Saturday, July 29, 2017

Finding Inclusion in a Separate Day School

This has been a hard post to write. But, as an inclusion-minded special educator, I wanted to tell the story of why I have decided to take a teaching position at a separate day school for students with disabilities. It’s not what I expected when I started looking, but I believe I have made the right decision for myself and for my students.

During my job search, I visited some schools that, though amazing educational institutions, would not be accessible to me given my own disabilities. These were places where I know I would not have been successful teaching because my access needs would have gotten in the way: classrooms that were too large, socially set up, or in an environment that I found far too distracting to focus. I also visited places that met my access needs but where I could not envision providing instruction that adequately met the needs of the enrolled students due to the space, the ratios, the technology access, or a combination of factors. I found both of these challenges to be present across settings: public, collaborative, and private. 

Going beyond physical access, I knew I needed an environment that backs up its statements about building independence and self-advocacy with real action. I needed stay away from environments that prioritize the ideal of “safe and happy” over meaningful instruction. I found each of these types of environments across settings as well, but I found the ones that most shared my teaching values in the separate day school setting.

Separate day schools don’t provide the access to rigorous grade-level instructional environment that can be found in a public school setting (if you have a teacher with the knowledge and mindset to provide access to that instruction.) However, just being in a public school doesn’t imply access, and all of the classrooms I visited operated on an “integration” not an “inclusion” model. 

Over the past two years, I have developed an instructional model that incorporates global learning opportunities to give students access to connection and collaboration with students beyond their local school community. Using this model, I am able to provide access to the grade-level classroom without sacrificing the intensive instructional supports of the self-contained environment. You can’t get that combination in a traditional public school’s grade-level classroom.

I worried about the social nature of these small close-nit institutions. Places with a strong focus on social norms can be inaccessible or even dangerous for me. But I learned this past year to value the sense of community that can be found in these environments when they are staffed by professionals who share the same commitment I do to high quality instructional access and building independence and self advocacy.

The school and classroom where I accepted a position are both small. Smaller than I found almost anywhere else. (One of many reasons why I will never name the school I work at on my blog or social media.) The reason that they had an opening at all was because they found that the students in this class were not being successful in a larger class, so they broke it up to give the students who needed it a more intensive instructional environment. We spoke about the idea of teaching vs. helping (a frequent problem in severe/multiple disabilities.) Instead of the “and how do you address that” question, I was told the story of how the school had made that mindset shift and hired staff who believe in teaching. The school values of building independence and self-advocacy really came through in both word and action.

I went into this job search looking for a placement in a public middle school. But I also went into it with a very clear understanding of what my teaching values are and where I was and was not willing to compromise. I know how to recognize an environment where it will be accessible for me to be the best teacher I can be for my students. I found those values and that environment in a separate day school. I didn’t find it at any of the other schools I visited. So, despite (or maybe because of) my belief in an inclusive environment for all learners, I have taken a position in a separate day school. Inclusion, after all, is a mindset not a placement.

Thursday, July 13, 2017

Asking for Help

Asking for help is one of the first functional communication skills we teach, especially to students who exhibit challenging behavior due to frustration (at not being able to accomplish something independently) which is a lot of our students. It's also one of the skills we're least successful at teaching. I don't mean the kids don't learn it. They learn the sign/word/picture. What most of them don't learn is when and how to use it. They either never ask and we end up saying "ask for help if you need it" when we see them struggle, or they're constantly asking and we find ourselves in a never-ending cycle of "try it yourself first ..." It's clearly not a skill we're teaching very effectively.

It's something I've been aware of for a while now, and I've been trying to make an effort to model it in the classroom. But there's a qualitative difference between "Do you know where the stapler went?" and "Please help me tie my shoes." And, for obvious reasons, the more urgent situations in the classroom are not appropriate times for modeling.

As I see it there are 2 key skills that need to be taught along with requesting help. 
  1. Making an effort to do it on your own first. This means we need to make sure we are paying attention to partial successes (and failed efforts) as important and successful steps toward the larger goal.
  2. Multiple solutions to the problem. I believe that problem solving is, quite possibly, the most important skill that we can teach students, and this is a key part of it. Students need to have an understading that there is more than one approach to chose from and the mental flexibility to try a different approach if the first one is unsuccessful.

We do talk in my classroom a lot about how "help" doesn't mean I'm going to do it for you. But isn't that exactly what adults usually mean when we ask for help? Sometimes, certainly. If I ask for help because I can't get the glue open, I don't expect you to put your hand over mine and that we're going to push it open together. No, I expect to hand the glue to you, and you will open it for me. Because the expectation is that I have already tried and found my skills lacking, so now I'm asking you to give it a go. But sometimes that's exactly what I mean. When I helped my coworker email an attachment for the first time I sat down next to her and verbally walked her through each step. If I'd taken the mouse from her and done it myself, it wouldn't have helped either of us. I'm not sure, though, how one knows (except by social experience/nonverbal context) what kind of help is appropriate/expected in a given situation. And so I'm asking for your help. What is the distinction? And, more importantly, how can we teach it to our kids?

Thursday, July 6, 2017


I haven't blogged much (or at all) this spring. The school I was working at closed, and my attention was focused on my students: giving them the best last year we could have, finding them new placements, and supporting meaningful transitions. Plus, I had to find a job for next year. It didn't leave a lot of time for blogging or reflecting.

I started writing letters to my next-year's-self last year when I saw the idea on Twitter. Looking back this year it was really powerful to see what I was focused on/worried about, and how much of that is even on my radar a year later. I highly recommend it as a tool for every teacher. I'm starting a new journey this year. I'm really excited about it. As I start on this journey, I want to share with my future self and with all of your this nugget from my current-school's-teacher-self.

This year, you were forced to go back and reassess a lot of older skills that you'd abandoned or forgetten. The use of the cooldown book/room. Sensory and reinforcement strategies. Low tech teaching strategies in general. These are important teaching strategies to have in your arsenal. Some of the most fun and innovative teaching you have done over the last 4 years did not involve any more fancy technology than the students' communication systems (and maybe a camera to document the event.) It's not about the tools, it's about the learning. And more importantly, it's about what tools make the student most independent. For your class this year, that was absolutely low tech tools, which technology used primarily to document and share, not to create. You will need to remember these lessons as you take on a class that is currently doing a lot of DTT. Why are they doing DTT? because it is working for them! You need to keep an open mind about using the most effective strategies to teach your learners. Remember, you did a fair amount of DTT your first year at Your Current School too, because according to their previous teacher it was what was working for them. And then you moved away from it because you found other strategies more effective. You need to make sure you are using your data and not your prejudices.

Teach with your data and not your prejudices. It is good advice for all of us.