One Size Does Not Fit All in Special Education: Lessons from Procrustes

This is an abbreviated version of the story of Procrustes the Stretched and Theseus from here (emphasis mine).

Theseus went on his way again. After a few miles, it got dark. Theseus saw a large house up ahead of him. He decided to ask the owner for a bed for the night, so he walked up to the door and knocked. A man came to the door and said, “Welcome young man. Come in, you look tired. My name is Procrustes. I have a magic bed for you to stay the night on. It is exactly six feet long, but can fit anyone, be they short or tall.” Theseus had been warned about a man named Procrustes. His so called “magic” bed did fit anyone, but in an unpleasant way. If a person was too short, Procrustes would chain their arms and legs and stretch them. If they were too tall, he would chop off their legs until they were just right. Procrustes led Theseus into the room where the bed was. Theseus pushed Procrustes onto the bed and chopped off his legs; and just so Procrustes wouldn’t feel any pain, he sliced his head off too.

The reason I start with this story is often times in education, even special education, we adopt a one-size-fits-all philosophy with regards to meeting their educational needs. When the plan does not work, we either blame the teachers for poor plan implementation or the students for not responding to our program. I feel we do this not only with academics but also when we are analyzing behavior (as I have mentioned before).

From Wikipedia:

A Procrustean solution is the undesirable practice of tailoring data to fit its container or some other preconceived structure. In a Procrustean solution in statistics, instead of finding the best fit line to a scatter plot of data, one first chooses the line one wants, then selects only the data that fits it, disregarding data that does not, so to “prove” some idea. It is a form of rhetorical deception made to forward one set of interests at the expense of others. The unique goal of the Procrustean solution is not win-win, but rather that Procrustes wins and the other loses. In this case, the defeat of the opponent justifies the deceptive means.

In other words, a Procrustean solution is the forceful, unnatural manipulation of someone or something to fit a rigid set of conditions or requirements (from here).

To be even more explicit, a Procrustean solution is when we have settled on the answer before we have wholly ascertained all the facts of the situation:

We see a child with autism, and we decide they need social skills training, access to a sensory room, a wiggle cushion, and applied behavioral analysis-all before we even had a chance to collect data, or even say, “hello.” Regardless the behavior of the child, we interpret everything they do under our initial premise: distraction is interpreted as poor social skills and lack of executive function, a new shirt itching is labeled sensory needs, and a child who had too much sugar that morning is labeled as ADHD and given a wiggle cushion. And worse, a child behaving exactly like every other child in the room is interpreted as having  “challenging behaviors” or “social skills deficits” that need immediate remediation from skilled behavioral therapists (see here and here for interesting perspectives on the damage we inflict by these assumptions).

We all do this, even I have to catch myself. It is such an enduring trait in humanity that Sir. Arthur Conan Doyle had Sherlock Holmes repeatedly teach Dr. Watson to avoid falling into this trap (interesting write up  here)

“You don’t seem to give much though to the matter in hand,” I said at last, interrupting Holmes’s musical disquisition.

“No data yet,” he answered. “It is a capital mistake to theorize before you have all the evidence. It biases the judgment.”

“You will have your data soon,” I remarked, pointing with my finger; “this is Brixton Road, and that is the house, if I am not very much mistaken.”

A Study in Scarlet

From Season 1, episode 2 of the BBC Series:

Here is the script of the relevant portion of that scene (emphasis mine):

Holmes:      Ah, Sergeant. We haven’t met.

Man:             Yeah, I know who you are; and I’d prefer it if you didn’t tamper with any of the evidence. Holmes: I’ve phoned Lestrade. Is he on his way? Man: He’s busy. I’m in charge. And it’s not Sergeant; it’s Detective Inspector Dimmock.

Dimmock:   We’re obviously looking at a suicide. Watson: That does seem the only explanation of all the facts.

Holmes:        Wrong. It’s one possible explanation of some of the facts. Holmes: You’ve got a solution that you like, but you’re choosing to ignore anything you see that doesn’t comply with it.

Dimmock:    Like?

Holmes:         The wound was on the right side of his head.

Dimmock:      And?

Holmes:         Van Coon was left-handed. Holmes: Requires quite a bit of contortion.

Dimmock:      Left-handed?

Holmes:         Oh, I’m amazed you didn’t notice. All you have to do is look around this flat. Coffee table on the left-hand side; coffee mug handle pointing to the left. Power sockets: habitually used the ones on the left… Pen and paper on the left-hand side of the phone because he picked it up with his right and took down messages with his left. D’you want me to go on?

Watson:         No, I think you’ve covered it.

Holmes:         Oh, I might as well; I’m almost at the bottom of the list. Holmes: There’s a knife on the breadboard with butter on the right side of the blade because he used it with his left. Holmes: It’s highly unlikely that a left-handed man would shoot himself in the right side of his head.  Conclusion: someone broke in here and murdered him. Only explanation of all the facts.

I am not saying we need to be as dogged as Sherlock Holmes to only using deductive reasoning to seek answers and explanations. Theorizing early is often necessary and helps inform where we need to focus our attention. The problem comes in when we move forward and implement the plan we settled on based on these initial preconceptions rather than the actual behavioral and educational data we collect.

I am concerned about this because our mandate in special education is to provide a highly individualized education specific to the needs of each student. However, in practice, we often run a similarly under-differentiated classroom as the general education, albeit at a lower grade level. The even greater tragedy is that, as a profession, we often structure our classes based on these sorts of preconceived notions regarding the students we assume we are going to receive, and not on the hard data we collect as part of their special education files.


The most obvious example of a Procrustean solution in education is standardization. The end goal, the outcomes in 12th grade for college and career readiness were established, and then the committees worked backward to define what was necessary for students to know to meet that end goal. However, this was done without regard to developmental and cognitive research into children in pre-K to 3rd grade. As such, all K-3 students are held accountable for standards that are not appropriate for them, and often they can be routed toward special education for an inability to meet grade-level standards that do not account for their age or needs.

From the National Institute for Early Education Research in 2015 (emphasis mine)

A recurring concern is that the Common Core State Standards were developed from the top-down (setting standards for 12th graders first, and then working backwards to set expectations for the lower grades, failing to take sufficient account of research-based learning progressions for children from birth-age 5). A related issue: Some feel there was insufficient involvement of early childhood research experts in language, literacy, mathematics, and child development in the standards development process.

[T]he top concerns and issues we’ve heard about CCSS.

  • Rigorous standards may lead to reduced play and rich activity in preschool and Kindergarten classrooms.
  • The standards are complex and extensive, and there is little guidance for teachers to implement them in Kindergarten classrooms.
  • The Kindergarten standards for literacy are not appropriate for children that age.
  • Assessment related to reaching standards will not be developmentally appropriate, and results may be misused.
  • Alignment with K-12 standards will mean teaching methods, subjects, and assessments that are not developmentally appropriate will be pushed down to preschool levels.
  • Math standards will be too challenging for young children.

This is an issue we need to address. When we work in research studying development in children, we count the age in months, not years. In pre-K, there can be easily discernible differences in cognitive and motor abilities based on how many months old the child is. 1-2 months matters. In K-3, these effects can be measured in 2-3 month increments, but they are still there. By not accounting for this, we cheat the “younger” kids by assuming they have the same skills as other students that may be upwards of 11 months older than them.

This is one reason why students that are the youngest in their classes are disproportionally classified as ADHD and identified for special education services. Had they just stayed in preschool another year and joined the next kindergarten class, they would be either right at the norms or else surpassing them relative to their peers, only due to natural developmental factors that are present in all children (and irrespective to access to education). Developmental neuroscientists and psychologists almost universally support this approach.

Now I am not saying we need to dump the CCSS (or Utah State Curriculum Standards in Utah that are identical to the CCSS with the addition of cursive handwriting standards in ELA). We do need standards, and far too often we forget that curriculum we use in teaching the standard and the tests we use to evaluate learning based on a standard are not the standard. They are tools. And tools can be either effective or ineffective depending upon the training, wisdom, and skills of the craftsman.

What I am saying is that we need to take a step back and look at how we approach Tier I, II, and III teaching as well as the role of formative and summative testing in our educational system. I will address this at the end of this post.

Overall, my points are reiterated well by this article from Rochester SAGE (emphasis mine)

Our educational system has become a Procrustean Bed, not measured in inches but in proficiency. The state and federal governments along with the school districts have provided a measure to which some students are stretched and others are not allowed to exceed.

Every child is different. Each child has different strengths and weaknesses. Each child learns at a slightly different pace which varies across subjects. For a large number of students, perhaps half, the standard classroom pace is appropriate. For about one-quarter the pace is too quick. For another quarter, the pace is too slow. Within these quartiles there is great variation and for some the pace will be impossibly quick and for others frustratingly slow.

No Child Left Behind and most standardized tests […] do not take these natural learning velocities into account. A child is judged academically by how he fits the bed of the common core curriculum measured in standardized tests. Children who fall short are stretched, sometimes severely, to attempt to fit them to the Procrustean Bed. Children who exceed the standards do not have their legs hewn off. Instead, they are often hobbled, prevented from using their academic legs fully. This isn’t fair or beneficial to either group.

If the common core curriculum is based on what an average student should be able to learn in a standard school year, by definition it will surpass what some students are able to learn. This is not Lake Wobegon. Not all our children are above average. Being below average in an area is not something to be ashamed of, despite our society’s abasement of those below average in intelligence, athleticism, height, and other innate traits. However, it is also not something to be ignored in determining the best course of academia for a learner. Insisting a student only capable of learning at a slower pace stretch to move at the average pace will leave that student frustrated and robbed of the joy of learning as the child’s hard work is rewarded with C’s and D’s. How long will a child expend significant effort for low grades?

Conversely, the common core curriculum will be too easy for some students. Even though our society often esteems those whose traits are above average in an area, there is no reason for pride in these accidents of birth and genetics. Again, it should not be ignored. Insisting a student learn at a slower pace robs the child of the joy of learning as the material is repetitious. Rewarding the student’s insignificant effort with A’s teaches the student that innate ability is more valuable than a strong work ethic, a debilitating lie that affects the child his entire life.

In other words, we need to up our game. Without throwing the baby out with the bathwater.


When a school district seeks to identify a function of behavior to design an intervention, they use an observational functional behavior analysis based on research in Applied Behavioral Analysis (ABA). I spend a lot of time on this blog criticizing ABA, but that is not my point here. Instead, I will point out how in education we apply these tools without considering the individual needs and challenges of the students. This procedure depends upon two rather Procrustean contracts: firstly – that a three-term contingency is valid (Antecedent-Behavior-Consequence) and secondly, that the function of a given behavior can be appropriately simplified to fit in two categories: “to get X” or “to escape X.” I have written about these issues before.

With regards to the three-term contingency, I cannot even recall the number of times I have been working with a child, and they started engaging in a certain behavior because they remembered an incident from some time in the past or started to be anxious about the future. The behavior was in no way driven, controlled by, or even influenced by the immediate environment. The antecedent in no way immediately preceded the behavior–in fact, in many cases, the antecedent actually followed the behavior (this is true in anxiety wherein things that may or may not happen in the future can affect behavior in the present). This is true in some developmental disorders, anxiety disorders, depression, schizophrenia (both with positive or negative symptoms), Tourette’s and other stereotypical movement disorders, bipolar disorder, and many others.

To restate this, the three-term contingency A-B-C model only works in the situations where it is applicable (i.e., there was an environmental trigger or discriminating stimulus that reliably causes a behavior or discriminated operand). In situations where there is no immediate trigger-meaning the student’s behavior was determined by their thoughts, anxieties, depressive states, etc., the A-B-C model incorrectly identified an antecedent and also may incorrectly identify the consequence that maintains the behavior.

An example of incorrect consequence identification can be if a student has an anxiety or panic attack and runs to escape their internal emotional chaos, but they ran away from a math worksheet, so we mark, “escape/removal of tasks or activities”. This can be problematical as I have had students elope from anxiety during preferred tasks. The last thing I want to do is set up a behavior plan to incentivize a student doing what they already want to do while not addressing the actual issues at the core of their challenges (see why this is a bad idea here).

Below is the snippet from Wikipedia regarding what the proposed functions of behavior are in ABA. This is a slightly oversimplified description, but it gets the gist.

Functions of behavior

Behavior serves two major functions for an individual: (1) to obtain desired events, or (2) to escape/avoid undesired events. Put another way, individuals engage in behavior to get something or to get out of something. When trying to identify the function of a behavior, it is often helpful to think, “What purpose is this behavior serving the individual?” Described below are the common functions of behavior.

Obtain socially mediated events

Access to attention (positive reinforcement: social): The individual engages in the behavior to obtain attention from another person. For example, a child throws a toy because it characteristically results in mom’s attention. (If this behavior results in mom looking at child and giving him lots of attention—even if she’s saying “NO”—he will be more likely to engage in the same behavior in the future to get mom’s attention.) Common forms of attention include, but are not limited to, hugs, kisses, reprimands, frowns, smiles, etc.

Access to tangibles (positive reinforcement: tangible/activity): The individual engages in the behavior to obtain a specific item or engage in a specific activity from another person. For example, a child hits mom because s/he wants the toy mom is holding. (If this behavior results in mom giving the child the toy, s/he will be more likely to engage in the same behavior in the future to get mom’s attention.) Common forms of tangible items include, but are not limited to, food, toys, movies, video games, etc.

Automatic positive reinforcement: The individual engages in the behavior because the response-produced stimulation possesses reinforcing characteristics. In other words, engaging in the behavior produces reinforcing stimulation unique to the specific context. For example, a child hits his/her eyes because it produces the specific stimulation of various colors and effects. Another example includes a child spinning a bowl on a table to produce the specific auditory stimulation unique to that object. Common forms of automatic stimulation include, but are not limited to, auditory stimulation, visual stimulation, endorphin release, etc.

Escape/avoid undesirable events (negative reinforcement)

Escape/avoid socially mediated events

Escape/removal of attention: The individual engages in the behavior to escape aversive socially mediated attention. Put another way, social situations that are aversive to the child are removed contingent on the behavior occurring. For example, a child hits the teacher to avoid talking in front of the class. Common forms of aversive social situations include, but are not limited to, smiles, hugs, frowns, corrections, group settings, etc.

Escape/removal of tasks or activities: The individual engages in the behavior to escape aversive tasks or demands. For example, when a child is told to take a bath he begins to cry, and his mother tells him he no longer has to take a bath. Another example includes a teacher telling a student to complete a set of worksheets, to which the student flips the desk and is sent to the principal’s office. Being sent to the principal’s office reinforced the behavior of flipping the desk because it allowed the child to escape the aversive activity of completing the worksheets. Common forms of aversive demands/activities include, but are not limited to, difficult tasks, changes in routines, unpredictability, etc.

Escape/avoid specific stimulation

Automatic negative reinforcement: The individual engages in the behavior because it produces a decrease in aversive stimulation. Put another way, something aversive is occurring in some location on the organism’s body, and engaging in the behavior decreases the level of discomfort. For example, a child bangs his head against the wall to decrease the pain experienced from a toothache. Another example includes a child scratching his arm to decrease the level of itchiness experienced from a bug bite. Common forms of aversive stimulation abated by engaging in specific behaviors include sinus pain, itching, hunger, etc.

My argument for applying a limited analysis of behavioral functions is actually rather similar to the above argument for the issues with using the three-term contingency. Both of these are the hypotheses used to inform the FuBA/BIP. Unfortunately, other potential functions are explicitly excluded or oversimplified when using these analyses (i.e., “control over a situation” is no longer acceptable as a function for a given behavior and “mand compliance” is often folded into “attention seeking” or “social reinforcement” although it is quite different).

The example of anxiety and elopement is the same here The interpretation of “escape/removal of tasks or activities” is wrong. It fits the data, but it is wrong. It incorrectly characterizes a behavior based on preconceived notions or assumptions regarding the function of behavior. Escape from anxiety or relief from a panic attack by exercise does not fit in any of these columns.

I would similarly put in the lack of synthesized contingencies or functions as described in a previous post as a Procrustean solution to the interpretation of behavioral functions. Greg Hanley (a BCBA-D that often raises the ire of ABA professionals by straying from the Procrustean solutions the field relies on) has shown that the vast majority of behaviors are multiply maintained, but also that they are combinations of functions: attention from a preferred adult, escape from work to another activity or escape from work to adult attention, access to sensory stimulation with/from a preferred adult, access to a tangible with a peer, etc

Embracing this complexity vastly improves the outcome of functional analyses and lets them intervene much earlier in behaviors and much more effectively than other practitioners who choose to limit themselves to the oversimplified options I quoted above.

As Hanley stated (quoted from the link in the previous paragraph – emphasis mine):

[F]rom a clinician perspective, it does not matter whether or not we can characterize the function of a behavior; just so long as we can identify the topography of the behavior and use our identified synthesized contingencies to turn the behavior on and off. If we can do that, then we can help the child or young adult. We get too bound up as BCBA and ABA therapists on characterizing the behavior that we forget that our goal is to help the child overcome problematic or dangerous behaviors. We get too bound up in positive and negative reinforcements and other definitions that we lose sight of our mission.

As a final sum up of why I consider the application of these FuBA/BIP tools Procrustean comes from an earlier post on a similar topic.

I tend to disagree with 90% of the interpretations of these ABC charts. I think the function of the behavior is often decided upon prior to the analysis and often fails to meet my definition of function as given above.

To be honest, looking at the situation later I realized the teacher leader and I were using different data. Our preconceptions going into the data collection had influenced what we saw. I knew this student had a tendency for aggression that was almost always laser-focused on an adult being inconsistent. I also knew this student had a social as well as general anxiety disorder, generalized depression, major sensory issues, profound ADHD, and autism. All of that informed my data collection. For this analysis I remember writing down that the paraeducator told the student to do work, and the student countered by asking why others were not being required to do all the work, why do they get a break? When the paraeducator answered something like, “that’s the way it is”, the student went off.

When the teacher leader collected data, they were looking at different endpoints. They saw a student not working, misbehaving, and as a result not working. Cut and dried. But, they did not write down that the student was arguing with an adult and what the conversation entailed. They also did not write down exactly when the student did when the adults backed away.

Again, we can do better. We just need to be willing.


So why do we use the same plans or theories for all students if these models fail? Simply put, because it is a lot of hard work to set up umpteen plans for umpteen students in a classroom or school.

Academically, many teachers are unwilling to design and implement Tier II and Tier III academic interventions, and in some cases, administrators are unwilling to allow them. Teachers are required to stay laser-focused on the standards and moving students through them at a consistent, brisk pace. There is no time to stop and breathe, and definitely, there is no time for a spiral review or to re-teach a concept based on the previous day’s formative assessments. We just keep on swimming, not knowing where we have been and only a vague idea where we are going.

The same goes for behavior. It is much easier if we set up a class-wide system and assume students that do not respond to it are doing so intentionally and need more intensive behavioral services.


It is much easier to use the MTSS framework in academics to refer a student for special education rather than to focus on Tier II and Tier III interventions. We should always remember that if a student succeeds in Tiers II/III, they get to stay in the general education setting, and Tier II/ III just becomes a fact of life for them and the teacher until they no longer need the intervention. It does not mean that intensive interventions work, so the student gets a one-way ticket to special education.

The way to achieve this is to use adults in the classroom to maximal effect. In multiple school districts now and 50+ classrooms, I have witnessed parent and community volunteers floating in K-6 classrooms. The students that are struggling are talking and avoiding work, and the high achievers are in a small group with the teacher. Most of the time these volunteers are just floating and trying to help if they can. They have not been given a task. No vocation. Just waiting as they wander about the classroom.

If we look at Tier II interventions, they can be run by these volunteers. Or the volunteers can float while the teacher pulls these students into a small group and does a re-teach while the other students are doing independent practice. Or, the volunteers can work with the high achievers on a more difficult task or some other material that is sufficiently challenging.

For Tier III, this requires either interventionist or the teacher. So in this case, the volunteer can supervise whole group or small group independent study as the teacher does the intensive intervention with those students that need it.

This all gets easier if there are paraeducators available to help in the classrooms as these adults can be trained in curriculum and can actually teach the material. Another alternative method is to set up a grade-wide system whereby ability groups rotate among classrooms, and high achievers can be pushed, low achievers get a reteach, and the average students just get a refresher and some fluency practice. I have seen this in action. It works.

None of us like end-of-year summative testing or middle of year benchmark formative testing. But it is a fact of life. Even for kids receiving special education services

As I have stated before

Now let me be clear at the outset. I hate standardized testing. I think it is biased, usually inappropriate for developmentally disabled students, and a poor marker of later academic success. But, as a research colleague of mine once said (taken completely out of context), “…the fact is, someone has to count the beans, otherwise we don’t know that beans are actually being produced.” (Source). In other words, without testing we are left to having to accept everyone’s word that they are progressing as they should.

Rather than fight this like we all have been doing since 2008, I suggest we choose to use formative testing to our advantage. If we are willing to offer students a 3-5 question exit ticket for each lesson (these can be made as simple as a piece of paper or a Google Form), we will have data to help us design and guide instruction. If we share those data across our grade level, these become common formative assessments that we can use to target what we perceive as critical aspects of our lessons the next day.

Basically, if we cannot go back and reteach, we can focus on the 2-3 critical points that have to be learned for the lesson to be understood, given the performance from the previous day’s exit tickets. In a class of 30 students, it takes 5 min to administer the exit ticket, about 5 minutes to grade them if they are well written, and only the amount of time to type the scores into a shared spreadsheet. A more intensive analysis can be undertaken by looking at individual questions on the common formative assessment for specific weaknesses.

To help out, here is a link to Teachers Pay Teachers where others have taken the hard work of aligning CFA to the CCSS, and most are relatively inexpensive.

For behavior, there is actually a similar approach. We have adults in the school that can do evidence-based approaches to help students that show behavioral issues. Recent work has shown that check in-check out systems are highly effective for all grade levels here and students generally report a positive experience. The benefit of systems like this is that students can check in with any designated adult in the school. It can be the school psychologist, a random teacher, the secretary or principal, a behavior specialist, etc. It just bears stating that it cannot be a special education teacher unless the student receives special education for legal reasons.

For more intensive behavioral issues, the school can designate a team or an individual who can help out students having a hard time. Many districts employ behavior intervention teachers to do just this, Student in crisis can come to them, or they can respond to teacher requests for help with students who are presenting a challenge.


Overall, I feel we are not taking individual student needs into account in our educational programming. This is a problem when we are in special education, wherein we are mandated by The Individuals with Disabilities Education Improvement Act (IDEIA 2004) to provide specially designed instruction individualized for each student.

(3) *Specially designed instruction* means adapting, as appropriate to the needs of an eligible child under this part, the content, methodology, or delivery of instruction—

(i) To address the unique needs of the child that result from the child’s disability; and

(ii) To ensure access of the child to the general curriculum, so that the child can meet the educational standards within the jurisdiction of the public agency that apply to all children.

(34 CFR §300.39.b.(3)) Review of rights and from Parent Center Hub here

The ways forward are not too difficult; however, if we have the will. It involves tweaking our practices and focusing on providing services and instruction that helps the students, rather than checking off that we have taught a given lesson on a given day.

We can support all our students academically by letting them experience high-quality Tier II and Tier III interventions taught by a trained professional with the requisite skill set. We can design our classrooms and instruction to use formative assessments to help, rather than to annoy or frustrate the students. We can do this by using data to assign students into ability groups that will assist all students in achieving their potential.

For behavior, we can work as a school-wide team to help students learn the skills they need to behave properly. We can work as a coherent team to ensure their success by using check in/check out systems, meetings with counselors or psychologists as needed, and we can set up and cultivate a culture wherein students feel trusted and valued.

None of this is easy. But it is worth it and so shall be the results.

Let me know your opinion and ideas by leaving a comment.


One thought on “One Size Does Not Fit All in Special Education: Lessons from Procrustes

I would love to hear your thoughts on this!

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s