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.