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Working With Parents to Make 'Outside-the-Box' Learners Successful

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Guest blogger Amanda Morin is a parent advocate, a former teacher, the Content Development Manager at Understood.org and the author of three books, The Everything Parent's Guide to Special Education, The Everything Kids' Learning Activities Book and On-the-Go Fun for Kids: More Than 250 Activities to Keep Little Ones Busy and Happy--Anytime, Anywhere!

As a former teacher, parent advocate and parent to two children in special education, I'm well aware that one of the big challenges in creating an Individualized Education Program (IEP) lies in the word "individual." Outside-of-the-box thinkers require outside-of-the-box solutions to learning.

Too often we hear stories of the failure to think of students as individuals with unique needs. Tales of students who are provided services based on their diagnosis, not based on who they are and what will work best for them. Stories of students who are placed in special education classrooms instead of general education classrooms. We hear accounts of general education teachers who are too overwhelmed or don't have the training to implement accommodations and modifications in their classrooms.

Let me tell you a different story. It's about my son, Jacob, who is in his 7th school year as a student with an IEP. Over the years, he's gone from being viewed as having behavior problems that warranted placement in a self-contained special education classroom to being understood as a gifted student who also has issues with self-regulation, social skills, and cognitive flexibility. 

Early on this school year, his disability and his giftedness were causing frustration and disruption in one of his classes. He was struggling to make sense of a style of teaching that didn't follow the same rules as in his other classes and wasn't intuitive or logical to him.

He was frustrated that other students weren't ready to have the same type of in-depth discussions he was, but at the same time was stumped by questions that asked him to make inferences.

There's another character in this story--one of his teachers. 

She was struggling to understand Jacob, too. As a general education teacher, she wasn't as familiar with the challenges that come with the asynchronous development of a twice-exceptional student. It was hard for her to understand his tendency to perseverate and escalate emotionally, and she was unsure of the strategies she could use to help him.

Her frustration in not knowing how to address his needs made her feel like she was failing him. Her frustration fed Jacob's frustration and his frustration increased her feeling that she was failing as a teacher.

Allow me to jump to the end of the story for a moment.

Jacob is finishing his first year of public high school, just took his first AP exam and spends the majority of his time being supported in the general education classroom--just like 70 percent of other kids who have specific learning disabilities or other health impairments.

The time he's not in the general education classroom, he's in the library doing independent study work. It's part of a one-of-a-kind hybrid program his IEP team created to meet the unique needs and challenges of being a "twice-exceptional" student.

That's the middle of the story.

In a meeting, we talked not only about Jacob's needs, but the needs of his teacher as well. We talked both about how his disability should inform his least restrictive environment in this subject, but also about how his giftedness plays into it.

On the surface, his good grades made it look like this was the least restrictive environment. But the fact that he was struggling to understand the "unwritten curriculum" and was also frustrated that the rest of the class wasn't ready to make deeper connections or have deeper conversations about the material meant it wasn't.

We created a program that included support for Jacob around learning how to interpret the social cues and expectations in various classrooms. The social worker observed the environment with and without Jacob in it. She was then available to debrief with him about cues he missed or misinterpreted. The team even discussed having him use a Bluetooth headset in class to have this happen in real time.

But we also included support for the teachers in learning how to interpret Jacob.  We talked what strategies could be put into place for an entire classroom not just because they'd benefit Jacob, but because they'd benefit all learners. For instance, stating the ground rules for a class activity or letting kids use multiple means of showing they've learned something. (Jacob uses photography and videos to show his learning).

At first, I thought this was a story of Jacob's success, but it's really the story of a school district's success. Their success in being collaborative and having an outstanding willingness to think in innovative ways. It's the story of strong leadership--the kind of leadership that led to this email: 

I just had to write to share with everyone that I believe we just had one of the best IEP meetings I've ever been a part of and I simply wanted to thank all of you for that!  I believe we were very thoughtful about all stakeholders, thought outside the box about creating workable solutions appropriate for Jacob (for the short and longer terms) and crafted the language of the plan to maximize our support of Jacob.

This was written by the principal of the high school. He sent it to the IEP team after that particularly complicated and long team meeting. What makes this a success story is that the school district worked with three important principles in mind:

  1. Creative teaching strategies that help kids with disabilities helps all kids.
  2. Professional development and support for all teachers is critical.
  3. Collaboration and innovative thinking should be the norm and not the exception.

So how do we make stories like Jacob's a more common tale?  How do we get to a place where more schools are thinking outside the box, where effective special education happens not just in the special education classroom and by special education teachers, but also in the general education classroom by general education teachers?

'Outside-the-box' thinking in schools is a top down process. When administrators encourage collaboration, and give all teachers access to professional development in learning how to meet the needs of all the learners in their classrooms, everybody is set up for success.  

Follow Amanda at EverythingSpecialEd and on Twitter @AmandaMorin

Ann Myers and Jill Berkowicz are the authors of The STEM Shift (2015, Corwin) a book about leading the shift into 21st century schools. Connect with Ann and Jill on Twitter or Email.

Photo by Geralt courtesy of Pixabay

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