Things I Know

  • All students have the right to be a part of their community in whatever ways they are capable. Each of them, regardless of ability, are able to be contributing members of their community and society. It is our job to figure out how and to harness their strengths in ways that allow them do so. If you feel the student has too many physical or cognitive challenges to contribute in some way, you’re doing it wrong. Think harder!

  • All students have the right to learn. Often when we see someone with abilities other  than what we are familiar with, we assume the person is not capable. Instead, we should be thinking of how can we change the environment, adapt the materials, and/or create a communication system so they can be successful and capable. We must create this environment for them… then watch them flourish! 
  • Regardless of one’s cognitive ability or ability to communicate in a “typical” way, all students are watching and listening.  Students sense emotions and respond to your facial expressions, gestures, and tone of voice. They are all much more perceptive than you may think. We must be  positive role models here! Too often I hear people talking about the student in front of them, sometimes even negatively. They can hear you! Even if they do not receptively understand all the words you are saying, I guarantee they can sense that you are not speaking nicely about them!
  • Although I do not work in an inclusive setting in a “typical” sense (there’s those quotation marks again. What is typical anyway?), all students should be included in all experiences and lessons throughout the day. If you feel they cannot or will not understand, it is your job to differentiate what you are teaching in order to have the experience be meaningful for all. Don’t worry, I know that typing this sentence is way easier than putting it into practice! It’s hard work, but it is necessary work!
  • All students should have access to an appropriate education in the least restrictive environment. In my experience, those who need the most support tend to be placed in a separate school where the requirement for being a teacher is typically a bachelors degree with no specific need for a background in education. Now, I am not saying these teachers cannot meet the complex needs of  students through training, professional development, and coaching. They can. I’ve seen it, but this is not always the case. The challenge, however, is that not all schools provide or invest in the training and support needed in order to develop the teachers’ skills so they can meet the significant needs of the students in their classrooms. This cycle ends up placing students with the most complex needs into an environment with ill equipped teachers who are not knowledgeable of the ways in which the students can be successful and access their environment.
  • Often when out in the community, people notice our students have differing abilities and are incredibly sweet and supportive. While this is wonderful and we are grateful to have the opportunity to show others in the community that our students are amazing, smart, capable, worthy – the community members tend to look to us  to speak for the student. For example: a student has a communication modality and we are out to lunch ordering food. A waiter could be very nice and greet the student but then look to the teacher to order. This is a prime teachable moment for the student, for the teacher, and for the community member who maybe has never encountered someone using an alternative communication system. MODEL! Teach the student. Teach the waiter. Allow the student to choose what they want. Can you imagine how powerful it could be to finally be able to communicate  in a way that is intelligible  and have them actually bring you exactly what you chose to eat for lunch that day instead of what someone said you had to eat?! Think of how empowering and motivating that would be!
  • Behavior is communication. When a student hits, bites, pulls hair, punches, kicks, they are not bad kids trying to be mean! The underlying factor to any behavior, no matter how extreme, is communication. Too often I hear people refer to students as bad, mean, aggressive… sometimes in front of the student! We all know when an infant is wet, hungry, or tired, they will cry.  When an infant does this, we try a snack, a nap, a diaper change, or a change of scenery. For students with complex needs, typically including communication deficits, we tend to deem them aggressive, bad, or mean when they display these behaviors. BUT their behavior is communication and it is our responsibility to figure out what they are communicating. What I do know is that “tantrums” (I am so not a fan of that word. It makes me cringe but let’s be real… have you used it before?) are the student trying to tell you something. Let’s put the pieces together and figure out what it is.  HINT: ABC data will help! Am I talking about the alphabet? Nope. I am talking about Antecedent Behavior Consequence. Let’s break down the environment, take some data, and figure out what this person is trying to tell us!

What do you think?  What do you know about students with complex needs that you want others to know?  Tell us!

Logan Headrick is a Special Education Coordinator for students 18-22 years of age at St. Coletta of Greater Washington, a non profit charter program serving individuals with significant needs in the Virginia, Washington DC, Maryland area.  Logan earned an MAT at James Madison University in 2013 and has been creating opportunities for independence and inclusion for those experiencing significant disabilities ever since.