Friday, May 3, 2019

I Haven’t Tried Everything Yet

As I have crossed the halfway-point of my teaching career, I find that I am still, and perhaps more so than ever before, reflecting and readjusting my teaching methods. Each year of the last 17, I have identified an area of focus for that academic year. This year my focus has been this: When my students fail, what can I do about it? What can I change or adjust in my teaching practices to meet the needs of my students?

The secondary education system in the United States is flawed, no doubt. Its foundation is a platform on which the US has stood for generations: We teach ALL children. But do we? We certainly allow all children to access the classroom setting. We create environments where they are welcome if they have an identified disability, and we create many alternatives for learners who show “significant” delays and deficits “as compared to their peers” (Individuals with Disabilities Education Act).

What do we do for the student without an identified disability? What becomes of the marginalized student who never turns in her homework? He leaves class frequently, and he rarely, if ever, participates in class activities. She never asks for help, and she won’t accept help when it’s offered. He puts his head down as soon as he gets to class. Her attendance is so poor, the school has filed truancy procedures with the court. How long must we try to squeeze these square pegs into round holes?

As a co-leader of the Intervention Team at my school, I have found there are so many barriers to actually helping students, that I feel the team has become ineffectual. We spend at least an hour weekly discussing the specific students who are failing in our building. We filter out students who are in special education, alternative education, and other minor interventions available in our building. We do this because these students are already receiving the help we think they need. So our list of 125 failing students out of 500 total students in grades nine through 12 is whittled down to 20 to 30 students each week who are failing three or more classes, and who are not receiving an identified intervention. After much data collection over the course of the last two years, we have found that these students share one common trait: their ACE score is greater than four.

Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) is the term used to describe all types of abuse, neglect, and other potentially traumatic experiences that occur to people under the age of 18 (our students). These ACEs have been linked to risky health behaviors, chronic health conditions, low life potential, early death, and, you guessed it, poor performance in high school and post-high school programs. (You read that right, “early death”!!) An ACE score of four or more does not mean that a child will experience poor outcomes. However, children’s positive experiences or protective factors can prevent children from experiencing adversity and can protect against many of the negative health and life outcomes even after adversity has occurred. (

What was that? Protective factors? Positive experiences? These are things I can do! I cannot keep a parent from verbally assaulting their child. I cannot protect a child from physical, emotional, or sexual abuse outside of my school. I cannot take them all home. (Believe me, I’ve tried.) However, I can do something. I haven’t tried everything.

In 2018, the Hechinger Report released a commentary on two studies on the power of healthy relationships between teachers and students. The studies found that students who develop a stronger bond with their teacher tend to score higher on tests. The studies focused on the looping that happens in elementary classrooms. Looping is when a teacher follows their students from one grade to the next (for example: teaching the same students in both 2nd and 3rd grades). The research suggests that when people know each other well, it’s a better classroom environment for learning.

As a special education teacher, I am blessed with the opportunity to follow my students for four years. I see some of my students everyday over the course of their high school careers. I strive to be more than just a teacher for them. I hope I’m an advocate, listener, counselor, mentor, cheerleader, coach, mom, snack and meal provider, pencil supplier, and more. It is this opportunity that allows me to build relationships with my students that my general education counterparts don’t necessarily share.

Or do they? When freshman enter my classroom, it doesn’t take me the entire year to build a relationship with them. It takes only a few weeks (give or take, depending on the kid). I would argue that some of my general education colleagues are better at building relationships with their students than I am. Often, it is in their nature to be kind, compassionate, and generous with their time. These colleagues are the ones who are spending countless hours volunteering their time after school to help kids in many of the same ways I do in my special education classroom. They are noticing when one of their students needs something different or more. They are connecting with them beyond the classroom as coaches and club sponsors. These teachers and support staff are making themselves available to students beyond their content.

I have heard various complaints from my colleagues about students over the years: 
  • They’re so disorganized. 
  • They don’t care enough to put their names on their work.
  • They don’t follow directions. 
  • They are so distracted by technology. 
  • They just don’t care about their grades. 
  • I’ve tried everything, and I can’t do it for them. 
  • I’m not going to work harder than they are. 
  • We are preparing them for their future, so they need to know how to take notes, how to meet deadlines, how to follow directions…

I have heard the last one so many times, I feel if I’m not careful, I might start believing it myself. It’s partly true. We are preparing students for their futures, yes. The word preparing means it’s a process, and we have four years to get them there. We should not expect a freshman to have the same preparedness as a senior. Not only have they never been in high school before, but they are 14 and 15 years old. Can you remember what it was like to be 14? We were all once pimply-faced, hormone-driven, braces-wearing, goofballs! Their silly little brains won’t be fully developed until they are at least 25, and we are expecting this underdeveloped group of teenage boneheads to be prepared on day one?

Since when did teaching in high school exclude classroom management? Why is it that a kindergarten teacher can get 25 5-year-olds to respond to her in unison, and put away their materials on command, but a high school teacher cannot get a 14-year-old to put his name on his paper? This paradox is not lost on me. It’s called “Direct Instruction.”

In 2015, the National Institute for Direct Instruction (NIFDI) published an article by Jean Stockard, PhD summarizing over 50 years of research on the process of Direct Instruction. Her findings included this statement: “Effective instruction is logical in nature, carefully organized and formulated, building on students’ previous learning in an unambiguous and cumulative manner. Seeing learning as a cumulative process, mastery of the first element in a learning series helps students more easily master subsequent steps. The result is more efficient and more effective learning.”

Preach it sister! Dr. Stockard is speaking my love language. Her evidence suggests that children learn best when it is unambiguous and cumulative. What does that mean? It means we should be clear about our expectations, and we should make sure they master the basic skills before moving on to more complex skills. This is relevant in all learning. It is relevant in learning to ride a bike, in learning to research, and in learning to raise my hand before I am called upon. So often in my colleagues’ high school classrooms, they are so focused on the importance of their content, that they don’t spend the time teaching students the importance of these academic skills. “Those are the skills they should have learned in middle school,” but the problem is, they haven’t mastered them. It is our job to continue to teach them those skills as well as our content. As teachers, we should not behave as if we are islands of information that must be disseminated to the others, but instead we are an orchestra with each piece supporting and encouraging the other. Each part of this vast array of instruments plays its part. Sometimes one part is louder than the other, but it is constantly changing and adapting, and making way for other parts to speak up and be heard.

So how do ACEs fit into all of this? When I was first trained on this concept, someone said this: Instead of thinking, “What’s wrong with this kid,” try thinking, “What’s happened to him?” For me, this was an incredible shift in my thinking. By changing my question to “What’s happened to them?” I change my perspective on the root cause of their struggle. Whatever they are doing, or not doing, it is a symptom of a larger problem. Sometimes that root problem is not solvable by me. However, I can change how I address these students. I can actively, and deliberately teach them in ways that are more compassionate. Kindness goes a long way. Frances E. Jensen, author of The Teenage Brain: A Neuroscientist’s Survival Guide to Raising Adolescents and Young Adults, has studied the teenage brain in great depth. Her findings demonstrate how fragile, and yet how receptive the teenage brain is. She said (in reference to the teenage years), “It’s also the time when you can get the best results from remediation, special help, for learning and emotional issues.”

Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs
Bloom's Taxonomy
Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs is a concept developed by Abraham Maslow in 1943 that has long been used to understand trauma, and human response to basic needs. It was developed as a psychological theory composed of a five-tier model depicting human needs. The needs lower down in the hierarchy must be satisfied before the higher levels can be accessed. Similarly, Bloom’s Taxonomy was developed to depict the process of student learning. Bloom’s Taxonomy, created by Benjamin Bloom in 1956, is a hierarchical ordering of cognitive skills that can, among other countless uses, help teachers and students learn.

The reality of both of these theories, is that Bloom’s cannot happen without Maslow’s. No learning happens if a student’s basic needs are not met. Some of the most important basic needs for a teenager are safety and security, which includes important, safe relationships. Of all the things I can be for a student, a safe adult is the most important. One of my most prized talents, is that I can get a student to do something he otherwise wouldn’t do just by saying, “Would you do it for me?” Because we have developed a safe, and trusting relationship, he is willing to try things in a setting in which he has rarely felt successful. It is my responsibility to help my students cross the finish line. Sometimes that looks more like dragging, but it is still my responsibility. In the end, if they have failed, I have failed.

The responsibility is not all mine. There are countless other influences on these children outside of mine, most of which are out of my control. While they are in my classroom, however, I will always work to improve relationships and help them remember how much they are valued. I will reteach, redo, and reassess children in a million different ways in order for them to learn. I will work harder than they will, because I am the professional, and that’s my job. I will provide them with another pencil (and another, and another), and I will give them another chance. I will stay after school again, and again, and I will work with them during lunch. I will never give up on them, even after they’ve given up on themselves. There is always something I can do, and always something I have yet to try. I haven’t tried everything… yet.

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

The Twenty-Five Percent

With respect to confidentiality, and the laws of FERPA – Family Education Rights and Privacy Act, names and images of students and families have been published with permission by their legal guardians.

April, 2017

In April of 2015, a sweet senior girl named Molly is nominated for prom queen. She is a demure, quiet young lady who keeps to herself. She likes to be busy, in fact she cannot stay idol. She is a very hard working student, and is driven to please everyone around her. She loves music and dancing, and attending the prom would, in itself, be an incredible event for her. While being selected as prom queen would be such a special honor, Molly would likely be quite indifferent. Her classmates, however, are showing their pride in their peer, and their generosity as humans in nominating her in the first place. Molly has autism. She is quiet and demure, because she is unable to use speech to communicate in reciprocal conversation. She uses sign language and an iPad Mini to communicate most of her needs. She is busy all the time. This is not an understatement. She needs to work, learn, and create constantly. She needs to clean. She has a preoccupation with tidiness. ("There's a job in that!" says the teacher in me.) Molly adores her teachers, her parents and her brother. She lives her life to please them all, and has been known to cry silent tears when she believes she has upset them. Molly does, indeed love to dance. Attending this prom will be a wonderful night for her, and she will dance it up all night whether she wears the crown or not.
I never intended to be a special education teacher. I never intended to be a teacher at all. When I graduated from high school, I was convinced I would be a police officer, and maybe someday a detective. I wanted to stop crime. I definitely wanted to impact the world, or at least my community in a positive way. I spent a summer internship with the New York Police Department, yes, the NYPD. While in college, I worked for several years in a residential restitution center with felons on parole. I spent those years watching grown men, drug addicts, rapists, larcenists, and the like never changing, but just getting by, getting out, and coming back in. I wasn't disillusioned, but perhaps, disenchanted. After college graduation, I moved home with my parents, took a small detour through Europe to backpack and just be a twenty-something before growing up and starting my life. I came back home to enroll in the Colorado Springs Police Academy. After my initial enrollment, the CSPD had a hiring freeze, and my dream of being a police officer was at best, on hold. I got a sub license and started substitute teaching in Woodland Park School District while I waited on another opportunity to present itself.

That opportunity came in the form of youth sex-offender boys. A local treatment center for children was hiring a paraprofessional for their school, and I was a perfect fit. I had a criminal justice background, I had some classroom experience from substitute teaching, I was driven and ambitious, and I got the job. I was 22 years old. This was my gig. I was really feeling like I was making a difference here. After having worked with adults who had already made their beds, I was convinced that I was meant to work with youth. Children could still be molded, could still be influenced in a positive way. This was my calling. I was sure of it. After one month as a paraprofessional, one of the teachers just up and left the school, and never came back. Burn-out. I conveniently had my sub license, so the principal asked me to move into the teaching position as a substitute teacher until they could hire a replacement. They hired me a month later. All I had to do was go back to school, and get my teaching credential in special education. Now, this was my calling. The classes I was teaching had boys ranging in age from 10 to 18, all of whom had been adjudicated as sexual offenders, and were receiving treatment for their crimes and behaviors. Some of the boys had serious mental illness and cognitive impairments. I was literally thrown to the wolves. Not only was I teaching for the very first time on an emergency license while trying to figure out how to reach these very challenging students, I was attending graduate school full-time, and trying to navigate the ins and outs of the ever-changing special education world.

That last bit goes on today. I'm still trying to navigate the ins and outs of the ever-changing special education world fifteen years later. I spent four years teaching youth sex-offenders, and I was burnt out. At the end of those four years, I had earned my master's degree, and my formal provisional teaching license as a generalist in special education from the Colorado Department of Education. I was so ready to move on into the public school system. It seemed like a dream come true, when I was hired by Cripple Creek-Victor School District for the 2006-2007 school year. I spent eight years teaching Special Education at CCV before moving to Manitou Springs School District for the 2014-2015 school year.

I moved districts, but my BOCES (Board of Cooperative Education Services) stayed the same. My special education director did not change, and so I was quite familiar with the methods and procedures of the special education system in Manitou. Moving to Manitou was one of the best decisions of my career. When it came to choosing a place to work, it was very important to me that my colleagues be collaborative, encouraging, supportive, and fun. I asked about the first three criteria in my interview, and then discovered how fun my colleagues truly are. We used to call ourselves the SPED Shed, but this has been deemed derogatory by our administration, so now we refer to ourselves as Special Teams. (We must have some humor, or we'll all go crazy!) Well, maybe we already are. 

Liz, my special education colleague and I, along with four paraprofessionals and a job coach are the special education department at Manitou Springs High School. We currently have about 25 students on our caseload, of which we each take about half to case manage. We teach three 90-minute classes per day, some co-teaching with general education teachers, and some direct instruction with our special education students outside of the general education classroom. In a class of six special education students, we'll have six different levels of instruction, and areas of focus to lesson plan, instruct, and progress monitor... all at once. All of those students also must earn credits toward graduation as detailed in their Individualized Education Plans (IEPs) and aligned with their Post School Goals (PSGs). All of this must align with Colorado State Standards, and is evaluated and audited at random by the Colorado Department of Education. Our documentation is expected to be perfect. I am not exaggerating. There must be no errors. If there are errors in documentation found in the random audits, we are required to hold amendment meetings with families and change the documentation accordingly. In what other profession must you be perfect? Even surgeons make mistakes.

NPR (National Public Radio) ran an article in 2015 titled Behind the Shortage of Special Ed Teachers: Long Hours, Crushing Paperwork. The article states this notion: "On top of the normal demands of teaching, special education teachers face additional pressures: feeling of isolation, fear of lawsuits, and students who demand extra attention." One teacher commented that they didn't get a degree in special education for the paperwork, but to help kids. I cannot disagree. Sometimes the overwhelming piles of paperwork and documentation is more than I can bear, and the only way I can manage it all is to focus on just one day at a time. Sometimes, it's one moment at a time. The Educational Journal of Special Education stated in 2006 that 50% of special education teachers leave their jobs within five years. Half of those who make it past five years will leave within in ten years. This equates to a 75% turnover rate every ten years. So I suppose Liz and I are in that 25% who decided to stick it out, and make a career out of it.

Please welcome the Supreme Court ruling, "Appropriately Ambitious" to the stage. Recently, the United States Supreme Court ruled in favor of a Colorado student with autism. The court said, "School districts must give students with disabilities the chance to make meaningful, 'appropriately ambitious' progress..." (March 22, 2017 NPR). What the court neglected to do was define "appropriately ambitious." As a special education teacher, this is concerning because "appropriately ambitious" is not measurable. I am tasked everyday to basically make my students into scientific experiments. That's right, everything they do must be counted and measured. I cannot prove what I am doing is meaningful unless it can be measured, and so my students have become lab rats, and I am the scientist. Research-based methods, SMART (Specific, Measurable, Achievable,  Relevant, Time-based) goals, charts and graphs. At least prior to the Supreme Court ruling the standard was measurable: some growth. I can measure "some." If the graph goes up, then there was "some" growth. But how can I measure "appropriately ambitious"? If you ask me, and even if you don't, I'm going to tell you, appropriately ambitious is extremely ambiguous. 

Is "some" enough? It depends on the student. That's why it's called an Individualized Education Plan. Some growth for one student, might be Everest for another. However, that's also why there is an IEP Team comprised of parents, teachers, administrators, itinerants, and the student. This team is tasked to work together to develop a plan that fits the needs and desires for each student on an individual basis. When done properly, students do grow, and sometimes, they even do this ambitiously, and it happens organically, as it should. But I digress... Wasn't I talking about fun?

We have fun, indeed! Liz and I have our moments of self-pity when our paperwork is criticized, but it's the everyday, the lightbulb moments with our students, and the camaraderie with our colleagues and each other that make this job the best job there is. I would choose nothing else, even though this work chose me. Fifteen years ago, I was a floundering twenty-something trying to figure out who I was going to be. Now, I'm a thirty-something, still trying to figure out who I'm going to be, but at least I know where I need to be.

The prom of 2015 is an amazing night. As a chaperone, I enjoy watching my students in this environment. It's so different from the classroom setting where they are working to accomplish the task I have laid out for them. Here, in this ballroom, they are letting loose, dressed to the nines and having the time of their lives. It's such a gift to watch, and I am feeling blessed. Finally, the moment arrives, and the prom court is invited to the stage. Molly joins the other nominees for the big announcement. They call her name. She is named 2015 Manitou Springs High School Prom Queen. She gets her crown and her sash, and I think she recognizes that this is something special. I don't know if she knows how special. I'm sure she doesn't realize that her fellow seniors voted for her over the captain of the cheerleading squad, and the star basketball player. I know she doesn't know how special she is, but at that moment, she grins. She is invited to dance with the prom king, and she holds his hands out of obligation, because she is a people-pleaser after all. She goes back to her date, a friend with autism with whom she is very familiar, and they dance. They don't dance together, but they dance side-by-side - and Molly is the queen for the night. Tonight, I'd say her peers have made some appropriately ambitious growth when they stepped out in faith and generosity, and chose to recognize her for who she is, and honor her with this recognition. This moment is a reminder of the genuine, beautiful nature that is cultivated in youth. It is the reason I wanted to work with youth, and if I had any influence on this group of students, then I am fulfilled beyond all measure. Fifteen years ago, I wanted to impact the world, or at least my community in a positive way. Maybe I've not impacted the world yet; I certainly have a lot of work to do, and that's why I'm in the twenty-five percent.

Monday, February 27, 2017

Let Them Fail

With respect to confidentiality, and the laws of FERPA – Family Education Rights and Privacy Act, names of students and families have been changed to protect their identities and confidentiality.

February, 2017

Shannon stands at her locker, backpack on, winter hat nearly covering her eyes, tears beginning to fall out of her sweet eyes, and she's swaying back and forth. I shoo away adults and other students from offering their help as they pass her in the senior hall. I'm the "mean" teacher. They give me this look like, you're awful. How can you just let her stand there and cry? I call it "strategic sabotage." So there she stands, about five yards from me, crying at her locker with her back to me. She has seen me there, yet she refuses to ask me for help. She knows what to do, she is a senior after all. We have been working on her requesting help and problem-solving through a-typical situations (situations outside of her routine) for the last three years. Shannon has Down Syndrome, and with this genetic disability, come many challenges, especially at age 17. So many of the challenges she faces in this high school setting are created by my staff and I. We set up scenarios that will force her to problem-solve. Sometimes, the solution is as simple as asking for help. Other times, it is more complex. Today, all she must do is turn around, and ask for help. Even if she would simply utter the word, "Help" in my direction, this would all be over. Shannon is also quite stubborn. But, so am I.
Once, when I was small, I told my mother, "You're the meanest mom in the whole world!" I'm sure she was holding me accountable for something, and I didn't like the result. My mom often reminds me of this when my own children now refer to me as the meanest mom in the whole world. I'm sure I am. My husband and I just completed a six-week parenting class through Love and Logic. Magic. Absolute magic. I have been using techniques at home and in the classroom from Teaching with Love and Logic for my entire 15-year teaching career. I have most definitely used some of the strategies on my children (and my husband, for that matter!). I find natural consequences create fewer power-struggles and many more learning opportunities for my students and my children. When this parenting class was offered through my school district, I jumped on it for my husband and I because I wanted the two of us to be on the same page. Through this class, all of the amazing teaching strategies I had learned 15 years prior flooded my memory, and I was reminded how amazingly well they also work in the classroom.

Teaching severely profound, or significant support needs students is no easy feat. Certainly the content I present to them is simple: typically 2nd and 3rd grade level materials adapted from grade-level curriculum. Most of my students are unable to independently read and understand grade-level content. Their IQs range from about 40 to 65. While I believe that academic content is valuable, my professional philosophy is to teach them to be as independent as possible. This includes many opportunities to sabotage their routines. (That's the "Strategic Sabotage" I was referring to earlier.) But the BEST learning opportunities for them are when situations occur naturally. I love a natural consequence when I find one; and when they problem-solve though the scenario independently, it's like a little pot of gold at the end of a very long rainbow.

My staff and a I create learning environments for my students that are outside of the classroom as often as possible. We will learn about something in the classroom setting, and then we will spend the majority of our time working on the application of that skill. Most of the skills we work on are to increase independence. Often, students are tasked with communicating a need to the appropriate person so that ultimately their needs are met. Currently, my students range in age from 15-18. In the State of Colorado, students enter the "transition" years at the end of 8th grade or at age 15 (whichever comes first). The transition years are the years we spend preparing them to be adults. What does it mean to be an adult with Down Syndrome? There isn't one answer, but I believe challenging them to be as independent as possible is part of the answer.

Thanks to some awesome paraprofessionals, we have implemented several in-house businesses that my students run (with adult support). Most recently, we have started a Coffee Cart: The Mustang Coffee Corral. We offer coffee and tea to staff and students one day per week. My students take orders, exchange money (sometimes cash, sometimes credit cards), and prepare the drinks. This is somewhat of a new business for them, and so we have spent most of this quarter ironing out the details and trouble-shooting. I spent a lot of time doing task-analysis with each student. I have been assessing their baseline so that I can then determine an appropriate direction in which to teach independence though this business.

They amaze me. They take this business very seriously, and are incredibly independent. Not that we haven't seen our fair share of missed orders, slight burns, and spills, but the successes far outweigh the failures. It is in their failures, however, that they are learning the most. The time he spilled the coffee all down his front, he learned he can't pick up the cup from the top. The time she smashed her finger picking up the K-Cup, she learned she can't get the K-Cup and push down on the top of the machine at the same. The time she was asked to repeat herself when she was taking an order, she learned she must speak more slowly so she can be understood. The time she counted back all the money she was given, and her customer gave her back what he owed, she learned people are kind and generous at heart.

Without these failures, among many others, they would have missed out on these opportunities to learn. It's so hard to watch them flounder when I could very easily swoop in and give them the answers. But I would rather them fail and fail miserably here, than have them fail outside of my care and possibly be subject to harm that could otherwise have been avoided. In the words of Love and Logic, we are having them fail small now rather than big later. By doing for them what they are capable of doing for themselves, I may have robbed them of an opportunity to learn. If I'm consistent in my methods, then their brains work out the problem, and then find a solution. They practice and exercise this skill now, in a controlled environment, and when they get out into that big, bad world without me, they have built up those brain muscles enough to make the right choice on their own. Well, at least that's the hope.
Shannon is still swaying back and forth at her locker. She's stopped crying now, and she is talking quietly to herself. After I have given several verbal prompts, "Shannon, what are you doing?" "Shannon, I see you're standing at your locker, where should you be?" and no response, I finally enlist the help of one of my paraprofessionals, Cristina. Together we come closer to Shannon and I ask her a few more questions in the hopes that she will be prompted to use the skills she has learned to problem-solve through this situation successfully. At this point, the tardy bell has rung, and she is now late to class. "Shannon, is there anyone who can help you?" She ignores me because she is very frustrated. I point to Cristina and I say, "Mrs. Leonhardt can help you. Shannon is there anyone who can help you?" After about five minutes of various versions of this questioning, I finally use full physical prompts. I gently turn her body toward Cristina, and using signs to help her, I physically move her hands and arms in the position of each sign, and she says the words as we sign together: "I... want... help... please." Cristina says in a VERY excited voice, "I'd be happy to help you, Shannon! What can I do for you?" Shannon replies, "Locker," independently. So, Mrs. Leonhardt helps Shannon open her locker.

I could have just opened it for her in the first place, sure. What would she have learned from that? She would have learned that Mrs. McCracken will open her locker. Someone will do it for her. When I am gone, when she is no longer in our school next year, who will do it for her? Certainly not me. So I let her flounder and fail here in this safe place, so that hopefully, one day, she will ask someone for help as they pass her by.

Friday, January 20, 2017

Purple Hairbrush

With respect to confidentiality, and the laws of FERPA – Family Education Rights and Privacy Act, names of students and families have been changed to protect their identities and confidentiality.

January, 2017

Working on alphabetizing
Anna is 18 years old. In three months, she’s 19. She walks into the room with total confidence, and sits in her chair beside the wall, where she plugs in her iPad. She wears purple sweatpants with pockets for holding her Clementine tangerines that will spoil in her backpack before she ever gets a chance to eat them. Her pants are held up by a drawstring, no buttons or snaps, and they match her hair: bright purple, like she dunked her head into a bucket of neon purple paint over Christmas break. After Thanksgiving break her hair was pink. Her neon green noise-cancelling headphones hide, though not very well, her ear-buds. She scans through the YouTube app for clips from Sofia the First, or Phineas and Ferb, or Tom and Jerry. This is Anna. And today, she is agitated because she cannot locate her purple hairbrush. “Purple hairbrush!!” She shouts. “Purple hairbrush!” It’s not just the sheer volume of her shout, but the pitch and intensity that send the rest of the class reeling into anxious panic. One student covers her ears, and gives me a look that says, “Are you going to do something about this?” Another pulls his hoodie over his head and yanks on the drawstring until only his nose is visible. I ask one of my para-educators to take the other students out of the class, while another para-educator and I, the one I like to call the “Anna-Whisperer” try and use everything we know about Crisis Prevention Intervention (CPI) and Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD) – swimming in acronyms - to negotiate with Anna so that she is convinced that she doesn’t need her purple hairbrush that is no where to be found.

“How many of you have little siblings?” I ask looking around the room at the two dozen faces returning my gaze. They stare in wonder, confused why this lady is speaking today in their sculpture class.
Anna's Cranberries Painting

“This is Mrs. McCracken,” says their teacher. "She’s here to explain some things about Anna."

Right. I’ll do my best, I think. Half of the class raise their hands in response to my question. “What happens when your little siblings don’t get their way, or something happens that they weren’t expecting?”

They ponder very briefly, and several respond, “They throw a fit.”

“Yes,” I say, “They throw a fit. And why do they do that?” I ask rhetorically. “Because they don’t understand or they are unable to communicate their frustration because they just don’t know what to do.”

How can Autism be explained? Moreover, how can it be explained to millennials whose vision extends not far beyond their fingertips and their mobile devices? Again, I’ll do my best.

“Autism is a developmental disability. We call it a ‘spectrum’ disorder because it varies in severity from person to person on a scale described as ‘mild to severe.’ Some people with Autism have under-developed social abilities, and struggle to understand how to interact with others, while they have typical academic learning abilities. Still others have severe delays in development that affect their ability to communicate. Sometimes this is a physical delay called apraxia where they literally cannot form the words. Other times, it is a processing delay, where they are capable of forming the words, but are unable to put together sentences and have conversations. When someone cannot communicate in a way that can be understood by others, they resort to behaviors to get their needs met.”

Blank stares.

“Why does she wear the green headphones?” one asks.

“She is ultra-sensitive to her surroundings, and sound in particular. The headphones she wears are noise-cancelling.”

Imagine one day waking up Super-Man. You can hear all the cries of the world at every moment. The sadness, the pain, the suffering one would hear if they could hear everyone talking at once all around the world would be overwhelmingly exhausting. Welcome to Anna’s world. Not that she has super-sonic hearing, but she has super-sensitive hearing. She hears the buzz of the florescent lighting. She hears the pencil scrape across the paper… times 25 students. She hears the swishing of jeans as students move in their seats, and she hears the beating of her own heart, and her breath. She hears this all at once, and she cannot differentiate one sound from another. I hear it too, but I know what it is. I know what to expect and how to handle an unforeseen situation with grace. I know how to ask for help when I don’t have all the answers, and I automatically recognize the solution when it is presented. Anna knows how to cry. She knows that if she cries and screams at the top of her lungs, someone will respond, and her need will be met. She knows this, because it works. Behaviors don’t change if they work.

My team and I have spent the last five months problem-solving this child. Child. She’s no child. She’s technically an adult. Did she vote in the last election? No. Does she have her driver’s license? No. Is she going to college in the fall with her peers? No. Will she work after high school? No. Anna has the cognitive functioning of a three-year-old. And yet, I have a three-year-old daughter of my own who has more language and problem-solving ability than Anna. She has pushed me far beyond the scope of where I thought I could be pushed as an educator. She’s not the most difficult student I have ever encountered, but she has stolen a piece of my heart. Her situation is far from “typical.” Her home life is constantly in upheaval, and her family is vastly under-resourced. She came to our district after having moved half a dozen times in two years. Not that we could forget, but she’s also a student with autism who struggles with change. I have reached into my “magic tool box” of SPED (special education) tricks and used everything I could find. I have utilized the expertise of our BOCES (Board of Cooperative Educational Services) BCBA (Board Certified Behavior Analyst) to problem-solve through some interesting behavioral situations with Anna. Thank God for my colleague and friend Cristina, the Anna-Whisperer. She seemed to connect with Anna on a level no one else could. She made little miracles happen on a daily basis. That, no one expected.

We have been working with Anna to “isolate the target of her communication,” which means getting the attention of the person with whom she intends to communicate. We spend a lot of time “sabotaging” situations to force our students to respond. We had been working with Anna to use some sign language as prompts to speech. She would sign, “I want” and then say the words, “I want,” and fill in the blank for the item she was requesting. One day she really wanted her iPad back after completing an assignment. And without prompting, she looked up at Cristina, deep brown innocent eyes full of purpose and she signed and said the words, “I want iPad.”

Remember how Michael Phelps jumped onto his teammate when he won his 23rd gold medal in the 4x100 Medley Relay in Rio in 2016? That’s pretty close to how excited we were when Anna made this request. It was like we won the lottery! It was a good three months of work, and she finally made this response without prompting. These are the moments that remind me why I became a special education teacher fifteen years ago. I often look at the pages and pages of data I have to keep track of and report back to my superiors and see little to no progress in all those graphs. I feel defeated when only 67% of my students made “some growth” on their IEP (Individualized Education Plan) goals this last semester, and the expectation is 80%. I feel defeated when I spend hours learning how to implement a curriculum, or a new behavior strategy and it’s a total flop… or it appears to be at first glance. And then one of them says, “I want iPad” without prompting, and I nearly cry out of pure joy and pride. It’s not pride for MY work, but for HER success. It’s HER moment, not mine; and there is no greater payoff for me. Behaviors don’t change if they work.

We stand together at the bus stop after school, waiting patiently while she listens and watches her cartoons on YouTube. She is content for the moment. She is loaded up with all of her belongings: her purse full of sanitary pads, crayons, and board books; a blue Wal-Mart canvas bag full of Clementine tangerines, coloring books, stuffed animals and a change of clothes; and her backpack with every school supply imaginable, and stuffed so full, it no longer zips closed. She sways easily from side to side, and chatters to herself unintelligibly about her show. I watch her sweet face, and I see her eyes glance down to her Wal-Mart bag. She opens it gently and looks at me. In a tiny, quiet voice, she says, “Oh! There it is,” and she pulls out her purple hairbrush. I say, “What!? Are you kidding me?” She shows it to me, and I take her photo with it so I can show my team that I’m not going crazy when I share the story with them later. She grins like I’ve never seen her grin before, and she clutches her purple hairbrush like a long-lost friend. Delighted with herself, she hops onto her bus, waving enthusiastically at me through the dusty window, still listening to her cartoons, and grinning ear-to-ear.