As educators, and especially as educators of children with disabilties, it’s my humble opinion that our most important role is to preserve the dignity of our students. Of course, we must teach them, but first we must reach them, and we do that by earning their respect and trust. I’ve seen time and time again that when adults in their lives (or classrooms) fail to uphold their dignity, kids uphold their own (and not always in ways we find appropriate). Today I’m giving you 10 powerful ways to dignify our students.
For those of you who don’t know, I’m currently working as the coordinator of speech, language and hearing services in my school district. This year, I was also assigned the extra job of supporting the special education staff at a local inner city school. That includes the lead special ed. teacher, the life skills teacher, sped preschool teacher, mild/moderate and inclusion teachers, along with paras, etc. As spring is most definitely springing here, the past 2-3 weeks have consisted of tackling behavior issues at that school. March madness is a real thing in special education and it has nothing to do with basketball. I decided to visit the classrooms where the behaviors were happening to see what my fresh eyes might find.
About 15 minutes into my first observation in a 5th grade classroom, I witnessed a child explode, but it was completely avoidable and basically caused by the adults in the room. This 5th grader (I’ll call him Anthony instead of his real name), who reads so below level that his IEP includes an accommodation that all text be read to him, was asked to read part of their novel aloud in a microphone over the classroom speaker. He politely declined and passed the mic to the person next to him and was promptly (but calmly, thank goodness) issued a conduct mark. Anthony got a little huffy, and then instead of letting him have his space, another adult in the room proceeded to lecture to him about good vs. bad choices. That was it; the shouting commenced. “You don’t care about me. I’m so sick of you people. You don’t like me and you don’t care about me, and I don’t like you and I don’t care about you. You don’t care about me at all.” Then he was rushed out the room, presumably to in-school suspension or a time out room. I could have vomited. I felt the fever rise in my chest, neck and face. No doubt I was full of red welts and splotches (the visible, tell-tale sign that always gives away that I’m upset, or in this case, infuriated). This is basically what I spoke of earlier- the adults in the classroom didn’t protect Anthony’s pride or dignity so he did it himself (more on the rest of his story throughout this post). If we can preserve our kids’ dignity, in most cases, the learning, the motivation, and the relationship will magically follow.
The love for kids, particularly those with disabilities, is all over social media. That’s amazing! I just wish the same acceptance and respect that we see all over Instagram, Facebook and and Pinterest was also happening in every schoolhouse.
When I say that, I mean not just the love for the precious little ones with Down Syndrome or the curly haired cutie who clearly has Autism. I mean, the respect for the kids whose disabilities or struggles are either invisible or are hard to look at. The kids that look “normal” but act out like Anthony: He should know better, I imagine people thinking. The kids people avoid eye contact with – acceptance and respect should be theirs, too.
Now that the educational system is uber focused on teachers’ performance and standardized scores tied to monetary rewards, and teachers are under extreme pressure to keep pace with the more-rigorous-than-ever-no-time-for-fun curricula, we as educators seem to slowly be forgetting that we are molding the minds and psyches of humans who have only been alive for a short while, a decade or less in primary schools. Some have forgotten that our #1, most important, above all else, super duper top-o-the-list job priority is maintaining the dignity of our students. In the case of SLPs and special ed. teachers, the dignity of kids with disabilities of all kinds.
1. TRULY GET TO KNOW YOUR STUDENTS – including THEIR PERCEIVED STRENGTHS, NEEDS AND FEELINGS
Yes, read your students’ evaluations and IEPs, but it goes far beyond that. Have real conversations with your students. We spend a lot of time talking to others about our students when we should just go straight to the source with our kids who have the means to communicate. They have opinions, desires, hopes and dreams and they deserve the chance to express them. Even the young ones. You should go as far as sharing your strengths and weaknesses, too. Admit to them that you’re terrible at XYZ (in my case, numbers and time management) and tell them you need their help to stay on time with the lesson. Ask a student to tell you the time now and then during the session, and then ask them what they need help with from you. Most of the time, they’ll tell you, and that knowledge is golden, whether it’s on their IEP or not. Later, while trying to get to know Anthony, he told me he was adopted (something his gen. ed. teachers didn’t know) and that he struggled with depression even though he was very happy now that he was adopted. He said he dreamed of being a web builder, and even though he knew he wasn’t good at school, he was good with computers. That tells me, we need to get this kid on computers as much as possible to show what he knows. It also tells me that he’s been in foster care which surely comes with a lot of emotional ramifications (including possible trust issues). We need to build a mountain of trust with this student and earn his respect. Nope, we aren’t entitled to respect just because we’re the adult or the person in charge. It doesn’t work that way with kids.
2. PUT YOURSELF IN THEIR SHOES AND GIVE THEM AN OUT
Oh how I wished the teacher, when Anthony passed the mic, would’ve given him an out instead of a conduct mark. I wish it had dawned on her that the reason he didn’t want to read aloud was not because he was being defiant but was because a) he was new to the school and b) he was not able to read the very complex text about Native Americans and c) he didn’t want the class to know that (or at least not figure it out so soon). She could have easily said, “Oh I forgot you’ve had a sore throat” or “I know you need to rest your voice” or anything besides “okay you get a conduct mark for not following directions.” THINK like a kid. We were all one not so terribly long ago. Give them an “out” until you can have an open and non-judgmental conversation about what happened (in private). Most of us who work in schools are tired, stressed, and overwhelmed, but empathizing and acting on the empathy is free and doesn’t take up much of our time. When I found Anthony in the time out room, I told him that I saw what happened back in class and I understood why he was upset. When I asked if he wanted to talk about it, he told me he had trouble following the rules in classes where the teachers didn’t show him any respect. Then he promptly listed the teachers who did and did not respect him. When I asked why he thought they didn’t, he said he could tell by the way they talked to him. Here’s where it’s important you just listen and do not fix, justify or talk him out of this line of thinking. Whether his perception of his strengths and weaknesses is accurate or feelings about his teachers are accurate is irrelevent – his perception is his reality and your knowledge of his perceptions is powerful. They help you put yourself in his shoes.
3. GIVE THEM THE SAME RESPECT YOU EXPECT FROM THEM
Aretha had it right. R-E-S-P-E-C-T is a big deal. We expect students to speak respectfully to us (without sarcasm, tone, attitude, loud volume), so we should speak respectfully to them. We expect them to stop and listen when we are speaking, so let’s stop and listen when they do. We expect them to use respectful body language and facial expressions, so let’s honor them by doing the same. We model academic skills all day long. We should model behavior also. Kids are only younger than us; they are not oblivious to rudeness, impatience, sarcasm, subtle digs, disrespect, condescension, belitting, humiliation, or shouting. They deserve the same respect we deserve. Also, some students, once they feel disrespected, will write us off as just another adult who doesn’t care about them. Not to mention it’s just wrong to treat another person unkindly, no matter what our day has been like. I wish this weren’t true, but kids with disabilities get enough sideways looks, snickering, etc.; it should never come from a teacher or therapist. Ever. If needed, fake it, but just know, most kids can spot a phony. They can feel how someone feels about them just like you can. If they feel safe with you or feel that you care about them, chances are better that they will behave in your presence, will perform their best for you, and will try to please you. Honestly, you get what you give. Check out this article from Learning and the Brain if you don’t think it matters that kids like you. It does! Also, apologizing to students goes a loooooonnnnnng way.
My #1 rule in therapy was “I will always respect you and you will always respect me.” I once overheard two very tough boys, who spent more time suspended than at school, say “You better respect Mrs. Mia because she respect us.” Dare I say that was one of my proudest moments… even though I was also slightly afraid of what would happen to the kids they were speaking to if they didn’t listen. Yikes.
4. GIVE THEM WORK (and homework) THEY CAN DO.
We all make mistakes. How many times in history has that phrase been uttered? Countless. The fact of the matter, however, is that kids who struggle in school make more mistakes than the average student. Imagine if your whole day was a struggle – if you constantly struggled to do tasks at your job and constantly got corrected. THAT IS A BEAT DOWN- mentally and emotionally. Wouldn’t you want to give up? Would you cry? Would you go the bathroom and stay there way longer than you needed to? Would you tear up your paper? I would. At some point during the day (or several points) give them work they can be successful with! For goodness sakes, give them homework they can do! Kids with disabilities who aren’t being independently successful in general education should not be sent home with grade level homework. That is setting them up for failure. Give them work at their functioning level: work they can complete (at their level), will want to complete and will leave them feeling successful. While working with Anthony, I let him sort all kinds of statements such as “I’d rather be smart than athletic” or “I have a teacher who cares about me.” into 2 piles which were “agree” or “do not agree.” They didn’t require him to speak, but his sorting spoke volumes. When he got to one that said, “Reading is harder than math.” he said something like, “I want to talk about this one. They are both hard, but I want to talk about math. I can do plus and minus and times, but I cannot do fractions or division. I get to use a calculator but I don’t know what numbers to punch in, and I can’t do my math homework by myself. Also, my grandmother, who I stay with at night, doesn’t know how to help me with my math homework.” From that day on, he only got math homework he could do. Kids need small victories to keep them going just like we do. I shared what he said about the calculator with his math and special education teachers who have since helped him learn “what numbers to punch in” and how to use it; he’s doing better in math now and his behavior has improved. While we’re talking about mistakes, when you make a mistake, be sure to admit it and show your students that you’re not perfect either.
5. CORRECT THEM DISCREETLY OR IN PRIVATE
You know how I just said our kids make lots of mistakes? Those could be wrong answers, poor behavior choices, not following directions, etc., etc. We’ve already established that they likely make more mistakes than the average bear. Show respect and care (which strengthens your relationship and gains trust) by correcting them discreetly or in private. That’s the very essence of preserving their dignity. Their classmates have noticed they struggle; there is no need to air the mistakes to the whole class or even the small group the student is in. Why do administrators meet with us about our mid year or end of year observations or reviews in private? Because it would be inappropriate to talk about our performance in front of our peers. Why then, would we talk about a student’s performance (except to sing praises) in front of their peers? It’s embarrassing and disrespectful and chips away at their self esteem and dignity. You’ll be amazed how much better the conversation will go in private, and each time you do it, you rise on their trust meter.
6. SEND POSITIVE NOTES HOME
This is SO easy (and also free). You all have sticky notes! Y’all, kids want positive notes home. What goes home affects them- sometimes more than we can imagine, and kids with disabilities go home with not-so-pleasant notes or not-so-great grades/progress reports, etc. more than most kids. Send them happy notes to take to mom and dad or grandma and grandpa or whomever their family may be. I recently did a forced choice inventory with Anthony. Have you heard of these? You can download one HERE. It’s basically a survey that asks what kids would choose if they had a choice. It’s kind of like the “would you rather” game. For example, it might say, “Which would you choose? Teacher writes “100” on your paper or a bag of chips?” It includes bunches and bunches of choices consisting of adult approval, peer approval, independent rewards, consumables or competitive approval. It truly gives you insight into what a student wants- what makes each child tick. Time and time again, the kids with disabilities that I work with end up choosing the items of adult approval. Positive notes, calls, emails and texts matter- not just to kids but to their parents and caretakers, too! Make them happen, and see your students get happier, more confident and more motivated everyday.
7. INCLUDE STUDENTS IN CONVERSATIONS AND DECISION MAKING ABOUT THEIR EDUCATION
I’ve said it before- we spend a lot of time talking to other adults about kids. We need to spend more time talking (and listening) to the actual kids. It’s their education- give them choices- ask for input- yes, even the little ones. Do you wonder if a child’s accommodations are really beneficial to her? Ask her. Do you really think that being in a small group is helping you or would you rather take your tests in class with your classmates? Does it help you when I read the test to you or is it distracting? Would you being able to read it aloud help more? Then of course, you must follow these up with trials and data collection, but ASK. Ask, “Is your behavior plan motivating you to follow the school rules or do you think we need to try something else? Do you feel like typing your answers would be more helpful to you than writing your answers? How about today we try some different seating and see what works best for you?” Let them design their behavior charts. If only someone had asked Anthony earlier if the calculator was actually helping him! Ask them their opinion about electives. Truly differentiate and give them assignment choices. Their education shouldn’t be something just happening to them.
8. MAKE SURE THEY ALWAYS HAVE ACCESS TO THEIR ASSISTIVE TECHNOLOGY OR AAC (Alternative or Augmentative Communication)
My first SLP job in 1996 was in the same district I am in now, except it was working with 2 populations – deaf children who communicated via Cued Speech and nonverbal children in need of AAC. At the age of 22, I was bright eyed and bushy tailed and saw the best in everyone, but me faciliating AAC changed that. I spent countless hours programming devices, procuring devices, training staff about devices, getting devices approved by insurance for families, etc. Then everytime I walked into a classroom, the devices that served as my students’ voices were dusty and uncharged atop a shelf. I became angry and cynical. This happened time after time wherever I went, and sadly, it’s still happening today in 2019, in the age of state of the art technology at our fingertips. If you are withholding someone’s AAC, stop it immediately. The biggest, badassest way you can preserve a student’s dignity is to give him access to the technology he needs, and anyone who does not should have their iPhone crushed into smithereens and thrown in a river. When you deny a child access to AAC, it’s the same as someone ripping out your vocal cords. Charge it, have back up batteries, have back up boards, and let the child have it ALL DAY in ALL SETTINGS. If you don’t, I hope Ursula comes up from the sea and steals your voice just like she did Ariel’s. That is all.
9. SPEAK TO AND ACKNOWLEDGE CHILDREN WITH SEVERE DISABILITIES
I see it all the time…a paraprofessional or teacher is walking with or sitting with a child who is nonverbal, who is in a wheelchair or who is obviously significantly challenged…and passersby speak to the adult. “Good morning, Mrs. Roberts” or even “Hi, Mrs. Roberts, How is Crystal today?” Recently, I went to see the movie, The Upside, starring Kevin Hart, Nicole Kidman and Bryan Cranston. Bryan Cranston plays a quadriplegic, and Kevin Hart is his aide or carer. They go to a hot dog stand and Kevin Hart’s character orders, and then the guy behind the counter says, “What will he have?” to which Kevin Hart responds, “He’s right here. Why don’t you ask HIM?” Y’all, kids, or any person of any age with special needs, regardless of functioning level or how you perceive them, are people. They deserve acknowledgement – not us talking about them as if they aren’t there. They deserve to be addressed – not ignored as if they were a garden statue. If they happen to not have access to their AAC (for some God forsaken reason – refer to above), they can likely still smile, gesture, vocalize, or something. Please don’t treat them as if they are invisible. They are alive and breathing and at school, and they are someone’s cherished child. Treat them as if you’d want your own child or grandchild treated.
10. RELATE TO THEM, INSPIRE THEM and LET THEM KNOW YOU BELIEVE IN THEM
Do we all have crummy days? Yep. If your student is having one, let him know you are, too (or that you did yesterday) and you know he’s upset. Is one of your students in pain due to a chronic condition? Let them know that you wish you were as tough as them because you fell while skiing and it’s really hard to be in pain. Tell them about a time you lost your temper, were late for work, or wrecked your car. Let them know we have terrible, no good, very bad days, too. I always tell my students how bad I am at math (true story) and how impressed I am that they can figure out equations (or other math skill of the week). Inspire them. I tell them about when I got detention (true) or failed my driving test the first time (also true), but I kept going and now I’m their speech therapist. I used to tell my middle school students that I had a baby when I was still in high school but then still went to college – and that is was soooo hard – so I believed they could do hard things, too. Let them know even teachers have hard times and fail at things. I often tell my students stories about how my son is really smart but he never learned to ride a bike. They think that’s crazy. Let them know there are all kinds of smart. Then tell them over and over and over again that you believe in them. You believe they can learn X, Y, Z. You believe they can do their best. You believe they can get to school on time and you’ll be there waiting to high five them. You believe they will graduate. You believe they can go the rest of the year without getting in a fight. They need to know someone believes in them. Be the one just in case there is no one else.
When Anthony was taken out of class and taken to a “time out room,” I went to see him, and he was stewing. I told him that I saw what happened back in class and I understood why he was upset. I even said I was upset about it, too. When I spoke to his teacher, who clearly had no idea why Anthony had an outburst, I told her I thought I knew why. I explained that he was several grades below level in reading and that he was likely trying to save face, being the new kid, and being aware that he could not read the text. I said that he had an IEP that basically stated he was never required to read and that he had the right to have all text read to him. She said she understood that, but that she wanted him to know she believed in him. She didn’t want to pass him over with the mic because that would send him a message that she didn’t think he could read, that he was lesser, or that she didn’t have confidence in him. She had a good point. We agreed that she could offer the mic but that he was allowed to “pass” if he chose to. Her thinking was spot on. She was protecting his dignity even though it didn’t look like it at the time. We also agreed, she would remove the conduct mark. We told Anthony that from now on, he had the option to pass the microphone. He was grateful, said “thank you” and went back to class with a much different disposition. Later, I shared Anthony’s perspective with the teachers he listed as not caring about him/not liking him. One actually cried. She said she’s just stressed and didn’t realize she was coming off like she was. Things are better today.
It’s a slippery slope we climb as educators – especially special educators. What works for one student, doesn’t always work for another. It’s called special education for a reason. The work we do is special. The impact we make is special. The students we educate have special circumstances. It’s our job to make them feel special in a good way – instead of special in an “air quotes” kind of way. We do that by preserving their dignity and respecting them as humans.
Get inspired to put this into practice! Watch this incredbile Ted Talk by Dr. Rita Pierson who says, “Kids don’t learn from people they don’t like.” It’s powerful. We do not have to like them all, but they cannot know it.
Thanks for reading; this topic is near and dear to my heart.