A 2020 Re-Vision for Special Education

by Raymond T. Heipp. Ph.D.

Back in the 1990s, I recall speaking at a seminar with a number of school leaders. I was asked to speak on how my school was dealing with the rise of students with ADD (we were just beginning to see ADHD in medical reviews) and how we dealt with them in “standard” classrooms as “inclusion” was not a term being used. One of the other speakers was speaking about working with students as a whole and posed this question, “What if we taught every student as though they had an IEP?”

That question created mass panic to the attendees at that time. They were picturing the fact that each student would have a paper IEP and that they would have either a class of 30 students with IEPs at the elementary level or 5 classes of 30 students with IEPs at the middle and high school levels. That was not what the speaker was intoning. Rather, he was speaking about the approach to teaching by taking into account each student’s abilities along with the class material.

A few years later, I would have the opportunity to discuss the work of the late Dr. Gregory Knittel with him where he focused on the decision-making process of master teachers in classes. Dr. Knittel found that a Master Teacher makes a formal decision about once every 30 seconds in a class. Those decisions focused on the students and how they are interacting with the material. A Master Teacher was keeping in mind the ways that the students processed information and working to ensure that the opportunity for learning was there for all students.  He also found that those who were not master teachers only made formal decisions once every 90-120 seconds and those decisions focused on the material or behavior of the students, not on the actual learning.

So, what does all of that mean for our Special Education classrooms? What if 2020 became the year we began re-visioning special education? Yes, we are still going to have IEPs (digital and paper now) for our students. And yes, we will still have some students who need to be in specialized classes. But, let’s really get our school communities in line with an individual’s potential. Let’s create scenarios where our students come to appreciate ALL of their peers and not just those who excel on the athletic field or in the classroom. We read stories on a regular basis of how an individual with differing abilities is making a positive impact in the lives of other students, so let’s create that on a daily basis in our classrooms.

On my Twitter feed (@DrSmartEd) last week, I picked up an amazing story from my alma mater, Saint Ignatius High School. Every December, they have a Student-Faculty basketball game to wrap up a Community Day focused on service. This year had an amazing event occur. One of the seniors asked if his younger brother with differing abilities could get in the game. His brother was sent to the foul line (adjusted slightly) and asked to shoot a free throw. The young man made the free throw and it was like he had won the NBA Championship. The seniors all mobbed this young man and celebrated his shot. What a gift this young man gave to the entire school community watching. We need to capture the emotion of this and make it real each day.

We read about schools who are implementing coffee or snack carts. Let’s get more of those out there with our students who have differing abilities manning them. The life and social skills gained from this are tremendous, along with the desensitization of our neuro-typical students in interacting with these students on a regular basis. Let me know at rheipp@schoolhealth.com if you would like ideas as to how to make something like this happen.

But it cannot stop there! What about having students with differing abilities read daily announcements. I have seen some schools who use video announcements use students with Down Syndrome or CP as co-anchors. What about having some of those students work together with the Speech and Debate team or Model UN group? Individuals with differing abilities make sensational actors and stagehands and can be part of school productions or videos. What about having some of the older students with differing abilities go down to the elementary and pre-k classrooms and read to those students?

In our transition programs, let’s get our hands “dirty.” So many schools have to put together their own kits for teaching skills to students. Let’s look at some of the alternatives and never put a job out of a student’s reach until the students have come to realize it is out of their reach. I know of a school in Texas where several of their students with differing abilities, including a young man with Down Syndrome, learned to weld! Let’s not forget the Dr. Stephen Hawking’s, Dr. Temple Grandin’s, Alexis Wineman’s (Miss Montana 2012 and first Miss America Pageant Contestant with autism), and Brad Cohen’s (teacher and administrator with Tourette Syndrome) of the world and use them as role models for ALL of our students. Again, feel free to reach out to me for suggestions on approaches.

To some of you, this may sound like pie in the sky. I completely understand and you are right, to a degree! The question for us becomes if you don’t start it in your school or community, who will? Education should always be about hope – hope for the future. We are bringing skills and abilities to our students which could positively drive their future lives. Ableism is an issue today and we are the ones who can begin to diminish its effects in our communities. Let’s look at what we are doing and focus on the approach. As we approach things with a “Yes, we can!” mentality, we inspire others to do so. There is no magic wand for this and it will not occur overnight. But it is teachers, administrators, therapists, and people like you who are making a difference and moving the world in the right direction.

You are a gift to this world as are our individuals with differing abilities! Let’s work together to make sure that everyone has the opportunity to succeed. Let’s create that re-vision here in 2020 and keep it moving through this decade.

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