Back to School month is upon us–yea! I love this month even though I’m not in school anymore. To paraphrase Joe Fox of You’ve Got Mail, it makes me want to buy bouquets of sharpened pencils. Even in the lingering summer heat, August makes me want to grab a cardigan and curl up in a coffee shop with a bestseller and cup of salted caramel cocoa.
Even though I had to take cerebral palsy to school with me, I always looked forward to going back. One of my favorite parts of the summer was getting my schedule, even though it was a bit of a nerve-wracking game of Academic Roulette. Would I get the dreaded math course over with first semester or have to wait until spring? Could I stay in Concert Choir another semester or would I have to drop it in favor of a required course only being offered during one period? Could I eat my lunch at a decent hour or would my stomach end up gnawing on my spinal cord?
I’m guessing other students with disabilities had these questions too, but maybe they also had different ones–questions that no student of any age should have to ask. Questions like:
-How much of my school year will be spent on “behavioral skills?” How long will I have before someone calls normal self-expression a “behavior” and puts it on some plan as something to eliminate?
-How much time will I be able to spend with my friends, with and without disabilities? Will the presence of my aide, scribe, or whoever keep me from having friendships?
-What will I learn this year? Will there be anything new or the same old “life skills” from last year? When will I be ready to move on? It’s so hard to keep hearing “not ready.”
-Will there be classes and activities I enjoy? which ones might trip me up?
We’re going to deal with all of these questions in some form this month, I hope. But for right now, let’s focus on the last one. I believe PWDs need and deserve the opportunities to be in classes and work schedules they enjoy, doing things they choose to some extent. Now, if that person truly needs to be in a “special education” class, that’s fine, but too often, I think “special” classes and “life skills” take away from true education, friendships, and the pleasure that can be derived from school.
No matter what a student’s age, he or she will be expected to follow a schedule at school (and work too, but we’ll focus on school for now). The question is, how should that schedule be handled? For example, should an elementary student with an intellectual disability be required to do simple addition at math time, even though he or she is in fourth grade? Are there better choices? Should a middle school student with dyslexia be discouraged from full participation in a regular English classroom, with modifications and supports? Is it safe to allow a blind high school student choose theater or the dance team as an elective? Should a high school student with ADHD spend a set block of time each day in a separate room with a counselor, going over behavioral skills?
You probably guessed that within this grouping, there were four “no’s” and two “yeses.” Yes, there are better choices for that math student, and yes, it can be safe for blind students to participate in movement-based electives. But let’s break this down a bit, shall we? Here are some key scheduling tips, both for students with disabilities and the people–parents, teachers, and so on–who help them plan a new school year.
Speak to chronological age first. Let’s go back to that fourth grade math student who is intellectually on a first grade level. It’s okay if she–we’ll call her Esther–stays on a first-grade level in some respects. For example, Esther should not be pushed to do fourth-grade problems or shamed for not doing them. However, she’d probably get a lot more enrichment playing a math-based computer game, or doing a modified math activity with a peer, than working on a low-level worksheet or sitting by herself fiddling with manipulatives (blocks, counters, geo-boards, etc.) Also, Esther should not stay on the same level all year if improvement is possible. Her teacher, the special ed department, her parents, and others should work with her to improve the skills she has and capitalize on strengths so that maybe next year, she’s at a second grade level or even third or fourth.
Think outside the box. Most schools have traditional modifications and supports. For example, books on tape might be a modification for students with dyslexia, and it’s a great idea. But mods are not a one-size-fits-all proposition. For example, my math teachers sometimes thought all I needed to “improve” my depth perception issues was for the text to be bigger. Yeah, that helped some, but not always. Recall that mods will not “cure” the disability, and don’t give up if one doesn’t seem to be working. For instance, maybe that student with dyslexia–we’ll call him Jamal–would rather read with peers in reading group than be plugged into headphones. Friends can help coach him, or he can read what he can in a passage and then ask someone else to take over. Oral book reports with illustrations, computer-based learning, and interdisciplinary projects are good ideas, too.
Don’t leave TAB students out. Many times, a teacher will say something like, “Gwen can’t participate well in dance because she’s blind. If we let her participate, we’d have to have everybody wear bells or beepers, and it’s inconvenient.” Or the teacher will allow Gwen to participate in “safe” activities only, with a buddy sticking to her like taffy to a tooth. Both approaches are flawed. If having everyone wear bells or beepers is so inconvenient (and I doubt it is) are there other choices? For example, could a play’s character be blind and use a cane or guide dog without it being a big deal? Can other characters use line cues or song cues to help Gwen know where to go? Of course–or they can wear unobtrusive noisemakers when necessary. White characters play characters of other races onstage, yes? Straight plays gay and gay plays straight, yes? TAB actors play characters with disabilities all the time, for crying in a bucket. Unless the integrity and entire purpose of your class or program is being destroyed, I see no problem. As for the buddy thing, we’ve talked about it. Buddies have their place–and it’s not joined to the PWD at the hip. The buddy system, when used correctly, often leads to real friendships.
Balance “life” and “behavior” skills with educational skills. Very often, students malign special education, saying it’s “not real school.” Most of us get mad about that, but really, why shouldn’t TAB students think that what their peers with disabilities do all day is “not real school?” Sometimes, it’s because the TAB students don’t understand how vital life skills are and the effort it takes to learn them. But other times, this attitude comes from the fact that students see peers with disabilities being nagged and scolded about how to behave or do a task that is simple to them, and they think, “Thank goodness that’s not me.”
We can end this stigma, people. How? Well, in an ideal world, I’d say drop the life skills and screw the behavior plans. Yeah, that’s right I said it, screw ’em. Just because a kid has ADHD doesn’t mean he’s gonna grow up to be a serial killer if you don’t write a preventative plan. But we don’t live in an ideal world. Life skills classes are often needed–many PWDs enjoy parts of them. Behavior plans? Meh…I have strong negative feelings about them but will concede they may help some students. I think the problem is how much emphasis we place on these things. So, some sub-tips on this issue:
Go for inclusion when and where possible. If Corbin, who has Down Syndrome, is assigned to learn to cook, maybe the whole class can do it with him.
Recognize where “behaviors” come from. If Wynter always seems hyperactive and upset before science class, maybe it’s because she’s nervous about doing experiments, or just so excited it’s hard to contain herself. Resist scolding and disciplining. Give the kind of grace you’d want people to give you if you were Wynter.
Praise the good stuff–early, often, and with real enthusiasm. Avoid canned praise–I don’t care if their IQs are 50, kids know when you’re being a big fat phony. “Catch them doing good”–and then say something. Give meaningful rewards–for example, extended time doing something of special interest for a student with autism. (Note: Do NOT withhold special interests or favorite things as punishment; it will backfire).
Focus on the life skills the students want to learn. If Alex is eager to learn to fix a car, is it terribly important that he learn to put his things away neatly right now? Ask yourself: which skill (s) are likely to get this student a job? Which skills are likely to result in happiness and fulfillment? Those are where you focus. After all, the world has plenty of messy auto mechanics.
When students are old enough and schedules have choices, give them as much say as possible. Self-explanatory. I don’t care if it’s “not in the IEP, not in the behavior plan, hard to modify.” Just do it. If you don’t know how, seek help to find a way. Note: if something a student would like to do would really be unsafe–i.e., a student whose CP causes tremors wanting to be in a gymnastics course–you can step in and say no. But at the same time, give an attractive alternative. For instance, if gymnastics won’t work, aerobics might. If foreign languages aren’t feasible because a student has dyslexia or an intellectual disability, choir might be a possibility.
Good luck with scheduling, folks–and remember, PWDs can learn anything the rest of us can. The key is helping them learn it.