Exceptionality: What? Why?

In my short lifetime, the world of special education has been scrambling to evolve and become more inclusive and supportive of all. When my sister was supposed to transition to the high school, the principal walked my mother down a long hall, away from the bustle of students, around a corner, opened the door to a literal storage closet, and told her that this would be where my sister would be spending 80% of her day. Away from peers, in a closet. The closet was, of course, going to be converted, shouldn’t that make my mom feel better? That was in the 90s. Up until a few years ago, small, solitary spaces were still being used as “cool-down” spots for children with emotional struggles. Alternative placement is still used in states like Massachusetts where statewide standardized tests serve as graduation criteria (and, more importantly to some, funding criteria) as a means to remove students from the general population and educate them in different programs, sometimes on completely different campuses. The descriptors we use to describe people with disabilities have changed as well. Mental Retardation (MR) was what my sister was diagnosed with, and it wasn’t changed until she was almost an adult. Based solely on the definition, mental retardation is totally appropriate, but it soon became clear that the societal connotation was so negative and damaging, that something needed to be changed. Next came Intellectual Disability. While this was a step forward, Intellectual Disability only accounts for a small percentage of people with disabilities. By definition, a person diagnosed with Autism or a Specific Learning Disability, may not also have an Intellectual Disability, and calling someone disabled also carries negative implications.

In education, we are trying to inspire a mindset shift to look at students with differences (whether social, medical, linguistic, emotional or otherwise), not through the lens of what they lack, or how they are disadvantaged, but instead, what do they bring to the table that others don’t? What makes them unique? How can that benefit us as a class? a school? Instead of looking at a student with Autism and thinking about how they might have outbursts or “stim” in your class and be distracting, think instead about how their logical/practical/organized mind might teach his/her classmates a different way to approach a problem, and how to utilize this as a strength. Instead of viewing our child with ADHD as a burden or nuisance because they cannot sit still for an entire lesson, think about how beneficial it is to all students that we now include movement breaks or multi-sensory activities. This mindset shift doesn’t have room for the term “disabled” which literally means “not-able-to”.

Exceptional is a positively connotated word that means “unusual; not typical; unusually good/outstanding; (of a child) mentally or physically different so as to require special schooling”. Doesn’t that sound much more positive? Being called “exceptional” is so empowering and contains so much joy and positivity. Yes, it implies a difference to others, but it also recognizes the power and unique skills that each student brings. I entitled my company Exceptional Services because I wanted people to know that I believe in them. I believe in the capability of their family unit and their children and know that through proper education and specially tailored sessions, I know that they will be successful. As an educator, when I think back on the history of Special Education, I am proud of how far we as an industry have come, and I am excited for us to continue growing and influencing others and inspiring inclusivity across all facets of society. I think about how empowered our children and students are and will continue to be, and think about the ripple effect that this will have as they enter the world, empowered and filled with pride.

Autonomy: What? Why? How?

When I wrote the tagline for my website, I knew I wanted it to contain the word “autonomy” before I could even formulate the rest of the words. Autonomy is a word that has always been important to me professionally and has become increasingly popular in the world of education. So, what does this word mean, and why did it migrate from exclusively describing countries and regions to people as individuals?

Autonomy is defined as “…a self-governing country or region; freedom from external control or influence; independence” (Google Definitions). Autonomy might not be in our every day vernacular, especially if we don’t sit around discussing both historic and present foreign politics (if you do, more power to you!). This is one of my favorite words because it is not as simple as describing someone as “independent”. It contains more weight and layered context. Saying that someone lives with autonomy implies that they completely govern themselves; that they know all of their strengths and weaknesses, and they know how to navigate their world, interacting positively with others and relying on their own resources and history. I have found that the best way to grant someone their autonomy is to fully educate them about themselves. Regardless of a person’s disability, and, I believe, especially because of disability, it is important to teach people openly what they are up against.

When I was teaching in Hartford, I piloted a Life Skills program. In the first unit, the students were learning about their own disability, researching trends, common aptitudes and areas of potential weakness. The project culminated with them reviewing, for the first time, their own Individual Education plans and learning what their Goals and Objectives were and how those were decided upon. I think some were afraid that this would dishearten the students, or bring about some negative, dependent habits. Instead, I found that they were more empowered. They were able to raise their chins and confidently ask teachers for their accommodations, stay after and review their scores on assessments and understand why they struggled on certain sections, or more efficiently select texts to read that were more appropriate/accessible. At that time, I had real data to back up what I believed to be true: the more information we can give our children, the more empowered they will become, as long as this is done in a calculated, measured approach, and in a safe place.

In my next placement, I met a student who was 17 years old and struggled socially. She could not relate to her peers, could not appropriately read social situations, didn’t know how to effectively engage with others, and, worst of all, she didn’t know why. She had Autism. Her social symptoms were textbook and she had no idea. She didn’t understand why no one “liked” her, or why she couldn’t maintain friendships. She was frustrated and struggled in her sessions with the staff because she didn’t believe that what she was learning (things like social cues, societal norms, conversational rules) was important, and ironically, she felt very superior to people who struggled academically and/or behaviorally. We begged her parents to let us talk to her about her disability, but they were resistant. They were afraid that knowing her diagnosis would stigmatize her, or somehow limit her. As her 18th birthday neared, she was applying to colleges and jobs and slowly becoming a citizen of the world and not just her parents’ home. The school and her pediatrician pleaded again, and, finally, they relented and let her doctor talk to her about her disability. It was as if a lightbulb went off for her. Her struggles weren’t over, she still had to overcome social and emotional hurdles and evaluate the prejudice she had against people with disabilities, now that she found herself on that list, but at least she knew. At least now when she found herself on sensory overload, or socially overstimulated, we could tell her why and she could read it in a book and know that she wasn’t “crazy” or “weird”. Autism and social/emotional disorders are normal for a LOT of people and it was unfair that she had felt like an outcast in her own mind for so long.

I respect a family’s right to structure themselves how they see fit, and I understand the fear that governed their decision to keep her diagnosis from her but giving her the information she so desperately needed granted her the autonomy necessary for her to have a lifetime of success. Not every family is qualified or feels comfortable doing this training or having these conversations, and that is okay! That is why disability training for individuals and families is a service I offer. I want to help people have these conversations so that it doesn’t feel like a weight or a scary, foreboding obstacle.

Inflection: What? Why? How?

Recently I posted on my Instagram about the importance of reading to our children with “inflection”, and I wanted to take a little more time to delve into that topic.

Inflection is a noun that means “a change in the form of a word…to express a grammatical function or attribute such as tense, mood, person, number, case, and gender” (Google Dictionary). Simply, inflection refers to the change in pitch or modulation of voice as we read “dramatically”. Inflection seems like a simple thing, but it’s a big indicator of reading success. Not just the physical ability, but, more importantly, comprehension. When I am working with a struggling reader, the first thing I do is ask them to read for me, and in doing this, I am listening for a lot of things. One of the more important things I am listening for is inflection. A person who does not read with inflection, nine times out of ten, will not be able to tell me about what they read. Being able to look at a sentence as a whole and see the punctuation + vocabulary, infer meaning and the author’s intention, and apply varied pitch, timing, and modulation to one’s voice is actually a very advanced skill. If we are participants in story time with children, it is something we should practice and model. We want all readers to be able to read with inflection so that they may strengthen their comprehension of what they’re reading. A young child reading on their own may mimic adults inflection, and therefore practice the skill without even realizing it.

If you naturally have a “flat” voice, and you’re unsure of where to begin, I would select books that have a lot of character dialogue and a clear rise and fall in the plot. One of our favorites is The Pout-Pout Fish Link This book is perfect because it not only contains a lot of characters and varying dialogue to practice different characters and voices out plus adorable and detailed pictures that make the book enjoyable for even the youngest of readers, but it also has a great message of knowing your own emotions and how best to help an emotional friend. On each page, there is a new sea creature that visits the Pout-Pout fish and has their own unique dialogue and textual portrayal. The pictures are rich and full of lots of different things to talk about, ranging from simple emerging literacy/numeracy skills to higher level vocabulary and emotional literacy questions. For example, you can ask your child “how many worms do you see?” or “can you find the octopus?” on the simpler end. For older, more advanced children, you can introduce things like idioms (“what do you think a “pearl of advice” is?”), or higher level vocabulary (“what do you think “squelchy” means?”), or even emotional literacy questions (“why do you think the silver fish’s kindness worked better to change the Pout-Pout Fish’s mood, rather than all the advice he got from the other sea creatures?” “Do you think that advice is always what people need to hear when they are upset?”). Through all of this, the varying sea creatures and descriptors give you plenty of opportunities to practice changing your inflection to represent changes in character or emotion and will help to deepen your child’s understanding of the text and its high level of vocabulary.

Another book we love is Courderoy (Link). This simple story of a bear looking for a forever home contains an inner dialogue that you can dramatize as well as a few secondary characters and dramatic moments. Consider altering your reading rate as well to add variables to your inflection and strengthen your listeners’ comprehension. Decreasing your rate when the security officer is looking for the hiding bear will create suspense and add to the drama, and increasing your rate as Lisa runs up the four flights of stairs to her apartment adds to the excitement of bear and girl at the edge of their forever friendship.

I could write on and on about our favorite books, but I’ll save them for other posts! Let me know if you try these tips and comment any other books that lend themselves well to inflection practice!

Happy Reading (with Inflection)!