Volume:3, Issue: 1

Mar. 1, 2011

Preparing Children with Learning Disabilities and Autistic Spectrum Disorders for School
Tatyana A. Bondar [about] , Roman P. Dimenshtein [about] , Ima Y. Zakharova [about] , Olga V. Karanevskay [about] , Irina S. Konstantinova [about] , Maria A. Positselskaya [about] , Maria V. Yaremchuk [about]

DESCRIPTORS: Russian school standards; special education; children with learning disabilities and autistic spectrum disorders; methods for teaching; special education environments; school readiness training for children with learning disabilities and autistic spectrum disorders.
SYNOPSIS:  Entering school is an emotional time for all children and parents, but for children with learning disabilities and autistic spectrum disorders and their parents, it is an especially difficult and crucial time. The authors have laid out a systematic approach for helping parents, children, and teachers prepare for school entrance and success while coping with the learning disabilities presented.

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Organizing Forms of School Studies

Starting school is a long-awaited and important event for the whole family. The start of the schooling process means a new stage in the child’s development of interpersonal relations, self-perception, creativity, and independence. It is a major step towards maturity for both healthy children and children with learning disabilities and autistic spectrum disorders.

Two universal demands for modern education are high quality and accessibility at all levels for all categories of students. Russia now offers several forms of school organization for children with learning disabilities and autistic spectrum disorders:

  • A child who is coping well with his/her educational program may study at a public school, at a school that offers “inclusion,” or even at home.
  • Children with severe learning disabilities were traditionally trained in special schools divided into seven types depending on the kind of a disability.  During the past few years, many cities and regions have been using internet programs for remote full-time instruction.
  • Children with multiple, severe disabilities were traditionally considered uneducable and were housed in psycho-neurological boarding schools. Now there is a growing tendency to keep such children at home and provide education for them in special schools with classes specifically for children with multiple, severe disabilities.

According to the Russian Federal educational standard for compulsory elementary education, at the primary stage a child should master “universal learning operations (cognitive, regulating and communicative) that ensure proficiency in key capacities that are the foundation for learning.”2 However, a child should be capable of performing some “universal learning operations” before school begins. The schooling process, despite the type of a school, the number of students in the class, or the curriculum, is regulated by a number of rules and standards which a child should follow.  In class, e.g., a child should sit still at his/her desk; fulfill the assignments given by the teacher; and do what the teacher wants, not what the child wants.

Classroom instruction is the main form of organizing education in our country. It contributes to the social and personal development of a child with learning disabilities and autistic spectrum disorders. However, in class, a teacher is not always able to help a child who does not have basic communication and self-regulation skills to adapt to a situation which is new to him/her.

Problems of Adapting and Behaving at School

Below is a list of problems which often cause misbehavior:

  • The child is frightened every time a stranger enters the room. The child needs fairly quickly to get used to new and unpredictable situations; to remember and assimilate key rules of behavior such as raising a hand when he/she wants to say something; perform a task even if it does not seem interesting; or go to the board at a teacher’s request.
  • The child is unable to ignore irrelevant stimuli. He/she is easily distracted by a squeaking door, rustling notebooks, or some other trifle, and cannot concentrate on what the teacher says.
  • The child has difficulties in communicating with a teacher and classmates. He/she is unable to tell adults of emerging problems; does not apply a teacher’s direct instruction to him/herself; or uses all of his/her energy on merely trying to sit at the desk and is therefore not able to complete even an easy task under familiar circumstances.
  • Lacking the ability to pace him/herself the child either does not fulfill a task on time or completes it too quickly and does not want to wait before others finish as well.
  • The child is hypersensitive and cannot bear that his/her hands are soiled with paint and as a result is unable to work productively at an art lesson or the child fears that some other student might touch him/her.  
  • The child is unable to employ even insufficiently developed channels of perception. (It is very difficult for some children to perceive information written on a board far from them, others easily understand what they see but do not comprehend a teacher’s oral explanations.)
  • The child has poor endurance or work capabilities. (Quite a few children are not able to endure a thirty five or forty-minute lesson.)

As a result of the problems listed above and similar ones, some children, no matter how intellectually advanced they are or not, will “drop out” of the learning process. They may also disturb other children by jumping around or shouting out during class. These kinds of problems increase the risk that teacher and student will not find any common language encouraging the increase of future conflicts.

Goals and Objectives for Teaching and Developing Students with Disabilities

To avoid conflicts, it is necessary to carry out a specific program of developmental training which consists in a string of sessions coordinated in order “to form a functional organ or a whole functional system which prepares specific processes to function correctly.”3 In our case, this means to facilitate the process of adaptation to school and its environment.

The aim of these sessions which will prepare the child for school is to form skills for his/her further integration into the school environment, in other words, his/her active participation in learning and socializing. It should be said here that the process of integration does not only mean  the eagerness of a society to accept a child with development disabilities, but also the child’s readiness to enter society without harming it but to establish a healthy relationship with it. Success results to the mutual profit of both child and society.4  

Correctional and developmental effort is aimed at reducing levels of emotional, volitional, and cognitive breaches which might impede a student’s participation in the group learning process. The main tasks of a pre-school preparatory course are as follows:

  • The development and further elaboration in the child of personal readiness to study at school: by shaping the student’s attitude towards a new role in the formation of a relationship with an adult; acceptance of the adult’s help; the following of all instructions including those from the front of the classroom; by developing a motivational sphere including the formation of cognitive interests, an ability to accept a learning task, and by awakening an interest towards the school surroundings.
  • The development in the child of emotional relationships and communicative skills: by cultivating an ability to do without parental help while at school and to look for other adult support instead; by participating in communication with peers during class and breaks; by encouragement of wishes to participate in joint activities with other students; by developing socially acceptable skills for coping with difficult situations.
  • The development in the child of a sense of self-awareness and self-control as well as the elaboration of arbitrary regulations for behavior and activity.
  • The development and elaboration of basic systems and functions which would allow a child to successfully adapt to school and master its programs: intensification of perception; elaboration of visual and auditory attention; improvement of memory; improvement of speech; development of spatial concepts; elaboration of visual and motor coordination; elaboration of visual and figurative thinking; shaping an ability to use acquired skills in a different situation; extension of general and specific learning notions, abilities and skills.
  • The development of self-help and neatness skills essential for socializing at school and independence awareness.

Indicators of a Child’s School-Readiness

We have made a list of indicators that have proven particularly reliable in showing that a child who has emotional/volitional problems is ready to go to school. As a rule, children who start in our school program do not always match all of these indicators:

  • The acceptance of his/her role as student means that a child: sticks to the major norms of behavior at school; takes an interest in studies and tries to fulfill assigned tasks; can address the teacher and attract the teacher’s attention properly; uses speech and other communication means; can answer a teacher’s question one way or another; can make a choice; completes an adult’s easy instructions; listens attentively when an adult starts to speak; reacts to a teacher’s praise or reproof in a relevant manner; is eager to fulfill homework responsibilities.
  • The child displays basic communication skills if he/she: notices other children; takes an interest in them; follows others when moving from one place to another; can take part in joint activities with classmates or mutual games organized by adults; can cope with a difficult situation with the help of an adult.
  • The ability toregulate judgment manifests itself when a child: can wait for his/her turn; is able to put off for a while the wish-fulfillment; controls his/her behavior in accordance with a teacher’s request; is not aggressive or noisy; can stop unruly behavior at an adult’s request.

The above mentioned indicators may serve as landmarks to define what sort of problems a child may face at school and identify which abilities may help overcome them. One child may have formed only a good motivation towards study and that might be enough for school-adaptation despite considerable communication impediments. Another child might not be initially motivated, but being an adherent of rituals and stereotypes, might orient himself at sticking to rules. Such a child may accept school routine due to its precise structure of lessons and regulations. A third child might fail to strike up relationships with adults but might take a lively interest in other children. Having these abilities might be enough to allow him to enter class.

Some Characteristics of Individual and Group Sessions

Children preparing for school participate in a system of individual and group sessions aimed at overcoming any problems the individual child may have while always building on the child’s strong points. The sessions in the school-readiness, training group are preceded by a period of individual play sessions and/or visits to some other group, for example one that features integrative activities or play, etc. “Individual work helps to form a basic readiness for a group. It is a possibility to have fun with other people. During sessions with a pedagogue or a psychologist an autistic child’s psychic satiation would melt and his stereotypical behaviors soften. The foundation for a dialogic communication could be formed.”5

It is hard to overestimate the importance of group sessions for such children. Only a group provides an accumulation of behavioral, social and cultural experience. “With an established interrelationship between children and an adult, a group faces bolder challenges. It obtains “growing space.” When an adult talks to the group “about the future,” a need is born (and the possibility is always there, too) to put oneself in someone else’s place, defend one’s position and curb one’s egocentric impulses; to coordinate one’s ideas, intentions, actions, and thoughts with those of others. An ability to understand others springs up from a practice of mutual understanding with the need to do something together.” 6

Some concepts are impossible to form other than in a group. Only in a group does a child have the opportunity to react to an oral instruction which is not addressed to him/her personally. The job of adapting, on his own, to what is going on around him can only be assigned in a group session. If the child cannot do this, he is simply not ready to go to school. This kind of training builds an ability to switch from one action to another independently; to turn from a passive state to an active one, and vice versa; to start an action and finish it on one’s own; and to plan the next move.

This type of work is carried out in two stages:

  • In the first stage, children master a school-type environment: the alteration of sessions within the framework of a timetable as well as rules of behavior in different situations determined by specific activities and people, such as: at a session in a classroom; in a playroom; in a music room; in a gym.
  • In the second stage, children establish relationships with other children and adults. These sessions become personally meaningful.

The duration of these stages may vary from two weeks to one year. The entire school-readiness preparatory course usually lasts one or two years. Children attend individual and group sessions at least two times a week. 

Methodology for School Readiness Training

We use the environmental approach in our work which means that we create a series of favorable environments aimed at broadening a child’s inherent abilities. This approach is based on the ideas of the well known physiologists A.A. Ukhtomsky, I.A. Arshavsky, as well as the theories and practices of psychologist Lev Vygotsky. “In our opinion, integration implies the creation of increasingly complicated educational (communicative and cognitive) environments, which allow a specific child to build up his/her learning and social capacity. Every consecutive environment should expand a child’s abilities and prepare him/her to climb to the next step.” 7

This approach is excellent for special needs children because it “does not have any threshold or ceiling.” At the initial stage no special knowledge is needed. An environment may be created even by a group of parents who decide to help their children prepare for school. In this situation, unexpected, professional skills may become useful. For example, if one of the parents were a musician, a carpenter, or a lighting designer, it might lead to the group planning model environments from very specific viewpoints.

The presence in such a team of professional psychologists, teachers, speech therapists, speech pathologists, and physicians definitely raises this work to a more serious level. It is most important to have a neuropsychologist, who, after examining children, might formulate clear and specific developmental tasks for each child in the coming weeks. These tasks could be taken into account in modeling an environment. If a child has a movement disorder, he/she might need the assistance of a motion therapist. If it is not possible to organize motor training sessions, a motion therapist might be able to examine the child on a regular basis as a consultant to the parents and other experts. The most important thing, though, is the eagerness of caring professionals to probe, to try, to cope with difficulties, and to notice and remark on every small step to success.

Instead of conclusion

Right now, “Terevinf” Publishing House is preparing to publish our manuscript, tentatively called, Training Children with Development Disorders of the Emotional and Volitional Spheres: an Environmental Approach. This book of ours tells, in detail, how to work with children who do not listen to teachers, run around, hide under tables, or scream. We describe how it is first necessary to create an environment which would give such children a sense of security. Then we lay out how the environment should be gradually changed making it less comfortable but still bearable for children. If the work is carried out carefully enough, then, step by step, a child will start coping with an increasing number of different situations, will expand his endurance and be able to accept new realities. Following our prescriptions, a child will finally be able to cope with day-to-day situations like calmly riding a bus with his/her mother; going to the circus; playing volleyball in gym; or doing math in class.

Many children with behavior problems can learn alongside other students if they possess readiness and if there is enough attention and help for them. The authors are positive that their experiences as described in their soon to be published book could be useful to everyone involved in educating children with special needs.

 

1 Bondar, Tatyana A. [In Russian: Татьяна Алексеевна Бондарь], speech therapist, leading specialist, The Center for Curative Pedagogics, Moscow, Russia; Dimenshtein, Roman P. [In Russian: Роман Павлович Дименштейн], senior lecturer, Chairman of the Board, Expert of The Center for Curative Pedagogics, Moscow, Russia;  Zakharova, Ima Y. [In Russian: има Юрьевна Захарова], a teacher in Special Education, Chair of the Experts’ Council  of The Center for Curative Pedagogics, Moscow, Russia; Karanevskay, Olga V. [In Russian: Ольга Викторовна Караневская], Ph.D., a teacher in Special Education, leading specialist, The Center for Curative Pedagogics, Moscow, Russia; Konstantinova, Irina S. [In Russian: Ирина Сергеевна Константинова], psychologist, leading specialist, The Center for Curative Pedagogics, Moscow, Russia; Positselskaya, Maria A. [In Russian: Мария Алексеевна Посицельская], senior lecturer, leading specialist, The Center for Curative Pedagogics, Moscow, Russia; Yaremchuk, Maria V. [In Russian: Мария Викторовна Яремчук], Ph. D., educator-psychologist, expert, The Center for Curative Pedagogics, Moscow, Russia.

2 Russian Federal Educational Standards for Compulsory Elementary Education. See: http://standart.edu.ru/catalog.aspx?CatalogId=959

3 A.A.Tsyganok; E.B.Gordon. “Correction of Spatial Notions of Children,” The Special Child: Studies and Assistance Experience, second edition, “Terevinf,” Moscow, Russia, 1999.

4 This explains why we prefer to use the word “integration” rather than “inclusion.” Integration is a process of development which results in the unity and wholeness inside a system based on the interdependence of various specific elements. For details, see: R.P.Dimenstein, I.V.Larikova, “Integration or Inclusion?”  Special Child, Nos. 6 and 7.

5 I.A.Kostin, “Club-type Work with Teenagers and Adults with After-effects of ECA,”  Special Child: Studies and Help Experience, “Terevinf” Publishing House, Moscow, Russia, 2000.

6 G.A.Tsukerman,   Types of Communication in Education,  Tomsk: Peleng, Russia 1993, p. 105.

7 R.P. Dimenshtein and I.V.Larikova, “Integration or Inclusion?”  Special Child , Numbers 6 and 7.

Dolores Beirne (May. 06, 2011)
Upon reading the above article, I am left with several questions. For example: Question1) Who evaluates the children before they are of school age? In New York, we have the following programs: A) Early Intervention Program (Birth to 3 3 yrs.) This program offers a variety of therapeutic and support services to infants and toddlers with disabilities and their families, including family training, counseling, home visits and parent support groups; special instruction, speech pathology and audiology, occupational therapy, physical therapy, psychological services; service coordination, nursing services, nutrition services, social work services, vision services and assistive technology devices and services. To be eligible for services, children must be under 3 years of age and have a confirmed disability or established delay in one or more areas of development. A multidisciplinary evaluation is provided at no cost to parents to determine eligibility. An Individualized Family Service Plan (IFSP) is developed which indicates the services provided. Services can be provided either in the home or at a center based school. An annual review is held to determine if the services continue to be appropriate, a change is needed or services terminated. The parent is always an essential part of the process along with all the service providers. B) Committee on Preschool Children Special Education (CPSE 3 to 5 yrs.) Children aging out of the EI Program will automatically go into CPSE as well as initial cases that have been determined eligible by a formal assessment (psychological/educational evaluation) and any other testing required for example: speech and language, audio, PT, OT, etc. An Individualized Education Program (IEP) which is a written document is developed for each preschool and school age student with a disability. It documents a student's eligibility for special education services; and it memorializes the school system's plan for providing a free and appropriate public education that will meet the student's unique needs, in the least restrictive environment. It is a collaboratively developed plan based on information provided by parents, assessment professionals, instructional personnel, related service providers and where appropriate the student. Goals are developed to meet the students strengths and weaknesses. Parents participate in making decisions concerning evaluation, eligibility and placement are equal partners with school personnel in developing the IEP. An annual review is held to determine whether to continue the services or make any changes in services or goals. Parents have a right to call a meeting at any time to discuss their child's educational program. It is noted that no classification of disability is placed on their IEP until the child begins a Kindergarten class in Special Education. C) Committee on Special Education (CSE - K to 12 Grade) At this level, a classification is determined on the IEP at a CSE Meeting upon consultation of all assessment reports, teacher reports, doctor reports, and parental input. Parents have the right to appeal the decision. Children are entitled to an appropriate education until the age of 21. A triennial evaluation is required on all K-12 students. Annual review meetings are conducted to determine if the goals have been met, are the goals still necessary, do new goals need to be established, and if any changes in services are warranted. Question 2) Is a Russian parent able to appeal a school decision? As I have mentioned above, our parents can appeal an even bring an attorney to aid the parent in making an appropriate decision. Question 3) Is medication, prescribed by doctors, allowed to be dispensed to youngsters at school? This is common in our classrooms, but it must be stated on the IEP. Medication is also a controversial subject as many parents are not in agreement as to its effectiveness. Question 4) Are the Special Education teachers in Russia vigorously trained and do the best and brightest go into this field? Question 5) Is money a factor? Special Education is very expensive in NY. Local governments are constantly trying to decrease the amount of money spent on our programs. Advocates for Special Education children, parents, teachers, etc. are constantly holding hearings on this subject. The US and Russia have many educational similarities, and it is obvious in this article that we both want to provide an appropriate education to address the needs of our special education students so that they will be prepared to be useful and productive adults in our societies.

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