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Critical thinking, problem solving, collaboration, communication. These are the skills identified as most important for new hires in the current job market in an article titled “What Skills Do Students Really Need for a Global Economy?” in the December 2016/January 2017 issue of Educational Leadership. You might not think of these types of skills first when it comes to students with special needs, but as I read the above-mentioned article this morning, I thought to myself, “Gee, these skills are so often fostered in kids with special needs because of the very fact that they have those special needs. But maybe those skills don’t look exactly like they do in kids without special needs.”
In my last post, I talked about making accommodations (building that metaphorical wheelchair ramp to your curriculum). Making accommodations is by its very nature an act of critical thinking and problem solving. Often when we do this, we have to collaborate with other team members in our school and effectively communicate our goals and directions for the situation. However, it is not just the teacher who has to be the problem solver. The student, too, can become the problem solver—and probably already is without even realizing it.
School is just one slice of a child’s life. When children with special learning needs go out into the world, they have to navigate the barriers of their own learning challenges as they solve daily problems of living in a world dominated by language and print or physical barriers. Granted, a young child might rely very heavily on a parent to solve those problems, but hopefully as the child grows and matures, the parent will work together with the child to help put systems in place to manage and work around the areas of struggle.
They might employ a technology solution, like using audiobooks on a smartphone or tablet. Those with organizational struggles might learn to use the calendar app earlier than other students. Some students may need to talk to text rather than type. Maybe they will forge partnerships with peers to study for tests or ensure that homework information is accurate. Frankly, learning to “fake it” demonstrates a high level of critical thinking skills. It takes a lot of effort and creativity to hide your deficits, whatever they may be. There are as many solutions as there are children.
On the flip side of that coin, however, is the very real issue of learned helplessness in students with special needs. Early and persistent failures, coupled with adults who just “do it for them” rather than teach solutions and support new learning, quickly teach children that it’s easier to do nothing rather than to work hard and risk and experience more failure. This learned helplessness is a very real barrier to developing independence, critical-thinking skills, and problem-solving abilities. When we work with students, we must not only give direct instruction in the academic skills they need but also model and teach critical-thinking and problem-solving skills. By pairing these together, we accomplish so much more than just teaching particular skills. We help children move past the natural inclination to give up and help them to move forward in their growth and development.
As teachers and parents, we are always thinking about preparing our children for the future. Life skills are about more than just learning to cook and grocery shop (not to say that these aren’t important). It’s not just in a job that the skills of critical thinking, problem solving, collaboration, and communication are essential. These skills are needed in our homes (think decorating a Christmas tree with your family), in our communities (think using local banks, stores, and public services), and in our congregations (think putting on a Christmas program or school auction). The student with special needs is already uniquely qualified as a lifelong problem solver and collaborator.
As we work with students of all ages—but especially with those who are soon to enter the work force—let’s help them to see and articulate for themselves how they already possess skills that employers are looking for. Start by modeling those skills yourself and then talking about them with your students. Have students talk about how they employ these skills on a daily basis. This helps them to become more aware and articulate about their own skills and also helps them see how valuable they are in the workplace.
Each of us is part of the Body of Christ, and each of us has been given gifts to serve the Lord and His people. Each of our students is a child of God created with his or her own gifts and talents well beyond the skills of school. Not everyone has the gift of being a good reader or a good writer, but that doesn’t mean that they don’t have the gifts needed to be a good employee, good parent, or good citizen in their community. Start looking for those four important skills for new hires in your own students. I’m guessing those skills are already growing in your students and just need you to help bring them out and show them off a bit. Help your students to see how bright their future will be when they use these gifts that God has given them.
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