Shira Moskovitz is a special education teacher and technology teacher in New York City. She is also an Understood Teacher Fellow. Ms. Moskovitz says she always knew that special education was her passion, having grown up with an aunt who had Down syndrome. Her grandmother was a pioneer who advocated for policy change, which eventually enabled her aunt to attend school. Today, Ms. Moskovitz teaches students with learning differences (LD) and attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), and in this exclusive interview with LD OnLine, she shares some of her recommendations for other educators who are working with this dynamic student population.
1. Build student confidence.
Ms. Moskowitz focuses on building student confidence with celebrations and power poses. “I’ll have students stand up on their chairs and raise their hands and scream, ‘I can do this.’ And they always think it’s so silly the first time … but they have fun. And I explain to them the science behind power poses. We don’t do that for every lesson, but periodically, I let them know that I see them as capable, and they can express themselves as capable of whatever it may be.”
2. Create a culture of success in the classroom.
Ms. Moskovitz explains that she works on creating a culture of success from day one, and over time she will see this take hold within the class. “I often find that students want to defend or protect their peers who they have witnessed struggle in the past,” she says. “One way they protect them is by defending their friends on the playground, in the cafeteria, and that bleeds into the classroom. However much that child might benefit from strong friends in social contexts, in an academic context, it might lead to silencing their friend and preventing them from growing. What starts as something wholesome can lead to problems.”
She reminds her class that they aren’t going to take anyone else’s voice away, and pretty soon this kind of response happens less over time. When she starts working with a new group of students, however, she is reminded that the expectations need to be reset, and the class starts a new process of creating that culture together.
3. Be ready to be flexible.
Ms. Moskovitz encourages educators to look for ways in which they can stay flexible. “I’m basing my day around my students and their needs … I’ll plan for different options. I honestly love that when teaching kids with learning differences, that there’s so much more variety; I think it pushes me to have more student-led lessons and discussions.”
For example, Ms. Moskovitz likes to focus on ‘unit plans’ more than ‘daily lesson plans’ because the lessons may end up taking less or more time than expected. To have that flexibility, Ms. Moskovitz recommends frontloading planning at the top of the unit. “It doesn’t negate your planning or your workflow,” she says. “It just shifts the balance so that you’re prepared for the days that [a lesson] takes longer – or less time – than you thought.”
4. Break tasks and skills into smaller steps.
Ms. Moskovitz says, “Our goals are always small for everyone. The goal for one day is not to master everything, even though a lot of kids across the spectrum of ability just want to be done. I say, ‘Oh, you finished this task, but our goal is bigger than that. Here’s our next part.’ And that’s broken up by day, by week, by month, or even by year so that there’s plenty to celebrate and for them to recognize that they are good at whatever it may be. And coming back to that flexibility, whether they finished a task in a day, a week, or a month doesn’t take away from the fact that they finished that task. There’s still something to celebrate.”
5. Identify all of the adults working with your student.
Ms. Moskovitz says one of the things she wished she had known when she started working with students with learning differences was how many adults would be working with her student. Those include are speech therapists, occupational therapists, physical therapists, vision therapists, social workers, reading specialists, and more. If she knows from the start that two other people would be supporting a child’s writing skills, it helps her plan with them. They can support each other and ultimately support the child. “Each of us can work successfully and independently but oftentimes we’re doing overlapping work unnecessarily,” she says.
If someone had said to her, “‘Here’s student X and here are the 13 other adults involved with this student.’ Going in with that mindset would have made things a little bit clearer in how to collaborate with those people as opposed to having to start from the ground up.”
6. Treat other adults who support the student with respect.
Ms. Moskovitz says that developing strong partnerships with the other adults supporting students in the classroom has multiple benefits. First, it creates a culture of collaboration based on respect, which both establishes positive working relationships between the adults and makes things run more smoothly. “If the adults feel like you’re validating their work in front of the students, it will be easier to cooperate. That open dialogue just makes life for all of us so much easier. And we also service the students better.”
This can also help make transitions smoother if students are being pulled out of the classroom. “A lot of times kids feel bad about leaving the room. They feel singled out. Instead, we want them to flip that feeling into something more positive. ‘You’re doing writing here and he’s doing writing there; he gets extra help with it because everyone needs help with something different, but we’re all doing writing.’ And then the kid doesn’t feel bad and the kid’s excited to go, and there’s no behavior issues there. I’ve heard of examples where the student is disrespectful to their service provider and says things like, ‘You’re not my teacher.’ But I call my colleagues ‘teacher’ and when we see learning happening together, it just creates an easier picture for the student as well.”
Strong collaboration can also make things more efficient. Ms. Moskovitz shares the following example. “Let’s say I have a student who is writing an essay and they also go to OT. If I collaborate well with the OT specialist, the kid can do their essay in OT time, because it meets their OT goals, such as drafting sentences. But if I am working with an OT who doesn’t collaborate with me and then I have to struggle to catch that kid up on something that’s already challenging for them, that makes it harder.”
You can see more from Ms. Moskovitz on this topic in How I Help Students See Support Staff as Teachers, published by Understood.
Paying it forward
Before becoming a teacher, Genesis Gonzalez used to be a paraprofessional in Ms. Moskovitz’s room. She said that Ms. Moskovitz brought her in as a partner from the beginning. “She included in me in her planning, took my ideas, and made me look at them in a bigger way,” says Ms. Gonzalez.
And that, in turn, is an approach Ms. Gonzalez has brought into her own classroom. “Now, when I work with my paraprofessionals, I tell them, ‘You’re a teacher in this room.’ And I always vocalize to my students, ‘All the adults you see here, they’re all your teachers.’” You can hear more from Ms. Moskovitz and Ms. Gonzalez about their partnership in this article.
6. Look for efficient ways to monitor students’ progress.
With the support of her school, Ms. Moskovitz has also focused on tracking student progress and supports. For example, she has helped develop a Multi-Tiered System of Support (MTSS) tracking system for her school that pulls together student data that was already being collected from other sources. “I didn’t invent anything that didn’t exist; I just put it together. Most of what I do is track the data on spreadsheets in a way that other people can see it and make sure that there’s continuity,” she says.
For example, teachers may be trying different interventions with students but not following up with the team or keeping track of whether the interventions have worked, she explains. Her school offers student support groups before and after the school day where students can get extra practice and teachers are paid by the school so that the services are free to parents. With this kind of program, the team can check to make sure the student mastered the goal. “It’s that circling back that is so, so hard under mounds and mounds of paperwork and hundreds of emails that we get every day unless there’s a system in place,” she says. “I created a system where our goal is that no student falls through the cracks.”
7. Don’t let cost stop you from requesting an assistive technology evaluation.
Ms. Moskovitz is also a technology teacher at her school and supports teachers and students in their use of assistive technology. She encourages teachers to request an assistive technology evaluation for a student if they think it is warranted and then determine the best options for each student. Some questions teachers should ask themselves include:
What’s mandated in the child’s IEP?
What devices, tools, and accessories does the student need?
What options are currently available through the district?
Is something new needed?
Are there low-cost or free versions that would be appropriate?
Can the district reach out to the company for discounts or donations?
She also notes that sometimes basic technology, or even older devices, can provide the tools that students need without purchasing the latest and most expensive options.
8. Don’t let technology replace personal instruction.
Ms. Moskovitz says there are definitely specific areas where technology can support instruction, but that teachers shouldn’t rely exclusively on it to teach. She does not recommend putting students on a device to do their own lesson while the teacher is doing something separately with the rest of the class. “Look for ways the tool can help the student participate in your lesson, not participate in their own lesson,” she says.
9. Get to know families and learn more about their backgrounds and cultures.
Ms. Moskovitz says she has learned a lot while working within the diversity of New York City where she prioritizes knowing the background and country of origin of each family. She also tries to understand, culturally, what some preconceived notions might be around disability, learning differences, and special education. Talking with colleagues and even some basic research helps her anticipate any rumors or myths that might be prevalent within a particular culture. “There’s less of a hurdle on my end if I jump in quickly and address any misconceptions or cultural misunderstandings,” she says.
She notes that sometimes developing relationships and building trust with families can take time. “I had a mom who used to come in every single week for a couple of months at our parenting time on Mondays and she would sit down and would just talk, and sometimes it was talking in circles and we’d bring up the same concerns again, but she was just anxious. And at the end of the day, we came to a resolution that made her comfortable and got her child the services that he needed. Seeing the parents as people makes a real difference.”
10. Don’t hesitate to ask for help.
Finally, she encourages her fellow educators to ask for help. She put a lot of pressure on herself to have all the answers from the beginning. “I think there was this pressure right away to be good at things, to know how to do everything. It was self-induced pressure and, frankly, it didn’t benefit anyone, least of all me. It’s okay to learn, it’s okay to ask for help. I have had such amazing people who helped me when I started teaching, some of whom I still reach out to today. Working as a team helps not only the team members like the teachers, but also the student.