Determining Eligibility for Special Education

Here is a brief overview of the process of determining if a child is eligible to receive special education.

CHILD STUDY

If a parent/guardian requests a Child Study Team meeting, the school has 10 business days to meet to discuss any academic and/or behavioral concerns regarding the child.  The people required to be present at the meeting would be: parent/legal guardian, general classroom teacher, a special education teacher, and an administrator.  Additional participants could include the school psychologist and school social worker.  Intervention teachers the child is working with (i.e., ESL, reading specialist, gifted, etc.) are encouraged to be present as well.

Note: A business day occurs Monday through Friday (no weekends) when the school board office is open (excluding holidays).  If you have the day off from school due to inclement weather, but the school board office is declared open for administrators, this still counts as a business day.

Note: The Child Study Team can go by many different names (i.e., Student Study Team, etc.), so consult your individual school district on what terminology is utilized.

Three outcomes can come from the Child Study Team meeting:

  1. The team feels there is not sufficient evidence to suspect a disability is present; thus, the process stops.

If Option 1 is chosen, and the child begins to struggle later, the process restarts from the beginning.

  1. The team monitors (or continues to monitor) progress and meets back (usually within six weeks) to see if improvements have been made.  Interventions are implemented at this time.

If a child has never received any interventions, the team will likely choose Option 2.  This may be particularly true if this is a child’s first school placement (i.e., preschool or kindergarten) or is a recent transfer to the school.  The Child Study Team may not be willing to perform an evaluation yet as they have not had time to see the child in action.

If academic and/or behavioral concerns are present, the school will most likely implement targeted interventions.  The reason for this is to collect data.  In order for schools to justify referring for a full evaluation to determine special education services, they have to show documentation that they have tried multiple interventions first.  This becomes important later when determining eligibility to prove that specialized instruction is necessary, because other specific strategies have already been attempted.

Children may continue in Option 2 for some time assuming they are making progress with the interventions being implemented.  After meeting a few times to provide data on the interventions’ effectiveness, the Child Study Team may decide to dismiss the child from the special education process if progress is continuous.  If the child is dismissed, and the child begins to struggle later, then the process restarts from the beginning.  If the child makes minimal to no progress after multiple interventions, then the team may go to Option 3.

Note: Option 2 does not necessarily have to occur prior to Option 3; however, with the implementation of multi-tiered system of supports (MTSS)/response to intervention (RtI) in schools, this seems to be the path most schools are taking prior to referring for a full evaluation.

  1. The team suspects a disability, and refers for a full evaluation.

If the team chooses Option 3, the school has 65 business days to complete an evaluation and to meet as the Eligibility Committee to go over the results and determine if the child is eligible to receive special education services.  In addition to the original members of the Child Study Team, the school psychologist and school social worker are required members who will be present for these results.  Other individuals present may include related specialists (i.e. speech/language, occupational therapist, etc.) depending on the concerns being addressed during the evaluation.

During the meeting, all teachers will report updated data on the child, and each individual who conducted assessments with the child will report their results.  The Eligibility Committee will then consider all of the information presented to come to a decision.  They have to also consider exclusionary factors.  This means considering external factors that could be contributing to the child’s needs, but protects the child from being discriminated against due to personal situations (i.e. low socio-economic status, non-native English speaker, etc.).

Note: A special education evaluation cannot be administered until the parent/legal guardian provides written consent.  This is important, because if the parent/legal guardian is not present at the Child Study Team meeting (or participates by phone), and the child is referred for a full evaluation, the 65 business day timeline begins regardless.  Tests cannot be administered until written consent is obtained from the parent/legal guardian, even though the timeline has started.

ELIGIBILITY

After all tests have been administered (multiple means of assessment are required), the parent/legal guardian has a right to a written copy of all tests results 2 business days prior to the Eligibility Committee meeting.

Three outcomes can come from the Eligibility Committee meeting:

  1. A child is found eligible to receive special education services.

If the Eligibility Committee finds a child is eligible to receive special education services, then two different types of services are discussed:

Section 504 Plan = This is a plan outlying environmental accommodations that a child’s general classroom teacher can implement to help them better access the general curriculum.  It does not involve the child receiving specialized instruction from a special education teacher.

Note: Section 504 Plans can be developed for students without a full school evaluation being completed, if proper medical documentation is provided by the parent/legal guardian.  Consult with your local school district on their specific regulations.

Individualized Education Program (IEP) = This is a plan with the same accommodations a Section 504 Plan provides PLUS the child receives specialized instruction from a special education teacher.  This specialized instruction can taken place inside the general education classroom (i.e. inclusion) or outside the general education classroom (i.e. resource).

The school has 30 calendar days to write up the legal document (either Section 504 Plan or IEP) outlining what will be provided to the child at school.  An administrator, special education teacher, general education teacher, and parent/legal guardian must all be present for this meeting.  A child cannot begin to receive services through either document without parent/legal guardian written consent.

After a Section 504 Plan or IEP is created and agreed upon by all stakeholders, these documents are updated at least once a calendar year.  However, the school or parent/legal guardian can request a meeting at any point to update either document as necessary (i.e., a change of educational setting or a new accommodation needs to be added).

Note: A calendar day is any day of the week on the calendar, regardless of weekends, holidays or if the school board office is open.

Note: A Section 504 Plan can still provide related services (i.e. speech/language, physical therapy, occupational therapy).  Check with your individual school district’s policies.

  1. A child is found not eligible and all stakeholders agree with the results.

If this occurs, then the child is likely referred back to the Child Study Team for Option 2, which would be to continue to implement interventions and meet regularly to monitor progress.

Note: A stakeholder other than the parent/legal guardian (i.e., school psychologist, administrator, etc.) may disagree with the child being found eligible.  If this occurs, the dissenting stakeholder(s) is encouraged to write up a summary as to why they disagree with the Eligibility Committee’s decision.  However, the child would still receive special education services once written consent is provided by the parent/legal guardian.

  1. A child is found not eligible and the parent/legal guardian disagrees with the results.

Assuming an outside evaluation (more on this below) was not already provided by the parent/legal guardian, then they have the right to disagree with the results and request an Independent Educational Evaluation (IEE).  This is the right for a parent/legal guardian to seek out an outside evaluation by an objective provider (i.e. doctor, psychologist, clinic, etc.), but it is paid for by the school district.  The school may provide a list of possible outside evaluation providers.  The parent/legal guardian may choose any provider they wish, even if they are not present on the list, as long as they are licensed to perform cognitive and achievement assessments.  Once the results of the IEE are available, the Eligibility Committee will meet at the school and determine if the child is eligible to receive special education services in the form of a Section 504 Plan or IEP.

Note: Although the school district’s pays for the IEE, it is the parent/legal guardian’s responsibility to contact the outsider provider and complete the evaluation themselves in a timely manner.  Discuss with your individual school district about what constitutes a “timely manner.”

Note: If a child is found eligible, and a parent/legal guardian initially signs that they agree with the results, this does not eliminate the possibility of an IEE.  The parent/legal guardian could come back later to the school, disagree, and request the IEE, if it has occurred within a reasonable timeframe.  Check with your local school district about what constitutes a “reasonable timeframe.”

PRIVATE EVALUATIONS

There are thirteen different disability categories.  Some are more straight-forward in terms of criteria (i.e., deaf, blind), while others are more subjective (i.e., specific learning disability, other health impairment).  With other health impairment (OHI), school districts will most likely require an outside medical diagnosis from a doctor or clinic (such as ADHD, Epilepsy, Tourette’s Syndrome, etc.).

A parent/legal guardian can have the child privately evaluated outside of the school without the school completing their own evaluation.  If a parent/legal guardian chooses to do this, they would request a Child Study Team meeting, who would then refer them to the Eligibility Committee to determine eligibility for special education services.

Note: In my professional opinion, it would be beneficial for a parent/legal guardian to provide a copy of the results from the outside evaluation to the school at least one week prior to meeting with the Eligibility Committee.  This gives time for the school personnel who will be present at the meeting to review the information.

Three outcomes can come from a parent/legal guardian providing an outside evaluation to the school:

  1. The school accepts the outside results and uses it to determine if the child is eligible to receive special education services.

At this point, the Eligibility Committee will meet to discuss the results of the evaluation.  If the child is found eligible, then the process of creating a Section 504 Plan or IEP will commence.  If the child is found not eligible, then the child will likely return to the Child Study Team for further interventions to be implemented and progress monitoring to continue.

  1. They can reject the results, stating they disagree. 

I have never personally seen this ever happen as most schools are willing to at least consider the results of the outside evaluation, particularly as it saves them time and money from having to complete their own evaluation.

  1. They can choose to do further testing on their own (assuming they have not yet).

If a school chooses to do further testing on their own, they would have 65 business days to conduct their own evaluation and then reconvene the Eligibility Committee to discuss all of the results of both evaluations and determine eligibility for special education services.

TRIENNALS

The Eligibility Committee is required to reconvene at least once every three years since the previous eligibility meeting.  This is called a triennial eligibility review.  However, the school or parent/legal guardian can request an eligibility review prior to the three year mark.

Note: Meeting prior to the three year mark, does not necessarily restart the timeline for the three year triennial review.  For example, if a child is receiving services under a specific learning disability (SLD) and speech/language impairment (SLI), and the speech/language pathologist requests an eligibility review at the year two mark to dismiss the child from SLI services, the school would still need to meet the following year at the year three mark to discuss eligibility about SLD.

HOWEVER, if during the eligibility meeting when SLI services were dismissed, and SLD services were continued with no testing update, then the three year timeline restarts again.  So in theory (if this were to occur), it would be five years from the initial eligibility before a child would get reevaluated if the school or parent/legal guardian never requested an updated evaluation before then.  Look at my example below:

2010 = Initial Eligibility = Child is found eligible for SLD and SLI.

2012 = Speech/language pathologist dismisses SLI and the Eligibility Committee continues SLD services without an updated evaluation.

2013 = This would have been the original triennial eligibility had the 2012 meeting never occurred.

2015 = This is the new triennial eligibility date based on the 2012 meeting; thus, five years since the initial eligibility before an updated evaluation occurs.

Realize this example is more likely an anomaly than the norm that would occur in most school districts.

Three outcomes can come from the Triennial:

  1.  The Eligibility Committee determines the child is still eligible to receive special education services, and no updated assessments are necessary.
  2. The Eligibility Committee performs an updated evaluation and determines the child continues to be eligible to receive special education services.
  3. The Eligibility Committee performs an updated evaluation and determines the child is no longer eligible to receive special education services.

Although schools are not legally required to update assessments every three years, the parent/legal guardian is encouraged to request them.  This is particularly true for students being served under the category of specific learning disability (SLD).

If assessments are not updated at the three year mark, best practice dictates an updated assessment should occur at six years and/or when a child is transitioning school buildings (i.e., elementary to middle or middle to high).

If updated assessments are administered, the school district is allowed 65 business days to complete the updated evaluation and reconvene to discuss the results; however, this must be completed prior to the three year mark.

If the child is being served under more than one disability category (i.e., OHI & SLI), and Option 3 occurs, the Eligibility Committee could dismiss the child from just SLI (i.e., speech services), but continue services under OHI or dismiss the child from all services.

Note: A child should NEVER be dismissed from all special education services without an updated evaluation being administered!

THINGS TO REMEMBER

  1. Schools have legal “red tape” they must follow in order to identify a child eligible for special education services. Just because they decline an evaluation, the school does want to help the child to succeed.
    1. If the Child Study Team decides to continue to monitor, then the parent/legal guardian is encouraged to request a copy of what interventions are being administered by the school, how often they are being administered, how they are progress monitoring data for the child, and if progress is being made.

 

  1. The special education timeline is long, but thorough. If all timelines are exhausted, it can take up to 105 days from start to finish.  This is a lot considering schools are only in session for approximately 180 days per year.
    1. No single test may be used by itself to determine a child’s eligibility for special education services. Multiple measures must be administered.

 

  1. A school CANNOT tell you they are no longer accepting referrals to Child Study or allowing evaluations for the rest of the school year. This tends to happen around mid-March/early April, because the 65 business day timeline would push the Eligibility Committee meeting to the summer when school is not in session.
    1. Be aware that if an evaluation is completed during the summer months, then the people who know the child best, may not necessarily be a part of the Eligibility Committee if schools have already been released for summer vacation.
    2. Schools are required to have a school psychologist, school social worker, general education teacher, special education teacher, school administrator, and the parent/legal guardian present at eligibility.
    3. However, anyone employed by the school district who has this license can be asked to participate. This means that any individual holding general education teacher licensure can sit in as the “general education teacher” (i.e., a fifth grade teacher from school A could sit in for a meeting on a first grade child who attends school B).  The same goes for any of the other individuals necessary.  Realize that the people determining eligibility may not have done the testing or have ever met the child, and are making decisions solely based on written documentation of the evaluation data.  (This is why schools try to prevent referrals after mid-March/early April, because if they get to 65 business days, the above scenario could occur.)

 

  1. If a child is not found eligible to receive special education services:
    1. A parent/legal guardian should never be pressured or coerced to sign any document.
    2. They have the right to disagree with the results and request an IEE.

 

  1. If a child is found eligible to receive special education services:
    1. Section 504 Plans and IEPs are required to be updated at least once a year.
    2. The Eligibility Committee must meet every three years to determine if a child is still eligible to receive special education services.
    3. A school CANNOT evaluate for special education services or implement a Section 504 Plan or IEP without written consent from the parent/legal guardian.
    4. A child should never be dismissed from special education services without an updated evaluation being administered!
  2. Parents/legal guardians are contributing members to all meetings, and should be respected and valued for their knowledge and input.

The following links may also be helpful:

The first explains what I stated above in more depth to provide an understanding of what steps the schools are required to perform when determining eligibility for special education services:

http://www.doe.virginia.gov/special_ed/parents/parents_guide.pdf

2. The second explains the rights of parents/guardians of a child with a disability:

http://www.doe.virginia.gov/special_ed/regulations/state/procedural_safeguards/english_procedural_safeguards.pdf

(Note that these two resources are specific to the state of Virginia.  Contact your individual state’s department of education for relevant information.)

Jared holds Virginia state licensure in Special Education General Curriculum, English as a Second Language, and History and Social Sciences.  He earned a Master of Arts degree in Teaching and Bachelor of Arts degree in Interdisciplinary Social Sciences, and is currently completing a Master of Education degree in Equity and Cultural Diversity, all from James Madison University.  Jared previous taught elementary special education in the Shenandoah Valley, and currently is an educational consultant conducting achievement assessments at the Shenandoah Valley Child Development Clinic.  His areas of interest include: educating parents on their rights, universal preschool, dyslexia, cultural competency in teacher education, and psycho-educational assessment for English Language Learners (ELLs).

IEP Writing 101

Just to give a little background on myself. I am a graduate of James Madison University (JMU; and former student of Dr. Jen Newton)! I remember after my first day of her class, I sat down with her one-on-one and we probably spent a good 90 minutes talking about educational assessments and problems with special education in America! I taught special education at the elementary level for three years, and have been working as an educational consultant at the Shenandoah Valley Child Development Clinic, located at JMU in Virginia, coming up on five years. One aspect of my current job is to review educational records, which definitely includes IEPs!

Unfortunately, more often than not, I run into a lot of poorly written IEPs, in the areas of the PLOP (Present Level of Performance), goal writing, identifying appropriate accommodations, and determining services. So let’s explore each section one at a time, but really focus on goals!

PLOP

Although the PLOP is the child’s current functioning, there is a section for history. Personally, I found the more information I put in the PLOP, the less I had to consult a child’s cumulative folder for past records. In addition, everything was in one place for the parents, the general education teacher, and most importantly myself; thus, I could consult a single document for the child’s full academic career. When you first do it, it is laborious, but once accomplished, all of your data is in one place, and it really helps for everyone to see a holistic history of the child you are supporting! Plus, once you have it in, it transfers over year to year (with online IEP programs), so you only have to type it up once!

I list all of the child’s cognitive and achievement scores from ALL eligibility assessments. You should at least have the most recent eligibility, but I find being able to see ALL previous helps me show progress across multiple years. I also include all historical Standards Of Learning (SOL; Virginia state assessment) scores for all years, and the most recent data from PALS as well as other intervention data, such as AIMSWeb. You should also include a history of other interventions (i.e., Title I, ESL, afterschool tutoring, etc.) the child has received throughout their career, including the names of any specific programs used (i.e., Wilson, LLI, etc.).

If you are a first year teacher, a lot of the information regarding previous interventions can be found in the cumulative file, but also asking previous teachers of the student as well as your school’s instructional coach or intervention specialist can be helpful. I find it very pertinent to know what the child has and has not been doing in terms of past interventions. You do not want to waste time doing something someone else has already done or is currently doing already! This is why documentation and communicating with other resource teachers is vital and necessary!

Your intervention should directly match the student’s needs! For example, if a child has a decoding issue and is struggling to sound out words, doing Leveled-Literacy Intervention (LLI) is not going to help. The child would need a structured literacy program, such as Wilson Reading or Orton-Gillingham. This seems like common sense, but I see this mismatch very often with many schools trying a “one size fits all” approach. Special education is specialized instruction for each individual.

Identifying effective interventions for your students’ needs will require some research on different strategies, so check out “What Works Clearinghouse” to get an overview on interventions you are considering, and the research behind their effectiveness.

GOALS

Let’s be honest, goal writing can be difficult, and laborious, I’ve experienced it myself! How many goals do I need? Do I need a goal for every single academic weakness? How will I track progress on the goal? Can I combine everything into one large goal?

The first step would be looking at the child’s most recent eligibility data. This is really helpful if the child has been tested for the first time, because looking at the scores, you would be able to know what areas are needed. Here’s some data (note: Average = 85-115; Below Average = 70-84; Low = 69 & Below):

– Reading Decoding = 69

– Reading Comprehension = 84

– Listening Comprehension = 100

– Spelling = 60

– Written Expression = 90

– Math Problem Solving = 95

– Math Calculation = 95

Clearly, I would need goals for decoding and spelling as they are the weakest areas. But what about reading comprehension, which fell one point into the Below Average range. I can see when the story is read to the child (listening comprehension), they are strong. In this specific case, I would focus my goals on decoding and spelling as of right now, because they are likely what is impacting this child’s understanding of what they are actually reading. In addition, the child is going to be getting comprehension work during guided reading with their general education teacher. I can always add in a comprehension goal later once decoding skills have improved.

So I have reading decoding and spelling at a 69 and 60 respectively, so I know the child is struggling and I need a goal. But what areas of decoding and spelling are needed? You can go look at the specific protocols to get a rough idea, but this is where other data sources are important. For example, PALS data (or a Ganske or Words their Way spelling inventory) would be able to give you more insight to a starting point (do they know sight words? CVC patterns? blends/digraphs? long vowels?). Never underestimate the value of informal data with helping you determine your starting point with goal writing. I have read records where reviewing the previous intervention assessments and progress monitoring data gave me enough knowledge prior to my own assessment that I was usually able to predict what I will see myself with that child. I have had three fourth graders recently, all of them similar to the data example I provided above. In all three cases, they all struggled with long vowel patterns (i.e. silent /e/, double vowels, ambiguous vowels, etc.), and in all three cases, when I reviewed historical informal data (in this case PALS data), this was a historically documented issue going back to first grade with each child struggling with long vowel patterns each year of the PALS spelling section. The school had the information, but were not matching it to the correct intervention! Interventions MUST match needs!

Let’s take our data and figure out a goal. We will use my fourth-graders as examples. Let’s say our 69 and 60 scores were the result of a deficit with all long vowel patterns. Should I write a goal for each type of long vowel pattern and for decoding and spelling?

Goal 1: Billy will improve his decoding of silent /e/ long vowel patterns.

Goal 2: Billy will improve his decoding of double vowel long vowel patterns.

Goal 3: Billy will improve his decoding of ambiguous vowel long vowel patterns.

Goal 4: Billy will improve his spelling of silent /e/ long vowel patterns.

Goal 5: Billy will improve his spelling of double vowel long vowel patterns.

Goal 6: Billy will improve his spelling of ambiguous vowel long vowel patterns.

Yikes! You can see how goals add up quickly if we are not careful! So let’s try to be a bit more succinct.

Revision 1

Goal 1: Billy will improve his decoding/spelling of silent /e/ long vowel patterns.

Goal 2: Billy will improve his decoding/spelling of double vowel long vowel patterns.

Goal 3: Billy will improve his decoding/spelling of ambiguous vowel long vowel patterns.

We cut it in half! Let’s try again!

Revision 2

Goal 1: Billy will improve his decoding of silent /e/ long vowel patterns, double vowel long vowel patterns, and ambiguous vowel long vowel patterns.

Goal 2: Billy will improve his spelling of silent /e/ long vowel patterns, double vowel long vowel patterns, and ambiguous vowel long vowel patterns.

Getting closer!

Revision 3

Goal 1: Billy will improve his decoding/spelling of long vowel patterns including: silent /e/, double vowels, and ambiguous vowels.

Look at how our one goal now incorporates everything with our original six goals without increasing all the extra time of goal writing. We could then put individual objectives for each pattern (silent /e/, double, and ambiguous) if you wanted to break it down more specifically, but consult your special education administrators on your individual school district’s policy on this. Personally, objectives would only be necessary for this goal if the percentage of mastery was going to be different between the three types of long vowel patterns. For example, if you wanted Billy to learn silent /e/ with 100% accuracy, double vowels with 95% accuracy, and ambiguous vowels with 90% accuracy. If you want the same amount of accuracy achieved, then objectives would not be necessary in this case.

I see this “mistake” of too many goals a lot in all subject areas.

Goal 1: Billy will comprehend fiction texts at grade level.

Goal 2: Billy will comprehend non-fiction texts at grade level.

Revised: Billy will comprehend fiction and non-fiction texts at grade level.

Goal 1: Billy will improve mastery of addition facts.

Goal 2: Billy will improve mastery of subtraction facts.

Goal 3: Billy will improve mastery of multiplication facts.

Goal 4: Billy will improve mastery of division facts.

Revised: Billy will improve mastery of math facts for all operations (addition, subtraction multiplication, division).

However, this only takes care of trying to combine our goals, so we do not walk out of an IEP with 14 goals, (which yes I recently read in a child’s records, and it was due to these same mistakes!) Combining is fine, as long as when you instruct and track your own data you separate out each skill!

But our goal is not ready yet for our IEP. We need to make it measurable, this is the most crucial step in IEP goal writing. How is anyone supposed to know if the goal has been reached if there is no measure included to identify the outcome? Again, seems like common sense, but it does not always happen.

When talking about measurability of a goal, three pieces need to be included: the amount of accuracy that will be achieved, the frequency of which it will occur, and how we will collect data to demonstrate the achievement.

Let’s return to our decoding/spelling goal from earlier:

Goal 1: Billy will improve his decoding/spelling of long vowel patterns including: silent /e/, double vowels, and ambiguous vowels.

Three questions emerge:

1. How much will Billy improve?

2. How consistently (i.e. frequently) will Billy demonstrated his improvement? This should include number of trials as well as over what period of time.

3. In what way will we collect data to show Billy’s achievement?

Let’s revise this goal with each of the three questions:

Revised goal – Question 1: Billy will improve his decoding/spelling of long vowel patterns including: silent /e/, double vowels, and ambiguous vowels with 90% accuracy.

We know we want Billy to demonstrate 90% accuracy. I personally was taught your bare minimum percentage should be 75%, and that 80-85% is a better minimum. We need to establish high expectations for our students! However, with a child that may require more time for mastery, that is where we could include objectives where they reach 50% mastery, then 60% mastery, and slowly build their achievement over a long period of time if necessary. Some children need a more specific breakdown of mastery levels, but others do not. It depends on the individuality of each child.

Revised goal – Question 2: Billy will improve his decoding/spelling of long vowel patterns including: silent /e/, double vowels, and ambiguous vowels with 90% accuracy in four out of five observations each week over a six week period.

Let’s look at this one and think about it. If we had just put four out of five observations, and left out the rest, think about semantics. Once we see Billy achieve 90% in four out of five observations a single time, we could technically say the goal is mastered. But we know as teachers, just because a child demonstrates mastery a single time, does not mean it is solidly mastered consistently over a specific time frame. Imagine how quickly the goal would be achieved if we only did it one time! That’s why the rest is so vital. We are communicating the frequency to ensure mastery is generalized.

Revised goal – Question 3: Billy will improve his decoding/spelling of long vowel patterns including: silent /e/, double vowels, and ambiguous vowels with 90% accuracy in four out of five observations each week over a six week period as collected through a teacher checklist and informal reading/spelling inventories.

Now we have included how we are going to collect our data, let’s talk about it. You can choose whatever data collection method words best for you as well as the skill being taught. For example, an informal reading inventory is not appropriate for collecting data on a math goal!

It pays to be non-descriptive!  It ensures, that as the teacher, you can figure out which method of data collection is best for you, and appropriate for what you are measuring. For example, a teacher checklist could be an actual list of words we want Billy to read/spell accurately, or just tallying when he makes errors with each pattern with level reading passages. An informal inventory could be a running record, PALS quick check, or an updated Ganske. Keeping your methods non-descriptive allows you more autonomy for your data method collection. The most important aspect is not which specific tool you utilize, but that you are collecting data consistently and fairly to show that your instruction is effective, and the child is making progress towards his/her goal! There is no need to add extra measures of tracking data, if you already have some established in your current teaching. However, teacher observation alone should never be your only measure for recording data for two reasons: (1) observation is not tangible if you do not record anything and (2) multiple measures should be used for each goal to support achievement.

Note: You would also put a time frame for when the goal is achieved, likely one year from the IEP date (i.e., By August 2020, Billy will…); however, most online IEP programs already have that programmed in to save you time. Check with your district’s special education administrator if your IEP program does this or not.

When talking about measurability of a goal, three pieces need to be included: the amount of accuracy that will be achieved, the frequency of which it will occur, and how we will collect data to demonstrate the achievement. Think about the criteria for measurability, and look at some of these IEP goals below and consider what is missing to become a stronger goal.

Goal: Billy will interact and respond to peers appropriately in 75% of observations.

Not only are specific levels of measurability missing, but in this case, we should also define “appropriately” either by saying what it is or is not (not cursing, not hitting, etc.)

Goal: Billy will interact with peers within the instructional setting (small group and/or partner) five consecutive observations sessions within a nine week period as measured by teacher observation.

Another case of defining better for semantic purposes, if Billy only has to interact with peers one could interpret this as either positive or negative interactions. So, technically, Billy could hit another child and according to the above goal he is “interacting” with peers.

Here are some others (and yes these are real IEP goals that I have read):

Goal: Billy will ask a teacher for a break prior to demonstrating negative behaviors in six out of 10 opportunities weekly.

Goal: Billy, when give a prompt, will construct a strong topic sentence and closing sentence.

Goal: Billy will master 80% of grade level SOLs by the end of the school year.

Goal: Billy will improve reading skills by engaging in sustained silent reading for 20 minutes in English class, measured by earning 10/10 points weekly for reading participation grade.

ACCOMMODATIONS

The biggest rule of thumb when it comes to accommodations is identifying the difference between a “need” and a “benefit.” Just because a child will benefit from a specific accommodation, does not necessarily mean they “need” it. We are trying to level the playing field, not provide an advantage!

In addition, certain accommodations are not necessary in an IEP since they are available to ALL students whether they have a disability or not. For example look at this document and scroll down to the final page.

How often have you seen “small group testing” as an accommodation in an IEP, yet ANY child can receive a small group testing environment?

Note: This applies to students in Virginia, contact your respective state’s Department of Education for information about standardized testing accommodations.

Another important aspect is that an accommodation should be connected to an IEP goal in some way.

For example, with Billy’s scores of 60 and 69 on decoding and spelling, then it would be beneficial for him to receive read aloud on assignments/assessments, because we also have a reading goal, and would not want his lack of reading decoding skills to impact his ability to demonstrate his knowledge of non-reading content (i.e., math, science, social studies, etc.).

However, I personally have read multiple IEPs where a child received a read aloud accommodation for assessments, but had no reading goal, no services related to reading, and their data showed they were reading on grade level. This would be an example of providing an advantage over leveling the playing field.

I often see children being given the accommodation “dictate to scribe” without a writing goal or fine motor goal in their IEP. If we are providing an accommodation, we need to include a goal to show how we are trying to improve this skill through a goal. By just handing out any accommodation to a student without providing them instruction to improve their skill deficit, we are creating learned helplessness.

SERVICE TIMES

Service times, like accommodations, need to be connected to a goal in some way. Inclusion service time is a little different, because we can choose any general classroom to serve in (i.e., a child with behavior goals can have those skills taught in any classroom whether it be reading, math, art, music, etc.); however, with resource service times, we need to be specific in which skills we are addressing during that time.

I recently came upon an IEP where a child was receiving 250 minutes weekly of resource services for reading, and receiving a read aloud accommodation. What was shocking was the child had no reading goal!!! So what was the child doing during this specific time with reading, since there was no goal to identify what skills were to be taught?

Let’s say Susie is a child eligible for the category of other health impairment (OHI) due to ADHD. She has two behavior goals related to her staying seated and staying on task as well as a writing goal to work on organization of thoughts and also giving her an accommodation of blank graphic organizer templates on writing tasks. We want to utilize a blend of inclusion and resource services. When identifying our service times, we need to make sure we are noting the specific goals we are addressing during those times. Here is what we are proposing:

Inclusion – 60 minutes weekly

Resource – 30 minutes weekly

A lot of questions come into play with what exactly is the special education teacher doing with Susie during these times frames. A better way would to state this:

Inclusion (staying seated/staying on-task) – 60 minutes weekly

Resource (writing) – 30 minutes weekly

Now we understand which skills are going to be addressed, where it will be, and for how long. By matching the goals with respective services times, transparency is increased. This allows the teacher to demonstrate accountability for Susie’s progress by communicating when and where Susie will be receiving her specialized instruction with her respective goals.

Important Items to Remember

1. Know your students’ academic history in terms of previous interventions implemented.

2. Organize your students’ formal and informal data all in one place to identify areas of need.

3. Match your intervention to each student’s area of need.

4. Combine relevant skills together to decrease the number of overall IEP goals.

5. Be sure your IEP goals are measurable in terms of level of accuracy achieved, frequency of how often this accuracy will be demonstrated, and the data collection tools necessary.

6. Accommodations should level the playing field, not provide an advantage.

7. Service times should state what goals are being addressed and in what setting.

8. A child’s data, IEP goals, accommodations, and service times should all connect together. If all four pieces are not present, then ask yourself what is missing or why including it is necessary!

Jared holds Virginia state licensure in Special Education General Curriculum, English as a Second Language, and History and Social Sciences.  He earned a Master of Arts degree in Teaching and Bachelor of Arts degree in Interdisciplinary Social Sciences, and is currently completing a Master of Education degree in Equity and Cultural Diversity, all from James Madison University.  Jared previous taught elementary special education in the Shenandoah Valley, and currently is an educational consultant conducting achievement assessments at the Shenandoah Valley Child Development Clinic.  His areas of interest include: educating parents on their rights, universal preschool, dyslexia, cultural competency in teacher education, and psycho-educational assessment for English Language Learners (ELLs).

The Real World

What is this “real world” you speak of?

Who defines it?

Is it the same “real world” for everyone?

I was recently in conversation with colleagues about class attendance.  Now, full disclosure, I do not have an attendance policy.  I know my class is not the only thing going on in the lives of my students.  I know they have to make choices with how they spend their time and I do not sit in judgment of those choices.  I encourage open communication, I want to know if you aren’t coming (if at all possible) because I’m a worrier and I care about you.  The ‘why’ you aren’t coming isn’t my business.  I do not attach points to attendance or the ever elusive but pervasive concept of “participation.”  If you’re missing a lot of class, I ask if we can talk.  I want you to get the content, the knowledge, the learning, the experiences, and I want to help remove any barriers I possibly can.  I want us to work together and I try to be a trustworthy and empathetic person who can serve as a resource.

So, that’s my approach.

My colleague said a student emailed saying they were going through a traumatic breakup and wouldn’t be in class.  The colleague said nope.  Another colleague said, when you’re a teacher, you can’t just stay home when your heart is broken.  The real world doesn’t stop for your break up.

Why not?

We get personal days and sick leave and we can and should use them in ways that support our overall well-being, right?  We need to learn how to engage in self care and boundary setting and mental health awareness and care.  Teachers are not martyrs or superheroes or angels.  They are humans with the wide range of human emotions and experiences.

I wonder about things like perfect attendance awards (why?) and the “in the real world, you’ll be expected to . . . ” framing that builds and reinforces anxiety and this run yourself into the ground, work 24/7 mentality that is literally killing us.

What if we modeled self care?  What if we respected boundaries?  What if we taught students to ask for what they need?

This week, I had a number of long, stressful days.  So, on Thursday, I cancelled a few things and worked from home, caught up on emails, scheduling, feedback, some writing.  In all day meetings on Friday, I talked with a colleague who had done the same the day before, took a “mental health day.”  We both said “GOOD FOR YOU!” to each other.  Where did we learn this was okay?

We didn’t.  We both expressed guilt and shame and a feeling of embarrassment about it.

In the words of the perfect Jonathan Van Ness, “who gave you permission to be so amazing?”  I’m giving you permission to set boundaries and to teach students to do the same.  And here’s the tricky part – respect the boundaries they and others set.  We must take care of each other.

How have you learned to care for your own mental health and well being?  How do you extend that grace to others?

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.

Dream vs. Reality: The First Day of School

I have dreamed of this moment for seven years. A fantasy from 11th grade still replays itself in my mind with crystalline clarity: My first day of school as a teacher. I’m wearing all professional black clothes with my hair slicked back in a bun. I’m stricter than I need to be because I want my students to take me seriously. I’m cool and aloof and ooze authority and respect. I talk about learning and brain growth and the value of hard work until we suddenly have an inspirational “Dead Poets Society” moment. The students leave, backpacks slung over one shoulder, talking about how they can’t wait for tomorrow. They jump, fist in the air – and freeze frame!

My real first day was nothing like that.

When I realized that baseline data must be collected before I could implement any learning community activities as per my goal and research this year, I immediately accepted the fact that my students’ first day of class with me would be… unorthodox. I stood at the door as they walked in, asking each student to say their name as they wrote it down so that the first time I heard it would be the correct way to pronounce it. The first thing they saw upon entering the room was a sign saying, “Welcome to Physics! Grab a baseline survey from the Pick Up station (near the door) then take a seat and begin the survey.” Once the bell rang, they had seven more minutes to complete the survey before I gave my two minute introduction to myself and to the course. The rest of the class was spent doing a Group Juggle with squishy bird shaped toys in order to start getting the students comfortable and familiar with each other.

Collecting Baseline Data: An Abrupt Start

Norms and expectations are easiest to establish at the beginning of a group’s existence. That means that the best time for me to introduce the notion of a learning community was the first day of school. So, as unorthodox and abrupt as it sounds to have the students silently submit a ten-question survey about learning communities as soon as they walked in on the first day, it was a necessary action in order to get the least biased baseline data that I could. Well, if I had been more zealous in my quest for unbiased data, I probably could have covered up our giant community calendar and “Welcome to Our Physics Fiesta!” decorations but I put a lot of trust in the students being slightly too overwhelmed by their first day of school to be so analytical of the wall decor.

The baseline survey consisted of two free response prompts and eight Likert scaled prompts that asked students to circle a number between one and eight where one implied that they “strongly disagree” and eight meant that they “strongly agree”. Heather had given me some advice and information about the benefits of using more versus fewer and even versus odd numbers on the Likert scale. I decided upon a scale of eight quantitative points because an even number denies the students an opportunity to respond with a true neutral. I also chose eight points on my Likert scale because it would allow me more clarity into the differences in the students’ choices than a smaller number would while still remaining mangable for me to record by hand. With the prompts, I tried to tease out what students knew about community oriented learning and how they felt about it.

The Part With The Numbers

To record the data, I created a Google Sheet in which the columns represented each survey prompt and the rows represented each student’s responses. I included their name or initial in my Google Sheet so that I would have the opportunity to compare a student’s responses throughout the year. I made a separate page for each class period as well as one total group page. Google Sheets was helpful in that I was able to include a cell for each prompt that calculated the class averages and the grand total averages for that prompt. The prompts and their all-class averages are as follows:

  • What the phrase “sense of community” means to me: (free response)
  • I have experienced a sense of community in previous classes. (4.78)
  • I like feeling a sense of community in my classes. (5.5)
  • I learn better when I feel like I am a member of my classroom community. (5.48)
  • I am familiar with the term “learning community”. (4.62)
  • What “learning community” means to me: (free response)
  • I feel confident in my ability to learn physics this year. (5.50)
  • I feel confident in my ability to pass the physics course this year. (6.04)
  • I believe that having a sense of community will help me succeed in the physics course. (5.88)
  • I believe that participating in a learning community will help me succeed in the physics course. (6.09)
  • I feel a sense of community with the people in this class. (4.71)
  • People in (our school district) have a shared sense of community. (5.41)

Reflections and Analogies

I’m still processing the information. I’m still figuring out what the data implies and how the averages compare across the class periods. I’m still interpreting data and sorting through rumours of remarkably high failure rates last year and re-takers this year. I’m still hearing and reading comments from students who are terrified of physics and have a wide range of confidence in their abilities. While I’m chewing on my data like a cow on its cud, life in our classroom has moved forward at lightning speed. In the last two weeks, we’ve discussed the traits of a learning community; we have drafted, finalized, and displayed our top five community agreements; we have learned each other’s names; we have developed routines with daily greetings and exit tickets; we have helped each other review mathematics concepts; we have run through the halls in a particularly fun pursuit of problem solving; and yesterday, we decided to believe in the power of “yet” by turning around each sentiment in which we express doubt in our abilities. Gone are the days of “I can’t do math”, there is only room today for “I’m not good at physics yet.”

I, too, am taking on the power of yet. I’m on a steep, but manageable, learning curve when it comes to my lesson plans and preparing materials. While each day of class so far has left me in love with my new job and with the communities we’re building, I’m not quite at the level of preparation that I’d like to be… yet. I will get there, I know it. With practice and experience, I will leave behind twelve hour (or more) days at school. There will come a day when I have nearly everything for the next week planned and printed the Friday before. So too will the day come when I will write these blog posts when I mean to write them instead of a week later like I did with this one. I’m not too worried and I’m not letting any of these current slips or shortcomings overwhelm me with personal disappointment. Heather and I have talked about this project being my “lizard’s tail”- the thing you never want to drop, but can lose if necessary to survive. I’m nowhere near needing to drop my “lizard’s tail” but I’m glad to feel secure in my plans and priorities.

New teachers and veterans, what is your “lizard’s tail” this year?

What is your yet?

First year teacher – passionate about community and equity

Reacting VS Responding

Yell and sit…sit and yell, get a little louder, be a little firmer…they’ll eventually listen-right?

Wrong.

I walked into a room recently where an educator was sitting on a bench demanding that the kids stop! She kept saying “I said stop, stop!…(a little louder) Stop it NOW!…(even louder) I said STOP STOP STOP!” Her face was turning bright red and she was clearly frustrated. Teaching isn’t easy, we all get frustrated, patience is hard, so, so hard. We are all human. We all have emotions. But, I want to encourage you think about this question: how does yelling help?

Children are in tune with adults more than we like to admit. They read our body language, notice our facial expressions, and feel our emotions, sometimes as if they are their own. Children’s frontal lobes are still developing, this is the part of the brain that helps us control our emotions. It’s our job to help nourish that development, help it grow. That’s what we do as teachers-right?

Just as you might spend extra time with students working on letter sounds or multiplication facts, we MUST spend time developing social-emotional skills. With this, it’s also important to constantly remind ourselves that their brains are growing (yes even in the teenage years). We also must remember that students need varying levels of support recognizing, managing, and expressing emotions. (I know, this is a lot, you already have so many other things you must teach and fit into your day, that curriculum map is just haunting you at night!) However, research shows that learning can’t happen without self-regulation, trust, feelings of safety –from both peers and adults—all of which are part of social-emotional development. So how can we do this?

It starts with modeling.

The teacher I described above was trying to get her students to lower their voices. They didn’t hear her, they were engaged in a game, and instead of complying to her demands, they just matched her volume and continued the activity. She was frustrated and angry. I get it.

But to be honest, I don’t know that they even knew she was talking to them, or understood what it was that she wanted them to “STOP!”  Instead, they matched or modeled her tone, her yelling.

Wait. Sometimes kids only respond to yelling…right?

Wrong. It might seem like it to us, as adults. Perhaps, because once our faces have reached a certain level of red or we’ve stomped and made enough noise we get their attention, or scared them, they comply?

Let’s be honest though. Yelling isn’t fun for anyone, including the yeller. Besides the obvious—sore throat, exhaustion, anger— it also causes an increased amount of adrenaline and stress hormones for ALL parties involved. When is the last time you screamed at your students and said— alright good, that felt great, time to get back to learning those multiplication facts?

I want to challenge you to consider the difference between a reaction and a response.

The dictionary definition of reaction is: an action performed or a feeling experienced in response to a situation or event.

But wait, the word response is in that definition, so what’s the difference? To make things even more confusing…

The dictionary definition of the word response is: a reaction to something.

Despite the concise dictionary definitions, there is a difference and it matters!

ReACTion has the word ACT in it. When we react to something it’s typically a more immediate action that comes from an event or situation that occurred. When reacting we often don’t take time to think or process the situation, instead we jump into flight or fright mode and act.

For example, a child just knocks over the entire tub of papers (after you have asked them to stop running in the room multiple times). You’re frustrated, you yell, you demand they pick it up, or lose recess for not listening, you REACT.

Next, let’s look at RESPONSE. If you just look at the dictionary definition you could argue that the above example is a response as well. I won’t disregard this point, but I want to encourage you to think about a response with a different mindset.

Response = thoughtful and intentional action.

Where you take a quick moment, that deep breath, you try to remind yourself that your student is still learning. You are the teacher.  You find empathy. Remember, mistakes are okay, they help us all learn.

So that child knocks over that paper and instead of yelling, you take a deep breath, quietly walk over to the child, make a plan for how to pick it up, help them re-focus, teach them how to self-regulate, model that response. With calm. With words. You respond with understanding and through a teaching lens, not with anger. Not with yelling.

I know this is hard. You won’t be perfect. We all slip, we are all human and sometimes even our own emotions get the best of us in front of students.  But every moment that you can remind yourself to RESPOND instead of react is another moment that you are modeling self-regulation, communication, and helping your students develop the social-emotional skills that are key to successful learning.

What strategies do you use to self-regulate when you feel yourself reacting emotionally?  Stay tuned for some suggested strategies and more on teachingisintellectual.com

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!

Recess Is A Right

I posted a picture on our social media of a tweet from the 2006 MN Teacher of the Year Dr. Lee-Ann Stephens that read:  Advice to a new elementary school teacher:  never, every withhold recess from your students for any reason.  They need the activity and you need them to have the activity.  It shouldn’t be viewed as a privilege, but a part of your daily curriculum.

The post generated conversation which is awesome.  In this post, I hope to provide some context for recess as a right, not a privilege and some alternative strategies.

First, remember, behavior is communication and it always always always serves a purpose.  You can read a bit more about that here.  Once we determine the function of the behavior, we can find more appropriate ways to meet that function for/with the learner.  Okay, so let’s play this out with recess.

Basic scenario:  Learner is off task in class, out of seat, what have you.  Teacher subscribes to the “you waste my time, I’ll take your time” philosophy and responds with taking away 5-10-half-all of recess.

Behavior is communication.

  • What is the function of the off task behavior?  Is the learner avoiding the work?  Is the learner unsure what to do?  Is the learner “bored”?  Is the learner seeking attention from the teacher or from friends?
  • Are any of these functions met by reducing/eliminating recess?

Nope.

(Side question:  have you ever taken recess from a child one time and never ever again?  Does it every work to change the behavior, teach the behavior we want to see, or is it a punishment we invoke because we’re frustrated?)

Why do we offer time in the school day for free movement?  Is recess really “their” time?  What is the role of recess in teaching and learning?  Both the American Academy of Pediatrics and the Center for Disease Control endorse recess with policy statements outlining the cognitive, social emotional, physical, and academic benefits of regular unstructured play time for elementary age learners.  The slow whittling down/removal of recess has never been rooted in the evidence of development, teaching and learning, or best practice.  It has always been about increasing instructional time.  But, recess actually HELPS learners attend to task, focus, learn.

Let’s look at it another way.

Think about a time you’ve been in a long faculty meeting, professional development day, webinar, or something similar.  Even if the content is engaging, you may find yourself getting restless.  You may get up to go to the bathroom, get a drink, stand by the wall for a bit.  You may stretch in your seat, check your phone, or pick at your nail polish.  You can do what you need to do in order to get your attention back to the topic at hand – you can take self regulated brain breaks because you’re an adult.  If your admin or PD provider told you that getting out of your chair to stretch your legs would mean you do not get the scheduled break time everyone else gets, you would probably have strong feelings about that.  Because we all need breaks – whether we’ve “earned” them or not.

Taking away recess is a power move, not a teaching move.  Reframing all of our actions and reactions through a teaching lens means recess is not a bonus or a reward, but a critical and non negotiable part of a learner’s work.

Now that we know taking away bits, pieces, all of recess does not support our end goal of teaching and learning, what can/should we do instead?

Tackle the function.  Meet the need in an appropriate way.

So, if it’s escape, build in break cards, mindful moments, a quick “errand” that incorporates a little movement.

If it’s attention getting, what is driving it?  Is it teacher attention or peer attention that’s desired?  Use proximity, room arrangement, teacher talk cards or, if you can, take just a moment, get on the child’s level, and ask them what they need.  That very well may be enough.

They’re communicating with you.  Let’s be listeners, teachers, learners about our learners.  Restricting their movement and limiting their freedom creates barriers in our relationships and does not teach the behavior we want to see.

Make recess a right, not a privilege.  What are some other learner rights you feel are non-negotiable?

 

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.

Engagement: The Holy Grail of Teaching

Recently, a colleague asked me for recommendations of books about developing growth mindset.  He wanted to be able to recommend something to parents whose children are “apathetic toward school.”

Learners.  Apathetic.  Toward.  School.

Why may that be?

Okay, yes, I can collect some literature.  There are most certainly books.  (I always always always recommend Willingham’s Why Don’t Students Like School? for starters).  AND, I always insist we consider the causes behind those apathetic behaviors rather than the behaviors themselves.  Treat the disease rather than the symptoms, amiright?

So why may learners present as apathetic toward school?

Here are four of my ideas – in no particular order – followed by some quick and easy ways to create interest for those apathetic learners.

  1. School (as in, the building and the people within it) is not welcoming, safe, inviting, accepting, or engaging.
  2. Nothing being taught is relevant in “the real world.”
  3. Anxiety and depression are real and are experienced by children in k-12 settings.
  4. What’s in it for the learner?  Can learners see any benefits from their participation in school?

I said no particular order but I do think #1 is a big one.  Maybe the biggest one.  Why should learners care about school?  Do schools care about learners?  I mean every single learner?  The difficult learner?  The apathetic learner?  The angry learner?  The defiant learner?  It is our job as educators to gain the cooperation of our learners and that often means we have to dig deep.  Forming relationships, human connections, is the critical component of gaining cooperation.  We cannot have successful teaching and learning spaces without meaningful relationships.

Ask that apathetic kid who s/he cares about at school?

Ask that apathetic kid who cares about him/her at school?

Does that apathetic kid feel safe at school?  Feel seen?  Feel valued?  Feel like s/he can contribute in a meaningful way?

Schools typically have one speed – busy!  There are a million things happening in every moment.  Kids, staff, administrators, volunteers, student teachers and practicum teachers, custodians, specialists, researchers, and more all moving within the walls of the school at any given time, quickly, late for the next thing, rushed, distracted, B U S Y.

Is it really so unbelievable that some learners may be overwhelmed, intimidated, exhausted, or shut down by that context?  By connecting with individual “apathetic” learners, we can determine what is causing their lack of engagement, their apathy, their distance and develop strategies to make school a learning environment that works.

#2 ahhh “the real world.”  Such a weird phrase.  What is the real world?  Where is it?  What about K-12 education is not the real world?  This term always strikes me as a flawed and there are just so many reasons why.

  • Loads of kids experience more “real world” before they get out of bed in the morning than I have in a lifetime.  Food and housing insecurity, poverty, and family issues are all “real world” experiences that kids navigate every day.
  • The idea that if we extend kindness to learners and reward the behaviors we want to see, we are not preparing them for the real world.  Right.  Because in the real world, I get paid to go to work . . . or I don’t go.  No one does anything for nothing in return.  Including you.  Including learners.  It’s “real world” and okay to reward hard work.
  • The real world includes loads of problems in need of solving.  Our K-12 learners can and should be tackling real world problems in need of solving too.

#3 Schools need help.  Teachers cannot meet the very real trauma and mental health needs learners bring with them to the classroom.  We need social workers on our teams.  We need counselors with actual resources to support learners, families, and teachers.  We need psychologists and psychiatrists with expertise in child trauma and early childhood/adolescent mental health.  We need resources.  Learners who disengage from school and disconnect from preferred people and activities need support.  What may look to some as apathy toward school may very well be a plea for help.

#4 School, in and of itself, is not super motivating.  Is it?  Teachers make all the difference in this regard.  The difference between a teacher a learner looks forward to seeing versus a teacher a learner dreads makes the difference in a learner’s day, year, future.  It takes ONE adult to see a kid, to really acknowledge their presence, their uniqueness, their humanity.  ONE adult can make all the difference in the life of a kid.  We have to be that ONE adult.  Not for every single learner, of course.  But if we all step up, we should be able to be collectively find ONE adult for every learner out there who is slipping through the cracks, ghosting through the school day, approaching learning with apathy.

What if we took responsibility for our apathetic learners?  What if we saw the onus of engagement in ourselves rather than in our learners?  What if we sought to understand the “why” of apathetic learners rather than just the “how” of their apathetic behaviors?

Talk to me.  What do you think?  How do you engage apathetic learners?

 

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.

We Need To Talk About Families

Every family is doing the best they can with the reality they are in.

Full stop.

I’ll say it again.  Every family is doing the best they can with the reality they are in.  Period.

You may say, But, Jen, I have a family who **enter an atrocity adults enact upon children**.  That family does NOT care.  And I would respond that that family needs intervention, mental health support, positive parenting training, an influx of resources to build their skills as parents and humans.  But I would continue to assert that the family is doing the best they know how to do.  Our society does not rally around strong parenting skills, bonding, attachment, or positive parenting.  Families need our support and our judgement free listening.  Blame gets us nowhere.

On social media, I often see teachers posting blogs written by teachers pleaing “for parents to STOP their ‘bizarrely lenient attitude toward disciplining children'” (to quote one such blog that made the rounds most recently).  There are countless parent shaming and blaming memes and posts on Instagram that make my stomach flip flopped.  Blaming families is the stand up comedy equivalent of punching down.  It’s easy, sure, but it is not productive.  You’ll find lots of others willing to jump on board with you, but it only serves to create a common enemy.  One you cannot afford to have.  Families are not the enemy.

Teaching and learning is not us vs them.

Teaching and learning is not families vs teachers.

Teaching and learning is not teachers vs administrators.

It is the hardest work, the most challenging work – intellectually, emotionally, and physically.  And to bring all stakeholders – families, administrators, learners, communities – into our teaching and learning means finding strengths, seeking common ground, bridging gaps in understanding.

If you find yourself struggling with the families in your classroom, your school community, or more broadly, here are a few suggestions.  “They” won’t change but you can!  You are only in charge of yourself, your own actions and beliefs.

  1. Learn about yourself.  Invest in unpacking your biases and beliefs.  We ALL have them so get busy identifying them and understanding them, how they are serving you, and in what ways they are creating barriers in your work.  If you are white and female, do some work on race.  Read Ijeoma Oluo’s “So You Want To Talk About Race” and Shelly Tochluk’s “Witnessing Whiteness:  The Need to Talk About Race and How To Do It” for starters.  Then keep reading. And talking.  Get uncomfortable.
  2. Do home visits!  I cannot overemphasize this and I do not care how old your students are.  Meet outside of school.  Go to their homes if they’re willing to host you.  If they aren’t open to that (which is absolutely their right!) then meet at a park, a McDonald’s, or a community center.
  3. Call three families each week to tell them something positive about their child.  Every child.  Take note of attributes unique to each learner – post them in the classroom if you need the reminder!  Keep learner strengths in the center of your work!

Families are imperfect.  We won’t love each and every one but we must strengthen where we can, pour in where we can, build up where we can.  What strategies do you use to lift up hard to reach families?

 

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.

We Need To Talk About Punishment

Recently, after working with teachers on shifting our approach from punishing to teaching, a teacher in attendance emailed me saying, “At first, I wasn’t sure I was going to “buy in to it.”But the more I thought about it, the more compelled I felt.”  Such a powerful statement and one I’ve thought about since.  Let’s talk this through.

Everything we do has consequences.  Every decision we make has consequences.

Punishment, however, is not a natural consequence of an action or decision.  Punishment is enacted upon us “as retribution for an offense” (Merriam-Webster).

Kids make mistakes.  They do things that don’t make sense, that we don’t understand, that we can’t explain.  There are consequences for those mistakes.  If you forget your lunch, you eat whatever the cafeteria gives you.  That is a natural consequence for forgetting your lunch.  A punishment for forgetting your lunch would be a teacher taking away recess or imposing detention on you in addition to the natural consequence of a fruit cup and carrot sticks for lunch.  Is that necessary?  Does it teach?

The thing we’re selling – that the above mentioned teacher was unsure about buying, was the belief that, as teachers, we must teach.  Teach the behaviors we want to see.  Teach them again.  Reteach.  Reinforce.

Punishment doesn’t teach.

I have a tendency to drive too fast.  Rarely, I get speeding tickets.  It stings for a bit.  I pay the fine (punishment) but it does not have a lasting effect on my behavior.  I still speed.  I just hope I don’t get caught.

Our learners approach our punishments similarly.  Okay, think of the last kid from whom you took five minutes of recess.  Was it a one-time consequence?  Did the behavior you were modifying disappear?  Probably not.  Generally, kids who miss minutes of recess, miss those minutes of recess frequently.  Which is all the evidence we need that the punishment is not changing the behavior.

Maybe we are not intending for it to change the behavior?  Maybe we just want to show the learner who is boss.

Either way, the single most important factor in any teaching/learning dyad is the relationship between the teacher and the learner.  Kids do not learn from people they do not like or people whom they perceive do not like them.  We must like kids!  (I know you’re rolling your eyes at me right now but this is a critical characteristic of strong, persistent educators!).  Tell kids the things they do that you like!  Ask them questions about themselves and listen to their answers!  Be intentional about this.  Make note of the learners you’re most likely to miss and plan your connections with those students.  Document your connections each day to make your patterns visible and give yourself some insight into where you may need to put more effort.  Not every learner comes to us naturally so make it a priority to identify those on the fringes.  Build your community from the outside in.

As the teacher, you get to decide your role in your classroom.  You can be the police officer, the warden, the guide, the zookeeper, or the facilitator.  You can catch kids making mistakes, breaking rules, being noncompliant or you can gain their cooperation through intentional relationship building, empathy, and understanding.

How do you build community in your classroom?  What challenges do you face in gaining the cooperation of your learners and how we can help you solve them?

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.

Embracing Failure

I am a big fan of mistake making.  Well, not the making of the mistakes part so much but of the learning from mistakes, expecting mistakes, embracing mistakes.  What if we flip the narrative on failure and, since we know mistakes happen, we anticipate them and respond to them with enthusiasm?

Okay, stick with me here.  Enthusiasm may be a little . . . enthusiastic?

Looking back on a 20 year career in education, I see so many mistakes, of course, and some outright fails.  I’ll never ever forget the time I, with four other teachers, took 32 4-year-olds on a bus field trip.  Left the school, counted everyone multiple times, went to find my seat with my buddy, only to realize he was still sitting in the exact spot – AT THE SCHOOL – where I asked him to wait for me.  We turned the bus around, of course, and raced back to him (he was still waiting patiently) but I could not shake that off.  Even now it haunts me.

Some mistakes are bigger than others. Every last one is a learning opportunity.

I’ve been fortunate to be surrounded by mentors and colleagues and friends who embrace my failures with me, who lift me up, who help me see the learning opportunities presented in my failures.  I’m currently in the midst of my biggest professional failure yet.  In that failure, though, so many opportunities have developed.  Opportunities for growth, for challenge, for learning, for teaching, for building resilience, for growing my network, for failing out loud so maybe others can do the same.  Failure also, of course, invites self doubt, shame, embarrassment, to name a few.  So, as I reflect on my own mistakes, missteps, shortcomings, and failures, I often consider how our interactions with learners shape their relationship with failure.  How did I learn how to fail and how am I teaching others about failure?

Well, it’s a delicate balance, right?

We want to embrace failure as a part of learning.  Einstein said, (according to the internet) “You never fail until you stop trying.”  We want to build resiliency in learners.  We want our learners to always be willing and ready to try try again.  We know perfectionism puts limitations on learners’ willingness to take chances, ask questions, seek creativity. However, we also don’t want to embrace mistakes to the point where we accept failure.  Failure has to sting a little in order for it to motivate us, right?

I teach and learn with college students.  Say what you will about this generation of young people but I will defend their work ethic, their creativity, and their dedication to my last breath.  I see a fear of failure in them, a fear of risk taking, a fear of creative problem solving, though. Not because, they want their hands held, but because the consequences of any mistake have been so so steep.  My coursework is ungraded, due dates are flexible, engagement and iterative feedback is essential.  Students find this terrifying.  They struggle to trust that I won’t come with a guillotine on the last day.  Mistake making and embracing failure requires trust.

Teaching and learning depends on trusting relationships.  Full stop.

How do you build learning communities with high expectations, meaningful and trusting relationships, and a willingness to fail out loud?

We must be someone students can trust to launch them from failures into learning.  In what ways do you fail out loud with your learners and help them do the same?

 

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.