Me & My Headphones, or why we don’t need to outgrow accommodations.

image of smiling white woman with short dark pink hair, wearing cat ears and over the ear headphones
I went to my first convention of superfans this past week, and it was the BookCon with its 20,000 attendees. That’s a lot of people. Without anything else, that’s a lot. A lot of conversations, a lot of noise, a lot of unwritten social rules, a lot of social navigation.

It could have been a disaster for me, especially on that first day. I didn’t know where anything was. I didn’t know where I should be. I only knew that there were a whole lot of lines, sometimes with clear signs and sometimes not. Lights, sounds, smells, all of it. I would say “I almost ran away from it all” except it’s not almost. I did. I sat in a corner far from the show to eat my lunch in silence. Later, I totally quit the show floor and spend the afternoon listening to panels (a much more sensory-friendly experience for my body). There was lots of running away. There could have been more. I was always able to come back. I was able to find something that meant a lot to me. I was able to have a day that was beautiful and fun and memorable, despite any near breakdowns.

It’s because of accommodations.

I didn’t use any accommodations from BookCon… The one downside to the Con is that there really aren’t very many available accommodations. I created my own. Or, in some cases, my husband thought ahead and created them for me. He packed my headphones. I downloaded audiobooks and music that help me stay centered and calm. Oh, those headphones. They were everything. I could drown out the noise that was making my skin crawl. I could distract myself from the anxiety of losing personal space by listening to a favorite chapter in a favorite audiobook on repeat. I fiddled with wires as if they are a fidget toy. They kept people from talking to me when I was not in a place to chat. Those headphones were everything. It wasn’t all I used, but it was the biggest help. I took breaks! I found quiet spaces with no one around. I found the spaces with dim or natural lighting. I stepped out of line when I needed to. I came late or left early from panels, drop lines, autograph signing.

I share this list, these few examples of a much longer list, to say — I am nearing 34, and I make these adaptations to meet my needs. I was able to have this dream weekend, filled with my number one love, because I don’t feel shame about needing what I need. Yet, all too often, we treat accommodations as if they are something to outgrow. We celebrate when students no longer need chewies, when they don’t wear their headphones anymore, or when they decide to hand write rather than use speech-to-text dictation.

We are celebrating the wrong thing.

It doesn’t matter if someone needs to wear a chew necklace. It doesn’t matter if they need to sit at the table with their shoes off. It doesn’t matter if they need to wear a pressure vest or have a weighted blanket or use a rocking chair or wear headphones. It just doesn’t matter.

It matters if someone is living the life that they want to live. It matters if someone has autonomy. Can they do the things they most want to do? What can they access? What dreams can they pursue? What learning is able to happen? What environments are now available to them? What brilliance and beauty and talents are now able to be shared with the world?

This is what we celebrate. The celebration is not whether I was able to do the second dayimage of white woman with short dark pink hair against a rainbow book backdrop. she has white earbuds slung over her shoulder.
of BookCon with less headphone time… The celebration is this: I was able to access this event that meant so, so much to me. The celebration is not whether someone uses speech or a communication device or sign to convey their message. The celebration is that this person’s voice is now able to be heard in the world.

Accommodations don’t need to be outgrown, though they certainly may morph as people’s needs change. They may even morph from one day to the next. We need to focus our attention on the right things: helping our students have lives that they design and love. Accommodations and assistive technology are not things that leave us bound. They are things that help us fly.

 

On a final note, I was able to create my own accommodations this weekend, but that’s not the case for everyone. Some accommodations really need to be created and provided by the venue, whether it’s through universal design or access to specific needs. Most venues, restaurants, stores, even community parks need to do better. One of the ways that we can make that happen is to acknowledge that these needs exist. They are not signs of weakness or “less”, but valid needs.

Selecting skills: But why does it matter?

blue Thomas train leading a line of toys that includes a broom... a shoe-less foot is peeking in to the edge of the frame.When people enter my classroom, they are sometimes confused. There is a lot that looks different from a typical classroom. A quarter of our room is filled with things that one would typically see outside: ride-along trains, cars, slides. Half of my class spends their days without socks or shoes. If we are in a large group setting, students may be seated at the table. They may also be doing something else in the back of the room, pacing near to the large group, or coming back and forth from the table. Independent work happens on the floor, standing at the table, in rocking chairs, next to squeeze machines. Students engaged in child-directed play may be stacking, lining up items, or scripting. Not only that, but you’ll find classroom staff delighting in these things, expressing joy right alongside the students.

People see this and think that I am permissive and lenient, that I don’t believe in my students, or that I am not teaching them.

Yet — I get good outcomes. Scratch that — I get great outcomes. My students master their IEP goals. My students develop a ‘functional communication system’. Their self-injury, aggression, and meltdowns disappear over time. They learn to tell someone no, to be more independent, and build relationships in ways that honor and support their needs & desires. My families are very happy with the learning that happens in our room, sometimes the first big progress that a student has made. My students and families trust me, which is even more important.

And this doesn’t happen in spite of the environment, but because of the environment.

My classroom environment respects neurodiversity. My classroom expectations respect neurodiversity.

Whenever we set an expectation in my classroom, I ask myself: but why is this the expectation? When we choose a skill to target for instruction: but why are we selecting this skill? I don’t just accept my first answer, but dive deep into it. Where did this expectation come from? Is it necessary for safety? Is it necessary for learning? Is there an alternate way?

Let’s take a look at wearing shoes in the classroom. Why do we insist on this? Is it because this is what we are familiar with? This is what the neurotypical students do? What reason would we have for pushing shoes all day? Is it necessary for safety? No. Students put their shoes on to leave the classroom. They put their shoes on for the playground. But in the classroom, it is not necessary to wear shoes in order to be safe. Is it necessary for learning? No, and I would argue that it is actually counterproductive to learning. If you’ve ever had an unmet sensory need, you would know what I mean. It can be one of the most distressing and distracting experiences, causing pain and discomfort for the entire time that it is unmet. I want my students to learn. This means meeting their sensory needs.

Similarly, with large groups — why do we believe that students can only learn or learn best when seated together in a group at the table or the carpet? Can the student hear my instruction when they are pacing behind our group? Almost certainly, and possibly better than they can when seated. Can they add to the conversation or take their turn with the materials even though they had to leave for several minutes and then return?

I don’t insist on greetings and closings when entering and leaving the classroom, much less eye contact. I make sure that I greet each of my arriving students with warmth and affection in a way that works for their personalities and needs. But they don’t have to return that greeting. They don’t have to look me in the eye. They don’t have to say hello or good morning or good-bye. Once again — is it necessary for me to insist they greet us? Does it have to look a certain way? What purpose does that serve? Why do we do it? If the answer is, in any shape or form, “because that’s what neurotypical children do”, then we need to step back and ask ourselves if that’s enough for something to be necessary. It usually isn’t. Instead, we can create a classroom environment that allows for and recognizes a much wider display of “what something looks like”. We can recognize as valid and beautiful the many different forms there are to acknowledge someone’s presence (e.g., what a greeting is). We can recognize that some days, students may need time and space upon entering the room. We can recognize that people move through the world differently. It’s not only okay, but beautiful and essential.

It’s not that I don’t hold high expectations for my students. We engage in real reading, real work with letters, and real writing. We learn about numbers, geometry, and measurement. We explore patterns. We do science experiments. We create art. We participate in teacher-directed activities. We work really hard every single moment of the day on speaking and listening. We are safe with our bodies and our friends.

It’s that I recognize that our world is better when our world recognizes that validity and importance of different ways of being in the world. And that is why we do as well as we do.

 

This is part one in a series on selecting what’s important in our special education classrooms. Future posts will feature conversation on play, selecting target goals, and teaching social skills as a form of code-switching.

Our students need MORE, not less.

Students who receive special education services need more supports. The type of support they need varies — maybe they need instructional support, maybe lots of accommodations, maybe assistive technology… But, generally, an IEP is a layering on of the structures and supports that a student will need in order to access their education and make progress on their goals.

However, the reality sometimes is that our students end up with less, not more. It often doesn’t happen intentionally. It happens because we worry for our students. It happens because of outside pressure by organizations that promote discrete trial teaching. It happens for the same reasons that general education teachers “teach to the test” — because we want the best for our students.

Still, sometimes we aren’t providing the best. Sometimes we are unintentionally causing our students to fall further and further behind. It can be hard to hear that. It was for me. It still is. But, because we love our students, we have to hear it. And then we can be better, do better. Because we want to. For those students.

One of the mistakes that we make is that we remove the content — the math facts, the letter sounds, the historical timeline — from the context. We drill those addition facts every day, but we forget to spend the time we need just manipulating objects, exploring sets, and making sense of numbers. We practice sight words, but we don’t read chapter books aloud every day to our students. I know these things happen. My own children have experienced them. I’ve totally made the mistake of working on receptive language through pictures at a table, disconnected from what we are doing in blocks or pretend play.

But our students have the same right to a rich, meaningful curriculum. They deserve to learn the meaning of “wet” through puddle-splashing, sink or float experiments, and reading books about the weather — not just through a picture in an array of eight. They need to learn more than just facts about the Civil War. They need to read the newspapers, debate the pro’s and con’s to various Reconstruction policies, and see the way those choices still impact our country to this day. Does this mean that we leave our own students to flounder in a too big, too much classroom or curriculum? No. We still accommodate, we modify, we do what we need to do. We just always keep the context in mind. We keep the why of learning. We keep the love of learning. This is how our students build mental maps, expand their schema. This is how they learn to research, to think critically, to solve problems, and communicate their knowledge. Those things are important for all of our students, whether they use single words on a communication device or write beautiful essays by hand.

Another common mistake that I see is less time on instruction, less time engaged. Even the research comparing general education to special education finds that students are less engaged in special education classrooms. This remains true even when students are matched in their skill and need from one environment to the other. We need to ask ourselves: Are we providing access to all five components of literacy instruction? Are we teaching more than just math facts? What are our general education peers doing during their days? And how can we bring that same level of engagement?

Exhibit A: “Fun Friday”, anyone? Does this mean all Fun Friday activities are inherently wrong? Nope! I’ve seen some amazing Fun Friday activities, with rich instruction in literacy and mathematics, with dozens of opportunities for collaboration and communication. One teacher at my school has these amazingly planned cooking lessons that everyone in the school wishes they could do. But I’ve also seen students get coloring sheets in 5th grade, watch movies, and generally be involved in less education. If it doesn’t happen on Fun Friday, it might happen after lunch or after morning work time. I get that students need breaks. I get that students need time to move their bodies. But I also get that our students are struggling — and providing 20% less instructional time is not going to help them gain the skills they need.

There are other ways to meet those movement or social skill needs. We can read books and re-tell the story through acting, singing, and dancing. We can do more hands-on, moving around activities throughout the day. We can look for games, apps, and projects that build number sense, spatial relationships, and turn-taking between peers. I know we can because I see it happen. I’ve seen brilliant activities that connect math to real life in both general and special education. My son’s general education fifth grade class just hosted a market where everyone learned about economics through designing and selling products. There’s so much room for individualization in projects like these, so many ways to target IEP skills, provide a richness of context, and still have those super fun Fridays.

I’ve failed at this before. I know I will fail again. But failure here isn’t about shame or blame… It’s about thinking what we can do better. It’s looking at my schedule, realizing that I want my students to have more time in stories. I see what I can do. I change what I can. Because there’s always room for growth in this journey. Always. And I want to provide more, not less.