Top Challenges Facing Today’s Special Educators

Top Challenges Facing Today's Special EducatorsEver since the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) was introduced in 1975 – guaranteeing students with exceptional needs access to free and appropriate public education – the field of special education has changed substantially. One thing has remained constant: special education is a charged topic. From concerns on how to attract high-quality teaching candidates to optimizing curriculum and teaching techniques, best practices continue to be hotly debated among experts and educators.

To learn more about the most pressing issues facing today’s special educators, we spoke with four leading experts in the field.

Special education jobs and pedagogies are constantly evolving. What’s the biggest change that you’ve witnessed since starting your career?

Mikki Garcia, president at the Council for Exceptional Children (CEC): The push towards educating students in the general education environment. Putting the kids in the environment was easy; making sure they are getting a quality education is more difficult. If implemented correctly, this service delivery model is much more expensive, and without adequate federal funding the responsibility is put on the local education agency. The biggest challenge though lies in the general education environment itself and the willingness of administrators and teachers to do their part. Constant training and monitoring has helped but attitudes are hard to change.

Dr. George Giuliani and Dr. Roger Pierangelo, executive directors at the National Association of Special Education Teachers (NASET)There’s been a greater awareness of general education teachers, administration and staff. That being said, there’s a need for more undergraduate and graduate school coursework for future general education teachers in special education classroom management.

Matt Asner, vice president of development at the Autism Society of America: Our college and graduate-level teacher training programs are outdated. Special education is still an unfunded mandate, meaning federal law requires states to make sure school districts provide students who have disabilities with a free and appropriate public education, but the federal government does not provide funds for them to do that.  

What are the greatest challenges facing special educators, students and their families?

Dr. Lauren Morando Rhim, co-founder and executive director at the National Center for Special Education in Charter Schools (NCSECS)The biggest challenge is effectively engaging general educational administrators and instructional peers to include and provide high-quality support to students with a diverse range of disabilities. Special educators also frequently struggle with inadequate resources, specialized personnel shortages and cumbersome paperwork that can require substantial quantities of time.

Garcia: The shortage of highly trained special education teachers is an alarming reality. It’s a very difficult job and we just don’t have enough teachers out there to meet the very specific needs of students with exceptionalities. 

Giuliani and Pierangelo: There are also issues pertaining to the budgets of school districts relative to making sure the needs of students are met as dictated by federal, state and local laws. For families, the challenge is ensuring teachers are aware of children’s IEPs [individualized education programs] and that they’re being delivered. Additional special education trends include addressing the needs of English-language learners who are also students with disabilities, Universal Design for Learning (UDL), best practices for teaching and medication management, and research-based interventions.

Assistive technology such as iPads, text-to-voice devices and digital pens are increasingly popular in the classroom for special education and general learners alike. What are the benefits and challenges of these technologies and what can we expect to see in the future?

Garcia: The special education field is always looking for ways to provide access to students who have varying needs – from communication devices for those students who have difficulty speaking to mobility devices for students who have ambulatory issues. Districts are obligated to perform assessments and determine what types of assistive technology devices will help a child best access the curriculum. There is nothing better than seeing a child, who has previously had difficulty with some aspect of access, be able to function more easily because of assistive technology.

Asner: Assistive technology is revolutionizing education but unfortunately schools are way behind the curve in terms of learning how to use it. As we saw recently with LAUSD and the iPad debacle, even when there is money to spend on devices and hardware the knowledge base isn’t there to know how to use it. Especially for students and adults who use augmentative communication, technology has completely changed the terrain. Now almost everybody communicates by typing out what they want to say, by texting and tweeting. The digital revolution has put this in everybody’s hands. Now we have to use it to create space for open and effective communication for people with communication-related disabilities.

From the shortage of special education teachers in nearly every state to classroom integration and new technologies, there’s no question that today’s special education issues will continue to shape the role of future special educators.

Learn more about current special education career opportunities. Or if you’re interested in deepening your specialty and pursuing advanced education, explore our favorite online degree programs.

The SCERTS Model and Your Classroom

The SCERTS Model and Your ClassroomWhen developing an inclusive teaching approach for your classroom, do you struggle with which method to implement? If you’re teaching both neurotypical students and children with an autism spectrum disorder (ASD), consider the SCERTS Model, which stands for Social Communication, Emotional Regulation and Transactional Support.

This research-based method takes a multidisciplinary approach and outlines individualized strategies to help children develop communication, social and emotional skills. While the SCERTS Model incorporates best practices from well-established ASD approaches (such as TEACCH, Floortime and Social Stories), it differs from traditional approaches by cultivating the capacity of emotional regulation within the student rather than relying on external factors around the student. 

Brief History of the SCERTS Model 

Pioneered by a team of collaborators including Barry Prizant, Ph.D., Amy Wetherby, Ph.D., Emily Rubin and Amy Laurent, the SCERTS Model taps into 25 years of research and clinical/educational practice. These four experts bring combined experience from their work in clinical, university, educational and hospital settings in areas including special education, speech-language pathology, family-centered practice, behavioral and developmental psychology and occupational therapy. 

Now widely used around the world, this approach focuses on the core challenges faced by children with ASD and their families – namely, social communication and emotional regulation. The SCERTS Model uses a cooperative framework that draws a variety of partners together in a team effort. Rather than families, educators and therapists working independently, they work collaboratively and adopt a holistic, person-centered focus.

Appropriate Settings

Appropriate across home, school, community and workplace settings, the SCERTS Model is in line with recommendations by the National Research Council of the National Academy of Sciences. The ultimate goal is to foster child-initiated communication in real-world activities across a variety of contexts. In a school setting, for example, this means implementing this method in inclusive classrooms so children with ASD can learn with and from neurotypical students who model good social and language behaviors.

“The goal of SCERTS is being able to put these supports into place and embed them in naturally occurring routines for students or naturally occurring activities to increase their active engagement and their ability to learn,” explained Laurent in an interview posted on Presence Learning.

Benefits ASD Learners and More

Designed for all ages and varying developmental abilities, the SCERTS Model benefits individuals with ASD and those who struggle with communication disorders, developmental disabilities and sensory processing disorders. This model can be used with children, teens and older individuals, making it a long-term, flexible approach that spans the challenges faced by different age groups in a variety of settings.

“This is not just about students with autism, it’s about students who have challenges in other developmental capacities, especially social communication and emotional regulation,” Prizant said in the Q&A interview following his Presence Learning webinar.

Key Elements and Implementation

To provide the necessary framework, this comprehensive model focuses on three critical areas

·         SC: Social Communication – developing skills in communication, emotional expression and relationships

·         ER: Emotional Regulation – controlling emotional highs and lows

·         TS: Transactional Support – providing supports to foster communication and learning 

For maximum effectiveness, an integrated team approach works best. Within this cohesive process, parents, educators and service providers partner together from start to finish, including the initial assessment, goal-setting interventions, progress measurement and transactional supports and techniques. This method embeds these elements in the student’s everyday routines and activities across multiple settings, boosting engagement, interpersonal interactions and learning. 

It’s best to have professionals from different disciplines collaborate in this process, including psychologists, speech pathologists and occupational therapists. In school, this means SCERTS-trained educators such as special education teachers and general education teachers are part of the team. Educators can either seek official SCERTS training or self-study SCERTS Model texts.

When mainstreaming children with ASD into inclusive classrooms, the right strategy pays big dividends for all students. The SCERTS Model offers these dividends in the form of a comprehensive method developed and delivered through a team-based effort that fosters the development of communication, social and emotional abilities in every child.

For information curated for special education professionals and families, visit our Resources page. To learn more about education and training available for educators in this specialty, working both inside and outside the classroom, visit our Careers section.

 

The 3 Most Common Classroom Management Mistakes

Classroom Management: Ready, Set, Go!

Before I was lucky enough to become an elementary school teacher I was able to work for my local school district as a behavior analyst. I would often get called into schools to provide additional support for students who are struggling behaviorally. In most situations, I discovered that classroom management strategies we’re not being utilized or were not being enforced. This experience provided me the backbone of knowledge that I currently use for my own classroom practices. While my college program adequately prepared me with the knowledge to construct an effective classroom management plan, it was the the on the job experience that instilled the importance of maintaning and enforcing the plan.

For those that are new to teaching, here are three common classroom management mistakes that teachers frequently make related to classroom management. It is my hope that many new teachers can avoid these pitfalls.

Common Classroom Management Issues

1. Lack of Consistency

Students thrive on consistency in the classroom. If there aren’t any rules, it is difficult to encourage consistant behavior in the classroom.

While serving as a behavior analyst, when I walked into a classroom I would instantly look to see if there were 3 to 5 specific rules that were posted in the classroom. However, if the teacher didn’t consistently enforce the rules, it didn’t matter if the rules were posted. In a well-managed classroom, students should know if they have broken a rule and what the consequences are without needing to ask the teacher. In order to help the classroom maintain behavioral expectations, I utilize a “what if” chart. The chart is communicated to students using verbal and nonverbal cues that will serve as warnings to students if they misbehave. I often point to the chart and reference it throughout the year. As a result, the students actually help me be consistent with enforcing the classroom rules.

2. Lack of Praise

The greatest deficit that I saw as a classroom observer was the infrequent amount of praise that was provided by the teacher to the students. This is still something that many teachers that I observe struggle with on a regular basis. Teachers should be constantly ready to praise students academically and behaviorally in the classroom. Praise can be used as a tool to redirect, prompt, and reengage students. Offering praise is a far greater tool than using public humiliation to put fear into students in an attempt to make them comply. Everyone wants to be told they are doing a good job, especially students. Let’s give them what they want!

3. Excessive Teacher Direction

One reason that students become problematic in the classroom, is not due to poor classroom management of the teacher, but rather the student is not engaged in learning. This can happen for several different reasons. Perhaps the student is not receiving instruction on the appropriate level (high or low). Maybe the student is not being given an opportunity to learn about things they are interested in. Problematic behaviors of this nature are likely to occur when a teacher runs a classroom in a very teacher directed way. The more voice and choice a student can possess, the more they will be interested in their own education. In order for this to happen, teachers need to modify their classroom roll to be a quote “guide on the side” instead of a quote “sage on the stage.”

The Real Deal to Improve Learning

Because a child will struggle to learn when their behavior is out of control, classroom management skills are heavily needed in today’s classrooms. By being consistent, utilizing academic and behavioral praise, and running a student centered classroom that provides voice and choice, teachers will be equipped to successfully manage a classroom and help students be successful.

If you are struggling with bahavior issues in the classroom, you may also be intereted in this article entitled Behavior Interventions for Aggressive Students.

Strategies for Students with Special Needs

As the number of students requiring special education has increased, 47 states are currently experiencing a deficit of teachers to fulfill this need. It is imperative that an educator today be armed with the tools and strategies necessary to benefit all of their students, regardless of impairments or ability.

Use Assistive Technologies to Teach Various Skills

By capitalizing on the student’s strengths, assistive technology (AT), can help a variety of students with special needs. Whether the student has dyslexia, cognitive problems or physical impairments, here are a few examples of how AT can help in bypassing specific areas of difficulty:

  1. Talking calculators, spell-checkers and electronic dictionaries to assist students with dyslexia.

  2. Electronic worksheets assist students to digitally line-up words and numbers on their assignments.

  3. Personal FM listening devices help to transmit a speaker’s voice directly to the student’s ear.

  4. Variable speed recorders allow a student to hit record during a lesson and later go back to speed up or slow down the speaker’s voice.

  5. Alternative keyboards are programmable devices that are designed to reduce finger and wrist movement and allow the individual to customize the keyboard based on their own needs, such as with colors or words.

Introduce Different Learning Strategies

By implementing a variety of learning strategies in the classroom, educators give their students the tools they need to be successful in understanding concepts, interacting with their peers and developing ways in which they can thrive. Here are some examples of diversifying learning in the classroom environment:

  1. Pausing mid-lecture gives students an opportunity to reflect, marinate, discuss and apply ideas presented to them during the lecture. Additionally this gives students a moment to reboot their attention and focus, allowing them to release any pent up energy acquired during a lecture.

  2. If your students are able, get them up and moving around. Create different workstations around the classroom with a variety of tasks for the students can choose from, enabling them to be in control of the way in which they learn and their own experience of learning.

  3. Switch up the learning environment. A change of scenery using bold, bright colored or interactive decorations in the classroom or a relocation to an outside environment can re-energize a student’s focus and attention and help them to create new tools for learning success.

Provide a Positive Environment

According to the Alliance for Excellent Education, in order for a student to learn they must first feel safe, engaged, connected and supported. These “conditions for learning” are critical for the student’s experience on a personal level.

Additionally, creating a positive environment engages the student on a level where they feel respected and enthusiastic about learning. Here are a few tips to create an environment to help students thrive:

  1. Show your students they matter by actively listening.

  2. Say “please” and “thank you” even if their answer is incorrect.

  3. Create a zero tolerance policy for bullying or put-downs.

  4. Make eye contact.

  5. Greet students at the door, help them to feel welcome in your classroom.

  6. Give students at least 6-8 seconds before answering, allowing them time to process your question with their experiences and knowledge.

Develop Support Groups and Activities

Creating an environment in the classroom in which all of the students, regardless of their needs or impairments, feel respected, safe and cared for can certainly be a challenge.

Establishing ground rules for a culture of consideration and esteem from Day 1 can help to set the tone for students to comprehend that there may be a variety of needs, strengths and hardships within their peers and that there is a zero tolerance policy for behavior or words that will make anyone feel unsupported.

Additionally, grouping students desks or pods strategically can create a mini-environment to help students balance each other’s strengths, especially during group activities and discussions.

Maintain a Diverse and Welcoming Curriculum and Environment

Often times, depending on the individual student’s needs and regional location, one classroom can be their learning environment for 5 years or more. One of the most crucial aspect to building this environment is creating a space where the student feels safe and secure.

Creating a space that feels like home can also be a great way to establish familiarity and consistency for a student who thrives on repetition. Additionally, utilizing the space of the classroom to create areas of flexible seating so that students can move around to communicate and complete assignments can be a great way to diversify and encourage learning.

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A Closer Look at Autism Spectrum Disorders

Working with students on the autism spectrum can pose unique challenges for teachers, which is why many educators decide to pursue a Master’s of Special EducationAutism spectrum disorder (ASD) is characterized by a wide range or “spectrum” of strengths and differences in social, communication and behavioral challenges. According to estimates from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, about one in 68 children has been identified with ASD.

In 2013, the American Psychiatric Association folded all subgroups of autism (formerly considered separate diagnoses) into one umbrella grouping of ASD in its latest Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5). Mainstream and special education teachers, however, should understand the characteristics of these previous subgroups, as well as the teaching challenges they present, because the level of disability for students with ASD can range from mildly impaired to severely disabled. Here’s a breakdown of the subgroups.

Asperger Syndrome

On the milder end of the spectrum, students with Asperger syndrome struggle with social interactions, have limited interests and exhibit repetitive behaviors. As some experience delayed development of motor skills, they might appear clumsy and display awkward mannerisms. According to theAutism Society, “what distinguishes Asperger’s Disorder from classic autism are its less severe symptoms and the absence of language delays.”

Pervasive Developmental Disorder (Not Otherwise Specified), aka PDD-NOS

Students with PDD-NOS exhibit some (but not all) of autism’s characteristics or have relatively mild symptoms, which is why some experts even refer to PDD-NOS as “subthreshold autism.” According to Autism Speaks, “its defining features are significant challenges in social and language development.”

Autistic Disorder

Research Autism characterizes autistic disorder, also known as classic autism, as a pervasive developmental disorder that appears before the age of three and is defined by abnormal functioning in all three ASD areas: reciprocal social interaction, communication and restricted, stereotyped, repetitive behavior 

Childhood Disintegrative Disorder (CDD)

As the rarest subgroup and most severe end of the spectrum, childhood disintegrative disorder describes children who develop normally for the first few years and then quickly lose many social, language, motor and other skills, usually between ages two and four. Often these children also develop a seizure disorder. 

Teaching Challenges

Since many of the characteristics overlap from one ASD subgroup to another, they present some common teaching challenges. For example, because of struggles with communication and social skills, students with ASD might lack eye contact and social reciprocity, resulting in one-sided conversations or giving the appearance of being aloof. They might miss nonverbal cues, struggle to “read between the lines” or see things from someone else’s perspective, making it hard to predict or understand the behavior of others. While some students with ASD might have terrific rote memory, they might find it difficult to understand abstract verbal concepts such as idioms and sarcasm.

The Organization for Autism Research points to common school situations that might cause stress and behavior problems, such as handling transitions, understanding directions, interacting with peers and feeling overwhelmed by stimuli (i.e., noises, lights, etc.). This means students with ASD might struggle with making friends, interpreting facial expressions, working in groups or adapting to a change in classroom routines. Due to the stress (and perhaps as a coping mechanism), students with ASD might exhibit repetitive behaviors (such as rocking or hand-flapping) that could be disruptive to other students. 

The Autism Society says that “some children need help understanding social situations and developing appropriate responses. Others exhibit aggressive or self-injurious behavior, and need assistance managing their behaviors.”

Each student with ASD has individual strengths and challenges, so targeted training helps teachers tailor programs to their unique needs and abilities.While a dedicated classroom might be a great fit for some students with ASD, an inclusive, mainstream classroom might work best for others. By understanding both the characteristics of ASD and the teaching challenges they present, teachers will be better equipped to help all their students succeed.

Learn more about career opportunities in this important specialty, and if you’re ready to pursue advanced education options then check out our favorite online degree programs.

3 Things Parents Need to Know About Personalized Learning

Personalized Learning: A Message to Parents

When you first hear the term Personalized Learning, it can seem like a no-brainer to parents. What parent wouldn’t want their child to have their education tailored to their strengths, weaknesses, and personal interests. It sounds like a dream come true. However, parents need to understand that there are a couple of things about Personalized Learning that are important to address.

1. Personalization Can’t Occur Without Technology
Personalized Learning and Blended Learning are not synonymous, however Personalized Learning cannot occur without Blended Learning. Blended Learning occurs when a student learns partially online, within a brick and mortar building, and along an individualized learning pathway (www.blendedlearning.org). This cannot take place without the use of technology. Technology is what gives educators the ability to personalize learning for each child and provide the real-time data that is required to truly know what each child knows. Some parents have concerns about technology use and their children. Parents need to know that students who are learning in a personalized learning environment will need to use technology.

2. Your Child Needs to Learn to Work Independently
In the old days, a teacher was much like an orchestra conductor. The students all played the same piece of music and the teacher orchestrated the classroom in a smooth manner so that there was harmony. Except there was one problem, not every child could play the song in the right way and at the right speed. Personalized Learning looks to flip this instructional style so that students are moving at their own pace and learning only what they need to. This can mean that some students may end up working by themselves for a period of time. Parents need to be okay with this. Personalized Learning is not all about independent study, but it is about individualizing the instruction that each child is getting. Within Personalized Learning, students may have opportunities to work in groups, however the likelihood that students participate in activities as an entire class seems more and more less likely. Because students may be working independently for longer periods of time than in the past, students need to develop additional skills such as project management skills, the ability to plan and set personal and academic goals, and the ability to stay on task. All of these skills will be beneficial for students to develop as they prepare to enter the workforce.

3. Teachers Will Make Mistakes
Personalized Learning is a relatively a new teaching pedagogy. Many teachers are still learning about it and undergoing professional development to help them implement it into their classrooms. Obviously, mistakes are bound to happen during the implementation of Personalized Learning until a teacher becomes confident and experienced enough so that these “hiccups” do not happen. Parents need to have realistic expectations while at the same time providing patience to teachers as they try to determine how to best personalize the learning for their students. Parents should be encouraged to learn alongside teachers and be actively involved in providing feedback to teachers on the type of learning environment that they want for their child. Parents should also be encouraged to be flexible as the school environment changes from the one that they experienced as a child.

Personalization Has Individual Student Needs at Heart

As more and more schools shift to an environment that focuses on Personalized Learning, mistakes will be made, questions will be asked, and new ideas will be tried. It will be messy. It will me different. But the one thing the teachers and parents can agree on, is that both stakeholders are trying to do their best to help provide the personalized learning environment that students deserve. If teachers and parents work together, then no matter how many mistakes are made, student needs will remain at the heart of the individualized education that they are trying to receive.

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Setting Goals in the Classroom: The Importance of Classroom Management

Creating a positive classroom environment in which students are enthusiastic about learning can be crucial to the student’s overall learning success. By establishing both personal goals for each student based on their own needs, learning style, strengths and abilities while also creating group and class goals can be a great motivating factor to make learning fun.

Effective classroom management by the educator helps students with a variety of strengths to focus and set measurable goals on a large and small scale. SMART is a great tool to use to help your students create their goals.

  • Specific

  • Measurable

  • Attainable

  • Relevant, Realistic, Rigorous and Results Focused

  • Timely and Trackable

Analyze Classroom Data

Meet with each student individually and look at their strengths and challenges as it relates to the other students within that environment.

Help the student to create goals for themself to attain long-term, as well as short term goals, breaking down the school year by weeks at a time to show them how they can progress and learn, week by week. Be sure to focus on their strengths, encouraging them to capitalize on the ways in which they seem to learn the best.

Create a Goal-Setting Tracker

While every student learns differently, they are also motivated differently. When establishing individual goals with each student, it is important to create individualized goal-trackers. Some students prefer bright colored charts with stickers or stars, depending on their age or maturity, while other students are digitally motivated and are excited by an online tracking system.

Celebrate Student Success

Depending on the personality of the student, celebrating their success can be done in a wide variety of ways. Regardless of what that celebration may entail, the most important thing to remember is that when a student meets their goal, they are recognized and praised accordingly.

Some students prefer individual attention by the educator, while others may want to seek recognition from their peers or family. Here are a few examples of ways in which you can celebrate a student and their goal-meeting:

  1. Hang up the accomplished goal-tracker sheet in the classroom for all of the peers to see and praise.

  2. Offer rewards such as one-on-one lunch in the classroom with the teacher, homework rewards or extra credit.

  3. Send a special note home or email their family with the student’s accomplishment as the sole subject.

Introduce Fun Classroom Traditions

One way to immediately create a fun and exciting environment of learning is to begin the first day of school with an activity that your group of students will do once a month, once a season, once a semester, or upon the completion of a group goal.

Here are some fun ideas that you can implement in the classroom to engage your students and get them excited to be in your classroom:

  1. Create a measuring wall to track the growth of each student as the year goes on.

  2. Film a video diary of each student on the first day of each month telling a little story or a joke. If the students are shy at first, you can create group diaries to help them to feel more comfortable.

  3. Make a time capsule the first week of school to be opened on the last week of school, where every student contributes and feels like they are a necessary part of the project.

  4. Build a birthday chart with the students as a group, making sure to celebrate those students with birthdays in the summer months before the end of the school year.

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Meet a Teacher: Insights From a Pre-K Special Education Teacher

Are you passionate about a career working with exceptional children? Educational requirements for special education jobs typically include a bachelor’s degree and a state-issued certification or master’s in special education. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median salary of a special education teacher in 2016 was $57,910. Academic and monetary aspects aside, how do you know if you’re cut out for this type of work? One of the best ways to gain insights is asking someone who already works in the profession. 

We recently spoke with Lois Shell, a pre-K special education teacher from Hillsborough County Public Schools in Tampa, Florida. Lois has worked with elementary-age students with special needs for more than 16 years, focusing on the pre-K population for the past 12 years.

What inspired you to go into special education?

I babysat for a two-year-old girl with cerebral palsy. She was my little inspiration for teaching special-needs kids. I also volunteered at a hospital when I was younger, which developed my interest in medical issues related to special-needs children as well.

What steps did you take to attain the position you have today? 

I received my degree in special education with a concentration in early childhood from the University of South Florida. While working on my undergraduate degree I worked at a preschool to get toddler and early childhood experience. I also did internships and had practicum experience where I assisted a teacher in a classroom. I completed my graduate degree through an online learning program. I was working full-time so I took one class per semester. Eleven classes later, I had a master’s degree! 

What does a typical day in your classroom look like? 

In my class I have a paraprofessional and a “unique needs assistant” who helps students with physical disabilities. After the kids arrive we have breakfast together and work on feeding skills. Back in the classroom we do a greeting and circle time. Then we move into center time, small groups and table time, working with students one on one if needed. Later we play outside, have story time, lunch time, music and movement, and rest time. Math, science and social studies are covered within circle time and small groups. Table time is where we do manipulative activities – handwriting if they’re ready for it and pre-handwriting skills if they’re not.

Describe the specific skills a special-needs teacher should have?

Patience. Patience. Patience! You also need to be able to think quickly on your feet. Every child, whether they have special needs or not, is different. You need to be ready to adapt, modify and think outside the box to accommodate each’s child’s specific needs. For example, I had a little girl who would always throw her spoon. The occupational therapist came up with the idea to put a cotton glove on her hand with Velcro that attached to her spoon handle. The next time she tried to throw her spoon it didn’t move, and her reaction was priceless!

What are your biggest challenges? 

Meeting all the students’ varying needs. They are all on different levels with different challenges. To handle them all, first and foremost, you need to love and have a passion for the child. No matter what the disability is, you embrace it and move forward without feeling sorry or having a pity party for them. My goal is to keep them safe, care about them and provide them with the best education I can.

What are the most rewarding parts of your job?

Seeing the children’s reactions to their successes and the smiles I’m able to put on their faces. I’ve always loved all the kids. I still keep in contact with one of my former students who is now 31 years old!

Do you have any tips or advice for anyone considering becoming a special education teacher?

Get as much hands-on exposure as you can with the special-needs population. Volunteer with organizations like the Special Olympics. Another valuable thing you can do is to talk with the parents of a child with special needs. They are one of the best sources of information.

Lois got her master’s degree online, on her own time, and you can too! Learn more about some of our favorite online degree programs for advanced degrees in special education.

Dealing with Challenging Behaviors

I Wasn’t Trained For This

Each year, countless adults decide that they want to make a difference in the lives of children and young adults by becoming a teacher. They enter the field with idealistic thoughts of how their first year will be, but then reality strikes as they teach their first class and realize that some students exhibit challenging behaviors that impact the teacher as well as other students. Unless you are a behavior specialist or a special education teacher, many young teachers may feel unprepared to deal with varying types of behavior that occur in the classroom on a daily basis.

Challenging Behaviors Aren’t Created Equal

Challenging behaviors can be either disruptive, unsafe, or extremely dangerous. Disruptive behaviors can interfere with learning but may not be directly harmful like swearing, teasing, and breaking things. Most unsafe behaviors are potentially harmful but won’t need a hospital visit. These behaviors can range from scratching and biting to leaving school property without asking. Extremely dangerous or potentially lethal behaviors have a high likelihood of causing serious harm like bringing weapons to school. Law enforcement should always be involved in documenting these behaviors. Luckily for educators, most challenging behaviors fall into the disruptive category.

Addressing Challenging Behaviors with Reinforcement

The book, “Conscious Classroom Management” by Rick Smith provides a variety of wonderful strategies to address misbehavior in the classroom ranging from teaching classroom procedures to implementing rules and consequences. The best way to combat challenging behavior is by utilizing a healthy dose of positive reinforcement in your classroom. Reinforcement can be verbal praise, an edible reward, or time with friends or the teacher. Regardless of the reinforcement that you use, every child deserves to be encouraged as we try to help them change their behavior. Some important things that we need to remember about reinforcing students is that teachers should reinforce students right after or during the behavior they want to increase. If the reinforcement is delayed, then it won’t be as effective. Reinforcement should always be genuine and enthusiastic while stating specifically to the person what they did right. There is not one type of reinforcement that all students find motivating, so find out what each student is interested in and wants to earn. Reinforcement should be varied and teachers should avoid doing the same thing. Finally, layering the reinforcement system so that rewards can be earned daily, weekly, and monthly is an essential key to an effective reinforcement system.

Addressing Challenging Behaviors with Trackers or Contracts

Often as part of a reinforcement plan, teachers may contract with students to decrease the frequency of challenging behaviors. When setting up a contract with a student, the child must understand what expected behavior they are aiming for, how frequently they must demonstrate the appropriate behavior, and for how long. The great thing about contracts is that students can track their progress over time. Expectations can gradually be raised over time as students improve their behavior.

Handling Challenging Behaviors Professionally

Teachers all have stress and frustration in our private lives, so when a student misbehaves in class it only complicates a potentially stressful situation. When a child exhibits a challenging behavior, handling it professionally might be easier said then done. Some students in our classrooms might do things that even very calm people find irritating, insulting, provoking, or even intimidating. Despite these challenges, teachers must always interact with students professionally and respectfully. A common pitfall that teachers can fall into is withholding reinforcement from students when they have earned it. This occurs when the classroom teacher becomes so satiated with the negative behavior that they believe that the student does not deserve reinforcement. However, if teachers can stick to the contract, they’ll see improvement in the long run.

Practical Considerations

One thing that teachers don’t typically think about is that the behavior may get worse before it gets better. This is referred to as a behavior extinction burst. To limit this effect, teachers should make sure that reinforcement is given frequently. As a general rule of thumb, reinforcement should be happening more often than the challenging behavior. Teachers should attempt to withhold any attention given to the behavior without ignoring the student. When the student shows a decrease in the frequency of a negative behavior or when they are able to choose a positive replacement behavior to do instead, the teacher should be waiting and ready to provide reinforcement.

Conclusion: Attitude + Reinforcement = Success

Students in today’s classrooms come from all walks of life. Teachers may not be able to control which students are placed in their classrooms or the behaviors that they exhibit, but they can control their attitude towards their students and how they react to these inevitable “behavior hiccups” that occur when educating children. When teachers react professionally and strategically provide reinforcement to their students, they will be ready to handle the variety of behaviors that are thrown their way.

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5 Ways to Support Teacher Professional Learning

Learn, Learn, Learn

Part of being a professional is staying up-to-date on a research based practices. This is true for any profession, especially educators. As a school administrator, I try to provide as many professional learning opportunities for my staff as possible. By providing them many different avenues to access professional learning, I increase the likelihood that I can provide a type of professional learning that works best for the individual. Here are my top five go-to-resources to support teacher professional learning.

1. Buy Them Books
This may seem like hey no-brainer, but I will often buy my staff books to stimulate professional learning. Frequently I have conversations with staff and I recommend books for them to read to increase their understanding about various topics. Instead of lending my own books, I offer to purchase them their own book on the topic that they would like to learn about. This sends a message that I support their own professional learning and that I value it. I have found that many of my teachers are avid readers and prefer the ability to go through a text at their own pace to digest their professional learning.

2. Give Up Faculty Meetings
The second thing I do to stimulate professional learning among my staff is I refrain from conducting unnecessary faculty meetings. Instead, I still hold the meeting but allow my staff to choose an activity rooted in professional learning. This can be anything from assessment Google classroom to project-based learning. They no longer complain about coming into work early, because the meeting agenda is there’s to set. Giving staff that little bit of control does wonders to support their professional learning.

3. Visit Schools
Teachers love to steal ideas from other good teachers, so allowing my own staff to visit other public and private schools is something that my school staff enjoys. To start, I reach out to my own contacts at other schools or I will allow my teachers to use their own connections to determine which schools we will visit. Often the schools we visit will be using a particular program or curriculum that our teachers want to see in action. These visits will occur two or three times each year. After the visit a debriefing session is held with school administrators to determine what was learned and how this new knowledge will impact our own school. I have found that this activity is extremely beneficial for new teachers and for older teachers who may be stuck in a rut of doing things in only one way.

4. Conduct Surveys
Survey data is a great way to stimulate professional learning among your staff, especially if a weak area is identified. In our school district, surveys are required every year, however they do not provide good data because they’re not open-ended. I encourage my staff to provide informal open-ended surveys each year so that students and parents can contribute ideas that will make them better educators. These surveys serve as a catalyst for identifying areas that my staff can focus professional learning on.

5. Video Record Classroom Practices
The last way I stimulate professional learning with my staff is through video recording their classroom practices. We set a date and time for the video recording and then as a team, we sit down and analyze the video together. We identify strengths and weaknesses and then determine actionable goals that we can create to improve performance. This is a great professional learning tool for advanced teachers who are looking to take their instruction to the next level.

Supporting a Growth Mindset

No matter what method you use to stimulate professional learning with your staff, the most important thing is to stimulate a growth mindset that emphasizes the importance of being a continuous learner. No matter how experienced a staff member is, research continues to be conducted and new teaching strategies continue to be implemented. To keep your staff on the the cutting edge, provide a variety of professional learning activities that can meet the needs of everyone, no matter their learning style or preference.

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