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What Are Classrooms Like for Students with Learning Disabilities?

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How do general education classroom environments respond to individual differences and needs? How readily do teachers alter their forms of classroom organization; how readily do they modify approaches?

Common classroom conditions can and do affect many students adversely-to some degree, at one time or another, in one way or other-but, some students are especiallyvulnerable to classrooms’ hazards (e.g., children of poverty, nonnative speakers, those with attention deficits). Students with learning disabilities are among the mostvulnerable-at chronic risk for “not learning” under the aforementioned conditions, for long-term academic and social problems, and for lifelong debilitating side-effects of their classroom experiences.

Classrooms can be perilous in a number of ways for students with learning disabilities. Remember:

Crowded
Classrooms are crowded environments, arranged to maximize general, not close, observation of students. Being a member of a crowd is hazardous to Keesha’s learning; she fades into the woodwork.

Busy
They are busy places, filled with rapid interactions. Rapid verbal exchanges leave Dan with a consistent residue of confusion and misunderstanding (and he equates asking questions with being stupid).

Time-driven
Mostly driven by clock time, they rarely operate in the flow of time. And yet, despite time pressure, much of students’ classroom career is spent either waiting or being interrupted. Transitions and interruptions batter Nicholas’ already fragile orientation in time and space. His frustration flares up when he loses his grip in time/space and, what’s more, he is convinced that you take pleasure in constantly not letting him finish what he’s doing.

Public arenas for students
For students, classrooms are public arenas. The public spotlight can, at any moment, bare this child’s failings (or that one’s worthiness), making clear the official pecking order. Jose experiences the spotlight of public attention as shame, even though you have no such intent. This perception determines his behavior during anything he senses is intended to “teach” him. Avoiding exposure is habitual now and has stunted his willingness to try.

Private for teachers
For teachers, classrooms are private domains, rarely encroached for any length of time or depth of observation by another adult. The privacy of a teacher’s domain confines what can be seen about what’s going on. More adults, seeing from more angles, might notice that Daniel has extraordinary powers of concentration, except during reading and spelling (when he has attention deficits and behavior problems).

Teachers talk
Teacher talk predominates in classrooms, especially during times of intentional teaching. Student talk is minimal, especially during times of intentional learning. In order to understand and remember content area information, both Dan and Jose need to talk a lot, formulating, rehearsing, and verbalizing the steps of study tasks. They need to talk just when their teacher believes that they should be quietly “working.” Further, they require coaching in how to do this.

Whole-group instruction
Overwhelmingly, classroom instruction relies on whole group instruction, accompanied by large amounts of loosely overseen seat work. Without frequent clarifying interchanges, Keesha and Nicholas are left in the dust of group-focused lessons and semi-supervised seatwork.

Activity-focused
The instructional focus is largely at the activity level, with teachers’ expressing satisfaction when “things are going well,” with students enjoying themselves. When the teacher’s focus is on the activity flow, it is not evident that Jose is mentally on the fringes, not learning much of anything. He is terrific at engaging in an aspect of an activity that doesn’t push his edges. Notably, Jose loves copying.

Progress is monitored
Checking in on students’ performance is frequent, but uneven; probing individual students’ understanding, providing instructive feedback or monitoring individual progress is rare. It is crucial to give Dan corrective feedback as he practices reading words and to keep weekly track of his word reading progress. Because advancement is slow and in smaller than-common steps, both Dan and the teacher need to see the tangible traces of his learning in order to stay motivated.

These students’ particular needs get inadequate attention in most general education classrooms as currently constituted. Common, often central, characteristics of classrooms are at odds with the kinds of activities, interchanges, and consistency their learning requires. While it is possible to remold classrooms to respond more effectively to Dan, Jose, Nicholas and Keesha, there are a number of sizable barriers to such change. One has just been outlined: “not seeing” how particular classroom features are directly affecting what happens (and doesn’t happen) throughout the school day and, importantly, how changes in these features can alter classroom dynamics and learning.

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