13 July 2023
Teaching children with special educational needs is a mission
Interview with Barbara Skrok, an English teacher with over 40 years of experience and trainer of other educators in teaching neuroatypical children and those with other difficulties. Lecturer and participant in numerous trainings and conferences on polysensory teaching and inclusive education.
Children with special educational needs – what does it mean?
It means children affected by various types of neurodevelopmental disorders, for example, developmental dyslexia, ADHD, and autism spectrum disorder. The most common of this trio is dyslexia: dysorthography and dysgraphia, which usually go hand in hand. Less common is ADHD: attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. The smallest percentage in mainstream schools – but still growing – are children affected by the autism spectrum.
According to government data, there are 280,000 students with special educational needs in Polish schools. Are there more neuroatypical children now, or are they being diagnosed more often?
There are more and more of them. The occurrence of dyslexia, ADHD, or autism spectrum has a multi-layered and complicated background, also touching on civilization issues. This phenomenon is influenced not only by genetic burdens but also by pregnancies at risk, difficult births, and others.
Another issue is the growing public awareness, which is reflected in a greater number of diagnoses. In the past, children with ADHD were considered naughty and unwilling to focus, children with dyslexia were considered lazy or “too stupid to learn to write well,” and children on the autism spectrum were reproved for looking at the tip of their shoes or the window when we spoke to them. Today, an increasing number of teachers and parents are realizing that it is not the child’s malice but certain limitations resulting from how his nervous system functions. Limitations that- I want to emphasize – are only a drop in the ocean of such a person’s capabilities and potential.
What do you mean?
Such children also have a lot of strengths. Kids with dyslexia have an amazing ability to visualize the material. Students affected by the autism spectrum – an exceptional memory, and those with ADHD – an impressive creativity and out-of-the-box thinking. The teacher’s job is to bring out these strengths and work on the weak ones. After all, that’s what school is for. Supporting individual development.
Some people believe that these disorders are a collective fantasy and that parents arrange diagnoses for their children so that they will have a “concessionary fare” at school.
This “concessionary fare” is the vision of people who have nothing to do with education. The core curriculum is the same for everyone. It applies equally to neurotypical children and those with special educational needs. But when teaching the latter, it is worthwhile to reach for the methods described by specialists: psychologists and pedagogues, in order to help the child in the educational process and yourself – to facilitate the work.
You also train other teachers in this area. How did it start with you?
Years ago, I worked in a language school. We had quite a few children with developmental dyslexia and a few with other difficulties, including visual impairment and intellectual disability. In the city where I live – and it has a population of almost a quarter of a million – there was not a single language school that would take children with diagnoses. I suggested to the owner of the school that we do it. I adapted teaching to the student’s psychophysical abilities, used polysensory and other methods, and invented new teaching tools. The children began to succeed, their problems at school became less and less, the parents were satisfied, and our drawer of diagnosis statements began to run out of space. At some point, it became clear that I would not take every willing child under my teaching wing, but I could train other teachers, showing them the ready-made techniques I had tested. First, I trained two, then three teachers, but this circle began to expand strongly. So then I also started to prepare educational videos, wrote a book, and began to be invited to congresses, conferences, trainings, and to other language schools.
We’re talking at the English Teaching Market 2023 conference, where you also led a workshop. I was surprised that it consisted of sharing very tangible, ready-made techniques.
Because that’s what teachers come here for: to bring a set of practical tools from these workshops.
I’m happy about that because when I started working 40 years ago, very few teachers wanted and knew how to work with children with special educational needs. Over these four decades, this has changed a lot.
Thanks to what?
First of all, thanks to wider access to knowledge. There are ready-made materials on the education of children with special needs; there is access to digital libraries, and you can really learn a lot without even leaving home. It is enough to want to.
There are some teachers who still don’t want to.
Many educators, especially in public schools, are reaching professional burnout. This is sad because teaching is more than just a job. It is a mission. And it is especially a mission to teach children with special needs. If someone doesn’t understand this, it’s better that they don’t get into it at all.
What is this mission about?
Every teacher has an impact on the future of their students. Often a very big one. It can help the child, but unfortunately, it can also harm. In the case of neuroatypical students – different from their peers, usually very sensitive – the probability of both is much higher.
That is why it is so important for the teacher to know what special educational needs are, how to recognize them, how to help, what tools to use, and how to facilitate such a child’s learning. If the teacher has this knowledge, he can help a lot. And this is twofold: working with such a child, he will be able to approach him individually and adapt techniques and methods. This benefits the student, the teacher, and the rest of the class. Makes work easier for everybody. Second: if the child is undiagnosed, and the teacher sees his otherness, he can talk to the parents and show them where they can go. Of course, the teacher is not a therapist and has no competence to diagnose. But he has years of working with children and can often “catch” something that mom and dad don’t notice.
When is the right time to diagnose neurodevelopmental disorders?
The sooner, the better. Autism spectrum disorder or ADHD can be diagnosed as early as preschool age. With dyslexia, it’s a bit different because diagnosis is only possible when the child can already read and write. Thus, children in grades 1-3 do not yet get an opinion, but an experienced educator can often “catch” their difficulties – he can, by the way, use the Dyslexia Risk Scale test developed by Prof. Marta Bogdanowicz – and start working with them. A child with dyslexia – or at risk of dyslexia – has problems with reading longer texts (so we can divide them into smaller fragments) or reduced perceptiveness (so we can do with him as many “find the difference” type exercises as possible). If you start working with such a child quickly and do it systematically, he will have fewer difficulties in the future.
The same is true for other dysfunctions. Take the autism spectrum. It is natural for a neurotypical child to say “Good morning,” “Thank you,” or “Excuse me.” We learn this through observation, by imitating other people, and by fitting into social norms. Children with autism do not perceive social reality in this way. Because of the different ways their nervous system and psyche work, they won’t imitate others with such naturalness, but that doesn’t mean they won’t follow social norms for the rest of their lives. In social therapy, they will learn to do so through intellectual means.
How else can you help a child with special needs?
There are many of these methods. I’ll give an example: for a child with dyslexia, a single contact with a text is nothing. A drop in the ocean. He will not get anything out of it. Such a child reads analytically.
(The interviewee takes a piece of paper and writes “edible mushrooms” in the mirror letters). You see, now I was writing analytically, thinking about each letter’s mirror image. Similarly, a child with dyslexia writes and reads: he decodes each letter, puts it together slowly, and is so focused on it that he can barely understand the text.
In the sixth or seventh grade, we rework the text about Gulliver in the Land of Lilliput. First, I play a recording of the text to the students; they listen to it and number the pictures according to the order of events. When they finish, they turn the sheet over to the other side, read the whole text, and check whether they have arranged the pictures correctly. Then I play “banana story” with them: I replace selected nouns with bananas. Those in the singular – for one banana, in the plural – for a bunch. I read aloud such a “banana” text; the class laughs, it’s fun, but it’s another contact with the text. Then I distribute the same “banana” text to them in printed form, and I ask them how many bananas do you remember? Can you reconstruct the text? If necessary, I develop further creative ways for dyslexic students to have as much contact with the text as possible. In the end, they really understand it, not just decode the letters. It really matters for students with dyslexia. And for the neurotypical ones, it’s a fun, educational adventure they enjoy.
We talk about individualized attention to neuroatypical students. But at HTT, we dream of a school that treats every student this way.
This is not a utopia. Many teachers are already approaching each student – with or without diagnoses – this way. Because if you think about it: every person is different and, in a way, unique. Every student deserves special treatment tailored to his abilities and personality. The school of the future is one in which all teachers have the knowledge and passion to teach in this way.