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!

Reacting VS Responding

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

Wrong.

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

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

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

It starts with modeling.

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

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

Wait. Sometimes kids only respond to yelling…right?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Response = thoughtful and intentional action.

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

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

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

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

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?

 

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?

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?

What Teachers Want: Are You Serious?

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

Not My Job!

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

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

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

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

Who is Paying?

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

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

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

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

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

Environment

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

What Now?

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

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

 

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

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

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

 

 

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?

 

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?

Things I Know

Tiara
Mira Williams
  • Children learn through experience. It is our duty, as educators, to enhance and strengthen children’s opportunities to explore the world, while also modeling effective communication and positive relationships.
  • Children are always listening, be cautious and kind with your words and actions. Model respect, kindness, and love. Words matter.
  • Every child learns differently, feels differently, lives differently, and communicates differently. Acknowledge these differences WITHOUT shaming. Embrace these differences, learn from them, and teach acceptance.
  • Children develop on a continuum and at different rates. Instead of comparing children to each other, we must take time to understand and know children as individuals. We should then tailor instruction and develop authentic assessment that meets each child’s specific needs.
  • Children can sense judgement. Examining your own biases and beliefs is the first step in making intentional decisions to create judgement-free interactions with children and their families. You can Do THIS. Be brave. Reflect. Evolve.
  • No child wakes up with the intention of ruining an adult’s day. Behavior is a form of communication that MUST BE TAUGHT!
  • Lean in, listen, and figure out what your child/student is trying to communicate.
    Take the time to teach and model behavior just as you would take the time to teach a child to read. Remember modeling is key.
  • Children DO see color and it is OK. Instead of encouraging them not to see color, encourage them to have open and inclusive conversations that lead to understanding, acceptance, and appreciation of the differences they notice.

What do you know? Your turn, tell me!

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!!