Teachers Making A Difference for Special Ed Students
“What would Ms. K* do?” was in my playlist of top 10 questions as I was frantically grabbing books and files at my office in Washington, D.C. Reports had been slowly pouring in over the last few weeks about the growing threat of COVID-19. My husband, a physician, had informed me that I should make plans to begin working from home.
But who is Ms. K, and why invoke her opinion at the onset of a global crisis?
Ms. K is now a retired elementary special education teacher. She taught my daughter, Dorian, for three years and is the sort of teacher that every parent, especially parents of children with special needs, wants for their child. Dorian has a laundry list of disabilities. She has Cornelia de Lange Syndrome, is on the autism spectrum with pervasive developmental disorder , is nonverbal but hearing, has scoliosis, and learning and intellectual disabilities. When I met Ms. K., Dorian was in kindergarten and despite our best efforts to include her in a regular classroom, she needed so much more. Ms. K. taught in a Learning for Independence Program in Maryland, and she was awesome!
Dorian’s multiple disabilities—ranging from medical, physical, cognitive and behavioral—left us all spent at the end of each day. Most of all, they left Dorian with an inability to express her needs. Her primary mode of communication was picture communication, gestures and perfunctory American Sign Language. It was Ms. K who unlocked the communication puzzle for us all. Ms. K and her instructional assistant both were fluent in ASL and taught Dorian and eventually the rest of the family how to sign. It was a game-changer. Within three months, Dorian’s sign vocabulary went from 20 words to 673 words, and she began to sign three- and four-word sentences.
The next three years with Ms. K were indeed transformational; I could fill a book about how a teacher not only changed the life of my daughter but also how she changed my family, how inclusion can work when it is supported by a school and a district. That was 13 years ago, and the world has changed dramatically since then. I want to pivot to how my time with Ms. K has prepared me and families like mine for a time such as this.
I firmly believe Ms. K would handle this pandemic and the forced evolution to distance learning for students and families like mine in the same manner—with exuberant positivity, a simple plan, patience, and a boatload of resources.
Read this blog addressing the need for increased investment for special ed following the COVID-19 crisis
Special Ed: A Simple Plan
Looking back, I realize that one reason why we had the successes with Dorian that we did was because we had a plan we could support at home. It was simple. For example, to increase her sign vocabulary, Dorian had to practice signing. Ms. K would send home pictures of sign vocabulary of items in our home, our cars, grocery stores, etc., and we practiced them. We would record signing lessons, and Dorian learned to record her own practice sessions. Ms. K gave us a list of words per month. The other thing she did that helped not only with Dorian but also with my other two children was to create a home schedule using Boardmaker symbols for evening and weekend routines.
In my role as special education policy analyst for the AFT and the parent of a young person like Dorian, my default response was: “How will special educators support families of children with disabilities?” “What would Ms. K do?” We both would tell teachers to:
- Keep it simple!
- Focus on one goal per week with one actionable/achievable task per day.
- Provide resources that range from no-tech, low-tech, mid-tech to high-tech.
- Use disability-specific resources; while this list is not exhaustive nor an endorsement, it is meant to be a handy reminder not to re-create the wheel!
Like many of you, I’m a parent working from home with my children, husband, and beloved family pet and struggling to strike a reasonable balance between demands on productivity and sanity. Please keep this in mind when you are developing lessons, creating packets and finding ways to support “home learning” and not attempting to “replicate” school days. Like you, your students and families may be competing for time on the computer or other devices, limited Wi-Fi strength, or just managing self-care and overall well-being during this period, which may be exacerbated by behaviors of a loved who cannot process how the daily routine has been changed or interrupted by school closures.
I again encourage you to use resources that have been made available through your district, your state, your professional associations, and your local/national union. Each state has access to parent training and information centers searchable by state. During this unprecedented event, recognize that a number of services like occupational therapy, physical therapy, or speech and language therapy may have to be modified or delayed. I encourage you to visit your district’s and state education agency’s websites for updated guidance.
Finally, help parents and caregivers navigate the language and behaviors of COVID-19. It is necessary. A number of agencies like The Arc and the National Association of School Psychologists have put together resources to help educators help families address more than academics during this crisis.
Ms. K is no longer just the world’s greatest former teacher, she’s now a dear family friend; and I know this is what Ms. K would do.
Register for this free, on-demand webinar: Ending the Stigma: Strategies for Disability Justice for Teachers and School Staff
Additional Resources for Special Ed
- Collection of Resources: Supporting Students with Disabilities During the COVID-19 Pandemic
- Tip Sheet for Supporting Students with Disabilities
- Supporting Individuals with Autism During Uncertain Times
- Best Practices for Helping Students with Autism During COVID-19
- Find more resources for special ed and supporting students with disabilities in our tailored collection for COVID-19 school closures.
- Explore resources, activities, lesson plans and professional development opportunities in our special ed fundamentals collection.