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Everyone’s Rights

Two special education teachers attempt to integrate a new student with severe behaviors into their class for students with language and learning disabilities. Because this student takes so much attention and time, they worry about how the other students in the class are faring as a result.


It was my second year working as a special education teacher at an elementary school in a middle-class neighborhood. Having worked in a pull-out program for a number of years, I had grown weary of the associated huge caseloads and burdensome volumes of paperwork. I decided that I needed a change of pace so when an opportunity arose to teach a self-contained classroom for students with severe language and learning disabilities, I accepted without hesitation. I thought that I could make more of a difference for a smaller number of students if I worked with them full time. I was also looking forward to the opportunity the job provided of co-teaching with another special education teacher. The concept appealed to me because I had seen many examples of successful co-teaching partnerships over the years and was anxious to give it a try..

Sharon and I began the year with eleven boys and one girl who ranged in age between nine and twelve years. All of the students were significantly below grade level academically and displayed behaviors typical of students with learning disability such as distractibility, impulsiveness, restlessness, and inattentiveness. Many of them were passive learners needing one-on-one attention in order to be successful. However, with the small teacher/student ratio and an effective classroom management plan, we were able to proceed through the first few months of school with most, if not all of our students making good academic and social progress.

We had ample time for small group activities in reading, language, phonics, and math on a daily basis. Every month we chose a different theme to study with the students giving us input about potential topics of interest. We were able to do many hands on, whole language activities and take special community field trips. The children enjoyed going to the media center to collect resources for our topics and sharing the information they retrieved. We had several talented artists in the class and as a result we were asked to create a Thanksgiving mural for the cafeteria. The kids were so proud when people at school complimented us on our beautiful artwork. Everyone, students and teachers alike, seemed to appreciate and benefit from our class community.

Around the first of December, I was informed that we would be getting a new student from another school. No one knew much about him except that in addition to our class he would attend the class for students with emotional disorders (EH) on a pull-out basis. This did not concern me at the time because several of our students were classified as EH and we often consulted with Mary, the EH teacher. Although I did not attend the initial staffing, I was told afterwards that there were questions regarding the most appropriate placement for this child; whether it should be in a full time EH or LD class. In addition to lack of progress, it was clear from the beginning that behavior was a major concern. His mother had not come to the meeting, and had not shown much interest in the process.

"Ms. Johnson doesn't seem to be very involved," the special education coordinator confided after the meeting. "I don't think it will upset her if we need to move Tyrone to a full time EH classroom later."

"I'm sure he will be fine," I replied. I considered it my personal challenge to have even the toughest students succeed in the class.

No date was set for his transfer to us because it often took several weeks for a new bus schedule to be arranged. So I was not prepared for the child who "arrived" in our class unannounced, the following Monday morning. His mom simply put him on a different bus and sent him to us, minus introductions, school supplies, or records.

"Ms. Austin, Ms. Jones, the bus driver said this kid is supposed to be in our class," Andrew said as he pointed to a boy following him into the room. Tyrone made no attempt to look in our direction but charged past Andrew, heading for the computer center. As Sharon and I exchanged shocked glances, Tyrone shoved Jesse, sitting at the computer, out of his chair. Jesse fell to the floor with a loud thud as Tyrone claimed the computer space.

"Hey, you can't do that!" Jesse protested as he looked in our direction for support. "Who IS this kid anyway?"

"That's a good question," I said as I approached the small but muscular African American child sitting squarely in front of the computer monitor, resisting Jesse's efforts to regain control. He was looking intently at the screen, expressionless to his surroundings. "You must be Tyrone, we didn't know you were coming today," I said as I leaned down, extending my hand. "I'm Ms. Jones, one of your teachers and that's Ms. Austin, your other teacher."

"Get away from me," Tyrone ordered as he roughly pushed away my extended hand. "You don't know who I am!"

After confirming with the office that he was, indeed, Tyrone, I scrambled around, gathering some school supplies and borrowing an extra desk from another teacher. In spite of our many efforts to welcome him, the day went down hill from there, as did the week, and the rest of the month before Christmas holidays arrived.

Probably feeling disoriented and lost, nine-year-old Tyrone Johnson could not sit in a chair for more than a minute at a time. He yelled out constantly, refused to walk in a line, and struck out aggressively at anyone (including teachers) who got in his space. He made it clear that he did not like to be touched, period. By the end of the first week he had been removed from the lunchroom and made to sit out at recess a number of times for fighting. Soon after that he was suspended from riding the bus for continually getting out of his seat, mocking the bus attendants, and instigating fights. He talked back belligerently to any and all authority figures when reprimanded. Sharon and I immediately asked for information, and help from the child study team, the social worker and the EH teachers at our school.

Tyrone was an attractive child, well groomed, and neatly dressed. He was well coordinated and seemed to enjoy outdoor sports. He was articulate but spoke with a pronounced lisp. Academically, he could copy and write very well but did not appear to recognize any words. We were amazed to discover however, that he knew all of his multiplication tables. "Hey teacher, I need help," he called out frequently during independent work time.

"I will be there in a minute Tyrone, I’m helping someone else right now. Try and do the easy stuff by yourself until I get there," I would tell him as I circulated among the students working on assignments.

"But I need help right now!" he insisted loudly, stomping his feet on the floor. In an attempt to increase his tolerance for doing small tasks on his own, we purposely gave him simple, short assignments that we knew he could do by himself. To discourage his yelling out during these work periods, Sharon or I tried to stay close by his desk so we could give him frequent feedback or direction. Our goal was to get him to work for five minutes on his own before asking for more help and we rewarded any effort on his part to do so. Even so, he was only able to stay on task for one or two minutes at most before calling out one of our names or getting out of his seat. This behavior proved to be very disruptive to the class and Sharon and I struggled to keep the rest of the students on track while giving Tyrone the attention he needed.

We finally received his records and discovered that in the past two years, Tyrone had attended at least four different schools. Numerous behavior referrals as well as school suspensions were documented. His social history report noted that his father was in prison and that his mother was suspected of taking drugs during her pregnancy with Tyrone. Attempting to implement a behavior plan specifically for Tyrone, we observed and charted his behavior, and modified our class plan accordingly, adding extra steps (warnings and reminders) to help him adjust and gain control.

We called his mother to schedule a conference, and were surprised when she agreed to come so readily. Because of his aggression and sensitivity to touch, I was beginning to think that the notation about drug abuse in Tyrone’s cumulative report might be accurate. Expecting perhaps a drug-addicted mother to walk through the door, Sharon and I were surprised by Ms. Johnson's attractive appearance and pleasant demeanor. She joined us for a few hours one morning and explained that Tyrone often had trouble adjusting to school but would usually behave after she came to observe. Ms. Johnson seemed to genuinely care about her son and he was obviously happy to have her come to his class. He was perfect while she was there.

"I don’t let Tyrone have sugar anymore," Ms. Johnson confided to us. "The doctor that I work for says that might help." She indicated that several of his other teachers thought Tyrone was hyperactive. They told her she should put him on medication but she would not consider it because she feared that he would become addicted. She agreed to work with us to improve her son's behavior but being a single, working mother with other children at home, we realized that she could only do so much. Understandably, she was frustrated by our calls regarding Tyrone's behavior but seemed unaware of the severity of his problems. "He doesn't behave this way at home," she reported.

"She wasn't at all like I expected her to be," Sharon remarked after Ms. Johnson left that day. "And she seems eager to work with us, that's a good sign."

"That's true," I agreed, "I thought that his behavior was probably due to lack of care at home but she doesn't fit the pattern of a drug addicted or uncaring mom. She says that she will start checking his notebook for notes and homework. I hope she is sincere."

We knew that even with his mom's support, it would take time for Tyrone to adjust to his new surroundings. After several months, however, he was still causing severe disruptions within our class. One teacher was required to deal exclusively with him at any given time; either helping him to stay on task, reinforcing his good efforts, or dealing with his inappropriate actions. He often had to leave the classroom, some times for misbehavior, sometimes as a reward for a short period of appropriate behavior, sometimes simply to give him or the rest of the class a break.

We contacted his last school to get more information and advice on how best to manage his behavior. His teacher at his last school reported that Tyrone enjoyed visiting the office staff and guidance counselors for treats. They were able to get him to work and behave for short periods by allowing him to make frequent social calls afterwards. We tried this approach and also had some success although we soon learned that Tyrone could not make trips around the school unattended. He often got into fights with other students in the hallway. And one day while he was taking a break outside the classroom, another teacher knocked on our door to inform us that Tyrone was exposing himself to students in the courtyard.

While Sharon and I were committed to helping Tyrone integrate into our classroom, after several months we were both exhausted from the effort, and discouraged by his lack of progress. In addition, we were concerned about how the rest of the class was fairing during the process. Several parents expressed concern because their children were reporting Tyrone's antics at home. One time he even fondled Brittany, our only girl, while walking in line to lunch. Brit was understandably upset and I was advised by our principle to report the incident to her mother. Mrs. Williams was understanding when I explained what happened. I assured her that we had given Tyrone a behavior referral and sent him to the office to speak with the principal concerning the incident.

"She took it a lot better than I would have if that had been my daughter," Sharon replied when I reviewed my conversation with Brit’s mother. We were both relieved.

Class behavior as a whole began to regress as other students followed Tyrone's lead. "Tyrone does it and he doesn't get in trouble." Jesse pointed out when asked to explain his sudden loss of control. "Why does he get to do special things that we don't get to do?" several students asked indignantly.

"Everybody is different," we explained again and again. "You have been in our class longer so you know the rules better. Tyrone is trying to learn the rules but it's just harder for him. We all need to be patient and set a good example for him." The other students were not appeased by this explanation though, and they often expressed their dissatisfaction with the situation. They missed the extra attention they had received prior to Tyrone coming and resented the changes brought about since his arrival.

We were now up to sixteen students in the class. Several boys had joined us since Tyrone but they had all quickly settled into our routine and none required the attention that Tyrone still demanded. We seldom had time for small-group and hands-on activities anymore. Tyrone's behavior improved slightly but he was still occupying a large proportion of our time.

While I believed that Tyrone had a right to the same kind of education as the other children in my class, I began to think about their rights. "Don’t they also deserve a certain quality of education and experience?" I asked myself. "Is it fair for one student to take up so much of their teachers’ time, attention, and energy?" As the school year came to an end, Sharon and I both agreed that Tyrone was better. The class as a whole, however, was never able to return to the level of instruction we had experience during the first few months of the school year.

"Should we recommend changing Tyrone's placement to full time EH?" Sharon and I wondered. "Maybe it would be better for him?" I really wanted this child to succeed in our class but maybe an EH teacher would be better suited for the task. At the same time though, I worried about how another change would effect Tyrone. He had already suffered from so many disruptions and another might simple intensify his problems. In spite of everything, Sharon and I had grown very attached to him and were concerned about his best interest.

"He will have more severe behaviors to model if he goes to Mary's class," I pointed out to Sharon as we considered his options.

"But shouldn't we also consider the needs of the other students in our class," Sharon reminded me.


Discussion/Study Questions

  1. List what you learned/know about each of the characters in the case.
  2. What do you think is motivating the thoughts/actions of each of the characters?
  3. What are the issues/problems in the case?


CEC Competency/Knowledge Areas Addressed in the Case

Rights and responsibilities of parents, students, teachers, and schools as they relate to individuals with exceptional learning needs.

Basic classroom management theories, methods, and techniques for students with exceptional learning needs.

Ethical considerations inherent in classroom behavior management.


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