more important is the way you think and talk about your students and families and how they think and talk about themselves. Whether you use person-first language, identity-first language, or something else, be aware of your language. Learn the lingo your students and their families use, and be thoughtful of your own terminology.
  1. Adopt asset-based thinking (ABT) – Some people call this looking on the bright side, but this takes another step into acting on it. Leadership expert Dan Rockwell says that “ABT is more than pie-in-the-sky pretending. It’s a decision to identify and maximize what’s good, right, powerful, and effective.” This frees up more of your think-time for creative problem solving. And I promise, you’ll sleep better at night, too!
  1. Celebrate the small wins – Let’s face it—typical instruction and typical results don’t always fit your students. You have to look for incremental changes and see how they can add up to truly monumental growth. Remember Lao Tzu’s saying: “The journey of a thousand miles begins with one step.” There are few places you’ll experience this truth more than your special education classroom.
  1. All behavior tells a story – Ask yourself what a student is communicating though a behavior. Immediately, you’ll see a change in how you listen to students, and better listening translates to better teaching. Instead of trying to change or eliminate a behavior, stop and listen to the story being told through it or the message hiding in it. You may be surprised by what you find.
  1. Feed the wolf you want to grow – You make more decisions each day than most people on the planet. This includes opportunities to decide which behavior to ignore and which warrants attention. Feed the one you want to grow. If a behavior isn’t causing harm to self or others, try ignoring it. Yes, it’s awkward at first, but doing so will save you valuable relationship capital in the long run.
  1. You haven’t known me long enough to be this mad at me – When you receive anger and criticism, you might want to quit. Don’t. Instead, ask yourself if you know this person well enough for them to be so angered by your opinion. The answer is likely no, you haven’t, which means there’s more to their problem than whatever you did or didn’t do. When you realize it’s not your fault, it will be easier shed the negativity and keep going.
  1. Assume good intentions – All the best strategies in the world don’t work if you get too caught up in special education politics. Assuming good intentions helps you “focus on the issue… [and] take [a]different perspective when it comes to conflict.” Practice looking at things from someone else’s perspective. You’ll see that it helps the dynamic and flow of your next interaction with that person.
  1. Parents are people too – Special education is uniquely litigious. Even with your best intentions, relationships can still break down. To survive these heart-breaking moments, remind yourself that parents are people, too. Look for areas of commonality when you seem to clash with a parent. Here’s one: They love their children and want the best for them, just like you do.
  1. Conflict resolution (CR) is a necessary skill… learn it! – You already know about assuming good intentions, depersonalizing, and finding common ground, but don’t stop there! The field of conflict resolution offers you a treasure trove of resources to help navigate your job in special education. Here’s a list of CR blogs to get you started.
  1. Practice self-care – No matter how much you love caring for others, don’t leave yourself out. Given your important role, you cannot afford to do your job if you aren’t able to do it well. Part of taking care of your students means paying attention to yourself, too.
  1. You’re a teacher, not a savior – Remember the proverb about giving a man a fish? It’s directed at you. If they’re to develop their own abilities, the children in your class need an excellent instructor, not a knight in shining armor. Concentrate your efforts on teaching, and you’ll honor your students and their families. After all, learning is the reason they come to you each day.
  1. Build trust One key to career success is building trust with those you serve. In special education, this is easier said than done. However, there are many tools at your disposal. Culturally Responsive Teaching and the Brain is one of them. It’s a great place to start to learn about trusting relationships, why they matter, and how you can create them with dependent learners.
  1. Nurture your team, carefully – Your job is largely about collaboration. Be it the core IEP team or a cadre of support professionals, these are your Make sure the relationships work for you. As you do with students, nurture the positive interactions between team members and try to ignore the rest. This will help you to build the team and make for a more successful year.

For more from Dawn Addis find her blogging and tweeting to inspire at www.schoolteachersuperhero.com and @daddiseducator.

Do you have any tips to add? Tell us about them in the comments section below!

Photo Credit: Ana_Cotta/Flickr

Dawn Addis_Head ShotDawn Addis is a passionate, fifteen-year educator, with a masters in Special Education. She has taught elementary, middle, and high school. Currently, Dawn is a district-level Teacher on Special Assignment for English Learner and Intervention programs. Dawn’s mission is to share the delight of lifelong learning with students of all ages. Finding her posting and pinning to inspire at www.schoolteachersuperhero.com and on Twitter, Facebook, and Pinterest.

Let’s Make Science Instruction Available To All Students

Let's Make Science Instruction Available To All Students
By Debbie Taub

Recently, I have been struck by the number of stories in my newsfeeds about many science-related topics: the amazing new scientific discoveries being made, “anti-vaxxers,” science deniers, and concerns that an almost single-minded focus on assessment has turned schools into dreary factories that impede students’ creative and critical thinking skills. All of these thoughts have been bouncing around in my head where they meld with my focus on students with extensive learning needs (SELN), bringing me to the conclusion that science education is more important than ever for all students, especially SELN.

Self-Contained Special Education Classrooms Get Very Little Science

Yet, we have research that shows SELN get very little science (both in terms of time and content), with one study showing that there were only eleven research articles on how to teach science to this population, and ten of those articles had “science” examples that focused only on personal and social perspectives of science, such as hand washing as germ theory and recycling . Many teachers of SELN, who teach in segregated settings, have told me that they only “really” teach science in the three grades that are assessed by large-scale assessments! We would be horrified to walk into a general education classroom and find that the students only have one opportunity every 3-4 years to learn about science. How much are they missing out on, and how can we ever expect them to build on previous skills?

Students in segregated settings tend to have very limited opportunities to learn deep or even broad science content because science instruction is so often reduced to such general topics, like self care and recycling. How many lost opportunities to spark the interest of a student! We could be asking engaging and essential questions, such as “Is diversity important?” and “How does information move?” There are so many branches of science and so many exciting questions that could engage students, and yet we are limiting most SELN to infinitesimal components of it because those are perceived as the “most functional.”

What About Functional Skills?

I have trained thousands of teachers across the country, and I hear about functional skills a lot. So, let’s talk about “functional skills.” Functional skills were originally conceptualized as those skills that were necessary for daily living. I am in no way arguing that hand washing and recycling aren’t important parts of daily living. However, we are thinking way too small! I don’t know about you, but my daily life is filled with cause and effect questions and problem solving opportunities. Each of these requires that I take what I know already, consider what I don’t know, and then make a prediction about what should happen. And, as much as I hate to admit it, my days are all too often filled with mistakes. Science is all about inquiry, critical thinking, and learning from your mistakes! What could be more functional than that? Science is about taking all of the information you have already, making a prediction about “what if,” and then testing that prediction over and over to see what happens. It is about using your results to rethink your prediction and then trying again. Science is about knowing what questions to ask as much as it is about looking for answers, and when you think about it, isn’t that one of the most functional skills we could provide our students—especially those who struggle?

Other functional skills that are already embedded in science instruction are various self-determination skills. Some important self-determination skills include goal setting, decision making, problem solving, knowing when to ask for help, knowing how and where to get help, and evaluating one’s own learning. Michael Wehmeyer and Susan Palmer showed that students with special needs who had more self-determination skills had better employment, financial independence, access to health and other benefits, and were more independent than their peers with fewer self-determination skills . But guess what? David T. Conley has identified these skills as important to college and career readiness for all students, not just students with special needs . Conley identifies four key areas needed for individuals to be ready for college and careers post-secondary school: cognitive strategies, content, academic behaviors, and contextual skills and awareness. It is important to note that college and career readiness does not mean that a student, any student, is ready to independently function on a job; rather, these individuals have the skills, knowledge, and habits to participate in career training or to begin a post-secondary program without needing remedial courses. Jacqui Kearns, Harold Kleinert, Beth Harrison, Kathy Sheppard-Jones, Meada Hall, and Melissa Jones wrote a paper about what “college and career ready” means for SELN and compared it to the Conley research . Here is a screenshot of a slide that sums up their findings:

Taub Screenshot
It is clear that there are very similar skills and concepts that all students need in order to be successful after high school. These skills are most effectively addressed in inclusive settings, and many of them are most effectively taught using inclusive cooperative learning and inquiry-based instruction. Think about the lack of opportunities for practicing social skills in lecture-based classes or in classes where the only strong communication model comes from the teacher. Now imagine those same opportunities in an inclusive, inquiry-based, cooperative learning classroom. There‘s a big difference, not only in opportunities but also in the motivation, content, and performance expectations between the two. Science is active. It requires people to ask questions, do experiments, and then learn from those experiments. The process of “doing” science has countless opportunities to practice those functional skills.

Self-Determination and Science Instruction Don’t Have To Be Mutually Exclusive

While self-determination skills can be taught in any content area, the essential understandings that are the foundation of all science fields are critical thinking and problem solving. Additionally, asking questions and inquiry-based instruction are absolutely geared toward cooperative learning. Making science instruction an ideal context for weaving academic and self-determination skills is vital for post-secondary success. Plus, who doesn’t want to explore the role of diversity in organisms or even ideas? All students are excited to examine all the different ways information can move, whether through nerves, electrons, computers, phones, etc. There are questions and opportunities to explore everywhere. There are opportunities to include all students everywhere. And there is a universe out there that needs discovering.

Let’s not limit students’ opportunities by reducing science to hand washing and recycling. Let’s provide inquiry-based, inclusive science instruction that builds critical thinking and self-determination skills. And then let’s see how far students go.

Photo Credit: Evan Leeson/Flickr

Debbie TaubDr. Deborah Taub is the Director of Research and Programs at Keystone Assessment. In this role, she provides research and professional development assistance for states, territories, and other entities working to develop and sustain best practice. She has assisted states in building and evaluating systemic programs, especially around issues of inclusive practice for students with complex instructional needs, such as those with low incidence disabilities or who are dually identified as having a disability and ELL. Dr. Taub has designed, implemented, and evaluated alternate assessments for students with significant cognitive disabilities, developed UDL and standards-based curricula and instruction, and conducted validity and alignment evaluations. This work is informed by her experiences as a classroom teacher and school reform specialist. She has experience building curriculum that is universally designed and accessible for all students, helping schools and district meet state and federal requirements through teacher and student centered reform, and supporting educators as they make grade level content accessible for students with complex needs. She has contributed journal articles, book chapters, and numerous professional development trainings to the field of educating children with complex needs, and has presented internationally on working with students who have autism. She believes strongly that all students deserve equal opportunities and is an advisory member of the Council to Promote Self-Determination education and workforce committee, National Center for Universal Design for Learning’s UDL Taskforce, and an active member of the TASH inclusive education committee. In addition, she is a member of the Council for Exceptional Children’s CCSS Advisory Group.

Longer, Faster, Harder: Tips for Addressing Challenging Behavior in the Classroom

Longer, Faster, Harder
By Jenna Sage

I recently began training to run a half marathon. When I first decided to compete in the race, I knew very little about what it took to become a runner. As a novice, I thought that if I ran longer, faster, and harder my body would fall in line and running would become easy. I very quickly learned that there is a science to training for a big race—that training requires that you be strategic, patient, planned, and purposeful. Longer, faster, harder will only hurt you.

Many teachers have the same philosophy for addressing challenging behavior in the classroom. If a student is not following teacher directions, refusing to remain on-task for extended periods of time, calling out and being disruptive, or using inappropriate language, we follow the myth that the consequence or punishment should be longer, faster, or harder. Unfortunately, this has the same effect on students as it has on my knees. It isn’t going to lead to long-term, meaningful change.

Training Tip #1: Longer Isn’t Always Better

The first myth that exists is the idea that if I just send the student to time-out for longer periods of time, this will deter future misbehavior. Or if I use the next-door teacher’s classroom as a consequence for longer periods of time, this will eliminate maladaptive behaviors. The truth is, time-out and time-away are ONLY effective if the student wants to be doing the task he or she has been asked to do. Most students would much rather sit in the back of the classroom for ten or fifteen minutes, even if it means they can’t interact with their peers, because it also means they can avoid tackling that challenging math worksheet or reading passage. And here is the harsh reality: if a student continues to engage in the challenging behavior, time-out is most definitely not working!

So, what do we do instead? The first important thing is to determine if the student is trying to avoid or escape doing the work. The next thing is to determine if it is a matter of being able to do the work and not wanting to do it, or whether the student is not able to do the work—Won’t Do versus Can’t Do. If you have a student who is able to do the work but just doesn’t seem to want to participate, then one helpful strategy may be chunking the work so that the student is able to work for a short period of time and then take a short break. Essentially, you are providing a way to avoid the task for only short, prescribed periods of time which you control. A student could have a break card procedure, with which he or she can request to take a break or certain number of breaks from a task. Consider this: when you are working for hours grading papers or creating a fabulous lesson plan and your neck begins to ache or your dog starts barking, don’t you take a short break? That is the socially acceptable way to say, “I’m struggling and I just need a moment, “ instead of jumping straight to using behavior to avoid the task: “I’m going to misbehave so I’m forced to take a break.”

Training Tip #2: Faster Only Makes You Fall Behind

The next myth has to do with responding to misbehavior faster and faster and then more and more. Again, it is important to determine why a student is engaging in challenging behavior. If you feel like a broken record or you go home and continue to say, “Sally, no,” or, “We don’t do that in this class,” then you may be dealing with a student who is motivated by attention. For some students, the negative attention they get from you during the day may be the only attention they get. And, believe it or not, they’ll work for negative attention even more than positive. Think about your body language, the level of your voice when you are correcting behavior as opposed to recognizing good behavior. The two typically look very different. If a student is starved for attention, the angry and animated you is worth calling out in class and calling you names. If you are responding over and over to a student, two things happen. You may be inadvertently encouraging the misbehavior, and you become so focused on everything wrong that you can sometimes forget to pay attention to what the student is doing well.

The easiest solution is to change the focus of your attention. When you focus on what the student is doing well, you will encourage those appropriate behaviors. It may not be easy at first, but start looking for those milliseconds when the student is engaging in the correct behavior. Utilize Pivot Praise—this is the practice of recognizing the students who are engaging in the correct behavior and ignoring the students who are not engaging in the expected behavior. This will encourage the students to make adjustments accordingly. For example, when the class returns from the gym, you might say, “I like the way Suzy is sitting. I like the way John is sitting.” You may even notice that when you focus on the good behavior and reward what is going well, you start to feel better and more positive.

Training Tip #3: Harder Won’t Get You to the Goal

The third myth is that the harder we push our students, the more likely they are to respond positively. We know from years of research that the students who are given the harshest punishments and longest removals from school are those who likely need to be in school the most. Students who exhibit challenging behavior are most often given punishments for more subjective behaviors (campus or class disruption, defiance, disrespect) as opposed to referrals for objective violations (dress code, technology use/possession, weapons). Remember the Can’t Do versus Won’t Do: If a student lacks the skills to do the work, pushing him or her harder will only create a higher level of anxiety and disengagement. You may need to remediate the skill first. Consider creating lesson plans that include active student engagement and activities that include all of the senses. Work toward differentiating your material to include individual student needs and interests. The old adage that idle hands do the devil’s work applies in the classroom setting. Your day should include consistent routines. Students should know what is expected of them from bell to bell. The in-activity and between-activity transitions should be planned so that there is no down time. Consider having a song, a saying, a rhythm that is repeated during each transition.

Winning the Race

Just like training for a marathon, you can’t be ready for the big race overnight. You have to take time to train, to know your limits, to break old habits. You can’t change behavior overnight, either. Instead of trying for longer, faster, harder… work on training yourself to identify why a student may be engaging in challenging behavior. What are they really asking for? Students engage in challenging behavior because they are communicating a need that they don’t have the skill yet to identify and address. Take time to focus on what you want to see. Water the roses and ignore the weeds. And gently encourage students to participate in class by including their favorite topics, items, and interests into your lessons. If you stick to a good classroom management training regimen, you’ll be collecting your trophies before you know it!

Photo Credit: Kashif Haque/Flickr

Dr. Jenna SageDr. Jenna Sage is currently working as a District Administrator for Special Education.  Her position provides opportunities to facilitate IEP meetings, act as a liaison between schools and families, and ensure compliance with district, state, and federal policies.  Dr. Sage’s experiences in education have included working as a paraprofessional, substitute teacher, classroom teacher, consultant, trainer and behavior resource teacher.  She is also a Board Certified Behavior Analyst.   Her passion is providing supports and resources to school staff to ensure student success through compassionate and meaningful education.  Dr. Sage can be reached at jenna.sage@yahoo.com.

5 Ways To Build Superb Relationships With Paraprofessionals

5 Ways To Build Superb Relationships With ParaprofessionalsThis post was originally published at Special Education Guide.

Don’t be jealous: I have the very best paraprofessionals in the world. They know exactly what to do even when I am not there. They are like an extension of my brain and I could not do my job without them. My classroom runs like a well-oiled machine. But, it has not always been that way.

As a self-contained classroom teacher for the last 11 years, I have gone through a number of paraprofessionals. Each of them has had unique strengths and weaknesses (the same as classroom teachers, really), and each of them has had unique passions and interests. But, what is the secret to working with paraprofessionals in the special education classroom? What is the best way to think about the teacher/paraprofessional relationship? Here are five things that I have gleaned from my experience of working with paraprofessionals over the years.

Paraprofessionals are there to support the teacher, but they need just as much support.

There is a serious problem if you believe that paraprofessionals are “just” there to support the teacher. In almost every school district, paraprofessionals get paid very little compared to the classroom teacher. However, they are, for all intents and purposes, teachers too, which means that they need support from the classroom teacher in the form of open communication, a respectful attitude and clear expectations.

Paraprofessionals should be treated like the teacher’s partner, not the teacher’s employee.

The truth is that paraprofessionals don’t work for the teacher; rather, they work with the teacher. They are equal stakeholders in the classroom and are invested in seeing their students succeed. Sometimes the teacher and paraprofessional will have differing perspectives on a strategy. It is always best to talk through this process to avoid miscommunication, which may lead to frustration for one or both parties.

Allow paraprofessionals to shine at what they are good at.

I think that in any working relationship, it is important to get to know the strengths and interests of the people around you. It can be easy to focus on what people are NOT doing correctly instead of what they do very well. At least at first, it’s best to let paraprofessionals take on things that allow them put their strengths to use. Their insight is valuable and teachers need to listen to them. There is always room for improvement, so create an environment where it is okay to make mistakes.

Celebrate with paraprofessionals like they are family.

Most special education teachers spend more time with the paraprofessionals in their classrooms than they do with their families! Working in special education can have its challenges. Families stick together and support each other, and paraprofessionals and teachers should be no different. Break bread together, have each other over for dinner and share your life with your co-workers. Life is better together.

Paraprofessionals are the teacher’s eyes and hands in inclusive classrooms.

In certain instances, paraprofessionals work with students disabilities in the general education environment. It is important that these paraprofessionals know how the teacher wants them to support each student in the classroom; however, the teacher needs to share not only what he or she wants the paraprofessional to do, but also why the paraprofessional needs to do it. By giving the reason behind his or her decisions, a teacher can establish mutual trust.

Back to my paraprofessionals: I can’t take credit for how awesome they are. But, I will say that developing deep and lasting relationships with each of the people I work with has many benefits. If you are an educator, I trust that you can experience this as well.

Photo Credit: Aidan Jones/Flickr

The Role of Special Education in a Democracy

The Role of Special Education in a Democracy

Photo Credit: Sara/Flickr

Reflections on Ravitch’s Reign of Error from a Special Ed Teacher

By Beth Brady

The past few years I’ve been wondering: When did being a teacher make me such an awful, greedy person in the eyes of our country? Thanks to being active on Twitter, I finally got a better understanding of what has been going on recently in education policy and how Obama’s Race to the Top has led to the proliferation of charters, even more high-stakes testing and the Common Core Learning Standards. It wasn’t just in my head; there was really something going on, a systematic pushback against public education. Diane Ravitch’s Reign of Error put the current policy problems that educators face together in one place with research and solutions. For educators, it has always been important to be educated advocates for our students. For our students, we are models of what it means to be engaged citizens, and in order to fulfill that role, we need works like Reign of Error to keep us informed.

The problems that Ravitch identifies and solutions she offers are not new, but it is refreshing to be reminded of why education policy matters so much in this country. Our education system is the bedrock of our democratic society. There’s a reason why when the rest of the world seems to be erupting right now, we continue to have civil protests and dialogue; although Congress can’t seem to get along, we are not a nation that rushes to take up arms.

This year, in the race to improve my students’ performance and demonstrate that I truly am a highly effective teacher, I had forgotten why I chose to be a public school teacher in the first place. I’m grateful to Ravitch for the reminder of John Dewey’s work:

The public schools have taught us how to be one society, not a collection of separate enclaves, divided by race, language and culture. They have contributed directly to the growth of a large middle class and a dynamic society. Our nation’s public schools have been a mighty engine of opportunity and equality. They still are.” (Ravitch, 2013, p.323)

As a teacher of students with multiple disabilities, I had a light bulb moment when I remembered that school is not just about reading, math and showing that my students can access the Common Core, but about being citizens. Schools prepare students to become contributors to society, not just academic scholars.

I’m sad to admit I had been sucked into the accountability vortex. With New York’s new teacher evaluation system in place, part of which uses the Danielson’s Framework, I was focused on using this framework to prove how meaningful my work is and that my students can learn.

You see, since most of my students are non-verbal, use wheelchairs, are dependent for all their care needs, and have health impairments, I am often asked, “Well, what do you teach them?” Often the root of the question comes from the thinking that if they’re not learning academics, why are we paying taxes for them to go to school?  Wouldn’t these needy (and expensive) children best be served in a cheaper setting (i.e., minus teacher salary), such as daycare or a hospital?

It makes me frustrated that people don’t naturally value the important place that children with multiple disabilities have in our society of diverse human beings. But instead of trying to explain that, my best answer in the past had been to explain how my students are learning, although it might not look like traditional learning, and that we are accessing the same general education curriculum that “typical” students are learning, but in a different way.  We are focusing on the essential skills they need to learn, such as communication, choice-making, cause & effect, and joint attention.

But I have to admit that the question made me question what I knew was right. I became fixated on proving my students’ worth with data collection sheets and Common Core activities, which distracted me from the 1:1 instruction I knew my students needed in their individual, developmentally appropriate goals. (I say Common Core, because before this push I never felt such pressure to consistently show achievement that was aligned to the NY State Standards besides completing annual Alternate Assessments.)

So as I spend my summer days reflecting on my classroom last year and thinking about improvements for next year, it was a welcome reminder from Ravitch that I should stop running myself ragged just because my students aren’t valued by high-stakes tests and they don’t fit in a mold where I can have them pump out projects that show they understand the Common Core standards.

The reason my students deserve to be in school as much as traditional students who are learning to read, do algebra, and explain historic events, is because its not about the content, its about what all students are learning by doing these learning activities together in a common space. There is a reason we have public schools in this country.

…They have enabled people from different walks of life to learn from one another, to study together, play together, plan together, and recognize their common humanity. More than any other institution in our society, the public schools enable the rising generation to exchange ideas, to debate, to disagree, and to take into account the view of others in making decisions.” (Ravitch, 2013, p.323)

This is what I teach my students. By working with them to communicate, interact with peers, identify their wants and needs, my goals are no different from a general education teacher.

The essential mission of the public schools are not merely to prepare workers for the global workforce but to prepare citizens with the minds, hearts, and characters to sustain our democracy into the future.” (Ravitch, 2013, p.325)

In our drive to create college- and career-ready graduates, let us not forget that public schools were founded to create an educated citizenry, not just workers. Just because not all students will have a job one day or even be able to live independently does not mean that they are not an important part of our society.

Additionally, students with special needs bring diversity to schools that accurately reflect the world outside of schools. What better space than a classroom of students who have such a different experience of life than a “typical” child to help students learn “to take into account the view of others?”

As communities grew, parents and concerned citizens realized that educating children was a shared public responsibility, not a private one…For many years, the public schools were known as common schools, because they were part of the public commons. Like parks, libraries, roads and the police, they were institutions that belonged to the whole people…But most people understood that paying for the education of the community’s children was a civic duty, an investment in the future, in citizens who would grow up and become voters and take their place in society.” (Ravitch, 2013, p.322)

At the end of the day, schools are in the business of making better people for a better world.  Whether we teach math or communication, as educators we serve a valuable role in our democratic society. I know that a large part of my pride in our society comes from the strong public education that I received. So, for this special educator, there is no more renewing feeling than realizing that my specialized teaching skill helps me and my students, support staff, and families become stronger, educated citizens of our American democratic society.

List of Works Cited

Ravitch, D. (2013). Reign of Error. New York, NY: Knopf.

What do you think the role of special education is in the United States? Share with us in the comments section below!
Beth BradyBeth Brady is currently a middle school special education teacher in the New York City Public Schools, after beginning her career in Boston. She works with learners who have an array of multiple disabilities and her particular interests are in the area of communication, alternate assessment, deafblindness, and teacher preparation. Connect with her on Twitter @bradylobeth.

12 Things To Remember When Working With Challenging Students

12 Things
Let’s face it. Some students are hard to work with for a litany of reasons. Maybe you are experiencing a challenging year in your classroom. Before you throw in the towel or give up hope, read this list of DOs and DON’Ts when encountering students who push you to the brink.

DO know your students crave your love and attention even though they may not know how to ask for it (you can still love and not let them” walk all over you“)
DO NOT get discouraged that you are not doing enough for them (sometimes progress is slow but there is still progress)
DO expect them to communicate with you (it just might mean you have to “listen” to their behavior instead of them using conventional means)
DO NOT take it personally when they display challenging behavior (remember…it is not about you)
DO have high expectations for their academic work and their behavior (they need someone to believe in them)
DO NOT “poke the bear” when there is no need to (no…I’m not saying students with challenging behavior are bears – it is only a expression)
DO allow them to explore things that they are interested in (special interests and hobbies can unlock creativity when used wisely)
DO NOT give up on them…ever (“When you have exhausted all possibilities, remember this – you haven’t.” ― Thomas Edison)
DO take an interest in who they are (invest some time in really getting to know their likes and dislikes)
DO NOT forget to offer multiple ways for them to show what they know or to communicate how they feel (can you say Universal Design for Learning?)
DO enjoy their happy and/or joyful moments (sometimes they are few and far between)
DO NOT forget to play lots of music in the classroom and have fun (we all need a little more fun ya know?)

I hope these 12 reminders have inspired you to keep going even if you feel lost and hopeless. In addition to the above suggestions, I would recommend finding someone to talk to that you trust. We all need to share our frustrations in a safe place and be encouraged in our teaching practice.

Thanks for your time and attention.

Photo Credit: Rusty Clark

What are some helpful strategies that have been effective for you when working with challenging students? Tell us about them in the comments section below!

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