Equity and Education in the Age of COVID 19

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On March 23, 2020, Ms. Betsy DeVos, the head of the federal department of education, issued a “guidance” on special education and distance education. According to an NPR article, the directive is a response to the many districts and states that have said online learning for K-12 students should be enrichment-only because not all students have access to the internet, or to the specific educational services outlined in their IEPs. The directive states:

“this reading of disability law [is] ‘a serious misunderstanding.’

“In bold type, the publication declares: ‘To be clear: ensuring compliance with the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) … and Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act should not prevent any school from offering educational programs through distance instruction.'” https://www.npr.org/sections/coronavirus-live-updates/2020/03/23/820138079/education-dept-says-disability-laws-shouldnt-get-in-the-way-of-online-learning

I am very concerned about this directive. It seems to say that it is acceptable to provide educational opportunity to those students who can be classified as “haves” and not those who are “have nots”, AND it says that those who, though no fault of their own, require specialized educational services can be ignored or “left behind”.

Should we allow the current crisis to move us backwards to when PL94-192 was first passed in 1975?

Many do not recall what education was like for “exceptional needs” students before that law was passed. Consider this: students who were failed and failed year after year because they did not learn at the same pace as “normal” children; students who were refused an education in districts and told they must be institutionalized instead; students who were labeled dumb or sub-normal.

Do we really want to return to those days?

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Since the passage of PL94-142, society and education have changed how it views equity for children with exceptional needs and for other students as well. We have embraced the idea that all students, no matter their race, ethnicity, national origin, religion, creed, beliefs, or disability have the right to a free and appropriate education.

In fact, the Department of Education website declares:

“The Department of Education’s (ED) Office for Civil Rights (OCR) enforces several statutes that protect the rights of beneficiaries in programs or activities that receive financial assistance from ED. These laws prohibit discrimination on the basis of race, color, and national origin (Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964), sex (Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972), disability (Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973), and age (Age Discrimination Act of 1975).

The state in which I live, Iowa, has expanded upon this, requiring that all school districts comply with non-discrimination policies that include: race, color, national origin, sex, disability, gender identity, sexual orientation, marital status, creed, religion, socio-economic status in its educational programs or hiring practices. https://www.educateiowa.gov/sites/files/ed/documents/2015-2016%20Guidance%20for%20Nondiscrimination%20Notices.pdf

To be sure, society has not yet achieved equity in all of these protected areas in education throughout the United States. However, should we, as a society, be willing to erode the gains we’ve made?

John F. Kennedy said, “The rights of every man are diminished when the rights of one man are threatened.”

Yes, he was of an era that used the term “man” to mean “human beings”, yet the meaning is clear: if we ignore the educational rights of students with disabilities, whose rights shall we relinquish next?

Does THAT Student Have Problems with Executive Function?

Executive function is a process that takes place in our brains.  There are three main areas that make up executive functioning skills:

  • Working memory
  • The ability to think flexibly
  • The ability to control one’s impulses

Roughly translated, these skills include:

  • Paying attention
  • Organizing
  • Planning what one will do to get a task done
  • Prioritizing what to do first
  • Being able to focus on a task and keeping focused until the task is complete
  • Understanding different points of view, whether that is with real humans or fictitious ones
  • Keeping one’s emotions in check
  • Keeping track of what you are doing, whether that is working on a school task or interacting with others

Most people develop these skills without much input from parents or teachers.  However not everyone does.  This is not because that kid’s parents didn’t teach him the skills.  It is not because she comes from a less-than-desirable home situation.  It is because not every person’s brain is wired in the same way.

Students who have issues with executive functioning skills often are in danger of becoming THAT student.  Their behaviors often become a thorn in the teacher’s side. 

Here are some examples of how issues with executive functioning skills might show up in the classroom:

THAT student

  • Has difficulty getting started on what he is supposed to do
  • Doesn’t seem to be able to get the task finished
  • She can’t seem to figure out what is the most important thing to do first
  • He seems to instantly forget what he just read
  • She hears directions and almost immediately forgets them
  • He can’t seem to follow directions
  • She gets the sequence of steps she’s supposed to do mixed up
  • He gets agitated, anxious, or disruptive when the classroom routine changes
  • She gets upset out of proportion when she thinks classroom procedures have changed
  • He can’t seem to get his thoughts organized so he tells or writes stories in a jumbled up sequence
  • She seems overly emotional about little things
  • He seems to fixate on things
  • She can’t keep track of her belongings
  • His desk looks like the inside of a dumpster
  • Her time management skills seem to be nonexistent

By now, you are probably thinking of a student who shows one or more of these characteristics.

You may be thinking, “This sounds like ADHD.”  Many people with ADHD also have executive functioning skills.  However, one does not have to have ADHD in order to have difficulties with executive function.

What can teachers do to help kids with executive function deficits, and keep them from melting down in the classroom?

Think about how you can explicitly teach the required skills.

For example, if you expect students to write a newspaper article, you can demonstrate that the most important information comes in the first paragraph.  Subsequent paragraphs provide the “who, what, when, where, why, and how” of that important information. 

You might cut up newspaper articles and have students work with partners to put the paragraphs in a logical order.  You might work with the class to create an anchor chart.  You can refer frequently to that anchor chart.

Think about how you can scaffold the desired behavior.

Let’s take that dumpster of a desk as an example.  Many teachers have found that creating “desk maps” helps all students organize their desks. 

But just posting the map isn’t enough.  The teacher must help students use it.  For example:

Teacher:  Boys and girls, in a second I am going to tell you to put away your math workbook and get out your writing folder.  Don’t start until I tell you!  First, tell me, where does your math workbook go?  Julie?  That is correct.  Sam, tell me what Julie said.  Yes.  Very good.  Now, where will you find your writing folder?  Jack?  Hm, I think you are getting the journal and the writing folder mixed up.  Look at the anchor chart.  Yes, Jack, that is correct.

The following chart describes some of the things teachers can do to help students with executive functioning issues.

You can find a 26 page pdf booklet about executive function at

We can help students learn executive functioning skills!

Should teachers be afraid of parents?

It is easy to say “no” to that question, but the reality is that some teachers are afraid and some teachers should be afraid.

How can both be true?

Why some teachers are afraid of parents:

  • Many teachers do not like confrontation. 
    Sadly, some parents are habitually hostile towards teachers.  These are the parents who assume that whatever has happened, it is the teacher’s fault.  They call and are rude or holler.  They show up in the classroom, looming over the teacher in an attempt to intimidate.  Those parents can be scary!
  • Some teachers fear parents because they are pretty sure they have done something that wasn’t quite right. Maybe they did scold the wrong child.  Maybe they did make a mistake when correcting a paper.  Maybe they weren’t as polite as they could have been.  Maybe they were a bit too harsh. 
  • Maybe they really did do something wrong!
    We’ll circle back to this in a bit.

Why some parents are afraid of teachers. 

  • They had bad experiences with teachers when they were children.
    Maybe teachers did not help them, compared them to siblings or blamed them for things that were not their fault.  Maybe they were told they’d never amount to anything.  An adult who was alienated from education as a child will be unlikely to see educators as trustworthy.
  • They think teachers will blame them if their child is not well-behaved, learning at an acceptable pace, etc.
    Sadly, teachers DO blame parents!  Teachers seem to classify many parents into several categories: 
    • parents who don’t care and who, therefore, don’t discipline their children, or who ignore their child’s education, or needs.  They don’t show up for conferences, do not answer emails or return phone calls.  These are also, according to some teachers, the ones who dress their children in dirty clothes, clothes too large or two small, or not appropriate for the weather.  They seem too busy to get school supplies, or who take children shopping on a school night instead of doing homework.
    • Helicopter parents who hover over children.  They are the ones who never let children make decisions.  They call and holler about a first grader earning a poor grade because it will allegedly keep the him/her out of a good college.  They do their child’s homework, or make excuses for their child.
    • Indulgent parents who seem to only want to be their child’s friend.  These are the parents who don’t potty train children before kindergarten, who let children stay up late or sleep in, the ones who do not discipline children, or the ones who buy the child everything under the sun.

There is another group of parents that is rarely mentioned:  parents who are legitimately concerned about how their child is treated in school.

A parent I know has a child who has a genius IQ and a learning disability.  She does not have an IEP because she has been able to earn “acceptable” grades despite the learning disability.  That is, she’s been able to earn a D rather than an A. 

What this child does have is a 504 plan. 

Let’s take a little aside here and explain the difference between an IEP and a 504 plan.  Both are legal plans that define accommodations for legally recognized learning differences.  The Individualized Education Plan (IEP) defines the kinds of specialized instruction and related services the child is supposed to receive.  A 504 plan does not require specialized instruction.  It defines the accommodations that will ensure the student’s  academic success and access to the learning environment.

So the main difference is that one required specialized instruction from a person trained to deliver that kind of instruction or services.  A 504 plan requires accommodations to instruction that can be delivered by a “regular” teacher.

The child has a recognized learning difference, but only needs accommodations, not specialized instruction, to ensure her academic success and full access to the learning environment.

The problem is that almost to a person, none of this child’s teachers have honored the 504 plan!  And she is now in high school!

The parent is not a helicopter parent.  She is not an indulgent parent.  She is certainly not alienated from education; she has a master’s degree and beyond.  We certainly cannot say this parent doesn’t care, ether.  Yet she has been accused of all of the above by teachers.

All she wants is for teachers to do what the 504 plan says they are supposed to do.

The teachers have given a number of reasons why they haven’t done this. 

  • They didn’t know she had a problem.
  • They don’t know how to do the accommodations.
  • They don’t see why she needs accommodations.
  • They say they think the mother is just trying to have the daughter’s grades inflated.
  • They say they don’t have time to make those accommodations.

Quite frankly, these teachers have simply frustrated both the parent and the student.  And the parent is angry.

So back to the original question:  should teachers be afraid of parents?

  • They SHOULD NOT be afraid if they
    • are reaching out to all parents to let them know what they’ve noticed that is good about their child.
    • genuinely like students.
    • welcome parents as allies in the child’s education.
    • have a good relationship with parents and make a mistake like those described previously.
    • Keep parents informed of concerns before concerns grow too large or have gone on too long.
  • They SHOULD be afraid if they
    • Don’t actually like all students
    • Don’t respect parents.
    • Aren’t doing what each student needs to be successful.
    • Aren’t following the law.

Teachers go into teaching to make a difference.  None that I know would ever say they are teachers to damage children or to make their lives miserable.

Sadly some teachers become jaded.  Some are frustrated with working conditions, administration, or students whose needs challenge their know-how.  Some develop beliefs that they know better than anyone else what a student needs.  Some may be right, but none should deny a student accommodations designed to help that child be successful.

If a teacher has a student with a 504 plan, find out what accommodations are.  Ask colleagues for help on how to do this if you don’t know how.  And above all, work with the child’s parents. 

Teaching School-Appropriate Behavior

When we work with children who use a dialect of English or who have a different home language, we teach those children to “code-switch”, changing from speaking in one’s home language in some circumstances and switching to another language in other circumstances.  We do not penalize the child.  We teach him/her when each language is appropriate.

The same principle is true for behavior.

Children come to school with many ideas about what is the best way to behave.  What is okay at Mindy’s house may be not okay at Henry’s house.  When these children do things that are not appropriate for school, we can blame the parents and deplore the behavior, or we can plan how to teach children what is acceptable at school.

When I was a principal, an eight year old boy was sent to my office.  I was on the phone, but he stormed in and threw himself into the visitor’s chair.  He began talking before I finished my phone conversation.  When I hung up, I interrupted him and said, “Charlie, I am going to show you the school way to come to my office.”  I showed him how to knock on the door frame and to wait until I said, “Come in.”  Then I had him practice doing that.  At first I stood by him and praised what he did right and then corrected any mistakes.  When he had that down pretty well, I sat at my desk and had him try the behavior on his own.  We high fived when he got it right.  Only then did I ask him why he was sent to the office.

The school counselor watched this with her mouth hanging open.  Later she told me that most of the teachers had given up on Charlie, believing he would never behave in the way they expected. 

Charlie was sent to the office many times during that school year, but he never forgot how to ask permission to come into the office.

I offer this story to show that kids can be taught exactly what to do in “the school way”.  Phrasing it in these terms takes away the idea that what children do at home is wrong and what we do at school is right.  That just makes children confused and parents alienated from the school system.  Instead we need to say It is just a different way to behave in a certain situation.  In other words, we are teaching the children to “code-switch” between a place where X behavior is appropriate and a place where Y behavior is expected.

It is difficult to do this at the end of the school year, but we can plan to teach children to code-switch their behavior at the beginning of the next school year.  Here is what to do:

  1. Make a list of the behaviors children seemed to have difficulty with in previous years and what you would rather the children do.
  2. Prioritize the list.  What behaviors are the most important ones?  By prioritizing your list, you will know what behavior procedures you need to teach in the first few days of school and which can be taught later on.
  3. Decide when to teach the behavior.  Something that is of paramount importance to you might need to be taught before you begin the process of handing out books or other beginning of the school year activities. 
  4. Decide how to teach the behavior.  If you can teach the behavior in the context of a subject area lesson, more power to you! 
    1. Explain the behavior.
    1. Model the behavior.  You may choose to first model a non-example.  If you do, model the expected behavior, then the non-example, then the expected behavior again.
    1. Have students practice the behavior.
    1. Reinforce verbally.
    1. Repeat steps A-D as needed.
  5. Remember to re-teach the expected behaviors regularly during the first couple of weeks.  Plan to remind students of the expected behavior after a long weekend or a school holiday.

Teaching children to code-switch their behavior between “home behavior” and “school behavior” saves wear and tear on our nerves.  The time we spend on teaching those behaviors up-front saves our stress level as the year goes on.  In addition, it helps kids understand what to do in a given situation at school instead of just telling them they are wrong.  Learning to “code-switch” behavior is a life skill worth cultivating.

Is THAT Student Depressed?

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Depression in children is tricky to diagnose.  Children who are depressed do not always have the same symptoms as adults.

The list of possible symptoms is long.  Here I am going to look at those we are most likely to see at school. 

Grouchy, crabby, or prickly and prone to anger
Some children act out when they are depressed.  They take offense at the littlest thing.  They grump and complain through the day, refusing to do this or that or becoming angry and shouting or saying something offensive.

Verbal outbursts or crying
The irritability can lead to children to talk back, blurt out, or even cry.  Often these behaviors seem to come out of the blue and finding the antecedent is difficult.

Distractible or Short Attention Span
Almost all children distract easily and children do not have the attention span of an adult.  One rule of thumb is that children usually have an attention span of their age in minutes.  That is, a five year old would have about a five minute ability to focus, a ten year old would have ten minutes, etc.  Children of any age must practice stamina to stick with an activity.  A depressed child may have an even shorter attention span, or an uneven one where s/he can be focused for X minutes today but only half that tomorrow.

Social Withdrawal
A depressed child may pull away from his/her usual friends.  S/he way stand on the sidelines during recess when s/he used to be actively engaged in kickball or swinging from the monkey bars.  When working in small groups, s/he may be quiet, apparently day-dreaming instead of joining in.

Sensitive to Rejection
A depressed child may seem to over-react when s/he feels rejected.  If a friend wants to play with someone else s/he may act out or cry.  If s/he gets a low score on a test, s/he may act as if it is the end of the world.  Things that other children are able shrug off seem to hit the depressed child like a ton of bricks.

Sometimes we pass these behaviors off as the child being immature for his/her age.  We may characterize him/her as “needy” or “moody”. 

Photo from Pexels

Of course, all children demonstrate these symptoms from time to time.  A child may be depressed if these behaviors persist.  This is where is careful record-keeping can help.

There are many ways to keep track of children’s behaviors.  Some teachers have a three ring binder with alphabet tabs and a sheet of paper for each child.  Others keep a card file box with a card for each child. 

I’m afraid those teachers are far more organized than I am.  I learned to have a file folder for each child.  I would jot down a thought or an observation about a child on any scrap of paper, date it and drop it into the file folder.  When it was time to talk to a parent or colleagues about the child, I would take out the file and organize the slips of paper into chronological order.  I could add to the information to expand on my chicken scratches.

You may have an entirely different system that works for you.  The important thing is to jot down the behaviors you observe so that you can report it as needed.

If we see a child who persistently shows the behaviors, or some of the behaviors above, we can say, “Kathryn seems to be depressed.”  We are not psychologists so we cannot diagnose, but we can express our concerns. 

If we see some of the symptoms above, we do have an obligation to report them to the child’s parent and to ask for assistance from the school counselor or behavior intervention team. 

Sadly, when I was a principal, I often saw children who seemed depressed who had gathered such a negative reputation that teachers labeled them as “bad”, “naughty”, or said the child didn’t care, or was doing this or that “because she just wants attention”.

Take a look at THAT student.  Try to look past the frustration that you feel about his/her behaviors.  Could s/he be depressed?  Sometimes even just considering that there is a cause for the behavior aside from seeking attention or trying to deliberately get under the teacher’s skin can change how we feel about THAT child.

Special Education Students and General Education Teachers

A study released in May 2018 showed that the inclusion of students with intellectual disabilities is “lagging”  (Heasley, 2018).  The study examined trends in having such students taught in regular education classes since the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) passed in 1976 through 2014.  IDEA requires that students with disabilities be placed in the “least restrictive environment”, meaning that they should be placed in a regular education classroom as much as possible.

I’ve read several articles about this study and I’ve found that there seems to be some confusion about what the term “intellectual disability” means.  I won’t go into a complete definition here but the term is generally used to describe students who have problems with general mental abilities that affect functioning in two areas:  intellectual functioning (such as learning, problem solving, judgement) and adaptive functioning (activities of daily life such as communication and independent living).  Some of the articles included students with ADHD, receptive and expressive language issues, those with poor social skills, etc.

This got me to thinking about teachers and special education inclusion. 

I do not think there are any teachers who believe that inclusion is bad for students.  The majority would say that inclusion has real, tangible benefits both for the student with special needs and for the general population of PK-12 students.  On the other hand, there are many teachers who believe that they are not the best person to work with special needs students.  A person outside of education, would, I think be unlikely to understand why that is, and would probably cast those teachers in a negative light.

All teachers take a course or two about special needs students.  At the college where I taught, this class was a 100 level class meaning it was generally taken by freshmen.  Another course in assessment was required for elementary education majors; this course primarily focused on special education assessment but was also supposed to include assessments teachers might use for “regular education” students. 

I taught an upper level course on classroom management and I found that, almost without exception, these pre-service teachers had a limited view of special education and almost no understanding of various behavioral issues that a special education student might demonstrate.  To a student, none knew anything about specific behavior disorders.

This is not to condemn those who teach classes about exceptional learners.  Not by a long shot!  Understanding students with disabilities and what it means to work with these students in the general education classroom is simply too much for one, three credit hour class.  In addition, in my experience, few freshmen can fully grasp the topic.  It is not because freshmen are deficit in any way.  It is because they are usually quite young, 18-19 years old.  They are usually away from home for the first time and exploring how to be independent from their parents.  In addition, college learning differs significantly from PK-12 learning.  College students are expected to have the discipline to do most of the educating on their own – for every hour of credit, the student is expected to do two hours of work outside of what is happening in the classroom.  In other words, the college student is expected to be in charge of his/her learning whereas the high school teacher is expected to “make” students learn. 

This is a very difficult transition for many young people.

Those who major in special education may receive more specific training in working with students with special needs, but those teachers are the ones destined for the “special education classroom” and for collaborating with regular education teachers who are working with special needs students.

So why don’t colleges require students to take more classes where they learn more about working with special needs students? 

Have you looked at the requirements education majors must meet?  Where I taught education majors, the list of classes that met requirements for an elementary teacher meant that an elementary education major could not take any electives unless s/he wanted to add a semester or so onto his/her college time.  Few students want to do that.  As it is, elementary education majors often have to take 16 or 18 credit hours per semester even though 12 credit hours per semester is considered full time. 

Many college professionals recognize that education could easily become a 5 year degree, or even a 6 year degree if courses and field experiences were added to ensure that all of the education majors were adept at teaching their own subjects and special education.  I have heard of only a handful of colleges that have made this a requirement.  The thinking is that students will vote with their feet, avoiding the 5 year programs in favor of those who say they can get the student through the program in 4 years.

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There are many outside of education who believe that the regular education teacher receives significant support from the special education teacher.  The special education teacher is supposed to help that regular education teacher find accommodations to use to help the student with special needs meet the same expectations as the other students in the classroom, and with modifications if the special education student is expected to be held to a different standard.  Many believe the special education teacher will be working along side the regular education teacher, co-teaching and collaborating.  And, really, that’s the way it is supposed to be!  But how many sp. ed. teachers are really able to do that? 

Consider an elementary sp. ed. teacher.  States use a number of plans to determine how many students a sp. ed. teacher has on her caseload.  There are students with whom she simply consults with the regular education teacher, students who are expected to have the teacher or another trained professional working with them for a significant part of the day, and everything in between.

The sp. ed. teacher might have students in multiple classrooms who are supposed to be receiving services from a “trained professional” at the same time.  She has to create a schedule where she is in this classroom for this amount of time, and that classroom for a different amount of time.  She has to have the time during the day to meet with the general education teachers for collaboration.  She has to have time to administer alternate assessments for some students, and assessments with accommodations for other students.  She must write and update Individualized Education Plans (IEPs) and report on students’ progress to various people.  She must work with the parents of the students, too.  And she is expected to direct para-professionals on what to do with the students with whom they work. 

This is probably not half of what most special education teachers have to accomplish.

Some districts hire aides or para-professionals to work with special education students on a one-to-one basis.  Many districts pay only minimum wage to these aides and keep them under 30 hours per week so that they are not considered full time and do not receive benefits.  As a result, few of the aides can truly be considered “trained professionals”.  Some states require special education aides to receive training, but this training varies.  It could be an online overview of special education, or it could be a few hours of face-to-face instruction through a college, tech school, or district led inservice training.  Few states require special education aides to have a baccalaureate, and few states require aids to receive a salary commensurate with that level of training.

In short, most sp. ed. teachers wish they could be cloned so that there was enough of them to go around.

What this means for the general education teacher is that s/he is expected to accommodate or modify lessons for the special needs students assigned to them, find alternative materials as needed, work with the students developing social skills, helping the students change negative behaviors, etc. 

I’m sure there are many, many regular education teachers who are delivering fantastic services to special needs students!  My point is that those wonderful regular education teachers often have to figure out how to do all of that often based on what they were supposed to have learned in one or two college classes.

Some school districts try to “fix” the problem by integrating students with IEPs into “specials” like art, music, and physical education.  I used to be an art teacher, and I used to be a special education teacher.  My training as an art teacher did little to help me understand how to accommodate or modify art activities for special education students.  Special subject teachers in general receive no more training in working with special needs students than any other “regular” teacher.

As a special educator, I worked primarily with students with behavior disorders (BD).  Out of that experience, I’ve seen that it is very difficult for a regular education teacher to work with a BD student and assure that the other students in the class are learning.  By definition, BD students have problems with their behavior and can disrupt a regular education class regularly.  Regular education teachers can become frustrated and resentful if they are expected to work with a BD student without intensive support.  That frustration and resentment is communicated to the students in very subtle ways, even when the teacher truly does not want to project that.  (See the blog posts about teacher attitude.)  I found it was to the BD student’s benefit to keep him/her in a special education classroom where we could work intensely on his/her behavior, and to slowly integrate the student into regular classes. 

It takes a teacher with super powers to provide for everything a special needs student needs to be successful academically!

My hat is off to those teachers and paraprofessionals who are working hard to provide the best educational opportunities for both the “regular” and the “special” student!

In my opinion, that is why so many students with IEPs are served in classrooms separate from their general education peers.  It is not ideal.  It is not the intent of the law. 

And that is why, in my opinion, why we do not see an 80% or better inclusion rate.

If we really want special education students to be included in the regular classroom 80% of the day or more, we need to provide supports for both the students and the teachers.  We need more special education teachers and more training for regular education teachers.  And most teachers would say they also need fewer students – smaller class sizes or caseloads.

Sadly, I suspect that the student mentioned at the beginning will spur state agencies and local school districts to boost the number of students in the regular education classroom.  I also suspect that there will be no requirement for additional training for teachers or paras.

If you are a special education teacher, please have some compassion and empathy for the regular education teacher.  Help him/her develop effective accommodations and modifications.

If you are a regular education teacher, work as closely as you can with the special education teacher and recognize that s/he is probably doing the best s/he can with all of the things s/he is expected to do.

I encourage all teachers to request more training in working with special needs students, and I encourage all teachers to seek out more information themselves.  Advocate for the students by advocating for more support and training for all of the adults who work with special needs kids.  Remember:  being positive about what you do, tends to get more results that telling people how bad your day is!  We catch more flies with honey than vinegar.

The kids deserve it and so do you!

Take your advocacy a step further:  let your local school board know what you must do each day and how you do it.  Do this in a positive, informational way.  Help state and federal representatives know how the legal expectations for special needs children play out in the classroom. 

Let everyone know what the good things are that go on in your classroom and how students benefit from your dedication to the education all students. 

I hope I can do you a service by suggesting ways to work with THAT student in your classroom!

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Invisible Disabilities

December 3 was World Disability Day. For many people, disabilities are something visible, or something a teacher would encounter in an Individualized Education Plan (IEP).  That is true for some disabilities, but not for all.

Those of you who know me know that I am hearing impaired.  Being hearing impaired means having a nearly invisible disability, and having one that is often misunderstood.

I lost my hearing as an adult.  I caught a cold and my ears never recovered.  Yes, they did surgery, and no, it didn’t help.  I was teaching at the college level at the time and I did not tell students or colleagues to begin with.  As I discovered how little people understood hearing impairments and how much a lack of hearing affected the one with the impairment, I began to tell people.  I would let classes know about my hearing impairment on the first day, but I wouldn’t always say something later on when I didn’t understand something someone was saying.  I even had a couple of classes where students purposely would mock my inability to hear.  (Gee, I wonder why I didn’t think those students should become teachers!)

I decided I needed to help future teachers understand hearing and not hearing better.  I began to pass out foam ear plugs and encouraged students to try a class using one in one ear.  Many were astonished how much diminished hearing in one ear could affect their comprehension of the class.  I taught them a bit about how we hear and how we can lose part of our hearing.  I taught them about what hearing aids can and cannot do.  Many told me that they’d always be taught that hearing aids meant the person could now hear like “normal.”  Nothing could be further from the truth!

In retrospect, I could have done more to educate my colleagues.  But there is a part of me that wonders why I’m the one who is responsible for educating others.

If you are not standing near me at just the right angle, you might miss seeing my hearing aids.  That is not because I am trying to hide them, because I don’t.  Hearing aids today are easy to miss.  The parts that hook over the ears, like mine, are smaller than they were in the past.  Some people have hearing aids that are completely inside the ear.  The only clue for them is the tiny bead that is at the end of the part that helps the wearer remove them from the ear.

If you do not see my hearing aids, you may miss the reason why I want to sit in a particular part of the room during a meeting.  I am an adult and know where I need to sit to have a better chance of hearing the speakers.  However, I will not try to do so if I’m met with resistance, or if I have to ask every time we have a meeting.  I won’t ask, but I will become resentful that my colleagues are not more understanding.  As time goes on, and that attitude is likely to color other interactions.

If you do not see my hearing aids and we are in a large meeting room, please do not say, “I don’t need the microphone.  I have a loud voice.”  You may have a loud voice, but I probably need both the amplification and to be able to see you to understand most of what you are saying.  I may be bold enough to say, “No, I need you to use the microphone, please.”  Many people are not so bold.  They may wind up staring out of the window or playing with their phones, not because they are rude but because they can’t understand what’s being said.

If you do not see my hearing aids, you may keep talking to me when you’ve turned away so that I cannot see your mouth.  Many people think hearing aids make it so the wearer can hear everything that goes on.  Hearing aids do not give back “normal” hearing.  A hearing impaired person relies on many things to know what a person is saying.  They may need to actually see you, to be able to partially read your lips and to see your expression.  Hearing aids may  help mask tinnitus, but they do not make it go away completely.

If you do not see my hearing aids and I ask you to let me see what you are saying, you may just try to raise your voice.  That doesn’t help much.  Yes, hearing aids boost the volume of sounds, but those are only the sounds the person can hear.  There are sounds that are now higher than my ability to hear and lower than I can hear.  Just talking louder will never make me hear those sounds better.

If you do not see my hearing aids and I tell you I am hearing impaired, you may be tempted to talk louder and slower, and to use single syllable words.  My hearing loss has not affected my intelligence.  You do not need to simplify what you are saying.  I assure you, my intelligence will allow me to understand complex concepts.  I just need to be able to hear you or to see you in a way that allows me to read your lips.

If you do not see my hearing aids, you may not understand why I am so reluctant to use the telephone.  If you see my hearing aids, you may not understand either.  Telephones are strange things to me.  Sometimes I hear the other person very well.  Sometimes I do not.  It has to do with the timbre of the person’s voice.  For example, I can hear one of my grandchildren just fine, and another I cannot understand at all.  My personal telephone uses an app that translates messages from voice to text.  I’ve asked for this to be part of the telephone system at work only to be told the system cannot do that.  Inside my own head I was angrily snapping, “Maybe it should!”  But I didn’t want to make more waves.  Yes, there are devices that allow totally deaf people to communicate using telephones, but I am not that profoundly deaf.

If you cannot see my hearing aids because you are calling me on the phone and you want to leave a message, please do not rattle off the phone number you want me to use to call you back.  It is highly embarrassing to have to ask a student to listen to a message and have them write down the phone number for me!  You don’t know if the person for whom you are leaving a message is hearing impaired or not.  It is only polite to state your phone number is a way that the listener has the best chance of understanding it.

If you do not see my hearing aids and you are talking about a current movie that I have not seen, do not assume I do not like movies.  I like movies a LOT.  I just cannot go to theaters that do not offer closed captions.  There are a lot of theaters that do not, and there are a lot of hearing impaired people who are too shy or too timid or too irritated to ask the theater for that kind of help.  Many theaters have young workers who do not know what to do with a hearing impaired person and may do any of the above when they are told you are hearing impaired or they may just act like being asked if they offer devices for the hearing impaired is a burden.  It often makes it a hassle to even try, so I tend to wait to see movies when they come out online.

If you do not see my hearing aids, or maybe even if you do, if I ask you to repeat what you’ve said, please do not sigh, or roll your eyes, or become exasperated.  I wouldn’t ask you if I didn’t need to.

If you do see my hearing aids, you may think that all I need is to have the sound turned up.  I’ve even had movie theater workers tell me to just turn up my hearing aids.  I’ve been told the theater, or church offers sound amplification devices.  Amplification doesn’t help if the sound itself is out of my hearing range. Nothing could be further from the truth.  The problem may be that the sounds are out of my range of hearing, but there may be other issues as well.   Even though I’m hearing impaired, I am sound sensitive.  That means that loud noises and/or certain frequencies are like fingernails on a chalkboard.  There are sounds that make me yank my hearing aids out of my ears that fast!  (Come to think of it, young people may have no idea of what fingernails on a chalkboard sounds like!)

I’ve been told to go to events even if I cannot hear what is going on.  How many people will go someplace to sit without understanding what is happening for several hours?  Would you?

If I am in a hotel, I will want to be able to turn on closed captions to be able to watch TV.  I’ve been in some very classy hotels that do not have this ability on the room’s remote.  I’ve had to call the desk and have someone with the “normal” remote come and turn on the closed captions.  I’ve been in some where the clerk has just told me that they don’t have closed captions available.  It is both embarrassing to ask and exasperating to have to ask.  Maybe those hotels should advertise that they do not cater to hearing impaired people – oh, but that would be against the law, wouldn’t it?

Even if you know I’m hearing impaired, you may question why I have a handicapped tag for my car.  Part of my hearing impairment has affected my balance.  I’ve had people question my use of handicapped spaces enough that I am tempted to affect a limp when using the handicapped parking spaces.  Lately I’ve decided that I’m a big girl and I can tell when I’m having troubles with my balance and when I’m not.  I am the only one who knows when I need to park closer.  But that means I’ve had to try very hard not to see people’s faces or to not hear them tell me the handicapped spaces are for people who are “really handicapped”.

That brings us back to invisible disabilities.  There are many of them.  People who suffer from depression or anxiety may not be obvious.  They may take medication and still be depressed or anxious so telling them to take a pill can be insensitive, and can make them more depressed and more anxious.  We may not be able to see vision problems, autism, ADHD in adults, chronic illnesses, or learning disabilities.  That does not mean these disabilities do not exist.

Too often we’ve been lead to believe that disabilities mean something obvious.  In the 1970s when legislation was passed in the US requiring accommodations for children and adults with disabilities, we started seeing changes in textbook images and characters on TV.  Largely these images show people in wheelchairs or using crutches or white canes.  It is no wonder that we think of disabilities as something we can see.

I have been in education for 39 years.  I’ve had the opportunity to observe how children and adults with disabilities are treated.  If the student is learning at the same pace as his/her peers or if the disability does not require a teacher with specialized training, his/her disability does not have to be recognized through an IEP.  There may be something in the student’s file suggesting preferential seating, but that may be it.  Children are not always the best advocates for themselves.  They don’t know how to ask for more.  They also do not always know that there can even be something that would help them in the classroom, hallways, lunch room or playground.  (I have a great deal of trouble in lunchrooms.  The background noise prevents me from hearing.  The sound can overwhelm my hearing aids.  And my noise sensitivity may make it so I am overwhelmed.)  A child’s disability can even be a source of embarrassment.  I recall children who hid their glasses, or pocketed their hearing aids to try to be “normal.”  I even worked with an albino student who refused to wear her sunglasses, and always tried to sit in the sun – she cried and said she just wanted to be like everyone else.  Doesn’t every child?

If you are an educator, you may now be thinking, “Well, those kids should have 504 plans!”  For those of you who are not in education, a 504 plan is a legal document that outlines the accommodations a student needs to be successful in the classroom.  Students are eligible for a 504 plan if their disability does not require specialized instruction, but who need some “extra” things to reach their potential in the classroom.

In every school district in which I’ve worked, there has been great resistance to developing 504 plans.  I asked one superintendent why he would tell me to not allow 504 plans.  He said it would mean too much pressure on teachers and gave parents too much ammunition to “helicopter” their children, to not allow the children to learn without the parent hovering over them.

Yes, a 504 plan does require school districts and teachers to provide those accommodations to students.  It does allow parents and others to hold teachers accountable for those accommodations.  Yes, it does allow parents to legally advocate for their children.  And why shouldn’t educators be willing provide those accommodations?

If teachers have not received training in how to best work with a child with a 504 plan, they should be encouraged to get that training.  The school district should provide that training.  If the parent is willing to work with the teacher, the teacher should not be shamed by the school district or the parent.  I know from experience a four year degree does not allow enough time to learn everything a teacher needs to know!

The real point here is that we don’t know who does and who does not have a disability.  We should not wait to provide accommodations until someone asks.  We should not assume everyone around us is completely able-bodied.  If we aspire to being a kinder society, we should assume someone in any given group will need some accommodation.  And we should provide those accommodations without someone asking us to do it, without the law forcing us to do it, and without shaming the persons who need them.

So the next time I say, “Pardon me, I didn’t hear what you said”, please just look at me and repeat it.  Don’t sigh, or roll your eyes.  Don’t raise the volume of your voice and talk to me like I’m not bright.  Don’t make me always have to fight to be able to know what is going on.  And, frankly, don’t always make me ask!

When you come right down to it, all I’m asking for is to be treated with dignity and welcome.  I think I deserve it and I think everyone else deserves it too!