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Knowing Your Students With Disabilities

This is an excerpt from Teaching Children Dance 4th Edition With HKPropel Access by Susan M. Flynn,Emily Enloe,Theresa Purcell Cone & Stephen L. Cone.

As an educator, you will be teaching students with physical, cognitive, emotional, and neurological disabilities. These students all have the ability to learn, create, perform, and respond to dances whether they participate in a full class of learners with disabilities or in an inclusive class with their peers who do not have a disability. In either environment, you need to gain information about the student’s disabilities and have a strong belief that all people can learn. The list of disabilities is comprehensive, and even if a student is diagnosed with a specific disability, the characteristics are manifested differently in each person. When you teach a student with a disability, understand that each one is unique in ability, personality, interests, and needs. Get to know your students. What is their favorite color, sport team, cartoon character, food, book, or game? (See figure 7.1 for additional questions.) Use this information to motivate students to participate and make the learning meaningful and enjoyable. A student may like the feel of fleece, or the color red, or a poster of a popular cartoon character. Each learner will have sensory preferences. The music may be disconcerting, the lights may be too bright, or the sound of too many voices may be confusing. Be aware of these preferences, and use them to support the lesson content and avoid other sensory stimuli that can be irritating to the student. In addition, know the student’s physical range of motion and strength. Dance movements need to be safe. Be aware of contraindicated movements, especially for students who use wheelchairs, crutches, scooters, or braces to support their mobility. Check with the physical therapist or school nurse for information specific to each student in addition to contacting the student’s parents or guardians.

The amount of information about any specific disability, whether available online or in professional journals and texts, is tremendous. Use caution and make sure that your sources are reliable. Accessing information and increasing your knowledge about the causes, characteristics, teaching strategies, and resources are essential to becoming an informed and effective educator. Many organizations dedicated to disability advocacy provide information on research and fundraising, personal stories, photos, and videos; these organizations also provide access to other sources of information. Other sources are the parents or guardians, school administrators, child study team, physical therapists, occupational therapists, school nurses, and other educators in the school who hold valuable information about the student and about teaching people with disabilities. Seek information about laws and regulations regarding the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) and its definition of the 13 categories of disabilities, the operational definition of free appropriate public education and a least restrictive environment (LRE), and the student’s individualized education program (IEP). Check the student’s IEP and incorporate the goals into the dance lessons.

Creating an Inclusive Environment

The smile on your face tells your students that they are welcomed into the teaching space and that you are accepting and eager to help them learn. This simple facial gesture is significant to any learner and especially important to a student with disabilities. The smile also indicates to anyone else in the space, student or adult, that you are caring and willing to make the learning experience meaningful for all. The environment is more than a space; it is an attitude of acceptance that permeates all the activities that occur in a lesson. From the moment a student enters the space, you are there to greet them and acknowledge something personal, such as a new shirt, a necklace, a toy in the child’s hand, or a new haircut. This initial connection provides you with information about how the student is feeling physically and socially on that day. Next, you describe the dance activity and mention how the space and equipment are organized for the lesson and help the student to a place where the lesson will begin. You may say, “Today we are going to dance with the scarves that are in a red basket near the wall. Everyone find a place.” If the student with a disability has a paraeducator or a peer buddy, that person will also help the student to the space to begin the lesson. Sometimes, you can play music as the students enter the space to set a calming atmosphere or a signal that this is the dancing space.

The dance teaching space needs to comply with the requirements of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) for access (United States Department of Justice 2010). Bathrooms, water fountains, entrances, and exits need to be designed for all students to access. The floor should be clean, and the lighting and temperature should be appropriate. Extra equipment such as chairs, bleachers, equipment bins, media players, or devices need to be on carts so they are easily moved when space is needed. The boundaries for dancing need to be clearly marked with tape, painted floor lines, or cones. There needs to be space between the end of the boundary and the wall so children can stop without getting hurt. Keep the wall space clear of excess posters and other visual displays to keep distractions to a minimum, if appropriate, yet place needed information on the wall.

Simple rules for safety and learning should be posted and reviewed periodically. Develop a strategy about how you will help students who wander out exit doors, accidentally run into equipment, or are resistant to participating in the lesson and roam the space. Provide a rest space that is in the dance space but offers a quiet place for students to rest, calm themselves if they are overstimulated, or take a break from the lesson. Most important, ensure that students dance in a safe space that is comfortable and supports learning.

Implementing Inclusive Teaching Strategies

The goal of dance for learners with disabilities is to explore and develop each student’s unique movement style. Bilitza (2021) asks educators to address the challenges of creating inclusive environments for education by identifying structures, behaviors, and methods of teaching. The author describes motivated dance educators who “take all physical differences of the participants as creative input for choreographing and creating artistic work” (p. 3). This perspective emphasizes the exploration and learning process as a foundation for the dance experience. While a product may emerge, the experience of learning and creating is primary. Teaching students with disabilities, like teaching all students, requires creativity and adaptability. The lessons should include high-level teaching conditions, differentiated instructions or activities when appropriate, use of teacher proximity to students, and activities at an appropriate skill level (Bertills, Granlund, and Augustine 2019). One of the most effective strategies for making an accommodation is to ask the student how a movement, prop, space, formation, or complete dance can be changed for their inclusion. They have experience in negotiating their environment and making changes for access to be able to function and participate successfully. Most important, maintain the dignity of students with disabilities. Modify the environment, equipment, or lesson as necessary and ensure students embrace these modifications. However, you should also create an environment of integrative dance in which students’ differences of movement and exploration are celebrated to maintain a high level of participation from all (DiPasquale 2022). The following are several strategies that are applicable for teaching dance to all students and can be used in a class for all learners with disabilities, an inclusive class, or a class with students who do not have a disability.

  • Apply the principle of universal design. This strategy reflects the principle of architecture. The premise is that the design accommodates all people. For example, everyone can benefit from using a ramp to enter a building or from lever door handles. In dance, the circle formation is inherently inclusive because everyone can be seen and has an equal place in the group. A creative dance about exploring straight and curved shapes is appropriate for all students. The task of finding a way to make a straight shape with a part of your body can be answered in a variety of ways. This strategy is especially applicable to classes where students with disabilities participate with a class that includes students who do not have a disability. Everyone can participate in their own way because multiple answers are encouraged. Another application of universal design is using several sign language gestures with all students to support verbal directions. Teachers frequently use words such as stop, go, line up, good job, no, or look at me. In this way, you use two modes of communication, verbal and gestural, simultaneously to help learners hear and see directions and feedback. Students learn that there are multiple ways to learn and communicate, all of them equally effective.
  • Establish a lesson routine. This strategy describes a set activity that occurs in the same space and at the same time (typically at the beginning or end of each dance session). The routine provides a clear, familiar expectation for each student and can help with organization and class management.
  • Use designated spots. Each student has a predetermined place to begin and end the lesson and a place to return to for listening to instructions. The designated place can be marked by plastic poly spots, an X taped to the floor, an identifying line, a letter painted on the floor, a hoop, or a taped-down name card.
  • Develop dances for beginning and ending the class session. These dances become part of the lesson routine and emphasize rhythmic patterns and repetition of movement. The same dance can be used throughout the school year or changed monthly. One example that welcomes students and encourages verbal communication combined with rhythm and repetition is the “We Are Glad to See You” dance. In this dance, students are seated in a circle on the floor or in chairs. Everyone repeats the following sequence together, which is accompanied by hand gestures. This is repeated for all students. This dance is best for small groups. A student may need help from you or the paraeducator to move their hands or arms, or you can delete the movements and use only the voice.
    • We are (two hand taps on the thighs, one tap on each word)
    • Glad to (two hand claps, one clap on each word)
    • See you (both hands point to a student in the circle)
    • Student’s name (hands point to the student)
  • Use peer helpers. These helpers are usually peers who do not have a disability who are in an inclusive class or older or same-age peers who help in a self-contained class. These peers are students you have trained in reinforcing instructions and demonstrations, providing feedback, and increasing practice time. Peers should not manipulate a student’s body, move students who use a wheelchair, or assist with bathroom needs.
  • Offer assistance to paraeducators to support learning. These adults, who are also known as aides, educational assistants, or teaching assistants, may accompany one student or provide support for several students. They may not be familiar with the dance content and may not be sure how to effectively assist the student. One way is to meet before the lesson and discuss specific strategies for helping, such as reinforcing or reading instructions, providing demonstrations, giving feedback, and helping to keep the student focused on the lesson. You can also send an email or a printed description of the lesson before the class or present a task card upon arrival at the session that describes verbal cues, appropriate feedback strategies, and tactical or visual prompts that help the student learn (see figure 7.2).

Figure 7.2 Sample Task Card

  • Develop a visual schedule. This strategy is a pictorial display of the dance lesson showing the order in which the dance tasks or activities will be presented. The schedule can be placed on a wall near the entrance or near where directions are presented. A number, the picture, and a word describing the picture are included (see figure 7.3). Using the visual schedule allows students to see what will happen in the dance session and helps them feel organized and more secure. After each task or activity, you can return to the schedule and check off what was completed or show what activity is next.
  • Use person-first language. When referring to someone with a disability, be respectful by using the name of the person or the type of person first and the disability second. For example, use student who has autism instead of an autistic student, or the child’s name (e.g., Malik, who has an intellectual disability) instead of the mentally challenged student, or Jan, who uses a wheelchair instead of the wheelchair-bound girl. As an educator, you should always see the person first and understand that the disability is only one of their characteristics. Most important, students are not identified by their disabilities; they are viewed as one of the many students you teach who all have their own way of learning and being in the world.
  • Establish clear stop and start signals. A stop signal is necessary for stopping the dancing and providing additional directions, changing to a new dance, ending the session, or attending to an emergency. The signal can be a verbal command, the sound of a percussion instrument, a hand signal, or a prop held up for all to see. Using both a verbal and a visual signal is most effective. Be aware of students who are sensitive to certain sounds or need more time to stop to control their bodies. Practice using the stop signal and the start signal, and use the signals consistently.
  • Make feedback meaningful. Responding to a student’s action can be affirmative or corrective. Words and phrases such as fantastic, great job, excellent, or you did it affirm a positive action; however, they will be more effective if the initial phrase is followed by a brief description about what the learner did well. For example, the phrase nice job is followed by your arms were raised up very high. In this way, the student knows what they did well and is more likely to repeat the action. When using a corrective statement, apply the sandwich approach, which begins with a positive statement, follows with the correction, and closes with a positive statement. For example, “Alicia, that turn went all the way around, but you need to keep your head up so you can keep your balance. I know you can do it.” You can also use a positive word wall (Cone and Cone 2011) that has the printed affirmative words listed. You or the student can point to how the student performed the activity.
  • Set up a personal folder. This strategy helps an individual focus on the sequence of the dance lesson or on the expected behaviors. In a folder is a list of the dance activities and a place to check when the activity is completed (see figure 7.4). The student, a paraeducator, or you can check the items off the list during the session or at the conclusion.

Figure 7.4 Personal Folder Checklist

  • Change the space, equipment, music, or props. Although many students with disabilities need only minor modifications to a lesson when learning, creating, or performing a dance, some of them will need extra modifications to the space, equipment, music, or props that support their way of learning. You can reduce or divide the amount of space for dancing into parts to help students know where to move. Use lines and arrows to mark directions, pathways, and formations. You can change the texture of the prop or equipment to make it easier to grip or more acceptable to touch, or you can attach props to a wheelchair. (Check with the school administration before using this approach.)
  • Use mnemonics and key words as cues to identify a dance. A mnemonic is a memory strategy using letters organized into a word that represents a phrase that relates to something specific, like a dance. For example, GET means gather everyone together. You can use GET dance as the name of a dance that can be performed as part of a beginning routine. Another example of a beginning dance is the how are you, or HAY dance. Key words such as time to go dance or good-bye dance can indicate that this is the dance the class performs at the end of the session.
  • Provide instructions in chunks. In this strategy, you divide the instructions into smaller pieces of information; you present one instruction at a time in a series. Check for understanding by observing whether a student complies or asking the student to repeat the instruction. Verbal instructions should be accompanied by a demonstration or supported by pictures or objects to provide multiple means of delivering the content.
  • Wait for a response. After you ask a question or give an instruction, allow a short time for students to process the information and form a response. Some students need time to formulate the words or gestures or use their assistive technology to respond. The waiting time helps everyone think about what and how they want to communicate as an answer or make a comment.
  • Apply closed- and open-skill teaching. Closed-skill teaching means that the movements for the dance are taught in isolation or out of the context of the complete dance. The dance movement is repeated in a predictable way to reinforce cognitive understanding and motor patterns. Then the dance movement can be inserted into an open-skill situation or the whole dance. In the open-skill or whole-dance situation, the movement may take on a variation, or there may be an unpredictable moment where the dancing partners change, the space or tempo is altered, or a spontaneous formation occurs.
More Excerpts From Teaching Children Dance 4th Edition With HKPropel Access