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Refocusing Special Needs: Child-Centered Special Education

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This post is by Larry Dailey, a human-centered design consultant and emeritus professor of journalism. 

Individualized Education Plan (IEP) meetings can be parent-versus-school tugs-of-war. Even so, this one was unusual. A state-appointed facilitator was attempting to authoritatively run the meeting. Parents, educators--and even the disabled student for whom the team was attempting to develop a special education plan--were grim-faced.

Tensions eventually became so high that the parents withdrew their consent for the facilitator's participation. The facilitator departed, mid-meeting.

Left at the table were the child, the parents and a large number of educators. All were on edge, yet all still wanted an effective IEP meeting. It was time to push the reset button.

The effect of that reset? At the meeting's conclusion, the disabled child turned to her father and asked, "Is it just me, or was the last part of that meeting fun?"

Yes, I replied, it was.

Thanks to a human-centered approach, what began as a contentious IEP meeting had concluded with a noisy, sticky-note driven process that focused on empathy, rather than positional authority. My child, many of the educators and I preferred the latter approach.

At this stage of the process, we borrowed techniques from the brainstorming--or "ideation" stage of human-centered design procedures. Ideation rules, as practiced by Stanford University's "d.School" and by IDEO, a Silicon Valley innovation firm, require deferring judgement, encouraging wild ideas, building on the ideas of others, staying focused on the topic, having only one conversation at a time, being visual and encouraging a quantity of ideas, rather than singular viewpoints.

So, instead of listening to lengthy, pre-formatted presentations from only a few of the meeting's participants, we agreed that everybody in the room would take turns presenting one thought at a time. Each idea would be posted on a sticky note and placed on a table. Posted ideas would be brief, so that we could build on them later. Parents', teachers', the child's and the administrators' contributions would all be treated equally. And we agreed that everybody would present at least three ideas.

Most importantly, consistent with the "build on the ideas of others" rule, we agreed at this stage that no information would be dismissed, discounted or argued against. Simply put, the phrase "yeah, but ..." was forbidden while the phrase "yeah, and ..." was mandated. After some initial push-back--administrators did not want to require everybody to talk - the meeting restarted.

As I recall, a teacher who had said little during the meeting, made a remark about my child's delightful sense of humor and how that sense of humor might help her face her disabilities. That empathetic comment shepherded a flock of sticky notes about my child's strengths toward the whiteboard. Everybody now felt they had the permission to participate in a positive manner.

And that, in a nutshell, is how design thinking works. It democratizes meetings by helping people focus on similarities, rather than differences.

Facilitators of the human-centered process bring a range of techniques to procedures that are intended to engage the creative and thoughtful parts of the brain, such as the frontal lobe and that disengage the amygdala, the "flight or fight," primitive part of the brain.

In the case of our meeting, instead of arguing about our individual positions, we, as a group, arranged sticky notes in manner that to seemed show a hierarchy of ideas that were most important to us as a group. After that, we discussed the relative advantages and disadvantages of focusing on those procedures. And, because we were actively putting stuff on the wall and moving it around, the process was creative and nonthreatening.

When everybody's focus turned to the quantity of information and building on ideas, there was palpable de-escalation of tensions. To work, design thinking, or human-centered design, requires developing empathy with stakeholders. And it requires coming to meetings with a deep understanding of, and research about, people and the issues they face.

Human-centered design or design thinking, as noted in previous Education Week blogs by Jal Mehta and by Harvard University doctoral students, is beginning to be accepted as a method for improving education in general. In fact, IDEO, Adaptive Path, and Greater Good Studio, three organizations focused on design thinking, have all begun initiatives on general education. That said, little has been written about its potential for changing special education. For example, a Google search reveals almost no human-centered efforts in the field.

As stated previously, design thinking requires deep research, understanding and input from a variety of sources. And, as mentioned, it requires empathy between all participants. That empathy is sorely needed in the IEP process.

Parents may come to these meetings, as we had, impatient for needed changes, since delaying interventions may have lifelong implications for the child. And, conversely, parents may also come to the meetings reluctant to participate, since they are outnumbered by educators. And sometimes parents are afraid to speak because they do not want to alienate their child's teachers and principal.

Likewise, educators sometimes have difficulties in these meetings, too. On the one hand, they may feel that they are trained to understand the science of educational interventions, so their opinion should dominate the conversation. On the other hand, some educators may be reluctant to speak during the meetings, since their supervisors are in the room and they would not want to say something that they think could jeopardize their career.

Carefully-facilitated human-centered approaches equip participants to disregard their positional authority and to work together for a common cause. Trained facilitators learn to refocus meetings when energy lags or when tensions begin to escalate. They learn that an escalation of tension can, rather than signaling hostility, indicate that someone does not feel heard. And they practice techniques, such as grouping sticky notes, that enable synthesis without dismissing or blaming the efforts of group participants. Facilitators learn to pivot techniques as needs dictate.

For example, sometimes meeting participants are challenged to identify their own or other meeting members' "superpowers." This exercise brings a recognition of the power of the team's diversity. And sometime members role play as other parties in the meeting. During the role play, participants can then say how they perceive the persona adopted during the role play. This can be a humorous way to deescalate tensions while also acknowledging those tensions. Still other times team members are simply challenged to work together to physically build a representation of a problem or solution. This encourages collaboration and empathy.

Of course, simply using the words "human centered" or "child centered" will not change the IEP process. Facilitators will need to be carefully trained and then retrained in using techniques such as the ones mentioned here. Fortunately, resources such as IDEO's Design Kit and  Design Thinking for Educators Toolkit are beginning to emerge.

Even with those resources, systemic change is needed. And, unfortunately, as has been noted by others in this blog, systemic educational change can be tricky and slow. To make matters more complicated, the documented process of slow systemic change is, inherently, in conflict with the developmental timeline of children who need immediate interventions.

Despite the obstacles that may inhibit this change, I am encouraged by my own experiences with human-centered design. And, I believe that others might be willing to push for design thinking, too, if they could see parents, educators, and administrators all emerge from IEP meetings smiling.

Or if they could hear disabled children emerging from IEP meetings saying "that was fun."



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