Category Archives: Special Education

How to Best Meet the Needs of All Students

By Jennifer Krystopowicz April 8th 2014 5:00 PM

Inclusion is a defining principle of special education: ensuring that students with special needs participate in a general education setting for 100% of the school day. However, I must admit that when I hear an educator, administrator, policy maker, or parent make the statement that all students with special needs should learn in an inclusive environment, a wave of anxiety ripples through my body.  I understand that, as a National Board certified special education teacher with experience in both a general education and self-contained classroom, I should be advocating for full inclusion since this seems to be “the way” schools are heading. However, my experience as a special educator has given me a new understanding that inclusion does not meet the needs of all special education students.

When I first learned about the idea of inclusion in 2007, and extensively studied the various models while earning my Master’s degree, I openly embraced the idea of 100% inclusion for all students with disabilities. The models that were presented seemed promising: Parallel teaching, Station Teaching, Alternative Teaching, etc. Seven years later, there have been advancements of knowledge and programs in the special education field, yet the same inclusion models remain. Classrooms are still “testing” or “figuring out” what model best works for their students. Is this fair to continue to test the same models when it is at the expense of our students with special needs?

I began questioning inclusion during my first year of teaching when I became immersed in my career as a self-contained special education teacher in a non-categorical classroom. Questions such as: Could some of my students function 100% of the day in inclusion? Would they receive as much attention and support as they were receiving in my self-contained setting? How would these supports be delivered when the teacher to student ratio is much higher in a general education setting and there is limited support from para professionals?

As these questions were buzzing in my mind, I came to one conclusion: It is nearly impossible for a general education teacher, who has the demanding responsibility of teaching over 25 students, to be expected to teach students who cannot write, speak, or express wants and needs. These students benefit from specialized programs where they will receive specialized instruction, such as self-contained classrooms.

According to The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), least restrictive environment is defined as ensuring that “…children with disabilities, including children in public or private institutions or other care facilities, are educated with children who are not disabled, and special classes, separate schooling, or other removal of children with disabilities from the regular educational environment occurs only when the nature or severity of the disability of a child is such that education in regular classes with the use of supplementary aids and services cannot be achieved satisfactorily.”

As stated, if the general education classroom cannot provide the necessary means to ensure a student with special needs is having all of his or her goals, needs, and requirements met according to their Individual Education Plan (IEP), then another placement is appropriate. Another setting, such as a self-contained classroom or resource room, is considered his or her Least Restrictive Environment. Over the past seven years, I have had the opportunity work with countless students with autism, intellectual disabilities, and emotional disabilities. Some of these students were considered high functioning since they read and performed work close to grade level. However, because of their short attention span, sensitivity to stimulus, or emotional imbalances, these students required an environment that had a small teacher to student ratio. If there were no self-contained classrooms available, how will we nurture these students and their peers in the public school system?

Specialized programs, such as self-contained classrooms, can serve as a bridge between participating in a specialized and general education setting. Here at Tyler Elementary, we have classes to serve as that bridge. Our special education classrooms service a wide range of disabilities including, but not limited to, students with Intellectual Disabilities, Learning Disabilities, Autism, Multiple Disabilities, and Attention Deficit Disorder. Students with IEPs who can function in the general education setting are provided support through an Inclusion Special Education Teacher that in most cases rotates to different classrooms to service the students on his or her caseload. Students who require more assistance and smaller class size are placed in self-contained classrooms. Students in these classes are with peers close to their age and academic level, a Special Education Teacher, and paraprofessional for additional support. Each classroom contains its own set of diverse learners that require the curriculum to be tailored to their needs.

Last year, I started the concept of reverse inclusion where I provided the necessary support for my two highest functioning students with disability to participate in the Literacy Block in the 5th grade general education class. In reverse, the four lowest performing students in the general class came to me in the self-contain setting for a reading intervention program. This model of inclusion was successful because of the environment of the self-contained classroom where these four students greatly benefited from specialized instruction for part of the day. As a result, reading levels increased and overall student morale improved.

The District of Columbia Public Schools is aware of these differences and has many schools that contain specialized programs to meet the needs of all students. 100% inclusion in the general education setting is ideal for many students with disabilities, but it is not a fit for all. It is our job as special educators to accept this reality and create environments that will benefit all learners.

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Engaging Families During Individual Education Plan Meetings

By Jennifer Krystopowicz February 13th, 2014 11:10 AM

Fear. Dread. Anxiety. Confusion. These are emotions that some parents or guardians of students with special needs feel during their child’s individual education program (IEP) meeting. As a special education teacher, it is my responsibility to ensure that parents do not experience such apprehension because they are the driving force when it comes to supporting their child’s education. Having conducted over 90 individual education program meetings in DCPS, I would estimate that my last 40 meetings were most effective in terms of fully engaging participating parents or guardians. If I could go back in time and redo the other 50 meetings, I would incorporate the following guidelines to ensure a successful meeting with all family participants.

Before the Meeting:

  1. Before creating the letter of invitation, ask the parents or guardians what date and time is convenient for them to attend the meeting. In my experience, when they have the option to select a date based on their availability, they are more likely to attend.
  2. A week before the meeting, send home a rough draft of potential goals that you are considering to include in the IEP. This will give the parents or guardians a chance to understand and process what their child is learning and how their child will reach mastery. It also gives the parents or guardians the opportunity to prepare any questions they may have surrounding their child’s goals.

Draft Goals List

During the Meeting:

  1. Always begin the meeting by having every participant, including parents or guardians, share a positive comment about the student. This releases tension from those parents or guardians who view IEP meetings to be a stressful situation. My Special Education Coordinator does a wonderful job at this, always opening meetings with encouraging words about the student. For example, you can say “Maya is a self-starter who takes pride in her work,” or “Nicholas is a hard worker who always wants to help other students.”
  2. Sometimes, acronyms can be very daunting to parents and make them hesitant to engage in the information when they do not understand what the terms stand for.  When presenting the “Present Levels of Performance” to parents or guardians, take the time to translate what the TRC, Dibels, DRA, BIP, 504 etc. terminologies actually mean. It is essential to break down the scores into simple forms so parents or guardians have a full understanding of where their child stands both socially and academically. For example, don’t just tell parents or guardians that their child is reading on a level C. Tell them that their child is reading at the Kindergarten level and what those reading behaviors look like.
  3. After presenting each section of goals, ask the parents or guardians if they agree with the goals, would like to add anything, or if they have any questions. This will open the door for conversation and provide an opportunity for those parents or guardians who are hesitant to ask questions the time to do so.
  4. After you have covered all goals and sections of the IEP, offer a few suggestions about what the parents or guardians can do at home to support the child in mastering their goals. This enables parents or guardians to become an active participant in their child’s IEP. This is crucial because students with disabilities are already behind in academic areas and need all the reinforcement they can get to achieve academic success.
  5. At the conclusion of the meeting, express your appreciation to the parents or guardians for attending the meeting and supporting their child’s progress. It’s just as important to end the meeting on a good note as it is to start it!

After the Meeting:

  1. Keep open communication with the parents or guardians. Ask them how they are doing when it comes to supporting their child with their goals at home. Ask them if they need more ideas or suggestions.
  2. Celebrate success! Let the parents or guardians know when their child has mastered a goal. This can be done through a simple text, letter home, or phone call depending on the method of communication the parent prefers.

I am confident that this list will continue to grow over the years; however, these practices have enabled my parents to feel confident and fully engaged when attending an IEP meeting. A successful meeting occurs when the parents or guardians walk away knowing that the success of their child is a team effort and they are fully supported by the school to drive achievement.

Jennifer Krystopowicz is a special education teacher at Tyler Elementary School.