It Takes a Village

NOTE: October is Down Syndrome Awareness Month

Courtney Hansen holding her two boys on their front porch.

Courtney with her twin sons on their first day of kindergarten in a new state. The boys play t-ball together, love Super Why, biking to the park, and are in the same kindergarten class.

A guest blog by Courtney Hansen. Courtney is a non-attorney special education advocate. She advocates at the local, state, and national level for disability rights, and blogs about it at www.inclusionevolution.com


My son with Down syndrome and his typically-developing twin brother just started kindergarten. The military also just moved us across country this past summer.

There’s been a lot of change this year, and I was often overwhelmed by the idea of my first-born twins starting “real” school in a new state. I cried like a baby their first day of school, but they just marched off to school like they owned the place. I was amazed, but realized that it was the result of years of preparation and help from so many different people. Having a son with a disability has shown me the value of “the village.”

About two years ago, I really started investigating the idea of a fully inclusive education for my son with Down syndrome. I even blogged about my ultimate goal: my twins graduating together in the year 2031.

For most other sets of twins graduating together wouldn’t be a goal, because it would just happen automatically. With lower graduation rates for students with disabilities compared to non-disabled students, and even lower rates for student with intellectual disabilities, I knew our path would be hard fought. It all starts in kindergarten of course. So, I worked tirelessly over the past two years to get where we are today. Both Hunter and Troy are in the same class, and Troy is 100 percent included with his typical peers with the appropriate supports to be successful.

Too many kindergarteners with intellectual disabilities don’t have the same opportunity as my son, even though federal and state laws require the continuum of placement to start in general education with appropriate supports. You might ask how I successfully got him included 100 percent of the time and if he really is being successful. I will tell you it all starts with the village, as well as learning you and your child’s rights.

1. Find Your Tribe

Social media can be a blessing and a curse, but for parents of children with disabilities it’s often an awakening.

Getting plugged into the Down syndrome community via social media helped me realize what is possible.

Even though we’ve lived in three states since our twins were born, I’ve been able to make friends in each state and around the country who have shaped my perspective on what it means to live and thrive with an intellectual disability.

Can my son go to college? Of course, because I just talked to Beth whose son with Down syndrome is moving across country to attend George Mason University.

Can Troy really find a meaningful career? Yes! Elizabeth’s son just got another promotion at Kroger.

These friends have pushed me to set high expectations for my son.

2. Lean on Experts

No doubt about it, you are the expert of your child.

When he was little you were up in the middle of the night with his croupy cough, and you’ll be there when he ages out of the system.

Still, we can learn so much from doctors, therapists, counselors, and teachers.

I’ve always taken a hands-on approach to my son’s endless therapy sessions and education.

I always set some of the private therapy and individualized education program (IEP) goals. In return, many doctors, therapists, and teacher have taken the time to really educate me on best practices in my son’s areas of need and given me functional tips to help my son at home.

3. Start Advocating

I started advocating early ensuring my son would receive an inclusive education with proper supports. I attended conferences and special education trainings to learn my son’s educational rights.

You can start local with school board meetings and school superintendents. Request training for teachers in best practices like Universal Design for Learning and Multi-Tiered System of Supports.

At the state level, I advocated for a bill that is now law in Ohio to end organ transplant discrimination for people with disabilities. Many disability organizations provide opportunities to advocate nationally either over social media or in person.

I attended the Buddy Walk on Washington, and had the opportunity to ask my U.S. Senators and House of Representatives to preserve important health care protections for people with disabilities and better fund IDEA. Positive change starts with you and me. So get out there; our children’s futures depend on it!

4. Take a Break

Most parents of children with disabilities are the most tenacious, hard-hitters I’ve ever met, but this heightened existence of higher highs and lower lows can take their toll on Type-A personalities like me.

I have to make a conscious effort to lean on friends and family outside of the disability community.

The military affords our family respite hours every month, and I use every last minute. The only way I can be a superhero for my son is if I take care of myself.

Parenting a child with a disability is a marathon, not a sprint.

Even with the strong start my son has, I know we will hit many bumps in the road.

Will I know when his needs aren’t being met? How will I ensure he’s included, but also gets the support he needs for a successful future?

My best answer is to lean on my village. I wish more people would embrace their “village.” Our children, community, and country would be better for it!

Courtney's two boys

Troy and Hunter


Blog articles provide insights on the activities of schools, programs, grantees, and other education stakeholders to promote continuing discussion of educational innovation and reform. Articles do not endorse any educational product, service, curriculum or pedagogy.

I REALLY Love My Life!

Rachel Mast posing on the floor

NOTE: October is Down Syndrome Awareness Month

I am Rachel Mast. I am 19 years old. I really love my life.

I have a great life, and I love telling people how great my life is.

I was born in Memphis. In third grade, my family moved to Olathe, Kansas.

I love lots of things about my life. I love my church. I love my school.  I love my family. I love dancing, acting, and singing. One of the best things about my life is my friends.

I graduated from Olathe South High School in May. Just like my friends, I got a diploma. I loved my school. I was on student council, and was the volleyball manager for four years. In ninth grade, I was on the Winter Court. I was the Prom Princess. I was in National Honor Society and on the honor roll.

Rachel Mast on stage as Strato in “Julius Caesar”

Rachel Mast on stage as Strato in “Julius Caesar”

I took general education classes with my friends. My favorite classes were my theatre classes. Even though it was hard, I learned Shakespearean monologues. It is hard for me to memorize, but I worked very hard and did a great job. One of my best high school memories was being Strato in “Julius Caesar.” I am a member of my school’s thespian troupe. I have my name on a brick at my school.

I liked all my classes, but I don’t like math very much. Math is hard for me. I really like English. My favorite book was “Romeo and Juliet,” but I didn’t really like Frankenstein.” I worked very hard in my classes, so I could make good grades and go to college.

I really liked my parenting class. We pretended we were going to have a baby—that was funny. I had to bring a baby home and I named her Sarah Nicole. She cried three times during dinner. I decided I do not want children.

My senior year, I worked in the attendance office and the counseling office. It was so much fun. I took passes to people and greeted people. They told me my smile made everyone happy. I just got a job as a hostess at the Olive Garden. It is kind of like what I did in the school office.

One of the best things I remember in high school was scoring a touchdown at the powder puff football game. During homecoming weekend, the junior and senior girls always play a powder puff game. My friends helped me out and, when I got the ball, I scored a touchdown. It made me have happy tears.

I love my friends very much. My volleyball friends called me the #bestmanagerever. I gave them pep talks. My theatre friends helped me to know when to do things on stage. They helped me when I was on the crew for the “Addams Family.” I love them very much. My friends from church are the best. We go to church camp together. We went on mission trips. We had fun. I miss them very much. We still pray for each other.

Theatre is my life. I have been in 22 plays. My favorite was “Hairspray” because I love to dance and sing.

I have the same dreams as my friends. I want to go to college. In January, I am going to start as a student at Missouri State University. I will be in the first Bear POWER class. I am so excited to live in the dorm, take theatre classes, and make friends. Some of my friends go there, too!

I also travel to Washington, D.C., and to the Kansas state capitol building in Topeka to talk about laws that will help people with Down syndrome. I even got to testify in Topeka. I helped to pass the Achieving a Better Life Experience (ABLE) Act. I was the first person to open an ABLE account in Kansas. U.S. Senator for Kansas, Jerry Moran, says that I am “the best lobbyist in Washington, D.C.”

When I started going to Washington, D.C., I told them to support the ABLE Act so I could live in a pink house. My dream is to move to New York City, be on Broadway, get married, and live in a pink house.

Did I mention I have Down syndrome? I have Down syndrome, but I am not Down syndrome. I am Rachel. I have dreams. I REALLY love my life.

Rachel, now an Olathe South High School Graduate


Blog articles provide insights on the activities of schools, programs, grantees, and other education stakeholders to promote continuing discussion of educational innovation and reform. Articles do not endorse any educational product, service, curriculum or pedagogy.

Rachel Mast thumbnail image
Posted by
Olathe South High School Graduate and future Missouri State University student

High Achievement Requires High Expectations: My Family’s Story

Candice Crissinger and children

Candice Crissinger and children

Note: October is Learning Disabilities/Dyslexia/Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) Awareness Month


“High achievement always takes place in the framework of high expectation.”

Charles Kettering, American inventor, engineer and businessman.


As parents, we all want to see our children reach their full potential. Our visions of their successes and accomplishments may vary, but we all yearn to guide our children to greatness. How do we set them up to fulfill their potential? What foundations are we building for them? What roadmaps can we provide to help them navigate on their journey?

I am the proud mother of three terrific children (Biased? Yes!). While each of them is unique and inspiring in their own abilities and qualities, my sons have some very distinct similarities.

In the early school years, both began showing similar behaviors: high impulsivity, defiance, acting out, disruption, the inability to follow direction and under-developed social skills.

Both were bright and strong willed and insisted on doing things their own way in their own time.

Both were identified by educators as “challenging and difficult” and by peers as a “bad kid.”

They were both evaluated at five years old, 10 years apart. That’s where the similarities ended.

Let’s start with my older son’s journey.

In 2007, at age five, he was diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), pervasive development disorder otherwise non specified (PDD-NOS) and anxiety. His individualized education program (IEP) team, despite all good intent, viewed my son through a deficiency lens. We let the troublesome behavior take the driver’s seat. His aptitude for learning did not seem to align with his behaviors. The behaviors escalated. The suspensions began. His progress regressed, and his growth stalled. We changed schools often. Even though we began as advocates, we soon became adversaries in IEP meetings.

On the other hand, my youngest son has had a very different experience. At age five, he was diagnosed with anxiety and showed a high likelihood of having ADHD. He was also identified as gifted. We worked closely with his school to find a teacher who was a good fit and we collaborated with the occupational therapist, the talented and gifted team, and the area education team, just to name a few.

We first took a close look at youngest son’s evaluation and began the work of identifying supports and developing a plan for acceleration. His problem behaviors were seen in the context of his aptitude and understood as a part of his development as a twice-exceptional student. His IEP centers around his strengths. And yet, we have only just begun to build the foundation of his future achievements. There is still far to go.

If you ask me, the major difference between my two children is in the way that we view them. After all, children with learning and attention issues have a unique set of challenges, and my children are not alone.

Children with learning and attention issues make up 1 in 5 students in our nation’s public schools.

Kids with learning and attention issues account for two-thirds of the children with IEPs who are suspended or expelled. They are 31 percent more likely to be bullied than kids without disabilities. They are three times as likely to drop out of high school as kids without disabilities, and half of all kids with learning disabilities are involved in the juvenile justice system by young adulthood.

These numbers could describe my oldest son, and that is alarming for me.

What drives these numbers? And what can be done?

We must set high standards and expectations for our kids. We must encourage and support our kids to meet the same expectations as their peers, and make sure they are engaged and feel a sense of ownership of their learning. We must encourage our students to view a wrong answer as a learning opportunity, rather than a shortcoming.

We expect insight and reflection to instill a lifelong journey of learning. Our expectations should likewise remain lofty.

When we have low expectations of our students, we allow for minimal effort. Student engagement, self-advocacy and achievement will most definitely stall when the bar is set too low. Self-esteem and gaining a sense of confidence in one’s abilities are lifelong benefits with roots in meeting high expectations.

We can make high expectations real for so many more kids if we focus on their strengths. Using strengths as a framework for educational support and structure will allow for children to use their natural abilities and talents to reach their highest potential.

Across the country, school districts are taking a new approach with Strengths Based IEPs. The move to this type of IEP will certainly require greater professional development for educators in each district. Parents can go to school board meetings and demonstrate their value, but there are great resources for anyone who wants to begin this process within your school or community.

Using a strengths-based approach made an incredible, positive difference for my younger son. Setting high expectations and focusing on strengths allows parents and educators to view our students through a mindset of competence and high achievement. The tools are available and my family has seen the impact firsthand. So let us begin the work to build the foundations of an exceptional educational experience for every child!


Blog articles provide insights on the activities of schools, programs, grantees, and other education stakeholders to promote continuing discussion of educational innovation and reform. Articles do not endorse any educational product, service, curriculum or pedagogy.

Candice Crissinger
Posted by
Understood Parent Fellow with the National Center for Learning Disabilities. Medical Assistant in Pediatric Specialties, University of Iowa.

Time to Head Back to School and to Rethink Education

Johnny Collett and Kim Richey met with special educators and teachers at Hiawatha’s Essex Westford. Kim Richey chats with a student at Strong Foundations Charter School Kim Richey observed individualization strategies at work at Hugh Cole Elementary School. Johnny Collett and Kim Richey with students from Baxter Academy for Science and Technology Johnny Collett and Kim Richey meeting with teachers at the Baxter Academy for Technology and Science Johnny Collett and Kim Richey observe a lesson at Birch Meadow Elementary of Reading Public Schools Johnny Collett and Kim Richey visiting a classroom at Hanover Elementary School at Meriden Public Schools. Johnny Collett and Kim Richey participate in a round table discussion at St. Johnsbury Academy. Johnny Collett sat with children at Little One’s University. Johnny Collett and Kim Richey meeting with teachers, administrators, a parent and a board member at St. George Municipal School Unit. Group picture from the visit RSEC Academy in New Hampshire.

By Johnny Collett, OSERS Assistant Secretary


OSERS Deputy Assistant Secretary Kim Richey and I spent the week of September 10 traveling as part of the U.S. Department of Education’s 2018 Back-to-School Tour. During the week, ED leaders toured the country to get a closer, first-hand look at how schools are meeting the unique needs of students.

Kim and I spent the week in New England visiting traditional public, private/independent, and public charter schools to meet students and educators and to learn how these schools provide supports and services to students with disabilities.

We were encouraged by how these schools are rethinking education to ensure nothing limits their students from being prepared for what comes next in life―whether it is continuing their education, transitioning to a work environment, both, or whatever is their next right step.

We heard from diverse education stakeholders at each school. They provided us with great information, and it was incredibly helpful to benefit from their unique perspectives and experiences. We were reminded again, that those closest to the child really do know best about their education, and that the best ideas and innovations to ensure the success of children come from them, and not from Washington.

Day 1: Maine

First, we visited Maine’s St. George Municipal School Unit and the Baxter Academy for Technology and Science. They knew that science, technology, engineering, arts and math (STEAM) initiatives could help their schools better meet the needs of all children.

St. George Municipal School Unit, a public kindergarten through eighth grade school, has employed a “makerspace” for students to experience both high-tech and low-tech tools to learn, explore and share the world around them and turn their imaginations into tangible creations.

The Baxter Academy for Technology and Science, a public charter high school, exposes students to science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) career fields and professionals while still offering students a strong humanities curriculum to cultivate well-rounded individuals and passionate, self-directed learners.

STEAM and STEM activities at these two schools help support students with disabilities build confidence in their own abilities, be introduced to technical skills that they can apply to future career endeavors, and explore possibilities that may not have been available to them if schools did not challenge themselves to rethink how they best serve students with disabilities.

St. George Municipal School Unit and the Baxter Academy are preparing America’s students for professions not yet imagined.

Day 2: New Hampshire

We visited the Regional Services and Education Center (RSEC) and the Strong Foundation Charter School in New Hampshire Tuesday. These schools know that a one-size-fits-all or one-size-fits-most approach to educating students does not work.

The RSEC Academy’s middle and high schools specialize in the education of sixth through 12th graders with learning disabilities as well as other social, emotional and behavioral needs. RSEC Academy prepares students to transition from middle school to high school to graduation and beyond by ensuring students have access to educators and staff trained to support individual student needs. We had the opportunity to speak to students, faculty (including their Positive Approach to Learning Disabilities team), and alumni. Each person had a unique story to share, which helped to further emphasize the importance of individualized decision-making related to students’ needs.

The next school we visited in New Hampshire was the Strong Foundations Charter School, a first through eighth grade school whose history highlights the importance for families to choose a learning environment that works best for their student. Founded as a public charter school, Strong Foundations formed in order to provide comprehensive reading instruction to all students and improve student literacy and reading outcomes. New Hampshire Education Commissioner Frank Edelblut joined us as we observed students taking part in structured reading lessons and when we met with teachers, special educators, the school’s principal and board members.

Day 3: Vermont

We had the opportunity to visit traditional public schools, as well as private schools to see how Vermont’s public and private schools’ partnerships are helping to ensure students have opportunities in a variety of school settings.

We started at Essex Westford School District’s Hiawatha Elementary, a pre-K through third grade public school. We participated in the students’ morning routine including their interactive classroom meeting before observing direct instruction with a student using augmentative and alternative communication. Hiawatha demonstrated the importance of a customized learning experience to improve outcomes for all students. Through our interactions, observations and discussions with the Hiawatha community, we witnessed what is possible when schools work to empower students, give them their own voice and way of communicating, and support individual needs.

We followed our visit to Hiawatha Elementary with a tour of Vermont’s Little One’s University, a private preschool that has partnered with its local school district, Essex Westford. Their focus on early childhood education showed how providing early learners, including young learners with disabilities, with the proper educational foundation can set them on a path for success. As part of a private/public partnership, we toured the school and interacted with preschool learners in an inclusive setting with and without disabilities. We were thrilled to have Vermont’s Secretary of Education Daniel M. French join us as we met with a diverse group of stakeholders that included parents, teachers, special education directors and school administrators.

While in Vermont, we also visited the St. Johnsbury Academy, an independent coed day and boarding school that, in partnership with public schools, provides public school students with an education that best meets their individual needs. The academy offers a variety of educational experiences such as bio-medical and health services certificate, culinary arts, fashion design, and pre-university engineering and robotics. The academy also has on-site adult education courses, including training certificate programs, through a partnership with Vermont Technical College and the Vermont Department of Labor. We met with parents and students to hear why they chose an independent school, and we spoke with representatives from local education agencies in Vermont regarding the public/private partnerships with St. Johnsbury Academy. The insight provided by these parents, students, educators and LEAs offered valuable information on the importance of educational options for students with disabilities and their families.

Vermont offered us a wonderful opportunity for a listening session with administrators, educators, families, students and other special education stakeholders to discuss what excites them and what challenges them about the education of students with disabilities. It was evident that each person was committed to high expectations and improved outcomes for people with disabilities.

Day 4: Connecticut

We spent Thursday morning at the Meriden Public Schools system in Connecticut. Meriden Public Schools offered us a view of services and supports from early childhood education through post-secondary activities.

At Meriden’s Hanover Elementary School we saw the early learning wing, discussed ways they support students with disabilities, and visited their inclusive playground.

We also had the opportunity to hear presentations from students and learn more about Platt High School’s college and career readiness initiatives, which include working with select ninth grade students requiring additional support of the basis of grades, attendance or behaviors to plan their paths for success as a way of helping them set and achieve goals.

In addition to Meriden’s high school initiatives, we learned about their school’s Community Classroom Collaborative (CCC), a community based program that serves student with vary disabilities ages 18 through 21 in an age appropriate and natural environment, and the Success Academy, a program that provides individualized support and student-centered options for students in the district as they work toward their goal of graduating to receive a high school diploma . We learned how they chose to implement these programs, heard the reasoning behind establishing these programs, and listened to success stories of equipping students with the tools they need for the future. Programs like those in Meriden show there are many avenues for students to find success.

The district’s focus on the individual helps to prepare students for success, no matter what that version of success might look like.

Day 4: Rhode Island

We visited Rhode Island’s Hugh Cole Elementary school Thursday afternoon. This public elementary school uses data-based individualization within a multi-tiered system of support framework to meet particular intervention needs of its students. While at Hugh Cole Elementary, we observed their individualization strategies, heard about the school’s teacher development/support efforts throughout the years, and how the school makes its practices sustainable and replicable.

Day 5: Massachusetts

Our New England Back to School Tour concluded Friday in Massachusetts. The Reading Public School District showed how their district works with students with disabilities from early childhood through high school.

We had the opportunity to meet with staff from their Respect, Inclusion, Safety, Effort (RISE) Preschool, which emphasizes the needs of individual students. About half of RISE Preschool’s classroom students receive extra support to help them grow and develop based on their needs.

At the elementary school level, we observed co-teaching in kindergarten and fourth grade classrooms in Reading’s Birch Meadow Elementary School. We also spent time at Reading Memorial High School to round out the full picture of the supports and services provided to the district’s students with disabilities. Throughout the day, discussions with various staff including teachers, administrators, the district’s data and behavioral health coaches, and students demonstrated what it looks like when a district thinks holistically about the education of students with disabilities.

Rethink school. Question everything. Challenge the status quo.

Kim and I traveled to six states in five days and loved the opportunity to visit schools and meet many new people who are committed to doing what is right for each student. Students, parents and school personnel were eager to share their programs and stories with us. What we saw at the schools excites us about the possibilities of what can happen when people challenge the status quo of special education.

This week’s Back-to-School Tour further demonstrated that we must collectively continue to have the courage and perseverance necessary to make needed changes to our systems at the federal, state, and local levels if we are to achieve the goals that we, and most importantly the individuals we serve, envision.

Systems change is not easy, does not happen quickly and is not accomplished by a few. However, it’s worth it because at the heart of the system are the individuals we serve and their futures. The work is too important, the need is too urgent, and the stakes are too high for us to settle for anything less than whatever it takes to deliver on the promises made to students and families.

I’ve been asking people to join me in rethinking special education and in asking difficult questions that challenge the status quo of special education in our country. “Tinkering around the edges” is not going to get us to the goals that we envision.

I look forward to future visits to other states to see and highlight important work being done by states and schools to raise expectations and improve outcomes for children with disabilities.

Posted by
Assistant Secretary Office of Special Education and Rehabilitative Services U.S. Department of Education

Rethinking Special Education

Douglas, an 11-year-old 6th grader from Massachusetts, has dyslexia and Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). He struggled in school from kindergarten through 4th grade, feeling frustrated in a learning environment that did not meet his individual needs and caused him to question his ability to succeed.

Douglas recently wrote President Trump and asked, “How can you as our president help kids like me get the right tools so they don’t get left behind?”

I met with Douglas and his parents on behalf of the president and the U.S. Department of Education this spring when his family visited Washington. We discussed his previous struggles and frustrations as well as his parents’ determination to get Douglas the help he needed to succeed in school.

We must rethink special education in America for students like Douglas. “Rethink” means everyone questions everything to ensure nothing limits any student from being prepared for what comes next. That begins with acknowledging the unique needs of each child and then finding the best ways to prepare each individual for successful careers and a meaningful life.

As a former high school special education teacher and state special education director, I have learned that delivering on the promises we have made to children and parents will not be achieved by merely tinkering around the edges.

Rethinking special education will require an unwavering commitment to address barriers that stand in the way of improving opportunities and outcomes for each child, and to make needed changes at the federal, state, and local levels. We must be willing to confront anything that does not facilitate needed improvement. That includes structures that limit opportunities for children with disabilities; practices that put the needs of “the system” over the individual needs of a child; policies that, no matter how well-intentioned, do not have the impact of improving outcomes for students; or laws and regulations that constrain innovation. We cannot ignore the challenges that students, parents, teachers and schools face.

Any policy that could deny education services to a student who needs them would be a failed policy. So we must root out anything that separates students from the individualized education they deserve.

The Office of Special Education and Rehabilitative Services is committed to confronting these—and any other issues—that stand in the way of a child’s success. We will partner with parents and families, individuals with disabilities—anyone and everyone who is focused on raising expectations and improving outcomes for individuals with disabilities.

This commitment means acknowledging that states, school districts, and parents know the needs of their students better than we do. Our goal is to provide them with as much flexibility and support as possible so that they can ensure their students’ needs are being met.

Douglas’ parents told me it wasn’t until Douglas was tested, properly diagnosed, and enrolled in a school that understood his unique traits and addressed his needs that things began to get better for him. In a different school, Douglas told me he feels comfortable and confident. He said, “I’m getting the right tools I need and learning how my brain works.”

Every student deserves the same opportunity and the same individualized attention that Douglas has. To be sure, this is and will continue to be hard work. However, it’s not just about working hard. It’s about working differently and more collaboratively, because meaningful and effective collaboration with all those who have a stake in the success of individuals with disabilities is critical to improving the outcomes that we envision.

The changes we need won’t happen overnight or only through the commitment of a few; but the work is worth it, because at the heart of all our efforts are the individuals we serve and their futures.

It is unacceptable for us to watch another generation of kids fail to achieve the outcomes they could have achieved just because the adults around them would not commit to solving difficult issues. We must demonstrate the courage and persistence necessary to achieve the goals that we, and most importantly the individuals we serve, envision.

No two children are the same, so no two children’s learning experiences should look the same. A personalized, student-centered education empowers students with disabilities and gives them the hope of living successful, independent lives, while a one-size-fits-all approach to education only limits students’ potential. Each child’s education should embrace his or her diverse traits and aspirations.

As we start this school year, I ask you to join me in rethinking special education in our country. While we all have a stake in the success of children with disabilities, no one has more of a stake in their success than they do.

The work is too important, the need is too urgent, and the stakes are too high for us to settle for anything less than whatever it takes to deliver on the promises we have made to children and families in our country.


 

Posted by
Assistant Secretary Office of Special Education and Rehabilitative Services United States Department of Education

The Many Roads to Becoming a Spelling Bee Champion

Aren participating in the Scripps National Spelling Bee.

Aren participating in the Scripps National Spelling Bee.

At age 13, our son Aren can’t cross the street by himself, or eat without dropping food all over the floor. He struggles with reading and has difficulty following simple instructions. He also has a speech impairment called cluttering that often makes his speech incomprehensible to others. On top of this, he is hyperactive and needs to burn off his immense energy frequently throughout the day.

I could write pages about Aren’s many challenges and our struggles with figuring out how to work with them. As Aren’s parents, the journey has not been easy. On the other hand, Aren constantly surprises and humbles us with what he can achieve. Early on, we decided that our mission as parents was not to focus on his disabilities. We would not dwell on or be limited by the things he couldn’t do. Rather, we agreed to seek out and develop Aren’s unique strengths while scaffolding his weaknesses in a way he could understand and embrace. We vowed to be open to exploring his talents, even where he started out with marked deficits.

To accomplish this, we decided to pursue some homeschooling so Aren could work on both his strengths and challenges at his own pace. Later, we enrolled at Connecting Waters Charter School. Here, his teachers, principal, special education occupational therapist, speech therapist, and reading tutor each provide him with invaluable individualized support and guidance. Instead of subjecting him to traditional classroom instruction, which he would likely have tuned out, we chose the path of closeguided training. The results have been remarkable. Aren has developed incredible visualization, drawing, mental math, and creative skills. He particularly loves drawing complex freeway interchanges that would make a commuter faint. Remarkably, his drawing is effortless, and he often does it while in conversation.

Aren's intricate drawing of a highway interchange.

Aren’s drawing of a highway interchange.

When Aren was 9, my wife (staying true to being open to possibility) asked Aren if he’d like to compete in his school Spelling Bee. To be frank, my wife thought that a kid who didn’t read until just a year prior would not be interested in participating. To my wife’s surprise (and perhaps horror), he said yes. We later found out that he didn’t know what a spelling bee was; he just wanted to see what freeways we would drive to the competition. As a “human GPS,” he desperately needed to input I-580 to I-205 to Highway 120 to 99 to his system!

We were worried that Aren might be disruptive at the Spelling Bee and would not be able to sit still. But he surprised us—he put in diligent effort, was able to sit still and write legibly, and won! This victory left us both shocked and extremely proud. We were even more proud that he was able to follow through with the rules of the competition. Aren went on to represent his school in the county-level competition, where he came in 5th place! Once again, I was completely and utterly floored, and of course glowing with pride!

This was one of many humbling moments when I learned from my son that it doesn’t matter where your starting line is.

Aren continued to showcase his strength, winning, in total, four school bees and three county competitions. Later, at age 12, he even won the California State Junior High Spelling Bee! This child who could barely read 4 years prior had somehow spelled his way to the top of his state. Aren became so enamored of spelling that he dreamed of competing in the Scripps National Spelling Bee in Washington, D.C. This dream seemed impossible for our kid with a speech impairment, attention issues, and a reading disability. But yet again, Aren proved himself right, and proved us wrong. He tied for 42nd place at Scripps…out of 11 million. He had fantastic support and many people cheering him on. His school’s CEO even cut her vacation short to come watch Aren compete live.

Today, Aren is a happy, healthy, and energetic 13-year-old, brimming with enthusiasm on subjects as diverse as cars, chemistry, and mathematics. He is ahead of peer expectation in math and English. With strong parental involvement and support from our school’s special education department, he has come a long way in areas such as visual tracking and social interaction. His drawing skills and math talents continue to progress on his own volition. We are so excited to witness Aren’s future, his unique contributions to society, and the help and inspiration he can give to others.

Never give up, no matter where you are.


Blog articles provide insights on the activities of schools, programs, grantees, and other education stakeholders to promote continuing discussion of educational innovation and reform. Articles do not endorse any educational product, service, curriculum or pedagogy.

Improving Early Childhood Intervention

Note: May is Better Hearing and Speech Month.

The Early Childhood Personnel Center (ECPC) logo

Infancy and early childhood are important times of life for all children, but more so for those who have delays in development. These delays may be from genetic conditions, disabilities, various risk conditions, or unknown reasons. While families may be the first to recognize a difference in their child’s developmental progress, professionals trained and licensed in early childhood intervention have the skills and knowledge to detect a developmental delay and to then provide intervention to remediate and/or minimize its impact on a child’s development.

Traditionally, professionals train in a single discipline that usually corresponds to an area of development. For example, speech-language pathologists are experts in the development of communication. Likewise, physical therapists are experts in a child’s physical or motor development. Additionally, most disciplines are trained to offer services and intervene across a broad age range—the lifespan of an individual. When a person completes a program of study in a discipline, the individual is then licensed in that discipline to provide services to persons across the lifespan.

These training and licensing practices create two challenges to providing effective early childhood intervention to infants and young children and their families:

  • Interventions may be focused to specific areas of development by discipline specific interventionists (e.g. an occupational therapist provides specific motor intervention and does not incorporate any other areas of development into her therapy/intervention); and
  • Interventions may be provided by a person who does not have any specific experience or competence in infancy or early childhood.

To address these challenges, the Early Childhood Personnel Center (ECPC), which is funded by the Office of Special Education Programs (OSEP) at the U.S. Department of Education, joined representatives from seven national organizations to examine the professional knowledge, skills and competencies that all disciplines should have when providing intervention to infants and young children.*

First, ECPC identified personnel standards (i.e., knowledge and skill statements) for each of the disciplines represented by the organizations. This yielded 752 individual standards. The organizations and ECPC aligned and reduced these standards until four thematic areas emerged that encompassed all disciplinary standards. Representatives of the seven organizations endorsed these as equally important to all disciplines providing early childhood intervention services. These representatives also operationally defined each area, which are contained in the following table:

Operationalized Definitions of the Four Core Competency Areas

CORE COMPETENCY AREA DEFINITION
Family Centered Practice Family-Centered Practice is culturally competent practice in natural settings that involves and actively engages the family in decision-making and the provision of services/therapy.
Interventions Informed by Evidence Evidenced Based intervention requires the use of scientifically based evidence to inform all screening, assessment, intervention/instruction and evaluation delivered to an individual child and family. Databased intervention and instruction refers to the process of collecting data about a child’s level of performance and designing and implementing a plan (e.g. IEP, IFSP) of instruction/ intervention that is evidence-based and focused on remediating a child’s and family’s needs.
Coordination and Collaboration Coordination and collaboration refers to working across professionals from other disciplines and community organizations in every facet of intervention/instruction.
Professionalism Professionalism requires all who provide early childhood intervention to have knowledge and skills in the laws, policies, practices that govern their professional discipline. It also requires that all in early childhood intervention demonstrate professional ethics and advocacy with each infant, young child and family they work with. Professionals in early childhood intervention will also take responsibility to improve their knowledge and skills through professional development and self-reflection.

The organizations’ boards endorsed these areas and definitions, and the organizations are now working with the ECPC to identify and validate indicators for each competency area. Training and materials will then be developed for both preservice and in-service audiences to teach and support early intervention professionals from multiple disciplines to provide interventions for the infants and young children across developmental areas.

It should be noted that these competencies will not replace the need for therapists and teachers to retain expertise and be licensed in their own discipline to address the needs of the infant or child. Rather, it will help ensure the effectiveness of integrating all developmental areas into a child’s interventions.


* The seven organizations included: The Council of Exceptional Children (CEC), the Division of Early Childhood (DEC), the American Occupational Therapy Association (AOTA), the American Physical Therapy Association (APTA), the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association (ASHA), the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC) and Zero to Three.


Blog articles provide insights on the activities of schools, programs, grantees, and other education stakeholders to promote continuing discussion of educational innovation and reform. Articles do not endorse any educational product, service, curriculum or pedagogy.

OSERS Assistant Secretary Talks Special Education

Johnny Collett, the Assistant Secretary of the Office of Special Education and Rehabilitative Services

Office of Special Education and Rehabilitative Services (OSERS) Assistant Secretary Johnny Collett and the National Center for Learning Disabilities Vice President and Chief Policy and Advocacy Officer Lindsay Jones talked about the March 2017 Supreme Court decision in Endrew F. v. Douglas County School District, teacher professional development related to special education, the U.S. Department of Educations’ role, regulatory reform efforts, and more during an April 18 interview.

“OSERS really is unique… one reason is we really get the opportunity to impact across the life of an individual with a disability, so really birth through adulthood including post-secondary opportunities and certainly our goal of competitive integrated employment for individuals,” Collett said. “That opportunity to impact across the life of an individual is just something that’s incredibly unique and really something I am struck by every day.”

Hear more from Assistant Secretary Collett in his recorded video interview, which was part of Understood’s “Chat with an Expert” series.

Another Journey

Note: April is National Autism Awareness Month.

The Bae family during trip to England

The Bae family during trip to England

Just like any other school day, Eugene, my son with autism, left on the bus this morning to go to a day program provided by our school district. For the last 20 years, he and I wait for the bus by sitting on our front porch. As he steps on the bus, he shouts at me with his happy high-pitched voice, “Bye Mom!” This is our ritual to begin each new day, to meet that day’s challenges, emotions, promises, and hopes.

In June this year, he will age out from the district program. I cannot help being emotional whenever I think about his first day of preschool and the journey that Eugene and our family have been on since then. On that day, I cried in the car for two hours after separating from my miserable, crying child.

Since that first day, school has been a challenging place for both Eugene and me. While Eugene was learning the alphabet and phonics, I studied the never-ending list of special education acronyms.

Just like other special education moms in this world, when my child cried about his school work, I wept on my steering wheel, but when he was happy in school, I felt like I had the world on a string. At times, figuring out how to navigate the world of special education for our son with autism while struggling with his atypical behaviors seemed like a brutal mission for a family like us, and we often felt we were not understood, not just because of our heavy Korean accents

However, our fundamental concern has not changed in these 20 years, and that is to help our son reach the final destination for his journey—Eugene being able to live an independent and inclusive life in the community. Of course, this is the same concern shared by thousands of moms and dads who have children with disabilities.

Young and Eugene Bae

Young and Eugene Bae

As a family we have had to adjust the sails of our ship quite a lot to reach this destination. We had to get past phrases like “below average range” or “socially maladjusted” since they were not helpful in steering the path for our son. As a family, we now see more clearly the incredible strengths and positive qualities of a young man who is able to say proudly “I am a person with autism.” We have learned that it is more helpful for us to make sure that Eugene is in the center of all service plans than putting systems first and having him fit around these systems.

Because of putting Eugene at the center, we have become more efficient in figuring out how to change the world around us and finding the resources we and Eugene need to reach our goal. As Eugene grew, our family grew too and our minds opened up to the new experiences that our son brought us.

I am not completely positive about Eugene’s future in the community. I see and feel the gaps between how my family and how society see the possibility of Eugene becoming a “successful” member of the community, and how we define success.

Many people still have a difficult time moving away from the stereotype that measures people with autism and other developmental disabilities as a social cost. However, I also believe that our society is moving in a better direction, becoming more able to envision a person with a disability as a valuable asset.

We have witnessed the notably increased capacity of our schools and workplaces to accommodate individuals with disabilities since the first form of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act became law in 1975. These accomplishments were not possible without the sacrifices and efforts of so many parents, educators, and leaders of this country. Today, their legacy continues through the next generation of families, educators, and leaders, and it only expands as we as a family sail toward the final destination of our journey.

The next three months will be an interesting time for our family. Frankly, it makes me nervous thinking that Eugene will no longer be in the classroom. There will be no more IEP meetings to attend and no school buses to pick him up.

Eugene and our family know that this is a start of the next stage of journey. However, this time, Eugene will be the captain of the ship, steering us toward that goal of independence and community inclusion. This time, I am not crying; I will take a deep breath to prepare myself for another thrilling sea of possibilities and opportunities.


Young Seh Bae, Ph.D. is Executive Director of Community Inclusion & Development Alliance (CIDA) a federally funded Community Parent Resource Center in Queens, New York. She was a faculty member of Teachers College, Columbia University, and served as president of Korean-American Behavioral Health Association.


Blog articles provide insights on the activities of schools, programs, grantees, and other education stakeholders to promote continuing discussion of educational innovation and reform. Articles do not endorse any educational product, service, curriculum or pedagogy.

Project ASD: Special Educator Preparation in Autism Spectrum Disorders

Note: April is National Autism Awareness Month.

Supporting Children and Youth with Autism

April is Autism Awareness Month, and a perfect time to highlight the OSEP-funded Project Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD) at the University of Central Florida (UCF). Since 2004, this innovative personnel preparation project has been addressing the critical need for special educators prepared to serve the increasing numbers of children identified with ASD. A nationwide listing of teacher shortage areas revealed 48 states reporting shortages of special education teachers for the 2016–17 school year, with many states identifying the specific need for special educators prepared to serve students with autism.

What is Project ASD?

Two federal personnel development projects currently support Project ASD at UCF, projects ASD IV, funded 2014–18, and ASD V, funded 2016–20.They represent the culmination of over a decade of research focused on teacher preparation in ASD. Project ASD’s graduate program addresses persistent gaps in services, including the need to (a) increase the number of highly effective special educators serving students with ASD, and (b) prepare special educators with specialized knowledge and competencies for working with students with ASD. Project ASD addresses identified gaps by implementing three primary goals:

  1. Recruit high-quality graduate-level scholars including traditionally underrepresented groups with potential to become highly effective special educators for students with ASD.
  2. Prepare scholars in an evidence-based special education program that includes field experiences in urban, high-poverty settings, and leads to state certification in Exceptional Student Education (ESE) and endorsement in ASD.
  3. Retain scholars through completion of the program and induction into the profession through ongoing advisement, financial and academic support, and mentorship.

Master’s Degree and Certification in ESE and ASD

Project ASD has supported over 300 scholars in earning a master’s degree and full certification in ESE, and State Endorsement in Autism. The success of the project can be attributed to ongoing collaboration between university faculty, school district personnel, agencies, and families. Project ASD employs a multi-faceted recruitment model targeting exceptional scholars dedicated to the field of special education, including those from traditionally underrepresented groups. Scholars receive support to complete a graduate program of study, which prepares them to implement evidence-based practices for students with ASD to increase student achievement across domains including academic, communication, social-emotional, independent functioning, and vocational. Project ASD also hosts a Mentor Demonstration Classroom program that features project graduates who understand the challenges of the master’s program, and the unique needs of beginning special educators in classrooms for students with ASD. These exemplary teachers provide video demonstrations, serve as guest speakers, and open their classrooms to provide Project ASD scholars with opportunities to integrate coursework and field experience.

In addition to its close work with scholars at UCF, Project ASD disseminates information related to teacher preparation in ASD through publications as well as numerous presentations at state and national conferences. Teacher Education and Special Education recently published an article featuring Project ASD’s Quality Indicators for Classrooms Serving Students With ASD instrument. For further information, visit the Project ASD website, or contact the project directors at projectasd@ucf.edu


Blog articles provide insights on the activities of schools, programs, grantees, and other education stakeholders to promote continuing discussion of educational innovation and reform. Articles do not endorse any educational product, service, curriculum or pedagogy.

Eleazar Vasquez III, Director and Associate Professor for the Toni Jennings Exceptional Education Institute
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Director and Associate Professor for the Toni Jennings Exceptional Education Institute
Cynthia Pearl
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Faculty Administrator in the Exceptional Education Program
Matthew T. Marino, Professor in the Exceptional Education Program
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Professor in the Exceptional Education Program