Tomorrow Is Too Long to Wait for Inclusion

7 Ways to Use a Sequential Message Device in the Inclusive Classroom

sequential message device; a classroom with students' belonging strewn about on desks, it looks like the students have been active all day

Have you ever wondered how to use augmentative and alternative communication (AAC) devices in the classroom? Here are seven quick and easy ways to use a sequential message device in an inclusive environment:


Every morning across America, children are reciting the Pledge of Allegiance! This is one of the easiest ways to include our students; you can setup the device to recite the whole thing or sequence the pledge so that your student has to hit the switch at certain points in the pledge. They can lead the class in the pledge or simply participate during morning announcements.


This one is too simple. There are probably a million reasons to count in a general education classroom during the day (i.e. lunch count, attendance, calendar days, the number of people/objects on a graph, skip counting, able to). Programming your student’s AAC device to count in sequence will be useful all day long no matter what subject or content area.

Giving Directions

Even if you can speak, sometimes prerecording something for them to say helps the class understand them the first time (especially if intelligibility is an issue). The student can be the teacher’s helper and ask the class to turn their papers in, take out a particular textbook, or clean up before going to lunch. This idea can be modified on the fly and does not need tons of planning to accomplish.

Vocabulary Words

This can work in any grade level. By recording vocabulary words to the pertinent lesson, your student will either be able to interject during classroom discussions or answer questions. The best thing to do is touch base with the general education teacher and find out what specific words will be used. This way your student will be ready to hit the switch at the appropriate time.


There are lots of opportunities to read in class. This could be a passage from a book or worksheet as well as instructions for an activity. In primary grades…the student could read an entire picture book to the class. Perhaps you can work with the classroom teacher to create a job that your student could perform related to reading something every day. The point of using AAC devices in the classroom is to give access where it would be difficult otherwise. Using a sequential device makes reading or programming longer passages much easier.


Self-determination is always a good thing and giving our students choices is part of that. But…sometimes we want a random response. For example, choosing a number between 1 and 10, or picking nouns for a “mad libs” activity. In this case…some sequential devices also have a randomizer. I have found this comes in handy whenever I need a novel response quickly. The Big Talk Triple Play switches are the absolute best when it comes to this.

Social Interactions

This is probably the most obvious suggestion of the whole group, but sometimes it is easily overlooked. There are a couple of scenarios where programming social interactions are ideal. Try recording positive messages for outside play. I have had switches programmed with phrases like “this is fun,” and “go, team,” when I know there is a structured event with the class (like a kickball game). Another idea is to program simple conversations where your student can ask a peer a question and then comment on their answer. Something like, “what is your favorite TV show?” where the student would reply, “I like Sponge Bob Squarepants!” There are lots of ways you can go with this.

Not Just for Special Education Classrooms

The point of these suggestions is to get you thinking that AAC devices should not only be used in a sterile, self-contained environment or small group lesson. There are plenty of opportunities to use this technology within inclusive settings. For more ideas, check out 101+ Ideas For Using the BIG Step-by-Step™ and Other Single Message Communication Devices or Other Sequential Message Device to Access Curriculum

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Photo Credit: Allison Meier/Flickr

Three Tips to Make Classrooms Mobility Device Friendly

A class reads from books. A disabled student is in a wheelchair.

Achieving greatness requires overcoming challenges. The more challenges faced, the increased greatness. Perhaps that explains why establishing an inclusive environment remains so challenging. Inclusion’s many benefits certainly make inclusion great and hence worth the problem solving efforts.

Obstacles to inclusion vary based off different special needs, although certain obstacles transcend specific disabilities. Such proves the case with mobility devices. Students who use canes, walkers or wheelchairs encounter similar issues. No matter the disability.

In an effort to identify these issues and compile solutions Think Inclusive reached out to adults with disabilities via a survey “Blending Mobility Devices into the Classroom.” Survey questions as you can read here asked respondents to remember back to their school days. Insights collected led to the following tips for making classrooms mobility device friendly.

Tip #1: Turn the Tables on Desks

Nearly half the survey respondents mentioned desks as an issue. Each one used a wheelchair in school. Answering “When you think about your time in the classroom setting, what comes to mind?” Erin M. Diericx said “I remember awkwardly parking my electric wheelchair among the desks.”

Another respondent Adriana Mallozzi raised the issue when answering the question “What was the biggest obstacle you had to overcome using that mobility device in a classroom setting?” She said “Starting in middle school, there were desks attached to chairs instead of tables.”

Furnishing classrooms with tables opposed to desks stood a preference amongst survey takers. Obviously you as a teacher can only work with the furniture placed inside the classroom. Yet you can give a voice to the matter. Persistently vocalize to the higher ups why they should put tables in classrooms. Persistence possesses a better chance to stimulate change than shrugging your shoulders and saying “I can only work with what they give me.”

Tip #2: Create Wide Aisles

While you can’t control what furnishes your classroom, you can typically control how to arrange the furniture. Within her responses Thelma Padgett emphasized the need for wide aisles. Padgett’s perspective differed from other respondents given the fact her experiences comes teaching with a disability.

Throughout her different answers Padgett explained how using a walker impacts her ability to teach. Replying to the biggest obstacle question she wrote “Space. If desks were moved even slightly, it made walking between them difficult and sometimes impossible.”

From the student perspective respondent Casey Miller echoed the aforementioned. Miller who uses a manual wheelchair credited his teachers for helping to neutralize mobility issues. “Mobility was my biggest problem. They’d (My teachers) moved some desks around if everyone was going to one specific place in the classroom.”

Admittedly re-arranging furniture will not always exist as an option. Miller noted that. “Sometimes in a small classroom with 30+ kids and just as many desks there isn’t much they could do.” Therefore he found himself limited to his “assigned area,” distinguishing semantics caused by Miller’s sense of humor.  “I had to keep saying ‘assigned area’ (in my survey answers) because that’s what they (my teachers) ended up having to call it. Every time they told me to go back to my assigned seat I’d tell them that I never left it.”

Tip #3: Treat Students Equally

Tip three differs from the first two in you hold total control over the situation. Treat students with mobility devices like any other student. Mallozzi shared appreciation for her teachers doing this for her when answering “What was something your teacher did to make the classroom setting a better atmosphere for you?” She plainly replied “Treated me like everyone else.”

Mallozzi kept a similar tone when offering her advice to teachers “It’s ok to acknowledge it (disability) for obvious reasons, but not focus on it.” Respondent Devin Axtman also hit on said point. “Don’t make it (the disability) a huge deal.”

Axtman proceeded to cite an example where his disability received unnecessary attention. “Sometimes a teacher would say, ‘Everyone please stand for the pledge, except for Devin.’ Everyone knew I couldn’t stand. It wasn’t something that needed to be pointed out.”

Bottom line treat a student who uses mobility devices like any other student, arrange classroom furniture to create wide aisles, and insist on tables to furnish your classroom. These three steps will build a mobility device friendly classroom and help everyone experience the greatness inclusion offers.

Photo Credit: Flickr/World Bank Photo Collection

Inclusion Is What We Do

Inclusion Is What We DoBy Chris Chivers

This post was originally published at Chris Chivers (Thinks).

Inclusion can sometimes be seen as an add-on to “normal” teaching activity.  It is possible to argue that inclusion, far from being an add-on, is an integral part of practice, explicit in the detail of the standards for teachers. Teachers will go to work each day to secure the best opportunities for each and every child in their class. Inclusion occurs in the best of teaching experiences.

Inclusion is not something that is done to people. It is an aspect of ethos, a principle and, as such, exists or it doesn’t. An inclusive environment is one where people matter, their needs and aspirations are not only known but are also supported. Therefore it is a college of individuals which cares for each other, the collegiate approach. Inclusion is an ethos based on love and care, with the opposite extreme leading to exclusion and a child being ostracised. An inclusive ethos should allow individuals to express themselves and, at times, to articulate different opinions. Openness and articulacy can support the resolution of issues more easily. Inclusive organisations often support discussion and resolution through mediation and allowing advocacy for vulnerable members.

All school staff are the eyes and ears of the organisation. In this approach, early identification of concerns, such as behaviour change, physical hurt and absence can lead to early intervention, by the most suitable means, sometimes external to the school. School staff have a responsibility to keep children safe. Intervention can be testing for the adult, but to ignore warning signs puts everyone at risk.

Every child is unique, demonstrably so, educationally, physically, emotionally, socially, though heritage and life experience.  It is possible to perceive thirty different needs in a class of thirty children. That puts a strain on a teacher’s organisational abilities and their ability to engage with each individual. However, differentially challenging activities can lead to deeper engagement
with small groups and individuals, where whole class teaching cannot.

Differentiation has been a significant challenge to teachers, as it implies the need to plan for several layers of ability within groups. Some schools organise in sets or streams, but it is arguable that even in sets there is a continuum of ability, even if it is narrowed. One only has to ask the simple question, “What’s the point in being bright in this classroom?” to see that some may not be sufficiently challenged. Challenge implies expectation, where the teacher has analysed the child’s needs and can see what that the next learning step is. Expectation can lead to aspiration, with targets being set slightly higher, but with support. Teachers need to be aware that task completion does not automatically mean success in learning, but the combination of learning processes with positive outcomes is energising to both the child and the teacher. We all want the “light-bulb moment”.

Inclusion should imply personalised approaches to learning and teaching, with individualised challenges for children to enable them to become engaged learners and active producers,
rather than consumers.

Assessment, analysis and reflection are embedded within practice, supporting individual and institutional progress.

The mantra for each school and each individual within a school should be,

“Inclusion is what we do.”

Chris ChiversWho is Chris Chivers? Forty years of experience in education, as teacher, manager, lecturer, consultant, assessor, adviser. An experienced, visionary, headteacher with over 15 years’ responsibility for the strategic leadership, direction and operational management of a school. Experience of evaluating organisational performance in order to identify key priorities for continuous improvement and raising organisational standards. Highly experienced people manager, committed to high standards of professionalism, continuous professional development and equality of opportunity. Follow him on Twitter @chrischivers or on his blog.

When Our Society Is Not “Ready” to Be Inclusive Everybody Loses

This article was posted with permission from the author and was originally published at the Washington Post.

“Nico will get to participate as an audience member.”

With those words, the teacher explained why my son, a second-grader with Down syndrome, wouldn’t be part of the end of the year performances. These were just little informal plays that emerged from reading groups, groups in which my son was supposed to be included. But the teacher had announced these end-of-the-year events with a flier cheerfully titled, “Come One, Come All.” There were 23 names on the flier, detailing who was in each play on a given day. Nico’s name was conspicuously absent.

The end of the school year should be a happy time filled with celebrations of all the hard work and preparation for a busy summer ahead. For us, though, Nico’s exclusion from these plays was just another reminder how far we have to go.

This year marks the 25th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). Later that year, the Education for all Handicapped Children Act (EHA) was reauthorized and re-named the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). While the ADA mandated “reasonable accommodations,” EHA and IDEA ensure “Free and Appropriate Public Education” in the “Least Restrictive Environment” for children with disabilities. In the 1990s and more recently, as the ADA has begun to transform our culture, “least restrictive” increasingly means a typical classroom with an adapted curriculum.

I’m 42 and graduated from high-school in 1991, the year after IDEA was enacted. Throughout my education, in both public and private schools in the Northeast, Midwest, and South, I can’t remember ever meeting a child with visible disabilities. For me, like most people of my generation and older, the “handicapped” kids were kept in separate classrooms and separate schools, fully segregated from the general population.

But all those seniors who are receiving their high school diplomas this year are part of a growing generation of people, with and without disabilities, who have been learning from each other in inclusive classrooms throughout their lives. They’ve seen both the rewards and the challenges. Ideally, they’ll carry the knowledge that inclusion is possible and desirable into their future, shaping how they interact with others throughout their adult lives. That’s only going to happen if they get the right cues from their teachers and parents.

Nico’s Individualized Education Plan (IEP) proposes a roughly even split between included and segregated education. We are not hardliners. My mantra is that inclusion is not same-ness, and that the best approach is to carefully consider the needs of the individual. Nico is very social. His time in the full classroom builds on those strengths. For some subjects – math and writing especially – he needs a quiet space and one on one instruction, so he gets pulled out for those subjects.

He’s made great strides this year thanks to such instruction. I cannot overemphasize the joy and gratitude that we feel when Nico sits down with a book, his finger tracing each word, reading aloud, clearly understanding and understandable. At such moments, his potential feels limitless.

And then something like this flier happens and the doors slam shut. What’s apparent to us is that if Nico’s potential is, in fact, limited, it’s because of a culture that builds barriers towards inclusion, not because of his genetic makeup. In the disability community, we call this the “social model” of disability, in which problems emerge from a society not ready to be inclusive. His teacher is not a bad person, but she is part of a culture for which exclusion seems natural. In her mind, it’s not a big deal to her to send out a flier listing every name but for my son’s, and then, when we asked, to brush us off. No one is fooled by the idea that sitting in the audience equals full participation. Not us. Not Nico. Not his classmates.

What lessons are his peers learning from Nico’s exclusion? He’s had great relationships with them. They whisper to each other that he’s “famous” in the school. When we showed up for a school musical performance in March (another instance in which his teacher had no knowledge of plans for his inclusion), his classmates surrounded him with cheers, hugs, and happiness to see their friend. We regularly get notes sent home, often misspelled in adorable ways, addressed to their “budy Niko,” and painted with pictures of kids having fun.

When a child with disabilities is kept out of an activity, not only will it hurt them (and their families), but the typical children internalize this segregation as necessary. They will carry that lesson forward. Right now, one of the biggest challenges facing the disability community is how to build more inclusive workspace and living spaces, so that people with disabilities don’t have to be housed in isolated institutions and work in sheltered workshops (often for sub-minimum wage). The ADA and IDEA generation is primed to shake up society, but they are going to need positive models.

It doesn’t have to be this way. Last weekend, Nico got invited to a birthday party. The instant we walked into a party room, four or five kids leapt to their feet to come over and say hello. Overwhelmed, Nico had to lay down on the floor for a few minutes, and the kids just understood that including Nico didn’t mean same-ness. They patted him on the back, returned to their seats, and waited for him to be ready. Within a few minutes, he was up, playing video games and otherwise hanging out with his friends. They found ways to include him, and he found ways to include them.

But for how long? How many times does an authority figure have to signal that Nico is just audience, not participant, before the kids stop seeing him as a peer? How many times do parents have to decide to exclude Nico from social functions? He has been invited to exactly zero play dates by other parents this year. He has been invited to only two birthday parties. By the time he’s in high school, will he no longer be welcome in the loving community of peers that I witnessed last weekend?

Nico is going to be fine. We will meet with the principal of the school, articulate a more robust philosophy of inclusion in his upcoming IEP, and make sure to build better pathways of communication next year. Hopefully, the next time this teacher wants to do readers’ theater, she’ll collaborate with the special ed teacher, rather than just inviting those students to watch. All it takes is a consistent expectation of inclusion, something that may not come naturally to those of us raised in schools that segregated the children with disabilities, but we can all learn.

To celebrate the 25th anniversary of IDEA, I am asking all educators and parents to go out of their way to be more inclusive. The law mandates certain kinds of formal structures, but that’s not enough. Kids are smart. They know that “participating” as an “audience member” is that special kind of nonsense with which adults patronize children. Participation is participation, and “come one, come all” must really mean everybody, for everyone’s sake.

Photo Credit: David Perry

David Perry is a freelance writer who focuses on disability issues. He can be found at How Did We Get Into This Mess and on Twitter @lollardfish.

The Real Barrier Wasn’t Language


By John Spencer

When I first volunteered to teach a self-contained classroom of English Language Learners (ELL), I assumed the issue would be a language barrier. After spending a few years learning about the best practices for language acquisition, I developed lesson plans that would provide the right accommodations. I knew all about sentence stems and structured oral language practice. I had experience with word walls and grammar walls and relational strategies that would drop the affective filter.

I was ready to handle the language barrier. However, once I began teaching ELL, I realized that the language barrier wasn’t the real issue. The larger issue was the lack of inclusion that ultimately led to even bigger barriers, preventing ELL students from receiving the equitable education they deserved.

Barrier #1: Perception

I knew something was odd when students scoffed at the ice breaker at the beginning of class.

“We all know each other,” a boy said.

“Well, not everyone,” I answered. “I mean, there are some new students.”

He shook his head. “No, we’ve been together since kindergarten. We’re the dumb class. We stay together and each year we get a new teacher.”

“Why would you think you were the dumb class?” I asked.

“Because we’re the ones who didn’t pass the test,” he answered. Other students said versions of the same thing. A girl mentioned overhearing teachers talk about  the “low group” and the “subgroup that doesn’t ever improve.” Another girl talked about the stigma of being called “Little Mexico” by other kids on campus.

This process of segregating students by language ultimately creates a self-concept of being a part of the “low group.” My students knew it when they walked down the hallway and saw a graph showing the scores of each classroom. True, the teacher names had been wiped from the graphs, but they could easily point out our class and compare it to the honors group.

Because of segregation and labeling, students had internalized a self-concept of being academically less capable than the other groups. Students routinely referred to our class as the “Dumb Group.” For years, the stigma attached to being the ELL class had created a self-fulfilling prophecy of academic failure. There was a dark determinism that after six straight years of failing to pass the exit exam, they simply couldn’t improve.

Barrier #2: Pedagogy

As a part of the four-hour language block, I was required to teach reading, writing, grammar and oral language for exactly an hour each. I had to document that time. As a teacher who preferred project- and inquiry-based learning, I found myself trying to fit an authentic approach into a system that was rigid and traditional.

I contrast this to the honors group, where students were able to blend together math and science into a hands-on STEM lab. They had speech and debate, mock trials and maker spaces while we were diagramming sentences with verb tenses. Ultimately, I learned how to hack the system. We used grammar as a basis for choice-driven blogging and we created our own Shark Tank projects as a way to improve oral language. However, I constantly had to push back against the policies in place.

In terms of pedagogy, the ELL students had to fight against the perception that their lack of language acquisition meant they couldn’t handle creativity or critical thinking. As an ELL teacher, I often heard teachers warn me that my class wouldn’t be capable of the same projects because of the types of students I had.

Barrier #3: Socialization

My students existed in an island, and not just in my classroom. They went to the same elective classes together. In most cases, they hung out before and after school together. During lunch, I would watch my students forming groups away from the rest of the school. It was a sort of de facto segregation. The other students were not always trying to be exclusive. It’s just that my students had no structured opportunities to interact with other students in the school.

This meant that my students never had a chance to work with students who had special needs. They never had the chance to work with students who were part of the gifted program, either. Their social perspective was limited to fellow ELL students who had failed to pass the state exit exam.

Over time, this limited socialization caused my students to be less likely to get involved in extracurricular activities. Because they didn’t play sports at the same time with other kids at lunch, they never tried out for the teams. Because of the stigma attached to language, they never volunteered for the morning announcements or for media projects. Because they felt like outcasts, they never joined student government.

It’s About the Policy

The greatest barrier came from problematic policy. The students’ negative self-perceptions came from years of being forced by policy into a segregated ELL group. This, in turn, led to a barrier in socialization. The pedagogical barrier came from the rigid four-hour block of the hyper-structured ELL classrooms and the expectations of teaching in a way that ignored student voice or choice.

The end result is an educational experience for ELL students that contrasts sharply with that of all other students. They have a different self-concept and a different set of perceptions in front of them to overcome. They experience a more rigid, traditional pedagogy that ignores their need for creativity and critical thinking. They exist in a social island and are less inclined to participate in school activities. Ultimately, they exist in a separate school within the school, over fifty years after we decided that separate cannot mean equal.

Photo Credit: Alec Couros/Flickr

John SpencerJohn Spencer has been teaching for eleven years in Phoenix, Arizona. He is currently a middle school photojournalism and computers teacher with a passion for helping each student find a unique voice in digital spaces. Find more about John at



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

How an Inclusive Teaching Experience Changed My Life

How An Inclusive Teaching Experience Changed My Life

By Katherine Lewis

“All means all.”

The way educators define inclusion and include all children has certainly changed over time. Many general education teachers consider “inclusion” to mean that children with disabilities are educated in regular education classrooms and that most services and support are provided outside that classroom.

The School Wide Integrated Framework for Transformation Center (SWIFT) is a national center based at the University of Kansas and built on an initiative funded by the U.S. Department of Education Office of Special Education Programs. At the 2013 PBIS Leadership Forum on Equity in Education, SWIFT described its mission:

Assisting districts and their schools to engage in a transformational process in concert with their families and communities to achieve equity and excellence for all students:

  • Excellence as determined by measurable student social and academic gains
  • Equity as defined by the measurable capacity of each school to deliver the intensity and range of supports to meet the needs of each student and extending to their family and community
  • “All” as defined as the measurable integrated active engagement of all students and their families in the learning process. (SWIFT Center PBIS Leadership Forum 2013)

SWIFT defines inclusive education as meeting the needs of every child—struggling readers, gifted, talented, living in poverty, students with disabilities, culturally and ethnically diverse students, and those with the most extensive needs.  Simply put, “All means all.”

I recently had the opportunity to teach at a knowledge development site, a school selected by the national SWIFT Center as a model of inclusive education, and it was a life-changing experience, both professionally and personally. Because this is such a unique setting (there are currently only six knowledge development sites in the nation), a snapshot of this particular school may be in helpful in understanding my experiences.

West Elementary (a pseudonym I will use to protect the privacy of the school) offered fully inclusive schooling for students from transitional kindergarten through sixth grade. In serving students with disabilities, West mirrored the representation evident in our nation, with about 15 to 20 percent of students with disabilities in each classroom.  (In 2010, about 1 in 5 Americans were classified as persons with disabilities.) West Elementary valued collaboration, differentiated instruction, family partnerships, and instruction based on constructivist theory. The school aimed to provide evidence-based teaching strategies that were tailored to meet individual development. West also served as a theory-to-practice site for students at a nearby university’s nationally recognized school of education. Needless to say, the school was frequented by many visitors, including researchers, professors, student teachers, practicing teachers, administrators, school district representatives, paraprofessionals, parents, and members of the community. The doors were nearly always open and West Elementary thrived on the frequent collaboration and volunteerism among members of the community.

So why was this experience so life-changing? The year I applied to teach at West, I was a relatively seasoned educator eager for challenges and new experiences.  My past teaching experiences had honestly seemed more integrative (and even exclusionary) than inclusive in nature. I must admit that, although willing to try it, I had serious doubts about this full inclusion model. I was concerned about whether or not it was possible to meet the needs of all students in one classroom community. I worried that the students who had special needs may not receive all the services and support they needed. I also worried about the gifted and talented students—would they be appropriately challenged or would they disappear in such an environment? I wanted to be wrong, so I dove right in and tried it out.

The first few months were challenging. I was faced with teaching the most diverse group of students I had ever taught. I had a new student who previously attended small schools for students with special needs and this was his first time in a general education setting. He struggled a lot at first. He had boundary issues, little socialization, and very little experience communicating with his peers. There were times I felt frustrated or at a loss for how to help each student succeed. I was grateful for my special education certified co-teacher and the highly collaborative campus community. We all worked together to meet the needs of the students and I became less frustrated and overwhelmed. Even though I was not a special education teacher, I learned how to support my students with the highest needs. The specialists (i.e. occupational, physical, and speech therapists) were part of our classroom community. They would come in to provide services to both students with and without individualized education plans. The specialists were valuable resources and they showed me how to be cognizant of and address possible areas of struggle for every student.

In about the third month, as we neared our first holiday break, I reflected on my experiences. Here are a few things I realized:

  • Co-teaching and collaboration are invaluable practices.
  • I was wrong. It is possible for every student to receive the services he or she needs.
  • Kids are naturally compassionate and helpful.
  • Educational equity through inclusive practices is indicative of a socially just system and full inclusion is necessary to ensure the civil rights of all individuals.

Throughout the rest of the academic year, I was amazed at how much each of my students accomplished. In less than six months, my new student had progressed from communicating in a few broken words to sharing his thoughts in several, impassioned, complete sentences. I was blown away by his progress! During my end of year parent-teacher conferences, I was allowed to showcase the unique progress each student made, rather than focusing solely on standardized test results and determining whether or not a child fit into the “3rd grade product” box. It was as if each of my students had an individualized education plan and was allowed to progress on his or her own timeline. How liberating! I knew the parents believed in and trusted me as an educator. I also realized that our community was a remarkably strong, dedicated, and compassionate bunch.

At the beginning of the year, I had worried so much about my students with physical or mental disabilities. I worried they would be mistreated, picked on, or “babied” by the other students. What was most surprising is that we all learned, as a community, how to support one another in the most appropriate ways. The students learned about each other’s unique personalities and strengths, and they spent so much time helping each other learn that many of them seemed to become experts at scaffolding learning and encouraging inquiry among the group.

After this invaluable experience, I began to question the purpose of education. Had the current market-based education system blinded us to the simple fact that education is a social science and students are individuals in their own right? I began to wonder why educators still questioned and even spoke out against more inclusive environments. On a more personal level, the experience “opened my eyes” and I began to think of inclusive education as a civil rights issue. I knew, from this point forward, that I was an advocate for inclusive practices.

I had so many questions. What was it about this site that worked well? What is the essence of the phenomenon? Who are the teachers that thrive at full inclusion schools and what are their honest beliefs about inclusion? With a plethora of research questions burning in my mind, I decided to begin the intense (yet satisfying) educational journey of pursuing a Ph.D. in School Improvement.

As a doctoral student and research assistant, I spend the majority of my time researching, reading, writing, and researching some more. With this luxury of thinking time, I often reflect on my experience teaching at a full inclusion school. In nine years of teaching across three different states, it was this experience that impacted my life the most.


Brault, M. W. (2012). Americans with Disabilities 2010: current population reports. Household Economic Studies, 70-131.

(2015). Retrieved 16 January 2015, from

Katherine LewisKatherine Lewis is currently working as a doctoral research assistant and is a first-year student in a school improvement Ph.D. program in Texas. She entered the program with nine years of experience teaching kindergarten through third grade in Texas, Colorado, and California. During this educational journey, Katherine taught in diverse school environments, including: a rural, Title I school, an International Baccalaureate Primary Years Programme, and (most recently) a fully inclusive charter school. In efforts to improve schools through transformational leadership, Katherine is interested in addressing social justice research questions, particularly advocating for full inclusion practices as equitable education. She continues to contribute to discourses focused on transformational leadership, the emancipatory potential of education, and inclusive practices as necessary for a socially just public school system. Katherine can be contacted at

Differentiated Instruction: Are We Expecting Too Much?

Differentiated Instruction Are We Expecting Too Much

By Savanna Flakes

There are some people who don’t think that differentiated instruction works. I suppose if you believe that differentiation is a bunch of specific strategies, a prescriptive methodology that all kids have to be doing something different all of the time, or that it is magic that only some teachers can create, then differentiating instruction for a class of diverse learners is impossible.  However, the basic truth is that “differentiation is a sequence of caring thoughts and common sense decisions made by teachers with a student-first orientation” (Adam Hoppe, 2010). What teacher does not naturally put the students first?  Teachers don’t need training on becoming compassionate or a rule book on how to notice students need a variety of learning opportunities. In fact, we even recognize that we need different professional learning opportunities, and we advocate for differentiated professional development.  What teacher doesn’t naturally help a student if they see him or her struggle with a concept and offer another way to solve the problem or express the answer? This is the foundation of differentiation: thinking about what is best for our students. We don’t need research to support that.

To those who say “differentiation has failed,” in essence you are saying that “teaching” has failed.  Differentiation is teaching and effective teaching is differentiated to account for differences in interest, learning style, background knowledge, and skills. The purpose of teaching is to facilitate learning, and learning doesn’t happen without differentiation. Differentiation is what makes our career field a distinguished art and science—not everyone can do it.

Some may feel that differentiation will only work if we return to the days when students of similar abilities were grouped together and placed in classes with other students whose learning needs paralleled their own.  Well, the results from that movement are in and they have been devastating. We have failed many students who don’t score high on economically-constructed IQ tests, biased TAG tests, and the hundreds of standardized tests by watering down their curriculum, placing them in less rigorous courses, and tracking them into ability groups such as the “Blue Jays” just because they are not on grade level with peers. Separating and secluding students from their “gifted” counterparts based on lower ability only results in lower expectations and “separate-not-equal” thinking.  The “one size fits all” approach is one variable that has resulted in the school to prison pipeline and the poor performance of students with disabilities and youths who are economically disadvantaged; in fact, ask a student who has dropped out of school why he or she did so.  You will probably hear an answer that resonates: “School didn’t work for me.”  How can one be satisfied with a teacher who does not differentiate when every respectable field differentiates for their constituents?  Would you continue to go to a doctor whose only prescription for every one of their patient’s illnesses, ranging from a headache to lung cancer is Advil?

So rather than continue to address more fallacies in the thought pattern that differentiation is beyond reach, I will make this article meaningful for my audience: teachers.  Specifically, I write to teachers who want to improve in differentiating instruction for the benefit of their students.  Like many others, including Carol Ann Tomlinson (one of our gurus on Differentiation), I suggest starting small with one goal, and then building your repertoire year by year to perfect it. Differentiation is a journey, not a one stop fix or an end point.

DifferentiationThe foundations of differentiation are building a collaborative classroom community, establishing consistent routines, and teaching students to have a Growth versus Fixed Mindset.  For resources on helping students develop a Growth Mindset, check out Carol Dweck’s  Next, during planning, consider your essential questions, objectives, and summative task or assessment.  As you scope out your curriculum unit, consider areas where students usually struggle and/or possible misconceptions that commonly arise with a given concept and skill.  As you plan, think about informal or formal pre-assessments that could provide you with background on what students know so that the lesson is able to support and/or extend students’ learning. In reviewing this information, begin to plan a few ways to teach the concept, possibly using a hands-on approach, visual supports, cooperative learning, and a blended learning component from or  Think about the assessments that will be used, and consider providing students with a choice in how they will demonstrate their mastery on this concept, moving beyond just paper and pencil. At this point, you are differentiating instruction, which just so happens to be good for ALL students.  Check out for hundreds of pre-created learning menus on various subjects and objectives.  Feel free to contact me for helpful advice and resources to start or continue your differentiation journey.

At the end of every opinion on differentiation, we have this fact: We have students who need us as educators to have a growth mindset, to help them believe that intelligence is malleable and to value their contributions to our classroom. We owe it to our students to purposefully plan to account for their uniqueness, and although differentiation is not a panacea to all of the education sector’s dilemmas, consider that the alternative is… nothing.  Is differentiation expecting too much? I don’t think so.

Editor’s Note: This article has been edited to correctly attribute a quote to Adam Hoppe.

Savanna Flakes, EdS has taught a variety of subjects, grades, and learners in Washington DC, Pittsburgh, and Virginia.  She has received numerous honors and awards for her work in education. Savanna is currently an Inclusion Specialist, coaching administrators and teachers on effective inclusive and instructional practices.  Savanna has served as a Professor in the American University School of Education and Health and she presents nationally on topics such as Differentiation, Co-teaching, Universal Design for Learning, and Inclusion. As an Education Consultant, she works with school communities to build teacher leaders and utilize effective instructional practices for students with exceptionalities. For more information visit Inclusion For a Better Future at

8 Examples of Assistive Technology in the Classroom

8 Examples of Assistive Technology in the Classroom

By Amy Williams

Over the past few years, there has been a push to ensure that every student is able to participate equally in the classroom. The past assumptions that special education must be a separate entity from general education is fading. It is giving way to filling the desks with a rich and diverse student landscape.

Researchers have looked extensively at the outcomes of education for students who have disabilities. They examined their placements and concluded that the children’s classroom setting or placement didn’t impact success. It’s actually the quality of instruction that enabled children to reach their achievements.

Inclusion in the Classroom

Shutterstock1Studies suggest inclusion is the most effective solution to create well-rounded individuals and learning environments. This practice ensures all children are developing social skills and sound fundamentals at the same times.

Inclusion goes beyond the simple “mainstreaming” illusion. Attempting to mainstream students with special needs is done with the best intentions, but often this occurs only when there is no instruction. This unintentionally creates a type of segregation that places students with their peers only on a part time basis for “specials” like art or music.

The teacher has a monumental job in front of him or her. Luckily there are a variety of assistive technologies available to supplement lessons so all students are learning and engaged. These devices promote independence for people with disabilities as they adapt and interact in their environment.

8 Types of Assistive Technology to Utilize Today

In the past, assistive technology was expensive, cumbersome, and difficult to locate. These units were bulky and lacked easy mobility which stifled a child’s peer interaction. Today, technology advancements are easing the job of individualizing lessons and locating materials to create a scholarly environment for all students.

Here are 8 forms of assistive technology to use in your classroom today:

Apps for tablets. Combine iPads with communication apps to allow students a variety of ways to convey their ideas with a tap of the screen. The lightweight and portability of iPads make this easy to use.

Encourage positive behavior and parental participation with computer programs. Class Dojo is a great example of what is available for educators. This program allows students to receive real-time feedback on behavior and class participation. It is also a great way to communicate with parents.

Look for co-writer word programs that are similar to autocorrect. This allows children to write and express their ideas on the computer without worrying about spelling. There are also apps for dysgraphia that allow students to snap an image of their paper and type in the answers to avoid falling behind in class.

Use hearing aid compatible headsets to allow children with hearing impairments or aids to hear audio better. These simply fit over a hearing aid and work just like headphones.

Smartpens can streamline the writing process. These writing utensils have the ability to record lectures or spoken words as you write, which allows the author to focus on writing or listening. Later, they trace the words on the paper to hear the recording.

“Slide boards” or custom made supports for keyboards or tablets. These wood or plastic frames steady hands while typing or engaging on a screen without limiting the device.

Velcro tabs or small stuffed animals. Look for small handheld manipulatives that provide stimulation to help calm restless children or increase focus during lectures or quiet times. These are examples of low-tech assistive technology.

Monitoring software for Smartphones and Internet use. This is a good recommendation for parents of children with special needs who are using the Internet on a regular basis. These programs allow parents to view a child’s texts and online activity to make sure they are not being targeted by cyberbullies or predators.

Encouraging All Students

Shutterstock2The philosophy of inclusion promotes a sense of community. Children learn valuable social skills like empathy, problem solving, communication, taking turns, teamwork and more!

Individualized instruction for all learners allows them to master or review concepts at their own pace. Pupils are able to rewind clips, pause videos, or rework problems to develop a greater understanding of the lesson.

Surprisingly, educators have noticed that inclusion has benefitted the entire student population—not just the ones who have an IEP. This process, aided with assistive technology, possesses the power to create meaningful experiences that are superior to one size fits all worksheets and direct lesson plans.

Photo Credit: Shutterstock

Do you have any assistive technology examples that you would like to add? Tell us about it in the comments section below!
Author_Amy WilliamsAmy Williams is a journalist based in Southern California. As a mother of two, she has learned a lot of things the hard way, and hopes to use her experience as a parent to help other parents raise their children to be the best that they can be.

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