Making a Difference: Service Learning in Special Education

September 18, 2014 in Volume 02

Making a Difference: Service Learning in Special Education

Nancy Stockall
Sam Houston State University

Mary Petron
Sam Houston State University

Abstract

The goal of service learning (SL) is to strengthen communities and enrich the learning process. SL activities should change the recipient and the provider of the service. The purpose of this SL project was for pre-service teachers to design individualized game boards to promote the academic skills of elementary aged students with disabilities. Some children in the study had been identified with intellectual impairments, and others with autism spectrum disorders. They ranged in age from ages 5 to 11 years and were in a rural school district in the South Central U.S. This study examines the impact of the SL project from the perspectives of the pre-service teachers, the children and the classroom teacher. The findings suggest that pre-service teachers made connections between theoretical concepts and actual children with disabilities through the activity of designing individualized curriculum materials which were supposed to meet their academic needs. The children reacted positively to the games, gaining social communication skills rather than academic skills through their engagement with the materials. At the same time, the classroom teacher gained insight into the value of teacher research.

Keywords: service learning, special education, pre-service teachers

 

Civic and community engagement continues to gain strength in institutions of higher education (Campus Compact, 2007). This movement seeks to affirm Ernest Boyer’s call to action addressing “our most pressing social, civic, and ethical problems, to our children, to our schools, to our teachers, to our cities” (1996, pp. 19–20). Academic civic engagement is a move towards engaging students in academic curriculum to meet the needs of the community.

One of the most popular forms of community engagement is service learning (SL) which emphasizes

course-based, credit bearing educational experience in which students (a) participate in an organized service activity that meets identified community needs, and (b) reflect on the service activity in such a way as to gain further understanding of course content, a broader appreciation of the discipline, and an enhanced sense of personal values and civic responsibility (Bringle & Hatcher, 1995, p. 112).

Service learning has the goal of increasing the civic education and growth of students. Ash, Clayton and Atkinson (2005) assert that students’ reflections of their service learning are key to assessing change in civic knowledge and responsibility. Furthermore, service learning contributes to long-term student political and community involvement (Astin, Sax & Avolos, 1999), positive effect on student personal development (Eyler, Giles, Stenson, & Gray, 2001), openness to diverse perspectives and ways of being (Fitch, 2005; Jones & Abes, 2004) and enhanced empathy (Lundy, 2007). Carrington and Sagger (2008) found that service learning increased pre-service teachers’ early attitudes about inclusion and their ability to design effective inclusive practices. However, research that examines the pedagogy of service learning in special education teacher preparation programs is limited (Mayhew & Welch, 2001). Gonsier-Gerdin and Royce-Davis (2005) examined the development of advocacy and leadership skills in 15 pre-service special educators participating in courses that included service-learning projects. Results of the study indicated that service learning influenced students’ awareness of social justice issues, confidence in leadership skills, commitment to advocacy and leadership roles, and professionalism (Gonsier-Gerdin & Royce-Davis, 2005). As summarized by Eyler (2010), “A good deal is now known about the impact of service learning on students’ outcomes and on the particular characteristics of service learning that affect specific types of results” (p.225). Her review of research to date confirms “a fairly consistent pattern of small but significant impact…on college students’ personal, academic, and social outcomes… and growing evidence of … impact on behavior and civic engagement” (p. 225).

In this paper, we address the multidimensional outcomes of one SL project that included an undergraduate pre-service teacher course and a rural special education class for children with moderate disabilities. The goal of SL is to strengthen communities and enrich the learning process. SL activities should change the recipient and the provider of the service. The goal of this particular SL project was to provide pre-service teachers with the opportunity to design individualized gaming materials that fit the academic needs of particular children with disabilities. This study examines the impact of the SL project from the perspective of the pre-service teachers, the children and the classroom teacher.

Context

The SL project described in this paper was implemented in a three credit hour course entitled, Introduction to Special Education. This undergraduate course provides an overview of various disabilities as applied within the public educational system in the U.S and is a required course for all elementary and middle school teacher candidates. The course covers such topics as intellectual disabilities, learning disabilities, autism, physical impairments, attention-deficit disorders, emotional and behavioral disorders etc. with a strong emphasis on the full inclusion model. The full inclusion model is one that promotes the inclusion of all children with disabilities within the general education program using supplementary aids and services based upon student need (Turnbull, Turnbull, Weymeyer & Shogren, 2012). However, we acknowledge that the maneuvering of children back into the general education classroom becomes a marker of difference. Inclusive practice must be a precondition of a democratic education rather than a refitting of specific populations of children back into democratic educational system (Knight, 2000). With these assumptions in mind, pre-service teachers engaged in class discussions, journal reviews, multiple choice exams, group activities, as well as the SL project. The course was also designated as an academic civic engagement (ACE) class at a public university in Texas. Pre-service teachers worked together in cooperative groups on the SL project in conjunction with a rural elementary grade special education class in the South Central region of the U.S.

The elementary school site, J.F. Crest Elementary (pseudonym) is a highly diverse, low socio-economic school situated in the South Central United States. The school, although located in another state, was selected primarily because of its diversity and its reputation in the school district as an “inclusive” school. The school population demographics included 39% Caucasian, 20% Pacific Islander, 40% Hispanic, and 1% as Other (African American, Asian, or Native American). Eighty-two percent of the school population was eligible for free or reduced lunch (school census documents, 2014).

Description of the Service Learning Project

The service learning project was designed to engage pre-service teachers in the analysis and generation of an individualized interactive game activity that built upon a specific student’s academic skills. Specifically, the SL project goals were for pre-service teachers to (1) create game board activities for children with disabilities based upon general characteristics of the student’s disability, their individual preferences and academic needs and (2) determine the social validity of the activities. Pre-service teachers were randomly selected and placed in nine different study groups, each assigned to one child in Ms. Smith’s class. The children in Ms. Smith’s classroom provided information about their recreational interests while Ms. Smith included data on their academic strengths and weaknesses. The pre-service teachers reviewed the characteristics of the child’s disability and searched for credible online video data related to the disability. Then, each team analyzed the student data and generated an activity plan with an interactive board game for the child. Pre-service teachers mailed their games to the field site and Ms. Smith captured children’s use of the materials in video recorded lessons. These video recorded lessons were shown in the service learning course to promote discussion and aid the pre-service teachers in assessing the social validity of the lessons. Here social validity refers to the practical nature of the activity as acceptable, academically relevant, and useful to the individual receiving services.

Research Methods

An action research approach (McNiff & Whitehead, 2010) was used explore the utility of the SL project for all participants (pre-service teachers, children, and classroom teacher). The following research questions guided this study: (1) How does the SL project impact pre-service teachers’ academic development and affective dispositions as it relates to working with children with disabilities? (2) How does the SL project meet the academic needs of students with disabilities? (3) How does the SL project benefit the classroom teacher?
Data sources included a quantitative survey which was being piloted for all ACE courses, as well as qualitative observational data. Ms. Smith, the special education teacher, video recorded the children in class as part of her progress monitoring system. She documented the children’s responses to the games developed by the pre-service teachers, and the level and duration of engagement with the materials. Five video recorded sessions lasting from 5-10 minutes were electronically mailed to the first author and used to trigger class discussions with the pre-service teachers. Field notes were taken by the first author during the class discussions. Additional notes taken from a total of four hours of semi-structured interviews (Rubin & Rubin, 2011) by phone with Ms. Smith added additional contextual features of the video recordings. This information was also shared in the university classroom discussions.

Participants

Pre-service teachers. Students in two sections of the introductory special education course participated in the research and construction of the game board materials. Students were assigned to teams consisting of eight members and then assigned to one child with a disability. All students were given the survey at the end of the semester as part of the course requirements for all ACE designated courses at the university. Two sections of the Introduction to Special Education course included a total of 80 students, 68 of whom completed the survey in class. The demographic portion of the survey yielded the information below. Students were primarily pre-service teachers in their sophomore (n= 42) or junior (n=17) year, working on an undergraduate degree in interdisciplinary studies with elementary school teacher certification. Most of the students were between 18-22 years of age (n=58), with some between 23-30 years old (n=9) and one student age 31 or above. Though the majority of the students were from a European American background (n=50), 12 students were of Hispanic origin, five of African American descent and one of Asian descent. There were 61 females and seven males who completed the survey.

Children with disabilities. Nine children were selected through convenience sampling at the partnership school. All of the children were identified as having a disability; three children were identified as having autism spectrum disorder, two children had Down syndrome, two children had social and emotional disorders and two children had intellectual disabilities. The special education students included five males and four females. The children’s ages ranged from 5-11 years old and all were included in the general education classroom for part of the school day. Pre-service teachers were provided with descriptions of the child’s academic and social attributes (See Table 1).

Table 1: Child’s Descriptions

Child’s Name (pseudonym)

Description

Donald

This student is an 11 year old, fifth grader with autism. He has been in the United States for a little over six months. He was born in the Marshall Islands and speaks English and Marshallese. He only uses language to express basic needs (bathroom, food, etc.). He is not able to express his wants and often gets frustrated. He knows all the sounds of the alphabet and can count beyond 100. He is able to read a late kindergarten repetitive text. He plays alone and does not always respond to his name and cannot identify peers or adults. His interests are the movie Cars, the video game Angry Birds, and swimming in the ocean.

Trenton

Trenton is a 10 year old fifth grader. He is diagnosed with a psychological disability. Trenton spends equal time in the general education classroom and in the self-contained classroom every day. He is able to read at a beginning first grade level. He can skip count, add, subtract, and count basic coins/bills. Trenton gets very emotional when he encounters conflicts with peers in unstructured environments (i.e. playground, lunchroom). Trenton is very interested in football and state flags. These interests are used to soothe his anxiety about unexpected events and a fear of germs.

James

James is a 10 year old fifth grader that has been diagnosed with moderate intellectual disabilities. He is considered an English Language Learner (ELL). He has shown signs of visual perception deficits. James is able to participate in non-academic classes but gets very anxious when he does not understand social exchanges between typical peers. He is able to identify all the sounds of the alphabet, count to 20, and reads about 15 sight words. James can copy from a model but typically gets letter order confused. He is very good at physical labor activities and enjoys helping adults in lower grades.

Mindy

Mindy is an 11 year old, fifth grader diagnosed with an emotional disturbance. She is of average intelligence, but is unable to identify any of the letters of her name (with the exception of M and capital D). She is able to count to 10, but does not have one-one correspondence beyond 6. Mindy can copy a sentence from a model but does not understand directionality. She enjoys listening to/looking at books about animals, dinosaurs, and non-fiction topics.

Denise

Denise is a nine year old fourth grader with Down’s syndrome. She is considered an ELL. She is able to identify all the letters/sounds of the alphabet, count to twenty, write a simple sentence, and read at a beginning kindergarten level. Her fine motor skill deficits make it difficult for her to complete work but she is able to complete assignments with oral/visual accommodations. She is extremely social and understands complex social exchanges. She enjoys Dora, singing, dancing, and Justin Bieber.

Karen

Karen is a nine year old fourth grader who has an autism spectrum disorder. She is able to read at a late second grade level and comprehend about 75% of what she reads. She enjoys drawing, writing, and playing with her little brother (who also has autism). Karen is able to participate in many academic activities but has trouble with comprehension and why/how questions. Her math skills are approximately at a late second grade level. Karen loves the color pink and “girly” toys.

Bradley

Bradley is an eight year old third grader diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder. He is able to read at a beginning first grade level and can count to 100. He is able to write simple sentences with assistance. He enjoys playing video games (Angry Birds, PAC-Man, etc.). Bradley also likes elephants and trains. He is able to participate in all non-academic classes without assistance. He is unable to answer some open ended questions with the exception of who, where, and what.

Maria

Maria is a seven year old second grader with Down’s syndrome. She is considered an ELL. She is able to participate in all non-academic classes but needs assistance getting to and from each class. Maria likes Elmo, Barbies, and dressing up. She is able to match colors, shapes, and count to five. She can match letters but does not know any names of the letters. She converses using two-three word phrases. She does cannot identify any names of familiar people except mom and dad.

Tomas

Tomas is a seven year old first grader who is diagnosed with an intellectual disability. Tomas can understand Spanish and some English. He is considered an ELL. He can participate in all non-academic classes without assistance from adults. He is now able to speak in two word phrases. He can match colors, numbers, and shapes. He cannot identify letter names, numbers, and common nouns. Tomas likes cars, soccer, and Elmo. He knows all familiar adult/peer names in the school environment. He is able to count to three about 50% of the time.

 

The classroom teacher. Ms. Smith is a board certified and licensed teacher for children with disabilities. She is also a master’s degree student with eight years of public school teaching in special education. She has been at J.F. Crest Elementary for seven years. She worked in conjunction with the first author to create and assess the SL project.

Procedure

Quantitative methods. As a course requirement, 68 students (out of 80) completed and submitted a quantitative survey questionnaire related to the civic engagement part of the course. The survey was administered at the end of the semester-long SL project. The survey was developed by the members of the ACE committee at the university and administered without adaptations as required to the pre-service teachers. The survey included demographic information and asked students questions related to their experiences with the SL project and their perceived impact of it on their professional lives.

The survey consisted of questions and statements answered via a Likert rating scale and open ended short answer questions. For each of the Likert scale ratings, the students rated themselves from 1 (strongly agree) to 5 (strongly disagree). Some questions/statements tapped into students’ attitudes toward community based learning such as: “The community engagement in this course helped me to apply the subject matter in a ‘real world situation,’” and “This course made me aware of the differences (i.e. cultural, racial, economic, gender, age, education, etc.) that exist in our community,” (See Table 2).

Given that this was the first time the instrument was used in the course, there was no psychometric information on the survey at the time of this project. Further research is needed to test the reliability and validity of the survey. Therefore, only descriptive information was used in the quantitative data analysis.

Qualitative methods. Data included ongoing semi-structured interviews (Rubin & Rubin, 2011) with the special education teacher, Ms. Smith and video recorded observations of the children using the pre-service teacher materials in the classroom. Interview questions included: Did the lesson plan included in the game activity match the individual needs of the child based upon the information provided to the pre-service teacher? Was the child motivated by the materials? How did he/she express this motivation? Did the child engage in the activity with the teacher willingly? How long was the child engaged with the activity? How did the activity affect the general maintenance of the skills for the child? Ms. Smith and the author participated in a total of 4 hours of phone conversations related to the use of the game materials in the classroom. The purpose of the interview was to gain an understanding of how the classroom teacher evaluated the games and the responses of the children. Additionally, each child was video recorded for 5-10 minutes while playing with the interactive game. Pre-service teachers viewed the video recordings in class to determine the social validity of the materials. In-class discussions occurred in conjunction with viewing the videotapes. These discussions focused around the following guiding questions:

  • Tell us about the game board you designed.
  • What was the purpose of the game?
  • Why did you select this particular theme, skill, design?
  • On a scale from 1-5 with a five being stellar, how would you rate your game?
  • Why did you rate your game as a ___
  • What things did you like about it; what didn’t you like about it?
  • What stood out for you when you watched this recording?
  • Why did that piece gain your attention?
  • What did you see happening in the scene?
  • Why do you think the child responded in that way?
  • Now that you’ve all watched the videos how would you rate your materials.
  • What changed, what didn’t change, why?

These discussions shifted pre-service teacher’s attention from their own actions (i.e. designing the materials) to the responses of the children with disabilities. The discussion drew upon the pre-service teacher’s knowledge of particular disabilities, intervention strategies and the practical application of the materials for the particular child. Ms. Smith evaluated the games based upon a general rubric. The items were evaluated on the basis of the following elements: clearly stated objectives, materials and skills matched the description of each child’s strengths and weaknesses, durability, and the degree to which the child was engaged in the materials. Pre-service teachers discussed the usefulness and appropriateness of their learning games during in-class discussions while watching the videos and reviewing the classroom teacher’s evaluations.

Data Analysis

Descriptive statistics were run on the survey responses to create a global picture of pre-service teachers’ perceptions of the course and their experiences with the SL project. Qualitative data included teacher/researcher interviews (i.e. phone conversations), video recorded observational data of the children with disabilities and field notes of the university classroom discussions. A componential analysis of the qualitative data was used to identify emergent themes. A componential analysis includes a systematic search for the attributes associated with cultural symbols (Spradley, 1998) such as word phrases, routines, rituals, and artifacts. Themes emerged as the cultural symbols were contrasted and linked into meaningful relationships. We defined a theme as any cognitive principle that reoccurred in a number of different domains. For example, one domain included folk terms such as “cute,” “colorful,” “durable,” “interesting,” “academic skill” and was linked by the semantic relationship “all the different ways to evaluate a game.” Themes evolved by contrasting the semantic relationships with one another. The qualitative data were used to inform Ms. Smith and the pre-service teachers as to the social validity of the materials and how they might be adapted to better meet the needs of the children.

Findings

SL Project Outcomes for Pre-service Teachers

The survey instrument was administered to measure the attitudinal outcomes for pre-service teachers via the aforementioned Likert scale. The survey also included several open ended questions pertaining specifically to this particular type of SL project. Overall the survey revealed that students had a positive experience with the SL project. Fifty-three percent of the students agreed that the SL project helped them to apply the subject matter in a “real world” situation. Sixty-five percent of the students believed that the service learning activity helped them to understand that they can make a difference in their community. Similarly 57% of the students stated that they would recommend the course to others and that the SL project was valuable. However, only 51% of the students viewed the required course as helping to define the type of work they want to do in the future and only 50% of students believed that the course made them aware of their responsibility to engage with the community and develop citizenship skills (Astin, Sax & Avolos, 2006). The results may reflect the fact that the course was required for pre-service teachers in the elementary and middle school certification programs and consisted of mostly sophomore level students. Several students in the class commented on their perceived need for the course. As one student stated, “I’m not going to be teaching special education so I don’t know why I need this course.”

In section two of the survey, students completed the following questions: (1) Provide 3 words that best describe what you liked most about the community engagement of part of this course and (2) Provide 3 words that best describe what you disliked most about the community engagement part of this course. For the first question, words used included: helping, involved, rewarding, fun, easy, creative, challenging, productive, learning, kids, practical, eye-opening, useful, involvement, applicable, useful, interesting, and valuable. Words that described what they disliked most included: time consuming, lengthy, feedback.

Table 2: Student Community Service Survey (68 participants)

Survey Items

Strongly Disagree

Disagree

Not Sure

Agree

Strongly Agree

1. At the beginning of the semester I was uneasy about the community engagement component of the course.

16

24%

22

32%

16

24%

9

13%

5

7%

2. The community engagement in this course helped me to apply the subject matter in a “real world” situation.

0

0%

2

3%

7

10%

23

34%

36

53%

3. The community engagement I did in this course helped me to develop problem solving and critical thinking skills.

1

1%

2

3%

17

25%

30

44%

18

26%

4. The community engagement in this course helped me to improve workplace skills (e.g. teamwork, preparation) that I will need in the future.

0

0%

4

6%

11

16%

24

35%

29

43%

5. The community engagement in this course helped me to develop organizational skills.

0

0%

4

6%

11

16%

30

44%

23

34%

6. The community engagement in this course showed me how to integrate the material and connect theory with practice.

0

0%

0

0%

6

9%

34

50%

28

41%

7. This course made me aware of the differences (i.e. cultural. racial, economic, gender age education, etc.) that exist in our community.

0

0%

2

3%

5

7%

31

46%

30

44%

8. This course made me aware of my responsibility to engage with the community and develop my citizenship skills.

0

0%

2

3%

12

18%

20

29%

34

50%

9. This course helped me understand that I can make a difference in my ~

1

1%

1

1%

8

12%

14

21%

44

65%

10. The community engagement requirement of this course showed me how I can become more involved in my community.

0

0%

3

4%

10

15%

25

37%

30

44%

11. The community engagement I did through this course benefited the community.

0

0%

2

3%

11

16%

22

32%

33

49%

12. The community engagement requirement of this course helped me to become more aware of the needs in my community.

0

0%

5

7%

9

13%

27

40%

27

40%

13. The community engagement in this course assisted me in defining the type work I want to do in the future.

1

1%

1

1%

9

13%

22

32%

35

51%

14. The community engagement in this course assisted me in defining the type work I want to do in the future.

1

1%

1

1%

9

13%

22

32%

35

51%

15. Engaging in the community helped enhance my leadership skills. I

1

1%

3

4%

19

28%

27

40%

18

26%

16. Engaging in the community helped enhance my communication skills.

0

0%

1

1%

18

26%

32

47%

17

25%

17. The community engagement in this course has made me more employable.

0

0%

3

4%

19

28%

27

40%

19

28%

18. I After this course is completed. I will probably continue to serve the community.

0

0%

0

0%

15

22%

20

29%

32

47%

19. 1 would recommend a community engagement course to others.

0

0%

0

0%

11

16%

18

26%

39

57%

20. At the end of the semester I thought that the community engagement component Of this course was valuable.

1

1%

1

1%

5

7%

22

32%

39

57%

 

Field notes taken from the classroom discussions revealed that students viewed the project as meaningful because it was “used with the kids” and “realistic because it connected us to the kids.” They felt that conducting the research on the particular child’s disability was purposeful, and more interesting than other assignments because it was tied to an actual person. Students also commented on the characteristics of the disability as separate from the child. For example, when the child did something that was characteristic of his/her disability, (i.e. Trenton interrupting the game to wash his hands) they recognized it as a symptom of a disability, rather than a bid for attention, misbehavior, rule breaking or disinterest in the game. This ability to separate the disability from the child allowed pre-service teachers to regard the child as a person first and the disability, second. If pre-service teachers can hold the signs of disability at a distance, they may be more likely to solve problems analytically rather than emotionally. This was consistent with the research of Fitch (2005) and Jones and Abes (2004) who found that SL led to openness to differing perspectives and suggests that these students may also be more open to inclusive practices (Carrington & Sagger, 2008).

Another critical finding that emerged from the SL project was the ability of the pre-service teachers to shift their perspective from what they did (i.e. designing the game) to how the child responded to the game. This is consistent with the findings of Morris (2007) who found that pre-service teachers often evaluate their own effectiveness by what they say and do rather than how their students respond. While this is a significant developmental move, it was not an easy or comfortable transition. Students were clearly disappointed when the child failed to stay engaged with the game, or pushed it aside. One pre-service student complained that she has spent hours making the game and it was a waste of her time. Another student remarked that, “I tried this with my niece and even asked a second grade teacher to evaluate my game. My niece played it several times and really enjoyed it and the teacher said it was on the right for second graders.” Comments such as, “I thought it was cute and he’d like it” or “I thought she would be able to do simple math facts,” emerged in several class discussions. Before watching the video recordings, the students evaluated their games highly. However, after seeing the child’s response to the game they re-evaluated the validity of the game. Some students acknowledged that even if they spent considerable time and effort on the materials, if it didn’t match the needs of the child it wasn’t helpful. Some students felt that they would have benefitted from interaction with child rather than simply relying on a list of characteristics. As one student stated in our discussion, “I would like to have seen more of the child and wish that I knew him better.” Another student commented, “Not knowing the child makes it difficult to design an activity that she would like.” Others wanted more evidence to confirm the utility of the game and were likely to attribute the child’s lack of interest in the game to “a bad day” or the classroom teacher’s lack of enthusiasm rather than their own design flaw.

SL Project Outcomes for Children with Disabilities

Ms. Smith shared stories of the children opening the boxes and how one child, Denise, wanted to take the game home with her. The children with disabilities demonstrated their attachment to the materials by keeping them close to their desks, initiating play with others using the game materials and requesting the game as a preferred choice of academic work. This sense of ownership may have evolved from the personal nature of the games and also because each game arrived at the school addressed to the individual child. The children’s excitement in receiving their own personal package contributed to initial levels of motivation to examine and learn about the game. However, if the game did not meet the appropriate skill level of the child, motivation to engage in the material decreased significantly. For example, when Trenton recognized that the game involved double digit addition problems that required correct calculations to advance in the game, he kept the game in his locker, but did not select it during free choice time. Clearly, he viewed the game as a “gift” rather than a learning tool. Trenton tended to join others and play with their games because the skill sets required were those he had already mastered.

Another category emerged as “ways to socialize” and consisted of social skills that the children with disabilities demonstrated as a result of the game materials. For example, Bradley who has autism initiated a play sequence with a student in the classroom. Interestingly, Bradley used the game as a tool for entering the play of the other student. This social skill was a new one for Bradley who frequently played in isolation rather than with others. Children who successfully gain access to play with others tend to use particular strategies such as (a) observing the group to see what is going on, (b) adopting the groups’ frame of reference, (c) contributing something to the play and (d) asking again if denied access on the first attempt (Taylor, Peterson, McMurray-Schwartz & Guillou, 2002). Similarly, Karen, identified as having autism, rarely played with others unless it was her sibling. When she received her game, she agreed to play with a classmate, Maria. Karen began teaching her how to take turns in their play. The game materials tended to construct a common frame of reference for the children and contributed the tools with which to play. Children used the games as tools to gain access to play with peers. They also showed initiative to enter a play context and put themselves in a leadership position.

Typically, children are able to successfully develop and use social skills in the context of interactions with peers and significant adults. However, for children with developmental disabilities, acquisition of these skills is difficult (Brown &Whiten, 2000; Kopp, Baker, &Brown, 1992). Children with developmental disabilities like autism demonstrate deficits in foundational social-communicative behaviors such as: joint attention (Mundy, Sullivan, & Mastergeorge, 2009; Schertz & Odom, 2004), imitation (Ingersoll & Gergans, 2007). As young children, they frequently lack the motivation to engage in social reciprocity (Lord, Cook, Leventhal & Amaral, 2000).

SL Project Outcomes for Ms. Smith

A surprising and positive outcome emerged from the interviews with Ms. Smith and from our domain analysis of the folk term “practical research” as a way to gain more information. This was expressed as an assumption that “teacher research can uncover information used to enhance student’s learning.” This assertion evolved from the interviews with Ms. Smith as she commented on the positive aspects of the children’s engagement with the games. However, she expressed concerns as to whether or not the use of the materials increased the academic gains of the students. While she noted that the children played the games correctly, she stated, “One problem I see is that they [the children] don’t seem able to generalize the skills to other situations.” She also remarked, “Once they know how to do the game, they don’t engage with it very long and they need more interaction. Sometimes they’re done in like 3 minutes.” Ms. Smith analyzed the game interactions with the children and found that although they evoked some new skills in the children’s repertoires, they were not consistent or mastered. Because of this analysis Ms. Smith began researching specific paralinguistic skills: joint attention, sustained social interaction, turn-taking, and initiating and responding to requests. This research led her to design a formal experimental study in conjunction with the first author to investigate the effects of prop boxes on the social interaction of children with autism. Thus, the SL project provided her with information and the motivation to conduct an empirical research study.

Discussion

On the one hand, pre-service teachers reported significantly high satisfaction with the service learning project. Interview data also suggested that pre-service teachers felt that the community engagement part of the course would benefit them later in their employment and that they would seek out other opportunities to engage in community service. They demonstrated a keen interest in learning about the children with disabilities. The lack of interaction with the children was identified as a weakness in the SL project. Students seemed to want a tighter social connection to the children. While the video recordings provided some observational data from which pre-service teachers could learn about the individual children, the unidirectional nature of video observations restricted opportunities for pre-service teachers to ask children questions and share social information. Without opportunities for conversational exchanges with children, pre-service teachers were unable to learn about the needs and beliefs of children in real time. It was not enough to know of or about the child, pre-service teachers needed and wanted to know how the child viewed his or her world.

Taking a personal interest in the child and helping the child develop as a person first- followed by accommodations to manage the disability signified a belief in the value of teacher-student relationships. These attributes are critical for building effective relationships and developing empathy for others (Lundy, 2007). According to the meta-analysis of more than 100 studies by Marzano, Marzano, and Pickering (2003), teachers who had high-quality relationships with students had positive classroom environments. Evidence, although limited, indicated that there was some movement towards the development of empathy in their expressed desire to know more about the children.

On a related issue, the reliance on video recordings in this SL project was problematic because it gave a limited picture of the child and the value of the activities. They presented only slices of data that captured the activities of children during “station time.” When pre-service teachers saw the child finish the game quickly or lose interest in the game, they tended to negatively assess the value of their game. However, this might have been more a function of the limited data collection rather than a representation of the social validity of the game itself. Pre-service teachers were not able to observe the children over time. Thus, they could not judge the full extent of the validity of the game.

On a positive note, viewing a child who lacked sustained attention to the game, created a type of paradigm shift in the thinking of pre-service teachers in relation to their knowledge of children with disabilities. Initially, they seemed to focus on creating a game for a particular age of child and did not consider the child’s disability. Without factoring in the disability, the pre-service teachers were often unable to gauge the child’s predicted performance on the task. They relied on their own background knowledge of children’s general development which was not always applicable to performance of a child with a particular disability. In other words, the pre-service teachers were only partially able to put theory into practice. Fortunately, they recognized, albeit after the fact, the necessity of putting the needs of the child at the center of the instructional design process. This movement in learning challenged existing meaning making constructs and created an opportunity for students to create new meanings. Focusing on the child’s responses helped to move pre-service students thinking from an “idealized” image of the child as a “first or second grader” to a more individualized conception of the child. Understanding the dynamic interactions of individuals and contextual factors within the design and implementation of instruction is a key process for improving pedagogical skills and we believe that students made some initial gains in this area.

Review and analysis of the qualitative data revealed that for the most part, children in Ms. Smith’s class viewed the games as highly engaging and enjoyable. Children were motivated to engage in the activities because they were designed specifically around their interests. Children independently retrieved and initiated the activities on their own or with others in the class. While evidence of gains in academic skill sets was negligible, children’s social skills increased as they initiated peer interactions and used the games as a tool for gaining entrance into the social play with others. Granted, these interactions were of a limited duration; however, they represented the emergence of new skill sets not previously observed in the child participants. Research indicates that social skills are often neglected as part of the academic curriculum for students with disabilities who are included in the general education classroom (Korinek & Popp, 1997). Yet it is clear that without these needed skills, the likelihood of children successfully functioning within the general education classroom is questionable at best.

Implications for Teacher Educators

As teacher educators we saw the value in the SL project for pre-service teachers, children with disabilities, and the classroom teacher. However, distance and the inexperience of pre-service teachers limited the academic outcomes of the SL project. Given these challenges we suggest that teacher educators consider two important modifications.

First, we recognize that attempting to design a SL project over a long distance is a difficult proposition. Working with students face to face is the ideal. That said, SL represents an effort to meet the needs of community partners. Those community partners may indeed by located some distance away as is the case with many rural schools. Rather than rule out any such partnership because of distance, teacher educators could address the obstacles of no face-to-face interaction through technology such as Skype to converse with children in the school setting.

Second, we learned that it was necessary to provide additional support for the pre-service teachers to ensure their success in the project. Most of the pre-service teachers were unable to accurately determine what the child could do based upon the limited information provided by the classroom teacher. Pre-service teachers require rich descriptive profiles of the child. They simply do not have sufficient prior experiences with children who have disabilities to create a good match between the child’s achievement level and the curriculum materials. This issue might also be addressed through technology. Pre-service teachers could interview the children and analyze electronic portfolios of their academic work. This would allow them to better address the needs of the child.

Conclusions

Service learning has the aim of enriching learning and strengthening communities (Ehrlich, 2000). In this way, it extends beyond classroom and school environment exemplifying authentic pedagogy (Newman, Marks & Gamoran, 1995) in which the learners solves complex problems grounded in real-world experience. The core concept within this service learning project was that the activity should change the perceptions of both the recipient and the provider of the service. In this SL project, all three partners, the pre-service teachers, the students with disabilities and the classroom teacher experienced important changes and academic development (Eyler, Giles, Stenson & Gray, 2001). Pre-service teachers gained an appreciation of the need to build a relationship with students who had disabilities in order to design effective instruction that fit the child’s needs both academically and behaviorally. They also learned to attend to student responses to instruction to evaluate the effectiveness of the materials rather than evaluating the materials based on simply aesthetic appeal or the amount of time spent creating them. The students with disabilities gained more opportunities to engage in pragmatic or social behaviors necessary for the establishment of relationships with peers and adults. Finally, the mentor teacher began to reflect upon the activities of her students which generated new questions concerning the type and quality of learning that took place in the classroom. This led the classroom teacher towards an appreciation for scientifically evaluating the impact of instruction on the academic learning of children with disabilities.

 

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This article was accepted for publication after a double-blind peer review process. Receiving Editor: Patrick Blessinger, International HETL Association, New York City, USA.

Suggested Citation

Stockall, N. (2014). Making a difference: Service learning in special education. The Journal of Meaning-Centered Education. Volume 2, Article 2, http://www.meaningcentered.org/making-a-difference-service-learning-in-special-education

Copyright © [2014] Institute for Meaning-Centered Education (IMCE), Nancy Stockall, and Mary Petron

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