An Interview with Johnny Collett, Program Director, Special Education Outcomes at the Council of Chief State School Officers

Johnny Collett, Program Director, Special Education Outcomes at the Council of Chief State School Officers, talks with ONEder about promoting leadership in special education

As former State Special Education Director in Kentucky, and Program Director, Special Education Outcomes at the Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO), Johnny Collett knows a thing or two about leadership. CCSSO worked closely with other members of the National Policy Board for Educational Administration (NPBEA) to develop the 2015 Professional Standards for Educational Leaders (PSEL), a document designed to ensure that all school leaders – whether in preparation programs or current practice – have the skills and abilities they need to help children succeed.

In January 2017, CCSSO released, jointly with the Collaboration for Effective Educator Development, Accountability, and Reform (CEEDAR) Center, PSEL 2015 and Promoting Principal Leadership for the Success of Students with Disabilities. The document is meant to supplement the PSEL 2015 and provide guidance on how the standards can be applied to support inclusive principal leadership in policy and practice and highlights aligned key principal competencies toward meeting those goals.

On April 26th, Johnny, along with CCSSO Senior Program Associate Kaylan Connally; Former NASDE president, Alice Parker, and Former Assistant Secretary of OSERS, Alexa Posny will explore the standards in-depth at ONEder’s “Promoting Leadership in Special Education” conference, in Newark, New Jersey.

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Can you tell us a little about your background? Where are you from, and how did you find your way into the field of education?

Prior to coming to CCSSO, I was the state director of special education in Kentucky. I also served as an assistant division director, and before that, an exceptional children consultant at the Kentucky Department of Education (KDE). Prior to working at KDE, I was a high school special education teacher.

How, and why, did you become involved with the CCSSO?

In early 2015, while serving as the state special education director in Kentucky, I became aware of a new position that CCSSO had established to focus on supporting states in their work to improve outcomes for children with disabilities. Having seen the work from various perspectives at both the local and state level, as well has having had the opportunity to engage in national conversations around improving outcomes for children with disabilities, I became increasingly interested in how I might lend my experience to add value to CCSSO’s efforts to support states in this space, and how we might all work together across the country toward collective impact in service to all kids.

Why is academic success for students with disabilities important to you?

The same reason that academic success for any student is important to me. While it is true that much progress has been made over the last 40 years since the passage of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), it is also true that there is still much work to do to ensure that all children, including students with disabilities, are prepared for success. For example, states have learned that a focus on compliance under IDEA, while necessary, is not sufficient by itself to improve achievement and outcomes for SWD. States are not content to maintain environments where the achievement of compliance alone is viewed as success. As a result, the focus has expanded beyond compliance to include intentional focus around results and to improving achievement and outcomes for SWD, as well as associated staff development and school improvement toward that end.

What is the biggest challenge to the academic success of students with disabilities?

At CCSSO, we are committed to supporting states in their efforts to ensure that all students – regardless of their background – are prepared for success in college, careers, and life. And, we are mindful that for “all to mean all”, it has to mean each. So, as we think about and prioritize our work, the guiding question for us is always, “Is it right for each kid and does it lead to college and career readiness?” There are, of course, a number of challenges to improving outcomes for students with disabilities, some of which are deeply complex and historically rooted. As a result, there are often not simple solutions and needed changes do not happen overnight. However, we are committed to prioritizing equity in our work to support states and to ensure that each child has access to the resources and educational rigor they need, at the right moment in their education, regardless of their circumstances or background.

I will call out one challenge that is particularly on my mind lately, and one about which I often speak. I refer to it as the intersection of high expectations and appropriate supports. Here’s what I mean. I find that we tend to talk about one or the other of those. For example, we may talk about having high expectations for all students, but we may not extend that conversation to the resources and supports that kids need to be successful. Conversely, we may talk about the resources and supports that kids need, but, at the same time, perpetuate a culture of low expectations for those kids. I contend that conversations that focus on either side of this intersection, without the other, are equally wrongheaded. So, as we think about improving academic achievement and outcomes for students with disabilities, we must talk about both high expectations and appropriate supports. That may seem simple, but I would argue that we may not be as intentional around this as we like to think that we are.

Why did the CCSSO release the PSEL 2015 and Promoting Principal Leadership for the Success of Students with Disabilities?

Principals are the second most influential in-school support to students and have the responsibility to create and foster the conditions for teaching and learning that provide them an equitable opportunity to succeed. As a result, ensuring that principals are equipped to meet the needs of every child is critical. CCSSO has a relentless focus on kids and believes in the power of both teachers and leaders to improve student outcomes. While having a highly effective teacher and access to rigorous curriculum is important, students must also have access to highly effective principals who lie at the nexus of high expectations and appropriate supports. Student success means making sure every leader has the preparation, development, and support they need. Building on an existing body work around educator preparation, including Promises to Keep: Transforming Educator Preparation to Better Serve a Diverse Range of Learners, this guidance includes a range of actions states can take to strengthen inclusive principal leadership in both policies and practices related to principal preparation and development.

Why is it so important to have a guidance document to the PSEL 2015 related to students with disabilities?

When principals cultivate an environment where all students feel safe, supported, and included, students with disabilities and other struggling learners thrive. In years past, school leaders primarily focused on complying with various Individualized Education Program (IEP) requirements, laws, and regulations related to educating students with disabilities. That focus has since expanded beyond compliance to one that ensures that students with disabilities are ready for college and careers when they leave high school. While the PSEL 2015 calls out the importance of principals in ensuring the success of each and every child, it also extends to all school leaders—not just principals. It is important to call out the principal’s critical role in supporting equitable learning opportunities for each student and in leading inclusive learning environments that enable them to succeed. The guidance calls out those aspects of the standards that are particularly relevant for principals to effectively support teachers to meet students’ diverse learning needs and highlights key competencies aligned to the standards that principals need to lead inclusive schools.

Who took part in developing this document?

CCSSO and the CEEDAR Center convened the Principal Competencies Advisory Group from January through October 2016 to inform this guidance document. The Advisory Group comprised principals; leaders from state and local departments of education; members of the higher education community; and representatives of professional associations serving educational leaders. These individuals guided the conceptualization, organization, and content of this document after an in-depth review and synthesis of the relevant literature on principal leadership.

How did you find the exemplars included as examples for the standards?

Many of the examples included in the document are those informed by practitioners in the Advisory Group. We felt it was important to provide examples to bring the document to life and help illustrate what inclusive principal leadership “looks like” in practice straight from the practitioners themselves.

What input did you get on the standards from educators, families, or students with disabilities?

CCSSO and CEEDAR shared initial draft guidance at several convenings of SEA leaders and educators. The Advisory Group itself comprised principals or former principals and provided extensive revisions to ensure clarity and maximum impact. An in-depth review and synthesis of literature on principal leadership for serving students with disabilities was integrated into the working group’s recommendations and the final guidance document.

While the document is intended for chief state school officers and state education agency staff, what is the biggest take-away for school leaders?

The standards focused on literature that refers directly to principals rather than special education administrators, special education coordinators, and/or school-level non-administrative special education leaders. This was a deliberate choice because of the principal’s primary role in creating and leading learning environments that foster the success of students with disabilities. The PSEL 2015 standards, on which this guidance document is based, extends to all school leaders—not only to principals. We thought it was important to call out those aspects of the standards that are key for supporting and ensuring principals can meet the needs of diverse learners and foster equitable learning environments where each child can succeed.

What additional resources are available for school leaders and educators?

The CCSSO website has many additional resources available for both teachers and leaders. PSEL 2015 and Promoting Principal Leadership for the Success of Students with Disabilities is part of a suite of guidance documents created to stimulate a more nuanced conversation about school leadership and strengthening the instructional capacity of principals. Along with PSEL 2015, these include 2015 Model Principal Supervisor Standards, and CCSSO’s Our Responsibility, Our Promise and Promises to Keep. The latter two publications outline how states can transform educator preparation so teachers and principals are better equipped to help all students achieve. The suite also includes the forthcoming National Educational Leadership Preparation (NELP) standards from the National Policy Board for Education Administration. These standards align directly with the PSEL 2015 and inform the preparation of aspiring educational leaders and the process by which preparation programs seek accreditation. CCSSO supports and engages member states in the use and application of such resources through membership meetings as well as through various collaboratives and working groups.

How have the standards been received?

Positively. A subset of states has revised leadership standards to align with the PSEL 2015 and are beginning to use the standards for professional learning for principals, evaluation and feedback, and informal coaching. They’re also beginning to apply the standards to their licensure and certification requirements. And many more states have plans to revise their leadership standards to align with PSEL. Now is the time to support states in advancing inclusive principal leadership in policy and practice.

What’s the best anecdote you’ve heard about implementing the standards since they were launched?

We recently hosted a group of aspiring special education leaders for a meeting at CCSSO. The group, comprised mostly of current principals and special education teachers or coordinators, wanted to learn more about our organization, membership, strategic support to states, and federal policy influence. At the meeting, we shared copies of the PSEL 2015 and Promoting Principal Leadership for the Success of Students with Disabilities. A participant shared that she wished this document had informed her principal preparation program—she hadn’t had the opportunity to study or practice all of the skills and competencies included in the document. Luckily, she was a former special education teacher and could extend her knowledge of meeting students’ diverse learning needs based on her former role. But she emphasized how that is rare in the current principal landscape. Many principals are not former special education teachers, and those in her cohort often leveraged her and her knowledge of the supports needed by students with diverse learner profiles. She highlighted how much this document is needed in current principal preparation policy and practice to support all principals to lead inclusive schools.

What’s next for CCSSO?

CCSSO recently held, in collaboration with CEEDAR and the Center on Great Teachers and Leaders (GTL), a convening of national experts focused on principal supports and students with disabilities. Thirty-two individuals representing federally-funded TA centers, national organizations, and CCSSO staff discussed the critical role of principals in supporting teachers and improving outcomes for all students, with a particular focus on students with disabilities. Each organization committed to take their learnings and share them back with their colleagues and made specific commitments for how they will move this work forward within their particular scope of work. To facilitate this ongoing collaboration and ensure we are all communicating a consistent, rather than conflicting, message regarding strengthening support for school leadership, CCSSO is committed to supporting this group in collective work to advance inclusive principal leadership in both policy and practice over the next year.

To learn more about CCSSO’s work on inclusive leadership, RSVP Today

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Dancing on Wheels

Join ONEder on April 26th at Robert Treat Hotel and Conference Center in Newark, New Jersey for our conference “Promoting Leadership in Special Education“, which will feature a special screening of the film “Dancing on Wheels“, and a Q&A with the film’s director, Qingzi Fan, and star, Kitty Lunn.  View the trailer below!

Effective leadership is essential for the academic success of students with disabilities. In our conference “Promoting Leadership in Special Education” we will explore the standards and principles promoting principal leadership during an interactive workshop on Wednesday, April 26th. Workshop Facilitators will include Former NASDE president, Alice Parker; Former Assistant Secretary of OSERS, Alexa Posny;  and Senior Program Associate at the Council of Chief State School Officers, Kaylan Connally


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Making A Difference: Ewing, New Jersey’s Shannon Schafer

“We all need help sometimes,” Shannon explains, “and that’s OK, but the biggest success is seeing a child transform and seeing the joy in the parents’ face for all those little steps that most of us take for granted.”

In the early 1990s, Shannon Schafer was working at a job she hated when she decided to make a change.  Now, Shannon and her husband Jon run Schafer Sports Center in Ewing, New Jersey, which provides a wide variety of programming for all children, but has a special focus on programs for students with special needs.

“This was not on my radar at all,” she explained. “But things happen how they’re supposed to happen, and when they’re supposed to happen. Now, I can’t imagine doing anything else.”

For Shannon, her journey to the new, state of the art athletic complex started in South Carolina, where she and her brother were raised by their single mom.  After graduating from South Carolina State University with a degree in business and accounting, she moved to New Jersey to stay with her grandmother while she looked for full time employment. She found work in New York City in her degree field, but didn’t find the work challenging or interesting, so she switched careers. Shannon was working as a fitness director at Gold’s Gym when she met her husband John.

After she and John got married, they joined forces to operate a gymnastics center in Lawrenceville, New Jersey. John developed his interest in gymnastics later in life, and continued to focus on gymnastics throughout college.  His motto is that working hard and having a strong work ethic is more important than talent, and this guided their gymnastics program and led to a higher than average program acceptance rate.  Shannon says, “We are a judgment-free zone.”

So when the mother of a child with special needs approached them a few years later about the possibility of having her son join their program, they didn’t give it a second thought.  “It was the right thing to do,” Shannon explained. “She wanted her child to participate in something and everyone kept telling her no.  I put myself in her shoes and once I saw the need, my dream was to have an inclusive program for everyone.”

Over the years that followed, their program grew to encompass more than just gymnastics, and they purchased a parcel a land where the current 37,000 square foot sports center now sits.  For 14 years, their family, which includes sons Logan (age 15) and Landon (age 12), sacrificed to build the new facility.  In 2016, the struggle became a reality when they opened the new Schafer Sports Center.

Now, every program at Schafer is open to students with special needs or the same program is offered especially for students with special needs. This includes parent’s night out events twice a month, gymnastics, soccer, birthday parties, dance, swimming, and summer camps.  “I’m not a fan of the word never,” Shannon says. “When someone says a kid can’t do something, like walk, or run, or ride a bike, it challenges me to prove them wrong.”

But safety always comes first at Schafer. Before beginning any type of programming, children with special needs first undergo a program assessment by Shannon, in which she evaluates a student’s interests, abilities, and areas of challenge before working with the family to recommending a program path.  “We all need help sometimes,” Shannon explains, “and that’s OK, but the biggest success is seeing a child transform and seeing the joy in the parents’ face for all those little steps that most of us take for granted.”

In addition to running Schafer, Shannon coaches students for the Special Olympics gymnastics team, and offers a free walking club to anyone with disabilities.  Special Olympics programs such as Striders, which teaches bike riding, and Young Athletes are also offered – free of charge – at Schafer. The facility also offers SPAN parent workshops, and a free infant swimming program offered in collaboration with Capital Health. They host special needs classes from local schools during the day for field trips or therapy. In April, to recognize Autism Awareness month, Schafer is hosting a variety of activities for parents and children in the special needs community. “When you get into the community, it’s amazing what kind of change can happen,” Shannon says.

Even with all these programs, Shannon hasn’t stopped thinking big or dreaming about what’s next.  When one of her former child students came back as an adult looking for meaningful employment, Shannon hired her immediately and started thinking about what happens to disabled kids when they become adults. “Where do they go? What do they do?” she wondered.  

The answers aren’t always positive, so she’s starting a nonprofit organization called We Care Special Sports to help provide more services for those with special needs at a reduced cost. One area of focus for her is obesity.  Another is living accommodations.  “My next big challenge is a campus with housing for adult with disabilities.”  

“My mind is always running, thinking of new ideas,” she says. “Doing this brings me joy.” And her students and parents couldn’t agree more. According to grandparent, Bobbie Brown, “I am thrilled that Schafer  Sports Center will offer swimming for special needs children. Water safety and drowning prevention is important for every child to learn.  My grandson is autistic, and he loves water.  I am glad that he will have the opportunity to learn the fundamental skills of swimming, and will enjoy water in a safe and comfortable environment”.

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Living with Sensory Processing Disorder

By: Melissa Ragan

Part 1: Living with SPD

In many ways, my 7-year-old daughter Lulu is like other kids her age. She fights with her siblings. She plays soccer. She trades Pokémon cards. She’s precocious, and wants to be a marine biologist when she grows up. 

But in other ways, she is not a typical second grader.  She has above average intelligence and reads at the 5-8th grade reading level. She refuses to wear certain clothing or eat foods with certain textures. She has a blanket – the same one she’s had since she was a baby – and rubs the tag against her face when she’s feeling upset. And she jumps constantly, which makes people think she has ADHD. But Lulu actually has a sensory processing disorder (SPD), sometimes called sensory integration dysfunction. Kids with SPD have challenges sending and receiving messages from the five senses, causing them to be over or under sensitive to the world around them. 

It is unknown how many children have SPD, but research suggests as many as 1 in 6 children, or 1 in 20 children are impacted by SPD.  Researchers haven’t determined what causes SPD, but genetics and environmental causes have been noted as possible culprits.  

There is some controversy around SPD. It is not listed as an independent health diagnosis in DSM-5. It is not one of the 13 disabilities covered under the Individual with Disabilities Act (IDEA). Some clinicians attribute the symptoms of SPD to other disorders, like autism, anxiety disorders, developmental coordination disorders, or ADHD. In a 2012 brief, the American Association of Pediatricians (AAP) cautioned physicians against using SPD as a specific diagnosis. As such, Lulu’s weekly occupational therapy sessions take place at a private clinic instead of at school, and we battle with our insurance company to pay for these sessions – even though a leading neurologist has ruled out the possibility of any other disorders.

 I’ve had relatives, friends, and even strangers tell me that Lulu is just being a brat. As the mother of four children, ages 6-18, I can tell you that’s not the case. And other families with children who have SPD will tell you the struggle is real. 

For example, on a recent weekend, I listed some of the SPD issues that impacted Lulu:

  • On Saturday, I accidentally put butter on her toast. I scrapped it off and tried to cover it up with her special brand of peanut butter, but she knew. Something about the taste, smell, or texture tipped her off after a single bite. A 15-minute crying session accompanied by her scrapping her tongue like I had poisoned her ensued, during which I made more toast. This time without butter. 
  • She couldn’t wear a new shirt because it had 3/4 sleeves that rubbed against the skin on her arm.
  • Her head is so sensitive that brushing her hair is our most dreaded daily task. It hurts her despite trying 12 different types of brushes, and every kind of detangler and leave in conditioner on the market.
  • Conversely, she often doesn’t feel pain on other parts of her body.  For example, while ice skating on Sunday, she fell about 100 times and got back up every single time and went right back at it. When we got home, I noticed her knee was bruised so badly it was swollen to three times the normal size for two days and yet she never made a peep about it. 

So what’s a parent to do with a kid like this, when she wants to come along to an event that will be over stimulating?

In our home, we have dinner together as a family most nights. Sometimes those discussions turn political. Not overtly so, but in a way that makes it a safe place to talk about what’s going on in the world. In the diverse community in which we live, our kids have expressed concerns about their friends, and we have tried to alleviate them as much as possible. But they persist. 

Back in January, I attended the Women’s March in Washington. Both of my daughters wanted to go, but there were too many reasons why bringing them wasn’t an option. When I arrived in DC, I was glad I didn’t. I saw the setting through Lulu’s eyes and counted every potential assault on her senses. I knew I had made the right decision. 

But as International Woman’s Day approached and I announced that I’d be going into NYC to take part in a few different events, there weren’t as many reasons for me to say no. So I didn’t. I knew it would be tricky, but I felt that it would be doable. It helped that I would be among friends and colleagues who understand kids with special needs. 

Both girls’ excitement grew in the days leading up to the event. I explained exactly what we were doing and why it was important. I planned the schedule in my head over and over, making sure to take Lulu’s sensory “diet” into consideration. And I tried to think about everything that might throw a wrench into the day and plan around it. But of course, you can’t think of everything…

Part 2: Event Day

Normally, I try to stick to a normal routine, as much as possible. The day of the event was no different. I woke my daughters around the same time as usual, but it wasn’t long before the first SPD struggle ensued.  

Struggle #1: I had laid out matching clothing for the girls: red pants and a red long-sleeved shirt (any parent will tell you it’s easier to keep an eye on kids this way). I had purchased a “Girl Power” t-shirt for them to wear. However, since it was still March in the northeast, I wanted the girls to wear the t-shirt over the long-sleeved shirt. Wearing the t-shirt over the long-sleeved shirt wasn’t a fight I was going to win or even try to.  I gave up on that one.

Struggle #2: I decided that as a special treat, we’d visit a local woman-owned bakery for breakfast.  We arrived and I let each girl pick out a breakfast treat.  Of course, there were many tempting options.  About $22 later, we arrived back at home where Lulu took just two bites of her chocolate chip muffin.  I tried to get her to eat more, knowing that as soon as she got hungry, I’d have a hot mess on my hands.  But she refused. The muffin had too many chocolate chips and they weren’t the right size (they were too small) for her.  We initially tried picking them out but I decided to just pack extra snacks.

One routine I was not going to skip was her morning trampoline time. We keep a small trampoline in our living room, and Lulu spends 15 minutes twice a day bouncing away. It helps to give her sensory input and keeps her a bit more focused throughout the day.  She also has a small indoor swing that we use which serves a similar purpose. Let me tell you that these two items are the best $50 I’ve ever spent!

Sometimes, Lulu uses a special sensory brush which we use to help give her input when other options aren’t available, but she didn’t want to bring it fearing it would make her stand out. We’ve also seen this response in her classroom when it comes to using the Wiggle Seat she has to help give input throughout the day or weighted vests that she can wear.

Once we got our sensory diet taken care of, we were off! The day wasn’t too difficult, although there were a few times when I could tell Lulu’s senses were suffering.  For example, on the train ride into the city, we sat near the door and the noise of the train was loud as passengers opened the door to pass between cars.  To help with this, she put her hood on and I tried to distract her with coloring. Later in the day, we were on the sidewalk as a deafening ambulance blared by.  There wasn’t much to do about that but cover her ears and wait it out. On the subway, the smell of something offended her, but the excitement of taking her first subway ride overrode a meltdown.

The way we combated sensory overload most effectively was by taking frequent sensory breaks.  We stopped at a lake in Central Park and she ran her hands through the sand on the beach, and collected rocks along the way.  The result was similar to another great sensory input technique: the bean and/or rice box. Every playground we encountered merited a sensory input visit.  We especially liked the one in Washington Square Park, which had a big web for kids to climb on. And of course, we stopped to get food, treats (at woman-owned businesses) and drinks frequently to keep those taste senses engaged.

My main concern about the day was for the rally and march itself. I wasn’t sure how many people would be there or how crowded the event would be. But we luckily secured a space for all of us with plenty of breathing room. My only problem was that Lulu got distracted by some buttons and absent-mindedly walked away.

As the rally wore on past 6:00 PM, we were all starting to feel a little tired after our long day of exciting adventures and decided to find a place to grab a quick bite to eat before heading back home.

On the hour or so train ride out of the city, I let the girls watch a movie on my phone so they wouldn’t fall asleep from the lull of the train. Overall, I was really glad that I overcame my worries and took my girls on this adventure!

For more information about SPD, check out, or for a unique perspective about what it’s like to live a day in the life of a kid with SPD, read this. You can also check out the Out of Sync Child, a book by Carol Kranowitz.

*Please note that links provided in this article are for informational purposes only and should not be interpreted as endorsements of specific products or services, nor has the author or ONEder received any benefit from including this information.


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You Are Not Alone

By: Ishaan Rastogi

When I was born, I was diagnosed with albinism. This means that I have very little pigmentation in my skin, making me more susceptible to the sun. A visual impairment came attached. My eyesight is 20/200, and I am considered legally blind in the state of New Jersey. Unfortunately, that means I can’t drive, so relying on public transportation is my only way around. I was born in India, and started my education there, but it was difficult for me to learn in that environment, because no one would take the time to help me. My parents wanted to give me a better life, so we packed our bags and moved to the states. It’s been a difficult journey, living differently, but I am who I am today because of every challenge I have had to overcome.

It was difficult being the “different” kid. All through elementary and middle school, I had a difficult time making friends. No one wanted to associate with me. I looked different, and did things differently. For instance, I used a small visual apparatus to see the blackboard in class, and used a magnifier to read text. The kids would find it a strange, and give me odd looks. At recess, I played by myself. I tried to play kickball with the others, but they always picked me last. I didn’t understand why other kids gave me such a difficult time. Luckily, my family was a good support system, and kept encouraging me to try. It took a while, but by 8th grade I had made my first real friend, who is still one of my closest friend to this day.

It was at the beginning of high school that I began to understand more about myself. I started going to camps, and attending life skill leadership programs, where I met other kids with visual issues, among other disabilities. I learned how to work with teams, and discovered how team members empower each other, and help them to grow. I learned to help both myself, and others in need. For the first time, I could talk about my issues and be understood. It was a great feeling to know I wasn’t alone.

Having a bigger support system helped push me through high school. I even had the confidence to attend a college prep program, where I got a head start on my college career. It was only six weeks long, but being away from home fostered a real sense of independence. However, none of these events would have taken place if I hadn’t connected with the blind community. I’m much more confident, and have an easier time being myself around others. If someone doesn’t accept me for who I am, it’s okay, because I am who I am and no will ever take that away from me.

Today, I am working as an education intern for ONEder, where I have had the opportunity to grow even further. I am glad there is something like ONEder to help people with disabilities, at every stage of life, and that through ONEder, I am able to give back, and in my own way, help change the world.

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Chigozie Nnodim on “Growth Mindset”

Chigozie Nnodim Growth MindsetWhat is a growth mindset? The concept originated with world-renowned Stanford University Psychologist Carol Dweck, who defined a “mindset” as a perception, or “self-theory” that people hold about themselves. For example, believing you’re intelligent or unintelligent is a mindset perception. It is said a person can be either aware, or unaware of their mindsets but, regardless, mindsets have a significant impact on their learning achievement, skill acquisition, personal relationships, and professional success. Dweck found that there are two types of mindsets: fixed, and growth. This discovery shed new light on how we view ourselves, and our abilities.

Fixed vs Growth Mindset

The struggle between fixed and growth mindsets can be a daily challenge. A fixed mindset is the belief that basic qualities, like intelligence, are fixed traits, and that talent alone creates success, without effort. People with this mindset often believe that an individual is either intelligent or unintelligent, and there is no way to change it. Research shows that people with a fixed mindset tend to learn less than they could, or at a slower rate, and may shy away from challenges, due to a fear that poor performance may confirm what they already believe about themselves. Conversely, a growth mindset is the belief that an individual’s most basic qualities can be developed through dedication and hard work, and that “brains” and “talent” are only starting points. It is the belief that you can learn more, or become smarter if you work hard and persevere. As a result, this type of mindset fosters resilience, and a love for learning. Students with this mindset learn more, more quickly, and view challenges as opportunities to improve their learning and skills, rather than opportunities for failure.

Nature or Nurture?

Growth mindset is a simple idea that can make all the difference, as the concept has been found to increase motivation and productivity in arenas as diverse as business, education, and sports. It’s also been shown to enhance personal relationships. While it is no secret that each individual is unique, and that people differ in many ways, some experts claim that there’s a strong physical basis for these differences. However, other experts point to the differences in people’s backgrounds, life experience, training, and ways of learning. Research is split on who is right, though scientists and educators increasingly looking toward a middle ground, between the two poles. It’s not nature or nurture; it’s a give-and-take between the two. Neuroscientist Gilbert Gottlieb noted that genes and the environment tend to cooperate as we develop; genes, in fact, require input from the environment to work effectively. Scientists have also learned that, in general, people have more capacity for lifelong learning and brain development than previously thought. Indeed, while people may start life with different temperaments and aptitudes, it’s clear that experience, training, and personal effort take them the rest of the way.

Growth Mindset in the Classroom

When Dweck recently revisited growth mindset, she found that student’s mindsets played a key role in motivation, and subsequent achievements; in other words, if you change a student’s mindset, you can boost achievement. Studies demonstrated that students who believed their intelligence could be developed outperformed those who believed their intelligence was fixed. When students learned through structured programs that they could “grow their brains”, and increase their intellectual abilities, they did better overall.

The most common misconception about Dweck’s theory is that a growth mindset is synonymous with effort. Instead, students need to try new strategies, and seek input from others when they’re stuck. All too often, teachers give praise to students who put forth effort, but aren’t learning, in order to reward the student in the moment. Unlike this approach, the growth mindset helps students feel good in both the short and long term, by helping them to thrive when faced with challenges and setbacks, on their path to learning. When a student is stuck, teachers can appreciate their work, but add, “let’s talk about what you’ve tried, and what you can try next”. Growth mindset is about being honest about a student’s current achievement and then, together, helping him or her achieve academic success.

“Mindset Works” founder, Lisa Blackwell, conducted a study a group of 7th graders in an inner-city NYC school. Blackwell and her colleagues divided their students into two groups: a control group were taught about the various stages of memory, and the other half received training in the growth mindset.  The growth mindset group showed an increase in effort and motivation of up to three times that of the control group. After the training, the control group showed continuously declining grades, while the growth-mindset group demonstrated a consistent increase in performance.

Growth Mindset and the Educator

Teachers who ask themselves, “what can I do to promote a growth mindset in students?” may be interested to know that the mindset of a teacher has been found to impact the mindset of their students. Research also supports the idea that educator mindsets may influence the way they respond to students, which in turn has an impact on the students’ outcomes. In a 2012 study, Rattan, et al. found that teachers with a mindset that was “fixed” regarding their individual math abilities were more likely to judge students as having low potential than their growth-minded counterparts. Additionally, educators with a fixed mindset were more likely to comfort students about their perceived low math abilities and apply kind strategies. They used “comfort-oriented” feedback, in which students were told that their inability to succeed at math was “okay”, and attempted to make math easier by lowering expectations. A separate study, the same paper, reported that comfort-oriented feedback was linked to lower motivation in students, as well as lower expectations for their own performance, when compared with “strategy-oriented” feedback.

4 Ways Teachers Can Encourage a Growth Mindset in Students

  1. Think about setting achievable micro-goals to encourage students’ consistent, incremental progress. Small wins repeated over time can lead to a growth mindset (and increased confidence!).
  2. When students succeed, praise their efforts and strategies instead of their intelligence.
  3. Help students focus on and value the process of learning. Without this emphasis on learning, students will often base self-perceptions of intelligence and worth to grades received, promoting a fixed mindset. While grades are important, the value of learning should be prioritized.
  4. Design classroom activities that involve cooperative–rather than competitive or individualistic–work. Research suggests that students are more motivated and successful when working in groups. Students feel a sense of responsibility to the group to try their best, and thus will experience the positive feedback loop of effort and success, encouraging the development of a growth mindset.


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Mr. Loren’s Neighborhood

Spotlight on ONEder teacher, Loren Svetvilas, of Livingston Public Schools

Loren Svetvilas, a pre-K special education teacher at Burnet Hill Elementary, in Livingston, New Jersey, had a dream; and it was “tiny”. In Loren’s telling, “it was 4.30 in the morning on a weekend, and I was thinking… wouldn’t it be fun to make shoe box houses for all our students and…  make a little village?” This idea was the genesis of Livingston Public Schools’ “Tiny Village” project, which recreated the township of Livingston, in miniature.

Loren and his fellow Burnet Hill Elementary educators had been teaching a curriculum focused on specific themes like “clothing” and “water”, to prepare students with pre-readiness skills. These units were implemented in six week blocks, and would involve a variety of activities. Loren used the classic tale of Goldilocks and the Three Bears to introduce his class to the theme of “chairs”; activities included asking students to compare the sizes of various rockers and recliners, and “even discussing the animals… and cooking porridge”. The themes scheduled for early 2017 were “buildings”, and “boxes”.  When Loren and his fellow educators agreed to merge those subjects, the “Tiny Village” was born.

Mr. Loren's Neighborhood
Image courtesy of Livingston Public Schools


It takes a Vilage
Image courtesy of Livingston Public Schools

It Takes a Village

Loren believes that “collaboration between educators can sometimes be difficult”, with the lack of “free time” available: a challenge for any district. Loren and his colleagues overcame this obstacle by meeting during their professional planning time. Technology, he notes, was key to the success of their collaboration: “[technology] was the unifying piece that brought us together…  creating working docs so we could collaborate online, and then meeting either in person or virtually”.

Loren and his colleagues then took their ideas to the classroom. Loren completed a chart mapping exercise with his students to “find out what they know… about buildings and boxes. I just wanted to get some feedback. Do buildings have floors? Ceilings? Windows?”  While Burnet Elementary’s pre-K classes were initially tasked with constructing their own, individual towns, the scale of the project soon expanded; the six classrooms, along with local businesses and municipal departments collaborated on the creation of one, large-scale “tiny” village. According to Loren, “the police and fire departments were super excited; they were very competitive. The police department were determined to make theirs better than the fire department’s!” The local shoe store donated garbage bags filled with shoe boxes.


Fire Station
Image courtesy of Livingston Public Schools
livingston police
Image courtesy of Livingston Public Schools

The “opening” of Livingston’s “tiny” counterpart was attended by local dignitaries, rallying behind the message that it “takes a village” to successfully raise a child. Loren was astonished by the level of involvement: “the town council came; the Board of Education sent a representative”.  Even Livingston’s mayor was in attendance, inaugurating the village with a ribbon-cutting ceremony.

tiny village ribbon cutting
Image courtesy of Livingston Public Schools

ONEder and Looking to the Future

Loren hopes to repeat the project’s success, and make the tiny village an annual celebration of Livingston’s diverse and inclusive community.  In addition to adding new landmarks, like the zoo from nearby West Orange, Loren would like to make use of tools like ONEder, to improve, and increase collaboration: “I can picture us building our lessons together in ONEder. It would be much more accessible and make it easy to jump in, grab it, tweak it, and throw up a new one that we think the team will like. Next year we’ll also be adding a ONEder building!”

Livingston Camera
Image courtesy of Livingston Public Schools
Burnet Hill Elementary Students
Image courtesy of Livingston Public Schools

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WIOA: Using Technology to Ensure Successful Transition From School to Life for Students With Disabilities

According to the Department of Labor, by 2020, there will be millions of jobs available without enough people to fill them. Conversely, by some estimates, nearly 85% of individuals with disabilities are under or unemployed. To help reduce those numbers, the US Department of Labor and the US Department of Education jointly finalized the Workforce Innovation Opportunity Act (WIOA) in October, 2016.

The new regulations and guidelines are intended to encourage “innovative strategies that support coordination to improve workforce development, employment services, and vocational rehabilitation services.” These WIOA goals and initiatives are achievable by implementing evidence-based practices, collecting accurate and timely data, enforcing accountability measures, and increasing adult basic education and literacy education– many of which can be achieved through the expanded use of technology.

WIOA is a unique and under-utilized resource for schools, organizations, and agencies with transitioning individuals aged 14-21 as is the use of technology to help those transitioning individuals with special needs. “One of the most exciting aspects of WIOA is the way it encourages the use of technology to aid in the transition process,” explains Dr. Alice Parker, Chairperson of the ONEder Advisory Board, “WIOA almost mandates using technology, in the form of data collection, which is really essential to being able to demonstrate program effectiveness for accountability measures, or an individual’s preparedness for work.”

Technology Uses

As mentioned previously, data collection isn’t the only case for using technology in transition programs. Using technology in transition can also help to:

● Personalize instruction or training for individuals with disabilities, making content accessible for each learner at their level.

● Differentiate career and interest inventories or skills assessments so they both accurately evaluate an individual’s strengths and uncover interests as well as provide relevant resources for those pursuing career and technical education (CTE) pathways.

● Provide resources, such as visual schedules, GPS-enabled routing maps, or timed reminders to increase a user’s self-determination.

● Include accommodations, such as text to speech or enlarged text, that are automatically enabled, to increase independence for those with disabilities.

Benefits of Using Technology

There are many benefits to using these kinds of technology with youth with disabilities who are undertaking the post-school transition in the CTE field. According to Melanie Johnson, Executive Director of Brite Success in Texas, one of the most important benefits of using technology with her clients is the way it provides ongoing support and resources to ensure her clients are successful on the job. “By giving my clients a tool to refer to when they need it – whether it’s a visual schedule or tips for specific situations – we build self-determination, confidence, and enable them to become increasingly independent.”

Another benefit is increasing capacity. When the Arc of Northern Virginia created a travel curriculum (TravelMate) using the ONEder special education platform, they saw an eight-fold increase in the number of individuals with intellectual or developmental disabilities (IDD) who were serviced by their partner organizations. Almost 100% of program participants increased their ability to travel independently to and from work with less support, while nearly half increased their ability to travel independently alone with TravelMate.

TravelMate project coordinator Kymberly DeLoatche, explains, “One of the hallmarks of this project is that it has changed the expectation of travel training for individuals with IDD. Before the project, everyone involved with people with IDD knew travel training was a necessary piece of transition to adulthood and employment from the school system, but no one knew quite how to accomplish it in a real or sustainable way. With the provision of TravelMate through The Arc of Northern Virginia’s Travel Training Program, which was developed using information from Easter Seals Project Action and WMATA’s own guidelines and resources, now teachers have a usable curriculum that is available in a way that engages these individuals and that they can utilize at home to practice so that the professional, the individual seeking to use public transit, and their family members are ALL empowered to work towards achieving this skill, which is so desperately needed for a higher level of independence.”

Finally, using technology allows individuals with disabilities to blend in rather than to stand out. “Imagine, how much more inclusive it is to have a smartphone or iPad – just like your peers – instead of having a job coach shadow your every move,” said ONEder Advisory Board member Dr. Alexa Posny. “By using technology just like everyone else, you bridge the gap between individuals with disabilities and their peers building an environment of true inclusion.“ “With my ONEder app, I can do more things without help and without looking like someone different,” explained PJ, a Brite Success client working in Walgreens.

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