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Nani is a fourteen year old Chinese girl with Autism Spectrum Disorder in an integrated class for children with mild intellectual disabilities in a special school in Singapore. The pseudonym, Nani, is used to protect her identity. She is placed in an Intermediate classroom for students from thirteen to fourteen years of age and will be entering the Senior level, and attend prevocational training in a rotation, in Food Preparation, Service and Cleaning programme, next year.
How has the service learning project impact upon your learning? Why?
This service learning project has enabled me to look past the disability of the child, autism and the triad of impairment, to consider the home life as an integral part of learning. This is because of the difficulties getting support from overprotective parent who has a domestic helper serving the child at her whim and fancy, in seeing the importance on developing independent daily living skills.
Previously I have heard teachers who teach students with autism that you cannot change their routine because they will show tantrums and that they exhibit certain behaviours or "cannot comprehend" because they have autism. I have grown to change my belief, to realise that we teachers should not let the disability control what we teach but to use the student's ability to teach. This is especially after I saw Nani in her classroom. Although she was placed in a mild intellectual disabilities classroom, she needed additional support, a teacher aide's supervision, to complete the same tasks as her peers as she was not able to follow the teacher's general instructions. Therefore, it was exclusion within the classroom. I think it is important to have differentiated and small group instruction within a classroom for it to be truly inclusive. I am guilty of setting the same tasks and instruction in an aim to be "fair" to every student and expecting them to meet a common standard within the classroom. Now I have realised that in order to be fair, we need to suit the student's needs by providing the instructions and setting tasks to suit their diverse levels.
What does this service learning project teach you about teaching students with ASD?
In observations in the classroom compared to the home, Nani seemed to interact less with anyone but the teacher in class while at home, she was enthusiastic to greet visitors and engage in conversation. As such, the home environment also may reveal different characteristics of a student. Teachers should therefore, consider their classroom environments to instil factors that enhance support and communication, such as buddy system with a well-liked peer or using visual cues that make instructions clearer such that tasks are completed well and with less support from teacher. As a novice teacher with little experience teaching students with autism, and as an observer/interviewer as a trainee teacher, I now see how self-stimulatory actions can interrupt students' learning. In the classroom, Nani loved to take worksheets from the desk just to feel them on her lips and to flick them to make a crackling sound. As a teacher, Nani's tactile needs can be used to teach her, such as using flip-boards, using various musical instruments or educational materials made of different textures. Nani's mother has advised the use of her interests, especially in music, as well as given tips such as using rewards of magazines or preferred activity time that might motivate her. I believe that just because students have autism does not mean that they cannot adapt to changes, but we teachers or parents have to prepare them to cope with the changes or challenges that they would commonly experience.
What does this service learning project teach you about partnering with families?
As teachers we assess capabilities and plan goals and objectives to suit the needs of our diverse students, sometimes without even a thought to their parents' expectations and concerns. During the interview, I was surprised to meet a parent, Nani's mother, who wanted and wished her child to achieve but at the same time, did not seem to believe that her child could actually perform better than her current level or think to challenge her. Nani's mother based her beliefs of her child's performance on the current teacher's reports and did not know much about her daily schedule in school and home. She expressed concerns that she had heavy work commitments and had to coach her younger son in his homework and would prefer that the home program be done with the main caregiver, the domestic helper. I observed that Nani's mother asked Nani questions and waited for her responses while the domestic helper gave her more instructions, for example, to complete a task such as showering or even at times, answered for Nani on her behalf during the interview. This project has taught me that for good learning and improvement, gaining parents' support to make the necessary changes is very important. Also, Nani and her mother had a great rapport; Nani sharing daily with her details from school and her anxieties as well as requesting to go out to eat or shop. This can be used in motivating Nani to perform well, sharing her achievements with her mother daily. In turn, Nani's sense of competence and self esteem may be enhanced. I feel that all parents are protective of how their child might be viewed, more so when the child has disabilities and try to protect their child from negative evaluation, just like how Nani's mother loved to talk about her strengths but did not detail on tantrums and violent behaviour during the interview. In working with parents, we need to emphasise that we are not judging or criticising the child but are committed to teach so that students can learn well and improve in their lives.
What does this service learning project teach you about yourself?
This project teaches me that I set high expectations for my students' and their achievements. Before the interview, I thought that it would be good to teach Nani to be an independent traveller and for prevocational training in Senior classes next year, to teach some prerequisite skills for cooking in aim for the Food & Beverage training programme in the school. Her mother has expressed concerns that Nani might be taken advantage of anytime the ten minute walk to school and is not keen with starting to send her independently to take the school bus. She aims for Nani to be in the work skills programme in prevocational training which only entails routine packing. I had to adjust these expectations to plan a home program that is less challenging, including skills such preparing meals and packing. I also learned that I believe that all learners can learn if taught in the 'right' way, which leaves the responsibility to teachers to provide positive, meaningful and successful experiences for students and to be flexible in using different materials and strategies in their teaching instead of blaming the child the child for not achieving goals or using traditional methods of teaching which may not support students in learning. Also, students should be pushed to their potential by teaching from current to the Zone of Proximal development. If teachers do not challenge them, they might just learn repeated low level concepts year after year at their current levels and remain there.