Key Takeaway: Working conditions may be powerfully related to the day-to-day instruction a teacher provides to their students. Special educators often work with students who exhibit a range of academic, emotional, and behavioural challenges. Special educators who experience more supportive working conditions reported more manageable workloads, less emotional exhaustion and stress, and felt greater self-efficacy for instruction—contributing to more frequent use of evidence-supported instructional practices to address student needs. —Ayla Reau

This paper by Michelle Cumming (Florida International University), Kristen Merrill O’Brien (George Mason University), Nelson Brunsting (Wake Forest University), and Elizabeth Bettini (Boston University) explores how the working conditions of special educators relate to the provision of effective instructional or behavioural management practices for students with emotional behavioural disorders (EBD) in self-contained settings. 

Note that: 

  • “Working conditions are the contexts of teachers’ work, including the demands placed on them and the social and logistical resources they have for meeting those demands.” 
  • Students with EBD tend to “demonstrate low academic achievement and problematic behaviours that impede success.” These needs can be met with; 1) effective research-support instruction “characterized by frequent opportunities to respond to academic prompts, evidence-based practices, and high rates of feedback;” 2) highly effective behaviour management strategies; 3) feedback like praise or token economies to acknowledge positive behaviours. 
  • Self-contained settings are schools and classes that are specifically designed for students who need intensive services to address significant behavioural needs.

The purpose of the study was to “investigate how working conditions related to SETs’ [special education teachers] affective outcomes (workload manageability, emotional exhaustion, stress, and self-efficacy) and reported use of effective instructional and behaviour management practices.” The authors of this study choose to focus on the working conditions of: 

  • demands (i.e., instructional groups, instructional responsibilities)
  • social resources (i.e., administrative support, school culture, and paraprofessional support), and 
  • logistical resources (i.e., instructional resources, planning time)

Analysis of the data collected from a national (United States) survey of SET’s with students with EBD in self-contained settings found that “SETs who experienced more supportive working conditions (i.e., stronger logistical resources, lower demands) rated their workloads as more manageable, experienced less emotional exhaustion and stress, and thus felt more efficacious in using effective instructional practices.” This finding aligns with the “growing body of research in educational leadership and policy [that] indicates that working conditions may be powerfully related to the quality of instruction teachers provide.” 

While the study did have limitations and the authors were unable to find “predictors of self-efficacy for reported use behaviour management practices, and social resources did not demonstrate good model fit when included,” the findings do still present implications for policy and practice. When SET’s feel their workloads are less manageable they are less likely to use effective instructional practices—this would have a significant impact on students who benefit from this research-supported instruction, such as students with EBD. The authors suggest that school leaders and administrations should consider how best to support SETs, in particular by protecting planning times and ensuring that SETs have access to the curricular resources they need to meet their students’ learning needs. They also encourage leaders to provide instructional supports, such as training in the use of resources, in addition to behavioural supports to SETs in self-contained settings. 

It is crucial that school leaders address SET’s working conditions “both to improve their experiences, and to ensure that students with EBD receive the kinds of effective practices necessary to improve their outcomes.”

Summarized Article:

Cumming, M. M., O’Brien, K. M., Brunsting, N. C., & Bettini, E. (2021). Special Educators’ Working Conditions, Self-Efficacy, and Practices Use with Students with Emotional/Behavioral Disorders. Remedial and Special Education, 42(4), 220–234.

Summary by: Ayla Reau—Ayla is excited to help continue to grow the MARIO Framework, seeing the potential for it to impact all students across any educational context.

Key Takeaway: Mueller illuminates key gaps in the present educational system that inhibits disability identity development; educators, administrators, and school staff should collectively work to counteract the lack of curriculum representation, community, and disabled staff in effectively teaching and empowering learners with special needs.—Emmy Thamakaison

Carlyn O. Mueller (University of Wisconsin) shares her qualitative interview study exploring disability identity development and its relationship to educational experiences. Nine adults with special needs were asked to reflect on their schooling experiences through a semi-structured interview process.

Disability identity is defined as “a sense of self that includes one’s disability and feelings of connection to, or solidarity with, the disability community.”1 It is generally accepted that the development of one’s disability identity is heavily influenced by educational experiences during youthful years; more often than not, those with disabilities are “often positioned such that they are likely (and even encouraged) to reject identifying as disabled”2 during their schooling. 

After the current study’s participants reflected upon their past educational experiences in relation to their disability identities, several unifying patterns emerged: firstly, all of the participants noticed a lack of disability representation in both special education and general education curriculum. 

  • Planned or guided discussions around disabilities were minimal if not nonexistent during their schooling years, as one participant noted, “it did not come up. It wasn’t shown in any of the history, or social studies, or multi-media, or anything else… there’s no word for [disability], no vocabulary.” 
  • Though the relationship between curriculum representation and disability identity may be influenced by extraneous factors (ie. stigma), the participants still implore for “more direct, explicit discussion around disability identity” in the schooling system; representation of disability culture and history may help mitigate negative experiences that are beyond the control of schooling and allow individuals with special needs to relate to themselves and others in the community better. 

Furthermore, the participants recalled a lack of disability community during their education. Connection with fellow individuals with special needs, perceived role models, or simply a sense of membership were often “actively discouraged,” as one participant recalled, “I remember them telling me, ‘…don’t associate with those people [other students with intellectual disabilities]’… even though those people I relate with the most.”

  • Importantly, special education spaces often foster “under-developed” disability communities, with their “segregated nature” and narratives that “there was something fundamentally wrong with their bodies, minds, or ways of being.” 
  • To this end, Mueller calls for the identification, correction, and counteraction of such narratives, as well as opportunities for students to “grow and learn around other children with disabilities”3 in a special education context.

Participants also unanimously agreed that there was a lack of school staff with open relationships with disabilities. Not only does this represent a missed opportunity for student empowerment through role-modelling, it also leads to educators being forced to “make their own assumptions, [which] produces really undesirable outcomes.” One participant states that “I would often get yelled at by some of my teachers when I was doing . . . normal autistic stuff, weird for neurotypicals,” and another recalls, “the special ed system didn’t really prepare me for adulthood in a lot of ways . . . it’s not built by people who understand what it’s really like.” 

  • In mitigating these present outcomes, Mueller suggests including disability history, pride, and community in teacher preparation programs; not only would this prime educators for teaching curricula with disability representation, it would also push teachers to challenge and expand their own beliefs about disabilities and commit to anti-ableist approaches that translate to a classroom setting. 
  • Active efforts to include educators, administrators, and paraprofessionals with disabilities into educational spaces are also vital. These individuals would potentially bring “a unique and powerful set of experiences and insights into the needs of children, youth, and families they serve.”4 

Ultimately, Mueller’s study illuminates gaps in the current general and special education system, in relation to students with disabilities. Through the words of individuals with special needs themselves, Mueller calls for a transformation of services and contexts that shape the disability identities of millions across the globe. Schools should make an active effort to “intentionally strengthen and name disability as an identity experience” so that future students look at the world and see a place for themselves in it.

Summarized Article:Mueller, C. O. (2021). “I Didn’t Know People With Disabilities Could Grow Up to Be Adults”: Disability History, Curriculum, and Identity in Special Education. Teacher Education and Special Education: The Journal of the Teacher Education Division of the Council for Exceptional Children, 44(3), 189–205.

Summary by: Emmy Thamakaison — Emmy is a recent high school graduate attending Stanford University and is an enthusiastic advocate of MARIO Framework.

Additional References:

  1. Dunn, D. S., & Burcaw, S. (2013). Disability identity: Exploring narrative accounts of disability. Rehabilitation Psychology, 58(2), 148–157.
  2. Annamma, S. A., Connor, D., & Ferri, B. (2013). Dis/ability critical race studies (DisCrit): theorizing at the intersections of race and dis/ability. Race Ethnicity and Education, 16(1), 1–31.
  3. Linton, S. (1998). Claiming Disability: Knowledge and Identity. New York University Press.
  4. Council for Exceptional Children. (2016). CEC’s Policy on Educators with Disabilities. Exceptional Children, 82(4), 407–408.

Key Takeaway: In education, we throw around the term evidence-based quite casually, at times without the awareness of whether the evidence we rely on is empirically sound. Bringing clarity to how we ascertain veracity can support our ability to identify high-quality interventions. – Erin Madonna

In this article, Kauffman and Farkas discuss veracity as it pertains to special education, particularly around issues of policy and access to services. The authors outline two types of beliefs that drive educational decisions, Type A or scientifically verifiable beliefs and Type B, opinions or personal assertions which are not scientifically verified. The authors argue that when Type A beliefs have been established as replicable and truthful, they should be given precedence over Type B beliefs when making educational decisions.

In defining Type A and Type B beliefs, the authors provide the example of reading instruction to illustrate the difference between scientific beliefs and those based upon opinion. A Type A belief around reading is that explicit reading instruction of decoding skills works, while a Type B belief around reading is that reading emerges naturally in a literature-rich environment. We know this Type B belief as a “whole language” or a “balanced literacy” approach. The Type A belief has been verified scientifically, replicated, and is determined to be an evidence-based intervention not because we believe it to be, but because it has qualified as such through rigorous testing. This Type A belief can be challenged and reverified or debunked at any point. 

  • A Type A belief is not based on popular opinion, it is based upon the outcome of credible scientific study. 
  • The Type B belief is based upon personal testimonies and is often reinforced by the assertions of an authority figure or by a collective opinion held by a large group. It has not been exposed to the same scientific scrutiny as the Type A belief but is accepted by many because it fits with their personal opinions. This particular Type B belief is based upon flawed research which demonstrates how a Type B belief can be reinforced by data that does not meet the requirements of scientific assessment, but that is accepted anyway, becoming pseudoscience.

With the definition of Type A and Type B beliefs established, the authors go on to discuss practical applications of greater awareness around the two types of belief. “When we claim that something is evidence-based in special education, the matter of Type A belief about it—the empirical evidence—is of enormous consequence.” This is because making educational choices without empirical evidence risks, at best, neutral outcomes and, at worst, potential harm for our students. “Conformity to a personal version of belief, Type B, must not be substituted for a confirmable reality.”

The authors connect the concept of veracity with social justice when they discuss the impact of Type B beliefs on public policy, including the belief of “over-representation of certain racial or ethnic groups” in special education. With only partial veracity, amendments to the Individuals with Disabilities Act (IDEA) aimed at addressing the belief that “over-representation” is occurring have denied Black students badly needed services. “When a social policy or the fate of an individual is in question, as is often the case in special education, then Type A truth matters a great deal.” 

Educators must look beyond the fads or popular movements in education and seek out information about whether the interventions they plan to implement are based upon a Type A belief or a Type B belief. Part of this process for the individual is being willing to adjust their practice if new empirical evidence demonstrates that a previously held belief is not in fact a Type A belief. Adaptability and commitment to relying on scientific evidence provide the best opportunity for delivering a high-quality educational experience for our students. Allowing for external pressures to influence our choice of intervention without evidenced veracity is problematic. 

The authors are careful to express that Type B beliefs can positively influence education. They make clear that Type A and Type B beliefs may not always be in conflict. When one’s personal beliefs allow them to “make better sense of the objective world and/or provide moral guidance or a star to steer by,” that Type B belief can provide the motivation to advocate for special education services or improved policy. The point is not to abandon all Type B beliefs but to become conscious of how they influence our decisions as educators and to always check our Type B beliefs against available evidence before acting upon them. 

Summarized Article:

[Kauffman, J. M., & Farkas, G. (2021). Veracity in Special Education. Exceptionality, 1-14. DOI: 10.1080/09362835.2021.1938066]

Summary by: Erin Madonna—Erin philosophically aligns with the MARIO Framework’s deeply rooted conviction that all learners are capable, and she firmly believes in MARIO’s commitment to the use of evidence-based practices drawn from the field of current multidisciplinary research.

Key Takeaway: Families should be valued, and we should reconceptualize families as central stakeholders, seen and treated as significant contributors who have authority to influence and impact the trajectory of content and research decisions. This happens when teachers learn from parents who are actively involved in research, design, and inquiry. It shifts the focus by taking into account the family’s popular knowledge and wisdom—expertise that comes mainly from hands-on experiences based on their daily lives, experiences, and needs. —Jay Lingo

Summary: In this research article, Graff explores the Family as Faculty (FAF) approach which emerged out of family-centered care. The idea is to capitalize on the comprehensive knowledge that the families of children with disabilities possess about the children’s needs and strengths. This would create teachable moments for professionals through their personal stories as a way to better understand how to provide the best overall care for the child. This program is an intentional movement for teachers to communicate with families with a respectful understanding that there is value in learning more about the child’s disability through the family’s lens. This program aims to not only provide increased empathy but also effective communication, tolerance for diversity, and extraordinary commitment to partnership.

Despite the numerous advantages of the FAF program, Graff also recognizes that working together is often a complex and difficult process. Some of the main concerns raised in the article are: 

  • Anxiety or being defensive because of previous negative experiences
  • Continuous language and cultural barriers 
  • Being less successful in navigating special education systems for emerging multilinguals

These complexities are even amplified in the multiply marginalized families—families of color who have been historically minoritized on top of having children with disabilities. When assessments are often based on dominant Westernized notions of what educational progress and success looks like or when predominately White, non-disabled monolingual English-speaking teachers are assessing why their child is struggling, they are often viewed through deficit perspectives. This is also why the adaptation of FAF is treated with much urgency. Graff suggests that FAF will provide a platform for families to challenge the existing traditional power hierarchies in education and to question educational power structures that are directly impacting their children.

By making families co-investigators and co-educators, the family is repositioned as active agents of change rather than passive recipients. This partnership is critical when measuring educator impact and reflecting on our own power and privilege in relation to the students and families we are collaborating with.

Article Summarized:

Santamaría Graff, C. (2021). Co-investigation and co-education in ‘family as faculty’ approaches: A repositioning of power. Theory Into Practice, 60(1), 39-50.

Summary By: Jay Lingo

Key Takeaway: It is the responsibility of special educators to continuously review the special education laws specific to their location. As an educator, you will frequently reference your students’ individualized education plan or program (IEP), often as a legally binding document, in order to align the IEP goals with the personalized learning goals. Understanding the laws surrounding IEPs within your context will help to ensure that you are able to provide legally sound and equitable programming for your students. —Taryn McBrayne

In the article, “Ten Legal Lessons for Special Educators,” co-authors Emma Gratton-Fisher and Perry A. Zirkel (Lehigh University, College of Education) emphasize the importance of building legal literacy amongst special educators.

Gratton-Fisher and Zirkel state that as special education teachers, “. . . you need basic legal currency, not a law degree, to navigate the legally denser parts of special education law and support students with special needs.” In order to assist educators in navigating the legalities that exist within the educational field, the authors outline ten legal pointers that they believe to be most applicable to special education teachers and seek to debunk possible legal myths.

The article highlights the following five pieces of legal information as they relate to laws applicable in the United States (Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act): 

Lesson 1: One diagnosis does not automatically qualify a student for special education services.

“One ‘red flag,’ such as a diagnosis of ADHD, or a parent evaluation request does not automatically obligate the school to evaluate the student for special education.” Contrary to popular belief, Zirkel (1) suggests that “reasonable suspicion” for a student’s eligibility for special education services requires a “pattern of indicators.” 

Lesson 2: A student does not need to complete all tiers of intervention to become eligible for special education.

“A student does not need to complete all tiers of Response to Intervention (RTI) or Multi-Tiered System of Support (MTSS) prior to the school finding them eligible for special education.” 

Lesson 3: The boundary between special and general education is not always clear.

“The law does not clearly define the boundary between special and general education.” Gratton-Fisher and Zirkel explain that a student who is diagnosed with a learning difference does not automatically qualify for special education services. Rather, services are only provided to the student if the diagnosis impacts their educational performance. 

Lesson 4: A concussion does not immediately qualify a student for special education services.

“A concussion does not entitle a child to eligibility under Section 504 or IDEA.” According to Zirkel (2), to receive services under the Rehabilitation Act, a student’s physical or mental impairment must impact them for “at least four-to-six months.” Therefore, in this context, the duration of their impairment must be considered. 

Lesson 5: An Individual Education Plan (IEP) must show progress but not equal progress with peers.

“A legally sound IEP must provide the most reasonably calculated progress for the child, which does not need to be equal to the progress of children without disabilities.” Gratton-Fisher and Zirkel reference Yell and Bateman’s (3) detailing of a 2017 Supreme Court case to support the notion that an appropriate IEP is one that “enables a child to make progress.” 

The remaining five pointers outlined in the article fall under the categories of Free Appropriate Public Education (FAPE), Least Restrictive Environment (LRE), discipline, remedies, and miscellaneous. Those who are interested in learning more about the legalities within these contexts of special education are encouraged to read Gratton-Fisher and Ziekel’s article in detail. 

Ultimately, through the discussion of the aforementioned legal statements, the authors reiterate the importance of frequently reviewing special education laws due to the implications they can have on the daily practices of special education teachers.

Article Summarized:

Gratton-Fisher, E., & Zirkel, P. A. (2021). Ten Legal Lessons for Special Educators. Exceptionality: A Special Education Journal, Vol. 29 (1), 41-46.

Summary By: Taryn McBrayne – Taryn believes in the power of student voice and, through the MARIO Framework, strives to create more opportunities for both educators and students alike to regularly make use of this power.

Additional References:

  1. Zirkel, P. A. (2016). Court decisions specific to public school responses to student concussions. Physical Disabilities: Education and Related Services, Vol. 35, 1–16. doi:10.14434/pders.v35i1.20696.
  2. Zirkel, P. A. (2015). Are students with concussions qualified for Section 504 plans? West’s Education Law Reporter, 311, 589–594.
  3. Yell, M. L., & Bateman, D. F. (2019). Free appropriate public education and Endrew F. v. Douglas County School System (2017): Implications for personnel preparation. Teacher Education and Special Education, Vol. 42, 6–17. doi:10.1177/0888406417754239.