AUBURN – Inside Auburn’s Richland Elementary School, Auburn University students oversee a trio of three-year-old children having fun with swings, tricycles and exercise balls. What appears to be a typical recess period for children is actually an exercise in “incidental teaching” for students in the university’s College of Education.
The three children are among the 50 receiving extended school year services as part of Auburn’s 2011 Summer Program for Students with Disabilities. The children, from Auburn, Opelika, Lee County and Chambers County, have developmental disabilities affecting social interaction and communication.
Undergraduate and graduate students in the College of Education’s Department of Special Education, Rehabilitation and Counseling use creative and personalized methods of instruction to help the children learn skills such as counting, using words, identifying the difference in shapes and behaving courteously in social settings. In what is called “incidental teaching,” activities such as a race around the room on tricycles or a session on the swings are used to reinforce earlier lessons designed to elicit social responses from the children.
“It’s very rewarding because you watch the children make progress,” said Vanessa Hinton, a doctoral candidate in the College of Education who teaches at Dawson Elementary School in Columbus, Ga. “It’s very important for the child and for the college student. The child benefits from the instruction and the college student has the opportunity to use strategies discussed in class.”
The children in the summer program range in age from three to 12. The Auburn students use practices outlined by the National Autism Center to create a learning environment that fosters academic and personal growth. Doris Hill, coordinator of educational and community support for Auburn University’s Center for Disability Research and Service, said the undergraduate and graduate students develop goals for each child based on an Individualized Education Plan, or IEP, which includes components devoted to social skills, mathematics and language arts.
“Our ratio is approximately one teacher to two students, and includes much individualized attention,” Hill said. “It is a highly structured, highly engaging, positive learning environment.”
“Extended school year services are required by law when written into a student’s IEP as a service to be provided by the school district,” Hill added. “These services help students maintain valuable skills they might otherwise lose over the summer months. We’re extending the goals that are written into the students’ school Individualized Education Plans.”
The summer program also serves as an individualized education plan of sorts for the currently-employed and future educators. The Auburn University students learn how to collect and apply data related to student progress and utilize emerging technological tools like the Apple iPad 2 for communication and literacy-based learning. In 2010, Margaret Flores, Scott Renner and Kate Musgrove, of the Center for Disability Research and Service, began looking for ways to use iPads to help children with autism improve their verbal communication skills and learn appropriate social behavior.
During the summer program, teachers also learn how to connect with students of different ages whose disabilities vary in severity. For example, graduate student Sara Catherine Patterson has found that engaging pre-schoolers is far different from the processes used with older children. In her classroom, she and her co-teachers sang a song to prepare children for story time and rewarded their attention with the opportunity to feed fish in a virtual aquarium on the iPad 2.
There are other lessons that Hill and Flores, assistant professor of special education and Center for Disability Research and Service affiliate, try to impart as well. Student teachers learn to create positive, encouraging atmospheres, to hold themselves and each other to high standards and to become passionate advocates for students with disabilities.
“It’s important to build collaborative relationships with other teachers,” Hill said. “Sometimes you become the school’s expert on special education even though you’ve just graduated with a bachelor’s degree.”