Recently I had a conversation with a special education coordinator. He was struggling to keep his kids in their classes. They kept getting sent out for disruptive behavior, being off task, or not playing well with others. He talked about parents who would leave IEPs in tears. These meetings – and other informal meetings – sometimes devolved into a laundry list from teachers of how the student is misbehaving or why they’re not up to the challenge of complex work.

The special education coordinator and I talked for a good long while. He would describe it as “therapy” afterwards, and the feeling was mutual. I shared my experience as a parent of a child who has special needs and gets kicked out of class routinely for disruptive behavior. I shared how every day I’m afraid of leaving my phone in a drawer for five minutes because I’ll miss a call from his school saying I need to come pick him up because he’s thrown a clipboard or flipped off an adult. Every time my phone rings during school hours I’m certain I’ll have to rush off to rescue him from the school, and the school from him.

And this has been going on for years.

Supporting students with special needs is a daunting challenge. Perhaps the biggest impediment is that label: “students with special needs.” That’s such a catch-all term to the point where it’s meaningless. When a teacher asks “how can I support students with ‘special needs’?” it’s like asking how they can support students who are wearing blue t-shirts. Students with “special needs” have very different needs.

Sometimes the special needs are even contradictory. A student may need one type of accommodation during one part of the day and a different for another. Teachers can be understandably frustrated and feel understandably powerless. As a parent, and speaking for my special educator friend, there may be an accommodation that will work, but A) we may have not found it and B) there might not be an accommodation that works in the moment.

There are certainly well-researched best practices. For starters I’d recommend Count Me In by Judith Storeygard and following Andrew Gael on (on twitter @bkdidact and his blog). There are effective strategies that may work for certain students at certain times.

But they might not.

That’s why my advice to teachers is to first understand. Why is a kid acting out? It might not be because he’s defiant, but because he is exhibiting his cognitve disability. If a student is yelling at other students, it may be because the student has a social communication disorder. These are very real diagnoses, just as real as a student with a physical disability. Any teacher in the world would make every accommodation for a student with a physical disability. We should be equally accommodating for students whose disabilities are invisible.

Does this mean every teacher needs to become an expert in the latest DSM? No, but it does suggest that if you have students with special needs you try to understand. Understand what makes him or her tick. What are his or her antecedents? What are his or her triggers? What are the warning signs? What makes him or her happy? Who are his or her friends (the few they do have)? What can you do to break through when he or she isn’t in an elevated state? And yes, eventually, what are some strategies we can try out?

Well meaning teachers want to know the strategy, the “magic words,” the trick that’ll make it better. I’ve had a teacher ask and even beg for that: “Just tell me the accommodation and I’ll do it! I want the student to succeed!”And I’m here to tell you that there isn’t a single, magical catch-all strategy or accommodation.

The most successful teachers in my son’s life have approached him from the standpoint of “how can I understand this guy?” It’s a subtle, but crucial, mindset switch from “how can I get through to him?” I’d recommend temporarily tabling questions around strategies and teaching moves. Those are important questions, but first, approach from a point of trying to understand the student. Then we can proceed to step two.

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