How to Navigate Lessons with a Special Needs Class

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As assistant languages teachers (ALTs), we hold in our hearts a soft spot for our classes,  whether they are the brightest or the one that makes you smile no matter what. Even that rowdy period that you wish the homeroom teacher would do a little bit more to help them settle down. No matter what, they are a little different. That means that the way each class is taught is also a little different. Through our experiences as teachers and by trying new things, we figure out the best approach to take with each lesson. When we find a system that works — we stick with it

However, there is one class in some schools that doesn’t fit into any specific category that contains a multi-faceted assortment of different students — the special needs class. In today’s ALT For ALTs we’ll discuss how teaching to students with special needs can be a unique, fun experience and not something to shy away from. Hopefully, this post can help as a resource if you’re having troubles engaging these particular students.

Expect the Unexpected

Many ALTs who teach a special needs class or student will encounter a unique teaching experience that is very different from how a typical lesson is taught. It’s difficult to say what it is going to be like or what you should do because each time is so very different.

An initial reaction may be to wonder just how to meet the needs of the children as a teacher. This is where our earlier entry about building a good relationship with the Japanese teacher (JTE) comes into play. It’s best to directly approach the JTE in charge of the class beforehand to discuss the situation. If you can, try to find out the needs, restrictions and interests of each student. Often, the students are of different ages with distinct needs and interests, so it may be necessary to find a “happy medium” in which all the students are comfortable.

You can plan a class together with the JTE with the same focus as other classes. However, you will need to teach at the right pace for the differently-abled needs students. This means that within a 45-minute class you can include a song with some actions for the children to do with you (ideally related to the lesson topic), such as numbers. You can also follow a song by introducing the new words slowly. In the case of special needs students, five or six words — such as “six kinds of fruit” — is usually a good number that can be a fun and interesting challenge for the students.

Learning just one word may be a big accomplishment for some  students while for others that may be recognizing a picture of a word said in English.

Slow and steady

Throughout the lesson, you will need to repeat the vocabulary or desired learning objective more times than during an average class as students may be challenged in some forms of learning and take longer to absorb the material. Each pupil may have different learning objectives in the class. Learning just one word may be a big accomplishment for some  students while for others that may be recognizing a picture of a word said in English.

Tools to get the job done

You will find that using interactive teaching methods work well. Students can associate the English words will be more successful with these students than lecture-and-explanation approach teaching methods. Also, remember to smile! This makes all children happy as they learn.

The Total Physical Response (TPR) approach, as designed by professor James Asher of San Jose State University is also very effective with such students. Virtually no reading or writing. Lots of repetition. Lots of movement. Mostly, the students listen and act based on what they understand, even if they don’t necessarily say much.

All classes are not the same

All English classes are unique and often it comes down to trial and error in teaching to learn what suits certain students the best. Patience is key. High expectations can be counterproductive. You may well find that these uniquely talented kids teach you more about life than you teach them about language. Embrace these experiences and enjoy teaching — and learning from — these amazing classes.

Do you have teaching experience or any advice to add about teaching students with special needs in Japan? Let us know in the comments below!

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