"Classrooms are the ideal laboratory for helping young people develop persistence, resourcefulness, coping skills, optimism, and hardiness. We're wise to live in that laboratory – and our students are the better for it."


(Tomlinson, 2013)

Among other things, a functional learning environment is one that supports healthy psycho-social development of students (and staff). Attention to individual and collective well-being, as well as academic progress, is essential. With this in mind, consider the following two scenarios with a lens on a middle school student with an IEP based on moderate disability.

Background: Josh entered Middle School 2 months ago; he currently spends about 80% of the day in general education classes and the rest of the day receives special education support and services. In his previous elementary school, his day was divided 60/40 general and special education classroom placements. His elementary school had about 300 students (total enrollment K-5), while his middle school has close to 1,000 students. All of the teachers in the middle school are new to Josh; he has four general education subject matter teachers and one special education teacher in the resource room. Josh uses some assistive technology for reading and writing, has moderate oral communication challenges, and likes math (is above grade level). He also receives some physical therapy for mild mobility challenges; in addition he receives speech therapy support for his assistive technology and communication needs. Josh's IEP indicates mild Asperger's as well. He has one close friend from elementary school who is also new to the middle school. Josh has expressed and demonstrated notable anxiety about middle school, particularly as to his acceptance by other students and his ability to make friends.

Scenario #1: Josh's teachers (all of them) met before the school year to review IEPs and ask questions about specifics to support Josh (and other students) in their classrooms. Two of the four general education teachers asked for and received tutorials to support the assistive technology that Josh uses to accommodate his challenges in reading and writing (the other two teachers were already familiar with the technology application and assisted in the tutorials). The special education teachers meet with the general education teachers regularly to review and support strategies to differentiate instruction as well as classroom formative assessment; this is supported by a new scheduling design that standardizes team meetings. The teachers collectively are on top of their students' progress in mastering core curricular standards.

In addition, the school has implemented three new strategies that are designed to improve the culture of the school as well as support student achievement for all. These include:

  1. Professional learning to support a consistent approach to developing growth mindsets for all staff and students;
  2. Introduction of student-led conferencing for parent & teacher conferences; and
  3. A peer-to-peer program to support social competencies and independence for students with IEPs as well as for students identified at risk of dropout.

Scenario #2: Two of Josh's teachers are substitutes, as the school is still finalizing recruitment and hiring for the current school year. While math is Josh's strength, his current math teacher resents having students with IEPs in his classroom and has resisted learning about the assistive technology that Josh uses (the resistance is without consequence). The special education teachers in the school make every attempt to meet regularly with general education teachers to discuss progress and strategies for students with IEPs, but the schedule does not support such meeting time during the contract day. The school improvement team has identified student behavior and bullying as a critical challenge; the school improvement plan indicates that positive behavior intervention and supports (PBIS) are intended; however, neither staff nor resources have been identified to coordinate the initiative.

As an educator/leader, put yourself in these two scenarios, and then consider the following frame for discussion:

Is what we are doing consistent with what we believe?

In a review of Building Community in Schools (Thomas Sergiovanni, 1994) Joel Westheimer summarizes Sergiovanni's thesis this way: that schooling is first and foremost about relationships between and among students and teachers, and that community building must be the basis for school reform efforts that seek to improve teaching and learning – all else will come more naturally when authentic communities flourish.1

For me, this generates questions at the heart of special education: are we driven by compliance or by a commitment to excellence in teaching and learning? Are we driven by bureaucratic obligation or by a genuine belief in human potential? If we are driven by a commitment to excellence in teaching and learning, by a belief in human potential, then we must establish a foundation of community within school – community that fosters healthy relationships, community that fosters human potential, and collective energy to keep improving.

"...any school that wants to improve achievement though non-cognitive skills, such as courage, must develop a growth mindset in all students and staff. Everyone must believe that they can improve with effort and practice and that demonstrating academic courage will lead to success."

(Berger, 2013)

Why MINDSET matters:
In scenario #1, the school improvement strategies include developing a consistent approach to developing growth mindsets for staff and students; this is a driver for how we view ourselves and our students, how we see human potential. Research by Carol Dweck finds a fundamental difference between fixed and growth mindsets.

If we, or our students, have a fixed mindset, we believe that intelligence or talent or achievement cannot be improved – what is just is. A fixed mindset tends toward giving up, hiding our struggles to learn, or not seeing that failure is in fact part of the path to learning. On the other hand, a growth mindset views effort, practice, and overcoming failure as natural aspects of the path to learning and success. A child who learns that it is okay to learn from mistakes, who is encouraged to keep trying, whose efforts are affirmed as much as the eventual success, is a child who is developing a growth mindset. And adults who see either their own or their students' failures as levers to new approaches, new ways of tackling challenges, are also moving toward a growth mindset. This is critical for the high achiever as well; high achievers who operate from a fixed mindset tend to hide their struggles, afraid to reveal what they do not know or cannot do. Building growth mindsets is a way of supporting a healthy, functional and effective learning community for all.

Now, consider scenario #2 in relationship to growth mindsets. How is human potential viewed by Josh's math teacher? How does a fixed mindset about students with IEPs impact the quality of teaching and learning? What is the impact of leadership that does not hold staff accountable for their own growth and learning?

What student-led conferencing says & does:

In scenario #1, the school improvement strategies include the introduction of student-led conferencing for parent & teacher conferences. Students will present their progress not only in academics but also in other possible domains such as: how they tackle new learning, how they reach out to other students or adults when seeking information, and what their goals are for the next term. Reflecting efforts toward building growth mindsets for all, this also supports student ownership of progress and learning strategies. In addition, this can demonstrate teacher effort in developing growth mindsets.

What peer-to-peer programs can do:

As students with IEPs are spending more time in general education classes, peer-mediated strategies are especially helpful in building community. One such program in Michigan is the Peer-to-Peer program.

An evidenced-based program, provides increased opportunities for students with IEPs to engage in general education environments both academically and socially. When implemented, this program is a culture-changer, with the added benefit of indirect positive results in a number of areas, including behavior and student engagement. For more insight, read Focus on Results, Center for Educational Networking, Peer-to-Peer Support Programs Change Lives. April 2014.

The introduction of a peer-to-peer support program, as identified in the school improvement plan in scenario #1, will have a direct and positive impact on many students including Josh.

"PBIS is currently implemented in over 9,000 schools across the nation. When implemented with fidelity, not only are behavioral incidents impacted, but also improved achievement in reading and math can be correlated to this systemic initiative"

What positive behavior supports and interventions can do:

In scenario #2, a positive behavior intervention and supports (PBIS) model has been planned by the school improvement team. This is a proven effective strategy to improve school wide behavior, increase time for learning, and decrease office discipline referrals. In the case of the school in scenario #2, it is also planned in conjunction with an anti-bullying initiative. Implemented together, these initiatives will have great impact on school culture as well as academic progress. Of course, the challenge in scenario #2 is implementation of the initiatives. Merely having them in the school improvement plan will not achieve the desired outcomes. Schools that have implemented PBIS with fidelity have documented reductions in office discipline referrals and simultaneous improvement in math and reading achievement (a reduction in time spent on discipline increases time for instruction).

Building functional environments that support student learning is critical to student success. Assuring improved outcomes for students with IEPs includes, in part, a focus on functional environment. Such environments can begin to assure a sense of community for both students and staff, leading to norms and goals that support positive outcomes for students.

"A growing body of research confirms the benefits of building a sense of community in school. Students in schools with a strong sense of community are more likely to be academically motivated...to act ethically and altruistically...to develop social and emotional competencies...and to avoid a number of problem behaviors..."

(Schaps, 2003)

Click Here for References


1 Harvard Educational Review, Winter 1996. Westheimer, J. Book Review: Building Community in Schools by Thomas Sergiovanni (1994).


Battistich, V., Solomon, D., Kim, D., Watson, M., & Schaps, E. (1995). Schools as communities, poverty levels of student populations, and students' attitudes, motives, and performance: A multilevel analysis. American Educational Research Journal, 32: 627-658.

Berger, R. (2013). Classes in courage. Phi Delta Kappan. 95 (2): 14-18.

Bradshaw, C.P., Mitchell, M.M., Leaf, P.J. (2010). Examining the effects of schoolwide positive behavioral interventions and supports on student outcomes. Journal of Positive Behavior Interventions, 12 (3): 133-148.

Carter, E. W., & Hughes, C. (2007). Social interaction interventions: Promoting socially supportive environments and teaching new skills. In S. L. Odom, R. Horner, M. Snell, & J. Blancher. (Eds.). Handbook of developmental disabilities (pp. 310-328). NY: Guilford Press.

Carter and Kennedy (2006). Promoting access to the general curriculum using peer support strategies. Research & Practice for Persons with Severe Disabilities, 31 (4): 284-292.

Center for Educational Networking. (2014). Peer to peer support programs change lives. Focus on Results, April. www.cenmi.org

Dweck, C.S. (2006). Mindset: The new psychology of success. New York, NY: Ballantine.

Hughes, C & Carter, E.W. (2008). Peer buddy programs for successful secondary school inclusion. Baltimore, MD: Paul H. Brooks Publishing Co.

Lassen, S.R., Steele, M.M. and Sailor, W. (2006). The relationship of school-wide positive behavior support to academic achievement in an urban middle school. Psychol.Schs.,43:701-712.

Schaps, E. (2003). Creating a School Community. Educational Leadership, 60 (6): 31-33.

Sergiovanni, T. (1994). Building Community in Schools. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Tomlinson, C. A. (2013). One to grow on: Growing capable kids. Educational Leadership, 71(1):86-87.

Tough, P. (2012). How children succeed. Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

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