Empowering Special Needs Education - SE3EP17 - Shelley Kenow

Empowering Special Needs Education - SE3EP17 - Shelley Kenow

In this Episode, Jamie speaks with Shelley Kenow, a certified special education teacher with 30 years of experience, author, and an influential voice in the field of special education. Shelley's work focuses on partnering with parents, caregivers, and school districts to enhance the education of children with special needs. With a deep understanding of the IEP process, her mission is to

build bridges between educators and families, fostering a collaborative environment that benefits children. She is the author of "Those Who 'Can't...' Teach: True Stories of Special Needs Families," and hosts two shows, #nolimits and Friday with Fran, which delve into the lives of individuals breaking societal limits and exploring topics in special education.

Connect with Shelley Kenow:


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AI-generated transcript:

Jamie (00:00.806)

Hey parents and welcome to Parenting in a Digital Age, the podcast where we delve into the unique challenges and opportunities of raising children in today's fast -paced tech -driven world. Each episode features conversations with experts and thought leaders who provide actionable guidance and practical insights for navigating life as modern parents.

Today we have the privilege of welcoming Shelly Kenow, a certified special education teacher with 30 years of experience, an author and an influential voice in the field of special education.

Shelley's work focuses on partnering with parents, caregivers and school districts to enhance the education of children with special needs.

With a deep understanding of the IEP process, her mission is to build bridges between educators and families, fostering a collaborative environment that benefits the children. She's the author of Those Who Can't Teach, True Stories of Special Needs Families, and she hosts two shows, No Limits and Friday with Fran, which delve into the lives of individuals breaking societal limits and exploring topics in special education.

Jamie (00:02.234)

Hey, Shelly, welcome to the show. Please share with our listeners in your own words, what you do and what you are passionate about.

Shelley Kenow (00:08.406)

Hi, thanks for having me. I am so excited to be here. I have a lot of hats that I wear. My biggest one is, the thing that I am passionate about is special education here in the United States and making sure that everyone who learns differently is recognized for their abilities and not focused on about their disabilities. And I do that through being an author, being a podcast host, being a

presenter at conferences and speaking to organizations, having my own master IEP coach consulting business here in the United States, and just being on podcasts like yours to try to get the word out to help people see a different perspective about those who are different than them.

Jamie (00:58.986)

That is a great many hats. Now, just for our listeners who may not be in the US or maybe in other parts of the world, tell us what an IEP is and what that means in the context of special education.

Shelley Kenow (01:10.614)

Yeah, absolutely. So IEP stands for individualized education program. And that is based from our federal law here in the United States called the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. And the IEP is the document that is put together by a whole team of people. The parents are included as an equal member of that team.

And then that document drives the education of the student who is found eligible for special education.

Jamie (01:42.614)

Got it. And for those who are in Australia, our Australian listeners, we do have a similar concept, not called an IEP, but there are documents that focus on, our teachers and educators, parents and professionals do come together to put together plans for those individuals who may learn differently to other kids. So the concepts we'll be talking about today with Shelley, they're universal, I think, globally.

but just in case you hear any of that weird or unusual terminology that's not familiar to you. So maybe go back a bit. So you were originally or at some stage or one of the hats you wear a special education teacher, is that right?

Shelley Kenow (02:22.131)

Yes, that is correct. I'm, yeah, so I'm considered a special education veteran. So I have been in special education for over 30 years, and most of that as a full-time teacher, but some of that as a paraprofessional or maybe it's a teacher's assistant or a teacher's aide.

Jamie (02:24.879)

Tell me about that.

Shelley Kenow (02:44.018)

it kind of depending on where you are, even here in the United States, it can have a different term. I'm not sure what the term might be in Australia or elsewhere around the world. And in my time doing that, I worked with eligibility for special education under every category within our federal law. So I have worked with students who have vision difficulties, hearing deficits, speech deficits, traumatic brain injury,

autism, specific learning disability, orthopedic impairments, I'm trying to remember them all. But pretty much you can probably say that if someone has a disability, an eligibility that gives them a disability qualification, I've probably worked with someone in that realm. And...

I did get an opportunity to work in England for three years. I was on a military base at the time with my husband, but we did. I did volunteer some time at a public school there in England, not on the military base, but an English primary school. But most of my time teaching and being a paraprofessional has been here in the United States in Illinois and Missouri, which is the very center of the United States.

Jamie (04:06.926)

And what advice do you have for like, let's say parents who are new to this IEP process or those parents that are new to maybe setting up, they've got younger kids perhaps with special needs, they need to set a plan with their educator or their professionals or occupational therapists. What advice do you have for those parents who are new to this process?

Shelley Kenow (04:28.526)

I think the first thing I would say, whether or not your child is ready to be in the school setting when you get that idea that something is unique about your child is that you're still their parent. They're still the same child they were before you had that eligibility or that diagnosis. And to continue to love them and have high expectations for them and the things that they can accomplish.

If you feel in your gut that your child is able to do more than maybe what the school setting or even the doctors are saying, then keep after those people that find other doctors, find other teachers, because almost every time I hear a dad gut or a mom gut and they say, oh, I just knew my child could do this or could do that, they were right.

It was just a matter of finding the right supports and the right people with the right knowledge in order for their child to be able to do those things. So know that your journey might look different than someone whose child doesn't have unique abilities, but that doesn't mean that it's going to be a less type of journey. It might be more difficult.

but it's also going to still have exciting things happen upon that journey and wonderful. Your child is wonderful, full stop, no matter what their ability level. And so just remember to always count your black things that you have the child that you have because that child was given to you for a purpose. And then once your child is at the school age,

Have that communication with the educators. Some educators won't have as much information and they won't maybe have as much patience. They maybe won't have as much desire to work with your child as some of the others, but that doesn't mean you stop. You always be respectful. Put things in writing. It helps everyone remember. If you have a conversation with an educator

Shelley Kenow (06:47.13)

and it's a conversation, a verbal conversation, whether that's by phone or in person, follow that up with an email that says, hey, this is the outcome of how I perceived our conversation. Is this how you perceived it as well? And if not, let's get it correct so that we each know. And what that does is it gives you both opportunity to go back to that note and say, oh, okay, this is what we decided. And it's so easy to

walk away from a conversation and have two completely different ideas about the outcome of that conversation. So if you follow it up with that email, then you'll more likely be on the same page as to who's going to do what, when it's going to happen, how it's going to happen, what it might look like. And as I said, just that communication piece, always be respectful. I don't know about teachers in other parts of the world, but here in the United States, it's a very sensible job.

And we have a shortage of teachers, and we have a shortage of paraprofessionals. And so our burden on our teachers and our educators is getting more and more. But remember, you as the parent are an expert in your child. Be respectful and keep that communication going between you and the education system.

Jamie (08:08.062)

Such valuable, valuable advice there, Shelley. And sometimes it's not the teacher is disinterested in your child. It's like you said it there, we've got some beautiful, amazing, brilliant teachers in an imperfect system, right? And these teachers have a lot of demands placed on them from the system and their principals and the students and parents and...

they're often stretched. I mean, your class sizes are probably like our class sizes here in Australia. It's not uncommon to see 25 to 30, 35 kids in a class. And so just, also putting yourself in that educator's shoes and sort of standing back and just working with them gently to sort of get the best outcome for your child. But how do you balance then the perspective of educators and parents in a situation where

they don't always see eye to eye because that's going to happen, right? Like, you know, you know about your child, they think, you know, these guys are trained and educated. You know, if there's a difference of opinion, how do you balance that perspective or what do you recommend in that situation?

Shelley Kenow (09:11.95)

I think one of the keys, and this actually goes with any relationship, any conversation that you're having, is that behaviors are communication. And so it's very difficult to do this without a lot of practice, but if you can keep telling yourself that it's not my fault, it's not personal. So when you're having that conflict with someone, it's likely because that other person is frustrated, like you just said, maybe with the system.

because they want to help, but they can't help because their hands are tied in a way that they don't have the funding or they don't have the people. Trying to remain calm in those situations and think about other kind of outside the box ways to accomplish what you're trying to accomplish that you're getting the bad feedback or the negative feedback from. For example,

if you're looking for some maybe one-on-one help for your child in the classroom and there's just not the people or the money to do it. So where is it exactly? Think about exactly with your team that your child needs that extra support. How else can that extra support be given if there isn't a person?

Shelley Kenow (10:54.127)

Uh oh. You need someone to be with your child to help them write. So maybe you find instead of a person, maybe you use some sort of text, I'm sorry, speech to text, where your child can talk into a device and then it will turn it into the material that they're trying to say, but they can't write it out for whatever reason. So looking at varying ways and not getting so set in.

This is what I need or this is what my child needs and this is the only way that it can happen. Try to be flexible and look at other ways of coming up with the same outcome.

Jamie (11:34.974)

Yeah, flexibility, patience and accommodation are certainly key in this context. Maybe a two-part question now. So what are some of the challenges with the special education system, whether it's globally or relative to the United States? I think we share a lot in common between Australia and the US, but what are some of the immediate challenges you see with the special education system?

Shelley Kenow (11:59.115)

I think the biggest challenge that I have been really hearing lately is that people have the wrong perspective. They think that if someone is eligible for special education, that automatically means that they're going to be grade level or a couple of grade levels behind, or that they're not going to be able to achieve in the same way that their age level peers are.

And that's not necessarily the case. It could be the case, but if we do IQ testing on our students and they come up, the average IQ is literally 100. And so if you have a student who has a 90 to a 110 IQ, they should be able, maybe with accommodations, maybe with modifications and some sort of supports, to be on grade level or age level.

And if that's not happening, we can't just say, oh, well, it's okay if they're a grade level or a couple of grade levels behind in reading or math or writing because they're in special education. That's not acceptable. We need to have those high expectations and we need to find those out-of-the-box ways to help those students become on grade level. And having the expectation and that perspective that

Special education doesn't automatically mean less. It can mean more. It can mean different and likely does mean different. And trying to help all of our students reach the best versions of themselves in our education system. I think that special education, here in the United States at least, seems to be widening the gap between the general education classroom and

our students that are in special education, which is the exact opposite of what it was intended to do, I think. And so we have to have that different mindset of, we can't just do it a little bit different and say, oh, well, we tried. We have to keep trying different things.

Jamie (14:04.04)


Jamie (14:15.246)

Yeah, yeah, well said. Now I'm gonna circle back in a moment and we'll have a discussion around how you think special education will evolve in the next decade and what that might look like. But tell me about your book for a minute. You wrote a book, Those Who Can't Teach. Tell us a bit about the book and what impact you hope it has.

Shelley Kenow (14:33.655)

Yeah, thank you for asking. So the book is 10 true stories. The first story is mine of going from wanting to be a general education teacher to being very passionate now about special education and people who learn differently. And then the other nine chapters are true stories of families who shared their experience of being a family or a couple of the chapters are the actual individual who learns differently and was willing and able to share their story with me.

And what I hope to accomplish is what I hope to accomplish with everything that I'm doing is changing that perspective. When I was writing the book, I was about halfway through it and sort of the audience that I anticipated reading it shifted a little bit. At first, I was thinking, well, anyone could read these and learn and have their perspective changed. And I still believe that and I 100% recommend it to everyone because we all know someone.

who learns differently than us. And this book, the stories that these families shared, they were so raw and so honest with me. It's truly amazing the things that they go through, positive and negative. But the group of people that I realized who probably would benefit the most are teachers, because outside of the parents, teachers are with our kids the most. And so now here, I've been trying to

promote it to universities. And I take it to teacher conferences and I have a course that I developed from it that I teach teachers to try to help build that bridge again between the parents and the school systems. There has been a huge divide in the last 10 or 20 years of instead of being a collaborative environment where teachers are respected and honored, there seems to be this battle.

now between families and school districts. And that doesn't benefit our children. We need to become more collaborative. And so working with them and having them read this book helps them hopefully build that, get that different perspective. Almost every teacher that has read it has praised it highly and commented that, you know, it gives that family and that parent

Shelley Kenow (17:02.535)

We forget about that when we're teaching because we get so bogged down with all of the things that academics tell us we need to teach our kids that we forget what those families have going on outside of the school system.

Jamie (17:20.998)

It's a great tool, the great resource to really promote that acceptance and empathy. And as we said earlier in the show, it's even for the parents side to put themselves in the in the shoes of the educator. This is somewhat the other way around, but it's a great resource for helping build, as you said, that bridge or acceptance and inclusion.

Shelley Kenow (17:32.56)


Jamie (17:41.638)

So how do you think, let's talk back about special education for a minute. How do you think special education is set to evolve in the next decade or how do you hope it might evolve over the next decade?

Shelley Kenow (17:53.655)

Well, I think after the pandemic, people realized that all of education can be done differently. And I'm really hoping that with special education, we will see that there are so many different ways to teach our children. Some students during the pandemic, it was absolutely horrible for them because they didn't have that one-on-one exchange, that person to person exchange. But other kids.

thrived because they didn't have all the distractions, all the worries that some school environments give to some students. They could, you know, be in comfortable clothing, they could sit in comfortable positions, they didn't have to be there all day long. And there's just so many different ways that we can reach students that really were not considered before.

Even here in the United States, the fact that we can hold meetings, we always tried to hold them in person, even though our law allowed for us to have parents attend by a phone call previous to the pandemic, that really wasn't offered and it really wasn't done. But now, since the pandemic, when everyone was forced to use video conferencing for things, we're having more parent participation

attend without having to leave work. So they're not missing as much work where that was a problem before. And so we didn't have as much parent participation. And so hopefully with that, we will also improve that collaboration again and make it a truly meaningful collaboration and then special education document in order to help the child achieve the best version of themselves as possible.

Jamie (19:49.534)

And do you think technology is likely to play a role in the, you know, the future of special education or IEPs or, you know, anything to do with the student experience?

Shelley Kenow (19:59.159)

Oh, absolutely. There's so many wonderful things. There's online classes for kids now that are helping, especially the neurodivergent kids who aren't necessarily getting really all that they want out of their education because of the way the education system is set up all across the world to really teach the reading, the writing, the math, all the fundamentals. But some kids

are able to do that and then more. And so finding classes that are developmentally appropriate for the different ages, but are interesting. We have something called the Young Scholars Academy here and it's based here in the United States, but it's an online virtual classroom and they just have some specialty classes that they do. And I foresee that happening more and more.

That particular one happened to be on my podcast, which is why I know about it, but I'm sure there are others already out there that are like that and so finding ways that Those kids who don't fit in the boxes of a typical education setting technology can help bring that in because maybe somebody in Australia is going to learn something better from someone in China or the United States then

they would from someone in Australia or obviously by first-born. And so technology is going to help make that happen. And so I think that, and then just all the different adaptations and because I love special education, I follow so many different groups and there are so many different technological advances that are happening with apparatuses to help children.

Jamie (21:35.848)


Shelley Kenow (21:54.807)

with muscle problems, I started to say muscular and tried to say them both together. And just to be able to access things that they weren't able to access before. And so I think as long as technology continues to develop, we're going to continue to find things that are helping kids more and more with learning, with walking, with enjoyment.

with eating, with life in general. I mean, it's really exciting. And I really do think there's a lot of great things coming.

Jamie (22:34.014)

Yeah, very true. And when you talk about neurodivergent kids, we have a bunch of neurodivergent kids in our learning centers at Skill Samurai here in Australia and New Zealand, and indeed around the world. We teach mainly coding and mathematics, so computer programming, which many neurodivergent kids really thrive on, helps them build problem-solving skills. And we have a lot of fun STEM team activities and help them build social skills and the like. But it also highlights the role of extracurricular.

in special education as well. You know, we're fortunate in Australia. We have a government that provides financially very, very good assistance for those families with children of special needs that enables them to access not just help in the education system but also in extracurricular areas that they might not be able to seek out in the normal school system. So we're very fortunate to have that for our people here in Australia.

Where to? Tell us. It is. It really it makes a significant impact on so, so many lives here in Australia and levels the playing field a bit. You know, like these kids and these families deserve a much more level playing field. Like we've just got to find ways to help them get that. But that's a, it's a, I get it's a complex issue.

Shelley Kenow (23:33.391)

That's wonderful.

Shelley Kenow (23:53.145)


Shelley Kenow (23:57.151)

Right. And I didn't really mention this when I talked about my book before, but that's the reason for the title is those who can't, which is in quotation marks, teach is because our students that learn differently are often looked at somehow as less than. As I said, the whole idea of special education is like, oh, they're less than everybody else. And yet, just like teachers, the saying those who can do those who can't teach, teachers don't like that saying because it makes us feel less than. And yet,

What I'm trying to do with that title is to turn it around because just like teachers teach everything, if we are open to learning from our people who are neurodivergent, it's a beautiful process. It's a beautiful journey and relationship. And as you said, leveling the playing field, it's not about that somebody can't do it. Well, they're just doing it differently.

And we should want them to be able to show us what they can do because truly differences are what make the world go around and improve constantly.

Jamie (25:07.014)

Yeah, indeed, indeed. You, in my pre-show research, I was looking around your website, you also offer programs for schools, is that right? And for parents, can parents work with you one-on-one or in a group setting or a course? Like what does that look like if I'm a parent and either need help with a plan for my child or that sort of advice, what does that look like?

Shelley Kenow (25:28.727)

Yeah, so just contact me through email. And then what we can do is we can work one-on-one or if you have an organization, you know, if you're, I would love to come to Australia. That's one of the only two continents that my husband hasn't visited. So he would love to check that one off his box as well. You know, we could come and I could do presentations to whole schools, to parent organizations, to companies. And I just talk about one of my most requested

presentations that I do is called Understanding Behaviors Lessons for a Lifetime. And it really does talk about how and why behaviors are what they are. And as I mentioned before, behaviors are communication. What is it communicating? How do we deal with that? And then also, you know, talking about cognitive biases that we have and how those affect everything that we do.

And so here in the United States, I work one-on-one with families that have a child going through the special education process. I can coach with them, I can attend meetings with them. I can look over the document, the IEP document, and let them know how it can be improved. Excuse me, because no IEP is perfect, but there's a lot of really great ones out there. So we can always even bump those up.

but unfortunately there are a lot of them that are really poorly written as well. And so we wanna make sure again that we're getting those to that level where it is more of an even playing field. So lots of different ways to work with me actually.

Jamie (27:07.114)

Wonderful, and we'll put the website in the show notes, but what is the website, Shelley?

Shelley Kenow (27:11.827)

It is ShellyKeynote.com.

Jamie (27:15.722)

It's an easy one to remember. I was also reading on your website that you developed your own behavior modification system. Is that right? Tell us a bit about that.

Shelley Kenow (27:23.927)

Yes, yes I did. Yeah, and it actually.

Yeah, it started from my time in England, actually, when I was working on the military base at the school, we had a student that had a lot of very extreme behaviors. And we had to educate that child, we weren't able to send them anywhere else, which here in the United States on the continent, we have behavioral schools, we have alternative schools, and we can send students to those places. But when we were overseas, we didn't have that option.

And so we had to figure out how to work with that child. And so we had someone come in and they helped us and they guided us. And then I used some of that information when I came back to the States. And then I used a lot of the things that I learned in my own education and then in my own personal experiences as an educator and just kind of develop this whole child comprehensive strategy that

I call time for time. It's fairly in depth. It's not easy to really describe, but it kind of goes, I talk about it in the understanding behaviors presentation that I do because it's really helping the child take responsibility for their actions. And once you know, I mean, this is a very base description of it. So please don't just take this and somebody try to run with it. But if...

if you know and you have the expectation that the child can do a certain thing and they're not doing that certain thing, then we start talking about, okay, well, you're taking my time because you're not doing what I know you can do and so I'm gonna have to get some of that time back from you later. And so there is a gift exchange of I'm gifting you my time right now and you're

Shelley Kenow (29:25.279)

unwillingly going to probably gift me some of your time back later because that's taking that responsibility of you know, I may have a disability, but I should also be able to be respectful and be able to at least attempt my work and Do a lot of things But then it's also you know, if a child has to give you that time back at some point It's talking with them and saying

Okay, let's talk about this behavior. Why did this behavior happen? Is there something that you're missing? Do you not have a skill that you need in order to do this? Do you, you know, is it overwhelming to you? Is there something going on, you know, outside of the school setting that we need to help you with that we can provide counseling or we can, you know, just talk it out and work through it?

finding better ways to express whatever that communication is that they're missing. And so there's a whole lot of components in it, but that's kind of the very basic, I guess.

Jamie (30:31.326)

Thank you, that was interesting, thanks for sharing. A fun question we like to ask all of our guests as we round off the podcast today, is if we had a time machine and Shelley could go back to your, let's say your 12 year old younger self, what's one piece of advice that you would give to the younger Shelley?

Shelley Kenow (30:51.167)

Oh my, gosh, at 12 or 14, I would say, don't worry about those boys. I was always worried about boys at that age.

Jamie (31:00.223)


Jamie (31:04.074)

Focus on your studies, Shelley.

Shelley Kenow (31:05.979)

That's right, that's right.

Jamie (31:09.57)

Very, very good. And lastly, is there one message that you'd like to leave with our listeners, especially those involved in special education, be it parents, teachers, or the collective?

Shelley Kenow (31:20.483)

Yeah, absolutely. And that is we know who we are today, but not who we will be. And I believe that there isn't a better example of that than the caterpillar turning into the butterfly. Um, I always hand out a butterfly to all of the participants at my workshops on the behaviors. And I say, when you're dealing with that child or your spouse or your neighbor or whoever, who's being really difficult, they're in the caterpillar stage.

And if you stick with them, you're going to be able to watch them turn into that beautiful butterfly. The process of going from caterpillar to butterfly is not easy. There's a lot of struggle, but a lot of that struggle is necessary in order for it to turn into that beautiful butterfly. And so just focusing on that child might look like a caterpillar to you today, but in 10 or 15 years,

they're going to be a butterfly and you want to help support them to become that butterfly.

Jamie (32:20.79)

great metaphor, it's a great way to teach leadership and acceptance, so well done. Great piece of advice there, Shelley. Thank you for being on our show today. Thank you for your generosity, and I hope we stay in contact and touch base again soon. Cheers.

Shelley Kenow (32:26.927)

Thank you.

Shelley Kenow (32:35.723)

Yeah, absolutely. Thank you. Have a great day.

Jamie (32:40.054)

Cheers. Thanks, Shelly. Bye.

Shelley Kenow (32:42.053)

Bye bye.