I chose a student with special needs, whom I’ll call “Tommy” (not his real name). Tommy is a 15-year-old freshman, who has been diagnosed with autism. In addition, based on his IEP, Tommy has “deficits in visual-motor integration, verbal comprehension, adaptive skills and pragmatics, which impact his performance”. Based on information from the Autism Society of America (www.autism-society.org) and the Institute for the Study of Developmental Disabilities (www.iidc.indiana.edu), autism has a wide range of characteristics that can affect individuals in a myriad of unique ways. In general, people with autism have difficulties relating to others, communicating, and understanding language. Modifications include consistent and predictable routines and lots of interactions with socially successful peers, who can be models of appropriate language, social, and behavioral skills. In addition, new information should be presented both visually and orally. Tasks should be broken down into smaller, simpler parts, and projects should have clear instructions and be goal-oriented.
Rationale for Selection:
Upon reflection before selecting Tommy for this case study, I had some assumptions and questions about Tommy. The outbursts of “What?” and “Huh?” in class combined with the constant expressions of confusion led me to assume Tommy might lack background knowledge and perhaps, general ability, which might prohibit him from succeeding in such a fast-paced course. My questions included: What kind of support did Tommy have at home? What kind of extra support does Tommy have at school? How much time does Tommy devote to studying, and how did he study? When was the last time he took science? What were his grades in science before this year? I proceeded to gather information about Tommy through a one-on-one interview, observation of Tommy in another class (History), and analysis of his class work, previous grades, and previous test scores.
Tommy is taking biology for the first time, and his grade is a D. Tommy really wants to raise his grade. Tommy is a freshman and finds the transition from middle school to high school very challenging, particularly the increased academic rigor. He seems to be increasingly concerned with his performance on the multiple-choice tests and quizzes. I was concerned his heightened anxiety would inhibit his ability to perform well on these assessments. To help reduce Tommy’s anxiety by building our student-teacher relationship, and hopefully building his confidence, I selected Tommy for the case study. He might be able to benefit from more individualized attention in order for me to appropriately modify instruction and give Tommy the support he needs. In addition, I hoped to learn much from a student with a learning disability who is actively struggling with trying to overcome it in order to achieve his learning goals.
Because biology relies heavily on new vocabulary, Tommy may find learning new content challenging since he has difficulty with visual comprehension. Finally Tommy’s difficulties with visual-motor integration may make certain lab activities difficult, such as using a microscope, which requires find motor skills. Tommy has poor hand-writing as well, making it difficult for me to read his written responses and lab reports that he turns in.
Based on my observations of Tommy in class in conjunction with the description of Tommy’s needs in his IEP, he needs support in language and behavioral skills. His IEP states that Tommy struggles with impulsivity in the social setting, and I have noticed his tendency to shout sudden outbursts in class or the urge to comment inappropriately when in groups. Tommy often shouts, “What?” or “Huh?” immediately after I say something to the class. He seems to have great difficulty learning new content related to biological concepts. Specifically, Tommy’s learning disability verbal comprehension may make it difficult to learn new content, particularly in activities reliant on reading and writing.
Although Tommy has poor hand-writing, his written summaries and oral responses in class are slightly above average, compared to the rest of the class. This is consistent with his previous high marks in English and History (A’s and B’s) and CST and CMA scores (Proficient in ELA and Advanced in History). This implies that he knows the content better than he can demonstrate on tests. In addition, I suspect that Tommy has low self-confidence and his perception of what he knows is much lower than what it actually is. His homework, worksheets, and lab reports show that he can write in complete sentences, follow directions, and respond to simple questions. He has difficulty with more advanced, higher-order tasks, such as explaining results, or comparing and contrasting plant and animal cells.
Academic language background:
Based on Tommy’s previous grades and test scores, he has consistently performed very well in English and History (A’s and B’s) and poorly in math and science (B’s and C’s, respectively). In addition, Tommy said that History is his favorite subject. Taken together with his in-class written work, oral responses, and previous CST and CMA test scores, Tommy excels in the language arts. However, Tony struggles to learn new, content-specific vocabulary. Tony can respond in spoken and written language to specific questions. He can write a 1-paragraph summary to explain what he learned from his notes. His responses indicate that he is making progress towards understanding new vocabulary and using it correctly. Tommy spends two hours a day receiving specialized academic instruction in a separate classroom, and this support has greatly aided in keeping Tommy on-track with his assignments and correcting his work.
Student Content Knowledge and Skills (Biology):
Tommy admits Biology is his least favorite subject and struggles to understand the material. He has been getting Ds and Cs on his tests and quizzes, although his grades on his lab reports, homework, in-class assignments, group activities, posters, and projects have been averaging a high “B”. His difficulty in visual processing may make it difficult to learn the material at the speed with which it’s being presented. Tommy has not had a class in science since the 7th grade (2 years ago), which was Earth Science (his grade was a C). Tommy is likely having difficulty learning new concepts because they seem foreign and complex to him. He has little background in biology. Consistent with this, Tommy scored “Below Basic” in both Math and Science on the CST state assessment. Taken together, I am not surprised Tommy is struggling with comprehending new concepts related to biology.
Physical, social and emotional development:
Tommy is a good student who wants to do well. He takes careful notes, studies, and works hard to complete all assignments. However, he sees coming in to see me outside of a class as something he is being forced to do (perhaps by his parents) and does not seem to look forward to class. He has admitted this is his least favorite class. I sense that he is frustrated because the learning goals seem too challenging for him. Tommy needs a lot of support, positive reinforcement, and a comfortable classroom setting to boost his confidence and focus more on his progress as opposed to his mistakes.
Tommy loves socializing and has become more and more comfortable participating in class discussions, something he was reluctant to do at the beginning of the year. The class is very respectful to each other and Tommy has been assigned to a supportive, compassionate group of high-achieving peers to help peer-tutor Tommy and give him positive experiences working in groups. Tommy’s frequent social interactions with his peers allow him to learn how to interact in appropriate ways as well as learn the new content through peer-modeling and peer-tutoring.
Tommy occasionally needs to be corrected in simple misbehaviors, such as talking out of turn or cutting in line. I don’t make a big deal out of his mistakes, and I’m gentle in correcting him (“Please wait your turn in line.”). Tommy is very respectful and immediately corrects his mistakes when made aware of them.
Upon observing Tommy in his favorite class, Ancient World History, Tommy demonstrated highly social behavior, participating openly in class discussions (sometimes too much!). He also was goofing off with his friends before class. This indicates Tommy enjoys working in groups.
Cultural background, family, home, and interests:
Tommy was born in Idaho and then moved to the San Marcos area, where he has received all of his education. His experience in elementary school was mostly positive, but he got persistently bullied during middle school because of his differences. He learned to read by age 4 or 5, and history is his favorite subject. Currently, biology is his least favorite subject because the concepts are very difficult to understand. Although Tommy thinks high school is much harder than middle school, he likes it better because he no longer gets bullied. He spends much of his time outside of school studying and doing homework. His parents have set up a strict action/consequence system for Tommy at home. Tommy is motivated to finish his homework because then he is allowed to read and listen to music, some of his favorite pastimes. Tommy also loves video games, like “Burn-Out Paradise” and “Infamous”. He also loves “Dungeons & Dragons” and Star Wars. Tommy also loves camping with his family in the summertime. His dream job would be to design video games. Tommy also is aware that he learns best through listening to the teacher, taking notes, and studying his notes later.
Special considerations, interests, aspirations, and other information that can influence my instructional planning:
Knowing about Tommy’s interests can help me design activities centered around his hobbies to help engage him in the learning of new content. For instance, since Tommy likes video games, he might enjoy learning about a new concept using a video game-style format. When presenting the immune system, I could make an analogy between how fighter-T cells are like Starship Troopers and show a short video clip since Tommy loves Star Wars (he’s not the only student in the class who does).
Tommy may benefit from extra time on assignments and shorter assignments to give him more time to process new content. He is highly social and loves working in groups, as do the other students, so many of the class activities have been structured using a group format. However, I observed in his history class that he was often left out from group activities when the class was left to choose partners or gropus themselves. Students may avoid working with Tommy because of his differences. I need to make sure the groups I put Tommy into are well-planned ahead of time. I will surround Tommy with a group of compassionate and supportive peers who are tolerant of Tommy’s differences and open to giving him peer support.
Tommy also benefits from individualized instruction. I circulate while students work, giving Tommy extra assistance on problems and checking his work to make sure he’s on the right track. I also provide the class with several handouts, worksheets, and graphic organizers so that Tommy can be supported visually as well as oral instructions (as well as support the whole class). Finally, Tommy has been seeing me during lunch twice a week for extra tutoring. I look through his notes, quiz him on concepts, and clarify concepts.
Self-evaluation and reflection:
When I first started working with Tommy, I was surprised by how much more intelligent he actually was, compared with what he was able to demonstrate. By speaking with him one-on-one, reading his written responses, and listening to his oral responses in class, I’ve come to realize Tommy knows much more about new concepts than he believes he does. I suspect his lack of self-confidence has been negatively impacting his ability to demonstrate his knowledge of new concepts. Since I’ve begun working with Tommy to build our student-teacher relationship, I’ve seen an increase in his confidence and positive attitude. He volunteers more in class and seems eager to participate. I demand respect between all my students, and they have been open, accepting and compassionate towards Tommy. He feels included, supported and well-liked in class by both his peers and his teachers. I give him a lot of positive feedback. I’ve noticed a boost in his self-esteem. Last week, he earned a “B” on the weekly quiz, after we modified the assessment and made it a paired activity. Tommy excitedly told me his score, and I gave him a big “high-5” to congratulate him. Since I started working with him, he has raised his grade more than a letter grade to a C+ (78%). I enjoy working with Tommy, and I hope to help him continue to progress academically.