Saturday, June 28, 2008

New Book on Understanding Special Ed

I found a reference to a new book on understanding how the law applies to special ed, at Successful Teaching. I've not read it, yet, but plan to check whether it's available from my local library. The rules on classroom & school requirements is evolving, and I could certainly use an update.

Wednesday, June 25, 2008


I started this blog in response to a heated comment thread on Joanne Jacobs. The original post can be found here.

The original post:

Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder may have been an evolutionary asset back in the day, writes William Saletan on Slate.

Researchers compared African children from the same tribe with a gene linked to short attention spans and unpredictable behavior. It seems to help those who live as nomadic herders and hurt those who live in farming communities.

It might be that the attention spans conferred by the DRD4/7R genotype allow nomadic children to more readily learn effectively in a dynamic environment (without schools), while the same attention span interferes with classroom learning.

Unpredictability may help nomads defending their cattle from raiders — who wants to deal with the crazy guy? — but prove a deficit for farmers who sell their crops at market.

My original comment:

This may be, in fact, true. That doesn’t negate the reality that today’s children don’t live in a hunter-gatherer society anymore.

From what I’ve seen in the classroom, the hyperactive student is made worse when they spend most of their non-school time on video games and other distractability-training equipment. Few of these children learn to slow down, concentrate, and focus on non-hyper stimuli.

I was commenting on a situation I'd found in the past. How was I sure that there was a difference? Several times, I asked the parents to try cutting out all distractions for a week. Not only I could see a difference, but so could the parents. The kids were calmer, less irritable, and slept better (that last part, I had to take the parents' word for - I wasn't making spot-checks at night).

The response was immediate, and critical. I responded again, trying to clarify my comments.

My next comment:

No, I was referring to the students who spend most of their discretionary hours on video games, choppy, disconnected stimuli (like MTV and the like), and trying to listen to their Ipod, watch TV, and carry on a conversation.

How do I know what they do outside of school?

1) I ask them - the first day of class, I hand out a survey, so I can get to know them better.

2) I talk to parents. They usually complain about the amount of time their child spends on those activities. This is true even of better students.

3) They constantly try to sneak in these distractions in class. I’ve confiscated more electronics than the average teacher (which is a policy in my district), which then go to the office, to be picked up by a parent.

How do I know I take more stuff than the rest of the staff? The office staff told me so.

The several autistic students I’ve had did not experience lack of focus - quite the opposite. They generally had more difficulty changing focus when we moved to a new activity.

I’m not anti-ADD/ADHD kids. It can be a challenge to have them in a classroom. Due to their condition, they can interrupt class at times. Those students who need less noise and distraction seem to be most bothered by them. Accommodating both needs, for the ADD/ADHD student to let off some steam, and to allow other students to concentrate, takes a lot of time and energy on my part.

Where does that time and energy come from? Well, that’s time I can’t give to the academically struggling students. I’m only one person. I get absolutely NO help from the LD resource person. If I have more than 1 special needs student (not uncommon - I’ve had as many as 7 special needs students in a single 27 student class), it’s tough to manage to cover the standards.

When I talk about special needs students, that can include: visually impaired, hearing impaired (once, with parents who failed to replace a lost hearing aid for months), ADD and ADHD, autistic, behaviorally/emotionally disturbed, and…I could go on for a long time.

When I talk to the Resource Teacher or the parents, they always suggest that the student be placed in the front row. That’s quite a challenge, sometimes, as I generally only have 6-7 front row seats. It’s not uncommon to get 15 requests for the front row.

Am I complaining? Well, maybe a little. My major complaint is parents who can’t understand why their child causes so much disruption - after all, at home, he causes no trouble. Well, at home, he is (forgive the gender assumption) ONE person, not 25-35. That parent can make all the necessary accommodations. Believe it or not, I’m only 1 person, and, sometimes, it can be tough to adapt a lesson to their child’s needs. By high school, I don’t feel it’s unreasonable to expect that the student will have learned to ratchet down their outbursts, sit down for more than 2 minutes (yeah, I had one who couldn’t), and not indulge their every impulse in science labs - a potentially dangerous situation.

I thought that would answer the follow-up comments, and get the focus off me.

No way. One of the responses (to the first part of the comment):
1) I ask them - the first day of class, I hand out a survey, so I can get to know them better.”

So you must be the one who sent that worksheet home on the first day that was headed something like: “Do I Know Enough About You to Teach You?” Apparently you (or the teacher who actually sent it) didn’t know enough to appreciate the grapho-motor difficulty that is noted pretty plainly in the IEP and MFE. Worksheets are a really terrible way to teach or communicate with my student. I have been waiting over five years for the school staff to catch on to ways to give assignments that require a keyboard (so that the word-suggestion software will be helpful). Actually, it’s not just waiting. I find articles and lesson plans and write IEP goals–but what do I know, I’m just a parent.

No, I didn't send home a survey - I just asked them what TV shows they watched, the videos games they played, the songs they listend to. I did ask them to estimate the time spent on each activity - I was amazed that they had any time to eat, sleep, or do homework or housework.

I DO understand grapho-motor difficulty - my eldest daughter has it, in spades. Until she got a Dana AlphaSmart keyboard, in college, she struggled with taking notes, and doing essay questions - her handwriting was unreadable, often even by her.

Unfortunately, I don't have the classroom budget to provide a keyboard - usually, I don't even have student computers (unless I scrounge them, and do the repair and maintenance myself - which I have, at two different schools).

If it's in the IEP, the school may have a legal obligation to provide it. I can't require keyboards in lessons, if the school won't provide them for all the students.

What the teacher CAN do, is write a grant. There's where a parent could be helpful, tracking down grant sources, and assisting with the actual grant writing. Be bold - write a grant for 5-10 keyboards, that can be checked out in the media center for a week at a time, as well as 2-3 in the classroom.

One person made a suggestion:
As for the kids letting off steam, how about making them run a mile around the track…it works for my daughter, gives her a chance to burn off excess energy and refocus.

Great idea - but, in a high school, NOT possible. I can't release a student, unsupervised, for any reason. It would make me liable for any injuries. What I CAN do, and have, is quietly hand him/her the pass, and suggest a bathroom/water break. It's understood that I'm not holding him/her to a super-quick return, but giving some out-of-class movement time.

For the fidgeter, my husband had a great solution - he gave the student a mouse pad, upside down (rubber-side up), and let him tap his pencil on it. Worked like a charm - he recently saw the child, and he is doing well in school.

I understand that an ADHD child is more difficult, trust me, I live with one, I understand. I also have some strategies that can help, if the teachers would listen and not assume that since I am a parent I know nothing.

Yeah, I can understand this. I am the parent of a child (now adult) with multiple disabilities. The IEP was often treated as a "would be nice" rather than a legal requirement. It was frustrating.

The legal situation is ridiculous. Schools have these requirements, without having the money to make those accommodations. One way the Special Ed departments could help is to take leadership - if the next year's IEPs are going to impose a cost, they need to spend some time writing grants for the materials/equipment/teacher training. Anything else just sets up failure for the students, and for the teacher.

If you have so many kids sneaking in distractions, maybe you should examine what is going on in your class that kids do not feel the need to pay attention.

I have no more electronics than any other teacher, I just won't tolerate their use in class. Most teachers look the other way, which means that student isn't getting their instruction. But, for many teachers, if they use the electronics, they're not causing trouble. They're also not learning.

Which bothers me. Which is why I take them (primarily cell phones) away.

Boring? I sometimes kid that if I set my hair on fire, the more jaded kids would just sigh, "my teacher did that last year".

Most of the time, I don't stand at the front, lecturing. I do labs and other activities, have students present their findings from their investigations, and, yes, do some test practice and drill. Most of the students enjoy their work. I circulate constantly, providing guidance, and assisting with problems.

Could I do better? Sure. Every year, I ask what students remember, and poll them on the best labs. I use the feedback for the next year's classes.

But, fundamentally, I have to cover the standards and prepare the classes for a VERY tough end-of-course test. If they don't pass that test, they may not get credit for the class. That's a state mandate. So, even if a topic doesn't interest them, sometimes they just have to suck it up, and do the work. I call that character-building, when, sometimes in life, you just have to DO IT.

Feel free to comment and make suggestions. Please, don't clutter up Joanne Jacobs' comments; I'm afraid that we'll overload her bandwidth. I promise, I'll keep this blog active as long as I still get responses.