by Harry and Rosemary Wong
The Saints of
The demands on the teachers of special education students
are enormous. The work is emotionally and physically
draining. The stress is considerable. The magnitude
of the workload is colossal with all of the mandated reporting and
administrative tasks expected of them. The cumulative effect
of teaching the special education child causes many teachers to
leave the profession after just a few years.
But those teachers who stay—those teachers with the
patience to stay true to the task, those teachers with the skill
to bring order to the confusion, those teachers with a kind and
understanding heart to see all children as capable and worthy, those
teachers who teach special education children—these are truly
the “saints of education.”
Typical of these teachers is Robin Zarzour who
works with children with a variety of disabilities—Autism,
speech and language delays, ADHD, severe behavior, and with physical
and developmental handicaps. Robin teaches special education
at First Step Preschool in Ohio’s Parma City
The First Step Preschool program is based on the following guidelines:
- Learning is developmental. Children are
provided the opportunity to learn at their own pace and with valuable
- Children can learn through play. Ample
play experiences are provided to develop decision-making abilities
which integrate language, cognitive, social, adaptive, and motor
- Self-concept is critical. Parents and
staff work together to encourage children’s efforts and
accomplishments to motivate their love of learning.
Additional information on First Step Preschool can be found at
Robin’s students are three- to five-year olds. Each
of her classes can have up to eight special needs students and four
typically developing peer children who serve as
peer role models. A typically developing peer
is a youngster without identified disabilities who provides social
interaction and motivation for preschoolers with special needs.
Because all children learn from watching and interacting with other
children, typically developing peer models are an important part
of First Step Preschool.
Robin’s classes meet for 2.5 hours a day, four days a week,
with a morning and an afternoon session.
The Need for Structure
More than any other group of students, special education
students need structure. All effective classrooms have structure.
As we state in The First Days of School
- All effective classrooms have structure.
- Procedures + Routines = STRUCTURE
- Effective teachers manage with procedures and routines.
Structure does not mean a classroom that resembles a prison or
jail. In fact, classrooms that resemble a totalitarian prison
are those without any procedures or routines. So, an ineffective
teacher becomes a warden in that classroom just to survive the day.
Whereas, those classrooms that have a caring atmosphere, a safe
environment, and a learning climate where children can succeed,
are those where there is a CONSISTENCY the children
can depend upon.
A student in an at-risk situation said, “I like coming to
this school, because everyone knows what to DO. No one yells
at us and we can go on with learning.”
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
After hearing me (Harry) at and in-service presentation and reading
The First Days of School, Robin says,
“I constantly think of procedures throughout the school day.”
To establish a consistent structure for her students, these are
the procedures that Robin teaches the first day of school:
1. The students come into the class and are assigned a locker.
They take off their coats and book bags and place them in their
lockers. The lockers have different colored nametags with
a different picture on each nametag so each child can discriminate
which one is theirs.
2. The children play and she gives them a "two-minute
warning" before clean up time. Autistic children need
time for transition, so a warning is given. Robin starts to
sing the "Clean Up" song:
Clean up clean up everybody clean up.
Clean up clean up everybody clean up.
The students, along with the adults, put the toys on the shelves.
This procedure helps the children to understand what "Cleaning
3. The children sit on the carpet for circle time.
Each child has his/her own assigned 'seat' depending on the needs
of the individual child. After a few days, they know where
their seats are and circle time is ready to begin. Robin sings
the same opening circle song daily. The children sing along
and they are ready to participate in circle.
Hello, so glad you’re here; hello, so glad you’re
Hello, so glad you’re here; one two three, let’s give
a cheer. Hooray.
There is also a schedule within the circle time (calendar, weather,
story, song, game, then the gym). The circle time schedule
is consistent and the students like the consistency of the routine.
4. After circle time the children line up along the wall
and walk to the gym in a quiet fashion. This procedure is
taught from the first day. If a child forgets the procedure,
Robin simply says, "Remember the procedure." (See Chapter
20 in The First Days of School and https://teachers.net/wong/DEC00.)
5. In the gym, she alerts the children when there are two
minutes left to play and she shows them where to line up.
Feet are painted on the gym floor so the children have a specific
place to line up.
6. Then the children go back to the classroom for snack time
and hand washing. They form in a line and Robin puts soap
on each child's hands and helps rinse and dry them. The children
then go to their assigned seats (again depending on each child's
needs), and once all the children are seated, the class then sings
the snack song and the teachers disperse the food to each child.
It’s time for our snack; it’s time for our snack.
It’s time for us to eat and drink; it’s time for our
The children have to ask for more juice and/or snack using their
words or a picture communication board. The children discard
their cups and napkins and sit on the carpet to look at books.
7. The children are then ready for small group time.
Three children go to the computer with the classroom assistant.
Four children do a table or floor activity with the teacher and
four children do an activity by themselves (sand box, blocks, Play
Dough®, etc). After ten minutes, the children switch groups.
They know the routine and rotation of switching after a week.
This sets the stage for cooperative learning and working together.
8. To prepare for going home, the children get their coats
and book bags and place them on the carpet. The teacher, classroom
assistants, and older preschoolers (five-year-olds) help the younger
or more physically challenged preschoolers with fastening coats
9. They sing the "Goodbye Song" and the children
line up to go home.
It’s time to say goodbye to our friends (clap, clap).
It’s time to say goodbye to our friends (clap, clap).
Oh, it’s time to say goodbye, so just smile and wink your
It’s time to say goodbye to our friends (clap, clap).
Throughout the class time, Robin uses many visuals, gestures, pictures,
and objects to transition the students from one place to another.
These procedures are taught and reinforced daily. No matter
the needs of the child, each one benefits from the procedures.
In many special education classrooms there are assistants and therapists
that come and go throughout the day and/or week. Having a
routine and procedures keeps the adults as well as the children
on the same page, reinforcing the same practices throughout the
Robin says, “Teaching special education is very rewarding
since these children are special angels. Procedures
make learning enjoyable for teachers, classroom assistants, therapist,
students, and parents.”
They Are Valuable Human Beings
Special education is one of the fastest-growing areas in school
budgets nationally. The number of children in the United States
who qualify for special education is up nearly 40 percent in the
past decade. This trend is expected to continue because of
diagnosis of children at earlier ages and medical advances that
have resulted in more children surviving critical accidents and
illnesses. The need for teachers qualified to teach special
education will increase faster than the average for all occupations
for the next 10 years. School districts will continue to face
a critical shortage of special education teachers.
Some 6.5 million children between ages three and twenty-one have
been diagnosed with special needs and cost at least twice as much
as other children to educate. Young children with disabilities
are provided with a free and appropriate education through the Individuals
with Disabilities Act (IDEA), yet the federal government
only contributes about 18 percent of the some $50 billion (and rising)
spent on special education annually.
Regardless of their numbers and the cost, special education
students are valuable human beings and are guaranteed an education
in America. Teachers like Robin Zarzour and the many
other special education teachers are to be commended for choosing
this aspect of education as their profession.
Special education presents the biggest challenges to teachers and
offers the most rewarding outcome—preparing a less than able
child to function in a very demanding teen and adult world.
To accomplish this is no small task. It is a job befitting
a miracle worker, a guardian angel, a teacher who sees the potential
and value of every child.
Give each student you encounter this year your very best—your
patience, your skill, and your caring heart—and know that
you will leave an indelible mark in the life of that child.
For that’s the charge of all teachers, to realize the potential
of every child and make it happen for them.
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