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European Innovative Teaching Award
Proiect

Teachers in Europe for Students with Special Needs

School: Specjalny Ośrodek Szkolno-Wychowawczy im. Janusza Korczaka

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Topic(s) addressed

The main aim of our 17-month-long project was to improve the school’s quality and its innovative excellence, while enhancing its transnational cooperation. The project’s actions improved teachers’ key competences, their ability to use foreign languages, and increased their interpersonal skills while developing an understanding of their use of new technologies in special education. Learning mobilities were framed within the school’s European Development Plan and responded clearly to its development needs. The project’s mobilities included the participation of the school head; an English teacher; a teacher for students with autism and an AAC therapist; a dog and equine therapist; and a teacher for students with moderate to severe intellectual impairment and conjugated disabilities in a 5-day training course titled “Teaching and Learning in Special Education: The Icelandic Perspective” that was held in Reykjavik, Iceland. The next mobility took place in Seville, Spain, and saw the participation of the headteacher; the English teacher; the librarian; and, the school counsellor in a 5-day training course titled, “All Children are Special.” The final mobility involved the participation of an English teacher in a 5-day course for “Teachers of English to Pupils with Special Needs,” in Portsmouth, England. The activities planned for the project covered methodological training mobilities, refresher workshops, and guided observations of special and inclusive schools. The Erasmus+ team ensured the project’s implementation and organisation, and ensured its strict adherence to rules and scheduled tasks, with planned actions and their results disseminated without delay throughout the school and the local community. The project resulted in the provision of a European dimension to the school’s education, training, and organisation; the expansion of its cooperation with other teachers through their integration into the European educational community; the application of good practices in working with autistic students, AAC therapy, and the teaching of English, and, support for families of children with special needs; the developing of individual educational and therapeutic programmes; and an increased ability to address the needs of students with special needs.

Target groups

The project’s target group consisted of 7 participants: school director, 59; English teacher, 40; dog and equine therapist, 37; teacher of students with autism and AAC therapist, 43; teacher of students with moderate to severe intellectual and conjugated disabilities, 41; librarian, 48; school counsellor, 63.

Methodologies

Project participants consisted of a multidisciplinary group of teachers, with their participation in the project having resulted in the heightened quality of their work with disabled students through the use of innovative methods. The project’s tasks focused on a number of outputs, including the expansion of knowledge on Augmentative and Alternative Communication (AAC) for learners who cannot speak or those who use limited speech. Also, the use of low and high technology devices and specialised computer programmes further supported communication efforts; the sharing of knowledge in the field of therapy, rehabilitation, and work methodology with regard to dog therapy and hippotherapy, with a particular emphasis on children with certain types of disabilities; the expansion of a range of therapeutic and revalidation methods and tools, which largely contributed to the improvement of functions among moderate to severely mentally impaired students within the autism spectrum; the improvement of foreign language teaching methods adapted to students with mild intellectual disability; and, the development of the school’s management system, and the improvement of its organisation of school work in relation to an increased variety of revalidation and therapeutic classes. During the project, the school implemented new solutions related to the education of special needs students such as the Makaton, art therapy, sensory therapy, and relaxation techniques based on nature, social skill training, Lego therapy, and felinotherapy.

Regardless of individuals’ specific areas of interest, all project participants developed practical and analytical skills through the implementation of project activities. Furthermore, they developed interpersonal and social competences, with an increase in their initiative and entrepreneurship skills. Teachers improved their language skills and cultural competences, as well as their skills in the use of information and communication tools and technologies. Project activities that were organised with students used methods that were based on elements such as experience, observation, and experimentation, as well as on positive relationships between teachers and peers. Inspired by schools in Iceland and England, we wanted to create a friendlier space for students – both at school and at boarding school. This resulted in a number of developments, such as a place at the school’s corridors where students could rest, a recreational area next to the school playground, the provision of wooden tables and benches for outdoor lessons, and the construction of flowerbeds and decorations (with student participation) from gathered board materials. With the help of students, the dog therapist expanded the activities of the volunteer club, and organised several auctions, trips to shelters and studs, and meetings with animal welfare organisations. The teaching of the Makaton sign system to all students was intensified through competitions, theatre, and music performances so as to improve communication between speaking and non-speaking students. The main emphasis of the English teacher was to facilitate language learning in real-life communication situations, with students having had the opportunity to improve their skills through participation in eTwinnning activities. Over the following years, students carried out a POWERVET project in the area of vocational education, which allowed youths to discover their strengths, as well as their knowledge levels. Introducing changes to the school required a meeting among teachers who had participated in the project, as well as consultations and cooperation with other teachers, students, and parents. For example, a series of classes were prepared for students, where a puppet – the main character who ‘travelled’ with teachers – presented his experiences; furthermore, there were organised meetings that explored Dickens' books in the library; the creation of volcanoes in sensory therapy; playing castanets during music lessons; and, the preparation and tasting of European dishes. Thanks to the workshops conducted by a Spanish psychologist showing examples of good practices, training for teachers was organised in broadly relaxed manner through the use of art, dances, songs, movements, music, and colour. Also, the school counsellor was inspired by the Biodanza workshops in Spain to find ways through which to cope with stress through the use of physical activity, and a combination of dance and relaxation approaches that are enjoyable, and which strengthen the bonds that connect us with people. The training of the Makaton I Level Communication Development Program took place in school, and was attended by teachers as well as parents of non-speech students. The school's undertaking included specific solutions drawn from the experiences of European schools, and students were offered the possibility of participating in foreign internships in Spain over the following years; a larger number of teachers were also included in new European projects. Both ICT (new technologies) and new interactive boards were used, with computer equipment and educational programmes provided towards the development of communication aids for non-speech learners. The school has also since received EU funding to equip classes with high-tech aids and the necessary equipment for communication development such as the PECS method, and C-EYE, the latter being a system that integrates medical and computer measurements of human-computer interaction, thus allowing for increased accuracy of diagnoses and the implementation of systematic rehabilitation. Furthermore, the device not only supports communication with students while stimulating their cognitive functions, it also improves concentration and visual coordination. Other outputs included a language lab that was adapted to students with special needs, and educational activities that were based on experiments, nature, and student expression (as observed in Icelandic schools): this entailed the use of everyday natural materials to create sensory bags, bottles, lamps, and sensory boards. During such classes, students built their self-esteem and self-confidence, and enjoyed broad successes in the implementation of their ideas. Skills, innovative methods, and new techniques that had been acquired by teachers during training trips were incorporated into the school’s work plans and those of individual teachers, with a collaborative programme developed with parents. Also, the provision of therapeutic classes was expanded, with the development of a new educational and rehabilitation pavilion currently underway. European schools also provided the school with inspiration on how to design and equip new buildings in a functional and practical manner, resulting in the school director’s approval of said new spaces, which included rehabilitation rooms, SI-sensory integration, and hydrotherapy facilities.

Environments

The project has affected school staff and special needs students by raising the school’s prestige in the eyes of the local community as an institution that uses the latest technological tools, new methods of teaching, and a range of school activities to reflect its openness to the world and to new growth. Important considerations during the support process were the approval provided by the managing body, the commitment of the school’s director, teachers' openness to the change process, and a well-identified area for improvement. Thanks to the sharing of experiences during meetings, trainings, and seminars with other schools and institutions, we undertook the implementation of additional project activities under Erasmus+ POWER. A project participant (the AAC therapist), organised a sign language course for A1, A2, and B1 levels, which saw the participation of representatives from various professions – including (and primarily) teachers, as well as nurses, policemen, soldiers, and administration employees. An observation of Iceland’s urban spaces and the encouragement provided by a Spanish psychologist, resulted in the organising of cyclical workshops for activities aimed at the integration of special needs students (with their peers at school and in the area); these workshops were organised with the aim of disseminating knowledge on autism as well as actions, competitions, and celebrations that saw the participation of our students. These actions have since resulted in a shift away from stereotypical thoughts previously associated with the teaching and upbringing of students with disabilities. During preparatory meetings for the mobility in Iceland, the host organisation presented the possibilities of using the Edmodo platform, which had also been used by our school during the pandemic’s digital learning process; the platform allows for the attachment of materials that are useful for classes such as links, videos, text documents, photos, audio recordings, online and offline presentations, infographics, tasks, tests, and quizzes. Currently, the Microsoft 365 Teams platform is being used for remote lessons with students who have mild disabilities. It should also be noted that a group of teachers had participated in several eTwinning workshops for special needs schools just before the pandemic, which gave us the opportunity to improve and learn about tools for the development of interactive exercises. Teachers who did not participate in the project's mobility programmes had participated instead in the online eTwining courses. Teachers also organised online workshops to share digital materials and online lessons plans for students (through the use of Google Art and Culture, Wakelet, Padlet, Genially, and Escape Room). We are committed to raising the school’s qualifications and to find methods that allow our students to feel that their school is a special place for learning – especially with regard to the school’s capacity for innovation and the equalising of opportunities, which fosters development not only in the region, but also across partners institutions in Europe. Having involved members of our school staff and students in the Erasmus+ project has contributed significantly to the enhancement of the school’s activities in this field while significantly impacting the intellectual development and lives of students with special needs. Thanks to the project’s fruitful cooperation and experience, we have also completed another project in which students from the Vocational School completed several internships at Spanish restaurants (POWER VET). Under the Erasmus+ programme ‘School Preparing to Work,’ linguistic, pedagogical, and cultural enhancements were also carried out for both students with moderate intellectual disabilities and those with multiple disabilities. Students underwent internships in March 2020 across a number of centres in Greece that provided them with the possibility for creative training and support, such as at bakeries, dairies, farms, and horse stables.

Teachers

Teacher participants consisted of a multidisciplinary group of teachers, all of whom were creative and responsible for their respective actions and endeavours. The experience and knowledge gained by teachers during the project’s implementation allowed them to become better specialists with broad horizons, who were capable of sharing their acquired knowledge and experience in a professional environment. The AAC learnt about modern technologies and specialised computer programmes that support communication activities among AAC users. Furthermore, she has since implemented practical solutions at school, including markings of the school with Makaton symbols and pictures; with regard to communication activities, she utilised newly purchased educational programmes to create communication aids for nonspeaking learners. The educational and therapeutic class teacher also developed a number of ideas in her work with students, which allowed her to further experiment and develop new practical methods such as the creation of the pedagogical innovation ‘Sensory in Our World - We are Safe on the Internet,’ where she organised events relating to the area of ecology. The dog and equine therapist led the students’ volunteer club, and took up many initiatives involving the participation of dogs and horses in education and therapy; during the mobility she inspired many teachers from different countries, and was a source of knowledge and a proponent of unconventional proposals for classes with special needs students. The school counsellor had the chance to broaden her knowledge and formulate solutions towards the development of favourable environments for students’ education; furthermore, she learnt of therapeutic methods that can be used when working with parents that focused on open and integrative parental classes. The librarian learnt about relaxation techniques, and of how to support disabled students during their integration with their peers, which she applied to her personal practice and new endeavours, such as by organising reading contests that involved students from various town schools. The English teacher deepened her knowledge of student therapy, and learnt of new ways through which to teach English based on creative and multisensory methods. Thanks to workshops and school visits to other countries, the school director gained valuable knowledge on the development of plans for disabled students; furthermore, through discussions with principals from other European countries, the she also gained knowledge that could now be used to support quality improvement, innovation excellence, and the school’s internationalisation. Thanks to observations of good practices in Europe, teachers have now become initiators that inspire other teachers to participate in the POWER SE project (in progress). Inspired by the methods used by schools in Iceland, England, and Spain, teachers now engage tools such as yoga, mindfulness, and art therapy to encourage the use of ICT tools among students with special needs.

Impact

In the long run, the involvement of school staff in the institution’s European development is anticipated to contribute to an expansion of the school's activities in this area, and above all, in the provision of better opportunities for the development of students with disabilities and their start into adult life. To that effect, the project has benefitted students by improving their functioning and quality of life thanks to its transmission of the needs of speech-impaired students; the leading method of communication with speech-impaired students was through the introduction of the Makaton system of signs and symbols to students, teachers, parents, and interested persons. The group of 7 students with special needs from the Basic Vocational School carried out a two-week professional training course at Spanish restaurants according to their professional profiles. All acquired experiences in the area of vocational education brought clear added value, and, above all, contributed to a greater openness to young people with disabilities. These experiences helped students broaden their social and professional skills and increased their self-reliance by providing greater opportunities for the use of ICT in their everyday life towards the acquisition of knowledge, and communication and awareness of other cultures, establishing and maintaining contacts, and the development of their own skills and abilities; furthermore, it cemented the school’s reputation as a modern, developing institution that uses modern technology, and which strives to reach European standards in education. The project’s impacts on teachers was that it made them promoters of the idea of multilingual and multicultural education to the relevant authorities, teachers, and parents; made them initiators of other ongoing projects aimed at increasing their professional competences in the field of yoga, mindfulness, art therapy, and ICT for SEN students; developed their knowledge and skills in engaging support from EU programmes; enriched their methodological repertoire and learning of new teaching techniques and ways to utilise didactic materials (nature-based relaxation techniques, Makaton); enabled their implementation of solutions relating to the education of students with special needs (sensory therapy, felinotherapy, art therapy, social skills training, Lego, Makaton); increased their cultural knowledge, interpersonal skills, and team cooperation; enriched their language skills; and, enabled them to use computers, the Internet, and multimedia aids by encouraging their participation in campaigns, projects, and online courses. The project’s impacts on the school was that it resulted in improvements to the school’s management skills through its involvement of the school director; improved analyses of students’ needs and the development of individual educational and therapeutic programmes; and, enabled the evaluation of differences and similarities in the school’s use of specific therapies. At the local level, the project promoted Erasmus+ projects among other regional schools during workshops for teachers of English from special schools; ensured the participation of parents in co-creating green areas, as well as their participation in Makaton workshops; increased a positive attitude among students, parents, and the local community of the school’s efforts at emphasising the successes of students and teachers, and in its organising of competitions for the integration of students with disabilities; changed stereotypical thinking relating to the teaching and education of students with special needs; and facilitated the integration of persons with disabilities into the local environment.

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