This episode dives into the world of special education, focusing on the importance of individualized interactions in the classroom. Today’s guest, Mary-Margaret Gardiner, a seasoned educator, shares her insights and experiences in working with special needs children. 

The discussion ranges from understanding each child's unique cues and needs to effective strategies for classroom observations. Mary-Margaret highlights the importance of understanding each child's individual needs and cues and how teachers can use that understanding to foster powerful interactions that support unique learning styles.

Mary-Margaret has been actively involved in Early Care and Education since 1976.  A graduate of the University of NC-Greensboro in the field of Child Development was the impetus behind her passion for supporting educators, families, and children.  Mary-Margaret was a teacher, a director, an area director of childcare centers, and in 2007 became involved with Virginia Star Quality Initiative, where she was first introduced to the CLASS® measure.  She joined Teachstone in 2010 and has been a trainer, observer, and SME since that time. She enjoys music, horses, gardening, and spending time with her family. 


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Monica: Hello, and welcome to the Teaching with CLASS podcast, the podcast that gives you quick, actionable tips to easily implement in your classrooms. I'm your host, Monica Pujol-Nassif. In today's episode, we'll be discussing CLASS and special education. With me is Mary-Margaret Gardiner. I couldn't be more excited and proud.

Mary-Margaret is the classiest person I know. When I started my journey with CLASS back in 2011, 2012, Mary-Margaret used to come to the organization I was working with. I don't even know how many times she came to us, but every time I saw her name, I needed to go to those trainings. Every time I went to a conference and she was there, sometimes I even paid extra money to go listen to Mary-Margaret. I just wanted to listen to her.

She is all CLASS. Anything that we meet to know about CLASS, she is one of the first persons who started disseminating the message of CLASS, the magic of CLASS. Having you here, Mary-Margaret, is such an honor. I love you so much and I'm so excited.

Mary-Margaret: It has been a long time since we've been face to face, so I guess this is the best we can do. I'm thrilled to be here talking with you, Monica. I can't believe it's been that long. I don't want to do the math.

Monica: That's when I started. You started many years before me. Tell us a little bit about yourself, please.

Mary-Margaret: I started out in the field of education in 1976. Please don't do the math. I graduated from the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, I majored in child development and family relationships, and I also majored in psychology. I thought I wanted to be a play therapist, and I did a practicum in a hospital working with terminally-ill children. I realized that was absolutely not what I wanted to do, because I was not strong enough.

As I was working my way through school, I worked in a childcare center. It was a chain that's no longer working, it's not there anymore. But I was the after-school teacher. I had 24 school-aged children by myself, and we were only allowed to be outside, because the director was a single mom and she had her kids there. She realized that her paycheck was based on the profitability of the center.

As a result, she figured out that we would never use any equipment or materials, and that way the profit was better. I was thinking, well, this is terrible, I need to fix this. So I started working in childcare, and I've been working on fixing what I thought was terrible for a lot of years. I became a teacher, area director. I designed hospital centers.

In 92, I moved back to Virginia, which is where I'm from, and started working for a nonprofit, which is when I was introduced to the CLASS when we were doing the quality rating improvement system in the state of Virginia. I was one of the first Raider trainers for CLASS and another environmental tool in the state of Virginia.

I was really introduced to the CLASS in 2007 and started working for Teachstone in 2010. I worked for Teachstone until the winter of 2020. The pandemic came and I thought, well, I'm gonna retire, and then I was like, oh, but there's nothing to do. Now I still do consulting for Teachstone. Anyway, I am a huge fan of this tool, because I've seen it literally change teachers and children's lives. I guess I'm a geek. Anyway, that's all I can tell you.

Monica: It's good to be a geek, and thank you for that story. Your inspiration came from a bad experience, but you have made it such a strong career for yourself and for all the people that you touched. I'm telling you, I'm going to say it again, you touched my life. I said, I'm going to work my entire life to be like Mary-Margaret.

We are here today. She's gifting us with her expertise in the field of special education. We're going to marry and talk about CLASS second edition and teachers who work with children with special needs, who have been approaching us with questions. What do we do when this happens? At the end, we're also going to talk about, if you're an observer, what do we do as observers to make sure that we are doing it as we want to do it for the children?

In CLASS second edition, we have developed these guiding principles of effective interactions that will support both educators and observers. The first one is to honor individual variations and ways of being. The second one is individualized interactions to support each child's unique learning. As you hear these principles, we immediately see how they apply to all children.

Mary-Margaret: Absolutely.

Every child has special needs. Every child has a way of communicating what they need from us. And every interaction has an outcome.

One of the things I think that gives me hope as we're supporting educators is hopefully to give you hope. It's really that personal relationship, where you really understand that child and how they're trying to communicate, that is going to drive the context of all those interactions and make them valuable.

Whether you're trying to help them learn to organize their toys, if they're trying to do some sequencing or something, or you're just trying to help them be able to sit and choose a song during morning circle, whatever it is, knowing that child really well. Really being cued into whatever signals that they're giving you of what they need, that is the key to, I think, really powerful and strong interactions.

As a coder, and I've done a fair amount of coding in the last, I don't even want to say how many years, I'm not looking for perfection. I'm looking to see, what is that child asking for? How is that teacher responding in a way that's working for that child? That dimension of educator sensitivity is one that is particularly important when we're talking about children with special needs, really understanding the way they communicate and what they're asking from us so that we can tailor-make our response.

That whole thing about every child getting their individual needs met, that's hard to do. Nobody's going to be perfect all the time that they give you so many chances to try to respond in a way that works for them. I see this as limitless options to really connect with kids and help them figure out how to navigate classrooms, life, rules, and all of those hard things.

Monica: I love how you said they give the teachers endless opportunities. That is so true. Right, that's the message. We go there, we talk about it, and then they come back with questions like, this one teacher said to me, I have a child with autism, and he does not like to interact, how can I be effective in my interactions with him? What would you say to this teacher?

Mary-Margaret: Every child on the spectrum has different ways of needing communication. You don't have to be at them all the time. You don't have to be teaching them or learning them. You want to be reading them and seeing what it is that a child's ready to do in that particular context.

When I was working for this nonprofit, when there was no money for grants, I worked as a special aid in my daughter's elementary school. I had this one little fellow. I'll just call him Jay. He was four years old, and he was on medication for violent and aggressive behavior.

He was violent and aggressive, to the point where he would look at you, go find scissors or something to throw, and you could see him gauging whether he wanted to throw it at your face or your body. He was delayed. He had no language of his own. I was his shadow. He didn't know how to interact with anyone, so he would basically walk up and punch somebody in the face.

I watched that for a while and I was like, he's not upset with that child. He doesn't know how to come into a play situation. We worked on just saying, hi. We worked on a lot of things. But just getting him to the point where he saw me as a support, as somebody who was going to help him enter a group, he was an atypical four-year-old, but he wanted to have friendships. He didn't know how to do that.

Instead of getting in trouble for that and being sent to the office or whatever it was, I'm like, this child doesn't understand how to walk into a situation. Let's figure out a way to help him walk in a situation. It took a lot of me doing it, the children learning to do that little by little, and then lots and lots of specific acknowledgement of when he was doing the right thing. He became a friend to some of those children, but it was a powerful experience.

Don't feel like you have to make them, force them to interact. If they're not ready for that, look for the more subtle cues. Look for what they're doing, maybe using those. That observer is going to be looking at that child that doesn't want to interact. How is that teacher maybe just being physically nearby just as a source to hold presence with that child, hold space with that child, and build that rapport?

Am I reading that that child doesn't want to be interacted with? Is the teacher overstimulating, understimulating? Is it just the slightest nuances, noticing that they might want to be looking at a particular puzzle or something and just sliding it over? That's beautiful evidence of awareness, responsiveness, and meeting that child's needs.

Monica: Wow, observation. As teachers, we are scientists by observing and really figuring things out intentionally. You just said it, it's not an easy task. This is something we highlight every time we're together in the podcast.

It takes a long time sometimes, but it's about reading as a teacher, getting to know the child, and observers are looking for not only to that child, but how is this child being attended to when it's necessary? You just said it is not being on the face of the child all the time, it's just when they need it.

Mary-Margaret: And then they gradually need more, right? Maybe.

Monica: One more too. That brings me to another situation. Also, they mentioned this. This specific organization just started doing inclusion within the classrooms, so teachers are scared. This is a brand new to them. They said, these children come, and they have behaviors that I don't understand. They don't want to talk, like seriously speaking, or they throw themselves on the floor. Their fear is, how do I attend individually to those children who need me in the moment but also the other children who don't have special needs, and they're in the classroom and they also need me?

Mary-Margaret: Right. One of the things that I found really helpful is when a child is having an issue falling down or having a dysregulated moment. It's frightening to the other children. It's also frightening to the child that it's happening, because they're out of resources. It's frightening for the teacher, because you don't know what to do. One thing I would do is make sure I position myself in a place where I can see everybody and even talk through what I think that child might be feeling.

I'm going to say your name, Monica, but you're not dysregulated. I'll say, Monica's really upset. I can see that you would really like to be able to go into the block center and the block center's full. Your feelings are really strong right now. You're having really big feelings. Let's think of ways we can help Monica.

Talking through so that the other children hear that is going to be a very sensitive moment and very highly in terms of regard for child perspectives, giving somebody else's perspective by articulating it for that child. I'm talking about a child that maybe can't verbalize or just acting out.

I have a two-year-old granddaughter who has a lot of emotions when we've taught her to take a deep breath, when she's having big feelings. Allowing those feelings and giving them their pathway to get to the other side of that is your primary responsibility. It is rocket science. It is reading that situation in the moment, but also having goals for where you want them to go.

Just learn as much about child development as you can, and then you'll understand where children's paths are. Every child has their own story. They have their attachment style, they have their temperament, and they have their experiences in and out of the classroom. All of that impacts who they are.

Doing some research, getting to know the families, all of that is so important. Having a game plan with your coworkers. I'm going to be walking over here now. I can see this is happening, so I'm going to be going over to sit with Monica. Letting people know what was going on.

It's a little bit funny. I like humor. When this child would throw things, we would try not to react because he really liked this projectile. We would just say, incoming. We'd all duck. We would just say it with the flattest tongue. Working with your coworkers, sometimes you need humor, especially in the field of our early care and education, but having that communication and talking about what you're doing, not only does that let everybody know what's going on, but it also impacts language development too.

Monica: Wow, yeah. You also mentioned that in regard to a child's perspective, that theory of mind when the children can understand where others are coming from, what they believe, or what they like through that teacher's saying it. Talking about that, what would you say to the teachers that they can do when a child is having difficulties regulating their level of arousal?

Mary-Margaret: Take a breath. Try to look to see what might be precipitating that. Sometimes in the moment that's hard to do, especially if somebody's in physical danger, the child or another child. But take a moment, take a breath to regulate yourself. It's very high stress when you have a child that's in high stress, and your heartbeat starts going and just taking a breath and saying, in this moment, what is that child asking for? Because it's attention seeking.

Every behavior has a goal. It's not always so clear.

Another thing that is helpful, and this is not just in the moment, but to sit down and write down the things that are happening that are difficult for that child.

Hard to hang up their backpack, transition to washing hands, or whatever it is. Picking those things, and then what are the behaviors associated with that, and then track those behaviors over time because you're going to see patterns.

You're going to see patterns of behavior. You're going to see connections to the triggers for that. What's the outcome when the child exhibits that particular behavior? Be a researcher, be a scientist. Jot these things down as specifically as possible. With this one child, we had 15 different behaviors that we tracked. They were 11 to three, and I had all the behaviors in 15-minute increments.

At the beginning of the year when I started working, we had 160-170 hash marks. By the end of the year, we would sometimes have three or four. It was very intentional on our part on how we scaffolded slowly, getting him to understand what to do, and also reading his cues.

He would start to jump and I knew, okay, I need to go stand next to him, but it was very subtle. You would just think normally, oh, he's just hyper or whatever. Take the label off a child and just look to that heart within to see if you can meet that need. That's what I tell those teachers.

Monica: It's so impactful to hear almost 200 check marks in the beginning to maybe three or four through intentional interaction and understanding their behaviors. Teachers out there, you're hearing this. Mary-Margaret was a teacher in the classroom, this is real.

Mary-Margaret: It was very real.

Monica: Again, she said it wasn't easy, but they did it. Just imagine the life of that child because of all this intentionality.

Mary-Margaret: He was, he's probably 20 now.

Monica: You mentioned once you get to know that child and you can scaffold from that moment. Let's talk a little bit about another concern from teachers who have children with any kind of disability or developmental delay when they say, what kind of interactions will support the cognitive and language development when the children are having challenges?

Mary-Margaret: Chronologically, they might be five years old or three years older, however. But developmentally, they're not there yet. You want to back up to the critical periods of child development to try to figure out where the holes are. What all children want is safety, security, and a sense of belonging. Stepping back and finding a way to get to the bottom of Maslow's Triangle, it might be what you need to do before you try to work on language development or cognitive development.

They're still putting pieces together. Their schema might look simpler than some children, but just looking to see what their interest is. Are they fine motor kids or large motor kids? Is music helpful? You're trying all these different strategies. Scaffolding is taking that child from where they are and trying to add support to get them to the next level.

It doesn't always work, but you're putting it in there. Or describing what you see happening, or adjusting what you're doing, so talking all the time. All that narration about what's going on, that's all going in their receptive language. All the children are getting that.

It's maybe even more like a toddler or an infant in terms of hearing so much language and making those neural connections. That might be something that is going to be helpful for them hearing the words, hearing you explain what's going on, hearing you identify their feelings. They don't know what their feelings are.

A lot of that active listening, if you remember that concept, where you're really describing what you think they're feeling. Sometimes you get it wrong, but at least you're validating the fact that they're struggling. What does language modeling look like for a child with no language? It's going to be very different than language modeling for a child that is very articulate.

What you're trying to do is help them understand that language is a form of communication and that in whatever level, whatever format, they're a valued conversational partner. Whether it's a gesture, one word sentence, or a diatribe, we want them to know that their voice is important, their sound is important, and their communication is important.

In terms of language modeling, if I'm coding in a classroom, and a teacher is using social stories or a schedule with pictures on it, and talking about that, talking through that, having the child come over and touch something—sometimes you'll have the songs you're going to sing and let children touch the three blind mice or whatever, pick that and then describe what they're doing. All of that is language going in. All of that is considered language modeling. All of that is considered a conversation.

The child doesn't have to converse back. Yes, it's great. We're moving towards articulation and more complex, but they don't have to. We're doing those strategies to do that. The same with metacognition and trying to figure out how to learn. Experimentation, allow children to play with ideas. Allow children to wonder and ponder. They may not be able to verbally do that but by providing materials and thoughtful guiding questions.

A concept is not a thing, it's an idea. What idea do you see forming in their mind? How do they show you their understanding of whatever it is that they're trying to do, instructional support or whatever? And then add to that as best you can.

Monica: Thank you.

Mary-Margaret: As a coder, I would love that. I would be all over writing about that.

Monica: Let's move on to the coders, but just highlighting here. Whenever children are verbal or non-verbal, teachers are verbal. If they are exposing the children to the language one way or the other, depending on where they are in their developmental phase, it's helping that child, but it's helping everybody else around.

Mary-Margaret: Exactly, it is.

Monica: Let's talk about observers. Do observers need to know about special needs when they go observe a classroom with inclusion?

Mary-Margaret: We can't know specifically about the individual children. They have IPs, that's not okay. But you can say, how many children have special needs? Are there any special supports or things that you do? What are they working on? Are you working on them being able to walk up and say hello? Those kinds of things.

Knowing that about the class and also knowing the schedule, the daily schedule so that you know when it's going to be an appropriate time to observe or not. But if the educator's trying to share how Mary-Margaret does this, that, and just say, I'm just here to observe, I don't need to know, thank you very much, but I'm just going to be looking at behaviors, that can be really helpful. When you first get to a site, just sitting there for a minute, getting the flow, and seeing how things run and which adults are there.

Sometimes there are support services people, and you have to make a decision based on the protocol for whoever you're observing for. Do you look at those extra people or do you not? Are they doing services in the classroom, or are they being taken out? All of those things are things that you're gonna need to know about so that you can get really good quality data.

Again, make no interpretation about what you're seeing until you're done with the cycle. It means nothing until you have 20 minutes of data. It's like, watch yourself that you're not saying, oh, that's really rough, I wouldn't have done that, or that was great. You've got to put that aside. One of the hardest things about being a good observer is just putting that stuff out of the way, but recognize that what we're looking for are patterns of strength and patterns of challenge. That's what we collect the data for.

Here's an example of this one class I worked with. This is a different class. I had seven kids and five of them were on the spectrum. They would come on the bus. It's the second part of the day, half day program.

They would get off the bus, they would walk down to their classroom where the morning class was still there, put their backpacks down, walk back down the hall to the cafeteria, which was full of all the children in the elementary school. Go through the lunch line, sit down at the table, eat their lunch, and then go back down the hall and go into their classroom.

I don't even know how many transitions that was, but it was not going well. It was just not going well. I was like, how about we take them on the playground when they get here and then have lunch in the room when the other children have left? It changed everything.

If I'm in there and I'm looking in there, I'm in this cafeteria and these kids are running out the room screaming and throwing things. It was too much. It was too loud, too much, and too many transitions. I'm watching that as a coder. I'm not saying, well, this is what they should do. I'm just saying, I'm seeing five transitions here. As a coach, I'm going to say, let's figure out a way to work on that.

It wasn't the teacher's fault that they were having those transitions. That was an administrative oversight. CLASS data is going to help you understand where those struggles are. If your children are melting down, that's good information. It's okay to see the meltdowns. Nobody's going to ding you because your children are having trouble being dysregulated.

How you respond to that, the sensitivity, and the responsiveness in helping those children get back in the flow of interactions, that's what we look for as a coder. If you catch yourself having bias, and we all do, jot it down. On a sticky note, on your scoring booklet, just say, wow, that was great, or whatever it is.

When you're done with your cycle, and you're actually beginning to make a decision about what to code each dimension, look at that to get your feeling out. Nine times out of 10, it's an observable behavior, but it might not go where you think it does. But when you write it down and you put it aside, it's out of your head. You can come back to it and decide where it fits.

Monica: Yeah. When you are talking, I'm remembering those moments when I became an observant learning that, like writing it on the side and sometimes just throwing it away, because it's not part of the observation.

Mary-Margaret: But it's not stuck in your head anymore, because one shining or not shining moment can really impact the quality of the observation. That and just making sure that you're really following the true protocol, and looking at those descriptions so that you find the one that most closely resembles what you see.

This is not a punitive tool. It was built for professional development and to be really fine-tuned, individualized, or you could do it for a grantee, a classroom, a group of teachers, or whatever. The beauty of this tool is that you can find the strength. You can find the challenges and pick up the strength to say, can we do more of that during small group? Yes, tiny little bits. It's little tiny bits.

We have to have that big picture, and we have to have good accurate data so we don't make excuses. We need the information. I was talking about that little boy, all the hash marks, and everything, or the kids that were making all those transitions. If we hadn't really looked at the situation, that behavior wouldn't have stopped and it might have escalated.

Monica: Yeah. As an observer, which tool do they choose?

Mary-Margaret: Good question. There's an age level, infant, toddlers, pre-K above. That's a conversation that you would probably have to make or have with the people whoever you're observing for. That protocol needs to be in place. Sometimes, especially if they're self-contained classrooms, you might want to step down to a toddler to make sure that you're using that same tool if you go back in at the end of the year.

Honestly, pre-K, it works as well. All children need to feel connected. All children need to be free from fear of physical or emotional harm. All children need to be valued. All children need to feel safe. All children deserve to have an organized classroom so there's lots of time to interact. And all children are capable of moving, maybe large steps, maybe small steps down the learning how to learn. That's what instructional support is, that metacognition.

All children are there. Even the older age levels are going to take that into account. Again, you might want to step it down, especially if there's not a lot of verbal skills in that classroom. But again, if you really look at the heart, the meaning, and the true focus of language modeling, regard, or whatever it is, it's human interactions. It's human nature. It's going to capture it.

Monica: We don't have to go to a lower level. You say maybe if it's a contained classroom, maybe. But at the end of the day, they all deserve the same quality interactions. We have the same needs, even using pre-K with children with special needs.

Mary-Margaret: An interaction is an exchange. If you say something, I say something, whatever. There's an outcome to that interaction. What we want with the CLASS tool is to have as many effective outcomes, feeling safe, connected, all of that, as possible. It's like this drop in the bucket.

What we're trying to do is increase the effectiveness of those interactions over time, but you have so many chances to interact. Just focusing on what those domains are telling us to look for can simplify your approach. Connection, time to connect, and thinking. We can definitely organize our thinking like that and step away from having to...

You don't do class behaviors, you just interact. That's all it is. We're trying to see patterns of that and how to support teachers in that. Each child is going to communicate in their own way. That’s the beauty of this is, how do we respond to that?

Monica: I feel like I could keep you forever with me. Let's start closing up with, please gift our audience two or three strategies you want them to live with today.

Mary-Margaret: Get to know your children.

Give yourself grace, because that does not happen easily.


Focus on what they're communicating and what they're asking for. One way that you would do that is just jot down the names of all the children in your class. It's paying close attention to the ones that you forget. Those are the children they're probably not asking in an obvious way.

Make sure that you can check your roster when you have a lot of kids, and then just jot down three things you know about each child and three things that you'd like to know more about for each child. That's how you build your goals for behavior. That's how you decide what they need. Do that prep work, and you might have to debrief at the end of the day or at the end of the week. Those strategies are really helpful, or have sticky notes all around the room.

When you notice that somebody actually walked up to a group of children and entered the play without any conflict, quickly write down 11/10/23 at 10:00 AM circle time, answer a question or whatever it is, just all those little sticky notes, and then you can look at those over time. It helps you with teacher conferences, it helps you with planning. It's a quick and easy little way to keep track of what's going on because in the moment, it's too much.

If you sit back and try to reflect at the end of a busy day, it's not going to be there. A quick little handwritten note, just stick it somewhere. Have sticky notes and pens everywhere where the kids can't get them necessarily. Just follow that over the day.

Again, just give yourself grace and look at them as humans. Every one of those children is somebody's baby. Treat them like you want your baby to be treated or how you would have wanted to be treated when you were a young child. If you can be that person, you can change lives.

Monica: Thank you, Mary-Margaret. I just want to say, observe your children, document. Observing is good, but on top of that, document it on the spot.

Mary-Margaret: We should mention too, I think Allison's going to add it into the podcast at some point, but we have some great resources on the Teachstone website. If you just type in special needs, there's quite a few. It's like a course, and there's even videos to support you can download. So I highly recommend you go and take a look at that and also learn as much as you can about child development.

Monica: Thank you a million times for sharing your expertise with us today. Again, we could keep you forever and you can talk about anything, but thank you for today for inspiring teachers who are working with children with developmental delays or special needs who say, I just don't know, I need one little thing. Hopefully you guys are bringing that with you.

You can find today's episode and the transcript on our website at Thank you, architects of the brain, for sharing your love and wisdom with the children of the world and for being here to add to your box of wonders. I will see you next time. Bye-bye.