Mainstreaming Exceptional Students into Technology Classrooms

There is something wonderful about computers and children. It seems to help equalize the learning and playing field for a lot of students. Also, when working in technology, students have a better opportunity to learn at their own pace, as well as to learn in their own unique ways.

Since I began teaching technology, I have run the gamut of student exceptionalities. But then, I have always felt an affinity for Special Needs Students. In college, I volunteered with profoundly mentally disabled children. Even during student teaching, I found myself giving up my lunch and prep times to hang out in the Exceptional Ed classrooms.

I was the winner in all of that, though! I got to meet children who were still going and still struggling, against all odds. I got to help in the local Special Olympics as a coach. And I got to learn from the best teachers in the business, the ESE (Exceptional Student Education) teachers.

Upon first glance upon entering an ESE classroom you might think that nothing is going on. Sometimes the room is very still. But this is all deceiving! It is because most ESE teachers know something that the rest of us don't. Patience is everything.

ESE classrooms are also very structured. Children with learning disabilities seem to do better in structured environments where they know what is expected of them almost every minute of the day. It can be a comfort knowing when things are going to happen.

I have watched the ESE teachers repeatedly teach one concept, using many different strategies. I have seen them continue trying to encourage a child, long after I, personally, would have given up. Then, I have seen the look of complete joy when a 15-year-old profoundly disabled child finally learns the meaning of a danger or stop sign.

In my classroom I volunteer to include TMD (Trainable Mentally Disabled) students, as well as other levels of Exceptional students in my classroom. I wonder if the general public is even aware of all the exceptionalities the average teacher is required to be prepared to accommodate in the average classroom? We have all had classrooms in which the diversity ran from gifted to LD, with AD/HD, dyslexia and other learning disabilities thrown in as well. And each child has to be taught, and each disability has to be accommodated.

The goals of mainstreaming are to provide students with:

  • opportunities to interact with others
  • varied models of presentation and print materials
  • choices - and teachers need to wait while expecting them to respond
  • opportunities to communicate

Mainstreaming must also address individual student needs. Some of the main categories of accommodations are 1) Employ effective motivational techniques 2) Provide organizational assistance 3) Alter design of materials 4) Alter presentation of lessons and 5) Alter the physical environment.

With technology and a firm belief in Constructivist teaching, I find myself having to do very little in extra accommodation with my mainstreamed students. This is because it is already built into the way I teach. And thanks to my 'background' in ESE, I have also learned to be very structured in the way I conduct my classes. (This is very hard for me, as my chaotic desk will attest!)

My class is designed with learning disabilities in mind. I try to present the information at least three ways. I use visuals, I talk about it, and then I guide the students through the concept in a working example. The students do everything at their own pace. This also works well for those who finish early and can take the basic concepts and improve upon them. Take for example when I taught Flash 5.0. The object of the lesson was to learn how to make simple animated buttons for navigation. All of the students made buttons, but some of the gifted students went beyond and created more advanced animations, as in Click on the Planet

I have also created a packet for my special needs ESE students. This packet includes software from Knowledge Adventure (JumpStart Preschool, JumpStart Kindergarten and JumpStart 1st Grade; as well as MathBlaster) The ESE kids love these programs, and find them relatively easy to use. I have also created a disk with simple work for students, such as writing their name, their address, or words that are used often in everyday life. It looks like the work assigned to the other students, but is individualized to the ESE students' needs.

Each class I teach begins with three journals. Anyone who uses bell work (daily work or journals) will sing its praises because they know it gets students mentally ready to work without yelling, screaming or other tactics that teachers and parents use to get students attention.

My three journals also only take up the allocated 5-10 minutes. But with 3 journals, I have a lot of leeway to work with ESE students. My three journals make use of technology, the Internet, and reading/writing skills. I use a word of the day from, a historic event of the day from the History Channel and a journal of my own making (usually class lexicon).

A word of the day introduces all of the students to new words (or sometimes to new meanings of old words!) I love this activity because WordSmith also has audio, and the students hear the word, as well as write it. (And usually, if it's silly enough, they say it to each other, over and over and over) This helps to accommodate many 'average' exceptionalities.

With a History of the Day, the students have to read a short article and summarize it into their own words. (Concisely, too, using only 3 sentences.)

Now, what the majority of the students don't see (don't notice!) are the ESE students who aren't summarizing the history article, but are painstakingly copying the first sentence, word for word. Or, the students who aren't doing these journals at all but have their own journals to complete. Many of the TMD students have their own journals in their packets that I created. The entries in these journals are things like writing their names, or their address. (Some of the TMD students have trouble writing their last names, and don't know their address)

I also use the buddy system with some students, pairing them up with other students to help them. I used to use gifted students to buddy the other children with, but I have found that other ESE students (with less severe disabilities like ADD or dyslexia), or even those with behavior problems, work best with the special needs students. I don't know if they are more empathetic, or whether they enjoy being the ones doing the helping for a change.

In my beginning computer classes, I have found that I can teach almost any level of student without too much juggling of materials and strategies. This is because the students are learning Notepad (almost all students can be taught to open Notepad and to write something in there!), MS Word (again, opening and writing anything) and MS Paint.

Now when the average student is working on writing a story and putting in clipart and other formatting techniques, the ESE student might be copying a kindergarten or pre-school book. They might just be writing their name and address. The important thing is they are in a classroom, with students their own age, working on something that will benefit them.

I think my best success story with mainstreaming involves a TMD student in my beginning classes. He was very high functioning and I had to make very few accommodations for him. I had arranged for a chat between a NASA engineer and my students. It was to be moderated, with the engineer only having the time to answer a few of my students' questions. I was so surprised, and so pleased when one of the questions that was answered was posed by my TMD student. I remember his face - and that of all the students. We all stood up and cheered!

The advanced classes are a bit trickier to mainstream than the more seriously disabled ESE students. But again, the journals, packet and a buddy system are a lifesaver. The students all come in, and immediately begin work on journals. In the advanced classes, I usually have two to three buddies for each ESE student. This way, if the ESE student needs a lot of one-on-one, no one buddy is going to miss out on everything that is going on in class.

I am always surprised at how the students fight over who is going to get to help. Now, realize, I teach middle school. I also teach technology which is still a bit top heavy with boys. So I have boys fighting over who is going to lose computer time to help a disabled child. I LOVE IT! And since I do teach computers, the students never want to get behind, and they take the responsibility to make sure that they personally get all missed work.

I am sure that if you are teaching other subjects, the students might not be so gung-ho to get old back-work, so if you also mainstream, and use the buddy system in other classes, I would make sure that you are prepared in advance to take care of the volunteering students and their work.

I guess through all this, I didn't talk much about the ESE students themselves. In 4 years, I have not had any trouble, whatsoever with a mainstreamed seriously disabled ESE student. Not one has tried to disrupt my class, not one has done anything weird or inappropriate. But every one has come to me hugging and thanking me for allowing them into my classes. They want to be with the other kids. They want to feel a part of the school and not isolated.

General Strategies for Teaching Students with Various Learning Disabilities

Mainstreaming Strategies

Including ESE students into the regular classroom

Exceptional Student Education: Common Abbreviations

Accommodations for Students with Communications and Learning Disorders

Email: Rosemary Shaw