Updated: Sep 5, 2022
Every Sunday I bring my nephew to the library to serve his volunteer hours shelving books in the kids' section. On one particular Sunday, I observed a dad and his three daughters exploring the library. As I observed him managing the three very different young girls, I commented to him, "you are great with them." He took that as an invitation to spill his guts. I obliged and listened thoughtfully. By the end of our conversation, I had learned that he has one daughter with autism, one who has Down's Syndrome, and the other is considered a neurotypical learner. He drives his daughters to three different schools every day because there isn't one school that knows how to support all three. He shared how challenged and defeated he feels given the fact that he is a single dad and works two jobs.
He drives his daughters to three different schools every day because there isn't one school that knows how to support all three.
Why does this dad have to bring his daughters to three different schools?
It is simple, our educational systems are not set up to create the conditions that enable the educators within a single school to provide a family, like this one, the support needed for all three daughters to thrive.
What are the barriers?
Teacher and leader preparation programs, broadly, do not prepare all educators to effectively serve students across the spectrum of ability.
The National Center for Learning Disabilities,' a leading voice in the field, has stated that investment in the preparation of general educators is essential to improving outcomes for students receiving special education services (NCLD, 2011). More recently, in a 2019 report by Understood, a survey of teachers revealed that approximately 70% of teachers do not feel that they can effectively support students with learning and attention needs.
Reading and math classrooms are designed for the average learner.
The average ELA and math block follows the following structure: mini-lesson, guided practice, and independent practice. In a given lesson, most students typically start with the exact same mini-lesson and end with the exact same independent practice activity. During the block, some students may be pulled to the side or outside of the classroom to work with a special education teacher potentially missing parts of the lesson.
What can we do?
As the founder and leader of the Inclusive Schools Leadership Institute at Relay GSE, I built a framework outlining six pillars essential to driving outcomes for inclusive schools. In their 2019 report, Understood outlined 8 essential practices to do the same. Big picture, schools need to implement a multi-tiered system of support with targeted action in the areas of academics and behavior. However, below, I summarize, based on the works mentioned above, three big steps that can help to disrupt the status quo:
Build teacher capacity and support their work.
There are many ways to increase general educator capacity in the classroom. Three key knowledge areas that will improve their ability to support a range of learners in the classroom are (this list is not all-inclusive):
Know and understand how learners vary in a classroom (e.g. how do attention issues show up in the classroom and what are essential strategies. to support them.
Practice designing lessons aligned to the principles of universal design for learning.
General educators should know high-leverage practices for inclusive classrooms and effectively collaborate with special educators who should similarly know the high-leverage practices in special education. Disrupting the status quo requires knowledge sharing and collaboration so that expertise and growth expectations do not sit in the hands of one educator.
Leaders must follow up and provide real-time coaching, feedback, and resources to support.
Design flexible instructional blocks.
Every learner varies from the student working above grade level to the student with attention needs to the student with dyslexia. We have to structure our instructional blocks that empower educators to meet the range of learners in the classroom and that enable students to engage meaningfully in learning. Imagine a flexible math block where each student has the opportunity to begin their learning in a way that is aligned to their individual needs as opposed to everyone doing the same thing, as in a traditional classroom. Imagine a classroom where students are learning fractions and Student A starts the math block with a small group working with fractions strips and pattern blocks to support their conceptual understanding while Student B participates in a small group mini-lesson with the teacher and Student C watches an interactive video about fractions.
Design lessons that are universally designed.
Present information in multiple ways. The goal is to maximize the processing of information, so the days of whole group auditory instruction should be long past over! People learn best when they receive information in more than one format. In math, couple practice problems with manipulatives and/or interactive activities. In reading, couple written text with audio. Ask yourself, how can I maximize information processing?
Give options for demonstrating learning. Your number one priority is to know whether or not students mastered the objective. Mastery can be shown in multiple ways. If you provide students options and/or choices in demonstrating their learning, you will likely also increase engagement.
Prioritize student engagement. These days, motivating students in school is harder than ever. We can increase engagement through choice, collaboration, bite-sized objectives, targeted feedback, and culturally relevant content.
It starts with a decision. Systems, leaders, and teachers must decide that they are truly committed to meeting the call to serve EVERY student in a classroom THEN do the work of rethinking and redesigning traditional classroom structures so that classrooms work for all kids.
In part 2, we'll reflect on ways to meet students with significant needs in the general education setting. I'll share more about my favorite video story, the story of Thasya.
Until then, continue disrupting!
CAST (2022). UDL Guidelines. https://udlguidelines.cast.org/
NCLD (2019). Forward Together. https://www.ncld.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/05/Forward-Together_NCLD-report.pdf