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Technology for Learning

Bolstering Support for High Needs Students with Technology

For teachers in the Thunder Bay Catholic School District, it's not a question of if they will get the chance to teach an autistic or "high-needs" student. It's a matter of when it will happen. "Within the last five years we've charted an alarming rate of students with autism spectrum disorders (ASD) entering the school system," said Joel Godecki, ASD project director for the 8,000-student Thunder Bay Catholic District School Board in Northwestern Ontario.

As of September 2009, for example, "one in 134 students were identified as having ASD in our system," said Godecki. "The numbers are up almost 20 percent, and by this September we expect one in 100 students here to be diagnosed with ASD."

Knowing that such students need special attention in the learning environment and that the instructors who teach those students require additional support, Godecki looked around for a technology tool that could serve both purposes. "We currently have huge wait lists for children to be assessed for ASD," said Godecki. "It's impacting the entire system, and putting a huge responsibility on our shoulders to provide training to support students with ASD and other developmental disabilities."

Godecki, whose position was created three years ago as a provincial initiative, said his first charge was to examine what was being offered in terms of best practices within the community and to bridge "all of the community agencies and get them working together to support us at the school level."

That meant assembling a regional leadership team that included community providers from within the district, community agency service providers and "anyone involved with students who have autism, including parents," said Godecki.

As Godecki and the leadership team examined the student population numbers at Thunder Bay--and as it became clear that there was a high number of students with ASD within that population--Godecki said the initiative was honed further to include a search for new products. He looked around at the ASD-related options available on the market, and decided to try a suite of products developed by AutismPro.

"I was intrigued by the fact that the system was based on the Web and that it would be easy to implement at different schools," said Godecki, whose district is currently using AutismPro's workshops, resources, and professional and resource management products.

Funding came from the school's budget, and was used for implementation and training. Godecki said the technology is used to create "profiles" for ASD students. Parents are included in the process, he said, which includes various question-and-answer sessions. The input is used to generate an educational program that includes activities, lesson plans and a logbook that "serves as a communication link for parents, teachers and students," said Godecki.

"Where teachers used to communicate via traditional notes to and from school, everything is now logged on the computer and accessible," said Godecki. Another aspect of the program is used for training teachers, support workers, parents and community service providers like bus drivers. The training is offered online in a 24/7 environment to 600 teachers and 120 educational assistants, and has replaced the more costly (in both time and money) ASD traditional training offered by the district.

"We've been able to train the masses in a very efficient way," said Godecki, who in the past spent four half-day sessions training 35 to 50 educators. The process was time- and money-intensive, and generally ineffective. "The teachers weren't applying what they learned in the classroom. We missed the boat to a large extent, and wound up having to do a lot of follow up."

The system has blended well with Thunder Bay's other technology investments, including a touch-screen computer that has opened up even more educational opportunities for students with ASD. The touch-screen computer was purchased in late-2009, and is in one of the district's communications classes. "We found that it's easier for students to touch the screen than to move the mouse around," said Godecki.

For teachers, the touch-screen computer serves as much more than just a fun learning tool. Using video modeling, for example, they are able to come up with scenarios that might disrupt an ASD student's ability to learn, and show him or her how to successfully navigate the situation.

Take the school bus, for example. "We've videotaped successful trips to the school bus, and can use that as a transitional piece to help a student who, for example, suffers meltdowns when attempting to get to the bus," said Godecki, who added that the results have been positive from that use of technology. "Using the computer, the student can watch himself [on the video] walk to his locker, grab his coat and books, and proceed down the hallway to the bus depot."

The district has also installed a smart board in the communications classroom, and uses it as an additional resource for ASD students. One 18-year-old student who previously was unable to sit through even one hour of classroom instruction, for example, now spends the entire day there interacting and learning as a result of the computer-and-whiteboard combination.

Of special interest to this student, said Godecki, is the school's picture exchange communication system, which allows her to take photos and initiate communication through pictures. "This is someone who has been trapped inside of herself for the last 18 years," said Godecki. "Her parents tell us that they've seen a noticeable improvement in her verbal skills, and we credit technology for making that happen."

To achieve those kinds of results requires a concerted effort from educators, administrators, parents and the community. Without those elements in place, said Godecki, no amount of technology will help a school district effectively manage and educate its ASD students. "Select staff members that are committed to working with kids who have autism," he added, "and who are motivated to use the technology and get the training they need to help those students succeed."

About the Author

Bridget McCrea is a business and technology writer in Clearwater, FL. She can be reached at bridgetmc@earthlink.net.

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