Like many special educations teachers, I have worked with students (who I adored) who had challenging behaviors like scratching and biting. Even though it was years ago, I still have fingernail shaped scars on my hands. I also had to get a tetanus shot because a bite I got broke my skin. So I’ve been in your shoes. I’ll be writing a post later on how to help extinguish these kinds of behaviors (yes, it can be done!), but this post is about protective clothing for special education teachers.
Special educators don’t just need protective clothing to help us with behaviors, sometimes we need to keep safe from diseases. I’ve been in this position with a student who had a disease that could be spread through bodily fluids, including saliva. My paras and I took the necessary precautions to be safe when helping with feeding and changing him. Also, many students with special needs often require lifting. You need to protect your back and practice safe lifting. Our students are worth the work, but we are worth protecting too!
After I was a special education teacher, I worked in the private sector. There I learned that protective clothing to do a job safely is called PPE which stands for Personal Protective Equipment. Nobody taught me about it while I was teaching, and sure wish they had. In the private sector, PPE is generally provided to you as part of the tools given to do your job. Teachers should also be provided PPE. In fact, it’s the law. Just like a welder needs a mask and gloves, teachers sometimes need safety equipment too.
However, what a school deems necessary will be different from district to district. Document your injuries and the frequency. It will help make a case to get the proper PPE bought and paid for by your district. You should not have to provide your own PPE to be safe at work. However, I also know we all live in the real world. Keeping yourself safe needs to be priority number one. If you expect a long battle over getting PPE paid for, consider getting the PPE and saving your receipt to get reimbursed. If you’re a union member (and you should be), ask them for advice in this matter as they will know more than I do on the legalities.
A few notes before we start.
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It’s NOT Your Fault
Having a kid exhibiting behavior that needs PPE does NOT make you a bad teacher. It doesn’t matter how much you love your students or how great a teacher you are. These behaviors can and do happen, and it isn’t a reflection of you. Let yourself out of the guilt and blame game. It’s not your fault.
If you’re feeling guilt or shame about the behavior going on in your classroom, let it go. Right now. Release the tension you feel in your shoulders, pull them down from your ears. Loosen your jaw, take your tongue off the roof of your mouth. With it let go of the guilt and let go of the tension. Done? Now let go of the guilt you feel for feeling the guilt or letting the stress get to you in the first place if you’re carrying any of that. It’s easier said than done, I know.
At Owl Quest, we are problem solvers. Just by being here, reading this, you’re doing something good for yourself and your students. I know that you’re a problem solver too. By protecting yourself from harm, you’ll have an easier time building positive relationships with your students. Let go of the blame game. We’re here to talk solutions, not blame.
Ideally, you’ll have support from your administrators. They should be providing training like CPI training. You should have support from other staff members like your occupational therapist, behavior analyst and/or a school psychologist. With training and support will help you determine the function of behavior. We’ll discuss that more in another post soon, but this article is about is how protective clothing for special education teachers can help you stay safe. But it’s important to remember that part of protecting yourself is having a support system in place.
Have someone to discuss things with. It could be a fellow teacher (I suggest one at a different school and ideally a different district), a sibling, a friend, or a spouse. Having a student who exhibits dangerous behaviors with frequency is extremely emotionally challenging. You’re not a teacher robot. And if somebody else was treating you this way, you’d be in an abusive relationship. But with special education it is different. Our special needs students don’t always know better and in some cases, aren’t even aware that what they are doing hurts somebody else. You’re going to need somebody to talk to. However, in all your discussions, protect your students privacy. They are always entitled to privacy no matter what behavior they are showing. Don’t reveal their names. Not protecting privacy could come back to bite you far worse than any student injury.
Before we move on to the protective clothing for teachers, don’t forget to document the behavior. You need to record the ABCs of the behavior. Antecedent, Behavior, and Consequence. Have a clipboard handy for documentation so you can track it. It will help you and your team determine the best way to help the student. Two students may have the same behavior but the function will be different. When that happens, the way to extinguish the behavior changes. It’s a pain, but you’ll be glad you took the time to do it.
Masks-Update for 2020
Masks have become a safety necessity because of COVID-19. I have some fun mask designs for sale via RedBubble. Their masks are cloth and are for general public use only. They are not intended for use in medical settings. Their website has more information because they are the seller of record not me.
Here are some of my fun mask designs for teachers.
In Our Class We Stick Together Mask
I have other designs for fun teacher stuff like stickers, mugs, and t-shirts on RedBubble too. I won’t list them here because they aren’t really protective, but if you’re interested, you can find them here.
Kevlar sleeves will help protect your arms from bites and scratches. I’ve included a few different kinds, so you’ll have your choice of color. I would be surprised if your district would pay for more than one pair per person, but if you’re fashionably inclined, you could get more than one color to go with your outfits. I choose these ones because of the longer sleeves with the thumb holes. That way the sleeves will protect your the tops of your hands, not just your arms. When I was dealing with this behavior, the tops of my hands were the preferred spot to scratch.
If you already are wearing long sleeves or a protective sleeve, you may only need protective gloves. Kevlar gloves, like the sleeves, will protect against scratches and bites. They protect from abrasions but they are also lightweight and comfortable. However, they won’t protect you against pathogens. For that, you’ll need a different kind of glove.
Steel Toed Shoes
If you have a kid who stomps your feet, steel toed shoes can help protect your toes. At both schools I taught in, special education teachers were allowed to wear tennis shoes, but generally I wore more professional shoes. I’ll include some of both here to fit your needs.
If you have a student that could harm your eyes, consider safety goggles. Models that have elastic will look goofy, but then again, a pirate style eye patch if you get hurt will look goofy too. Your eyes are particularly precious, and damage to them can be debilitating. Protect your vision!
Many students are allergic to latex, so it’s a good idea to avoid latex gloves to avoid that issue altogether. These nitrile gloves are latex free so you won’t have to worry. Nitrile gloves come in different safety levels. Some are for food handling while others are medical grade. You’ll want medical grade to protect you from diseases that are present in bodily fluids, food grade will not be good enough. Your district may already have these on hand. Check with your school nurse to see if she already has some that your district provided.
Back Braces for Lifting
Changing students comes with the territory of being a teacher for students with special needs. It didn’t really bother me, it was just part of caring for my students. However, I have sciatica and while I was a classroom teacher it was worse. It made lifting to change a student difficult and painful for me. I didn’t use a back brace because it never occurred to me that I should or could. If you have a back problem, or even if you don’t, and lifting is part of your regular duties, strongly consider using a back brace to help you life safely. Back pain impacts so much of your life. It’s not worth risking an injury or aggravating an injury you already have.
Safety for you, your paras, and your students should always be priority number one. By finding the right protective clothing you’ll be able to stay safer in a challenging work environment. Safer teachers are happier teachers and that makes for happier students.
Have an item of protective clothing we didn’t mention? We would love to hear about it. Let us know what it is!