Over 20 years ago I began my journey into the Special Education field. Growing up I had noticed how students in the Special Education classrooms were sort of a mystery to me because they always seemed to be put in a far away classroom, different recesses, etc. I had had a few encounters with children of varying abilities during my early elementary years, but the big shift came when I went away to camp the summer of my 3rd grade year. The cabin was a combination of students or varying ages and abilities. Our camp counselors were teenagers and weren’t around much so we all sort of ran wild and did what we wanted. I was extremely shy and tended to keep to myself and just watch people (one of the traits that serve me well as a behavioralist). During that summer I noticed a trend in how the children with Special Needs were treated by many of their fellow campers. They were bossed around, told to do things to embarrass them, and were generally treated pretty poorly. At the time my best friend at camp was deaf (another reason I learned ASL growing up) and I remember some other campers yelling at her when her back was turned and saying rude things. It was during that summer that my 9-year-old self made a promise that my grown-up self would do whatever I could to make sure all children felt respected and supported.
I started in the field by becoming a paraprofessional in a Severe Special Needs classroom. During this time I was paired with a wonderful teacher who taught me about the differing diagnosis, services students can receive, and how to scaffold curriculum for the varying levels of abilities within that classroom. I loved it so I decided to go back to school and get my Moderate/Severe Teaching Credential. A few of my professors told me that there weren’t many people in California who had this because of the level of difficulty, which in turn raised the teacher burn out rate drastically. A few years later I started working with a company that implemented ABA (Applied Behavior Analysis). We would go into the classroom and homes and work with children, teachers, paraprofessionals, and families. I really enjoyed the interactions and was now becoming part of the IEP (Individualized Education Plan) team and found that really fascinating. But I had a difficult time with doing things such as DTT (Discrete Trial Training: A specific method of instruction in which a task is isolated and taught to an individual across multiple trials. A specific opportunity to respond is presented, and a specific response from the learner is expected). The majority of ABA techniques we used were very clinical and difficult to use for every child. I was successful with my clients at this time because I would use natural reinforcers to activate learning, little did I know that this is when I was beginning to cultivate my foundation for Mindful ABA. I was involved in a lot of parent education at this time and noticed a lack in guidance for parents in their journey with their child in the Special Needs field. I wasn’t a parent yet so I didn’t understand quite then the magnitude of isolation that can overtake a family. This would come in good time where I was shown just how confusing and isolating it can be to not only be a Special Education teacher but to be one with a child with chronic health challenges and have to fight to have her own 504 Plan followed legally.
A few years later I was teaching my own Severe Special Education classroom. For a few years I taught preschoolers who're primary diagnosis was Autism at a Special Needs school. I had ABA therapists visiting the classroom and we set it up to run as an ABA classroom. We used lots of visual schedules, icons, reinforcement, DTT, token economy, etc. It was very regimented and clinical. I really loved my students but I was still having a hard time not being able to tailor the curriculum to each child and use what their interests were to maximize their growth in learning. I was also teaching at a Special Needs school so there were no opportunities to have my students mainstream with their grade level peers to help facilitate friendships and acceptance of diversity. What I did not realize then is that I was starting to figure out where I could fit aspects of mindfulness in special education and if it would add value.
After a few years, I started working at a small district (the elementary school, middle school, district office, community center, and even a Sheriff’s office was all on the same campus) in the Santa Cruz mountains and taught a Severe Special Education classroom. When beginning I defaulted to my ABA training and ran my classroom accordingly. As time went on I noticed that this methodology really wasn’t working for all my students. You know when people who are opposed to ABA say that those of us who are teaching are creating “robots”? Well, I was starting to see what they meant. I didn’t like the facet of telling a child how they were feeling and how to openly present that emotion so others would see how they were feeling. What if I was wrong? These are the years that I really started to take steps away from traditional ABA and explore what else was out there. What I found left me frustrated because it seemed like all children under the special needs umbrella were lumped together for a “one size fits all” approach to everything. Every child is so different that this was insane to me so I started to cultivate my curriculum and the way I approached each child’s behavioral needs individually. I was blessed to have a team of about 10 paraprofessionals who really took a personal interest in our student's growth and helped me to start tailoring the short termspecific curriculum to each child. Rather than turn my back on ABA, I decided to pull the parts of it that I saw had been working in a positive way for students over the last 12 years I had been using it. There were certain tools such as ABC charts (Antecedent/Behavior/Consequence) that I used to collect data on a students behavior so I wasn’t “assuming” I knew what their behavior was telling me. I also really liked using PRT (Pivotal Response Training) because it allowed for me to use organic reinforcers in a child’s natural environment and tailor learning to things we were doing right then. One student might need short-termvisual schedule (ie putting no more than 4 items on their schedule, including their reinforcement that they chose) at their desk or to be with them when moving from different environments, and another might just need a daily schedule posted in my classroom to touch base with. I modeled this a lot like how I liked my day to run; the more information I could front load myself with before I began my day the easier it was because I knew what to expect and what I needed to do. I also had a clear time frame in which to complete it. Don’t we all do better when we know what to expect out of our day and what is expected of us? I rely heavily on my Google calendar and my planner for my day, so providing a schedule for my students was a natural thing to do. And, of course, sometimes things come up like the Speech Therapist has to cancel. I always made sure to discuss this with the student before I modified their schedules so it wasn’t unexpected.
Being on a general education campus gave me the benefit of being able to work with general education teachers and collaborate on ways to help increase peer interaction. The feeling of being “part of your school” is so important so I wanted to make sure my students really felt like they belonged. We would make sure we stayed on the same recess/break schedules, eat lunch together, participate in field trips, and I would facilitate things like SSR time, game play, or fun activities that built upon those relationships.
After my seventh year at that school ,we were still having some students continuing to engage in their injurious behaviors. There were many reasons for this but the overall underlying reason was the lack of communication (both expressive and receptive language) therefore they weren’t able to relay what they were feeling in a way that produced the outcome their wanted. I also noticed just how anxious many of the students (both on my caseload and out in the school setting) were and it just seemed to be getting worse. Weekly I would hear about various students being put on medication for anxiety, etc. Some people need medication, there is no other alternative and they have tried everything. It is not my place to say who needs it and whom doesn’t, that’s the individuals right. But I was noticing more discussions happening around different students who were being put on medication so much so that I started to wonder if some people were using medication as a quick fix for these children. I had begun using techniques to decrease my own anxiety at this time and had started a routine of journaling, exercise, yoga, mediation, deep breathing, etc. Some things worked for me, some didn’t, and eventually I found the combination that worked. I started this because I didn’t want to be on medication for my anxiety. My own personal belief that for myself I would just be putting a band aid on the issue that was deeper than the medication could go. And that was my personal choice. I began researching mindfulness in education and mindfulness in special education and found that the information was vastly different, as in there was little research and information on mindfulness in special education. If it was being used for children in mainstream classrooms why wasn’t someone using in in special education. I felt this is where it would have the biggest impact.
After 6 months of using this technique, I brought them into my classroom to try with my students. I decided that if nothing else I would just be adding another tool in their toolbox to use when they got triggered by something aversive. I worked with our Occupational Therapist to implement a schedule the included mindfulness techniques where there was less focus on what skills they were producing and more on how they were feeling right in the moment. Trust me, this is not a quick lesson or something to try just once which is why I incorporated it into their daily routine. During this time I noticed how much more relaxed and self-regulated they were, especially a few of my more challenging students. As time went on I noticed how, not only was the receptive language increasing, but their expressive was as well! Students who would typically script most of their days were telling me what they ate for breakfast or what they wanted to do after school! When we would follow a mindfulness activity with academics the students were so much more focused and ready to learn. But the biggest difference was their overall happiness. They were truly happy and that was the best thing I could have asked for. I realized that I wanted more students to have an opportunity to feel this way so I took a big step and quit my job to open my own business.
Last year I opened Mindful ABA and it’s main focus is to work with families to provide education and support, to help parents and educators to respect where a child is at right now on their journey and to use their strengths to help them succeed. I am a big advocate for mainstreaming as I feel general education students and special education students have a lot to teach one another about things like friendship, respect, and acceptance that we as “teachers” can’t teach them out of books. They need to be given the opportunity to be put in a situation and learn from it. I saw first hand how so many services weren’t getting to parents or they were having to wait for them as well. I started the Mindful ABA Education Library a few months ago to provide videos and PDF’s to help families and educators with common challenges or questions. My intention was to provide another service to children, families, and educators that takes what was (in my experience) positive in ABA and incorporate mindfulness techniques that helps a child respect and love themselves right were they are at because that is exactly where they are suppose to be.