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.

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.