Beginning A New Special Education Program

Over the summer (yes, the summer “vacation” that teachers get) my co-teacher and I took a well-known in-school special education program and developed it into a whole new thing.  She and I have been working together for the past 5 years, and we were both hired to work in a new school for this year, in an already established program.  What we came up with takes a little bit from where we used to work, and mixes it with some new concepts.

We collaborated online in order to make sense of, and establish a behavior management program for our high school students (who are mostly emotionally disabled, but also may be on the Autism spectrum).  By hiring two teachers, the school doubled the amount of students in our program, so we needed to fully establish our system.  We come from a school program that has been well-established (and respected) since 1981, so it was important for us to make sure we have a tight system.  We first decided what our core values would be:

  1. Demonstrate and foster compassion, respect, responsibility, and integrity.
  2. Work cooperatively and collaboratively with peers and adults within the school and greater community to support academic, personal, and social development.
  3. Make decisions that will positively influence social, emotional, and physical health and well-being.
  4. Understand choices have consequences
  5. Understand and exhibit citizenship in order to be a contributing member of a democracy and of a global community.

Then we found state standards and transferable skills that would help us be able to measure our core values:

Based on the following from the VT Framework of Standards:

Respect 3.3 Students demonstrate respect for themselves and others.

Healthy Choices 3.5 Students make informed, healthy choices that positively affect the health, safety, and well-being of themselves and others. This is evident when students: ddd. Assess personal health in terms of stress, and develop an approach or plan for managing stress;  eee. Demonstrate refusal and negotiation skills to enhance health, and to avoid potentially harmful situations;

Teamwork 3.10 Students perform effectively on teams that set and achieve goals, conduct investigations, solve problems, and create solutions (e.g., by using consensus-building and cooperation to work toward group decisions).

Interactions 3.11 Students interact respectfully with others, including those with whom they have differences.

Conflict Resolution 3.12 Students use systematic and collaborative problem-solving processes, including mediation, to negotiate and resolve conflicts.

Dependability and Productivity 3.14 Students demonstrate dependability, productivity, and initiative. This is evident when students: a. Attend school on a regular basis; b. Complete assignments on schedule; and c. Participate in classroom and group discussions.

Taking Risks 2.8 Students demonstrate a willingness to take risks in order to learn.

Persevering 2.9 Students persevere in the face of challenges and obstacles.

Vermont AOE Transferable Skills/Graduation Proficiencies and Performance Indicators

Clear and Effective Communication

Self-Direction

Creative and Practical Problem-Solving

Responsible and Involved Citizenship

Informed and Integrative Thinking

Next we wrote our statement of purpose, which took many drafts to complete:

The SOL Program is committed to creating a classroom environment that is built on the principles of being safe, respectful, and productive. By creating an environment that values each student as an individual and as a collective member of the classroom community, we are helping students achieve mastery in the skills and knowledge that are essential to becoming empowered citizens of a diverse and ever-changing world.

Then we created our rubrics based on our three core areas (safety, respect, productivity), which was not an overnight process (you know what I mean if you’ve ever developed rubrics from scratch).  Our rubrics referenced transferable skills and state standards as well as social competencies developed by teams at the high school which our program serves.  We

What took even longer was developing scales which we and our students will use to rate our three core areas.  We plan on using our behavioral data to be 10 or 20% of a student’s grade in the core areas we teach (that hasn’t been fully decided yet).  While we want the students to earn their grades through academics, we strongly feel that behavior plays a role as well–as it does in life.  Think about the people who get job promotions:  they are the ones leading others or putting in extra time and effort; they are the ones with good social skills–so using behavioral data as part of a student’s grade is realistic.

We also plan on doing standards based grading–which also took a chunk of time to develop.  We have a 4 point grading scale; students will rate themselves, but we will also rate how well they meet the standards for each skill within the projects we do in class.  Our rating scale transfers to letter grades (since our school still uses that system for transcripts).  We still have work to do to further develop our rating scales (and I’m sure there will be much tweaking), but we have a great start and we will be ready to work with students in two weeks when school begins.

Common Core and Special Education

I hope that as more and more research is done on reading and writing that we use our common sense about it.  It is, in some ways, regrettable that there is so much standardized testing and assessment because it shifts the importance of learning from “becoming a good person in society and making good decisions” to “making sure students meet the standard.”  I believe that the research we do sometimes ends up having a negative effect because we see all these things that need to be done and in order to do them we have to hold people accountable so we put qualifications and standards in place that seem arbitrary sometimes.  We lose sight of “the student” while nit-picking details and making comparisons.  We forget to ask ourselves, “How can society as a whole contribute to making children the best possible people they can be?”   Instead we put pressure on teachers to “bring children up to snuff” and we fit them into molds they might not fit into.   We blame teachers and wonder why they need more money when they work in a “failing school.”  Until we see education as one small piece of child-rearing, of making a child ready for society, then we aren’t going to make huge changes in our population.

We also need to maintain our focus on children as individuals; not every standard fits every child—some children are more emotional than others, some more delicate, some more rigid.  Education can’t end up being so “cookie-cutter” that every child is seen as a carbon copy who needs to fit in, meet a standard or otherwise get special help.

Special education costs are rising all the time as we fine-tune and re-assess.  Does this need to happen? We’re at a point now where new laws have made it tougher for children to be identified as special education in order to keep costs down—this just makes these children fall behind because they don’t get the help they need early on.  I hope in my lifetime that special education isn’t special education anymore—that all education is special, individualized for each child–where smaller schools are set up that meet certain needs rather than having schools like we do now where everyone must fit or be taken out.

Everyone needs a place to belong and if it is quite apparent that school isn’t where one belongs, they’ll find a different place, usually a negative one.  A lot of special education can be “cured” by proper teacher training and enough money in education to train and hire the right people for the job.  Without a whole community’s support to help children grow and help people overcome their difficulties, then we’re going to continue to blame each other and then wonder why all these great standards, expectations and assessments aren’t making us a more literate nation.

Professions, Respect, and American Priorities

paparazzi

we love fame and glamour

I’ve been having trouble lately getting inspired to write. I’m trying to make writing more of a habit, but work and home often intervene and I usually end up just wanting to watch Criminal Minds episodes on Netflix. But yesterday I had a conversation with a student, similar to countless conversations I’ve had over the last 17 years. He mentioned wanting to be a pro basketball player or a pro football player when he grows up. I asked him what he might want to do if that didn’t happen. He said, “Probably a pro skateboarder.” It emphasized for me, not only the unrealistic expectations that some kids have for themselves (given that they think being a pro athlete is easy), but also on what we, as a society, emphasize as important, respectful, or glamorous.

I don’t think I’ve ever met a student who didn’t want to have more money as a grown-up than they have now.  In fact, many of my students want to be “rich.”  They see reality TV shows and believe that people get fame and fortune easily. They think being a professional athlete is easy because you just play a sport all day, even if you’ve never played a sport in your life.  They think they can go to a city and easily become a RAP artist or famous DJ.  They think that kind of glamour means they’ve achieved a certain status.  It’s not entirely their fault though.  They watch how professional athletes and famous people are treated like royalty and with respect, and they want that too. After seeing how certain professions are treated in the media, who would want to be a nurse, a teachera social worker, or any kind of public servant?

My daughter has thought about wanting to be a middle school language arts teacher when she grows up.  I love that she wants to enter such a noble profession, but it worries me at the same time.  American teachers don’t have the respect of the media.  We are poorly paid and told that we hardly work.  Our unions are under constant assault from corporations and union busters.  We are blamed for the ills of society.  Why would I want my daughter to do something that so many people demonize?

I saw an excellent post on Buzzfeed the other day which asked the question: “What would it be like if teachers were treated the way professional athletes are treated?”  An excellent question.  If you look at headlines and tabloids you will see where America’s priorities are, and it’s not on the education of their children.  So when my students say to me that they want to be professional athletes, what they are saying to me is that they want to be rich and respected.  It’s what Americans as a whole deem as important, and the message is not lost on the young.

Tips for Working with Tough Kids and Their Parents

As a teacher of students with significant emotional and behavioral challenges, I’ve found that it is imperative to form good working relationships with the parents of my students.  As part of our alternative school program, parents meet every two weeks with the special education “team.”  We call these meetings “home conferences;” it doesn’t mean that we meet with the parents at home–it just means that we have a home-school meeting with all the players on the student’s team.  

2The best thing you can do to work with parents of tough kids is to remember that they might not have the same values as you do.  Some of the parents I have worked with over the years are people who aren’t necessarily people I think are the best role models, but I look beyond that and understand that they are doing the best they can with the resources they have.  Listen to them; let them download their worries to you, and be someone they can lean on.  Don’t try to make them fit into a middle class mold.  Shake their hand when you meet them, smile at them warmly, and ask them about themselves.  Their child might be difficult in the classroom, and you need the parents on your side.  

Set up regular meetings that are based on all of the good things the student has accomplished.  These meetings might only be 10-15 minutes long, but you will quickly become well-liked when you are sharing positives about their child in person. Parents of your difficult students have often had difficulties back when they were in school, so school is a negative and scary place to be.  When you communicate positive accomplishments, the parents aren’t as afraid of school personnel.  You will need to have at least 40 positive communications “in the bank” with a tough kid before you have a negative communication with that child; otherwise it will be an uphill climb to build a relationship with that student and to have them trust you.  The same can be said for working with a parent of a tough kid; build up the positives so that when things get difficult and you have to give some negative feedback, the parent trusts you.

Relationship is key.  In order to work best with a tough kid, you have to build a solid relationship with them because you will be relying on that when their behavior gets difficult.  A tough kid is not going to follow your directions and listen to you because you are the “authority.”  You have to show that kid that you can be trusted.  You have to be a safe person for the tough kids.  In the classroom, tell the child, “thank you for (insert compliment),” or “I like how you (insert compliment).”  Be specific with your feedback, so that it shapes the positive behavior you want.  Try to ignore minor attention seeking behaviors.  

Likewise, if you are a principal who only sees your students occasionally or when they have been “bad,” then you aren’t going to garner respect from the tough students.  Stand in the hall in the morning and greet each student as he or she enters the building; go to student homerooms to say hello, or talk to them while they eat breakfast (or eat with them).  If you work in an alternative school, this is even more important.  Go into classrooms and compliment students who are on task and show interest in their work and accomplishments.  I don’t know how many times since we’ve gotten our new principal that the students will ask where she is, or they will comment on the fact that she only comes into a classroom when someone is in trouble.  Students notice, and teachers can’t hide it.  Further, if you are a principal of tough kids, go to the positive parent-teacher meetings and be a presence in the room when there is good news; if you only go to the meetings where there is “bad news,” again, you aren’t going to build any trust with the parents or the students.  A case in point:  our principal doesn’t go to many parent-teacher meetings; I’ve had parents in the spring of the school year who never remember meeting the principal; I’ve also had parents say to me that they don’t want her at a meeting because they don’t trust her.  Because she’s an authority figure in the school, they especially don’t trust her; they see her just like they’ve seen all authority figures in the past:  not on their side.

No matter what type of school you work in, and no matter what type of principal you have, you need to build the strongest relationships with your toughest students and their parents.  Those are the people who need to know that you are a safe person who is on their side so that when times get tough, they can trust that you have the best interest of their child at heart.