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The shortage of special education teachers available to serve America’s six million children with disabilities is a significant concern that must be addressed. Thornton, Peltier, & Medina (2007) report that 98% of public school districts in the US do not have enough qualified special education teachers to serve our students. In addition, the circumstances become worse each year because of teacher attrition (number of teachers leaving the profession). In fact, the National Coalition on Personnel Shortages in Special Education reports that the attrition rate among special educators (12.3%) is higher in comparison to regular educators (7.6%) (Sutcher, & Carver-Thomas, 2016).
A lack of certified personnel and high teacher turnover can result in greater expenses in recruiting, training and supporting new staff and difficulty closing the achievement gap. More importantly, this can impede the ability of students with disabilities to reach their full potential and leave school prepared for adult life (Mason-Williams, 2015; Sutcher, & Carver-Thomas, 2016).
Commonly cited reasons for teachers leaving the profession include salary, excessive paperwork, limited resources, unsupportive leadership, student behavior, student motivation, and limited funding to attract and support graduate students. Many recommended solutions to the problem require financial investments such as increasing teacher salaries, providing teacher mentors, increasing professional development, and adding additional support personnel (Mason-Williams, 2015; Kolbe & Strunk, 2012).
As an experienced public school teacher, mentor and teacher educator, I agree that financial investments to improve quality of life and professional skills might make a difference in teacher attrition. However, I think there are also changes that can be made within the educational system to address attrition which might have an even more positive effect.
Every year teachers are asked to do more with fewer resources, yet I found that teachers are generally willing to do what they need to do for students. While frustrating, it is my experience that teachers work collaboratively and rise to the occasion to meet the needs of their students and schools. If all education stakeholders could teach, provide examples, and reinforce the need to integrate collegial and supportive communication practices into every day practice, teachers might feel greater job satisfaction and be less inclined to leave.
Each generation of new teachers enters the profession with enthusiasm, and content knowledge to meet diverse student needs. Teacher education programs reinforce the need to develop positive relationships with students/families, but they do not emphasize the need to develop and use positive and constructive people skills among colleagues. Nurturing these skills and relationships is directly linked to positive feelings about one’s own practice. Considering different perspectives, treating others as you would like to be treated and giving colleagues the benefit of the doubt could make a huge difference in school culture and overall job satisfaction.
I once had a principal in a high school with 2000 students and 200 staff who visited classrooms regularly. She would write personalized thank you notes when she saw teachers trying something new, helping a colleague or going above and beyond the call of duty. She encouraged teachers to recognize colleagues and share examples of best practices. Last year my administrator asked teachers to participate in teacher appreciation week to celebrate their colleagues. This resulted in an engaging and meaningful recognition of teacher efforts. We ended the week feeling great about our profession because we were acknowledged and appreciated by our school family.
The majority of teachers with whom I worked, mentored and taught came to the profession with a sincere desire to make a difference in the lives of students. Inadequate pay, limited resources and long hours have, for as long as I can remember, been an understood, albeit problematic, reality of the profession. I believe the best way to address teacher attrition and strengthen the profession is to better support the profession with kindness and thoughtful and persistence recognition for the work done day after day..
We must work collaboratively with teacher education programs, professional organizations, state, community, central office, and administrators to more effectively and publicly celebrate and support teachers by making them feel valued and reminding them what motivated them to become teachers. Let’s make a purposeful effort to meet the multifaceted needs of the current and future teacher workforce. All stakeholders in special education must make a commitment to celebrate teaching and collaborate with others to ensure teachers are prepared to meet their own needs as well as the diverse needs of their students in 21st Century schools.
Kolbe, T., & Strunk, K. O. (2012). Economic incentives as a strategy for responding to teacher staffing problems: A typology of policies and practices. Educational Administration Quarterly, 48(5), 779-813.
Mason-Williams, L. (2015). Unequal opportunities a profile of the distribution of special education teachers. Exceptional Children, 81(2), 247-262.
Sutcher, L., L. D., & Carver-Thomas, D. (2016, September 15). About the shortage. from http://specialedshortages.org/about-the-shortage/
Thornton, B., Peltier, G., & Medina, R. (2007). Reducing the special education teacher shortage. The Clearing House: A Journal of Educational Strategies, Issues and Ideas, 80(5), 233-238.
Glennda McKeithan is a lecturer and program associate with 20+ years of experience working in public schools, and she has taught at four institutions of higher learning. Glennda earned a M.Ed., and Ph.D. in Special Education from North Carolina State University. Her research interests include meeting the needs of students with high functioning Autism in general education settings, the practical application of evidence based interventions and developing effective online instruction.
By Ray Pence Mizumura, PhD
What I have to say about the late Richard Pryor (1940-2005)—known primarily for breaking racial and racist rules hilariously and fearlessly—might not be a “natural fit” for this Special Education (SPED) space? Yet, from the perspective of a lecturer in American Studies, and with a longstanding scholarly interest in Pryor’s life work— I want to make some “cultural sense” of his significance.
I understand disability in itself as a socially constructed space, where storytelling and narratives that center the lived experiences of disability can change how we learn to understand our world. Such lived experience is always intersectional.
Pryor’s life illustrated the realities of living not just with multiple disabilities but with multiple forms of oppression—and most critically—with multiple strategies for coping if not challenging them.
He did not “overcome” his multiple sclerosis (MS), his heart problems, his depression, or his addictions. Yet Pryor did make sense of them with stories that made people laugh and then go beyond laughter, to witness a remarkable range of emotional and intellectual insight and skill. For this, Pryor was inspirational in the word’s most positive sense, eluding if not challenging the pitfalls that disability pride activists rightly associate with “inspiration porn.”
Pryor’s comedy was profoundly personal and “culturally intimate” (Cooper, 2007). As a white man, Pryor speaks to me. I imagine not in the same ways he may speak to a Black man or another man of color, but in ways I find important enough to share with academic audiences. Pryor’s work, when taken as a serious subject of study, stretches us all to think beyond the hegemonic parameters that frequently dominate in the academy and mirror what we confront or perpetuate societally. Much of what we discuss and write about (or indeed avoid discussing and writing about) in studying the very construct of [dis]ability, manifest in Pryor’s drive to entertain and simultaneously, if not surreptitiously, to inform us about and to challenge the brutality, if not violence inherent in the silence of the status quo.
I first heard Pryor, as a teenager, in the mid-1970s and I am still “learning to listen”, as George Lipsitz theorized it (1990). Pryor’s career was exciting if not a little dangerous for a white boy like me to subscribe to with any level of adoration. On the one hand, acclaim for Pryor as America’s best comic and even the “world’s funniest man” was pervasive. He was a superstar on record, in movies, on television, and especially on stage. On the other hand, Pryor earned success by celebrating blackness while simultaneously subverting white constructs of what being Black entailed. This work was done in full public view of a nation that build itself on the backs of enslaved Black women, men and children, a Jim Crow nation that has yet to fully acknowledge, articulate and make recompenses for its genocidal history.
Pryor’s remarkable capacity to play out these intersections could, of course, be reduced to performing genius. However to pigeon-hole him as purely this is to fail to acknowledge his intellect, his political skill, and most critically his determination to seize cultural and historical moments in what Jacquelyn Dowd Hall calls “the long civil rights movement” (2005).
Great commercial success does not bring total security—especially for those whose bodies are marked as threatened and threatening. Pryor not only knew his vulnerability before, during, and after his years of peak popularity, he was candid about it to a degree that was and is, I contend, unique among celebrities. The aspect of his honesty that most interests me relates to Pryor’s disabilities, especially those stemming from his MS diagnosis in 1986. I summarize the bare essentials here.
Onstage, Pryor performed his ambivalence about many difficult aspects of his life, including his struggles to maintain mental health (offering stories of his many “crazy” and depressed moments), his battles with addictions (to recreational drugs and to sex), and his fragile physical health (heart attacks, near fatal burns). The ambivalence that emerged from Pryor’s narration of such experiences was the main source of his humor and audiences almost always responded positively, not just with laughter but also with respect.
When MS and its symptoms were his performing topic, however, Pryor did not find the same acceptance and acclaim that greeted his earlier efforts. To preserve his identity and iconic status as the greatest stand-up comedy performer, audiences tended toward two perspectives on Pryor’s years with MS. One view saw this as a time of tragedy, with Pryor visible but as a pitiable, even abject figure. The other view was based on not seeing Pryor – looking away from him and what he did during this period, which included television and movie acting, memoir writing, and interview participation in print and electronic media.
For me, making time to explore these and other themes charged with race, disability, diversity, media, and comedy in the United States has been one of the favorite and most rewarding activities of my journey through academia. Along with reading most of the scholarly and general literature on Pryor (an expanding, exciting body of work, but not without its frustrations and gaps, some of which I’ve alluded to here), viewing relatively obscure and disregarded Pryor performances on VHS and DVD, and listening to his sprawling, transformative archives of stand-up appearances in audio, I’ve had opportunities to interview Margot Kidder, who acted alongside Pryor in several movies, and to spend time with Rain Pryor, one of his daughters and a galvanic actor, singer, and comic whose life has been anything but easy.
The results of all this are captured in hundreds of pages of my writing, the best of which will see publication in print soon. In the meantime, I find great fulfillment in sharing my work on Pryor in progress in spaces like this blog, and with peers at gatherings like the Disability Studies Seminar here at KU’s Hall Center for the Humanities. The diversity of backgrounds and interests represented by presenters and audience members at the seminar, now in its third year, is an invaluable resource. Our university’s SPED department and the Beach Center on Disability have been especially helpful to us as co-directors, Professors Sherrie Tucker of American studies and John Derby of Visual Art. Knowing that graduate students and faculty from these crucial campus sites are part of our audiences, and on our rosters of presenters, is most encouraging. Through the seminar and similar efforts, such as the See-Saw Film Festival, I have expanded my network of professional colleagues dedicated to disability studies.
The implications for building a foundation on which a disability studies certificate or minor, and ultimately a program or department can be established, are positive and proliferating. Public intellectual work for the sustainability and strength of the academy, and for a socially just world – from a disability studies perspective, it can and should include our support for spaces and places wherever disability culture is affirmed intersectionally. The more we learn to listen and listen to learn at such performances, the more real the differences we make will be (Lipsitz, 1990).
Edited by Sorcha Hyland.
Cooper, E. (2007). Is it something he said: The mass consumption of Richard Pryor’s culturally intimate humor. The Communication Review, 10(3), 223-247.
Hall, J. D. (2005). The long civil rights movement and the political uses of the past. The Journal of American History, 91(4), 1233-1263.
Lipsitz, G. (1990). Listening to learn and learning to Listen: Popular Culture, Cultural Theory, and American Studies. American Quarterly, 42(4), 615-636.
Over the course of an almost-20-year career teaching in public schools and in higher education, I have had the privilege of working with all kinds of people. Some of these individuals have become my nearest and dearest friends. Others float on the periphery of my life—coming into focus every so often to exchange well wishes or compliments on one another’s families. Others…well, our professional relationship ended with new positions or life events that sent us down different paths. I am thankful for each of these relationships—they have all brought me valuable insights on teaching, learning, working with kids, and curricula. Most recently, my career path led me to accept the role of coordinator of the Leadership in Special and Inclusive Education Graduate Certificate (LSIE) at the University of Kansas. This position involves considerable collaboration—and a new learning curve where I continue to draw on the successes and failures that have shaped my career to date. Here, I highlight what I have learned in my work with others to create more inclusive school communities and reflect on what has been missing in our collective leadership efforts.
As a former special education teacher, a general education teacher, and teacher-educator, I have always held the belief that students with disabilities need to be fully included in the general education classroom. As the product of a relatively traditional special education undergraduate program, this was my initial definition of what “inclusion” entails. I relied largely on where students should physically and situationally receive services, as opposed to a more complex understanding of the habits of thinking and attitudes that produce and sustain inclusive education as a practice and a school culture. Luckily, I was encouraged to explore this deeper definition by my own teacher-mentors, and through formal and informal professional learning opportunities, often prompted by lunch room conversations with other colleagues. Led primarily by my former principal (let’s call her “KD”) — my fellow staff members and I were encouraged as a group to “reflect, refine, and reach higher” in our collective understanding of how to best meet the needs of all students, including students with disabilities.
We worked with students who experienced an array of challenges that moved beyond any categorical understanding of “ability”— poverty, discrimination, and learning English as a second language in an English Only state to mention but a few. In the midst of these realities, KD encouraged us to think about what we could do differently. She inspired us to move beyond pathologizing or situating the problems in the students and their families. She encouraged—or really required us—to think about the positive relationships we needed to build with all children and how to create a culture where there was always “someone who really loved them” at school.
We certainly were not perfect and we encountered many challenges. Yet, with this as our primary mission, we made great strides in creating a school climate where many of our students were happy and comfortable. It showed in their achievement levels and their behaviors. For example, we had a number of kids who challenged gender norms through their dress and attitudes. Some “came out” directly as lesbian or gay with virtually no reaction, and in essence full acceptance, from the staff and student body. As educators and role models, we had many important conversations about “identity.” We considered how we positioned ourselves as individuals as well as how our identies impacted our classrooms where the majority of kids we worked with were racially, ethnically, and linguistically minoritized. In my current role as the LSIE coordinator—many may imagine I have a skewed, if not a romanticized vision of what a school can achieve. However in hindsight and in reality, I have had first-hand experience of the kind of magic strong leadership and inspired educators can produce. I have observed and experienced what students—all students—can achieve when they are allowed to feel included in their own success. This “magic” validates and underscores my belief that inclusive practices work and produce the best outcomes for all students, especially students with disabilities.
As is the norm, many of us in this magical school, under the leadership of KD, moved on to new positions and other opportunities. Yet I continue to return to the stories and strategies I gained from this period in my career to inform my current work in preparing future teachers and administrators. After I left this school, I continued to have many pivotal experiences that further pushed me to think critically about our efforts, and more importantly, to imagine “what could be.” My understanding and definition of an inclusive school is, now, more than ever, primarily focused on social justice. Scholars well-known to KU SPED, Waitoller and Kozleski (2013, p. 35), define inclusive education as,
[T]he continuous struggle toward (a) the redistribution of quality opportunities to learn and participate in educational programs, (b) the recognition and value of differences as reflected in content, pedagogy, and assessment tools, and (c) the opportunities for marginalized groups to represent themselves in decision-making processes that advance and define claims of exclusion and the respective solutions that affect their children’s educational future…
Under KD’s visionary leadership, we made headway on the “redistribution of quality opportunities to learn” while we strived to develop our abilities to better include parents and families in the decision-making process. This remains an ongoing learning process in light of the very structured and standardized educational climate in which public schools across the nation are situated. Visionary and inclusive leadership is not easy. There were times under KD’s leadership when we attempted to enact school-wide reform efforts only to be stopped in our tracks by competing district or state-driven policies.
A framework for systems change (Kozleski, King Thorius, and Smith, 2014) would have been critical in our work, in order for us to adapt to and navigate the complexities involved in engaging multiple, intersecting activity systems. In order to work towards more socially just and equitable results for all students, particularly those at the margins of participation (e.g., students with dis/abilities, those learning English, kids from undocumented families, etc.)—a systems change framework would have been paramount to our efforts.
Further learning was needed for us to understand the multifaceted aspects of our own intersectional identities too and equally, to recognize the intersections our students also navigated and experienced (Crenshaw, 1991). Such frameworks, and an emphasis on intersectionality, would have equipped us to better deconstruct and understand how power and privilege could further marginalize and oppress our school culture, ourselves as teachers, and most importantly our students who came from communities where generations experienced marginalization and oppression first hand.
We made great strides, but not without a lot of challenging and emotionally charged work that had to be done. As I reflect back on our successes and where we fell short – I am, as I know many of my former colleagues are, very proud of the work we, and our students, collectively accomplished at that school. Yet I am again reminded, as Kozleski and Huber (2012) note, that transforming one school is insufficient. As the coordinator of the Leadership in Special & Inclusive Education Graduate Certificate at the University of Kansas Special Education Department(KU SPED), we now have a program that can fill a critical and an important need across many, if not all, school communities.
The KU SPED LSIE Graduate Certificate is designed to address the needs of not just one school, but of an entire system of schools. Our mission is to provide school leaders and administrators with the tools, knowledge, and habits of thinking they need to build a very solid background in special education law and policy, in the context of creating more inclusive school cultures. LSIE positions and prepares professionals from all sectors of school administration—to lead sustainable reform efforts at multiple levels of the public education system. The readings cited in this blog, for example, are indicative of the kind of critical thinking and research-based discussion that LSIE offers its student participants as they learn what it means to become leaders in the field of cutting-edge inclusive education practices, not just in the United States, but internationally.
This 32-week program is designed as a highly innovative, professional online learning experience where state-of-the-art processes such as game simulation of district-level decision-making, interactive discussion boards, and intensive instructor-student and peer-to-peer interactions are used to build deep, collaborative learning opportunities. Participants who successfully complete this online KU SPED Graduate Certificate are fully equipped to advance the rights of all students, confront biases about special education and other historically marginalized populations, and overcome implementation challenges of inclusive and special education policies in systemic and sustaining ways.
In closing, I ask that if any aspect of this story resonates with you – if you are in a leadership position in a school or district, if you hope to be in a leadership position someday, if you are searching for more socially just opportunities for all students, or you are interested in understanding the research on the leading edge of inclusive schools –check out our LSIE Graduate Certificate. Join us to work towards reforming and transforming not just “one” school, but our whole school system as we lead and educate to advance the rights of all students.
Crenshaw, K. (1991). Mapping the margins: intersectionality, identity politics, and violence against women of color. Stanford Law Review, 43(6), 1241-1299.
Kozleski, E. B., & Huber, J. (2012). System-wide leadership for culturally responsive education. In J. Crockett, B. Billingsley & M. L. Boscardin (Eds.), Handbook on Special Education Leadership. London, United Kingdom: Routledge.
Kozleski, E. B., Thorius, K. K., & Smith, A. (2014). Theorizing systemic reform in urban schools. In E. B. Kozleski & K. K. Thorius (Eds.), Ability, equity, and culture: Sustaining inclusive urban education reform (pp. 11-35). New York: Teachers College Press.
Waitoller, F. R. & Kozleski, E. B. (2013). Working in boundary practices: Identity development and learning in partnerships for inclusive education. Teaching and Teacher Education, 31, 35-45.
Dr. Cynthia Mruczek has been an educator for 18 years. She has worked in urban settings as a special and general educator, as well as an instructional coach, serving students from grades three through high school. Her doctoral work was centered on teacher learning and its impact on students of color in urban classrooms. Currently, Dr. Mruczek is currently an Instructor in the Special Education Department at University of Kansas. Her research and consultative work focuses primarily on teacher learning related to issues of equity in the classroom. She has partnered with schools across the country on various topics, including: culturally responsive pedagogy and classrooms, Culturally Responsive Cognitive Coaching and leadership, and building positive teacher/student relationships, among others. Additionally, Dr. Mruczek has partnered with ASU and USAID in providing support for international teacher educators from India and Africa in the area of gender equity in schools. Dr. Mruczek has a strong passion for equity and social justice, which drives her research and partnerships.
When asked how I would describe my students—I teach at Haskell Indian Nations University, a four-year college here in Lawrence for American Indian and Alaska Native students from federally recognized tribes—the word I like to use is “diverse.”
Friends are often puzzled when I give this response. “But by definition, isn’t it less diverse than most universities?” they ask. “After all, even historically black colleges and universities admit non-black students; Haskell only admits students from federally recognized tribes. Every single one of your students is Native.”
What they say is true—in order to attend, students must have proof of tribal enrollment—but it overlooks the wide variation within our student body. Race, culture, economic class, educational background…there are many different kinds of students at Haskell.
First, some background: Haskell Indian Nations University was founded in 1884 as the United States Indian Industrial Training School, a boarding school for Native children to teach trades and homemaking skills. As with many boarding schools of the era aimed at Native students, the goal was assimilation into larger European-American culture—students were forbidden from using their native languages; they were given short haircuts, uniforms, and English names; and they were expected to worship at Christian church services. This philosophy was summed up by U.S. Army officer Richard Henry Pratt, founder of the infamous Carlisle Indian Industrial School: “Kill the Indian and save the man.” Conditions at these schools were not good, and students dealt with poor nutrition, disease, abuse, and neglect. Not all survived. That history is still palpable at Haskell even today, whether in the stories of hauntings of campus buildings by the spirits of former students, or in the presence of a small cemetery of children’s graves on the edge of campus.
Over the years, conditions improved, and the school evolved. The Industrial Training School became the Haskell Institute (named for U.S. Representative Dudley Haskell, who played a large part in getting the school located in Lawrence), a high school that later became a vocational-technical institute. In 1970, it graduated to a junior college model, becoming Haskell Indian Junior College. In 1993, Haskell evolved once again, beginning to offer bachelor’s degrees, and was renamed Haskell Indian Nations University. Now the only federally-run, intertribal four-year school in the country, Haskell serves hundreds of American Indian and Alaska Native students from over a hundred federally recognized tribes in partial fulfillment of treaty and trust obligations. In contrast to its assimilationist beginnings, Haskell now attempts to incorporate Native culture and identity into everything its faculty, staff, and students do.
So, then, if all our students are Native, what kind of diversity do we have at Haskell?
Racial: We have students that, on first glance, might appear to be solely white, or black, or Latino. Other students “look traditionally Native” enough to pose for a statue of Sitting Bull.
Tribal: We have students from a host of different American Indian and Alaska Native tribes. From the Pacific Northwest to the Great Plains, from the arid Southwest to the eastern seaboard, students come from different tribes, each of which has its own culture. Some come from rural reservations, while others come from heavily urban areas. There is no universal “American Indian” experience. Growing up in the Navajo Nation is different from life in Tahlequah, Oklahoma (capital of the Cherokee Nation), and neither probably represents the lives of Haida people from the Pacific Northwest.
Economic/Educational: We have students from some of the poorest areas and worst schools in the country. (For example, we have many students from Pine Ridge, a Lakota reservation in South Dakota where life expectancies are among the shortest of any group in the Western Hemisphere, one in four children is born with Fetal Alcohol Syndrome or Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder, and infant mortality and teen suicide rates are far higher than the national average.) On the other hand, we also have students from relatively affluent middle-class households and strong public schools, and I’ve taught multiple students who hailed from USD 497, right here in Lawrence.
Preparedness: We have many students who come to Haskell unprepared for college-level coursework. A large percentage of our incoming students have to take one or more developmental classes in either Math or English, and the English Department is currently working on a college bridge program (with support from the National Endowment for the Humanities) to help students in need of additional help transition from high school to college workloads. Conversely, we also have students who come in to the classroom fully prepared, and who could hold their own at any university in the country (Ivy League not excluded!).
However, my friends are right in one of the things that they say: whatever else these students are, every single one is Native. Even this doesn’t mean the same thing to all of our students, though. Some have grown up in “Indian country” and in a strong Native tradition; they might dance at powwows on the weekends, or speak a traditional language. Others come to Haskell to learn more about their Native history and who they are as Natives, which until now may not have been a major part of their identity. In many ways, I believe the fact that everyone is Native—and the fact that that does not mean the same thing to everyone—gives a good vantage point from which to appreciate all the differences in Haskell’s student body.
In the meantime, if you’d like to find out more about Haskell, we will be having our annual Indian Art Market on September 10th (10:00 am-6:00 pm) and 11th (10 am-5 pm). It will be held at the Powwow Grounds on Haskell’s campus. Stop by and say hello!
Joseph Rodriguez is an instructor of English and current acting Dean of Humanities at Haskell Indian Nations University. He earned his doctorate in English in 2012 from the University of Iowa, specializing in medieval British literature. In addition to teaching at Haskell, he has also taught at the University of Iowa and Central Methodist University.
When I was invited to write a post for this blog I struggled with the topic. Which special interest of mine would I discuss: evidence-based practices? empathy? civic professionalism? autism? I finally decided on a subject when I looked again at the title Hawks Hope Blog and zeroed in on the word: hope.
In all of my work in the field of education over the last 25 years hope is one construct that has been essential to success. My teaching career began in Connecticut. As a substitute teacher working in urban environments I needed hope to get through my day. I was hopeful that I could teach the diverse students in front of me and hopeful that they would teach me too. Later, as a special educator in an inclusion program I needed hope that I could meet the many needs of my students with disabilities while trying to include them with their peers but also teach them the daily living skills they needed.
One of the first educators I co-taught with was a veteran third grade teacher. She had amazing knowledge, skills, dispositions and most important to me — she was hopeful. This stance was vital as we initiated inclusive programming for three students with significant disabilities in the classroom. Hope was a foundation for proving naysayers wrong and taking on big challenges. Our hope was that we could foster friendships, change attitudes and teach all of our learners. It wasn’t easy; change often isn’t, but we made big gains over the years and everyone — families, students, and teachers — learned and grew.
After several years I moved to Kansas to begin a new phase of life. As a graduate student I needed hope that I could complete the volumes of readings, keep up with writing assignments and perform under pressure when testing students on our assessment team. While in graduate school I worked in a Kansas public school district as an inclusion facilitator. I needed hope to assist school teams who were supporting students with significant needs as well as keep up with a huge number of cases. In all of these experiences the thought that things could get better in the future, that educators’, families’ and my knowledge and skills would increase, and that students would improve the quality of their lives was necessary in changing systems and transforming lives. Hope was an essential ingredient!
I recall how excited I was when I first learned about Dr. Shane Lopez’s research about hope when attending a professional development workshop. Lopez, a KU alum and professor, not surprisingly found that students who are hopeful are happier, attend school more, are more engaged, are more resilient, and are excited about the future (Lopez, 2013; 2016). Lopez described how hope can spread by helping students make connections between the way they currently think, learn and behave to their future goals, aspirations and lives. Moreover, his research shows how we need to teach students multiple ways to reach meaningful goals in very specific pathways. This investment in the future is at the core of success. These ideas dovetail nicely with the educational initiatives of self-determination, positive behavior supports and strength based learning.
So many of the parents, siblings and other family members I have known over the years had hope that their relative with a disability would be accepted, would learn what they needed to learn, would be invited to an after school event at a friend’s house, etc. One particular parent I knew was a Rhode Island father of a young adult with autism. Despite the son’s significant limitations and behavioral challenges, the father hoped that he would be able to understand his child, provide him with the best supports and that he would be successful in his own way; this was inspiring to the entire transition team.
I happily recall working with an 8-year-old boy in Kansas who had an intellectual disability. He was a charming little guy with an infectious smile and a thorough knowledge of his family and their culture. He was hopeful that he could learn as much as he could about his favorite topics. He was so positive about all of his classmates and was always hopeful that they would want to play with him at recess or sit with him in class. His hopefulness was contagious and prompted many friendships and collaborations.
I now teach at Rhode Island College and hope remains an essential part of my life. I need to be hopeful to tackle the responsibilities of being a professor. Last year a few of my undergraduate students who were completing a field experience came back to the classroom and shared a difficult story. They described a cooperating teacher who was no longer hopeful and who was burdened by the many demands of modern day teaching. They observed child-teacher interactions that were not based in acceptance but rather filled with resentment. This mentor teacher asked my students, “Why do you want to teach these days?” and told them to, “Get out while you can…” My co-teacher and I took this opportunity to deeply discuss the teaching profession with our class and all the ups and downs that it brings. We asked questions about why this disgruntled teacher would think and feel the way she did. We ended with positive stories and stressed the importance of hope and how it can make a difference in the lives of others.
The bottom line is that we all need hope. In our complex ever-changing fast paced world there is often strife and difficulty. Clearly collaboration is a must to face these challenges and hope is a core disposition. Howard Zinn’s (2002) thoughts about hope provide an apropos conclusion:
To be hopeful in bad times is not just foolishly romantic. It is based on the fact that human history is a history not only of cruelty, but also of compassion, sacrifice, courage, kindness. What we choose to emphasize in this complex history will determine our lives. If we see only the worst, it destroys our capacity to do something. If we remember those times and places – and there are so many – where people have behaved magnificently, this gives us the energy to act, and at least the possibility of sending this spinning top of a world in a different direction.
So here’s to behaving magnificently and positively changing the world…
Author’s note: I began thinking about the possible content of this essay in June of 2016 and was very pleased when I finally concluded I would write about hope. Thus, it was with great shock and sadness that I learned of Dr. Shane Lopez’s sudden passing away in late July 2016 while I was putting the finishing touches on this blog post. He was an inspiration to many and will be greatly missed…
Lopez, S. (2016). Positive education: Hope for children and youth with emotional and behavioral challenges. Invited Keynote lecture, Midwest Symposium for Leadership in Behavior Disorders, Kansas City, MO.
Lopez, S. (2013). Making hope happen: Create the future you want for yourself and others. New York: Atria Books.
Zinn, H. (2002). You can’t be neutral on a moving train: A personal history of our times. Boston: Beacon Press.
Dr. Paul G. LaCava is an associate professor of special education at Rhode Island College (RIC) in Providence. He is also the associate director of research at RIC’s University Center for Excellence in Developmental Disabilities (UCEDD), the Paul V. Sherlock Center on Disabilities. Dr. LaCava spends his time teaching graduate and undergraduate courses, making service contributions and conducting research in autism, developmental disabilities, and evidence-based practice. He earned his Ph.D. at KU in special education in 2007 and is especially grateful for the mentorship of Dr. Rich Simpson, Dr. Brenda Smith Myles and Dr. Richard Whelan. He lives in Rhode Island with his wife Lynda (also a KU education graduate!) and son Zachary (who loves KU hoops!) and likes to play guitar in any spare moment he can.
Behaviorism V. Constructivism: Bridging an “Ism” Schism What Should Special Education Researchers Be?
A colleague of mine was once in a conversation with two veteran special education professors. One was a radical behaviorist and the other, a just as radical, but a constructivist. He wanted to impress them both as he was a very young scholar at the time. So, one can imagine his dismay when one of the professors turned to him and asked point-blank, “Are you a behaviorist or a constructivist?”
Unsure how to respond, he replied limply, “Well, I’m actually both.” Needless to say, his answer failed to impress. With a “pat on the back,” they assured him that his position was impossible.
What should he have said to his older colleagues instead? I think he should have told them, “I’m neither.” Why? Behaviorism and constructivism have been locked in intellectual combat for the soul of special education research for a while now. Yet, the one thing that matters to behaviorists and constructivists alike is that there is a difference between behaviorism and constructivism. So, trying to be “both” at once is likely to make opponents on each side of the aisle question your sincerity or understanding of the issues. You might as well claim to be voting for both presidential candidates in the upcoming election at once.
Behaviorism, like constructivism, is an “ism” – not a method. The “ism” is what prevents someone from being both at the same time. Admiring behavior analysis (i.e., a method) does not make one a behaviorist. Constructivists can agree that behavior analysis enjoys a measure of success in practice. Although improbable, a constructivist could even be a behavior analyst while maintaining their constructivist position. This is because “behavior analyst” and “behaviorist” are highly correlated but not interchangeable terms. A “behaviorist,” unlike a mere “behavior analyst,” really denotes someone who claims that good research must conform to the ideals of behavior science (i.e., operational definitions, observation over inference, and stress on operant conditioning). In short, behaviorists are “fundamentalist positivists.”
Constructivism, likewise, is a philosophical stance, not a method. Everyone recognizes that constructs, such as the monetary value of your car, are artificial inventions. They do not exist outside of human cognition. They depend upon us and belong to the social world of our own making. Some of these constructed ideas, as critical theorists recognize, can be very harmful (e.g., racist ideas, ablest ideas).
Even behaviorists recognize some ideas are constructed. However, constructivism goes much further than the trivial observation some ideas are constructed. Constructivism is the position that all ideas – not just a subset – are products of the human mind. Humans have no access to a reality independent of the human mind. In short, constructivists are relativists.
It seems, then, that neither constructivism nor behaviorism offer the full story. They both take us to untenable positions (i.e., relativism or positivism).
So, if behaviorism and constructivism are both unsatisfactory options, then what should special education researchers be? What position allows us to keep what is good about behaviorism and constructivism yet avoid the dead ends? That is a hard question to answer, one that I’ll save for a future post.
Yet what I will say now is that, in contrast to my colleague’s attempt at diplomacy, trying to be “both” is not the answer. Instead, why not reject the very grammar of the question, “Are you a behaviorist of a constructivist?” That question poses a false dilemma, for there are certainly other options for special education scholars (e.g., realism, pragmatism, and so on).
Perhaps those who are intrigued by the question ought to treat it as an invitation to read up on epistemology. A tough, but rewarding, subject.
Tyler Hicks, Ph.D. (Special Education & Measurement/Evaluation), is a Post-Doctorate Researcher in the Department of Special Education at the University of Kansas and the SWIFT (School-Wide Integrated Framework for Transformation) Center. His academic interests include Bayesian epistemology, philosophies of disability, and inclusionary education policies. At its best, his work is concerned with the intersection of methods, methodology, and philosophy of inquiry. His dissertation scholarship focused on using Bayesian estimators with subjective priors when statistical modeling in special education research with small samples.
From “Manual Typewriter Operator” to “Graduate Online Programs Director…” The Journey from a Technological Perspective
By Susan M. Bashinski, Ed.D.
My career began as pre-service special education teacher in the 1970s. I took lecture notes on paper. I used a manual typewriter to prepare class assignments. I fed punched cards into the campus mainframe computer to run statistics. And no, this really wasn’t more than 100 years ago! By the time I reached my Master’s degree program, I had moved on to my first personal computer (really only an electronic word processor), but in my mind I had joined the technology revolution. When I purchased an Apple IIc computer my fate was sealed (I just didn’t realize it at the time….)
As I look back on my lengthy career in special education, I see several key events that challenged me and forced me well beyond the limits of my technological comfort zone. Fortunately, the unimaginable change in the availability of communication media, new online learning tools and associated research shaped the skills I now need to use in my daily practice as a teacher educator. I could never have guessed, nor honestly, even believed, that technology would become such a central thread in my work.
Communication development and augmentative communication (AAC) have remained my passion ever since I began my doctoral studies in special education at The University of Kansas (KU) in 1992. My first experience with “high AAC technology” involved the ECHO communicator. This voice output variation required me to actually open the body of the computer and install an adaptive firmware card. Who, at that point, could ever have even imagined the technological capabilities of the iPad? It took me a while to “see” the broader technology in education picture.
I taught the augmentative and alternative communication class for the KU Department of Special Education (SPED) during my doctoral studies and for several years thereafter. For the entirety of these 16 years I delivered the class on campus—face-to-face with the graduate students enrolled. In my last year of employment at KU, the University issued an announcement, encouraging faculty campus-wide to apply to participate in training on how to effectively transition a face-to-face class to an online delivery format. I believed that KU SPED’s AAC course was a great candidate for this transformation, and so I applied.
I was accepted as a member of the first Lawrence-campus cohort—which consisted of eight to ten faculty members. Our small, innovative group spent one full week in day-long sessions learning Blackboard technology in the basement of Anschutz. I felt as if I had entered a foreign world populated with an entirely different array of variables…! I was overwhelmed initially. Though I was confident in my ability to teach, I found it incredibly difficult to figure out how to teach in this whole new context. Fortunately, however, I stayed the course.
Let me fast forward now…to the present. For the past three years I have worked as the director of graduate programs in the Department of Education at Missouri Western State University—where 100% of our graduate offerings are delivered online. I am an individual who spent the vast majority of her career teaching in traditional face-to-face public school and university settings. Now, I very rarely set foot in the same physical space as my students. What a significant evolution my instructional practice has undergone in the last decade!
Delivering online courses and teaching entirely through this new distance model presents many challenges for veteran faculty members, such as myself. Ever-present is the unchangeable fact that I (like many others) am now required to provide content, course activities, and feedback in a format different from anything I ever experienced as a student. These challenges are exponentially magnified by the reality that the vast majority of today’s students grow up with connectivity. They enter the learning context already incredibly comfortable with current technology and the online environment.
Learners in the twenty-first century have been Web consumers for much of their lives, and are now demanding online instruction that supports participation and interaction. They want learning experiences that are social and that will connect them with their peers (West & West, as cited in Conrad & Donaldson, 2011, p. 1).
The current, extant literature base regarding distance education provides fairly extensive insights on several key challenges online course delivery presents. Some of the challenges this context generates for veteran faculty members include: ways in which to structure communication with students, ongoing technological advances, methods to promote genuine student engagement and maintain integrity in online coursework, professional development needs, and strategies to build a genuine online learning community. I raise these here to ideally promote discussion and to find at least partial answers to some of these needs.
Veteran faculty need guidance around questions as straightforward as how to structure their own personal availability? Will this schedule apply only Monday through Friday? What is the ideal response rate for emails, questions, and grading of assignments? Challenges relative to how to communicate with online students range from simple questions, such as how best to inform students to structure and submit their assignments for online grading, to how to determine the scope of information they will require? How much is too much? What should go in the syllabus? What should be detailed in each online page? A well-respected and very experienced university faculty member advised me as follows,
Give far more information than you think anyone in their right mind would ever want to know (S. Steinweg, personal communication, August 2009).
My personal experience has led me to some very effective strategies. For example, embed a hidden word (e.g., “hippopotamus”) in the middle of a teacher-made video students are requested to review; attach a letter to an email, prior to the semester’s opening to all students registered for an online course, and request students send an email to verify their receipt of the information; include virtual office hours in a course syllabus; and post rules of “netiquette” for the course. I have found the 10 Principles of Effective Online Teaching, compiled from a series of columns in DISTANCE Education Reports “Between the Clicks” column, to be a succinct compilation of the core behaviors one needs to develop to become a successful online instructor (Hill, n.d.a). Some of the most essential elements I derived from this include: establish patterns for all course activities—and be consistent, think before writing, plan for the unplanned, and try to anticipate anything that might possibly “go wrong” (i.e., employ proactive practices) (Hill, n.d.a). My personal interpretation of the advice to be proactive involves extensive pre-planning and anticipation in order to avoid receiving 200+ emails from students every day!
Technology questions arise in regard to both hardware and software applications too. They range from simple questions such as how, where and from whom students can get help when needed, to which specific technology options are best-suited to delivery of a particular type of content. Options for student use of a university’s library and reference resources must also be clarified before a course begins. Personally, I struggle with the stress and anxiety I feel each and every time I am presented with a new piece of technology! How can I master this? What do I need to know? What do I do if the technology goes down? I believe sharing contingency plans with students is also an essential element of effective online teaching.
The importance of genuine student engagement in the online learning environment has been highlighted in research over the last decade (Conrad & Donaldson, 2011; Woo & Reeves, 2007). Students neither want nor deserve to be presented with a digital correspondence course; their learning will not be maximized just listening to an online lecture. One of an online instructor’s primary responsibilities is to establish a path that will guide students to actively engage with the content being presented. It is the faculty member’s responsibility to create course materials in multiple media formats (Wang, 2012). The most effective strategy I have found to meet this challenge is to include mandatory participation in synchronous video sessions, which are graded. Through Doodle polling, students determine the exact schedule for such meetings, and receive grades for their involvement in these sessions. Engaging students through synchronous methods is strongly supported through an aggregation of articles compiled from the ONLINE CL@SSROOM: Ideas for Effective Online Instruction (Bart, 2012).
Engaged learning does not simply happen. It requires ‘architectural engineering’ by the instructor (Conrad & Donaldson, 2011, p.14).
Closely related to the need to facilitate active student engagement is the challenge of building a genuine community online. Though I am never in the same room with the graduate students in the classes I teach, nor are the students in the same room with one another, we do see each other. In learning easy-to-use platforms like Zoom (founded in 2011), my students and I have the opportunity to engage in real-time video conferencing. We hold critical discussions, students present materials they have developed to one another and complete peer evaluations of others’ completed work. Zoom also offers the instructor the option of recording a session for later viewing by a student, as needed.
Students in Missouri Western State University’s graduate online programs are incredibly enthusiastic about the opportunities technology like Zoom offers for real-time, meaningful collaboration. These kinds of platforms enable the auditory and visual, synchronous experiences of genuine community membership. Samples of video testimonials, in which students share overwhelming support for synchronous video meetings, can be found here.
Integrity concerns in online coursework are directly associated with the instructor (e.g., what resources may be used without violating copyright?) and with students and the work they submit (e.g., who actually wrote the research paper that was turned in?). The challenge of academic dishonesty existed long before the online instructional environment first emerged. The online environment does, however, present distance instructors with a unique set of challenges, different from those encountered in traditional course delivery. In a compilation of nine articles from DISTANCE Education Report (Hill, 2010), the editor offers 91 Ways to Maintain Academic Integrity in Online Courses, which are presented in four primary categories (1) the “virtue” approach – motivate students to not be tempted to cheat (2) the “policing” approach – enforce consequences for those students who are caught cheating (3) the “prevention” approach – reduce both the pressures and opportunities for students to cheat, and (4) suggestions for inclusion in an online course syllabus.
The enormous need for professional development for university faculty, particularly for veteran, senior faculty members, brings this discussion full circle. As noted previously, delivering courses entirely through a distance model presents many, many challenges such as mastering the technology itself to transitioning sound pedagogical theory and practice to the online environment, or managing course structure and communication, and maintaining rigor in a distance course (Lorenzetti, n.d.). Effective, durable training for faculty members requires planning, pooling of resources, and most importantly providing on-going support for online instructors.
One of the many lessons learned from the early years of distance education is the fact that you cannot simply pluck an instructor out of the classroom, plug (her) into an online course, and expect (her) to be effective in this new….medium (Hill, n.d.b, p. 1).
Bart, M. (Ed.) (2012, February). Faculty focus special report: Online student engagement tools and strategies. Retrieved from http://cdn.facultyfocus.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/01/FF-Online-Student-Engagement-Report.pdf
Conrad, R-M., & Donaldson, J. A. (2011). Engaging the online learner: Activities and resources for creative instruction (2nd ed.). Hoboken, NJ: Wiley, Jossey-Bass.
Hill, C. (Ed.) (2010, May). Faculty focus special report: Promoting academic integrity in online education. Retrieved from http://cdn.facultyfocus.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/11/promoting-academic-integrity-in-online-edu2.pdf
Hill, C. (Ed.) (n.d.a.). Faculty focus special report: 10 principles of effective online teaching—Best practices in distance education. Retrieved from http://cdn.facultyfocus.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/02/10-Principles-of-Effective-Online-Teaching.pdf
Hill, C. (Ed.) (n.d.b.). Faculty focus special report: Faculty development in distance education—Issues, trends, and tips. Retrieved from http://cdn.facultyfocus.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/08/FacultyDev-in-DistanceEd1.pdf
Lorenzetti, J. P. (n.d.). Four steps to just-in-time faculty training. Faculty focus special report: Faculty development in distance education—Issues, trends, and tips. Retrieved from http://cdn.facultyfocus.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/08/FacultyDev-in-DistanceEd1.pdf
Wang, H. (2012, February). Engage online learners with technology: A free tool kit. Faculty focus special report: Faculty development in distance education—Issues, trends, and tips. Retrieved from http://cdn.facultyfocus.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/08/FacultyDev-in-DistanceEd1.pdf
Woo, Y., & Reeves, T. C. (2007). Meaningful interaction in web-based learning: A social constructivist interpretation. The Internet and Higher Education, 10(1), 15-25.
By Majed Alsalem, Ph. D.
It has been a year since I graduated from the University of Kansas in May, 2015. I remember the last goodbye with my colleagues, cohort, and friends. I still have a feeling that I will be part of this “empire” forever. I can see how KU is the empire of special education and how I can position myself as an ambassador for KU in my country, particularly in the area of special education. It’s not about 4 years of studying to obtain a PhD degree, it’s a long-term commitment that only KU was able to instill in our minds in order to make this world a better place for individuals with disabilities. Last month, in April, 2016, the Saudi government announced Saudi Vision (2030), which is a new philosophy of empowering Saudi policy based on citizenship and participation from all individuals. It’s an economic revolution that will make changes in most of the country’s systems based on pragmatic and scientific foundations.
Reading the Vision through a special education lens, it creates a huge transformation in the special education field in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. This change includes (but is not limited to) education, employment, and the rights of individuals with disabilities overall in the country. What does that mean? It’s the time to take action to reform the system through different frameworks that help make a real change. This is my role as an ambassador of the great empire of special education, to build and create the future of special education in Saudi Arabia based on the knowledge, experience, and successful work that I was involved in at KU. As an example, the work that I am doing right now concerns how to apply evidence-based practices in our educational system, enhancing professional development for teachers, and implementing universal design for learning (UDL).
Therefore, it’s very critical when implementing any framework, philosophy, or strategy to keep in mind the cultural and social factors of the Saudi community. Thus, my own vision of how to adopt best practices from around the world while maintaining the Saudi identity aligns with the Saudi Vision 2030. A new era in the country is about to start, and I hope to be part of this new history of the Kingdom.
This brings back memories of when we discussed the shifting paradigms in education and institutional practices in special education in every class, talk, and presentation. It was a great experience beginning when I arrived in Lawrence in 2011. As I went through the long journey, it shaped my way of thinking, the way that I deal with sensitive topics, and interact with experts—keeping in mind that what works and fits in one environment may not work and fit in others.
The recent movement in educational policy applies rigorous standards, continuous and constant evaluation and assessment, accountability, professional development, and it increases the roles of technology, school autonomy, and parent involvement. Based on this, the four major components that the system in Saudi Arabia is focused on are: (a) Curriculum, which is the basic element of gaining information, and the new trend is to have it be more applicable rather than theoretical knowledge learned without interacting with information. (b) Teachers — the focus now is to create a system for teaching licenses that teachers must renew every 3–5 years. (c) Instructional design — UDL has just emerged in the conversation in the Ministry of Education in relation to preparing curriculum and teachers based on the notion of UDL. (d) Students — where they become the focus of the Saudi Vision (2030) by preparing them to be digital citizens, to engage with society, politics, and government participation through technology.
It is a wonderful experience to integrate the best practices of Saudis and Americans into my work when I’m dealing with students with disabilities and preparing teachers and researchers in the field of special education. Again, I was the ambassador of Saudi Arabia at KU from 2011–2015, and now I’m the ambassador of KU in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia for the rest of my life.
Dr. Majed Alsalem is originally from Saudi Arabia. He is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Special Education at King Saud University. He earned his doctorate in 2015 from the University of Kansas in special education under the advisement of Dr. James Basham. Dr. Alsalem research interests in the area of instructional design, technology and innovation for supporting learner variability in modern learning environments, particularly with the implementation of universal design for learning (UDL), professional development for teachers, and evidence-based practices. Majed’s primary focus is on deaf education, deaf and hard of hearing literacy and assistive technology.
“The mission of the doctoral program in special education at KU is to prepare civically-committed scholars who, through rigorous and relevant research and transformational interventions, address significant educational and social problems in ways that advance education, social policy, research, care giving and public service to enhance the quality of life of persons of all ages with (dis)abilities and their families.”
The KU SPED doctoral program prepares special education teachers, teacher educators, administrators, and field researchers for the future. The editors of Hawk Hopes asked the 2015-2016 cohort members to reflect on their first year learning experience in the program. Cohort members provided five words that described their experience as well as a short reflection of something memorable about the first year. Good luck to the 2015-2016 Cohort as they approach their first year probationary review and enter their second year!
The most valuable lesson I have learned in the past eight months is about myself. For example, I keep telling people that this is the **th day/month since I arrived in the U.S. and entered this program. It’s been an effective self-protective strategy to lessen my anxiety of feeling illiterate in academia and also culturally naive in this new country. It allows me to excuse myself from feeling completely incompetent, since it is so hard and I need more time! I’m thankful to myself because I’m aware of and have embraced my weakness, and keep growing. More importantly, I’m thankful to those incredible individuals who have challenged me, listened to me, supported me, and inspired me! Your knowledge, wisdom, and commitment to the field enhanced my certainty about why I am here. Eight months (Okay, okay, I will stop counting) has been enough time for me to feel a sense of belonging. I am not sure whether it’s long enough for me to feel fully prepared, but surely I am on my way. A must-include shout out is: I AM and I WILL never stop being proud that I AM a KU SPEDer!
This first year has caused me to think about people with disabilities in a completely different way. People with disabilities have always been a huge part of my life, but I was always very busy being an advocate and an effective special educator. It wasn’t until my role changed that I realized what meaning people with disabilities bring to my life and how much they enrich it. I also now have a better understanding of what social justice means and why it’s so important. I’m thankful for all the learning experiences I’ve had this year and look forward to many more!
My favorite experience was “Cohortsgiving” at Elizabeth’s house for Thanksgiving. We each shared something we’re thankful for, and I had a smile on my face (and at times, tears in my eyes!) the entire time. I feel so lucky to be a part of such a diverse, intelligent, committed group of people, all striving to learn and grow. I’ve developed close relationships with many students and faculty in the program, but I feel a certain kinship with everyone because we share a common purpose.
The first year at the PhD program has been very inspiring. I’m definitely glad to be part of the KU Special Education PhD program. However, managing time has been a major struggle since I’m not only a PhD student but also a mom for a three-year-old boy. Both roles have demanded me greatly. Guilt for not spending time with him and guilt for not working on my schoolwork have conflicted with each other. This will continue to be a challenge throughout my PhD career; however, I’m looking forward to learning and accumulating knowledge and expertise to become an effective researcher and teacher educator in the future.
In October I had the chance to travel with several members of my Early Childhood Unified Specialization to the Division for Early Childhood’s (DEC) National Conference in Atlanta, Georgia. I have attended professional conferences before, but this time felt different—I got to experience my membership in so many new groups. I was part of my specialization community, from carpooling to the airport to benefiting from moral support when my poster was briefly lost by our airline. I was part of my cohort community—my colleagues knew I was presenting and thoughtfully cheered me on from afar. I also experienced the larger presence of the KU community—several people started conversations with me at my poster by mentioning my affiliation with KU. And of course it was a chance to be part of the DEC community and connect with scholars and peers in early childhood special education. This experience stands out to me as representative of all the different communities I get to participate in by being a doctoral student in special education at KU.
Elizabeth Ann Meitl
My first year has been one long lesson in learning that there is more space in my brain than I knew, more room for friends than I imagined, and more time in my life for reading than I could have guessed. Also, I learned how to make a poster.
Wear gratitude like a cloak. ~ Rumi
Grateful for endless opportunities to learn from and work with incredible people. Grateful for openness to make new connections and build partnerships. Grateful for honesty, challenge, and creativity. Grateful for laughter and friendship. Grateful for difference.
By Dr. Grace Francis
Alice Johnson and her family were thrilled when she was accepted into a postsecondary education program for students with intellectual and developmental disabilities (PSE) at a big college campus about 50 miles away from her home. Alice’s first few weeks on campus, unfortunately, proved to be extremely stressful for the Johnson family. Alice experienced a difficult time adjusting to living without her family, with a roommate who was a stranger to her and whose behavior sometimes made her uncomfortable. She felt extremely uneasy navigating a large campus with so many people and did not know how to get help. Alice called her parents several times a day in tears, upset, lonely, bored, and confused. Alice’s parents, who had been so excited about this opportunity for Alice, were exhausted, anxious, and utterly despondent.
Alice’s parents had been tirelessly advocating for Alice’s well-being for the past 19 years, and they didn’t stop when she enrolled in college. They encouraged Alice to contact her teachers and the director of residential life to resolve some of her problems, and were unsure if she was not following through or if staff were just unresponsive to her needs. They spoke with the PSE director several times to discuss needed accommodations and social concerns, but were dismayed by the director’s resolute expectations for Alice to resolve her problems independently by using university resources. They felt ignored and shamed. They also left several messages for the director of residential life to try to resolve the issues with her roommate and felt extremely frustrated when they finally received a call back stating that “FERPA prevents us from discussing student matters with parents.” They have decided to bring Alice home during weekends to avoid some of the issues and, despite the benefits they think Alice would experience by staying, are about to withdraw Alice from the program.
Most people are familiar with the term “helicopter parent,” or parents who are overprotective and over-involved in their child’s life. There is emerging research indicating negative outcomes associated with helicopter parenting, including increased levels of depression, as well as disrupted self-regulation and decision-making skills among children (Schiffrin et al., 2013). Sending children to college can bring out the “helicopter” in many parents, as students are granted with the autonomy to make independent decisions, in many cases, for the first time. For all young adults, college is a time of profound uncertainty and magnificent growth. It is a time when students begin to solidify their identities as adults by transitioning from being a dependent to a self-advocate. As such, it is also a time when parents of college students must transition from caregivers to advisors for their sons and daughters. These transitions are difficult, especially for parents whose college-bound students have disabilities.
There is no doubt that the expectations for students and parents are drastically different in college when compared to high school. The dramatic changes in roles, policies, rights, and responsibilities of students and their parents often leave parents uncertain of how to support their college student, leading to frustration and anxiety – especially among parents of students with disabilities who may have had fewer independent decision-making experiences or may be perceived as vulnerable. Further, parents of students with disabilities have often spent decades protecting, supporting, and advocating for their children. These negative feelings can lead to hyper-vigilance among parents. One parent of a college student with a disability described the experience of her son with autism going to college as “someone filling her mama helicopter with nitrous fuel.” While helicopter parenting may be damaging, university staff can direct parental commitment to their children’s success toward efforts that will maximize student outcomes.
The value of parental input and emotional needs of parents are significantly overlooked in college settings for all students, not just those who have disabilities. While parents should never be ignored or shamed, allowing hyper-vigilant parents to stymie the development of all students is an unacceptable course of action. All parents would likely benefit from strategies to engage their students in supported decision-making as well coping strategies to deal with anxiety and stress. Decision-making and coping strategies could be provided through parent workshops during university orientations and through ongoing methods such as online follow-up sessions or parent meet-up groups. PSE staff could provide additional support to parents of students in PSE programs by collaborating with university departments and research centers (e.g., counseling department, center for wellness and mindfulness), community partners (e.g. parent training and information centers), and even alumni parents with experience transitioning from a caregiver to an advisor for their children to provide information and support to parents (and students) about effective strategies.
The experiences of the Johnson family are not unique. Parenting is hard (turns out way harder than I gave my parents credit for!). Navigating the rough waters of young adulthood is as exciting as it is uncertain. Given the amount of resources and focus on student development and professional stewardship at institutions of higher education, there exists a great opportunity to reconsider efforts to “ground the helicopter parent,” “tame the tiger mom,” and “cut the umbilical cord,” by making the most of the investment and desire of parents to see their young adults succeed. Universities serve as an ideal setting to build stronger communities by collaborating with students and parents to develop decision-making skills and coping strategies so that families may transition from dependents and caregivers to self-advocates and advisors.
Schiffrin, H. H., Liss, M., Miles-McLean, H., Geary, K. A., Erchull, M. J., & Tashner, T. (2014). Helping or hovering? The effects of helicopter parenting on college students’ well-being. Journal of Child and Family Studies, 23, 548-557.
Dr. Grace “Frankie” Francis is an Assistant Professor in the College of Education and Human Development at George Mason University. She graduated in 2013 from the University of Kansas under the advisement of Dr. Ann and Professor Rud Turnbull. Her research interests include transition to adulthood and family-professional partnerships policies and practices.