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Case Narrative

Teacher to Teacher: Talking Over Anabela's Progress

Connie York, the resource room teacher, enters Jean Harfleur's second grade classroom at La Paz Elementary School. She and Jean have a close working relationship. Connie sighs, “I just can't get Anabela's mother more involved!” Jean sympathetically puts her arm around Connie's shoulder.

Several months have passed since Anabela Vicenti's placement in special services and, though her mother, Magda, was initially eager and involved, she has not attended any parent-teacher conferences since the initial IEP (Individualized Education Plan) team meeting in November.

Connie sighs again. “It's easy to see that Anabela's family gives her a lot emotionally, but I'm still not so sure about academically. I really want them to be more involved with the goals of Anabela's IEP.”

“I know we've been back and forth on this, but I feel strongly that Anabela should be retained next year to avoid a more restrictive full-day placement. Retention will give her the same model of services for another year and let her have time in the regular classroom with her peers. It's worked so well for her this year. I don't want to rock the boat now. I'm afraid the demands of the third grade curriculum and schedule will overwhelm Anabela, even with the resource room services.”

Jean nods her head slowly. “Oh, Connie, I hear you, but so few kids are retained here at La Paz. I just don't want Anabela to feel left out and perhaps even more insecure.”

Anabela's Cumulative Record

According to Anabela's cumulative record from Sandia, her prior elementary school, she classified as a nonreader at the end of kindergarten, not knowing all her letters and sounds. She was referred for educational testing then, but never received it.

File notes indicate that the first grade teacher worried about the effect of this delay in receiving services on Anabela's progress. Without resource room help, the teacher created her own set of goals for Anabela related to reading, writing, adding, and attention span. At the end of first grade, she recommended retention, but only as a backup strategy—provided Anabela did not get into the resource room in second grade. Anabela's parents consented to testing and advocated strongly for an IEP for their daughter. They also complained adamantly to the principal about the recommendation to retain.

Fortunately, when Anabela transferred to La Paz in October of her second grade year, she received testing, an IEP, and resource room services, as well as additional assistance from the resource room aide in her regular classroom.

A later version of this teaching case is featured in the book Preparing Educators to Involve Families: From Theory to Practice, available for purchase from Sage Publications at

Magda's Agenda

“Anabela's grandpa and I went to the principal at Anabela's old school a lot. Her first grade teacher was always late or absent. Her special education referral was delayed. And Anabela was placed in a modified bilingual class. I later discovered that Anabela was the only one identified as English Only in her class, so the teacher spoke mostly in Spanish. We are Mexican and have a Spanish last name, but we don't speak Spanish at home. That class did not help Anabela and I let the principal know it.”

“My husband, Gaspar, has been ill for the past few years. I have to help take care of him. This past year I injured my knee. So my father and my older kids have to help me. My father walks Anabela to school and keeps an eye on things for me. If he tells me something I don't like, I go to the principal to work it out. I also get to school for the important things like the IEP team meeting.”

“After Anabela's first special education referral at Sandia, I felt relieved and wanted her tested right away. You see, I know about special ed. My older son, Richard, is in a resource room. They tested him so late and I always wondered why he was not referred sooner. Now testing was being delayed with Anabela too!”

“Then our family moved to a new neighborhood and I decided to enroll Anabela at La Paz. What a difference—the school is so well run and the principal knows every child by name! I am so impressed.”

“I am also relieved. I can stop fighting for a while. The resource room is giving Anabela what she needs. At the IEP meeting they explained that her problems are both academic and social. She has a learning disability and I guess she depends on the teachers too much. I know 'cause she can be like that at home too. She is my baby, my youngest. I spoil her, I know. I don't make her do chores, but she likes to help me if I ask.”

“Lately my knee is better and I feel busy again. We're a close family and spend a lot of time together on sports. I think Anabela's soccer team is good for her. I told the coach to go easy on her though. I'm not going to let him pressure her. It's a game and supposed to be for fun. She's a sensitive child.”

“At Sandia they would ‘bench’ Anabela for things like forgetting her homework. We'd go crazy looking for homework in the morning and she'd be so upset. It's easier now that we have a routine. Besides, Ms. Harfleur and Ms. York seem so understanding. I can tell they're nice because Anabela is happy now. I just don't want her to feel pressured. My dad can see the difference too. Finally, all my work and this new school have made a difference.”

Special Education at La Paz

Both Sandia and La Paz are predominantly Latino schools, but La Paz is smaller and more economically diverse. La Paz makes concerted efforts to follow special education guidelines and timelines. The principal, Ms. Layton, expects the teachers to value families and views the school as a community.

State and district policies also shape special education placement at La Paz. For example, the state requires that placements in special education verify that a child's second language was not the deciding factor in determining delays, and specialists are expected to distinguish learning disabilities from problems stemming from environmental factors. The district has guidelines on retention of special needs students, and La Paz generally discourages it. Teachers must provide a detailed rationale and decisions are made on a case-by-case basis.

Jean Harfleur's Views on Anabela and Her Family

“I don't know Anabela that well because she's in the resource room or with the classroom aide so much. But I do know she's eager to learn, and somewhat fearful. She tries to prove herself in class, yet all the kids know she is low academically. Anabela visits the resource room for two hours every day, which limits her opportunities for friendship. She's babied by the other girls in the class and maybe by her family too.”

“The delay in special education placement at her last school put Anabela in a tough spot. Overall, she has adapted well and her behavior is not a huge issue. These things bode well for third grade. But she's also immature and distractible, getting out of her seat often and constantly asking for help. She needs more individual time than I can offer.”

“Anabela's parents came to the IEP team meeting, but since then verbal communication has been scarce. They sign the papers I send home but that's it. I recently learned that family health issues prevented Magda from attending the parent-teacher conference a few weeks ago. Anabela's grandfather brings her every morning, but he observes more than asks questions. I should try to talk with him more.”

Connie York's Views on Anabela and Her Family

“Anabela's family is so pleased with La Paz, but Magda views my resource room as the cure to Anabela's needs. According to testing, Anabela needs comprehensive help—particularly in reading and writing. Her strength is in verbal reasoning—she tested two years above grade level.”

“I share goals and progress regularly with the family, but I want more involvement from Magda with homework and IEP goals. I don't know Anabela's parents that well, but I do know they've had stressful health issues recently and I think they both work.”

“At the IEP meeting, Magda and Gaspar made it clear how unhappy they were with Anabela's prior school. Dad seemed caring and interested, but said he's not able to help much. I haven't wanted to create stress by bringing up the idea of retention, even though I'm convinced it's best for Anabela. It would be easier to raise this issue with Magda if I saw her more. She tends to communicate directly with Ms. Layton, our principal. She talked directly with Ms. Layton about a child who was bothering her daughter, before even talking with Jean.”

“Anabela needs intensive work and time to gain confidence. Anabela is talkative, but more tentative. I encourage Anabela to learn to work on her own and believe in herself. We can do a disservice if we don't encourage independent work and thinking among children with learning disabilities.”

Anabela's Views on Family, Learning, and School

“I never read at home by myself. It's not fun like it is when I read with Mom. I don't read with my dad, but he takes me to work with him sometimes. When my mom hurt her knee I cried and asked her if I could stay at home with her. She let me if it was real rainy, but otherwise I had to go to school. She's working again now, but I still help her put on her socks and pick up her things. My mom teaches me things like my preschool teacher did. Mom taught me how to tie my shoes and got me to be brave and try soccer too.”

“My grandpa takes me to school every day and gives me two dollars too. He has a desk at his house down the street for me to do homework and he helps me. I like when we go for walks to the coffee shop for a donut. I like having a bigger family. My mom says you have more people to help you.”

“I go to the resource room with two kids from my class. Sometimes we have to sit alone so we won't talk. We have a lot of work there. I know I'm good at thinking even when it's hard for me to read. Ms. York says to use my thinking to help me read. She says, ‘You just have to believe in yourself.’ I'm not so good at writing, but I'm good at jumping rope. Ms. Harfleur helps me too. She's nice to me and never yells. I can read sentences now and all my number words. Math and writing—ugh! I do like when we sing in math. When I grow up I want to be one of those singers that dances too.”

Putting the Pieces Together

Jean sits in her classroom at the end of the day and stares out the window. It's her responsibility as the classroom teacher to make retention recommendations to the principal shortly before the close of the school year. Her head is beginning to hurt.

“I think of Connie as my savior, and usually defer to her. Besides, she knows Anabela the best and certainly made a convincing case for retention. But I still feel ambivalent. And given the climate here, I'd have to make a really airtight case for retention to Ms. Layton. And then there are the parents. I hardly know them, but they opposed retention when Anabela was at Sandia. Who knows how they would respond to the idea now?”

Jean rests her head in her hands. “How am I going to put all these pieces together?”

This work was supported by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation as part of its Research Network on Successful Pathways Through Middle Childhood. The people and events in this case are partly based on real-life accounts, but have been disguised to protect confidentiality. We would like to thank ethnographers Jane Wellenkamp and Gisella Hanley for their work at the site. Particular thanks are extended to Jane Wellenkamp for conducting the in-depth interviews with the family and teachers, her early analysis, and her review of this teaching case.



Discussion Questions

  • What are some family factors that may influence special education testing and placement for Anabela?
  • What roles can Magda play? How can parents make a difference in the referral process?
  • How do beliefs held by Connie and Jean influence the communication and referral process?
  • What strategies and skills does Magda use to address her concerns with teachers and school personnel?
  • What aspects of the referral process rely on family-school collaboration?
  • How has family-school collaboration been effective so far?
  • How might the teachers communicate recommendations to Magda?
  • How should Anabela be a part of the home-school communication (given her verbal skills and self-awareness)?
  • How might other family members be engaged in home-school communication?
  • What factors should Connie and Jean consider to determine whether Anabela should be retained?
  • How might Magda react to requests for more family involvement and the suggestion of retention?
  • How do Anabela's social skills and needs contribute to or hinder her academic progress?
  • How do the teachers' and Magda's view of Anabela affect their decision making?
  • How can teachers explain “holding back” to parents when a child is making progress?



Instructor Notes

To request instructor notes for this teaching case, send an email to FINE at



A Special Education Plan for Anabela: Does Supporting Her Needs Mean Holding Her Back? Commentary by Penny Hauser-Cram


Penny Hauser-Cram, Professor, Lynch School of Education, Boston College

At first glance this case appears to focus on the issue of retention. Should Anabela be retained in second grade? The resource room teacher, as a special educator, recommends retention based on Anabela's poor academic skills and lack of confidence. The classroom teacher defers to the resource room teacher's recommendation, and the case is leading toward a school recommendation of retention. But several important questions must be asked before such a recommendation can be considered.

First, what have been the teachers' experiences with the practice of retention in this school? The second grade teacher indicates that in the past she has not seen the benefits of retention. Unfortunately, she has failed to communicate that to others involved in this decision and, therefore, a dialogue has not taken place. What does each teacher see as the benefits and drawbacks of retention, in general, and for Anabela, in particular?

Second, what are the parents' views on retention? We know that they resisted a prior suggestion of retention, but we do not know their beliefs about retention. Magda holds a strong positive belief about the benefits of special education. How does she perceive her daughter's needs? What are her concerns about the effect of retention on Anabela? Parents' beliefs are a powerful and missing part of this story. How parents view a child's disability (e.g., a temporary delay, a lack of will to focus, a neurological dysfunction) affects their views of appropriate educational intervention (Hauser-Cram & Howell, 2002). In an ethnographic study of parent-professional interaction with Latino families Harry (1992) illustrates how parents often misunderstand the communication that occurs in meetings about a child's Individualized Education Plan (IEP), yet have perspectives on their child that are ignored or not solicited by educators.

Third, what are Anabela's views on retention? Is she concerned about the work required in third grade? In addition to the academic work, the social requirements and opportunities of the classroom are critical. Children with learning disabilities and developmental delays tend to have more difficulty with their social relationships than do their peers (Gresham & MacMillan, 1997). How does Anabela view her friendships? She speaks about having one friend, and given her lack of a network of friends, separating her from her sole source of support may be devastating. Alternatively, perhaps Anabela finds younger children to be more adequate peers.

Finally, what does research say about the effects of retention on children? The results of many studies indicate that although there may be short-term advantages to grade retention, there are long-term disadvantages (e.g., Jimerson, Carlson, Rotert, Egeland & Sroufe, 1997). This appears to be especially true for children with special needs for whom motivation to succeed is essential and may become thwarted by being “held back” (Anderson, Kutash, & Duchnowski, 2001). Thus, retention may be only a temporary solution, at best, to meet Anabela's needs.

A closer look at this case, however, reveals issues beyond retention. The lack of communication between the classroom teacher and the resource room teacher is central to this case. It appears that Anabela's instruction occurs outside of the classroom (i.e., she is “pulled out”of her second grade class); therefore, her teacher claims to know little about her skills.

Although there may be advantages to the type of instruction Anabela is receiving in the resource room (e.g., focused on her skills and learning style, provides less opportunity for distraction), it is important to weigh those against potential drawbacks of the “pull-out” model. This approach is vulnerable to at least three problems (Cook & Friends, 1995), and all three appear to apply to here.

First, and most critical, is that pull-outresults in fragmented instruction. The lack of continuity between instruction in the resource room and that in the classroom would pose difficulties for any child, but is even more difficult for a child like Anabela with special learning needs. Ideally, the individualized instruction developed by the special educator could be built on, reinforced, and enhanced by instruction in the classroom. The classroom curriculum could be modified and adapted to Anabela's needs and skills. But if the classroom teacher knows little about a child's skills, and the special educator knows little about the classroom curriculum, instructional continuity cannot occur.

Second, the need to move from one instructional setting to another results in a loss of instructional time, conservatively estimated to be about 75 minutes a week (based on one move from the classroom to the resource room and back again each day) (Cook & Friends, 1995). Children with special needs require fewer, not more, transitions during the school day and more, not less, time for instruction than other students. Finally, children who leave the classroom for special services can be stigmatized and further differentiated from their peers.

One alternative to the pull-out model is co-teaching (also termed collaborative teaching). Co-teaching does not appear to be practiced in the La Paz Elementary School. If it were, special education and general education teachers would work together to develop appropriate instruction for Anabela. This would probably require more planning time for these teachers, but the communication and instructional coherence that can result is likely to benefit Anabela. If both teachers know Anabela's skills and provide instruction based on knowledge of the educational goals established for her, she will have a greater chance for optimal learning during the next year. Even if co-teaching is not an option, co-planning should be utilized in developing appropriate learning opportunities for Anabela.

Perhaps the question that guides this case could be rephrased. Rather than focusing attention on “holding Anabela back,” teachers could pose questions about ways of moving her forward. That may require new approaches to teaching that take advantage of the strengths of all educators and family members working together to support Anabela's learning.


Anderson, J., Kutash, K., & Duchnowski, A. J. (2001). A comparison of the academic progress of students with EBD and students with LD. Journal of Emotional and Behavioral Disorders, 9, 106-115.

Cook, L., & Friend, M. (1995). Co-teaching: Guidelines for creating effective practices. Focus on Exceptional Children, 28, 1-16.

Gresham, F. M., & MacMillan, D. L. (1997). Social competence and affective characteristics of students with mild disabilities. Review of Educational Research, 67, 377-415.

Harry, B. (1992). An ethnographic study of cross-cultural communication with Puerto Rican-American families in the special education system. American Educational Research Journal, 29, 471-494.

Hauser-Cram, P., & Howell, A. (2002). Disabilities and development. In R. M. Lerner, M. A. Easterbrooks, & J. Mistry (Eds.), Handbook of applied developmental science, Vol. 1 (pp. 259-279). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

Jimerson, S., Carlson, E., Rotert, M, Egeland, B., & Sroufe, L. A. (1997). A prospective longitudinal study of the correlates and consequences of early grade retention. Journal of School Psychology, 35, 3-25.

A Special Education Plan for Anabela:
Does Supporting Her Needs Mean Holding Her Back?
Commentary by Sue Ferguson


Sue Ferguson, Chair, National Coalition for Parent Involvement in Education

Although special education law provides families with clearly defined rights and responsibilities, such as the right to actively participate as a member of the IEP team, it does not and can not define the day-to-day interactions between home and school. Such interactions are highly individual and dependent on meaningful two-way communication between home and school—or more to the point, the quality of the relationship between the teacher and the family. A family with a child in regular education depends on the same.

Specific to Anabela's case, there are several things that strike me.

First, the difference between the culture of Sandia, Anabela's former school, and the culture of La Paz, Anabela's current school, is remarkable. The latter obviously resonates with a family- friendly atmosphere, and school personnel responded quickly to Anabela's needs, as well as the needs of the family. The struggle to have Anabela tested in her former school must have left the family frustrated and worried, particularly in light of the delay in getting services for their older son, Richard. Early intervention is critical. Magda's relief in finally knowing that her daughter was receiving the right services is more than understandable. Having advocated for such an extended period of time to get the services her daughter needed, she may feel that her mission has been accomplished and there is no more for her to do. She may need some guidance to understand that now her work at home with Anabela will help sustain all she has advocated for.

Second, it is not clear what the teachers at La Paz actually want the family to do at home with Anabela to help meet her IEP goals. Anabela's grandfather has set a place at his desk for Anabela to do homework, “and he helps,” but it is not clear how he helps. Providing a place to do homework is certainly important to family and school supporting one another. In light of Anabela's learning disability, working with her at home may not be something the family feels capable of doing.

Also, given Ms. Harfleur's comment that “verbal communication has been scarce” following the IEP meeting and that Magda has not attended any subsequent parent-teacher conferences, it seems doubtful that what Magda should or could be doing at home has been communicated. Ms. York comments that she shares goals and progress regularly with the family, but wants Magda to be more involved with homework. I assume this sharing is through notes and notices sent home. These are traditional methods of communication—parent-teacher conferences held at school and written notes and notices—but they don't necessarily bring about the intended results. It's important to find out why the family isn't able to come to the school (or in this case couldn't due to health problems) and to arrange for a meeting at a place that is more comfortable or more accessible or both. Also, considering that Anabela's grandfather is active in her life, walking her to school each morning and helping her at home, he could be a wonderful asset to both the school and home and should be included in the discussion of homework and IEP goals.

And finally, there is the question of retention—should Anabela be retained in the second grade? She currently spends two hours a day in the resource room. Ms. York expresses concern that if Anabela is promoted to the third grade, she might ultimately have to be placed in a more restrictive, full-day special education classroom.

However, special education is a service, not a place. Extended school year services should be offered to Anabela to prevent the possibility of academic regression and to help her continue to grow both socially and academically. With appropriate in-service training for both the third grade teacher and the aide about teaching techniques as well as special education services from the special education teacher, and ongoing communication between them and with the family, there is no reason to hold Anabela back. Ms. Harfleur's states that, “Overall, she has adapted well and her behavior is not a huge issue. These things bode well for the third grade.” With the right academic support services, Anabela should have a good year.

For further information on special education and the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) go to the Family and Advocates Partnership for Education website: or

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