Conversations with Tim: Supporting multilingual learners with disabilities

June 6, 2022

This edition of Conversations with Tim features a discussion between Tim Boals, WIDA founder and director, and Christopher Rivera. Chris is an associate professor at East Carolina University in the department of special education, foundations and research. His work focuses on culturally and linguistically diverse students with severe disabilities, and on training special education preservice teachers. He brings this expertise to WIDA’s Advancing ALTELLA project, too, by helping the team create meaningful resources for students and teachers.  

Tim and Chris joined Merideth Trahan, WIDA chief of staff, to talk about how we can best support multilingual learners with disabilities.   

Listening option: Listen to the audio here or continue reading this abridged version of their conversation. 

Tim: Tell us about yourself and what got you interested in working with multilingual learners with disabilities.  

Chris: My life’s work has been with students with significant cognitive disabilities. It wasn't until I started my Ph.D. program at University of North Carolina-Charlotte that I started to work with multilingual learners – which was almost thrust upon me. When I started, I wanted to be a special educator and had no intentions of moving into higher ed. But my advisors saw potential in me and kept saying that I’d be a great fit for projects that involved working with English learners with severe disabilities. Other than my own experiences as a bilingual Latino, multilingualism wasn't my area of expertise. One of my advisors told me: “You can do more than I can.” I didn't really understand the gravity of what she was saying until I walked into the classroom.  

In education we talk a lot about the importance of kids seeing people like them. You hear it, but it's different talking about it versus when you experience it. Like when a little kid sees you and goes “oh, that's one of my people” and starts immediately talking to you. In my case, talking to me in Spanish. It's almost as if we go into our own little world where we're joking and we're saying things in Spanish. It was those little experiences, and that push to go beyond what I thought were my own limitations, that got to me to where I am now. 

Tim: We're glad you are where you are now, and we've really enjoyed working with you over the years, Chris! For folks who may not know, can you talk about what a school day looks like for multilingual learners with significant cognitive disabilities: What supports and services do they receive throughout the day and how do they engage with content in language learning?  

Chris: There are so many variables that have to be taken into consideration: What state, what city, what county, what school, what resources, what is the teacher's knowledge, what are the administrators' knowledge and experience. It varies so much, and I think that's one of the things that's so frustrating when you're trying to advocate for this population. Not to generalize about what it looks like in every classroom, but I can give two personal experiences:  

I used to work at the University of Texas in San Antonio. When I would do work in schools, an English learner with a significant cognitive disability was most likely in the special ed classroom. Our special ed workforce is about 80% monolingual white women. There's nothing wrong with that. But that means there is a linguistic barrier when it comes to working with kids who are multilingual. In San Antonio, due to the demographics, you typically had a teacher or aide who spoke Spanish. There was a lot of translation, a lot of rapport. And it was not uncommon for kids to get pulled into an ESL classroom to receive additional help. That was always wonderful to see! Plus, thinking about culturally responsive and sustaining pedagogies: the schools, the hallways, the pictures, the literature – all of it reflected the culture of the students. 

Now, I work in Greenville, South Carolina, and it's a rural area without a large Latino population like San Antonio. Here, students are in self-contained classrooms, and I often hear about the frustrating experiences that teachers have because they don't know what to do or how to build relationships or rapport with parents. And not knowing that when it comes to the Individualized Education Plan (IEP), they can fight for linguistic supports. They can go beyond speech therapy or occupational therapy. If you don't have the experience, you don't know what to ask for.  

Tim: What you're saying also points to the need for more professional learning opportunities schoolwide, so that teachers are aware of strategies for working with multilingual learners in general and with students with disabilities. What are your recommended strategies for teachers, both content and ESL, who work with multilingual learners with disabilities?  

Chris: You can’t ignore the need for culturally responsive and sustaining pedagogy. Things like relationship building that sound simple, but it's amazing how often you don't see them in plans. Without that you can't establish a safe learning environment where students feel that they can take risks to answer questions, to participate, to be angry, to be happy. Whatever it is to be themselves, you can't do it without that rapport and without getting to know students’ interests.   

Another thing is incorporating a student's primary language. It could be something as simple as flash cards. If the flashcard says, “This is a bottle,” have another flash card for that same word in their language.  

Self-determination is something that's needed for students with severe disabilities. Being a causal agent in your own life. Making your own choices is a valuable skill.  

I think we should allow for more fluidity in how students engage with materials. Sometimes we can be a little too rigid in our expectations and what we think instruction should be, rather than imagining or reimagining what instruction can be.  

Tim: Allowing that flexibility lets students bring themselves to the table in the learning process. That's so essential for them to be who they are and express themselves as they're learning. Earlier, you mentioned families. How should teachers involve students' families in their learning journey?  

Chris: First, no one should make families feel as if their home language is a deficit or a problem – when it's a strength. I always joke with folks when they say, “how can they [students with severe disabilities] do this?” I say, “this is a kid that supposedly has a significant cognitive disability, but he or she can speak two languages. How many languages do you speak?”  

Second, invite whoever wants to come to an IEP meeting to have a family discussion. It’s important to understand the circle of caregivers and involve them to the extent that you possibly can. And don't give up trying to involve them! Once they know that your intention is nothing but good, you respect what they have to say and that you’re legitimately trying, it makes a difference.  

Tim: This illustrates what we talk about with the Can Do Philosophy – really building upon the strengths that students bring and recognizing their primary language as one of their strengths! Knowing that WIDA and the Advancing ALTELLA project are gearing up for an Alternate ACCESS for ELLs field test, what should teachers know about assessing multilingual learners with significant cognitive disabilities?  

Chris: Making sure teachers understand the importance of data collection and what it really means. It's not just a random score that goes to the state. It's so much more. You should use data to interpret: What do I do next? Where do I go with this? Where did we mess up and what do I need to change as far as my practices go to improve? Don’t be scared to ask questions! 

Tim: We always say that educators should look at assessment scores in relation to the student more holistically, but I think in the case of multilingual learners with disabilities that is even more the case. All of us are excited by the work that you and your colleagues are doing on the Advancing ALTELLA project (as a refresher, some of the project work includes redesigning Alternate ACCESS, which will include kindergarten for the first time, creating an alternate screener and publishing related professional learning and resources for teachers). Chris, tell us a little bit about what you're looking forward to with that work.  

Chris: I’m looking forward to everything! My hope is that as we gather this information it'll push the field and encourage people to ask new questions like “What do we need to do for teachers? How do we better support them? How do we create interventions that can be used to improve academic outcomes? How do we support the reality of our field?”  

Tim: Your involvement in all of this, Chris, is helping us to make stronger, more valid and reliable assessments and stronger resources.  

Merideth: Tim, can you share some examples from WIDA about how we support multilingual learners with severe disabilities?  

Tim: Over the years we've done a lot of work on accommodation policies for states. Moving forward, we’ll have a new Braille version of ACCESS for ELLs, along with new sample items. We’re going to begin a research project that examines how students who are Blind and Deaf access content within classrooms. This is a population of students that often gets overlooked. We’re just excited at WIDA that we've been able to do some work and move the field forward. And there's a lot more to do, so Chris, we’ll be calling on you so that teachers have the resources and the understanding that they need to serve this diverse population. 

About Conversations with Tim  

Conversations with Tim, WIDA Founder and Director is a WIDA news article series that features a conversation between WIDA Founder and Director Tim Boals and a colleague or two in the field of multilingual learner education. Together, they discuss the important innovation, research and collaboration taking place today.

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