Learning Disability or Learning Difference?

Friday, September 20, 2013 2 comments

Re-Frame the Brain
“Cerebrodiversity”, a term coined by Dr. Gordon F. Sherman, is essentially the individual differences in brain structure and its ability to process information. Some of these differences can result in what society perceives to be learning disabilities, one of which is dyslexia. Typically viewed as a negative trait by today’s traditional school models, students with dyslexia struggle to read, write and spell with often insufficient intervention. This can result in the student developing a low self-esteem and related physiological issues. These differences in our brains become a burden, as children are reminded everyday that they cannot do what others can. 

However, if we are to examine Dr. Sherman’s work, we would begin to see “cebrodiversity as a vehicle for expanding thinking and discussion about dyslexia beyond the ‘disability model’ and as a step toward a more comprehensive model of brain and learning variation’” (Sherman & Cowen,  2003). Teachers, schools and communities would then approach learning disabilities as the “glass is half full”, rather than “half empty”. This would no doubt, revolutionize the way schools are structured, curriculum is developed and students learn. And, more importantly, students will see value in their differences and others.

More Than a Label
How can we encourage schools to support our student's needs without de-valuing their strengths and skills? And, more importantly, how can we advocate and empower our children to see themselves as valuable human beings who are not defined by their abilities and needs? Here are some thoughts....

  • create a mentorship program between older and younger students to develop feelings of belonging
  • bring in speakers, authors, artists and other public figures who have succeeded despite a learning difference, to demonstrate the variety of career possibilities
  • "de-mystify" learning disabilities by helping the student understand how they learn best and why
  • offer opportunities during the school day (before, during and after) for students to participate in that focus on areas such as sports, art, technology, games or current interests
  • find and recommend community groups that will develop talent and skills that are not related to academics
  • identify post-secondary options for all students, not just colleges for the academically driven but also technical schools, programs and internships

I’m certain, that if we take “can-do” approach with our students, we will see many positive results.  By understanding that the differences in our brain structures can be a benefit, we can begin to structure our education system so that all students can learn.

Sherman, Gordon F., and Carolyn D. Cowen. "Dyslexia with 2020 Vision: Where Will We Be in the Next 10 Years?" Perspectives on Language and Literacy Winter (2010): 9-11. Print.

Want Inclusion at Your School?

Friday, September 13, 2013 No comments

Inclusive education is the inclusion of all students in the general education classroom regardless of ability or special needs. It is regarded as an ideal learning environment for all students, who learn that diversity and differences are a natural part of our world.  

Unfortunately, there are few schools and communities who  practice inclusive education. Instead, students with disabilities are educated in separate settings and away from their peers. 

Parents who want their children to receive an inclusive education in schools that do not practice inclusion, need to be well prepared before approaching the school with their request. They cannot assume that teachers and administrators have all the information and if they do, the correct information. 

Here are some strategies that families can use to prepare themselves before approaching a school to request a more inclusive environment for their child:

Get to Know Inclusion 

Turning on the computer and googling the word, “inclusion”, will result in dozens of articles that explain inclusive education. Some very reliable information however, comes from sites such as the Inclusive Schools Network and Wrightslaw. 

In addition, you can find information about inclusion from this website, the local library, disability awareness groups and the US Department of Education. Not only will you find accurate information, but you will find many other resources that you can access. Knowing as much as you can about inclusion will help you dispel any myths and misunderstandings about inclusion.

Get to Know Inclusion Supporters

Try to find other supporters of inclusion in your community. Perhaps there is another school that is already inclusive or there is a parent group that advocates for inclusion. They might already have the information you are looking for or hand-outs to give to administrators. 
A parent group can offer advice and tips for meeting with schools. Building a network of inclusion supporters is valuable and vital to your goals.

Get to Know Your Child's Teacher/Paraprofessional 

Take the time to know your child’s teacher and/or paraprofessional.  Both can offer insight and information about the school administration and resources available. Volunteering in the classroom or school is often a informal way of establishing positive, working relationships with those who work closest with your child.

Know Before You Go

Preparation and planning before you meet with your child’s school to discuss inclusion is an important job that shouldn’t be left undone. Just as you would prepare for an interview or study for a test, learning as much as you can about inclusion will help you be better equipped to discuss the rights and needs of your child. Write down key points and take your notes into the meeting with you. But, above all, remember that you know your child best and you want the best for your child.

For more information about inclusion, check out the helpful resource, Inclusion in Action: Practical Strategies to Modify Your Curriculum. 

My Secret Strategy to Successful Classroom Management

Wednesday, May 15, 2013 No comments
I finally realized that of all the resources, tips, advice and information that I have written and posted about, I have yet to share my number one strategy for successful classroom management. For over 15 years, I have anchored every elementary inclusive classroom I have ever been in on this simple, yet effective, positive reinforcement technique. It was passed on to me by a good friend two days before I started my first job and I am forever grateful!

"The Bubblegum Machine", based on the concept of positive reinforcement, is my secret to classroom management success. I have used it in all kinds of elementary inclusive classrooms, in all kinds of schools, without fail. If you are struggling to gain, maintain or even change your classroom management skills, this is a simple yet extremely effective way of creating an environment where all students can learn.

To begin, group the student desks (by 2, 3 or 4) and assign each group a color. Create a picture of  a bubblegum machine and place it in a prominent place in the classroom. Gather your students and together, identify ways in which a bubblegum (corresponding colored circle) can be earned and put in the bubblegum machine. Then, set out to to reinforce positive behavior, acknowledge achievement, and celebrate the success you see in all your students! Keep in mind that bubblegums are never taken away. And, as with any positive reinforcement plan, praise and recognition should be frequent during the first few weeks that the program is initiated. Finally, at the end each week, count the bubblegums up and the group with the most can earn a small reward. Be sure to mix the  groups often enough so that every student has a chance to earn a reward. 

There, you have it! Let me know if you give this classroom management strategy a try and how it works for you.

Top 10 Ways to Tell If Your Child's School is Inclusive

Saturday, March 23, 2013 No comments

Inclusion, as special education experts agree, is the ideal way of educating students with disabilities.  They
 are placed in general education classrooms along side their same-age peers, despite physical or academic ability levels. 
Often, however, inclusive education is a term that is misused and misunderstood by parents, teachers and staff.  Here is a list of top ten ways to tell if your child’s school is truly inclusive:

1. School Community - the school community (staff, PTA, parents) is friendly, encourages parent-school communication, welcomes volunteers, and celebrates student learning through bulletin boards, newsletters and school-wide events.

2. School Design - the building has ramps, large doorways, paved walkways, drinking fountains, sinks, storage spaces and coat hooks that a child with special needs can use.

3. School Spaces - the lunchroom, library, playground, bathrooms, and gymnasium (or Multipurpose Room) can be easily accessed and used by a child with special needs.

4. School Routines – lunch hour, recess time, assemblies and school-wide activities include all the students.

5. School Support Staff - professionals such as Speech Language Therapists bring their services to the special needs child. The goal of support professionals is to support the child’s learning as well as help him/her remain in the classroom.

6. Paraprofessionals - Paraprofessionals are available to support the student (depending on child's needs) in the classroom, during school routines and school activities.

7. Classroom Placement - a student with special needs is placed in a regular education classroom with same age peers despite his/her academic and ability level.

8. Classroom Arrangement - the special needs child has a desk or work area that is integrated into the class-seating plan. There is enough space for the special needs child to move around, a variety of learning materials are available and class materials can be easily accessed.

9. Teachers - Teachers plan lessons and activities in all subjects (not just Music or Art) to include the child with special needs. Lessons are modified and adapted so that the special needs student is actively participating in the learning process.

10. Students - ALL the students have opportunities to interact with one another both in the classroom and on the playground, help one another, work together and contribute to the well being of each other and the school community

Make The Classroom Sensory-Friendly Today

Saturday, March 2, 2013 No comments

I've always been highly affected by my surroundings.  I can't tell you how many times I've changed doctors, dentists, hotel rooms and even classrooms. It might not necessarily be a sensory-processing issue, but there is no doubt that I'll react either physically or emotionally if the room does not "feel good".

Therefore, I've been very aware of the children in my class who might also need a modification in the classroom space, materials, light, noise or smells. In fact, when I have students who begin to demonstrate inappropriate behavior, the first thing I do is change the child's immediate surroundings.  Often, that is all that needed in order to correct the misbehavior.

Below is a sample of strategies that can be used to make a classroom sensory-friendly. By making a classroom sensory-friendly, children who have sensory-processing issues can truly focus on the learning activities without distraction or discomfort. These strategies can be used hourly, daily, monthly or for the entire year. The purpose is to give teachers and parents ways to help keep children happy, engaged and learning in the inclusive class. 

Classroom Space
    big tables
    small tables
    groups of tables
    desks in groups
    desks in pairs
    individual workstations
    quiet area
    carpet area
    cozy reading space
    clutter control
    color coordination
    play areas with boundaries
    open windows
    temperature change

Classroom Materials
    bins for keeping materials organized
    centers with a variety of activities
    mini carpets to sit on at circle time/center time
    a variety of books to read at various reading levels
    visual timers
    visual planners
    bean bag chairs
    audio-visual materials

    natural light
    1 or 2 flourescent lights on
    light diffuser
    closed blinds

    quiet work time
    talking work time
    music playing in the background
    ticking clock
    "white noise" ie. circulating fan

    "no perfume" zone
    food kept in airtight containers
    no smelly markers/crayons
    fresh air flowing
    desks cleaned out regularly

Three Tips to Thrive Socially Inside an Inclusive Classroom

Tuesday, January 15, 2013 3 comments

Often when discussing special education and inclusion the focus remains on educating, justifiably so too. However, the social aspect to an inclusive classroom also stands out as an important aspect. You may recall me talking with The Inclusive Class Podcast hosts Nicole Eredics and Terri Mauro on this very topic back in September. Here’s a link to refresh your memory, Growing Up with Inclusive Education.

Now back to today. Nicole offered me the privilege to provide a guest post for The Inclusive Class blog, which I eagerly accepted. I plan to use the opportunity to share three tips designed to help students with disabilities thrive socially inside inclusive classrooms. Enjoy!

Tip #1- Embrace Others’ Outgoingness

My mild case of spastic cerebral palsy led me to develop a shy personality growing up. As my teenage memoir Off Balanced documents, initiating social interaction pretty much terrified me. I felt ashamed about my disability and just wanted to blend in and be like everyone else. Interestingly enough a few classmates disregarded my shy demeanor, exhibiting friendly behavior towards me. I mention these individuals in Chapter 6 of my book.

Take for example my graphics art classmate Aaron. He regularly showed an interest in my interests, asking about an upcoming video game I always looked at online and supporting my ambition to pursue a writing career.  Yet I failed to return the favor, leaving me to flashback and wonder “What if?” What if I reciprocated his friendliness? Would we have developed a lasting friendship?  Unfortunately I will never know because I didn’t embrace Aaron’s outgoingness. Please learn from my mistake so you avoid any future “What if?”

Tip #2- Get Involved

If you recollect my appearance on The Inclusive Class Podcast, I suggested exploring extra-curricular activities as a way to assist forming friendships. Joining a student group or organization connects you to peers who maintain similar likes. People will get to know you rather than your disability. For instance, joining my high school’s student newspaper transformed me from “the kid who walks with a limp” to “the newspaper guy.”

Of course Nicole and Terri brought up an excellent point during my appearance on their show. What if the school tries to prevent you from joining your desired club or organization? Hopefully by putting yourself out there you will secure some helpful advocates. I know fellow author John W. Quinn mentions in his book Someone Like Me: An Unlikely Story of Challenge and Triumph Over Cerebral Palsy his school’s wrestling coach came very close to cutting John from the squad. Guess what though? The team’s best wrestler found out and threatened to walk off the team if the coach cut John. Respect and admiration from others can certainly go a long way.

Tip #3- Open Up

Returning to my own personal experiences, I note in Off Balanced my shyness lay rooted in my goal to hide my cerebral palsy. I remember one particular time in elementary school the school’s physical therapist came to the classroom to get me. My classmate next to me asked me, “Is that your grandmother?” I answered with a quiet but grumpy “No” before shuffling away awkwardly. At such a young age I didn’t realize the best approach involved opening up, saying “No, that’s my physical therapist.”

Opening up and answering questions head on removes others’ curiosity, allowing them to stop dwelling on your disability and start appreciating your personality. I know I can say with 100% confidence I wouldn’t have achieved all I did in college and since without first accepting my cerebral palsy and answering questions those around me presented. To conclude, let me just state by opening up you should achieve your own success. Don’t let your disability hold you down!

Zachary Fenell is an author and freelance writer dedicated to raising disability awareness through the written word. His book Off Balanced is available on the Kindle and Nook

Additionally you can read his work online at The Mobility Resource. For more information on Zachary, visit www.zacharyfenell.com    

10 Easy Changes Teachers Can Make to Facilitate Inclusion

Wednesday, January 9, 2013 5 comments

"Over, under, around or through find a way, or make a way" is a quote by Paula Kluth that recently reminded me of how I found ways to include all my students in a classroom activity, regardless of their ability level. I want to share one of the most successful ways that I used as a classroom teacher to facilitate inclusion. 

In order to have students aquire the same learning experiences, teachers have to be prepared for the differences in their student's abilities and learning styles. This technique is known as "differentiation". Differentiation can be created by making changes. Changes can take place in many ways in the classroom, depending on the student's needs, teacher's level of knowledge and support of school personnel. Big or little, however, change can make a difference in how students with special needs are included in the classroom.

Here are 10 easy changes teachers can make to facilitate inclusion:

Time - change the time of day the activity is planned for, the duration of activity, the time of week or even the month.

Space - change the physical seating arrangement in the class, change the environment (turn off the lights, shut the door or open the windows), change the workspace or even the room (go to the library or sit outside).

Method  change how the lesson is delivered. Use charts, music, books, props, video or posters. Stand at the front of the class, the back of the class. Have the students remain sitting at their desks, on their desks or sit at a carpeted area.
Materials  have students produce their work using crayons, markers, paint, modeling clay, computer software, cameras, popsicle sticks, or cheerios.

Product change the assignment from writing to drawing, art, music, or drama. Have students create a poster, diorama or power point presentation.

Quantity change the number of questions, length of assignment, amount of homework, or ask for odd-numbered answers only.

Groupings  change how the students are grouped for the lesson. Will they work in pairs, small groups or be independent?  Will the student work with a teacher, a paraprofessional or other support personnel?

Grade  change the grade-level expectations of the activity. Go down a grade or up a grade depending on the students ability.

Teacher yes, change the teacher! Ask the Special Ed teacher to deliver the lesson, a co-teacher, the principal, a parent, or another student.

Resources  change the resources you use for class activities.  Look for new textbooks, web sites, on-line teaching communities and experts. One small, new idea can lead to something big!

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