Pink Hearts & Bear Claws

pink heartIt’s hard being a kid, especially in middle school where up is down and right is wrong and social rules are ever-changing. I truly feel for my middle schoolers – I do; I wouldn’t want to go back.

For Davis*, that’s also the case, except he still has to muster his way through the next two and a half years of strife and confusion. His struggle is three-fold: (1) social cues alone are hard but couple that learning curve with autism and it becomes even harder; (2) transitioning from elementary school to middle is one of life’s BIG changes and comes with the need for greater emotional maturity, which not all of our students are ready for; and (3) Bear Claws – oh those coveted Bear Claws, a symbol that you are Top Dog with the most Class Dojo points and a chance to win free dress and front of the line lunch passes.

It is EVERYTHING in the social jungle that is middle school. Unfortunately, today, Davis did not earn a Bear Claw.

His day started out just fine, earning points for completing morning work, station rotations and fulfilling his classroom job. But something went awry after break and the points slowly kept slipping out of sight. He was neck and neck with Angel* when all of a sudden, Angel got double points for doing EXTRA WORK and SHOWING INDEPENDENCE. Poor Davis just couldn’t bounce back.

It was all too much.

And he just snapped.

“TEEEEAACCCHHHHEEERRR!!!”, Davis wailed in his Level 4 voice. “I NEED A POINT!!!!!! YOU HAVE TO GIVE ME A POINT!”

Of course, a Level 4 voice would never warrant a point; that would incite anarchy. Instead, he was issued a Warning, shortly followed by a Needs Work aka negative point.

Davis was down. But not out. Not yet.

With the help of my Amazing Aide, Davis sat on the stoop near the door and explained his side of the story. He argued his points like a well-seasoned attorney, citing all the evidence of the inherent unfairness of the point system in general and why he deserved a Bear Claw for his efforts today.

Five, ten, fifteen minutes passed and Davis was finally ready to rejoin the class. He took a few final Lazy 8 Breaths and strolled back to his seat. Before he resumed his rightful place at the corner desk, closest to the board so his wandering thoughts could be redirected to the lesson at hand, Davis, a kid whose struggle was real, took it upon himself to teach this teacher a lesson she’ll never forget.

Right there, in the midst of our planner and end-of-day routine, Davis, with tear-stained eyes and a sniffily nose silently stood in my bubble space and placed a pink heart sticker directly on my heart.

He gave me his heart, with all of his heart.

I stood there for a few seconds, shocked yet honored to be a part of this moment.

His simple act of kindness was a keen reminder that even though he did not earn the Bear Claw today, Davis’ heart would always be in the right place.

*Names changed for privacy


Christine Terry is a Special Education Teacher and the Founder & Executive Director of Terry Tutors Specialized Education Services. She combines her teaching credential, psychology and law degrees, and a whole lotta chutzpah and heart to serve students and families seeking academic, behavior and advocacy support. Learn more at

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Ageless Grade Levels?

grade levels

This month’s post could easily have been titled “Education’s Long, Divisive Debate of Teaching to a Child’s Developmental Age versus Chronological Age” — but I thought that might be too long 🙂

No matter what you title this debate the question remains the same: Why do we continue to divide up students by how old they are versus how many skills the know?

My Classroom this Year

In Special Education, we have a variation of the same problem. Many of our self-contained classes are mixed grade/age/ability/learning difference levels.  For example, I currently teach 6th, 7th, and 8th graders in our Autism-Core Class. I am teaching state required common core standards that must be scaffolded according to my students’ needs as well as integrating their IEP Goals as the overarching compass of our units. My students range from ages 10-14, with ELD (English Language Development) Levels of 1-5 and a few EO’s (English Only) learners sprinkled in. When assessed, my students are reading anywhere from a 3rd-7th grade level. Math is a little higher, probably because it’s universal in any language and more concrete in content.

Now, some educators would balk at the learning makeup of my classroom and advocate for grade-level specific classes. But I say, this is how it should be.

We Started Off with 1 Teacher for All Grades

If you’re a “Heartie” or a fan of shows like “Little House on the Prairie”  or “Anne of Green Gables” (I love her!) or even just remember a little of your Frontier History, you’ll note that there was one teacher for all of the kids in the town. That teacher was responsible for instructing whole group lessons in all core content areas and differentiating was required across K-12 subject-matters.

Really it was an administrative decision based on funding and student enrollment. There was one teacher that needed to teach to everyone.

Age Division is Partly Based on Administrative Necessity

It’s just plain easier to put all of the 9 and 10 year-olds together and call it Fourth Grade. The reality is that when working to place so many students, particularly within the public school setting, it is more convenient to group by ages and then, if the school and district chooses, to branch out from there. Some schools have various differences within the age level programming, such as Gifted and Talented, but few public schools structure their groupings with a focus on mixed-age levels determined by skill mastery.

Yet there are more supporters of this type of class groupings within the last 10 years than was previously thought (a few snippets of the conversation below):

What’s really frustrating, though, is that it seems like everything from text-books to games to a student and parent’s mindset is categorized by ages and grade levels in place of skill mastery. Due to the limited to no-retention policies, a fifth student who has not yet mastered their multiplication tables will go on to sixth and seventh and eighth grade and possibly be more behind in that skill area as the years go by.

Here’s What I Want 

What I would like to see in the span of my teaching career is a move away from grouping students by chronological age and grouping students more by what they know. If a 3rd grader is ready to go on to 5th grade reading but needs more time in 2nd grade math, then let that be our guide in how to structure classes and provide the right support, intervention, instruction and content for that student.

With technology, our society is becoming more and more individualized. My hope is that education jumps on board and begins to guide a student throughout their academic career by what they know instead of how old they are.

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Terry Tutors Specialized Education Services, Inc. is a 501(c)(3) charitable and educational nonprofit with a focus on providing wraparound academic, behavior and advocacy support services for struggling students in southern California. Learn More at

Middle School Kerfuffles

middle schoolAs school winds down (3.5 days and counting!), I’m thinking about my first year of teaching. Not only was it my “signature” year but I received my induction into the world of middle school. Yikes! It was a year of firsts… and lasts. I learned a lot about what to do and what not to do when teaching middle schoolers.

One of the most important lessons I’ve learned from my 6-8 graders was that conflict, especially at this delicate “tween” age, is a part of their everyday lives.

Every look, every whisper, every walk down the hallway can potentially be a game changer for better or worse. Peer influence is at an all time high. It is the MOST important aspect of their day.

I guess I had forgotten that or maybe blocked out my own “tween” trauma of junior high.

As their teacher, however, my goals are in direct conflict with their line of thinking. I am MOST concerned about closing those skill gaps through content while attempting to find fun ways (ie: projects they like to do but will rarely grace me with their true opinion — that Ms. Terry does actually design cool things for us to do) to solidify those missing pieces of the learning puzzle.

Day in and day out, my hormone-laden teens and tweens, walked through my classroom door filled with internal and external conflicts.

Restorative Justice, differentiated instruction, rotations, unit plans, project-based learning, soliciting the help of administrators, colleagues, and counselors — I feel like I’ve run the gamut trying to implement best practice when the reality was that — as is true in middle school life – my day will never be without conflict.

And that, in itself, is the conflict.

So do I love it or leave it?

I love seeing a student begin to internalize the perseverance needed to be successful. I love building upon that newfound growth and challenging them to move forward in school and in life. I will, however, be leaving behind some of my first year learning curves (ie: novice mistakes) and replacing those with more consistent classroom management, more detailed unit plans, a more neutral tone, more relationship-building, more active listening and less reactive thinking, and more self-care.

I am looking forward to these precious 64 days of summer to rejuvenate and revive myself before returning for Round 2 of The Middle School Years.

God speed to all you Middle School Teachers. Now, I get it.

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Terry Tutors Specialized Education Services, Inc. is a 501(c)(3) charitable and educational nonprofit with a focus on providing wraparound academic, behavior and advocacy support services for struggling students in southern California. Learn More at

Please Don’t Let Me Be Reincarnated As a 7th Grade Boy!

7th Grade boysIf there is such a thing as reincarnation, please God don’t let me come back as a 7th Grade boy; I don’t have nearly enough energy to make it!

For one day this week I had the privilege, nay the honor, of being the only designated adult in charge of a 7th Grade class full of young boys. Teachers: you have got your hands full! When the sub was a no-show I stepped in to help, and amongst the craziness and the endless questions I noticed a few choice classic middle-school moves native to those with the XY chromosome combo. These tidbits of truth made my day and opened my eyes to the fact that as a 7th Grade boy the world is a simpler place but is on the verge of becoming more complicated, a daunting realization indeed.

As a 7th Grade Boy:

  1. There are a zillion thoughts running through my head every nano-second and it is imperative I discuss all of them with you RIGHT NOW!
  2. Burps, farts, and noises that resemble either of those are hilarious.
  3. Minecraft is awesome and should be the only subject in school, except for basketball.
  4. I only heard what the adult in the room said after she had explained it three different ways and in three different tones of voice.
  5. Bullying is real and really hurts.
  6. I have crushes on girls but I still think they are gross OR I am that one heart-breaker who is already juggling two women in the 7th Grade class and one in the 8th.
  7. I spill things on my shirt and I’m okay with that.
  8. There is a lot of pressure on me at home, at school, and with friends and I’m learning how to juggle it all.
  9. If an adult says “No” I will incessantly ask them, “Why?” until I (a) wear them down or (b) they ignore me.
  10. Throwing anything is cool, even a chair or a person.
  11. I also need to jump off stuff periodically, including a chair or a person.
  12. Sometimes I just need to yell. I don’t know why.
  13. I smell. But so does everyone else.
  14. I don’t yet know what I want to be when I grow up but I know that it has something to do with sports, cars, and sports cars.
  15. If my friends make fun of me I will still cry but only in the bathroom.
  16. When dissecting things in science, if it’s not already dead it will be when I get done with it.
  17. I’m finding out that life is not fair, and I am learning to accept that fact even though it’s hard.
  18. My mom still packs my lunch; I like that she remembers to put my favorite snacks in it.
  19. When I’m excited about something, you will know about it! When I’m mad about something, you will know about it!
  20. I really just want to be liked.

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One Close Friend Is All You Need

He walked into meet me for his tutoring session during periods 4 and 6 and began to tell me how the other boys, whom he had thought were his friends, had turned on him. He was angry, frustrated, and genuinely hurt. The pain and confusion on his 12-year-old face was very real.

We all know that the middle school years are some of the toughest, both socially and emotionally. If we think back to our own Junior High past, I’m sure all of us can recall at least one incident in the cafegymatorium where we were the ones feeling left out. I might go so far to say, however, that things may be socially worse today than it was when we were kids due in part to the fact that technology enables the immediacy of information to perpetuate the rumor mill faster than it has ever been before. My student was going through exactly that.

I had two choices at this critical, emotional moment: (1) to comfort him by explaining that things do get better and this is just a phase, which provides a little solace but no action to better his situation, and then try to get back to our ‘Lord of the Flies’ quiz that afternoon or (2) to educate him on the levels of friendship, explaining that not everyone will or should be your friend, and give him a task to help at that exact moment.  I decided to forgo our Literature lesson that day and focus on educating him instead on the elements of Social Acceptance.

In Socially Curious and Curiously Social: A Social Guidebook for Bright Teens and Young Adults, Michelle Garcia Winner and Pamela Crooke, both well-respected Speech Pathologists, explain the varying levels of friendship and why it’s okay, and in fact normal, to have only one close friend. This book breaks it down beautifully:

  • Level 6 (Highest): Close Friend. May only have 1 or 2 in a lifetime
  • Level 5: Bonded Friend
  • Level 4: Evolving Friendship (make effort)
  • Level 3: Possible Friendship (less effort because of shared setting)
  • Level 2: Acquaintance
  • Level 1: (Lowest) Friendly Greetings
  • Floaters: Dating and On Again-Off Again Friends

If we dig a little deeper and really think about how many close friends we have in our adult lives, those people who we share special secrets and dreams with, I bet it’s hovering around one or two. That’s the way it should be. Even if your child is the most popular kid at school and it seems as if they are constantly being invited to playdates and birthday parties and sleepovers, he or she may actually feel more alone because although they are surrounded by people they don’t have that one close friend to confide in.

I explained this pyramid to my student and asked him to write each of his friends next to the appropriate level. It turns out the boys who were picking on him were mainly Floaters (On Again-Off Again Friends). One of his friends who had not been part of that group was placed in Level 4, an ‘Evolving Friend’. So much of my student’s focus had been on these other boys that he hadn’t put any time into making this Level 4 Friend a possible Close Friend. “You should ask your Level 4 Friend if you can hang out sometime”, I prompted. He came back after his next break and announced as he walked into the room, “Well, you were right! I just asked my Level 4 friend to hang out and we’re going to this weekend”. I praised him for his newfound awareness and the fact that he “got it” so quickly. Who knows, maybe a Level 6 Close Friendship will evolve out of his ability to view a friend in a new light and on a new level.

Now, back to “Lord of the Flies”.

socially curious and curiously social

Check out Socially Curious and Curiously Social  for some great explanations about Social Acceptance and Socially Accepted Behavior

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