Special Education in the Middle School Setting

 

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I’ve been off the Blogging grid for quite some time now. After my last blog, I was transferred from being an elementary special education teacher to a secondary special education teacher, especially working with MIDDLE SCHOOL STUDENTS! YIKES! I need to watch my words. Things I said I would “never do” always come back to haunt me. I NEVER wanted to work with those hormonal, drama filled kiddos who were all taller than me. Give me the kiddos who adore their teacher, love the challenge of learning to read and do math. I certainly did not want to be thrown back into middle and high school again. It really wasn’t my thing when I was a student! …BUT GOD! God had other plans. Once again, He proved He had a good plan when He gave me a new assignment.

Working on the secondary side has been hard work, lots of overtime, a ton more paperwork, stressful, yes–hormonal and drama filled (mine and theirs, just kidding) but oh, so rewarding! I work with a phenomenal team, we have a wonderful group of students we work with and the challenge has been great! I love working with these students! The opportunities to make a difference in their lives has been so rewarding. The pace of their growth has increased exponentially! Oh, did I mention I had to remember how to do Algebra all over again?

This challenge brought about other changes as well. I am now a college student again. Hopefully by the end of this year, I will have my masters degree and be several credits into my Ed.D in Educational Leadership.  But enough about me.

Throughout the last two years of working with special education students in middle and high school, I have come to recognize an area of need that is common to many if not most special education students. It is the area of Executive Functioning (EF). I began to recognize that my students were all having difficulties with keeping up with homework assignments, organizing their materials, using good study habits, having difficulties with test taking, overactive or underactive, attention, impulse control, memory and other skills associated with EF. At first, I thought it was due to immaturity or lack of motivation, but as I researched it (this topic will be part of my thesis as well), I learned that these were actually symptoms of a much larger problem and were all related to their disability. The disabilities most often were found in students with Attention Deficit-Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD), Autism (ASD), Asperger Syndrome (Asp). It was also in one form or another with most every other diagnosis and it affected nearly every core class they were in.

As the year progressed last year, I began to collect lesson plans which addressed these areas in order to teach skills and strategies. Over the summer, I was given the opportunity to create a Learning Strategies class with a syllabus and course outline. My co-worker was very helpful as well. She had started a collection of her own. We bounced ideas off of each other throughout the year. Once I started college, I learned that the area of Executive Functioning, Brain Based learning, Visual Thinking, metacognition and using Multiple Learning Styles in the classroom were all research based methods which have proven to be successful. Here we were already using many of the strategies and had developed lessons specifically addressing EF weaknesses.

I also began to see progress in the lives of my students. I created a framework for my students to work within, had clear expectations, scaffolded lessons, monitored the students for success, held them accountable for their work. Most importantly, we developed a relationship where they knew I value them and want to see them successful. And successful they are!

Students who were failing 1st-semester last year, having as many as 35+ missing assignments in several classes are now on the honor roll this year! There was only one student out of the last 3 semesters who had more than 10 missing assignments this semester. Students who had the “deer in the headlights” look, full of panic and feeling overwhelmed are becoming independent and are organized.

In upcoming weeks, I will share some of the books and authors which have been invaluable to me. I may also share some of my strategies with you. For now, here are a few of the most important strategies you can get started with:

  • #1: Build a rapport with your students. Get to know them well. Know their story. Really “see” your students. I pray for my students all the time and ask the Lord to help me see them through His eyes. I know their strengths and weaknesses. I know what they want to do with their lives. I can envision the person they are on their way to becoming.
  • Help them see the value of what they are doing and why. It isn’t just an assignment for a grade sake. It is learning lifelong skills, preparing for the future, learning problem-solving skills and more.
  • Create a sense of structure for them. Especially in the lives of an ADHD, their world is too large. They see all the details but can’t organize it or see the whole picture. Providing a sense of structure or framework for thinking is critical for organizing their world. I have clear expectations, hold them accountable.
  • Have a great sense of humor. There will be good days and bad, but a great sense of humor helps maintain balance and sanity.
  • Provide a strong support system for your student and keep everyone on the same page. Most often, I use emails  (great for tracking data too). I have a para in the classrooms that the student struggles with. She lets me know what the lessons are, if the student has turned in homework, any needs or successes she observes. The student, para, teacher, parents and I all work together as a team.
  • Teach specific skills to address the EF dysfunction. Model those skills and strategies. For example: how to study for a test, how to remember information, how to write notes, how to find information in a textbook, what is main idea/what is a detail, how often to clean out the locker, what papers to keep and get rid of, how to manage school papers and folder, when to clean out the folder, how to manage distractions, how to prepare a place to study at night. Specific lessons are taught on each of these topics. I also teach specific lessons on Visible Thinking (how to think and how to think about what you are thinking about). Don’t assume your student knows this and can apply it by the time they are in middle school. It sounds strange to those of us who do these things automatically, but it may not come naturally for EF students.
  • Scaffold learning. Support heavily initially, but gradually diminish support. Teach the student to think and do for themselves. Celebrate success, both privately and in class. Foster independence. I tell my students, “My job is to work myself out of a job.”
  • Teach students to use resources which make their life easier. Did you know that Google Docs has a feature where you can speak directly into the computer, Chromebook or other device and it types the words into the document? It works just as well as DragonSpeak. Bookshare.org is a great resource for students with disabilities. It even has audio textbooks. Some of our other textbooks are online…no more lost textbooks. One of our students kept losing his homework. He now scans his homework and saves it on Drive and shares it with the teacher. No more lost homework. Google Docs also has an add-in feature called EasyBib. Bibliographies can be created within minutes. Kindle and Audible are also great technology resources.
  • My Skills Math group is now using Ablenet Equals mathematics program which is designed especially special education students in K-12. In one semester, we have seen nearly a 40% increase in academic understanding in 3/4 of our students and a 17% increase in the student with the smallest percentage of progress. This curriculum is using multi-sensory learning, reinforces vocabulary, is sequential and is very structured. It not only is great for low functioning students, it also supports their executive functioning with all the visuals it includes. The data collection tools, worksheets and assessments are great! It even has goals and objectives for IEPs.

So, you see, I’ve been in a great growth pattern myself over the last couple of years but am learning a great deal in supporting my students who have a variety of disabilities. Here are a few of the successful stories from last year to date:

  1. One of my students was so successful, we discontinued services. It took him a while to feel comfortable with the idea. He said he loved my class so much and didn’t want to leave. He occasionally comes to see me just to say hi and to let me know he misses me. (Awww, warm fuzzies over this kiddo. Got to love a kid who loves his teacher).
  2. Three-fourths of my Skills Math (the high group) from last year are now in the mainstream math classroom.
  3. Some of my students diminished services 50% from last year.
  4. Every single student on my caseload from last year to this year have dramatically reduced or even eliminated late and missing assignments! (YAY! The regular ed teachers sure notice this one).
  5. Every one of the students are now more independent, are using technology to improve their organizational skills, need less adult support to maintain those skills and are taking personal responsibility for their learning.

Most importantly, I give 100% credit to God for His wisdom. He put me in this position. I am so very thankful to be given the opportunity to make a difference in the lives of my students. He gives me wisdom, patience, and understanding on how to work with these individuals. It is because of His wisdom that these strategies were first implemented, then by His grace that I was given an opportunity to go back to college to learn about the research, best practices, and new strategies. Next, I am thankful to be working in a great school district with awesome co-workers! How many people can go to work and love their job and nearly 100% of the people they work with. Even on my worst day, I still love my job….like most sped teachers, I could do with having less paperwork, but that is another blog for another day. For now, I am blessed and am loving the opportunity to work with MIDDLE SCHOOL STUDENTS!

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