As a parent of a special needs child, I want nothing more than my child to be included in the general education population which allows him to experience school WITH his peers; however, equally important is the need for him to receive an appropriate education that allows him to learn and be assessed in a way that works best for him and his learning disabilities.
As a teacher, I know achieving both can often be difficult, as balancing the unique needs of one’s learning is often counterintuitive to being included in the general ed classroom.
So…how do parents and teachers balance the unique needs of their student’s learning with their desire to be included?
This conflict has been the Achilles heel of Special Education and is referred to as achieving the Least Restrictive Environment. IDEA (Individuals with Disabilities Education Act of 1975) states that students with disabilities should have the opportunity to be educated with non-disabled peers to the greatest extent appropriate which is referred to as creating the Least Restrictive Environment. Traditionally, creating the Least Restrictive Environment has been a challenge for teachers and the IEP team because creating the necessary personalized educational experience for a Special Education student often required leaving the regular education classroom. However, the explosion of educational technology coupled with innovation in teaching has made achieving the Least Restrictive Environment easier to achieve than ever.
Drawing on my experience as a mom of a high maintenance special needs son (dyslexia, dysgraphia, dyspraxia, ADHD, and anxiety) and my experience as a high school English Inclusion teacher, I have created a list of the top 5 ways parents and teachers can work together to create the highly coveted Least Restrictive Environment.
#1) CHROMEBOOKS: Yes…it HAS to be a chromebook.
- These magical devices are created by Google which means they innately use Chrome as their browser which is intuitively linked to all of the educational apps, add-ons, and extensions that have been made to run on Chrome.
- They don’t get viruses and update automatically. This means you can’t accidentally click on something and ruin your device. Furthermore, you won’t have to hand in your device to the school’s IT people every few months to run updates.
- It has a price tag of under $200 which is totally school and family budget friendly.
- It is durable enough for children, specifically special education students who may not have the best decision-making skills, to use without fear of it breaking. Seriously, these things are made to last. I actually witnessed my three-year-old pour an entire glass of milk onto the keyboard of our family Chromebook, and with some creative use of gravity for draining purposes, it still worked!
- Most importantly it plays nice with other devices, apps, add-ons, and extensions. Apple products, like iPads and MacBooks, and Windows-based PC’s, while they can do some really amazing things that can support learning, they do not intuitively play nice with other devices, apps, programs, and accessibility features creating a restrictive environment which is counter-intuitive to what we’re trying to achieve. I think of Apple and Microsoft as the super cool kids at lunch that will only sit with their like-minded and dressed friends, and from a distance, they look super cool and awesome but without a social membership to their club, you aren’t permitted to sit with them at their members only table. Chromebooks are the nice kid that doesn’t really care where he or she sits or with whom, never judges you on your appearance, and actually listens to what you have to say, all while helping you with your math homework. As an adult, you realize that’s who you should have taken to prom.
All of these reasons make Chromebooks THE quintessential tool for utilizing technology to create The Least Restrictive Environment.
My son has had a Chromebook since third grade, and it has been the great equalizer that has allowed him to participate in the general ed classroom. As a sixth grader, he only has to be pulled from the regular ed classroom for Language Arts to receive direct explicit instruction in reading and writing. However, despite his struggles with reading and writing, his Chromebook allows him to be included and earn honor roll status in general ed. Math, Science, and Social Studies.
#2) Text to Speech and Speech to Text: Students with dyslexia, that struggle to read, and/or with dysgraphia, that struggle to write, can achieve the Least Restrictive Environment with access to speech to text and text to speech applications. Speech to text allows students to speak their thoughts and the computer writes their words for them, while text to speech does the opposite and allows the computer to read the words on the screen to the student. With these accessibility features, students gain a tremendous amount of independence, as they will no longer have to leave the classroom to have a teaching assistant or co-teacher read the text or scribe for them. Instead, students can stay in the classroom to receive their support. Google apps like docs and slides will have these capabilities in their Tools and Add-ons menu, but there are also some outstanding programs that will allow students to utilize these functions outside of a google app. For example, if they wanted to read a website or write a response in an online discussion platform that is not sponsored by a google app, they will have to have a special software program. My favorite is Read and Write Literacy Software that was designed to assist Special Education with their literacy needs. They have an outstanding program that gives students access to text to speech and speech to text applications. With their upgraded membership, they also include the holy grail of accessibility which allows students to work in a pdf. Therefore, teachers can simply scan their worksheets or textbook pages as a pdf and the software has the ability to recognize the words in the picture and read them. Furthermore, they also offer some other amazing tools like voice recording, voice prediction, picture dictionary, and post-it annotations. They recently released a math version called EquatIO that does the tough job of dictating math equations and formulas which have, until now, been virtually absent from the world of accessibility.
#3) Screencasting: Technology has allowed us to get away from the norm in which we rely on written language to preserve content. Meaning, we no longer need worksheets or slideshows with written words to be the only way to transfer information to students. Imagine how incredibly frustrating it must be for a child with a language disability that impacts their reading to constantly have to use reading to access the curriculum. Forcing a child with a disability in reading to read your curriculum content to learn or study from is like forcing a child in a wheelchair to participate in Phys. Ed. Nobody would argue that a physically disabled child can learn the concept of teamwork without being forced to actually participate on a basketball team. Following that same logic, a child with a reading disability should not be forced to read worksheets or textbooks to understand the curriculum, and yet this occurs in classrooms every single day. However, with easy to access screencasting extensions like Screencastomatic or Screencastify, teachers and parents can stop this offense by screencasting study guides and note sheets. Screencasting is a tool that allows the teacher to record their screen AND themselves either in a video or audio recording so that the learning artifact becomes multi-sensory and allows the student to rely on something else other than their reading skills to independently participate in the curricular content. Teachers can still use their traditional worksheets or slideshows that benefit nondisabled students, but they can make them a useful document by simply pulling up the document on their Chromebook and clicking record on one of many screencasting extensions while narrating the notes in a video recording that the student can access to study. This gives total autonomy to the student and his or her learning, as they can access the video recording independently as many times as they need to until they have absorbed the information, much like the way their nondisabled peers will repeatedly read their class notes to study.
My son successfully uses screencasts to review his notes. As an SDI, his teachers are required to submit a completed study guide to his google drive. I simply pull up the document, press record on my screencasting tool of choice, and then simply read the notes out loud. I then upload the completed video to youtube and send him a shareable link to his phone. This allows him to access it as many times as he wants and completely eliminates the anxiety (aka freak out) associated with studying, as I’m asking him to do nothing but listen and watch the video. Furthermore, it gives him freedom on where to study. He can pop on his headphones and listen on the bus ride to school or even in between classes right before the test. In addition, I get the added bonus of being able to track the number of views through my youtube account which tells me he actually did study.
#4) Video Assessment: Along the same lines as using screencasting for learning and review, teachers can begin to create the Least Restrictive Environment by utilizing video or audio recordings for assessments. For a student who has a disability in writing, it doesn’t make sense to assess their knowledge of a subject through writing. That’s like asking a child without a hand to give you a high five and then failing him because he can’t! Instead, students can be given the opportunity to record themselves talking about the content material which allows the teacher to truly and fairly assess their understanding of the curricular material. This can be achieved very easily by utilizing the numerous screencasting extension tools that are available in Chrome. Flipgrid is a great screencasting program that is actually designed for assessment, as it will post the teacher’s question and allow the student 90 seconds to record their response. I’ve used this as an assessment tool in my class in place of the traditional end of the novel-essay. I wanted to assess my student’s feelings about the completed novel, but I didn’t need to have the assignment assess their writing. I was incredibly pleased with my students’ responses, as uninhibited by the rules of writing, I was able to get very insightful and authentic responses which allowed me to feel confident that I was truly assessing their understanding and analysis of the novel in a way that their developing writing skills would be unable to.
5) Google Calendars: For a learning disabled student, a day of school is like running a marathon…on a broken foot. When students finally get home, they want nothing more than to retreat to their safe space and relax no longer vulnerable to their disabilities. However, homework makes that difficult. The subject of homework in my house results in an all-out panic filled with rage, denial, and avoidance…and that’s just the way I handle it. My son’s response is much worse. After completing a marathon, the last thing a runner wants to hear is “Oh, by the way, you still have another mile to run” or eight depending on how much work was assigned. Sometimes the most difficult part for a learning disabled student is just figuring out what exactly is assigned. Teachers use different individualized ways to communicate to students what is due. One may post all of their assignments on their website, another may have it posted on their chalkboard calendar in the front of the room, while another may rely on personally communicating to the students by announcing the homework assignment at the end of the period. To a non-disabled student being able to navigate those individual ways of communication is totally acceptable, manageable, and part of the learning experience. However, for a learning disabled student, having all of their teachers use a different mode of communication is complete chaos and a recipe for disaster…or at the very least incompletion. Instead, teachers and parents can support their learning disabled students by utilizing a Google Calendar. Each teacher creates their own calendar, posts their assignments to it, and shares the calendar with the student and their parents. The parents and the student then have one place to go to see what is due the following day and as GI Joe used to say during my formidable years, “Knowing is half the battle.” In addition, the calendar can be set to send out reminders to parents and students that will show up on their phone giving them a heads up on what is due the following day.
Achieving the Least Restrictive Environment is now more manageable than ever. With the appropriate device, utilization of accessibility features, and innovative teaching practices, more students will be able to have their special education needs met without ever leaving their classroom!
PARENT PRO TIP: IDEA, 2004, states IEP teams are required to consider the assistive technology needs of all children with disabilities which can be determined through a SETT evaluation. If you believe your child would benefit from any of the above mentioned SDI’s please write a letter to your child’s principal or LEA stating that you would like to have a meeting to discuss having a SETT evaluation to determine if technology can help your child achieve the Least Restrictive Environment. If your child is below grade level in reading or writing, there is no doubt that technology can help create this environment for your child. Once it is determined that technology can be used to help, discuss the above-mentioned points about Chromebooks, accessibility features like speech to text and text to speech, screencasting, video assessment, and Google calendars to argue that these tools will help your child to achieve an ambitiously appropriate education in the Least Restrictive Environment. In addition, do your part by learning how to access and utilize these tools to help support your child. You simply have to google “how to use speech to text” or “how to screencast”, and Google will show you how. Making it a mission to familiarize yourself with the latest educational technology will give you the upper hand in IEP meetings so that you know what to ask for and why, but more importantly, it will empower you to assist your child as they navigate the very difficult challenge of learning.
TEACHER PRO TIP: IDEA, 2004, states IEP teams are required to consider the assistive technology needs of all children with disabilities. As a member of your student’s IEP team, if you believe that a Chromebook or any of the above-mentioned tools could help provide an ambitiously appropriate education in the Least Restrictive Environment for any of your special education students, then it is your responsibility to schedule an IEP meeting to discuss this with the team. I understand that this can be uncomfortable and intimidating, as teachers often feel they will get in trouble if they suggest changing a child’s IEP or asking the district to spend more money on a student; however, please know it’s your job to do so. You cannot get in trouble for advocating for the least restrictive environment of your special education students. Utilizing your voice for a child who can’t is one of the noblest things a teacher can do, so do not be afraid, the law is on your side. In addition, none of the above-mentioned tools or strategies are terribly difficult to learn or implement. In fact many can be considered best practices for all of your students, not just your disabled ones; therefore, utilizing these tools to innovate your teaching practices may do more than create the Least Restrictive Environment for your Special Education students. If you ever doubt that the risk or effort may not be worth it, please never forget that special education students whose needs are not met in school are three times more likely to engage in high-risk behavior like suicide, addiction, or criminal activity. Supporting these students does more than just help them, it is one of the most measurable ways a teacher can quite literally make the world a better place.