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When our Prime Minister spoke of having "an open and inclusive Singapore" (Singapore, 2004) and integrating the disabled into the mainstream society (Lim, Thaver, & Slee, 2008), it shows that we also have to focus on the future generation. Therefore, I strongly agree with the nation's initiative of including special needs students into our mainstream schools and that means every student matters, just like our Singapore 21 initiative "every Singaporean matters" (S21, 2004).
As shown through the model of human learning and action (Lim, Thaver, & Slee, 2008), my conviction of the above has a lot to do with the way I have been taught and brought up. I have an uncle who belongs to the special needs category. Although I could not understand what he is saying, that does not undermine my respect for him. In the past, when special needs children were placed in special schools, I was fortunate to have one such classmate when I was in primary one. He was much slower academically and behaved differently. However, there was not an instance of negative behaviour committed against him.
We cannot deny that role modelling is influential in shaping our thoughts, views and behaviour and thus, meeting the outcomes of education (Ministry of Education, Desired Outcomes of Education, 2011). Teachers play a major role in shaping the learners as stated by Bandura (1996). Therefore, it is essential that I portray positive behaviour when working with diverse learners (Quek, Wong, & Tay, 2008). My primary school teacher was very understanding and patient towards my classmate. She ensured that he was given tasks that are suitable for his level. I believe her behaviour influenced how we had behaved towards him. As for my uncle, I was taught to kiss his hand every time we meet as a sign of respect and to behave appropriately; as how a child must behave towards his parents. Therefore, as a teacher, being the second parent and thus, role model, I must not only portray positive attitude and behaviour towards special needs students, but also to educate and inspire others to behave appropriately too.
Just as important is the learning environment in schools (Lim, Thaver, & Slee, 2008). In my contract school, I was a form teacher of a secondary 2 normal technical class. In that class, I have a student who suffers from Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), another who has anger management problem and another who had a heart transplant and thus, should not be subjected to any violent outbursts. For the ADHD student, he was seated at the centre of the front row so that the teacher could easily monitor his learning and give feedback to him. In the school, there are also two wheelchair-bound students. Their classrooms are situated on the ground floor near the lift lobby for their convenience and accessibility to other rooms. From this limited yet valuable experience and my observation, I feel that physically disabled students are more easily included in the mainstream schools. People are generally more accepting and understanding towards them. Probably, the main challenge lies in providing a physically conducive learning environment for them. However, for other special needs students, the challenges lie in not only helping them to manage themselves but also to educate others so that they do not feel ostracized.
Without support and education, these special needs students might be worse off since discrimination and other negative behaviours towards them can be more evident. Thus, there is a need to engage the other students to behave appropriately too. Throughout my school life, I enjoy working in groups since it is an opportunity for me to share my thoughts and to gain others' viewpoints. When such dialogue and collaboration is done in an objective manner without any form of discrimination or premature judgement, useful knowledge in the form of new meanings and perspectives prevails over skin colour or any other physical differences. It is with such realisation that I have to exercise social awareness and relationship management (Ministry of Education, Social and Emotional Learning, 2011) and at the same time, educate my students. Upon such awareness, we should then learn to exercise empathy towards others.
This leads to the importance of peer support in creating this inclusiveness (Lim, Thaver, & Slee, 2008). In my contract school, the wheelchair-bound students were often helped by their peers, for example in moving from one place to another. This buddy system facilitates in creating a sense of acceptance, especially when this positive behaviour is seen by the rest. In addition, cooperative learning can also be implemented in the classrooms (Quek, Wong, & Tay, 2008). Such interactions, when correctly facilitated by teachers, allow the students to work with one another despite their differences.
During my contract stint, I took over the form-teachership from an outgoing teacher. Although I was previously appointed a co-form teacher of a secondary two normal academic class, managing the normal technical class as a form teacher was a daunting task. However, the outgoing teacher shared with me tips on managing the class. I also had opportunities to talk with the counsellor and the Special Needs Officer (SNO) to learn more on how to manage the students. For instance, it was during such sharing that I learnt how to inculcate self-regulation in the ADHD student by breaking a class task into sub tasks and giving feedback and encouragement as suggested by Lim et al (2008) too. I also learnt how we can have rules but also exercise flexibility. This is made possible when we based the rules on a guiding principle (Quek, Wong, & Tay, 2008). For example, there was an incident where the ADHD student did not perform his class duty. After talking with him and leading him to see others' viewpoints, he complied readily. In the process, I learnt how to be patient and build up on their self-esteem (Lim, Thaver, & Slee, 2008).
Creating an inclusive environment where students will value diversity in others can be realised by having a proper plan which comprises the physical, instructional and management aspects. My two-week action plan will be for a secondary two normal technical class of forty students; one of them suffers from ADHD while there are others who lack self-esteem. On the first week, I will focus on four things - improving self-awareness; setting the stage for self-management and responsible decision-making; establishing an open communication channel and; initiating relationship management through peer group system. On the following week, I will work on their self-management via a goal setting exercise; form the class committee; and work on improving social awareness.
Firstly, I would introduce myself including my teaching style and my expectations, for example, in listening attentively to the speaker. Prior to the first meeting with them, I would look through the students' background data and feedback from their previous teachers to learn more about the specific needs of the students. For instance, the ADHD student would have trouble in consistently working towards a long term goal (Barkley, 2006). Thus, I would ask them to write down their resolutions and what they want to achieve for that school year. I would also do likewise and these will be put up on the notice board. I would also show motivational and character-moulding videos such as those on www.biglittlestories.com during my first meeting and also at regular intervals throughout the school year.
During the first week, I also need to teach them on utilising their organisers. Their organisers should be placed on their desks every lesson where they will write down the things they need to do or bring. I would tell them my expectation on the above and check on their compliance regularly. For the ADHD student, I would explain in steps and ensure that he/she understands what is to be expected. Also, we would discuss on establishing 4 to 6 class rules as well as consequences for non-compliance. This will be based on an agreed guiding principle such as respect. These rules would also be put up on the notice board.
I would also set up a Facebook page for the class where the students can interact online. Thus, I have to emphasise the need to adopt the correct etiquette when posting messages. This is also a place for them to motivate one another as well as an avenue for them to email me to give feedback on lessons or any issues that they might have. In addition, I would send out letters to their parents to introduce myself and how they can contact me if needed. These letters would also contain the class rules and the corresponding consequences for non-compliance.
Since this is the time for them to get to know one another, I would take a class photo and then, edit it with their names to be put up on the notice board. Based on the data gathered from the students' files and their previous teachers, I would work on the seating arrangement. For example, the ADHD student would be placed at the front row near the whiteboard. I would also establish a peer group system where students will sit in groups of 5. When a student is absent, he/she can consult the other group members on the previous day's lessons. Apart from its use for cooperative learning or as a learning support group, it also functions as a class communication relay system in cases where there is a need for me to relay message over the weekend or otherwise. The duty roster would also be implemented such that each group will be responsible in performing the class duty for a particular week. As for the ADHD student, he/she will only be assigned duties like cleaning the whiteboard so that he/she can move around in between lessons. I would also change this grouping after each term.
On the second week, I would work with them in setting specific academic goals for the year as well as how they plan to achieve them. These are to be recorded on their organizers, with extra guidance given for the ADHD student. As for my lessons, I would structure them with guided practice, scaffolding and chunking to help them meet each lesson's objectives so as to assist them in reaching their goals. Such structure would be especially helpful for the ADHD student (Lim, 2008). This approach would also be communicated to the students so that they understand that we are working on reaching their goals together. Their goals and action plan would also be shared with their parents and other subject teachers.
I would also choose the core group of the class committee based on leadership qualities. From here, I would work with them in creating other sub-committee roles so that every other student will have a specific role and responsibility in the class. For example, two students are to be responsible in scheduling and the enforcement of the duty roster. Before assigning such roles, the students would be given opportunity to make known of their preferences. For the ADHD student, I would assign him responsibility such as setting up of the audio/visual equipment so that there would always be an opportunity for him/her to move around during curriculum time.
To improve on their social awareness, videos and news articles that showcase special needs students or Paralympics athletes can be discussed in class or online and then, put up on the notice board as well as on the class' Facebook page. This is because social awareness is best inculcated through role modelling and by learning from the case studies. This approach and any teachable moments that may arise also allow students to reflect on what is right and to make the right choice.
Such a plan may be based on sound theories and experiences such as those illustrated by Quek et al (2008). However, inclusiveness in classroom can only be achieved by implementing the plan effectively. And this responsibility largely lies on the shoulder of the teachers and that includes me in the near future.