It’s a Thin Line, My Friend

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Alright, let me start this off with a disclaimer: I am a HUGE advocate for parents learning to be advocates for their children. I think it’s essential for parents to learn about their rights, and the rights their children are entitled to. I also believe it is our responsibility as teachers to work with parents and families for the best outcomes for each student, especially when our students have significant medical and physical needs. It’s important to state that 99.99% of all parents that I’ve worked with have been a pleasure to team with, and while we may not always agree, we are able to work together for their child.

That being said: there is often a fine line between advocating for a child, and bullying staff. Unfortunately, in my relatively short teaching career, I have worked with several parents who have wandered across that fine line. It’s never fun, and it’s not always easy to determine when someone is truly advocating for a child versus someone who is pushing for control. So, here’s what I’ve come up with, as a result of my experiences:

1. An advocate has specific, goals, a bully is vague. I’ve found that parents who are sincerely advocating for what they believe is best for their child have specific things they’d like addressed (i.e. “I’m concerned about my child’s positioning needs” or “I’d really like Jimmy to work on feeding skills”). I may or may not agree with those goals/concerns initially, but if a parent has a specific idea, it’s worth considering. However, I’ve also worked with parents who have demands such as “I want him to do more”, but are unable to clarify what, specifically, they are concerned about.

2. An advocate is open to discussion, a bully is not. As I mentioned before, I may not always agree with a parent’s suggestion or concerns, but I’m always willing to discuss it. I’m secure enough to admit that there have been MANY times that a parent has brought up an idea that I’ve realized, after discussion, is something we should begin to implement. For example, it was a parent’s advocacy that brought music therapy to our school, and I LOVE it! On the other hand, a bully won’t even consider a discussion, expecting instead that you acquiesce to their demands unquestioned.

3. An advocate has researched, a bully makes demands without examples. Not all parents have the means or time to be able to fully research every aspect of their child’s life, especially when their child has numerous, significant needs. However, when a parent who’s advocating for their child has something specific that they’re interested in, they’ve usually looked into a few options. Again, I may or may not agree with the options they’re suggesting, but at least I have specific places I can look to learn more and be able to have reasonable, knowledgeable conversations about said topic. Unfortunately, there are some parents who make vague demands for things that may or may not exist. For example, I had the experience of someone demanding I use a curriculum with their child that did not actually exist. When pushed, this person admitted they had made it up, but continued to insist it would work.

4. An advocate is respectful, even in disagreements, a bully resorts to aggressive, attacking language. I can only imagine that having a child with significant disabilities is stressful beyond imagination, and when it comes to education, it can be a touchy subject. Parents are, rightly, very passionate about their children and will do whatever they can to get what’s best for their child. I’ve found that in many situations, it appears that a parent is making ridiculous demands, but through discussion, it often turns out that we’re on the same side. Even if we’re not, we’re able to discuss it. On the other hand, a bully often refuses to engage in discussion and resorts to name-calling or aggressive communications.

I sincerely hope that if you’re a teacher, you never come across this situation. Especially when you work with students that have multiple disabilities, it’s essential that the school and family work together to help that child. However, since I have had the experience of working with a few (although, I reiterate, it is a SMALL minority) difficult families, here’s some tips I’ve learned through trial and error:

1. Recognize that there’s usually something behind the aggression. Most of the time, a parent or family that may come across as a bully has had some experience that has made them feel like they have to fight you. For example, one particularly difficult parent had a horrible experience trying to get early intervention services for their child. They had to fight to get the therapies their child truly needed. Because this occurred at the beginning of the child’s educational experience, the school became the enemy (even though the school was not involved in the EI difficulties in any way). Now, this did not excuse the aggressive behavior, but it did make it easier for me to not take being called a “glorified babysitter” quite so personally.

2. Be cognizant that acceptance is incredibly difficult. Although I haven’t done any sort of scientific study to back this up, I’d wager that most of the time when I’ve worked with a family that I felt was tending toward the bullying side of the line, it’s because I was telling them things they weren’t ready or able to accept. Because I, as a special education teacher, have training and experience with children with disabilities, I have the responsibility of setting high, but realistic goals for my students. Often, seeing the difference between the goals for their child with a disability and the goals of their other children is incredibly difficult for parents to accept. Recognizing this has helped me approach parents in a different way. I still have to be realistic and straightforward, but I also take the time to explain why that particular goal is important in the longer term.

3. (And this one is the MOST important) Remember the common ground. Although it may not seem like it in the moment, even “bullies” are doing what they believe is best for their child. As the teacher, you should have the same goal. Sometimes even starting off a conversation with a parent with whom you don’t see eye-to-eye with that reminder, “we’re both here to figure out how to best serve Suzie”, can go a long way toward setting a positive tone.

As the teacher, you can’t change how parents view the school, or how they approach interactions with you. Your administrators will tell you how to deal with things from a legal perspective, but I’m hoping that the information I’ve shared can help from the emotional standpoint. It’s tough to work with someone with whom you are constantly butting heads, however, it’s important to keep trying to build a relationship that works in the best interest of the child with a disability.

See a need, fill a need

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I am by no means a professional blogger. I’m barely a casual blog reader. However, in my very limited research I’ve noticed a lack of blogs (or for that matter websites or articles that are immediately usable in the classroom) related to teaching students who fall into what is usually referred to as the “severe and profound” category. I know that I teach in a “low incidence” population, but I also know that I’m not the only one. It’d be really nice to find a place with information that I can actually use as is, instead of having to constantly adapt, adapt, adapt. Prime example: Today I walk into work to find an email that my speech therapist isn’t going to be able to do a speech group today, leaving a gaping 45 min. hole in my daily schedule (over time, you’ll come to see that, in my classroom, the schedule can 100% make or break the day). Due to the ridiculously massive amounts of snow we’ve been dealing with, I thought I’d throw together some sort of science lesson dealing with the snow. I approach this like any good special education teacher: Pinterest. As I scrolled through the hundreds of posts related to snow activities, I realized that nothing I find is ever “just right”. I’m either adapting grade-level materials  to a more basic level so it’s developmentally appropriate, or I’m trying to find ways to make developmentally appropriate materials more age-appropriate.  This blog is my attempt to make a dent in that frustrating dilemma. Part of my goal for the blog is to create a space where teachers in a similar situation can find and share ideas for classroom organization, management, lessons, etc., etc., etc. that don’t require major adaptations. Hopefully, I can help to “fill a need” (if you didn’t catch it, “see a need, fill a need” is a quote from a highly under-rated Disney movie, Robots; when I first heard it, my only thought was “best description of my job I’ve found”).

It’s all about the data!

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I’ve been teaching for 9 years, all 9 in special education and all 9 in Illinois. While I’ve always felt under-appreciated and over-stressed, this school year has been particularly difficult. Now don’t get me wrong. I love my job. My passion is life truly is working with people with disabilities. For the past 7 years, I’ve worked at a cooperative in a program for students with multiple, significant disabilities. I love seeing the small steps my students can make after months, sometimes, years of working on certain skills. However, lately it’s been harder and harder to focus on those little triumphs due to factors completely outside of my control.

Recently I’ve started narrowing down what exactly it is that’s causing the added stress, and I think I’ve got it: it’s the data! The endless amounts of data that has to be collected, analyzed, interpreted, re-collected, re-analyzed, etc., etc., etc. is enough to send even the most experienced, level-headed teacher running back to college. Between the data for IEP goals, the monthly, quarterly, and yearly data for each curriculum used by the school, behavior data, data forms for the school’s PBIS program, and IAA (or ISAT for some of us) testing, I feel like I’m drowning in a sea of paperwork. Add to all this our state’s recent mandate that pay increases be determined at least partly by student progress and the importance of data collection jumps to an entirely new level. I am extremely lucky to work for a school that chose NOT to determine “student progress” by simply looking at IAA or ISAT scores, and takes teachers’ opinions into account when figuring exactly what we’re going to do. In reality, this means countless hours spent in meetings to develop school-wide data collection plans, then testing the plans, rewriting everything, re-testing, and it goes on and on.

The constant need to document and save everything so it can be analyzed and used at a later time to determine “student progress” then creates a new problem in the classroom: too much paper! I know this is a problem faced by pretty much every teacher ever, so there are countless solutions. While there’s nothing I can do about the amount of data I am required to collect, I CAN do something about the paperwork. Being the type of person who is completely flustered by inefficiency, I’ve tried several different ways of organizing the mountains of data I collect each week.

1. Clipboards: When I was doing my student teaching I gave each student a clipboard and kept all relevant data sheets with the clipboard. The staff that was working with the student would keep the clipboard with them and could take data throughout the day. This worked really well at the time, but that was back before the amount of data we are required to take became so overwhelming. I tried this at my current school and I ran into the problem of people remembering WHEN to take the data. I tried highlighting a printed schedule to indicate when the staff member should be taking data, but that didn’t really catch on.

2. Individual folders for each “center”: Next, I tried dividing skills that would need data collection into groups and creating centers. Each center had a folder, and each student had a tab with their data sheets for that center. This worked well for collecting the data, but made it difficult for me to organize the data for each student when it came time to update goals or write a new IEP. Now that the data collection has gotten even more extensive, I’m not sure this would work, as there are some times when data needs to be collected that doesn’t fit into our “center time”.

3. Student Binders: Last year, a colleague suggested the idea of student binders, and it was like a whole new world to me! Each student in my room has a binder with tabs for all of the different data collection sheets that relate to that student. Staff has gotten used to grabbing the binders throughout the day for data collection purposes. Plus, when it’s time for me to analyze the data, it’s already divided by student for me to look at. I took it a step further and included lots of other things in the binders: journals, emergency contact information, quarterly update sheets, morning check-in information, etc. (I’ll try to add some pictures of the binders later, but right now we’re on an “extended weekend” due to the weather, so it may be a while before I get them up).

This list is by no means even close to extensive, but it’s what I’ve done to try and ease the increasing pressure from the ever-increasing data problems we, as special educators, will most likely continue to face.

For more information about organizing in special education, check out this Pinterest board.

Click here for an interesting blog post about what else contributes to the stress and high burn-out rate among special education teachers.