Special education teachers want to celebrate the achievements of their students, but doing so can be difficult for those students who struggle to make progress. Consequently, teachers have a tendency to inflate the smallest successes. For some students, finding these successes takes some reaching.
The Limitations of Praise
Wanting to praise students is understandable. Most special education teachers enter the field with a desire to help. Self-esteem can be fragile in students with special needs, so praise can be as vital as food. Their parents might need support as well. If nothing else, those parents might like to hear something positive that interrupts the stream of disappointing news about what their children can't do.
Praise does indeed have its place. It can be specific or general, verbal or written, public or private. Deft teachers create opportunities to praise, even when the praise is for something trivial. But as helpful as it might be for students to hear it, this type of thin and insubstantial praise doesn't belong written into special education documents such as reevaluation reports and IEPs.
Too often, special education documents include descriptions of students being "hard workers" and "enthusiastic about learning." Such statements lack specificity. The performance data in these documents must be detailed and norm-referenced. Stating that a student is "a pleasure to have in class" might make a parent smile, but this isn't helpful in planning future instruction.
The reevaluation report is meant to indicate whether or not the student continues to need special education services. Teachers need to report how the student is performing compared with non-disabled students of the same age. For services to continue, a gulf between actual and expected performance should be obvious. This might force teachers state what a student can't do. Though possibly uncomfortable for all parties, this is necessary.
Present-level statements in the IEP must coincide with the reevaluation report. The IEP can go farther for students of transition age. Present levels under transition can include detailed narratives about highly specific abilities. Statements can include a student's ability to give personal information, use a phone, or describe his or her disability.
To help ensure worthwhile reporting, teachers can use a checklist of age-appropriate skills. Generic versions of such lists are readily available by searching for developmental or life-skills checklists. Commercial versions are available through publishers such as Curriculum Associates. State standards can be used as guides as well. Teachers can track what each student on a caseload has accomplished by a given age. The results can become a student's present levels. Though time consuming, compiling mounds of data on special education students is essential. Not only does it substantiate educational placements and planning decisions, but it also serves as indispensible evidence if a case is being heard for due process. The longer the checklist, the more data will be available.
Such a list should include whatever assessments the district uses (KeyMath, Brigance, CareerScope, and so on) along with state-level results, if available. Other items to include on the list will vary by age or disability. Lists for some students could include money handling or dressing skills. Registering to vote or completing FAFSA forms might be appropriate for other students. The point is to have a collection of measurable abilities that can appear in relevant documents.
Measurable Goals and Explicit Information
Presenting this information clearly is equally important to having it. Teachers can include positive statements about skills, such as, "Juan can correctly pronounce 15 of 25 words selected from the Dolch list," or "Jennifer can write her Social Security number correctly in three out of five consecutive trials." These statements easily can be rewritten as measurable goals matched neatly to present levels. For example: "Given 25 Dolch list words, Juan will correctly pronounce 20 words in three consecutive trials."
If anecdotal information is included, it should be specific. Perhaps a student is helpful in the classroom. This should be quantified. A student might be assigned five daily chores, and the teacher can use the list to record how many chores this student completes, or how many redirections are needed. The records can become additional present-level information. If a student has a negative attitude about school and this affects performance, the teacher can quantify this through a survey about school satisfaction. Again, the results would be easy to transfer.
Being explicit is more than a best practice. Documents such as reevaluation reports and IEPs demand specific and detailed information. Filling or padding these documents with unquantifiable praise doesn't help anyone make or implement plans for students. Contrarily, documents loaded with praise but lacking substance could end up hurting everyone involved. Poor planning tools could affect student outcomes. In a larger scope, an entire district could suffer should a parent wish to use weak documents as evidence in a due process case. Clear and thorough data can protect against legal entanglements while effectively supporting positive student outcomes.