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A Culture of Abuse?

8 Nov

“The Fulton County School System will not tolerate the mistreatment of any children and has strict policies in place to prevent such actions. We have hundreds of caring, devoted individuals who work every day with our students with disabilities.”

This is a statement made by a spokeswoman for Fulton Couny schools in a case where the system is being charged with neglect and abuse.  To be sure I have no doubt that a part of this statement is mostly true.  There are some caring and devoted individuals working with students with disabilities.  But the first part?

Let’s just say that Fulton County is not alone in having a culture where those who have the most severe disabilities are systematically marginalized, neglected and outright abused.  It is not an isolated case.  It is a systemic problem where several heroic and caring individuals manage to overcome a bias against these students and those they care for that is inherent in our present system.  To be sure, I think this is an extreme case that was allowed to go on well past what it should have.  Reports show that there were loads and loads of reports, interviews and statements by faculty and staff that this was going on.  You see stacks of CDs with videos with these interviews on them.  I don’t think anyone seeing this video can be anything other than outraged.  It truly makes my blood boil which is why I am so moved to blog about it.  And I am so close to the business as a parent and as former teacher of this population, it does touch a raw nerve.

So how could something like this happen?  There are SO many reasons…let me see if I can count them…

1. The students are nonverbal and powerless.  These students represent the most vulnerable segment in the entire school population.  They are vulnerable to anything and everything because they can not tell what happened when they get home from school.  Many of them can barely move.  They have severe and multiple needs including limited language and limited mobility.  They can not escape and can not fight back.  Actually, some of them can and try to escape and fight back in their own way, but they are largely at the mercy of who ever is caring for them.

2. These students (and the staff that care for them) are the most isolated group in the school.  If you want to create an environment for abuse and neglect, the recipe is fairly simple: Take a bunch of people, put them in a room together all day and then put some stress on them.  I’ll talk a bit about the stresses in a moment, but the isolation is one of the things that makes this so bad in so many ways.  Despite the provisions in the law for “least restrictive environment” the students with the most severe disabilities continue to spend their entire day in a single room.  Many do not even eat in the cafeteria.  With budget and staff cuts, community-based instruction is largely a thing of the past.  If the staff in Fulton County saw abuse in the halls, you can only imagine how hideous conditions were in that room.  There are reasons for the isolation and I should do a blog post just on that alone. But isolation provides a place where bad things can brew and incubate, especially given #1 above.  Students and their teachers need to get the heck out of that room once in awhile!

3. The staff are some of the most poorly trained and unqualified.  I have had a chance to work with and around some wonderful and brilliant people in the field.  Some of them were truly amazing, especially a lot of the paraeducators.  With a bit of training they really shined, and were tremendously good with these students.  And then the administration promptly transferred them somewhere else.  To be honest, many of them may have asked to be transferred.  But many did not.  As a rule, truly competent paras usually were moved into other settings outside of those who have multiple and severe disabilities. As a rule, teachers have little or no say as to which paras get assigned to their classrooms.  They are expected to be thankful for whoever they get.

4. Overcrowded and understaffed classrooms.  If you simply look at the numbers, you would wonder how something like that could be.  How could a class of 10 students in a classrom with 5 adults be overcrowded and understaffed?  Part of it goes back to #3.  If I had the most qualified and capable staff, I could do a lot more with a lot less, and that is the way I would prefer it.  More adults CAN add to more overcrowding and more stress. But each of these students demand total and absolute care.  It isn’t necessarily the ones who have the most impairments that have the greatest needs, either.  It is the combination of the physically immobile and fragile, combined with those who might be totally physically capable that causes many of the problems.  If I have 10 students and 5 are in wheelchairs, it takes 5 people to to push 5 chairs such as during a fire alarm or assembly or fieldtrip.  However if I have 5 kids who like to run, it puts the teacher in a dilemma about leaving the one child to chase after another.  So this leads to problem #1.  It’s simply easier for an understaffed group to hunker down in the one classrom and play ‘zone defense’.  By the way, the state of Georgia once had a class size limit of 5 for individuals with profound intellectual disabilities.  Since waiving class size requirements, class sizes and caseloads have routinely doubled for this population.  I know of a teacher who at one point has 15 students.  And no matter how many paras you cram into a room to help, each student needs direct 1:1 time with the teacher, something more than just changing a diaper.

5. The noise level adds to the stress and isolation.   These students may be nonverbal but they are not silent.  Not by a long shot!  I have had several students that could rattle every window in the hallway with their various noises and screeches.  And they would do it often, they would do it all day and they would do it LOUDLY!  Many of the most frustrating instances of abuse occur over the noise and the stress it causes.  And the more students in the room, the more the noise level increases and the more stressed it feels.  It’s not that these students are necessarily in pain.  Sometimes they are expressin happiness.  But sometimes they are verbalizing their own frustration and stress.  And sometimes I’ve found myself with some of the loudest staff on the faculty!  Talk about days where I wanted to just wear earplugs!  But that is a big reason why many of these classrooms are as far away from other classrooms as possible so as to not disturb those who are trying to take and pass a standardized test.

6. Where is the administration?  Probably not in the self-contained classroom where none of the students help increase AYP, the graduation rate, test scores, athletic prowess or college enrollments and scholarships.  The sad fact is, is that not many administrators know what happens in these classrooms.  Not many know what should be happening in these classrooms.  This is a different world where things are not as easily measured as bubbling in answers.  The principal in Fulton county should have known that students were not supposed to be pushed, hit, kicked and kept isolated in little dark rooms.  But she probably also had no idea what should have been going on instead.  Many of my observations were conducted in the lunchroom while we fed the students.  At least once, I had no idea I was being observed!  And my final year, the principal never observed me.  He watched this video and based his observation on that.  I had videos of me actually teaching that he could have watched, but he made me take those down.  I’ve tried to show people what I do, but the administrators frankly do not care that much...until something happens:

“Many schools do not have a sufficient number of students with disabilities to ‘count’ as a subgroup for Adequate Yearly Progress,” the auditors wrote. “School-based leaders could not answer questions regarding the performance of students receiving special education. Their answers included these: ‘I will have to look it up,’ ‘It’s not as good as they want it to be,’ ‘I can’t remember the exact number but it was not good,’ and ‘We don’t have to worry about the group because there are not enough to count.’”

And this often leads to them hiring someone who is unqualified because they are unsure of what ‘qualified’ looks like beyond the certificate….

7. The #1 question I get asked by teachers who are just hired and new to this field is “What do I do with these kids all day?”   Anyone else see a problem with this?  I think it is good that a new teacher reaches out and asks for help.  And I am more than happy to help them!  Teachers in this positon are usually pretty good at listening and taking direction and they pick things up pretty quickly and are able to run with it.  I have no idea the credentials of this Fulton County teacher, but I do know of at least one very highly qualified and experienced teacher who has been passed over  for jobs like this only to put someone less experienced and qualified into it.  Why?

8. Speaking out against abuse, neglect, inequality and discrimination will get you fired, it may make you unemployable and/or make working conditions more unbearable.  In an age of accountability and feedback, this is one area where the tolerance is very low.   Teachers who talk too much, who blow the whistle and try to point out injustice and outrage find themselves in big trouble in a lot of ways.  In the Atlanta Public schools we saw this before in the cheating scandal where the district tried to fire teachers and humiliated and intimidated those that tried to report instances of cheating.  I have tried my best not to be overly critical in my blogging of specific instances in my home district, but my advocacy efforts using this blog might be one reason why I am writing this at home right now instead of delivering outstanding services to students with disabilities at a school near you.

9. Parents have no idea.  And that is probably the most frightening thing of all, as a parent myself.  At least my children are verbal and can talk.  That doesn’t always mean thay will but at least they can.  So how can a parent know?  Sometimes their kids DO let their parents now through behaviors.  But mostly the parents of these students are in the dark, and the system likes to conspire to keep it that way.  See #6 and #8 above, and you see why a teacher who knows will not necessarily tell you.  Everyone in the building may know that your child’s teacher is horribly incompetent and abusive but you, the parent, will be the last to know.  Unless you sew a microphone in your son’s shirt collar.

10.” Something bad has to happen before anything will change.”  This is what a former principal once told me while I was sitting in his office.  We were discussing a letter that I had written and I was getting ready to send home to parents, telling them about what was going on in my classroom.  He was not happy with my letter because it was written in such a fashion that it made it sound like the district and the school cared less about my students than other students in the school or less than cared.  See #8 and #9 above.   That letter never did get sent out to the parents.  My job was to make sure nothing did happen, while the system was making choices that seemed to guarantee and foster an environment where something bad had to happen.

THAT is why I resigned at the end of that year.  I could not speak out and tell my parents.  I didn’t feel like I was being listened to.  I was feeling more and more powerless as things deteriorated.  Keeping bad things from happening was getting to be more difficult and more stressful.  I am not a pessimist by nature, and always seek to turn situations around by finding new and creative solutions to whatever problems may exist. But I was faced with a situation where those above me were pretty much going to continue to let things deteriorate until something bad happened and then who would be to blame?

The system is set up so that bad things have to happen before people are motivated to do anything.  And even then, sometimes they are reluctant to make the necessary moves.  Which of you would volunteer your child to be the victim of abuse, injury or neglect in order to turn things around?  I know the parents of Alex Williams would not have wished this on their own child for anything.  I don’t think Stefan Ferrari’s parents would have volunteered their child for mistreatment.  In both cases the school district is aggressively trying to cover up and defend itself and seems rather unrepentant throughout the entire process.

The environment in education today is ripe for this sort of thing to happen in a school near you.  Is it happening in your school?  In your classroom?  With your child?

What happened in Fulton County is happening all over.  Much of what is happening can be summed up by the term “Willful Ignorance.”  Everyone acts like it is all okay, especially those within the institution itself.  Anyone who speaks out is shut up and silenced and intimidated.  Heaven forbid we let one of these people who see the problems back into our organization!

Next time, I would like to talk about what a teacher, a principal and/ or a parent could do to minimize the risk of this sort of thing.  Are there things that could be done to prevent this sort of abuse and neglect?  Yes!  But for now, I’ll leave you with an informative video about the tyranny of positive thinking:




The Great Horde

15 Nov

I also, on occasion, teach adult Sunday school. Last weekend I taught part 1 of 2 on 2 Chronicles 20. I had no idea at that time how appropriate this lesson would become in the week ahead. My brave band of paras and I bravely stand against a horde of responsibilities and insensitive bureaucrats and administrators who seem bent on crushing us.

Well….maybe not so brave. For the past week, I have not even wanted to go to sleep, because I knew that as soon as I closed my eyes, I would awake to a new day of being crushed. And so it was, as some of my paras were out for all sorts of reasons and I had substitutes who courageously tried to soldier on with me. But by Friday, my back was positively aching from all the extra lifting.

In 2 Chronicles 20, the king of Judah, Jehoshaphat, is threatened by not 1, not 2 but 3 separate armies who have joined together against him. He gathered the people and cried out:

“O Lord, God of our fathers, are you not God in heaven? You rule over all the kingdoms of the nations. In your hand are power and might, so that none is able to withstand you. 7 Did you not, our God, drive out the inhabitants of this land before your people Israel, and give it forever to the descendants of Abraham your friend? 8 And they have lived in it and have built for you in it a sanctuary for your name, saying, 9 ‘If disaster comes upon us, the sword, judgment, or pestilence, or famine, we will stand before this house and before you—for your name is in this house—and cry out to you in our affliction, and you will hear and save.’ 10 And now behold, the men of Ammon and Moab and Mount Seir, whom you would not let Israel invade when they came from the land of Egypt, and whom they avoided and did not destroy— 11 behold, they reward us by coming to drive us out of your possession, which you have given us to inherit. 12 O our God, will you not execute judgment on them? For we are powerless against this great horde that is coming against us. We do not know what to do, but our eyes are on you.”

That last verse totally resonated with me and where we are. I was told not to send any letters to parents until they are approved. Therefore I’m giving up on that, although those letters do chronicle past and current problems. No, I will call or talk to parents in person. It’s time for some parent involvement. Trouble is, the school doesn’t really like such involvement. But outside of that, I must not fret, worry and sweat it. I was told that nothing would change unless something bad happens. But it’s my job to ensure that nothing does happen. And we will hold the line. Fortunately, Jehoshaphat was not left dangling and neither are we, for a the spirit of the Lord came upon Jahaziel:

15 And he said, “Listen, all Judah and inhabitants of Jerusalem and King Jehoshaphat: Thus says the Lord to you, ‘Do not be afraid and do not be dismayed at this great horde, for the battle is not yours but God’s. 16 Tomorrow go down against them. Behold, they will come up by the ascent of Ziz. You will find them at the end of the valley, east of the wilderness of Jeruel. 17 You will not need to fight in this battle. Stand firm, hold your position, and see the salvation of the Lord on your behalf, O Judah and Jerusalem.’ Do not be afraid and do not be dismayed. Tomorrow go out against them, and the Lord will be with you.”

And so it turns out that not a shot was fired from Judah in anger. The invading armies turned on each other and wiped themselves out! It took 3 days for the people of Judah to carry the plunder from the enemy camps.

So tomorrow, I’m going to face the horde and trust that God is with us.

Bricks Without Straw

9 Nov

I always intended this blog to be mostly informative and supportive for parents and other teachers that do what I do.  In the earliest days, it was also a place to vent my spleen mostly about NCLB and the GAA.  Those things are still vent worthy and I’m overdue for a vent.  But today I’m throwing up yet another lament.

The “Whining”‘ post resonated with many readers, probably because there is an epidemic of this sort of pain running through the field.  To be honest, I hated that post, which is why I tried to bury it immediately behind a more informative (and longer) post.  But I needed to write it and needed to post it.  Just this one needs to be written and posted.

Perhaps I have a “fan” at the central office or in administration who read my post and decided that perhaps I needed to have something to really whine about.  Perhaps the Almighty, in His great wisdom is making sure I don’t miss the signs.  I’ve been known to be a bit slow on the uptake.  Before relating the present woes, indulge me in a story from my past…

I was teaching science at a private boarding school in the early ’90’s, teaching science.  I lived at the school, which was handy since I went over a year without a car.  The hours were long, as we had duties at night and on some weekends in addition to teaching.  And the pay was less than what paras make in public schools.  But it was a good place to start out.  But during my 3rd year, as I was working on my Master’s I was deciding whether or not I should leave and look for something else.  That summer, we had torrential rains which flooded the apartments where I was staying.  Natural disaster, right?  4 months later, in a totally different dorm, a pipe broke and the place flooded again. A few months later, lightening struck and destroyed a bunch of my electronics.  It, along with deteriorating politics there, was a neon sing to me that read “GET OUT!”

So now, I begin to tally the score for this year.  Three years ago, I aksed to move into co-teaching.  I was denied.  Two years ago, I asked again, even taking and passing the science test to be certified and HQ so I could coteach.  Again denied.  Last year, I asked to transfer within the district.  Denied AGAIN.  Apparently I’m meant to stay.  Right?  As we began the year, one of my best paras was moved off and replaced against both of our wishes.  That cost me as well as the students she bonded with.  Then I was hit by the numbers while being understaffed, hence the “whining” post.

Today, I learned that there was a reduction in force, a RIF.  Our school lost two para positions.  Two paras were transferred to a middle school.  And they took one of mine to replace one of those that were transferred.  They picked one of my best, and put her in with less disabled kids and informed me I would be doing what I was struggling to do before with substantially less help.  We are now an accident or an incident waiting to happen.

Now I have to finish letters drafted a few months ago and at least document the peril we now face so whenever whatever happens, does, no one can say they were not warned.  Meanwhile, me and my ever-decreasing brave band of paras will hunker down and attempt to hold an ever-expanding line.

The 2nd Day of School is Better than the First!

4 Aug

And this is a trend that I hope continues as the year goes on. Fortunately it looks like my new paras are fairly sharp and are rapidly catching on to a new routine and are taking up some of the slack that I inevitably leave in a wake of growing responsibilities. Advocating for my paras is sometimes even more difficult that advocating for my students. Since my students are so dependent on adult support, it’s practically the same thing, anyway.

Today we were all better prepared and met the various challenges head-on. And we did see a few new challenges that didn’t show up yesterday, but we’re all dealing without the wheels falling off. I’m encouraged by the students settling in to what little structure and routine we presently have in place. I was actually able to have a bit of structured class/group time with the kids today. However, 8 is way, way too many to group with this population. The fact is, is that with a population of SID/PID students you have to be in close physical proximity to effectively teach anything. I have to be able to reach out and touch every person I am working with. Yes, having para support is helpful but the teacher needs to be able to physically touch, prompt and otherwise hold attention. My limit is 3 in a group. I have seriously tried and tried working with groups of 4 or more, but with the sort of intense instruction we do, it just does not work well. 3 + me = 4 and that seems to be the perfect setup. Anyone extra becomes a 5th and 6th (and 7th and 8th) wheel. Last year, with 7 students, I had 2 groups of 3 and tried to work the 7th wherever he/she fit. Often someone was absent, so it was workable much of the time. The 3 paras would do 1:1 work with whoever I wasn’t working with or they could combine up so everyone in the room was engaged on some level. This is the way it should be, but when numbers swell so far past the available adults it breaks everything down and no one gets any productive time!

I would say that the behaviors today were probably more challenging on some levels than yesterday. However was able to spend more time probing around and trying to determine the function of these behaviors today. The way to determine function is to try different things in order to elicit the behavior. Mostly eliciting it under various conditions, such as demand, attention or alone conditions. So in the case of someone who is kicking (not an issue in my room at the moment), it means getting kicked a lot more by trying to cause it. Once the cause is found, a program is determined to to replace the behavior or reinforce something else, like attention or compliance. I’m keeping it all simple for the sake of saying that I do have numerous and fresh battle wounds today to show for my behavioral combat. Applied Behavior Analysis isn’t truly applied unless the investigator has sacrificed some of his/her own hide for the cause. If there isn’t blood and bruises, you’re probably not doing it right.

Things will also get easier as I get my legs under me and leave the laziness of summer behind me. I was sore and exhausted yesterday. Today isn’t the same sort of soreness or the sensation of being so bone weary. Yes, I’m tired, but I can still think and move without wincing.

So those of you who haven’t started your school year yet, I hope this will serve as a bit of encouragement. Yes, the first day can be a crusher but it does get better.

Why Experience Counts

3 Aug

School officially began and I am almost too wiped out and crushed to write.  At the same time, I am feeling almosted to crushed NOT to write!

I’ve found myself in the awkward position of trying to explain to administrators as to why experience and attitude are equally important in teaching students with severe disabilities.  While it is important no matter what you teach, there can be some dire consequences for NOT having some background with this population.  And if there is a poor attitude, such as a prejudice against kids with disabilities, no amount of knowledge or background will help.  We had a case a couple of years ago where a teacher and para got canned because of abuse charges, and they were both competent and experienced.  But they didn’t really like most of the students, and took it out on them with some rather foolish misconduct.

It takes at least a year for me to get a para up to full speed, and at least another year before I can consider them fully skilled.  Some take longer and some can learn a bit quicker, but it really does take a full year to learn all of the ropes involved in opening school, teaching the GAA, doing all of the Special Olympic events and enduring me through all of my IEPs.  For the past several years, it has been almost impossible for me to keep a fully qualified team intact.  Sometimes it is because staff members move on, but most often it is because the administration sees a sharp para and they take them away for AYP/political/unkown reasons.  This infuriates me, especially when I have an oppressive class load like I do this year.  It is basically a case of discrimination based upon disability, considering my students less worthy of highly qualified people rather than the more general population.  And I am not putting up with that any more.  Next time that happens, there WILL be a letter sent to the office of civil rights.  The culture of discrimination ends today.

So just what does the learning curve involve for a new para?  First, knowing the kids and their names and the nature of each ones disability.  It’s important to know whaen someone is just having a behavioral issue and when someone is having an autistic issue.  It’s important to know who has seizures.  You have to know things dealing with mobility, physical therapy, communication, feeding, toileting, and allergies.  And the preceding list are all things that have to be known simply to get the students through breakfast!!  The learning curve is extraordinarily steep, detailed and challenging.  Feed them something they are allergic to can result in DEATH!  But most of my students have no way of telling us if something is bothering them or what it is.  The best way is by knowing them, and it takes time to do that.  With regular high school kids, they can tell you all about their summer, what they are allergic to, what they like and dislike, what positions or noises or things make them uncomfortable.  Many of my kids just scream, holler and hit their faces or bang their heads, and we have to figure it out.  Knowing them over a period of time helps take some of the guesswork out it.   And then there’s the work involved in getting to know the new students.  It’s difficult for me to quickly get to know a couple of new students if I’m also helping new staff get to know the other 6 as well as the new ones.

The first day of school is stressful for all students and teachers.  Many express themselves in various ways by talking about it.  Some might act out behaviorally.  Some might just poop their pants all day long.  Which leads to the next extraordinary facet of my setting.  It is totally and utterly  physical.

By 10:30, my shirt was soaked with sweat, even though the thermometer in my room read 68 degrees.  I felt really bad for the poor kids I was changing as sweat was dripping from me on to them.  I tried keeping it wiped off and soldiered on.  It was all about lifting, undressing, dressing lifting some more, positioning in a wedge, stander or on the floor and getting the next one, followed by repositioning.  I found myself channeling the days on the farm stacking hay under a hot tin roof!

Some folks are a bit surprised that I, as a teacher, change diapers instead of just letting the paras do it all.  But I totally believe in leading from the front.  Besides, if I have a couple of students that are demanding all of my time for whatever reason, changing might be the most quality time I spend with some!  It is a very sad fact that even with only 7 or 8 students that it is often difficult to find a sufficient amount of time to spend with any individual students.  So today was spent teaching the 2 (out of three) new paras some of the ropes while also trying to decipher and figure out the new behaviors from the old students and all of the behaviors from my new students.  By the end of the day, I was sore and exhausted.  I spent too much time laying around this summer!

I do think my new para team will work well once everyone gets up to speed.   I also have faith that my students will adjust and be fun to work with, each in their own way.  But it is always such a long and steep climb to get to that point!   It’s difficult explaining this to someone who does not exist in the world where I’ve been living over the past 10 years.   But those who are making these decisions need to know that their seemingly haphazard decisions have consequences.

Getting it Together

25 Jul

Today I continued getting my room together.  It was and remains a huge job.  I still have to unpack boxes and bring the adaptive equipment.  Standers and wedges!  I forgot to factor in space for those big pieces of furniture when I arranged my stuff!  They are incredibly important for the students who use them, but they also spend a lot of time just getting in our way when they are not being used.  I actually have a very large space compared to most other rooms in the county, but there are lots of windows and other things that limit how space can be arranged.  I have to work to create spaces to work, learn, play, relax and change positions.  We basically live in this room (unlike other high school students, who change classes every period.  A period this year is defined as a 90 minute block.

I didn’t spend all of my time at school today, as it is Saturday afterall!  I did get quite a bit done, but there is still a ton of work to do.  Some of the unpacking I will leave for the paras, because i do have other things to do, like actually planning for the students and figuring how I might best use the paras I’ve been assigned.  I’ll handle that delicate subject in a later post.

Today, the building was officially open for all the teachers to come in and begin getting ready.   We have over 130 teachers in this building and I don’t think I saw more than a dozen.  This seems incredibly odd to me.  All week long, the middle and elementary schools have had hordes of activity around them as they busy themselves with various preparations.  What is up with my school?  Where was everyone?  Granted, none of us are getting paid for this time but this is true across the entire system.  I’m wondering if there is some lack of ethos at the high school level, or maybe it is just in our building.  I’ve often wondered at the differences between middle grades and high school communities and am very, very keen to find out one day soon.  One day.  But not today.

I did take pictures and shoot video and i may eventually post some sort of vlog showing my progress. The cosmetic work has mostly been done, for now except for doing stuff to the walls.  If I have a weakness (I do have many), arts and crafts are chief among them.  I’m lousy at bulletin boards and making decorations.  I actually favor a blank wall.  If I do happen to make a bulletin board, it will stay up FOREVER!  Seriously, at my last job that I did for 4 years I put up a board in the computer lab that never changed.  EVER.  It just sort of faded.  The only reason I changed classroom boards was because they moved me to a different classroom.  Fortunately I have paras that are talented in that area.  Or I hope I have paras that are talented in that area.

Mentally, I shift from dread, to anger, to anticipation to grim determination in regards to the coming year.  There’s always some sense of hope going into a new school year but a lot of that has been diminished for me.  I still feel the remnants of last year’s betrayal, which flairs up every time I see other people advance, move on and do other things while I’m still stuck.   So it  is that I gear up and get my room and my head together for year 10 in the SID/PID room.

The Seclusion and Restraint Issue

12 Mar
The steady and increasing drumbeat of disability advocates is zeroing in on the use of seclusion and restraints in the school system. My friends over at are leading the charge along with a number of others, if you check out their links.
While this has been an issue for a few decades, I think I can safely say that it has begun to approach critical mass. Changes are being made around the country, in the state of Georgia and in my own school system. Keep in mind that corporal punishment was still pretty common in many Georgia districts until relatively recently.

Before diving into the fray, let me give you a bit of my own personal history on the subject. I’ve already written abit of my own old school background on the subject of spanking. My first real exposure to the practice in special education was when I was a para at the local psychoeducational center about 15 years ago. Basically the guideline for time-out was when the student was hurting others or destroying property. The same goes for restraint. Basically, it makes sense to me that if a child of 9 is severely emotionally disturbed and is beating the crap out of another student (or teacher) that physical intervention is warranted. If he/she is throwing a chair or gouging out their own eye, I’m trying to wrap my mind around how I might help the child or others without the laying on of hands. I already know the answer to that, which I’ll share in a moment.

But we did use restraint and seclusion using guidelines and training from the Crisis Prevention Institute. We also used life space interviews after a student got out of time out. The procedures that we followed at the psychoed were, in my opinion, second to none. But seclusion and restraint were NOt our methods of choice. We relied an a very robust arsenal of positive behavioral supports, because you simply can not teach a classroom where everyone is in timeout. It took a lot of personnel to moniter the rooms, as well as the risk of personal injury. So in our class at the time, we had a point sheet/token economy, a level system, a group reward/contingency program, therapeutic rec/leisure and generally tried to make the climate as positive and rewarding as possible. so when a student had to go to time out, they were really and truly missing out on something. On top of that, I introduced a sort of “punch-out” token economy that was more immediate. The effect of that, was that I could take up the token card instead of ejecting the student while reinforcing everyone else. So it was a time-out-in-place. But the student always got reinforced when they were ready to rejoin the group/task. By the end of that year, I rarely ever, ever had to put a kid in time-out or lay hands on them in our class. However, the practice of restraint and seclusion did end up costing me personally and dearly that year.

While I was being a para for a teacher of mostly middle school students. the teacher of the younger kids was having major problems with one of her 9 year-old students. so the director made the decision to move me in that class to help deal with that student. That lasted about 2 days. He was a pretty wild kid, and I did end up having to hold him on the ground quite a lot. He was small, but extraordinarily fast and strong which is why they decided a big male was needed to help handle things. In hindsight, this was not necessarily the best thing. And it turned out to be a very bad thing. One day, after he had been particular trying, it was finally the end of the day and time for him to get on the bus to go home. So we went out to the bus, but instead of getting on the bus, he took off like a shot through a crowded end-of-school parking lot and towards the very busy end-of-the-day-traffic street. The teacher was in hot pursuit and so was I (we already had the rest of the kids on their buses). She told me to call the police, which is what I should of done. But I didn’t. To be perfectly honest, I had had it with this kid and was at the end of my rope. I was going to get him. While there was an element of danger for the kid with buses and cars, that might not have been the only reason I went after him. I caught up to him and made a lunge to go for the final grab. And that was it.

I have no idea exactly what happened, but it was all over for me. My knee somehow got terribly twisted and I went down hard and heavy. It could have been the uneven grass we were on or the sudden swerve the kid took and me being too stupid and reckless. At that moment, the true idiocy of my actions caught up and washed rght over me in a wave of pain. And I would spend the next few hours in an emergency room. Nothing was broken, but I had some ligments that were badly torn. That was it for my running career. To this very day, that knee will sometimes bother me for wierd and strange reasons. Losing weight definitely has helped keep me from limping and gimping around. But it is a persistent reminder of the folly inherent within restraint practices. At least by school teachers, no matter how young and fit.

My next job was at a psychiatric hospital in a child and adolescent unit. Even though it was the late 1990’s it seemed like the 1980’s sometimes the way it was run, especially in the area of behavior management. When I arrived, there were lots of people who were experts on therapy and behavior but none of them were behaviorists. The social workers were into family systems, the behavior specialist was actually specialized more with those who had been sexually abused and the doctor/psychiatrist was into psychoanalytical therapy while being supported by the MD’s and nurses with lots of psychotropic medications. seclusion and restraint was used quite regularly, but it is hard to imagine not using it with some of the severe behaviors that warranted being hospitalized. I saw it all while I was there, but since it was a locked facility, I never had to chase anyone down. Plus the health service technicians did all of the physical work. And sometimes that meant a 5 point restraint system under a doctor’s order. While there was a token economy and level system in place, it was not used very well. So I did use other contingencies that I had control over, like access to a computer lab. The kids loved the computer lab and I had the best hardware and software money could buy at the time. I had a $7,000 budget! So I had resources to apply towards behavior and teaching. If a kid acted up in my class, he/she was simply removed to time-out or more medication.

But the big issue/movement in the 1990’s was deinstitutionalization, which meant that the C&A unit was closed and I lost my job. I’ll have to write more sometime about the repercussions of that movement. Suffice to say that the present movement towards not using seclusion and restraints is a direct result of that battle that was mostly won by the advocates. Most of the cases that were served by a huge (and expensive) team of doctors, nurses, behavior specialists, recreation specialists, psycholigists and social workers are now being served by the school system and mostly one teacher and a para. So the teachers are being held responsible for behaviors and clients that they are not trained to care for. Is it any wonder that there is abuse and mistakes and serious consequences?

When I first started here, most of the kids were fairly moderate. We were community-based, which involved going into the community almost everyday to a job or community site. My kids loved getting on the bus and getting off the school campus. So did I and the paras. The contingency was simply that if a kid acted up, he didn’t get to go out that day. And that was usually sufficient. Today, the climate has changed. Community-based instruction is quickly disappearing. We go out maybe once or twice a week. The shift has been toward academics and the Standards. True, we try to work on life skills and weave the content with the skills but some standards and skills simply do not line up. And the level of severity of the disabilities has become more acute. Many of these students would have been under the care of a team of doctors, nurses, psychologists and specialists back in 1970’s and ’80’s. But those facilities went away the same time as the C&A unit. Now it is all me.

The schools are poorly equipped to deal with severe behavior probloems. The state charges schools with the primary mission of educating students in a curriculum that is largely aimed at getting students into college. Any other agenda is secondary to that primary mission of an academic education. How effective a given school system is in that one single mission is up for discussion. I agree that schools do need to focus on this one thing (and learn to do it well) while providing a safe and humane environment for all learners. There should also be options for vocational and life skills, but that is another discussion. The point is, is that when it comes to dealing with behaviors that result in the school becoming unsafe for students, there needs to be some options. And right now, I see the only possible option is calling the police, which is what I should have done 15 years ago. We were located right next to the police station at the time! I do believe in teaching students with behavior problems, but I learned very early on that when a child is in the midst of a full meltdown or tantrum, there is no learning or teaching that is going on.
Actually, there is one other option that might work. That is to convert all of the time-out and seclusion rooms into places that lock from the inside. Then when a student is out of control and getting assaultive, the teachers can seclude themselves. Or perhaps fixing the valium dispenser in the teacher’s lounge would work.

Seriously, I do support the work of those advocating for more and better humane treatment of students, generally speaking. But just as there were adverse consequences to pushing everyone out of institutions and into the community, there will be adverse consequences for making seclusion and restraint forbidden practices. I hope that the movement results in a more positive climate within schools and classrooms, but I don’t think it will result in the sort of programs envisioned by most people. What made states move to deinstitutionalize was that they saw they could save a ton of money. The result was a lot of mentally ill homeless people and many of them being served within jails and prisons. Sure, many were better off in group homes. Many weren’t. A 10 minute period in seclusion often allows the student to remain in school the rest of the day. If the police are called, will the result be the same?

I’m going to go ahead and attach my seclusion/time-out procedure so that you can feel free to review it. I’m open to criticism about it if there is anything wrong with it. Of course, if you are against seclusion/time-out under any and every circumstance then you won’t like it no matter what the policy is! But the alternative of having the student removed indefinitely, or having people hospitalized is not very attractive. It would wonderful if everyone was extensively trained and supported, but that hasn’t ever happened even in the most ideal of circumstances and conditions. With serious budget constraints across the country, professional development is the first thing that gets tossed out the window, followed closely by para and behavioral support.

Para(pro) Olympics

17 Oct

This year, I have probably the best para team that I’ve ever had.  I’ve had many good paras, but the ones this year are 100% competent, educated and looking forward to becoming teachers on their own.  The trouble has been that I haven’t truly been utilizing them to their fullest potential and have not really challenged them enough.  This is a real common weakness among teachers who would rather work together as colleagues (or even work alone) rather than supervise and evaluate.  As teachers, we would just as soon have our paras just know what to do and do it without having to be told.  Telling someone who we regard as a colleague what to do is an awkward thing.  But from a para perspective, the situation is even more awkward.

On one hand, we like our paras to take initiative.  But on the other hand, we like them to have good judgement.  “Good Judgement” means doing things the way WE would do them, which involves a higher degree of mind reading than you might think.  Mind reading is definitely on a higher pay grade than that of most paras.  Sometimes you can click just right, which I’ve been able to do with some over the years, or at least come close to it.  Other times, it can be a long battle which neither the para nor  the teacher really want to fight.  I see more passive-aggressive battles between teachers and paras than anywhere else. 

These three people that I have are pretty good but vastly underutilized.  I needed to find some why to see if I could better utilize them and take advantage of their abilities.  I also wanted to see what those abilities were.  I also wondered how possible it would be to assess thei competentce. So, I designed a bit of a competition between them.

At first, it seemed like a good idea.  But then after I had mapped it out, it seemed a bit crazy and stupid.  so I just threw it out to them to see what they thought.  To my surprise they bought into it.  Or at least they seemed to.  I have two paras who are pretty competetive.  Coach#3 (no surprise there) and my other new para who I’ll just call Georgianne.  I’d call her Georgia, but that might get too confusing since that’s the state we live in.  And she is a Bulldog fan, so it fits.  Georgianne is VERY competitive and seems pretty driven.  The other two will not be given any slack.  The third, Patience, has been with me for a few years and is the most experienced.  She’s also not as competetive but is up for the challenge if she’ll take it on.

Basically, each pra has a student they work with independently, while I work with another small group.  I outlined 5 basic skills on which I would assess each of those students.

1. Tell me “how many” using a Gotalk if I show them a certain number of objects (1-4)

2.  Point to a number 1-9

3. Correctly answer “What is your name” by pointing to their own face on a Gotalk.

4. Point to a correct shape (circle, square, triangle, star).

5. Draw a circle, square or circle.

 Plus they each would have to be able to answer 5 yes-no questions.   I already told them the questions, so it’s no secret.  No need to make this harder than it already is. 

The students really are pretty evenly matched.  However, in order to compensate for this, each para will be trying to teach a set of three pictures/words to 2 of my other students.  Each para has three pictures, so if I say “point to the kite” the student will point to the correct picture from an array of three.  So I’ll see if any of the paras succeed in teaching either or both of these students how to identify their pictures.

Part of the design of this is to stretch the paras but it also hopefully will get them to interact with two students they are less likely to engage with on a more regular basis in instructional tasks.   It gives them a challenge to shoot for, and it is pretty easily measured.  These are pretty much all discrete trial tasks.  The fact of the matter is that my time for interacting with each of these students seems really limited and so I’m expanding their instructional time by giving the paras a more explicit direction in which to travel.

I haven’t promised the winner anything except bragging rights, as of yet.  I think I could manage to put $20 on the line easily enough, tho.  Any ideas what else would be a worthwhile thing to offer the winner of such a contest?

It’s as much of a study as a contest, and I’ll be there to help each of them however I can.  Getting them to more fully committ to the outcome might help shake loose some additional questions and issues.  I primarily do group work, plus deal with the most profound students plus all the other things we have to do with toiletting and feeding.


It will be interesting to see how this thing works.  Is it crazy?  Too compettitive?  It does have the virtue of being novel, and I’m not sure I would have tried it with a different group of paras than the ones I have this year.  It just so happens that I have 3 who I think can handle it and they think they can handle it.  We’ll just have to see.


9 Aug

Just completed our first full week of school, and this year is going to be a busy one! But I have a feeling it’s also going to be a good one despite several niggling things that we always have to go through as we start.

Indulge me as I get my whining out of the way:

  • A computer that seems to have a dead power supply. I reported this a couple weeks ago and the tech folks are taking their time on it. This is probably because I have one working machine plus I resurrected an old 550 Mhz PII and got it online using a Puppy Linux 4.0 CD so the paras can get online.
  • Anemic air conditioning which make our room the hottest in the building. Try doing all the lifting we have to do in the GA heat without getting cranky
  • Gloves; this one is solved, but every year I order gloves to use for changing. And every year the order mysteriously gets lost as those responsible for delivering/obtaining the order tries to get their stuff together. I don’t like having to complain to the highest levels for something that seems so trivial.
  • My class roster still doesn’t include two of my students which makes my numbers look smaller than they really are. Seven students still look small until you consider that they are almost all students with PIDs and in wheelchairs.
  • Nothing was ordered from what we submitted last year as far as supplies.
  • I’m already feeling behind!
  • Lesson plans – I’ll get to that in a minute

Now for some good points:

  • New paras – I have a couple new folks on board and I think we’re going to really do well together. I have to get my act together to get them trained up, but that’s on me, not them as they seem to be pretty quick to pick up on what I’ve taught so far.
  • Despite the nigglers above, I feel like some folks are listening to me when I complain ( not that I give them much of a choice!). There are some benefits to being irreplaceable.
  • The parents have pretty much all bought-in, so far as far as communicating back and forth. Having them on board can really make a difference on the year.

The new principal wants all teachers to submit lesson plans on a weekly basis. He’s flexible as far as allowing the teachers to collaborate and work together but he’s also working towards having some sort of uniform lesson plan for everyone in the building. I have no idea of how I’m going to fit into that scheme. One of the most common questions I get asked by the new PID/SID teachers is “what do you do for lesson plans?” I don’t have a good answer to that. The state DOE has some resources that might be helpful, especially the stepwise worksheets (if the links aren’t broken). But I’m having difficulty getting my mind wrapped around the standards-based nature of it. My kids are anything but standards-based! They are entirely too exceptional for anything to be “standard!”

This is why I fear and loathe the “one-size-fits-all” mentality of our educational system. It inherently discriminates against everyone who does not fit. It takes my wheelchair kids and throws them down the proverbial stairs simply because ramps are not standard. I have to write standard lesson plans because there is some rule that everything must be standardized. Welcome to the educational system of the 19th century and the industrial revolution.

Plans are a good thing, and I do have educational programs in place. For sure, I need to do a better job of adding structure to our day so the students and paras function a bit better. My lesson plans would be better written in a format the lends itself to picture schedules.

These ideas are not helping at the moment, as my lesson plans are due at 8:20 Monday morning. So I I’m starting with the ideas I had last year and building on those. We did do a few of those things, but honestly never got to most of it. In fact, it broke down within a month. But this is a new year and hope springs eternal!

Yeah,this time last year I was was making it my farewell tour. So much for that idea! Here I am again! Let’s see if I can get it right this time.


Here’s some quick and dirty plans that sort of align with the GAA.  Not very good, but hopefully I’ll improve that this year.

Discrete Trial Training (DTT)

4 Jun

In making my course for teachers and paras for students with severe disabilities, I’ve been looking for content related to what we do in the classroom. Today I decided to work on Discrete Trial Teaching (DTT) sometimes also called Discrete Trial Instruction (DTI). Same thing, different name.

I prefer video over text alone, so I went first to TeacherTube, since the school system doesn’t block that site. However, the only video there on the subject is the one I posted. Oh well. YouTube is a better source for videos on anything and a search there was much more fruitful. Here’s one working with a very young child. No matter the age, the same rules always apply. Keep the instruction consistent, reinforce independent responses, and record the responses for data analysis. The YouTube video gives very comprehensive, yet concise instruction on the topic and I’d love to use it.

There is also a series of Lovaas training videos on YouTube which are much more advanced, behaviorally speaking, but the one listed above gives a better overview in a lot less time . Part 1 shows how not to do it in the beginning, which you can see from the comments elicited strong reactions from a few viewers. It’s a bit dated, but you get a good view of a purer form of DTT from the Lovaas people. There are many YouTube videos in a variety of languages worth looking at and these are mostly used for and by parents. Teachers and paras really need to tap into this information, too.

Typing in “ABA” reveals a lot of videos showing it in action, mostly with very young children with autism. DTT is not the same thing as Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA). ABA is more of a global description of a system. It’s sort of like referring to “rain” as “weather.” Yes, rain is weather, but it’s only one aspect of weather and even precipitation. Weather encompasses all manner of meteorological events including wind current, barometric pressure and the jet stream. ABA encompasses a whole lot more topography beyond just DTT, but a lot of people outside the field confuse the two.

I recently put a couple more videos up showing some of what I do with a type of DTT here and here. This is also serving as a sort of tutorial in modeling for para instruction at the same time instructing the student. I probably need to make a more explicit para training video since that is a big issue for most special ed teachers.

I like DTT because it is straightforward, and something that paras can learn and do pretty easily. It can yield some good data and works well with short-term IEP objectives. It is something that is not expensive to set up, and it is accessible to anyone who wants to learn how to do it.

Catherine Maurice’s Behavior Intervention for Young Children remains one of the best and most accessible resources on the subject even though she makes the common mistake of confusing ABA with DTT. Many of these interventions can be used with older students with severe autism and you’ll recognize what we do in the videos compared to what is done with the youngsters. It’s only been within the last 10 years that DTT really took off in the autism community, so students in high school were probably never exposed to this behavioral technology at a younger age.