When students in Kristie Redfering’s classroom learn to communicate their needs and thoughts, it changes their relationship with the outside world—and themselves.
Redfering teaches high school-aged students with disabilities at the Nina Harris Exceptional Student Center, a Pinellas Park, Fla., school for students with disabilities who need medical, academic, and behavioral support.
Too often, strangers look past Redfering’s students, many of whom have been classified as non-verbal, speaking instead to a parent or a caregiver, she said. So the school places an intentional focus on giving students a common communications tool—a set of standardized graphic symbols printed on boards they carry throughout the day.
The symbols are used universally: An image representing “open” is mounted on every door in the building. Students point to graphics representing “first” and “next” as they go through the day’s schedule.
The spark when a student learns to advocate for themselves—even with strangers—is powerful, she said.
“Our goal is to give them lots of different ways to communicate, so that they can go into the community and be seen as people—not as a disability, but as a person,” Redfering said. “I feel like I have a superpower. I can see these things in these students, and I want to make sure that other people are able to see as well.”
In January, Redfering was recognized as the 2023 Teacher of the Year by the Council for Exceptional Children. The organization, which advocates for students with disabilities and gifted students, highlighted her commitment to building community and her willingness to share her professional learning by inviting other educators to observe her classroom.
Redfering spoke to Education Week about the recognition and helping students with disabilities recover from interruptions caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
How did you get into teaching? What interested you in special education, specifically?
My family is multiple generations of teachers: my grandmother, my mother, my several aunts, and my cousins. And my niece and my daughter are studying now to be teachers.
My mother taught physically impaired students for most of her career, and so I knew I wanted to be at an [exceptional student center].
What are some assets that you see in your students? And what are some things you enjoy about working with them?
One of the things that is striking about my students, specifically the population I currently work with, is that they’re very much overlooked.
[Making sure they feel heard] is really what drives me. It’s just the joy of seeing how they react and respond when they are recognized as people and treated as people and being given expectations and high standards.
Knowing that they’re going to make progress, and they’re going to succeed.That makes a huge difference for them. And you know, it lights me up.
What’s an example of growth you’ve seen in a student?
Our school has worked in the last three years on an initiative focused heavily on communication. We’ve implemented universal core [a set of common symbols used to communicate] throughout the school, and our guru is Karen Erickson [a researcher who studies communication and literacy for students with disabilities].
I have a student now who, in his third year working with a core board, is stringing together two symbols to communicate specifically what he wants. He’s 16 years old, and this is the first time where he’s had a way where he could communicate not only with me, who knows him very well, but he could communicate that same message to somebody who’s never met him before. That’s gigantic.
How has the pandemic affected your work? Have you noticed any differences in what your students need?
[Remote learning] was very tough. You know, so much of what we’re doing with students with extensive support needs, it just doesn’t translate online.
Especially when you’re talking about developing reliable methods of communication for students, oftentimes, that’s through an eye gaze. You just can’t do that on a Microsoft Teams meeting. It was a struggle. It was heartbreaking.
And what I found was a lot of our students, they had been out of school for a year and a quarter [because of medical care needs] and had just really regressed. And we’re still finding that we have not recouped the skills that they had prior to the pandemic.
What does recovery work look like for you?
It’s tenacity. We have our kids until they’re age 22, so we’re going to be working to get them back where they were until they’re 22. It’s about encouraging them and celebrating little successes.
The CEC announcement mentioned a project called “Suds Club” that helps students prepare for post-school transitions. What’s involved in that?
I wanted to start giving my students some basic tools that they could take into transition [from high school to vocational programs] that would better prepare them for the potential to be out in the community.
We started a school laundry service, and I wrote a grant [to a local foundation] to buy matching uniforms. Every morning—and we have a schedule of other classrooms—we collect their laundry [items like bibs, sheets and towels used for repositioning students, and kitchen linens]. They wash the laundry, dry the laundry, fold the laundry, and then deliver it back for payment.
It’s nice that I’m able to include all of our students: We have some adaptive tools that allow students with physical impairments to use switches to dispense the laundry detergent and voice output devices to communicate with “customers.”
We have students that are working on financial literacy skills. Those students charge [for services], count the money, budget [for supplies], and spend the money at our school store. Some students are working on folding, and so they have a task analysis and are learning how to follow written directions.
There’s so many different skills that that are necessary for this service that every student in class is able to work on something that’s relevant to them that supports their needs, their growth.
What do special education teachers need from their school leaders right now, especially in the pandemic recovery phase?
I would just hope for some patience, and not just at the school administrator level, but also at the state level and the district level. Students need time to recover. Teachers need time to recover.
My school’s administration is amazing. They are fully supportive of teachers, and they provide everything resource-wise and mentoring-wise that teachers could possibly need. I would hope that’s happening at other schools as well.