Taking Parent Fear and Anxiety out of the Evaluation and IEP Process

by John Peterson

Talking with numerous educators over the years, I have heard many colleagues express significant concern regarding how anxiety- and fear-provoking the initial special education evaluation and IEP development process can be for parents and caregivers, especially when the area of autism is being considered. Instead of focusing on the hope that comes with the collaboration between home and school and improving specific communicative skills, educators often feel like they are walking on eggshells around parents and caregivers when it comes to the initial evaluation process and IEP development for autism.

According to Rethink Ed, even though students with autism make up only 9% of all students with disabilities, they account for 25% of all due process hearings in special education. With this statistic in mind, it is no wonder that educators run into parents and caregivers who are experiencing a variety of negative emotions when they first hear the word autism. In some cases, the emotions are so intense that I’ve even heard educators question, “Should I even bring up the ‘A-word’ to the parents?”

What is amazing is the stark contrast in how educators view these same students being evaluated for autism. Educators see:

  • Strengths that the students possess and how the IEP team can build upon these strengths
  • Unlocked potential that they cannot wait to tap in to
  • And, most of all, hope for a promising future

So as educational leaders, how can we flip the script and take parents’ and caregivers’ focus away from fear and anxiety and guide them towards strengths, untapped potential, and hope for a promising future? Simply put, the answer lies within how we assess our students with autism and how we interact with their families throughout the evaluation and IEP process.

Avoid Subjectivity

When parents and caregivers are first learning about autism or even hear an educator refer to autism, they may see their child in a much different light than other members of the IEP team. The key in the evaluation process for educators is to take the subjectivity out of the eligibility determination and take the focus off the differences in perception between home and school. If the differences between home and school become the focus, the natural result more often than not is an adversarial relationship. In other words, if the parents emotions are already running high and they are not 100% trusting the educators evaluating their child, then any differences in perception of their child will only exacerbate the relationship between home and school.

Instead of falling into this trap of perceptions, educators should focus on providing objective data that compares the student with autism to his or her same age peers. Rating scales and models such as Social Communication Emotional Regulation Transactional Supports (SCERTS) yield objective data that compare students’ communicative skills to those of other students their age. This takes the subjectivity out of the conversation and supplies parents and guardians with a better understanding of what communicative strengths their child has and what areas call for specially-designed instruction. This shift naturally takes IEP teams away from the “us versus them” mentality and places the focus on skill development and goal attainment.

Communication is Key

Not only should educators focus on objective rating scales and data to compare students to their peers, but educators should also open the lines of communication with parents at the beginning of the evaluation process and continue that communication all the way through the initial IEP meeting. It often helps to know the “why” behind parents’ and caregivers’ reservations and concerns. Sometimes a listening and available ear can go a long way in reducing these concerns. On a regular basis, it also strengthens the relationship between home and school.

Strategies to help improve communication between home and school while navigating the initial evaluation for autism could include:

  1. Asking parents and caregivers if you could either stop by their home or meet them for coffee at a local cafe – this shows that their concerns matter to you and that you are willing to meet them in a location that they are comfortable with to hear about them.
  2. Offering to connect the parents and caregivers to other parents and caregivers who have gone through the initial evaluation process for autism (make sure you obtain consent of the other family before offering this up) – this shows that you are acknowledging the challenges and the variety of emotions that they are experiencing, and that they are not alone in this journey.
  3. Giving parents and caregivers an opportunity to talk with both general and special education teachers about their expectations for a student who receives special education services in the area of autism – this shows parents and caregivers that educators focus more on a student’s disability area needs and goals and NOT on labels.
  4. Remind parents and caregivers that the emotions that they are experiencing are common and that it may be beneficial to bring in either a family friend and/or parent advocate to help them separate the emotions from the issues – this shows that you are willing to work with them no matter who is at the table.
  5. Encourage the parents and caregivers to meet with the IEP team after three or four weeks of services being delivered – this shows parents that you value their feedback and are open to making adjustments to programming based on this feedback.

What is a common theme throughout all of the aforementioned recommendations is that parents and caregivers see you and the IEP team members as having a vested interest in the relationship and wanting to work with them for the benefit of their child. In the end, parents and caregivers want to know that their child is receiving the assistance that they need and are being supported by educators who truly care for them. Hopefully these recommendations and talking points help your IEP teams reduce fear and anxiety and create a strong foundation for your relationship with them for years to come.


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.


Rethink Ed’s Skills Success platform supports educators in developing and delivering quality IEPs, addressing many of the instructional challenges currently present in special education including. Find out more.

Strategies for Social and Emotional Learning that Begins with Adults

By Jill Yamasawa Fletcher

School-wide Social and Emotional Learning (SEL)

Because students model what they see, the most important social emotional learning begins with the adults in a school. Given this, it’s important to ask— do the adults in your school model self-awareness, self-management, growing social awareness, build healthy relationships, and exhibit responsible decision-making throughout the school day?

For example, if an adult makes a mistake and scolds the wrong student, does the adult own up to it and sincerely apologize for making a mistake, or do they brush it off? Do adults at your school share appropriately about their lives and experiences to build positive relationships with colleagues as well as students? Do all adults speak about their own emotions and talk about their feelings about things with students so students understand it’s okay to express feelings in a school setting?

If adults in your school do this regularly, then the culture of your school will benefit and this will be reflected in your students’ ability to take ownership of their own social and emotional learning. To ensure students manage their own SEL skills, it’s not enough to teach them lessons and provide them with strategies; these behaviors must be clearly evident in the interactions between adults within the institution.

Teachers have been told they are the most important element in the ability of a child to learn. When it comes to a student’s ability to learn and access social-emotional learning, this is true of every adult in a school.

I use the term adults and not teachers because each adult working at a school affects students in some way: consider a school’s front office clerks who assist students when they walk in the first day of school with a question; the attendance office clerk who speaks to tardy students; the school security attendant who guides students to make better choices during free periods; and the cadre of other professionals who serve the needs of students and the running of a school. These adults have interactions with students on a day-to-day basis and also offer opportunities for healthy SEL interactions.

One Solution to Adult SEL: Staff Wellness Days

One way my multi-track school has worked on the issue of adult social-emotional growth is by creating staff wellness days. While we have not found a way to incorporate all of the adults on campus yet, this past year we found productive ways to engage with teachers, administrators, and educational assistants.

Because we are a multi-track school, only three tracks are on campus at any given time, which means the entire teaching staff is rarely on campus at the same time. These staff wellness days are one of the few times the faculty are all on campus together.

A staff wellness day is scheduled once a quarter, runs about 90 minutes, and is led by staff members. Staff members sign up to lead various sessions such as tennis, volleyball, yoga, circuit training, dance, bullet journaling, cooking, baking, lei-making, essential oils, karaoke sessions, and so on.

Wellness Day Logistics

The beauty of staff wellness days is each educator is able to share their talents. This is how they are organized:

  1. An email is sent out about 3-4 weeks before each wellness day, which occurs once a quarter.
  2. The email asks for staff members, if they are willing, to lead a session. Staff members reply with an activity they would like to lead.
  3. Once all the sessions are set, the rest of the staff are given a selection of 8 or so sessions to sign-up for.

It’s not just teachers who lead wellness day sessions; educational assistants, assistant principals, and the principal have all shared their talents.

Why it’s Important

Wellness Days serve to give educators space and time to engage with one another in a relaxed and fun environment. These non-work sessions allow adults time to chat about common interests and see their colleagues in a new way. Relationships are built and forged by doing new things together.

For instance, when two adults learn how to bullet journal for the first time, they may both struggle with the concept of a future log or the difference between an event and a task. As they talk through their confusion, they will eventually arrive at an answer by discussing it, or asking the person leading the session. Finding this information together, and finally understanding it together, creates a new bond.

One of the most difficult things to do in any organization is to build authentic relationships. Making mistakes, laughing, and learning together in a low-stakes task provides this opportunity.


Jill Yamasawa Fletcher is a National Board Certified Teacher, Edutopia blogger, and a 2018 Hope Street Group Hawaiʻi State Teacher Fellow. She believes in the power of teachers telling their stories and letting students lead. In her career, Jill has taught special education math, English as a second language, language arts, and college and career readiness. Jill is currently serving as an interim assistant principal at Kapolei Middle School. Connect with her on Twitter @TeachinginHI.


To discover how Rethink SEL Professional Learning empowers the adults in a school with the tools and strategies they need to create positive school climates in which all students can thrive, visit www.rethinkSEL.com.

Effective Reinforcement Strategies for Children with Autism

by Tranika Jefferson, BCBA, LBA

Many teachers have used “First ___, then ____” statements in planning lessons for teaching with their students with autism. For example:

  • First complete the math problem, then you can use the iPad.
  • First match the objects, then you can listen to music.

As adults, we also use “First ___, then ____” statements in our everyday lives. For example:

  • First exercise, then you can get on social media.
  • First finish your work project, then you can watch your favorite TV show.

Essentially, this method of using “First ___, then ____” statements is a behavioral analytic strategy called the Premack principle. The Premack principle was originated in David Premack’s (1965) research with animals and is defined as “A principle that states that making the opportunity to engage in a high probability behavior contingent on the occurrence of a low frequency behavior will function as reinforcement for the low frequency behavior” (Cooper, Heron, & Heward, 2007, p. 271).

The Premack principle can be used to increase desired behaviors by allowing engagement of a preferred or liked activity contingent on them displaying the disliked or not preferred behavior. For a student that spends much more time playing with toy cars than learning site words, a contingency based on the Premack principle might be, “When you state your site words (low frequency behavior), you can play with your toy cars (high probability behavior).”

A child with autism may engage in certain preferred behaviors in high frequency such as:

  • Self-stimulation 
  • Perseverative interest
  • Repetitive behaviors

Therefore, they may disengage in behaviors and activities that may be asked of them. Teachers can be successful in motivating students with autism to attempt tasks that were previously less preferred or difficult if they plan their instruction to follow a disliked activity with a liked activity as the Premack principle states. 

A few tips to successfully use the Premack principle are:

  • Find a “then” (high probability behavior/activity) that is reinforcing for the student. If the high probability behavior/activity does not increase the low-frequency behavior, then find a “then” that does. 
  • Always and immediately (as soon as possible) provide the “then” (high probability behavior/activity). The high probability behavior/activity will be reinforcement for the low probability behavior only if it is followed after the low probability behavior.

References: Cooper, J., Heron, T., & Heward, W. (2007). Applied Behavior Analysis (2nd ed.). Columbus: Pearson.


Tranika Jefferson is a Board Certified Behavior and Licensed Behavior Analyst who holds an advanced degree in Juvenile Forensic Justice. Tranika is a Professional Services  Consultant with Rethink Ed. She delivers on-site and virtual training and coaching/mentoring sessions on Rethink’s web-based platform to teachers, paraprofessionals, support staff, and district leadership. She is also a doctoral candidate in Applied Behavior Analysis.

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.

7 Tips for Achieving Equity in Special Education

by Dr. Kurt Hulett

The issue and importance of equality has been a common fixture in the American vernacular for the past sixty plus years.  As a whole, working towards equality for all people, regardless of unalterable characteristics, is a valid and worthy pursuit.  For special education, however, equality falls short of what is needed and desired for children with disabilities – both legally and morally.  As a community of people passionate about serving these children, we need to move from a paradigm focused on equality and one that works toward equity. 

Why equity? Why now?

People often confuse the two terms as synonyms, when in fact they are both quite different things with very different intended outcomes.  Both equality and equity aim to ensure basic fairness.  With equality, the end goal is simple fairness – everyone has the same starting point and is treated exactly the same.  With equity, however, the presumption is that not all people begin from the same place – so each person is given what they need to be successful, based on their unique abilities and needs.

It makes sense that equality would have been the focus over the past four decades given the Supreme Court’s establishment of the Rowley standard of 1982, which enshrined the term ‘de minimis’ education in reference to what was required from school districts serving students with disabilities. In Rowley the Court ruled that the law’s intent was not to enable students with disabilities to achieve their full potentials, but rather to give them equal and sufficient access to a free and appropriate public education (FAPE). Ever since this decision, too many schools simply complied with paperwork requirements and provided cookie-cutter services which were anything but truly individualized.  The presence alone of a disability did not mandate special education services.

However, the very nature of special education is that no child is starting from the same place.   With the Supreme Court’s unanimous 8-0, Endrew F. decision (2017) on the books and a new standard established which requires schools to demonstrate ‘meaningful progress’ and ‘appropriately ambitious’ goals for students with disabilities, it is time we move from focusing on equality to truly one of ensuring equity. 

Here are eight tips schools can put into place to ensure equity is a driving force and desired outcome for all children receiving special education services. 

Tip 1:  Principal Leadership 

Principals must take an active role in the individualized education program (IEP) process, and a leadership role within the school relative to special education.  The principal is one of the key culture determinants in the school environment and can communicate volumes to the school community by demonstrating an active interest in special education.  Principals play an enormous role in the authorization of resources and supports in the public school environment and need to exercise their full authority to ensure every child receives every resource necessary to truly be successful and grow.  Although IEP meetings are comprised of many members, the principal always retains a special role of significance and has a unique ability to impact the education of each child in the building.  A principal can move a school from equality to equity by ensuring the proper resources and services are available for each child.

Tip 2:  Develop Truly Individualized and Quality IEP’s  

The IEP is the heart of the special education enterprise and ensures the legal and educational rights of every child.  Educators must put quality time, thought, and care into the development of each child’s IEP.   The quality of the IEP document is in direct correlation to the quality of the education and services being provided to a child.   For reasons of convenience and efficiency, some schools condone the copy and pasting of content, services, and goals from one IEP to the next.  This approach not only violates the law, but significantly reduces the quality of the final product.  Remember, the present level of academic achievement (PLAAFP) must drive the IEP and be aligned to the goals.  At a minimum, ensuring the PLAAFP and the goals are aligned will go a long way to ensuring a quality program.  Without a strong, personalized IEP that is uniquely crafted for a child based on her needs, it is extremely difficult to ever truly create educational equity.

Tip 3:  Use Online and Blended Learning Options

Regardless of disability or setting, if a child has significant academic deficits, personalized learning can and will help.  Whether before school, during an intervention period, during small group instruction, or in an after-school tutorial, all students with deficits can benefit greatly from truly personalized learning with diagnostic assessment elements.  In order to catch up with their own-age peers, students with disabilities often need more supports and intervention approaches.  We need to move beyond only considering the curriculum provided as one-size-fits all, and begin to customize and extend learning for those that truly need it. One way to achieve this is by taking advantage of the growth of educational technologies that enable us to provide truly personalized learning supports. 

Tip 4:  Let Data Drive Instruction and Intervention 

The heart of special education is rooted in the cyclical process of assess, intervene, instruct, and re-assess.  If we are to truly provide children with equity in education, we must engage in proactive, high-leverage, research-based best practices and avoid reactionary, ‘de minimis’ practices that fall short of maximizing a child’s true learning capacity. Today there is certainly no lack of data available to assist us in this endeavor. The boom in the EdTech industry has created solutions that allow schools to garner copious amounts of student data.  Whether academic or behavioral, tracking performance, evaluating the effectiveness of interventions, making adjustments, and differentiating instruction are made easier by diagnostic learning tools that allow schools to make data-driven instructional decisions.

Tip 5:  Thorough and Individualized Lesson Planning

Lesson planning is no fun – but every great teacher does it – and does it well.  Preparation is the key to success in special education, and whether a resource, inclusion, or functional skills classroom, it is imperative that the teacher plans individualized instruction for each child.  All too often we provide a one-size-fits-all lesson – even within special education.  We need to remember our instructional cycle and apply it individually and with great forethought. Ensuring equal access and equality of instruction that teaches one learning objective to the whole is meeting the bottom floor of expectation.  Truly pouring over instructional data, planning creative activities, differentiating instruction based on need and performance, providing formative re-direction and scaffolding, and enthusiastically engaging each child in the learning process is a major component of providing educational equity.   

Tip 6:  Establish High Standards for Each Child

Just because a child has a disability doesn’t mean they can’t be pushed or reach great achievements.  All too often, we candle or pacify students when they begin to struggle.  It is okay for a child with a disability to struggle and work their way through a problem.  Children normally rise only as high as we ask.  Although this sounds like a soft recommendation, there is plenty of hard science in education that underscores the importance of high expectations and teaching children to have a growth mindset.  A part of ensuring equity, is ensuring a positive belief in oneself and one’s abilities.  We must go beyond just academic instruction and consider the whole child.  For a child to truly receive educational equity, she must understand she is capable and worthy of high achievement.

Tip 7:  Motivation and Enthusiasm

One cannot over-emphasize the power of enthusiasm and positive thinking with children.  All students thrive with positive feedback and encouraging words.  No matter how difficult a child or situation may be or become, stay positive and enthusiastic.  The power of positivity has no limitations in the special education world.  Re-set yourself every morning and come into the school and classroom with an outwardly positive and enthusiastic demeanor.  So often, we focus myopically on the academic needs of children with disabilities.  The education of the whole child demands that we help to inspire and motivate children to live, learn, and achieve at their maximum capacity.

Conclusion

Moving a field from a mindset of equality toward one of true equity is not easy, nor will it happen overnight.  That said, significant strides forward can be achieved by following some or all of the tips I outlined above.

We are truly at a turning point in the history of special education.  The Endrew F. decision serves as a line of demarcation and a determining factor as we move forward.  It is time for all educators to move away from terms such as ‘de minimis’ education, compliance, and equality and towards a present and future that includes the vernacular of maximization, personalization, and equity. 

No field in the child services industry has ever been more successful at advocating for and achieving change than special education.  In the 1970’s the field of special education came together as one to enact one of the largest and most impactful  legislative changes for children in the history of America – the creation of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.   Today, it is once again time for change.  The gauntlet has been thrown down, and it is time for the field of special education to collectively step forward.

Dr. Kurt Hulett

Want to learn more? Join us for the next webinar in our Special Education Expert Webinar Series: Beyond Compliance:  Ensuring Individual  Success in Special Education. This free webinar will be presented by Dr. Kurt Hulett on March 21, 2019 at 1:00 pm EST. Participants will explore best practices in special education and discover what educators can do to ensure every child is receiving a well-crafted, appropriately ambitious, and reasonably implemented educational program.  Register now.

Find out out about our comprehensive, evidence-based solutions for Special Education at www.rethinked.com.

5 Ways to Ensure Social Emotional Learning (SEL) Success

by David Adams and Emily Paige of The Urban Assembly

There is a mismatch between what educators say and what they do around Social Emotional Learning (SEL) in America. According to the 2017 CASEL report, Ready to Lead, 98% of principals believe that students should be taught social emotional skills, but only 35% had a plan to do so. Of those who were implementing a plan, only 25% were doing so in a way that met high-quality benchmarks. This gap is particularly evident in high schools, where the support for a schoolwide approach to developing social emotional skills and competencies drops to 25%, as compared to 41% in elementary schools.

These trends persist despite research that demonstrates that students who have had exposure to a high quality of social-emotional development  improve academically, increase pro-social behaviors and attitudes, and are less likely to experience mental health issues, engage in risky behaviors, or be involved in the criminal justice system. Based on the experiences of the Urban Assembly Network and principals at Urban Assembly schools, here are the top five ways to ensure high quality Social Emotional Learning in your school.

1. Appoint an SEL Instructional Lead.

In order to ensure a long term impact on students,  social emotional programming needs a person, or people, for whom the quality of implementation is a key component of their responsibilities.  For example, at the Urban Assembly School for Media Studies,  Principal Bridgette Muscarella creates time and space for her instructional lead to manage her SEL team. This in turn gives the SEL team the opportunity to focus on the quality of direct instruction, integration of social emotional concepts into content areas, and organization of professional development for staff around social emotional concepts. This approach creates accountability for the work and ensures that there is ownership of the school’s stated goals in this area.  

2. Identify opportunities for ongoing professional development around SEL.

Creating a feedback loop is among the most powerful drivers of learning for students and adults. If you want your school to impact student social emotional development, professional development time must be dedicated to the topic. For example, at the Urban Assembly Unison School, Principal Emily Paige has worked to ensure that teachers have the opportunity to plan lessons around SEL and incorporate strategies like cultural relevance into their approach on a monthly basis. 

3. Ensure that all staff are equipped to support social emotional  development.

High quality Social Emotional Learning transforms the lives of children, and by extension, the schools and communities where they live and learn. Social Emotional Learning is more than a class or an assessment; it’s the process by which every student and adult in school, at home, and in the community develops the skills, attitudes, and values that form the foundation for how individuals relate to others and themselves, how they solve problems, and how they make good decisions. In order to see the investments of this work pay off, every adult in the school must have the tools to support the social emotional development of their students. For example, at the Urban Assembly School for Collaborative Healthcare every staff member in the building, including Principal Candace Hugee, teaches an advisory block where students are directly taught the social emotional skills vital to pursuing a career in healthcare. 

4. Explicitly teach Social Emotional skills to your staff and students.

In order to transfer learning from the classroom to the real world, students need to know the concept they need to learn (the vocabulary) , the skill attached to the concept (the behavior or thought process), when to use it (context for application), and have enough practice that they can perform the skill under conditions of stress or emotionality (fluency). The same is true for social emotional skills. Just as important, students need to see adults they trust modeling these concepts on a consistent basis.  This process allows students to integrate the skills into contexts different from those in which they were first learned. For example, at the Urban Assembly School of Business for Young Women, Principal Patricia Minaya has maintained a space for every freshman girl to learn the social emotional skills foundational to their future success in business. This space allows for the young women in her school to develop a common vocabulary, to give feedback to others as they practice their skills, and to recognize and deploy these skills in the workplace and the community.

5. Assess what your students are learning.

Learning requires change: a change in mental models, a change in thoughts, or a change in behaviors. Without change there is no learning, and without assessment we cannot identify change. Schools need to prioritize the assessment of student social emotional development. For example, at the Urban Assembly Academy for Future Leaders, Principal Joseph Gates has created the conditions by which students have an opportunity to self assess their social emotional development, compare that with their teacher’s assessment, and then set goals around Social Emotional Learning that will make them better leaders. Students track their goals over time so that the change is visible to themselves and their teachers alike. 


Like cooking a complex dish or running a marathon, if you feel like transforming the lives of students through high quality social emotional learning should be easy, then you’re probably not doing it correctly. And yet, when we consider the impact on the lives of our students, it’s clear we must make that commitment. And when we see the examples of those who have committed themselves and their schools to this pursuit of high-quality and impactful SEL, we know it can be done. It’s time to do it! How will you start?

Want to learn more? Join us for the next webinar in our SEL Expert Webinar Series: The Keys to Success in SEL Implementation. This free webinar will be presented by David Adams, M.Ed, Director of Social Emotional Learning at The Urban Assembly on February 14, 2019 at 1:00 pm EST. Participants in this webinar session will learn how to organize their schools and districts around social, emotional, and academic development. Register now.

Find out out what makes Rethink Ed the first choice in Social and Emotional Learning at https://www.rethinked.com/sel.

Strategies To Support Best Practices in Coaching

Effective coaching encourages collaborative, reflective practice. It supports teachers in improving their capacity to reflect and apply their learning to their work with students, promotes the implementation of learning and improves teachers’ ability to use data to inform practice (Annenberg Foundation for Education Reform, 2004). Ongoing and job-embedded professional development is key when teachers identify areas of focus for support. The University of Kansas Center for Research on Learning provides a framework for coaches and teachers, which aides in identifying a starting point for adult learning. It is referred to as “The Big Four,” which includes:

  • Classroom Management
  • Content
  • Instruction
  • Assessment for Learning (Knight, 2009a)

When teachers identify where to start and the instructional strategy they are willing to try, coaching should then continue to support the teacher through data and continuous progress monitoring.  Providing support requires explaining current research in the area of focus as well as modeling research-validated instructional strategies for the teacher.  Here are some strategies for translating research into practice:

  • Clarify: read, write, talk
  • Synthesize
  • Break it down
  • See it through teachers’ (and students’) eyes

Collaborative Exploration of Data (Knight, 2007).

As reflection is integral to successful coaching, take some time to reflect on your overall coaching experience:

  • What did you learn and how will you use it in your continued professional practice?
  • What was challenging?
  • What would you do differently in the future or to expand your personal growth?

 

References:

Knight, J. (2007.) Instructional coaching: A partnership approach to improving instruction. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press.

Knight, J. (2009a). The big four: A framework for instructional excellence. Manuscript in preparation.

Knight, J. ( 2009b) Partnership learning: Scientifically proven strategies for fostering dialogue during workshops and presentations. Manuscript in preparation.

Knowles, M.S. (1980) The Modern Practice of Adult Education: From Andragogy to Pedagogy.

Knowles, M. (1990) The adult learner. A neglected species, 4th Edition. Houston: Gulf Publishing.

“Do What You Think Like”

By: Steven Tobias, Psy.D. 

What do Character Education, Mindfulness, religion, emotional intelligence, Weight Watchers, and your mother all have in common?  They all want you to think before you act, which is actually hard to do.   

As human beings, we tend to do what we “feel” like.  When we act based solely on our emotions, we are using our reptilian brains, and then we shouldn’t be surprised when we respond like an alligator, chameleon, or snake in a highly charged emotional situation. Unfortunately, we have a strong tendency to respond reflexively with “fight or flight” triggered by primitive parts of the brain.   Thinking seems to be a fragile ability, which is why we have to strengthen it.

So, what can we do?  First, soothe the beast.  Take care of yourself.  Have fun.  Be with others you love.  Do meaningful and rewarding activities.  This reduces the stress that feeds the tyrannosaurus inside you.  Yes, you are too busy with work, needs of your family, home, and distraction of screens (but that’s for another blog).  Get your calendar  (I’ll wait)…  Put “ME” time on the calendar.  Do it now, or you will never “find” the time.  You can decide later what to do, but make sure it is what you want and is pleasurable.

The above is a prerequisite for thinking.  The more stressed you are and focused on others, the harder it is to think.  Now that your life is back in balance, let’s work on thinking.

  1. Reflect: What is going on? How do I and others feel? This stimulates your deliberate human brain to control your impulsive reptilian brain.
  2. Consider: What is your goal? This will give you direction and purpose.
  3. Decide: What can you do? What else?  What have you done before?  The more solutions you can brainstorm, the better chance of success.  Then, set a deliberate plan:  who is involved, what are you going to do, when are you going to do it, where are your going to do it, and how are you going to do it?  By the way, the “why” is so that you can get what you want.

This is doing what you think like, not what you feel like, and is more likely to get you what you want emotionally, socially, and materially.

Want to learn more? Join us for the next webinar in our SEL Expert Webinar Series presented by Steven Tobias, Psy.D. This webinar will teach how to be aware of and control emotions that lead us to poor decision making, how to set deliberate goals for oneself, and how to follow through with actions that are consistent with what one really wants.  The trick is to “think” while feeling, and this is harder than one might think.

By: Steven Tobias, Psy.D. 
Steven Tobias, Psy.D., is the director of the Center for Child and Family Development in Morristown, New Jersey. He has over thirty years of experience working with children, parents, families, and schools. Dr. Tobias feels a strong commitment to children’s social and emotional development and provides consultation to schools as a way of reaching many children, including those who are underserved in terms of their social and emotional needs. He has coauthored several books with Dr. Maurice Elias, including Emotionally Intelligent Parenting and Raising Emotionally Intelligent Teenagers. He has given lectures throughout the United States on topics related to parenting and children’s emotional development. Dr. Tobias lives in New Jersey. Maurice J. Elias, Ph.D Professor of Psychology at Rutgers., and Steven E. Tobias, Psy.D Director for Center of Child and Family development are the authors of several books including: Boost Emotional Intelligence in Students and Emotionally Intelligent Parenting.