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.

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.

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.

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 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.

What Has Changed Since We Were Kids

I am finding myself rageful lately.  The politics in this country no longer reflect dialogue I’m even remotely familiar with and each day we experience a new tragedy or outrage that we no longer even seem to notice.

As we reel and stumble to make sense of our public health crisis of mass shootings by white men, I keep hearing the question, “what has changed since we were kids?”

Everything.

No, I’m not talking about “family values” or about God in the lives of Americans or about women in the workplace.  In terms of money and national values, though, much has changed.

Politics

The wealth gap in the US is widening annually – currently bigger than ever.

Voter suppression and gerrymandering have had a huge impact on who is elected into office.

Citizens United and campaign finance laws have contributed to the movement toward kleptocracy.

To name a few . . . little things add up and become big things.  Our legislative branch has ground to a halt, adversarial, vindictive, ineffective, and unaccountable.

Education

NCLB created necessary, but deeply flawed, accountability measures for districts, teachers, and states.  These high stakes measures, in my opinion, changed the face of education in our country.

More and more kids and families living in poverty means more needs to meet in schools.  Intense demands to make ends meet creates stress in families.

State and federal budgets have consistently demonstrated a lack of commitment in public education resulting in teachers and administrators forced to do much much much more with far less.

To name a few . . . little things add up and become big things.  Our dialogue has diminished to a blame game, all or nothing, you’re with me or you’re against me.

So what?

We have a disconnect between policy and practice in public education.  We have underresourced, overstretched teachers and administrators.  And teachers are as variable as the rest of us – some literally save lives, some do damage, some fall somewhere in between.  We have learners and their families with vast needs, some we cannot even begin to comprehend.  We have refugee children in our classrooms – literally escaping war zones.  Are we trauma informed enough for that?  We have huge challenges and far too few solutions.

I don’t claim to have the answers but I do know there is no one answer and there is no one blame.  It’s not JUST access to weapons of war (although that is a big one, and one we can easily change . . . with our votes).  It’s not JUST parents who don’t care or don’t discipline or don’t go to church or don’t teach manners (this narrative needs to be silenced, it is not productive or accurate, support families always).  It’s not JUST teachers who are stretched too thin (another narrative that is played out, support teachers always).  It’s not JUST poverty.  It’s not JUST white supremacy or bullying or video games.

Every child is a unique being experiencing the world in his unique way.  Your interactions make a mark.  Every.  Single.  Time.  You never know what someone carries away from their experience with you.  Show compassion.  Empathy.  Give the benefit of the doubt.  Focus on strengths.  See the good in others.  FIND good in others.  When you feel yourself making a judgement about someone else’s choices, reframe that judgement into a strengths-based statement.  “Fourth graders should know how to walk quietly down the hall by now” could be reframed into “We all need reminders some days, let’s talk about how we move through our school building.”  Simple switches that lift and teach.

Action Steps

Embrace mistakes.  Teach from mistakes.  Forgive mistakes.  See the humanity in others, empathize, care.  Less talking, more listening.  Seek to understand.  Vote.  March.  Participate.  Engage, and listen.

What’s changed since we were kids, I think, is that we’re the adults now.  And there’s no assault weapons ban, there’s student loan debt, and wages are stagnant, health insurance premiums are stupid expensive, and the shrinking middle class can’t keep up.  Americans are stressed to the max and desperate people do desperate things in small and big ways.

Also I don’t think it was all rainbows and butterflies when we were kids.  But time has a way of fuzzing the edges and filtering the blemishes.  And there wasn’t easy access to weapons of war.

I am reframing my rage into care, my anger into empathy.  What about you?  What can you commit to do for our nation, your community, your family?  It will take every last one of us and I’m with you.

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

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.