by Harry and Rosemary
of Special Ed Teachers
The demands on the teachers
of special education students are enormous and the rewards are
equally enormous. These are the wonderful teachers
who have the skill to bring order and structure to the lives of
their students and who have the kind and understanding hearts
to see all children as capable and worthy. These are the
teachers we called “The Saints of Education” in our
October 2004 column. (https://teachers.net/wong/OCT04/)
In this column, we will revisit with the teacher we featured
in our October 2004 column, Robin Zarzour, now Robin Barlak.
(Our best wishes to Robin!)
In addition, we will share the techniques used by Charlotte
Empringham, who teaches special education in the Thames
Valley School District in London, Ontario, Canada.
Finally, we’ll close with the strategies and wisdom of
Dan Seufert, who recently retired after years
of teaching special education in North Carolina.
Robin Barlak and Her Nurses’ Procedures
Robin Barlak works with children who have a
variety of disabilities—autism, speech and language delays,
ADHD, and severe behavior, physical, and developmental handicaps.
“Miss Robin,” as the students call her, teaches special
education at First Step Preschool in Ohio’s
Parma City Schools.
Her classroom assistant and right-hand helper is Lois Preston,
"Miss Lois" to the students. Lois is in the classroom
each day, all day long assisting with small groups, snacks, attendance,
record keeping, art, and anywhere else she is needed.
Robin says, “After reading The First Days of
School, I constantly think of procedures, because
special education students can be put in an at-risk situation
if there is not a consistent set of procedures. They like
a consistent set of routines every day as it makes life familiar
The consistency helps Robin because she has a student with medical
complications who needs a nurse with him while he is at school.
There are three nurses and five therapists in and out
of Robin’s classroom each week for this one child.
At the beginning of the school year she simply typed up the schedule
and procedures of the day. These were given to each nurse
and therapist when they first came to her classroom. This
way each professional knows the daily routine, and therapies can
be scheduled according to the prevailing schedule, such as Physical
Therapy during gym time.
Robin Barlak’s Daily Schedule
Morning Class (repeated for the afternoon class)
During Free Play, the children can go to the bathroom and
all go to the Art table to do an art/craft project with “Miss
Lois.” Some of the children do TEACCH. TEACCH is a program
used for autistic children developed by the University of
North Carolina. It helps children who need to complete
work and who need a schedule and structure to do so (www.teacch.com).
Others can practice speech therapy cards, if applicable.
During Circle Time the children do the calendar, the weather,
a game, a song, the story of the week, the word of the week,
and a social skill (Listening, Using Nice Talk, Sharing, etc).
On Thursdays the children have Musical Gym, a structured gym
time with movement and music.
Musical Gym was developed
with a colleague of Robin’s, Sandy Krems. Sandy
shares gym time with Robin. They each plan Musical
Gym activities for two weeks and then they rotate.
At the end of the year, the students put on a Musical Gym
show for the parents.
||Wash hands and have a snack.
||Look at books on carpet.
Another story of the week and music, movement, rhythm, two
songs, or finger plays.
Three students are on the computer with “Miss Lois”
Four students are with “Miss Robin” playing a
game (Lotto game/number game, etc.)
Four students are playing on their own in the sand box/role
play/Play Dough, etc.
The groups switch every 7-10 minutes
Robin says, “With a schedule, it has been working
great because we are all are on the same page and I don’t
have to repeat myself and take class time to discuss my classroom
schedule and procedures. All the nurses and therapists are
very grateful as well."
Charlotte Empringham and Personal Fulfillment
Charlotte Empringham is a Special Education
Specialist who has been teaching Developmental Education for ten
years. Her classes consist of ten students with various
learning differences and special needs. The students may
be in her classroom for three or four years and then move onto
a high school setting.
Her program is based on academics developed through a Provincial
(state or district) Curriculum which she modifies to suit her
students’ abilities. She says, “My classroom
setting is structured to take advantage of teachable moments.
Communication skills, daily living skills, and learning strategies
are integrated into our programming.”
Charlotte teaches grade 5-8 students with developmental challenges.
Here’s how Charlotte describes her class:
|I believe students with developmental disabilities must
participate in educational programs designed to assist them
in reaching the levels of independence in daily living, gaining
responsibility for self and others, and attaining personal
fulfilment as determined by potential. This education
must take place in a safe and accepting environment.
Charlotte’s classroom consists of ten developmentally challenged
students with various learning differences. One student
has Downs Syndrome, two students are hearing impaired using wireless
FM systems, and one student communicates with American Sign Language.
There are two Educational Assistants in the classroom who help
students with their living skills, academics, and social skills.
|I will strive to
- provide a safe learning environment.
- create a positive atmosphere in the classroom.
- promote a sense of caring among staff and students.
- encourage independence in the school environment.
- design individualized programs to maximize potential.
- encourage the development of responsible attitudes towards
self, others, and the environment.
- provide age-, interest-, and skill-appropriate opportunities
- maintain open lines of communication among school staff,
parents/guardians, and community-based personnel.
Her classroom is structured with procedures and routines
taught at the beginning of the year and re-taught several times
throughout the school year. The classroom is a
visual learning environment with charts and posters available
on the walls so that students can access information to enable
them to complete their assignments.
As they enter the school every morning, each student
is personally greeted by at least one of the adults in the classroom.
Every effort is made to notice and acknowledge good behavior,
kindness to others, and those who are following the procedures
and routines with verbal praise and/or rewards—such as tickets
for our weekly draw or a ‘star’ certificate, which
is a schoolwide incentive program.
In addition to teaching special education, Charlotte Empringham
for the past twelve years has been involved with the organization
and running of the annual Special Olympics, a track and field
event for special needs students. Charlotte Empringham
is another reason why we call special education teachers the “Saints
|Students follow these routines and procedures:
- Bring communication book (daily communication between
teacher and parent), planner, pencil case, and any other
items needed for classes into the classroom.
- Students deposit communication books in a blue bucket.
- Students work in their cursive writing books while waiting
and listening to announcements.
- Students are given a ticket if they have put their communication
books and planners into the blue basket and are working
- Another ticket is given if students remembered to have
parents sign their communication books.
- At the signal of announcements (buzz on the PA system)
students immediately stand beside their desks facing the
teacher and sign and sing O Canada.
- At the end of announcements a student collects the writing
books and puts them into the ‘blue marking basket’
as students take out their daybooks to begin the daily
- As students complete their daybook activities, their
daybooks are placed in the ‘blue marking basket’
and they immediately take out their spelling books.
Students have been trained on the procedure to use with
the worksheets for their individual spelling lists.
No two students have the same list, but all students use
the same procedures for learning their words.
- SALAME is called at 10 a.m. to instruct students to
clear off their desks in order to have their snacks delivered.
SALAME - Stop And Look At Me (from the
video series The Effective Teacher,
- The teacher, educational assistant, or co-operative
education student (a high school student placed
in the classroom) can put up a hand and call
SALAME for the attention of the students at
- Students should respond by putting up their
hand without saying a word and looking at the
person in order to hear the next instruction.
- Students who respond correctly get a ticket.
- When the bell rings for recess, students remain
in their seats until the ‘superhelper’
has been told to line up at the door. The
bell does not dismiss them!
- When students return to the classroom after a
recess there is a procedure to follow which is the
same every day:
- Cursive writing after morning recess
- Mad minute math after lunch recess
- Write tomorrow’s messages into their
planners after afternoon recess
- All students are responsible for a job in the
classroom, such as pencil sharpening, handing out
books, collecting books, putting out the thermometer,
checking the weather forecast on the computer, assisting
with snack program, wiping off charts, etc.
Jobs are assigned according to abilities and interests
and remain their responsibility all year.
and Stamp Charts
- All students have an incentive chart on their
- When a student is disruptive, gets out of his
or her seat without permission, or has been warned
about a behavior and continues, a stamp is put on
the student’s incentive chart. The staff
member says nothing; the chart is stamped without
interrupting the flow of the activity in progress.
Students can receive up to five stamps per day.
- For every blank space on their chart at the end
of the day, they receive a ticket for the Mickey
- If a student receives no stamps all day and has
had a good day, a sticker is put on the chart on
- At the end of the month, the sticker chart is
checked and if the students have the correct number
of stickers or more, they receive a ticket for the
monthly draw of a tuck (sweet) shop token.
- A student who has a perfect month—a sticker
for every day of the month—receives a tuck
Mickey Mouse Good
- Students receive tickets for positive behavior,
e.g., communication books put into blue basket in
the morning, having all supplies, beginning work
on time, staying on task, finishing on time, good
work, manners, helping others, etc.
- Every Friday a name is drawn from the Mickey Mouse
Good Box and that student chooses a treat from the
Mickey Mouse Treat Box.
- All tickets are tallied and the top three students
also choose a treat from the Mickey Mouse Treat
Dan Seufert Stands Tall
Dan Seufert is not a traditional teacher by a long shot!
Dan immersed himself in teaching his students turning his classroom
into an Early American hands-on museum where the special education
students serve as docents to regular classroom students.
Dan was also known for his pirate character that prowled the school.
Dan retired from teaching special education in North Carolina
and moved to South Carolina where he now teaches in the Lancaster
County School District. He is the special education teacher at
Indian Land Elementary/Middle School. He feels he has a
good grasp on what it takes to bring about change in special needs
students as a result of the self-contained, behaviorally-emotionally
disabled classes he taught for fourteen years.
He says that his ideas center on recognizing the potential
of these students. They center on recognizing the
positive spirit of these students.
They center on celebrating and encouraging the "thinking
out of the box" that these students are so good at doing,
just as all great leaders and discoverers are capable of doing.
Dan shared, sadly, how often he watched teachers try to break
the spirits of these children, make them feel worthless, or set
them up for failure. He feels there is no need to come crashing
down on students for bad behavior and miss the golden opportunity
to teach a new behavior.
He says, “We don't need to break their spirits. What
we need to do is re-direct their spirits and
then watch their spirits and abilities and "differentness"
carry them to new heights!”
Dan delighted in the years of opportunity he has had to teach
important life lessons to his students, lessons such as real men
know how to shed a tear and are not afraid to do so; the real
man is one who reaches out to help others, not belittle or hurt
Like Robin and Charlotte, Dan Seufert’s classrooms have
structure and consistency. Dan’s classes,
however, go beyond structure and consistency.
Dan wisely says we should not assume structure and consistency
alone will solve the many behavior problems these students have.
Structure and consistency only delays the appearance of behavior
problems for a little while, and when the structure is removed,
the behaviors will return.
Students need to be taught alternatives to unacceptable
behaviors. It means that positive behaviors have
to be taught. Replacement behaviors have to be taught.
Rules and procedures should have meaning and relevance to the
|Beyond the recitation of the rules and procedures, they
have to know
what those rules and procedures mean;
why those rules and procedures are in place;
what they should be doing to show they are following those
rules and procedures; and what the benefits are of replacing
old behaviors with new behaviors.
Dan says he often sat with the students (sometimes after each
activity) and processed with them what he liked about their behaviors,
recognized exemplary behaviors, talked about behaviors that he
saw and/or students think should be changed, and taught them alternative
He says, “When a student misbehaved in my classroom and
it was necessary to utilize a time-out procedure, before he/she
could return to the general class population I would ask them:
- Can you tell me what happened?
- What could you have done differently to have kept this from
being a problem?
- What can you do differently to keep it from being a problem
- Is there anything you think needs to be done now to resolve
this problem (e.g., letter of apology, apologizing in person,
picking up the books that were knocked over)?”
“I would also incorporate the use of group processing time,
where the entire class looks at a problem situation and offers
possible solutions. This technique worked great in settling
a problem between students.”
Dan believes and knows that beyond the personal strife
or the need for attention, many children demonstrate inappropriate
behaviors because they do not know alternative behaviors when
they are in certain situations. What works for
them in the home or in the "hood" is oftentimes unacceptable
behaviors in school, but they are the only behaviors they know.
To bring about new behaviors we have to give them new tools for
dealing with life and problem situations. We have to teach
them responsibility for their actions and what steps to take to
develop and show acceptable behaviors.
Beyond behavior, Dan shared his viewpoints about expectations
He says, “I think the biggest injustice we do to children
is setting our expectations too low. I especially see this
with children in special education. I have found that children
will give you what you expect. I expect 100 percent from
my students and 100 percent of the behaviors I know they are capable
of giving me. I do expect a lot!
“I then go about setting up the procedures and
techniques and methods to make it happen. Ah, the joy on
their faces when they realize they can reach 100 percent, when
they see they can be the best!”
Dan did not accept what was “good enough.”
As a self-contained teacher of children with severe emotional
and behaviors difficulties, Dan said, “It was not good enough
for my students to just have behaviors that were as good as students
in a regular classroom. Before I would consider mainstreaming
my students into the regular classroom, their behavior had to
be the best, much better than the other students they would encounter
in the regular classroom. I found out that if I only expect
their behavior to be ‘as good as’ the behavior of
students in the regular classroom, when their behaviors began
to slip they would quickly find themselves back to the behaviors
that landed them in my self-contained classroom.
“However, if I expected their behavior to be better than
the other students, then a slight slippage of behavior still gave
them room to pull themselves up to acceptable behaviors.
I taught them what they needed to do when their behavior began
to slip. We role-played it in the self-contained classroom;
we talked about possible situations that might lead to behavior
slippage and what they could do about it.”
We met Dan Seufert over fifteen years ago and he shared his personal
quote with us:
"Ours is not the business of producing doctors
or lawyers or teachers or nurses or factory workers or sales
associates. Ours is the business of putting smiles on
young faces, hope in young hearts, and dreams in young minds.
The rest will take care of itself."
In his classroom hangs a sign that reads,
"A man is never so tall as when he stoops
to help a child."
In his career, we are sure that many of his students found Dan
Seufert one of the tallest men they ever met!
Reaching New Heights
The lessons learned from Robin, Charlotte, and Dan are not just
for dealing with special needs students, but they can be applied
to all children.
We encourage you to start going beyond the expected and reach
for the extraordinary.
Do this and you’ll join the ranks of those who make a difference
in the lives of children.
- Select three children in your classroom, in your school,
or in your community.
- Interact with each of these children in one of the following
- Say something that will bring a smile to their young
- Express a thought that will bring hope to their youthful
- Plant a dream in their adolescent minds that they
will recall for the rest of their lives.
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