I had learned at workshops that many students have difficulties distinguishing between information that is important from information that is nonessential, because they don't have "crap detectors." To help them compensate, I used both empty outlines and V.E.N. diagrams and taught students how to complete them during lectures and readings. This helped them identify the main ideas and the supporting ideas, examples and evidence. I had not considered how extraneous noise might interfere with their learning. My classroom was located at the front of the school where the public came and went continually. Since I had taught there for decades, many of the parents of my current students were my previous students. As a result, they frequently stuck their heads in to wave, shout a greeting or ask a question. Furthermore, the band was housed next door, so music or sometimes something akin to music permeated the thin walls. For a time I was sandwiched between the band and orchestra making a cacophony of noise in my room. To make matters worse, I have always used small group discussion, so with forty students broken into ten groups of four all talking at once, students with difficulty deciphering conversations were in real trouble in my class.
For most of my students distractions like background noise was of little consequence to their learning as long as they were engaged in a learning activity; however, for students with a learning disability that just isn't true. Autistic students who are overstimulated by a change in routine often shut down or worse yet have a panic attack. Still, teachers are expected to meet all of the differing needs of the students while their classrooms are overflowing with students with various learning disabilities, language acquisition skills and emotional problems.
I am not sure what the answer is or if there is an answer, but I know some things I changed about my teaching.
- First, give instructions in clear, simple language and use a variety of medias to communicate it: tell them, write on the white board, give them a written copy of the instructions and put the instructions on your web site so parents and special education teachers can also help them. Limit the number of choices presented to students. Costco capitalizes on that idea. Students need to have a clear idea how to proceed. For some students selecting which seat to sit in when faced with forty empty desks is an overwhelming decision.
- Second, try to keep the distractions to a minimum by shutting the door.
- Third, arrange the room for quick access to each students individually. When a student needs extra instruction, kneel next to his/her desk, look into the student's face and whisper quietly so the child is not embarrassed while getting additional instruction.
- Fourth, vary the types of activities often in a class period to meet the individual needs of students with differing learning styles. The younger the students the shorter their attention spans are. With ninth grade students, I rarely stayed on one activity longer than ten minutes.
- Fifth, develop routines in your classroom, so students can move from one activity to another smoothly with little opportunities for chaos. Chaos hurts the most vulnerable students.
- Contact the special education teachers and the school psychologist often. Their advice on a particular child's needs is invaluable.