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

I’m Here To Learn

A little about me in the month before my first year begins

To be perfectly honest, I’m nervous about my first year of teaching. I’ve spent the summer
reviewing learning theory and teaching strategies, reading radical books about equity and power dynamics in the classroom, building an elaborate teacher emergency kit filled with everything from pepto to a tiny hair straightener, and trying to find the courage to refresh my memory of physics. Yes, physics – the subject that sends shivers down the spines of rising high school juniors and, for many others who have taken the course, flashbacks of nightly fifty-problem homeworks straight from the textbook.  Physics has a bad reputation of being isolating and difficult. As someone who struggled through physics courses in both high school and college, I know first hand how true that can be.

Early in my college career, I was determined to become a math teacher through the more common route of majoring in physics with a minor in education but I quickly became overwhelmed by the independent lecture/homework structure of learning in college level math classes. In hindsight, it seems like fate that I took my first education course during my second attempt at Calculus II; the more I suffered in math, the more I ached for a learning environment that used research-based strategies and theories to ensure the understanding of its students. I was introduced to the idea of learning communities, classroom structures that encourage students to learn collaboratively towards shared goals, and I constantly imagined how such communities could improve my
experience in math. I continued taking Calc II until I passed it on the fourth try, having changed my major to Philosophy and taken on a fifth year of private university to do so. By then, I was hell-bent on teaching math with learning theory in mind so I pursued a Master of Arts in Teaching.

I took a long, difficult, and less travelled road to becoming a teacher and I believe that I’m
personally the better for it. I’ve learned how to work hard and recover from failure, I’ve met a network of creative and intelligent people through talking about my own passions, and I’ve been given many exciting opportunities like this one by being willing to take risks with people I trust.

How I’m going to make my teaching intellectual my first year

My experiences in education and philosophy over the last six years have instilled in me a love of research and self-reflective learning. It seems that the natural progression of this would be to participate in some scholarly exploration in my first year of teaching. Similarly, it seems natural that I should continue to be mentored by a faculty member who guided me through academic and professional quandaries in the past. With Heather’s encouragement and knowledge of the process, I’ll be improving my teaching this year through action research.

I believe that the best way to become good at anything is to study it. I don’t want to just keep my head above water this year; conducting action research will allow me to hone my craft and provide my students with a thoughtful and intentional academic experience that considers their social, emotional, and academic needs through community-based learning. I’m still nervous but I know exactly where to channel that excited energy: becoming the best teacher I can be.

Now some things I want to know from you!

How are other first year teachers reflecting on their practice?
What are other first year teachers reflecting on? (parent communication, reading instruction, etc.)
Can action research help me be a better teacher?

First year teacher – passionate about community and equity

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.

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.

When Social Media & Professionalism Mash Up

Scrolling through social media, as I often mindlessly do, I am repeatedly reminded of the powerful educators with whom I am in community. It is not my community. It is a community in which I am a learning, growing, contributing member. These educators inspire me, motivate me, encourage me, and remind me of the change we can be in the world. This community is fiercely inclusive and we challenge ourselves to better understand what that means in the “real world” — a world that is fiercely exclusive. We know how hard we have to work to meaningfully and intentionally include each child who struggles to meet adult expectations and each adult with whom we disagree. But we actively try. We try to make each other better today than we were yesterday, we call each other out when it’s necessary, and we celebrate the smallest victories because we know this work is so hard.

This is the community I choose. The community I grow. The community I champion.

So when, during that mindless social media scrolling, I see teachers complaining about the challenges of their job, the antics of a particular learner that day, or the ridiculousness of some new accountability measure, I am disheartened. Not because I can’t relate to the need to vent, or because I don’t understand just how hard it is, or because I can’t take a joke. But because when teachers mock kids or diminish kids on social media, I wonder how they make that same child feel in their classroom. And I wonder how the kid’s loved ones would feel if they saw their child’s bad day or bad moment posted for all the teacher’s friends, family, and followers to laugh, shame, tsk tsk, or sympathize.

I think about how I would react if I saw my own children referred to on their teachers’ social media.

Actual posts:

improvement for the day: student pees on the bathroom floor instead of in my lap #itsthelittlethings

Well, buddy, I wouldn’t give you the death stare if you were doing what I told you to do. #teacherproblems

One day I’m going to slip and tell a parent their kid is the reason I drink so much.

My sped babies loved it too! (PSA:  Sped is the past tense verb of speed; sped is NOT an adjective that describes a person. And children in elementary school are not babies.  Our language reflects our values.)

These are the things you say to your partner, to your best friend, to your cat. I definitely get it.  I have very stressful, difficult days, too.  But these are not the things you put out into the cyber. If you have a social media profile to showcase your work, it should highlight your ability to see students in their full complexity and to honor their humanity, illustrate the dynamic and complex environments of education, elevate the knowledge and skills the best teachers possess.

Part of my responsibility to the field is to support future teachers  in preparing their social media world for their professional life. That means removing pictures of beer pong and spring break. It may even mean setting up new “adult” accounts. It always means many serious conversations about never ever posting about children they interact with professionally. The children you teach are not your children, despite your love and commitment to them. You do not have the right to post about them. Their faces, their bathroom issues, their annoying habits. Not. For. Social. Media. You are a teacher. It’s an awesome responsibility. A position of power. One of great influence, the potential to build a child up or tear that same child to shreds. Use your powers for good.

As we build teachingisintellectual’s profile on social media and within the education community, we remain steadfast in our commitment to the integrity of learners.  Every learner has value, all behavior is communicating a child’s feelings or needs, and all educators are adults in these spaces.  Let’s lift learners up, see and celebrate their strengths, and promote education as a profession.

How have your social media habits changed since you became a teacher?  How do you use social media to promote your work and your profession?  Have you had any really positive or really negative experiences from using social media professionally that you can share?

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 Teachers Want: Are You Serious?

In the wake of yet another school shooting, the government and members of the media are beating a familiar drum: more guns, not less, will  put a stop to our decades-long national epidemic of mass shootings in schools. The President of the United States has been aggressively putting forward the idea that our nation needs armed teachers to  prevent school shootings. The notion of transforming our educators into a paramilitary strike-force of academic achievement is completely absurd for many reasons. Chief among these is that it is simply impractical to expect a teacher to become a trained marksman and learn to adequately respond in an active shooter situation.  Then there’s the funding required for such a proposal. Not to mention that putting more guns in schools creates a culture and environment that does nothing to address the struggles of children at risk.

Not My Job!

Being a teacher requires us to wear many hats: nurse, counselor, social worker, caretaker, parent… nowhere in our training or toolbox of skills does that ever include shooter.

There are many field experiences, trainings, and degrees required to become a teacher. Those most powerful and effective learning experiences are on the job, hands on learning.  Soldiers and police officers undergo intense training as well. According to an FBI study done of active school shooter situations from the years 2000-2013, “law enforcement suffered casualties in 21 of the 45 incidents where they engaged the shooter to end the threat.” So this means that almost 50% of professionally trained law enforcement died!  HALF. Even with all of their training.

So we want to consider that a teacher who takes a one day gun safety class is now qualified to react and protect themselves and students from an intruder intent on doing the most damage?  How would teachers stand a reasonable chance of survival, when half of our trained law enforcement perishes while attempting the same task?

There is not a lesson plan that can adequately prepare teachers for an active shooter.  Can you imagine the consequences, the outrage if a teacher accidently shot and killed a student in the process? Is this a risk that our society is willing to accept?

Who is Paying?

Incentivizing teachers to become trained to carry weapons requires funding. Where would that money come from? If money is available for schools and to give to teachers, how about a higher salary or incentives for more logical things like additional endorsements and social emotional trainings?

The federal government just cut taxes and passed a budget resolution to increase spending, creating a large spending gap.

How does arming teachers fit in to this proposal?  You would need guns, training, liability insurance.  Just for starters.

In 2016, in Fairfax County, Virginia, a meal tax was proposed to raise money for the county. This proposal was defeated. The tax would have generated roughly 99 million dollars of tax revenue for the county, 70% of which was designated to go to Fairfax County Public Schools, primarily as an increase in teacher salaries.

Funding for public school resources, universal PreK, and teacher salaries is not a priority, but guns are. It is hard to take the call to arms seriously when those asking for it are against investing in our children and the things that they need to thrive.

Environment

The biggest need in our schools is for a more positive, empathetic, and proactive mindset that focuses on strengths and solutions. Children that come from difficult home lives and who are predisposed to risk factors need to mentored, loved, and seen. This can only happen when we all get on board and take action. Children who need help and support are not difficult to pick out, so why do they continue to slip through the cracks?

What Now?

Research has shown that early intervention is critical for children exposed to adverse conditions. Harvard University conducted a study about The Toxic Stress of Early Childhood Adversity fining that toxic stress affects children’s metal and physical health for a lifetime. The Center for Disease Control (CDC) conducted a study on Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) and gave an ACE score based on the answers to questions relating to trauma. “There are 10 types of childhood trauma measured in the ACE Study. Five are personal — physical abuse, verbal abuse, sexual abuse, physical neglect, and emotional neglect. Five are related to other family members: a parent who’s an alcoholic, a mother who’s a victim of domestic violence, a family member in jail, a family member diagnosed with a mental illness, and the disappearance of a parent through divorce, death, or abandonment.” The CDC’s Adverse Childhood Experiences Study uncovered a stunning link between childhood trauma and the chronic diseases people develop as adults, as well as social and emotional struggles. Is this not where we should focus the conversation, resources, and outrage? What can we do to PREVENT, ANTICIPATE, and CHANGE the inevitable struggle of at risk children?

Since we know the consequences of adverse childhood experiences are inevitable, let’s invest in what we need to support children! How will guns in schools help with any of these things?

 

https://acestoohigh.com/got-your-ace-score/

https://developingchild.harvard.edu/resources/inbrief-the-impact-of-early-adversity-on-childrens-development/

https://www.fbi.gov/news/stories/2014/september/fbi-releases-study-on-active-shooter-incidents/pdfs/a-study-of-active-shooter-incidents-in-the-u.s.-between-2000-and-2013

 

 

Early Childhood Inclusion Teacher

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.