3 Tips to Support Special Education

            I’m teaching a graduate course in literacy at Medaille College, and as my teachers-to-be embarked upon their first lesson plan, I gave them a classroom scenario to work from. I spent a lot of time reminding them it is always about who is in the room, so they should start with the students first, and then build a lesson around them. Clearly, I expected students to include standards, attend to management needs and utilize strategies, as the lesson plan template indicates. However, as our planning unfolded, I realized that unless you have had experience working with special education students, their teachers and their parents, it is difficult to grasp the symbiotic relationship that develops.

As the teachers-in-training used websites like this one from the Learning Disabilities Association of America, and this one from the Center for Parent Information and Resources, and this one from the American Federation of Teachers, to gather lists of appropriate accommodations and modifications, I also wanted to give them “real life” advice from someone who has been teaching in an inclusion setting for over a decade. They gathered the factual information from these important websites, and the following tips were the anecdotal ones I shared:

 

Show Up

            There is nothing quite like a committee on special education (CSE) or a 504 plan meeting, because they are so important to the future of a child. (For an excellent side-by-side comparison, take a look here.) Consider this: The reason you, as a teacher, are meeting with a particular family in the first place is because there are needs that must be met, needs that are unique to this individual child, to ensure the child’s best education. This is the child they love and know in a different context—the child they have high hopes and dream for. Do not fail to give CSE or 504 meetings your utmost attention, respect and professional input. If you are a teacher who knows how to help a child—based on either personal experience or professional opinion—you must act to help the child receive the services needed to be successful. Though there are valuable tools available to measure all manner of competencies, strengths and weaknesses, one of the best ways to help a child is to show up and advocate for the education the child needs. You would want other educators to do the same if it were your child.

 

Know your technology

            I recently attended a summer CSE for a student I had last year. I went because the parent asked me to be there; the high school teachers who would be involved did not actually know her child, and I did. One of the key ways I was able to help shape his program was to emphasize the technologies that I knew made him more successful. His comprehension improved when he used audio recordings of the books we read in class; we had used Overdrive to download free copies from the public library. His handwriting is atrocious, but as I pointed out to the committee, I didn’t know that because I have a paperless classroom. Access to a computer for all assignments would improve his teachers’ ability to assess what he learned instead of having to decipher his “chicken scratch,” which even he said he couldn’t read. In my class, many students used the Google voice-to-text feature, and we discussed Dragon NaturallySpeaking software. For an overview of available speech recognition software, take a look here. Reading Rockets has created an overview of assistive technology that is very useful from both a parent’s perspective and from a teacher’s point of view. I would not hesitate to direct parents to Reading Rockets’ list.

 

IEPs for all

            Yes, you read that correctly. No, you don’t have to panic, nor do I think this means the end of public education, as discussed here. An individual education plan, or IEP, (explained here by PBS) is a fairly clunky document that provides the supports and safeguards necessary for a child with special needs to be successful, and would cause me to break into cold sweats if I had to live by 133 different plans for my students. My suggestion is that we move away from hard-and-fast labels, and implement flexible classrooms where learning is an individualized experience, “tweaked” by the teacher-as-facilitator based on data gathered and intuitive technology that can assess where students are and help us meet them there. This is the basis for my flexible classroom philosophy, explained here at GettingSmart.com, and in my book The Flexible ELA Classroom: Practical Tools for Differentiated Instruction in Grades 4-8.

            However, I don’t think we are collectively in a place yet where these documents aren’t sacrosanct for special education students, but I do think it is food for thought that education continue to evolve toward a more individualized experience that meets students’ social, emotional and academic needs. My upcoming book, The Flexible SEL Classroom: Practical Ways to Build Social-Emotional Learning in Grades 4-8 explores how to build a flexible classroom (an individualized experience) while concentrating on the social and emotional needs of students—an area that certainly needs an IEP plan—even if in theory only.

 

           As I think about my soon-to-be teachers, it occurs to me that the practical advice I gave, coupled with solid educational resources, provides a nuanced view of what it means to successfully support special education. It would have been impossible to say, “Here, go read the regulations” and expect teachers-in-training to know what to do with that. It is the combination of the factual and the anecdotal, the hard and fast rules with the flexibility to differentiate, that will provide the best experience for our special education students.