Leading By Example

Leading By Example

Problem solving is such an important life skill. IEP teams are no stranger to problems… so what are we doing to model collaboration and problem solving for students? How are we involving students in the problems that we are trying to resolve?

“Every opportunity to problem-solve provides students with a chance to practice the important skills required to solve real-life every day problems.”

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….

“Us versus Them” in Special Education (Part 1): A Story of a Teacher Who Became an Administrator

I’m not sure why I’m struggling so much to get started on this one. I know I have plenty to say about the topic of “us versus them.” Maybe it’s a concern that I might offend someone or inadvertently reinforce the divide between administrators and teachers. Maybe it’s that I only have my experience, and thus only one perspective.

Well, here goes….

When I had the opportunity to move from a special education teaching position to a leadership role in a therapeutic day school, I was filled with hope for all that I might be able to change. I was driven by the frustrations and the disappointments that had been my prior experience of special education. As a teacher I often felt powerless and ill-equipped for all that the job asked of me. I did my best to seek support and to advocate for the needs of my students and staff, but I was left feeling hungry for a better way.

Entering the world of administration was not at all what I had envisioned. I came face to face with new challenges and a greater understanding of the broken education system. As a teacher my world was the classroom. Now as an administrator, my world was a school. The very problems that I faced as a teacher were magnified, and I was charged with finding the solutions.

First on my agenda: making space for teachers to feel heard. I had an open door policy and encouraged the staff to express their concerns directly. In the beginning, staff readily accepted the invitation. Perhaps, knowing about my experience in the classroom leveled the playing field.

I was somewhere between “us” and “them.”

Then, somewhere along the way, something changed. Fewer and fewer staff came to my door. I began to hear secondhand, third hand, fourth hand grumblings.

I became “them.”

How things shifted, I’m not certain. I just know that it felt terribly different. In a position of “power,” I now felt powerless to change the status quo.

Yet, I fought to regain that in-between status. I strived to be available and accessible to my staff. A few voices emerged from the grumbling, serving as advocates on behalf of the “us” group. At that point, I knew I would never regain my prior status.

I was “them.”

This “us versus them” mentality is a reality of human nature. We find our sense of belonging through shared groups, beliefs, and experiences. It is natural to cooperate more with your own group and to distrust or to oppose groups that are not your own.

I may be a dreamer, but I want something different. I want that place between the “us” and the “them.” I think we can all agree that the system is broken and that we want something different.

So, how can “we” solve this?

A Successful, Collaborative Behavior Intervention Plan

“Behavior is communication” has become a common phrase among special educators, and it’s a good place to start. If behavior is communication, then there is something that the child is trying to tell us. We have to pay attention and examine all of the variables in order to know how to properly support what is needed and to teach that missing skill. Behaviors get our attention, especially when they are of the disruptive or maladaptive variety. And when there are behaviors, they show up across environments. Whenever there is more than one setting, there will be multiple perspectives and insights into what is causing the behavior leading to a range of varied strategies for how to best respond.

Functional behavioral assessments and behavior intervention plans are intended to create a common understanding of the function of the behavior and alignment around the strategies to be used to support the student in gaining new skills and ultimately reducing the frequency or intensity of the behavior. While the variables within each environment may differ, these plans can be a powerful tool that can be utilized in the school, the home, and the community. Yet, these plans can also become a source of tension and confusion for team members. In some cases, the plans get created only to be filed away until the next one is due for review. What is written in the plan can also be up for interpretation and implementation may differ between teachers, caregivers, and other providers.

While working as an administrator at a therapeutic day school, I often served as a liaison between the school team, the parents, and other team members. When there was a concern or disagreement about the approach to a student’s behavior, I often became the mediator. I worked to ensure that everyone’s concern was on the table so that we could work toward common ground. 

One of my greatest challenges involved a young lady with a complex set of educational, medical, and behavioral needs. She had seizures and allergies, both requiring medication protocols. Every aspect of her care required support from an adult for every moment of every day. She had significant communication delays, both expressive and receptive. Even with access to an augmentative communication device, the team struggled to understand her communication. Interpreting her behaviors was a large part of this process. Was she hungry? Was she not feeling well?  Was she bored? It was a guessing game, and everyone had their own interpretation. As you can imagine, the confusion within the team, only led to more frustration for the student. The situation was reaching crisis-level, as the student was showing more and more aggression and self-injurious behaviors.

This student’s extensive team included her parents, a special education teacher, paraprofessional, school psychologist, the school behavior specialist, speech language pathologist, occupational therapist, consulting nurse, a private speech language pathologist, a private behavior specialist, in-home behavior therapist, and psychiatrist. Each team member brought unique expertise and worked with the student in different settings. In the beginning, the team was divided by the differences in each team member’s preferred approach. Some were pushing for applied behavior analysis, while others wanted a collaborative problem solving approach. To the proponents of each, these two approaches were in conflict. So it was a fight to settle on one approach.

In an effort to understand each setting, the school team reviewed videos of the in-home therapy, and the private behavior therapist and speech language pathologist observed in the school setting. The full team reached the conclusion that more information was needed to reach alignment in the plan and approach. Without more information the priorities would remain unclear and implementation of the plan would be hindered. So, in collaboration the private behavior therapist and school behavior therapist refined the data collection tool so that it could be used across settings. This tool improved consistency in what was being measured and reported, promoting communication between providers. The team now had what they needed to complete a thorough functional behavioral assessment and to revise the student’s behavior plan. Through this process each team member became clearer of their role in the implementation of the behavior plan. The data collection tool continued to serve as a mechanism for communication, helping the team know when a review of the plan was needed.

Perhaps the greatest outcome of this scenario was the commitment to communication within the team. While the student’s behavior continued to have ups and downs, the team had a clear plan for how to respond. Updates of the student’s data were sent to every team member on a weekly basis, which also facilitated conversations about challenges, insights, and next steps. Every team member had something to contribute, and there was a clear place and process for sharing these contributions.

A successful and collaborative behavior intervention plan requires consistent communication within the team.  If the team disagrees, “behavior is communication” will only get you so far.  

In spite of “what wasn’t supposed to happen…”

It was the first week of the new school year at a new school with a new set of students and staff. Ms. Sarah, an instructional assistant, and I were responsible for a diverse group of 4th-6th grade boys. Despite their differences, these boys shared similar school experiences of repeated frustration and failure and had all landed at this therapeutic day school as a last resort. First on my agenda: creating a safe space where belonging was possible for every student. I had no idea how great of a challenge that would turn out to be.

I was newbie on the block, but Ms. Sarah was a long-time, respected member of the school community. She was a petite gal, filled with creativity and enthusiasm for teaching and a heart for exceptional kids. Because the students showed an interest in soccer, I let her take the lead in planning a soccer unit for PE. We thought this might be a great way to build community while also providing opportunities to develop social skills.

Day 1 of the soccer unit did not go as planned. Upon arriving at the soccer field, Ms. Sarah had the class line up along the fence and began to provide instructions for the activity. Suddenly and seemingly out of nowhere, Timmy had placed Ms. Sarah in a chokehold. Timmy was at least twice Sarah’s size and it took me and the assistance of another staff member to pull Timmy away. Meanwhile, the rest of the class was in complete chaos: responding with fear and confusion, screaming, and running for cover. The day ended in tears for nearly all who were involved. Did I mention that Day 1 did not go as planned?

I just wanted to crawl into a deep, dark hole. This was not supposed to happen.  But there were parents to call and some sort of plan had to be created to ensure safety that next day. Calling Timmy’s mom was the last thing I wanted to do. No parent could ever want to hear that kind of news, but I knew I couldn’t sugarcoat what happened either. She apologized for Timmy’s behavior and said that she would contact his doctor. She wanted to know if anyone had been hurt, all the while apologizing profusely. This wasn’t her fault. Sadly, I knew it wasn’t the first time she’d received this kind of call. I also knew that she’d experienced firsthand the very behaviors we were discussing. Deep down, I felt like I had failed as her son’s teacher. This wasn’t supposed to happen at school. Still without a clear plan for the next day, I told her I would call back later. Meanwhile, Ms. Sarah was off to the emergency room….

I made more calls to every parent, relaying what had happened, how we responded to their child’s need in the moment, and what their child might need to continue to process what had happened. Nearly every parent wanted to know who it was and why it happened. I was careful to keep confidentiality, but I knew that parents would soon discover who it was as their children began to talk about their experience. Sam’s mom was especially concerned because Sam was already so anxious about school. She said that he would likely need some separation from the student for a while. I assured each parent that I would call back later when I had more information about a plan for the next day. Ugh- more guilt. This wasn’t how I had planned to build relationships with parents.

Although Timmy’s behavior that day was intense and scary, I knew it was not what he intended and that he was just as anxious (if not more) than the rest of us. Now what? How could I provide a safe environment for my students and staff while also caring for Timmy’s needs?

I sought out my supervisor sure that she would have the answer I needed. I relayed what happened and the concern about having Timmy in the classroom the next day. She said we didn’t have a lot of options and that we needed to inform Timmy’s school district before making any major changes to his program. The temporary plan, at least for the next day, was for Timmy to participate in his program in the hallway with the school behavior specialist. My supervisor agreed to contact the school district representative to provide an update and to inform her that a change to the IEP was likely needed. I returned calls to parents letting them know the plan for the next day. Timmy’s mom was supportive and said that she would talk to Timmy about the plan so he would know what to expect. This mom’s response was so amazing. I couldn’t believe how supportive and understanding she was of the whole situation.

The next day was rough…. Ms. Sarah stayed home to recover, so I had a substitute. All of the students wanted to know where she was and why she was gone. Sam asked if she had died. Danny kept drawing pictures of war scenes and made motions like he was shooting a gun toward the hallway where Timmy was. Everyone was anxious. I did my best to maintain structure and normalcy in the classroom, but needless to say, there wasn’t a whole lot of academic instruction going on that day. That wasn’t what the students needed. They needed time to process. Timmy was thankful to have some space away from his peers.

My supervisor relayed her conversation with the school district representative. There would be an IEP meeting at the end of the week. Timmy’s placement would be discussed at the meeting because the district representative wasn’t sure that Timmy’s needs were being adequately met. I was tasked with synthesizing all of the data and contacting the parents about the meeting. So in the midst of trying to repair what was my left of my classroom community, I was to prepare for a fight with the district. I knew that Timmy’s parents spent over a year advocating for his placement and that their relationship with the district was a sensitive one. In the midst of all of the current challenges, I couldn’t even fathom their dread going into this meeting.

The IEP meeting day went better than expected. Timmy’s parents were able to arrange for his doctor to participate in the meeting. It was helpful to have the medical perspective around what was happening and more information about the treatment plan. I reviewed the behavioral data and updated the team on the interventions that had been attempted. The team came to the consensus that Timmy needed a 1:1 aide to support his participation in his program. The plan was for him to continue to work 1:1 in a separate space with a plan to increase his time with peers as his regulation improved.

Of course the story doesn’t end there. Despite the complexity of this situation and all of the perspectives involved, collaboration was possible. I’m glad I didn’t crawl into that deep, dark hole because I would have missed the start of a beautiful community.