Special education strives to meet unique learning needs of students

In any given classroom, it’s not unusual to find students with a wide range of learning abilities. Perhaps one of a teacher’s greatest challenges is meeting the needs of students with different developmental levels, learning styles and interests.

But what about those with special needs?
Department of Defense Dependents Schools provides services and programs that address the myriad of learning challenges students may face in school.
For students identified with a disability, special educators and their general education counterparts work hand-in-hand to provide appropriate learning environments for all students to achieve to their greatest potential, according to Sue Shank, the Special Education Coordinator for the Heidelberg District.

Larson Pritchard, 8, a second-grader at Patch Elementary School, is one of those students. Born premature, he is deaf-blind. Larson is one of approximately 300 children who are served through Special Education in Stuttgart DoDDS schools, according Shank.

“The Stuttgart schools provide a wide range of services designed to meet the unique needs of each student. Teachers work collaboratively to develop individual programs, while including our students with disabilities to the greatest extent possible within the general education setting,” Shank said.

To be eligible for special education and related services, a child must have an identified disability in one of five categories: physical, communication, emotional and learning impairments, or developmental delay, Shank said. If a teacher suspects that a student is struggling to learn, he or she will speak to the parents about evaluating the child to identify the problem.

A multi-disciplinary team made up of assessors, teachers and other specialists evaluate students and determine how to best address the learning and/or behavioral challenges, according to Shank.

If found eligible — and the parents agree to participate in special education — the team will develop an Individualized Education Plan and start the program. 
An IEP is a written plan that describes the specialized education program for a student with a disability. The IEP includes goals and objectives, and the methods and tools the school will use to determine the child’s progress in reaching those goals. It also includes any related services and classroom modifications or assistive technology needs.

Services are provided in a variety of settings to include the general education classroom, small group settings and occasionally, one-to-one, based on the individual student’s needs.

Larson Pritchard works one-on-one with Julie Taylor, a teacher for the visually impaired and deaf-blind at Patch Elementary School. Taylor uses teaching methods designed for deaf-blind students, such as communicating through the use of a calendar box.

A calendar box contains objects that symbolize activities, such as a whistle for physical education or a plastic fork for lunch. The objects are sequentially organized and represent the day’s activities.

By feeling the objects, Larson can keep track of his schedule.
“For someone with deaf-blindness, life can be chaotic — things just seem to happen. I try to help give him cues about what to anticipate, so he knows what’s going to happen next,” Taylor said. Taylor is teaching Larson several ways to communicate: tactile sign language, Braille and vocalization.

During a math lesson Oct. 11, Larson read numbers in Braille, signed them, then placed the designated number of rings on the correct pegs of a stacking toy as he counted aloud.

Taylor said much of Larson’s school day is similar to that of his peers. He accomplishes many of the same things, only in a different way. For example, while another second-grader may use a pencil to write, Larson uses a Braille writer, a device similar to a typewriter.

He attends gym, art and music classes with other students, and goes on field trips.
According to Taylor, the general education teachers warmly welcome Larson, and his classmates have picked up on that, making friends with him and learning from him. He also works with speech, occupational and physical therapists on a regular basis. For Conny Pritchard, Larson’s educational setting has been a godsend.

When he was 2, she enrolled Larson in a German preschool for the visually impaired. She found the staff ill equipped to handle his deafness because they did not know sign language. Larson was frustrated as well, she said, because of the lack of communication.

When Larson was 5, she enrolled him in PES so that he could get one-on-one support for his rare dual sensory impairment. “I do feel that he has good services here, and he has a great teacher who is always with him,” said Conny Pritchard of PES and Taylor. “We couldn’t ask for a better school.”

According to his mother, Larson is making progress, learning to hear and recognize spoken language, thanks to a cochlear implant, an electronic hearing device that doctors surgically implanted during the summer.

He is starting to speak words in English and German, Conny Pritchard said, with obvious excitement. “I heard him count to six in class today, and you could understand him. “If it was not for Julie Taylor, I don’t think Larson would be as far as he is now,” Conny Pritchard said.