by Jill Haney
As an author of reading and language arts programs for students with special needs, I make a point to read the research about best practices for teaching students with intellectual disabilities. As the mom of a 4-year-old child with autism, I am constantly learning how to take advantage of teachable moments for both of us.
Two weeks ago, my daughter had her 7-year-old birthday party at a local bowling alley. My son, Alex, has always enjoyed watching bowling (whether live or on TV when we are using the Wii), but this was the first time my husband and I offered the bowling ball to him. And it was an amazing experience.
Frame One: Observer
I often find in teaching our son new skills that my husband is much more proficient than me in guiding our son to be independent. Bowling was a good example of that. On Alex’s first turn, I held the ball and guided him up to the line and then used hand over hand to get him to push the ball so it would roll down the lane. Alex clearly enjoyed it, but he was more of an observer than a participant.
Frame Two: Active Participant
The next time Alex was up to bowl, my husband guided him to the ball return, pointed to the ball, and let Alex pick the ball up and carry it himself. Then he guided Alex up to the line and gestured to Alex to push the ball down the lane. He helped a bit, but this time Alex was clearly the participant, not merely an observer.
From then on, Alex became more and more independent taking his turn to bowl. Yes, there was the time when we turned our backs for a second to cheer on our daughter and found Alex wandering down someone else’s lane. And, yes, we still had to indicate to Alex when it was his turn, but the joy and pride I saw as he became a bowler in his own right was tremendous.
This past week, I had the privilege to observe a number of elementary and middle school classrooms for students with intellectual disabilities. The classrooms that struck me as highly successful promoted the same kind of independence my husband encouraged at the bowling party. The teacher and paraprofessionals were there to model and facilitate, but the students knew the classroom routine, what was expected, and had multiple opportunities to perform independently. And they did perform independently with obvious engagement and pride.
I will remember many things from my daughter’s birthday party: her joy at having classmates and friends bowl side by side, the lovely presents, and the fun we all had. But the most important lesson I will take away is the reminder that my son, like all children, can fully participate in activities and learn to complete an activity independently. As we create curriculum for students with intellectual disabilities, building in the routines and interactive activities that allow them to develop independence and confidence is the key to successful and long-term learning.
Jill’s responsibilities include managing the development of proprietary reading curriculums, training customers on PCI’s reading curriculums and other proprietary products, conceptualizing new products, writing sales and marketing literature related to the reading curriculums, staying current on reading and other educational research, overseeing the research conducted on PCI’s products, and staying current on federal and state legislation related to education.
Prior to her career with PCI Education, she was a national reading consultant and a seventh grade reading teacher. In 1999, she was named Teacher of the Year for San Antonio ISD and won the Trinity Prize for Teaching. Haney earned a BA with honors and a Masters of Arts in Teaching from Trinity University in San Antonio. She has additional graduate reading hours from University of Texas San Antonio.