Teachers Should Lift Up Disabled Students, Not Hold Them Down

A Teaching Aside

So, every once in a while I help out families that have to navigate the educational system with disabled children. Most often autistic or fragile X kids (once again this is a good time to note I am not a proponent of person first language). These phone calls tend to be very similar each time, and I find that sad. The school team is telling parents their children cannot succeed in anything other than a highly restrictive environment. Life skills classrooms rather than mild/moderate classrooms, self-contained rather than resource. Behavior units rather than a compassionate behavior plan… The school’s showing a complete lack of faith and belief in a child’s ability; contrasted with frustrated parents trying their best to advocate for their child’s abilities.

The theme of many of these phone calls are boiled down in this tweet:

This is what I am going to address in this post: How should schools approach the educational placement of disabled students.

Least Harmful Assumption

My approach in special education is to always favor what I call the least harmful assumption. The definition of least harmful assumption is as follows (paraphrased from this piece by Anne Donnelian and this conceptual extension from Zach Rossetti and Carol Tashie):

The Least Dangerous Assumption is the premise that, in the absence of evidence, we believe we have not yet found a way to make it so a child or adult with a disability can [learn], instead of believing he or she can’t [learn]

More colloquially, it is less harmful to the student to assume they can be taught how to succeed rather than assume they will never be able to accomplish.


(from Rossetti and Toshie – emphasis mine)

An example particularly applicable to my life (fishing)

…If I were to go fishing for a week and not catch any fish, there would be two assumptions that could be made.

First, I could say “there are no fish in the lake since I did not catch any, and I know what I am doing.”

Or, second, I could say simply that “I did not catch any fish that week, and I will keep on trying.” The first assumption seems rather arrogant, while the second one is more realistic and respectful.

(There is a third assumption that I could make which would be that I am not a good fisherman, but we won’t go there).

An example for disabled students in a school setting

Imagine a child who does not talk with the spoken word and moves around using a wheelchair. Her teachers have worked with her for a month and have not yet seen any evidence of what she understands. In fact, they wonder if she knows or is aware of anything at all.

These teachers can make one of two assumptions. They can assume that “what you see is what you get” and that this child does not know anything, that her brain is as empty as that lake. As such, they can educate her in a way that reflects those assumptions (perhaps segregated classes or regular classes with low or no expectations). Now imagine her as she graduates and uses a communication device to say, “Why did you treat me so poorly?!! I am smart and you wasted twelve years of my life!” A very dangerous assumption was made, with results that none of us would desire.

Now, consider the second assumption. These same teachers can recognize that her movement differences are differences and not deficiencies. They can assume that she knows lots and just isn’t currently able to show what she knows. Her brain is as full of knowledge and potential as that lake is of fish, but they just have not been able to reel anything in yet. As such, her schooling would reflect these high expectations and she would be considered and respected as a valued member of her school and classes. Now again, imagine her twelve years later at graduation, using her communication device to say, “Thank you from the bottom of my heart to all of my teachers who believed in me and made me feel as if I truly belonged and treated me like all of my classmates.” This is the least dangerous assumption, one that results in a young woman who can celebrate her full and fulfilling life.

But consider a third scenario as well. What if we never come up with a way for this young woman to communicate her intelligence? What if, after twelve years as a valued and respected student in all general education classes, we still do not know exactly what she has learned and knows? What harm was done? What was lost? Nothing. And that truly is the least dangerous assumption.

Lifting Up vs. Punching Down

When we look at a disabled individual, we have two choices. We can focus on their abilities and work on a plan to help them shine, or else we can prejudice ourselves and find ways to make sure our preconceptions are validated. In other words, we can lift them up and give them the chance for success, or we can punch them down and make sure they remain unable to do things.

This can be thought of as a form of Pygmalion effect, as diagrammed below. If we believe in them, they will conform to our belief and rise up. The same works if we constantly express a belief of inability. The student will conform to our expectations.

My approach in special education placement is to assume the student is able or can be taught to do whatever they need to know. I prefer general education over resource, resource over a self-contained special classroom, and I prefer a mild/moderate over severe/profound special classes, and I favor anything to a special school.

I have worked with students with Fragile X syndrome, and I have found the following to be true. If you work hard enough and/or give appropriate scaffolds, they can learn how to read. They can do basic math, especially if given a calculator. They can learn routines in a classroom and behaviorally fit in with the other students. They can mainstream for academic and nonacademic subjects. They can learn how to ask for help.  So, why would I immediately place them in a life skills class that assumes they cannot do the above things? Especially if I have a classroom that moved more slowly academically, but still has comparatively high expectations for the student.

With autistic students, I assume they can develop appropriate-enough of social skills to exist in a typical classroom. I assume they can self-regulate. I assume they can take care of their own sensory needs. I assume they can communicate effectively, be it by sign, speech, AAC, PECS, or whatever. I assume they can learn to cope. But they have to be taught. So why would I immediately place them in a classroom that is designed to prevent these kids from having the experiences necessary to learn the above skills? Why would I assume they will not be able to learn?

Later in this post I will give a specific example of a student with cerebral palsy. My assumption for people with cerebral palsy is that they have sharp minds but lack control over many functions of their bodies. Their physical disabilities are not indicative of a weak mind. In fact, the opposite is more reliably true in my experience. So why would I try to assign them to a special school that specializes in physical disabilities, but makes assumptions that include an incapacity for learning? Why would I do that to them?

This can be extended to any student with any challenge or disorder, be it mental, neurological, or physical. The U. S. educational system has a track record of making poor, even harmful assumptions about race, socio-economic status, learning disabilities, medical or psychiatric diagnoses, etc. If we could screw up our assumptions, we did. This was why the idea of a least dangerous/harmful assumption was formalized all the way back in 1984, and we still have difficulties consistently applying it.

My Experiences With a Least Dangerous Assumption

When I was in elementary school, my mother was a 1:1 paraeducator for a young woman with cerebral palsy in the junior high. This young woman used a wheelchair for mobility, required high levels of assistance for personal care, and her speech was very hard to understand. My mother’s job was to help: this student was the one doing all the work for her assignments, tests, etc.

I remember one day this young woman came to our house and was in the kitchen talking to my mother (by now I knew her well enough that I could understand her when she talked). Because I liked her, I drew her a picture of a red barn with a window. It was a typical young child picture of a barn. The perspective was awful, the windows were crooked, etc.

When I gave the picture to her, she commented that the barn would look better if the perspective were fixed and motioned with her arms how this l look. She also gave me a few more notes on how to improve the picture. To me this was not altogether unexpected feedback given her father was an art teacher at the high school.

In retrospect, I realize something  funny. I was not at all surprised that she gave me this feedback and did not even process at the time how some people would not be pleased to receive feedback on an art piece by a young woman with cerebral palsy. I took her notes and improved my drawings. I then sent them to school with my mother to give to her.

Fast forward to a year or so ago.

I worked with a student in 4th grade. There had been discussions by the school team about having this student go to a special school for profoundly disabled students because they have cerebral palsy and required a lot of assistance for their personal and communication needs.

This school had all the students use a computer program called Successmaker as part of their computer time because it gave the teachers data that could be used for progress monitoring. So I had daily data for reading and math for this student.  This student had a head mouse system involving a reflective dot on their nose that was picked up by a webcam on the computer monitor. The student hit a large button (think the “easy button” from Staples) to click the mouse.

Using this assistive technology, this student was consistently getting 60-75% of the grade level questions correct. Seeing this, I wondered why this student was in a full-time special education classroom placement. I felt that was holding this student back. So I made my own assumption and ran with it. I assumed they were a kid with a great brain but a body that was uncooperative.

I started by moving this student into a general education class for whole group reading and math. I figured since the student had a 1:1 paraeducator, they would be able to figure out how to survive the general education classroom. Well, apparently survival was not the question, it was participation. This student was able to complete assignments at grade level without any problems. She used an iPad to point to the numbers that were needed on the assignment and the paraeducator wrote them. With time, the student just got a better iPad program that let them just do the whole assignment themselves.

Reading showed similar success. When given choices or time to tap out answers using an adaptive keyboard, we saw grade level reading comprehension, meaning both the student was able to read the material and concurrently understand what they were reading. Now, even a significant number of non-disabled students struggle with this. Additionally, at this point the student also got the burr up their butt that they wanted to write. They wanted to type. They wanted to do the work themselves.  So the paraprofessional let them. For writing, the paraprofessional grabbed a pencil in her fist and stuck a thumb up. This student grabbed the para’s thumb and used it like a joystick to write. The para even would talk to me and actively  not pay any attention to what the student was doing to be sure not to influence any writing. The student also started using the adapted keyboard independently as well, even though it was extremely difficult.

The final hurdle took some more creativity. Communication. This student did not have the ability to speak. They did not have sufficient motor control to form the right sounds. However, this student was a social butterfly. They loved being in groups and always tried to be in the middle of things. We found out one day when there was a scheduling issue that put some physical therapy at the same time as recess. The student tried to communicate their displeasure using the iPad, but was ignored. They tried by yelling, but were ignored. So, to make their point, the student dumped their wheelchair started crawling outside without the para. Point made.

Our communication plan was simple: the student’s mother would program in a set of communication statements on the iPad connected to the button. In the morning, the paraeducator would have a typical beginning of day conversation with the student in the 10 minutes between arriving on the bus and class starting. Then the teacher started joining in. Then peers. After a while we programmed the iPad with some corny knock-knock jokes. It was constrained communication, but it was communication.

We also saw something interesting…the student started to vocalize more in the hallways and class to get our attention so they could communicate.  We even set up a few pre-determined questions for this student to answer so they could prepare and get the communication button set up with the answer during the lesson so the student could hit the button and participate in class.

In the end, by making the least dangerous assumption regarding a student with multiple disabilities, we helped a student succeed. They worked their way out of a special education unit. In fact, they do not receive any kind of academic special education services at all. They just have a 1:1 para for hygiene and mobility assistance.  On year-end testing they received a 3 out of 4 (which is “proficient”) for the English Language Arts testing and a 2 out of 4 (“approaching proficient”) for each the Math and Science testing. This student has friends that walk across the room talk to them and bask in a toothy grin. They hang out with a set peer group at recess. They communicate with teachers in class and in the hallway. They have it all.

All because we made the assumption that this student could do it. We never entertained the thought that they would fail. We challenged ourselves with the student’s success. And the student made it.


Kids can do amazing things if adults believe in them. They are also capable of spectacular failure if adults don’t. So, in a very real and tangible way, their success depends on our belief in their abilities.

To follow the least dangerous/harmful assumption there are things we can do:

  • Focus on who/what students are becoming, not what they are doing at the moment
    • It is the PROCESS, not the PRODUCT that matters
    • That Ah-Ha or Eureka moment may just be around the corner
  • Assume intentionality in communication
    • Always assume they are trying to communicate
    • If nothing else, you will teach them to intentionally communicate
  • See strengths
    • What can they do
    • Shape their strengths to compensate for any weaknesses
    • Always approach with the assumption of competence
  • Wait…Then Wait again
    • Rushing is not an effective way to identify skills and abilities, it often masks them
    • Patience is a virtue (give time for skills to develop)
    • Allow for a longer processing time (Getting the right answer eventually is still getting the right answer)
  • Use the right tools for the job
    • Assistive tech as needed to guide success (earlier post on AAC)
    • Teach how to use assistive tech (Teach them to fish, don’t just give them a fishing pole and walk away)
  • Focus on all pieces of the puzzle
    • Think critically about how to meet needs of the student
    • Treat IEPs and Placement decisions as an opportunity to challenge the student
  • Ignore nay-sayers
    • You do no harm when you make the least dangerous/harmful assumption
    • You may just raise the student up
    • Negative comments or naysayers are not helpful, so they can easily be ignored
  • Never give up
    • Never give up on yourself and your ability to teach the student
    • Never give up on the student’s ability to learn


Help Autistic Kids Help Themselves

A Personal Aside

Note: I choose to avoid person first language at the direct request of autistic individuals with whom I interact in real life as well as on the internet. I choose to err on the side of referring to autistics in the way they tell me to rather than follow a political convention.

Today I had to apply the CPS model, described here, with two autistic students. Both of these students have demonstrated major behavioral issues this school year and were even worse today, the first day back from a 10-day spring break.

The TL;DR of this post is that communicating with autistic kids is the best way to help them solve their own problems, rather than trying to impose solutions upon them.

How I approach working with autistics

Based on my life experiences with my twin brother, Kyle, I have learned to never underestimate an autistic. In fact, I often favor assuming autistics have a much greater ability than what is immediately apparent. I also wholeheartedly believe that the basic human need for compassion, understanding, and communication is stronger in autistics than any of us realize.

That being the case, I approach any behavioral issue with an autistic student as I would approach an issue with myself at that age. They either lack the ability to communicate what they need or what they lack in a way that the rest of us understand, or else they are feeling some emotional state that needs a resolution–again lacking the communication skills to access their needs. These two options apply both to Kyle and myself, so I go with it as a rough guide.

When I see a student misbehaving–one student today was trying to hurt others and to cause chaos in the classroom and the other student was running out of the classroom–I approach them for a conversation. I do this paying no regard to the student’s communication skills. I consider it my job to understand what they are communicating, not their job to make me understand.

Specific Example

Student 1

I will call this student Erin. I walked into a classroom and this student was peeling the name cards off the tables in the classroom. They then ran across the room and punched two students, and ran behind the teacher’s desk. I went over to Erin and got on their level. I asked them what they needed in order to work.

Erin said, “Toys”.

“Toys?” I said. ‘Tell me, what does [Erin] need to do to get toys”

Erin: “[Erin] needs to work first, then toys. Work first, then toys. [Erin] needs toys to work.”

DH (me): “So [Erin] needs toys to work. Do you need to see toys to earn? What do you mean? How can I help you? What do I need to do to help you work?” (I know this is too many questions, but they are rephrases of the same questions, I was hoping Erin would answer one of them).

E: “[Teacher] erased my board. [Teacher] broke the rules. No toys. No toys. No work for 5 minutes. No first work then toys. No!” (At this point Erin sprinted across the room and tipped a chair with a student still sitting in it while staring at the teacher).

DH: “[Erin], do you need to come talk to Dr. H in private?”

E: “Yes, now please [gives name of teacher’s room to go to] please.”

DH: “Okay, talk”

E: “Dr. H please work first then toys. Work first then toys. Work then toys. Work 5 minutes and then toys 2 minutes. [Erin] control the timer. Work first then toys. Please now.”

DH: “How do I do this. How can I help [Erin] do this?”

E: “Big marker and white board” (they brought me a sharpie and a whiteboard.) “No erase. Never”

DH: “[Erin] wants me to write words on the board?” (I wrote “First work 5 minutes, THEN 2 minutes toys” on the board).

E: (gives me a hug) “[Erin] will say sorry and do work for toys.”

Erin then proceeded to walk back to class silently, gave a personal apology to each teacher and student they had wronged, and asked a teacher to give them work so they could work for toys.

Importantly here, I did not give Erin any solutions. I did not tell them what to do, how to do it, and I certainly did not tell Erin to apologize to the peers and teachers that had been harmed during the incident in class. Erin had a solution in their mind already, but I was the only one willing to ask what they wanted and wait until they were able to formulate an answer I could act upon.  The moment I helped Erin achieve their solution, they ran with it and did not require further adult help.

Student 2

I will call this student Bryan. Bryan had a substitute teacher in their class. That being the case, Bryan ran out of class three times and refused to come in from recess. I was not involved in these incidents. I came in later.

The incident I dealt with was when Bryan ran out of music class. One of my students from last year found this student running down the hall and engaged them in a game. He then yelled down the hall to get my attention.

When I got there I let my old student go back to class. I sat down on a bench and looked at Bryan who was 10 feet away from me hiding behind a pillar.

DH: “[Bryan], can you come over here on the bench and have a chat with me?”

B: “F*ck no, you will grab me”

DH: “What if I sit on my hands?”

B: “Prove it”

DH: “Okay” (I made a show of standing up and putting my hands entirely under my legs and sat down)

B: “I am coming out!” (he walked VERY slowly until he was just out of arm’s reach of me) “What do you want”

DH: “I want to help you get back to class. Running out is unsafe and I cannot let that happen” (I don’t lie to kids, they see right through me. So I level with them, it has worked thus far).

B: “What”

DH: “I want [Bryan] to be safe and happy so he can go back to class. What does [Bryan] need, what does he want?”

B: “[Bryan] wants to be on his bed in his room playing Roblox on his laptop.”

DH: “Wait, what? This is about home?”

B: “Yes. Dad said I was naughty boy. He closed my laptop. He locked it in cupboard up too high for me”

DH: “So, dad said [Bryan] was naughty and took away the laptop so no Roblox”

B: “Yes. Mad. Angry.”

DH: “What does [Bryan] need to be able to go to class”

B: “Laptop”

DH: “Not an option”

B: “How can get Roblox back on laptop?”

DH: “Can you ask your dad how to earn it back? If he took it, then he thought you did something bad, maybe being good will help you get it back”

B: “Ask dad? Why? Dad closed laptop. Took roblox. Dad hates [Bryan]”

DH: “Dads do things that make them look like they are mean and hate kids, but it is because they love us and want to help us do good things. They take things so we learn to stop being naughty”

B:  “No hate?”

DH: “Nope”

B: “Good at school help laptop?”

DH: “Couldn’t hurt”

B: “OK. Hate class. Want games.”

DH: “I get that. But if you do not go to class can the teacher tell dad [Bryan] was good at school?”

B: “I go to class. Now. Hurry”

I then followed as Bryan slowly walked to class. He asked a number of questions about why parents are “assholes” and why they don’t understand his needs. I corrected the language since now we were not in problem solving mode and it was a teaching moment to teach expected vs. unexpected language in school.

He went to class and got his good report.

Why did it work

The standard adult tells student what to do model is less useful. It is because of this there are students that will punch their peers and say, “sorry” and assume all is well. They also develop a dependency on adults to solve their problems. They become powerless. They have no accountability. They have permission to misbehave so long as it is a new way of misbehaving. It is a vicious cycle I have seen over and over.

That was not what happened today.

I think today was illustrative because I worked with two students that have relatively low verbal language skills and underdeveloped coping skills. Both students were able to communicate in their own way the solution to their problem and engage with the solution. I did not spoon feed them. I just used a modified Rogerian psychology trick of restating what they just said as a question to keep them communicating. They did the work. They got their own needs met. They were empowered. They learned. They were accountable for their own solutions.

In short, by helping autistic students communicate to get their own needs met, they grew. They grew as students. They grew in character. They grew up a little. They grew as people. And that is my goal as a special educator. To build character and prepare autistic kids for the real world. Today I feel I helped, if only a little bit.