I was recently speaking with a student about the things that made it difficult for him to focus in class and he said it was mostly the noise level and other people’s conversations that distracted him. When I asked if there were sound-cancelling headphones available to him, and, if so, maybe he should try them. His response was “There’s one set of headphones and they’re for the special needs student.” I found two parts of this response distressing.
The problem with "othering" students
Firstly, my student, who is kind and considerate and knows that everyone is different, used language and tone which perpetuated the stigma associated with “special needs” as wrong or “other.” In a truly inclusive classroom, there wouldn’t be “the special needs student,” there would be “the student with the purple headphones,” or, even better, simply “Johnny Smith.” In a truly inclusive classroom, each student would be known and celebrated for their uniqueness, not identified by their differences. Because my student has bought into the categorization we tend to do in Western society, he doesn’t want to engage in anything that associates him with an “other,” no matter how useful the activity or tool might be, which brings me to my second point. . . .
Instead, offer it to all
If we offer an accommodation or adaptation to one student, it should be available to all students – this is the foundation of Universal Design for Learning. As soon as we say or show that a certain tool is only for “Little Johnny,” we are segregating that student and stigmatizing the tool which may be beneficial for many students. My student who needs help filtering distracting noises is reticent to use sound-cancelling headphones because that would mean he’s “special needs.” Meanwhile, I’m sure there are many students who would benefit from using these headphones at different times in the day – if they’re available to one student, why aren’t they available to all students who may choose to wear them? One response could be cost, but a teacher/school can get a set of ten headsets for anywhere from $100 to $200 – a little creative resourcing can remove most financial barriers. With a little thought and preparation, every classroom can have a variety of learning tools that students can utilize as needed, regardless of their “special needs” status.
Ideally, we are promoting inclusivity by teaching all of our students how to use all of the tools – various pencil grips, fidgets, weighted toys, sound filtering devices, reference sheets/charts, dictation tools for writing, digital reading tools, etc. If these tools are available to all students, then there is less stigma around their use. By making these tools available to all, we teach our youth to acknowledge their learning needs and make informed, strategic decisions to be effective learners, thinkers and self-advocates. When it becomes the norm for every student to utilize various tools towards success with varying tasks, then differences are expected rather than denigrated. When we teach students how to use various tools and how to make choices towards their success, we are empowering them to take ownership of their learning.
Image Credit: A collaboration between Center for Story-based Strategy & Interaction Institute for Social Change. https://www.storybasedstrategy.org/the4thbox and http://interactioninstitute.org/ respectively for digital formats.
Take time to teach the tools
Whenever introducing a learning tool or alternative way of sharing their learning, it is important for teachers to share the tool with all students, provide opportunities for all of them to experiment with the tool, and discuss times and ways that the tool may be useful. For physical tools, I recommend teachers have class sets of 10 each (minimum) of the tool and rotate their use so that all students get to use it at least once and decide if and when it may be useful to them.
For digital tools, it can require pre-planning to navigate access and to teach all students how to use the tools with some proficiency; I recommend calling on the experts in your organization to help facilitate the first couple of times trying it out, then build opportunities for all students to use the tools in meaningful ways so that they can make informed decisions about when the tool might be useful to them individually. Often, a school or district will have a particular platform they’re using (Google, Microsoft 365, Mac, etc.), so it will be important to choose the most accessible tools within the platform your school/district is using. It may be useful to utilize the SETT framework, the TPACK model or the 6 C’s when considering which technology tools to integrate in students’ learning. I have several accessibility tool tutorials on my website, and Montgomery County Public Schools has put together a “UDL Tool Finder” which teachers may find useful for exploring options for their students.
What is most important in utilizing learning tools is that students who need to use these tools are able to do so proficiently and without stigma attached to that choice. Cast.org provides many resources around Universal Design for Learning, including tips for designing lessons and learning experiences which are meaningful and challenging for all learners.