We are currently teaching my 2-year-old to swim. We knew we had to start her in swim lessons after a painful summer of her shrieking “BY MYSELF MAMA!” whenever we were in the pool as she tried to squirm away from us in the water when she wasn’t wearing a floaty, which she had refused to wear.
As parents we have high expectations that she will learn to swim. And not just learn to swim, but learn to swim without us holding on to her and without using a floaty. But she is only two so we certainly are not going to drop her in the water and expect her to swim (despite her pleas) because we understand that swimming has to be taught. We fully expect that one day she will be able to swim independently so we are putting the building blocks now.
I have been thinking about my daughter's swimming ability a lot lately and how it applies to how we differentiate and accommodate students with disabilities.
A question I hear frequently is, “All this differentiation is great, but how are we preparing our students for middle school when the teachers are not as accommodating?” It is an excellent question, although a piece of my special education soul dies a bit each time I hear it. (Middle school teachers, please tell me you differentiate?!)
When it comes to differentiation there is a fine line we walk between giving the student exactly what he or she needs to be successful and enabling the student so he or she cannot help herself/himself. We do not want to deny a student an accommodation or modification he or she needs because we are worried about next year.
Our students need the accommodations to access what we want them to learn. It is our job to put the building blocks in place to make it possible for our children to access the curriculum. My husband and I are not denying our daughter swim lessons because one day she will be expected to swim independently. We are teaching her to swim because one day we expect her to do it independently.
Having high expectations does not mean we believe our students with disabilities should be able to perform without accommodations. It means we believe our students with disabilities can and will perform when we meet their needs. High expectations also means that we are willing to put the building blocks in place to get our students to where they should be, and then be ready to help them be independent without us.
One of the rules of thumb I learned last year when working with students with intellectual disabilities is “You never put anything in place- a behavior plan, a modification, a support- that you do not already have an idea of how to take away in the future.” When I was working with students with intellectual disabilities this was a clear need.
For one student, we put behavior plans in place to teach him to sit at the table with his hands in his lap. The behavior plan worked and suddenly we had a compliant child who was ready to work. We worried: Had we created a student who would only sit with his hands in his lap if the behavior plan is in use? If so, we were in trouble. Real life is going to require the student to sit quietly without a behavior plan in sight. At some point we needed to start looking at how we could fade our prompts and help our student sit quietly without the behavior plan.
This concept of fading prompts and accommodations seems to be more difficult, or less black and white, when we are talking about modifications/adaptations made in an inclusion setting. There is so much else going on during the day and we are so busy trying to get our students to keep up with their general education peers that we often forget to think about how we will pull back on our prompts and modifications to help our students be successful without us in the long run.
I find it much easier to ask myself how I am going to reduce my verbal and physical prompts when I am teaching someone to unzip their coat, but for some reason it is harder to get my head around how I will reduce my prompts when I am thinking about how to get a third-grader with a learning disability to follow verbal directions. An easy accommodation we typically put in place to help students follow verbal directions is to write the directions on the board. We can even put pictures up beside it to make it more meaningful depending on the grade we work in.
Slowly taking away this very good accommodation never even crosses my mind because it is a simple teaching step we can make for our students. But what does happen to our students when they go off to another school or another teacher who does not put this accommodation in place? Have we put something in place to help reduce our prompts in the future? We can fade the amount of text we write on the board or increase the number of directions we give. But we can also start teaching our students about self-advocacy.
After putting an accommodation like writing the directions on the board in place, we can take our students aside and ask them how it is working for them. We can ask if they notice they do better when the directions are written on the board and why they think that is. We can guide them through a conversation about what helps them learn and what they can do if they need help in the future.
Helping our students with learning disabilities take ownership of how they learn, understand that their disability does not impact their intelligence, and identify ways they can advocate for themselves will empower our students to take control of their own learning environment. It is the best way we can fade our prompts and help them become independent.
As special educators we have to carefully consider how we are going to provide accommodations for our students that will help them access the information we want them to learn. Then we slowly have to consider how we are going to make them independent, either through teaching them to advocate for themselves, or building up their skills so they no longer need the accommodations.