A “Special” Needs Assessment
I’m going to take a different look at “needs” in a distributed learning environment coming from the perspective of special education and exploring questions related to meeting student “special needs” in my new work environment. As a part-time (one-day per week) School Based Resource Teacher, I have been allocated time to support a school of about 120 enrolling k-12 students, with an approximate case load of 12 students identified with a ministry designation and 5 additional students with significant academic and/or social needs. My guiding questions are: What is my role as a resource teacher in a DL environment? How do I meet student “special needs” in the DL environment and /or support parent/guardian implementation of individual education programming/planning (IEP)? What is ministry criteria regarding meeting specific student needs in a DL environment and how can I shape my work time to adequately meet the requirements? What barriers currently prevent participation and what would reduce these barriers? What practices and/or technologies exist that can support my students? What structural changes are required to provide services to a diverse group of distributed students?
Historically, special education in the public school system has drawn much attention and critical review. The right to an education for all children has often been debated and has transformed over the years in North America to include, rather than isolate, students with special needs as being equal to and have the right to be provided with an education. Transformation included: “(a) deinstitutionalization, (b) provision of legal protections for individuals with disabilities, and (c) emphasis on evidence-based practices” (Lloyd, p.1). Education of all children in the system is expected in North America, though previous practice of isolation and neglect of students with disabilities continue to exist in other countries around the world. Given the relatively fast evolution of distributed learning in the past forty years, and the rapid change in recognizing the rights of students with special needs in the regular school system the examination and relevant research looking at support for students with special needs in this context is not great. More research and focus on special education in a distributed learning environment is warranted. In addition, at this time funding to support students with special needs in the public school context has been argued as inadequate (Bortollotti, 2015) and this too will be reflected in the allocation of funding support in a DL context.
The target audience for my needs assessment is the students who have been identified by our school based team with special learning needs, ranging from ASD, chronic health conditions to learning disabilities and unidentified learning challenges. Stakeholders who are highly influenced by the needs/structure of the programming include:
- Outside agency supports (i.e. counselling, OT/PT, SLP, behaviour specialists, etc.)
- District based itinerant support teachers (i.e. technology specialists, school psychologists, resource teachers – district based supporting extra load demands on SBRTs)
The time allocated to serve these students must be used creatively and wisely to be adequately meet student needs. What is reasonable support when in a DL environment? I have been advised to provide “minimal” support given the small allocation of time to our program. I am concerned that the current case load far surpasses my ability to adequately meet student needs. Is it my responsibility, parent/guardian, district, and/or others to help move our DL students forward? Fear abounds when questioning what is in place right now and concern regarding funding to meet needs, and then be accountable for correct use of these funds (i.e. impending audit probability, accountability to ministry policies) is real. What can be used to bring all stakeholders together to improve communication, build capacity, collaborate, improve structures and meet student learning needs?
I have spent some time reading policies and research papers looking at structures, best practices (see list of “Best practices behind the best practices” – Shimoni, 2013) and recommendations for improved student success in DL environments. The BC Ministry of Education “Special Education Services: A Manual of Policies, Procedures and Guidelines – Updated April 2016” specifically outlines the mandated requirements for students with special needs, participating in a DL program (appendix H.15 – summary – Distributed Learning Policy). The most relevant and applicable piece for me is that students are mandated to have an IEP if they are being claimed by the school district for funding. Best practices and procedures for doing so by the SBRT must be followed. Secondly, clear communication regarding expectations of the DL program – matching the IEP needs must be outlined.
- (i) required access to technologies; (ii) technical competence required by the student in the program; (iii) the components and expectations of the program; and, (iv) the learning and support services available through the program and/or the school board (30)
Critically, frequent opportunities should be provided for individualized and timely interactions between teachers and students and among students (30). This specific guideline is where things get quite challenging as I juggle my time and plan to meet and support many students. As a team, we have begun accessing outside agencies to target specific IEP concerns and include them in our DL students IEPs. This has relieved some of the pressure on my time and pairs specialized professionals with students to service learning goals. I am also grouping my students, according to needs, and targeting their IEP goals in small groups to better use my time, and provide more rich, engaging learning experiences for students in a social context.
Technically speaking, students must have the capacity to access and use online programming if it is a component of the learning plan. In my case, not all programs have an online component (particularly K-3). In some circumstances, online practice/programming is an engaging factor and is therefore built in to the learning plan. Additional learning supports (i.e. apps designed to support reading i.e. Natural Reader, conceptual math understanding and /or rote practice, writing support, and generalized ways to show your learning – Powerpoint, Adobe Spark, Bubbl.us, etc.) to help students access information and then construct meaning is helpful but contingent on teacher knowledge and/or parent ability to help implement into the program. Programs, such as Kurzweil’s “Firefly” will be investigated, taught and used to support reading challenges and provide access to information and to develop independence in motivated learners. Again – time is the limiting factor in this case for me in knowing what works best and how to use it, and then having the face to face time to integrate it, alongside parent(s) and student, successfully into a student’s plan. Forward I move with my online teaching and learning certificate – feeling solace when information I have recently absorbed is applied directly to my teaching the next day. Helping families and students learn and apply strategies I have only just touched is heartening. Making a difference is motivating.
I believe that the findings of the Shimoni (2013) research study, which looked at special needs within a DL environment, should be adhered to when looking at ways to best meet students “special” needs. Highlights include (149-151):
- Shared needs: diverse students share the same needs as the general student population (i.e. online supports – orientation, library support, technical assistance) What is good for diverse students is good for all students. Lloyd (p.4) supports this premise: “we need to ensure that students with disabilities receive evidence-based instruction that is based on their unique needs.”
- Blended delivery methods: build community; more face-face interaction is helpful
- Access to Technology: internet connections, hardware access, supports in use must be considered
- Community Organizations: resources in communities are available to support students and are often an untapped resource
- Early identification of student needs: assessment is critical, needs must be identified early, service should be provided in a timely manner
- Universal design: should be the basis of program design; adaptive and assistive technology should be used to support special needs
- Funding: practices are often a barrier to students and the structures that serve them
One of the most challenging aspects of my position thus far has been figuring out how to get everything done in a limited amount of time. I believe that many of the procedures and policies in place at a district level are impeding adequate support for my students with special needs, however the district has recently re-allocated teacher time and case load in my school in a manner that I hope will better serve the needs. I have added an extra .2 to my week and am now the primary teacher/case manager for all the coded students (K-7) in our program. This will help with communication challenges between classroom teacher, SBRT and parent(s), as well as provide me with more time for face to face interactions with my students.
Allocation of funding is at question with regards to both teacher time in the SBRT position (.2) versus primary teacher position (.5) as well as expectations of service for my students with special needs. I am doing my best to work professionally by following ministry guidelines and treat each student’s needs as presented. Lloyd (p.4) states: “We cannot just accommodate them; simply include them; just give them a coteacher, an aide, or a computer that reads and speaks. Our students need special education”. I must, as the Ministry policy delineates, and best practice suggests “give direct, explicit instruction, as per the IEP goals, objectives, and strategies suggest to move my students forward. In addition, again as the Ministry policy stipulates: “Where a board is required to provide an IEP for a student under this order, the board must “offer each student learning activities in accordance with the IEP designed for that student” (Individual Education Plan Order, p. E-44). Moving forward, I must share my time wisely and use research-based practice to better support my students.
I have found this, “special”, needs analysis helpful as I have gained a better understanding of policies and procedures with regards to the Ministry of Education as well as School District/SBRT responsibility in a DL context for students with special needs. I have learned more about best practices in DL environments and have considered ways to overcome some of the challenges I am facing in the workplace. “Important outcomes are not just how many of our students participate in general education classes, but how many of them actually learn to read, to solve word problems, to discuss the causes of societies’ problems, to cooperate with peers. We are not referring solely to students with high-incidence disabilities, because educators are showing that students with more substantial disabilities can learn many skills” (Lloyd, 4). Ultimately, I will continue to put individual student needs first, manage my time effectively so as not to promise more than I can follow through with, and maintain communication and collaboration with the stakeholders at hand. I will also continue to advocate for the blended program within which I work and hope for more funding and structuring of district support to better meet my students learning needs. As Lloyd (p.3) so beautifully paraphrases “special education must be much more: It must be focused on students’ individual needs, carefully planned, intensive, urgent, relentless, goal directed, empirically supported practice”. In my school, we work together to make this happen despite the challenges, and DL is proving to be a beautiful option for many of my students with special needs who have not been successful in the regular school system. Proof is in the pudding, as our numbers of students with special needs is on the rise. Word of mouth regarding positive learning experiences where I work is growing our program. Next step – keep growing my skills!
BC Ministry of Education: Distributed Learning – Active Policy: http://www.bced.gov.bc.ca/policy/policies/active_learning_distance_ed.htm
Bortolotti, J.D. (2015, November 10). Inadequate Funding for Special Education: Looking at the Bigger Picture. Retrieved from: https://lawdisabilitysocialchange.com/2015/11/10/inadequate-funding-for-special-education-looking-at-the-bigger-picture/
Individual Education Plan Order BC Ministry of Education Governance and Legislation Branch E-43 August 4, 2016 Authority: School Act, section 168 (2) (a) Retrieved from http://www2.gov.bc.ca/assets/gov/education/administration/resource-management/compliance-audits/1617/1617_dl_audit_program.pdf
Lloyd, J., Lloyd, P. (2015). Reinforcing Success: What Special Education Could Learn From Its Earlier Accomplishments. Remedial and Special Education. 36 (2), 77-82. http://rse.sagepub.com.ezproxy.tru.ca/content/36/2/77.full.pdf+html
Shimoni, R., et al. (2013). Addressing the Needs of Diverse Distributed Students. International Review of Research in Open and Distance Learning, v14 n3 p134-157 Jul 2013. 24 pp.
Special Education Services: A Manual of Policies, Procedures and Guidelines – Updated April 2016. Retrieved from http://www.bced.gov.bc.ca/specialed/special_ed_policy_manual.pdf