Porter, G. & Smith, D. (Eds.). (2011). Exploring Inclusive Educational Practices Through Professional Inquiry. Rotterdam: Sense Publishers.
SCHOOL LEVEL PLANNING AND PRACTICES
CASE ELEVEN: PLANNING AHEAD
“How do you prepare for your first student with autism and a history of frequent biting, hitting, kicking, screaming and pinching the adults and children around her?” asked the exasperated grade five teacher.
This was the question we were faced with at our transition meeting for the new students who would be joining our school next September. In addition to being identified with autism spectrum disorder, Serena also has a central auditory processing disorder. She has difficulty communicating. Her academic ability is at the kindergarten level.
As principal and chair of the transition team meeting, I go over Serena’s school history and profile with the group. My concern is evident to all those present. We all remember Stanford’s arrival at our school. He was a student who physically lashed out at both his teacher and his classmates. He was a large and surprisingly muscular boy. When he became angry his punches could break a board. We had to remodel a storage area and turn it into a safe place for him to be during his violent outbursts. We even needed to have a door with a plexi-glass window installed in the area. We all were wondering if Serena would present similar challenges.
I am wondering to myself which teaching assistant, out of the nine that we have, would work best with her? I think about Josephine who is gentle and patient and who waits for to approach her. I think about Marvin and how he anticipates each child’s needs. I also wonder about the teachers on our special response team? Who in that trained group needs their non-violent crisis intervention knowledge and skills updated?
Later that day, I stop the resource teacher, Elisha, in the hail and ask, “What services does Serena have access to already? What are her strengths and weak nesses? What will her daily schedule look like? ‘What will be our plan if she exhibits these violent behaviours?” Elisha looks concerned. She stands erect and seems to be listening to me. One question leads to another. Soon we both are pacing.
Elisha adds her own questions. “What are her parents like? Do we have any information about them?” I seem to recall that Serena’s former principal had inserted some hand-written notes on a separate page into her file. I remember seeing the word uncooperative. Should I share that information with Elisha before she has a chance to actually meet the parents?
We continue. Elisha tells me that Serena’s mother, Mrs. Greenway, works in the school building. I had not been aware of that fact. Will the approach we take change because her mother is working in our building?
Suddenly both Elisha and I realize that we are both focusing on potential problems even before we begin to make plans for Serena’s transition. We pause and laugh. We are both embarrassed by how readily we had fallen into the trap of thinking only about the potential problems. We resume our discussion in a more positive way. “To whose class do you think we should assign Serena’?” I enquire. Elisha and I both know that we have only two grade five teachers. One is an experienced teacher, Mrs. Jones. Her classes are orderly and her students respond well to the structure. Ms. Wallace is just starting her teaching career. Our school is her first assignment.
Wisdom and patience often come with the kind of experience that Mrs. Jones would have. On the other hand, Ms. Wallace has that enthusiasm and openness that comes with being a new teacher. We considered the pros and cons of each teacher but didn’t make a decision.
“Elisha,” I ask, “Can you go over Serena’s file to find out if there been any charting done on her behaviour? Also check to see what types of strategies have been tried in the past?” I am feeling overwhelmed. I can tell by the troubled look on Elisha’s face that she too is concerned.
I know how hard she has worked with some of our other exceptional children. There are rarely complaints about Elisha. I believe that she takes responsibility for every single one of her students with special needs. Perhaps, I should have prepared more before engaging her in this informal brainstorming session. I leave a perplexed Elisha and return to my office. I slump in my chair. I feel a headache coming on.
I pull out Serena’s file again. Her previous teacher says that she has a cherub face and is not very tall for her age. Suddenly, I remember exactly who Serena’s mother, Grace Greenway is. Grace has tattoos up and down both arms. She is our school custodian. I did not even know that she had a daughter.
We plan a meeting of our school-based resource team. Our guidance counselor is preparing to review all the information that we have about Serena for the team. We need to try to imagine what the school day for Serena will look like. We will need to consider all the variables that are possible influences on Serena’s placement and program.
We meet the following Friday. In spite of my hard and focused work, it doesn’t go as I had imagined. We began the discussion by looking at some of our best practices that have worked with other children with similar challenges. People around the meeting room table seem tense and worried. Suddenly, Elisha breaks the silence and says, “I feel that we should wait until Serena gets here and see what she is like before we do any planning.” Some heads nod. Glances are exchanged.
Elisha continues, “Remember Jake. We prepared this much when he was coming to the school and it wasn’t at all necessary. Jake was not anything like his previous teacher described. We had very few problems.”
Again there are nods around the table.
I respond by trying to convince Elisha that our careful planning for Jake ensured that things went so well. I wonder if I had misinterpreted her troubled look when we spoke in the hall. I thought that we were both on the same page. I had trusted her expertise and expected she would see things that way I did.
I look directly at Elisha. “We had the safeguards in place for Jake. We ensured that he was getting all of his basic needs met every day. We had provided a structured program for him with a very organized teacher. He was assigned a highly skilled teaching assistant. His day was custom made for him. He had a time out plan in place. We made sure that his program was explained and acceptable to his parents. Jake’s family was supportive.” I pause. Elisha does not meet my gaze.
My eyes finally meet Elisha’s. She looks away. She has a blank look on her face and her arms are crossed. I realize that my passionate speech has been pointless. How can I get her to see my point of view? As a principal, I know that careful planning is the answer.
Beliefs and Assumptions : Explore the beliefs and assumptions that appear to be guiding the thinking and actions of the school principal.
Explore the beliefs and assumptions held by the resource teacher.
Explore the beliefs and assumptions that may have guided the initial questions of the grade five teacher regarding preparation for Serena’s arrival at the school.
Comment on the impact that the beliefs and assumptions held by educators can have upon inclusive education practices.
Critique the actions and decisions of the school principal.
Generate suggestions for enhancing the professional judgment of the educators in this case.
Inclusive Practices: Analyze the school’s knowledge of Serena.
Critique the school’s commitment to involving Serena’s parents.
Analyze the school’s actions towards acquiring information from Serena’s previous school.
Explore the inclusive pedagogies being considered by the school.
Discuss approaches and strategies that the school might consider in attempting to include Serena’s parents in the education of their child.
CASE COMMENTARY REFLECTIONS
After reading the commentaries reflect on the following:
Identify new insights gained from reading the commentaries.
Discuss the impact of the commentaries on your understandings of inclusive education.
Identify questions that emerge for you from reading the commentaries.
CASE COMMENTARY 1
Anthony H. Normore
Autism is a word most of us are familiar with. Children with autism can present educators with some difficult challenges. Autistic disorders generally have lifelong effects on how children learn to be social beings, to take care of themselves, and to participate in the community. We often place important responsibilities on schools, teachers and children’s parents, as well as the other professionals who work with children with autism. Thus, educational planning must address both the needs typically associated with autistic disorders and the needs associated with accompanying disabilities. In this case, Serena has autism and also has a central auditory processing disorder which complicates her ability to communicate. Research indicates that children with autism experience challenges communicating ideas and feelings, have great trouble imagining what others think or feel, and frequently find it hard to make friends or even bond with family members (Abend, 2001; Timmons, Breitenbach, & MacIsaac, 2006).
Based on my experiences as a former school administrator, it has been my practice to regularly seek out and provide opportunities to raise awareness about diversity within the school community; and to respect similarities and differences of others. In this case, it is equally crucial that Serena’s classmates understand the characteristics of autism so they may help understand special skills or interest in relation to Serena as well as the social interaction dimension of her disability. A recommendation is to assign the resource teacher – with the help of the parent – to describe events in the school that may be particularly stressful for the student and to provide peers with specific ideas about how they can best get to know the student with the disability and how they can help the student with the disability on a daily basis.
Having a child with an autistic disorder is a challenge for any family. In this case, rather than pre-judge Mrs. Greenway because of her tattoos (as indirectly suggested in the case), she should be supported in Serena’s education through consistent presentation of information by the local school system, through individualized problem solving, continuous consultation and providing opportunities to learn techniques for teaching Serena new skills and minimizing behavioral problems. Mrs. Greenway should not be expected to provide the majority of educational programming for Serena. Her concerns and perspectives should actively help shape educational planning for her daughter.
At the root of questions about the most appropriate educational interventions for Serena are differences in assumptions about what is possible and what is important in Serena’s education. The appropriate goals for educational services for Serena ought to be the same as those for other children: personal independence and social responsibility. To the extent that it leads to the acquisition of Serena’s educational goals, she should receive specialized instruction in a setting in which ongoing interactions occur with her typically developing classmates. These goals should be an integral component of the Individual Education Plan process.
The Individual Education Plan team must adopt an attitude that is collaborative and responsible. At the moment, this does not seem to be the case for Serena’s team despite the principal’s efforts to create it. Before developing an Individual Education Plan. Serena’s Individual Education Plan team must learn about Serena, be able to envision the future and possibilities for Serena – her dreams, fears, strengths and needs (see Timmons et al., 2006). With so many complexities, challenges, and emotionally charged decisions involved, creating an appropriate Individual Education Plan can seem like navigating through a minefield. In the best interest of Serena, the Individual Education Plan team must work with Mrs. Greenway as a unified team to design, review, and modify Serena’s Individual Education Plan as necessary.
A final issue that needs to be addressed in this case involves personnel. Relevant to Serena’s instruction are the teachers and other professionals and paraprofessionals who will provide the bulk of service. The formal preparation, training, and familiarity with the course of autistic disorders and the range of possible outcomes must be provided to those who are in charge in the instructional delivery. The school district must choose and implement effective approaches for personnel preparation, beyond a single training effort, to provide a continuum of services across time. Attitudes, behaviors, and dispositions of the principal are critical in improving this school, as are explicit strategies for program development and keeping skilled teachers within the school. Providing knowledge about autistic disorders to special education and regular teachers as well as education administrators are critical in proactive change — if Serena is to be successful.
CASE COMMENTARY 2
This is not an unusual scenario found in many of our schools where fears, concerns, and questions, like this do come up on a regular basis. The secret to smooth transitions is having well informed leaders employing open communication and ensuring information is available and accessible to all involved. It is essential that all relevant information and strategies are shared at meetings that include everyone concerned.
It is clear to me that Serena’s principal and resource teacher are doing their best with the skills that they have and mean well. Their strategies and planning seem to be a bit “scattered” and unorganized. They need a systematic way to plan for this incoming student. Serena deserves to have a smooth transition to her new school and in my opinion this would mean a meeting with the following people attending: sending and receiving principal, sending and receiving resource teacher, sending and receiving guidance counselor, sending educational assistant and most importantly, the sending classroom teacher. Meetings such as this provide valuable information such as strategies that work or don’t work, ideas tried, etc. We have consistently used this type of meeting and find it is effective! A separate meeting with the parents would be necessary for this case due to the “uncooperative” note in Serena’s file
The issues that I believe need to be addressed in this case include: individuality, parent involvement, communication and choice of teacher and educational assistant.
Individuality- Not all students are the same and to link Serena’s behavior to Jake’s was an unfair assumption! Always remember to treat each student according to their needs.
Parents- If parents are uncooperative it is usually due to lack of poor communication on the school’s part, or lack of understanding of what is happening with their child for which they need information given- not information withheld. Fear for their child and can be linked to receiving poor service in the past when their requests have gone unnoticed or unfulfilled. Labeling a parent as uncooperative from a past school is not correct. Start with a new experience and ask for parents concerns, questions, ideas, hopes… after all, parents are the experts on the child!!
Communication- It is evident to me that the principal is very concerned about having Serena in his school. After the transitioning meeting, he asks the resource teacher in the hallway what services she has and what Serena’s strengths and weaknesses are. This should have been information readily available at the transition meeting, from her TEP and from the sending school history and profile. What was in the profile anyway? There appears to be work to be done on both areas!!
Another note on communication- At the end of the case description the resource teacher has a blank look on her face and her body language is negative. The principal didn’t ask her for her thoughts, ideas, or input. Earlier the principal asks the resource teacher to go over the files and even admits to engaging her in an informal brainstorming session without doing any preparation himself! He leaves the resource teacher perplexed without any explanation, and returns to his office to slump at his desk. I do hope the principal’s headache was a good hefty one! I would be furious if my principal had done this to me. Formal meeting need to be well planned and communication needs to be open and clear with plenty of time to share concerns, questions and strategies. Informal meetings in the hallways need to be discouraged. The student’s privacy of information is threatened and teachers are caught off guard which leads to miscommunication and defensive attitudes.
Choice of teacher and educational assistant- This is always a tricky one! Deciding on the best match with the teacher who can cope with the behaviors presented in this case is challenging. I do feel that Mrs. Jones’ class would be more appropriate because of the structure and order that she has. Students with autism usually respond well to structure and order, as well, the quiet and orderly classroom might help alleviate some of the sensory issues often seen with central auditory processing disorder. I think it would be wise to have a meeting with the grade five teachers, present the scenario, and ask if either of them would volunteer to have Serena in their class. Explain to Mrs. Jones that it could be a very positive growth experience for her and that you are impressed with the level of her expertise over the years. If the new teacher volunteers that would be great as they usually have considerable insight regarding inclusion. Both teachers need to know that they will have extra support during the year and that they will not be left alone to solve all the problems. It needs to be a team effort!!
I totally agree with the principal’s final statement, “Careful planning is the answer. Isn’t it?” The information presented in the case is not what I call careful planning, in fact it seems the very opposite to me. As a resource teacher, I would like to work with this principal as he seems to be trying his best. I would suggest to him some improvements he could make and help him to follow through with the suggestions so that he could see how an organized and effective system works.
CASE COMMENTARY 3
This case study outlines a common issue faced by schools when a new student is expected, especially when the new student has special behavioral or educational needs. Teachers often don’t know what to expect or how to prepare. In this case, 1 feel the staff did a good job of asking the right questions and trying to prepare properly. They were trying to get a plan in place for the new student. However, because of the anxiety of the teachers and administration, which seemed to stern from previous experiences, the members of the staff were finding it difficult to agree on a specific plan. The question asked at the end of the case study, ‘Careful planning is the answer. Isn’t it?’, is a good question and I believe the answer is ‘yes’. However, what constitutes careful planning? Is it really possible to plan carefully without knowing the student? How do you decide on a plan?
Truthfully, I don’t know what I would do if I were the principal in this situation. I do know that I, like many other teachers, have faced a similar issue. Two years ago, I was told a new student would be joining my class. His file reported he needed an educational assistant with him all day due to a variety of behavioral problems. He was also on an Individual Education Plan, was low academically, and so on and so forth. As a staff, we worried over this new arrival. I was worried because I already had a classroom full of individuals who needed a bit of extra care and attention everyday and I didn’t know if I could handle another ‘enthusiastic learner’. However, when the student came in on his first day, he proved to be a wonderful boy with a great sense of humour and a desire to learn. All the worrying, careful planning and the team work of the staff contributed to this student’s success.
CASE COMMENTARY 4
The school has not formulated a transition planning process that is clearly communicated to all team members. It is not clear how the receiving school is going to connect with the transferring school. As well, I do not see how the parent is going to be meaningful engaged in this process. The staff is primarily focused on Serena’s needs and not on her strengths.
The school needs to develop a transition planning process that will be followed for all student transfers. Otherwise, a hit or miss approach will be taken as students transfer into the school. The development of such a process needs to happen in consultation with feeder schools, so that everybody will be clear about the expectations and their roles. Parents/guardians need to have meaningful participation in the transition process. Thus, the school needs to communicate clearly to all school community members regarding the transition planning process. It is important that the transition process focus on the student’s strengths as well as needs.
The transition planning process must happen with all stakeholders, including the student, other service providers, and relevant staff members from both schools and parents.
As educators it is easy to fall into the trap of comparing issues of previous transfers and assuming that the needs will be the same. It is important as well not to prejudge parental response. The setting up of too many red flags will not facilitate positive discussion.
In my experience at the college level when the transition planning process was adhered to by all team members issues were minimized, stress was reduced, required services were in place and there was no gap in program implementation. The process worked well, when the student was involved at all stages.
In instances where the transition plan was not followed, students did not have the required resources, instructors were not informed of required interventions and there was an increase level of stress and decrease in positive outcomes.
CASE COMMENTARY 5
This is a very common situation that I have observed as a Developmental Services Worker. I have noticed the strain school transitions can place on teachers, educational assistants, parents and the student. A well thought-out planning process is vital to ensure that students with unique needs will be successful.
A student’s academic file can become his/her worst enemy. These files often point out all the concerns associated with the student. They frequently tend to highlight issues related to behavioural challenges and focus more on the negatives than the positive attributes of the student. Reading these files in isolation can lead to preconceived judgments. This can result in negative attitudes and opinions being formed about the student and the family. This can particularly occur when principals and teachers who are not consciously aware of their own biases and judgements read student files. It is important to always read these reports with an open and non-judgmental attitude. I have found that when educators meet students and families prior to reading a written report they are more likely to form more positive perspectives. My experience in school settings and working with students in both their homes and in community programs has revealed the benefits and consequences of reading student files prior to actually meeting the student. The content of a student tile can impact upon the acceptance and inclusion of students and their families.
Students with Autism Spectrum Disorder generally do not feel comfortable with new people quickly. This is why the transitioning period is often very challenging for them, It is very important that their strengths and needs remain the number one concern for all involved. Aside from just meeting with the staff that will be working at Serena’s new school, I feel it is vital to include other key people as well. I would suggest that the following actions be considered in attempting to provide a successful transition for Serena:
Organize meetings with Serena’s Parents. Often when students files have notes deeming the parent “uncooperative” there is a preconceived judgment upon meeting the parent which can emplace barriers when trying to work together. It would be effective to not inform the resource teacher, educational assistant and others meeting with the parents of the fact that the parents are considered “un cooperative”. This will help to ensure that everyone enters the meeting with an open mind. Discuss with the parents how they handle Serena when she is exhibits challenging behaviour.
Create an opportunity for Serena to visit the school and have her meet with both Mrs. Jones and Mrs. Wallace individually. Observe Serena’s reaction and level of connection toward each teacher. This process will help Serena become more comfortable with the new school and provide insight into placement decisions.
Meet with Serena’s support workers involved in the programs she attends in the community. Often these workers observe things that the parents or teacher may not taken note of because they get to view students in very different settings. By incorporating things Serena may be comfortable with at home or in community programs into her time spent at school (for example: type of workspace she works best in, familiar scents, colours and textures) will help make the environment not seem so foreign to her and allow her to become comfortable faster.
Invite Serena’s previous teacher and educational assistant to a planning session with the new transition staff for Serena to identify effective strategies.
Educate other students in Serena’s grade about her needs and strengths so that they can be comfortable around Serena and accepting towards her as a fellow classmate.
For Serena’s transition to be effective there needs to be good communication between her parents, workers and educators as well as a focus on what will work best to make Serena be successful in school. Serena is there to get an education just like every other student. It is important for the school staff and students to see and understand Serena’s uniqueness. Just like everyone else in the school, she is completely unique and different. Serena will have a better chance of being included when she is viewed first and foremost as a student with strengths and not as a student that has special needs.
Careful and thoughtful planning is very important for the success of all students. Entering the planning process with a positive attitude towards each other, the family and Serena will help support success. By planning for all aspects of Serena’s school day and each possible outcome it will not only guarantee a smooth transition but also put the educational staff and Serena’s parents at ease knowing they have plans on how to handle different situations. Collaborative planning will also communicate to the teacher chosen to be Serena’s teacher that she is part of a team that will support her. Teachers that are not given these messages of shared support may feel stuck and uneasy about planning on their own. Teachers that feel included and supported in the educational process are more empowered to be able to include and support learners.
CONNECTING TO PROFESSIONAL PRACTICE
The commentary writers comment on the assumptions of the educators in this case, the lack of communication with parents, transition issues and the importance of informed planning.
Reflect on an experience from your own practice when the beliefs and assumptions of educators impacted significantly on professional practices and decisions. Explore how this situation may have been different if these beliefs and assumptions had been critically reflected upon and analyzed.