Making Special Education Actually Work

An Appeal to My Colleagues

October 28, 2021

I have a million other things I need to be doing right now, but this is one of those moments where if I don't stop and purge these thoughts from my mind into print, they will torment and distract me until I do, so the sooner I finish this post, the sooner I can get back to work without continued torment and distraction. I wasn't intending to post, right now, because my caseload is blowing up and my other endeavor, The Learn & Grow Educational Series, is starting to require more of my attention lately as it continues to experience its own growth and expansion. My plate is full, but it's the reasons why it's full that prompt me to stop what I'm doing and post this today.

In the course of analyzing the incoming bombardment of data that is my life, I'm seeing the connections between the specific issues I've chosen to take on with my professional skills and the turmoil being experienced by the world at large, right now. I'm seeing common allies and culprits across issues, and recurring themes and trends that can be generalized from the work I specifically do to the work that needs to be done overall to cure the defects of reparable systems, and overhaul and replace systems that no longer serve us.

Today's post is an appeal to my colleagues to think beyond the bubbles and silos in which you may exist as professionals and recognize the need for your respective skills to contribute to much larger solutions on a much simpler scale. Capable, ethical, and responsible people each making what contributions they can along they way, just in the course of doing what they were already going to do, can reshape society into a healthier version of itself. We need to see our everyday activities as substantial contributions to the world that exists around us and appreciate that every little decision we make really does matter. If enough of us are thinking right and making the smart, ethical, and responsible decisions, we can help influence those around us who are less capable, thereby loving our neighbors as ourselves and being our brothers' keepers when necessary.

We each help make the world we live in be what it is through our individual actions with each other. Those actions and their outcomes become woven together into complex relationships that evolve into established systems supported by nothing but learned behaviors. We don't do them because that's the way things work; the reason why that's the way things work is because that's the way we do them. That being the case, we have every reason in the world to believe that enough smart, ethical, altruistic people can facilitate healing throughout society to a more powerful degree than a minority of fear-based thinking, hate-mongering cowards can try to destroy it. It comes down to mindfulness and living a life of purpose that serves the common good while also serving oneself and one's immediate loved ones in healthy and constructive ways.

One of my favorite theorists from human development research is Urie Bronfenbrenner. The lame graphic below is one I created in graduate school so as to avoid a copyright infringement by grabbing someone's more professional graphic off the internet, but it illustrates the model. Follow the above link for more information about Bronfenbrenner's model, if you're not already familiar with it or need to brush up on it. It's quite sobering in light of current world events.

Bronfenbrenner realized that, while nature had a certain degree of influence on the raw materials with which each person started out in life, it was the environment in which that person was raised relative to those raw materials that dictated the unique development of that individual person. No two people who have ever existed, exist now, or will exist in the future will ever be entirely identical to each other because, regardless of genetics, actual life experiences that shape people through learning are never identical from one person to the next.

Genetics provide for a whole lot of variability, but they're still technically finite in spite of their vastness. Environments are ever-changing; they must be adapted-to in the moment via individuals' behaviors and over time via genetic mutation of the species.

For those of you among my colleagues in special education and related fields who are expected to individualize programming according to the unique needs of each constituent served, this shouldn't be a leap of logic for you. For people unfamiliar with what it takes to truly individualize something for another person, particularly another person with diminished capacity to communicate their needs, it might as well be alchemy or voodoo.

The bottom line is that everybody thinks differently and has relative strengths and weaknesses. You can't assume that just because it's obvious to you, it's obvious to everyone else. But, you also can't assume that just because it doesn't make sense to you, it doesn't make sense to anyone else, either. The sword of understanding cuts both ways for each of us.

We're each good at some things and not so good at others; that's normal. Some people, however, are not so good at recognizing when they're not so good at something. This goes to another body of psychological science, the Dunning-Kruger Effect, but that's a whole discussion unto itself that I'll link to but not delve into, right now. One lay person's less-than-kind distillation of it, once it was explained to them, was, “So, basically, dumb people are too dumb to know that they're dumb.”

The point is that those of us who get it have to carry the weight of those who don't and/or can't. It's the opposite of authoritarianism, which demands the compliance of coerced individuals; what is called for, here, is the responsible stewardship of public service agencies to actually serve the public according to their mandates in conformity with the professional ethical standards of their involved professional disciplines.

For those of us supporting the needs of individuals with disabilities, we understand that the situation sometimes requires helping people exercise their informed choices as independently as possible. Other times, our responsibilities require us to protect the rights of those who are incapable of making fully informed choices without our help and are otherwise helpless and vulnerable to exploitation. We understand this better than most people and we need to recognize that we are collectively unique as a result. It's not that big of a stretch between the issues of conservatorship abuse and voter suppression and nullification laws.

A whole lot of science in the areas of psychology, sociology, communication, behavior, instruction, organizational planning, leadership, and related disciplines has been conducted over the last 100 years. Many of us have access to that research but don't make the time to follow it. I encourage every one of my professional colleagues to create a saved search for a specific body of peer-reviewed research and, whenever you are able to grab a free moment, take the time to run the search and read something new from the science that tells you something you didn't already know, then think about ways to incorporate it into what you are doing in your work and follow through on applying them.

What small change in a routine task can you make that applies the knowledge you've gained for the better? Over time, how much better will things incrementally get with each little new thing you tweak after reading from your saved search? Is it a relevant authority to something you are currently writing? Does it help you better understand how to individualize a particular constituent's goals and services? Is there another colleague who you think might benefit from the information with whom you can share it? Can you share your thoughts about it on LinkedIn and/or other professional online platforms in a constructive way?

Nothing exists in a vacuum. The more we recognize and honor the logical connections among our respective professions and how the science applies to out constituents and their service needs, the more we realize that Bronfenbrenner was right.

J. V. Wertsch, who worked with Bronfenbrenner, states in his 2005 review of Bronfenbrenner's book, Making Human Beings Human,"Starting with the assumption that ‘to a greater extent than for any other species, human beings create the environments that shape the course of human development’ (p. xxvii), Urie has argued that it is incumbent on all of us to create decent, nurturing environments for human development." [Emphasis added.] In my opinion, that's something we have yet as a species to do; ants do a far better job of this than we do.

Unfortunately, because we still are not proactively applying Bronfenbrenner's science as an ongoing element of how our society functions, we still do not love our neighbors just as we love ourselves and we are not our brothers' keepers when our brothers go astray. We blame and punish people for having weak minds rather than remediate the effects of their shortcomings. As a species, humans generally treat their abilities as unfair advantages and use them to exploit others. They should be humbled by the responsibilities that come with their gifts and use them prudently with good intent, but in the absence of informed, deliberate planning, what has naturally been allowed to come to fruition is a society that rewards abuses of the rules more richly than compliance with them.

Those of us trying to facilitate functional independence among our most vulnerable children and adults know all too well that there aren't enough of us with the necessary expertise to change the maladaptive behaviors in every bad situation that is collectively poisoning society, right now. The most we can do is the most we can do in our respective situations. We have to hope people will start copying our strategies that work when they see our successes. We need to start generalizing our successes into other areas where the same degree of expertise is not available, just as a matter of making sure our democracy thrives and functions as it should according to what can be proven true and responsibly effective for everybody.

Further, we as a society have historically regarded those individuals on the cusp between “can't” and “could with learning” as an acceptable shade of gray on the spectrum of social involvement, but now they have become an outspoken and increasingly violent minority of individuals who cannot successfully function with independence in the quickly evolving world. They don't know how to adapt but they can still wreak havoc on their way down the tubes.

The only difference between “can't” and “could with learning” is the provision of instruction. The outcomes of both are the same if no instruction is made available; there has to be the “with learning” part in order for the choices of the person who can learn to differ from the choices of the person who can't.

The problems we are seeing in the world today from misinformation being spread on the internet goes to the degree to which many internet users have no idea how search engines and social media algorithms indulge subjective biases and feed them whatever will increase their engagement without regard for how those choices impact the individual user or society on the whole. When all of our individual choices put together collectively shape the fabric of society, an artificial intelligence that only reinforces user engagement with neutral disregard for the quality or nature of that engagement will, by design, radicalize the most violent of the weakest minds into acts of terrorism. It weaponizes a previously harmless sub-population by turning them against us in irrational, violent ways and selling them the products to do it.

At the end of the day, humans are again proven to be part of nature and not something separate from it. The natural consequences of poor choices eventually catch up to people, one way or another. Sometimes other, innocent people become collateral damage along the way, and its in the interest of minimizing those numbers now and ultimately eliminating them as soon as possible that those of us who already work in professions helping people with disabilities need to generalize our skills into other aspects of human need where possible. What those of us working with individuals challenged by mental health issues already know can be imperative to addressing domestic terrorism.

As an example of generalizing one's skills beyond one's professional area of focus, while I still represent students with disabilities and consult with their parents as a lay advocate, provide paralegal support to attorneys representing students with disabilities in various legal proceedings, and design and implement compensatory programs for individuals with disabilities who were wrongfully denied services by publicly funded agencies, I also created something else using my knowledge and skills.

I created the Learn & Grow Educational Series to address food insecurity and sustainable living issues. The science of instruction is also the science of marketing, and social media can be used just as effectively to push learning as it can be used to push sales. In many cases, content creators push both, with the sales funding the instructional content and the instructional content driving the sales in a synergistic way; if it were organic, it would be considered symbiotic. The science I rely upon to determine appropriate educational goals and services for my learners with special needs is the same science I rely upon each time I create a new Learn & Grow learning experience for my online and in-person learners.

Through Learn & Grow, I'm able to teach people everywhere how to grow their own fresh fruits and vegetables anywhere using free and/or inexpensive materials, even if they have no open ground for growing. I use evidence-based instructional practices to teach them how to make self-watering containers from buckets for patio, balcony, fire escape, and rooftop gardening.

These containers are water conservative, using as little as one-tenth the amount of water of in-ground growing, and self-regulating, meaning the soil is never too wet or too dry so long as the reservoir beneath it doesn't run dry. These containers are portable, meaning renters can take their gardens with them when they move. I've moved my own garden five times since I first started it in June of 2013, and the goji berry thicket I started from seeds when I first started the garden is still going strong in its original container, giving me two crops of berries per year.

The design of these containers is totally open-source, public domain knowledge. What is unique to Learn & Grow is the body of evidence-based instruction and project ideas using this gardening method that I provide in person and which lives online through Learn & Grow's website, Facebook page, Instagram account, and video channels on YouTube: Food for Thought and Learn & Grow with Emmalyn. This is where I was able to apply my skills normally used in special education and disability resources to address other types of challenges the world is currently facing, specifically food insecurity and climate change. In October 2020, I expanded the Learn & Grow curriculum to include sustainable living methods, starting with alternative energy sources and gray water recapturing.

I've most recently started conducting online Meetups using Zoom and Prezi for urban gardeners in the greater Los Angeles area who can benefit from Learn & Grow's instruction regarding self-watering bucket gardens. Without any marketing, my online classes are getting bookings and my Meetup group continues to grow in membership. Once I start marketing it, I expect to reach a larger number of learners who want to be able to grow their own food in their apartments, condos, mobile home parks, and other limited growing environments. This is an adaptation to their environments I can help them make, a lá Bronfenbrenner, to create a greater quality of life using sustainable means in a very healthy way. If they get their buckets used from local restaurants or bakeries, they keep that plastic out of landfills and reuse it for something entirely purposeful.

For me, achieving increased food security, recycling, water conservation, and portability with a single solution is too good of a thing not to share. It's not directly related to publicly funded services for individuals with disabilities, but it relies upon the same sciences to be successful. I can generalize what I already know from what I've been doing professionally for the last 30 years to tackle an entirely different area of need, and it's not that hard. It's not any harder than representing a child with special needs in a federal complaint or supporting a child's attorney in due process, and I can do those things.

Plus, I'm taking advantage of online tools to automate as much of my Learn & Grow content as possible, so the planning phase is followed by the scheduling phase which is then followed by an automated implementation stage that frees me up for months to years at a time to focus on other things, like the individuals on my caseload. I can drip instruction just as easily as I can drip marketing messages using the same online tools.

I also recently rejoined my local Kiwanis club, which is a community service organization. I'm helping the club use Learn & Grow to provide self-watering bucket gardens to community-based programs, like adult day cares and preschools, as well food insecure individuals through local food pantries, hunger relief programs, and shelters. I'm able to address food insecurity through a more direct means by partnering with my local Kiwanis club, which has ample volunteers and existing trusted business partners willing to invest in the right community service projects with their donations. This is a win-win-win for all involved, and it only happened because I went outside of my normal professional duties to tackle another social issue in ways that only someone with my unique skill set could.

All of us have skills and expertise that can be generalized to another problem in the world other than the one about which you spend most of your time thinking. I promise you that finding some other way to express yourself and apply your skills to something hugely constructive towards making the world a better place will open your mind in ways that makes you a better thinker back on your regular job and give you a healthier outlook on life.

Food shortages and economic collapse were the unknowns I most feared back when I started Learn & Grow in 2013. That was only made more real when Learn & Grow was discovered by panicked Venezuelans in 2016 when their country's economy collapsed and their government subsidized food supply collapsed along with it, leaving them with no food in their stores and no more coming any time soon. I'm not afraid of that, now. My garden has grown to sixty-one self-watering containers and I have four laying hens who give me eggs throughout the year. Come what may, I'll be okay for food.

The shortages in the stores at the start of the pandemic and the supply chain shortages happening right now have only been slight inconveniences compared to what could happen if the whole supply chain were to collapse altogether. Most people have become dependent upon it, and that's dangerously unhealthy. If the commercialized food supply collapsed tomorrow, what situation would you be in?

As much as I live and breath special education and disability resource science and law, I can't have figured out a way to dodge the bullet of a collapse of our commercialized food supply, have the ability to teach people according to their individual capacities to learn, and not use my skills to teach other people what I've figured out to survive a very dire time of food insecurity in this country. And, I know I can't be the only one.

I know there are others of you out there who see issues with social justice, public health, climate change, domestic terrorism, and/or the ongoing threats to our democracy that would benefit from your unique perspectives and skills. Something horrible happening in the world today has factors in common with a problem you've already solved. Your solution translates into something that can be generalized to solve other serious world problems. Don't keep it to yourself.

I'm not special; I'm just specialized in my knowledge and skills, and they can be applied to more than one context. That doesn't make me unique; it makes me a member of a unique sub-population of individuals with relevant skills.

You, my professional colleagues, can do something about society's ills today without it being political. Helping people everywhere grow their own food doesn't take sides in anything. Everybody needs to eat. Food is a basic survival need no matter what somebody chooses to believe. Individual food security is a highly personal and universal topic with which every person can relate. So is access to clean drinking water, safety from violence, affordable housing, and a host of other issues begging for your expertise.

Most cultural disputes are about access to resources, and the United States is experiencing a cultural civil war, right now. It is fueled by misinformation meant to tear our country apart being published online by bad actors exploiting the capable hands of people with weaknesses of the mind who fear losing what they have to imaginary threats they believe to be real. People who can't or won't face their real problems will imagine things to be their absolute worst without confirming whether they actually are. They catastrophize things. It's a symptom; it's not healthy. It's a feature of anxiety, which is always about lacking predictability. They cling to the familiar because they can't predict anything else and their fear of the unknown is greater than any discomfort they may feel, if any, in their predictable routines.

People who can't actually understand what is really going on have no sense of predictability about what is about to come. They will pin their expectations to what they want to happen next as opposed to what the facts dictate will happen next. They can't follow an evidence-based thought process, so they substitute it with wishful thinking, but unrealistic expectations are just preconceived resentments. When things don't turn out according to their wishes, they get mad at reality and insist that it bend to fit their fantasies rather than adjust their expectations according to what actually is. They don't understand everything going on, so they can't adjust their thinking according to all the relevant facts.

How can you, as a professional, interact with people who exist in this state without demeaning or condescending to them? Can you interact with them fully understanding that, like many of the individuals with disabilities we serve, these people are doing the best they can with what they have and they need our loving, responsible guidance to find their ways to the right side of things? If we just help them address their needs in more pro-social ways, they won't feel compelled to attempt to meet them in anti-social ways. It's basic ABA.

I'm asking my professional colleagues to please strongly consider using your knowledge and skills to address any of the many nonpartisan issues that are currently challenging the human species, right now, that are outside of your normal area of practice. See if there is a Kiwanis club in your local area that could use your help. Identify an unmet need in your local community and find out what is needed to address it, then find other people who have the necessary skills that you lack and start your own thing. Just find a way to contribute, even in a small way, to a nonpartisan issue in your community that isn't currently getting enough attention.

The technology available to us today is a tool, but, like a hammer, it can build or kill depending on how it is used. I'm with Urie Bronfenbrenner on this one; we should use our knowledge and resources to make the world a place that meets everyone's needs, rather than a place that meets the needs and wants of those who know how to exploit and take advantage of those who don't. The tools now available for people to collaborate and get things done remotely, thanks in no small part to the necessities that arose with the pandemic, are phenomenally powerful and easy to use. The tools to create online content decrease in cost and become increasingly rich in features over time, and most people only need a few good features to make stellar content. Learn more about the ways you can participate in your citizenship in nonpartisan ways by studying the research on servant leadership.

If you find yourself in an environment in which acting in the short-term for immediate gain comes at the cost of considering the long-term consequences, and you can't be a positive influence for more responsible thinking and planning, get out. You're wasting your precious gifts on people who will never appreciate them and would use them to harmful ends if you let them. There are other places you can go where your gifts will be appreciated and put to proper use, where you can earn a decent living and live with yourself in peace. You just have to take the time to find it or create it. That's not always easy, but it's always worth it.

There is no way to memorize a script for every possible thing that could happen in the future in order to be prepared for if/when it happens. Nobody can remember that many scripts, much less predict every possible future in advance and develop a script for it before everything changes and new scripts are needed. Living a life that follows the same specific script in order to keep it predictable is a symptom, not an adaptive strategy. That's not participation; it's approximation. It's parallel play.

The only way a collective of people can work together towards a common goal is to act according to common guiding principles. For example, if everyone helping with Learn & Grow agrees with and abides by the guiding principle of, “Make sure everyone can grow enough healthy food to survive, come what may,” whatever decisions they face along the way will come down to whether or not their choices facilitate everyone growing enough food for themselves, come what may. If you have a fixed outcome in mind, it's the next best thing to having a script for every possible contingency. Having that fixed outcome limits the number of actions you can take, so it whittles down your choices to a more manageable list of alternatives. The more ethical conditions that have to be satisfied by the solution, the narrower the options, meaning the easier it is to decide.

What makes leadership and decision-making so overwhelming for most people is the sheer number of possibilities and figuring out which one makes the most sense. By using a consistent, agreed-to guiding principle as a “North Star” for decision-making, team members can be consistent among each other with their choices and actions towards achieving the common good. We don't need a savior to swoop in and save us. We just need to be mindful of how our actions throughout the day shape the world around us and consciously choose actions that promote the things in the world we want to see based on what we've learned from all of our life experiences, including those most commonly associated with work, even if at only the tiniest level. It all adds up in the end, and every little positive contribution matters.

This is mindfulness meeting purposeful action, and I hope you're inspired use your gifts to help in impactful, constructive ways that remind everyone you touch that we only get through these terrible times by working together. Because of your professional skills, you're in a unique position to help humanity survive this time of upheaval and transition and thrive once the worst of it has passed. I look forward to seeing what truths each of you end up speaking to power over the next few years and appreciate the efforts of all of you who choose to contribute in ways you can towards a better tomorrow for everyone.

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