Using Student Strengths to Create Belonging

By Dr. Sara Totten

In my role as Director of Student Services, I recently observed in a classroom where a student, we’ll call him Lewis, demonstrated minimal eye contact, response (verbal or physical), or social interaction. Upon Lewis’s arrival to the classroom, I observed the educator working with him provide a number of visual, physical, and verbal prompts to guide his morning routine. The educator also performed a number of sensory activities with the student. As the morning progressed, Lewis transitioned to the snack table and remained in his seat for the duration of snack time. I then observed him verbally respond to the educator— the first verbalization of the morning!I

I am embarrassed to say I had at first assumed the student was non-verbal because I hadn’t witnessed any verbal communication during the arrival activities. I realized the implication of my initial assumption that the student did not yet have verbal language. Gut punch!

The experience was a reminder of how easily we, as educators, return to what we think we know. There is a natural desire in all of us to categorize and label; this is often how we make sense of the world. We take from what are often limited exposures or observations to form our schema. But, there are dangers in assumptions, particularly when any of those assumptions create conscious or unconscious limitations for our students and lead to environments where our students may not feel they belong.

All students want and deserve to feel a sense of belonging in the classroom. To truly create a sense of belonging, students need to be seen. In an effort to create opportunities for belonging, educators must take time to get to know student strengths, interests, and preferences in a meaningful way. The more educators can build on student strengths, create student engagement, and hold high expectations for all learners the more students will feel a sense of belonging. To do so, educators might utilize the following:

  • Student interest inventories or strengths-based assessments
  • Time to observe students in their environments, paying attention to communication, play, and overall interactions.
  • Identify Antecedent, Behavior, Consequence (ABC) when students are performing well. Specifically, what about the environment created the behavior you wanted to see, and what about the immediate action after the behavior reinforced it?
  • Increase opportunities for connections (i.e. morning meeting, free or structured play, etc)
  • Explore students’ interests in lesson plans
  • Create multiple ways for students to express ideas
  • Identify and provide avenues and opportunities to meet potential sensory needs

It is vital that educators constantly reflect upon their own assumptions. McCollum (2016) identifies a simple yet effective notion, that of “presum[ing] intellect.” If we assume all students have high capacity and intelligence for learning, we change the assumption that comes with a label. We shift from deficit thinking, to strengths-based thinking. We own that it’s on us as educators to create the environments where all our students can flourish.


Dr. Sara Totten is currently the Director of Student Services for the DeForest Area School District, a suburb of Madison, Wisconsin. She earned her doctorate in educational leadership at Edgewood College in Madison studying principal perspectives of disproportionate placement of African American students in special education programs.

Sara is currently the interim president-elect and has previously served the Social and Awards and Legislative representative roles on the Wisconsin Council for Administrators of Special Services. She also serves on the Wisconsin School Administrators Alliance (SAA) and participated on the research and development committee to revise the SAA Evidence-Based Agenda this past year. In addition to her role as director, Sara has taught a number of courses for Lakeland University’s Master Counseling program.


The Forgotten Service Providers: Rethinking Paraprofessional Collaboration

by John Peterson

In delivering special education programming, it is becoming more and more common to support our students with disabilities within the general education classroom. No one will argue that students with disabilities, including those who have autism, don’t benefit from being around their general education peers and the high expectations that come with the general education curriculum. School districts often assign Paraprofessionals as the staff members that support students with autism in the general education classroom. Here is where our service delivery model often falls short for our students with autism: school districts are not training their Paraprofessionals in the skills that they need to model, support, and redirect students when they need assistance. The problem does not lie with the Paraprofessionals but with the decision-makers within a school district.

There are many skilled and passionate Paraprofessionals that serve within public education. The problem that these well-intentioned service providers face is that they are often thrown into the general education classroom without the following supports:

  • Time to review and discuss the IEPs of students that they are supporting.
  • Time to shadow someone else supporting the students that they will eventually support.
  • Formal training in communication and sensory-related supports.

All of these professional supports are essential for the success of our students with autism within the general education setting. Those who are in leadership positions should think through how they can support their Paraprofessionals in these three areas. However, for the purposes of this discussion, we are focusing only on the last bullet point: providing Paraprofessionals with formal training in communication and sensory-related supports when supporting our students with autism.

Whether a student with autism is nonverbal and requires an augmentative alternative communication device, or is verbal and struggles with reading social cues from others, he or she will often work with a Speech and Language Pathologist on communicative strategies to help overcome barriers that they may face on a day to day basis in the general education classroom. Although it is easy for an educational leader to assign a Paraprofessional to another task while students with autism are being supported by a Speech and Language Pathologist, there are several benefits of having the Paraprofessionals who work with students with autism sit in on their specially-designed instruction for communication.

The main benefit that a Paraprofessional experiences by working directly with a Speech and Language Pathologist is that they can identify what the strategies of focus are. Not only can they see the strategies that the Speech and Language Pathologist is focusing in on, but the Speech and Language Pathologist can actually have the Paraprofessional participate in the specially designed instruction. In turn, the Paraprofessional can model and reinforce these communicative strategies, supports, and accommodations in the general education classroom.

In short, this is a train the trainer model. The real growth in communication for a student with autism most likely will not occur in the 60 minutes that they spend with the Speech and Language Pathologist each week. Rather, it will occur when these strategies and interventions are implemented and reinforced by the Paraprofessional in naturally occurring environments in the general education classroom.

This train the trainer model can also be applied to a Paraprofessional working directly with an Occupational Therapist as they are providing sensory supports, accommodations, and strategies to a student with autism. The Paraprofessional almost becomes an extension of the Occupational Therapist in the general education classroom, guiding the student to the appropriate supports to help them become emotionally regulated while minimizing instructional time lost.

Besides becoming an extension of the Occupational Therapist and Speech and Language Pathologist in the general education classroom, another benefit to having Paraprofessionals sit in on communication and sensory-related instruction is empowering them to give the IEP team members feedback on the implementation of the strategies, accommodations, and supports that are being used by the student. They can share which ones are impactful and helping mitigate the student’s barriers and point out some potential adjustments and/or changes to the strategies and accommodations that are not having the desired effect. This not only strengthens the strategies being implemented, but makes the Paraprofessionals feel like valued team members whose voice is being respected and heard. In short, their feedback matters to the student with autism, the Speech and Language Pathologist, and the Occupational Therapist, and they see the impact of their feedback.

Paraprofessionals do NOT have to sit in on every minute or every session (for that matter) that a student with autism has with a Speech and Language Pathologist and/or Occupational Therapist. Often times, it helps to frontload a Paraprofessional’s time with these service providers, especially when new strategies and/or supports are being taught. From that point on, the team members can decide the appropriate frequency and amount of time for the Paraprofessional to work directly with the Speech and Language Pathologist and Occupational Therapist.

When working with Paraprofessionals to effectively support students with autism, educational leaders should take the following points into consideration:

  • Paraprofessionals can also be trained in supporting students with autism through a variety of web-based trainings in addition to working directly with service providers like Speech and Language Pathologists and Occupational Therapists.
  • Paraprofessionals can be provided with professional learning opportunities that connect them with other Paraprofessionals within your school district so they can learn from one another and serve as a sounding board.
  • Paraprofessionals can be a great source of feedback for a student’s special educational programming and for helping plan future professional learning opportunities in special education.

There is a financial investment that comes with providing time for Paraprofessionals to receive training on how to support students with autism directly from Speech and Language Pathologists and Occupational Therapists as well as receiving other professional learning opportunities. However, the benefits truly outweigh the costs, and our students with autism can make significant growth when we make this investment in professional learning for our Paraprofessionals.


John Peterson serves as the Director of Special Education for the Hamilton School District in Sussex, Wisconsin and has served as a special education administrator for a total of 15 years. John has previously served as the president of the Wisconsin Council of Administrators of Special Services (WCASS) and has been in leadership roles on their board of directors since 2006. John also helps mentor aspiring special education administrators by serving as a University Supervisor for Cardinal Stritch University (Milwaukee, WI) and has presented on a variety of special education-related topics at both state and national conferences.


For information on Rethink Ed’s professional training for educators and paraprofessionals, including our Basic ABA and Advanced ABA on-demand training series, visit www.rethinked.com.

It’s About Progress, Not Perfection: Celebrating the History of Special Education and Autism Advocacy

by Dr. Kurt Hulett

Special education, as we know it today, was born out of conflict and has continued to serve as a lightning rod for controversy and litigation since the early 1970s.  In the history of the United States few areas in the pantheon of education have drawn any where near the amount of debate, litigation, and scrutiny as special education over the past 45 years.

There was much fighting involved in the passage of P.L. 94-142 (1975) and quite a bit of conflict over the PARC v. PA (1971) and Mills v. Board of Education (1971) cases – all of which played major roles in the building of the foundations of the field of special education as we know it today.  This comes as no surprise in that all great strides in civil rights in America have only occurred after great struggle and conflict.

Today, however, as we celebrate Autism Awareness Month, we will take a moment to step away from controversy and celebrate the incredible journey of special education in America, and in particular, celebrate the advocates, adults and children with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), their teachers, families and everyone else who has worked tirelessly to advance the field of special education.

Promoting Awareness

Discussing both the field of special education as a whole and ASD in particular makes a lot of sense.  The incidence rate of ASD has skyrocketed over the past half-century, and it is in large part due to the hard work of advocates for children with ASD that has driven the awareness necessary to help identify and assess these young people, and the presence of a very powerful law (IDEA) that has required the appropriate identification and evaluation of all children suspected of having disabilities.

According to Wright (2017):

The prevalence of autism in the United States has risen steadily since researchers first began tracking it in 2000. The rise in the rate has sparked fears of an autism ‘epidemic.’ But experts say the bulk of the increase stems from a growing awareness of autism and changes to the condition’s diagnostic criteria.

Although some argue environmental factors have contributed to the growth in incidence among students with ASD, it is highly likely that ASD has always existed at current levels and that we have only begun to fully and appropriately identify and assess individuals with ASD. The growth in the number of students being identified with ASD has been exponential, which is in direct proportion to the efforts and success of ASD advocates in promoting public awareness. This increase in incidence is emblematic of the success advocates for children with ASD have had in working on behalf of them.

Advocating Legally

Whether it be success with litigation or the 1990s addition of Autism as an eligibility category under IDEA, advocates of students with ASD have had tremendous success in advancing the rights and opportunities for children with ASD. They have been among the most successful groups working on behalf of students with disabilities. In fact, a recent review of litigation indicates that Autism-related court cases are more than 10 times as prevalent as those related to other areas of disability (in relation to FAPE-based IDEA complaints).

The most important recent Supreme Court case that impacts all of special education, Endrew F. v. Douglas County School District (2017), was steered to the High Court by parents, attorneys and advocates of children with Autism.

Prior to Endrew F. standards for Free and Appropriate Public Education  (FAPE) were guided by the Rowley (1982) decision, which established the “merely more than de minimis” standard for providing education to students with disabilities. However, in Endrew F., parents of a son with ASD successfully argued that his school had not set appropriately ambitious goals and that he had not made meaningful progress.  Endrew F.’s parents were able to demonstrate that in a private placement he made both academic and behavioral progress after years of little progress in public school.  The court ruled unanimously in their favor, thus establishing new standards which require schools to demonstrate ‘meaningful progress’ and ‘appropriately ambitious’ goals for students with disabilities. In this way, the Endrew F. case serves as a lasting and powerful symbol of the importance of the ASD community and the impact they have had on the broader field of special education.

How can we get involved?

Autism Awareness month is a great time to think about how we can get more involved. Here are some ways we can support the individuals with ASD as well as the overall movement to promote Autism Awareness:

  1.  Advocacy:  We cannot let up on the advocacy front.  We must continue to support and fund organizations that advocate on behalf of individuals with ASD.  The law, including both legislation and litigation, is always evolving and we, the special education community, must remain steadfast in ensuring the right cases move through the system and that IDEA and other laws are reauthorized and funded appropriately.

  2. Training and Awareness in Schools:  Although awareness and prevalence are growing rapidly in the schools, we still have a long way to go to educate all members of the school and surrounding communities about ASD and the best practices for supporting these individuals.  We must continuously promote inclusive environments and fund the training of staff and personnel at every level of the educational enterprise.

  3. Funding of IDEA:  As it is a tremendously underfunded mandate, we must urge Congress to meet the original promise to fund the law at a minimum of 40%.  The lack of funding at the federal level creates very difficult scenarios at the local levels.  Schools and communities want to do right by students with ASD; however, they need the supports, services, and funding to do so.

  4. Research on Best Practices in the Schools:  Tremendous progress has been made in the area of research and best practices. However, we must keep pushing forward to find new and better ways of supporting and helping individuals with ASD.  In particular, we need continued focus and research on interventions and methodologies that can be utilized in schools to reach and teach these students – both academically and socially.

  5. Innovation:  We need to support research in areas of innovation.  For example, Virtual Reality is demonstrating exciting advances and applications for children with ASD.  We need to continue to push the technological boundaries and push for continued innovation in research, science, and applied technologies.

  6. Focus on Inclusion in All Settings:  At the end of the day, one of our primary goals must be the successful integration of all individuals with ASD into the mainstream of society.  We must invest funding and research efforts into new approaches and methodologies for advancing this cause.

In Conlcusion

As we dedicate the month of April to promoting Autism Awareness and inclusion, let’s also remember to celebrate the many individuals in the broad field of special education who fight on in courthouses, halls of state houses, boards of education, IEP meetings and everywhere else on behalf of all students with disabilities, and in particular those who continue to successfully  advocate on behalf of students with ASD. It is time to acknowledge the tremendous success of these advocates and to say, on behalf of children with ASD, “Thank you!”


Dr. Kurt Hulett is a former school Principal and a current writer, special education consultant, and advocate whose goal is to bring educators and stakeholders from all strata together to work for the benefit of all children. He is also a member of the Center for Special Education Advocacy and hosts the Kurt’s Kitchen Table EdTalk video podcast. Dr. Hulett is the author of Legal Aspects of Special Education and is currently working on an education reform book entitled Miles to Equality, due out in 2020.