Straight Talk about Special Needs Kids #2 — How to be a Special Educator, Part One

The author in a school setting

There is a lot of technical knowledge that a special educator uses, and while I do possess a small tithe of that information, I have no intention of addressing that here. The technical specifics vary from one school district to another, from one nation to another, but there are core values and behaviors I can recommend to you, and I will. I will present about five principles per article in this series “How to be a Special Educator.”

1) Be firm, but not cruel. Establish what you expect and stick with that. Emphasize your routines and expectations through calm repetition. You will be frustrated with how they respond; expect to be frustrated. However, don’t be cruel to kids, even the most unpleasant ones, even the ones that are cruel to you and other students. Cruelty doesn’t help, and any kid who is horrible in school has been the victim somewhere outside school.

2) Don’t show anger. Special education kids are often used to being scolded and yelled at. It doesn’t change their behavior. In fact, the more you yell, the more some of them like it. It makes them feel powerful if they can get to you. Your anger makes a lot of kids laugh. I learned that when I was yelling at a class and I heard someone in the back of the room congratulating his classmates. “Ha ha, he tight.” (Translation “He is angry.”) For teachers in general, not just special educators, it is generally true that yelling at classes obeys the law of diminishing returns. The first time you do it, the class is shocked and reacts. Each successive time after, it becomes more and more routine, until they come to expect it and don’t take it seriously.

3) Be flexible. Rigid lesson plans and unbending expectations will drive you crazy and retard student learning. Every day you have a different mix of kids — learning disabled kids are likely to vary widely in their attendance, with some being reliable and others sporadic — and with that different mix comes a different set of interactions and behaviors. Every kid’s strengths and obstacles vary. Make a lesson plan, of course, but expect to adjust it, or even throw it out and improvise, depending upon what happens when you walk in the door.

4) Care about unpleasant people. Certainly not all, but plenty of special needs kids are selfish, rude, unreliable, nasty, lazy, cruel, inconsiderate, vulgar, and disrespectful. Those who are that way are that way because of their stress, neglect, and bad role models. They can’t do better without a lot of help. Knowing that you care about them matters to them, even if they don’t show it, even if they react to your caring by behaving even worse. Not only that, but other kids are watching, and they may well have the emotional intelligence to tell whether you care, and apply that understanding to their own reactions to you. I have come into a class being covered by a teacher not used to special needs kids, and found that teacher outraged and scared, and just by being someone who is in the know, who is familiar with the setting and talks in a civil way to difficult kids, I have been able to calm the situation. I can’t solve the kids’ problems, or transform their behavioral problems, but if I seem connected to them in some way, they respond differently.

5) Don’t be shocked. The range of behaviors in a special education classroom is very broad and often very disturbing. If you are shocked, your reactions won’t be effective. In my first three years in special ed, I was barraged with paper balls by an ex-con; saw a student who was 6’6″ be accused of hitting a small girl; had students eat paper, throw metal objects at the chalkboard; chant the Jamaican slang for “faggot” at me; climb out of a window onto the roof; discuss highly inappropriate sexual activity loudly; lock me out of the classroom; throw around stuffed animals; carve in desks with a pocket knife; and more, more, more. I had no students show up for class for days at a time. A lot of these events caused me to lose my cool. All demand a strong response, but none will be helped by a shocked, emotional response. A calculated, intelligent, assertive response is right.

6) Don’t yell when correcting students. I don’t mean you can’t raise your voice, but you should not show strong emotion when you do. Sound neutral when you are loud. Better yet, if confronting a child, drop your voice. Talk more softly, or whisper, as soon as you have attention. Smile and act calm and superior. Express confidence and support when scolding.

First scolding: In a calm voice, say “I know you can do better, and I expect you to finish this test and to pass it.” or “I know you understand the right way to behave, and I expect you to be quiet in class” or “…I expect you to put your phone away.” Given the need to be assertive and show that you mean it, you may wish to stand and watch while the phone is being put away.

Second scolding: “I’m going to ask you again to stop what you’re doing. I’m asking you nicely, and I expect you to cooperate.”

Why can’t you yell? Doesn’t it show that you have authority? No, it doesn’t. It shows that you lack emotional control. Also, it activates a lot of kids’ emotional issues. Kids who are yelled at may have upsetting flashbacks, may shut down and disconnect from class, may not return to the class the next day because they feel picked on. Worse, kids who have a street background have been taught to insist upon being respected. If you yell at them or come at them, they may make a stand against you as if it is a street confrontation. Many of them are probably scared and don’t want to show it and will overcompensate the other way. If you correct them in a very calm and friendly way, you enable such kids to back down without looking weak.

In my experience, female teachers can be tougher and more severe than I can as a male teacher.

I have more general principles to present in my next column on how to be a special educator. The next column I do on how to be a special educator will focus on planning and execution of lessons. In the meantime, I encourage you to comment and post your own strategies for situations that you face in the classroom.

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