Helping Students with Disabilities Successfully Transition into Adult Life
Across the nation, schools are finding success with a more effective approach to preparing students for post-secondary success. This means transitioning away from a traditional textbook-oriented attitude toward a hands-on strategy that integrates each student’s strengths, preferences and interests into a tailored, career-driven education, beginning in middle school and continuing through high school and beyond.
Wisconsin’s Academic & Career Planning (ACP) was developed with the philosophy that equipping students with the tools to make more informed choices about post-secondary education and training will lead to more satisfying careers and lives. This strategy applies to all students and is especially important when considering the education of students with disabilities. These students are historically underrepresented in post-secondary education and the work force and may need additional supports.
While educators remain the most powerful scholastic influence on student development, having the appropriate resources can be a game-changer for students with disabilities. Often, educators don’t have access to effective tools and curriculum that help their students succeed in career and life education. Many times, teachers are left to find free or cheap online materials that fail to provide students with a real skills-building program. Alternately, they may be provided materials that use cartoons or graphics to allow students access to materials written at a certain grade level. These materials are typically not age-appropriate and, as evidence shows, not as effective as project-based learning, which uses a combination of real-life pictures, video modeling and hands-on experience.
Teachers need the support of a curriculum that teaches students with special needs the critical career education and employability skills to help them become job and life ready. Curriculum should be of high quality and comprehensive. Resources should be nationally-validated, evidence based and have proven outcomes for students. Project Discovery is one such program. It offers hands-on career exploration kits, is approved and validated by the US Department of Education, and is structured around evidence-based practices for teaching job skills to all students, including those with intellectual and other developmental disabilities.
Engage Students’ Interests
In keeping with the philosophy of ACP, identifying and encouraging academic and career interests is just as important as developing knowledge and skills. Students, including those with disabilities, have a much higher chance of scholastic and employment success if they are excited by the relevance of their studies to their work. This philosophy is echoed in schools and other educational facilities across the country.
Dondie Roper is the PALS program director at the Arc Gateway in Pensacola, Florida. PALS is a two-year post-secondary program for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities. According to Ms. Roper, ‘One of the keys to all students’ success is to the find what it is they love to do’. For this purpose, the Arc uses innovative curriculum with titles such as ‘Carpentry’, ‘Greenhouse Work’ and ‘Caregiver’. Each of these trade-specific resources presents multiple careers to explore, using real job tools to learn real job skills.
Meet Students Where THEY Are
Using differentiated instruction to manage differing levels of experience and capability is another challenge familiar to all educators, especially those who teach students with intellectual and other developmental disabilities. Curriculum that sticks to a ‘one-size-fits-all’ strategy often frustrates learners who would gain from more robust or more simplified instruction.
‘Our teachers often struggled to adapt the general curriculum for students with significant educational challenges,’ explains Luke Hartman, the Director of Education at Liberty Point Behavioral Healthcare in Staunton, VA.
In order to teach content to learners at multiple stages of intellectual development, curriculum should contain multiple reading levels and other supports such as audio, visual schedules and video modeling. ‘By using Project Discovery, we have differentiated instruction built into all of our hands-on activities.’ Using these strategies, Liberty Point vocational instructors have seen success bridging the gap between multiple learning levels present in the same group of students.
Active Learning Leads to Successful Skill Building: See It. Hear It. Do It!
After identifying student interests and using differentiated instruction to teach content, teachers work with their students to practice job skills in the safety of the classroom. The instructors at Liberty Point used their vocational classroom to apply their students’ new skill sets.
‘After the students completed the activities in the Small Engine Repair kit using the provided engine, our teachers found an engine from an old rototiller, explains Dr. Hartman. ‘The students were able to translate much of what they had learned and gained a great deal of confidence from their newly acquired skills.’ This illustrates the importance of using real tools to develop real skills for real jobs.
Think Beyond the Classroom –> Connect to the Community
Finally, in order to for classroom efforts to come to full fruition, students need the support and resources to apply what they have learned to further pursuits in their community
In conjunction with specific job skills, students need general job preparation and independent living skills. Providing soft skill support for students in areas such as ‘Interviewing for a Job’ and ‘Living on your Own’ is critical. In the hands of competent and inspired educators, these resources have the capability to bolster students’ post-secondary success by giving them the ability to apply the job skills they have acquired and live a fulfilling, independent life.
Dondie Roper at the Pensacola Arc sees all these elements as part of a whole: ‘We take the long-term approach for all students, including those with special needs and at risk. First, find what they love. Second, learn what they need to learn. Finally, put it to use in the community.’
Wisconsin’s Academic and Career Planning (ACP) is a key part of the overall vision for every student to graduate high school college and career ready. By identifying evidence-based curriculum that leads to better post-secondary outcomes, Wisconsin educators are joining others throughout the country in preparing learners of all levels for career and life success.