How advisors can support special needs students

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By Deb Buehler

Agriculture classes have a long history of providing students with hands-on learning opportunities. These hands-on opportunities are proving to be at the heart of adapting classes for special needs students.

According to Dr. Seburn Pense, associate professor of agriculture education and communication at Southern Illinois University, his research indicates that about 23 percent of Illinois agriculture students have a learning disability. Research in other states reflects similar findings.

“Informally, teachers are telling me that although it requires extra work, the agriculture education classroom allows students to shine when they don’t in other academic areas,” Pense explained. “Our approach with experiential learning offers students with learning disabilities additional motivation.”

Based on his research, Pense has developed a conceptual model for redesigning ag education curriculum to meet the needs of individual learning disabled students. Key elements of his model include focusing teachers’ approaches for meeting the needs of individuals. Addressing the diversity of learning disabilities in any given classroom requires collaboration between teachers, parents, counselors, traditional students and individual students.

“Teachers need to be reflective in their practice,” Pense said. That means considering student engagement and the use of assistive technology.

Pense explained that using assistive technology doesn’t have to be difficult. In fact, the cheaper and easier the technology is to use the better. He recommends resources such as PowerPoint presentations with an added voice-over. The voice-over component increases interactivity by making the content visual and auditory at the same time.

“Students with learning disabilities have a high intellect,” Pense said. “With nearly one-fourth of our students with a learning disability, we need to meet their needs or we stand to lose one-fourth of the work force.”

Resounding agreement
John Neyhart, Brian Martin, Laurie Neyhart and Cheryl Alfonse are educators at Monmouth County Career Center where they are breaking agriculture lessons down into smaller tasks that are manageable for special needs students.

“We simplify the language, allow more time for task completion and how we deliver the content,” said Laurie Neyhart.

From the advisor standpoint, John Neyhart sees students participating in all the FFA components – public speaking, career development events and more. Activities are modified so that students can grasp the ideas being taught and are successful at the state and national level in career development events.

“Our students are preparing for a county Ag Board dinner where they will be presenting speeches.” John Neyhart said. “It takes more practice for them to be successful – learning to speak clearly and get their ideas across. But they’ve been motivated to get in front of the class or talk within groups. While not always measurable, this is a great success.”

Cheryl Alfonse added that special needs students benefit from repetition. The school has a greenhouse and flower shop open to the public. Students learn about caring for the plants, preparing orders and meeting customers.

“They experience the stress of customers who are waiting for a large order to be done,” Alfonse said. “And they rise to the occasion.”

Principal, Dr. Sansevero added thoughts from the administrative perspective. His role is providing the opportunity – making sure that the special education bar is set at the right height and gauging where the students fit.

“We support authentic curriculum that challenges and prepares students for the world of work,” Sansevero said. “We keep abreast of what’s happening in industry by using our industry advisors as well as hands-on components. FFA does a wonderful job in teaching the soft skills that special needs student’s lack.”