World Congress on Special Needs Education, Philadelphia

In late August I was lucky enough to travel to Temple University in Philadelphia to attend the World Congress on Special Needs Education. The conference was focussed on education for those with all varieties of special needs and the teachers’ perspective was a key component at this conference. It was really interesting and different to what I am used to, as in the past I have typically attended conferences with a largely cognitive psychology based audience. Understanding teachers’ perspectives is vital when carrying out work to inform educational approaches. Since the conference was held in Philadelphia, there were many American delegates that attended from across the states.

The first keynote talk really highlighted the role of cultural norms in education. The speaker was Prof. Cynthia Northington-Purdie, she provided a thoroughly engaging presentation. A big shock to me and many others, was that corporal punishment is legal and a normal part of the school system across various states in America, something that Prof. Northington-Purdie is passionate about changing. Nearly all countries in Europe along with many other countries across the world, are members of The United Nations ‘Convention on the rights of the child’, stating that children are to be protected from all forms of mental and physical violence, injury or abuse. Perhaps even more shocking are statistics on those with special needs also receiving corporal punishment in some states in America, and figures indicate that this often occurs even more regularly. This really highlights how culture shapes our perceptions, and the impact of these perceptions. This relates to ethical discussions that we also must have regarding issues of coercion and freedom of choice when carrying out research or teaching involving children with intellectual disabilities.

A really interesting talk was given by Prof. Estella De Los Santos on research carried out with associate professor Barba Patton, on the topic of teaching Maths, and the way the information is presented to the child. For instance, the way the question is framed to make it more relevant to the child. Prof. De Los Santos provided an example of a child who was confused and unable to answer when asked whether one number was bigger or smaller than another number. But, when asking the same child, ‘were you bigger when you were 6, or when you were 4?’ this was something that the child was able understand; responding ‘that’s easy, I was bigger when I was 6’. They also provided other instances whereby framing the questions with concrete examples that have relevance to the child can be very effective.

This nicely highlights the influence of the way that we ask questions, on the child’s ability to answer those questions. Children could also then transfer these new and helpful ways of framing or thinking about concepts for other questions. With regards to the DSL+ we have been working hard to devise creative routes to teach children about various aspects of vocabulary in ways that may help them to overcome specific areas of difficulty.

Another really interesting talk was given by Sudharsan Iyengar, he works as an IT programmer, but was approached by Christine Bothun who works in a School supporting children with Special needs. Christine was supporting a pupil who was both deaf and blind; it had been very challenging to help her to communicate. At the outset of the research the pupil was unable to communicate very basic requests such as when she would like to eat or drink. Helping the girl to develop a degree of autonomy was therefore an important goal. Sudhardsan developed a program whereby the girl heard novel sounds and was taught to associate these with objects. For example a certain sound would be presented when the girl was holding a cloth. Over time, the girl learnt to touch the cloth when she heard the sound associated with it. From there she could signal when she would like her face wiped, by pressing a button that made the sound. At this early stage it allowed the girl autonomy for basic everyday tasks, e.g., she was also able to signal when she would like to receive a drink. But, this is another nice example of generating alternatives to teach a child who is experiencing multiple challenges.

I also really enjoyed a talk presented by Dorothée Furnon about the use of a telepresence Robot, allowing a student to move around the classroom environment from sitting in her hospital bed! The study presented by Dorothée aimed to assess how the use of the robot had an effect on teaching practices and learning. The student was able to see via a webcam on the robot while her face was also shown on the screen, and she could control the robot to move around the school from one classroom to another, and even to travel to the cafeteria to spend time talking with her friends at lunch time. The results were very positive showing that the teacher included the student in the classroom, asking her questions and checking that she understood. The students experience was also very encouraging, she felt fully included and had positive learning outcomes. Research such as this has a lot of obvious potential, allowing for children who may often need to be absent from school to continue as much as possible to be included in the learning environment with their peers. This offers a great route to prevent barriers in children’s opportunities to develop academically and socially when away from school for medical or other reasons. Currently options such as these are extremely expensive of course, but, the future holds many exciting technical advances. We have certainly attempted to keep up as much as possible with the relevant technical options available to us regarding apps and picture books, and what they may be able to bring to our project in the DSL+.

I also gave a presentation at this conference on work carried out with Kari-Anne Næss and Chris Jarrold; it was on the topic of pragmatic communication in children with Down syndrome. Successful communication relies not only on children’s language content and form, but also their pragmatic skills, such as understanding appropriate or inappropriate verbal/nonverbal language in different contexts. The results I presented were assessing whether children with Down syndrome tend to experience any particular strengths or weaknesses in different areas of pragmatics, as well as exploring what other abilities appear to be related to pragmatic communication skills or difficulties in children with Down syndrome. The presentation was well received.

To sum up, it was interesting to get an insight into the different perspectives teachers and researchers can bring to the table, but also the cultural differences as well as similarities in teaching, particularly for special educational needs.

- Liz - 

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