Last week at #atchat, I was having a conversation with Ricky of www.atmac.org about the challenges of teachers who fear technology in the classroom, and who fear their students being more capable with the technology than they are. That got me thinking, and I said it at the time, the essence of that fear is teacher fear of losing control over the classroom dynamic.
It is common knowledge that every first year teacher struggles with classroom management. It's one of those rights of passage of first year teaching. There's a teaching urban legend that says "don't smile until October." Great emphasis is put on having an orderly, well controlled classroom.
In special education, this emphasis is paradoxically increased. Because our students struggle with the basic skills of self-regulation that come effortlessly (most of the time) to students in general education, most special education classrooms are filled with behavior charts and other paraphernalia of teacher-directed behavior support programs (incentive programs, reward/consequence programs, positive behavior supports..... the names and philosophies change - sometimes for the better sometimes for the worse, but all are predicated on the same concept: student must do what teacher says: top down.)
How many IEP goals have you seen that have goals for following (x step) directions? Or other goals of compliance. Participation in a structured activity goals? That's a compliance goal too. We spend a lot of time in special education teaching compliance.
And then, at some point, in "progressive" special education classrooms, somebody gets the idea of teaching self-regulation. It rarely goes well. The students are unprepared for there being no "right" answer. The teachers do not want to allow the behavior to become disregulated, so they control the choices, reinforcing the students' belief that there is a "right" answer and their own belief that their students are "too low" or "too routine oriented" to understand how to self-regulate. Because without the behavior plans and structure the class would get out of control.... right?
The problem is not that the students are "too low" (I don't believe such a thing exists) or "too routine oriented." The problem is trying to teach self-regulation in a context, and based on a foundation, that does not support it. The problem is that classroom culture of behavior charts.
I am not saying that we have to do away with extrinsic motivators (rewards) for all our students in every context. I'm not saying visual behavior supports aren't important - they are. But for most of the day, if students aren't motivated to learn the material, we need to find a way to make the material motivating. For example, I have a student who has been acting out during math: he struggles with numbers. We are learning about ratios as part of the 7th grade common core standards. He has been throwing every manipulative I try to use to teach this skill. But he loves time and clocks. So we started talking about the ratio of time to distance. He loves starting and stopping the stopwatch as we check the time to travel various distances. He still doesn't love telling the numbers, but he's more motivated to do so now that they are times.
More to the point, puts my timer to far better use than it was being put giving him check marks for staying in his seat and keeping his hands to himself to earn the swing when math was done. He still might ask for the swing after math, but it's not contingent any more. Sensory breaks are important, and now he's learning both math (which he wasn't before) and early self-regulation skills.
As my students build their skills in the areas of self-regulation, self-advocacy, and self-determination (all areas of the curriculum represented on every IEP in my classroom) I don't expect I will find anyone is "too low" to make progress and develop skills. And I'm not worried about losing control of my classroom to do it, because I won't be giving up any behavior control in order to for them to practice those skills. They are working on them every day in the classroom already. My students are the primary stakeholders in what goes on in my classroom: if they're not invested in learning, I don't waste my time teaching: the standards only tell us what to teach, not how.