Meet a Teacher: Insights From a Pre-K Special Education Teacher

Are you passionate about a career working with exceptional children? Educational requirements for special education jobs typically include a bachelor’s degree and a state-issued certification or master’s in special education. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median salary of a special education teacher in 2016 was $57,910. Academic and monetary aspects aside, how do you know if you’re cut out for this type of work? One of the best ways to gain insights is asking someone who already works in the profession. 

We recently spoke with Lois Shell, a pre-K special education teacher from Hillsborough County Public Schools in Tampa, Florida. Lois has worked with elementary-age students with special needs for more than 16 years, focusing on the pre-K population for the past 12 years.

What inspired you to go into special education?

I babysat for a two-year-old girl with cerebral palsy. She was my little inspiration for teaching special-needs kids. I also volunteered at a hospital when I was younger, which developed my interest in medical issues related to special-needs children as well.

What steps did you take to attain the position you have today? 

I received my degree in special education with a concentration in early childhood from the University of South Florida. While working on my undergraduate degree I worked at a preschool to get toddler and early childhood experience. I also did internships and had practicum experience where I assisted a teacher in a classroom. I completed my graduate degree through an online learning program. I was working full-time so I took one class per semester. Eleven classes later, I had a master’s degree! 

What does a typical day in your classroom look like? 

In my class I have a paraprofessional and a “unique needs assistant” who helps students with physical disabilities. After the kids arrive we have breakfast together and work on feeding skills. Back in the classroom we do a greeting and circle time. Then we move into center time, small groups and table time, working with students one on one if needed. Later we play outside, have story time, lunch time, music and movement, and rest time. Math, science and social studies are covered within circle time and small groups. Table time is where we do manipulative activities – handwriting if they’re ready for it and pre-handwriting skills if they’re not.

Describe the specific skills a special-needs teacher should have?

Patience. Patience. Patience! You also need to be able to think quickly on your feet. Every child, whether they have special needs or not, is different. You need to be ready to adapt, modify and think outside the box to accommodate each’s child’s specific needs. For example, I had a little girl who would always throw her spoon. The occupational therapist came up with the idea to put a cotton glove on her hand with Velcro that attached to her spoon handle. The next time she tried to throw her spoon it didn’t move, and her reaction was priceless!

What are your biggest challenges? 

Meeting all the students’ varying needs. They are all on different levels with different challenges. To handle them all, first and foremost, you need to love and have a passion for the child. No matter what the disability is, you embrace it and move forward without feeling sorry or having a pity party for them. My goal is to keep them safe, care about them and provide them with the best education I can.

What are the most rewarding parts of your job?

Seeing the children’s reactions to their successes and the smiles I’m able to put on their faces. I’ve always loved all the kids. I still keep in contact with one of my former students who is now 31 years old!

Do you have any tips or advice for anyone considering becoming a special education teacher?

Get as much hands-on exposure as you can with the special-needs population. Volunteer with organizations like the Special Olympics. Another valuable thing you can do is to talk with the parents of a child with special needs. They are one of the best sources of information.

Lois got her master’s degree online, on her own time, and you can too! Learn more about some of our favorite online degree programs for advanced degrees in special education.

Dealing with Challenging Behaviors

I Wasn’t Trained For This

Each year, countless adults decide that they want to make a difference in the lives of children and young adults by becoming a teacher. They enter the field with idealistic thoughts of how their first year will be, but then reality strikes as they teach their first class and realize that some students exhibit challenging behaviors that impact the teacher as well as other students. Unless you are a behavior specialist or a special education teacher, many young teachers may feel unprepared to deal with varying types of behavior that occur in the classroom on a daily basis.

Challenging Behaviors Aren’t Created Equal

Challenging behaviors can be either disruptive, unsafe, or extremely dangerous. Disruptive behaviors can interfere with learning but may not be directly harmful like swearing, teasing, and breaking things. Most unsafe behaviors are potentially harmful but won’t need a hospital visit. These behaviors can range from scratching and biting to leaving school property without asking. Extremely dangerous or potentially lethal behaviors have a high likelihood of causing serious harm like bringing weapons to school. Law enforcement should always be involved in documenting these behaviors. Luckily for educators, most challenging behaviors fall into the disruptive category.

Addressing Challenging Behaviors with Reinforcement

The book, “Conscious Classroom Management” by Rick Smith provides a variety of wonderful strategies to address misbehavior in the classroom ranging from teaching classroom procedures to implementing rules and consequences. The best way to combat challenging behavior is by utilizing a healthy dose of positive reinforcement in your classroom. Reinforcement can be verbal praise, an edible reward, or time with friends or the teacher. Regardless of the reinforcement that you use, every child deserves to be encouraged as we try to help them change their behavior. Some important things that we need to remember about reinforcing students is that teachers should reinforce students right after or during the behavior they want to increase. If the reinforcement is delayed, then it won’t be as effective. Reinforcement should always be genuine and enthusiastic while stating specifically to the person what they did right. There is not one type of reinforcement that all students find motivating, so find out what each student is interested in and wants to earn. Reinforcement should be varied and teachers should avoid doing the same thing. Finally, layering the reinforcement system so that rewards can be earned daily, weekly, and monthly is an essential key to an effective reinforcement system.

Addressing Challenging Behaviors with Trackers or Contracts

Often as part of a reinforcement plan, teachers may contract with students to decrease the frequency of challenging behaviors. When setting up a contract with a student, the child must understand what expected behavior they are aiming for, how frequently they must demonstrate the appropriate behavior, and for how long. The great thing about contracts is that students can track their progress over time. Expectations can gradually be raised over time as students improve their behavior.

Handling Challenging Behaviors Professionally

Teachers all have stress and frustration in our private lives, so when a student misbehaves in class it only complicates a potentially stressful situation. When a child exhibits a challenging behavior, handling it professionally might be easier said then done. Some students in our classrooms might do things that even very calm people find irritating, insulting, provoking, or even intimidating. Despite these challenges, teachers must always interact with students professionally and respectfully. A common pitfall that teachers can fall into is withholding reinforcement from students when they have earned it. This occurs when the classroom teacher becomes so satiated with the negative behavior that they believe that the student does not deserve reinforcement. However, if teachers can stick to the contract, they’ll see improvement in the long run.

Practical Considerations

One thing that teachers don’t typically think about is that the behavior may get worse before it gets better. This is referred to as a behavior extinction burst. To limit this effect, teachers should make sure that reinforcement is given frequently. As a general rule of thumb, reinforcement should be happening more often than the challenging behavior. Teachers should attempt to withhold any attention given to the behavior without ignoring the student. When the student shows a decrease in the frequency of a negative behavior or when they are able to choose a positive replacement behavior to do instead, the teacher should be waiting and ready to provide reinforcement.

Conclusion: Attitude + Reinforcement = Success

Students in today’s classrooms come from all walks of life. Teachers may not be able to control which students are placed in their classrooms or the behaviors that they exhibit, but they can control their attitude towards their students and how they react to these inevitable “behavior hiccups” that occur when educating children. When teachers react professionally and strategically provide reinforcement to their students, they will be ready to handle the variety of behaviors that are thrown their way.

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5 Ways to Support Teacher Professional Learning

Learn, Learn, Learn

Part of being a professional is staying up-to-date on a research based practices. This is true for any profession, especially educators. As a school administrator, I try to provide as many professional learning opportunities for my staff as possible. By providing them many different avenues to access professional learning, I increase the likelihood that I can provide a type of professional learning that works best for the individual. Here are my top five go-to-resources to support teacher professional learning.

1. Buy Them Books
This may seem like hey no-brainer, but I will often buy my staff books to stimulate professional learning. Frequently I have conversations with staff and I recommend books for them to read to increase their understanding about various topics. Instead of lending my own books, I offer to purchase them their own book on the topic that they would like to learn about. This sends a message that I support their own professional learning and that I value it. I have found that many of my teachers are avid readers and prefer the ability to go through a text at their own pace to digest their professional learning.

2. Give Up Faculty Meetings
The second thing I do to stimulate professional learning among my staff is I refrain from conducting unnecessary faculty meetings. Instead, I still hold the meeting but allow my staff to choose an activity rooted in professional learning. This can be anything from assessment Google classroom to project-based learning. They no longer complain about coming into work early, because the meeting agenda is there’s to set. Giving staff that little bit of control does wonders to support their professional learning.

3. Visit Schools
Teachers love to steal ideas from other good teachers, so allowing my own staff to visit other public and private schools is something that my school staff enjoys. To start, I reach out to my own contacts at other schools or I will allow my teachers to use their own connections to determine which schools we will visit. Often the schools we visit will be using a particular program or curriculum that our teachers want to see in action. These visits will occur two or three times each year. After the visit a debriefing session is held with school administrators to determine what was learned and how this new knowledge will impact our own school. I have found that this activity is extremely beneficial for new teachers and for older teachers who may be stuck in a rut of doing things in only one way.

4. Conduct Surveys
Survey data is a great way to stimulate professional learning among your staff, especially if a weak area is identified. In our school district, surveys are required every year, however they do not provide good data because they’re not open-ended. I encourage my staff to provide informal open-ended surveys each year so that students and parents can contribute ideas that will make them better educators. These surveys serve as a catalyst for identifying areas that my staff can focus professional learning on.

5. Video Record Classroom Practices
The last way I stimulate professional learning with my staff is through video recording their classroom practices. We set a date and time for the video recording and then as a team, we sit down and analyze the video together. We identify strengths and weaknesses and then determine actionable goals that we can create to improve performance. This is a great professional learning tool for advanced teachers who are looking to take their instruction to the next level.

Supporting a Growth Mindset

No matter what method you use to stimulate professional learning with your staff, the most important thing is to stimulate a growth mindset that emphasizes the importance of being a continuous learner. No matter how experienced a staff member is, research continues to be conducted and new teaching strategies continue to be implemented. To keep your staff on the the cutting edge, provide a variety of professional learning activities that can meet the needs of everyone, no matter their learning style or preference.

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Meet a Teacher: Working With Students With Emotional and Behavioral Disorders

According to the National Institute of Mental Health, emotional and behavioral disorders affect 10–15 percent of children globally. Disorders include attention-deficit hyperactivity (ADHD), autism, bipolar, anxiety and oppositional-defiant. Children experiencing behavioral disorders (BD) and emotional disorders (ED) often struggle with maintaining healthy interpersonal relationships and learning in a mainstream classroom setting. Special education jobs that include working with BD/ED students present unique challenges.

We interviewed Katrina Wojtasinski, M.S. Ed, a certified special education case manager at Falmouth High School in Falmouth, Massachusetts, to learn what it’s like to teach students experiencing emotional and behavioral disorders.

What inspired you to pursue a degree in special education?

As an adolescent I struggled with learning in a traditional setting, and a high school teacher told me I wasn’t “college material.” I was self-aware enough to know this wasn’t the truth and advocated to school administration to receive the support I needed. In college I was diagnosed with a learning disorder and developed the skills necessary to succeed in the classroom and beyond. My experiences helped me realize how important special education is for those with disabilities and those who don’t learn best in a traditional classroom. 

What steps did you take to attain the position you have today?

I started as a special education paraprofessional. I’m grateful my career began this way because I learned a lot about the field before deciding to further my education. I earned my bachelor’s degree from the University of Massachusetts Boston and my Master’s of Science in Special Education from Saint Joseph’s University. I chose Saint Joseph’s University because it was one of the few U.S. colleges offering a science-based degree in the field.

I obtained certifications in special education, safety care, crisis prevention institute (CPI) and CPR/AED/First Aid.

What is a typical day in your classroom like?

I’m not sure there’s ever a “typical” day in special education but I have daily routines that help students build their organizational, social and writing skills. I work with students in a resource room for specialized instruction and in an inclusion classroom alongside typically developing students. In my resource classroom I provide children with a visual overview of the day, divided into directed instruction, mini-lessons and one-to-one or group work.

What skills are necessary for a teacher working with BD/ED students?

Patience! Although there’s tremendous gratification that comes with the field there are many, many days that bring challenges that test patience. Strong communication is also key as you’ll collaborate with various personnel involved in supporting students’ learning needs. Versatility and adaptability are also important because the environment and demands are always changing. 

What are some specific techniques educators use when working with BD/ED children?

I’ve had success with “extinction,” which is ignoring or redirecting attention-seeking behaviors. Applied behavior analysis (ABA), functional behavioral assessments (FBA) and the behavior intervention plans (BIP) are among several methods for parents, teachers and school professionals to collaborate on identifying, minimizing and replacing negative behaviors.

What are your biggest challenges?

I would say the challenges are more at the legislative level. Special-needs students are on individualized educational plans (IEPs) to best facilitate student learning. Lately they’ve become a source of contention, with court cases increasing constraints on them. 

What are the most rewarding parts of your job?

The kids, 100 percent. Everything I do is for the kids. 

Is there anything that surprised you about working with BD/ED students?

How humbling they are. I had a student who was totally self-aware of his behaviors but had a difficult time controlling them. He eventually reached a point where he could seek out a trusted adult for comfort, often crying because he realized he was having a tough day yet couldn’t control his response.

Do you have advice for anyone interested in teaching students with emotional/behavior issues?

Volunteer, network or obtain a position within the field. Most importantly, reflect on why you want to pursue the field. It sounds heroic to tell people “I’m a special education teacher,” or a “behavior specialist,” but at the end of the day the people who excel are the ones who put their heart into everything they contribute.

Katrina chose Saint Joseph’s University for her master’s degree, and through the university’s online degree program you can too! Find out more about other favorite online master’s degree programs.

Inclusion Strategies for Special Education Teachers

Inclusion programs are a hot topic in special education these days. These programs allow students with special needs to learn in classrooms alongside mainstream students. Research from the National Association of Special Education Teachers (NASET) reports that inclusive programming helps students with disabilities become more successful both socially and academically. 

According to the National Center for Education Statistics, more than 6.5 million students receive special education services, about 13 percent of total enrollment. Students receiving those services have learning, developmental and/or physical disabilities such as autism spectrum disorder, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), cerebral palsy and Down syndrome.

Training Holds the Key

A special education teacher who receives specialized training is better prepared to meet the needs of exceptional students within an inclusion classroom. Many collegiate institutions offer certification programs, bachelor’s and master’s degrees for special education jobs. These programs, such as the one at Perdue University, provide instruction on the most innovative techniques to effectively overcome different learning challenges. 

Teachers may choose specific areas of concentration such as: learning how to best accommodate children on the autism spectrum; effective ways to work with students who have visual and hearing impairments (which is among the specializations taught at Saint Joseph’s University); or how to alter teaching methods to instruct culturally and linguistically diverse learners within an inclusive setting (taught at George Washington University, for example).

Programs for special education teachers also demonstrate how to develop individualized education programs (IEP) for exceptional students. The IEP contains goals for a student, customized to the student’s individual needs and abilities. In addition, special education teachers working in inclusive classrooms assist students in the area of emotional development, helping them learn to feel comfortable in a variety of social situations.

7 Top Tips for Inclusion Classroom Success

Classrooms in which students of all abilities work side-by-side can provide a positive and supportive setting for students with learning challenges. An influential study, published in the Journal of the American Academy of Special Education Professionals and shared by NASET in 2009, was strongly in favor of inclusion, reporting that inclusive classrooms are also beneficial for mainstream students by teaching them to develop empathy and improving their social skills.

Last year, however, Education Week reported on a newer study that found some negative effects on non-disabled and neurotypical students resulting from the practice. Even the study’s author suggested more research is required, adding: “The point is, here is a situation that we have and what systems of supports can improve outcomes for everyone?”

Special education teachers must balance the needs of all their students. Those who successfully integrate their special needs students into a traditional classroom utilize specific strategies to make it all work. Here are seven great tips for inclusion classroom success:

1. Organize: Clear clutter, stabilize furniture, secure any loose cables with tape and ensure there is plenty of space for students to safely move around the room. Post clear signage with symbols that point out exits in case of emergencies.

2. Grouping: Arrange student desks into groups of two to four desks to foster discussion and encourage cooperative learning.

3. Classroom decor: Decorate the classroom in neutral tones. Avoid bright, flashy colors as these can be distracting to some students or lead to sensory overload.

4. Home base: Occasionally the social and emotional challenges of a mainstream classroom may overwhelm a special needs student. Provide a safe space where students can go to reduce stress and regain control of themselves.

5. Transition time: Transition times can be particularly difficult for students with social or emotional challenges, leading to behaviors that may disrupt the entire class. Plan ahead and create a consistent routine for transitioning students from one activity to the next. 

6. Teamwork: Help ensure the success of your inclusive classroom by maintaining regular communication with all members of the instructional planning team. Team members may include parents, paraprofessionals, support staff and other specialists.

7. Break it down: Break down instruction into smaller tasks, starting simple and working your way into the more complex concepts, using a step-by-step approach that incorporates a lot of repetition and practice. 

Preparing Exceptional Students for the Real World

Working in an inclusive classroom setting with students of widely varying abilities may seem challenging, but the right education and training can help educators create a positive and effective learning environment, successfully meeting the needs of all their students. An inclusive learning environments ultimately allow students of all abilities to develop friendships and experience success that will prepare them to enter the world beyond the classroom.

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Making the Most of Tech in the Classroom

Choices, Choices, Choices

Make no mistake about it, technology can be an effective tool to increase student learning. More and more classrooms are being outfitted with devices to help gather data for the teacher and to allow students to learn in ways that they never thought possible. Bring Your Own Device (BYOD) Programs are becoming more commonplace and earbuds are becoming an essential back-to-school item. However, all schools are faced with the same daunting task of determining which devices to purchase. This is problematic as more and more new devices are released each year and technology as a whole continues to move forward at a rapid pace. Regardless of the device that is used, here are some ways to get the most out of the technology in your classroom.

Meet My Friend SAM R.

The most important thing that you can remember about technology is that it is just a tool. Technology ineffectively utilized will not change anything. What you do with the technology is more important than the actual technological device. No one understands this more than Dr. Ruben Puentedura. Dr. Puentedura created the SAMR model which provides guidance for educators on classroom technology integration. If tech is used to substitute a task, then don’t expect leaps and bounds in student learning and success. However, if tech is used to modify a task or redefine a task so that students can create something new, then educators might be starting to understand how to use technology in a positive way. When the harnessed in the right way, technology can help teachers be more effective than they ever thought possible.

Variety is the Spice of Life

Because how you use a device is more important than which device you use. Educators should invest in a variety of different devices that can do different things. Chrome books and iPads are an example of two very different devices. Allowing students the opportunity to create an iMovie project about a social studies topic might be a great way to allow them to demonstrate their understanding while using technology to create something new. Conversely, having students collaborate on a Google doc about a persuasive essay might be a great use of tech in the classroom. Putting all of your eggs in one basket could be sheer folly, especially if students are more talented with one particular device or program over another. Bottom line: make sure that you provide tech options for your students and don’t limit their choices to devices that the classroom teacher is only familiar with.

Rotate, Rotate, Rotate

The last way to get the most tech out of your tech in the classroom is to realize that you do not need an entire classroom set of devices. Technology is great when it is purposeful, allows for student choice, and is used in small doses. Teachers can utilize a smaller number of devices through a station rotation format. A station rotation consists of a teacher running several small groups within the classroom that are all working on different activities. One of the groups could be utilizing a tech device for the activity. Conducting a station rotation will allow a classroom teacher to understand that they do not need a 1:1 device initiative for their school. Starting with fewer devices in a station rotation format will also help teachers be purposeful in the technological activities that they have assigned their students as well.

Tech is Just a Tool

Technology can do some pretty amazing things. It can allow for students to travel the world on virtual field trips, connect to other classrooms that are halfway around the world, and allow students the ability to collaborate on projects anywhere and at anytime. However, technology should not be used just because it’s there. Educators have a responsibility to make their tech use count because tech is just a tool and it will never replace an effective educator who uses it with purpose.

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Building a Positive School Culture

What Makes a Good School?

When acquaintances find out that I am an elementary school principal, they invariably ask me about other schools in their own neighborhood and if I would recommend them. My answer to their question is always the same: a school is as good as its culture and the people that work within it. Well, what makes good school culture? Is it when the school principal knows every child’s name? Is it when the lunch room serves their famous peanut butter bars every Friday? Or is it a combination of things that help your school be great? Regardless of what you think makes a good school, here are some great ideas for educators to help improve the culture at your own school.

1. Share Your Story

The old adage,”No news is good news” does not apply to schools. If schools aren’t entirely focused on communicating to the community about the good things that are going on at the school, then the community will assume that nothing good is happening at the school. Schools can communicate their story through social media or some other parent communication platform like Class Dojo. The important thing to remember is to highlight events, school staff, and of course the students! As schools share their story, schools will build a positive culture that will impact everyone. From taking a picture of a student and a teacher who received a special recognition award, to writing a few sentences about the fall festival carnival that the school had the prior week—all “good news” should be shared to build positive school culture.

2. Show School Spirit

Another way to build school culture is to put an emphasis on showing school spirit at your school. Do you incentivize students to wear school colors? Does your school have a mascot that a student can dress up in? Does your school have a school song and do the students know the words? Does your school feature a central piece of artwork like a mosaic or mural that depicts your school motto or something that appeals to children? Does your school have kid-friendly decorations in the halls or does it look like a really old museum? The more a school appeals to its student body and instills a sense of pride about where they go to get their education, then the more a school will build on a strong tradition of success and strengthen school culture.

3. Make it Personal

The last way to build a strong school culture to allow teachers and students the ability to personalize their school to make it home. When was the last time you asked the faculty if they wanted to renovate or update the faculty lounge? Are students allowed to give input on the classroom and which flexible seating options might be available? Are students allowed to provide input on what types of pictures and games are put on the blacktop for students to participate in at recess? When students and teachers spend as much time as they do at school, we owe it to them to provide a place that makes them feel appreciated. At our school we renovated our teachers lounge. We got rid of the horrible and ugly furniture that was dark and looked like your grandma’s basement. Now it is bright colors with blankets and snacks. Teachers were allowed to provide input on the new teachers lounge and it strengthened the positive school culture at our school. When you allow teachers and students to personalize their school environment, then the school turns into “our school.”

Good Culture Takes Time

Positive school culture can be built in a myriad of different ways, but the most important thing that anyone can remember is that building a good culture takes time. Take a walk around your school and see how personalized it is. Go outside at recess to see if students are wearing school colors.I. Ask a random student if they know your school song by heart. If your school is in need of a culture makeover, then be patient and start the culture change today. Your school’s future students will thank you for it!

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Integrating STEM into the Classroom

STEM: Not Just For After School

When you picture STEM (science, technology, math, engineering) activities, robotics, bridge building, flying drones and coding, comes to mind. Unfortunately what also comes to mind, is having students participate in these activities either before school or after school during a specialized club. But as our world continued to shift towards a global economy, our students need more and more access to these kinds of activities that will help promote non-academic skills such as creativity, critical thinking, communication, and collaboration with peers to solve a problem. Even most teachers agree that developing these skills in our kids is important, they don’t know where to start to bring something like this into their classrooms, so here are three ideas to get you going.

Become the Guide on the Side

The number one reason the teachers have a hard time incorporating STEM activities into the classroom is because of their lack of familiarity with many of the activities that the students will be participating in. Many teachers do not have any experience with coding, let alone robotics. This can intimidate teachers when their own personal background knowledge is limited. However, this should not serve as a stumbling block for implementing STEM activities in the classroom. Teachers need to come to accept two things: #1. That their students may have more knowledge regarding a skill then they do and that’s okay. #2. Teachers should do the STEM activities with their children to continue to learn and develop their understanding of all things STEM. If teachers can do these two things, they will be successful in the long run. Teachers need to continue to shift their roles to being the “guide on the side” instead of the “sage on the stage.” If they can do this, then implementing STEM activities in the classroom will not be met with so so much anxiety.

Utilize Grants

Another common problem that teachers have when trying to implement STEM activities within the classroom is finding the resources to make it happen. We all know that teachers use their own personal money to support student education activities, but some of these new technologies and STEM activities can be somewhat pricey. Teachers should utilize grants whenever possible to help outfit their classroom with the materials that their students need to participate in STEM activities. Teachers should also focus on non-consumable materials, so that once they have purchased the materials that they can be used over and over again. The last thing the teachers need to remember is that building up their classroom’s STEM materials as a resource for their classroom may take some time, but if a teacher is consistent and adds a little bit each year, then they should have a variety of STEM activities in no time.

Start with Station Rotation STEM

Many teachers can also become overwhelmed when they think about creating a STEM lesson plan for the entire classroom. The lesson topic may be less familiar to the teacher and trying to come up with enough resources for the students can contribute to the stress. Teachers should start small and implement STEM activities into the classroom by starting with a station rotation. In a station rotation, students are in small groups and working on a variety of different activities. In this way the teacher can introduce STEM activities to children in the classroom one small group at a time. Station Rotation STEM activities can help teachers introduce STEM activities into the classroom in a more manageable way

STEM: An Important Component of Education

STEM activities are great activities for students to participate in. They strengthen crucial skills like critical thinking, creativity, communication, and collaboration. Teachers should not wait for an after school program to try to fill the void of STEM activities, but they should go forward with trying to provide these enriching activities in their classrooms so that their students are prepared with the necessary non-academic skills they need in order to be successful. Teachers don’t need to be experts at robotics or coding, they just need to provide the time for their students to implement STEM activities in the classroom and just dive right in!

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Dealing with Bullying: A Teacher Perspective

Dealing with Bullying: A Teacher PerspectiveAs upsetting as being bullied can be for any child, the impact can be even worse for those who require special education. Bullies pick their targets based on perceived physical, mental or emotional differences, resulting in special education students often being popular targets.

According to PACER’s National Bullying Prevention, children with disabilities are two to three times more likely to be bullied than their peers. Other studies and surveys have shown that students with physical or emotional conditions, such as autism and ADHD, are also highly targeted.

A special education teacher needs to be able to immediately spot aggressive behavior in the classroom and employ bullying strategies to put an end to the intimidation and make sure it doesn’t happen again. Students’ mental health and self-esteem depends on the instructor’s ability to protect them from bullies.

In an interview, Dr. Jackie Humans, author of 15 Ways to Zap a Bully!, said, “Some students have such severe disabilities that they are unlikely to ever be able to deflect bullying on their own. Clearly, these children need and deserve our protection.”

How to Spot Bullying

Physical bullying is probably the most easily recognized type. It can include any sort of violent hitting, pushing, tripping or breaking someone’s personal property.

Verbal bullying occurs when a bully says something to another student with intention to upset or hurt them. This can include name-calling, threats of physical harm, teasing, taunts or verbal abuse because of physical or mental disabilities.

Finally, there is social bullying. With the advent of social media, this can be especially difficult to spot, as it is rarely in person to a student’s face. This category can include spreading rumors about someone, excluding them from group activities or embarrassing them in front of others.

How to Handle Aggressive Situations

It is important to try to end the bullying immediately. According to stopbullying.gov, a federal resource managed by the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services, ignoring the problem or hoping the students will resolve it on their own may lead to an escalation.

Separate the students involved and make sure everyone is safe. Address any emotional or mental health needs of the students, especially if they suffer from an emotional or mental disability. And remember to follow through – just because the persecuted student has been removed from immediate intimidation doesn’t mean they are out of crisis.

The emotional and mental state of the bullying student should also be addressed, to reach the root of the behavior. This is also not the time to force an apology, nor is it the time to discipline them in front of the other students. If you need to talk to a student, do it separately, away from the gazes of others, as humiliation and embarrassment could paradoxically make them less likely to follow the rules in the future.

Prevent Behavior From Happening Again

Within the classroom, create rules that give students a positive framework of what’s acceptable and what isn’t. Always ask for student input, as this will give them ownership over the rules of their classroom. Any classroom should be a safe, encouraging place for all students. When there is a classroom culture that accepts differences and is inclusive, rates of bullying tend to go down.

Affirming good behavior almost always shows better returns than criticizing poor behavior. Make sure the bullying student knows exactly what they did, why it hurt and why it was unacceptable. Give them a clear path to address their behavior and make amends after the situation has calmed down. Try to find the root of their aggression; are they trying to fit in or impress others? Perhaps they have a learning disability or emotional issue themselves that is causing them to act out. If they are acting out because of external circumstances, such as emotional or physical abuse at home, you may need to bring in additional support.

When to Bring in Parents and Authorities

If no progress is being made with a particular student, the school may need to bring this to the attention of their parents. This should never be used as a threat to try to elicit better behavior from the student. The parents of the bullying student might be unaware a situation even exists, so make sure they understand what the school is doing to address the problem and suggest strategies they might employ themselves. Again, punishment rarely fixes issues of misbehavior and bullying.

If bullying reaches levels beyond what a special education teacher or the school administration can handle, such as extreme physical violence or threats, alerting law enforcement might become necessary. Disability harassment is illegal, as civil rights laws protect students who have physical, emotional and/or mental disabilities.

Special education teachers often have to manage a number of behavioral difficulties within their classrooms. It is important to keep this in mind when addressing bullying behavior. Always be calm, avoid judgment and do not threaten the aggressive student. Instead, teach why that kind of behavior is unacceptable. By fostering a supportive and calm environment in a special education classroom, students will feel both safe and protected.

Becoming a special education teacher includes many difficult and rewarding tasks. Learn more about options for pursuing advanced degrees to strengthen your special education training for situations like this and many others.

What is the difference between a IEP and 504?

13% of all students enrolled in school receive special education services.

Educators remain flexible to manage their classrooms and reach students. After all, everyone learns differently. But, individuals with either a 504 plan or an IEP (Individual Education Plan) need a specialized approach.

As future and current educators, we all want to make sure we meet the needs of our students. Since more than 1 in every 10 students needs special education being knowledgeable will be an asset.

We are responsible to attend parent-teacher conferences, grade papers, and manage a classroom. But, we are also responsible to meet guidelines for 504 Plans and IEPs.

Knowing about these plans in advance helps you as an educator to feel more prepared. You will feel more confident in teaching students with specific educational needs.

Both 504 plans and IEPs protect students with disabilities. Each aims to meet the needs of a student but differ in their approach, services, and goals.

So, what’s the difference? Read on to learn more.

The Difference Between IEPs and 504 Plans

1. The Degree of Services Needed

Students with an IEP need special/individualized education based on an evaluation. Students with a 504 Plan need accommodations within general curriculum classes.

A student with an IEP needs a higher degree of special education services. This includes placement in special education classes or modifications/accommodations in the general education classroom.

Students with a 504 Plan typically need certain accommodations within the general class setting. These students need fewer accommodations than students with an IEP. This includes accommodations such as needing more time to complete assignments.

2. Applicable Laws and Rights

The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) enables students with disabilities to IEPs. This federal law entitles students with disabilities to free and appropriate education. Enforcement of this law is from the ages of 3 to 21 years old.

Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 also guarantees that students with a disability receive free and appropriate public education. If a student meets the requirements to receive an IEP, then an IEP outweighs the 504 Plan. If a student only qualifies for a 504 Plan then the IDEA does not apply.

Each of these laws provides services to the student at no cost. Both laws require school districts to follow the requirements outlined. Schools must follow each plan to avoid discrimination.

3. Qualifications

504 Plans include a broad spectrum of physical and mental impairments as qualifications. These impairments interfere with learning or a major life activity such as reading. Examples of impairments include mental illness, loss of motor capabilities, or specific learning disabilities.

These impairments create classroom accommodations for the student. Accommodations include a test read out loud, extra bathroom breaks, or assistive technology.

To qualify for an IEP, a student must meet one or more conditions outlined in the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. Conditions include specific learning disabilities, autism spectrum disorder, or emotional or physical impairments.

The child’s outlined condition must also interfere with educational performance. Their condition and interference in the general classroom benefit them to receive a specialized education.

Special education is sometimes separated from the general education curriculum, but not always. Special education can mean being in classrooms with modified curriculums and instruction. These modifications exist on a continuum based on the needs of the students and their level of academic ability.

Sometimes students with an IEP are able to be in the general education classroom setting. Supervision on the part of the teacher or a paraprofessional may be necessary.

A paraprofessional is an individual who is trained to meet the specific needs of a child with a disability. A paraprofessional assists the students with tasks outlined in the IEP.

Some students are assigned an individual paraprofessional. In other cases, a paraprofessional assists all students and the special education teacher in the classroom.

4. Type of Documentation

By law, IEPs must be documented in writing. 504 plans are not required to be in writing. Schools generally do document 504 plans in writing to maintain clear communication.

An IEP includes the present academic status of the student, accommodations, and modifications. It also outlines educational goals, duration of service, and a participation plan. Lastly, the IEP shows how the child will take part in standardized testing.

A 504 Plan outlines specific accommodations the child needs. The accommodations are based on the student’s impairment.

Each time an IEP plan changes it must be in writing. 504 Plan also can change but it does not need to be in writing. Some schools do make these changes in writing for a 504 Plan to maintain clear communication.

Any significant changes to an IEP must be presented to the parent before the changes take place. These changes need to be in writing prior.

Significant changes to a 504 Plan must also be told to the parent. It is not a required for changes to be documented in writing.

5. Support System

Children with IEPs and 504 Plans have a support team which ensures that the plans are carried out. The IEP support team is more in-depth than the 504 support team.

The support team for an IEP includes the child’s parent, a district representative, and a specialist who interprets evaluation results. Additionally, at least one general education teacher and a special education teacher. All the members of the support team must be present at IEP meetings minus some exceptions.

The support team for a 504 Plan includes an educator (general or special education teacher), the child’s parent, and the school principal. The educator on the 504 support team understands the students, their needs, and accommodations needed.

IEPs and 504 Plans in the School Setting

For those seeking a career in special education, IEPs and 504 Plans will be discussed in your education courses. Just like each student with an IEP or 504 Plan has a support team, so will you!

Seasoned teachers and administrative staff can help support you in understanding the laws and guidelines necessary to provide all students with access to public education.

To learn more about careers in special education and to see if this may be the right career for you visit our blog.

If you do decide that a career in education is for you, then visit our website to find an online or special education program that meets your specific needs and career goals!