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Amanda Crabb: First Words

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by Amanda Crabb
Expert Educator Columnist, UK

The excitement of a toddler who has just said their first words is a special and treasured moment. Parents wait in anticipation to hear their child’s first comprehensible word and the thrill of hearing their precious child take their first steps into a world where they can communicate using words and sentences is always a happy moment. Granted, whilst many parents are disappointed to discover that their child’s first utterance is the dreaded “no”, their accomplishment of such an incredible milestone is always celebrated nonetheless. Each new word added to a child’s vocabulary brings with it it’s own excitement and celebration.

I find myself in a position where I am truly privileged; I get to experience children taking their first steps in communication regularly. My job is wonderful; it is exciting, enjoyable and rewarding. But it is not what you think. I do not work in a nursery or day care centre. I do not work with toddlers. In fact, I do not work with children who should be at the stage of learning their first words at all. I work with children of all ages, children from age 5 to age 18. My children are very unique; they have additional support needs which are classed as severe and/or complex. The children in my school all have some form of communication difficulty and rely on a total communication approach, that is, use of speech, symbols and sign. So when a child in our school says their first word, there is quite a celebration! This excitement never grows old on me, in fact, just before the Christmas holidays, a child in my class who had never spoken or made any clear attempts at a sound or word looked me straight in the eye and said ‘help’. It was our Christmas miracle! I am still on a high, and so are many of the staff in the school. His mum was beyond delighted when I told her what had happened. Celebrating a child’s first words (or use of a sign or symbol) is a big thing for us and it’s a bigger thing for our parents who long for their children to be able to express their feelings, interests, opinions and ideas freely and with ease. This isn’t a stage of pre-5 development that our parents celebrate before moving onto the next milestone or achievement, this is an on going mountain that our children climb as they grow into teenage years and beyond, as our parents and our teachers support and encourage them. Achievements, words, mean so much more to our parents than I can ever explain. I hope I am at least helping you to understand a little.

On a daily basis I try to teach my pupils the same as many other teachers; the basis of numeracy, pre-reading skills, turn taking and sharing and much of what you might expect (of course, my pupils learn very differently and the approaches I take may be less similar to those in a mainstream setting). I also encourage my children to learn self-help and independence skills such as dressing and hygiene routines, feeding themselves at lunchtime and many social skills that you may not realise sometimes need taught specifically. It is a very different job to the one I did when I worked in a mainstream school. It is a job that I love! It requires patience, imagination and most of all, creativity by the bucket load! Luckily, I seem to possess these 3 qualities in some degree, and I do my best to use them to find ways for my children to access the curriculum and to learn in as fun a way as possible.

I guess that’s the main reason I became involved in the MIE programme; if children like mine are going to access ICT as part of their daily activities, to enhance their teaching and learning, it’s going to take some serious creativity and imagination. Let me explain why I came to this conclusion:

I recently met with a group of MIE’s in my area. The purpose of our meeting was to discuss how we could use features of Office 365 or other Microsoft apps or devices to improve and enhance the classroom experience for our pupils. I listened and smiled as they discussed using OneNote for class projects, Skype to exchange with children from other cultures, Sway to create pieces of work etc. My smile was sincere; that all sounded fantastic; what a fabulous time those pupils were going to have when their teachers let them loose on some of their planned activities! But my smile wasn’t for my own pupils. You see, none of that is relevant to my pupils. None of that is useful. None of that will help my children to say “no” when they meet a stranger, or to make their own choices about their life when they are asked what they would like to eat. None of that can help my pupils to tell their parents that the reason they are crying and having a “meltdown” is because they have a really sore head and they could do with some medicine. This isn’t useful, and it isn’t inclusive. There are great teachers all over the world, who, on a daily basis, come up with innovative ways to use things such as OneNote and Skype to enhance the teaching and learning in a mainstream classroom. The added challenge for teachers such as myself however, is the requirement to use our creativity and our understanding of our pupils’ needs to make ICT useful and relevant to children with severe and complex additional support needs. This can be tricky and it requires imagination, determination and the ability to think way outside the box. I might not be the best candidate for this role, but here I am, ready and willing to give it all I’ve got. If I can find something that makes my pupils’ or parents’ lives that little bit easier, I will be a happy teacher. I experienced some success with this already, when I ran a project with my pupils and parents using SharePoint. I will share with you more about this in my next article. Technology can be wonderful for everybody, if it is used correctly.

So why is this something that I feel the need to delve into? Surely this is the kind of thing that companies invest heavily in? To an extent, that is correct; there are some specialised pieces of equipment that are useful to my pupils, such as switches and adapted keyboards. However, the majority of what I have come across caters mainly for disabilities such as visual impairment. For instance, there are many pieces of software that enlarge the screen the way a magnifying glass would, or change the colour of text/background to make it easier to read. There are subtitle options on videos, bigger buttons that are easier to control for people who have fine motor control issues etc. But there really isn’t a great deal available to help children/adults who simply have learning or communication difficulties. Why aren’t we investing time in finding ways to help these groups of people access the world of technology? Sometimes I wonder if I’m just not looking in the right places, perhaps there’s a plethora of applications and devices that are available and I just haven’t discovered them.

This doesn’t appear to be a new issue. Williams, Jamali and Nicholas (2006) write that there appears to be “a lack of attention to the application of ICT for people with SEN, compared to the other groups of disabled people such as visually impaired” and that their findings ” highlight the need for more research on usability aspects of current and potential applications of ICT for people with SEN”.

So, this is why I became involved in the MIE programme. Quite simply, we are letting these children down, and I’m not willing to stand by whilst technology advances and leaves them behind. They deserve the very best, as do all children, and I am going to find out what that is. As I mentioned earlier, I have already experienced the success of a great project that I ran with my pupils and parents. I plan, over the next few months, to look at how other features of Office365 can be used specifically with pupils with additional support needs. I will share my findings with you throughout that time and very much look forward to hearing from you with your ideas and opinions on this matter.

I currently have an audience with some of the best teaching brains out there. Let’s harness our creativity, our abilities, our know-how and our passion for equality and education for all children; let’s find ways to use technology for all.

What are your thoughts? Write to me in the comments section and let’s start something amazing!


amanda-crabbMy name is Amanda Crabb and I am a teacher in Scotland. I teach children who have additional support needs which are classed as severe and or complex. The majority of my pupils have limited communication, verbal or otherwise, as well as many other developmental and medical issues. My column “Breaking Barriers” runs monthly on What’s Fresh.


References

Williams, P., Jamali, H, R. and Nicholas, D. (2006) “Using ICT with people with special education needs: what the literature tells us”, Aslib Proceedings, Vol. 58 Iss: 4, pp.330 – 345

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