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.

3 Tips for Increasing Parental Engagement This School Year

It’s September and schools are back in session!  For educators, it is that magical time of year when anything seems possible.  You’re refreshed and ready to make this year the best ever.  You want all your students to have a successful year!  And you know that a key component to any educational program is parental engagement, especially for children with special needs.  But with the demands of today’s parents, getting appropriate parental engagement can be a challenge, and this is compounded for the parents of children with special needs.

Before we discuss ways to encourage parental engagement, let’s first look at what we mean by parental engagement. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) defines parental engagement in schools as parents and school staff working together to support and improve the learning, development, and health of children and adolescents. Schools and parents have the responsibility for educating our children (retrieved from CDC)

There are many benefits to parental engagement across the board, but particularly for students with special needs including:

  • Increased parental involvement and collaboration in the development of their child’s Individualized Educational Program (IEP)
  • Greater confidence and ability on the part of the parent to educate their own child
  • Better understanding on the part of the educator as to the special needs of each student
  • Higher student success due to the generalization of skills and consistency between home and school

Unfortunately, barriers to parental engagement do exist.  Some of these barriers are due to: cultural or language differences, special education law that can be difficult to understand, lack of time, past negative experiences, and lack of training on the part of the educator to effectively facilitate engagement.

What can you do to eliminate the barriers and make it easier for parents to engage? Here are three keys to increasing parental engagement.

Treat Parents as Partners.

Do you respect the role the parent has in the education of their child with special needs?  Do you actively invite parents to meet ahead of the IEP to set goals together?  Do you accommodate their schedules and consider their cultural contributions or differences?  Do you think about how to improve parent participation in the decision-making process?  These are just a few questions that can help you think about parents as partners in their child’s education.

Here are a few ways to help your parents’ partner with you:

  • Consider your message before the IEP happens. Did you invite them to listen to you and others tell them about their child or did you invite them to participatein the meeting and share their knowledge of their child?
  • Wait for the parents outside the meeting room prior to the IEP and walk in together as a team. That will be much less intimidating for the parents than walking into a room full of “experts” sitting and staring.
  • Understand that some cultures interact with educators and other school professionals differently. A parent may be agreeing with the proposed goals because they want to be polite and respectful.
  • Invite parents to ask questions and give them a platform to suggest goals they have for their child.
  • Take time toeducate the parents. Explain any special education jargon, provide them with resources, and connect them with other support programs such as translation services, if needed.
  • Let the parents know you are genuinely interested in what they have to say.
  • Create tool kits that provide parents with activities and resources to extend the learning into the home. The tool kits may also include tips and strategies for teaching their child or websites they can go to for additional activities or information.
  • Work with the parents to set realistic parent participation goals. They are the parent, not the teacher. Remember, the goal is quality, not quantity of involvement.

Create an Effective Communication System.

The goal of an effective communication system is to bridge the gap between home and school by providing a way to share concerns, successes, behavioral challenges, stressors, and changes.

There are many ways to implement such a system.  Choose the method that is simple and works best for you and the parent. The easier the system, the more it will be used.  And again, remember, quality of communication is more important than the quantity of communication.

Here are some suggestions:

  • Connect at the beginning of the year and ask parents what information they want. Perhaps you can come up with a checklist together, that’s easy to use and sends home meaningful information. The same goes the other way too. For example, create a checklist for things you want to know from home such as changes in sleep patterns, nutrition, or family relations.
  • Use a notebook that goes back and forth from home to school in the child’s backpack. You can report IEP progress or write anecdotes about the child’s day, etc. and the parent can write back questions or concerns. This can happen on a daily basis.
  • Many teachers use texts or email to communicate (check with the parents first for the most preferred method). They may find this less intrusive and intimidating than a phone call and allows the parents to think and respond on their schedule. If a phone call is necessary, perhaps send a text to say, “Can we set up a time to chat on the phone?”  This allows the parent to choose a time that works for them.
  • Schedule home visits, if appropriate.  This may help parents who lack transportation or have other circumstances that keep them from coming to school.

Create a Welcoming Climate.

Welcome your parents into your classroom in many ways and for many purposes.  The more you know your parents, the easier it is to work with them as partners.  Inviting parents into your classroom also provides an opportunity for family networking, bringing families together with other parents to share resources, empathy, and support.

Some ways to help parents to feel welcome in the classroom include:

  • Volunteering for special events and holiday parties, field trips, family and friends’ breakfasts, guest speakers, photo shares, parent presentations, etc.
  • Providing ways for parents to volunteer without having to come into the classroom, such as organizing and preparing materials that require cutting, collating, or stapling.
  • Volunteering to read to or with students or provide one-on-one assistance to students in the library or media center.
  • Inviting parents to attend presentations or view displays by the students or to school assemblies when appropriate.

So, as you set up for another successful school year, I encourage you to think about your parents as partners. You are the educator! You’re good at it! But reaching out to your students’ parents as partners will help you help your students and make your job a little bit easier!

Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports (PBIS) in the Classroom

By Stephanie Whitley, MEd-BCBA

What is PBIS?

Positive Behavioral Intervention and Supports (PBIS) is a schoolwide discipline system for creating positive school environments through the use of proactive strategies that define, teach and reinforce appropriate behaviors. PBIS is based on the principles of applied behavior analysis and is a proactive approach to establishing supports that:

•Improve the social culture needed for all students in a school to achieve social, emotional and academic success
•Makes challenging behavior less effective, efficient and relevant.

PBIS is the only approach addressing behavior that was mentioned in the 1997 reauthorization of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) and is interchangeable with School-wide Positive Behavior Supports.

What does PBIS look like?

PBIS focuses on a comprehensive system of positive behavior supports for all students in a school and is implemented in all areas of the school, including classroom and non-classroom settings (e.g. cafeteria, bus, restrooms, etc.).

PBIS is a tiered system of supports to improve the daily lifestyle of all by reducing the effectiveness of challenging behavior and making desired behavior more functional. Tier 1 supports are universal supports that are taught and reinforced with the whole student population. Tier 2 supports are targeted supports for students that need further explanation and reinforcement of desired behaviors. Tier 3 supports are supports provided at an individual level. This is for students that need tailored instruction and reinforcement to meet their personal learning needs.

 

How is PBIS implemented?

To establish the universal/Tier 1 supports, a campus committee is formed of administrators, general education teachers and special education teachers. The list of activities below are established:

1. A theme is chosen to help students and staff easily remember the rules. This theme either ties into the school mascot (e.g. PAW rules for Wildcats or Bulldogs) or follows the three “Be’s” (Be safe, Be responsible, Be respectful).

2. Each area of the school or community in which students frequent are identified. This includes cafeteria, gym, hallways, playground, buses, etc.

3. The thematic guidelines/rules are then applied to each identified area. For example, being responsible in the hallway is walking directly to and from your destination.

4. Visuals of all identified guidelines are created and posted in the locations identified.

5. A reinforcement system is established. This includes tokens to be used for when students are engaging in the desired behavior and a way for the students to redeem their tokens. For example, the Wildcats may create “Cat Cash” as a token of reinforcement. A school using the three “Be’s” may use “Honey Money.” The students are then able to use their tokens to purchase items in the school store or treasure box. Items can include school supplies, toys, homework passes, extra restroom passes and even gift cards.

6. At the beginning of the school year and right after each long break, such as winter break, students are provided instructions on each guideline in each area of the school/community. Instruction includes examples and non-examples of the expected behavior. For example, students are shown what it looks like to be responsible in the hallway (walking directly to and from destination), and what it looks like to NOT be responsible in the hallway (running or stopping to look in each window of classrooms as walking to and from destination).

7. Teachers and staff members are encouraged to look for students engaging in the appropriately identified behavior and to recognize those students by providing a token and naming the specific reason the student is receiving the token.

8. The students accumulate and redeem their tokens for a secondary reinforcer.

Modifications and Accommodations

Some students may need modifications or accommodations to fully participate in the PBS system. Students identified for Tier 2 and Tier 3 supports should be a small group of the total school’s population that need:

•More frequent reminders of the expectations
•More frequent reinforcement and/or ability to turn in their tokens more frequently for the secondary reinforcer
•Primary reinforcers paired with the token
•An individual chart to track their token economy
•A separate “store” of reinforcers that are based on the student’s individual preferences

The school-wide and Tier 2 and 3 supports should be reviewed regularly. Data should be collected to evaluate the effectiveness of the PBS program and plan. This data should be in the form of office referrals, the number of students accessing the reinforcement system, the students’ and staff’s ability to recite expectations and examples of those expectations, as well as, the number of students that are able to fade from more intensive supports to lesser intensive supports. As all data is collected, the PBIS committee should review and make necessary changes to ensure the effectiveness of the plan.

Cyberbullying and Special Needs Children

By Tranika Jefferson

We live in a world, in which nearly everything is digital. This makes life easier. However, it also causes problems. Previously, bullying had been confined to the school playground, bus, or outside in the neighborhood; however, this deadly phenomenon has filtered its way into the digital world and is known as cyberbullying. Cyberbullying is described as when someone intentionally uses digital media to threaten, harass, or intimidate someone (Heiman, Olenik-Shemesh & Eden, 2014). This can be done via the internet (e.g., social media, blog post, chat group, etc.), telephone (to include calls and text messages), or videos. Social media outlets such as Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and Snapchat have created more opportunities for cyberbullying to potentially occur.

No longer restricted to school environments or direct physical contact, bullying can now expand from one continent to the other without the individuals involved even personally knowing each other. This allows 24/7 access for individuals to be victims of cyberbullying. No child is exempt from the destruction of cyberbullying and online harassment. Studies have found that children with special needs such as learning disorders, attention deficit hyperactive disorder (ADHD), and Autism Spectrum disorders are more likely to be bullied than their peers (Kowaloski & Fedina, 2011). A possible explanation for this is that children may not fully understand different disabilities. When someone is viewed as “socially awkward,” they are more likely to encounter cyberbullying since they are an “easy” target. Cyberbullying makes it that much easier for children to harm and alter the learning path of those with special needs by threatening, harassing, or intimidating them.

The digital world can help improve the social cognitive skills of children with special needs as well as “offer young people a setting for social support, intimacy and the development of autonomy through self-expression and identify exploration (Good & Fang, 2015).” However, it can also be a harmful place due to cyberbullying. Efforts must be made to address cyberbullying in the general population as well as with children with special needs. Parents, educators, and clinicians are tasked with the responsibility of ensuring the safety of these children while still teaching them skills on effectively dealing with virtual harassment or intimidation.

If children with special needs can be taught to deal with the adverse situations imposed upon them virtually, then they can continue to expand their own social skills and communication. In addition, they can increase their independence with the broad utilization that the virtual world offers. This, in turn, may improve their self-confidence, self-concept, and social life.

References

Good, B., & Fang, L. (2015). Promoting Smart and Safe Internet Use Among Children with Neurodevelopmental Disorders and Their Parents. Clinical Social Work Journal, 43(2), 179-188. http://dx.doi.org/10.1007/s10615-015-0519-4

Heiman, T., Olenik-Shemesh, D., & Eden, S. (2014). Cyberbullying involvement among students with ADHD: relation to loneliness, self-efficacy and social support. European Journal of Special Needs Education, 30(1), 15-29. http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/08856257.2014.943562

Kowalski, R., & Fedina, C. (2011). Cyber bullying in ADHD and Asperger Syndrome Populations. Research In Autism Spectrum Disorders, 5(3), 1201-1208. http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.rasd.2011.01.007

Run, Forrest, Run… Towards Inclusion!

Could inclusive education mean the end of bullying for kids with disabilities?

By Katherine DeCotiis Wiedemann, M.A., BCBA

Kids with disabilities being bullied is nothing new; we’ve seen it portrayed in popular culture for decades. Who could ever forget Forrest Gump being chased by a truck-full of mean-spirited kids, trying desperately to outrun them despite his bulky metal leg-braces? Special needs aren’t always as visible as they were in that scene, but the victimization of people with differences has arguably been around as long as the institution of education. In all realms of life, bullies usually target people who are more passive, anxious, quiet, sensitive, or unusual in some way (Hoover 2003). Unfortunately, in schools, this demographic often includes children who are classified and receive special education services. Many typical features of American schools may have historically exacerbated this divide between the disabled and the non-disabled, particularly the physical and curricular labeling and segregation of children with disabilities, the non-participation of special needs students in mainstream educational and extracurricular activities, and a general lack of understanding and interaction between the two groups.

When Dan Habib’s infant son Samuel was diagnosed with cerebral palsy, a ticker of chilling questions scrolled through his brain like a hurricane warning on the nightly news. Would he ever walk? Would he be able to talk? Have a job? Drive a car? Fall in love? Perhaps the most painful unknown was how his peers would treat him. Would he be the target of ridicule in his neighborhood, on the soccer team, in his grade-school classroom? With fear looming heavily, threatening to swallow them whole, Habib and his wife made a choice and never looked back. They committed to including Samuel in every facet of their lives, regardless of what the scope of his disability turned out to be. And they didn’t stop there – eventually, the arms of their crusade reached their friends, members of their community and eventually the school district Samuel entered as a preschooler. The Habibs became diehard advocates for inclusive education, and as a direct result, Samuel flourished. He was placed in general education classes with supports and modifications. A specially made wheelchair and a culture of acceptance allowed him to play baseball on a regular team in elementary school. He scored a role in the school play and read his lines from his augmentative communication device. He went to middle school dances and made the honor roll. By all accounts, Samuel belonged. And he wasn’t the only one who benefitted.

Sadly, not every kid with special needs is as warmly accepted and included as Samuel. Statistics illustrate that in the United States, children with disabilities are two to three times more likely to be bullied than their nondisabled peers. In one study, nearly 60% of students with special needs reported having been bullied at some point in their lives, compared to only 25% of students in general. Another more recent study indicates that children with disabilities are victimized by bullying at a much higher rate over time than their nondisabled peers. The researchers attributed their findings to the fact that many students with special needs never learn or have the ability to practice the social skills needed to combat bullying as they age. So how can we teach kids with special needs to advocate for themselves? And perhaps even more importantly: how do we go about teaching kids without special needs, acceptance and kindness?

The answer to both questions might be found, at least partially, in inclusive education. The benefits of inclusion for kids with disabilities have been documented in 40 years’ worth of research – higher test scores, increased social interaction, exposure to peer models, access to the general curriculum, and higher levels of motivation. In fact, in those 40 years, no study has ever been published comparing segregation and inclusion that came out in favor of segregation (Jackson 2008). But how does inclusion affect gen-ed kids? Studies are starting to emerge, and it appears that inclusion may have even more of a positive impact on nondisabled peers than on those with disabilities. Kids in integrated classes have daily opportunities to learn and practice tolerance, respect, and kindness. Regular exposure to differences de-stigmatizes kids with special needs and creates a culture of diversity and acceptance. Additionally, gen-ed kids can guide and teach their peers, which fosters within them a sense of accountability and purpose. They are likely to exhibit more developed values and ethics later in life. Of Samuel’s effect on his nondisabled peers, his father notes, “He’s had a tremendous impact on his peers. His peers now see disability as part of the natural diversity of our world (NPR 2014).” Perhaps the most unexpected benefit of inclusion for nondisabled peers lies in the realm of academics; data indicates that general education kids in integrated classrooms perform better on tests and have greater academic outcomes.

It is becoming widely accepted in education that “far-reaching and sustainable bullying prevention is intricately connected to and predicated upon the promotion of equity and inclusion (Safe@School 2013).” Creating a culture of inclusion in schools is not an overnight job, but a quick Google search will demonstrate just how much information is available to those who are willing to consider making the change. There are detailed guides which illustrate the core concepts and features of inclusive education, and outline the steps to take to get there. It may not be an easy task, but in the words of Dan Habib, “If we know it’s going to yield better outcomes for kids with disabilities, it’s the only way to go forward (NPR 2014).”

Today, Samuel Habib is a 17-year-old junior at Concord High School in New Hampshire. In May of this year, he was the keynote presenter at the 5th annual self-advocacy conference hosted by the University of New Hampshire, where he spoke about his experience with inclusive education and previewed his first short documentary as a filmmaker. For more information on inclusion and Samuel’s journey, please visit www.includingsamuel.com.

REFERENCES

Habib, D. (2014, April 22). Dan Habib: Disabling Segregation [Video file]. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=izkN5vLbnw8

Hoover, J., & Stenhjem, P. (2003, December). Bullying and Teasing of Youth with Disabilities: Creating Positive School Environments for Effective Inclusion. Examining Current Challenges in Secondary Education and Transition, Vol. 2 (Issue 3).

Katz, J., & Mirenda, P. (2002). Including Students with Developmental Disabilities in General Education Classrooms: Educational Benefits. International Journal of Special Education, Vol. 17 (Issue 2), pp. 14-24.

Preventing Bullying, Promoting Equity and Inclusion. (2013). Retrieved from https://www.safeatschool.ca/plm/parents-and-guardians-partners-in-prevention/preventing-bullying-promoting-equity-and-inclusion

Reilly, D. (2017, January 05). The Bullying Culture: What You Must Know. Retrieved from http://www.lifezette.com/momzette/bullying-culture-what-you-must-know/

Staff, N. (2014, April 27). Learning With Disabilities: One Effort To Shake Up The Classroom. Retrieved from http://www.npr.org/2014/04/27/307467382/learning-with-disabilities-one-effort-to-shake-up-the-classroom

Effective Interventions for Autism Spectrum Disorders

There are many interventions available for educators who work with students with autism spectrum disorders (ASD). But not all interventions are created equally. Educators need to be good consumers in evaluating interventions and applying those that have been determined effective and ergo have the best chance of promoting positive outcomes for students. Only some of the touted interventions are based on rigorous scientific research and have the capacity to improve a student’s development, these are called evidence-based practices (EBP).

 

Interventions established as evidence-based should be the go-to interventions for educators. Because of this, the law now requires that teaching practices be based on evidence of effectiveness to further the development of students.

(Source: National Professional Development Center)

To assess whether an intervention qualifies as an EBP, the National Professional Development Center on ASD looks at peer-reviewed research on the intervention. An intervention is also considered to be an evidence-based practice if it meets one of the following criteria:

  • Randomized or quasi-experimental design studies: Two high-quality experimental or quasi-experimental group design studies by two different research groups.
  • Single-subject design studies: Five high-quality, single-subject studies by three different research groups with at least 20 participants.
  • Combination of evidence: One high-quality, randomized or quasi-experimental group design study conducted by at least three different investigators or research groups.

While the criteria is not easy to fulfill, in this way educators and interveners are able to gain confirmation of effectiveness of a particular intervention that enhances a child’s development and supports them in a vital way. A sample of ASD interventions that are considered effective include:

  • Antecedent-based intervention: Arranging events or circumstances that precede an interfering, or problematic, behavior in order to reduce that behavior. For example, say a student repeatedly struggles to focus on her workbook exercises during class time. An instructor using antecedent-based intervention might realize that the issue is related to the student’s schedule, and offer a break before workbook time.
  • Functional behavior assessment: Systematic collection of information about an interfering behavior designed to identify circumstances that support the behavior. When an instructor uses FBA, he describes the problem behavior, identifies events before or after that control the behavior, and develops a hypothesis about the behavior. Then, he tests the hypothesis.
  • Modeling: Demonstration of a desired behavior that encourages the student to imitate the behavior. This EBP is often combined with other strategies such as prompting and reinforcement.
  • Peer-mediated instruction and intervention: Typically developing peers or help children with ASD to acquire new behavior, communication, and social skills by interacting in natural environments. Teachers or service providers teach peers strategies for engaging children and youth with ASD in positive and extended social interactions in both teacher-directed and learner-initiated activities.
  • Social skills training: Group or individual instruction designed to teach learners with autism spectrum disorders (ASD) ways to appropriately interact with peers and adults. Most social skill meetings include instruction, role-playing or practice, and feedback to help learners with ASD acquire and practice communication, play, or social skills.

Keeping up with evidence-based practices takes some extra effort, but being knowledgeable about the options available and how to implement them properly makes a significant impact. Students deserve the best education possible..

To learn more, view the updated EBP report that supports the identification of 27 ASD evidence-based practices and includes fact sheets for each evidence-based practice.

For more resources, visit The National Professional Development Center online.

Spotlight Teacher of the Month: Tracy Niccum

Position: Special Education Life Skills Teacher
District: School District of Washington, Missouri

Ms. Niccum is a Special Education Teacher from Washington West Elementary School.  Washington West is one of seven elementary schools in the School District of Washington in Washington, Missouri. Ms. Niccum educates students in grades 2 through 6 and has used the Rethink platform for two years.

As a second-year teacher, Ms. Niccum was initially hesitant to implement Rethink with all the work teachers are required to do during the year. So she started small.

“I focused on one or two students and realized I could link their behavioral plans and Individualized Education Program goals to Rethink,” Ms. Niccum said. Once she learned how Rethink could improve her classroom, she started using it more.

Ms. Niccum now uses Rethink regularly and said she feels “The most valuable aspect of Rethink is the ability to collect data and link Individualized Education Program goals and behavioral plans to the platform.”

One of the toughest challenges for Ms. Niccum as a teacher is improving her data collection process and encouraging student independence within the classroom.

“Data collection is a huge part of education and when you have a self-contained classroom, it can be very overwhelming,” said Ms. Niccum.

Rethink’s easy-to-use platform makes it seamless, said Ms. Niccum, with printable data collection sheets, graphs and summary reports. Rethink webinars and on-site visits provide her with the extra support she needs to implement individual schedules for students and help them succeed.

Her students also use the Activity Center to practice specific skills that align with
their IEPs. One of Ms. Niccum’s students uses the Activity Center twice a week and takes the lead setting up her own schedule on the platform, which she enjoys.

Ms. Niccum regularly selects different math and reading activities for her student to complete that align with her student’s IEP goals and the curriculum she teaches.

This integration, Ms. Niccum said, makes it easier to track progress and is important because teachers “have to be able to show student growth on IEP goals.” Teachers in her district must also indicate how students are improving on each goal at the end of every quarter.

The process can be riddled with paperwork, but Ms. Niccum said Rethink makes it much more manageable for paraprofessionals and teachers at her school.

Ms. Niccum on tracking student progress and IEP goals using the Rethink IEP builder

“The most valuable aspect of Rethink is the ability to collect data and link IEP and behavioral plans to the platform.”

Ms. Niccum said she plans to implement Rethink programs and activities for all her students so she can track student progress and IEP goals in the most effective way.

She hopes other teachers and principals consider subject areas in their schools that need improvement and discover how Rethink can help them. Ms. Niccum also believes that Rethink is especially valuable to special educators.

“We are always looking for ways to reduce the abundance of paperwork we have to do on a daily basis,” Ms. Niccum said. “The process goes much quicker when you can just click a button and pull up all the data. It’s all right there.”

Keep up the fantastic work, Ms. Niccum! Congratulations on being this month’s Spotlight Teacher!