I just completed two one-day workshops on “Neurodiversity in the Classroom: A Revolutionary Concept in Special Education,” for educators in the Albany, New York area, March 13-14, 2013. The March 13th workshop was comprised of 200 educators who were part of Capital District Beginnings, a service agency that provides a wide array of special education and therapy services to children in their homes or in one of over 70 different child care centers, preschools and schools including Universal Pre-Kindergartens and Head Start programs. During the workshop, teachers shared many great experiences about working with the strengths of kids with special needs. One teacher, for example, talked about a child who had an emotional/behavioral disorder but loved to draw, so after an emotional meltdown, the teacher would sit and draw with him the events leading up to the disturbance. This helped him gain insight and distance from the experience, and learn better ways of handling the situation in the future.
On March 14th, I worked with 40 educators at a workshop sponsored by the Tinsley Institute (which also co-sponsored the March 13th workshop), a group that engages in professional development, research, program evaluation, and curriculum development in the greater Albany area. They also co-sponsored this event in conjunction with the Capital Area School Development Association (CASDA), which is the school improvement center at the University of Albany. There were also wonderful anecdotes told by teachers at this event. One teacher, for example, talked about a boy with autism who knew absolutely everything there was to know about vacuums. He was fascinated with them, and even served as a consultant to the teacher when she needed a good vacuum for cleaning up dog hair in her home. He found the perfect model for her! As a reward for good work and behavior, he was allowed to help vacuum classrooms with the school custodian!
In both workshops, we talked about the difficulties that students with special needs face in New York state due to the increased emphasis on standardized testing, and the fact that these students will no longer be allowed to graduate with an IEP diploma (i.e. one tailored to their needs), but will have to take the same pencil and paper tests as typically developing students in order to graduate (with minimal accommodations allowed). For kids who need alternative ways of meeting standards (through assistive technologies and Universal Design for Learning tools, alternative texts, hands-on learning, one-to-one attention, and other strength-based approaches), there are few options for them in this scenario, and many of these kids are facing the prospect of not graduating with a diploma, thus hampering their future school and career ambitions.
This is disheartening, considering all of wonderful things that kids with special needs can offer the world if their unique ways of learning and knowing are simply honored and valued. We can still have the same high standards for these students as for typically developing kids, but we need to provide alternative means of learning and demonstrating mastery of the Core Common Standards. I promised that I would write an email to Governor Cuomo to advocate for the needs of these students. Here is the message I sent to him:
Dear Governor Cuomo, I am disheartened on learning that students with special needs will no longer be able to graduate in New York state with an IEP diploma, but must meet the same paper and pencil standardized testing requirements as typically developing students in order to graduate from high school. This is going to be very difficult for most of these kids to achieve. They certainly must be held to the same high academic standards as other students, but because of their diverse ways of learning, they need to be provided with opportunities to express their competencies in core subjects through alternative methods, including assistive technologies, Universal Design for Learning, alternative texts, hands-on demonstrations, project-based learning opportunities, and the use of a portfolio with materials that document their competencies in state standards. I implore you to work toward creating a fair and equitable set of alternative strategies through which students with special needs (e.g. autism, learning disabilities, ADHD, intellectual disabilities etc.) can be allowed to show what they know in terms of their strengths and abilities, rather than having their disabilities and difficulties make it so that the route to graduation and further school and career advancement is closed to them. These kids have many strengths that our culture needs in order to stay vibrant, and we must give them every opportunity to have the same chances for post-secondary education and career advancement as typically developing students who are simply better able to cope with pencil and paper standardized tests.
Yours Truly, Dr. Thomas Armstrong
For participants of the two workshops, and others who would like to view the Neurodiversity Strengths Checklist for discovering strengths in students with special needs, click here. To access all the handout slides, click here.