By Lara Pickford-Gordon, firstname.lastname@example.org
It is the teachers’ responsibility to try and assist their students with disabilities and not say ‘I give up,’ said Dr Launcelot Brown, professor and department chair, School of Education, Duquesne University, Pennsylvania.
“Your responsibility is either, you add to the disability or you come up with coping strategies for disability,” he told attendees May 17, the second day of the Catholic Religious Education Development Institute’s (CREDI) conference on hidden disabilities titled ‘What you cannot see’ held at the Government Campus Centre, Richmond Street, Port of Spain.
Trinidad-born Dr Brown is a former teacher, special educator for students with emotional and behavioural difficulties, and former principal of the School for the Deaf. He presented on ‘Hidden Disabilities in the Local Context’.
Dr Brown shared his experience as a teacher encouraging the children in his class at the Santa Cruz RC interested in reading by starting a reading programme. On Mondays, a child was asked to tell him a story and he sat next to them transcribing the narrative into Standard English. These were typed up by his wife and he made photocopies to share as reading material in the class.
“Two things happened; it removed the evaluative threat…English improved and reading improved: [there are] many things we can do.” Although there are children whose disabilities may be “way beyond” the teacher, in other cases Brown said the first response should not be to say ‘I give up’.
Dr Brown said autistic children are not always appreciative of the need for “personal space” so he instructed when they approached someone to “take three steps backwards”. Feedback from one child was that people no longer tried to push her away because she got too close. “Sometimes it’s simple things we have to do but it’s our responsibility,” Dr Brown said.
He urged teachers to work together to come up with solutions for problems identified at their schools saying, “You will not believe the number of ideas you are going to get from within the school.”
In an interview, Dr Brown said physical disabilities can be seen but it is critical for teachers to be sensitised about hidden disabilities because these can fall on “a whole spectrum”.
The child who is “hearing impaired” is not deaf but speaks a little louder than peers or not hear certain words clearly; the visually challenged child may need the words written on the blackboard to be larger, more detailed explanations or have to sit in a particular spot in the classroom “where there is less light hitting the [black] board”.
Dr Brown said a child could have “chronic pain” or appear to be lethargic and falling asleep in class to which the teacher’s response was ‘what you do last night?’. To avoid embarrassment the child skips classes.
On May 16, Dr Tim Conway, neuro-psychologist and educator, Morris Centre Clinics, Florida and Trinidad and Tobago spoke on ‘Learning Dys-abilities: Early recognition & Evidence-based Methods for the Classroom’.
He stressed the importance of literacy for the child’s development and the intervention of the teacher to assist with weaknesses in the child’s foundational learning skills.
He cited research data which indicated 80 per cent of youths in the juvenile detention system have reading problems and 50–80 per cent of prisoners are functionally illiterate, Dr Conway said “If we don’t get you reading by age nine we have a much higher success rate of helping you make it to prison than make it to university.”
There are eight sensory inputs: touch, hearing, sight, taste, smell, proprioception (body awareness), vestibular processing (helps detect changes in regards to balance), interoception (internal awareness—emotional and physical state). Dr Conway said, “The brain takes these sensory inputs and begins to grow but it’s the nerves that have to begin to work together, if you want a child to grow those sensory inputs, build the [nerve] networks”.
While there are dyslexics who achieve high levels of success, they are only one per cent. He told educators: “We can do more if we actually help the other children to use their weaknesses and make them skills and strengths. If we improve their literacy skills, we have a much better chance they are going to be more successful.”
Children with dyslexia have trouble sounding words so their weak phonological skills have to be strengthened. “It comes down to the activities and experiences you are giving the child along with the neuroplasticity of learning”.
Neuroplasticity of learning is promoted through intensive practice, frequency, specific instructions for example a child being taught to ride a bike cannot just be told “ride it”; neurodevelopmental hierarchy—learning basic skills before high-level skills; and duration so the brain wiring (neural connections) becomes intact and what is learnt becomes automatic.
Dr Conway said “generalisation” is also needed whereby the child is taught how to apply skills in multiple environments. He said the brain wiring can be changed over time as new fibre pathways form. “That is the impact of your teaching in school; it begins to change the brain structure”.