Support for Students with Special Educational Needs

I believe that Ontario school boards should provide more support and attention in identifying each child’s level of development, learning abilities and specialized needs. This would help to ensure that educational programs are designed to accommodate their social, emotional and academic needs and also facilitate their growth and development.

The truth is that many students with special education needs are not getting the support and access to services that they require to succeed. The lack of support has had an even bigger impact on students who face additional systemic barriers. Students need access to educational assistants, behavioural counsellors, child and youth workers, psychologists, and speech and language pathologists to help them learn and thrive in today’s realities. The number of students being identified with special educational needs is increasing. Unfortunately, in most cases, the system doesn’t reflect that change and the necessary funding to adequately support all students is just not there.

Creating an inclusive classroom culture that fully supports the needs of all students is often met with many challenges and barriers in today’s classroom environment. In my guidance and coaching roles, I build teacher capacity to help address students’ social, emotional and academic needs, and co-construct teaching strategies that support students with a wide spectrum of special educational needs. One of the greatest challenges I often see has to do with class sizes. Many of the classrooms I support have an average of thirty students with diverse learning needs, and often with only one teacher in the classroom. In this current learning environment, access to resources, specialized and/or individual instruction and support staff are often limited and sometimes none-existing. We need to reconsider and address the inequities in class sizes, if we truly value each and every student and the well-being of staff and students. 

When working with teachers, I focus on creating an inclusive classroom culture that includes knowing who the students are, building trusting relationships and ensuring each student feels a sense of belonging in the learning community. In partnership, we analyse data we collected to identify the learning gaps of each student. We co-construct lesson plans that are differentiated, embedded in the Universal Design of Learning model and are culturally relevant and responsive to the lived experiences of students. In spaces where there are a high number of students with specialized needs, I find it helpful and advantageous for me to know who my students are, to have a highly structured learning environment and to set clear expectations for a successful learning environment. Working in collaboration with the classroom support staff as well as families is also paramount to student success.

 

How do I support students with special educational needs?

  • Get to know individual students’ strengths, needs and interests
  • Consider the diverse needs of all students in the classroom when it comes to the learning environment, instructional practices, and assessments for, as and of learning
  • Develop the class profile for all students that includes their identities, as well as their social, emotional and academic needs
  • Using the principles of Culturally Relevant and Responsive Pedagogy (CRRP), Universal Design for Learning (UDL) and Differentiated Instruction (DI), backward-design your program with the big ideas in mind
  • Consider how to best use Assistive Technology to support student learning in the classroom and at home

 

For additional resources, visit ETFO’s website on class sizes and special education and

ETFO’s Building Better Schools

Mentoring Moments: Spring Break around the corner 

There is no better countdown than for Spring Break in Ontario! We wait for that Groundhog’s day prediction that tells us an approximate timeline. I do love the season  as the weather starts to warm up and I get to enjoy the outdoors way more since I love the warm weather coming out of Winter!

Try making a vision board like I do for my goals

It’s my first time designing a new backyard this spring since I’m home with some creative ideas. I can’t wait to see the plan come to life as I work out my design, save and make a dream backyard for everyone to spend time in!

Re-engage this spring

I encourage you this spring to try something new that you have never tried before.

I ask that you journal and reflect how you felt doing something new.

I’ve always loved traveling and the past couple of years I have not been able to travel at all which means I got to embrace and love my home and downtime at home which made me rethink so many things…I love that I can count on making the moments count each day and embracing fun moments where I make it count!

Mantra to energize yourself to come back to work

  • What is it?
  • How do you inspire yourself for Term 2?
  • What do you do to ensure your energy level is high and you are driven to do your very best?

This year for me my 365 Day Challenge to post pictures of thing that bring Gratitude. This has been my inspiration to stay happy going from a lockdown back and forth as we embrace the gift of life fully knowing that we are not experiencing this world the same way though we are going through the same storm. My one word has been GRATITUDE for the social media challenge and to share some experiences that have given me a voice and inspire our soul to be positive and encourage us to be productive to contribute to society.

Reflection: What is something fun you love to do, do those things during the holidays and I wish you a fun Spring Break! 

Yours in Education,

Nilmini

Supporting Student Mental Health

Everyone has some level of anxiety at some point in their life. I also understand that some forms of anxiety can be quite healthy (i.e., preparing for a test or speaking in front of an audience) can promote self-growth and development if managed appropriately. However, I believe that a sudden increase of anxiety in some students can serve as a warning signal for teachers that something is not quite right within his, her or they/them environment.  When I was a student, I knew that my anxiety level increased tremendously during tests and assignments and also increased when I had personal issues going on at home. When my anxiety was that high, I tended to lose focus on my academics and often did more poorly on tests/assignments. Luckily for me, I had great teachers in my life who really took the time to understand me and were able to offer accommodations to support my performance anxiety. As an educator, I can use my lived experiences to help manage student emotions around anxiety when preparing for a test or when grade eight students are applying to various high schools. I can also suggest strategies and offer resources students can use to monitor and self-regulate their anxiety. 

 

What are the current concerns around anxiety for students in elementary school and how do these concerns impact student learning and academic performance? 

Sian Leah Beilock in her Ted Talk video, “Why we choke under pressure – and how to avoid it” uses her experience as a soccer goalie to explain why we often choke under pressure. She says that, “When the pressure is on, we are often concerned with performing at our best and as a result we try to control what we are doing to force the best performance. The end result is that we actually screw up.” We try to control what we are doing in a way that leads to worse performance, that was definitely me. When our anxiety is high, it’s a sign that our prefrontal cortex is focusing on the wrong things. Practicing under conditions in which we are going to perform, closing the gap between training and competition can help us get used to that feeling of all eyes on us. Getting used to the performance under which you are going to perform really matters. When preparing for a test, close the book and practice retrieving the answer from memory under timed situations, so you can understand and visualize what it feels like before actually taking the test. 

Students who suffer from performance anxiety are likely to have an obsession with perfection. This may involve students constantly worrying about being perfect and putting a high degree of pressure on themselves to get perfect marks. An obsession with perfection is very unhealthy and can be detrimental to students’ mental health and well-being. In her article on “How Does Anxiety Affect Kids in School?”, Rachel Ehmke states that students who suffer from performance anxiety are often diagnosed with General Anxiety

  • Generalized anxiety: When children worry about a wide variety of everyday things. Kids with generalized anxiety often worry particularly about school performance and can struggle with perfectionism.

In some cases when experiencing a high degree of performance anxiety, students who normally perform well in school might fail to submit work or begin to disengage in class, which seems to counter against the one thing they most want to achieve. In her explanation of this contradictory behaviour, Ehmke says, “We tend to think of perfectionism as a good thing, but when children are overly self-critical it can sabotage even the things they are trying their hardest at, like school work.”

One key solution for teachers that Karen Nelson suggests, in her article “10 Ways to Help Students Who Struggle with Anxiety” is to offer individual accommodations. When students are feeling anxious, their brain simply can’t function properly or effectively. In that case, Nelson suggests teachers set up tests and assignments so that anxious students are less likely to become stressed. She suggests that, “Extended time and cue sheets could help kids who suffer from test anxiety.” She also suggests that providing wellness breaks, trying Walk and Talk and getting to know who your students really are and their lived experiences will help to build strong relationships and minimize performance anxiety. Other helpful solutions include mindfulness breathing exercises (from the MindUp For Life Curriculum).

Here are some resources that I have used over the years to support lessons dealing with managing stress, anxiety and emotions. I hope a few of these might be of some benefit to you.

  1. School Mental Health Ontario – Mental Health Literacy and Anxiety Management Social Media Bundles
  2. Kids Help Phone 1-800 668-6868 Free, anonymous and confidential professional counselling by phone or online, available 24/7 for kids and youth 20 years of age and younger
  3. Canadian Mental Health Association – Understanding and Finding Help for Anxiety

 

 

Forest of Reading and Literacy Award Programs

As school starts up again every January, I always look forward to the recommendation list in my public library ebook section for the Forest of Reading program, an annual initiative in Ontario to get kids reading from a wide variety of levelled books (picture to high school chapter reads).  There are so many new local authors I have had the chance to be exposed to from this program and I have yet to find a student that couldn’t find something that interested them either from the list of fiction or non-fiction books.

Much can be written about the positives and negatives of student incentivization to read more, but in this case I feel that the Forest of Reading and other programs in Canada and around the world strike the perfect balance of getting students excited about competing with others for reading the most books as well as getting the chance to interview with teachers about their completed selections. In our region, students get to accompany their classmates in the school board to a celebration at the local sports arena to hear from some of the authors in person as well as see arts presentations and hear the final winner in each category for Favourite Book.  The connection to seeing people talk about their inspiration motivated students to think about what ideas they could have that could one day be in a book, or how they could persist in not giving up in a variety of career fields.

One of my favourite aspects about the Forest of Reading is that it promotes equity in how the books are distributed.  If you can’t get a copy from the local library in print or digitally, school libraries receive funds to distribute multiple copies of some of the books to students where teachers can have them read independently or as a class so they don’t miss out.  Every year, I see that some authors have had another one of their books selected sometimes in the same series which shows their ability to connect with the committees and students.  Forest of Reading is also great at promoting diverse reads where even tough subject matter is communicated in a way that students can understand and relate to.

When I taught in a school with middle school grades as well as early elementary years, I always wanted to ensure that students were able to tell me something they learned or thought about after reading the book, even if it wasn’t one they would recommend personally.  In addition to ensuring students weren’t looking up crib notes as much, it gave me insight into how students felt about characters and what sparked their interests.  It also gave me insight into what other sorts of recommendations we could make to have them continue their reading journeys.

Given the state of the world these past few years, literacy is always something that we can encourage with our students to open doors as well as become involved with, as a family.  The Forest of Reading name is perfect in inspiring the image of children starting a lifelong journey into a world of possibilities, and reminding teachers to continue to read in their spare time as well.

 

Mentoring Moments: Lesson Planning 101 for New Teachers

Every teacher loves her lessons, as teachers they guide us through the most inspirational paths into developing life long learning opportunities for students…letting them find their own success, one student at a time.

Start with where you are inspired 

As a new teacher, always know that you will find your own way your strategy of doing things…go with your interest and drive your lessons from it. We are not all the same that is why we are amazing at what we do. However, as an experienced teacher, I wanted to share some insights into lesson planning that have inspired me.

  • Find your interest
  • Drive lessons with your strength
  • Have fun planning but be flexible

Drive your lessons with student interest

The lesson inspiration comes from your students that you are teaching, if they are not interested,  it is going to feel like a long lesson…so get them excited and inspired as you plan with the curriculum in mind. 

Backwards design your plan for the Unit

I recently learned an amazing method called “The Grid Method” to organize my thinking and planning. I have so much gratitude to the “Teach Better Team” in the United States for introducing me to this method as I organized my way of thinking through my lesson planning. I have shared my grid method plan so you can see how it works for one Science unit with curriculum expectations using project-based learning with a culminating task that is differentiated for individual student success for online learning.

My Unit Plan for you to try out!

Reflection: What is the one lesson you want to try and plan using the Grid Method Template?

Tag me on social media and keep in touch and share your journey it is going to have many up and downs but you will be fine. Just be yourself.

Yours in Education,

Nilmini

The Unspecified Parts of a Lesson Plan

As I was creating my lesson plans one day, I took a step back and thought about what my plans would look like if they were delivered exactly the way that I wrote them. Academic learning and curriculum connections are crucial to the lesson plan itself and seem to be my main focus when planning. I began to think about the ways I engage my students in learning that I don’t record in my lesson plans. I thought about my specific ways of being with students during certain times of the day. The times I exude calmness and the times I exude excitement. I wondered about the times I use words of encouragement, constructive feedback and the moments I applaud students efforts. 

I wondered what would happen to my planning and teaching if I added notes into my plans like “remind students they are important” or “remind students to be safe this weekend”. 

As a newly permanent teacher, I am constantly reflecting on best practices and looking for ways to plan meaningfully and effectively. I am teaching virtually this year and often add additional information about my lessons into the “speaker notes” section of my Google Slides. As I was creating my lesson, I added in some of the above mentioned “unspecified” aspects into my plans. I wanted to explore how or if this practice would impact my teaching or have an effect on student learning. After implementing this practice for one week, here are my reflections:

  1. Adding notes about social and emotional learning into my lesson plans allowed me to continue to be mindful and check in with students about how they were feeling throughout the lesson and the school day itself. 
  2. The added positive notes and words of encouragement to my class were a great way to remind myself that, along with my students, I am also doing the best I can.
  3. My focus remained on my students, rather than the curriculum. Especially during reporting periods, it is easy to get overwhelmed with the worry of meeting curriculum expectations. Adding in my “unspecified” notes grounded me to what was most important. 
  4. Even with my “unspecified” notes, I noticed that I still added meaningful dialogue into each necessary moment. Even though there are daily reminders or common phrases we say to our students – there is no way to predict what each of our individual learners are going to need to be successful or feel loved that day. There is no plan other than to be responsive.

What are the unspecified parts of your lesson plans?

Please note: ETFO’s position on in-person learning remains unchanged. The union firmly believes that the daily, in-person model of instruction and support best meets the educational, developmental and social needs of students, provides the best experience for support, and is the most equitable learning model for all students.
ETFO’s expectation is that elementary virtual learning in any capacity, including through hybrid models of instruction, will end once the pandemic ends.

 

Mentoring Moments: Shifting Power Dynamics in the Education System

In Canada, we embrace the beautiful cultures of the world, the languages and heritages of many cultures that make us unique! What our country can show the world is that DIFFERENCES make us the face of the new Global World, which is our Strength and what we have to offer each and every country.

It is also our biggest strength in education to be able to teach how to maintain peace, be united and show togetherness in times of challenge as we accept the historic past that has brought us together in this beautiful homeland called Canada.

We have strength in our united education workers that work together: we need to advocate for togetherness to build a strong education system that is resilient to changes that  will make it stronger.

Here was a bit about my educational perspectives from the private education I received in Sri Lanka to the public education I received in Canada from the Educational Blog from Doug Peterson Interview that I wanted to share that helped me reflect. He first connected me to my Professional Learning Network when I was new to Twitter and it has been an honour to stay connected!

Shift the Power and make it purposeful

Here is the story behind the cakes! They are special to me…my parents always made us cakes for our birthdays and I have always loved cakes in the family. Celebrations have brought the family together: and this was my last Birthday cake – Ah! Bring on those super powers for the feminist and the males who advocate for women’s rights…We can make a difference in the world.

  1. Advocate for your Students (Make that special Cake to celebrate that you are here!)

  • Teach with the whole child in mind
  • Differentiate for success
  • Each child they bring their best to your classroom
  • Modify and accommodate lessons for it to personalized
  • Let’s student lead the pace and discussion
  • You lead the curriculum and teaching goals
  1. Change your thinking as an Educator (The ingredients in the cake that you pick that makes that cake your making delicious but unique since all the differences are important)

Hold yourself accountable in knowing you are human and you are a life long learner

  • Learn about Equity concepts
  • Know that there is discrimination
  • Understand micro aggressions
  • Be Anti-Racist Educator
  • Teach about isms explicitly with purpose
  1. Ableism
  2. Classism
  3. Ageism
  4. Religion as an ism
  5. Racism
  6. Homophobia/Heterosexism
  7. Sexism
  1. Build Relationships with your community (The “icing” that makes that cake delicious that adds the perfect touch with that sparkle!)

  • Have courageous conversations about the topics that really matter
  • Embrace differences and find common ground in solutions
  • Create safe spaces for discussions that are inclusive and welcoming

Always remember we teach other peoples children, our biggest resource as a community. It is the next generation, they are important these children that we educate and let’s make a difference by teaching them to be the best they can be!

Reflection: What is the one thing you will do to make a difference as we unite education workers, students and parents to create a good education system that embraces diversity ? You can make a difference.

Yours in Education,

Nilmini

References:

Teach Better Team: Let’s Talk Equity Twitter Chat Link 

 

Doodles and Daydreams

As I walk up and down the aisles checking the students’ work, I will inevitably find someone whose side margins of their worksheet are filled with colourful drawings.  When I first started teaching, I would have been annoyed at the lack of work being completed.  Now, I know so much more like some students doodle for mindfulness, or because that is their signal that they need help but are hesitant to ask for assistance.

But of course, I also have a duty to ensure students understand their work.  So, instead of admonishing them, I try to bring what they are doing into the current lesson:

“Wow, that’s a really nice dragon!  Remember how we’re doing colours in French today?  Do you think you could tell me the colours you chose in French on the side?”

“Cool robot!  Hey, you know how we’re talking about rocks and minerals for Science?  I wonder what metallic ores you might use for his body?”

Sometimes I read the stories in my Ontario College of Teachers magazine about Canadian celebrities and the teachers that have made a difference in their lives.  My favourite that I shared with my students was the one on Olympic gold medalist Bruny Surin and how he was encouraged to try out for sports in high school from the coach when he was a shy newly landed immigrant.

I often wonder if I’ll influence someone enough that they’ll mention me in an interview someday.  Then I worry that they’ll mention me, but as “that teacher that discouraged them and didn’t make them feel like they were good enough.”

I wasn’t really a doodler in school, but I was definitely a day dreamer.  There were plenty of times that I probably fooled teachers into thinking that I was paying attention when in reality I was just facing forward running through a story or an episode of my make believe world in my head.  I already understood a lot of the work, but this was my way of dealing with feelings and thinking what to do next with my learning.

I have plenty of students that have struggled with writing and math, but could run circles around me with their art skills.  So yes, sometimes I sigh inwardly at a lack of completed assignments but more often than not, I marvel at the way they use drawing to capture their feelings and assist with their memory.  That’s why I prefer to guide them to use their talents for where their creativity may take them.

Speaking of a doodler and a dreamer, I was reading a book this summer when one of the interview excerpts mentioned a young man who was caught by a teacher years ago making an elaborate storyboard with a Western battle.  Instead of punishing him, she stated she could help him put his work on a giant mural and present it to the class-on the condition that he also got his work finished.

The young man was movie mogul George Lucas.

Probability wise, I’m not likely to have the next big Hollywood writer/director in one of my classes.  But I’ve taught enough to know that my chances of of making a student’s day positive on how I react to their artistic expression are certainly more than 50/50.

Mentoring Moments: Importance of Our Names

I always wanted to write why the name each of us are given is important to consider. Each year we have the privilege as an educator to touch and impact families as we teach their children. I emphasize as a teacher we teach children that belong to many cultures and backgrounds…As a teacher we have so many opportunities to reflect on pronunciation of names, spelling of names and the chance to talk about each individual story behind the name that we are given. As we celebrate World Teacher Day this month reflect on the privilege we hold as teachers to embrace diversity, be inclusive and bring about change in the education system that we work for towards a better future for all.

This blog starts with you getting to know me a bit better as an Educator in Ontario. Nilmini is my middle name- it was given to me by my parents because “Nil” in Sinhala means the colour Blue. “Mini” in Sinhala translates into “Gem”…Nilmini means a Blue Gem a precious stone, and important name that I was given. I love it…I never really thought about how when I was born the white part of my eyes had grey and blue tones….Moreover, now as an educator I reflect on why my name holds a special place in my heart since it is also apart of my heritage the beautiful country I was born in Sri Lanka before I immigrated to Canada with my family as a child.

“Each year we have the privilege as an educator to touch and impact families as we teach their children.” @NRatwatte

Ask your students about their Name Stories

As an educator there is no better way to build a trusting relationship than to ask students about who they are so you can connect it to the curriculum that is being taught each year.

  • Build in lessons through out the year to get to know your students names
  • Their heritage
  • Their traditions
  • Call students by their names – real names
  • Don’t change them since they are long
  • Do give them pride and ownership in using their own name

Some Books that can help you start the conversation about Names

Name Jar

I love using this book to discuss the importance of keeping our language cultural name and customs. The book helps us talk about inclusion practises in a school setting and importance of feeling belonging.

Chrysanthemum

No better book for me as a teacher since my name is very long and I go by my middle name Nilmini that is a family tradition.

They call me Number One

A book I start the conversation with about the importance of making students feel welcome when learning about the First Nations Peoples of Canada and the Residential School System.

Growth Mindset to Teaching

I encourage you as an educator to embrace the differences and not shorten names but call students by their real names to give them respect for their identity. Names are apart of each individual identity since they are interconnected to who we are, our cultural heritage or our customs.

  • Ask Questions
  • Encourage sharing
  • Embrace the Learning

In my culture we have a “letter sound” that is given to us when we are born according to our horoscope and that is the sound that we use to name each child according to be prosperous in our lives. These traditions carry with us over the generations because they are meaningful and they encourage customs that hold our heritage over the centuries close to our hearts.

Reflection Question: Think about why your name is important; write down your name story that you can share with your student during a lesson and courageous conversation.

Yours in Education,

Nilmini

Top Ten Tips for Attending Virtual Professional Learning for Educators

So much learning is happening virtually now and it is amazing.  I recently attended a virtual EdTech Conference in Nebraska!  This is an opportunity I never would have been able to take advantage of before the pandemic.  I have attended a number of virtual conferences during COVID and I’ve also organized and facilitated virtual learning over the last year and it is a different way to get your learn on!

In order to really get the most out of Virtual Professional Learning here are my go-to suggestions:

  1.  Organize your time and your conference selections in advance.  If there are many choices, take the time to do the research on the session and on the presenter. If there are digital links for presentations on the conference site to add into a digital tote-do it before your sessions so that you aren’t tempted to leave the session in order to do so.  Thank you ISTE LIVE 21  for the digital tote feature!
  2. Be PRESENT.  Be mindful and intentional about your learning.  If it isn’t the kind of learning that you were expecting, hop over to another session otherwise you’ll be resentful of wasted time and learning.
  3. Put your “out of office” email message on and don’t check your email.  If you were in an in-person setting, checking your email would be rude. This is time for your learning so treasure and protect that time.
  4. When possible attend LIVE sessions not asynchronous or previously recorded sessions.  LIVE sessions have opportunities to engage and ask questions which makes the learning is deeper.
  5. Have a PLP (Professional Learning Partner) or two! No one really wants to go to a conference by themselves. Some of the best learning takes place when you share what you learned in a session that your PLP wasn’t able to attend! You double the learning!
  6. Participate in the learning.  If there is a chat feature then put who you are and where you are from in the chat.  Ask questions, engage and connect.  This is where you grow your Professional Learning Network.  In a face to face conference you would sit down and meet new people.  Think of how you would engage with others in a real conference setting.
  7. TWEET! TWEET!  Get the conference hashtag, follow it, retweet and tweet about your learning and the presenters.  Follow those presenters and give them a shoutout. Take a picture of the slide that they are sharing and post it (without people’s faces and names in it.)  It is awesome as a facilitator to see the tweets afterwards.  It is timely feedback and motivational for the presenter.
  8. Take notes.  My PLPs and I recently collaborated on note taking using a Google Slide deck while attending a conference.  We pasted links, took screenshots and put notes of important information into the slide deck so we have the learning for later.
  9. Participate.  As a presenter, it isn’t nice to present to the empty boxes on Zoom or Webex. Just as in person, it is nice to see the reaction of the audience to pace yourself and to know that they are still with you! That being said, if you are eating or dealing with your dog or family or have decided to multi-task, leaving your camera on can be distracting for the participants and the presenter.  If there is a question asked in the chat, respond! There is nothing like being a presenter left hanging.  If there is a poll, a word cloud, a Jamboard,or a Kahoot, play along! The presenter created these things in order to make the presentation interactive for the adult learner.
  10.  Take Breaks.  Make sure you look carefully at the schedule (and the time zone) in order to plan your screen, water, coffee, bathroom, movement or snack breaks.

The most important thing to remember is that the presenters put time and effort to share their learning and expertise with you.  It is nerve-wracking to present to a group of educators.  Tech savvy people have tech issues too.  Give presenters grace and remember to thank them and provide feedback for their work and expertise.  They will appreciate it!