According to the National Institute of Mental Health, emotional and behavioral disorders affect 10–15 percent of children globally. Disorders include attention-deficit hyperactivity (ADHD), autism, bipolar, anxiety and oppositional-defiant. Children experiencing behavioral disorders (BD) and emotional disorders (ED) often struggle with maintaining healthy interpersonal relationships and learning in a mainstream classroom setting. Special education jobs that include working with BD/ED students present unique challenges.
We interviewed Katrina Wojtasinski, M.S. Ed, a certified special education case manager at Falmouth High School in Falmouth, Massachusetts, to learn what it’s like to teach students experiencing emotional and behavioral disorders.
What inspired you to pursue a degree in special education?
As an adolescent I struggled with learning in a traditional setting, and a high school teacher told me I wasn’t “college material.” I was self-aware enough to know this wasn’t the truth and advocated to school administration to receive the support I needed. In college I was diagnosed with a learning disorder and developed the skills necessary to succeed in the classroom and beyond. My experiences helped me realize how important special education is for those with disabilities and those who don’t learn best in a traditional classroom.
What steps did you take to attain the position you have today?
I started as a special education paraprofessional. I’m grateful my career began this way because I learned a lot about the field before deciding to further my education. I earned my bachelor’s degree from the University of Massachusetts Boston and my Master’s of Science in Special Education from Saint Joseph’s University. I chose Saint Joseph’s University because it was one of the few U.S. colleges offering a science-based degree in the field.
I obtained certifications in special education, safety care, crisis prevention institute (CPI) and CPR/AED/First Aid.
What is a typical day in your classroom like?
I’m not sure there’s ever a “typical” day in special education but I have daily routines that help students build their organizational, social and writing skills. I work with students in a resource room for specialized instruction and in an inclusion classroom alongside typically developing students. In my resource classroom I provide children with a visual overview of the day, divided into directed instruction, mini-lessons and one-to-one or group work.
What skills are necessary for a teacher working with BD/ED students?
Patience! Although there’s tremendous gratification that comes with the field there are many, many days that bring challenges that test patience. Strong communication is also key as you’ll collaborate with various personnel involved in supporting students’ learning needs. Versatility and adaptability are also important because the environment and demands are always changing.
What are some specific techniques educators use when working with BD/ED children?
I’ve had success with “extinction,” which is ignoring or redirecting attention-seeking behaviors. Applied behavior analysis (ABA), functional behavioral assessments (FBA) and the behavior intervention plans (BIP) are among several methods for parents, teachers and school professionals to collaborate on identifying, minimizing and replacing negative behaviors.
What are your biggest challenges?
I would say the challenges are more at the legislative level. Special-needs students are on individualized educational plans (IEPs) to best facilitate student learning. Lately they’ve become a source of contention, with court cases increasing constraints on them.
What are the most rewarding parts of your job?
The kids, 100 percent. Everything I do is for the kids.
Is there anything that surprised you about working with BD/ED students?
How humbling they are. I had a student who was totally self-aware of his behaviors but had a difficult time controlling them. He eventually reached a point where he could seek out a trusted adult for comfort, often crying because he realized he was having a tough day yet couldn’t control his response.
Do you have advice for anyone interested in teaching students with emotional/behavior issues?
Volunteer, network or obtain a position within the field. Most importantly, reflect on why you want to pursue the field. It sounds heroic to tell people “I’m a special education teacher,” or a “behavior specialist,” but at the end of the day the people who excel are the ones who put their heart into everything they contribute.