Empowering Readers and the Right to Read

The Ontario Human Rights Commission (OHRC)  (October 2019). Recent Education Quality and Accountability Office (EQAO) test scores show over 25% of Grade 3 students and 53% of Grade 3 students with special education needs did not meet provincial standards.

The OHRC cites that students who cannot read struggle with many aspects of school and are more vulnerable to psychosocial stress, behavioural issues, bullying and much lower levels of educational achievement (Schumacher, 2007). The result of these challenges means that these students face life-long consequences including , homelessness, and involvement with the criminal justice system (Bruck, 1998; Macdonald, 2012); Maughan, 1995; Rice, 2001).

All students with reading disabilities, such as dyslexia, have a right to learn how to read. The OHRC is concerned that these students are not getting the supports they need to become literate. This is particularly challenging when students are not receiving early intervention and supports that are known to be effective in increasing reading ability.

The OHRC inquiry wants to hear from parents, student, and educators from across Ontario to determine if school boards are using evidence-based approaches to meet students’ right to read. The OHRC will be assessing five benchmarks as part of an effective systematic approach to teach all students to read which includes:

All about Reading Disabilities

How can teachers support students with suspected reading disabilities?

  • promote early identification through tracking reading levels and psychoeducational assessments
  • develop effective interventions and accommodations support through an Individual Education Plan (IEP)
  • instruct through scientific evidence-based and systematic instruction in reading
  • advocate for more support via funding of psychoeducational assessments as parents may struggle financially to get assessments, interventions and accommodations for their children, and in many cases have no options, if able, to pay for services privately

Empowering Readers

As a contained Communication Classroom teacher, I am trained to use the Empower™ Reading Program provided by The Hospital for Sick Children (Sickkids). This program, developed by Maureen W. Lovett and her team, is based on a series of evidence-based reading interventions that reinforce skills in reading, comprehension, and writing. As the SickKids’ website states “ The Empower™ Reading Program  includes decoding, spelling, comprehension and vocabulary programs that transform children and adolescents with significant reading and spelling difficulties into strategic, independent, and flexible learners. The success of the program is proven through the extensive  rigorously designed research conducted by the research team.”

There are four distinct literacy intervention programs that comprise the Empower™ Reading Program:

In my classroom of Grade 4/5 students who cannot read at grade level, I’ve seen dramatic results in students increasing their reading ability several grade levels in a 2 year period. One of my students, this year, went from a Kindergarten to mid-grade 2 level in 4 months. Students usually stay in the Contained Communications class for about two years and return to a mainstream classroom.

In the 3 years I’ve used the Empower™ Reading Program Grades 2-5 Decoding and Spelling program, I typically have students entering the program reading at two or three grades below level and leaving at a grade 5 reading level. The program is well laid out for teachers and students. I appreciate that it’s a hour of my day that has already been planned. Teachers receive 3 to 5 days of training and are provided with face to face Empower support check-ins. Teachers are also required to provide assessment tracking via PM Benchmark assessment, Empower Sound and Word Assessments, and the Kaufman Test of Educational Achievement (KTEA-III) testing.

As a teacher, I strongly advocate for boards of education to take on the  Empower™ Reading Program, not only because of its effectiveness, but because it changes students’ lives by boosting their overall self concept and their ability to thrive as learners.

Finally, I know what it is like to not read and write well as I struggled for years in all levels of my academic studies. I failed grade 1 as I was very uncoordinated and a slow learner. In my time as a elementary, secondary, and university student, I was told that I made careless mistakes and that I needed to work harder. I had grades taken off my essays and exams due to poor spelling and grammar. I did not come out to colleagues and professors as being learning disabled until I was accepted into my PhD program as often people would not believe me.

The biggest challenge with being learning disabled was my lack of confidence in myself as a person and in my ability to read and write. I am still a poor speller. My self-worth remained low for a significant part of my life and I lived with depression and anxiety. I posit that my drive to overachieve in education is a compensary response to my life as a learning disabled person. Even though I present as being highly self confident, I still struggle with my confidence today.

I ask you as an parent, educator, and/or student to push for more support and intervention for Ontario students who deserve the Right to Read as the right to education is a Human right.

Collaboratively Yours,

Dr. Deborah Weston – B.Sc., B.Com., B.Ed., M.Ed., PhD OCT# 433144

PS: It took me 4+ hours to research and write this blog using a talking word processor.

Media contact:

Yves Massicotte
Communications & Issues Management
Ontario Human Rights Commission/Commission ontarienne des droits de la personne
416-314-4491 Yves.massicotte@ohrc.on.ca

OHRC announces locations for Right to Read public hearings

The Right to Read public hearings will run from 6 to 9 p.m., with registration beginning at 5:30 p.m. at all locations.

January 14, 2020: Brampton –   Chris Gibson Recreation Centre 125 McLaughlin Rd N, Brampton, ON, L6X 1Y7

January 29, 2020: London – Amethyst Demonstration School Auditorium, 1515 Cheapside Street, London, ON, N5V 3N9

February 25, 2020: Thunder Bay – Public Library – Waverley Community Hub Auditorium, 285 Red River Road, Thunder Bay, ON, P7B 1A9

March 10, 2020:  Ottawa – Nepean Sportsplex, 1701 Woodroffe Avenue, Nepean, ON, K2G 1W2

Members of the public can participate in three ways:

  • Filling out a survey at least two weeks before the hearing they want to participate in and being selected to make a presentation up to seven minutes long
  • Attending a public hearing and registering to speak for three minutes during the “open mic” session
  • Attending a public hearing to observe.


Bruck, M. (1998). Outcomes of adults with childhood histories of dyslexia. Reading and spelling: Development and disorders179, 200.

Macdonald, S. J. (2012). Biographical pathways into criminality: understanding the relationship between dyslexia and educational disengagement. Disability & Society27(3), 427-440.

Maughan, B. (1995). Annotation: Long‐term outcomes of developmental reading problems. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry36(3), 357-371.

Rice, M. (2001). Dyslexia and crime, or an elephant in the moon. In 5th BDA International Conference: At the dawn of the new century, York.

Schumacher, J., Hoffmann, P., Schmäl, C., Schulte-Körne, G., & Nöthen, M. M. (2007). Genetics of dyslexia: the evolving landscapeJournal of medical genetics44(5), 289–297. doi:10.1136/jmg.2006.046516

Life Skills Assessment

Life skills are a broad topic to teach students. They can range from communication, safety, meal prep to managing money. Throughout our week, life skills are integrated into many activities we do. Our life skills program also changes as the need arises. We added a section in our life skills program about menstruation after our girls begun to get their period and we also added safety conversations after we learned about incidents at home and in the community.

Some common books to get you started with life skills program design and assessment are the FISH (Functional Independence Skills Handbook) and the Carolina Curriculum.

After connecting with parents early in the year about some life skills goals they had for their children, we developed a little 20 minute life skills time after lunch each day that looks like this:

Each student is assigned a life skill for two weeks. The assignment chart looks like this:



Each staff member is assigned two students to train in their life skill. The goal over the course of the two weeks is to move the student as close to independence as possible. Below is a portion of our assessment chart that helps us focus on where our students need assistance.  We may start with verbal and gestural prompts earlier in the process but by the end of their time on their assignment the need for prompts is reduced.

The goal of this life skills time is to have the student be contributing members of their family and the classroom. We have heard from many parents who are seeing the impact at home with students taking over responsibility of their own living space and helping with the care of shared space. My students feel good when they know that they have achieved a level of independence.

Just a Little Patience

I’ve often been described as a person with a lot of patience.

However, in my current role as a contained classroom teacher of 10 students with developmental disabilities, my patience has been tested over the past year and a half.

My students sometimes demonstrate their anger or frustration in aggressive or difficult ways. Other days, my students may forget things that they have mastered for months. Parents sometimes aggressively advocate for their students and yell at me because they are frustrated by the system that allows two year wait lists for things like occupational therapy or speech therapy. All of these things would test most people’s patience.

But that is not what has challenged my patience. I am finding that what I am most impatient with is myself. I’ve asked myself so many questions over the past 15 months on this amazing journey with my students. Why didn’t that approach work today? Why didn’t I handle that conversation differently? Why is the student feeling so angry today? Why? Why? Why? I’ve been really anxious about the speed at which problems have been resolved and how fast my students have settled into their new school.

What I wish is that when all of those self doubts and impatience started to bubble up in September 2018 when I began this class, I could read what I am about to write now 15 months later…

It will all come together. Trust yourself and your skills. You will find a rhythm among your team that address the needs of your students. You will be able to anticipate your student’s stressors and know how to calm and reassure them. You will be able to anticipate the needs of parents and have built such a trusting relationship where they know that you are advocating for their children just as hard as they are. The student that is screaming 8 hours a day at school, just needs a couple of months to adjust to all the new people in his life. The student who has challenges around self regulation will be able to use a calming space regularly to help him stay safe at school.

What I didn’t realize at the beginning of this journey was how much time many of these things would take. All of these changes took many school days of an incredibly committed and reflective team. It also took a lot of humility to admit when I needed assistance. But most of all, it has taken a lot of patience with myself to allow the time needed to build relationships and to really get to know all of the awesome things about my fantastic students.

What’s up with the increase of students with IEPs in Ontario classrooms?

From People for Education, 2019, p. 15

An Individual Education Plan …

  • is a working document that is developed and maintained for a student who is deemed exceptional by an Identification, Placement, and Review Committee (IPRC)
  • must be developed with input from the parent(s)/guardian(s) and from the student if he or she is 16 years of age or older
  • is developed within 30 days of the placement of an exceptional student in a particular program
  • must provide a copy to parent(s)/guardian(s)
  • must provide a copy to student 16 years or older
  • identifies the student’s specific learning expectations
  • outlines how the school will address these expectations through appropriate accommodations, program modifications and/or alternative programs as well as specific instructional and assessment strategies
  • includes accommodations (i.e. ways to support the student’s learning) and modifications to learning expectations (i.e. often changes to grade level expectations)
  • has students deemed with an exceptionality based on a psychoeducational report
  • contains IPRC recommendations when developing or reviewing the student’s IEP

Psychoeducational reports/assessments

  • completed by trained educational psychologists
  • based on testing and observations
  • identifies student’s profiles including their strengths and needs
  • suggests accommodations and/or modifications to support learning
  • includes supports such as special equipment, technology resources, and educational assistance
  • “Psychologists are a vital component of special education support in Ontario. These professionals assess students’ special education needs, design interventions for students, and provide direct support to both students and the staff supporting them (Ontario Psychological Association, 2013).” (People for Education, 2019, p. 15)
  • “Northern school boards report the highest percentage of schools (58%) without access to a psychologist – this may be due to the difficulty of traveling to more isolated schools in Ontario’s rural North. According to a 2017 report, the cost associated with travel and housing for specialized staff have contributed to a lack of support for students with special education needs in Northern and isolated First Nations communities (Ontario First Nation Special Education Working Group, 2017).”  (People for Education, 2019, p. 15)

Role of Identification, Placement, and Review Committee (IPRC)

  • consideration must be given to any recommendations made by the IPRC concerning special education programs and services that may be particularly appropriate for meeting the student’s needs
  • includes possible funding to support these recommendations made by the IPRC concerning special education programs and services that may be particularly appropriate for meeting the student’s needs

What if the student has not had a psychoeducational assessment?

  • an IEP can be developed for students who have not had a psychoeducational assessment and/or have not been identified with an exceptionality under the Special Education Act
  • students may also have an IEP developed when they require accommodations, program modifications and/or alternative programs
  • students with special needs, not formally identified with an exceptionality, may receive appropriate special education programs and/or services that will allow them to be able to achieve the grade-level learning expectations
  • IEPs can include accommodations and modifications documented in the students’ IEP
  • some students require alternative expectations, not specifically related to curriculum, that may outline specific learning needs and strategies

Why is the IPRC process so important?

  • IPRCs deem students with an exceptionality based on psychological educational assessments
  • IPRCs recommend supports and funding to support students’ learning needs
  • approximately 50% of students receiving special education support go through the formal IPRC process based on psychoeducational assessment (Ontario Ministry of Education, 2018b)
  • students with IPRC identification have a legal right to special education support (Education Act, 1990)

Has there been an increase in students with IEPs in classrooms?

The Ontario Human Rights Commission 2018 policy stated that schools must accommodate students’ disability needs “whether or not a student with a disability falls within the Ministry’s definition of ‘exceptional pupil,’ and whether or not the student has gone through a formal IPRC process, or has an IEP” (Ontario Human Rights Commission, 2018, p. 13).

“Data from the Ontario Ministry of Education show that, while the proportion of students going through the IPRC process has remained relatively stable since 2006-2007, the proportion of students with IEPs has been steadily increasing” (People for Education, 2019).

In other words, students who are not identified via the IPRC process are increasingly receiving special education support through an IEP. With no exceptionality in place, specific supports are not always forthcoming. These supports could include educational assistants, support personnel, and specialized equipment.

Lack of funding for psychoeducational assessments

 People for Education (2019) reported:

  • “60% of elementary and 53% of secondary schools report that there are restrictions on the number of students who can be assessed each year”
  • “92% of elementary schools and 94% of secondary schools report that students waiting for an assessment are receiving some special education support”

With little or no funding for psychoeducational assessments:

  • students are put on waiting lists for assessments, sometimes for many years
  • students with the greatest needs are moved to the top of the lists leaving other students waiting longer for assessments
  • parents with resources pay out-of-pocket for each private assessments costing up to $4000
  • 94% of elementary and 81% of secondary schools reported having students on waiting lists for psychoeducational assessments (People for Education, 2019)
  • on average there can be up to 6 elementary students and 4 secondary students on waiting lists for professional assessments in their schools (People for Education, 2019)

Gaps in support – Lack of equity in special education funding 

Students with psychological assessment

Students with no psychological assessment
  • psychological assessment to develop IEP
  • no psychological assessment to develop IEP
  • psychological assessment to have student deemed with an exceptionality via IPRC
  • no guarantee of funding or support via IPRC
  • funding in the form of additional special education support for teacher and/or educational assistant time
  • no funding for special education support for teacher and/or educational assistant time
  • funding can include special equipment and technology supports
  • no funding for special equipment and technology supports

The People for Education have noted an increasing gap between students with IEPs as compared to students with IPRCs (see chart below). This means there are an increasing amount of students with special education needs in classrooms with little or no support as compared to students with special education supports.


Students with IEPs

Students with IPRCs

2017 – 2018



2016 – 2017



2015 – 2016



2014 – 2015



2013 – 2014



2012 – 2013



2011 – 2012 14.5%


2010 – 2011



It is not Ontario teachers’ imaginations that there are more students with IEPs in their classrooms. With less support for students with IEPs, teachers struggle to meet the needs of these learners and the needs of the rest of the students in their classroom.

“Large class sizes impact the teacher to student ratio. Students with special education needs require greater support and more teacher one-on-one time. Large class sizes make this challenging. Having more special education teachers would help to reduce this challenge by decreasing the teacher to student ratio. Elementary school, Peel DSB” (People for Education, 2019).

Questions about supporting students with special education needs:

  1.  Why are there so many students with IEPs in classrooms without additional adult support?
  2. What data is being used to develop IEPs without psychoeducational assessments?
  3. Given the Ontario Human Rights Code, why is the public education system condoning the lack of assess to psychoeducational assessments for students who have less assess to funding?
  4. Why are teachers solely having to support so many students with IEPs?
  5. Are Ontario public schools NOT meeting the needs of their most vulnerable students with special education needs?

As an advocate for students with special education needs, I write this blog out of concern for all students with special education needs who are not getting the support they need to learn.

Special Education Teacher,

Collaboratively Yours,

Deb Weston, PhD


Education Act, Revised Statutes of Ontario. (1990, c. E.2). Retrieved from the Government of Ontario.

Ontario First Nation Special Education Working Group. (2017). Ontario First Nations Special
Education Review Report. Toronto, ON: Author.

Ontario Human Rights Commission. (2018). Policy: Accessible Education for Students with
Disabilities. Toronto, ON: Author.

Ontario Ministry of Education. (2018a). Education Facts, 2017-2018 (Preliminary). Toronto, ON:
Government of Ontario.

Ontario Ministry of Education. (2018b). 2018-19 Education Funding: A Guide to the Special
Education Grant. Toronto, ON: Queen’s Printer for Ontario.

Ontario Ministry of Education. (2019). Part E: The Individual Education Plan (IEP), Downloaded from http://www.edu.gov.on.ca/eng/document/policy/os/2017/spec_ed_6.html

Ontario Psychological Association. (2013). Professional Practice Guidelines for School Psychologists in Ontario. Toronto, ON: Author.

People for Education. (2019). Annual report on Ontario’s publically funded schools 2019. People for Education. Downloaded from https://peopleforeducation.ca/wp-content/uploads/2019/06/PFE-2019-Annual-Report.pdf.



Take a moment to imagine something. Please and thank you.
What comes to your mind? Was it difficult to shut out the world for a moment?

For me the freedom to take time to imagine something came as a shock to my senses at first. Shouldn’t I be working and not sitting still in my chair with my eyes closed? However, after some permission(self-authorized) and intentional practice, a pause for imagination has become quite productive in my professional and creative life.

Oddly enough, whenever I intentionally do this, there is a barrage of thoughts projected onto my internal IMAX screen. My mind is parsing out billions of accumulated bits of known and unknown datum. It’s incredible how, more often than not, this exercise usually causes the mind to quicken rather than slow down.

Now do it again, but this time think of your classroom or school.
Who immediately came to mind?
Why them?

Whenever I do this, it comes as no surprise that the most frequent faces are those who are viewed as hard to manage and or struggle with interpersonal interactions. Oddly enough, it is never the most “behaved” or “successful”, although each of these descriptors are relative, who come to mind. I am working hard to change this.

To be honest, I struggle at times to understand how best to serve the enigmatic students in my community. That’s not a cry for help, but it is a lens that I look through in order to provoke the deepest reflections and change in my practice. After IEP season in my school, my SERT partner and I are now working to add another 8 to 10 students to our caseloads and as the leaves have fallen, a number of new faces have come clearer into focus.

The other day, a student who is new to our school decided to elope from class and then from school. Thankfully, the outcome of this behaviour ended positively without the student leaving the property or being injured. There and then, new plans needed to be laid to support this bright and conversive student who possesses a great sense of humour.

This meant changing our view as a team to include “eyes on” check-ins, intentional movement management(let’s call it logistics), and the use of supportive strategies that will ensure safety at all times. Viewing a child with the “eyes on” lens can take a lot of energy, training, and practice. In many cases, the training comes on the job. For me, it’s like trying to solve a jigsaw puzzle while on top of a speeding train. Sure there’s plenty of room and there’s a nice breeze, but do all of the pieces have to be flying around?

As I reflect on this student and their behaviours at school, I am constantly reminding myself of the lenses we must all wear in order to effectively serve the diverse social, emotional, intellectual, and behavioural needs of our students. There have been many days when every fibre of my existence fights against the way my own teachers used to handle things in order to concentrate on seeing events and actions as pieces to a much bigger puzzle.

I didn’t ask to see things that way, but I do have the capacity to leave antiquated practices in the past in order to update my prescription to see the present and future. This comes from teamwork, experience, and imaginative approaches to solving new problems and challenges as they appear.

We need to wear different lenses in order to find and place the smallest pieces not easily visible to the senses. We learn what we’re taught. So, we can also unlearn what we’re taught in order to blend, bend, and break past practices. What worked when we were kids rarely works today because that was then and this is now. That’s where taking some time to imagine and reimagine the lenses we choose through which our students are seen and served.



Class Size and Composition Matters

Class Size and Composition Matters

As a teacher of 19 years, I’ve seen many changes to classroom composition. When I first started teaching, students with behaviour needs where either supported through Educational Assistants (EAs) or in separate contained classes. In addition, students with significant special education needs had additional supports and/or placement options for contained classroom settings. In 2015, I noticed a change in support for students with special education needs.

Much has changed in the last few years with the promotion of student integration and inclusion of special education students into mainstream classrooms. This integration policy further resulted in closures of contained classrooms thus limiting alternate options for students with significant learning and behaviour needs.

Classrooms today are not the classrooms of the past

Classrooms today are not put together like the classrooms of the past. Teachers face teaching students with significant learning delays such as having a student functioning at a grade 1 level in grade 6 classrooms. The gaps between student achievement levels and their placement in their grade level are widening. Teachers deal with a myriad of students’ special education and behaviour needs without additional support from EAs.

Lack of funding to identify and support students with special education needs

The widening gaps may be a result of the lack of funding for students to received psychological educational assessment/testing funded by the schools boards. When parents have resources such as insurance and/or money to cover the cost of this testing, they do not wait the years it takes for their child to get to the top of list. Instead, they pay for the assessment, getting their child tested in a private organization. I had my son tested privately as I was fortunate to be able to cover this cost. This put students from lower socio-economic areas at a higher risk of getting the support they need to be academically successful.

In their annual survey of Ontario principals, The People for Education noted since 2014, “the Ministry has maintained the overall level of funding for special education, but has changed how funding is distributed among boards. The goal was to make the funding more responsive to boards’ and students’ needs. These changes have resulted in some boards getting more funding, while others receive less. Comments from schools indicate that the impact of these changes is being felt on the ground.” People for Education, 2017.

We have children in crisis…wait lists are long, we do not have the services the children require to be successful at school. It is heartbreaking. Cutting an additional million from our school board will have a catastrophic effect on the children. The Ministry needs to re-evaluate this current funding model. Elementary school, Limestone DSB” (People for Education, 2017).

The People of Education further state “Based on available resources, some boards limit the number of students that principals can put forward for assessment each year.”

“Psychological assessment services are rationed essentially to the most needy one or two students a year. System level placements for our most needy students are rationed to an extent we are creating more problems during the wait time. There is a growing parent, staff and student belief that our schools are not the positive and safe places they once were. Elementary school, Hamilton-Wentworth DSB” (People for Education, 2017).

In 2017, the People for Education noted that:

Teachers must manage students with significant behaviour needs with little or no support

In addition, teachers must manage the significant behaviour of students who may or may not have EA support. Often, even when students have funded EA support, staff are pulled to deal with other students who have greater behaviour needs and who may or may not have funded support. Administrators tell EAs that this funding is “assigned to the school, not the student.” This leaves teachers spending a great deal of time managing student behaviour instead of teaching the rest of the class.

The People for Education note that

“According to a recent study by the Canadian Teachers’ Federation (CTF), more than 70% of teachers across Canada are seeing an increase in both the rate and severity of violence in schools. The study reviewed existing publications on the topic, media reports, and survey findings from five CTF member organizations, which included over 40,000 teacher respondents.” (People for Education, 2018)

“The violence educators’ face includes verbal aggression, property damage, threats, and physical assault. Non-physical (verbal/emotional) violence is most commonly experienced by educators, followed by physical violence. The survey results found that between 41% and 90% of teachers (depending on their province) report having experienced violence at some point in their careers.” (People for Education, 2018)

Further, People for Education noted that the highest rates of violence were “reported by women, teachers who work in elementary schools, special education teachers, and teachers who work in schools with lower socioeconomic status and/or large urban areas. According to the report, many teachers are unlikely to report the violence to administrators and police, either due to concerns about job insecurity, concern for student well-being, or lack of knowledge about reporting procedures/policies.” (People for Education, 2018)

Recent cuts to educational funding have further exacerbated this support gap.  Many recent studies (i.e. People for Education, University of Ottawa) have documented increases in violence in classrooms. Violence against teachers significantly impacts classroom and school cultures. When students become verbally or physically aggressive against their teachers, this creates an unsafe environment for learning. A teacher’s job is not just to teach students, their job is to also keep their students safe. When the teacher, who is the adult that keeps students safe, is dealing with aggressive student behaviour, the other students do not feel safe. Further, aggressive behaviour interrupts learning and wastes valuable classroom time.

Teachers’ working conditions = Students’ learning conditions

In one study, teacher respondents from an Ontario elementary teacher union local reported:

  • offensive behaviour with 47% of elementary teacher respondents experiencing threats of violence from students
  • 48% of elementary teacher respondents experienced physical violence from students

The survey respondents indicated that their board’s organizational culture:

  • tolerated behaviours harmful to their mental health and that they felt uncomfortable in discussing and/or reporting violence in their workplace.

In this teacher survey, it was not surprising that these teachers were experiencing signs of stress and burnout – given that the participants showed that they were dealing with significant levels of students’ offensive behaviour in a climate with poor psychological health and safety supports.

Painting a picture of poor learning conditions in classrooms

This paints a picture of teachers’ poor working conditions as they were dealing with inadequate resources and staffing to support teachers and their students. And I posit that poor working conditions for teachers result in poor learning conditions for students.

Teachers should not have to deal with workplace violence issues as part of their job. But it is becoming a commonplace occurrence in Ontario classrooms. Since 2018, during recess duty, I personally experienced being bitten, kicked, punched, and sworn at. All this behaviour came from students who were in the primary grades.

Does this imply that all adults who work with students need to receive Behaviour Management Systems (BMS) training? I personally do not feel comfortable using BMB.

Funding cuts to education, especially in supporting students with special education needs, impacts all students. And when a teacher has a student with special education needs added to their classroom, this means that no supports will follow to help these students. Students must wait for help from the one teacher in the classroom while the teacher deals with the needs of the rest of the students. With the recent cutbacks in funding, teachers’ jobs of meeting all students’ needs just got harder as there are even more students in classrooms.

Students with special education needs should have a safe, supported, and inclusive classrooms

Students with special education needs should be included in mainstream classrooms. To make this work for students and teachers, these students with special education needs must be supported with the assistance of EAs. With the support of EAs, students with special education needs can thrive in school and be with their peers.

Teachers need to teach in safe and supported inclusive classrooms. With inadequate funding, the Ontario Ministry of Education’s of inclusion policy will result in yet another poorly implemented education policy in Ontario.

Collaboratively Yours,

Dr. Deb Weston, PhD and special education classroom teacher


Elementary Teachers Federation of Ontario. (February 2018). Behaviour Management Systems (BMB), Elementary Teachers Federation of Ontario, Downloaded from http://etfo.ca/SupportingMembers/Employees/PDF%20Versions/Behaviour%20Management%20Training.pdf

People for Education. (2017).  People for Education Annual Report: 2017, People for Education, Downloaded from https://peopleforeducation.ca/report/annual-report-2017/

People for Education. (2018). National report finds teachers increasingly experience violence in schools,  People for Education, Downloaded from  https://peopleforeducation.ca/our-work/national-report-finds-teachers-increasingly-experience-violence-in-schools/ 


Top Ten Reasons to Work with Children who have Exceptionalities

If you are thinking about taking on a role of working with students with exceptionalities than this is the blog for you! Below are my top ten reasons why every teacher should consider working with students with developmental disabilities at some point in their career:

  1. The laughter never stops! I have never laughed so much as I have this year. My students say the funniest things and have the best sense of humour. They are continuously trying to make me laugh! They are motivated by my positive responses and are always trying to get me to crack up.
  2. Teamwork!! Teaching is such an isolated profession for the most part. You go to your classroom and spend all day with your students. No one else interacts with them as much you do and you have to make all the decisions alone. The only teaching job when you are not by yourself is when you have students who have additional support. Working with my ERFs this year has been awesome. It has been great to discuss things together and get input from another person’s perspective. It also has meant that I didn’t have to be everything to all my students at all times.
  3. Constant learning. Every day that I learn some new strategy or technique for helping my students be successful, I know that I am gaining skills to serve students that I will be teaching over the next 18 years. Taking this job has allowed me to focus on developing skills that are very specialized and take a lot of time to develop.
  4. Meaningful Work-In this role I am serving the part of the student population that is really vulnerable. I feel rewarded every day with every gain that my students make and every milestone that they cross. After 15 years of teaching this role has had some of the greatest rewards!!
  5. The families- The families that I serve are nothing short of awesome!! Due to the fact that my class is smaller and my students have a hard time communicating, I speak to my families multiple times in a week. I care about them deeply and it is the closest I have ever been with my student’s families before.
  6. Community- Since my class spends 3 years together, there is a really closeness that develops. We are like a family. They are a bonded little group and really enjoy the company of each other.
  7. Connections with my students are really meaningful- There is a very special relationship that develops when you don’t use words to communicate. You are really tuned in to how they are feeling and you can respond so much more emotionally when there are no words. It is a very deep connection.
  8. WOW moments!!!!!! When a student speaks to someone in the school for the first time or feels confident to walk around the school after a year of trying, it is the best feeling in the world!!
  9. Every day is different. For those of you like me that need constant change,  this is the job for you. Every day is completely different than the day before.
  10. Finally, just like I said at the beginning, the laughter never stops!


Comments for Alternative IEPs

As we begin the final reporting process of the year, I thought it might be useful to share some of my comments that were written on my alternative IEPs at the end of term one. I borrowed a few of my colleagues reports in the fall to get me started and I used their model to help design clear language that addressed my students’ goals on their IEPs.

That is what we often need, isn’t it? Just an example to get us started. However, for many of us who have been given roles that are unique within our school context, it can be difficult to get examples from amazingly talented individuals with lots of experience.

I am not that amazingly talented person with lots of experience. Not yet anyway. But the comments below might just give you an idea for the perfect way to describe your students in your classroom.

Communication Comments:

_______ is adjusting well to his new classroom at __________. Throughout the day, __ initiates interaction with both staff and students by moving closer to them and making sounds with his voice.  _______ is indicating his needs by motioning his hand in the direction of an object he wants. _____ does that frequently at snack time by motioning to his water bottle or during tech time when ___ would like to watch an iPad. _______will also communicate his frustration and dislike of an activity by crying or hitting others. _______  sometimes responds to his own name by making eye-contact especially when you are talking to him in a small group setting or singing him some of his favourite songs. _______________ will follow one step directions such as sit down, stand up and go to locker.

_______ communicates her needs and wants throughout the day at school to her teachers. _______ has good clarity when speaking and has made progress on her ability to speak slowly so that others can understand what she is trying to say. ________ often uses partial sentences and words to communicate with others and she will be encouraged in term two to add more detail to her sentences when speaking with others.

Life Skills Comments:

________ continues to require assistance to perform self care. He allows staff to brush his teeth and wash his face after lunch. ________ joins the class when we are pouring and stirring our ingredients in our cooking program.

______ continues to brush her teeth every day after lunch. She is really enjoying our cooking program and has helped prepare soup, sandwiches, stir ingredients and cutting vegetables. Now that her menstrual cycle has begun within the last few weeks, a focus will be placed in term two on helping _______ develop a routine where she can independently manage this new part of her life.

_____ actively participates in our cooking program in class. He loves making sandwiches, tacos, pouring ingredients and helping to stir ingredients. In January, he tried the food that we prepared for the first time. _______ continues to brush his teeth and wash his face after lunch with minimal prompting.

Functional Mathematics Comments:

______ is able to sort loonies, toonies and quarters with 100% accuracy but is unable to identify all the coins consistently. ______ can do single digit addition and subtraction using manipulatives  and is able to tell time to the half hour. _______ can recognize numbers and use them in real life contexts within the classroom such as finding the date for a classmates birthday.

Personal and Social Development Comments:

______ has made gains in his positive interaction with his classmates this term. He enjoys eating his snack with his tablemates and will ask them for assistance if he needs help. He also enjoys telling his classmates when they are being kind to him and each other throughout the day. _______ happily enjoys the class and enjoys being part of our whole class activities. The dance routines he can do with four of his classmates are amazing! ________ needs encouragement to choose a friend to do a pair activity and he will continue to be supported with that skill in term two.

_______ is engaging with his peers and staff regularly throughout the day by moving closer to them and making sounds. He smiles when he sees familiar friends and staff. His frequency of hitting others has become much less since the beginning of the year and he seems generally more content with his classmates and new school. ______ will hit others if he is irritated or trying to get there attention since he is unable to speak with his classmates. He can locate the area of his locker in the morning, at snack time and at lunch time.

Fine Motor Comments:

______ continues to enjoy fine motor activities in the class. He enjoys completing puzzles, playing with lego and using Theraputty. He independently zips up his jacket and puts on his snowpants, hats and gloves. ______ has become more comfortable with writing tasks this term and enjoyed writing some of the cards for our Christmas gifts. He has made progress on his ability to open his food wrappers at snack time. Now that ______ has started wearing jeans to school, he will be working on using his fine motor skills to unfasten and fasten his top button in term two.

______ continues to carry his communication bag and lunch bag into the classroom throughout the day. ________ prefers gross motor activities over fine motor activites and will often show his displeasure to doing his fine motor work by sticking his finger in his nose. We have been providing ________ with motivators and rewards such as his favourite shows Toopy and Binoo and positive praise which sometimes motivates him to do his fine motor work.

A Typical Day in a Class of Students with Developmental Disabilities

When I started my new role of supporting students with Developmental Disabilities this year, my biggest question really was about the structure of the day. Since it was my first time doing this role, I asked many other teachers who have been doing this role for a long time for advice. They shared with me how their day was structured and ideas for potential programming. I took many of their suggestions and paired them with ideas that met the needs of my students. Without the kindness of so many of my Peel colleagues, I would have been LOST! For those of you out there that will be taking on this new challenge in September, below is a typical day in our classroom to hopefully give you some ideas to get you started.

It is important to note that my schedule has changed at least 30 times since September as we worked towards the perfect fit for our students. All of our students and staff were new to our class this year and there were many things that impacted our schedule that I didn’t anticipate such as medical needs, busing schedules, integration opportunities, behavioural needs and student goals. The schedule is something that I am constantly reflecting on and am constantly tweaking as I observe my students and team in action.

A typical day in my class:


We enter the building and put our stuff in our lockers.


We have our morning meeting.

Morning meeting

We do our morning work.

Morning Work

Snack time


Gym or art



Lunch/Life skills (Today was public transit training and eating in a restaurant)


Hygiene Routine (brushing teeth, brushing hair, washing face and putting on deodorant)


Afternoon work time/social skills

Games and work

Pack up and get ready to go home

Smaller Class Sizes Matter for Kids

class size matters

As I started researching smaller class sizes, my Google search made it evident that smaller class sizes are significantly better … for students in private schools. Private schools use small class sizes to sell their product. They also get to pick who will be in their classes and who will be in their schools.

With campuses in New York, Oxford, and Torbay, the EF Academy of international boarding schools cites the key features of optimum class sizes of 17 students as “each student gets noticed”, students have “higher grades” and “perform better”, “learning is enhanced”, “teachers can teach”, “classes become a community”, “small groups mean fewer voices” so students have “more chances to speak”, teachers can focus on learning and spend less time dealing with distracted students, teachers can give more “individualized feedback”, teachers can work “on-on-one”, and “ideas are shared”.

Based on my own 19 years of teaching grades 2 through to grade 8, I know that even with large class sizes up to 30 students, I’ve been able to provide individualized feedback and present all students opportunities to speak, share ideas, and to participate in the classroom. I did not have students with significant learning or behaviour issues. I was also supported by a special education teacher on a daily basis. My classroom ran smoothly most of the time but a lot depended on who was in my classroom.

Class Size Really Matters to Students with Special Education Needs

One big impact in teaching larger class sizes is for the work teachers need to do to differentiate instruction and assessment to meet students’ needs. This is especially relevant in supporting students with special education needs. Students with special education needs may not be learning at their age appropriate grade level, may have Individual Education Plans, and may have very specific emotional needs.

Over the last 19 years, I’ve taught students functioning at three grade levels below their peers. In this case, teachers must adapt or modify students’ work as these instructional needs are prescribed in students’ Individual Education Plans. When teaching students with specific individual learning needs, teachers cannot simply plan, instruct, and assess with the “one-size-fits-all” approach. Teaching students with varying learning needs requires a great deal of work, thus teachers need a nimble knowledge of instruction and pedagogy. In addition, some students may be functioning at their grade level in a subject like math but need accommodations and modifications for subjects dealing with subjects like language. This adds to the complexity of teaching.

Class sizes have concequences

Class Composition Matters

Another aspect of class size is class composition. This means that one class of 23 grade 6 students is not the same as another class of 23 grade 6 students. I’ve taught some classes where most students were functioning at grade level, however several students had significant issues that impacted their academic achievement and/or behaviour. Recently, from anecdotal evidence, I’ve noted a significant increase in classroom compositions of students with additional learning and behavioural needs. I’ve spoken to colleagues with class compositions where almost half of the students had special education and/or behavioural needs – these teachers dealt with these classes with little or no additional support.

In my own 11 years of middle school, I’ve taught mainstream middle school classrooms of students with multiple needs. These issues included autism, attention deficit disorders, anxiety disorders, oppositional defiant disorders, depression, eating disorders, and self-harming disorders (i.e. cutting). In addition, many students had learning disabilities that co-occured in complexity which made it tough to support the students in their learning. I’ve taught  students with a myriad of learning disabilities which included dyslexia (i.e. reading challenges), dysgraphia (i.e. writing challenges), and dyscalculia (i.e. math challenges), dyspraxia (i.e. motor skill challenges), aphasia/dysphasia (i.e. language impairment), auditory processing disorder (i.e. difficulty processing sound), and memory issues. Further, teachers must deal with students who have social and emotional issues due to learning challenges, familiar issues, and/or socioeconomic issues. When considering the intersectionality of students’ needs, it can be overwhelming for a teacher to take on even one more student.

Smaller Class Sizes Cost Money

Smaller class sizes results in teachers having more time to spend with students. Smaller class sizes also means that with fewer students, there are less chances of disruptions interfering with learning. Smaller class sizes allows teachers to direct their energy to the business of learning and not the task of managing behaviour.

According to the National Center for Education Statistics (2018) the pupils per teacher ratio “declined from 22.3 in 1970 to 17.9 in 1985 … the ratio declined from 17.3 in 1995 to 15.3 in 2008.” After the 2008 recession, the public school pupil/teacher ratio increased, reaching 16.1. In 2014, private schools (who select students) had class sizes of 12.2 pupils (National Center for Education Statistics, 2018). In 2011-2012, average class size was “21.2 pupils for public elementary schools and 26.8 pupils for public secondary schools” (National Center for Education Statistics, 2018). Note that these class sizes are significantly smaller than Ontario’s current numbers, and still Ontario leads in solid data showing student success.

In 2003, Allan Krueger of Princeton University and Eric Hanuskek of Stanford University’s Hoover Institution debated the merits of class size (edited by Mishel & Rothstein, 2002). Krueger’s stance maintained that smaller class sizes improved students’ performance and future earning prospects. Hanuskek argued that reduced class size was only one aspect of student success and that improving teacher quality made a significant impact on students’ performance. As in most aspects of education, the educational landscape is complex and does not respond to single-issue solutions.

Lazear (1999) highlighted the link between smaller class sizes as this “reduces a student’s propensity to disrupt subsequent classes because the student learns to behave better with closer supervision, or enables teachers to better tailor instruction to individual students” (Krueger, 2003, p. 23). Lazear (1999) indicated that the “optimal class size is larger for groups of students who are well behaved, because these students are less likely to disrupt the class” (Krueger, 2003, p. 23). Lazear further stressed that “if schools behave optimally, they would reduce class size to the point at which the benefit of further reductions are just equal to their cost. That is, on the margin, the benefits of reducing class size should equal the cost” (Krueger, 2003, p. 23-24). In other words, when students’ behaviour is optimal, larger class sizes can be as effective as smaller class sizes.

The big challenge with most research on class size is that it does not provide definitive numbers specifying benchmarks on the class size (i.e. number of students) to which they are referring (Filges, Sonne-Schmidt, & Nielsen, 2018).

By referring to the numbers published by the National Center for Education Studies (2018), 21.2 students per class in public elementary schools and 26.2 students per class in secondary schools can be used as a current reference. With recent changes to the Ontario public school system, having more than 25 students in grade 1 to 8 classrooms is 18% over the average for public schools in the United States. Further, having 28 students in secondary classes is 7 % over the average for public schools in the United States. Note that these are averages and do not take into account variables in class sizes for types of class and subject taught.

Living in the Real World of the Classroom

1973 1974

As a full time classroom teacher, I have the benefit of sifting through the literature and then putting it through the “real life classroom lens.”

When I was a grade 5 student in elementary school, classrooms were significantly different than they are today. We sat in rows and we did our work – there was no collaboration with other students and certainly no talking during class. Thus disruptions were minimal. I had 32 kids in my class (see the picture above – 3 kids were absent). Students who were not successful failed. Students who were deemed “special” and not at grade level were not integrated into our classroom – they were in the special classes.

As a classroom teacher, I have taught 33 students in a grade 8 classroom that could barely seat all the students – during the school year the students literally grew out of their desks. With 21st century learning, classrooms have become flexible in their seating and have pushed for a focus onto collaborative learning. Students get more say in how they are taught and assessed through co-created success criteria and self and peer assessment. This is a positive step as it makes students part of the learning and they are more engaged in the learning.

Recent research has shown that student behaviour continues to decline. There is much research documenting increases in student violence in schools. In an ETFO sponsored study it was reported that over 70% of Ontario elementary educators surveyed had seen or experienced classroom violence. A Canada-wide study conducted by the Canadian Teachers’ Federation (CTF) showed that at least four in 10 teachers experienced violence from students. I personally have been bitten, kicked, pushed, and had objects thrown at me by students. Students are experiencing significant behaviour challenges that go beyond being dealt with using standard classroom management strategies. To add to this, students’ instructional and assessment needs continue to grow, increasing the need for more special education support.

Larger class sizes not only challenge teachers, they also result in students with academic and emotional needs not being able to participate in their classroom. This results in frustration and sometimes behavioural challenges. With smaller class sizes, teachers can support students more fulsomely to help them with their learning needs and reduce behavioural challenges.

If the provincial government wants to increase class sizes, our provincial leaders need to first support teachers in dealing with student behaviour and to increase funding for special education needs. As Lazear stated in his research, when students are well behaved, larger class sizes are effective. Until this happens, class sizes should remain as is or even get smaller, as student behaviour is becoming untenable.

Collaboratively Yours,

Dr. Deborah Weston, PhD


Canadian Teachers Federation (Jul 09, 2018). Lack of resources and supports for students among key factors behind increased rates of violence towards teachers Downloaded from https://www.newswire.ca/news-releases/lack-of-resources-and-supports-for-students-among-key-factors-behind-increased-rates-of-violence-towards-teachers-687675241.html

Filges, T., Sonne-Schmidt, C. S., & Nielsen, B. C. V. (2018). Small Class Sizes for Improving Student Achievement in Primary and Secondary Schools: A Systematic Review. Campbell Systematic Reviews 2018: 10. Campbell

Krueger, A. B. (2003). Economic considerations and class size. The Economic Journal113(485), F34-F63. Downloaded from https://www.nber.org/papers/w8875.pdf

Lazear, E. P. (1999). ‘Educational Production.’ NBER Working Paper No. 7349, Cambridge, MA.

Mishel, L., & Rothstein, R. (2002). The class size debate (p. 3). A. B. Krueger, E. A. Hanushek, & J. K. Rice (Eds.). Washington, DC: Economic Policy Institute. http://borrellid64.com/images/The_Class_Size_Debate.pdf

U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics. (2018). Digest of Education Statistics, 2016 (NCES 2017-094), Introduction and Chapter 2. Downloaded from https://nces.ed.gov/fastfacts/display.asp?id=28