Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Special Needs in the Classroom: Insider Information for my Music Educator Friends

For four years out of college, I was a band director.  I loved what I did.  And I had a few special needs kids in my bands and classes of varying degrees of severity, and never really thought much of it.  There were even a few times I sat in on ARD meetings, and every time I wondered why the parents looked so scared.

I certainly never planned to be one of those parents.  But as you know, that's my reality.

Our little bear in a Sousaphone at his first Baylor basketball game.

The first clinic out of the box after ten years of staying home with the kids was one that I thought all too fitting.  It was supposed to be all about special needs kids in the music classroom.  Instead, it was one guy telling stories about his life teaching and with his special needs child.  Cool, man.  I get that.  There were a lot of things I could relate to, but so many that I just couldn't quite.

But it answered hardly any questions and left me squirming in my chair thinking I'd like five minutes with that microphone.

So here's what I'd tell all of you over lunch if I could.  Take them for what they're worth.  And obviously, double check anything for legality.

1. I'd like you to introduce you to someone.  He'll answer half your questions about whatever special needs kid walks in your room.  You'll be tempted to ignore him in all the shuffle of beginning of the year paperwork, but please don't.  He covers everything from bus schedules to every minute of the day to behavior plans that have been put in place.  Meet Mr. IEP, or Individual Education Plan.

2.  Every year, make sure you don't just scrawl your signature saying you received IEP's.  Open them. Read them.  FOLLOW THEM.  If there is something you don't understand, go see the diagnostician.  Call the parents.

3. Don't ignore the IEP.  Have I said this enough?  This is not only helpful to you and the student and the parents, it is LEGALLY BINDING.  Not something to "meh" away.

4. Don't be scared.  These kids are people.  Even if they're non-verbal (unable to speak) they will show you their personalities.  If you will give them time and, in some cases, several chances, you will see.  I can tell you that Ryan does not do well with people who are nervous about him.  He knows, he senses, and it makes him nervous.  Imagine a rickety rope bridge over a raging river versus a sturdy, steel-and-concrete bridge over the same.  Which would you trust with your footing?

5. Every kid is different in your room, right?  So is every autistic child.  Every child with an extra chromosome.  Diagnoses are not cookie cutters.  They are keys to understanding.  Tickets to services.

6. Routine.  Establish routine.  You probably do this anyway, right?  Ryan needs to know what will happen next, just like you need to know where your phone is, where you parked your car, or where you live.  Something as simple as his place in the room being moved is as disturbing to him as you walking out to leave for work and your car not being there.  Or walking out and seeing that someone has replaced it with another, similar car without your knowledge or permission.  Better or worse, change is change.

7.  Attend the ARD.  If you possibly can, be there.  Accept your part in this child's education.  Yes, it's fifty minutes a day of the child's life.  What's the big deal?  It's a huge deal.  Please step up.

8.  Establish a line of communication with the parents.  Be kind, listen, but also be honest.  As in, if you're planning a trip to an amusement park for your band, call Mom and Dad the day before you present this to the class.  Ask what we can do to make it work for little Susie, who might run or wander away and get hurt.  Don't be surprised if they volunteer to go along, ask the principal for an aid for her, or just tell you that isn't something they want for her.  I have been known to keep Ryan home from a class trip if I knew it was going to be absolute misery for him.

9.  If you need help that is in the IEP and you are not getting it, let your administrator know.  So often these things are not just for your convenience but for the health and safety of the child!  Insist that the IEP is followed.  If an aid is needed, crow until Johnny has one.  If Johnny has autism and wanders or is trying to escape the room or worse the school, he needs that aid.  And I know how hard it is to focus on anything other than the music you're trying to prepare for UIL.  Protect Johnny and legally yourself, and bark and document your asking for what he needs until he gets it.

10.  Along the same lines, know your limits.  If you're talking about marching band rehearsal and Susie is a bolter, be honest in the ARD and in phone calls.  Don't ever assume parents know how things work.  Be honest about what is expected, if you can find something to do.  My husband's school has been amazing about opening the band program to kids, regardless of ability or disability, and the kids have responded with love for these kids that more than warms my heart.  But everything has to be modified.

11.  Modify.  It's just good teaching.  You're not going to lose anything by letting a kid dress in a uniform and do SOMETHING at halftime, and something in the stands.  There is almost always SOMETHING they can do to be a part.  Let them do what they can do.  If they can't handle it... give them a break.

12. What's a break?  Varies from kid to kid.  For Ryan, who is overwhelmed by a lot of people and sound, a safe room to exit to and calm down in might be best. Again, this is where an aid can come in handy... or an assistant if you have one.

13. You can do this.  You will not regret trying it, even if it doesn't work out.

14. Did I mention communicating?  Communicate with the student as much as possible, with his other teachers, with the diagnostician, with the parents, with everyone who has contact with this kid at school.  An email is sometimes all it takes.

What's the big deal about whether or not kids with special needs get to participate in band, orchestra, choir, or a sport?  Their quality of life.  The other kids' education and growing as a person.

Remember, for every kid who isn't going to do much for your organization, there is a set of parents or guardians who just want to see him do something that makes him happy.  That is the crux of everything we do, or it should be.  Happy and successful.  And sometimes, for these people... I know it's true for Ryan... happy IS successful.  Success looks different for different people.

Something I wish I could tell all of you... the last thing, and maybe the only thing if you get just one... I've recently been through a pretty rigorous job interview by a committee.  They asked some very good questions and really had me tap-dancing.  That interview was a piece of cake compared to an ARD meeting (IEP meeting).  Why?

When you talk about Ryan, you're talking about my whole heart.  You're taking it out of my body, tossing it around the table.  I'm wondering what you're going to say about it next.  When I can just get it back and put it where it's safe.  In any communication you have with parents or kids, regardless of ability, please treat them with respect.  You will come across parents who don't want to be bothered with their kids' lives, but for the most part, I bet they want what's best, and will be glad to hear that you care enough to do your best for their child.

Thank you for being an educator.  Thank you for being an educator that cares to read posts from desperate teacher/moms like me.

And of course, thanks be to God for how far we've come in including and improving the lives of special needs kids.  There is still much work to do, but it's so much better in so many ways. 

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