This article is about how English teachers can manage better with children with learning disabilities in a camp setting. I am a qualified teacher of English as a second language and I am going to tell you about some of the techniques I use in the classroom to support children with ADHD, autism and dyslexia.
Autism, or autism spectrum disorder (ASD), refers to a broad range of conditions characterized by challenges with social skills, repetitive behaviors, speech and nonverbal communication. We now know that there is not one autism but many subtypes, and each person with autism can have unique strengths and challenges.
Camp life can be particularly challenging for children on the autistic spectrum, as they must adapt to a new routine and meet lots of new people. In an environment full of new challenges and stimuli, an autistic child, who may be extremely sensitive to noise, smells, touch and light, may easily become overwhelmed and stressed in the chaos of camp life.
How to support a child with autism at a language camp
Classroom techniques for learning
Scientists have proved that stronger and more lasting memories are likely to be formed when a person is relaxed and the memory-related neurons in the brain fire in sync with certain brain waves. This means that when any student is relaxed, regardless of age or ability, they are more likely to retain the new information they are learning.
When we are relaxed we also perform better, manage better and work much more effectively. For this reason creating a relaxed classroom environment is crucial to help not only disadvantaged students but all students.
How to create a relaxed and stimulating environment for an autistic student
Autism varies hugely and no two cases are the same. We must take time to get to know the individual so we can respond to their personal needs. However, there are some more general things specific to autism that can help us to create a relaxed environment in the classroom for autistic children.
- Routine. Having patterns and routine helps autistic children to cope in a world that can seem rude, boisterous and chaotic. So if you find an activity they respond to, repeat this format regularly.
- Clear boundaries. Being clear about the classroom rules helps children so feel safe and secure. Shouting in a classroom is a sign of loss of control from the teacher. Instead, we must show that there are clear boundaries by demonstrating clear consequences when they are broken.
- Role models/ buddies. I’ve often paired up students with older children in the class who can assist them and support them. This really helps them to develop new social connections and the older children generally enjoy their new role of responsibility and take it very seriously.
- Quiet time. Camps can be very noisy places and having a part of the English lesson designated as ‘quiet time’ can help children to alleviate over-stimulation.
- Clear instructions. This is particularly important when we are in a second-language environment. We as teachers must engage our creativity, using pictures, mime, and clear, simple language that is easy to understand.
All of these techniques can make an autistic child feel safer and more relaxed in the English classroom, and lead to a happier child with a more advanced level of English.
ADHD stands for attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. A person with ADHD has differences in brain development and brain activity that affect attention, the ability to sit still, and self-control. All kids struggle at times to pay attention, listen and follow directions, sit still, or wait their turn. But for kids with ADHD, the struggles are harder and happen more often.
Learning English with ADHD
The traditional classroom environment can be very challenging for students with ADHD, who struggle to remain seated and retain attention for long periods of time. I have heard this behaviour being labelled by some ignorant teachers as attention-seeking, distracting, unteachable, intentionally provocative and extremely irritating. I have even heard such children being labelled as ‘evil’. We must begin to recognise that children are individuals, not components in a machine, and generate systems that support their individual needs.
So how can we support ADHD in the classroom?
Start building positive relationships outside of the classroom.
I tend to line the children up outside the classroom before we enter. This is not a time to bark orders at them, but instead a time to connect with them, to build rapor/ relationship with them using informal chit-chat, to connect with them on their level. Children are more likely to take learning from someone who recognises and respects them for the strange and brilliant individuals that they are.
Use non-confrontational language.
Instead of saying something negative to your students before they enter the class, such as ‘Why are you always so loud?’ and ‘Can’t you even line up in a straight line?’ change your language to recognise the children who are following your instructions, and re-inforce good behaviour with positive celebration.
If someone can’t sit still in their chair, don’t make them! Instead, try using their energy to help assist with your class. Give them jobs, like monitoring materials and assisting you with presentations.
Allow for movement.
If someone can’t stop fidgeting, or seems anxious, give them something sensory to hold. We made stress balls at the camp and this really helped to alleviate tension within the classes. Actually having something to hold has been shown to improve focus and boost memory not just in students with ADHD.
Give students plenty of warnings in advance when an activity is scheduled to end/ change, so they can begin to mentally prepare and adjust for what is coming. This means that when the time comes, they will be ready and more organised for the change-over.
Encourage hands-on learning
Create learning opportunities where children experience things first-hand. Something I found to be very effective when working with students with symptoms of ADHD was to have them ‘play out’ stories in the classroom, taking on character roles and participating in the action. This really helped them to become ‘stars’, increase their confidence and channel their high levels of energy into something positive and productive. You can have students writing out and act out a play, record an assignment on videotape or take apart and put together a model of a miniature eyeball when studying the human body.
All of the above techniques are useful not just for children with ADHD, but for working with many different children within the classroom setting. It is not only the children’s job to adapt to our methods, but our job to adapt to their needs.
And often, when we can stop seeing children who are different from us as having ‘disabilities’ and start seeing them as our teachers, they can become very valuable sources of learning for us, to expand our knowledge of the world and other peoples different super-strengths. I tend to see the children in my classes as like different x-men, who are just waiting to have their own special powers discovered, realised and celebrated.
Dyslexia is a specific learning disability in reading. Kids with dyslexia have trouble reading accurately and fluently. They may also have trouble with reading comprehension, spelling and writing. When children struggle with reading, they can often lose their confidence in their own abilities and feel pressurised and impaired because they cannot compete with the other stronger readers in the class.
How to manage with dyslexia in the classroom.
Brain imaging studies have shown brain differences between people with and without dyslexia. These differences occur in areas of the brain involved with key reading skills. Those skills are knowing how sounds are represented in words, and recognizing what written words look like.
The brain can change, however. (This concept is known as neuroplasticity.) Studies show brain activity in people with dyslexia changes after they get proper tutoring. And scientists are learning more all the time.
Strengths related to dyslexia
Sometimes we as teachers and parents are so focused on what the child can’t do, that we forget the focus on their strengths. Dyslexic students have brilliant spacial reasoning and memory for narrative, and often have much more advanced puzzle-solving and critical thinking abilities than their non-dyslexic counterparts.
They also tend to be more imaginative and creative. As adults, they become successful businessmen and entrepreneurs. We can increase their self-confidence by making sure that in and out of the classroom we are celebrating their strengths and not just focusing on their weaknesses.
Experiment with different ways of reading
For example, some children are more comfortable reading upside-down, or sideways. This is not the conventional way that we are taught to read, but it’s incredible how something as simple as turning the book upside down can help.
Find your dyslexic learner’s strength
Are they a visual learner, kinaesthetic learner, audio learner? When you establish what kind of sensory engagement they enjoy and benefit from most, you can set them tasks based around this information, for example, if they are kinaesthetic, you can use games and treasure hunts, active puzzle-building and sensory letters made of different materials, or a technique might be as simple as writing letter shapes with your finger on their backs, and getting them to write on each other’s backs and guess the letter. \this helps them to memorise letter shapes.
Using the internet
There are great resources online that can be incorporated into lessons, like read aloud stories where the words are highlighted as they are read. This helps children connect whole words with one sound. Sometimes dyslexics have more problems with slowly sounding out the individual letters in a word. If they learn the whole shape of the word, as more advanced learners do, this can speed up their reading skills.
There are hundreds of techniques for supporting children with dyslexia to thrive in the classroom. As a teacher, it is more about taking the courage to experiment and have fun with reading. This way we can discover what works best for the individual and progress this way.
The most important thing is that we understand that when a child is labelled as ‘disadvantaged’ in an educational system, it is not because their brain is smaller or because they are ill. It is because the system is not set up to support them to learn in the way they are naturally wired to learn best.
Article by Alice Turner, LuckyKids teacher