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Episode 40

What I’ve Learned From Teaching Kids With Disabilities

Amy Campbell, Washington State 2020 Teacher of the Year

You’re listening to Together by AGCI. I’m Melissa Rush.

Today we’re chatting with Amy Campbell, Washington State 2020 Teacher of the Year. Amy’s focus is special education, advocacy and inclusion, which is so fitting because October is National Disability Month. As an organization that serves children of all needs and abilities, we felt it was particularly important that we recognize ways in which parents can help advocate for their child living with disabilities. There is no one more equipped to come alongside families in this journey than Amy. Let’s get into our conversation.

Can you kind of just start by telling me what inspired you to become not only a teacher, but a special education teacher? What kind of got you on that path?

So both my parents are actually educators, and my dad was a high school special education teacher for his 30 year career. And so I just grew up around that idea of teaching and learning. And this is honorable and exciting and engaging work when I. So I grew up like that. And then when I graduated from high school, I didn’t know I wanted to be a teacher. And and I had the opportunity to go to a local community college. So I did two years there. And then I went to a local four year college and I got my undergraduate degree in psychology. I knew I wanted to do something with people for people serving.

And and then I had more experiences just with my dad as an educator and and seeing the potential of being a teacher that it wasn’t. It was about educating and giving academic concepts to students so that they could have more opportunities.

But it was also about building relationship. And I saw the deep impact he was having. And I just realized that there was so much potential in this career pathway. So I went and got a degree in general education.

And it was really interesting because in my student teaching experience during that last year, I spent a whole year student teaching in the program I was in. I was in a fourth, fifth grade split program. And the students had been sort of especially selected for this split program.

They were supposed to have a lot of independent abilities and, you know, being able to stay focused and and do certain things so that a teacher could teach both both grades. And what I realized in that classroom was that.

Being able that teachers have the capacity to serve such a broad spectrum within their classrooms that the fourth graders were learning, well, the fifth graders were engaged and the fifth graders were learning well, the fourth graders engaged. And and that as an educator, I had the capacity to really serve a diverse population in that classroom, but that there were certain elements of student engagement that I was really missing. And part of that was my ability to connect with students who had barriers to access that I knew that I had ideas for helping students overcome. And so I went back to school and got my poor husband.

I just kept going back to school, back and back and back. And I got an endorsement and special education. And I’ve been there for 13 years. And I serve students with moderate to profound impacts on disability. And really, I consider myself sort of a community builder and someone who is interested in breaking down barriers and creating access and opportunities for all students in a school. So I traditionally have fewer than 10 children on my direct caseload, but I see myself as a teacher of the 600 students at the school where I teach. That was a very long story.

No, no, I love it. I always love to know kind of like the why behind things. And everyone has a different path. And so it sounds like kind of just based on the experiences that you had and you kind of realized something within yourself that was like, I have the capacity and, you know, like ability to do this. And then you did it, which is which is really cool and had to go back to school a few times. But for anybody who’s listening, it’s OK to change course and try something different. Absolutely. I know sometimes I think we get we’re like, OK, well, this is what I’m doing.

And, you know, even if it’s not, you’re kind of coming up against things or it’s not making you happy in the way that you thought. You feel like, well, but I thought I was doing this. And it’s like, no, you can change your mind.

You can change course. That’s how, like, so many amazing things happen. So. So you kind of get into this a little bit. But I would like to dove a little deeper, just kind of.

Can you talk about your approach to teaching, particularly kids with–and what term do you prefer–with disabilities or special needs?

It’s not about the term that I prefer, first of all. I serve students with disabilities, and when you have a disability, it is an identity indicator. It is part of your identity as a human. And so I think giving power back to individuals, students, and families who are the ones owning this identity indicator. Some people prefer special needs. I like to think these aren’t special needs. These are human needs. And some people will prefer autistic child and some people will prefer child with autism. And so if you’re a parent listening, you know your child best and you will hear things that make you comfortable or uncomfortable and be OK with learning about a disability and an indicator and owning it however you are comfortable. That was another long answer.

No, no. But that’s exactly that’s I think I think that’s important. And it’s like you said, it’s it’s not for the purpose of this conversation. I wanted to be referring to it in the way that you you’re most comfortable with.

But ultimately, it’s each individual and they get to make that choice of what is comfortable for them. So, yeah, I prefer children with disabilities. OK, thank you. Can you tell me about your your approach to teaching children with disabilities?

Yeah, and I, I also think that my detour kind of speaks to my approach, which is child centered, which is to say that. And the idea that my students don’t have special needs, they have human needs. First went to school, I thought.

I thought that maybe I had a special capacity to serve individuals with disabilities, and I do think I do. But I also think that when you consider the needs of a student with a disability within the purview of something that all teachers can do, I like to say there’s a little bit of Mrs. Campbell and everybody that every teacher has the capacity to give something to every student. And so my how I see myself now after 13 years and I have changed so much over that course and continue to grow. But as a community builder and someone who can identify each students, help a family see, and they bring ideas to this, to the capacity, the potential, the interests of any student, and then share that broadly within our school community so that they can be engaged in as many ways as possible. And so it’s something I talk about a lot as an educator is inclusion and that school community and how every student has the right to be part of the school community. And it is incumbent on the system. And I I’ll just go back to every student has the right to be included in the general education setting to the extent appropriate. And so I see my job as an educator is helping use a lot of different resources to identify how we can connect a student with a really rich learning opportunities across a lot of settings, the general education setting my classroom setting so that we can create. Meaningful experiences that will build them for the best future possible. So what I do. I love that. And I think I mean, inclusion is obviously so important in all aspects of life, like not just at school, but in your context, can you just go a little deeper into that and kind of why it into you? Inclusion is so important at school and not just for kids with disabilities, but all students. It’s hard because I’m going to backtrack and just give you a little bit of history.

It’s over two hundred years ago, individuals with disabilities weren’t welcomed into public schools. And so it’s been, you know, 200 years coming as we found places in our schools, oftentimes classroom settings that can meet the unique needs of students with disabilities in our public school settings.

But what we’re finding through research and and learning about learning is that as we need to continue to find ways to engage students outside of separate or separate special education settings, because what it does is it increases the opportunities for learning social skills.

It actually increases academic learning. It has all kinds of health benefits for individuals with disabilities to be in community settings where they can see themselves as belonging. It fosters a sense of self. And and if we can create really authentic and meaningful, inclusive experiences, it fosters communication and relationship.

And what we’re finding for individuals who do not have disabilities and and honestly, one in five people have a disability. But for students who don’t experience the same barriers, is it having the opportunity to build relationships with individuals with disabilities fosters a deep sense of empathy and understanding.

It disrupts the socialization we receive. That disability is is less than or is means that there is lack of ability or, you know, we get all kinds of messages about what disability is. But we’re finding that just having students with different needs in general education settings is an opportunity for other students, for students without disabilities, to see how they can include to learn how to to bring community together. And so I think they learned that we all learn differently. I learned that we all learn differently. I learned that I have ways that I can be helpful and that and that different is OK.

I think if nothing else different is great, I love that I and I and I just want to say, you’re like enthusiasm for all of this and your passion just comes through the zoom call. Like, I can see it in your face and hear it in your voice.

And I wish everyone could have a teacher like you. I think that is just and just the message of I mean, what is more like fundamental to being human than like the need to belong. And so I just I love that that is the message that you’re putting out there.

I think that’s really beautiful. What’s something that you wish people understood about kids living with disabilities? I think that we need to we need to not be fearful of engaging children who experience disability, that I think we all now have been working and living from home, like working from home, living in isolation for a long time.

And and I think that there is, as we are trying to unravel, misunderstanding about what being disabled can mean in America, as we’re trying to understand, like I’m always trying to understand other people’s experiences, that we have this really important duty to learn from each other and include each other.

And I think it’s incumbent on us to just say hi to people that we need to to just and I think this is important for all populations, but this general awareness that it’s OK to smile and wave at someone and and share community and space.

And it’s always good to ask, how can I include you and and understands that that people will have different experiences, but be excited to learn about those different experiences, because that’s how we’ll continue to grow our capacity to to serve everyone.

Right. So a lot of people who listen to. This podcast are a parents who have adopted kids experiencing disabilities. And so this isn’t something that they’ve had since birth. And, you know, necessarily in a lot of times kids come home and then things that become apparent that weren’t, you know, the information was available, their paperwork and all of that. So it can kind of be like a dropped in boom. Now we have to kind of figure out how to navigate some of these things which can feel if it’s not something you’re used to, I think overwhelming.

Do you have any resources that you would recommend for families that are navigating, you know, supporting their child with disabilities, particularly in a school setting? I think navigating education in general, whether your student has a disability or not, is already a little bit complicated.

My sister has a now first grader who didn’t who did homeschool for kindergarten and even just did enrolling her. My sister is like, OK, I’ve got the form. And now what I said, adding that extra later on, that is thinking about additional services and and what you had pictured for a student and what it may feel like the changes would be. I would encourage any parent who is starting to navigate this process of getting a diagnosis or having a disability identified and navigating public education with that is is holding in your self that you you know, your child like no matter what.

And being able to continue to feel comfortable asking questions is so important. Sometimes you’ll walk into a meeting, especially if if it’s a you know, an IEP meeting, an individualized education planning meeting for your student, and there will be four or five or six professionals in the room.

And it can feel really overwhelming. And I think to keep in mind that each of the people there is to speak to some aspect of what they know, what your child is experiencing, but being able to know that you are a member of the IEP team and that you bring knowledge about your child as well.

You have interests, you have ways that you see them engage at home. You might have concerns, too, about what you want and you have goals for them, genuine concerns or goals or, you know, what paths that you’d like them to have in the future and being confident to be able to ask questions and provide insight.

I think it’s important is you’re navigating this system to feel like an ally for your child and being able to talk to them about their experience and then elevate their voice if they have concerns or find a voice.

If you have a child who is not speaking in traditional ways or is maybe a non emergent bilingual English language learner, how do you find ways to help them communicate? Because their voice and story is so valuable. And and I think in in a world where it’s very easy to individuals with disabilities or emergent bilinguals can become very vulnerable members of the population. So encouraging your child that their voice matters and their experience matters. And and I think honoring that by helping them share it is going to be so important, because because every experience does matter.

And it’s easy to get to feel like just a piece in a bigger puzzle and the ball starts rolling and it can get you can get carried away quickly without being able to say stop. Yeah, I have some questions.

Yes, yes, yes. And I love what you said about listening to to your child’s voice and that kind of letting that be your guide. And if you need to to slow down or pause or change course, like you’re the one that’s going to know your child best and how to, you know, ensure that they’re getting getting what they need. Yes. And I think it would be important for any parent to connect with whatever parent groups are happening locally. And and this could happen by contacting your special education teacher and saying, do we have any parent groups or are your parents or grandparents in your classroom part of any local parent groups?

And that’s where you’re going to have sort of affinity parents who are in similar situations, who are going to be connected to local resources and who are going to be working through similar processes at great place to get your questions answered.

And and and hopefully very local. I would also encourage people to join your parent, teacher, organize. Stations or associations, because often times. Parent inclusion will lead to child children’s inclusion. As we’re building more inclusive school communities, your connection within the school community will give you insight into what’s happening in the building, an understanding of how the system works and build relationships for you with people who have other who have children within the school. Oh, that is so important. And if you do have a student with a disability, they’ll get and without the IEP meeting, they will give you your parent rights.

And every state has different legal rights and responsibilities that are all covered under the federal ideia. But knowing your procedural safeguards and your students rights is so important to you and you want to have social networking for yourself and you want to be aware of the legal implications within special education, and you want to make sure that you keep yourself in community so your child is in community. That’s great advice. And I love that it all comes back to community. That’s something you mentioned right at the top, and that’s why we’re all here, I think.

So can you also just touch a little bit on how parents can be better advocates just in day to day life for their for their kids living with disabilities? I think the important part is being able to center on their experience.

So knowing that you do know your child best. And I think finding ways for your child, facilitating communication is paramount in making sure that if you know, if we’re talking about kids with disabilities, oftentimes they are non-speaking or not oftentimes.

But if they have a significant disability, they may be non-speaking. How are we finding the communication ways or emergent bilinguals? How are you getting their voice out immediately? And then I think connecting them with real experiences like rich real experiences in the world is going to be so important for any child.

And getting them to the park and taking them to don’t be afraid to take them to the grocery store. I think a lot of my the families who I work with, they do a lot of waiting. Like we’re just going to wait until there’s this milestone that we’re pawsey.

We’re just going to wait until. And that is really good. I mean, we want our children to be successful. Yeah. In these experiences, we’re going to we’re going to wait to try to play the until. But I think we can embrace where our child is developmentally in that moment and say, you know what, I think I want to try a playdate with a friend and then being forthcoming. This is our first playdate and we want to meet at the park and we’re not sure how it’s going to go. So do you want to try? Don’t be afraid to build those opportunities.

And I think being an ally in the school setting means having that clear communication with all educators, the special education teacher and the general education teacher being engaged with how how can we support at home or and being up front.

You know, he’s coming home and he’s he’s a little bit tearful. Is there something happening or and and the good things, too. Yeah. Being able to say to a teacher man when that bus pulls up, he is so excited.

I think everybody can get a read on the experience that child is having and be able to shape together, because this is a wrap around thing. The teacher has a certain you know, every educator has a certain amount of time they’re spending with your child and communicating with them before it becomes, you know, emergent and then welcoming their conversation with you. Because as educators, you know, we want to include parents that we don’t want to overwhelm. The capacity for more library books at home. You just let me know. I will send you more library books.

Oh, I love that. I love what you said about, you know, like talking about the happy and positive stuff, too, because I think sometimes, especially with, you know, whether it’s teachers or therapists or whatever, you know, whoever is kind of involved in your child’s, you know, education or care, it’s like we tend to only talk about things when there’s a problem. Like this is an issue, you know. But gosh, like what an important reminder to to celebrate, right. Like that or to like let someone know they love school. And I can tell because of this, you know, that probably feels good to hear those kinds of things.

I think it’s really important to keep. Educators and parents and anyone who’s working with children or adults, that sort of five to one ratio of we want to make sure we have five positive interactions, hopefully for every one redirection, and it doesn’t even have to be negative or correction.

And I think especially for students who or children who have disabilities or barriers, they may need more redirections or correction’s or prof’s then. Other students like that, just by virtue of having a barrier to memory or impulse control or whatever else or a language barrier.

And so students with disabilities are often redirected and redirected. They get it a negative more frequently than we remember to use those positive affirmations. So anyone. If you’re with all children, right? Yes. I think that’s where my my positive conversational style comes from.

But making sure that I’m pouring on the praise. You’re not going to overpraise a child. You’re not going to overpraise a teacher or a spouse or whoever. You know, you’re co parenting is just making sure that we keep those.

Positive comments flowing because students with disabilities often get a lot more redirection just by virtue of having more barriers. Yeah, that’s such good advice. Well, we ended on a I mean, the whole everything was positive, but we ended on a particularly positive note.

Thank you so much for sharing all of your like wisdom. And just again, your positivity just comes through and your passion. I appreciate it. No problem. Thanks for having me. That was Amy Campbell, Washington State 2020 Teacher of the Year.

Amy was kind enough to share a few national resources for families navigating opportunities for their child living with a disability. Well, Amy always recommends that families pursue local and state groups to join or follow on social media for resources.

She shared the following national resources as a jumping off point. The arc, the arc is the largest national community based organization advocating for and with people with intellectual and developmental disabilities and serving them and their families. The ARC works tirelessly to uphold their vision that every individual and family living with intellectual and developmental disabilities in the United

States has access to the information, advocacy and skills they need to support their full inclusion and participation in the community throughout their lifetimes. You can learn more about the arc at the arc. Torg Tache Tasch is an international leader in disability advocacy.

Founded in 1975, Tache Advocates for human rights and inclusion for people with significant disabilities and support needs. Those most vulnerable to segregation, abuse, neglect and institutionalization. Tash works to advance inclusive communities through advocacy research, professional development policy and information and resources for parents, families and self advocates.

The inclusive practices Tache validated for research have been shown to improve outcomes for all people. You can learn more about Tasch at Tashaun. The Special Olympics. The Special Olympics is a global movement of people creating a new world of inclusion and community where every single person is accepted and welcomed regardless of ability or disability.

Special Olympics is helping to make the world a better, healthier and more joyful place. One athlete, one volunteer, one family member at a time. Learn more about the Special Olympics at

Thanks for listening to Together by AGCI. As always, if you liked what you heard, please rate or review us wherever you listen to podcasts. If you’d like to read or watch even more stories, check out our website, Reach out to us and let us know what you think on Instagram at @allgodschildreninternational or email us at We look forward to sharing another story of hope the next time we’re together. We’ll talk to you soon.