Photograph of Joy Zabala

What activities occur in the student's natural environments which enable progress toward mastery of identified I.E.P. goals?
What is actually happening here that will enable the student to move toward mastery of his/her goals? If the answer is "Nothing" then assistive technology will do nothing either. Assistive technology is simply a MEANS to participate in activities which build skills. Think back upon my comments about attitudes and what my expectations as a first grade teacher did to foster the creation of an environment in which progress could be made. If there are no tasks which provide meaningful practice, mastery cannot possibly occur.

I have been in conversation with people who have said, "Nothing is really happening here. All we do is feed and change." Well, in that case there are two areas to be explored: 1) How might the environment be enriched for ALL students?; and, 2) How can the students be more actively communicative, participative and productive within the daily feeding and changing tasks? It is a far better thing to have some control in the tasks of the environment than just to be "done unto!" The person who has the opportunity to learn that s/he has some communicative power and personal responsibility within the environment, perhaps to use eye gaze to indicate a need for changing position, is in a far better position to have some impact upon quality of life than the one who does not.

What is everyone else doing? Though there are often compelling reasons to move away from "what everyone else is doing", it is important to BEGIN here! Keep in mind that participating in the same activities does not have to lead to the same results for all participants. For example, consider a fourth grader with significant mental retardation whose goals include categorizing, sorting by category, task completion, turn-taking, seeking help when needed and grasping and releasing a variety of items. There is little reason that I can see for having this student work in isolation on these tasks. In fact, there are several goals that could only be artificially addressed in a one-on-one situation where the level of prompts would be significantly different than the natural prompts in more generalized settings. Could not most of these goals be addressed when working with fellow fourth graders on an earth science lesson involving classifying, sorting, and charting various kinds of rocks and how they are formed? The actual items that would be monitored and measured for mastery would be different, but the TASK would be just about what "everybody else is doing." Move away from "what everybody else is doing" when necessary. But first be sure that it is really necessary.

Activities, Critical Elements, Modifications: What are the critical attributes of the activities? Please think back on the Calculator and Jorgensen article on best practices. As we look at the activities in various environments, it is essential to remember that activities (Tasks) are not isolated skills, but clusters of skills which must be used together in order to participate in the activity. Can you think of ANY activity in which you participate that you use skills in only one area (motor, social/enotional, communication or cognitive)? I think it would be difficult or impossible to do so! With that in mind, we will look at activities with the idea that there may be modifications that can increase participation for students with disabilities while not really changing the critical elements of the activity for any participant.

As an example, let's consider a very important game which is often played in preschool and early elementary classes - Musical Chairs. If you are like most people, when asked to quickly name two things that are critical elements in the game of Musical Chairs, you would most likely say MUSIC and CHAIRS.

Well, in a classroom I once frequented, there was a student who was in a power wheelchair. That student's goals included learning to safely manipulate the wheelchair in crowded situations. The teacher made a modification in the game. The chairs were removed and mats were placed on the floor. Other than that there were no changes made in the game and everyone played as before with one exception - the student in the wheelchair played right along with everyone else! A modification was made, but, because it did not prohibit or significantly change the action of ALL of the students, it would be safe to say that CHAIRS are not a critical element of musical chairs!

A bit later in the year, a student who was deaf enrolled in the class. In order to include this student in the enjoyable learning activity, a light was purchased for a small price at a nearby electrical supply store. When the tape recorder used to play the music was turned ON, the light began to flash and continued flashing as long as the tape recorder was in the ON position. Thus, the student who was unable to hear the music was able to participate fully in the activity. Once the tape was inadvertently not put into the recorder at the start of the session. The ON button was pushed, there was no music, but the light began to flash. Can you guess what happened? Right! ALL of the students began to march around the mats as the game began right on cue! So, again, we find that MUSIC - something that would appear at first glance to be a critical element of Musical Chairs, really isn't after all.

So, what ARE the two critical elements of Musical Chairs illustrated here? First, there have to places to "light" (as in get upon) and there has to be one less place than there are participants. Second, there has to be a signal whose presence indicates that it is time to start and whose absence indicates that it is time to stop!

That analysis, though aimed at something quite simple, gives us a lot more opportunity for problem-addressing and problem-solving than if we had just looked lightly at the critical elements and drawn what we now see as inaccurate conclusions!

So that this discussion does not lead any of us to believe that this applies only to the games, as we go about our "Virtual Meeting" we will take some time to explore the critical elements of writing a term paper and how they might be negotiated to enable meaningful participation and productivity by a student with severe dysgraphia!

In conclusion, as we look at identifying and analyzing tasks, we must keep in the forefront the ideas on activities that George Karlan has identified in his work with Environmental Communication Teaching. Chiefly, most tasks contain a multitude of steps. Once the steps have been identified - as ANYONE WOULD DO THEM - we can begin to look at what elements of the tasks would be difficult or impossible for our student to do without significant assistance and begin to develop a system of tools which can be used to address those elements. As to the OTHER parts of the activities... at the risk of being trite, "If it ain't broke".. well, you know the rest!

Read iconSupplemental readings:

Calculator & Jorgensen, Integrating AAC instruction into regular education settings: Expounding on best practices

Karlan, Environmental Communication Teaching

Note: Supplemental readings can be accessed at any time from the Resources link on the SETT home page.

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This material was developed by the National Center to Improve Practice (NCIP), located at Education Development Center, Inc. in Newton, Massachusetts.  NCIP was funded by the U.S. Department of Education, Office of Special Education Programs from October 1, 1992 - September 30, 1998, Grant #H180N20013.  Permission is granted to copy and disseminate this information.  If you do so, please cite NCIP.   Contents do not necessarily reflect the views or policies of the Department of Education, nor does mention of trade names, commercial products, or organizations imply endorsement by NCIP, EDC, or the U.S. Government.  This site was last updated in September 1998.

ŠEducation Development Center, Inc.