Monthly Archives: January 2013

Don’t Let Behavioral Challenges Lower Your Standards

By Dr. J. Ron Nelson

One of the greatest impediments to improving academic instruction for students with behavioral challenges is the fact that teachers tend to focus more attention on behavior management than instruction. The assumption is that instruction cannot occur unless student behavior is under control. The end result is that so much teacher attention is devoted to management of disruptive behavior that instruction is not afforded much time or careful attention by teachers.

Research has shown that teacher attention to management increases relative to the level of disruptive behavior exhibited by students. In other words, the more students exhibit disruptive behavior, the less likely they are to receive instruction from their teachers. Teachers fall into the trap of focusing too much attention on management because students with behavioral challenges are likely to display coercive interaction patterns that lead to lowered curricular demands and limited instruction.

Coercive interaction patterns are thought to develop as follows. Parents unknowingly reinforce their children’s coercive behavior (disruptive behavior used to control the behavior of others) by nagging, scolding, and yelling when their child misbehaves. This behavior initiates a coercive interaction pattern with the child. The child continues to misbehave despite the parent’s threats of punitive measures until the parent eventually reaches an exhaustion point, failing to follow through with threatened punitive measures. Because the parent backs down and fails to discipline the child adequately, children become aware that if they continue to misbehave they can shape parental (and other adult) behavior for their own benefit.

This awareness, developed in the home, is used by students to direct teachers away from instruction. The sequence of teacher instruction followed by student disruptive behavior results in teachers lowering their overall curriculum demands and limiting the amount of instruction they provide to students with challenging behavior. The end result is an overemphasis by teachers on behavior management versus instruction.

If teachers are to improve academic outcomes for students with challenging behavior, they must resist lowering their curricular demands and limiting the amount of instruction they provide to students. Teachers will find that students with challenging behavior respond best to explicit teaching, making it easier to maintain curricular demands and instruction. Students with challenging behavior exhibit more task engagement and less disruptive behavior when teachers use explicit teaching methods.

Explicit instruction is an unambiguous and direct approach to teaching with an emphasis on providing students a clear statement about what is to be learned, proceeding in small steps with concrete and varied examples, checking for student understanding, and achieving active and successful participation of students.


J. Ron Nelson, Ph.D., is an associate research professor and codirector of the Center for At-Risk Children’s Services at the University of Nebraska, Lincoln. Dr. Nelson received the 2000 Distinguished Initial Career Research Award from the Council for Exceptional Children (CEC) and the 1999 Dean’s Award for Excellence in Research from Arizona State University. Dr. Nelson’s instructional programs include: eMeasures for Vocabulary Growth, The Multiple Meaning Vocabulary Program, Early Vocabulary Connections, and Stepping Stones to Literacy. He was also a contributing author to LETRS for Early Childhood Educators.

Categories: Family, Positive School Climate | Leave a comment

What’s So ‘Special’ About Special Education?

By Anne M. Beninghof

What does special education look like to you? Over the past several months I have had the opportunity to ask this question of educators around the country. It usually goes like this …

A group of special education teachers and administrators are seated in a conference room, facing a blank whiteboard. I am standing at the board, dry-erase marker in hand.

Me: What does special education look like? 

Group: (Silence)

Me: If you were to walk into a co-taught classroom, what would you see happening that would indicate special education was occurring? 

Group: (Silence)

Me: Think of it this way. What might the special education teacher be adding to the classroom experience that would be special?

Someone: Maybe a graphic organizer.

Someone else: Maybe working with a small group. 

Group: (Silence)

Imagine if this scenario were to play out in one of your school’s conference rooms? Would it be different? As a special education teacher and consultant, I believe that it is imperative that we are able to describe what special education looks like. If we, as a group of educators, can’t describe it, how can we be sure we are providing it?

Former Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart, when referring to pornography, declined to define it but instead famously said, “I know it when I see it.” I feel this way sometimes about special education. But it is not enough to say, “I know it when I see it.” This too easily becomes a cop-out for providing less than “special” services to students.

The federal definition of special education provides the following guidance:

“Specially designed instruction means adapting, as appropriate to the needs of an eligible child under Part B of the IDEA, the content, methodology, or delivery of instruction to address the unique needs of the child that result from the child’s disability and to ensure access of the child to the general curriculum, so that the child can meet the educational standards within the jurisdiction of the public agency that apply to all children.” (emphasis added)

Does a graphic organizer fit this definition? It might. Does small-group instruction fall under this description? It could. But aren’t these two things fairly common in general education classrooms in the 21st century? What else should we expect to see in a co-taught classroom that would be evidence that special education is taking place? My list would include things like:

  • Detailed task analyses
  • Extensive visual cues
  • Individualized behavior management plans
  • Specific retention and study strategies
  • Intentional, thoughtful use of language for understanding
  • Multiple opportunities for accurate rehearsal
  • Format changes to pre-printed worksheets and tests
  • Tools for focusing attention
  • Adaptive technology
  • Accessible furniture and classroom environments (lighting, sound, layout)

What does special education look like to you? Take some time this year to think about what’s on your list.

Anne M. Beninghof, M.S., an internationally recognized consultant and trainer, has more than 30 years of experience working with students and teachers in a variety of public and private settings. She has been a special education teacher and an adjunct faculty member at the University of Hartford, CT, and the University of Colorado. She has published several books and videos, and has provided staff development in 49 states. Beninghof recently returned to the classroom, where she works part time with teachers and students who are struggling with the learning process. Follow her blog at, or visit her on Facebook or Twitter.

Categories: Family, General Education, Positive School Climate, Special Education | 2 Comments

If I only knew… 5 Reflections on the First Years of Teaching

Guest Teacher Blogger – Winner of the 2012 Sopris Learning Blog Contest!

By Michelle George

I remember vaguely my semester before student teaching. I had recently graduated with a B.A. in English, and had returned to earn my teaching certification. I had figured, “How hard could it be?” I’d substitute taught before  my return to college, and it seemed pretty simple.

That is, until the day I took over my own classroom. That’s about when that “deer in the headlights” look entered my eyes. At that time, I didn’t have an inkling of all the things I didn’t know. Twenty years later, I’m starting to understand the depth of my ignorance. I can easily think of at least five truths I wish I knew back when I had no idea how much I didn’t know.

Number Five: Kids don’t read the books.

I walked into the classroom with the confidence of the newly educated. A college graduate is a lot like a new convert. We are often fervent, confident, and blissfully ignorant. I was sure that all of those bright-eyed students were waiting expectantly for me to fill their yearning minds with newly minted knowledge.

Unfortunately, those yearning cherubs didn’t take any of those college classes and had no innate desire to soak up the knowledge I had ready for them. I remember my perfectly designed lesson plan on symbols. While it worked with many of the kids, I had no plan for the kid in the back who came to school mad and tired and yearning for a lot of things that were not in my lesson plan. It was tough for me to realize that my students aren’t always ready to learn.

Number Four: Research really matters.

Even though some kids aren’t in tune with the latest trends in education, research-based strategies are worth investigating. The key is to look for the meta-research: the analyses that look at several large studies and reveal consistent positive results for specific teaching strategies.

It isn’t enough to say that a veteran teacher has been diagramming sentences for 30 years. Just because it was good enough for our parents doesn’t mean it’s good teaching. Reading current literature and taking classes is a good way to learn what data has shown to be successful with the majority of students. Best practices can help us use our class time to the greatest effect for the largest number of students. 

Number Three: What you say matters.

I have a colleague who is adamant that sarcasm builds rapport with students. “They love it,” she often says. Some kids may, but others might carry the sting of your words with them for years. I recently talked to an adult friend of mine who still tears up when she recalls a casual critique of her creative ability by a respected teacher. Twenty years later, and she is still mortified. Even though we are “just teachers,” what we say can have lasting effects on our students. I consider that both exciting and terrifying.

Number Two: What you think matters.

Even more convincing is the research discussed by Marzano and others concerning teacher expectations. Coined as the “Pygmalion effect,” telling teachers that some students were more “gifted” than others changed teacher behavior and consequently changed student success. Henry Ford wasn’t kidding when he said, “Whether you think you can or think you can’t … you’re right.” The key is truly believing that every student in your classroom is capable of remarkable things.

Number One: Every child is, or should be, somebody’s most precious child.

It was probably my fourth year teaching before I finally discovered this most important truth. I was nearly through the first night of parent/teacher conferences when a tall, reserved gentleman came into my room. He quietly sat down and introduced himself as Cindy’s dad.

Cindy was one of those shy, obedient students who sat in the back of the class and never made much noise. She wasn’t a stellar student, and she wasn’t a problem child. It was easy to miss when she was absent, as she demanded so little attention. That is exactly what made her father’s visit so poignant. To him, Cindy was the light of the world. She was his most precious person, and he expected the same attention for her from me. And he was right. She deserved that attention. Every child in your classroom is someone’s most precious child. It’s important when we are harried and hurried by the loudest and the brightest to remember just that.

So now, 20 years later, I can reflect on what I have learned and be grateful for the children and the mentors who have shared their wisdom with me. I’m even more intrepid to discover what more I don’t yet know in the years to come.

Michelle S. George is a language arts middle school teacher in Orofino, Idaho. She has a B.A. in English and secondary certification in English, reading, and journalism. Michelle has been teaching seventh and eighth grade for 20 years, and still loves going to school—as a teacher and a student. She has published a variety of lesson plans and written several award-winning grants.

Categories: General Education | 2 Comments

Who Wrote the Book of Love for Teens with Asperger’s?

By Dr. Steven Richfield

Opposite-sex relationships among older teens with Asperger’s syndrome present both opportunities for growth and areas of special challenge. Parents experience understandable concern about how events will unfold considering the complexities involved.

The use of social media, potential for near-constant contact through texting, and implications of physical affection raise parental angst and teenage expectation. But there are ways to provide sensitive navigational assistance to adolescents with Asperger’s.

Unabashed directness about the details of relationships plants the seeds for teens with Asperger’s to discuss issues with openness. When parents model a comfortable attitude when addressing kissing, mutual dependency, possessiveness, sex, and other awkward topics, the adolescent will find it easier to do the same. Use opportunities when watching TV and movies to label various dating behaviors. Expand upon the themes portrayed by asking questions and offering information that may lead to their questions.

Keep in mind that teens are likely unaware of what they don’t know, and therefore don’t know what questions to ask. By explaining how, as with most things in life, there is much to learn about dating, the discussion can flow like an educational exercise rather than a judgmental one.

Emphasize the importance of building a “firm friendship foundation” that can support the heavy emotions that can be triggered within opposite-sex relationships. Provide a specific timetable, such as a few months, for such a foundation to build and give examples of how opportunities to display trust and reliability are all part of that period. Following through on plans, showing kindness, expressing interest, and positively dealing with disappointment are some of the “foundation tests” upon which to elaborate.

Pinpoint the pitfalls to watch out for, especially as they relate to Asperger’s syndrome. The tendency to become overly preoccupied, misunderstand meanings, and jump to negative conclusions can easily be triggered within the emotionally charged interactions of dating. Reassure the teen that, by being on watch for these developments, he or she can prevent them from causing unnecessary pain or disappointment. Emphasize the need to suspend a reaction when these or other dating challenges are activated.

Stress the need for teens with Asperger’s to select a “dating coach,” preferably a parent, whom they are willing to turn to in order to review relevant details within their relationship. Explain that the purpose is to ensure that circumstances remain on an emotionally healthy and socially appropriate course. Use these discussions to deepen the teen’s knowledge about the importance of balance, role of give-and-take, degrees of self-disclosure, and levels of trust and intimacy. Tie these factors to situations that arise so that the teen develops his or her own relationship compass.


Dr. Steven Richfield is an author and psychologist in Plymouth Meeting, PA. He has developed a child-friendly, self-control/social skills-building program called Parent Coaching Cards. He can be contacted at or 610-238-4450. To learn more, visit

Categories: Family, Positive School Climate | 1 Comment

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