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Just Let Her Be

By Dr. Monica Simonsen

Shante was a student in my very first class. She was 15 years old and had a mild intellectual disability. She would sulk into my classroom, sit in the back row, and put her head down. I had been so excited about the welcoming and motivating classroom environment I created, the positive reinforcement behavior system in place, and the fun engaging first day lesson. I had no idea what to do with her. I wanted to establish the expectation that everyone should be ready to learn. I wanted to make sure she demonstrated respect. But, I had no idea what to do. I tried kneeling down and talking quietly to her. She glared at me. I tried demanding that she sit up. She glared at me. I tried praising her peers, threatening to call home, and even bribing her. Nothing. I was in my classroom a few days later when I heard a commotion in the hallway. Another teacher popped her head in to tell me that Shante’s mom was barreling down the hallway. I knew by now that this was a common occurrence and that most of my colleagues thought that she enabled her daughter and bullied teachers. Admittedly, I was a little anxious. She marched in and I jumped up to shake her hand. She seemed startled and shook my hand. I asked her if she wanted to sit down and offered her a bottle of water. Again, she was taken aback but accepted.

By the time we began to talk, she seemed less like the bully my colleagues had described and more like a mom. A mom who was frustrated and tired. I asked her how I could help her daughter feel more comfortable. She said (and I’ll never forget these words)- “Just let her be.” “What do you mean?” I asked. “Don’t pay her no mind. All that pressure ain’t helping her.”

How could I do this? Not hold her to the expectations I set for all of my students? Not follow through with my behavior plan? How would she complete her work and how would I document progress towards her IEP goals? Still, it was worth a shot.

Within the first week, I noticed her slowly lifting her head when I said something funny. In two weeks, she began to sit up for entire lessons. Eventually, she moved into her assigned seat and suddenly, she was participating. Shante was in my class for a few years. I was also responsible for coordinating work-based experiences for my students. I knew that this would be difficult for Shante. Her mom wasn’t sure Shante could ever work. However, I had gained her trust and we worked together to think about possible job sites.

I knew it was important to find a place and supervisor who might “let her be.” Her mom remembered that her neighbor worked in a nearby school cafeteria.   We worked together to allow Shante to simply observe in the cafeteria during her shift for a few weeks. Before long, she was pitching in and helping. Shante went on to have a number of successful work experiences and graduated with a paid job. We worked hard to make sure that she had a lot of support transitioning to new settings and had the tools in place to support her.

Nothing else about her story was remarkable- except that it could have had a very different trajectory. Mom had a reputation as being abrasive and meddling. Shante had a reputation as being withdrawn, noncompliant, and was labeled a “behavior problem.” Her mom was just a mother who wanted her kid to feel safe and supported. She knew her daughter better than any of the professionals she had been dealing with for 15 years. Shante’s anxiety about new situations manifested in her shutting down. Perhaps her mother wasn’t able to articulate that to the professionals or perhaps they didn’t listen to her.

As educators, we know that families play an integral role in their child’s education. Research increasingly shows that high levels of parent involvement is correlated with student achievement and that family expectations significantly predict post-school outcomes (Simonsen & Neubert, 2013; Carter, Austin & Trainor, 2012). In Shante’s case, mom knew that Shante needed time and space. She was not only able to provide insight into Shante’s needs, but she also provided a job lead. This mother, who had been considered a bully and an enabler, turned out to be a resourceful partner.

I went on to teach hundreds of other students, many of whom with more significant behavior challenges and/or families that seemed difficult to engage, and the lessons I learned from Shante and her mom stayed with me. I am grateful to have learned early on the importance of building a relationship with my students’ families and for looking at the assets and resources each family brings to the transition planning process.

As educators, we often talk about “involving families” and “raising family expectations” but it is critical that we stop and try to view our students, their children, through their lens first. The same parent who has a reputation for not being involved in her daughter’s life because she doesn’t come to IEP meetings might be the youth group leader at church so that her daughter is included. Maybe she can’t take off of work to attend IEP meetings during the school day. How could you accommodate mom’s schedule to make sure she was involved in the IEP process?

The seemingly litigious father may genuinely be scared that his son will fall through the cracks and afraid that no one is looking out for him at school. How could you communicate your commitment to his son’s success?

As special educators (or special educators-to-be!), we understand the concept of individuality. We write individualized goals, positive behavioral support plans, and student contracts. We know that when a student isn’t making progress, we have to change course, and try another way. I challenge you to look at your relationships with students’ families in much the same way. If something isn’t working- try another way. It might not be as simple as offering the mother a seat and a bottle of water (and, if I’m being honest, my relationship with Shante’s mom was much more complicated than that). But, it’s a start.


Dr. Monica Simonsen is the Program Designer for the Secondary Transition online graduate program at the University of Kansas. Dr. Simonsen’s primary research interests are the role of secondary school programming, transition services and family expectations/engagement on the post-school outcomes of youth with disabilities. A particular area of interest is the role of the transition specialist, including their personal, attributes, characteristics and practices. Dr. Simonsen previously worked as a Senior Research Associate at TransCen, Inc., providing technical assistance and research expertise to a variety of state and national transition projects.

In this capacity, Dr. Simonsen worked closely with communities in Maryland to implement a model of seamless transition and improve the post-school outcomes for youth with disabilities.  This involved conducting needs assessments, using the findings to help the communities develop action plans, and helping to coordinate appropriate technical assistance and training activities.

Prior to joining TransCen, Inc., Dr. Simonsen worked as a secondary special educator and transition specialist in Maryland, coordinated a post-secondary program for 18-21 year olds with intellectual disabilities, and completed her doctorate at the University of Maryland.

Reward Error 404: Desired Behavior Not Found

By Dr. Jason Travers

Many special educators understand the importance of building in frequent opportunities to receive corrective and reinforcing feedback for all sorts of behavior. Whether reading, solving math problems, playing a game with friends, or learning daily living skills, application of reinforcing consequences is necessary for ensuring meaningful educational progress of students with disabilities. Unfortunately, this importance may translate to overreliance on contrived consequences to increase or maintain student compliance. Performing a skill repeatedly builds fluency and mastery, but exclusive reliance on contrived consequence such as tokens, edibles, or some other reward unrelated to the skill itself may prohibit meaningful generalization and evoke undesirable behavior. Perhaps more concerning is that educators who rely heavily (or exclusively) on consequence strategies will need to regularly identify increasingly potent reinforcers to maintain student motivation. Such compliance-oriented instruction is highly problematic for at least three reasons. First, it compromises student progress by limiting skill performance to very specific (and often unnatural) contingencies. Second, it perpetuates damaging stereotypes about learners with disabilities (i.e., “they don’t generalize” and “he only works is we offer something.”). Third, it overlooks the important role of a supportive approach to teaching in favor of a critical one.

In many cases, particularly for learners with disabilities that require extensive and pervasive supports, educators often will design instruction that focuses on specific skills and uses contrived contingencies (i.e., artificially clear cues, systematic prompting, reinforcing consequences). For example, a teacher may have students say the names and values of coins when asked, “What is this?” or “How much is this worth?” followed by delivery of a token reward, an edible, or preferred activity for correct responses. This process often is justified using a pre-requisite model in which teachers perceive the value of a skill according to its relationship to future skills (e.g., student must know coin names in order to associate coin values; must know coin values in order to add coins; must add coins to count money; must count money to make purchases). The potential problem is that the student may only perform the skill in the contrived circumstances (i.e., with specific cues and only when tokens or edibles are available). A common result is a student who can only perform a set of arbitrary skills in contrived situations. Importantly, students fail to generalize skills when they are taught skills that are irrelevant to them and/or in contrived situations, not because the student has some inherent problem that prohibits generalized learning. Behavior analysis tells us that student failure to learn is a product of ineffective teaching, not the student’s disability. Labeling coins, reciting their values, and adding them presumes the learner values money as a means of acquiring preferred items and activities. Without that value, learners become dependent on contrivances to acquire meaningless skills. This example can be readily applied to most academic and daily living skill being taught in contrived circumstances with artificial consequences.

Amplifying this problem is the almost exclusive reliance on consequence strategies to motivate student learning. Statements like “We tried rewards, but they didn’t work” and “He’s not motivated by anything” illustrate a misunderstanding of rewards while placing the blame for failed learning on the student. Students with disabilities, like all people, are motivated to obtain desirable outcomes (positive reinforcement) and to avoid undesirable outcomes (negative reinforcement). Although most understand and apply the former concept (i.e., rewards for task completion), relatively fewer educators understand how motivation to avoid outcomes competes with motivation to obtain outcomes. For example, a student may be motivated to count coins in order to get extra recess or an edible reward, but also may be motivated to avoid counting coins because she doesn’t value the skill (i.e., it is not functional) or finds it boring, repetitive, lengthy, difficult, or etcetera. Related, the value of the reward diminishes over time in accordance with access and, eventually, motivation to avoid exceeds motivation to get the reward. Behavior that results in avoiding the task (e.g., head down, talking with peers; yelling) becomes more likely than counting coins. When teachers rely exclusively on positive reinforcement, they fail to consider how required tasks align with learner strengths, interests, and preferences as well as the effects of diminished value of rewards. This creates an illusion that students are dependent on contrived and increasingly potent rewards for compliance and, when the value of the available rewards diminishes, behavior to avoid the task will return. Teachers typically conclude that rewards are not effective and that the problem lies within the student (i.e., his motivation) and therefore cannot be addressed by teachers.

Supporting student behavior is different from modifying behavior. Modification typically pertains to deployment of consequence strategies (reinforcing and punishing consequences) and perhaps is more commonly used by general and special educators. Supporting appropriate behavior often refers to organizing the environment (i.e., physical setting, instructional design, materials, methods, curriculum) to make desirable behavior more likely and inappropriate behavior less likely. A longtime core feature of special education is the integration of student interests, strengths, and preferences into the organization and delivery of education. By integrating various student-specific factors into instruction such as length of task, choice of materials, cartoon or movie characters, equipment, technology, materials, visual timers, schedules, and so on, educators make desired student behavior (i.e., academic, social, communication, functional) more likely while simultaneously making undesirable behavior (i.e., behavior motivated by avoidance) less likely. To ensure meaningful progress of students with disabilities, educators must consider ways to organize the environment in order make more likely the desired behavior in conjunction with reinforcing consequences for engaging in those behaviors.

Special and general educators might disagree with the philosophy of a behavior-based approach to teaching, but this technology has been repeatedly proven beneficial for student learning. Importantly, a supportive approach may better align with teacher preferences than exclusive application of consequence strategies, especially because many teachers may believe that reinforcement, reward, and bribery are synonymous terms. Thus, teachers should consider supportive approaches as equally or more important than exclusive reliance on rewards to motivate student compliance. Integrating learner preferences, embedding demands into reinforcing activities, increasing the predictability of the environment, providing opportunities to make choices, using functionally-relevant instruction, and making tasks more engaging are all general examples of ways educators can prevent undesired behavior while promoting appropriate behavior. When these supportive approaches are integrated with systematic use of rewards that reinforce appropriate behavior, teachers of students with disabilities will more effectively promote meaningful progress and feel more satisfied about their teaching.


Jason Travers is an assistant professor in the special education department at Kansas University. Jason earned his doctorate at University of Nevada Las Vegas and is a former public school special educator for learners with autism. He researches the effects of shared active surface technology on academic, communicative, and social-behavioral skills of learners with autism. Additional research interests include trends in racially disparate identification of students in the autism eligibility category, equitable access to early intervention, comprehensive sexuality education for learners with autism, and evidence-based practices in special education.

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