Why is Accurate Measurement of Behavior and Academic Progress Important?

Measuring behavior and academic progress with children with special needs is essential for their long-term success.  This is why goals and objectives on Individualized Education Programs (IEPs), Behavior Intervention Plans (BIPs) or 504 plans must be specific and measureable in easily understood terms.  I often think of Descartes quote, “If it exists in some amount it’s capable of being measured”, when writing any objective-academic or behavioral, because this really is a true and valid statement.

When you look at any educational document for your child regarding goals, objectives and progress you should readily be able to see whether change has occurred over time and to what extend change did or did not occur.  If you are looking at data that is not quantifiable, it is useless.  How can an educator say there has been a decrease in a certain behavior or an increase in knowledge of a certain subject if they have not determined a specific way to measure the decrease or increase.  This why terms such as “he will show improvement” or “there will be a decrease in her “x” behavior” are inappropriate.  How are we defining “an improvement” or “a decrease”?  Quantifying these terms with a time line makes them appropriate.  We can measure, “he will show an improvement from 50% to 80% by the end of the 1st semester” or she will decrease “x” behavior from 20 times per day to less than 5 times per day within six weeks”.

There always needs to be a baseline, or a starting number, in order to measure progress.  Determining exactly where is the child is starting out before an intervention is begun is critical for good data analysis.  Baselines are usually determined by pre-tests, by counter based observations, by formal assessments and/or by informal assessments.  After a baseline is determined, an intervention to change the behavior or increase the child’s knowledge should be implemented.  After implementation, there needs to be another assessment of the same or similar nature completed to determine how much movement has occurred from the baseline. If there has been very little improvement or no improvement, we can usually conclude the intervention is not appropriate and move on to another strategy.   Let’s look at both a behavioral and academic example.

In the first scenario, I have an eighth grade female student with a learning disability and the problem behavior is that the child gets out of her seat and does something distracting.  The distractions tend to be sharpening her pencil, taking the bathroom pass and leaving the room to get a drink or take a walk in the hall or continually riffling through her backpack during instruction.  In order to get an accurate assessment of the behavior, I would ask someone else to do a minimum of three observations (this is generally considered standard because behavior can vary so much) of the same length of time of the child during instruction.  I would ask them to use a counter or tick marks to indicate how many times the child got out of her seat and engaged in a behavior that we had defined as disruptive to her learning during instruction.  I would then add up the numbers and divide by three (because there were three observations) and then that gives me a baseline. If the data showed that during the first thirty minute observation the child got up 5 times, the second  observation showed 7 incidents and the third observation showed 6 incidents this is what the baseline would look like, 5+7+6=18/3=6.  This child has a baseline of getting out of her seat an average of six times during a thirty-minute instructional period.  It is then very easy for me to measure a decrease, an increase or a flat line after I begin an intervention with her.  If I start an intervention with her and then have more observation done after two or three weeks and I see that the average is still high (5 or above), I can assume the intervention is not working well.  I then need to switch the intervention I am using to get better results because she is still likely missing a lot of important instruction if she is getting up and engaging in distracting behaviors.  The reason I distinguish this characteristic of ‘distracting behavior’ is that some children need to get up and move in order to attend better but for example purposes this is not the case with this child.

In the second scenario, I have a fourth grade male student with an emotional disability who is struggling with learning his multiplication facts between 6 and 9.  In this scenario, I only need to give one pre-test to determine what he already knows as long as I give it to him when he is in a god emotional state.  If the test is measuring facts from 1-10 by the multipliers of 6,7,8 and 9 the test would have 40 problems so I can easily get an overall percentage and a percentage for each multiplier to see if there is one that he I struggling with more than another.  If he takes the pretest and gets 16 out of 40 correct he receives a score of 40%.  After I have intervened and taught him new ways to memorize his multiplication facts, I must reassess him to quantify his growth.  If upon reassessment he gets 30 out of 40 correct, he receives a score of 75%, which is a significant gain.  I would, of course, want to keep working with him using this same intervention or another one to get his score as close to 100% as possible as knowing one’s multiplication facts is an important life skill.

In addition to solid measurements, a good objective also has a time line.  For my female student who is getting out of her seat and being distracted on an average of 6 times in a 30 minute time period I have great concern that this behavior is avoidance either because the content is too hard or because she has something going on emotionally.  In either instance, she is missing core instruction that will likely affect her overall performance.  If I get my baseline data in early October and wait until early January to reassess, she may have missed a huge amount of content, which is unacceptable.  Generally, behavioral objectives need to be reassessed frequently so that interventions can be adjusted.  Now, it may take me three months to get her from an average of six incidents to an average of two incidents but if I’m not assessing in between I don’t know whether my interventions are working or not.  I also have to determine whether two incidents of distracted, out-of-seat behavior are acceptable for this child.

For my male student working on his multiplication facts it may be more appropriate to take formal assessments on progress every couple of months rather than every couple of weeks because I will know by working with him if he is improving or not.  It really depends on what I observe during our sessions and on his scores on weekly quizzes or homework assignments.

Measuring behavioral and academic progress is critical for growth.  A good teacher should always be able to give you a baseline and a current (with a reasonable prior request) assessment of progress on any goal or objective.  Become knowledgeable about how progress is measured so that you can make sure progress is occurring with your child at an acceptable rate.

If have had many parents use similar strategies of measuring behavior  at home with children who exhibit  a variety of behavioral issues, difficulty following procedures, lack of homework completion and more.  Many children respond well to seeing the positive changes in their data that proves they are improving.

Do you use any measurement strategies at home?  If so, please share them!

What is a Quality Education for Children With Special Needs?

I was recently asked by a parent to write about my definition of a quality education for teaching children with special needs.  The specifics of a quality education vary for children with different disabilities and even for varying levels of needs within a disability category.  I will do my best to answer this question in a general way based on my experience and my philosophy.  Please feel free to write comments or start a conversation in the comments section regarding certain disability categories.

An important factor to bring up regarding teaching children with special needs is FAPE (Free Appropriate Public Education).  Every child with special needs who qualifies for an Individualized Education Program (IEP) is entitled to FAPE.  The word ‘free’ in this acronym means that the parents should not accrue any charges for their child with special needs to be educated in the public school system.  This means that if a child needs a service that the school district is not currently utilizing the school district must find someone to provide that service.  All costs involved in that process are paid for through the school district’s budget.  The word that is most hotly contested in this acronym is ‘appropriate’.  There has been much discussion and many due process hearings over what this word means.  The Supreme Court ruled in the Rowley case in 1982 that appropriate means “that the child gained some educational benefit”.

With that said, my philosophy is not for my students to only “gain some educational benefit”.  My mission is always to maximize the learning experience for my students.  If a child has qualified for an IEP their disability has indicated that they need some type of individualized instruction.  Children, whether they are gifted or special needs or nuerotypical, learn best in different formats and through various avenues.  This is why you should rarely see the traditional lecture/”talk at you” format used for the majority of teaching scenarios anymore.  Therefore, in my opinion, the first step in a quality education is to get an accurate assessment of the child’s primary learning style. Some children learn best auditorily, others learn best visually, others learn best kinesthetically, others learn best through using highly structured methods, others learn best experientially, others learn best through small group discussions, others learn best through explicit instruction and so on. Understanding how a child learns best helps me to plan the instruction in a way that is most beneficial for the child.

Another important step in a quality education is that the educator builds rapport and trust with their students from the beginning of instruction.  In order for me have a positive influence, children must feel like my classroom is a safe and engaging environment.  Taking a small amount of time up front to build a working relationship, establish structure and boundaries  and show my students that I do care about their growth will allow them to have so much more success as a student.  Children need to know that I am in charge but that this is our classroom and we are here to support every persons learning and growth.

The next step in a quality education is getting current assessment data that gives me a true starting point for the child’s skills so I can measure whether my interventions are successful or not.  I am a believer that assessments should drive instruction.  Assessment does not have to mean a formal or traditional test.  Many of my assessment techniques are informal.  The most important part is for me to understand what the child knows before I teach them a new concept, after I teach them a new concept and then again assess their knowledge after a reasonable amount of time has passed to see if they have retained the new skill.  Repetition is critical for all of us to learn, so quality teachers are constantly spiraling their instruction to hit the key points repeatedly in as many areas as possible.

Another very important factor for a quality education is that educators need to look at the needs of the child as a whole.  If I only focus on academic or cognitive development, I am missing the point.  In order to provide a quality education for young people I must always look at social development, emotional development, physical development, communication development and life skill development, in addition to cognitive development.  Quality instruction assists children to become integrated into society in a healthy and positive way.  One-dimensional teaching does not do this.

As a special educator, I also believe that regular parent-teacher communication is part of a quality education.  In the vast majority of situations, the more parents and teachers work together, the more successful the child will be.  I know this is sometimes a controversial topic, as some parents believe that teachers need to educate and parents need to parents and vice versa.  In my opinion, in today’s complicated, highly technical (and highly distracting), face-paced world working as a team with parents increases the success rates for children with special needs to become healthy, happy, productive, integrated members of society.

Share your thoughts below about what you believe are the most important factors in a quality education?

As I mentioned early in the post, if you want to discuss best practices for children with certain diagnoses start a conversation below.