Thoughts on Orlando Massacre

It has been three days since the massacre in Orlando. I tried to watch and read some of the coverage of the events and one of the first things I saw was a text message chain between a Mother and a man who ended up being killed. Something broke inside me when I read that and I have barely been able to engage in any coverage since then.

Who are the victims? They are my friends, my co-workers, the artists I admire, my students, my family, my children. My children. My beautiful and brilliant boys; one who was birthed by me and one who was a gift of love from my marriage to his Father. Someone hated people I cherish because of who they love, it is beyond what I can grasp right now.

And, who was the perpetrator. He was a former student. Maybe not a direct student of mine, but he was a student, raised in an educational system that I have given my life career to be engaged. My optimistic  self thinks that I can impact a students’ future, that our work in schools will prevent the creation of someone who could inflict such pain.

My realistic self knows that there are a myriad of students who I would not be surprised to hear that they perpetrated some horrible crime on innocent victims. To be totally honest, I have worked with some people that I have the same feeling about. These are students who are so damaged, unable to feel or express empathy, who have been repelled by their families and society, who have a mindset that is paranoid and filled with hate.

It is the belief of many that we just need to find out the characteristics of these perpetrators and stop them from committing crimes. That might make sense if a majority of these folks ended up committing terrible acts, but they don’t. Of all the students I have worked with, only a few have committed a heinous act, the rest learned to live somewhat peacefully in society, at least to the point where I don’t read their names in the paper.

I do know there are things that we can control in the educational setting that will make a difference.

  • We must have mental health support for students as part of the educational setting
  • We must train our staff about trauma informed care
  • We absolutely must refrain from placing students on “home bound instruction” and forgetting that they exist (The Newtown shooter was placed on homebound instruction for years)
  • We must celebrate diversity and address the hatred that lives within some of our students
  • We must address bullying as it happens and ensure that all students are emotionally save at school and at home
  • We must be sure that the adults in the education system in now way engage in bullying behavior with students
  • We need programs and staff that are well trained to meet the needs of students who exhibits aggressive and predatory behaviors

As this is a personal blog, I simply cannot refrain from stating that the laws of our country must keep assault weapons out of the hands of civilians, period and end of sentence. Allowing a damaged and demented person access to a weapon that shoots many, many bullets repeatedly is a critically contributing factor to this entire situation.

(June 14, 2016)



Let’s Treat Reading Problems Like we Treat Behavior Problems

What if reading difficulties manifested like behavior problems in the classroom?

What if every time a student struggles to read in a classroom, the result was the student throwing books, screaming, swearing, and disrupting everyone else in the room. What if the student screamed “I can’t read!” all day long until someone helped them to learn how to read.
My guess is that we would meet frequently, call in outside help, involve the parents, write an individualized plan and do everything we can to make sure that child learns to read. Given the number of non-proficient readers in many classrooms, I am going to speculate that we would not be able to put them all into a separate classroom:)
And, I know all too well how many times behavior is the direct result of struggling with academics. Unfortunately, we see the problem as behavior and focus on behavior instead of focusing on the true root of the problem.
(January 13, 2016)

Strategies for Working with Difficult Parents

First of all, let me be clear that I don’t have a problem with demanding parents. Parents should be demanding of us, it’s their job to insist their child gets what they need. I think we all need to take a minute and really reflect on what it is like to be the parent of a child with special needs. What it must feel like the first time they realize, or are told, that their child has a disability. It is absolutely not okay to shut down a parent who just wants what is reasonable and necessary for their child to receive a free and appropriate public education.

That being said, I have had parents that certainly rise above what anyone would consider reasonable behavior on behalf of their child. Although I only play a psychiatrist on TV, I would venture to say that these most difficult parents were likely dealing with their own personal mental health issues. So, how do you manage an out-of-control parents while continuing to make sure that the parent’s rights are being secured at every turn?

I think the best way to address this in a blog format is to go behavior by behavior (all of which I have experienced at least once) and talk about strategies for managing that particular behavior.

The IEP Meeting Destroyer Parent: I have experience several situations where a parent became very disruptive in an IEP meeting; using profanity, making threats, yelling, etc. When this happens I immediately tell the parent that we will not continue the meeting if they are going to be this disruptive and ask them if they would like to take a break and maybe talk to me in a smaller environment. Be very clear that this behavior will not be tolerated. On a couple of occasions, I did shut the meeting down and we had to reschedule the meeting at a later time.

The Over-Communicating Parent: I have experienced the parent that calls the school mulpitle times a day, sometimes up to 10 times a day or more. This parent would call multiple people at the school and would then yell at the secretary when she couldn’t speak to someone immediately. The staff that worked with her child were extremely upset by all of this as her communication was very negative and demanding. Our first move was to create a communication plan and gave her one point of contact, who was me. When she then moved to calling me obsessively, we moved to a set time to talk two times a week and she could also email me. This is a totally defensible action, but should only be done when you have documented that the excessive communication is disruptive.

The I Change My Mind All The Time Parent: The parents I worked with in this category were parents of students with pretty significant issues and it was necessary for us to meet and change the IEP pretty frequently because the student’s data warranted changes. Meetings with them would take forever and it would be a very arduous process to come to consensus. We would be relieved that we had a good plan in place and then the parent would call the next day and say they don’t agree now and want another meeting. This is a really hard one to deal with because how do you say no to a meeting request? Then we would meet again, come to consensus, and then the parent would decide they didn’t agree again and want another meeting. My suggestion here is one I have learned from the lawyers I have worked with on these cases. Make sure you send the parent a prior written notice that details the decisions the IEP team made ASAP. Then, if the parent disagrees and you have already met at least one additional time to hear the parent’s concerns, tell the parent they need to file due process on the decision made in the PWN. In this way, you can actually implement the plan the IEP team agreed to and you can begin to move through the complaint procedure that is there exactly for this purpose.

The I Disagree with Everything Parent: I have worked with parents who are unhappy with everything we do. The complaints jump from topic to topic and, once you think you have one list resolved, you have another new list to tackle. In my opinion, this is the parent you want to go to due process with because they have to identify what they are complaining about. What issue/decision are you unhappy about?

The I Want My Child to be More Disable Than They Are Parent: This issue is addressed in an earlier blog of mine entitled “Munchausen Syndrom by Proxy, Special Education Style”. The main action you want to take in this situation is to make sure you are an advocate for the child and that you keep the child safe. Do not allow a parent to push you into giving services to a student that are not warranted. Unfortunately, I have had more than one parent that exhibited this kind of behavior.

The Professor Parent: This is the parent who reads everything they can on special education and comes to meetings with lists of curriculums and diagnoses and educational stragegies that they want you to use with their child. Be respectful and listen, but make sure the parent understands that methodology generally doesn’t go into the IEP, that the school determines how to reach the goals and what methodologies will be used to meet those goals. This puts the responsibility, rightfully so, on the school to show that what they are doing is working:)

The It’s All About Me Parent: I have worked with parents who really want the IEP meeting to be about them. This is a strange one, but the best deterrent to this is to continually remind the parent that the meeting is about their child and this really isn’t an appropriate place to talk about what went wrong with their own school experience. I also had a parent who would fake seizures when she came in to see me in my office. After I realized they were fake, I just ignored them and would go about my work and then she would eventually get back in the chair and talk to me again. Seriously, I can’t make this stuff up, I’m not that creative.

The I Come to School and Disrupt Parent: I have had this happen a few times. As the administrator, I asked them to leave the premises because they were disruptive. On two occasions the parent refused to leave and the police were called and the parent was charged with disorderly conduct. A restraining order was issued in one of the cases. This is certainly only done as a last resort and does not absolve a parent of their rights; we still had to involve this parent in the IEP process and we would do that by meeting via a conference call.

The bottom line is that these parents are exhausting and exasperating for school staff. Provide support and relief for the staff that are most impacted by these tough individuals and make every attempt to minimize the amount of disruption that occurs because of the behavior of these adults. Also, be especially empathetic to the children who live with these parents and take extra care to be that student’s advocate. If it is difficult for us to have to deal with these parents, think what it is like for their children.


(October 18, 2015)

Transformation Train

It has recently become clear to me that I believe that the special education system needs to be transformed, not reformed. To reform something means to make it better, to transform something means to change it into something completely different.  Although there are good people working hard in the world of special education, I believe it needs to be changed into something that looks very different from what it looks like today.

As I speak my message of transformation for special education, I am pleasantly surprised by the enthusiasm I get from both AEA and LEA folks with this message.  There truly seems to be a consensus that the current state of things is not meeting the needs of students, that this is a system that is terribly flawed at the core.  In some ways, I think it might be easier if I was getting more push-back on this message; I am completely comfortable and articulate when I am engaging in discussion about the many failures of the system we currently have in place.

So, once I have done my dog and pony show to the choir, I am staring into faces asking a common question.  Yeah, the current system sucks.  So, what are we going to do about it?   Well, I know one things for sure we aren’t going to do about it; we aren’t going to keep doing things the same way.

Transforming schools, and particularly special education within a school system, appears to be a nearly impossible task.  I would respectfully argue, that even those that preach the word of transformation, find ourselves participating in a culture that ultimately promotes the status quo.  We can reform, but we don’t allow ourselves to transform.  The beginning is always the best.  As educators, we are brilliant at laying out the problem, brainstorming solutions, and action planning.  I have seen time and time again how the train leaves the station (and we love to say things like, “The train is leaving the station, you either get on this train or you aren’t on the train at all”) and there we are, on the new track with all our believers, traveling down the line we laid ourselves, to a transformed future.

But, then, undoubtedly the conversation on the train becomes horribly bogged down in the minutiae.   We begin to move off course, become frightened that our train is moving too fast, the destination might not be what we thought it should be, the seat covers aren’t really what we wanted, we left someone important behind and we need to go back and get them and listen to what they think we should do, we didn’t pack the right supplies, the letters on the tickets aren’t clear enough.  So, we stop the train and we decided to re-think the plan, focus on the little details, mire ourselves in the barriers.  And, before you know it, we are back at the train station, off the train, and doing pretty much exactly what we were doing before we go on the bus.

To transform the world of special education, we need to get on the train and leave this station even if we don’t know where in the world we are going.  It truly is an “anywhere but here” phenomenon.  We may need to visit other places before we make a decision about where we want to go; we may take several different tracks to get there, and we may pick up and drop folks off along the way.  I am absolutely OK with that, as long as this train leaves and doesn’t come back:)

Posted on this blog are five things you can start doing tomorrow as a teacher, an administrator, or as an AEA support person.  Yes, there are things we can do differently tomorrow; without training, without additional funds, without changes to the law, and without everyone participating.  These are my ideas, and I know you have more, so please post them to share.


(August 30, 2013)


Who am I and Why am I Writing this Blog?

First of all, who am I and why am I creating a blog?
        My name is Wendy Parker and I have been the Director of Special Education at Prairie Lakes AEA in Iowa since December of 2012.  In this position, I supervise support services for Special Education for 44 school districts.  Prior to this position I spent 13 years at Newton Community Schools doing everything from Assistant Principal at the MS to PK-12 Special Education Coordinator to Secondary Educational Services Director.  I was also a MS Principal in another Iowa District and spent my teaching career as a BD Teacher and Behavior Interventionist in Des Moines and Burlington, Iowa as well as Columbus, Ohio.  I have a BA in Secondary English Education from the University of Iowa, an MA in Special Education from Western Illinois University, and am ABD for my Ph.D. in Educational Administration from Iowa State University.
        So, I have spent A LOT of my life teaching and supervising Special Education.  As a result of this experience, I have realized all of the many, many things that do not work in the realm of Special Education.  I have historically viewed the work of AEA administration as yet another cog in the wheel of the Special Education bureaucracy; so it was a rather curious thing for me to join the ranks of AEA.  I did this because of my relationship with the Chief Administrator of Prairie Lakes AEA, Jeff Herzberg.  Jeff and I took several courses in Ed Admin at Iowa State together and we have seen each other periodically over the years as we weaved our way through our respective administrative careers.  In each of these conversations, we always ended up at a spot where we were shouting our belief that if only the right people were unleashed, the world of education as we know it would be abolished and a new, innovative, effective, and passionate system would take over.  It is with that emotion of true reform that I accepted the position I have now.
        One of my first challenges was to communicate this new message to around 200 staff members who serve districts in a vast geographic area with nine AEA offices.  I wanted the message to be upbeat, yet challenging enough to let them know that business would not be as usual.  My first attempt was a boring powerpoint with pictures and I knew this was going to motivate no one to think or act differently.  Of the many gifts I have in my life, amazing and talented children are one of the greatest of all of them.  My son, Andrew, works for a small production company in Chicago and he took the words and passion from my bad powerpoint and made it into an amazing video that I believe perfectly captures the message and questions I am trying to convey.
        This is the primary reason for this blog.  To share the message that we need to make Special Education services more effective, that things cannot continue in the current bureaucratic madness where so many of us have resided for so long.  Along with the video are links for you to access to start walking this amazing journey of change.
        I would love to get more ideas from you and to hear your comments, questions, or disputes.  The more we support each other as a community, the stronger we are, and the more incredible things we will accomplish for kids.
        By the way, the blog name of Rapacious Learning is dedicated to my dear friend, Dr. Brad Buck, Superintendent of Saydel Schools in Iowa.  Brad and I took many, many classes together in Ed Admin at ISU and, being the ADHD people that we are, we created many of our own moments of entertainment.  This included an ICN class where we got all of the class members to sing and dance the  hokey pokie, taking turns napping just outside of the camera in the ICN room, and using vocabulary words that we enjoyed as much as possible.  One of our favorites was the word rapacious.  Rapacious means aggressively greedy, ravenous, predatory and we would use it often and with feeling.  I think Brad would agree that rapacious learning is exactly what we are after:)
(August, 2013)

Promises for my Post 50 Life

Tomorrow is my 50th birthday. This means I have lived half a century and, most likely, have lived longer than I will live in the future. This doesn’t scare me or make me sad, but it does make me incredibly impatient. I have decided that I no longer have time to wait, to bring people along slowly and kindly, to hope that the next people who are in charge will make the right decisions. Although I have seen many great things happen for children in my career, I have more often seen stagnation and back-pedaling and excuses and meandering and blocking. So, I need to change my approach because time is running out for me to see all the things changed that need to be different.

Here are my promises for my post-50 life:

  • I will speak the truth. Even when it is not popular. Even when it hurts the feeling of others.
  • Although I understand we need to honor the past work of others; I am no longer going to take time to pacify others with speeches that honor the flawed history of our work. Yes, you worked really hard and had good intentions; we all did. I am going to make a blanket statement today that I honor all the work that has been done in the past and let’s move on from there. We need to stop grieving our past practices and hard work; we cannot continue to honor past practices simply because it is hard for folks to let go.
  • I am going to push myself, and others, a lot more. “What is going to happen tomorrow as a result of this work?” “I know this is going to be difficult, but we are going to do it anyway because it is what our students need to be successful.” “What specifically will each of be doing to move this forward in the next month?’
  • I am going to be even more particular about how I spend my time. I will not be afraid to get up and walk out of a meeting if it isn’t going anywhere.
  • My focus will be on solutions. I think I have admired our problems sufficiently in my first 50 years. I am keenly aware of the issues we have with poverty, and parents that don’t care, and teachers who aren’t well trained, and paper work that is cumbersome and meaningless, and politicians who don’t support us, and horrible instructional practices, and on and on. I don’t want to talk about our problems unless we take the time to focus and implement real solutions.
  • I am going to invite more people into the process. I have sat at the table with a lot of the same folks for a lot of years and there is a critical need to purposefully solicit new folks to the work.
  • I am going to spend more time with school leaders walking through classrooms. We have to be realistic about what is happening if we want things to get better; mentoring of leaders is the most critical piece of the puzzle, in my opinion, and the best way to mentor leaders is to walk side-by-side observing instruction.
  • I will take more time to tell the awesome people I know that they are awesome.
  • I am going to work to provide services to districts that are desperately needed; particularly services to students who have the most challenging behaviors.
  • I am going to spend more time talking to students. If you really want to know what will work for kids, ask them.
  • I am going to get more proficient with technology. I need to spend less time on the road and more time engaged in meaningful work and technology can make that happen.
  • I will be a better advocate on social media.
  • I will spend more time with people who challenge me, who make me think in a totally new way.
  • I will spend more time with people who say yes and less time with people who say no.
  • I will choose to be around people who are positive.  I no longer have time to listen to people complain and moan when they have no interest in a solution.
  • I will embrace risks and failures. Nothing will change if we tread lightly, afraid to fail. We need to take big risks to make big gains and that means there will be some big failures.
  • I will find time to exercise. My ideas, my motivation, my health, my humor, my ingenuity, and my stamina depend on this.
  • I will wake up every day with optimistic anticipation. I choose the way I feel and I don’t have the time or energy to have a negative perspective.
  • I will have the hard conversations and I will not shy away from conflict. If we are to move forward, we have to by okay with conflict.
  • I will laugh more in the future than I have in the past; be more irreverent, and probably use a little more profanity:)

(December 28, 2013)

Rant Against the Educational Visionaries

Let me warn you right off, this is a rant. I’ve had a long, long week and I am taking out my frustrations in this blog. So, just be aware and read this at your own risk:

I am completely over the “big picture”, “big vision”, “global thinkers”, and “epic dreamers”. What is it about the world of education that makes us feel like we have solved a problem by telling schools and educators we aren’t doing it right.

I have had, and continue to have, opportunities where I listen to a speaker who tells us our current educational system is not preparing students for the world they will live in the future, or for the world we live in now, for that matter. I’m quite certain that no one in those rooms is unaware of this fact. I don’t think anyone in those rooms is thinking, “Well, goll darn, we’re preparing our students for factory jobs at our school”. I really don’t think any of us are unaware of the problem; what we are unaware is what to do to start fixing the situation.

At another meeting, I took some administrators through an activity where we took each of the items listed in the article “14 Things That Are Obsolete in 21st Century Schools”. The article can be found here  We did an activity similar to the EdCamp “Rocks or Sucks” session where we voted by standing in a certain spot as to whether or not each thing was relevant or obsolete. Most of the people there saw most of these things as obsolete even though they exist in their own schools! Goodness, if you know it’s the wrong thing to do, shouldn’t that be enough to change?

No, it isn’t enough!! We don’t change until we know WHAT TO DO DIFFERENTLY. That’s why having a vision is great, but it is not the big work by a long-shot. The big work is choosing what you are going to do and doing it with fidelity and monitoring what you are doing to make sure what you are doing is actually getting the results you want.

This is the big, hard, boring, tedius, thankless, work that so many of us either don’t know how to do or don’t want to do.

I am an idea person. I have vision up the ying yang. There isn’t an educational shiny object that hasn’t caught my eye. I love to dream big. And I am good at seeing what is wrong in everything around me. I am your best candidate for “Critic of Everything We Currently Do”.

But I’m bored with that and I don’t have time to engage in talking about the way things should be anymore unless it is going to be followed up with some purposeful and specific planning for what to do differently.

So, I’m going to make some giant assumptions for now:

  1. We all know that the world we are preparing students for is drastically different than the world where we grew up.
  2. We all know that what schools currently offer kids is not what they need.
  3. We all have a vision that kids will learn at high levels in an engaging and creative and challenging manner.

Here’s the assumption I don’t think we all have. There are no quick fixes to this problem like handing every student a computer or tablet or adding Genius Hour to every schedule. In fact, these have been some of our most dangerous practices. If we are going to truly change the behavior of schools it will be a long and arduous process with lots of detail work along the way.

One of the biggest hurdles we need to face is answering the question, “what does it look like?”. And, this doesn’t mean we send people to another state to see what that school is doing and think that is enough. What does it look like here? With our staff. And our resources. And our administrator. And our parents. And our School Board.

As change-agents, we have to be willing to get embedded in schools, to know that district’s situation intimately and to plan with them and for them. It needs to include a coaching model, not a “we are the expert” model. We can’t tell people what to do, we have to do it with them.

At Prairie Lakes AEA, we have had a vision of changing the way instruction is delivered to special education students for several years. One of the first things we realized is that we knew what it didn’t look like, but we hadn’t articulated what it DOES look like. So, we went to work with the DE and, after two years of arduous work, we have a rubric for what Specially Designed Instruction looks like.

So, we just do the same thing with everyone to get them to implement this, right? WRONG! Now, we are working on a protocol to determine the unique situation every district is in so we can work with them to create the best plan of action to really impact instruction. We plan to be in six districts this year and it involves spending time side-by-side with district folks to do classroom walk-throughs in every building; focus groups with teachers, students, parents, administrators, and paras; and a comprehensive data review. In the end, we will choose five things we saw to celebrate and five things we saw as priority areas for improvement. The action planning will be what we can do in 10 days, 10 weeks, and 10 months with implementation support and an evaluation component embedded in the plans. It is long, hard work, but I believe it is the right work.

So, keep dreaming, but start doing as well. My mantra with everything I attend at work is, “What am I going to do differently tomorrow as a result of this?”.

So, a few things I think you can do as an administrator or teacher within 10 days to make a difference for kids and their future:

  • Schedule time for yourself to visit a place where your students may work and watch what they do and ask them what they value in their employees.
  • Survey your students about what they would be passionate about learning. Create a passion project that all students are required to complete. More information on this at or
  • Create a peer coaching relationship with another staff member and observe each other looking for the level of instructional complexity in your classroom. As an administrator do walkthroughs of classroom and provide immediate feedback.
  • As a teacher, give your students a real world task with an authentic work task. As an administrator, require this of your teachers and hold them accountable to these expectations.
  • As an administrator, hold your Tech Director to a high standard. So often, this is the person in a school who is a huge barrier and no one will take them on. You need to take them on; the position should work collaboratively with your teachers and administrators, not make decisions in isolation.
  • Spend 30 minutes a week learning on-line about what the classroom of the future looks like. Literally google “What you can do right now to create a classroom for the future” and read the articles and watch the videos that are listed.
  • As a teacher, restructure you classroom in a way that fosters collaboration.
  • As an administrator, restructure your building schedule to foster collaboration. Require that a piece of the collaboration time is spent on building a classroom for the future.

I think we get overwhelmed by how far we have to go so we do nothing. Set small goals that you can reach, plan to do ONE thing in the next 10 days. I promise we can all accomplish that dream.

(May, 2016)

Reaction to SRO Forcibly Removing Student Video

The video at this link has caused a media uproar in the past 24 hours.

The video depicts a School Resource Office forcibly removing a female high school student from a classroom after she refuses to follow his instructions to leave the classroom. I spent three years as a Behavior Interventionist at a Des Moines middle school and 12 years as a building level administrator at the high school and middle school level. I can honestly say I found myself dealing with a student who refused to leave a classroom at least 100 times.

There are some who say a student refusing to leave a classroom is not a danger to themselves or others so nothing should happen. I respectfully disagree with this perspective strongly. It is not okay to allow a student to refuse to leave and then just continue on with class. I have seen administrators make this choice and it is a disaster. This DOES NOT mean you call law enforcement and they drag the student and the desk out the door while slamming the student on the floor as we witnessed in this video.

When I found myself in this situation, it was usually the result of a power struggle with the adult and the student. Once the student was in open defiance and disrespect, the situation had to be handled, but I also managed the adult situation after the fact to make sure the chance of repeating this situation was greatly minimized. Sometimes it wasn’t an adult issue, and just a student that needed to be dealt with in a very antagonistic moment.

I don’t know what happened prior to the filming starting in this video, but I am guessing this was a GIANT verbal power struggle that resulted in a very pissed off officer who reacted while angry. Since no one was in immediate danger there was definitely time to take a step back and make some better choices.

The best choice in this situation would be to remove the audience. When approaching a student who refuses to leave a classroom after repeated requests, I would get down to their level and explain that I was not going to put my hands on them, but I would be calling law enforcement for assistance. I would then tell them that I was going to clear the room of all the other students and adults until help could arrive. In almost every instance that the situation got to this level, the student would get up and leave when I told the class to leave.

If the room clear didn’t work, I would call parents or another relative and see if they could offer assistance. Sometimes talking to their parent or other relative on the phone would diffuse the situation and the student would comply. If that didn’t work, I did go ahead and call law enforcement, usually our School Resource Officer if she/he were available. With no audience, the addition of law enforcement worked for me in all but a few instances.

In the couple of instances where law enforcement did not result in compliance, the office called for back-up. He/she did not try and remove a non-dangerous student from the classroom by him/herself.

Another trick that I used over and over again for a very agitated, “I’m not doing anything you ask me to do” student would be to approach the student in the classroom and tell them I had another situation down the hall and we needed to go there first and then I would deal with their situation after we resolved that other situation. Distraction can be genius at timesJ

The bottom line is that this video exemplifies excessive force at its most alarming and there are must more effective strategies to use in a situation like this one.

Administrators: The Secret to Special Education Scheduling

I am wondering if rather than calling my blog “Rapacious Learning” I should call it “Confessions of a Rapacious Learner”.  If you ever think I am judging bad practice in my blogs, please understand that just about everything I am now critical of are things I once did myself.  And this is the segue I will use to move us into the trials and tribulations of special education scheduling.

Basically, scheduling for special education generally happens something like what is described in the following scenarios.

Scenario #1: Students receive one class period a day or one class period every other day of special education.  This class is called something like Study Skills and incorporates instruction in all goal areas.  It is for the Level 1 student who attends all regular classes and has this time for supplemental instruction.  In some districts, a student may have her/his LRE rate doubled because one building has every other day Study Skills (middle school, for example) and the other school (high school, for example) has every day Study Skills.  This is often the case in high schools when they do not offer alternate day classes in their schedule.

Scenario #2: Students receive their special education time by goal area.  Each goal area is allotted minutes on page F and the student goes to the special education classroom for the designated minutes.  The special education teacher has to work out the time with each regular education teacher and, often, the special education teacher gets their time with students when it works for the general education teacher, which does not allow for grouping for instructional need.

Scenario #3: Once the special education schedule is done, it ends up that one of the special education teachers does not have any students scheduled into their Study Skills class during 4th or 6th period.  This is not realized until the first week of school.  At that time, the decision is made to have the special education teacher co-teach a Science class and a Social Studies class even though there is no common planning time for those teachers.

Scenario #4: Every student with a behavior goal in the building has a Social Skills class they go to every-other-day.  This is the instructional piece of the behavior goal.  The class has nine students and they all receive the same instruction.

Look familiar?  It is very familiar to me as this is the way I have seen it done and the way I did it myself when I was an administrator.  We fit the student into the schedule instead of making the schedule fit the student.  When a student gets to middle school and high school and has Level 1 services, the needs of the student are seldom even discussed; they just go into the special education catch-all class where every special education student is scheduled.

Here are some guidelines for special education scheduling.  They are not easy to follow, but it is imperative that this becomes a priority for schools.

  • Students should only be pulled out of core instruction when they are going to receive direct, purposeful, and effective specially designed instruction. If the student goes to the special education room for 40 minutes a day and spends 30 minutes doing a worksheet while the teacher works with other students with different needs during that time, the student should only go to the room for 10 minutes.
  • Special education instruction should move the student forward in the core curriculum. Although the instruction may be in an isolated skill area, the instruction should have an impact on the bigger picture skills such as comprehension.  Special education teachers must know the core curriculum to be effective.  Remember, Tier 2 and 3 interventions only matter if they move the student forward in Tier 1.
  • Special education teachers should not have to negotiate time with the regular education teachers without the support of the administrator. Having a school-wide RTI time helps with this issue tremendously, although you may still need to find time for special education SDI outside of the RTI time.  Students should not miss vital core curriculum instruction when they go to the special education room.
  • Co-teaching is not supported by research at this time. You heard me and I said it out loud.  This does not mean co-teaching is not effective, it means that we implement this model so poorly in so many instances that the results are not there.  If you are going to have a special education teacher co-teach in a classroom, make sure this is done with thoughtful planning.  The teachers must be given time to collaborate, the special education teacher must have knowledge of the core content, and the special education teacher has to function as more than a glorified paraprofessional.
  • I know this one is a huge sacred cow and it is one that I have personally not come to support easily; stop giving high school credit for special education SDI classes. This causes students to spend more time than they need in the special education room and, oftentimes, it ends up being a study hall with support.  If the student needs help with their assignments, this is often not the best place for this to happen anyway. I have been in many an IEP meeting where the student has to stay in special education because “they need those credits to graduate”.  Again, high schools that have a seminar/RTI time get around this because all students have the same designated time for enrichment and support.
  • DO NOT have a one-size-fits-all class for students with behavior goals. This is another thing I loved and lived for many years.  First of all, these kids don’t have the same instructional needs when it comes to behavior.  Second of all, kids with chronically disruptive behaviors have a difficult time learning in the abstract.  The best model is to provide a couple of short, targeted lessons per week that are individualized (could be created by a teacher and delivered by a para) and then consistently reinforced throughout the day.  By far the best success I ever had with behavior instruction was at a large, urban, middle school where I functioned as a behavior interventionist and could instruct and reinforce all day long within the general education setting.

And, most importantly, whatever you do, make sure you are always focused on results.  Is the student making progress with the services being provided?  If not, you need to have a schedule that allows for things to be flexible as needed to ensure that the services provided are getting results for every student.

(July, 2015)


Munchausen Syndrome by Proxy: Special Education Style

I know I am not officially authorized to identify a new medical condition; but I believe that the special education version of Munchausen Syndrome by Proxy is a real thing and should be something that is diagnosed and treated.  For those of you who don’t know, Munchausen Syndrome by Proxy is a form of child abuse where a parent seeks unneeded medical attention for exaggerated or induced illnesses.

In the special education version, a parent believes that their child needs special education and fabricates “symptoms” of a disability in order to qualify their child for special education or for additional services within special education.  I know this sounds crazy, but I have witnessed this situation in the extreme on three different occasions.  I didn’t really recognize it the first time, but by the second and third instance I knew exactly what I was seeing.  In the most tragic situation, a Mother with two adopted children kept demanding more and more services for her children, even though there appeared to be very little need when the kids were at school; the children came to our district already diagnosed, so the fact that they were entitled was already established when they enrolled in our district.

The Mother would tell us crazy stories about behaviors and demand the most extensive modifications I had ever heard.  She wrote proposed page Fs for both kids and they were pages long, including such things as having the teacher go through her son’s backpack at the beginning and end of every class and twice daily phone calls to her to make sure she was kept apprised of anything that happened with her students.  Once we gained the trust of her children, they began to tell us what went on at home; one of the saddest stories was how one night she punched holes in the walls and destroyed her son’s bedroom and then calmly told him that she was calling the police to tell them that he had done the damage.  She also would hurt herself in front of them and then tell all of us that the kids assaulted her.  Unfortunately, we could not save the children from this mentally ill adult; they both ended up in residential placement and were so damaged by what had been done to them that they both had made serious attempts at suicide before they were removed from the home.

Another, even darker, version of this is the Munchausen by Proxy syndrome I have seen in teachers; I have encountered this twice in my career, so not sure it is as rare as I hope it to be.  In this scenario, a teacher fabricates or instigates behaviors in her/his students to gain attention for him/herself.  In both situations, the teacher worked with students with significant behaviors.  One of the teachers would restrain multiple students every day.  I remember when I first heard about her, it was from other staff who thought she was so amazing and felt so bad for her that she had to put up with all those kids with such terrible behaviors.

As I got closer to this situation, I realized that when she was engaged in a situation where she restrained a student, she appeared to get a physical high during and after the event.  Afterwards, she would go all through the building, telling staff person after staff person what she had gone through, often times showing the bruises or marks that were left after the encounter.  When we added a BD room at another elementary and  moved a couple of her students we realized that the students she was restraining multiple times per week did not need any restraints in the new classroom.  Eventually, we prohibited her from restraining any students and she still managed to create situations when she “had” to get physically involved with students.

This is a phenomenon that we all need to be aware of; as crazy as it sounds, it is a real thing that can be terribly dangerous for the children involved.  Be especially cautious of parents who detail behavior you never see in the school setting or who ask for services that far exceed what the child appears to need.  With teachers, be vigilant when supervising any staff person that is involved in restraining students and make sure that they are well trained, that all restraints are done with a team of staff members, and that restraint is always the last resort.  Most importantly, listen to the student; if they tell you that things are not the way they seem; either in the classroom or home; you need to take the time to listen and investigate.

(February, 2014)