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Keeping special education students motivated: tips and tricks

Daniel Vollrath is an american special education teacher. His method, designed for children with learning disabilities, is based on patience, creativity, trust and connection.

DFI International 
06 luglio di: Daniel Vollrath
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Daniel Vollrath is a special education teacher, and a United States Professional Development Trainer for the Institute for Habits of Mind. As a current educational leader within the classroom, Daniel’s best practices, strategies, goals, classroom culture, and interactions with students with a learning disability are centred around the Habits of Mind. 

Could you please introduce yourself and tell us about your experience as a special educator? 

I am a true believer in the following quote, “Experience shakes you and shapes you.” - Vijaya Gowrisankar.
The short yet powerful quote above defines my road to becoming a special education teacher. As a youngster I experienced many struggles when it came to learning and succeeding in school. It was a shaky journey with many roadblocks. I was an underdog. Although, I overcame and developed personalized strategies that skyrocketed my success. Through outside the box thinking and building habits came a recognition of how I learn best. It was here where I told myself, “If I could make a positive difference within my own life, think about the impact I could have on others who struggle with learning”. This is where I realized that special education was my calling in life. 

As a special educator for 15 years now, I have been fortunate to make an everlasting impact in many students' lives. Now matter what level of education (elementary, middle, or high school) I have taught, I always found the same dispositions to be effective - patience, creativity, and most importantly, building trust and connection. When patience is modeled daily with children with learning disabilities, they recognize the true significance of managing their impulses. This in turn offers a more focused and less stressful learning environment. Creativity is where we as special educators can shine. Each child is different; therefore, being creative in structuring learning around individual strengths can bring forth an amazing outcome. And, last but certainly not least, trust and connection. This is simple yet most significant - all children with learning disabilities need someone in their corner for support. As an educator, you are their champion. 

In connection to being a special education teacher, I have found a passion for professional development with the Institute for Habits of Mind. By taking the practices and strategies I use daily within the classroom and sharing with other educators from around the world is an amazing feeling. The primary focus of the professional developments tie together habits to all aspects within a school classroom and culture. Overall, the outcome and goal is to develop productive behaviors in students with learning disabilities to support their success in learning and life. 

What is the approach to Learning Disabilities in the US? Is there a personalized teaching plan for students with disabilities? 

Yes, in the United States each student with a learning disability has an IEP (Individualized Education Plan). This plan is developed with strategies, modifications, accommodations, and goals to support the student in being successful. The most unique aspect of this plan is that it is “personalized” to the strengths and weaknesses of the individual. The plan is developed by a team of members who have an interest in the student’s learning and success in school. It is all about the needs of the students and how best to meet them. 

Once the IEP is shaped and constructed for a student all teachers receive the plan. This is a legal document that has to be followed for the best interest of the child. It is important that all teachers who have a student with a learning disability in class not perceive the IEP as an extra responsibility. Instead, it should be viewed as valuing and admiring each and every mind in your classroom. In the end, it is an amazing approach to delivering the high quality education that all students deserve. 

What are the most common strategies in approaching BES? What metologies? 

First and foremost, the importance of building powerful and growing relationships with special education students is crucial. If you don’t have that then going forward will be rough. This is something all of us as educators know yet often dismiss due to other stressors that come into play, such as behavior, content overload, and maintaining structure. Although, below are some unique methodologies and ideas to structure your thinking and approaches in working with students with learning disabilities in the learning environment. 

  • Promote “think” first, and “act” second. Work closely with students with learning disabilities on being “aware of one’s awareness” (metacognition) before acting. Stress that it is not about getting the correct answer or outcome, instead the process of how we get there is meaningful. 
  • The act of teaching should be our model and guide for developing habits, executive functioning, and building resilience. Students should be able to gain an understanding of what, how, why, and when to use habitsexecutive functioning, and resilience within the classroom. This should not be a separate entity from curriculum yet should be woven into curriculum, culture, and practice within the course. 
  • Understanding students as individuals first, and learners second. Taking time to consider who your students are, both inside and out, needs to be the first step in understanding how to best approach a classroom. Each school year brings a new group of students, personalities, cultural backgrounds, family experiences, strengths, weaknesses, areas of struggles, interests, and levels of achievement. Embrace and get to know all of your students. 
  • Skills are needed before mastering Content. It’s simple and straightforward…..if students do not have the skills to learn then mastering content will not happen. Focus on building up the habits and behaviors for learning rather than going straight to teaching content. 

Would you like to share with us 4 tips for keeping students with learning disabilities motivated at home? 

1. The 10-5-10 Minute Reflection: At 3 points throughout the day (morning, lunch time, late afternoon) set aside time to plan, organize, reflect, relax, decompress, and talk with a supporter. A supporter is someone who collaborates and has your back in learning. This strategy may look different for each child and supporter although it helps tremendously with focusing on goals for the day. Here is what it may look like: 

  • Morning Time: Find 10 minutes to sit down together (child and parent/supporter) and discuss the upcoming day. This is best when eating breakfast or beginning to dive into your first cup of coffee. Go ahead and talk about the day ahead with some guiding questions. What needs to get done today? What do I need to do in order to get motivated to do work (listen to music, go for a walk, take a shower, etc)? What are some great break times up until lunch? What can I do during the break times? Make sure to write all the responses down on a piece of paper or whiteboard. A visual is always a great motivator. 
  • Lunch Time: Find 5 minutes before lunch to think about how you are feeling. Have you been successful so far? Why or why not? What still needs to be completed today? Think about later in the day when you are done with your work. What is something exciting you are going to do that night or later in the week? Stay positive! And, schedule some breaks until you are done with your list. 
  • Late Afternoon Time: Take a solid 10 minutes to unwind from the day. Look at your list from the morning. Did you finish everything? Is there anything else you need to improve on for the next day? 

2. Harnessing strategic procrastination: Let’s face it, when we’re faced with a project deadline, it’s very easy to push it off until tomorrow. In the end, procrastination wins and productivity loses.
What if procrastination can be advantageous? In an article called The Perks of Procrastination, psychologist Adam Grant explains how procrastination leads to divergent thinking and new ideas for projects and assignments. This doesn’t mean students should wait until the last minute to complete a task—it means they should allow the brain to wander and lead them to come up with better-thought-out ideas. By conjuring up these ideas over time, students will know when they are ready and empowered to complete the task.
Students can gain an understanding of their level of procrastination by taking this self-assessment, which creates an opportunity for effective conferencing with their teachers, with the goal of building a better self.

3. Create your two selves: When are you your most effective and least effective self? Take some time to think about your “want self” and “should self”. This is an interesting and unique way of thinking; although, it is really effective. By talking with students about the kind of person they are when they “want” to do something versus when they “should” do something is critical in recognizing and controlling impulses. Open up dialogue about creating two selves. One person who controls the “want” aspect of their life, and the other person that controls the “should” aspect - and give them names. For example, I am Dan when I “want” to do something, and James when I “should” do something. James always wins when things need to get done and my mindset shifts to a more determined and focused way of thinking. Seriously consider giving this strategy a chance - it has worked extremely well for my students and my own children at home. 

4. Create your own Walking Classroom. By physically changing their environment, students can eliminate distractions, increase focus, and get an opportunity to engage in a different way of thinking. Advise students to review course content while walking around the neighborhood, on a nature trail, or even around the house on a rainy day—this can be a very effective learning experience. They can review in a variety of ways: carrying and consulting a notebook—on paper or their phone—or listening to notes they’ve taken a voice recorder. Some may find it helpful to just walk and remember. Research shows that incorporating movement into a daily learning regimen increases retention of information, keeps the mind active and clear, and boosts energy for learning. Try listening to podcasts, YouTube videos, or audiobooks that somehow connect to the content you are trying to learn.