Special Education Strategies for General Education Teachers: Crossing the Divide

January 21, 2016
Text books and pencils in a pencil holder on a desk

“He escalated so we put him in a CPI hold.”
This phrase is like nails on a chalkboard to an Instructor who teaches CPI training to their colleagues.

“Escalation” can look so different depending on the situation; so many details need to be determined.
Nevertheless, it’s an all-too-common utterance in public education. Try as we may to reinforce proper terms and neutral, descriptive language, this phrase and others like it creep up.
“He was being unsafe.”
“She dysregulated.”
“He demonstrated harm to others.”
Unfortunately, these vague phrases often come from special education professionals; people who spend countless hours describing the nuances of children’s academic needs in unique and specialized terms.
Phonemic awareness.
Math fact fluency.

I spend portions of IEP meetings “translating” our terms to parents, students, and sometimes even classroom teachers. We’re supposed to speak the same language, aren’t we?
If one thing stands out, it’s that common expectations for students have a huge impact. If everyone is working together, we can effect drastic change in students’ performance. If everyone is working together, we can model and reinforce those expectations and levy appropriate consequences where needed. If everyone is working together, the student knows what their responsibility is and generally meets it.
But the fastest thing to derail a plan (and we special educators LOVE plans) is when team members are not working with the same expectations; aren’t being consistent with each other.

Working in silos

 A chronic symptom of our education system is that we often find ourselves lacking in opportunity to work together for student growth and benefit.

High academic demands, stagnant budgets, and simple life in general limits the amount of time teachers of various disciplines can spend together. The time we do get is often structured with clearly defined objectives. It’s not conducive to discussing individual student plans or cases.
But these conversations are necessary.
Sitting around an IEP or problem-solving meeting doesn’t offer much more opportunity. Service providers and classroom teachers have limited time to dedicate to forming a plan for each individual student. After everyone has shared observations and data, there’s precious little time to finalize goals and services, never mind to converse about behavior intervention techniques, social/emotional curricula, or other resources. Simply put, there’s not enough time in the day.
But still, these conversations are necessary.

Breaking down walls

 At an initial Nonviolent Crisis Intervention® training that our team delivered to building administrators, one principal suggested that the information from the training would benefit her entire staff.
The previous school year had featured two students in her building with unique behavioral needs that ultimately warranted alternate placement, and she had the foresight to prepare for the coming year. Quickly, other administrators echoed the sentiment and plans were set to craft a suitable training for classroom teachers. Ever hear the one about a journey of a thousand miles?
I then found myself in front of 30–40 education professionals from all disciplines, an uncommon occurrence for a Special Education Coordinator who spends his time with social workers, SLPs, and specialists. Rather than discussing familiar information with job-alike professionals, I was charged with translating the concepts of behavior regulation and de-escalation practices with art teachers, chorus instructors, and office staff.
But the conversation needed to happen.
And it did.

Speaking the same language

 Of particular impact is a video we use for our initial training. Every training I do affords new insight and reaction from the professionals who see it.
The video, Boston 24/7 with Principal McAfee, features a conversation between a teacher and a student which ends disastrously because of a lack of effective communication.
We use the video to highlight numerous concepts from CPI training, most prominently the Verbal Escalation Continuum℠. (This is a model that demonstrates a variety of behaviors someone might exhibit when escalating—and it includes suggested staff responses to de-escalate the behavior.)
After our training participants view the video, we ask them to share their observations and give recommendations on how the incident could have been avoided.

Through discussion, we identify the tone, volume, and other nonverbal and paraverbal communication choices of everyone in the video. This has proven to be an effective method of making the training concepts relatable. It gives professionals a chance to share specific strategies they’ve developed themselves and to seek feedback from a collection of peers.
One training prompted a conversation between me and a classroom teacher on a specific student case. We identified numerous action steps that did NOT include suspension. This wouldn’t have happened without the training, as I am generally reserved for complicated or involved IEP meetings instead of brainstorming ideas for students who still are in the Response to Intervention (RTI) process.
By breaking down that process and sharing strategies with the whole staff, we increased the capacity of teachers to meet the needs of students in their classrooms. We gave them the tools to keep students in the classroom and ready to learn. We established a precedent that any professional can benefit from this training and that it would be an expectation to implement the strategies regardless of how the student was identified.

We’ve now delivered the training to four or five buildings with more requesting scheduling. As we continue to reach more and more teachers, the collaboration and discussion will hopefully occur on a consistent basis. New strategies will be crafted and more advice given. And we won’t be waiting to implement appropriate instruction until it’s too late.

On the horizon

In addition to the small steps we’ve taken through our training, our leadership has seen fit to deliver more comprehensive training for the entire district that begins this semester. It will take a few years to realize the complete implementation of this curriculum on emotional intelligence, but there are surely small changes we can make soon.
I look forward to having more conversations with individual classroom teachers as a result of these trainings. Without this initiative, I may have never interacted with these great professionals across my district. Reserving knowledge and skill within individual classrooms is a great detriment to education. Instead we should blend our supports and share across classrooms, disciplines, and buildings. We cannot continue to work in silos if we hope to surmount the twenty-first century challenges we face.

About the author

 Eric Purdy is a Special Education Coordinator for Academy School District 20 in Colorado Springs, CO. He has been a CPI Certified Instructor for two years.

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