Special education teachers are a caring lot. They come to the field aiming to improve the lives of exceptional students. Early in this endeavor, many realize what an arduous task they’ve undertaken. Their students face a multitude of limitations. These teachers want to motivate their students. They want to help them overcome. In the process, they make encouraging comments and employ impelling rhetoric. While of noble intent, some of what they say and suggest might be harmful.
All teachers should have a desire to help their students experience success. This desire touches the essence of the profession. Effective teaching is integral to student success, but so is proper motivation. Some learning activities are their own intrinsic motivation, while others require something extrinsic. Many students need more than engaging lessons or tangible rewards to elicit their involvement. Teachers address this by urging students to try and continue trying after setbacks. They attempt to instill confidence. They offer frequent praise, even if the praise is questionably deserved.
Education is rife with rhetoric about students believing in themselves and following their dreams. Teachers routinely tell students anything is possible with enough effort. Statements made in the classroom, posters hanging in hallways, and mantras chanted at school functions all suggest if students have confidence, no obstacle will stop them. If only life worked that way.
The rhetoric has merit, but is often empty. Of course teachers have to encourage students. They have to praise students and stoke their confidence. Not doing so would undermine their mission. Students hear positive messages from childhood and they internalize these. The benefit might vary per student. Fostering overconfidence in special needs students could be problematic.
Praise and positive rhetoric usually isn’t tailored to individuals. More often, teachers use blanket statements. Even statements about specific accomplishments tend to be canned. Teachers automatically give generic praise to reinforce effort and positive behavior. For classroom management, this is understandable and beneficial. However, even when teachers have time to consider their words, they’re usually blindly supportive.
When applied to students with significant limitations, issues might emerge. Immediately, that generous praise can become a crutch. Students might begin to expect rewards for even the most minimal efforts. Greater consequences lurk in the encouragement of students who harbor unrealistic notions about their potential. Consider an 8th grader with a 1st grade reading level who wants to become an attorney. The ambition is admirable, but overcoming the literacy barrier is unlikely. Similarly, consider an 11th grader who can’t write but intends to become teacher, or a 12th grader who is unable to add or subtract but expects to become a game designer. Their aspirations fall outside their probable range. The injustice occurs when teachers allow or even incite these precarious aspirations to develop.
What follows is a common scenario. A student with an IEP goes through middle and high school with a 3rd grade reading level. Throughout school, adults around her have urged her to listen to her heart and not let anyone deny her. She decides she wants to become a cardiologist. Reading assessments put her in the lowest quartile for her age and she has been stagnant since middle school. Psychological tests show her intelligence is well below average. Oddly, she has high grades and makes constant progress according to her IEP. She displays positive student behaviors and her teachers like her. Having always heard college is the answer, she eagerly anticipates enrollment. Crucially, her parents believe she can do this.
Discussion about college begins in middle school. For several consecutive years, her special education teachers smile and nod at this idea during IEP meetings. Transition planning ends up being about keeping the parents happy and putting off tough conversations until later. Planning remains trite and vague. Goals include exploring college programs and researching careers.
Sometime in her junior or senior year, some special education teacher looks at her competencies versus her ambitions and decides to have a frank but responsible discussion about realistic post-secondary options. At the mere suggestion that college might not be the best route, the student is crushed and the parents lose their composure. A lengthy battle with the teacher begins over transition programming. The teacher is cast as a cynic bent on blockading students. The parents become crusaders. The student becomes a victim. Advocates are called, administrators get involved, and in the end the IEP reflects what the parents want to see: their daughter will prepare for college instead of more realistic outcomes.
Schools shouldn’t set limitations on students based on a few numbers. Reading levels and IQ scores might not reflect all a student can do. Teachers can never know how praise might inspire a student to do something unexpected. Likewise, they can’t know how discouraging words might stifle a student. The problem is the lack of specificity and sincerity. Praise and especially encouragement should be grounded in reality. Honest conversations individually tailored to students should start early.
An analogy I used at IEP meetings was to liken a student’s ambitions to me wanting to play in the NBA. I’m 5’5”. No matter how much I train, my prospects are limited. Even if playing on an NBA team is unlikely, I might be able to have some involvement. I could be a sports writer. I could work for a team’s office. I could become a physical trainer. Some parallel and more accessible occupation is out there. Compromise doesn’t mean defeat.
This type of discourse could help students whose sights extend beyond their grasps. It might help their parents as well. Teachers back away from doing this because they don’t want to be naysayers. Discouraging students runs counter to their programming. Fear of parental response to discouragement is also a factor. Teachers must remember that transition is the most important aspect of special education for high school students. It is a time for earnest and possibly difficult conversations with students and parents, especially those with distorted perceptions. Everyone in the field can lessen the potential for conflict by being more responsible with how potential is groomed in students with disabilities.
Conversations about realistic outcomes for students with disabilities can happen without teachers foreclosing on possibilities or deciding themselves what likely outcomes will be. Early and often, all students should know what degree of literacy or numeracy is required in college programs and various vocations. Comparisons should be made using results from student level testing. These results should be transparent for students and their parents. Teachers should obtain and share many scores to provide a composite of abilities within and across school years. Those wishing to go to college should take the PSAT or a similar test and practice reading from sample college texts to gauge readiness. Data should inform clear, ongoing dialogue about options.
Simultaneously, occupations that don’t require college degrees should be presented with dignity. Schools should give less emphasis to the uncommon accomplishments of athletes and performers. Students should be encouraged to learn what people in their communities actually do for a living. They should connect with community services for people with disabilities. Of drastic importance, they should have maximum exposure to financial literacy. Specific student abilities should be celebrated and relevant, appropriate training and vocations should be suggested. All of this should supplant general, recycled rhetoric about reaching for the stars.
Teachers need to praise and encourage. Certainly, students with special needs require ample support. Dedicated teachers want even their most limited students to succeed in school and beyond. With special education students, teachers must encourage judiciously and with customized rhetoric. Honest dialogue regarding post-secondary outcomes should begin early to help develop practical and actionable plans, thus preventing conflict and disappointment later. This truly epitomizes that caring and sensitive nature teachers want to bring to their interactions with students.