Returning to In-Person Conferences; Learning from CEC and ATIA 2022

By Dr. Raymond Heipp


Orlando, Florida may have been experiencing a cold spell from January 16th through the 29th with temperatures dipping into the low 30s and frost appearing on the ground. But inside the Marriott World Center and Caribe Royale, things were warm and flashing back to the days where we were able to connect and learn more about helping our individuals. It was a great return to in-person major conferences in Special Education once again!

Both conferences paid tribute to one of the pioneers of our community, Joy Zabala.  Events and memorials were held in her honor. The beautiful thing is that her influence will forever live in the actions of those of us who knew her.  Taking her SETT framework and connecting it to UDL principles will continue to assist in the development of inclusive classrooms where all students can display the gifts which they have to offer.

One hot topic that bridged both conferences was that of literacy. The pandemic created a greater awareness of those students who were struggling with conditions like dyslexia or reading issues which limited success through virtual learning. Focus on programs based in the science of Reading or structured literacy support looked at the ways in which we could begin to bring our students back from any disruptions in learning they had experienced.  As with any program, we see the needs for three critical pieces. First, the program must be researched and evidence-based.  We have seen too many “programs” developed over the years that were simply an anecdotal approach which only worked in specific settings. Second, the program must be accessible by students.  What materials are supplied?  Are they being created with multiple users in mind? We have to move away from the days of simply having a workbook and teacher’s manual. We need to have video modeling, closed captioning, multiple reading levels, and high engagement.  Finally, we MUST have proper teacher preparation for using these materials. In my early days of teaching, it was shared with me that SRA boxes were a great way to support struggling students. Yet, these boxes were a one-size-fits-all at the time.  We must have training to adjust to the unique needs of our students in any program we are teaching.

Within the framework of literacy, I encountered a mix of software and hardware that fit into literacy assistance. It is unfortunate, but I must remind people that simply because a computer or tablet has text-to-speech capabilities, it does not mean that every student can use it. With this in mind, I engaged with software like Capti, Claro, and Ghotit which offered support for a variety of levels of students.  On the hardware side, I still look at a device like the C-Pen Reader Pen as a go-to.  Along with that these days, the Orcam Read offers support for those with visual impairments as well as reading issues.

Social-Emotional learning was also a huge discussion point in both conferences. The biggest issue remains the re-creation of a school culture in the midst of high levels of division within community environments. Understanding that we have all lived through various levels of trauma and are experiencing some PTSD forms a basis from which we can build that culture. Any discussion on SEL began around the anxiety levels of our students. Simply stating that “they are fine” or “this is good for them” detracts from what they may be feeling on the inside and too embarrassed or afraid to share. We have to begin by meeting them where they are at and create the safe environment that a school can provide. Many of these discussions also related another important idea for the proper support of students and that is the mental well-being of the faculty and staff.  chools, administrators, and teachers have had to make significant changes to the ways in which they engage their students. Add into that the random attacks by outside groups who have no idea what teachers actually go through daily and you have the reality we are facing today – teachers under high levels of stress. If we simply ignore the well-being of these individuals, we will see continued loss in the ranks of teachers.

Programs supporting faculty and staff wellness are essential. I have worked with schools who have created two sensory rooms, one for students and one for the adults. These become the safe havens for all individuals during the day. Sensory rooms, portable sensory carts, and sensory items all play an important role in the daily events of a school today. Even classroom and socially appropriate fidgets play an important role for all students, especially those with issues inducing escalations. Aside from items like this, software like Social Express, helps the students to navigate their feelings in today’s environments. Other software like Lessonbee helps to guide students to healthier lives both mentally and physically.  The Five for Life Physical Education Program offers a healthy life skills approach as well as supporting individuals in their fitness goals.

There were so many great presentations, I would have to write another dissertation to review them all. However, the critical piece that made these shows so successful was the physical reconnecting with individuals. We have learned to connect well virtually and there are presenters who are amazing no matter what media they use. Yet, there is nothing like direct human interaction that energizes us even more to do what we love – guide others to becoming the best they can be.