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Sunday, April 6, 2014

Believe in Good - Celebrate Interdependence

"Our deepest calling is to grow in to our own authentic
self-hood, whether or not it conforms to some image of
who we ought to be. As we do so, we will not only find
the joy that every human being seeks -- we will also
find our path to authentic service to the world."
~ Parker J. Palmer ~

Saturday, February 1, 2014

SIVA (Supporting Individuals Through Valued Relationships)

This past week, I attended both a SIVA (Supporting Individuals through Valued Attachments) Training and a Train the Trainer session.  I'm pretty excited about the framework and the possibilities in using it to help facilitate increased intrinsically motivated self-management skills in students.

SIVA is a safety management framework with the focus of working with people to pro-actively identify and maintain safe behaviour and situations. Foundational to the SIVA philosophy is the belief that true safety is built on communication and the establishment of trusted relationships. An understanding that an intervention can never be of greater importance than a trusted relationship is the key to building the relationships that assist with avoiding crisis situations and ensuring that students are available for learning.

Some key take-aways related to SIVA from this past week for me include:
  • SIVA is specifically designed for supporting people with complex needs (disability and mental health). The framework factors in the person's individual needs as well as the fact that there is often a "caregiver" involved with that person on an ongoing basis (not necessarily one on one but there is extra human support involved in some way). 
  • SIVA is an overall model that guides support and interaction rather than a crisis intervention program. SIVA philosophy guides how we perceive, think and problem solve to ensure safety at all times. 
  • SIVA is a dynamic system. It is not rooted a trajectory about a person and then creating a static crisis response plan. The work done within the framework is about supporting and scaffolding growth towards valued relationships and self-management. 
  • SIVA is goal-directed rather than consequence-driven. The goal is to successfully maintain safety (emotional, psychological, physical and spiritual) at all times.  When we are able to maintain safety for an individual, we are able to discover with them ways to increase their level of participation and engagement in inclusive activities and settings.  
  • Collaborative teaming is a key component of the framework. This involved including the student and all stakeholders in the dynamic process.  The framework is set up so that even those with the most complex needs can play an active role in the creation and ownership of their safety management plans. 
  • SIVA promotes self-management and empowerment. The approach starts with the understanding that when people feel powerless they are also feeling unsafe. When they feel powerless and unsafe, they will begin creating artificial ways to gain power.  We often call these behaviours "maladaptive". We need to work with the person to feel safe (aka "empowered") so we can reduce the need for that person to create the maladaptive ways of gaining power and replace them with appropriate ways to self-manage and have power and control. Power and control are not bad things as having power and control of one's self also means having responsibility for one's actions. Power and control only become an issue when it infringes on the rights of other people.
  • SIVA believes that it is the strength of the relationship and the ability to create safety that allows a person to be available for interventions, therapy, education...etc. We cannot deliver programs to students if they are not first available for learning. We need to be cognisant at all times that what we are doing is creating the safe and trusting environment for this to happen.  
To learn more about SIVA, check out their website at

Sunday, January 26, 2014

Worth Thinking About: Charity or Solidarity

Reminded me of Emma Van der Klift & Norman Kunc's


I post new "Worth Thinking About" questions on Sundays. 

In reality, some might be more "and" statements rather than "or" statements. It is about finding the right balance so that we are aware enough to be effective in supporting student learning.

Click here to check out more "Worth Thinking About" posts.

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

New Year's Resolutions, IEPs, Learning Portfolios and Supporting Self-Determination

I came across the above Tweet the other day and at first I thought it was really funny.  I even responded with the same humor as the original Tweet...
But then I started thinking about IEPs and suddenly the concept wasn't quite so funny. I admit that in writing IPPs (what we call IEPs in Alberta), I have taken on the task of making plans for what others need to work on with little more to go on then a two-page blanket form filled out by parents if they so chose to fill it out (and many of them chose not to).

The changes we began making a few years back in how we serve and program for students with complex needs in our division is about so much more than just their physical placement in general education classrooms.  It will probably take years for us to realize the full impact of what this movement/change is actually all about. I personally have become increasingly more aware with each step we that perhaps at the heart of this is about the way we value (or don't value) each individual person's voice. This definition and explanation of inclusion that I came across in the article Promoting a Lifetime of Inclusion recently speaks a bit to the depth of what this has become about...
“Inclusion is not a place; instead it is a lifestyle in which a person is an active participant in his or her life, rather than a passive observer and recipient of decisions someone else has made. To this end, inclusion promotes quality of life by (a) empowering individuals to have control over their own lives, (b) providing individuals with the opportunity to select the lives of their choosing, and (c) conferring individuals with the sociopolitical power to defend their choices. Thus, in sum, the conceptual basis of inclusion is to create a life that is both satisfying and successful for a person with a disability.”
Much of what we are trying to do through this process is rooted in person centered planning approaches.  One of the key elements of this approach is to foster the skills and conditions necessary for students to develop self-determination and self-advocacy skills so that they will be able to live self-directed adult lives.  This means making a distinction between aiming for "independence" and aiming for "autonomy" and ensuring that awareness guides the work that we do.  Independent task completion is meaningless if you don't have a voice in your life.
We need to ensure that this is not actually a fact. This means thinking about what we may be doing to get in the way of people being able to advocate for themselves.  We need to ensure that when we take on the role of "speaking for" someone else we are not actually speaking for them, but rather opening the door and/or providing the accommodations or facilitating the learning of the skills that they need to speak for themselves. We need to ensure that we have a broad enough definition of "speaking" to ensure that everyone has a voice. We need to make sure that the people who deeply know a person who does not "speak" in conventional ways is present when planning with individuals with disabilities as they are the ones who will have the best insight in to what that person is actually communicating.

It has now been 3.5 years since we took the first steps toward a more physically inclusive approach to programming for the students that I used to teach in a segregated self-contained 1-12 classroom. It has only been 1.5 years since all of these students have been in age-appropriate schools and for some it has only been a half year since they have been integrated in to general education classes.  Some of these students have a schooling history that is almost completely related to being in a self-contained classroom for a large majority of their time.  It has taken time for all of us (the students and those of us who support them) to become familiar and comfortable with a very different social world from what we all had known in the world of self-contained education.  The process has been, and continues to be, organic. As is the case in most of education, practice often precedes deep professional learning which precedes our practice becoming more effective.  It is often something we experience as a teacher that makes us rethink our long-held beliefs and then search out the information to try to deal with our cognitive dissonance. This process has often involved stepping back and rethinking many of our beliefs and practices. It has also often involved an evaluation of whether we are actually acting in a way that aligns with what we say we believe.

Sometimes through this process, our next step gets defined by the actions of one the students that we are serving.  This time it happened to be a young man who is currently in grade 12 at our high school.  He spent the first years of his education in an inclusive classroom and then in grade 3 he moved into a self-contained classroom.  He remained in that same classroom based in a k-6 elementary school until he was finished grade 10. Then he, along with two other students from the classroom, moved to the high school and continued with a self-contained program there. We did put a large focus last year on becoming familiar with the high school and getting out of the room they were in as often as possible to ensure interactions with other students and staff.  Over time, the room actually became a social "hang-out" and study room for other students and these students were socially included for the first time in many years.  Their academic programs continued to focus on the development of literacy and communication skills in the middle of an increasingly broad range of content so that those of us who work with them could come to understand how these skills could be embedded in to programs situated in general education classrooms.

Starting in September of this school year, this student has finally been re-integrated in to general education classes.  His whole demeanor and skill set has changed in this past year and a half as he has connected with same-aged peers and has been exposed to meaningful reasons to develop literacy and communication skills.  He has even been able to gain significantly more control in using his head switch system with power mobility... something we had worked on for years in the self-contained setting but saw very few gains. I wonder if this is not also related to a new motivation in regards to the new level of freedom and control he has over his life in the middle of a programming approach that puts human connection front and center.

One of our focus areas this year has been to incorporate the iPad in to his program, learning and communication.  We started out with his interest in sharing his stories.  To this point we have been doing that through the use of a step-by-step switch where we work with him to record an outline of what has happened during the day or evening and speaking with him using his PODD communication system about these things.  This year we have been able to take pictures throughout his day and use the Pictello app to work with him to put together stories that he is able to share with others.  Once he had the stories, his desire to share them with anyone who would listen exploded.  It was not enough to just carry them home to his parents and siblings.  He began telling others around the school, family members and basically anyone who would listen to him.  People were impressed and engaged!  I was amazed at the impact that giving him this small tool to self-advocate had on increasing people's awareness of what his capacity really is.  All the talk in the world by us about "presuming competence" did little in comparison to the emotion and responsiveness that he displayed, and then was mirrored by others, through the process sharing these stories.

It has become clear over these past couple of months that it is time to move from our initial focus on "general education membership" (really - just being there) and "social inclusion" and begin to address a larger picture. There are so many parts of this that we still need to figure out.  The hard part sometimes is figuring out what is the next manageable step. This student made it clear to me that we are now positioned in a way that it should no longer be just us (the "professionals") advocating for these students. By the definition of inclusion above it doesn't even make sense that it would be inclusive if that is our approach. This student has demonstrated that he is clearly able to advocate for himself.  We just needed to give him the tool to do it. It makes it clear that we need to start looking for what we can do to facilitate this for all of them.  

Which is a long lead in to my focus as we move in to this new year.  The challenge in all of this is that it always seems too big with so many different things to focus on.  It's important to continually find and define what our current "North Star" is. The other challenge is that each time we try to aim towards a new "North Star" it begins as a messy process. It also is hard at times to keep the focus because learning new skills can be a long process and we do not always see enough of the dream fast enough to have the motivation to keep going. We always have to be okay with just taking little steps at first and that can be hard as we live in a society and work in a system that values end product more than process. 

I have looked many times at the website I'm Determined and have thought about how important it is to pull students in to the IPP (in Alberta, we have IPPs instead of IEPs) process but I have hesitated because of the communication barriers that I have assumed exist for the students that I work with.  As I looked through it again this past week, now with the experience of seeing this "non-verbal" student tell his stories, I began outlining the modifications that I could make to the resources to ensure that the students I work with could meaningfully participate in their IPP meetings. I also noted that when they started this project they started small and recognized that there was a need to step-by-step teach students who to be involved in this process. 

At the same time, I have been working on creating online (private) "Learning Portfolios" for all of the students that I work over the past couple of months.  The idea was to have them (with the appropriate support) start adding to these portfolios as part of their literacy programs after our Christmas break. The categories on their portfolios are the same as their IPP focus areas.  
These learning portfolios are meant to serve several purposes:
  • Act as a tool for communication with all the team members that are involved with these student's programs.  Information about the student and his/her goals as well as progress towards those goals will be included.
  • Act as a tool to inform our practice.  The posts will serve as great conversations starters around what is working, what isn't, what supports we need to put in place, which ones we can pull off, how we can expand skills in some activity...etc.  
  • Allow the student's to understand and share their progress towards their IPP goals.  By having them be a part of the process of updating it, we can have conversations with them about their goals, accommodations, supports, preferences...etc. We can also celebrate with them and give them a tool that they can share and celebrate with others (as although we are working on communication, many of them are not able to share this depth of story completely independently). 
It seemed enough to just start here but the I'm Determined website kept coming back and right now I can see a simple first step in to involvement in IPPs through the use of this blogs.  I can see that we can bring the students in March IPP meetings and have them actively involved in the conversations if we ensure that the posts that are put up on the portfolio are picture rich.  I can see that we can take another step in to deeper involvement in IPPs when June comes around as students can prepare for them by using what is in their portfolios.

The added bonus for me is that there always seems to be a list too long to tackle in what to do next with any one of these students.  This will help focus us in on the part of the picture that currently has the most energy around it and we can move forward with that as it is so much easier to move forward when their is motivation for that move. 

The "perfect use" of a tool like this will be a long time in the making but we will never get there if we don's start trying and figure out whatever little piece we can right now.  We can begin to create a more defined framework for it all as we learn with these students.  Ultimately, the goal would be for it be something we use to guide practice rather than "just paperwork that has to be done".

I'm excited to see where it takes us... 

Saturday, December 28, 2013

A Full and Meaningful Life

"Today I still have limitations, difficulties and deficits, but they do not define me. Instead they inform me. I can plan my life accordingly, ensuring supports, down time and accommodations so I can be the human being I want to be in this world. Today I have a full and meaningful life. I am content and happy and I am still just as autistic as I have always been." 

Sometimes I find it hard to balance my job and parenting a child with "disabilities" particularly given the fact that my son (Mikey) is on my "case load" at work. There are benefits and drawbacks to being both his mother and his "case manager"/"inclusion facilitator".  

Perhaps the biggest benefit is that it allows me to see his education and the education of all the students and families that I serve as being about more than just the years and hours that they will spend at school.  It puts me in the position to analyze the questions around the purpose of education for students who will require some level of support for their entire lives.  Is it the same as it is for any other child?  Are there things we need to consider for this population that we do not need to consider for others? 

I do not pretend to have all the answers.  I don't think anyone does.  It's why we need to engage and explore in the process of trying to define it all more clearly.  We are living in exciting times as we are now able to gain insight from so many individuals that in the past we may not have been able to gain insight from as they had no way to communicate their perspectives to us.  But there are many who can still not speak for themselves in conventionally defined ways.  My son, and most of the students that I work with, have "limited verbal abilities".  This means that we need to continually seek out ways to enhance his ability to communicate through the exploration of augmentative and alternative communication (AAC) but it also means that we have to be aware of all the things he is continually communicating in more "non-conventional" ways.  

And when it comes to facilitating a self-determined life for him (the ultimate goal that all parents seek for their children), it means that our children may not be able to spontaneously tell us what they like, want or desire so we need to do the work to expose them to as much of the world as we can and then "listen" to their often non-verbal responses. What ignites their passion?

Sometimes providing those opportunities might even mean having to touch a snake... 

It means when we create the social experiences that are just part of growing up we need to be aware of the small modifications we might need to make to help our children to cope with the over-stimulating environments or the fact that these experiences often require a way to interact and communicate with others. Sometime it means facilitating that. Sometimes it means teaching others around your child what your child is "saying".  Sometimes it means getting out of the way and letting them figure it out as kids seem to be better able to understand communication without words then we are at times. Sometimes it means providing them with a way to communicate what is needed. We don't avoid them because at first they might seem to be too much. We try them and watch for how our children respond as that is the way they will communicate to us what our next steps on the path could be...

And through it all, you stand back and look for ways to increase agency.  You look for ways to not just provide the experience but to ensure your child can engage in the experience.  

Over time, you keep looking for those things that really grab your child so that you can create more opportunities and experiences in the areas that other children would tell their parents they want to do.  The snake was obviously not a hit so, much to my relief, we didn't do a whole lot more with reptiles as time has gone on.  On the flip side, it has become clear to me that he loves to engage in the scientific process of figuring something out through trial and error so we didn't steer clear of everything science related.

This continuum of engagement helps me to better interpret what his interest level in things are.  I do always remember though that he is an observer by nature and there will be times where he is "passive" and "obedient" for a long time even when it is something that is highly interesting to him.

passive -- obedient -- participatory -- inquisitive -- autonomous -- committed

I'm writing this post as a mom but it is reflective of what I believe about the education of the students that I work with. It matters when we work with students that we are clear on what we believe the purpose of their education to be. On the top of my blog I put the statement: "Exploring meaningful pathways to inclusive and personalized learning for students with complex learning differences and disabilities because education should prepare all students for a lifetime of learning."

Are we there?  Do we see students with complex needs as candidates for being "lifelong learners"?  How do we facilitate what it takes for them to be able to do that?  I don't know the answers.  I don't think any one person can.  It's why having the village is so important.  It's why natural supports are so important.  It's why exploring and finding the things that will motivate someone to engage and learn is so important.  I don't have any illusions that we will find all the answers.  The question really is always going to be what is the next small thing that we can do that will bring us one step closer? 

"Better to have a short life that is full of what you like
doing than a long life spent in a miserable way."

Sunday, December 15, 2013

Worth Thinking About: Reacting or Responding

Reminded me of Ross Greene's philosophy of

I post new "Worth Thinking About" questions on Sundays. 
In reality, some might be more "and" statements rather than "or" statements. It is about finding the right balance so that we are aware enough to be effective in supporting student learning.

Click here to check out more "Worth Thinking About" posts.

Saturday, December 7, 2013

Masters Capstone

A week ago, I attended our second last formal gathering with the masters cohort that I have been learning with and from for the past 2.5 years.  The next time we will get together as a group is in April to present our Capstones.  These past 2.5 years of balancing going to school, work, parenting and personal have been far from easy but I would never trade the experience and learning and getting to know the amazing people in this cohort for "easy".  I'm humbled every time I get together this this group of educators as the passion and compassion that they have for education, students and humanity shines through in everything they say, share and do.

The process has been even more meaningful as it has occurred at the same time as my job and the way we serve the students that I work with has evolved.  We started this program in July 2011 and in September 2011 we began the process of making the general education classroom the primary placement for the students that I had, to that point, taught in a self-contained classroom based out of an elementary school.  I would be lying if I said the process of moving these students to age appropriate schools and taking the first steps in figuring out a different starting point has been smooth.  I would be lying if I said we have it all figured out. What I do know is that the growth and learning that I have witnessed in these students (and some of the students around them) is substantially larger then what I witnessed when I was teaching them in a self-contained classroom. I see a confidence and happiness in each of them that is different from what was there before. We are all dreaming different dreams for them and exploring learning possibilities that just could never be available to them in a setting segregated from their peers. I would go so far as to say that we are redefining what education means for this population of students through this process. 

I've learned a lot but there are times when it is evident that it is probably just the tip of the iceberg as the we are still really in the infancy of figuring this out.  It is only in my lifetime that it has even been a requirement that we provide an education to those who fit the profile of the students I work with. There is still so much to learn. 

Personally, I have to take a deep look at my own established "mental models" often through this process.  It has required finding time to reflect more deeply to ensure that we aren't just doing things because that is the way we always did them.  Most important in this journey for me has been the experiences of really listening to those who are the true experts - self-advocates.  We need to listen both to those who can use words to communicate and those who cannot.  There are so many people stepping forward to tell their experiences which can help us to better understand and hopefully create educational (and life) approaches with our students rather than for our students.

I've learned to attend more closely to what is going on... to step back and try to figure out all the subtleties of the situation rather than just immediately reacting and trying to "fix things".  I've learned that sometimes helping doesn't actually help at all.  I've learned that sometimes overcoming a barrier through struggle is the greatest learning experience for both myself and others.  I've learned that we all have our own pre-defined beliefs and experiences that will impact how we interpret any situation. It's been more of a personal than a professional journey in many ways.  But perhaps there is not as much of a defining line between the two as present-day society would want us to believe. 

And here I sit... feeling that finally I am coming to a point of this making sense... not in the lets wrap this up and be done with it kind of way, but rather in the I see where this is just the first step on a journey kind of way.  This experience has changed me and impacted what my hopes and dreams. 

It wasn't really that difficult to piece together my focus for this Capstone  As interested as I am in the larger picture of "inclusive practices" in education, what drives me is tied to inclusive education for students with complex needs.  What does it take?  How do we ensure coherent, comprehensive, and continuous programs for this population is we are serving them in the general education setting?  Can we create the same continuity and cohesion to their programs as we could if we educated them in self-contained classrooms with a specialized teacher that they often stay with for years?  Should we be aiming for that if we reference the concept of "dignity of risk"?   What framework and supports would make this sustainable? 

We so often try to define the problem and solution with the mental models that we currently have. We hear only what we recognize. We interpret things based on our experiences and feelings.  We then draw the same conclusions that we have drawn before. 
"We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them." (Albert Einstein)
When we think about educating students with complex needs (any students, actually), we often fall back on a curriculum-driven perspective.  This keeps us stuck in believing that we need a duo-track system to serve the needs of students who just fit too far out of the bounds of how we currently deliver and assess curriculum.

What if we shift the paradigm and thought of education for students with complex needs (any students, actually) to an inquiry based perspective rather than our curriculum driven perspective?  What if we saw the education of these students as a multi-year process of working with the student and those who are naturally a part of the student's life to figure out how to ensure increases in the areas of access, engagement and autonomy?  Is it possible to equip any student, even those with what we consider the "most severe challenges", for a lifetime of learning? 

A lot of it ties to the heart of "Person Centered Planning".  It's been around for  quite some time now in the field of "disability".  It's a great idea but has it been realized in practice... and, more specifically, has it been realized in the way we educate students with "disabilities"?   Can we realize it within the current structures and belief systems? 

There are a lot of questions and a lot of thoughts.  It seems only fitting that it is now time to pull it all together.  To look at what has been accomplished and what we still have to accomplish and begin to piece together a framework that fits in to our current and evolving context.  This is what my last step in my masters journey will be.  I'm excited about it. 

Sunday, December 1, 2013

Enabling does not equal empowering...

To enable is to "supply with the means, knowledge, or opportunity" to achieve a goal. We enable others by minimizing barriers, helping them and possibly even by creating extrinsic rewards or consequences to "encourage" them to move in the direction of the goal. When we enable someone we may end up setting too low of standards, doing too much for them, over-focusing on the rote what and how, stepping in and rescuing or directing when things are not getting done. We give people structures because "they like structure". Enabling a person often leaves the power in the hands of someone outside of the person who is being enabled. At the end of the day, that person is able to do the task but doesn't necessarily have control over the choice to do it.  Is that person independent?  Is that person autonomous?  What is learned helplessness in reference to the idea of independence and autonomy?  

Empowering, on the other hand, involves turning over control to another person and then trusting that they have the ability to reach a goal. When we empower we start from a place of faith in another person. We don't judge.  We focus on our own behaviour rather than the behaviour of the other person. We provide information and engage in collaborative problem solving.  We have discussions about "why" rather than about "how".  We are patient through what is sometimes an incredibly messy process because of the potential for it to lead to authentic learning, understanding and intrinsic motivation.

Enabling is clean and simple. The path from point A to point B is generally linear. That path is predefined and the steps are predefined and if one missteps off the path, someone will step in to make sure that person gets back on the path. You can make a series of check marks. It looks good. It looks like something is being done. It can usually be measured quantitatively. It is associated with what we have traditionally defined as "success". 

The empowering process can be confusing, messy and complex.  It leads to "mistakes" and "failure" and possibly even to hard feelings and negative emotional responses. Getting from point A to point B takes longer and the path is not direct and sometimes it is not even clear which direction one is heading in. It may seem chaotic and out of control. In the middle of it, we may long to fall back on something simpler - something already known - to generate some relief. 

We have traditionally focused education through the enabling lens and our focus has been on achievement and performance.  As we shift over to an empowering lens, our focus moves to growth and learning. Students (people in general) will avoid things they still need to learn if we put too much of an emphasis on achievement and performance. Nobody wants to put themselves in the vulnerable position of looking like a "failure" and if we focus only on the final product when you don't get there because you are still exploring and learning, others might interpret it that you have failed.  We don't want that... so we step in and enable.  But is that the right way?  Couldn't we just recognize that we all need different amounts of times and ways to explore and learn?  If it is about learning and you can state what you have learned despite what product you produced at any given step, learning and success take on a different meaning.  

In reality, successful learning seems to be a product of reflecting on and responding to what we have traditionally labeled as "mistakes".  If we keep trying to figure out another way we have not failed. It's when we begin to see "mistakes" as "the process of learning" that we can begin to redefine "success".  It allows us to develop the "grit" that Angela Lee Duckworth talks about in her TED Talk. 
Towards the end of this talk, Angela Lee Duckworth states that we know very little about building grit.  Yet the other day I talked with a group of grade 5 students about things they have learned "without teachers" and each of them explained a process that involved a lot grit.  Perhaps what we don't know much about is grit in the formal learning setting where the student is going be given a "grade" for what they are learning.   

Sunday, November 24, 2013

Worth Thinking About: Deficit in the Child or Deficit in the System

Reminded me of Jonathan Mooney's belief that "people don't have disabilities
but experience disabilities in environments that aren't accommodating or
inclusive of the wide continuum of human differences."

I post a new "Worth Thinking About" question each Sunday. 
In reality, some might be more "and" statements rather than "or" statements. It is about finding the right balance so that we are aware enough to be effective in supporting student learning.

Click here to check out more "Worth Thinking About" posts.