What I wish I had known three years ago

Three years ago, I moved to my current school in the role of self-contained teacher of students with developmental disabilities. When I applied for the job, I did not have extensive experience with self-contained programming or even special education for that matter. All I knew was that I loved working with students who had exceptionalities when they came to my music class. Three years later, I have learned so many important things.

Since I am unable to travel back in time, I hope what I learned will help you get started in supporting students with developmental disabilities in your inclusive or self-contained setting.

Set high expectations. My students achieved a lot in the past three years. Some of my students learned how to read at the age of 12, some were able to take care of their personal care in the bathroom for the first time at 13, and others greatly improved their social skills and empathy towards others. I truly understand the statement: “Just because the student never did something before, does not mean the student won’t be able to do it now.”. The students impressed me time and time again. We ran a business, hopped on a bus and went shopping, we led activities for others in the school and on one particular occasion, my incredibly shy grade 6 student walked up to the dunk tank and in front of 50 grade 8s, pitched and dunked my principal. The sky is really the limit. Expect a lot from your students and they will be able to do so many things!

Focus on the students’ strengths and build from there. Building a program for instruction that is strength-based will help the students achieve so many things!! It builds momentum and confidence with students when they achieve something and allows them to do their best learning. For example, once we connected numeracy activities to one student’s expertise of running, her counting really took off. We focused on the numbers she was confident with and added on from there. For another one of my students, he really enjoyed riding his specialized bike around the school. We learned that if we continued to build his gross motor skills during his bike rides, he would be more comfortable getting up and down from chairs, walking up and down the stairs, and dancing with his classmates. His physical strength carried over to so many areas of his daily routine.

There are many policies/Acts that you need to know. Find a comfortable chair and start reading. PPMs outline some the requirements of your job, especially those that focus on Special Education such as: PPM 81, 140, 149 and 156. There are also a lot of policies that impact your responsibilities such as the Ontario Human Rights Code- Policy on Accessible Education for Students with Disabilities, Ontario with Disabilities Act and Accessibility for Ontario with Disabilities Act. This is something easy that you can do now, before your job begins in September, but will have a big impact on what you’re required to do in your new job.

Ask for good assessment tools on day one. Information about your students is so important. We know this. In every classroom in Ontario, teachers are assessing students and making decisions about programming every day of the school year. The tricky part about students who are developing skills outside of the Ontario Curriculum is that many schools do not have really effective assessment tools that can capture their learning. If your school does not have a great tool for assessment of students with developmental disabilities, the FISH Functional Independence Skills Handbook and The Carolina Curriculum are a great place to start.

Read about Alternative Goals and Programming before your job begins. For most of us throughout our career, we have used the Ontario Curriculum as a measure of achievement for our students. For students who are focusing on skills outside the Ontario Curriculum, it is important as an educator that you have a deep understanding of Alternative Goals, Programming and Assessment. To get started, the website http://www.thea4ideaplace.com/ will introduce you to different goals that are outside of the Ontario Curriculum and how to assess students’ achievement of these goals.

Resources come in many shapes and sizes. Speech and Language Pathologists, Occupational Therapists, Physical Therapists and SEA Technology will often play an important role in your students’ success at school. Learn what is available to students and understand how SLPs, OTs and PTs can support your students. You will need to advocate strongly for your students to get the materials that they need.

It also helps if you are aware of some of the technology that can support your students’ learning such as:

· Core first board

· Clicker 6

· Switches

· Speech to Text

· Board Maker Online

· Read and Write for Google Chrome

· Go Talk

· Big/Little Mack Communicator

· Prologue2Go

· Big keys assistive key board

· Clicker Connect

· Abilipad

Make social skills a priority. I’d love to say I used some amazing social skills program and voila, we had an amazing community of learners. However, it required a lot of observation of students and creating lessons and resources that responded to my students’ needs. We used a lot of social stories and acted out situations so students could learn appropriate ways to respond in a variety of situations. Once I made social skills the most important focus of our class, the students developed a strong community and our learning really took off. It was like you had 13 cheerleaders rooting you on and celebrating every part of your day!!

Parents play an important role in their child’s education. This is a true statement for every child at school. What I didn’t know when I first started my current role, was how important I was to going to be to helping my students’ parents get the community supports that they needed.

That last thing that I wish I would have known three years ago:

That this was going to be the coolest, most awesome and incredible three years of my teaching career!

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Updated: June 30, 2021 — 11:09 am

The Author

Tammy Axt

I am a teacher of students with special needs in the Peel District School Board. This is my third year in the role and I am in the middle of a steep learning curve! I am loving every minute of this new experience with my amazing and awesome students.

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