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Tuesday, May 26, 2009

A teacher's perspective

Tuesday 26th May 2009 (Image and text copyright Amanda Gray 2009. )

Dear Amanda.

As I read the letter on your blog Dear Teacher (May,21) my heart went out to the parent who wrote this letter. In my 13 years of teaching I have heard many similar stories from parents with children with special needs. We as teachers do need to be reminded of the importance of stepping into a parent’s shoes and seeing their child as they see them. Much research and professional writing has been undertaken in the area of understanding children with special needs and challenging behaviours and many strategies for working with these children have been put forward. However, little is heard about supporting teachers who are teaching mainstream classes with several children with ADHD and other challenging behaviours. How does a teacher with no special education training survive and continue to enjoy teaching in this situation?

After 11 years of teaching I was given a class with four children with VERY challenging behaviours. During the course of the year two were diagnosed with having ADHD and it was evident that the other two had significant sensory processing difficulties. All of these children had difficulty interpreting social cues and constantly had social difficulties in the playground. I started the year enthusiastic, having always loved teaching, I saw this class as a challenge. However, as the year progressed the unrelentless situation in my classroom wore me down. I found that I spent my days managing behaviour and despite trying many strategies suggested to me nothing seemed to work with these children. I would end each day exhausted. To survive in this situation I felt I had to water everything I taught down to maintain classroom control. I felt that instead of functioning as a teacher I regularly had to function as a therapist as the individual needs of these children were so demanding that they required more attention than actual syllabus work. In the end I finished the year wanting to leave teaching.

Fortunately I have come out of this and have a great class this year. My love for teaching has returned and I look forward to going to work each day. My question is, how does a mainstream teacher with no special education training, survive this kind of situation and continue to provide a positive learning environment for the other children in the class? How do you address the needs of these children while still maintaining a high quality of pedagogy for all children in the class?

Thank you so much for sharing this. Just as it is important to hear the perspective of parents, it is also important to hear from teachers working with children who have special needs.

This is such a complex issue and one that has no easy answer. No matter how much we talk about innovative practice and extra support, there is always the issue of limited resources, time and the need to balance the needs of all children - and our own sanity.

I have no definitive answers as every situation is different, but in my time as a teacher I found the things that helped me and my collegues included:
- Much preparation and use of student-centred, hands-on learning such as learning centres (today technology is a great resource to use)
- A strict, structured routine (visually displayed and frequently referred to in the classroom)
- A set of rules and rewards negotiated with the students (again, displayed and frequently used)
- A close partnership with executive staff in implementing consistent, supportive and immediate consequences (eg. the child does their work in the principal's office or under supervision in the library when they are having a bad day - not as a punishment, but to help them "cool down").
- A collaborative focus on preventing behaviour issues before they escalated (which can be about asking someone else to come in and observe them in your classroom so you can together identify the purpose or triggers of the behaviour).
- Wherever possible, a close partnership with parents or other family members, respite staff and/or a buddy teacher who had built a rapport with the child/children (a volunteer in the classroom at the most difficult parts of the day, with whom the child has a good relationship, can make a big difference)
- A supportive partnership with another teacher with whom you can debrief

In one particular case a teacher with whom I worked had a great partnership with her student's parent. The student had a contract negotiated between the parent, student and the teacher. This contract set out the expectations of what the child was to achieve each day, a consequence and a reward system in response to their performance. The reward system included immediate points awarded according to tasks completed, and those points went towards a trip to MacDonalds with the child's parents (the child and the family chose the award).

They also had a "crisis management plan" in place. When the child was becoming disruptive, or was distressed, a process was put in place whereby a buddy teacher and/or the assistant principal would become involved.

While these don't "solve" the issues, they provide a network of informal support if the child is not eligible for extra funding support for resources such as a teacher's aide. It may also help to regain the balance between education and behaviour management.

And, believe it or not, special education teachers don't always have the answer either. Our profession is always about collaboration, asking for help and creatively using any resources we can get our hands on.

The bottom line is don't be afraid to ask for help. If you are a teacher in this situation, you might want to ask the principal if you are eligible for a support teacher (behaviour) to come into your classroom and observe what might be triggering difficult behaviour in the child. They may be able to suggest some things (such as those discussed in my previous posts) that can be integrated into the routine of your classroom to reduce the child's difficult behaviour without disrupting your teaching. A school counsellor may also be able to do this. Or you may have a special education teacher, or a support teacher (learning assistance) in your school who may also be able to help.

And to all you teachers out there who are supporting and including children with diverse needs in your classroom, you are doing a great job (and I don't mean that in a patronising way Lol).

You are making a difference.


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