By Robert Schroeder
“You really have to be the teacher you are supposed to be if we are to overcome over-representation.”
It all starts the first moment the youngest of children enter the school doors for the first time.
Beyond the bright colors and sing-song music and shameless art project in early childhood classrooms, like the block cities that spring up from the tile floor, small communities are forming
The rite of passage into special education services often starts at the earliest levels in the nation’s schools, when developmental delays such as autism provide their first visual clues, but also when educators run out of remedies with students lagging behind. It is no secret that Black and Latina/o students are overrepresented in receiving special education services, and it is no secret that standardized testing in kindergarten reveals an instant achievement gap between White learners and their Black and Latina/o counterparts. According to the International Reading Association, standardized tests that fail to account for students’ progress in literacy skills acquired outside of school—skills outside of recognition of words’ beginning and ending sounds and print familiarity—lead to referrals for additional testing and placement in special education programs.
All that means the pressure is on for special education professionals in the early childhood setting; an IEP can stay with a child for the entirety of their educational career. The Promise talked with College students and alumni to document what early childhood special education looks like in CPS schools, from a low-income setting to a well-resourced school to a first-time blended setting.
The Kids Too Young to Understand Poverty
At William Penn Elementary School in North Lawndale, the school’s challenges are defined by the community around it: 99 percent of families come from low-income households, and the school’s early childhood sections draw heavily from the Little Village Latina/o population in South Lawndale.
Star McFarlane (photo below), MEd Early Childhood Education alumna, served as an early childhood educator for six years at the school with a bilingual assistant constantly at her side to translate. Most of the translating needs came from parents, as McFarlane worked primarily with children ages 3-5 still developing communication skills.
“They really didn’t have social-emotional skills, so they acclimating to their environment,” McFarlane said. “I wasn’t looking for them to know their A’s, B’s, and C’s, but can you come in and regulate yourself—feed yourself, hang up your own coat, can you go through a routine?”
For McFarlane, the challenges of academic work—listening to a lesson or instructions, working with a pencil and paper—are what she was preparing her students for. Communication skills were built in steps, practicing listening and engaging in a conversation. Learning to write one’s name started with practicing holding a writing utensil.
The stresses of a school in an environment defined by the challenges associated with poverty led to a disconnect between the early childhood classroom and upper grades, connections researchers say are beneficial to building continuity of curriculum.
“With a lot of violence around the school, the culture didn’t really feel together as far as the staff goes,” McFarlane said. “Teaches are under a lot of stress in the upper grades, with overcrowded classrooms and not a lot of support.”
Despite those challenges, McFarlane says she sees benefits to the public school setting for early childhood. Working previously in community-based programs, she said the pipeline referral for social workers was a slow, dragged out affair. Her students at Penn were granted quick access to speech therapists, occupational therapists and social workers.
The Opposite End of the Spectrum
Sutherland Elementary, in Chicago’s Beverly neighborhood, rises up on a slight hill amidst a neighborhood of aged stately homes and well-manicured lawns. Despite the suburban feel, the school takes in students from around the general area. Students with special education needs are nurtured in a a resource-rich environment that takes advantage of both inclusive and self-contained settings.
Anne Kellogg, MEd Early Childhood Education student, is a student-teacher in a self-contained classroom of students across the early childhood spectrum, from K-3. Many CPS neighborhood schools, required to take all comers, face an overrepresentation of students with special education needs. At Sutherland, Kellogg sees the value in the creation of small self-contained classroom units.
“We’re able to practice a more direct instructional strategy for them with a smaller ratio or group,” Kellogg said. “Children who need the extra help really get extra help.”
The goal in the self-contained classroom is to take the curriculum from the general education setting and tweak it only slightly to create curriculum appropriate for the specific learning level of each student. Kellogg says emphasis is placed on maintaining challenges and not making life easy for these students.
Adjusting curriculum to learning styles has two final goals in mind: serving as part of a constant re-evaluation of students’ IEPs and pushing to eventually channel students out of the self-contained classroom and into the general education setting.
“There is dedication required to devote yourself to looking at each student in a self-contained classroom individually and each one of their needs,” Kellogg said. “Instead of assuming things about a student, you have to pull the time out of your day to get to know that student personally, to watch them and observe them, to take data on them, to really know if they need to have special help or if they do not.”
The Fear of Special Ed
After six years at Penn, McFarlane took a new position as an early childhood special education teacher at Burr Elementary in Bucktown. She was not the only one making a transition.
Inevitably, parents are a child’s first educators and role models. And inevitably, that role can become a bit tricky for parents to navigate. Which is exactly what unfolded at Burr when the school transitioned from general education and self-contained classrooms to all blended classrooms for early childhood learners: parents of returning general education students protested the blending of classrooms
“When you hear special ed, your mind doesn’t go towards children who have delays and fine motor issues,” McFarlane said. “[Today’s parents are] an older generation, a generation where kids with more severe cognitive challenges or mild to severe retardation were separated. That is what they are used to.”
McFarlane, who leads the blended classroom along with a general education teacher and a special education assistant, coordinated an open house for parents to educate on the facets of inclusion and to eliminate some of the stigma surrounding special education.
Frequent communication and collaboration has been a key to successfully building a first-time blended setting. McFarlane and the general education co-teacher review each IEP before a child starts and develop specific literacy and math goals. They generate a common language of prompts so the general education teaches knows how to specifically ask a child with special education needs to complete a task. The team of three practices modeling, meaning general education teacher mimics the actions and processes of McFarlane and her assistant.
The team has also built a visual, tactile classroom. Students with special education needs, away from a parent for the first time, benefit from a full visual schedule to navigate their way through the day. A visual element is incorporated in every play song: an activity for hands and feet, the use of puppets, a visual alphabet or an interactive calendar with Velcro numbers, for example. McFarlane also incorporates physical activities such as up and down movements to develop gross motor skills.
“They are not just speaking and hearing language but actually moving with language,” McFarlane said.
The blended setting has yielded some surprising results. General education students, also facing the trepidation of the first day away from a parent, have benefited from the visual schedules and visual clocks in the classroom. General education students have displayed significant levels of empathy for their peers with delays, jumping in to assist with their own version of prompts.
“I think we see that these are still children but they are just delayed, so we think about it in a way that a child might be three years old but developmentally is only 15 months,” McFarlane said. “If you know how a 15-month-old should write or read or socially interact, you just dial back the developmental chart, and that is where I come in to help.”