Dogs know about rewards. So who better to be one? With good behavior, Kahn’s students can earn “Jazz rights.” Kahn herself has earned rare NBPTS exceptional needs certification.

It’s the little successes that count

‘Jess and Jazz’ team-teach kids with autism

Jessica Kahn (’91) vividly remembers walking into her first classroom as a real teacher. One girl was engaged in a striptease, one kid was hitting himself, one was talking to his crayons, and another was crying in the corner.

The brand new teacher had just arrived at a suburban Atlanta school after graduating from JMU with an education degree focused on teaching emotionally disturbed students. She was about to take on a population that many people consider unteachable and even unreachable — children with autism. Officially called autism spectrum disorder, this politically correct name acknowledges recent research establishing that people with autism cannot be placed into a single narrow category.

Children with autism have difficulty communicating and forming reciprocal emotional relationships. They may not make eye contact and often make peculiar, repetitive body movements, like finger or hand flapping. Some are unable to regulate their own bodies and may hurt themselves physically. Children with autism may become distressed outside their established routines and rituals. Think of Rain Man, with and without the savant aspect. It is a developmental disability that continues to vex educators and researchers.

For her part, Kahn took a deep breath and vowed to make positive changes in the classroom. In the ensuing 11 years, she has done just that. And the tops in her field have recognized her expertise and commitment. Last year she earned the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards’ certification as an early childhood through young adulthood/exceptional needs specialist. There are only 865 others like her in the country. Created in 1987, the NBPTS aims to establish rigorous standards for voluntary teacher assessment. Along with the exceptional needs specialists, there are 16,037 regular classroom teachers who have earned the NBPTS designation as well — on top of the traditional state certification required of teachers.

Despite this huge achievement, Kahn has learned a little something about scale. “In my classroom, it’s the little successes that count,” she says. Kahn’s instruction emphasizes life lessons — problem solving, communication and social skills, areas that often come more slowly than pure academics. “Students’ limitations are their interactions,” Kahn explains. “A student may be able to complete a calculus problem but be unclear about what to do when a peer brushes up next to him in the hall at school.

“It may take two or three years to help a student develop the ability to communicate,” she explains, but that’s a little success that goes a long way. Kahn speaks of a boy who, after two years, finally has started communicating with the class about his feelings. His education will prepare him to enter a special school rather than a group home away from his family.

“The classroom is all about balance,” she explains. Her educational plan balances three parts: academics, emotions and behavior. She ought to add a fourth: Jazz, a yellow Lab mix, with whom she has been team teaching for eight years. Now that’s balance.

Jazz is a big help in making those little successes materialize. Kahn encourages students to control their behavior by creating a plan through which students earn “Jazz rights,” or time with Jazz. That plan empowers her students with a sense of responsibility. Jazz is always ready for a friend, and her students seem eager to take care of him.

Kahn found her four-legged partner in 1994, on a random visit to the SPCA, after she had spent a summer as a volunteer CPR teacher in Africa. Kahn had returned to Harrisonburg and began work as a home-schooling teacher at Eastern Mennonite University. Jazz was a year old and had been admitted to the shelter a month earlier with a broken hip and evidence of significant abuse. Kahn adopted him a week before he would have been put to sleep and charged the $2,000 surgery to her credit card. Tenderly and carefully, she nurtured Jazz as she does her students, taking one step at a time. Soon after she won his trust, she began training him.

Shortly thereafter, the two journeyed into the Appalachians to visit twin boys diagnosed with autism. During breaks in her tutoring, Kahn allowed Jazz to come into the yard to play.

“Jazz would go stay in a ‘down-stay,’ and the boys could come up to him on their own,” Kahn says. Eventually, over time, one of the boys would throw a ball or stick for Jazz to retrieve. “We would use that time to help the boys learn that words have meaning and, by telling Jazz to ‘get it’ or ‘leave it,’ that Jazz would respond.” Kahn says Jazz’s response helped the boys understand cause and effect, a concept that had remained unclear through other activities.

According to Kahn, Jazz sensed the other boy’s fright and so did not approach. Instead, Jazz waited for the boy to come to him. Before long, the boy “was running his fingers through the fur on Jazz’s back.” Jazz was a safe way for them to learn cause and effect, not to mention that he enabled the children to feel powerful, Kahn says.

The duo moved to California in 1995 to pursue work with other children with autism spectrum disorder and spent three years setting up autistic programs and conducting behavior analysis in the classroom and in the homes of students. Since 1997, she has worked for the Folsom-Cordova Unified School District in Rancho Cordova. Kahn says the district’s programs attract families with autistic children nationwide.

In her California classroom, Kahn remembers a fifth-grader who whispered into Jazz’s ear. Jazz listened patiently. The student’s history of violent expression had hindered her in a normal classroom, but in her second year with Kahn, the student was beginning to act with less violence. In fact, she had now begun calmly confiding in Jazz in frustrating moments. “I can’t get mad,” the student would say into the dog’s ear, “because Ms. Kahn said I can control myself.”

“I remember her telling Jazz how mean I was too,” Kahn recalls, “but it was better than her lashing out at me. Soothing and petting Jazz and speaking calmly helped her calm without hurting someone.”
This student suffered from childhood abuse, bipolar disorder and other mental issues and was the only girl in the 13-student classroom. Like many girls needing special education, she was able to hide her disabilities until her fourth-grade year. Fourth grade is when school changes from “learning to read to reading to learn” and to “learning with more classmates,” according to Kahn. “This can be a defining point for a student’s learning curve and social success,” she explains.

In special education, by contrast, class size is smaller, and Kahn often gets to work with the same kids over two to three years. Her students, who are diagnosed with some level of autism spectrum disorder, share special education with students with emotional disturbances, and learning, physical and sensory disabilities. She is careful to not contribute to the stigma that can be attached to special education. Her classroom, she says, is “just a place where things are taught a little differently.”

It helps that Kahn can relate to her kids. “I hated school,” she says. “I was put in a lower class, because I was disorganized and basically a nontraditional student.” She did not perform well in a normal classroom but did excel in test taking. Kahn attributes a summer session with JMU professor Dave Herr to her finding her niche with kids having autistic spectrum disorder and other disabilities. Herr’s techniques from this summer session and his other classes involving emotionally disturbed kids and discipline have stayed with her. “You’ve got to catch students being good,” she says, mimicking Herr. “You have to tell them they’re being good because they may not even recognize that they are doing it right.”

Kahn says she tries to provide structure and accountability toward the student’s overall performance. “You have to ask, ‘What is the function of bad behavior?’” she says. Kids with a lot of failure get frustrated. “I try to structure the class right above where the kids are,” she says, which makes classroom goals more achievable. “If I see that a student is having a frustrating day, I don’t push them.

“Teachers have such a huge responsibility, and part of the responsibility is taking care of ourselves and modeling that for the children and our colleagues,” she says. “If I am asking the children to control their anger, then when I am angry I have to point out how I am feeling, and how I am expressing it, so they can learn.”

That can go a long way in establishing trust, which is equally important in relationships with emotionally disturbed kids, she adds. So many of Kahn’s non-autistic students come from abusive homes, where trust has been lost within the family. But even in the absence of abuse, students with learning disabilities have often experienced many failures as they have moved from classroom to classroom. These instances can have a negative effect on a student’s ability to trust a new situation to be any different. Playing a constant and supportive role, Kahn has been able to create a trusting relationship with many of her students. “The bonus of special education is that I can spend more time with each student and tailor the learning to his or her needs,” she says.

Almost as important is gaining trust with the parents, who can actually work against the teacher’s efforts. One parent insisted his child not complete homework. In a similar situation, another parent told a child not to listen to his teachers. Yet after making considerable effort to gain confidence with the parent by calling and visiting the home, Kahn was finally able to break through the barrier.

Kahn credits the practical experience she gained at JMU for giving her a solid launch pad into her profession. “Field experience at JMU is a real strength,” Kahn explains, as it offers a real feel for what the classroom will be like for future teachers. Eleven years after Kahn graduated, that remains one of the JMU teacher education program’s heralded strengths. Today JMU students can student teach in five to six school divisions in the Shenandoah Valley or opt to go to Northern Virginia to get experience in a more urban setting.

While the special education program has continued to evolve since Kahn graduated, it still focuses on “being a resilient teacher,” says program coordinator Karen Santos. “This is a challenging field to enter and stay in, and we restructured the program according to The National Council for Exceptional Children’s knowledge and skills standards.”

The program consists of a five-year undergraduate-master’s program, which is like a super-charged double major, according to Santos. Students complete 40 hours of general education, 40 hours of teaching requirements, 40 hours of liberal arts major (such as interdisciplinary liberal studies, psychology, English) for a total of 120 hours by the fourth year. In the fifth year, students complete additional hours in graduate classes, earning a master’s in education by graduation.

The nationwide teacher shortage affects special education classrooms to an even greater degree than so-called regular classrooms. At JMU, 25 to 30 students graduate yearly in the special education undergraduate program, and they are snapped up by school systems immediately. JMU special education’s five other master’s programs provide additional numbers of graduate students.

Kahn’s certification continues the education begun at JMU. “Getting certified by the NBPTS has been the best professional growth I’ve had,” she says. In the extensive year-long application process, candidates must critically analyze and reflect on their teaching and pass a series of performance-based assessments that include submissions of student work samples, videotapes and rigorous analyses of their classroom teaching and student learning, which are then judged by specialists in the field. The application cost is steep, $2,300, and their chances of Exceptional Needs certification are less than 50-50. But it’s worth it, says Kahn. “It’s really a chance to articulate what you do and to put value into your beliefs.”

“Teaching is about a challenge to learn new things and learning from your students,” says Kahn, who has been promoted to program manager for psychological and speech and language services in her district. “When I see a smile of pride at learning a new skill or when communicating with a friend, a connection is made as to why I love what I do.

“Every day you have to find the laughter and the joy,” she says. “Sometimes … you have to step back and either lay your head down and cry for a bit or do something silly and laugh at yourself and the world.”

Kahn and Jazz have gone on to train two other puppies for Canine Companions for Independence. Kahn lives in Sacramento and is studying for her M.Ed. in administration at California State University.

Do you have National Board for Professional Training Standards’ certification? If so, please let JMU know by e-mailing

Story by Meme McKee (’99)
Photos by Gary Krueger


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