My SpecEd Pt 1 Reflections

As a requirement of my Trent University Additional Qualifications course, Special Education Part 1, I will be completing a 6-week-long Reflection Learning Portfolio. Here, I'll record my shifting thinking as I move through the course, the readings, and the online discussions with my co-learners.

Week 1 (May 11, 2014)

The Assignment:  "...all educators have a personal belief in their roles in the education system, but they may not have considered the rights of the special needs students within the school system. Think about your own 'Belief Statement', which reflects your views or position regarding the rights of special education students and the relationship of special education to equity and social justice."

As a teacher of adolescents, I believe that ALL students have the capacity to learn.  For teachers of adolescent students, effective instruction includes a focus on thinking, expressing, and reflecting ideas in a responsive environment which honours and values student voice and identity.  Adolescent students - especially those with special needs - require continued scaffolding of skills and knowledge as well as the gradual release of responsibility as their learning becomes increasingly complex in content areas.  Explicit modelling of effective practice (such as read alouds and think alouds), shared practice, guided practice, and independent practice, when combined with specific strategies to help with reading fluency and comprehension, helps students make meaning of texts.  Effective, specific feedback, which is individualized and relevant not only to their skills, but also to their daily lives, encourages students to take ownership of their learning.  Development of self-advocacy and self-regulation skills are fundamental to student success in our secondary schools; students need confidence to be metacognitive learners who reflect on their use of strategies and think critically about the texts they read and produce.  Students require opportunities to question texts, communicate with each other, and inquire about their world in order to foster curiousity, creativity, and innovation.  Ultimately, education fosters opportunities and empowerment, helping turn adolescents into responsible citizens; for students with special education needs, education is therefore closely allied with issues of equity and social justice. Thus, educators have a role and responsibility to develop an understanding among students that we are all equal members of society with the capacity for growth.

Week 2 (May 17, 2014)

The Assignment: "Should Attention Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (AD/HD) be a distinct Category of Exceptionality? Are the Ontario Categories of Exceptionalities as presently defined sufficient? Some would argue that there are dozens of clinically diagnosed syndromes/disorders/disabilities etc. that are not specifically included either. What are some other issues that need to be considered?"

The Ministry of Education's policy document, Special Education (2001) does not identify Attention Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (AD/HD) as one of the distinct Categories of Exceptionalities nor is it listed as a condition accompanying either a Behavior Exceptionality or Learning Disability (although it may be considered when identifying these exceptionalities). However, in 2011, the Director of Special Education announced the following, changing how school boards must respond to AD/HD:

"All students with demonstrable learning based needs are entitled to appropriate accommodations in the form of special education programs and services, including classroom based accommodations. ... For example, a student with ADD/ADHD may present learning needs in many ways in the school setting and the student may be identified as exceptional within one or more of the categories of exceptionalities (including, Behaviour, Communication, Intellectual, Physical and/or Multiple) depending on the presentation, and the degree of the impact that ADD/ADHD has on that student's learning. Some of the areas in which a student with ADD/ADHD may have demonstrable learning needs include (but are not limited to) attention/focus, organization, processing speed, working memory, executive functioning weaknesses, mathematical processes and skills, and expressive and receptive language. A student who presents with such learning needs can be identified within the communication (learning disability) exceptionality category, regardless of whether the medical criteria for a Learning Disability are met. In other cases involving students with ADD/ADHD where other learning needs present, consideration can be given to identification under other categories (e.g. Behaviour, Physical and/or Multiple)" (Finlay 2011).

This clearly opened the door to have IEPs for students with AD/HD, which is a welcome change for the innumerable parents, advocates, teachers and students, as pointed out by Toronto Star reporter, Andrea Gordon. The policy shift not only benefits the "at least 5 per cent of Ontario's 2.1 million school-aged children" with AD/HD but also "a range of other conditions, including Fetal Alcohol Syndrome and Tourette Syndrome" (Gordon 2011).  Understanding of many disorders has dramatically changed with advances in neuroscience and the use of MRIs since the original policy document was published in 2001. The updating of the policy simply makes sense as these disorders are included in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) - the official diagnostic handbook of the American Psychiatric Association and the National Institute of Mental Health (see the DSM-V fact sheet on AD/HD). 

What was clearly stated by the Ministry of Education was that more students would need access to special education resources: "The determining factor for the provision of special education programs or services is not any specific diagnosed or undiagnosed medical condition, but rather the needs of individual students based on the individual assessment of strengths and needs" (Finlay 2011). This is a shift for some school boards as they had previously required diagnosis of a condition for an IEP. It also requires careful consideration of the assessments and the criteria used to identify student strengths and needs. Here's hoping that the new funding formula for special education funding will help these students!


American Psychiatric Association (2013). "Attention Deficit/ Hyperactivity Disorder." 

Finlay, B.  (2011).  "Categories of Exceptionalities." Memo to Directors of Education. Ontario Ministry of Education: Special Education Policy and Programs Branch.

Gordon, A. (2011). "Students with ADHD have legal right to supports in school." Toronto Star.  January 10, 2012. 

Ministry of Education (2001).  Special Education: A Guide for Educators . Toronto: Queen’s Printer.

Week 3 (May 24, 2014)

The Assignment (Option Two): "Consider a student that has been a behavioural challenge for you. Describe the challenges you faced and how you responded to them. What was most difficult for you? How successful were you in dealing with the problems? What interventions did you try to implement? Reflect back on how you handled the situation and, after considering your readings and course material, what would you have done differently? Feel free to elaborate on any other points you feel are relevant to this topic."

Jon (name changed) entered grade 9 as a teen both formally identified (IEP for ADHD and LD) and "at-risk" of many things: dropping out and not graduating, engaging in self harming behaviours (he was a regular marijuana user and openly flaunted this fact), in trouble with the law, poor parental support, poor attendance, poor literacy skills, increasingly falling behind academically... He would often fluctuate between surly or energized or sleepy or engaged... Jon was a challenge on both an emotional and an academic level. Placed in my ENG 1L (Essential grade 9 English, which is designed for students who are significantly behind in a subject area), it quickly became apparent that Jon was also the leader of the pack - he clearly had the attention of the boys in the room (no girls in this group!) and many would mimic his behaviour.   

Academically, pretty quickly it became apparent that Jon had only a few gaps in his learning - he was able to read and write the materials used in our classroom (his work was often at the grade 7/8 reading level and some grade level appopriate) as long as the assignments were chunked into manageable tasks and he was engaged. This was a huge gain for me; I could place Jon into leadership roles to positively reinforce great behaviour. Additionally, he was the go-to guy for reading out-loud. However, this only worked if his mood was controlled. 

I believe that Jon was an addict, self-medicating his ADHD with cannabis (and likely other drugs) and binge drinking on weekends (and some weeknights). This led to irrational behaviour - he would often have outbursts of anger for a variety of reasons and it was very difficult to ascertain his triggers. I also know that drugs and alcohol were normalized responses to stress and challenge; his parents and friends were also users and enabled his behaviour.  While Mom was supportive of interventions to try and manage his volatility, her frustration with his behaviour often dominated their relationship. Neither listened to the other, neither respected the other. 

We used a school approach to work with Jon; a referral was made (and refused) for drug and alcohol counselling. Our school team attempted to work with Mom and son to put some home plans in place, but lack of consistency undermined much of that work. Most interestingly, Jon was seeking change himself; he really didn't like that he flew off the handle at times. This was a huge benefit - at times, he really wanted to change his behaviour (most often after an incident he would express regret). However, while Jon articulated the idea of change, he was resistant to the help needed to overcome the addiction issues.

In her seminal text, Children with Exceptionalities in Canadian Classrooms, Margaret Winzer notes that:
  • all children exhibit varying behaviours
  • there is no single set of symptoms common to all children who are behaviourally disordered
  • teachers place different demands on students and have different levels of tolerance
  • children’s behaviours change over time
  • behaviour has many functions
  • socio-cultural and related factors play a role
While there are some interventions that are common to modifying behaviour for adolescents with ADHD, the drug and alcohol use made it really difficult to predict Jon's moods and therefore difficult to respond consistently. I found that talking openly about the effects of drugs and alcohol on the teenage brain was a great way to help Jon understand some of what was happening to him. Additionally, I frequently use the "catch 'em being good" idea to positively reinforce acceptable behaviour. This was coupled with positive reinforcement of other students' acceptable behaviour (modelling). Also, readings and discussions in class were tailored to meet the needs of the boys of the room - we did a great unit discussing masculinity in our culture, which was launched with a trip to see a play (supported by Character Ed funding through the school board). Examples of narratives with positive male role models allowed us to examine behaviour in an analytic way. Jon often took a dominant role in class discussions and was quick to compare and contrast varying responses to situations.

In the end, while I wasn't able to get Jon to deal with his addiction issues, our team was able to dramatically reduce the number of suspension and increase his attendance. Jon went from missing 40% of grade 8 to missing less than 10% of grade 9. Academically, I also really wish he had been enrolled in the Applied class as opposed to the Essential credit - I think the gains we made with attitude and attendance did have a positive impact, which I'm not sure would have happened in the Applied class.  Not only did Jon get his grade 9 credit, but he passed the OSSLT on the first try. I actually scribed his EQAO test for him (a horrible experience for me - unable to actually provide the support he was so used to getting!) and was extremely proud of him for this accomplishment. It's often said that students need one adult at school with whom they have a more personal connection - the "trusted adult" is a significant measure of success for many students with IEPs, especially those with behavioural issues.

Winzer, Margaret (2008).  “Chapter 7 - Children with Behavioural Disorders.”  Children with Exceptionalities in Canadian Classrooms.  Eighth Edition.  Toronto: Pearson.

Week 4 (May 31, 2014)

The Assignment: "think about your own teaching and your use of accommodations to support students with Learning Disabilities."

  • What type of accommodations have you used to support students with LDs? Standard accommodations in my school board for secondary students include the following:
    • Instructional responses  
      • changes in presentation / accessible formats: provide audio versions, in large print, reduce number of items per page or line, provide a designated reader, present instructions orally
      • use of technology with specialized programs (speech-to-text, programs to read aloud)
    • Environmental responses
      • setting: provide preferential/strategic seating, special lighting or acoustics, space with minimal distractions 
      • changes to schedules
    • Assessment Responses
      • Timing: Allow frequent breaks, extend allotted time for a test/ assignment, administer a test in several timed sessions or over several days, administer a test at a specific time of day
      • changes in response: allow for verbal responses, use of a scribe, use of a sound recordings/digital technology to capture responses
      • administer a test in small group setting, administer a test in private room or alternative test site, provide on-task/focusing prompts
  • What is the role of the SERT? Resource teachers are busy people in secondary schools! Caseloads are huge and students with LD are expected to self-advocate. SERTs provide support for staff and students. Most importantly, SERTs are advocates for their students. 
  • How are accommodations related to differentiation? In secondary schools, we have classes into which students are sorted (ostensibly by pathway), allowing for easier/more effective  differentiation.  Differentiation encourages teachers to use effective practices that would benefit a number of students; accommodations are required to be implemented for students with IEPs in order for them to learn (and they are legally required).
  • In general, based on your experiences as a teacher and/or student, are students with LDs effectively supported in classrooms? We've seen improvements in our EQAO scores when students with IEPs use the accommodations to support the writing of the test (more so with OSSLT than with math). We're working on getting teachers to use the accommodations regularly in math. Too many teachers choose to ignore many of the recommendations in the IEP; again, this is why the SERT is so important - having an advocate is necessary for students. 

Week 5 (June 8, 2014)

The Assignment (Option 1): "Take some time to investigate the Ministry 'SEAC Learning' website ( and an educational advocacy website. Consider a particular Ontario education issue/program/legislation and write a reflection in your Portfolio from the viewpoint of an educational advocate."

Learning Disabilities Association of Wellington County

"Over the years, LDAWC has offered a range of programs including parent support groups, social skills groups for children and a wide range of educational and advocacy activities. The association currently:
  • publishes four newsletters per year
  • sponsors four public meetings per year with guest speakers on learning disabilities and ADHD
  • provides free information to children, their caregivers, and adults affected by ADHD and learning disabilities
  • is a member of the Special Education Advisory Committee (SEAC) of both the Upper Grand District School Board and the Wellington County Separate School Board to advise on best practices for teaching students with special needs.
  • assists and advocates with parents at Identification, Placement and Review Committee (IPRC) meetings
  • supplies resources containing the latest information about learning disabilities for the Guelph and Wellington County libraries
  • provide a list of tutors and sources for assessment."

In my school board, the Special Education Advisory Committee (SEAC), meets monthly and meetings are open to the public. Minutes from their meetings reveal special concern for a few issues:

  • funding issues -- the local chapter recently lost its funding from the local United Way and is seeking funding from another source
  • use of technology / SEA equipment / equity concerns in a BYOD environment
  • changes to the IEP engine to allow more accommodations to be included (it was previously limited to a drop down menu of 10 items)
  • allocations of staff for special education services

I believe that teachers should act as advocates for students with special needs; it is especially important in this case, as students with learning disabilities make up the majority of the population with IEPs in Canada. The lack of funding for support groups is a serious issue. Many of these groups are the conduit between the school and the school board.  These groups offer workshops and support services for parents and in many cases, help them cope with their sons'/daughters' learning disability. The loss of funding for a local chapter is a serious concern; I can only imagine how difficult it would be to provide support for local families without adequate funding to do so. Many of these chapters are already run on the generosity of parents, so for them to now operate without funds is clearly problematic. From whom / what organization will local parents & guardians now receive guidance on learning disabilities? If a parent doesn't have information from outside sources, how can they advocate for their son or daughter effectively?

Week 6 (June 15, 2014)

The Assignment: "At the beginning of the course you wrote your own “Belief Statement” outlining your views regarding the rights of exceptional students and the relationship of special education to equity and social justice. Thinking back on your experiences as a teacher and/or student and based on what you have learned from this course, do you believe exceptional students are being supported well enough and are receiving the programs and services that they require? How has your thinking changed? What, if anything needs to change? What would you change in your original Belief Statement?"

Given my recent discovery that the local chapter of the Learning Disabilities Association will no longer receive funding (see last week's reflection), I am increasingly understanding the need to help parents and guardians advocate for their children when it comes to special education services. It's already so difficult for parents to discover that their child has needs above and beyond that of their peers, but the lack of support that families might encounter would add insult to injury. Some of the best supports that we, as a system, could provide is to be as helpful as we could possibly be. It's important to help parents and students develop an understanding of the identification, the process, the accommodations, and the ongoing supports that will be available to them. I'm not entirely convinced that we are systematically supporting students who are identified in a manner that is respectful and financially responsible. As an example, some of the comments of colleagues suggest that there is still much learning to happen about special education.

Students need to be taught about their identification and the accommodations. By the time students reach adolescence, self-regulation and self-advocacy should be included as part of the IEP. It's fundamental to their success. I stand by my earlier statements -- teachers need to help students understand their role in our society and the responsibilities they have as citizens within it.  I firmly believe that the Ontario education system plays a key role in helping foster equity in our society by valuing the inclusion of all students in a meaningful education.

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