Friday, May 10, 2013

On Modifying STEM for Special Needs Outreach

The remnants of our Skittles experiment.
About a month ago, a local elementary school special education teacher called me to find out about my branch's preschool science programs. She explained that her classroom includes the school's most developmentally disabled students, and she had hopes that the preschool science content would be fun and conceptually appropriate for her kids. The only problem, she said, was securing permission and transportation to take the class on a field trip to the library for the program. I never want access to be a limiting factor to what children can benefit from the library, so I offered to bring a program to her classroom.

For this first special needs STEM outreach program, I modified the Color Science program I offered at the library over the winter. Full details of the original program are on the ALSC Blog, so I'll mostly discuss modifications here:

  • We shared the story White Rabbit's Color Book, then we talked about colors by retelling the story with the help of popsicle stick puppets. Whereas with the preschoolers I had kept hold of the puppets, with this special needs classroom I passed out the puppets to any child interested in holding on to one. Thus I got to engage with each child, and we "retold" the story together. Also, each time we mentioned a color, we looked around the room to see who was wearing that color. Such a simple, effective addition to the program.
  • We used a CD and flashlight to make rainbows. I took advantage of our small, cozy setup and took the CD and flashlight to each child, projecting a rainbow onto their hands, trays, or other light-colored surface that was within their immediate sight. A teacher turned off the overhead lights, and the children loved to see the bright, beautiful colors up close.
  • We did the explosions of color activity with baking soda and vinegar dyed the primary colors. Together we observed what happens when primary colors mix. While some of the kids got involved in guessing what secondary colors would be made--their communication iPads had options for saying colors--all of them paid very close attention to the miniature fizz eruptions. We took turns looking at the color eruptions up close, with the aides carrying the plates to children in wheelchairs.
  • We did the Skittles experiment, placing Skittles in water to see the colors come off and blend. I passed around observation sheets while the teacher and aides set out crayons, and nearly all of the children got to work drawing what their bowls of de-colored Skittles looked like. For the children with limited motor functions, I helped conduct the experiment on their chair trays and talked about the things we could see.
  • I modified the text on my take-home activity sheets, which the teacher was excited to send home with the kids, to inform caregivers that they are always welcome to come to the library to find more stories and activities to share with their children. I wanted to extend that friendly hand to parents who may not consider the library a place for their families.

That's how I did the STEM program for a special education classroom at one of my local elementary schools. What you might now be asking yourself is "Why? Why take the time to modify a program and take outreach to an elementary classroom when our outreach is traditionally to preschools and day cares?" Good question.

The way I see it, there are a plethora of great reasons to modify a STEM program--or, really, any program--for special needs outreach. I'll share a few:
  1. Teachers feel supported. Special education teachers and aides work ridiculously hard; they spend so much time and energy focused on making the school experience as beneficial and comfortable as possible for their students. Anything the library can do to support them, to share some new classroom content that enriches the classroom experience, is a good thing. And having teachers know that the library supports their work? Priceless.
  2. Children feel valued. Face it, libraries don't traditionally meet the needs of special needs children particularly well in our usual program and service formats. Even sensory story times and inclusive programming tend to focus on the high-functioning end of the special needs spectrum, thereby excluding lots of kids from some outstanding library services. Reaching out to this under-served population demonstrates that the library truly values and serves all members of the community.
  3. The school and library develop a partnership. Special education is often overlooked when outsiders consider schools. By adding this classroom STEM initiative to our collaboration with the elementary school, we show that we are committed to building positive relationships between children and the library in every way possible. That means something to administrators who need to weigh the value of partnerships that may cost class time and staff.
  4. It's fun. The kids enjoy new activities, the teachers enjoy a half hour with someone else at the helm while their kids have fun, and the librarian has a great time, too. When a program or service is a win for everyone involved, it's hard to say no.

Have you modified any of your programs, or creating programs, for special needs children? Ever visit special education classrooms for outreach?

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