With the right support, students with disabilities can reach their potential
There was a time when not all children were considered capable of learning, when many students with disabilities were kept out of school completely. “They used to use the term ‘educatable.’ I hated that,” says Lila Schob, who has been an educator for 20 years. “Everyone can be educated. Everyone deserves an education.”
Today, from large public districts to small private campuses, schools across L.A. County are making progress toward that goal of educating all learners.
Finding Their Potential
Schob is a special education teacher at Altadena Elementary School, a full-inclusion campus in the Pasadena Unified School District. She also works Club 21 Learning and Resource Center and with groups of parents, most of whose children are in inclusive classrooms. Schob helps these parents figure out how to support children with cognitive and developmental disabilities at school.
“One of the main questions that come up is, ‘How is my child going to succeed?’” Schob says. “There’s that fear. ‘How is my child going to keep up with the work? What do I do to make it so that they understand?’”
Claudia Koochek, head of Westmark School, a private school in Encino focused on educating students with language-based learning differences, says parents often come to them after watching their children struggle in other settings. “They come in with a lot of fear and anxiety,” Koochek says.
Students trying to learn without the right supports, meanwhile, can spend all their energy just struggling to keep up with the work – with no opportunity to enjoy learning or develop their unique talents. “The child comes in not necessarily knowing what they’re capable of,” says Koochek. “Their brains haven’t really been able to relax and celebrate their strengths.”
Types of Supports
Supports available to help students with physical, cognitive and developmental disabilities and other learning differences seem almost as numerous as the learners themselves. Keri Tapie, coordinator of the Instructional Technology and Assistive Technology Program in the Los Angeles Unified School District, breaks them into “no-tech,” “low-tech,” “middle-tech” and “high-tech.”
No-tech supports include things like slant boards to elevate a desk so a student can write more easily, or a pencil grip to help them hold a pencil. A low-tech audio device might let a student press a button to answer a pre-recorded “yes” or “no” to a classroom question.
A middle-tech portable keyboard goes farther, speaking out the words that students type, or assisting typed speech with pop-up lists of words to select from. High-tech supports include eye-gaze technology, which lets students scan and select answers with their eyes, and even robots that can attend class for students who can’t physically be there. LAUSD has a small fleet of these that students test-piloted last year.
LAUSD also uses Unique Learning System, a set of standards-based interactive online learning tools designed to help students with disabilities access the curriculum.
James Koontz, a specialist in the LAUSD Moderate to Severe Instructional Program in the Division of Special Education, oversaw the distribution of almost 300 “tech tubs” with iPads to help classroom teachers and students access the system last year, and will deploy an additional 300 this fall and 300 more in the final phase.
Unique Learning includes supports such as text-to-speech and interactive tools to facilitate lessons. Koontz says a math lesson might begin with a brief reading that introduces a concept. Then students might be presented with a selection of items and asked to drag the correct amount of money into a box on screen to “purchase” the items. The focus is on real-life situations because, Koontz says, “life is a word problem.” The work is in small groups, with paraprofessionals guiding students.
At Westmark, lessons are presented in a multisensory format. So, a teacher might write instructions on the board, tell students the instructions verbally, and the student will be highlighting or taking notes. Instructions are repeated often but kept brief. “A lot of times we talk too much, and then our student gets lost,” Koochek says. Students who have trouble with transitions are supported by predictable school routines, advance warning of any changes, and classroom use of timers.
Schob, who works in classrooms where students with disabilities are included in the general population, facilitates modifications and accommodations. Students who struggle with memorization, for instance, might be given a modification of 10 spelling words per week to work on, while the rest of the class has 20. Or they might focus only on the beginning sounds, or specific vowels that are in words. “So if they’re working with the long ‘o’ vowel sound, as long as they put the ‘o,’ they should get credit,” she says.
Students who struggle with multiplication might be given the accommodation of a multiplication chart to help them keep up with the rest of the lesson, or might work on “skip counting,” which is counting by twos, fives, tens, etc., and teaches the same beginning skill.
The Value of Peers
One of the values of educational supports is that they allow students to work with material appropriate for their age. Shob isn’t in favor of, for instance, giving a struggling third grader first-grade spelling words. “They’re in third grade. They need to know that material,” she says.
At LAUSD, the Unique Learning System helps high school students with learning differences access age-appropriate material rather than drop down to the elementary curriculum. “Just because kids can’t read at the level of their peers doesn’t mean they aren’t going through the same emotions and feelings,” Koontz says.
At Westmark, all of the students have struggled in past educational settings, and so are especially supportive of their peers. “It’s an amazing, supportive environment,” says Koochek. “We’re giving them the space and the time to discover their learning styles and to own their learning.”
Peer support is also key at The Help Group, a nonprofit that operates 10 specialized day schools for pre-K through high school students with autism spectrum disorder, learning and developmental delays and other issues. Students come together in a safe learning environment where kids can take risks and teachers can focus on common challenges. “Social relationships and friendships develop more quickly and are more meaningful,” says Vice President of Programs Jason Bolton, Psy.D.
This means that students, despite their disabilities, help and support one another. “Where there’s strengths in one student, there’s challenges in another,” Bolton says. So a student who struggles in one class might get help from a friend, but then might help that same friend through a challenge in a different class.
Advice For Parents
Parents also play a role in supporting their young learners.
Follow your instincts: If you notice problems, or are hearing your child’s teacher say, “He’s not paying attention,” or “He’s not sitting still,” don’t wait to seek answers or for your child to “grow out of it.” “Follow your instincts. Follow your gut,” says Koochek, who urges parents to seek out an evaluation. If your child is in public school, go to the resource specialist for help. “It’s never too early or never too late.”
Seek out the right program: You are looking for a school that will recognize the needs of your individual child, and address that child’s individual strengths and challenges. “You also want to feel that your voice is going to be heard,” says Bolton, the father of 9-year-old triplets, one of whom attended a Help Group program. You are the expert on your child’s needs. And don’t give up. “This process is not easy. There are times you’ll feel like you’ve turned over every stone, but you haven’t,” Bolton says, adding that L.A. parents are lucky to have many great options. “You will know when your child is in the right place.”
Work with teachers and fellow parents: You are the expert in your child’s abilities and challenges, so you probably already have ideas about how to address them. “Parents have great modifications they already do, that they’ve already done for their first five years,” says Schob. Looking for ideas? Check with your fellow parents, and check out the resources online. “The Internet is your best friend,” Schob says. “Whatever it is you’re struggling with, just type that in: accomodations for multiplication, modification for spelling. Something will come up.” Bring your knowledge and ideas to the teacher in a positive, supportive way and see what you can accomplish together.
And along the way, Shob reminds parents to focus on the progress. “If they make huge steps, celebrate,” she says. “If they make tiny baby steps, celebrate.”
Accomplishment is the goal, because expectations for all students have changed in recent years. The focus has shifted toward helping all learners reach their maximum potential. “No matter how old they are and what their abilities are now, we need to work hard as a community – parents, teachers, students – to get kids to be the most independent they can be,” says Koontz. “We have to be engaging them. We have to be guiding them to be the best they can be.”
Christina Elston is Editor of L.A. Parent.