Why, yes, we do work.

Disclaimer: Please remember that the work of early childhood is play. All of what I’m about to say is important, for sure, especially for older kids… But also — we need to stop being so focused on work in early childhood. We have pushed down the work expectations more and more each year, but 3, 4, and 5 year olds — even six year olds — should be playing for the bulk of their day. They should be experimenting, exploring, being curious, and living the idea that learning is a fun, full-bodied experience. That learning is something they initiate, they do, they are. Most of our best learning happens way outside of structured work. That is how we create life-long learners.

There have been a lot of questions over the last few weeks about how we engage in students in teacher-supported and teacher-directed learning activities. I think it says a lot about the culture of coercion that can seep into our classrooms, especially in special education, that this question is so pervasive. Before you get defensive, I have been there. I am writing about my past self as much as anything else. It can be hard for me to sit and reflect on the mistakes I’ve made, even when the mistakes are a decade ago. But I’m grateful for the readings, the mentors, and the students who have taught me along the way. And I will forever be committed to doing better in their names. 

Things that I don’t do: withhold all the things a student loves, sanitize the environment, require sitting for instruction, “escape extinction”, physically prompt (force) through all of the actions… And, yes, my students to engage in teacher-directed (I choose the activity) and teacher-supported (we choose the activity together) activities throughout the day. Yes, they work many times throughout the day. Yes, they have expectations and rules. Yes, they learn lots of pre-academic and academic concepts. Yes, you can hold high expectations and meet student needs. Yes, you can accommodate and respect students’ bodies while teaching new concepts. Yes, you can pursue student interests and celebrate who they are.

We focus on relationships and felt safety. Students need to feel safe. Students need to know that they can trust you. Students need to know that you will not harm them, that you will help them self-regulate, that you appreciate and honor their needs. This comes first. No other learning can happen when our stress systems are activated. There’s a reason “connect” is the first step for responding when reading any discipline book that wasn’t written by behaviorists. (I recommend basically everything by Daniel Siegel, by the way.) If we spend the first days, weeks, and months of the school year working on establishing these relationships and building self-regulation skills, that is not lost time

We use visual supports. We have picture schedules, work time schedules, bathroom sequences, visuals for where things belong… We have pictures of what work looks like, what specific expectations look like, what self-regulation can look like… I do not make visuals just for the sake of making visuals. I assess the needs in the classroom and make visuals that will support students to meet expectations. A great example of this are visual cues for directions. In the past, I’ve printed visual cues from TPT — and promptly found that none of my staff were using them. It was overwhelming; it wasn’t targeted to our specific needs. This year, keychain lanyards are specific to our class rules & lining up. These are the times we’ve most found that we need a visual cue. And now they are both used by staff and understood well by students. This means I can’t usually print a bunch of stuff off the internet. I have to custom-make our visuals, and I have to do so many times throughout the year. But they actually work for the needs that come up, and that’s what matters. 

image of two tangrams, one kite and one fire truck, on a table.
This student selects their work time from an array of choices.

We adapt the work to meet the need. I have students who complete 5 work tasks in a row, who work for over 15 minutes, who have to be told, “Please leave work time, because your friend needs to take a turn now.” I also have students who have been working on completing 1-2 actions with an object. Or students who need to take three 15-30 second breaks of running across the room before finishing their work. This is the power of rotating schedules — flexibility to meet student needs. If a student can only work for one minute, then we start with working for one minute. If a student can only do 3-5 pieces of a task, then we might start at 2-4 pieces. We build stamina and engagement over time, rather than forcing a pre-determined time and wondering why students are melting down. Some students prefer to do the hard work first, followed by the easier thing. Others prefer to build momentum by doing easier tasks prior to hard ones. The work itself is also adapted to the student need. For example, if we are sorting letters and numbers at circle time, a student who has trouble scanning an array of 8-10 items may go last — when there are less items to scan. If we are doing finger-painting art projects, but a student detests the feel, we may let them do it with the paint inside a Ziploc. Or just give them a paintbrush, it’s not that big of a deal. 

We pursue student interests. Notice that it doesn’t say use student interests. I don’t artificially stack on interests in an attempt to get students to do what I want. I don’t just stick a picture of Mickey on a folder and call it a day. But we do pursue their strengths and interests. If a student loves to count, then I’m all about building on their math skills and expanding the depth of their counting. If a student loves everything alphabet, then let’s practice problem solving and spatial awareness with alphabet puzzles. Let’s look for letter sounds with magnet letters hidden in our kinetic sand. We can read No David for the four hundredth time. We can match letters and sounds within a book we made about your favorite song. If a student loves the magic of dropping something inside a bin, why not do sorting with these bins instead of plates? My daughter’s OT used to practice categorizing with her favorite television shows, so they could talk about her favorite characters, their catch phrases, how they are alike and different. One of my students loves to make pretend soup. I’m going to the library this week to get cookbooks and picture books that will enrich his already awesome play. These are all authentic tasks, expansions on interests. 

An alphabet puzzle that one student loves to include in their daily work time.

We are flexible about seating. Students don’t have to sit. They can stand. They can sit in a chair. They can sit on a stool. They can sit on the floor. Yes, I have students that get their work tasks, bring them to a preferred part of the floor, and complete all of their work there. It’s fine. People worry about — “but what about when they are 19 and they have to XYZ?” They aren’t 19 now. We have to stop the pushing down of developmental expectations. We don’t get ready to sit at 19 by forcing extended siting at age 4. We get ready by teaching self-regulation, self-advocacy, motor skills, engagement, etc… 

We are thoughtful about scheduling. Most people think of scheduling simply as “if you do the work, then you get this awesome thing”. But that’s not exactly what I mean. When I schedule rotations, I’m very mindful of how, when, and where each student gets placed. Some students need to move their bodies very hard and active before they are able to engage in teacher-directed work, so they may have lots of gross motor play before their work time. Some students need a big chunk of free play time, while others prefer more structured tasks. Some want to complete all of their work at once, while others prefer it split into many sessions. I also work really hard to make sure that no one has to leave a most favorite thing in the world to go to their least favorite thing. Because who would ever want to do that? Mindful scheduling also applies to large groups. I schedule circle at times that will be successful for the biggest chunk of students. Before our morning circle, students may be engaged in gross motor play, sensory manipulatives, or morning snack. Those activities are available to help student self-regulate and adjust to being in the classroom in a way that meets their needs. They are then much more ready to learn and engage in a big group activity. Morning circle tends to be our most successful of all activities because of this. 

image of Abby Cadabby from Sesame Street in 3 different costumes -- witch, orange robot, and wolf-doctor.
Play is the work of childhood; playing dress-up with Abby Cadabby was an October circle time activity.

We talk to our students; we empathize. Hard work is hard! We use “we can do hard things” from Glennon Doyle as a catch phrase all the time. It started in my own family, became a class mantra, and now is even in our student talkers. We all need pep talks and encouragement in our lives. Our students need it too. We talk to them and visualize why something is important. We talk about how work time is like exercise for our brains, making our brain grow in the way that running makes our legs stronger. We talk about how letter sounds help us read words. We empathize with challenges, offer help, and problem solve together. Our students also do not have to be able to talk back yet for us to have this conversation. It is basic respect. 

We are mindful of anxiety, apraxia, and pathological demand avoidance. I’m not going to go into detail about each of these things, because they are all their own long blog. But I think it’s important for special education teachers and support personnel to become more educated about each of these — what they can look like, what they feel like, and how they can be accommodated. Work with occupational therapists, speech therapists, and other knowledgable professionals. Read the words of autistic and disabled adults who write about their experiences. For some students, it can be as simple as asking a question and providing plenty of wait time, rather than giving a demand and expecting it to be completed. Others may need a lot more accommodations. That’s okay. That’s what we’re here for. 

What Work Time Looks Like

Work time can look very different depending on the students’ needs. 

Student A. We approach SA with their schedule. “Let’s check our schedule, it’s time for reading.” Student A takes the picture from the schedule and matches it to the books center. We point to the visual “choose a book”. SA looks at the books but does not make a choice. We wait. After 15-20 seconds, SA picks up one book. We bring their book to the table, pull out a seat, and ask SA to sit with us. They walk to the table and open their book, which happens to be a favorite. We browse the pages together, using core words to describe what we see, pointing out letters, and asking students where various things are. When SA touches the words on a page, we write an observation note. After we have flipped through their favorite alphabet book several times, SA looks to us, looks to their talker, and says “go”. We say, “Yes, of course, go. Can you put your book away?” We hand the book to SA. They put their book on the shelf and run to gross motor center. 

image of a page of numbers with blanks to fill in: 3,4..., 8,9...
exploring number sequences with a number-loving student

Student B. We approach SB with their schedule. “It’s time for work!” Student B is playing with an alphabet puzzle and just put the letter J in the puzzle. “Oh, I see you are finishing an alphabet puzzle. Let’s finish the puzzle, and then it’s work time.” Staff allow Student B to finish placing all of the letters in the puzzle without interruption. Once SB is at a stopping point, staff show the schedule to SB again and offer their hand. SB takes the adult’s hand and walks to work time. When they get there, a shape and color sorting activity is on the table. SB stands at the table and begins to look at each shape. They pick it up, twirl it, and examine it from multiple angles. Staff allow this exploration of materials, because, really, why not? After several minutes, SB attempts to put the square in the circle hole spot. They try this multiple times and then put the piece back down. Staff state, “Hmm… let’s try a different way.” Staff pick up the square and place it on the square spot. They repeat this action several times so that the student can see what they are doing. They hand the square back to the student, who then places it on the square. The student and staff member celebrate this together. Later, the student has trouble with matching the triangle and needs to twist it. After showing, the student is still not able to do so. The staff person asks the student: “Can we do this together?” and holds out her hand. The student puts their hand on the adult’s, and together they twist the triangle to put it in. They do this together for three triangles. The student takes the fourth triangle and puts it in independently and grins. Staff give the student a big high five!

Student C. Student C is listening to a “Baby Shark” book when we approach to show them their schedule. Baby Shark is their all time favorite. We remind them, “Yes, you can bring Baby Shark, but it’s work time” and hand the work time picture to them. They begin walking to the right area, but then walk to the side and hang the picture in a different place. Staff grabs the picture and says, “Work time is this way. Let me show you where I hang this.” Staff get low next to student and point to the work time area, showing the picture again. Staff offer the picture to the student, but the student does not take it. Staff carries it to the work time area and calls the student. The student walks towards the staff and approaches the table. The student places their “Baby shark” book next to their work time area. They look at their work time schedule, pulling the “triangle” off and matching it to triangle on the shelf. They take the “triangle” bin to the table and complete the puzzle inside. They put the bin in finished. They look at their schedule and see “square”. The student does not take the square picture, but turns to the shelf of work time activities. They pull off the circle bin and bring it to the table. Staff say, “Yes, you love the counting cows! Let’s count!” and joins them in counting the cows and putting them in a line. After several minutes of playing with the counting cows, staff point to the student’s schedule and show the square again. The student puts the counting cows in the finished bin, takes the square and matches it. The student then completes their second work activity. 

Student D. One staff approaches Student D with the art time picture. SD takes the art time picture to art and hangs it. They look at the art project for today, which is creating a tractor from construction paper cut-outs, and then run away. Staff wait for one minute for the student to re-regulate and then approach again with the art picture. The student says, “No no no no no” and then hides their face. Staff say, “We will try again in a few minutes.” After several minutes have passed, staff re-approach student for art project. The student continues to refuse. Staff go to the art center, collect the student materials and bring it to the student on the tray, moving to where the student is. Instead of forcing the student to participate through physical prompting, staff opens the glue and begins to put the glue on the tractor piece. After glue is on the piece, staff offer it to the student, “Where should this go?” The student turns their head. Staff place the tractor piece on the construction paper. Staff put glue on the wheel and then offer it to the student. The student turns towards staff this time, and watches as staff puts it on the tractor. The student maintains gaze on the art project, so staff offer the glue stick. SD takes the glue and puts a speck of glue on another wheel. Staff exclaim, “I love it when we work together!” and finish putting the glue. They hand the wheel to the student and they place it on the paper. Staff and student continue to work together, taking turns and doing different pieces of the art project until it is complete.

Student E. Student E uses a first/then visualization to help them throughout the day. This student also uses iPad activities for learning. We do schedule the harder, more hands-on activities prior to the iPad sometimes. Hard work is hard. Many of us need time to self-regulate after completing something challenging, and this student self-regulates though iPad play. The sounds, the visuals, the structure all seem to help them stay feeling good in their brain and body over the day. It has really helped this student to 1) know when iPad is on their schedule, 2) know what comes after hard work (it’s not always iPad), and 3) know exactly how much work they have to do. One way that we prevent this from becoming coercive is by having iPad scheduled multiple times through the day. We have times where all students get access to iPad, and that includes this student. We do not hold their work from 10am over them at 11:30am. At other times, the schedule might read “first circle time, then Starfall”, “first reading, then work time”, and “first lunch, then play centers”. I share this to emphasize that the first/then board is not a token economy, but is specifically about making the schedule and expectations visually clear. 

Creating a classroom culture of respect

There are some really meaningful conversations around abuse prevention happening over in one of my favorite AAC groups today (AAC Though Motivate, Model & Move Out of the Way, managed by Kate Ahern). The statistic on abuse in the disability population are appalling: 1 in 3. I’ve written about the ways that physical prompting can — even if unintentionally — teach our kids that other people are allowed to manipulate their bodies.

This is only one piece of the puzzle, however. It’s one piece of teaching consent, one piece of creating a classroom culture that is centered around respect. We are not only working to prevent abuse now, but we are teaching children and their families advocacy skills and environmental expectations that can help prevent abuse in the future. Below are some of the many other pieces that our essential to our classroom.

Our classroom has an open door policy. Parents are always welcome in our classroom, and for as long as they would like to be there. We literally keep the shade on our big window on our door open at all times. We keep the window shades open on at least half of our windows. When toileting, the bathroom door is cracked open at all times (balance between privacy and safety). I would be 100% okay with the push for videos in special educatio nclassrooms.

We fill our classroom with general education students. I do teach in a self-contained setting. It is something I wrestle with often, as I advocate inside and outside of schools for inclusion for many reasons. And it’s a whole other post conversation to be had in the future. In the meantime, we have general education students in our classroom for 40-50% of our school day. We’ve had years where we’ve been able to have general education students in our classroom for even more. I trust myself and both my staff, but having general education students who are more easily able to report on what happens in our classroom only increases student safety.

We document, document, document. If something happens to a student, if they fall, if they bump their head, if they skin their knee… We write down exactly what happened and what it is. This establishes the expectation that we should know what is happening to students — and that it should be shared. I would add that we share tons of information about what students are doing each day. Abuse prevention is one piece, but there’s also educational neglect. My daughter has sat in rooms where she did nothing all day. It’s not okay. We share all the cool things that we do during our super busy day so that we can celebrate kids, share their wisdom, and establish the expectation that school is for learning.

We are all about cooperation & shared control, not compliance or power over. First: I do not “sanitize the environment”. I do not make students “use their words” or tell them that the only way to good things is through me. That is not the classroom that I run. Students have access to things that they cherish all throughout the day, freely. Students also have unlimited number of breaks. Yes, unlimited. Does that mean there are times when a student takes so many breaks that we don’t get all of their work done in one day? Yep! Is that okay? Yep. We are also flexible. Sometimes we work at the table. Sometimes we bring the work to you. Our focus is on meeting student needs as much as any need for instruction. Sometimes, our entire focus is on social-emotional regulation, sensory regulation, and communication. Those are really important skills. (And if a student is having to take that many breaks regularly, then we need to go back to the drawing board re: the tasks, accommodations, and assistive technology.)

We center our classroom around communication. Respecting students’ communication to us — in all forms — comes first. Modeling language on AAC, whether that’s high-tech, gestures, ro some other form, comes second. Between the two, we are teaching students that their voice matters, that their voice should be respected, and that there are multiple ways to express what’s important to them. We also need to make sure that words important to students and important for abuse prevention are available. They need to be able to say: no, stop, don’t, don’t want to, don’t like this, etc… They need words that can express something is wrong, whether that’s illness, injury, or being hurt. They need to have body parts (all of them) so that they can accurately report if something happens to them. It doesn’t matter if it takes their entire school career for a student to accurately report an injury, it is always, always worth it. Do not give up. Do not fall back onto “requesting only”. Do not fall back on to nouns.

We center respect in every student interaction. We need to think about what we are doing with and to students. We need to think about where we are placing our hands and why. The vast majority of the time, we don’t need to physically prompt students. The limited amount of times that we do, we can ask for student consent and be mindful of how we do it. For example, when walking down the hallway together, we hold hands. We don’t hold wrists. We don’t hold forearms or upper arms. We listen to students’ bodies: pulling away, tightening, facial grimacing… These are all ways that our students say no to us.

If a student drops to the floor while holding our hand, then we sink with them and get low, releasing the hand as soon as we can. We don’t hold a student’s hand up in the air as they lay on the ground. If a student is upset, we wait. If a student won’t do something, we re-evaluate how we are doing it. We don’t pull or push or maneuver our students’ bodies. When I want to have a face-to-face conversation, I get low and kneel next to a student to talk (without ever forcing eye contact). I might offer my hands for them to hold or squeeze. I don’t hold them in place. If they are about to engage in dangerous behavior, such as throwing a large object, I move the object, not the student. If a student is grabbing something, then I move the object, not the student. I don’t block students in an area with furniture. I don’t use seat belts or tray chairs. And — once again — when the culture is built upon respect, when communication is foundational, when the focus is on regulation and accommodation, we don’t have to worry about these things that much.

We talk to students about what is happening. There are times we have to be in a student’s space. This might be when we are supporting them to stretch their muscles, to change positions in a chair, or simply wiping their face after a sneeze. We can still tell students what is happening, why we are doing it, and respond to their needs. We can talk to them directly: “Your nose is very messy. I know you don’t like for me to clean it, but I really need to.” You can offer choices: “Would you like to wipe your nose, or would you like me to do it?” or “Would you like for me to use a wipe or a tissue?”

We listen to our students, even when they are refusing something that feels really important to us and for them. If my daughter’s hip stretch is too much, she will push back. Her physical therapist doesn’t push into it. She waits. She waits to see if the discomfort will pass. She might try the other leg and come back. She might ask my daughter to move a certain way. But she respects what my daughter’s body is saying. She talks to her about what is happening: “This muscle is really tight, and we really need to stretch it. It might be a little uncomfortable but it shouldn’t hurt. Let me know if it starts to hurt.” Shockingly (sarcasm intended), this is what doctors and therapists and people due with neurotypical and nondisabled patients all the time. It’s the same.

We consider abuse prevention in instructional planning. Even when a class or school culture understands this with behavior, there is a continued use of hand-over-hand prompting in instruction and communication. There were so many times that my daughter came home over the years with work that was so clearly not hers. But the use of hand-over-hand prompting within instructional settings is still teaching students to be passive. It is still teaching students that adults are in charge of their bodies. So when we plan our instruction, we need to plan how we can support student learning without that reliance. What accommodations and assistive technology support can we include in this lesson? What ways can a student participate without needing their body to be moved? What other prompts might be effective?

It also means teaching the skills that, over time, build up to being able to self-report. We teach names. We teach pronouns. We teach body parts. We teach words for hurt, burn, sick, hit, bad, dislike… We teach sharing of messages, such as sharing with an instructional assistant an activity that a student completed with me. These aren’t words that always can be made concrete. They can take a lot of modeling, a lot of immersion. All the more reason to start in preschool, not after some arbitrary prerequisite has been met re: “traveling” with a picture symbol.

When we do use physical prompting, we ask. Yes, I’ve probably said this a dozen times before but I’m saying it again. We ask. I have “ASK CONSENT” in big, bright red letters on our prompt hierarchy (as well as a note about how this is the least preferred prompt). Sometimes, I have students for whom pointing to an image, modeling an image, using a pointer, etc, are not effective for that very first time of finding a word on a talker. I ask: “Can I help you?” and hold out my hand. They are free to say yes or no. We occasionally teach skills that benefit from a few times of doing something together (pedaling, the scissor action). I ask. And I remember that consent can be revoked at any time. I remind students that they can revoke their consent at any time. And I 100% listen when they do.

We reflect on our practices, always willing to change. Earlier this month, one student was trying to take another student’s talker. They all have talkers, so this student did have an identical one they could use. I blocked the taking of the other talker, and the student became quite distressed. I then made the mistake of touching the student’s wrist — not grabbing, not holding, but a light touch that was meant to be calming. Except it wasn’t, and I get that. Light touch + me = I cringe (understatement). I was trying to be helpful, but I wasn’t. I was in their space and I was providing light touch that likely pained their sensory system. I was the exact opposite of helpful. The student escalated.

But — I didn’t blame the student. I acknowledged my mistake. I apologized to the student when we were able to talk. I apologized and reminded him that I will not make his body do things that he does not want to do. I talked through the moment with my staff, discussing again the importance of giving this student space to work through his feelings without us being all in it.

This is part of the process of growing as a teacher and of unlearning the ableist and oppressive culture norms that we’ve been raised in. It means sitting with our mistakes, being open to feedback. It means reading blogs, and thinking: oh, maybe I need to think about doing something differently here. It means being open to change. We can keep doing better.

On Assessment

image of rainbow letters on the floor -- telepubies -- an attempt to spell Teletubbies.

Assessment is important. It’s kind of weird to hear me say that, right? I often write about how assessment underestimates our kids, feeding into harmful cultural norms around disability supports and education. All of that is still very true. 

Yet I use ongoing assessment to drive my instruction. I sit down every week to review our data before designing my instructional plans or activities. I use it to know if my teaching is working; I use it to adapt and course-correct when my teaching is ineffective.

How? How do I make assessment work for my students?

The answer lies in both how we assess and what we assess. It lies in what we “count” as learning, what we “count” as demonstrating knowledge. It also lies in how we use those assessment tools. 

What are we assessing?

What we choose to assess is as important as why and how. Too many times, my daughter’s assessments have basically been about assessing her competence. They are normative tools that showcase all the ways she is not reaching neurotypical milestones. We already know she’s neurodiverse. We already know that she has her own route and map to her best life.

There are better ways. We can assess what skills are emerging, and develop plans for strengthening them. We can assess a student’s environment to see what is or is not working for them. We can work with our students to determine what goals they want to achieve, and assess how we are doing to reach those goals. We can focus on grade-level curriculum and standards. There’s so much more to teaching and assessing than a list of neurotypical skills in development. 

Why are we assessing?

image of an alphabet puzzle on the floor, half completed
student uses their alphabet knowledge to put together a floor puzzle

Assessment, for me, is almost entirely about what I can do to better support my students. It’s not about demonstrating what my students cannotdo, which is often the purpose of testing in special education. It is certainly not about setting up a prerequisite where students cannot access XYZ pieces of education until they prove themselves. If I have not yet determined which letters a student knows or does not know, that doesn’t mean that we won’t talk about letter sounds, engage in writing, or enjoy books together. Think about general education students. They don’t always master all of the material in one unit, but they aren’t held to learning that same unit over and over again all year. If you get a C on a geography test, they don’t make you keep practicing the same map as your sole activity each day before you can study early indigenous cultures. Instead, we spiral back through the material throughout the year, scaffolding and supporting students as we go.

And that is what I use assessment for — what do I need to scaffold? Where might I need to more accommodations? Is there something that I should draw attention to more explicitly, even as we move forward with our curriculum? Did I create meaningful experiences that allowed students to make deeper connections? Were students engaged? Did students have the opportunity to show their knowledge through a wide variety of means? Where might we need to include more assistive technology? This reflective process — a process where I adapt to meet the need of my students better — is what makes me who I am as a teacher. 

How are we assessing it?

This is the entire crux of when assessment works, and when it doesn’t. Our students have a million barriers that make it difficult for them to show their knowledge, talents, and skills in a typical setting — anxiety, apraxia, communication difficulties, sensory processing needs, on and on. I am not giving tests. This doesn’t just mean pen and paper tests, but also “testing” of knowledge. I am not sitting at a table with an array of picture cards, asking students to touch or point to something. I am not withholding items or “sanitizing the environment” to force a specific type of communication. And this is true of everything I assess: literacy, math, conceptual knowledge… It’s not about showing something when I want how I want. I don’t think that helps anyone. 

And I know there are those out there who will say, “but you need to be able to show a skill on XYZ.” I was in a webinar this summer where they said “well, even if it’s not a knowledge problem, it’s a performance problem.” I don’t think it is. I think it’s a “our culture is super ableist and expects things to look a specific way” problem. The answer to that problem isn’t to force our students to show up more neurotypical, or to withhold education until they can show skills the way we want them to.

The answer is to be flexible. 

The answer is to observe.

The answer is to listen. 

Assessment is about “capturing a moment”. It’s noticing the things that our students do during the day, the subtle and the dramatic. We take observation notes, photographs, and videos to create student portfolios that stand out stronger than any of our numerical data or graphs. We add student work: their writing, their buildings, their collaborative group creations. It’s messy. It happens during meaningful experiences, sensory-rich and hands-on. It happens when they are exploring alphabet letters, reading books with an adult, or running around on the playground after peers. The thing is: when we want to see learning, when we want to see our students’ competence… it’s everywhere. 

chalk letters on blacktop with a student hand on the D, while they begin tracing with their other hand
student dictated letters & then traced them afterwards

It’s the student whose eyes track the words as you read the title, even when they cannot get their hands to touch the words along with you. It’s in the student who looks at your feet every time you sing “if you’re happy and you know it, stomp your feet.” It’s the student playing with alphabet magnets and periodically naming them to themselves. It’s the moment that you’re passing out Play-Doh tools, saying “take one”, and a student grabs just the red roller. It’s when a student chooses the snack bag that is more filled. Or a student who plays with blocks by separating out all the little ones so that they can keep the bigger Legos only. How much can you learn about a student when, on a Friday, you say, “Today is…” but their favorite activity happens on Tuesday, so they yell out, “It’s not Friday!” All of these are moments where we learned something about what our student knows. They would be ignored, unseen, or discredited by some. And our students would slowly start to shut down, stuck in a world where they have to constantly prove something. 

It’s also about listening and observing the environment to notice what “gets in the way”. For example, a student may be able to locate their shoes in their cubby when the environment is quiet, but not during the “goodbye” song. This doesn’t meant that they cannot follow one step directions, or that they don’t know what ‘shoes’ means. It means that we need to consider accommodations to support the student to be successful. It means not asking students to shift attention rapidly (or when a favorite song is on). It means giving transition time. It means noting that this student uses context clues and routines to increase their independence, which we can use to support them across other activities as well. That’s what I mean when I say that assessment is about capturing knowledge and changing my teaching. It’s not about proof.

Because that’s the thing — I don’t need proof. I know my students learn. I know my students are creative thinkers, problem solvers, competent and capable. I never presume anything less. 

(P.S. – I recommend sharing and celebrating all those moments that you capture with students and their families. They will spend most of their educational career being told what they cannot do, unfortunately. Be different. Show them there’s a different lens.)

Why We Quit ABA, Pt. 1

I’ve mulled over writing this post for a while. There are so many voices out there who have better spoken about the challenges of ABA therapy. The voices that should be the loudest are #actuallyautistic individuals who have lived through ABA therapy and are begging us to listen.

They aren’t being heard enough. So I write, in hopes of bolstering and supporting their words. I write at the unique position of being a professional who has been pressured to pursue my BCBA, and as a mom to a child who has been pressured to enroll her in ABA.

(And go read from this list. Seriously. So much important stuff.)

I’ll start with my daughter’s story. She has unfortunately experienced ABA therapy twice in her life, and it is a deep regret. They are my mistakes, ones I own and can never fully make up for, though I try. Her first experience was in a private school placement. We had found out that she had not been safe in school. We advocated fiercely for a transfer within the public school system, but were rapidly running out of time and options. We chose the private school that, at the time, was least committed to doing things the “ABA way” with her. Or so it seemed. We ended up fighting to bring her back to public school. (Happy ending, at least: she is now with a teacher that is about as far from ABA as you can get… and having the best education she’s ever received.)

Her second experience was when she was 12 — and in pain. She was in so much pain and expressed her distress through her actions. I am not going to get into all of that, because it’s her story to tell. My story is about how we went to multiple doctors at multiple places. The recommendation, again and again, was ABA. I knew in my heart that ABA was not right for us. We had lived this before. We saw that it was not a match. We knew knew ABA would not solve this problem. I knew that she was in pain and that we needed to find the answer. After over a year of searching, it felt like doctors would not even look until we enrolled her in ABA therapy. We reluctantly enrolled her after asking for numerous recommendations for an agency that would focus on her communication device, participating in her daily life routines, and respond to our boundaries and feedback. We honestly hoped that we were going to get one of those places that doesn’t really do ABA but bills as ABA**. Except we didn’t. (Another happy ending: we found an amazing medical team, got appropriate treatment, and know they will always listen to her pain.)

We lasted not even 2 months before quitting.

We rarely saw the BCBA. When you go to therapy for anxiety, you see the licensed counselor. They provide direct services. When you’re in a special education classroom, the special education teacher is in that room supervising every single day. They know your child. But within ABA, the person that designs the instruction, makes the rules, determines what and how to teach? They may see your child less than 5% of their service hours. When she received in-home therapy, the BCBA met her one time. Once! In six weeks! That is a travesty and it happens way more frequently than most agencies are willing to admit. Instead, the person serving her may have little to no experience in education, psychology, learning, disability studies, or anything related. They may receive minimal training and support. And yet, here they are, getting all the funding and all the attention.

ABA is built on the prerequisite model. ABA therapy is built around breaking big tasks into smaller pieces. This alone would not be problematic. Breaking things down can be helpful. The problem lies in what we break down, how we teach it, and how we move on from it. For too many of the children in my life, “how we move on” has meant never. Arbitrary and meaningless “mastery criterion” kept my daughter listed as a “pre-learner”. The insistence on keeping a list of words that can be performed on command for 80% of opportunities across 3 people and 3 settings prevents students with apraxia, anxiety, or just a desire for communicative autonomy from having their voices heard. The inability to break down some concepts into easily measured discrete pieces prevents some children from ever accessing them (e.g., non-speaking students and true literacy instruction). ABA therapy was unwilling to address any of the goals that we had for our daughter, because they felt they had too many prerequisites to teach first. Prerequisites that we told them she already had. Prerequisites that were sometimes completely disconnected.

New ABA is old ABA. Knowing what we know, we set a lot of rules around in-home ABA therapy and supervised every session. We emphasized in every phone call that our focus as on meaningul activities connected to every day life and expanding my daughter’s use of her talker through modeling. The moment I broke was when I sat and watched an ABA therapist say to my daughter, “Hi Jane, what’s your name?” and then prompt her to say “Jane” on her talker. She had literally just said her name. They proceeded to repeat this several times in a row. I interrupted it before it could go on any longer. This moment just epitomizes everything for me. It showcases exactly what the therapists, BCBA, and system think of my daughter. To say her name to her face and then ask her what her name is… To ask that question in repetition… I offered advice, such as talking to my daughter about why being able to answer her name is important, talking to her about practicing & role play, and so on… Rather than take any of that advice, they just stopped working on anything with her device (see below, re: ABA is the only way.)

ABA still wants to control what my daughter loves. The moment that my husband broke was when they asked us if we could take my daughter’s iPad and iPod away for a hour before they came, so that these tools would be more powerful for them. We refused. They pushed. We refused. For starters, no, I am not going to take things my daughter loves away from her so that you can use them to manipulate her. Second, my daughter has physical disabilities in addition to being autistic. Taking away her iPad and iPod mean taking away her leisure activities, ones that she adores partially because it’s one of the few things she can do all by herslef. Finally, if we have to remove everything a kid loves in order to get them to love us, what does it say about us? What does it say about our actions? And what kind of professional are we if we ignore this information? Her current team certainly doesn’t. She listens to music all day, with her only restraint being volume and school-friendly lyrics — and still does all of her work.

The ABA way is “the only way”. Trying to get any BCBA or ABA therapist in this child’s life to ever listen to us about AAC, vision, or motor needs has been nearly impossible. Bringing in other professionals has rarely made a difference. We’ve met ONE BCBA who truly works as part of a team. Why is this so hard for them? How has ABA taken control over every other field, from feeding to speech to anxiety to riding a bicycle? At the time, I had over a decade of experience in supporting children like my daughter. I had all the experience of being her mom and knowing her deeply that they did not have. Yet I never felt so belittled and unimportant as when they pressed the need for “parent training” — while never actually defining what this meant.

They are always there. This was my husband’s ultimate complaint. When was my daughter supposed to be able to have a life? We asked for 2-3 days of 2 hours, at most. They wanted to provide over 20 hours. They wanted her to be pulled from school to provide that 20 hours. They wanted to somehow go to her school and do more hours there, interrupting her education. They always seem to want more. Their answer to “this is not working” re: a plan or strategy — let’s do it MORE. My daughter was a 12 year old girl. She deserved more in her life than ABA therapy. She deserved swimming in the pool and chilling in her room watching YouTube and spending time with her family. She deserved a summer.

Work as an act of love, or work as an act of work. We never really connected to our ABA therapists. I know that some families really connect to the people in their home, but ours always felt like they were coming to work. I can’t understand it. I go to school every day as a teacher with fire and passion in my heart for the little ones I serve. I delight in them. I adore all their habits and quirks and big personalities. I am the first one to celebrate every success, your child’s biggest non-family cheerleader. Maybe that’s unfair, but if you’re spending 20+ hours with my daughter — it needs to be more than work.

Turnover, cancellations, and the like. Turnover in the field is high. We stayed with in home ABA therapy for six weeks. We had 2 therapists and 2 BCBAs in that time period. We were in private school for 2 years. We had 5 BCBAs, a huge chunk of time with no BCBA, and who knows how many number of instructional assistants… And cancellations by therapists for in-home therapy were high.

And they still didn’t help with “behavior”. After all of that, they didn’t even do what they came for. Her private school didn’t help problem solve her distress behaviors. They didn’t disappear until she was back in public school. Her in-home therapy team was worthless at helping to collect data to analyze for patterns in what could be triggering the distress, the data that would have helped us advocate for her with her medical team. They took frequency. They wrote down what happened directly before or after. But that’s not enough. We needed to look at sleep, eating / what she ate, weather, seizure activity, symptoms, and missing supports. We needed to model pain-related vocabulary, protesting, and complaining. 7 BCBAs in her life and not a single one did these things. Not a single one.

It would be easier not to write about this, if only over the shame I feel when I think of those choices. But it needs to be shared. I’ve been stuck in a system that feels as if there is nowhere to turn. My daughter and I have both yelled and screamed and begged to be heard, while being completely shut down. We have been bullied. (Teachers, please don’t do this to your families. Respect the decisions they make for their child’s life outside of school.) If we were able to do it again, we would home school. We would travel as far as needed to find the doctor that listens. But not everyone has that luxury. A single parent working multiple jobs doesn’t. A parent without health insurance doesn’t.

That’s why we have to continue to share. The current system has to change. The way that insurance and professionals gatekeep and dictate what is right for their clients, instead of their clients deciding what is right? That has to change. There are pitiful supports for both disabled individuals and their families, across the board. There are few doctors who listen, few school systems that include, and way too few funding for communication systems, adaptive equipment, retrofitting spaces for physical or sensory needs, personal care attendants, classroom staff supports, and so on… There is so much support and money for ABA therapy, while everything else is left behind.

This won’t change just by switching to “nice ABA”. It is only going to change when we overthrow the ableist foundation on which it’s all built — that people become more worthy as they become less visibly disabled.

People are worthy of the supports they choose now. People are worthy of accessible communities now. People are worthy of quality & affordable healthcare now. People are worthy of being seen — not just as people to support, but as people with thoughts, feelings, talents, and skills that are important to and for the world. Now. My daughter deserves real therapy when she needs it, real education always, and real support from people who love and appreciate her. Now.

And that is why we quit ABA. Forever.

Part 2 documenting my own story will be posted later this week. I’ll also share what we do at home instead. What I write about every day is what I do at school instead 🙂

** I know realize the problems inherent to people practicing something not ABA but billing as ABA. While it’s great that a child can access supports that are helping them, it makes it more difficult for others to differentiate between harmful and not harmful. The non-ABA lends credence to the ABA, as people hope that they can enroll and get basically a play therapist (as we did). It also makes it more difficult to advocate for insurance and other support networks to better fund non-ABA supports.

How We Do It: Visual Schedules

yellow clipboard with velcro picture symbols showing a student's day (circle time, art, tech, eat)

I tend to write about the philosophy behind my teaching and the culture more than the practical. This is because nothing else matters until our classroom cultures shift. Visual schedules are a fantastic example of what I mean.

There are plenty of people who use visual schedules as a compliance system. This is on your schedule. You must do this. Or they use visual schedules because someone once said they should, but they sort of just sit around and have little meaning for the students using them. If that’s how they are being used, then it’s not a student accommodation. It’s a teacher tool.

We use visual schedules to increase predictability, visual supports for conversation about our day, and to assist students to know where they are going and when they are going there. They are a support system. I understand this deeply because I need a schedule.

How do we do this?

yellow folder on top of a yellow clipboard

We design the schedule to be easily accessed.

I often see schedules on walls. I’ve made this mistake in the past. But it’s not very useful on a wall if you’re in the cafeteria, on the playground, or even on the other side of the room. Asking a student to leave a preferred activity to go across the room to check their schedule to come back across the room seems like a lot of response effort for a time that may already be challenging. Transitioning, shifting attention, and now moving too? We keep our schedules on our clipboards. The front has a folder for data, notes, or individual student items. The back is the schedule. We also bring the schedule to our students. Older students could carry their schedules with them by placing them in their binders or backpacks.

We design the schedule for understanding.

We currently use primarily picture symbols, but not only picture symbols. We have used songs, objects, photographs, and written text, all dependent on the child’s needs. We’ve also mixed them all up — maybe a student uses a picture schedule for all of their work activities, but uses a spoon to transition to meal time. We currently don’t use times on our schedule as we are in preschool but I’ve used them with older students. It’s not about the tool. It’s about matching the tool to the student needs. Ask your students: will this lead to more or less understanding? More or less frustration? If they cannot tell you with speech, watch their nonverbal language. We always want to decrease frustration.

We use visual systems to support their use for transitions.

image of a filing cabinet with an "art" picture attached to the side, with 8 velcro dots below

One thing that has invariably helps my students when learning routines and schedules is to have a match in another location. They don’t just have a random picture of a table that means “work time”. There is a matching picture on the actual work time table as well. If we’re using a space that serves multiple purposes, that picture is attached by velcro. I don’t like spaces to have multiple visible pictures showing; it gets confusing. We know what the schedule says because we can read text. If our students are not yet able to read, how do we make sure they understand? This matching system helps so much.

We refer to the schedule throughout the day.

The schedule is not just a decoration or a transition cue. It’s something we talk about throughout the day. We talk about changes to the schedule in our morning meetings. When students go to their backpacks during the day, we show them their schedule to help them know when we go home. If a student asks for a snack or iPad or some other item that we cannot access right now, we use the schedule to tell them when they can have it.

We don’t care about compliance.

Repeat after me: the schedule is not about compliance. It is about understanding. Not compliance. Not compliance. It has to be said so many times. One of our assistants is brilliant at being about cooperation instead of compliance, especially with schedules. When a student puts a picture schedule piece in the wrong place or on the floor, she says, “That’s one place you could try. But let me show you where I would put it.” If a student just won’t take their picture symbol to transition, then we say, “Oh I’d love to help you. Let me show you where we are going.” If a student needs to finish their current activity, because they’re mid-alphabet, we let them finish their current activity. If a student runs across the room to the next activity, ignoring their schedule, that’s fine. If they are already sitting and waiting at the table, that’s fine too. Because it’s not about “checking the schedule”. It’s about feeling safe, knowing what’s happening in your day, and having a way to help you get from place to place. That’s why we use them. That’s why we adapt them. That’s why they work.

Teaching Values

As we enter a new school year, I find that it’s the perfect time to get clear on our teaching values. Teaching is inherently a political act, and I don’t mean this party versus that party. Each day we enter the classroom, we act on our values. And our values either uphold or break down systems of oppression.

There is no neutral.

To quote Elie Wiesel, “Neutrality helps the oppresser, never the victim.” Neutrality doesn’t exist. Neutrality means the current systems continue as they are. Neutrality means that the current power structures stay as they are. Neutrality means we don’t unwind all the bias that we have imbibed from our larger culture, whether intentional or not.

And so we need to get clear on who we are, what we value, and what we will implement in service of those values. We need to be clear on who we are there to serve: our students. Do we want to serve our students on autopilot? Do we want to serve them up the same systems that lead to the current outcomes, which aren’t very good for students with disabilities? Or do we want to serve them something more?

I want something more. So much more. The following five beliefs form the core of who I am as a teacher. There’s so much more that I can say. If you’re on Facebook, you’ve seen our classroom poster. I had to force myself to stop adding to it. But it all comes back to this.

Kids do well when they can. If things are not going well, then it is our job, as the adults in the room, to adapt so that things can go well. It is not the student’s job to adapt to me, to my environment, or to my needs. It is my job to adapt my teaching, to adapt my environment, to adapt my needs. It is my job to be flexible. This is why you’ll see me change the schedule, move a couch, adapt my data sheets, and a million other things throughout the year. It’s not because I love change. I hate change as much as the next person, and maybe more. But I know that it is my job to change for my students. It is my job to change so that our instructional assistants can be successful. That is the responsibility that I accepted when I entered the classroom. I take it very seriously. It also tends to be both the primary reason that my students succeed and the primary reason that outsiders dislike my room (see: “what? Why don’t they have shoes on? What is wrong with this teacher? THEY NEED TO LEARN!”, and also: my response).

Every student has value. Every single one, and that’s as they are right now. Not “when they talk” or “when they learn to read” or “when they hold a job”. They have gifts to offer right now.  I am ten thousand times over confident that the world would be worse off without the students I serve. My world would be worse off without the students I serve. I see part of my role as teaching this to my students, my families, my school community.

Everyone has something to say. All of my students have creative and funny and interesting things to say. Sometimes with words, sometimes with their bodies, sometimes through their art or curiosity. I want to amplify their voices so that everyone can hear them. I want to give them the tools they need to amplify their own voices, whether that’s access to an AAC system, increased vocabulary on that system, vocabulary instruction, or just telling people to stop and listen. Every student leaves my class knowing that their voice mattered to me.

Students have autonomy over their voices and bodies. Yes, that even means that students can tell me no. Yes, that means they can tell me to STOP and that they are MAD and even that they HATE me. A dear friend of mine has heard “we don’t say no to teachers” enough in classrooms that she has a whole blog post on how problematic it is. And it is so problematic. Our students, probably more than any other students, need to be taught that they have the right to say no. It’s abuse prevention. It’s voice amplifying. It is a fundamental human right.

Every student has the right to access rigorous curriculum. I wish that this didn’t need to be said. Yet I have spent most of the last six months defending that, yes, autistic students can learn to use core words. Yes, nonverbal students can learn to decode and comprehend what they are reading. Yes, students with language disabilities can engage in creative writing and the acts of putting written word to paper. No, a fourth grade should not be re-reading Pete the Cat as the core of their literacy work for the fifth year in a row. Whether they are served in the general education classroom, a self-contained classroom, a hospital, at home… They have the right to a robust education that teaches oral and written communication, critical thinking, problem solving, and so much more. An IEP does not mean “less”. It means more.

 

As I write on the eve of my fifteenth year serving other individuals with disabilities, this is what guides me. This is what I keep in mind when I write assistive technology evaluations, when I select IEP goals, and when I speak to parents about all the joy and beauty and honor that has come with teaching their child during the year. Because it is — it’s an honor. And one that I work hard to live up to.

 

 

Dear teachers, we can do better.

I have had some heart-breaking meetings and phone calls with families. They almost always involve sharing experiences that they find normal, but completely wrench me open.

Example: Families surprised by compliments and celebrations of their child.

Oh, teachers and staff members, think about what you say before you say it. Think about what message you are giving to the children you serve when criticism is followed by criticism by another criticism. Please, please, please start sharing more of the good with families. Even more important: start sharing it with your students. No one should ever be surprised that there is good news. It can be small, it can be big, it can be anything, but it’s there. Tell them about the gifts and talents you see, about their hard work, about the gains they make each week. And I promise: every single child has them. Every single one.

Example: Families surprised by staff who speak directly to their child.

When you meet a child for the first time, say hello to them. When you ask “how are you?” and “what do you like?”, say it too them. Do they use an alternative communication system? You can still speak to them. Do they not have a communication system yet? You can still speak to them. How hard is it to say, “Good morning! I hope that you had a wonderful weekend!” directly to a child? It’s not. How hard is it to say, “You seem so sad. I’m sorry you’re having a hard time” directly to a child? It’s not. Do it.

Example: Families excited by discovering that all kids participate in class photographs, graduation, school plays, field days, music concerts, or electives. 

This is their school too. Special education students are not guests. They are community members. It shouldn’t be a fight to gain access to these things. They should be so automatic that no one would ever think of it being any other way. I get that there is a spectrum of options, that least restrictive environment means a lot of things. I have a son that has advocated for himself to have more or less time in a self-contained environment over the years. But his school has always, always ensured that he was in every PTA concert, that he was in every field day, that his picture was always with his general education classmates in the yearbook, that he was seen as a member of that community. When life was hard, that sense of belonging meant everything to him (and to us). It matters. Oh, how it matters.

Folx — these things should be foundational to our practice. These shouldn’t be things that families move across districts and states to find. These aren’t things that are hard to do, but they mean everything. They mean everything to the students we teach, who deserve respect and access to a robust education. They mean everything to their families, who need to see all that is possible. And they can mean everything for us, as we see our practice, our schools, and our communities transform to become places where all children are seen, welcomed, and celebrated.

We can do better.