(This is the final post in a two-part series. You can see Part One here.)
The new question-of-the-week is:
How can we best support students in “special education” programs in their return to “normal” classroom instruction?
In Part One, Elizabeth Stein, Ed.D., Ann Stiltner, Ann H. Lê, and Amy Gaines shared their advice. All four were also guests on my 10-minute BAM! Radio Show. You can also find a list of, and links to, previous shows here.
Today, Savanna Flakes, Melissa Davis, Anne Beninghof, and Kathryn A. Welby, Ed.D., finish-up this series.
Savanna Flakes is CEO and chief education consultant of Inclusion For a Better Future and provides professional development and school coaching to support teachers with effective instructional practices for students with exceptionalities. Savanna has published a host of instructional articles and her latest book, Shaking Up Special Education: Instructional Moves to Increase Student Achievement is now available:
When we unpack the term “inclusive practices,” it is both about ideology, that every student deserves an equal chance to succeed, and action, which moves us to proactively plan to remove barriers and add supports based on the student. Together, ideology and action provide ALL students with opportunity for emotional and academic achievement. Therefore, as inclusive teachers, our goal is to be an asset-based believer and subsequently, a doer, empowering students with exceptionalities to enhance their strengths and grow in their challenges.
When students are empowered to reflect on who they are as a learner, how they learn best, and resources that help them achieve learning goals, they develop agency and can advocate for their learning (which, I would argue is the purpose of special education services). The most critical support we can add for our students with exceptionalities at the beginning of the new school year is the opportunity to create a “Me Profile.” A “Me Profile” is an organized, student-friendly chart that allows students to record their strengths, interest, challenges, and resources (tools and strategies) for challenge areas. Students revisit their chart as they reflect on learning goals for the curriculum, and teachers confer with students regularly to discuss progress.
Are you ready for the good news about a “Me Profile?” This strategy can benefit every learner in our P-12 classrooms, and there is no right or wrong template! Here are three steps for implementation success:
Step 1: As a team (content, grade level, co-teaching, etc.), plan for dedicated time to support students with completing strengths and challenges questionnaires and/or fun get-to-know myself activities for their “Me Profile.” One teacher I worked with gave students opportunities to show their strengths while contributing to the community project—like participating in a community garden and a reading-buddy program. There are hundreds of great examples of reflective learning tools that students can use to create a “Me Profile” on pinterest and teacherspayteachers. Specifically, a great example of a reflective learning tool for students is Laura Candler’s free Multiple Intelligence Survey.
Step 2: What do want our student’s “Me Profile” chart to look like? As mentioned, there is no right or wrong template. Do we want to create a four-by-four chart (interest, strengths, challenges, resources/ strategies), add a column for the student to draw a picture or add a bitmoji of themself, or “tech it up” and create a template on a Google slide, etc.? The options are endless; choose a format that works for you and your students. Also, consider what questions are important for our students to reflect on as learners. For example, general questions, such as “What are my strengths as a learner?,” “What I can contribute to the classroom is,” “I am proud of …” “When I’m feeling great at school, it’s probably because:” Or, we can add more specific questions for students to reflect on, such as, “How do you like to learn and practice new concepts?” or “How do you like to share what you’ve learned?”
Step 3: Revisit the “Me Profile.” This reflective tool should be a flexible, living, breathing component of a student’s journey on learning goals throughout the curriculum. Use this tool to support student conferences and allow students to share their progress with classmates. Learning is continuous; we all change and figure out better ways to support our challenges. For example, one student I worked with indicated that he had trouble writing and explaining his ideas. Initially, the student used resources like voice type in a Google doc to brainstorm; later, he found that a TIDE graphic organizer and Adobe Spark were more effective for brainstorming and he updated his “resource” column accordingly.
As inclusive teachers, we provide every student with opportunity and access. We intentionally use asset-based language, empower students to exercise their agency, and reflect on their strengths and identities. When we are asset-based, we work relentlessly to ensure each student feels authentically seen, heard, and recognized for their strengths, talents, and contributions. A “Me Profile” is a great place to begin!
Melissa Davis is a 4th grade special education paraprofessional for the Denver public schools. She is also a content contributor and member of the production team for Building the Bridge, a podcast series hosted by Wendy Oliver, which connects educators and parents in one productive conversation around online and blended learning:
Drawing from my own experience, I think the best way to support students in special education as they return to in-person classroom instruction is to remember that we all need grace at this time and students who rely on daily routines will need some time to learn what the new routines are.
The elementary school where I work returned to in-person learning in January. As a staff, we all pitched in to do extra duties that, prior to the pandemic, we never imagined we’d be asked to do. One of my duties was to take the temperature of each student who entered through my assigned door. Each grade level had staggered start times and assigned different entrances in an attempt to not cross cohorts.
The first day back in the building was fine for some but not for others. We must remember as education professionals that everybody processes information differently. The new normal required health screens prior to entry and wearing a mask at all times except during our outdoor mask breaks. Some students needed to take a moment to process what was happening as we got back into the swing of things, including students in special education.
One big thing that students had to get used to was staying in their cohorts. It seemed that everybody had a best friend who was outside their own cohort. Some students were quick to adapt by making new friends, while others became withdrawn.
A student who particularly sticks out in my mind caused me a bit of worry at first. This student has autism spectrum disorder, and during the first two weeks back at school, he would pace during lunch and recess. He would not eat his lunch and he did not interact with other students. I was concerned about how he must have been feeling to behave this way, and it also hurt my heart that he seemingly had no friends in the cohort. Slowly, he began to get used to the new way school had taken shape, and after a month, he formed a friend group with three other classmates who enjoyed his humor and wanted to engage in the games he thought up. By the end of the school year, a tight-knit group of four friends had formed. I would have never guessed that I was seeing the same student who had previously took to pacing during recess.
What I would like to point out is that our return to “normal” will likely not be the same “normal” we were used to prior to the pandemic. We all experienced a trauma and we may need some extra time to process. If a student feels comfortable talking to a friendly face like one of their interventionist specialists, please try to make an arrangement with that person. Sometimes the stimulation of the classroom is far too much, and they just need a chance to collect themselves before they are ready to participate.
Going back to school will feel different for everybody. Some students will act out, some students will withdraw, and some will have so much anxiety that they will try to become people pleasers. Everybody will need support during this time, especially our friends in special education.
Lastly, we need to remember that inclusion is important. Creating a classroom community where everybody is appreciated for their contributions will be conducive to learning and also teach all students that everybody is valued.
Resist Pressure to ‘Catch-Up’
Anne Beninghof is an experienced special educator and consultant with a passion for inclusive services. Anne focuses on creative, practical solutions for co-teaching and specially designed instruction. Her newest book, Specially Designed Instruction: Increasing Success for Students with Disabilities, includes a step-by-step approach to adapting for students with disabilities:
Students with disabilities are fortunate to have dedicated teams of educators working together to provide specially designed instruction. These teams can help pave the way for a successful return from virtual instruction by implementing these five suggestions.
- Prepare for some students to be anxious or confused about routines. New precautions will be surprising, and even old routines may be forgotten. Consider creating social stories that guide students through routines and making these accessible to families prior to the first day back. Develop personalized daily schedules for students, using pictures for students who need extra scaffolding. Refer to the schedules more frequently than typical so that students have time to prepare for transitions.
- Review IEP accommodations for each student and ensure that all team members are aware of these commitments. Certain accommodations, whether or not they are listed in the IEP, may be especially helpful for returning students. For example, educators who provide extended wait time after asking questions are allowing students time to process, gain confidence, and prepare more complex answers. While there may be a pressure to “catch up” for lost instructional time, research shows that teachers who resist this pressure and allow wait time will see very positive results.
- Executive functions are essential to managing change. Because many students with disabilities have weaknesses in this area, take time to identify which executive functions are needed for the return to school. Will they need to learn new organizational methods? Will they struggle with sustained attention? Will self-regulation strategies be different in person? A simple chart can help you reflect and plan for proactive instruction or accommodations to meet executive-function needs.
- The first step in planning for specially designed instruction is to clarify the learning target for the lesson. When learning targets are shared in comprehensible ways, students can see the lesson destination clearly and channel their efforts to staying on the trail. Instructional objectives and standards, on the other hand, are meant to guide teachers in their larger and longer-term quest. While derived from these bigger statements, learning targets help students to be present in the moment. Students can answer the question, “What will we accomplish today?” This will help students feel less overwhelmed by the return to school. “I can write a topic sentence,” will be much more manageable than, “Today we are going to start writing our essays.”
- Talk with team members about the best ways to provide small-group instruction upon return and then create a chart with your four favorite models. Even with social distancing, small-group instruction will yield higher results than whole-group instruction. Get creative about how to make it work. One of my favorite models is to pull a small group of two to four not-yet-proficient students as my “expert group” at the beginning of class. These students receive three minutes of preteaching and a supportive sheet of information, while the rest of the class works through a warm-up or organizational activity. When the whole-group lesson begins, the “experts” are hearing the information a second time and can add details to the discussion. Whatever your favorite grouping models are, don’t abandon them because of safety concerns. Instead, creatively tweak them to fit your school’s guidelines and use them liberally for maximum learning.
‘Focus on Relationships’
Kathryn A. Welby is the author of Remote Learning Strategies for Students with IEPs and a professor of practice and director of K-12 teacher-preparation programs at Merrimack College in Massachusetts. Kathryn has over 20 years of experience in special education and incorporates practitioner experiences and voices into her research, course development, and writing:
Disrupted routines and change can be difficult for all students, especially students with exceptionalities, disabilities, and learning challenges. How can we best support students in special education programs to return to normal- in-person instruction? Educators can help ease transitions back to school by focusing on preparation, utilizing parental support, and establishing nonacademic classroom goals.
Prepare for the Transition
Back to School Social Stories – Create back-to-school social stories for students focusing on what to expect in the upcoming weeks. These individually created social stories should include visuals, the upcoming daily classroom routine, behavior expectations, teachers’ names, and classmates’ names. Using social stories will alleviate some of the fears of the unknown, which can initiate behavior challenges and anxiety. Parents and caregivers can read these social stories daily with their children in preparation for the upcoming school year.
School Visits – Allowing student opportunities to visit the school in preparation for returning to school can help students ease anxiety, raise comfort levels, and increase confidence.
Survey Concerns – To gain insight into the challenges the students faced over the past year, create a quick survey to ask parents about some successes and challenges their students faced during the virtual or hybrid school year. Survey results can provide educators with critical and vital insights on what to expect at the start of the school year regarding emotional needs and Individualized Education Program (IEP) goals and benchmarks. Additionally, educators can use survey insights to plan and guide instruction, create activity ideas, and as a relationship-building tool.
Schedule Check-Ins – As routines and behavior expectations are being established, regularly scheduled check-ins with parents are helpful to reinforce classroom goals, routines, accommodations, and expectations. Parents and teachers are all very busy, so figuring out the best method of communication is helpful, whether it is a phone call, email, paper communication journal, or an ongoing Google Document.
Establish Predictable Routines – When school begins, spend extra time creating and reinforcing predictable classroom routines and worry less about academics. Overall productivity will increase by spending time supporting and practicing classroom routines, rules, and expectations. Create a predictable, visual schedule and post in a central location that all students can see. Additionally, creating individualized schedules (including service deliveries such as occupational therapies, speech and language therapies, physical therapies, etc.) can be taped to each student’s desk as a visual reminder of the next activity. Routines will provide comfort to students’ previously unpredictable world of virtual and hybrid learning. Through constant and consistent reinforcements and routines, transitions will be easier, students will gain trust in the process, and eventually, productivity and academic achievement will increase.
Focus on Relationships – Rebuilding in-person relationships is essential in the transition back to school. Look for warning signs that may point to distress and back-to-school anxieties. Get to know your students by asking questions, one-on-one conferences, daily feeling shares, daily check-ins, and use the information you learn about your students to differentiate your instruction by providing opportunities that focus on students’ interests. Some communication and relationship skills may have diminished with virtual learning, so spend extra time guiding peer relationships by integrating peer social-interaction skill-building frequently into the day.
In short, transitions tend to be difficult, but preparation, utilizing parental supports, and establishing initial classroom goals focusing on expectations, rules, and routines can support students in special education programs as they return to normal class instruction. Students are ready and resilient and, no doubt, will overcome the initial transition and thrive.
Thanks to Savanna, Melissa, Anne, and Kathryn for contributing their reflections.
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