Before you read further, please take a few moments to watch this video:
I have a beautiful niece who has a disability similar to Hyrum’s called Asperger’s Syndrome. Like Hyrum, my niece has many of the same interests as other children (and boy does she have a great sense of humor!), but she is also different in some ways. Like Hannah said of her brother, these differences “do not make [my niece] bad, just different.” At the same time, these same differences create one of the greatest challenges for teachers: teaching children with disabilities. Because every disability is unique and has varying degrees of severity, it is difficult to understand how to tailor education to the individual needs of these students. How then can teachers rise up to meet this challenge? After researching this topic I have learned several things that I believe will help teachers more effectively and confidently teach children with disabilities.
Philippe Ernewein, a renowned teacher at Denver Academy in Colorado, said that “schools are built upon this question of asking, ‘How smart are you?’ and… need to start moving towards this question: ‘How are you smart?’” He believes that children with special needs have learning differences rather than disabilities. Therefore, all children are smart and capable of learning in different ways. For example, some children have “body or natural intelligence” (athletes, dancers, etc.), others are “logical/linguistic and quantitative learners” (mathematicians), and some have great “spatial intelligence” (artists, musicians, and performers). Effectively teaching them is simply a matter of discovering how they learn best and then incorporating those styles of learning into your teaching. Mr. Ernewein is convinced that asking “How are you smart?” about each student will yield deeply desirable results. “I think asking this question will truly revolutionize the learning experience and change the story of learning for tens of thousands of students,” he said. “It’s going to unlock unfathomable potential, talent, creativity, [and] innovation that I think honestly has been punished, marginalized, and overlooked for far too long.”
According to the National Center for Learning Disabilities, “currently 2.4 million students are diagnosed with learning disabilities and receive special education services in our schools, representing 41% of all students receiving special education.” Clearly, understanding how to teach children with special needs is becoming increasingly important in our schools.
In addition to learning how to teach children with disabilities, I believe it is also important to teach children about disabilities. So many of the challenges children with special needs face are a result of the misunderstandings of their peers. I read an article that suggested several ways to teach children about disabilities. A few of them include inviting individuals with disabilities to share their experiences, encouraging children to ask questions about disabilities, teaching children to question norms and to recognize stereotypes about those with disabilities, and modeling respectful and appropriate ways to talk about disabilities. All children need to understand, like Hannah does, that disabilities do not make children bad or weird. It simply makes them different, and we are ALL different.
Understanding how to teach children with disabilities should be a high priority of every good teacher. Though these children may have unique needs in the classroom, it is so important that teachers dedicate the time, effort, and commitment required to help these children succeed. I applaud teachers like Mr. Ernewein and others who dedicate their lives to helping students with special needs. There is much we can learn from them! They will be the first to tell you that teaching children with disabilities will be challenging. But our investment in their success will give them confidence in their potential, and they will be able to accomplish things that they didn’t realize were possible.
What are your thoughts about disabilities? What ways of teaching have you found to be effective for those with special needs?