A Classroom That Supports Children With Special Needs

This is a close up photo of a girl student in a special needs classroom. A young girl is smiling into the camera while her chin is resting on the back of her right hand. In her left hand she is holding a pencil and there is a book in front of her.

Think back over your day,” asks the teacher. “What do you feel you need help with?”

Three children sit on top of their desks, their legs dangling, faces staring intently in response.

“Think back over your day,” asks the teacher. “What do you feel you need help with?”

Three children sit on top of their desks, their legs dangling, faces staring intently in response. In the back of the class, another child, Karan, is finishing a game. This is his downtime; he’ll join the group when he’s done. Another teacher, sitting next to one of the children in front, writes down the question, and the boy, Shaunak, takes on a thoughtful look. Shaunak has autism and struggles with understanding spoken instructions. He’s great with reading and writing, though. Arya, seated on her chair, pulls up a pencil from the place marked out on her desk with red tape. Structures like this help her organize her space.

One boy raises his hand.

“I fought with Devansh today,” he says.

“Would you like help to resolve this?” asks the teacher.

Yes, nods Rajiv. Rajiv struggles with peer interactions and often gets into fights. The group is eager to help him, though. After he describes his problem, the children chime in with solutions. He can say sorry, suggests one girl. He could describe how he feels. He can walk away.

“What do you think, Rajiv? Which would you like to try?” asks the teacher.

“I’ll explain how I’m feeling and say sorry,” he decides.

“Great, write it in your planner,” says the teacher.

The children complete their planners and move to the next class. Some work independently. Others, like Devansh, who struggles with reading and writing, work in pairs. Devansh’s partner helps him spell out words and read the steps on the worksheet.

Children with learning disabilities and with autism struggle with social interactions as well as academics. Often, in schools, the primary breakdown for our children can be in how they interact with their peers, their ability to make friends and sustain relationships. Our kids are often bullied or become the bully. Interactions like the one described above make problem solving apparent for our children. With scaffolds like these, they can thrive.

At the Gateway School of Mumbai, our goal is to determine how best a child learns and what he or she needs in order to independently attempt a task. At Gateway, we look at the behaviours of our children as an insight into what they need. We constantly ask ourselves — why? Why is he running out of his seat? Is it a sensory need? Does the movement help him think better? Is the content of the class appropriate? Is there too much language? Once we identify the whys, we then ask ourselves — how? How will I support this child in class? Does he need a movement break, like Karan? Does he need spoken language to be supported by visuals, like Shaunak? Does he need help problem solving, like Rajiv? Can I break it down into smaller steps for him? Understanding the why helps us create the how and put in place structures to support our kids. We call these structures scaffolds.

Scaffolds can fall into three categories: physical, social and academic. Children like Arya need help organizing themselves spatially. They benefit from allocated spaces to keep their materials, being taught how to use an organizer, being seated in a relatively less distracting place in class (right up front, facing the teacher, rather than looking at peers). These are physical scaffolds. Other children, like Rajiv, do not always pick up on social cues. These need to be explicitly highlighted for them. Teaching turn-taking behaviour, highlighting non-verbal signals, drawing attention to expected behaviours in different settings — these are social scaffolds that help students better navigate social situations. Finally, academic scaffolds help students access the curriculum. Children who struggle with reading and writing, like Devansh, may benefit from using modified worksheets (e.g. circling instead of writing the answer, instructions in simpler language), being paired with better readers, or simply having the teacher read out instructions to the class. Scaffolds such as larger fonts, designated spaces to write in (as on worksheets instead of blank sheets), and bulleted instructions help students locate and organize information more efficiently and, therefore, stand a higher chance of success. With technology, the scaffolds that can be put in place are innumerable — once you understand the why.

As teachers of children with special needs, we often hear people suggesting a struggling child doesn’t want to work hard, or he’s not motivated. And to this we reply: Would you? I, personally, really struggle with Marathi; if every class were taught in that language, would I be motivated to learn? I doubt it. But if someone broke it down for me, translated the content to a language or images I understood, gave it to me in bite-sized pieces so I could progress at a pace that allowed me to understand, I might be willing to try. Every child has the ability and the willingness to learn. It’s up to us, teachers and parents, to tap into how best the child learns so that he or she can experience success and then, motivation to try harder.

It’s not easy. We experience, and our children experience, failure often. But there are successes, too. And it’s these successes that push us to try harder, that push our children to keep persevering, even though something seems difficult.

Disclaimer: This post was originally published on The Swaddle and has been cross-posted with due permission.