What would the optimal sensory classroom look like? It would be considerate of all the needs of all the children, avoiding extreme sounds and lights and colors, be a constant temperature and have areas for children to work out their sensory issues throughout the day. It would also include a teacher.
What would this teacher look like? It would look something like Dr. Sybil Keesbury, and while she is no longer in the elementary classroom, she is still teaching. Her current position as Assistant Professor at Mercer University makes more of an impact than teaching one classroom at a time. She is teaching in the Holistic Child teacher certificate program, an undergraduate degree. At Mercer she is teaching future teachers how to incorporate traditional teaching theory within an inclusive classroom.
Students will learn about several learning disabilities, developmental disabilities including those with sensory issues. The program is designed with the needs of today’s educators. Due to decreased funding for schools, more children with special needs are mainstreamed into classroom without the extra services they might qualify for. It becomes the teacher’s responsibility to understand and meet the needs of these children along with the normally developing children. The problem is that most teachers in the classrooms today do not have the training, the support and are not able to gain the tools to better their classroom and their professions.
Dr. Keesbury has already spent over 13 years in the classroom, her background includes psychology and special education with an emphasis in Autism. She was fortunate to work with an Occupational Therapist while teaching in North Carolina. She was able to learn a great deal about SPD/SI during this time and took the initiative to incorporate her new knowledge into her classroom, benefiting all her students.
While Dr. Sybil maybe a great innovator in her field, she sees a lack of inspiration on the part of other educators to do the same. There is not one solution for the problems that teachers face when a student arrives in their classroom with an IEP or 504. School districts do not focus time or resources on educating staff about a lot of issues kids have. The push is for academics at an earlier age and less on the fundamentals of how children develop. A child will never be a good writer until they can hold a pencil correctly. A child cannot copy notes if they are not strong in visual perception. It seems the neuro-development is being skipped and the idea that all children come to school ready to read and write is the new expectation.
“If we do not change some fundamental things about our schools, we are never going to service all the children. No Child Left Behind is a great idea, but until we change the policies, there is always going to be children left behind”
The medical model for development is not seen in the educational model of development. The two models are on different pages. According to Dr. Keesbury, until the medical model and the educational model are blended into one model of meeting children’s needs before it impacts their education then the schools are failing the students. Educational services need to be proactive and not reactionary. First develop the skills for learning, and then develop the learning model.
The students at Mercer are taught from their first year how to advocate for students and their needs as educators. These students go into the classroom with several developmental issues on their radar. When a child enters their classroom these educators can put into practice tools and accommodations as they go and be able to communicate what is working with parents and other staff members. They will already have fidgets and exercise balls for chairs available and offer those to students. They can approach a parent or administrator and show that these children are productive based on the tools they have offered from day one of class.
Many teachers who have become innovative and proactive, learned new tools to help better their classroom, can attest that only the children who need these extras will use them day to day. Sitting on a ball for seated work might sound cool to all the kids, but soon only those who benefit from using them will be sitting on the ball at test time given the choice. Those who need oral stimulation to get through writing assignments will be found chewing gum, and throwing it out after they are done.
While there needs to be a balance between accommodating all the children and meeting educational goals, it won’t be found until there are conversations about it. Dr. Keesbury found that while her school’s OT was unable to use tools she had with children who could benefit but lacked an IEP/504, Dr. Keesbury was able to use them. She had a conversation with the OT, she asked questions and implemented ideas and tools into the classroom. She gave students the sensory needs and planned her expectations accordingly. She had conversations with parents and was able to back her concerns and knowledge with things she was using in the classroom that these children were responding to positively.
Dr. Keesbury suggest we have conversations with our children’s’ teachers, with their administrators and at the district and state levels. We need to let them know we expect more for our children, for our teachers and for our schools. Teachers have a lot of responsibilities and a lot of expectations they have play out in the classroom. They need to be excited to be in the classroom but they are overwhelmed. Parents need to give them credit for doing all that is currently in their repertoire, and encourage them to gain more knowledge. When a teacher can be confident that new tools and skills they implement into a classroom routine is benefitting their children and not hindering their objectives, they will be fans of those tools and skills. To have such positive outcomes from such simple changes can be infective, and spread throughout a school.
Dr. Keesbury has a long road ahead of her; she is positively impacting more people each time she steps into her university classroom encouraging better teachers of tomorrow. I had a very encouraging conversation with her, and I hope you can have one with a teacher today too.