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You have that student in your mind—the learner you’d already heard all about before he was even in your class. The so-called challenging first-grader who runs in circles pretending he is an airplane, uses a communication board to interact and uses a fidgits to calm himself. To set the school year off on the right foot, you purposefully got to know him, saw him in different situations and listened to his mother talk about him at conferences. At the start of the year, it’s easy to go with the reputation of your students, particularly the ones who are the most challenging because of their learning or behavior needs. But, you know the beginning of the year is just the time to give that first impression another look.
Here are four communication tips that will build success in your students with disabilities, and tips for implementing each.
1. Create a Strengths-Driven Story
When a student with a disability is assigned to your class, that student will come with a thick file. Get the core information (the accommodations and modifications, approaches that were successful in the past), without getting too influenced by other teachers’ opinions. You may find that other adults’ perceptions of that child are impairment-driven. For example:
“Chloe is a fifth grader who reads at a third-grade level. She has an emotional disturbance, ADHD, and a learning disability. She struggles to get along with her peers and make friends. She has low emotional maturity for her age.”
An impairment-driven description provides a list of what a student cannot do—their limits—and is often limited to labels and categories. On the other hand, another description of Chloe might go like this:
“Chloe is in fifth grade and loves music. She actively participates in the school band and art club. At home, she takes care of her younger brother, sometimes independently. She enjoys listening to stories on audiobook and is looking forward to the fifth-grade science fair.”
This strengths-driven description captures Chloe’s likes, her abilities and how she engages herself in learning. It tells a completely different story of the student. This strengths-based approach to viewing all learners will help you as you design the classroom environment, engineer social interactions, and differentiate curriculum that allows for full access, participation, and inclusion for all students. Which story will you create about your students with disabilities?
Try This: Create a Positive Student Profile
Positive Student Profiles include the students’ strengths, likes, dislikes, intelligences, behaviors, academic performance, social skills, concerns and other information. Generate questions to ask the student and his or her family, or to identify what kind of information you want to learn about him or her. Update it throughout the year and include examples from the classroom so you have stories about the student to refer to during student or parent conferences.
Try This: Redefine Labels
Student IEPs are often littered with labels given to them by teachers, psychologists and other experts. These labels can carry a lot of weight, indicate what the student cannot do and are rarely positive. Flip your thinking about the labels in a student’s IEP, and write down the positive characteristics that a student who has that label might have. For example, a student with ADHD may be energetic, creative and fun-spirited.
2. Beware of Preconceived Ideas
Our beliefs about a student come from our interactions with that student, the student’s IEP or school file and stories we’ve heard about that student. So, when we see Danny’s name on our class roster, we may think, “Oh great, here’s the kid who won’t sit still. I bet he’s going to be a challenge to teach.” Coming into the classroom with that belief sets the stage for how you’ll interact with Danny.
Try This: Flip Your Thinking
The words we use communicate our beliefs. When we change our language about a student, we change our beliefs, which, in turn, changes our actions. In this scenario, reframing your thinking to “Oh great, Danny has a lot of energy. I wonder how to direct that into helping my class get more done. How can I design engaging learning experiences, purposefully infuse active learning strategies and allow for more movement for all students? This will especially support Danny to be a successful learner.” Then, think about how you’re going to start the conversation with that student. In this case, planning activities that keep Danny moving but engaged in the lessons. Provide Danny with a choice in body positioning. Does he want to work sitting, standing, at a music stand, on the floor? Does he need to take a walking break? Design movement right into the structure of the classroom learning experiences to engage more learners.
Try This: Adjective Round-Up
Write the adjectives you’d use to describe a student that you’re focused on. Then, think about how each adjective does (or does not) identify that student’s strengths and talents. Rewrite adjectives that could be more positive. For example, instead of describing a child as “a daydreamer” you may describe them as “imaginative.”
Try This: Look for Contrary Information
If you find yourself frustrated and using limiting words to describe a student (“that kid is trouble”), make it your mission to find some evidence that counteracts that idea. Observe students at lunch, sit in their group during centers or listen to them talking on the playground. Once you’ve found information that goes against your idea of a student, draw from it when you need to reset your beliefs.
3. Look for Multiple Intelligences
Howard Gardner argued that everyone has different types of intelligence, and that intelligence is not a fixed trait. To find students’ intelligences, first, presume competence; assume that you’re going to find an ability or strength and that when you don’t see a strength it’s only because you haven’t looked for it. It is our responsibility, as educators, to find evidence of students’ abilities. Then, structure your students’ experiences to find and build on those strengths. For example, a learner with musical intelligence would excel when presented with the opportunity to sing or put concepts to rap and rhythm. A student with naturalistic intelligence would benefit from observing, collecting and identifying information. A bodily kinesthetic learner would benefit from using active learning strategies that promote more movement while simultaneously learning the lesson content, such as graffiti brainstorm, walk and talk, and stepping stones. This book is packed with strategies to engage learners actively during lessons.
Try This: Create Think-Tac-Toe Boards
Build multiple intelligences into student work by creating think-tac-toe boards that incorporate choices for each intelligence but that produce the same end goal in terms of mastery of the learning targets and standards. For example, for a narrative writing assignment, students can choose from creating an alternate ending by envisioning and drawing on a movie script scroll (visual-spatial intelligence) or writing and acting out a skit sequel to the book (bodily kinesthetic). Gather ideas for integrating multiple intelligences and Bloom’s taxonomy of thinking in order to design top-notch learning experiences that intentionally create optimal inclusive learning environments for all students.
4. Person-First Language
The words you use when you talk to and about students communicate what you think about them and their potential. Person-first language puts the person before any descriptor. So, instead of the “Downs boy” or “autistic girl,” say “Stephen, who has Down syndrome” or “Nellie, who has autism.” Better yet, simply refer to a student by his or her name or another defining characteristic. “Stephen, who loves trains,” or “Nellie, who is a great artist.”
Try This: Break the Ice
Start the year with a Person-First icebreaker. Have students create collages or poems that describe who they are and have them include the various ways that others perceive them in their representation. This will introduce you to your students and start a conversation about diversity, difference and disability. Learn how to welcome conversation about differences in order to create a strong sense of community and belonging that benefits all learners.
Try This: Talk to the Age
Often, people talk to kids with disabilities in a tone that would be used with a much younger child. Avoid doing this and, instead, talk to all your fifth graders like they are, well, fifth graders. This communicates respect to the student and models strong communication to their peers.
Building success for students in your class starts with your beliefs about them and extends through your communication with and about them. We want to hear your stories. Who is the student that changed how you think about student success? What strategies have you learned to support the success of all students in your classroom?
This article is adapted from The Educator’s Handbook for Inclusive School Practices, by Julie Causton and Chelsea P. Tracy-Bronson, Ph.D. Candidate, M.A., newly available from Brookes Publishing.
Julie Causton, Ph.D., is an expert in creating and maintaining inclusive schools. She is an associate professor in the Inclusive Special Education Program at Syracuse University.
Chelsea P. Tracy-Bronson, Ph.D. Candidate, C.A.S., and M.A., works with educators, families and administrators to cultivate inclusive educational experiences for students with disabilities. She is an assistant professor in the Special Education Program at Stockton University.