Spotlight Teacher of the Month: Kevin Jackson

Spotlight Teacher Kevin JacksonPosition: Special Education Teacher
District: Beaumont ISD, Texas

Kevin Jackson is brand new to Rethink, but already, after only a semester of use, he has seen first hand the tremendous impact using Rethink can have on students as well as the impact it has had on his own teaching practice. Kevin works as a special education teacher in a classroom designed to support students with behavioral challenges. Since he began using Rethink to target specific behaviors for his students, he has seen students take more accountability for their actions, engage in more positive behaviors, and seen an overall reduction in problem behavior.

Kevin regularly utilizes two aspects of Rethink: Behavior Support and the Student Activity Center. Kevin will identify specific challenging behaviors that he wants to target for each student, and use Rethink to set up the behavior, develop an intervention plan, and track the behavior. Additionally, Kevin will identify each students’ skill deficits, and use the Rethink Activity Center to teach students the skills they need to acquire, giving them 20 minutes of online time a day to complete activities and practice skills.

One of Kevin Jackson’s students completes an activity on Rethink’s Student Activity Center

 “A lot of times seeing is believing. If they see their behavior data and they know their parents are going to see it, they are more motivated and take more responsibility. And when they see that they are doing well, they brag on themselves.”



By using these two features side by side, Kevin is able to reduce challenging behaviors and support students in building the skills they need for success. Using Rethink in this way has helped Kevin establish clear routines and practices in the classroom, making everything run more smoothly. As they have gotten into the groove of using Rethink every day, Kevin says his students have begun feeling excited about the 20 minutes they get to spend on Rethink every day.

In addition to supporting his students in reducing challenging behavior, Kevin has found that Rethink has shaped his own teaching practice. He particularly likes how Rethink’s Behavior support has encouraged him to isolate one behavior at a time rather than tackle everything at once. “Before I started using Rethink, I was trying to track everything at once and it was overwhelming,” explained Kevin, “Rethink encourages me to target specific behaviors and figure out what really works for that behavior, and then move onto the next.”

1041Rethink has also helped Kevin run more consistent data, which he says has lead to more accountability amongst his students. Not only do students feel more accountable when Kevin can go in and see whether they were actually working, but regularly showing students their own behavior data has helped them take more responsibility for their actions. “They feel more responsible for their own behavior,” said Kevin. “A lot of times seeing is believing. If they see their behavior data and they know their parents are going to see it, they are more motivated and take more responsibility. And when they see that they are doing well, they brag on themselves.”

Keep up the incredible work, Kevin! Congratulation on being this month’s Spotlight Teacher!

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Webinar Recap: Promoting Social Emotional Wellness Among Transition Age Youth with ASD


Addressing the Challenges Facing Transition Age Youth with ASD

Rethink recently had the amazing opportunity to host a webinar on the topic of social emotional wellness for transition age youth with ASD.  We were privileged to be joined by three talented professionals, each with their own unique perspectives to share on the topic.  Anne Roux is a researcher at the Drexel Institute and has published extensively on the topic.  Kimberly Smalley is an autism clinical specialist and behavior analyst with many years of experience providing behavioral services to individuals with autism of all ages.  Finally, we were lucky to be joined by Maurice Snell, a development coordinator at Easter Seals, and an adult with ASD who was able to share with us his own experience of growing up and transitioning to adulthood with autism.

What is the Services Cliff?

Over the last year the phrase “services cliff” has become a staple of the standard lexicon used in autism circles.  The term refers to the drop off of services that occurs for young adults with autism as they transition out of high school and into adulthood, often a time when, as new research suggests, services might be most valuable. Because there is no federal mandate to provide supportive services in adulthood, families are often left struggling to find adequate support for their children on their own, with seventy percent reporting that “some” or “great” effort was needed to access services after high school.

How Does Social Emotional Wellness Fit In?

Further compounding the problem is that 60-70% of these young adults with ASD also have a co-occurring health or mental health condition, with 3/4 of youth taking at least 1 medication on a regular basis for a co-occurring condition.  We also know that young adults with ASD are significantly more likely to suffer from depression than their peers. What we do not yet know is exactly how mental health conditions impact individuals with autism.  

Whether or not a young adult suffers from a mental health condition, one of the key features of an autism diagnosis is difficulty relating to other people, and without the community school provides, this can then tend to leave young adults with autism feeling isolated and alone upon graduating. A Drexel Institute study found that 1 in 4 young adults with autism had not seen or spoken with friends in the past year.

The goal of the webinar was to better understand the research, what some of the systemic problems are, and to discover different ways that they can be addressed.

Challenges and Solutions

During the webinar Roux reviewed the current research she has done with the Drexel Institute, laying out some of the issues, including the lack of coordinate services, lack of planning and preparation when students are still in school, and a knowledge gap in the research on the relationship between autism and mental health conditions.   

Kimberly Smalley who works in California discussed some of the things she has seen be successful in her own practice.  For instance, California operates a regional system, which in some cases pulls together multidisciplinary teams through telehealth, allowing disability and health service providers to talk to one another and to parents.

Smalley also emphasized the importance of teaching students the social skills they will need to build relationships and live meaningful adult lives. For instance, she worked with a group of boys to specifically teach them self-advocacy and self-determination.  She would break the components of self-determination into small task analyses in the same way she would any other skill, and then use rapid fluency to help them learn things like things you can say on a date or in a job interview.  For Smalley, it is always important to keep the long view in mind.  “We continue to fight the myth that autism goes away in adulthood,” she explained, “we need to empower youth with ASD to be responsible for what they can do to make themselves comfortable in the world.”

Both Roux and Smalley agreed that better supports can be put in place before young adults transition that set them up for success.  Leaving school with a job or community is still the best predictor of success in life beyond school.  Schools, parents, and communities can all help by ensuring that young adults with autism have employment opportunities while still in school and communities can make a point to have places students can transition to after school through jobs programs and volunteer programs.

Snell agreed, sharing his own personal account of how important his church community was in making him feel like he had a social community while in school that extended into adulthood.  He also commended his supportive family that went to great lengths to ensure he was in a supportive school community where he was encouraged to get involved in extracurricular activities, like marching band and ROTC, and always provided him with a social life outside of school. His sister is one of his best friends.

View The Webinar On Demand!

Watch the webinar on demand to learn more from our guests about the current research, practical strategies for teaching social emotional wellness, and real life accounts of what works and what does not, we encourage you to check out the slides and watch the entire webinar!

View Webinar



Kimberly Smalley, PhD BCBA-D

Dr. Smalley is the Autism clinical specialist/behavior analyst for the Redwood Coast Regional Center. A Certified behavior analyst since 1987, she has provided behavioral services in every environment to individuals of all ages. She has taught grade school and university; served in institutions here and overseas; worked in Government; Psychiatric hospitals; group homes; vocational settings; and within the criminal justice system. She considers herself first and foremost an advocate.




Anne Roux, MPH, MA

Ms. Roux is a research scientist at Drexel University. She holds a master’s degree in public health from Washington University in St. Louis, where she completed training in health communication and participated in a NIMH pre-doctoral fellowship in Social Work. She also holds a master’s degree in speech-language pathology and has 15 years of clinical experience in autism early intervention.  Anne is also a parent to two youth on the autism spectrum. She currently serves on the Health Care Transition Research Network for Autism Spectrum Disorders, the Autistic Global Initiative’s advisory committee, and the Autism Treatment Network’s AIR-P health disparities and family advisory committees.



Maurice Snell, Development Coordinator, Easter Seals, Adult with ASD

Mr. Snell, 32, has beaten the odds. A young man living with Autism Spectrum Disorder — commonly known as autism — he has a college degree and a job. For many with autism, such achievements are beyond reach. Maurice, however, exhibits milder effects of the complex neurological disorder. Despite that advantage, Maurice’s future was uncertain for most of his childhood. For years Maurice was nonverbal, and no one had an answer until, at age six, he was diagnosed with autism. Maurice attended Easter Seals Therapuetic Day School before transferring to the high school where his mother taught, graduating 13th in his class and earning a 3.5 grade point average. In May 2006 Maurice received his bachelor’s degree from Saint Xavier University in Chicago, with a major in Liberal Studies and minors in Spanish and Concert Band. Maurice is currently employed as the Development Coordinator at Easter Seals Metropolitan Chicago’s Central Office.

Besides his job at Easter Seals Metropolitan Chicago, Maurice partners with another former Easter Seals client in a four-person band called the Naturals.  They travel around the Chicagoland area and showcase their musical talent to many people, always sharing their motto: “We don’t let autism get in the way of our music!”

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Special Education and Its Discontents

special education discontents

Better training, support, and resources are key to retaining special education staff in 2016

In the world of special education, now, it seems, is the winter of our discontent. With 49 out of 50 states reporting special education teacher shortages and story after story in the media highlighting the problems plaguing special education, it’s frightening to think about the impact teachers leaving the profession may have on the quality of special education services for students with disabilities. Now more than ever it is crucial that policy makers and school district leaders develop creative ways to retain and recruit quality special educators.

In a recent NPR article, David Pennington, superintendent of Ponca City public schools in Oklahoma, called the situation a crisis, expressing deep concern over his ability to replace special education teachers leaving the profession: “Forget about replacing them with someone of the same quality,” he told NPR. “I’m just worried about replacing them. Period.”

More Paperwork Means Less Time for Teaching

Some of the issues special educators report facing include feeling overwhelmed by paperwork and documentation, fear of lawsuits, feeling isolated from colleagues, and struggling to meet the demands of students with the most intensive needs due to lack of training, time and support.

With all the paperwork and other demands of being a special educator, teachers complain of having little time left for actually teaching students. A 2011 study conducted by Donald Deshler at the University of Kansas, found that special ed teachers spend just 27 percent of their day engaged in classroom instruction, and only 21 percent engaged in specialized instruction in which they are using evidence-based teaching methods focused on individual students’ needs.

As Pennington told NPR, “It is not uncommon for a special ed teacher to tell me, ‘I did not get a degree in special ed to do paperwork. I got a degree to help kids.’ ” In most cases, it is not that teachers don’t want to spend more time teaching, it is that they simply do not have the time.  

Lack of Training Amongst Support Staff

Another problem facing special educators is a lack of training. A lack of training can make teachers feel inadequate and less effective in the classroom, and can also lead to inefficiencies, which make their already difficult jobs seem impossible.

Lack of training is of particular concern when it comes to one-to-one paraprofessionals, and is an issue that has only recently gained visibility thanks to media coverage over the last few months. As the fastest growing group of special education staffers, one-to-one paraprofessionals are also the most inefficient, says recent research. Without all the other pressures facing teachers, research found that the one-to-one paraprofessionals observed spent only 57 percent of their time in the classroom engaged in instruction, and when not engaged, about a third “spent their time sitting without students or material involvement.”  

Researchers suggested that one of the key issues at play was a lack of training. Paraprofessionals lack training in evidence-based practices for working effectively with students with disabilities and supervisory staff lack training in how to engage and train their paraprofessionals. In both cases, the burden falls on the teacher.  If paraprofessionals are not adequately trained and engaged in instruction and other activities, teachers are often left compensating.

So What Now?

In Politico’s education predictions for 2016, Brian Sharp, Rethink’s executive vice president for education, emphasized the importance of quality training and support for special educators in 2016: “We’ve known for some time that teachers and paraprofessionals don’t feel they are getting the training they need, but there have been a flurry of news stories in recent months on the challenges these educators face and if schools don’t do something, they may see a sizable exodus in 2016.”

Providing teachers and paraprofessional staff more training in effective evidence-based practices for working with children with disabilities will help alleviate some of the pressure on teachers by empowering paraprofessionals to be more effective in the classroom and share some of the workload. Additionally, providing teachers with more just-in-time training and professional development can help free up time for instruction and support teachers in staying engaged in evidence-based instruction 100% of the time.

The good news is, progress is being made. A recent Education Week story highlighted some of the work non-profits and technology companies like Rethink are doing to provide better training to paraprofessional staff and more on-demand special education resources, while an AP story published in October revealed how New York City Public Schools, the largest school district in the country, is partnering with Rethink to provide paraprofessionals access to evidence-based training and support for effectively working with students with special needs.

Ensuring that teachers have access to better resources and supports that save them time and support them in being effective with students, and that all staffers working with students with disabilities have access to high-quality training in evidence-based practices is the first step in retaining and recruiting the top-notch professionals we need to provide students with disabilities the education they deserve.


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Spotlight Teacher of the Month: Robyn Merkel-Walsh, MA, CCC-SLP

mybioPosition: Speech and Language Specialist
District: Ridgefield, New Jersey

One of the key things that Rethink prides itself in is its flexibility and value across the special education profession. While we primarily think of Rethink as a resource for teachers, its value to paraprofessionals as a training and professional development resource but also to special service providers, like speech and language pathologists, cannot be understated.

That is why this month we chose to spotlight a speech and language specialist working in New Jersey who views Rethink as an invaluable tool for teaching and data collection, but also for collaboration with her students’ classroom teachers.  We wanted to get Robyn Walsh’s unique perspective on the value of Rethink in speech therapy.

Q&A with Spotlight Teacher Robyn Walsh, Speech and Language Specialist

Rethink: Can you describe how you have incorporated Rethink into your therapy routines and teaching practice?

Robyn Walsh (RW): As an oral-motor, Oral Placement Therapy (OPT), and feeding specialist, Rethink has helped me track data on pre-feeding, feeding, OPT and speech clarity programs. I customized all my goals and objectives into Rethink, with coordinating lesson plans. Now when students transfer to our upper extension program, the therapists know exactly what the student is working on. The Rethink program has also helped collect data for case study research, as well as authoring articles on OPT and Autism Spectrum Disorder. Data was used for presentations at this year’s American Speech and Hearing Association annual convention in Denver Colorado. One poster was presented on the comparison of NSOME and OPT, and the other was a verbal lecture on the correlation between jaw movements and speech.

Secondly, the Rethink program was utilized to create a district wide screening tool for all students receiving speech and language as a related service. This screening tool included: receptive and expressive actions, curriculum based vocabulary, object ID, labeling common objects, categories, oral motor imitation, articulation, object functions, same and different and object associations. This screening measure established a baseline tool to create not only speech and language programs, but assisted the classroom teachers on creating objectives, selecting programs and vocabulary targets. Based on the success of my Primary Screening, the speech team created a Secondary Screening for those students who have mastered programs at the primary level.

Rethink: What have been the most valuable aspects of Rethink to your instruction and/or students?

RW: Intricate oral-motor, feeding and OPT programs are sometimes challenging to explain to parents and other staff members. Rethink has helped break down these programs into small steps that make these programs easier to understand and helps to provide trackable data. It has also helped determine if a pre-feeding program is helping feeding skills, and if an OPT program is helping speech clarity. If the data is not positive, a student program can be changed, and if a program is helping a child the parent is able to see clear progress. Rethink has also made data collection and artifact logs easier for teacher effectiveness. The language based screening tools have helped establish a target curriculum for our speech department. It helped us share ideas and come together as a team.

“When the staff communicates, the children have maximum potential for success. Rethink allows the therapists to view teacher data and the teacher to view therapy data. We can share goals or we can choose to coordinate similar goals in different contexts. This is a key for generalization of skills. Rethink bridges the gap.”

Rethink: What is one problem or issue you have had in your practice that Rethink helped solve?

RW: In the field of Speech Pathology, Oral Placement Therapy is often confused with “non speech oral motor exercises” which are tasks that are unrelated to speech. Rethink helps ease this confusion by providing evidence-based clinical tracking of programs in relation to speech articulation and language output. The professional graphs created by Rethink are very helpful in analyzing student progress or lack thereof, and helps us track what may be enhancing or hampering student growth.

As the Board Chair of the Oral Motor Institute, and as an instructor Evidenced Based Practice is very important to me. This is why I write, teach and collect clinical data. Many parents seek information on how specific methods of therapy help their children. Rethink has helped ease the minds of many parents and therapists alike, because it shows clear correlation between therapy tasks and speech and language progress. jawgradinggraph

Rethink:  What advice would you give to a teacher or therapist new to Rethink?

RW: At first, it may appear that Rethink is only applicable to discrete trial teaching, because historically graphing student growth via graphs is an ABA method. Rethink is unique because it can be customized to suit both discrete trial teaching and therapeutic interventions. I encourage therapists to give the program time, and to learn how to add your own programs into the software.

Rethink: What is the greatest student success you have seen through utilizing Rethink?

RW: One of my students was really was not progressing in speech and language using traditional methods, so his mother requests a detailed Oral Placement Therapy evaluation. Based on the evaluation, programs were created and tracked. More specifically, lingual range of motion was a huge problem due to a tongue tie. Post surgically, Rethink helped me track lingual range of motion and the relation to tongue tip sounds. This showed a correlation of how practicing tongue tip lateralization with Zvibes , and tongue retraction with horns, bubbles and straws impacted the sounds /t/, /d/, /n/,/l/, /k/, and /g/. The parent was very pleased with the progress and expressive skills data has also increased since the child has an improved phonemic inventory.


Rethink:  Why do you believe Rethink is valuable to special educators?

RW: Rethink helps with lesson planning, activities and tracking outcomes of lessons and therapy sessions. Its possibilities are endless. Each educator can customize the program to their own needs, yet it has many established programs and activities at the touch of the tool bar. It takes away the need for manual graphing and makes data tracking much easier. Most importantly, everyone on the child’s team can see the overall program, rather than isolated programs in different settings.

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A Special Holiday Thank You to Rethink Educators

iStock_000021711645_DoubleWe are thankful for teachers everywhere, especially Rethink educators, whose work makes our jobs worthwhile.

By Dr. Patricia Wright

As the calendar year winds to a close, many of us are reflecting on what we are personally thankful for celebrating the many privileges our lives afford. As work is an important aspect of my life, I am sincerely thankful for my Rethink colleagues, our Rethink customers and our shared work in improving the lives of those living with disabilities. There is much to be thankful for at Rethink.

One of the greatest gifts educator’s experience is participating in student learning. I am thankful for the educators that spend every day with students ensuring that they achieve their optimal life outcomes. Teachers like Jennifer Harris who supported a student with effective teaching that was truly life changing for him and his family. Her student may have the opportunity to return home from a residential placement. Teachers like Dmitry Libman and Kara O’Donnell, who believe it is their job to ensure students leave school and enter adulthood with meaningful skills that promote employment possibilities and result in positive social relationships.

Rethink wants to thank all of the teachers who have dedicated their careers to educating children. Our Thank a Teacher campaign affords you an opportunity to thank a teacher who had made an impact on you. one of your students or one or your children or family members. Teachers are influential in all of our lives, they deserve our thanks for their dedicated service.


To all of our Rethink educators – we are grateful for your service. We thank you for supporting children to lead meaningful lives and we look forward to our continued shared work in 2016.


150x150_patriciaDr. Patricia Wright is Rethink’s VP of Professional Services and a Board Certified Behavior Analyst. Prior to joining Rethink, she was the National Director for Autism Services at Easter Seals, one of the largest social service providers for individuals with autism. Dr. Wright has a passion for education and has dedicated her career to ensuring that individuals with disabilities are fully included in society.





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4 Tips for Setting Students Up for Success in Inclusion

Tips for Setting Students Up for Success in Inclusion

Making specific decisions about the goals you write and the kinds of data you collect is crucial to student success in inclusion

As special education teachers, it is our job to ensure that all students are presented with meaningful inclusion opportunities. LRE, after all, is the law. But it is also important that students are included when they are ready to be included and that they receive the supports and accommodations they need to be successful when in inclusive settings.

It is imperative that all students receive setting-appropriate instruction, supports, and accommodations.  Setting appropriate goals and collecting setting-specific data is the first step in ensuring that students are successful in inclusion.  Below are a few tips for how we can best support students in inclusive settings, with specific ideas for the kinds of data we can collect in specific settings.

  1. Assess students for readiness
  2. Before moving students into inclusion settings we must first determine that they are ready for inclusion. Assessing readiness will help us ensure that students are learning in settings where they are most likely to be successful.  There are several ways you can assess for readiness. If you are a Rethink user, you can conduct Rethink’s inclusion assessment which will help you determine which skills students need to work on to be ready for inclusion. The VBMAPP Transition Assessment and Assessment of Functional Living Skills (AFLS) can both be useful in determining a student’s readiness for inclusion settings.

  3. Identify Goals Based Upon Assessment Results
  4. Once you have assessed the student, take a look at the student’s strengths and areas of improvement and set goals accordingly that will allow them to grow and thrive in inclusion settings.  One way to support this kind of goal writing is to collect normative data, or data from age-matched peers in the inclusion setting identified for your student.  This kind of data will help you identify what kinds of goals your student should be working toward.  You may also want to work on teaching students some pre-requisite skills to ensure their success in the inclusive setting.

  5. Identify Appropriate Inclusion Setting and Prepare Staff
  6. Educating inclusion staff and/or employees if the student will be working in a vocational setting can be key to a student’s success.  Ensuring that everyone is on the same page about how to interact with the student, provide feedback, and support the student will make the transition smoother for everyone.  Additionally, it may also be important to establish what everyone’s role is in educating the student.  If your student is moving into a general education classroom, having a conversation about your student’s needs with the classroom teacher is an important step in making this transition successful.

  7. Determine Who is Responsible for Collecting Data
  8. Data tell us that whether what we are doing with a student is successful, and can help us gage the student’s success within the inclusive setting. That being said, collecting data in inclusive settings can be challenging, especially if a student is not accompanied by an instructional aide or paraprofessional.  It is important to determine ways before the student moves into the inclusive setting that make it easy for general education teachers to supply you with data that you need to monitor the student’s progress. It is also important to be clear about roles and responsibilities before a student transitions.

Normative Data, Goals, and Kinds of Data to Collect

The kind of data you collect and the types of goals you write for your students for inclusion are very important to a student’s success in inclusion and will vary based upon the setting that they are in. In the slides below you will find setting-specific examples of normative data, inclusion goals, and types of data collection that might work in general education settings in middle and high school as well as vocational settings. You can also check out an entire webinar on this topic here.

View Webinar


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New Beta Site is Live

The Rethink beta site is a place for you to test out, familiarize, and delight yourself with the elegance and ease of our new interface, launching officially on December 21st.

The new interface, which you can preview via the beta site, is a digital environment for you to engage in the important work of being a special educator, from best-practice training and program planning to collecting and analyzing data, but with more efficiency and ease than ever before.

New Look and Feel

The new look and feel provides a simpler, more elegant, and more intuitive means of accessing and utilizing all of the Rethink tools and resources you love–from data collection and reporting tools to lesson videos and printable materials–but in a way that works for you in your classroom.

Yet the new interface is more than just a fresh look and feel.  Based upon feedback we gathered from you, our faithful users, the interface includes enhanced features, like the ability to edit lesson plans and more sophisticated data collection options, as well as entirely new components, like a student dashboard and more direct access to resources that make managing your entire classroom simpler and easier.

We hope you’ll take some time to test out the new interface via the beta site and send us your feedback.

IMPORTANT: Please be advised that any work you do on the beta site will no longer be available as of December 21st when the new interface launches.  

So until then, continue collecting your data, completing training center tests, and creating student programs on the current  platform, and all of this information will be synched to the new interface upon launch on December 21st.

Log in to the Beta Site today!

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Sesame Street’s Ongoing Mission to Raise Social Awareness


Sesame Street’s new character with autism, Julia, is a part of a long line of Sesame Street characters who help raise social awareness amongst children

by Dr. Patricia Wright

I am definitely a member of the Sesame Street generation. Sharing that I was 2 years old when Sesame Street first launched in 1969 definitely discloses my age but also implies that I’ve been with them since the beginning. I was a toddler, the perfect demographic for Sesame Street, when it started. I learned the alphabet, numbers and social skills with a little help from Big Bird and the snuffleupagus.

Fast forward to 2006 when I first viewed the documentary, The World According to Sesame Street. The film provided viewers with an understanding of the complexities of adapting Sesame Street for places like South Africa, Bangladesh and Serbia.

Why should a television program focused on preschool learning be so difficult to culturally adapt?

Sesame Street isn’t just about learning letters and numbers – it is really focused on helping children learn social and emotional skills for success in life. And the social and emotional repertoires in countries that have experienced issues such as apartheid and genocide are rife with adaptation challenges. I was reminded again of the incredible mission of Sesame Street, helping kids grow smarter, stronger and kinder.

From the beginning Sesame Street in North America addressed the tough issues of our culture. Helping young children understand divorce, racism, death and dying socio-economic disparity – tough issues, important issues. Sesame Street has also addressed disability over the years. With Linda who was deaf, Tarah who used a wheelchair and others.

Recently Julia arrived on the Street to help children increase their understanding of autism. I’m pleased that Sesame Street has chosen to include autism in its array of character features. Sesame Street knows kids, knows how to help kids and knows how to support kids to learn about important issues.

Julia is going to educate a generation of kids to learn that autism is part of the human condition and that kids with autism are part of their community, will attend their schools, and who may communicate and socialize a bit differently, but they may also become their friends

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Thank a Teacher this Holiday Season

Thank a Teacher this Holiday Season

The holiday season is a great time to show a teacher you care.

With all of the media coverage around teacher shortages these days, especially in special education, and the high toll the demands of the job take upon teachers, it has never been more important to thank teachers for all that they do to support our students and our children.

It’s almost Thanksgiving and there is no better time to express our gratitude for teachers than during the holiday season.

That is why starting today we are beginning our holiday season #thankateacher campaign. Tweet us @rethinkfirst using the hashtag #thankateacher between now and December 21st and thank a teacher who has made an impact on you, one of your students, or one of your kids or family members. The tweet with the most likes will be featured on our blog with your story, and a $50 Amazon gift card will be sent to the teacher you are grateful for on your behalf.

Questions about the campaign? Email us at

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3 Problems Facing Special Education Teachers in Today’s Schools

Cartoon business woman sinking in overload of paper works.

Retaining High Quality Special Education Teachers is Integral to Fulfilling the Promise of IDEA

This month marks the 40th anniversary of the Individuals with Disabilities Act (IDEA), the law guaranteeting the right for students with special needs to access a free, appropriate public education, just like any other child in this country. Over the last 40 years, the law has brought about extraordinary gains for students with disabilities and over 6 million students are now being served under the law.

Yet despite the integral role the law has played in granting students with special needs access to education and inclusion opportunities, it remains flawed and underfunded. Red tape and complicated financial provisions continue to make it difficult for school districts to efficiently and effectively serve students with disabilities while complying with the law’s rules and regulations. Furthermore, in part due to some of these problems, special education teachers are leaving the profession in droves, making qualified teachers harder and harder to come by.

A Dire Situation

As of today, 49 out of the nation’s 50 states report shortages in special education teachers and/or related special education personnel. Nearly twice as many special education teachers leave the profession as general education teachers. Districts across the country are struggling both to retain qualified special education teachers and to recruit them. Many are turning to alternative and often less than desirable alternatives in order to do so, such as pulling general education teachers into special ed.

In a recent story, David Pennington, Special Education Director at Ponca City Public Schools, told NPR in regards to replacing teachers who retire or leave the profession, “Forget about replacing them with someone of the same quality … I’m just worried about replacing them. Period.”

In 2004, IDEA was reauthorized under George W. Bush, with one of the provisions being a new definition of Highly Qualified.  All special education teachers providing direct instruction in one of the core academic subjects are required by law to be highly qualified.  Yet with new teacher shortages in special education in nearly every state, meeting the requirements of IDEA and ensuring that special education students have access to highly qualified teachers is becoming increasingly difficult.

What’s Behind the Teacher Shortage and How Can We Better Support Special Ed Teachers?

While teacher shortages in all subject matters have been reported across the country this year, the field of special education is particularly susceptible given the unique demands of the job.

Below are a few of the unique challenges special education teachers face, and some ways they can be better supported

  1. Excessive Paperwork: Many of the problems concerning the bureaucracy and red tape inherent in IDEA fall on the shoulders of teachers. In addition to the demanding work they undergo in the classroom during school hours, special education teachers in particular spend hours and hours documenting student progress on IEPs in compliance with IDEA.  As Pennington told NPR, It is not uncommon for a special ed teacher to tell me, ‘I did not get a degree in special ed to do paperwork. I got a degree to help kids.’ ”

    Access to Better technology that makes it easier for special education teachers to write standards-based IEP goals, collect data, monitor progress, and automate some of the required documentation can free up time for teachers to put more energy into instruction.

  2. Isolation: As is especially the case in small or rural school districts, some special education teachers are the only special education teacher in their entire school or district. Given the sometimes extreme demands of the job, attending to students with some of the most severe academic and behavioral needs, opportunities to learn from, share, and feel supported by colleagues experiencing similar challenges are particularly important.

    Professional Learning Communities are one possible solution to this problem.  The internet has made it easier than ever for professionals to communicate with one another online.  Ensuring that special education teachers have access to online communities of other professionals in their field and are given time to engage in these communities as a part of their professional growth can not only alleviate some of the sense of isolation that rural special educators can feel, but can also give teachers opportunities to share best practices and become more effective with students in their classrooms.

  3. Challenging Behavior: Special education students are much more likely to engage in challenging behavior than their general education peers. Challenging behavior is consistently the number one challenge teachers report facing in the classroom. Regularly addressing challenging behavior in the classroom can be exhausting and demoralizing for special education teachers. One of the major problems is that teachers feel underprepared by teacher preparation programs to meet these challenges, with 72% reporting they felt unsatisfied with their teacher preparation in classroom management.

    Professional Development, Coaching, and Support can go a long way in increasing teacher confidence in their ability to address challenging behavior in the classroom and make them more effective at doing so.  Ensuring that special education teachers have access to high-quality professional development in evidence-based strategies for addressing challenging behavior can increase confidence and competency and free up time for teachers to spend more time teaching and less time disciplining.

The challenges special education teachers face are enormous, and addressing these challenges can be equally as daunting.  But if IDEA is to accomplish what it set out to accomplish 40 years ago–to ensure that all students have access to a free and appropriate public education–having high quality teachers to teach our special education students is a non-negotiable. Reauthorization of IDEA is now 6 years overdue.  As policymakers rethink the law’s provisions, considering how IDEA is impacting teacher satisfaction and teacher quality should be a top concern. For now, districts must look at creative ways to address these challenges with the tools and resources available at their disposal.


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