Oxford University Press's
Academic Insights for the Thinking World

The Friday before school starts

By Alice M. Hammel and Ryan M. Hourigan


While standing at the local superstore watching my children choose their colorful binders and pencils for the upcoming school year, I saw another family at the end of the aisle. Their two sons had great difficulty accessing the space because of the crowd and they were clearly over-stimulated by the sights and sounds of this tax-free weekend shopping day. One boy began crying and the other soon curled into a ball next to the packets of college-lined paper. My daughter, empathic to a fault, leaned down and offered her Blues Clues notebook in an effort to make the boy happier. When we finally walked away, I saw the same pain and embarrassment in the eyes of the parents that I have often seen at parent-teacher conferences and IEP meetings.

For many families, the start of a new school year is exciting and refreshing. The opportunity to see old friends, meet new ones, and the ease of settling into a fall routine can be comforting. For families of students with special needs, however, the start of a school year can be anxious, frustrating, and filled with reminders of the deficits (social and academic) of their children. This dichotomy is clear and present as some children bound off the school bus with their shiny new backpacks hanging from their shoulders, while others are assisted off different buses as their eyes and bodies prepare for what sometimes feels like an assault on their very personhood.

These differences are apparent to parents as well as teachers and administrators at schools. Professionals often ask: “What can we do to be the best teachers for these students?”

Consider what school can mean for students who are different and how to create ways to welcome everyone, according to their needs. Before the school year begins, these longstanding suggestions still resonate as best practices for parents and students:

(1) Contact the student before the school year begins to be sure the student and family are aware that you are genuinely looking forward to working with them and have exciting plans for the school year! Everyone learns differently and wants to be honored for their ability to contribute. In the Eye Illusion not everyone is able to see the changes in the dots as they move around the circle. What you see isn’t better or worse — just different. When we think of students and children in the same way, by removing the stigma of labels and considering the needs of all, we become more of a community and less of a hierarchy.

(2) Be aware of all students in the classes you teach. Know their areas of strength and challenge, and be prepared to adapt teaching strategies to include them. We cannot expect students and children all to be the same. Use a fable to illustrate that everyone has strengths and can become an integral part of the learning experience.

(3) Review teaching practices: modalities, colors, sizes, and pacing. All students enjoy learning through various modalities (visual, aural, kinesthetic), love colors in their classroom, appreciate sizing differences to assist with visual concepts, and can benefit from pacing that is more applicable to them. Find ways to include these practices in an overall approach. Universal design (applied to the classroom) means that all students receive adaptations to enhance their learning experience, and no one is singled out as being different because of the adaptations applied.

(4) Create partnerships with all professionals who work with special needs students. A team approach is a powerful way to include everyone effectively. When we work as a team, everyone benefits and the workload is shared by all. This community of professionals creates a culture of shared responsibility and joy.

(5) Provide a clear line of communication with parents of students with disabilities. Often children cannot come home and tell their parents about events, assignments, announcements, and other important parts of their school day. Parents may not be able to gauge whether their child had a good day or if there are concerns. A journal between teacher and parent(s) can be a comforting and useful tool. This communication may also be done electronically through a secure Google or Yahoo group. Reading Rockets provides other useful tips in this area.

(6) Leave labels out of the conversation when communicating with parents. Parents can be sensitive to their child being known only by their diagnosis. In addition, some parents may be still processing the life change that comes with raising a child with special needs. When entering into a conversation with a parent, focus on your classroom and the needs of the student. If there is a concern, try to put the concern in the most positive light as possible. The Parent-Provider network at Purdue University offers some great tips as well for communicating with parents.

(7) Let parents know of student accomplishments even if they are small. Students with special needs often encounter failure. Parents attend countless meetings that remind them of all the challenges their children face. A note home when something goes well can make all the difference.

(8) Allow the parent and the child to visit prior to the start of school if the child is new. Students who are enrolling in a new program or a new school may have difficulty with this transition. Often this transition can cause anxiety that will hinder a child from seeing school as a comfortable, safe place. Walk them through the routines: where they sit, where materials are, etc. Social stories (short stories written in third person to illustrate an everyday situation) can also be useful in this circumstance. When read prior to beginning school, these stories help them move through their transition.

A culture of acceptance and compassion must permeate our educational institutions. By categorizing, labeling, and noting differences, we are often putting children in boxes that can then, unfortunately, define them for the rest of their lives. Every child wants to be part of the school experience and seeks to participate to the best of his ability. When the class and school culture are created to honor the personhood of every child, and each child is considered valuable to the success of every school experience, all children begin to enjoy the same childhood experiences.

Alice M. Hammel and Ryan M. Hourigan are the authors of Teaching Music to Students with Special Needs: A Label-Free Approach. Alice Hammel teaches for James Madison and Virginia Commonwealth Universities, and has years of experience teaching instrumental and choral music. Ryan Hourigan is Assistant Professor of Music Education at Ball State University and a recipient of the Outstanding University Music Educator Award from the Indiana Music Educators Association. The companion website to Teaching Music to Students with Special Needs provides more resources.

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Image credit: Having fun in a music class. Photo by SolStock, iStockphoto.

Recent Comments

  1. Joyce Uglow

    What a beautifully written piece.

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