Saturday, February 21, 2009

Many Florida teachers may be ill-equipped to handle special-needs students


Palm Beach Post Staff Writer

Saturday, February 07, 2009

These were the tools kindergarten teacher Wendy Portillo had to handle an unruly student: 10 tokens to be taken away if he misbehaved, the occasional help of a volunteer and another teacher, and a trip to the principal's office.

The choice she made in May - have students vote on whether then 5-year-old Alex Barton should remain in class at Morningside Elementary in Port St. Lucie - has been debated and reviled.

That Alex was being evaluated, and later was diagnosed with Asperger's syndrome, a form of autism, has only fueled the controversy.

But the incident may point to more than the judgment of one teacher. Parents, educators and disability advocates say it highlights an often overlooked problem with inclusion, the national trend toward placing special needs students in regular classrooms: Many general education teachers receive little to no training in how to manage students with disabilities before they walk into class.

"It's important to recognize that many of our teachers are going to have no training as teachers," said Jack Scott, director of Florida Atlantic University's Center for Autism and Related Disabilities.

Florida has addressed its teacher shortage in recent years by making it easier to join the profession. Teaching certificates can be earned without a degree in education and, with fast-track programs, certificates can be earned within months. That has helped to ease the shortage, but Scott said it also has resulted in uneven levels of training among teachers.

Even teachers who earned degrees in education may have taken just one or two classes in special education, making them aware of their legal responsibilities but unsure of how to manage a class in which one child may not respond the way other children do.

"The trend toward inclusion really has caused some difficulties for teachers because you have to treat (special needs students) differently," said Karen Lyman, a teacher-coach in St. Lucie County schools. "You have to learn how to teach that child without affecting the rest of the children."

'Old school' methods futile

Elementary school teachers may have a difficult time, too, because many younger children, such as Alex Barton, come to school without a diagnosis. The result can be months of limbo for both teacher and child before an appropriate placement is determined.

Melissa Barton, who removed her son from Morningside after the vote, said training seems to occur after a child is placed in a class rather than before.

"They give the child to the teacher and then they see if there are problems," she said.

Few have defended the choice Portillo made the day she asked her students to vote on whether Alex should remain in class, but many say her actions may point to a teacher who needed not only more training but also additional support.

Alex had struggled with behavior since his arrival at Morningside. Portillo said she sent him to the principal's office at least once a week.

On the day of the vote, he flicked crayons and crawled under a table, lifting it with his legs until his classmates' work scattered to the floor, according to the school district's investigation.

Portillo's options, as provided by a school support team, were to take away Alex's tokens, to send him to the classroom of a designated teacher or to send him to the principal's office.

Portillo doesn't remember if she took away the tokens that day. The designated teacher was off campus, as was the volunteer. She sent Alex to the principal's office only to have him returned to her. All before lunchtime.

"I'm not defending her choice of things to do, and I think Wendy's been clear that she regrets it, but nobody knows what being in that class with that constant behavior day after day was like," said Vicki Rodriguez, vice president of the St. Lucie teachers union.

Lyman said teachers often need to be trained to react differently to inappropriate behavior, and the worst reaction, though perhaps natural, is to become angry or frustrated with the child.

"Our automatic reaction is, 'Why are you doing that? Stop doing that' and that's not working," she said. But the attention to the bad behavior actually reinforces it.

Scott said many teachers rely on "old school" punitive methods of discipline, most of which don't work with special needs students, particularly those with autism who may miss social cues.

"You can't punish these kids into behaving well," he said.

Inclusion often is not the cheapest approach to teaching special needs children, Scott said, and with less and less money going to public schools in Florida, it can be difficult to provide the assistance they need.

"A lot of kids really need more and better teaching and that's often hard to pull off," he said.

Mother calls for training

In St. Lucie, the school district's philosophy is one of positive discipline rather than negative, said Deborah Iseman, executive director of professional development.

Both the union and the school district receive frequent requests from teachers for additional training in classroom management, school officials said. One class the union offers, Managing Anti-Social Behavior, always has a waiting list, Rodriguez said.

Eric Graff, who occasionally had Alex in his class at Morningside, said he believes school and state officials may finally be recognizing the need for more teacher training.

"I think the more education we get, the better it is for us," he said. "I don't have a problem saying I don't have all the answers for each child."

With little training or improper placement, both teacher and child may be at risk.

A kindergartner detached the retina of a teacher at Garden City Elementary in Fort Pierce last year, according to police reports. And the year before, a classroom aide at Garden City was fired after she allegedly fractured the arm of an 8-year-old disabled child by improperly restraining him.

Barton, who is searching for a new school for Alex, said such incidents point to a need for greater understanding about disabilities and better use of resources.

She said many teachers she speaks to want additional training, but have little time or opportunity.

"They make it impossible for teachers and impossible for students," she said.

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