As educators, we have a responsibility to all students to not only help them achieve academically, but to also prepare them for life as productive, contributing, global citizens.
For our students with disabilities, this is a more involved and comprehensive process. These students require repetition and hands-on experiences to acquire the skills necessary for success beyond school walls.
At Salem High School in Virginia, we’ve developed a comprehensive approach to educating our students with cognitive delays. In doing so, we have implemented a program that strives to send our students across the stage equipped for the working world and prepared to live as independently as possible. Here are the seven steps we take to make this vision a reality.
1. Evaluate interests and opportunities
Since natural skills and curiosity lead to greater engagement, we begin the process freshman year by exploring a student’s strengths, interests, and preferences to determine what line of work they would be the most successful in.
In addition, we focus on jobs available in a student’s neighborhood that increase the likelihood of students securing and maintaining employment. Our instruction is then centered on work skills relevant to the community and functional living skills that increase the probability of independence in adulthood.
2. Tap into community partners and businesses
Community connections are important for businesses and students—businesses need talent and our students need jobs. Building relationships with local companies allows our school to place students in the community for non-paid work experiences and increase the opportunities for paid employment in the future.
Businesses have expressed their appreciation with the skill levels our students demonstrate, which translates into less resources needed to train them once they are hired.
3. Don’t attempt to do it alone
Teaching any student takes a village, but it’s all the more important for students with disabilities to be surrounded by proven resources that will support their growth. Our teachers use the Adapted Career Education Series, which has significantly increased our teachers’ comfort with providing job and life skills instruction, as well as positively impacting our student outcomes.
4. Use data to identify what works
We gather data before, during, and after instruction to inform our methods, evaluate progress, and ascertain level of mastery. Doing so helps us determine the appropriate support a student may need in the work environment so that we can place them in the right job.
Data also helps us assess the program as a whole. Our students with disabilities are experiencing success in a classroom setting that some of them have never known. Post-test scores have shown a 40 percent growth on average, and the performance-based assessment indicates a proficient rating for the majority of our students.
5. Take a holistic approach to instruction
It’s no secret that students learn in different ways. This is even truer for students with disabilities. By using whole-group instruction, teacher modeling, video modeling, individual practice, and performance-based demonstration and assessment, we can provide instruction that benefits all learners in the ways that they learn best.
6. Don’t neglect important soft and life skills
In addition to on-the-job training, our instructional time addresses portfolio assembly, communication and interpersonal skills, appropriate workplace dress, and interviewing skills.
Since teamwork is another important soft skill, our students work together to formulate ideas and solutions to work-based problems and discuss pros and cons of different options with the goal of group consensus.
To encourage as much independence as possible, we also practice hygiene, basic cleaning, simple food preparation, money management, navigating the community, and self-determination.
7. Put skills to practice
As part of our instruction, students watch short video clips that introduce them to the various jobs and what they involve. Afterwards, they put these skills into practice. First, we demonstrate a skill, then we do it together, and finally the kids are able to do it for themselves. For example, when practicing grocery-clerking skills, students practice bagging actual groceries in paper, plastic, and reusable bags.
In addition to daily practice, our school hosts “Mock Interview Days,” where volunteer interviewers score our students based on their clothing choices, greeting, handshake, eye contact, posture, body language, and answers to questions. Students’ receive feedback from their interviewers and practice areas where they may have scored low. Our goal is to make the experience as realistic as possible in a safe nurturing environment where it’s acceptable to struggle and successes are celebrated by all.
Once our students have demonstrated basic to proficient skill levels, they are placed in the community in non-paid positions. Essentially, the classroom has moved from the school building to the community.
Our school is dedicated to preparing all students to succeed, achieve, lead, excel, and make a positive difference as productive citizens. We practice this daily in our classrooms for students with disabilities and feel confident when they walk across that stage at graduation they are ready for the working world and beyond.