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As a special education teacher, I pride myself on being an advocate for my students and their needs.

Special education students deserve reasonable accommodations which make it possible for them to be successful in the school setting.

In my 20 plus years of teaching, I have taught students with every possible disability. Some of these young people have overcome the odds and become highly productive members of society: teachers, soldiers, pilots, mechanics, custodians, or taxidermists. They have achieved at levels many thought would be impossible for them.

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Unfortunately, however, it seems just as many of my students fall through the cracks and instead are incarcerated. I have former students in prison for burglary, drug related charges, theft, assault and battery, and murder. Almost every student now incarcerated, I knew when I had them in middle school, this was to be their fate. I feel a saddened sense of responsibility at not being able to find a way to change their path.

Too often, it was painfully apparent at the middle school level which students were prison bound. These students could not consistently conform to the basic rules of school life.

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Cossondra George
Cossondra George

Manifestation hearings were held to determine if the behaviors were directly related to their ‘disability’ or not. In some cases, I fought to defend the student’s behaviors – a child being suspended for swearing in an angry outburst caused by some minor misunderstanding, or a child who was consistently tardy because her lack of organizational skills caused her four minute locker break to be inadequate for her to gather all her belongings for class. Their behaviors were directly related to their disabilities and were not interfering with the education of other students, or endangering anyone.

In other cases, I disagreed with the decisions – violent students who endangered others by throwing furniture, or a child caught stealing in the cafeteria repeatedly, or the boy who refused to remove his hat or keep his feet off the table. I saw these behaviors as simply unacceptable, regardless. Endangering another person, stealing, or pure and simple defiance because you don’t want to follow the rules should never be tolerated.

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Teaching middle schoolers to become their own best advocates by empowering them to ask for what will help them experience success drives my day. I encourage them to ask to have tests read, or to take their assessments in a quiet location, or be given copies of notes before lectures, or to be given a chance to decompress in a quiet location when they are angry, or to be given an extra day to complete a long writing assignment.

I teach them to learn to know what makes a difference in their learning and in their success in the classroom, but I always encourage them to not make excuses for their disabilities, and teach them to not let their disability define them or their lives.

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Every child is unique, no doubt, and every situation warrants an in-depth investigation, but too often, we make excuses for children, simply because they have a disability. In doing that, we create situations where we back ourselves into a corner, and teach the child s/he is above simple rules. Students must ALL be held to certain standards of behavior, at all times. There are black and white, non-negotiable rules that must be followed, regardless of your disability. If you are in a public school setting, you must be a public school student.

When we determine that students are not to be held accountable for their actions, we set them into a pattern of making excuses, upping the ante with behaviors which often escalate as they test the system over and over, and eventually, too often, cross the line and find themselves sitting not at a manifestation hearing but instead, in front of a judge. In the courtroom, that judge doesn’t care what their perceived disability is, but instead focuses on the actual crime committed and issues consequences based not on a manifestation, but on reality.

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Too often, it was painfully apparent at the middle school level which students were prison bound. These students could not consistently conform to the basic rules of school life.

How can we break the cycle? I think we need to set forth simple rules and simple consequences for students, and adhere to them regardless. These rules and expectations may need to be vary for each student, but they need to be made clear before problems arise.

While we may need to work to create individual behavior plans for some students, basic rules should be non-negotiable, i.e. rules which involve the safety and education of others. Schools have a mission, and that mission cannot be destroyed by the actions of one.

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We need to work with families to teach parents and students what the expectations are and what is going to happen if those expectations are not met. Schools need to provide mental health support for students, teaching them coping skills and encouraging them to seek help when they are overwhelmed or frustrated. We need to create more peer-to-peer mentoring opportunities, empowering students to help each other. We need to teach compassion, tolerance and kindness in all classrooms, at all times.

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But on the other hand, we need the media to stop villainizing schools and teachers, holding them 100% accountable for student actions and learning. As a society, we must hold parents and students accountable for the behaviors of our children. No matter how hard I, the teacher, work to help that child learn coping skills, or math, or history, ultimately, the responsibility for that child’s success in life is out of my control, and firmly in the child’s own hands.

When we make excuses for students, when we allow them too much leeway, when we do not hold them accountable for their own actions, we create coddled, entitled adults who do not understand why suddenly, the rules of society are black and white and apply to them, just like they apply to everyone else.

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We fail them because we don’t hold them accountable. We fail them because we don’t provide the services they need to be successful. We fail them because we don’t know what to do to help them.

To break the cycle, we need to work together – school, parents, and mental health service providers – to provide clear and consistent expectations and consequences for every child, setting them up for success, creating a path of productivity and possibility.

Cossondra George is a veteran middle school teacher who teaches history, math and language arts, along with special education, in Newberry, Mich. She is a member of the Center for Teaching Quality Collaboratory and serves as on the leadership team for the Teacher Leadership Initiative as the Virtual Community Organizer. George is also a teacher consultant for the Top of the Mitt National Writing Project.

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Letters to the Editor

6 Letters

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  1. It’s not often that parents have visibility into teachers’ perspectives on this very real issue, so thank you for this. 1 in 5 kids kids have a learning disability (NCLD 2014 State of Learning Disabilities). Yet roughly half aren’t disabled enough per school criteria to qualify for “special” services that you describe in in school – “provide mental health support for students, teaching them coping skills and encouraging them to seek help when they are overwhelmed or frustrated.”. In other words, many students are not receiving their right to a free and appropriate public education, but instead are subjected daily to a learning environment is not only unrewarding but oftentimes punitive and inevitably makes them feel “dumb”, frustrated, disengaged, may even angry and …jail-bound. Until every teacher in both “special ed” and “general ed” has the skills and desire to truly push for and implement positive behavioral and academic intervention techniques when they see a student struggling and identify/address learning issues (including executive function disorder) the cycle will continue and teachers will continue to get flack for their part in allowing it to continue. Schools and teachers also need to stop villainizing parents who advocate and students who are frustrated with school because their educational needs are not being met. I agree that all stakeholders, including mental health professionals, policy makers, teachers, parents. , need to get together to break the cycle. So as parents, where do we sign up?

  2. As a parent (30 years + , 20 years of a specially capable child) and sped teacher (25 + years)
    I appreciate these nuggets of caring about all our kids. I love the article and comments about everyone coming together to help. I call it wrapping around the kids. If all the caretakers: parents, extended family. Teachers (all of them not just sped), admin, security guards,
    P.Officers,counselors etc… would communicate with each other in a way in which the child’s best interest is at heart; then the child, even though they might be overwhelmed with such involvement, would feel cared for, especially if that is how it is conveyed to the child.
    Positive Communication is the key.i know there’s a FERPA thing to consider, one must be careful. Thanks for this venue.

  3. “We fail them because we don’t know what to do to help them.”

    ..and because most never take the time to learn how to help them (they’re too busy insisting that they ‘conform’ to the expectation that they will ‘perform’ in exactly the way we tell them to!).

    Until each and every special needs child is viewed as the individual human being that they are.. teachers and admins will NEVER ‘know what to do to help them’.

  4. I completely agree that kids need wrap around help if we want them to succeed, and that success involves empathy, compassion, respect and a whole host of socio-emotional strengths and behaviors.

    I am troubled, however, by the dichotomy raised between “determin[ing] if the behaviors were directly related to their ‘disability’” on the one hand and “making excuses for children,” on the other. It seems to me that the dichotomy can be respolved more productively by making a distinction between the child and their behavior. I believe that all children (people, really) should be treated as if they are good. Does this mean that we have to accept any behavior they throw around? Not at all. We can treat all people as if they are good and still consider their behavior unacceptable. I agree that all people should be held to the same behavioral standards. It is not ok to hit someone, whether you did it because you were angry at them, because you have ADD and poor impulse control, because you have an ASD and they got in your space, or because you tripped and fell into them. But what does it mean to say the behavior is unacceptable? Does that mean all those children should be punished for having hit? What exactly is the goal of punishment? We know it is a terrible deterrent, both for the person punished and for the potential hitters in the class. So why exactly do we punish?

    Well, I think we can find an answer mixed in with who gets punished or not. Let’s say we understand that a person trips and falls, hitting another kid. Do we tend to punish him or her? No–we understand the intention was not to hurt another person, but that the hurt was accidental. Do we condone the behavior? Well, no. We ask that the person be careful, maybe stop running so fast inside, or maybe tie their shoes. We ask them to apologize so the one hit knows it was not intentional. And we often ask that they help out–go get the ice pack, pick up the books the other kid dropped, etc. That is, we 1) analyze the cause of the problem, 2) address the cause to keep it from happening again, 3) ask that the accidental hitter help make reparations and repair the relationship.

    Ok. So, what if the kid has an ASD, and hits. We understand that he or she didn’t fully understand the consequences of hitting and perhaps does not have the communicative skills to have solved the problem otherwise. In other words, her intention was not to hurt. Do we condone the behavior? No. 1) analyze the cause of the problem. Sammy got too close to Joey’s space and that made him very anxious. There was too much going on and Joey was sensorily overloaded. 2) We address the cause to keep it from happening again. We may talk to Sammy about keeping his space. We may manage the atmosphere better and keep things more calm for Joey, or let him hang out in a quiet place when too much is going on. We may work on teaching Joey some basic communication skills so next time he can get Sammy to back away, or we teach him self-soothing techniques, or we show him a quiet place where he can retreat. 3) Ask that the accidental hitter help make reparations and repair the relationship. We may still ask Joey to apologize or shake hands, or promise not to push again.

    Kid with ADHD? Well, maybe we feel like they did mean at that moment to hurt the other kid, but we understand that they didn’t *really* intend harm. So we 1) analyze the cause of the problem, whether it be Sally’s impulse control or difficulty walking away from conflict. We 2) address the cause to keep it from happening again, perhaps by working with Sally on impulse control, on recognizing growing anger and leaving the situation before she loses control, on helping her and others help her avoid conflict. And we 3) ask that the accidental hitter help make reparations and repair the relationship–again, the apology to show remorse and good will moving forward.

    Now, what about the kid who is just angry? Do we punish them because they have no other excuse and need to be held responsible for their behavior? Well, only if by being held responsible, we mean punish them. What if we go through steps 1, 2 and 3 with them? Isn’t that holding them responsible? Isn’t it also more likely to keep it from happening again than punishment (which studies show does not work as a deterrent)?

    So, why do we punish? Because 1) we look at intention, and if there is no “good excuse” for the behavior, we assume the intention to hurt was there. Then we 2) assume that means the *person* is bad (bad intentions = bad person) rather than understand that good people sometimes behave in unacceptable ways. Then we 3) assume that bad people need to be punished. Not to keep them from doing the bad thing again, but as just exchange for them being bad.

    Wouldn’t it be better to always assume the child is good, that their unacceptable behavior happened for a reason, that the reason can be understood *in order to* be able to help them not do it again, and that every person can then make reparations and repair the relationship? This is so far different from “making excuses” and
    “determin[ing] that students are not to be held accountable for their actions.” But neither is it separating out the “good people with reasons for their unacceptable behavior” from the “just bad people whose behavior reflects their badness.” And wouldn’t that succeed more in keeping kids out of the prison pipeline than simple punishment that communicates, “it is not your behavior, but you who is bad, and there is nothing you can do short of suffering that will make reparations.” After all, we all know children will rise or fall to meet our expectations.

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