A Lesson in Listening

“Whenever I choose to share a post, I worry a little and wonder how my ramblings and perspective may come across to others. I want this blog to be a place for honest conversations and perspective sharing, a space that open doors to communication and brings insight into the realities that others experience, and that promotes empathy and collaboration between families and professionals…..”

A Scrapbook for Special Education

“After over two hours of sitting at a table among dedicated team members, I could hardly believe the book we had written. This book of nearly 50 IEP goals outlined every hope and desire of one incredibly passionate mom, a mom who would not settle for anything less than the absolute best for her kid.

While the teacher and the therapists at the table struggled to imagine how any student would ever meet this many goals in one year, there was something special about that moment. We knew that this mom needed to see her hopes on paper. She needed us to experience the urgency that she felt every day as she imagined her child’s future….

Scream Louder, I Can’t Hear You

Imagine that you are in pain and no matter what you say or do, you are ignored. Would you continue to ask for help? Would you scream in desperation in an attempt to be heard? At what point would you give up or give in to your circumstances?

imagesCA08RGEMIf an infant is crying, a parent will do his/her best to identify and respond to what the child needs.The cry is a baby’s means of communication. As a child develops, behaviors become more complex. Sometimes a child needs attention and sometimes a child wants attention. As the child develops their voice, they must gain the skills to communicate in ways that are appropriate and effective.

Students with special needs often struggle to communicate effectively and to be understood by others. Deficits associated with their disability make this especially difficult. Some students struggle to speak in words, some use words differently, and some have only gestures. Behaviors are a clue that many professionals and parents struggle to interpret. Led by educated guesses, assumptions, and our best deductions, it can become an endless exercise in trial and error.

Functional Behavioral Assessments (FBAs) are a tool that allows us to examine what we know about a student and to analyze the function of a behavior. Behavior Intervention Plans (BIPs) expand upon this information by outlining strategies for increasing or decreasing certain behaviors as well as accommodations to support the student’s specific needs.

I can’t begin to tell you how many FBAs and BIPs that I’ve read that point to the underlying cause of a student’s behavior as a means for gaining attention. The suggested response is to ignore the behavior because giving attention may reinforce the inappropriate behavior. While I understand the reasons for this approach and I have seen when ignoring may be an effective strategy, I feel that ignoring is often misapplied or over-used and in some cases it becomes an excuse for professionals or parents to stop thinking or pursuing the underlying need that is driving the behavior.

In my career, I’ve done my share of ignoring. I’m ashamed to admit that there was I time when I reached that point of indifference, where I settled for the belief that behavior is that simple. I had been desensitized by the realities of working with kids who demonstrate challenging behaviors. Kicking and screaming just came with the territory. I had learned to tune it out, and no longer had that sense of urgency to calm a child in distress.

I think we have to be careful with how we interpret behaviors, paying careful attention to the child’s intention. Is the behavior an issue of motivation or is there a missing skill? I would argue that most of the time, kids with special needs genuinely need attention and they rarely want to be disruptive. Even when a behavior looks like defiance, there is often an underlying missing skill that if present would result in a more appropriate behavior.

Am I saying that adults should let go of all expectations and appease every desire? Absolutely not. But I think we must never ignore a child in distress and we must demonstrate empathy so that students begin to feel heard. This begins with moving past ignoring and opening our eyes and ears to hear the message.

Giving students a voice and the skills to advocate for their needs is perhaps the most important aspect of their development. If students have to scream in order to be heard, then maybe we’re missing the most obvious clue of all. Screaming is a flashing red light indicating that there’s an important message worth listening to. We must rid ourselves of the assumptions and beliefs that hinder our ability to do so.

When we choose to ignore a student in distress, I wonder what gets reinforced. Are we teaching kids that what they think or feel doesn’t matter… that they have to scream louder and longer in order to be heard… or that it’s better to be compliant or quiet than to have a voice that allows them to say what they really need?

I’m amazed by the courage and the resilience of students who have refused to give up and who continue to fight to be heard. Still I wonder how many students have given up, seemingly compliant and calm, yet screaming on the inside.…

Let’s Be Honest: Does Everybody Really Win?

I’m ashamed to admit that I’m a sucker for singing shows: American Idol, The Voice… any sort of talent show really. For me, it’s the stories of each contestant that pull at my heart strings. I love hearing about all that people have overcome, and I’m often inspired by the courage so many have found to take the risk to follow their dreams.

Last night’s show was deemed “Battle of the Sob Stories” by the Hollywood Reporter. There was a veteran who is a survivor of traumatic brain injury, another contestant who sings in spite of a speech impediment, and more than one victim of bullying. Every one of them sang beautifully and made it through to the next round of the competition.

But this time I’m left thinking about a not-so-uplifting story: a sweet young man who auditioned because someone who overheard him singing in the bathroom told him that he should try out for the show. Unfortunately, he wasn’t the talent that the judges were looking for, and he was left with a big “no.” He walked away seemingly discouraged and a bit confused.

The bad auditions aren’t anything new. I suppose they make “good TV.” Some who fall into this category are clearly hoping to be discovered for their talent as a different sort of entertainer. Others are looking for the thrill of being featured on national television. The remaining members of this group seem to think that they are genuinely talented and are heartbroken when the opinions of the judges does not match their own perceptions. Somewhere within these stories, there’s almost always a mention of a teacher, choir director, friend… someone who affirms their “amazing talent.”

In our “everybody wins” culture, parents and teachers are often concerned about the self-esteem and well-being of students and children, and rightly so. However, when every little accomplishment is affirmed and little (if any) real, specific feedback is provided, we’re guaranteed to be left with more and more “bad” auditions in the form of confusion, denial, and deflated self-esteem.

As parents and professionals in this crazy world, we must examine how our words may be interpreted and consider our role in shaping the identities of our future generation.

Everybody doesn’t win. That’s the truth.

Letting Go of Our Agendas

Years ago while working at a camp for adults with disabilities, I remember sitting at a picnic table on a sunny, summer day and having a pleasant conversation with a middle-aged camper named Joe. This camp was designed to provide rest and recreation for campers, but there was no set agenda. As counselors we were trained to slow down and to cater activities to the interests of the campers. This was their vacation, and we were there to serve them.

Joe spoke very slowly and struggled to string his words together. His experience in life was that few had time to listen, often assuming that he had nothing of value to say. For those who waited long enough to “listen,” it was not uncommon for them to fill in their own words in order to hurry the conversation along. That day, Joe had a captive audience and he had much to say. Before too long I learned that Joe had an amazing sense of humor. His witty jokes and stories were worth every minute.

Several years later, I remember walking down the hallway of a school to find a young man sitting cross-legged on the floor with a huge smile on his face. His teachers were working to get him “back on schedule,” but John, didn’t appear interested in his schedule. When I sat next to him on the floor, John looked at me and then turned his gaze toward the ring on my hand. While looking intently at my hand, he laughed the kind of laugh that’s contagious. We could have interpreted this behavior as avoidance and ignored his behavior in an effort to get him “back on schedule.” But, in this case, I have to say that it was worth letting go of our agenda to connect with John in this way. John, a young man with autism, doesn’t speak in words, but he has much to say.

In remembering these moments, I wonder how often I have missed out because of an urgency to move ahead. I wonder how many people I have failed to listen to in order to achieve some goal or to accomplish my own agenda.

Special education can be driven by a sense of urgency. While our efforts to help students to gain new skills and to progress toward a future goal is absolutely important, sometimes we need to slow down and take time to listen.

“Us versus Them” in Special Education (Part 3): Navigating the System

Speaking up in a culture of “us versus them” begins with courage and a willingness to venture into a world that is not our own. Yet, courage will only get us so far. Overcoming a fear of flying, may get us to a seat on the plane. But without a plan, we’re sure to get lost and a new set of fears and emotions are bound to follow. On any journey, it’s best to chart your course beforehand and to plan accordingly.

The Destination
If we want to go to France, we know that we will need a plane ticket. But a plane ticket won’t guarantee that we reach our destination. We must be specific about where we want to go. Otherwise, we might end up with a ticket to China.

In the same way, in advocating for the needs of a student, we must be specific about the outcome that we are looking for while also considering the means to reach that outcome. For example, a teacher may advocate for a 1:1 paraprofessional for a student who is demonstrating aggressive behaviors. Is the 1:1 paraprofessional the destination or is it the means to another outcome? A request like this becomes compelling when the requestor can articulate how the means supports the ends.

A Tour Guide
When traveling, a tour guide helps us to know which roads to take and what to pay attention to along the way. If our destination is France, then we want a tour guide who can translate for us and who knows how to get us from the airport to the next stop.

In the school system, knowing which tour guide to turn to for support and direction depends on the roles and the hierarchy for decision-making that are defined by a school or a district. While the principal or vice principal may be the leaders within a school building, they may or may not be the best person to seek out for guidance. It is important to determine who handles decisions related to your specific concern. Is it a building decision, a department decision, a district level decision? When in doubt, contact the special education office in your district. Administrators can be very busy, so when possible work with the office manager or director’s assistant to understand the appropriate process.

An Itinerary
An itinerary provides an order to things and helps us to prioritize steps along our journey, ensuring that we experience the best possible outcome. If we want to tour the Eiffel Tower, then we need to plan our trip so that we arrive in Paris in time for a tour.

If a teacher waits until an IEP meeting to discuss concerns about a student’s behavior and the need for additional support, the decision-maker may not even be in the room. If this person is in the room, they may feel caught and ill-prepared to respond. It is important to consider what conversations and preparation needs to occur before making a request. Scheduling a meeting or a phone conference can be especially effective in promoting a space for active listening.

A Map
A map provides a common language. There is always more than one road to the destination and a rationale for which road to take. If we get to France and are without a tour guide, the map is our tool to finding our way.

In special education, data is our map. Clear data is a common, objective language that provides information about what has occurred to date. Data defines our current location. It is a tool for determining a common destination and gives us information to guide our next steps.

When we’re lost and confused by what seems to be endless dead ends in the system of special education, we must return to our map. We must be willing to ask for help and be open to more than one way of reaching our destination.

“Us versus Them” in Special Education (Part 2): When We Choose Hopelessness

It’s been a while since I worked as a Special Education administrator. Working now as a Special Education Consultant, I have an opportunity to be that mostly objective third party, that in-between perspective. Even so, I can’t escape the reality of “us versus them.” I see it and hear it in the frustrations of teachers, administrators, and parents who are struggling to support the needs of kids with special needs. After all, it’s all about the kids, right?

It’s easy to feel trapped in our different worlds. We may feel secure in our world with the comfort of what we know. Yet, all that we need to support kids with special needs cannot be found within one world. At some point we must venture into the world of another and asking for what we need requires courage and a willingness to push past the barriers.

The journey starts with a acknowledging the emotions that may be holding you back. A teacher may choose not to speak up and advocate for the needs of a student because of a fear that doing so may result in a loss of status or even a loss of his job. A parent may worry that pushing for accountability from her child’s IEP team may put her in the category of “the squeaky wheel.” An administrator may choose to be less available because he fears that he won’t be able to respond to what is needed in the way that it’s needed. Despite your situation, anxiety and fear only lead to hopelessness.

Hopelessness may lead to inaction and a choice not to speak up for what’s needed. For others, hopelessness leads to acceptance….trudging along because that’s just the way it is. Then there are those who seek solace within their group by grumbling, complaining, or blaming another group.

When we choose hopelessness, our world only gets smaller. We miss out on possibility and we lack the creativity and perspective that it takes to move forward. If you’re willing to venture out your door, you may be surprised that what you are looking for was there all along.