Teaching is Political

In teacher education programs, we have a responsibility to prepare future teachers for the civic profession of education.  For me, this means registering students to vote in my classes, advocating for political activism, and encouraging them to see themselves as agents of political change (and to act accordingly!).

Teaching is political.

I’m following the walk outs in West Virginia, Oklahoma, and Kentucky closely as their demands are the demands of educators across the nation.  Education has been deeply underfunded for two decades and low teacher salaries is just one of many far reaching consequences of political funding decisions.  Without funding, we are incapable of providing the supports necessary for meaningful inclusion of all learners.  Without funding, we are unable to promote professional growth and development of teachers to become and grow as teacher leaders.  Without funding, we struggle to convince exemplary teachers to host and mentor teacher interns. Our ability to recruit and retain the most engaging, responsive, empathetic, caring educators is compromised by our society’s weak commitment to education.

Our budget reflects our values.  Despite the teacher appreciation week festivities, as a country we do not value teachers or educational spaces.

Teaching is political.

So how can you get involved in moving teaching to a respected profession?

Join your professional organization!!  Join the Council for Exceptional Children if you are a special educator, the Division of Early Childhood and the National Association for the Education of Young Children for inclusive early childhood educators, the National Council for Teachers of English for you Language Arts educators.  Whatever your speciality, your professional organization needs you and your expertise!

REGISTER.  TO.  VOTE.  AND.  VOTE.  In every election.  In your local elections, school boards, city council, and mayor.  Vote in your state election, on education proposals, and community works initiatives.  Know your community’s priorities and engage in advocating for education.  Vote at the state and national level.  Know who you are voting for and what they believe about kids, teachers, education, and funding.  Track their votes so you can vote them out if they haven’t represented education well in the past.

We collectively make up the profession and we can ensure it reflects our collective values.  We can advocate for children, for teachers, for families, for resources.  We can make our voices heard.

I know you are tired.   

But teaching is political.  And so are you.

 

Jen Newton, PhD is an assistant professor in early childhood/early childhood special education (isn’t that a lot of words for what should be one field??).  I talk a lot and have strong opinions – or so I am told.

What Does It Mean To Be Kindergarten Ready?

When it comes to young children going to school, we talk a lot about “readiness.” But what does that even mean?

I’ll just get down to it.

Very broadly speaking, “readiness” refers to skills and factors that contribute to a child’s success upon school entry. These skills reflect individual development across the following domains: health and physical development; social/emotional development; cognition, knowledge, and approaches to learning; and communication and language skills.

I want to make one thing crystal clear:

 Children are not innately “ready” or “not ready” for school.

 “Readiness” is a complex subject, influenced by many interrelated factors:

  1. Early life experiences: exposure to early education, home literacy environment, economic security, attention to health needs.
  2. The child’s individual differences: cultural and linguistic variation, developmental differences and the understanding of such differences, presence of a disability
  3. Expectations placed on the child by the school: the only legal requirement is reaching the correct chronological age, but the National Goals Panel suggests 10 critical keys to ensure that schools are ready for young children:
    1. Smooth transition between home and school
    2. Continuity of care between early care and education and elementary schools
    3. Help children learn and make sense of their complex world
    4. Be committed to the success of every child
    5. Be committed to the success of every teacher and every adult who interacts with children during the school day
    6. Introduce/expand approaches that have been shown to raise achievement
    7. Be a learning organization that alter practices if they do not benefit children
    8. Serve children in their communities
    9. Take responsibility for results
    10. Exhibit strong leadership

As you can see, in order to improve “readiness” we have a lot of collective work to do. Children and families need improved economic conditions, better health care for children and families, a commitment to understanding of individual differences, and environments that are responsive to the needs of children and families within their own community (just to name a few).

Hopefully you noticed that “readiness” is much greater and more complex than a checklist of skills and developmental milestones. The burden of readiness should not rest upon the frail shoulders of our nation’s preschoolers.  Idealistic? Maybe. Utopian? Maybe. But….

As adults we should carry the load and create the necessary changes- to ensure our youngest can have the greatest opportunity for success as they develop at their own pace.

  •  What can you do to improve factors for readiness in your classroom, school, or community?
  • How can you push the conversation about readiness towards a more comprehensive view?
  • How can you release young children from the burden of fitting in to a certain predetermined mold?
  • How responsive is your teaching? Do you take responsibility for results? Do you alter teaching practices when needed?
  • Do you seek out learning opportunities?
  • How can you exhibit leadership?

Tracy McElhattan is the Director of Early Childhood Ministries at a church in the Kansas City area. She also writes and edits faith-based materials for children with special needs so that all young children have full access to faith communities. She loves teaching teachers and challenging the norm.

Every Classroom, Every Day: Rethinking Inclusion

 What is Special Education?

When I began my undergraduate studies in Elementary and Special Education, I hoped to gain a deeper understanding of how to support students with Individualized Education Programs (IEPs) within the general education classroom. I viewed the work of special education as a fund of knowledge that I would utilize as a teacher within the general education classroom in order to best meet the learning needs of all my students. However, as I began my field experiences, I realized that to many, special education was not a series of supports or a teaching methodology, but rather a room where students could be placed and sent. Special education was often thought of as the room at the end of hall, designed so that general education teachers could avoid “challenges” and “additional work” in their classroom.

As a result of these experiences, I believe we need to rethink how we define special education and inclusion. The implementation of special education services does not fall on one teacher, in one classroom; rather it is the work of every teacher, in every classroom, every day, for every child. Special education is individualized services and supports. It is a collaborative effort by educators, parents and guardians, administration, and specialists  to provide each student with necessary services, such as speech and language services, occupational therapy, and physical therapy. It is the implementation of supports, such as academic differentiation, assistive technology, and universal design, which allow all students access to academic and social opportunities in a variety of settings. When we consider special education as a set of supports, instead of a room or profession, we can begin to truly teach our students and create inclusive environments.

Resource Rooms, Self-Contained Classrooms, & Inclusion

As stated in IDEA, students with IEPs are to be taught in the least restrictive environment, the setting in which their academic and social needs are best met. Therefore, schools have created resource rooms and self-contained classrooms as a place for students with IEPs to receive instruction. However, I find these rooms are often overused or resorted to simply because they exist. This is not to say that these classrooms do not benefit some children, and for a very few students these rooms may provide the best and least restrictive learning environment. However, these settings are not what define special education. These settings cannot be the only place in which a student receives individualized accommodations.

I am a firm believer in meaningful inclusion. Conversely to how resource rooms provide students with additional supports in an alternative environment, inclusion works to provide students with support and accommodations within the general education classroom. Benefits to promoting inclusion are the social opportunities students have to collaborate with peers and access to general education curriculum.

However, right now, we are not doing our best work. In my field experiences, I have often seen “inclusion” as students with IEPs sitting on their own, not being accommodated to participate in whole group instruction or collaborative work, not being supported as a member of the classroom community. General education teachers either do not feel it is their responsibility to teach these children, or they simply do not know how to teach them. However, if we want to see students grow in academic and social skills, we need to shift our thinking to all teachers becoming special educators.

Teachers who have focused on and studied special education are essential to our school community.  They maintain a deep knowledge of how to accommodate learners, but their work should not be done alone. General education teachers must embrace that we are here to teach all children. Just as we differentiate and enrich learning for students in the general education classroom, we, too, should be implementing accommodations and providing differentiation to students with different needs.

Implementing Inclusion

As we go forth in our movement for inclusion, it is imperative that we begin to redefine and deepen our understanding of what special education is. Special education is not the room at the end of the hall, where we can send children with IEPs when we do not know how to support them. Additionally, those with titles and degrees in special education are not the only ones who teach students with differing needs. The work of special education must occur in every classroom, every day. If we are truly working to build students up as lifelong learners and active community members, we all must be willing to collaborate to implement a continuum of services across our school community, so that all students have equitable access to both academic and social opportunities for personal growth.

 

Abby is a senior at Saint Louis University, studying Elementary Education with a minor in Special Education. She enjoys knitting, baking, and making school a better experience for all students.

Reimagining Quality of Life for Adults with Significant Needs: Finding Holland

Since the tender age of ten, I have been contemplating what will happen to my brother, CJ, when my parents pass away. When I was four, CJ was diagnosed with Autism. And, similarly to how Emily Perl Kingsley felt in her poem, Welcome to Holland, my family dynamic was altered for the better. While some moments were frustrating (aka when he would jump out of the moving car, mimic crying babies, or climb the tallest of trees), when I took a step back I realized that there were times when I, too, did things that were frustrating (aka my middle school years – sorry mom). And from this new perspective, I began to recognize CJ’s many strengths, as he composed beautiful art and memorized the producers of every Disney movie. While living with CJ has fueled my passion for creating my non-profit housing program, “Finding Holland,” I am continuously driven to advocate for equitable housing for all individuals across the spectrum of Autism as well as moderate to severe disabilities.

The Problem

What resources are available when it comes providing long term supports for adults with special needs? While there are transitional and day programs out there, there is little attention focused on future housing arrangements and equitable employment opportunities that are suitable for individuals with moderate to severe Autism. These individuals have numerous strengths and abilities, and they deserve a dignified quality of life. Unfortunately, housing facilities that uplift their abilities while meeting their individualized needs are not readily available throughout the U.S.

My Vision

My house, “Finding Holland,” will work to build a strong community among its members with a state-of-the-art,  integrative wellness center and residential facility for people of ALL abilities. There will be a vision, positive atmosphere, and leadership team focused on supporting people with Autism and creating an “enviable life” with them. A staff of life coaches, occupational therapists, speech therapists, physical therapists, special educators, and therapeutic recreational specialists will provide accommodations to each individual in order for them to participate as independently as possible. Finding Holland will allow individuals to set personal goals, establish daily routines, and discover a “work-life” balance that supports individuals in living their fullest life.

In the realm of education, we have made progress in providing students with equitable access to deeper learning. About half a century ago, most individuals with moderate to severe special needs were institutionalized throughout their adult lives once they “aged out” of the school system. Families, guardians, and professionals call this “falling off the cliff.” However, in my opinion, we have not made sufficient progress in providing equitable housing and work resources following school. In my classroom and in the home I create, I am working to teach individuals how to take care of themselves, express themselves, and develop their communication, in order to have a voice in determining their own quality of life.

The spectrum of Autism is wide and not fully understood, and therefore, there aren’t a lot of resources available for this specific population post high-school. Yes, there are day recreational programs and work programs, but absolutely nothing considered to be a standard, “traditional job.”  Additionally, in terms of residential living, the majority of these programs are private, which requires significant financial resources. Following the transition from high school, the amount of supports available are limited and accommodations within work and residential life often don’t meet the specific needs of the individual. I’ve only seen programs that provide factory work, work programs, and government funded programs with an emphasis on working. We need to mix that up and provide social recreation, interaction, and a work-life balance.

Yes, maybe, right now this is all just a vision, but we need to advocate, collaborate, and use our voices to create equitable housing access for people of all abilities! Together, we will find Holland.

Katie Miles works as a Paraprofessional at Barbara C. Jordan Elementary in The School District of University City. She graduated from Saint Louis University in December 2017 with a Bachelor of Arts in Elementary and Special Education.

Behavior is Communication

I’m a big believer that words matter.  Words are powerful and, despite that “sticks and stones” rubbish, words can certainly hurt us.  Therefore, when talking about “behavior management,” by the way, I continue to put quotes around it in an effort to communicate that, while those words sometimes provoke a common understanding for educational professionals and parents, “behavior management” does not effectively articulate the charge teachers have in developing classroom communities.

Behavior is communication.

Maybe we should call behavior management courses behavior communication courses instead.  Children are communicating with us through their behavior.  They are telling us they are tired, disengaged, distracted, hungry, sad, so excited they may burst, worried, scared, confused, overwhelmed, frustrated, and more.  Kids, like adults, experience the full range of human emotions and the full range of human coping mechanisms for those emotions.

What if we moved from managing behaviors to listening?

A basic tenet of “behavior management” is identifying the function of the behavior.  This is actually trickier than it sounds.  We often make assumptions that the function of the behavior is that the child is “lazy” so avoids her work, or the child is “manipulative,” “defiant,” or “hyperactive.”  Once we put those frames on a child, they are difficult/impossible to shake off.  Children pick up on these labels too. They often internalize them and then take on the identify of being that “difficult” or “hyper” child. It also puts the responsibility of classroom engagement and “behaving” on the learner rather than on the teacher.  Remember, it is the teacher’s job to gain the cooperation of her learners.

Kids really do not wake up in the morning thinking they want to ruin your day.  They don’t.  I know it’s tempting to believe some do.  But even they don’t.  We have to move away from expecting kids to come to school ready to learn and start enticing them to learn, motivating them to learn, engaging them to learn, incentivizing them to learn.  We have to understand that some children come to school hungry or lacking sleep, and that we have to figure out ways to meet these needs. YES!  We know and acknowledge that teachers have tough jobs (FYI: Parent blaming/shaming is not allowed – we also must believe all parents are doing the best they can with their current reality.  Remember, there are things you do not know). When we put the responsibility “to behave” on the learner, we set them up to fail.  When we listen to their communication and meet their needs appropriately, we free them up to focus on learning.

Importantly, though, kids do not typically show the behaviors we want to see for someone they don’t like or trust – or from someone they know doesn’t like them.  By listening to what the child is communicating with their behavior, we are able to more meaningfully determine the function of the behavior, and even more importantly, more meaningfully replace it.  The purpose of managing behavior should ultimately be to extinguish the unwanted behavior by replacing it with a preferred way of meeting the same need.

Huh?

Let’s take a common example.  Teacher is providing whole group instruction.  Kai is talking to his seat mate.  Teacher moves closer to Kai and he stops talking.  Kai goes to sharpen his pencil, teacher asks him to sit.  Kai asks to go to the bathroom.  Kai gets a tissue.  Kai rummages through his desk.  Kai is “off task.”  If the teacher clips Kai down on the behavior chart, takes five minutes of his recess (why do we restrict kids movement as punishment?  That’s control, pure and simple – it is NOT teaching), or moves him to an “island” (a desk in the corner of the room away from peers), the teacher is not giving Kai any strategies for next time he is feeling restless during whole group instruction.

So what is Kai’s behavior communicating?

We generally separate behavioral communication into two big categories of escape and attention.  Kai appears to be communicating a need to escape from the task at hand.  We don’t know WHY he needs to escape but we won’t understand why by clipping him down or restricting his freedom.  What if we listened to his communication and gave him a break?  What if we said, “Hey, Kai, do you need to take a break so you can come back ready to learn?”  Maybe we even have some acceptable brain/body breaks already identified that he can self select when he feels himself becoming restless.  What if we replaced his disruptive behavior with an acceptable option that still meets his need to move?

Would that be managing behavior?  What are you currently doing in your classroom to understand the function of behavior?

 

Jen Newton, PhD is an assistant professor in early childhood/early childhood special education (isn’t that a lot of words for what should be one field??).  I talk a lot and have strong opinions – or so I am told.

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.

From Punishing to Teaching The Behavior We Want To See

Ahh, “behavior management.”

Research shows that “behavior management” is one of the top challenges for teachers, one of the factors attributed to teacher attrition, and a top priority for school administrators.  But what does it mean, to manage behaviors?

It is a teacher’s job to gain the cooperation of his/her learners.  Think about those words . . . gain the cooperation of . . . What are our expectations of a well-managed classroom?  Cooperative learners?  Engaged learners?  Compliant children?

Many of the systems we find in classrooms (i.e., clip charts, color charts, marble jars) are contingent upon compliance.  But compliance with what?  We often inundate children with vague classroom rules (what does it really mean to “be respectful”?) without clear operationalized expectations for, say, getting clipped up or clipped down.  What is the tangible real difference in behavior between “good job” and “great job” on a clip chart?  Ask any kid.  They’ll tell you it’s the teacher’s call, and it usually depends on the teacher’s mood.

And that’s moving UP on the chart.  Let’s talk about moving down.

Commonly, moving down on the system relies on punishment – lose five minutes recess, “think time,” or call parent.  Consequences are good, you say?  But, how do these things TEACH the behavior we want to see in children?  A child is not sitting still in class, so taking away the one time of day that they can move freely (recess) will teach him/her to sit still?  And if we are clipping kids down and enforcing these consequences consistently, then are we actually managing behavior?  Because the consequences aren’t changing the child’s behavior and now we’re in a punishment cycle where we feel compelled to make the consequences stiffer rather than to consider the entire system is failing.  Let’s reconsider the system together.

These systems operate on some assumptions.

  1. All children come to school ready to learn.
    1. (Spoiler alert:  They don’t.)
  2. All children know what you want them to do and how to do it.
    1. (Spoiler alert:  They don’t.)
  3. Kids at whatever grade I teach “should know better by now.”
    1. (Spoiler alert:  They don’t.)
  4. Punishment is the only way to gain cooperation.
    1. (Spoiler alert:  It isn’t.  In fact, it’s a terrible way to gain cooperation.)

What if we dismissed all of these false assumptions and envisioned a classroom community built on trust and acceptance of individual children’s needs?  What would that even look like?  Let’s start by establishing new assumptions.

  1. All children come to school having already had experiences, both good and bad, for the day.
    1. (Pro tip:  Like adults!  Sometimes, I oversleep.  Sometimes, I spill my coffee.  Sometimes, we run out of hot water.  Sometimes, I’m grumpy.  All of the emotions we as adults experience that affect our day can also be experienced by children.  And their feelings matter as much as ours!)
  2. All children are capable of being taught our expectations.
    1. (Pro tip:  It’s our job to teach!  Some kids need more teaching on some things and less on others.  We still teach.  Behavior is like math.  Differentiated instruction is necessary for all kids to learn.)
  3. All children make mistakes and need the opportunity to try again.
    1. (Pro tip:  Like adults!  I know better than to speed on the highway . . . but, I still do it.  Sometimes, I need teaching too.  Mistakes are learning opportunities!)
  4. Punishment doesn’t work.  It also betrays trust and frustrates everyone.
    1. (Pro tip:  Even after I get a speeding ticket, I speed.  Oops)

So if we assume all kids are doing the best they can and that they need our help to realize their full potential, how would that change our approach to building classroom community?  What if we flip from managing behavior to creating community and developing strategies for meeting individual students where they are?

Jen Newton, PhD is an assistant professor in early childhood/early childhood special education (isn’t that a lot of words for what should be one field??).  I talk a lot and have strong opinions – or so I am told.

Things I Know

Tiara
Mira Williams
  • Children learn through experience. It is our duty, as educators, to enhance and strengthen children’s opportunities to explore the world, while also modeling effective communication and positive relationships.
  • Children are always listening, be cautious and kind with your words and actions. Model respect, kindness, and love. Words matter.
  • Every child learns differently, feels differently, lives differently, and communicates differently. Acknowledge these differences WITHOUT shaming. Embrace these differences, learn from them, and teach acceptance.
  • Children develop on a continuum and at different rates. Instead of comparing children to each other, we must take time to understand and know children as individuals. We should then tailor instruction and develop authentic assessment that meets each child’s specific needs.
  • Children can sense judgement. Examining your own biases and beliefs is the first step in making intentional decisions to create judgement-free interactions with children and their families. You can Do THIS. Be brave. Reflect. Evolve.
  • No child wakes up with the intention of ruining an adult’s day. Behavior is a form of communication that MUST BE TAUGHT!
  • Lean in, listen, and figure out what your child/student is trying to communicate.
    Take the time to teach and model behavior just as you would take the time to teach a child to read. Remember modeling is key.
  • Children DO see color and it is OK. Instead of encouraging them not to see color, encourage them to have open and inclusive conversations that lead to understanding, acceptance, and appreciation of the differences they notice.

What do you know? Your turn, tell me!

Mira Cole Williams, PhD is an assistant professor in inclusive early childhood education and exceptional education. That means I prepare future educators to go out into this world and doing AMAZING things…I always tell my students…small actions can ignite large change, it starts with YOU today!