My son has had pretty good teachers so far, but I’ve heard of great teachers who make parents of special needs children swoon. One is an elementary classroom teacher who began the first parent-teacher meeting with, “I just read your child’s entire file.” That’s not called getting off on the right foot. It’s getting off on the best foot possible.
As a former licensed teacher and mom of two school-aged children, I find that good teachers don’t deny or sugar coat issues; instead, they are proactive by anticipating problems and dealing with them. Like the ripple-effect theory, an effective teacher addresses and manages an issue before it grows. But instead of waiting for the first ripple to appear and then using classroom management skills to redirect the student and classmates, there are effective ways to begin classroom management from the beginning. Similarly, some teachers are willing to go beneath the water’s surface to see if a special needs child has kept his head above above water (aka on grade level); is doing the doggie paddle to stay afloat; or drowning – academically and socially.
That same teacher will have high expectation and teach him how to swim. It doesn’t mean that he has to learn the breast stroke correctly (some may never put their head in the water, thus the need for special education accommodations and modifications), but we as parents want to see measurable progress. And sometimes that progress begins with having a teacher who takes the time to better understand the diagnosis – digest huge files of test scores, evaluations and school to parent communications; attend a special needs-related conference; or ask for a recommended book from a parent. If I had such an parent-teacher experience, I might fall in love on the spot.
Here’s some exciting suggestions from Thomas Armstrong, a former special education teacher in both the US and Canada, who offers ways to “activate the strengths” of special needs students in Education Week’s “7 Ways to Bring Out the Best in Special-Needs Students”:
1. Discover your students’ strengths
Armstrong suggests ways to do this that would make any special needs parent excited: from talking with previous teachers, discussing strengths and abilities and focusing on the highest testing scores and positive teachers comments. This is why, in my opinion, when teachers tell me that my child is love of her life or write on a report card that he is a pleasure to have in class, it doesn’t make me happy. I need more. My child is above his years in oral retrieval and can repeat things that he has heard, even when looking 100 percent disengaged, and if a teacher knew how to tape into this strength, I would cartwheel. And if a teacher does this, I want to know. The author also recommends doing a strength-based inventory – and has one in his book, Neurodiversity in the Classroom: Strength-Based Strategies to Help Students with Special Needs Succeed in School and Life.
2. Provide positive role models with disabilities
Suggests creating a curriculum unit for both neurotypical (NT) and special needs students, entitled “People with Disabilities who Changed the World,” including Carol Grieder, Steven Speliberg and Temple Grandin. Heck, I’d even do the research for my son’s teacher, and she could teach this as she finds appropriate. This is way to show special needs students that despite their challenges, they can be successful in life.
3. Develop strength-based learning strategies
Teachers can do this by combining strengths with a deficit and uses examples such as:
Strength + Deficit = strength-based learning strategies
Drawing + Reading = illustrating vocabulary words
Knitting + Place value in math = knit rows of ten
4. Use assistive technologies
Apps such as speech-to-text programs can help students who speak well yet struggle with writing skills.
5. Maximize the power of your students’’ social networks
Goes as far as suggesting teachers “create a graphic representation of a student’s peer network, identifying both strong and weak relationships,” and use peer teaching, cross age tutoring or another social-learning approach. Over and beyond? I’d gladly settle for a budding relationship to be paired up for class partner activities.
6. Help students envision positive future careers
By recognizing a particular strength, let’s say art, help students see where they can use a talent or skill in a career, like graphic design. This is something that I do at home, but if a teacher can also do this, results can be far-reaching. Recommendations can be used as early as age 15, when IEP transitions (from school to “real life”) begin. Parents are always looking for this information and would love to have a teacher’s insight early on.
7. Create positive modifications in the learning environment
Suggests a child with Down’s Syndrome “who loves to humorously mimic others, build a simple puppet theater where he can act out math word problems in front of the class and get positive feedback.” The point is creating a positive contribution to the class while increasing learning opportunities.
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