For Teachers

Solving Special-Needs Puzzles

Helping children learn is like solving a puzzle, says this kindergarten teacher. Here’s how she makes all the pieces fit for the students in her class.

Solving the puzzle of Special-Needs Learning
Solving the puzzle of Special-Needs Learning

“She helps me be good,” said my son, Jamie, about Ann Saunders, his kindergarten teacher at Virginia Cross Elementary School, in Siler City, North Carolina.

That is strong praise from a child with multiple disabilities, including ADHD and sensory processing dysfunction. Jamie’s special needs cause him to be easily over-stimulated or frustrated in the classroom. Instead of seeing his behaviors as problems, Saunders sees them as differences that need to be managed so Jamie can do his best.

“Children are like a puzzle when it comes to learning,” says Saunders. “It’s my job as a teacher to find out what pieces work well and how to make them fit together. If I give up when it gets tough, I won’t find the solution that works best for each student.”

The Midas Touch

With more than 20 years of teaching under her belt, Saunders is a master. She doesn’t raise her voice or make a child cry. While her students are as revved up and wiggly as any class of five- and six-year-olds, they listen when she speaks, and are usually happy to follow her directions.

Saunders’ calm, consistent praise assures Jamie that he can accomplish everything she asks of him. I wish that every teacher working with special-needs kids would follow her lead. For example:

Work with children, not against them. What works for some kids doesn’t work for others. She tries hard to adapt her lessons to fit a child’s needs and his particular learning style.

Team with parents. She takes parents’ concerns about their child seriously and understands that Mom and Dad are the experts on their child.

Make it easier to follow the rules. After she discovered that Jamie was having a hard time keeping his hands — and the tap water — to himself while he was in the bathroom with several other kids, she began sending Jamie in first or last, with only one child.

Pursue the positive. If her students squirm or push one another while in line, Saunders praises the ones who are calm and quiet. All of her students want to be the object of her praise, so the restless kids settle down.

Encourage sensory stimulation. When she found out that Jamie and several of the other children had a better morning if they started the day working with Play-Doh, she made playing with clay part of the morning work for those students.

Don’t take away recess. If a child misbehaves, she finds another way to redirect his behavior. Physical activity is good for all kids, but vital to kids with ADHD.