The right to NOT talk.

image of an iPad screen with a grid of icons for voice output. the message bar reads: "I don't want to! Grumpy"We all have times where talking is not happening. We ignore questions. We don’t answer the phone. We flat out tell others that we don’t want to talk. Some of us have times where we simply cannot talk; I’ve had many conversations with my husband via text message. At other times, we may want to talk — just not about the subject at hand. Our partner may ask if we want hamburgers or grilled cheese for dinner, but we answer with complaints about something that happened earlier during work.

Yet, this is forgotten or completely thrown out the window when it comes to the students that we serve (and children, generally, in our compliance-driven society).

We ask students what they want (often within limits). If they begin talking about something else, then we take it as proof that they weren’t listening, that they don’t understand, or that they don’t have the ability to answer. They talk about Diego, because it’s their all-time favorite, and we say they “perseverate” or “only know one word”. They don’t use their talker on demand, and it’s written off as “inappropriate” or “not being used” or “they don’t know how to do it” or “too much”.

We need to ask ourselves: what is our goal? Is our goal for students to say what we want when they want? Or is our goal for student’s to have a voice? Because a voice means they get to say what they want when they want.

A voice means being able to talk about your passions, whether they are Diego or the alphabet or worms. A voice means being able to change the topic, interrupt, or ask for something that wasn’t on the menu.

A voice also means being able to NOT talk.

It means that I don’t have to answer your questions  — not when you want me to, and maybe not at all.

It means that I can go hours without talking, or days, or whatever, because it’s my voice and I can use it when and how I want it. I can be silent, and I won’t have people then try to take my voice away.

Autonomy isn’t autonomy if it’s only allowed at the convenience of adults and professionals in students’ lives. A voice isn’t a voice unless we grant the full range of freedom — freedom to use, but freedom to not use as well.

Silence is okay.

Silence doesn’t mean “doesn’t know”.

Silence doesn’t mean “doesn’t need”.

Silence certainly doesn’t mean “take my voice from me”.

Silence is just that — silence. And everyone has the right to it.

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.

Things We Can Retire: “Developmental age”

First and foremost, let’s remember that words matter. It’s not semantics. Words set the foundation for how people view our children. They create a framework of expectations and support services. They need to be carefully chosen, words selected to affirm and uplift individual’s humanity and right to respect. It’s why we don’t use the r-word and why the autistic community chooses identity-first language. Words matter.

One of the phrases that has been popping up in my life a lot recently has been “developmental age” — as in “my child is developmentally X months / years old”. It’s usually an age significantly below their chronological one. Other versions are “caring for my child is like caring for an infant” or “my child is really a toddler”.

Oh, parents and teachers, can we please agree to stop this? It’s not helpful, at best, and limiting at its worst. And inaccurate — so, so inaccurate.

It’s not helpful. After all, what does “developmentally two” even tell us? I see this pop up in lots of groups when asking for advice — “My student is developmentally two, what do I do about (AAC / work activity / behavior)?” Except that hasn’t really told us anything… What does the student like? Dislike? What assistive technology are they already accessing? What are their visual and sensory support needs? What comes easily for them? What is more challenging? Our evaluations, our present levels of performance, our conversations about our kids all need to get a lot more specific (at least in private… I understand keeping things pretty generic in public forums).

It’s inaccurate AND limiting. Here’s the bottom line: we don’t know what these students know. The students who have these phrases thrown around about them are the students who are the most challenging to accurately assess. They may have complex communication needs, significant apraxia, difficulties with sensory regulation, all of the above, or something else entirely. At best, our assessments may tell us the minimum that they know. For example, if a student shows that they can identify 5 letters, we now know they can identify at least 5 letters. We don’t know that they don’t have the knowledge of the other 21 letters. There are dozens of reasons why they may not have been able to demonstrate their knowledge. This is especially important for professionals, who need to be clear about the limitations of these assessments instead of presenting them as the end-all, be-all. When we use these tools to set up boxes like “developmentally two”, then we create preconceptions and limit access. We limit access to real literacy instruction, because “two year olds can’t learn to read yet”! They’re “not ready”! We limit access to general education classes and peers. We have medical professionals that won’t hear a child’s complaints about pain, because it’s written off due to their “developmental age”. We limit their exploration of new activities and adventures, whether it’s a 10th grade science experiment or going to a Nicki Minaj concert. We cannot keep doing this to our students. They deserve access to the entire world, to all the things that every other child and adult access.

It’s not respectful. Oh, friends, think about this deeply… Would you want someone to refer to you as an infant, toddler, child, a pre-teen, long after you left those years? I personally love to watch Hannah Montana and Lizzie McGuire. I saw Moana and Frozen in theaters multiple times. There have been plenty of times that I needed help with a zipper or a fastener or a total meltdown. I need reminders that it’s time to take a shower. One of my favorite ways to calm my body is to swing on the playground. It is an almost irresistible temptation to be next to the swings every day on the playground, actually. But, because I can speak, because I can demonstrate academic knowledge in a way the world has deemed acceptable, no one would think to call me a child. Our kids deserve the same respect. They can like what they like. They can need what they need. That doesn’t change the need for respect; our language needs to reflect that respect. Our kids’ age is simply their age. A teen is a teen is a teen.

We’ve lived this in our family. We’ve lived our 3rd grade daughter being taught Pete The Cat for the fifth or sixth year in a row, because her school team limited her. Or when she changed schools and they decided that clipping clothespins onto a box was even better, because she was a “pre-learner” (another version of developmental age, except somehow even worse). We’ve lived people thinking she shouldn’t say she hates school or us, because OMG, she’s such a precious sweet angel, a toddler in a taller body. We’ve also lived her pain and frustration  (and boredom!) over it. Indeed –it’s amazing how much more engaged and chatty — how much happier — she became with professionals that saw her, just her, no limits, no ages, no prerequisites required. Her current teacher talks about ecosystems and the solar system and the American revolution. Her occupational therapist celebrates her interests while challenging her and targeting written expression and continually raising the bar. Her vision therapist tried hard to convince her school team to work on literacy and number skills. These are the people who get to see all of her, who fall in love with her, who get her. I want more of those people.

So, yes, let’s retire this phrase. Let’s do better by the children and adults that we so deeply love and care for. Teachers and other professionals need to especially listen up, because we set the tone for speaking about disability at every eligibility or well-child check-up. We are why parents use these words. They hear them over and over over, from doctors and psychologists and school evaluation teams. They are cemented. We are the ones who are creating these artificial limits, making parents think that literacy and number sense and autonomous communication are pipe dreams. Except they are only pipe dreams when we don’t provide the services (due to the false limits we’ve set). See the feedback loop we’ve created?

We can break the loop. We can lead the change. It starts with our language, and continues with our practice. Let’s not limit kids with our words, and let’s not limit them with their access. We can do better. Let’s do it.

 

Special Education: What We Do

I think sometimes there are these vague mysteries around what a special education teacher does. That this job is about having patience. Or at least that is what we most often get told — that we must have lots of patience, or that “you must be an angel” (which usually also implies patience). I guess you need to have a lot of patience, though I’ll say I have a lot of patience for my amazing students and very little for the people who call me an angel.

Our job does not require being an angel. It does require skill, talent, and careful planning. Much of our culture underestimates what teachers do every day, so it comes as no surprise that special education is also underestimated. But I think we need to fight back against this. We need to fight back against this so that our profession — and our public schools — get the respect that they deserve. The funding they deserve. We need to clarify our roles so that people don’t enter the profession half-heartedly or willy-nilly.

All that being said, here’s a preview of what I do over the course of the week.

Teaching – This teaching time could be leading a whole group activity, supporting two students to engage in shared use of materials, or targeting individual goals in a 1:1 teaching session. It could be painting, building, counting, or reading with students. It’s not baby-sitting. It’s skillful implementation of all the other things on this list, dozens of things happening simultaneously. It is interacting, relationship-building, scaffolding. It’s not time at a desk. That doesn’t exist in my particular setting.

Important: I am with students from the moment that I arrive at school until the students are on the bus. Yes, all the moments. When I taught in another state, I did have a 50 minute prep period and a 50 minute lunch. However, not every city / district / state has those types of regulations built in. So, sometimes that means that educators are with children for every moment of the day. We still have the same amount of paperwork and responsibilities, which means we do them outside of school hours. .

Behavior Support – Special education teachers may be responsible for both class-wide systems and for designing individual support systems. I want to be clear – I’m not talking about color clip charts here. The greatest teachers are not relying on that type of system. I’m talking about systems for social-emotional skill regulation, sensory integration, and skill development. Rules, values, expectations. And the necessary instruction & accommodations to be able to meet them.

Staff Support – We coordinate schedules, instruction, and accommodations between any number of staff and therapy providers. We teach instructional staff about our students and their IEPs. We train assistants or paraprofessionals on implementation of a behavior plan or an accommodation. We model and provide cues on how to teach a target skill, as well as how to collect data on that skill. We provide training on evidence based practices, such as visual supports, prompting, or reinforcement. We do this on the job, after school hours, via email, via instructional plans, or any number of ways.

Lesson Plans – Guess what? We still align our instruction to the state standards. Like all teachers, we design units and daily activities to meet those standards. We use universal design and/or differentiate so all students can access the materials, whether or not they are “on grade level”. We then create individual plans to target IEP goals and objectives. Incidental teaching or direct instruction? What kind of materials will we need? How many opportunities daily? What kind of prompting? How will we ensure that this skill is generalized and usable by the student in their daily lives? How will this be assessed? How often? This IEP instruction does not replace the grade-level curriculum. Our students access both. It’s the law.

Assessment – There are so many levels of assessment. We assess our students at the beginning of the year, of a unit, of a new skill. We assess their ongoing skill gain on a daily, weekly, or monthly basis through “formative assessments”. We check in on the way they are mastering the grade-level material, sometimes with accommodations or modifications. We complete progress reports several times a year on whether they are making sufficient progress towards their IEP goals. We complete bigger assessments for IEPs and eligibilities and sometimes just because they’re needed. I personally take data on every student’s IEP goals every single day. I can’t wait until half of a month — or half f a quarter — has gone by to course correct. We graph that data at the end of every week. We review whether students are making progress towards their goals based on visual analysis every 2-4 weeks. We change our instruction based on that feedback. I don’t teach to the void, hoping my students pick up something that I drop. I use that data, whether it’s numbers or qualitative notes or digital portfolios, to change my teaching. Because there is almost always something that we can do better.

Accommodations – We ensure that students’ accommodations are implemented across their day, whether it’s in the classroom or in the gym or transitioning from the bus to the classroom. Accommodations can vary as much as the kids that we teach, but might include things like: visual schedules, visual directions, wait time, pre-teaching, additional time on tests, communication devices, modified seating, simplified directions, on and on and on. And if those accommodations require teacher-made materials? We are the ones who are making them.

Communication Systems – Sometimes our students need additional support to communicate. We work with speech therapists that serve our students to assess which systems might be best, trial these systems during the day, and then provide ongoing instruction and support. We might do programming of additional needed vocabulary words, provide parent training, or help instructional staff understand how to use them throughout the day. We always, always make sure our students have their talkers with them.

Note:  I feel like this is one of the paragraphs that needs a caveat — the unfortunate experience of many families is that this is missing. But it’s up to us to change that. We can do better. We can make sure every child has a voice. We can ensure that their voice is both available and respected. This is why it’s important to detail all the things that we get right. We can then challenge ourselves and our colleagues to continue to raise the bar. And hopefully inspire the wider world to see us as the processionals we are, who deserve professional wages and respect.

Materials – Oh my gosh, the materials. The lamination paper, the velcro, the color ink on my home printer. The clipboards, the data sheets, the manipulatives… We’ve got to find it, prep it, organize it, store it. Clean it!

Cleaning – Yep, we clean. We clean tables. We sweep floors. We bag up trash. We wash dishes and cups and silverware. We wipe down changing tables. We help clean up bodily fluids. We do what we need to ensure that our students have a clean and safe environment all day long.

Family Communication – We communicate with families in a wide variety of ways, depending on what our students need. My students are early communicators, and it can be difficult to reflect or share their day with their families. After school, I send videos, pictures, notes, and stories to families so that they can see what their student is doing each day. I respond to questions and emails that pop up throughout the week. Other people send home daily notes, write in agendas, send emails, or call. There’s a wide variety, but generally we need to touch base with families more often than some teachers due to the difficulty our students may have in sharing their days themselves.

Paperwork – Wow, paperwork! And there is so much more than just the IEP, ESY IEP, and eligibility paperwork. I’m just going to list some: IEP-at-a-glance sheets, caseload management forms, interpreter requests, releases of information, transportation requests, consultation requests, referrals for evaluations, consent for evaluations, therapy notes, data sheets, assistive technology need documentation, medical needs documentation, ESY planning forms, communication logs, reinforcer surveys or assessments, intervention records, and general classroom documentation needs.

Spending Money – I spent a lot of money on my classroom. People are generally shocked when they hear the amount that I spend each year. But when I started, my classroom had a couple of tables, bookshelves that blocked line of sight for preschoolers, and some chairs. We were given some cast-off toys from other preschools so that we could get started. And we did have a pretty awesome alphabet rug! Over the years, I’ve transformed our room into a thing of beauty, a place that we all want to be in every single day. We have a squeeze machine, a crash pad, giant building blocks, a rich and diverse library, toddler-size bookshelves, and so much more. It doesn’t come free, and our school budgets are constantly strapped. Education has not been a priority for our national system for far too long, especially public education. I donate when I can, what I can. I have friends who help out. And I’m not the only one — the average teacher spends $500 out of pocket every year. I buy books. I buy more books to replace the ripped and chewed books. I buy toys to replace the broken toys. I buy chewelry. I buy lamination paper, velcro, tear-resistant paper, clipboards, iPad apps, Chlorox wipes, and about a million more things.

School Stuff – And then there’s all the school stuff we have to do. Attendance, email, faculty meetings, department meetings, team meetings, school events, school spirit, collaboration with colleagues, beautifying the environment. Hanging artwork, writing about the skills we’ve taught, sharing lessons. It’s a beautiful thing when a school works together to create a space that is designed for kids. I’m lucky enough to be at such a school.

Research  / PD – Teachers generally have to do a certain number of hours to renew their certification, but most of us do more than that. We read books, find research articles, follow blogs, and generally find ways to continue up our game. I have colleagues who volunteer at DonorsChoose to help other teachers, or who turn-key important information from science and social studies conferences to the larger school community. I have friends who moderate Facebook groups that challenge practitioners to grow in our understanding of children with complex needs. Very few of us are not giving back to the teaching community or seeking out new knowledge on a regular basis.

Caring – I left this one for last, because we all know it’s the most important. Learning happens through relationship. Learning happens when kids feel safe and loved. The public trusts us with these precious souls for 8-9 hours every day. I know what a privilege and honor this is. I promise to never take it light.