This district taps the (very) young, preparing them for school career
How often is something exactly what it purports to be? Not an easy question to answer, but Glenwood Community School District has nailed it by embracing, embedding, and implementing Specially Designed Instruction into their preschool curriculum. Students are receiving exactly what the name implies, Specially Designed Instruction (SDI), aimed at meeting the educational needs of each individual student.
“In the old model, we did a lot of pull out and sit to the side,” explains Nicole Guild, a 20-year career preschool teacher at Northeast Elementary in Glenwood. “A student would come work with me for 15 minutes, and then I would send them back to whatever they were doing. Now, we are trying to incorporate the things the students like to do into what they need to work on, and we are incorporating it right into the daily schedule.”
All five preschool teachers and classrooms in the district are on board with integration and delivery of SDI within the school day. All are part of a usability grant in various stages of execution (years one through four). Using specific criteria, early childhood consultants at Area Education Agencies (AEAs) recommended the best sites for grant funds to support the Preschool SDI work and provide professional development and coaching support based on teacher feedback.
Successful SDI requires a collaborative, team approach for problem solving. A host of educational staff get together at least once a month to discuss student progress based on the data recorded daily by the preschool teacher. They look to see if a goal is being worked on or if an instructional change is needed.
“Data collection is taking place throughout the day, so it’s not just a one-time snapshot,” said Ami Leath, Early Childhood Consultant at Green Hills AEA. “Teachers are intentionally setting up teaching opportunities throughout the day, which we call embedded learning opportunities. These teachers are collecting data specific to the goal across the day.
“Within those learning opportunities is the prompting hierarchy, where based on what you are seeing, today the student may need more prompting, whereas yesterday they were more independent. Teachers are looking at data collection all the time and changing instruction accordingly.”
Preschool teacher Nicole Fischer says, “It’s all behind the scenes. You don’t see that when you come into the classroom, but it’s there. SDI is written in the IEP (Individualized Education Program), when I am going to look for these opportunities. It helps you figure out right away if there is a problem with your instruction or if they are missing a skill.”
“Feedback from teachers is so critical,” Leath said. ”When we first started, it was just the teacher and me. Then Principal (Sherry) Herron joined us. Now there are sometimes eight or nine people at the table. A big piece of our work this year has been to get everyone on the same page.
“We’ve added in monthly individual classroom meetings, sometimes twice a month, which can include paraeducators, our district internal instructional coach, a special education consultant, and our speech language pathologist. Everyone in the classroom hears the same message, so it does not matter what adult the child is working with. It also helps kids become more independent.”
In addition to a team problem-solving approach, Leath says a real highlight in the Preschool SDI work is the emphasis placed on working closely with the Early ACCESS Team, which deals with children ages birth to three.
“By the time some of these kids come to preschool, we have already worked with the family and know them pretty well,” Leath said. “We have been involved in the whole transition process. We’ve changed how we write Individualized Education Program goals, and data collection has changed.
“Teachers used to inherit IEP goals that were already established with children transitioning to preschool from Early ACCESS. Now, we talk with the parent, have opportunities to visit the child, observe them, focus in on what is going on with the child, and figure out how best to meet their needs.”
Principal Herron, at Northeast Elementary School in Glenwood, agrees.
“We recognized early on that we really needed to get Early ACCESS folks involved, knowing what Preschool SDI is about, and how to help us with the family piece and working in the home,” Herron said.
Early ACCESS and preschools now use shared screening assessment tools and family information gathering forms to find out what the parent really wants, and to learn the children’s strengths, interests and preferences. Teachers then build that knowledge into the preschool program.
The design is in the details, for teachers and students
Some characteristics of Preschool SDI instruction include intentionality, abundant visuals, the amount of instruction, peer mediated interventions and peer prompting.
“The intentionality piece is huge,” Guild said. “Working on goals throughout the day instead of just one certain time. The SDI piece is written into the Individualized Education Program (IEP) and spread out in multiple doses throughout the day.”
“Preschool SDI has helped me be more intentional in the classroom in thinking about what do I want the kids to be able to do,” said preschool teacher Allison Henderson, now in her third year of Preschool SDI implementation. “Can they answer the questions, What am I doing now? How will I know when I am done? What do I do next? When the kids know what to do, it is like having an extra person in the room. You don’t have to remind them. They know, okay, it’s time to go get my coat and line up, because they know exactly what the expectation is.”
Embedding visual and auditory cues in routines reinforces expectations for all students. If an individual student needs extra support, routines can be broken down further. For example, helping a student understand that first they clean up, and then they read a story.
“It’s breaking down the routines within the routines,” Henderson said. “So not only making sure the kids know what they are supposed to do, but making sure I also know what I am supposed to do at each point. That is something you might not go that deep into before Preschool SDI.”
“We’re finding that we don’t need as much individual instruction, because the universal instruction is in such a good place,” Leath said. “Teachers have worked really hard getting visuals in the classrooms and establishing routines within routines for all students.”
“A huge part of SDI is our universal instruction,” said Nicole Fisher, who teaches preschool at Northeast Elementary. “With our big posters that breakdown the routine of the day, like when we arrive, choice time, putting our backpacks away, washing our hands. We come in and we choose a center, then take turns signing in. Signing in has a routine where they tap on the shoulder of a friend to take turns signing in. It flows really smoothly in the morning.”
Northeast Elementary preschool teachers are unanimous in their enthusiasm and emphasis on clear and abundant visuals which help reinforce and remind students of routines and expectations throughout the day.
“Pictures help make students independent,” Fisher said. “Kids can help other kids because they have the pictures. They know just what to do and don’t need teachers to remind them. And in a classroom where you might have five students with an IEP, you wouldn’t be able to tell which students have any disability compared to their peers because of this independence.”
Chelsea Gundersen, a teacher in her first year of utilizing Preschool SDI strategies, says the pictures help her know all the expectations she has taught the students.
“If there is no picture, I haven’t taught it yet and I can’t expect them to do it,” Gundersen said. “If children don’t understand the direction, the picture helps them understand. I have a helper at the board showing them, so they know what we are doing, and what we are doing next.”
Gundersen adds that pictures help classroom paraeducators and substitute teachers as well.
Jordan Laughlin, a speech pathologist for the district, says, “Visuals are so helpful with all students. I have taken those into my second grade classroom. At any level it helps if a student has a language barrier.”
Peer and administrative support, benefits both adults and children
Just as teachers reinforce one another at various stages of their Preschool SDI experience by sharing ideas and suggestions, so do students reinforce one another as they work toward mastery of knowledge and skills.
“We have learned from research that kids learn a lot better from their peers,” Guild said. “Kids are more interested in their friends. Anytime we can have an adult with a peer to deliver instruction, you are going to have more bang for your buck.”
Guild provides an example of a student who is working on consistency with his language and expanding his vocabulary. A year ago he only said sounds, and now he is sometimes speaking in full sentences.
“He uses picture cards,” Guild said. “He has a card for each of the different classroom centers that he uses with me and his peers. It’s just a way of doing business. Kids don’t notice that anyone else is different from them. Everybody needs a little extra help with something sometimes. That’s just the way we are. We are all like that as people. It’s truly the way it is.”
At Northeast Elementary, while seamlessly integrated SDI is taking place in preschool classrooms while boasting minimal pullout for special services, the other primary grade teachers are taking notice.
“A kindergarten teacher in the building commented on witnessing our whole arrival routine,” Fisher said. “The kindergarten teacher said, ‘They just did all of that on their own! Can you send me some of the materials? I would like to do some of that with my students who aren’t quite sure yet.’”
Julie McMullen, a PK-12 special education instructional coach with the district assigned to work specifically with preschool, says, “Everything the teachers are doing is amazing, and is making such a difference with the kids. There are many of the components that would make a difference in kindergarten, first and second grades, too. Some of the guiding principles, like the routines within the routines, would work well within the primary grade classrooms.”
Leath, who is frequently coaching, observing, and problem solving in classrooms at the school, is adamant that a key component to Preschool SDI is the coaching piece. Area Education Agencies roll out training, and then district internal instructional coaches support it and keep it going. Teachers also have up to five days of professional development each year, or monthly zoom calls, depending on their status on the training continuum.
“The support of the district has been huge,” Leath said. “Superintendent (Devin) Embray and Principal Herron have allowed teachers to have workdays with me, and to travel to Des Moines for training, which makes all the difference.
“Compared to pre-SDI work, the quick progress we are seeing with our kids has made such an impact. The impact of this work is so positive, and families are seeing it. It’s exciting, because these teachers are having to call parents and say we need to amend the IEP because the student is making so much progress. That is a huge indicator of the work these teachers are doing. Now, we are working on continuing that seamless process as our kids transition into kindergarten. It’s a work in progress.”
And progress they will, in the hands of these very special educators, serving some very special preschoolers, doing exactly what they say they will do with Specially Designed Instruction.