Things I Know

  • All students have the right to be a part of their community in whatever ways they are capable. Each of them, regardless of ability, are able to be contributing members of their community and society. It is our job to figure out how and to harness their strengths in ways that allow them do so. If you feel the student has too many physical or cognitive challenges to contribute in some way, you’re doing it wrong. Think harder!

  • All students have the right to learn. Often when we see someone with abilities other  than what we are familiar with, we assume the person is not capable. Instead, we should be thinking of how can we change the environment, adapt the materials, and/or create a communication system so they can be successful and capable. We must create this environment for them… then watch them flourish! 
  • Regardless of one’s cognitive ability or ability to communicate in a “typical” way, all students are watching and listening.  Students sense emotions and respond to your facial expressions, gestures, and tone of voice. They are all much more perceptive than you may think. We must be  positive role models here! Too often I hear people talking about the student in front of them, sometimes even negatively. They can hear you! Even if they do not receptively understand all the words you are saying, I guarantee they can sense that you are not speaking nicely about them!
  • Although I do not work in an inclusive setting in a “typical” sense (there’s those quotation marks again. What is typical anyway?), all students should be included in all experiences and lessons throughout the day. If you feel they cannot or will not understand, it is your job to differentiate what you are teaching in order to have the experience be meaningful for all. Don’t worry, I know that typing this sentence is way easier than putting it into practice! It’s hard work, but it is necessary work!
  • All students should have access to an appropriate education in the least restrictive environment. In my experience, those who need the most support tend to be placed in a separate school where the requirement for being a teacher is typically a bachelors degree with no specific need for a background in education. Now, I am not saying these teachers cannot meet the complex needs of  students through training, professional development, and coaching. They can. I’ve seen it, but this is not always the case. The challenge, however, is that not all schools provide or invest in the training and support needed in order to develop the teachers’ skills so they can meet the significant needs of the students in their classrooms. This cycle ends up placing students with the most complex needs into an environment with ill equipped teachers who are not knowledgeable of the ways in which the students can be successful and access their environment.
  • Often when out in the community, people notice our students have differing abilities and are incredibly sweet and supportive. While this is wonderful and we are grateful to have the opportunity to show others in the community that our students are amazing, smart, capable, worthy – the community members tend to look to us  to speak for the student. For example: a student has a communication modality and we are out to lunch ordering food. A waiter could be very nice and greet the student but then look to the teacher to order. This is a prime teachable moment for the student, for the teacher, and for the community member who maybe has never encountered someone using an alternative communication system. MODEL! Teach the student. Teach the waiter. Allow the student to choose what they want. Can you imagine how powerful it could be to finally be able to communicate  in a way that is intelligible  and have them actually bring you exactly what you chose to eat for lunch that day instead of what someone said you had to eat?! Think of how empowering and motivating that would be!
  • Behavior is communication. When a student hits, bites, pulls hair, punches, kicks, they are not bad kids trying to be mean! The underlying factor to any behavior, no matter how extreme, is communication. Too often I hear people refer to students as bad, mean, aggressive… sometimes in front of the student! We all know when an infant is wet, hungry, or tired, they will cry.  When an infant does this, we try a snack, a nap, a diaper change, or a change of scenery. For students with complex needs, typically including communication deficits, we tend to deem them aggressive, bad, or mean when they display these behaviors. BUT their behavior is communication and it is our responsibility to figure out what they are communicating. What I do know is that “tantrums” (I am so not a fan of that word. It makes me cringe but let’s be real… have you used it before?) are the student trying to tell you something. Let’s put the pieces together and figure out what it is.  HINT: ABC data will help! Am I talking about the alphabet? Nope. I am talking about Antecedent Behavior Consequence. Let’s break down the environment, take some data, and figure out what this person is trying to tell us!

What do you think?  What do you know about students with complex needs that you want others to know?  Tell us!

Logan Headrick is a Special Education Coordinator for students 18-22 years of age at St. Coletta of Greater Washington, a non profit charter program serving individuals with significant needs in the Virginia, Washington DC, Maryland area.  Logan earned an MAT at James Madison University in 2013 and has been creating opportunities for independence and inclusion for those experiencing significant disabilities ever since.

From Punishing to Teaching The Behavior We Want To See

Ahh, “behavior management.”

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

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

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

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

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

These systems operate on some assumptions.

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

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

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

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

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

Things I Know

  • Educational contexts will not improve until we demand professionalism of the field. That begins in teacher education. Set a high bar for faculty. Teacher education is not a place for career teachers to transition. It’s a career in and of itself with specific knowledge and skills separate from those demanded in K12 environments.
  • Parenting is hard and no supports exist for doing it well. Everyone is not an expert on child development nor does everyone have access to an expert on child development. Unrealistic expectations abound and parents and kids struggle as a result.
  • Every. Single. Person. is doing the best they can with what they have. Behavior is communication and serves a purpose so seek to understand rather than punish. Address the cause of the behavior rather than the behavior itself.
  • Mistakes are unavoidable and necessary components of learning.
  • Typical grading systems do not reflect learning.  They’re more reflective of compliance with teacher preferences.  If you give/get attendance points, drop a letter grade for late submission, or in any other way use grades to compel behavior, you are abusing the system.  Grades are communication of mastery.  That’s it.  Not behavior.
  • Meaningful inclusion means each and every learner is a valued member of the classroom and school community. Supports are in place in order to reach the high expectations set for each student.  Fair is not always equal as we each need different supports for success.
  • Every.  Single.  Family.  Loves their child and is doing the absolute best they can with their specific realities.  Empathy is foundational to effective teaching.

What do you know?  Tell me!!

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.

Sharing is Caring? Nope. Sharing Sucks.

Kids need to learn to share.  They have to share precious resources with siblings.  They have to share with others at school.  Sharing is a mainstay topic on Sesame Street.  Parents pull their hair out because their kids “can’t” share.  Sharing is caring, a way of life.

Or is it?

Merriam-Webster says “sharing” is 1) a portion belonging to, due to, or contributed by an individual or group and 2) one’s full or fair portion 

Jen Newton says sharing is having enough for everyone including yourself (e.g. birthday treats) and TAKING TURNS is giving “one’s full or fair portion” to another with nothing for yourself.  Sharing is altruistic and happy, it feels good.  Turn taking means waiting, giving up what you had and probably want, for someone else’s happiness.  They are not the same thing but we do tend to confuse them when talking with and about kids.

Adults rarely, if ever, give up treasured items for nothing in return.  Think about it.  When was the last time you gave up something you wanted, really really wanted?  We ask kids to do this all the time.  We tell them they aren’t kind or good friends to others if they do not want to give what they have to someone else.

Adults have to take turns.  We actually do a lot of turn taking in our grown up life; stop lights, grocery store check out lines, drive through ATMs (do people still do that?).  Many adults do not do this well, patiently, with kindness.  Despite our expectations for kids to  willingly and readily “share,” we rarely model this giving-up-of-a-preferred-object-for-nothing-in-return version of caring in our own lives.

So why do we expect kids to do it?  And do it willingly and happily?

The truth is, kids do share willingly and happily.  They just don’t take turns as easily.  Ever curse under your breath at the car in front of you who hasn’t moved despite the light turning green?  Yes?  Then you don’t take turns easily either!

Teaching children to take turns involves strategy.

  1. Start with making turns brief so children do not have to wait long to be rewarded for patiently waiting.
  2. Try a timer, the duration of a song, five pushes on a swing, something tangible even young children can count, or hear, or see.
  3. Provide SPECIFIC feedback for waiting patiently.  “I know how hard it is to wait and you are doing so very patiently.”
  4. Validate that waiting is hard.  Tell your children or students about times when it’s hard for you to wait.  Reveal that turn taking takes effort for all of us – grown ups, too!

Sharing is great!  We all love sharing because we get to bring smiles to the faces of others and ourselves all at the same time!  Turn taking takes teaching and practice and reinforcement.  How do you teach turn taking?

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.

Teaching Is Intellectual Work

Educators hear it all the time.

“Must be rough to just play with kids all day.”

“Wiping noses and tying shoes, huh?”

“Summers off and work day ends at 3:00?  What do you have to complain about?”


The first five years of life are arguably the most critical in the development of brains, in empathy, in language, in social emotional development, in ways that set the course for a child’s entire lived experience.  Early childhood educators are doing the most critical work of a society – they are investing in the development of humans.

Join us.

We will use this space to promote evidence based practices and to shine light on alternatives to the cookie cutter approaches in education.  We will dismantle beliefs about children and families that do harm and put limits on growth.  We will explore how we can grow toward strengths-based approaches that celebrate the first five years and open the doors for the potential within every child.

Come with us.  

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.