Inclusion of Special Ed Kids in the Storytelling Clasroom

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16 thoughts on “Inclusion of Special Ed Kids in the Storytelling Clasroom”

  1. We often tend to lump kids into the category of “special ed” as if they were all the same. They are not. Like our other students, their personalities and interests are different; their abilities vary; their motivations diverge.

    On top of that, the reasons they are in special education are different for each student. I have had “special ed” students who were dyslexic, were in a wheelchair, had ADHD, stuttered, or had numerous other reasons for the classification.

    So, how well they do in class is dependent on a myriad of factors. Most of the time the way I teach (TCI/TPRS) plays to students’ strengths because the material is more interesting, there are more opportunities to get up and move around, most of my work is verbal/aural rather than written, I don’t require a lot of homework (hard to keep track of for many students even when they remember that they have it), etc. Occasionally I have encountered a student who needed a “tighter” structure than my class provided, but otherwise “special ed” students find success and thrive in a TPRS classroom.

    I mentioned in another thread that I have a senior who is in mainstream classes for the first time. When he started school he was a bit withdrawn, even sullen. Today he smiles readily, laughs at class jokes, and participates fully in the class.

    1. That’s a good question. Some experts believe that students are much too readily identified as ADD / ADHD in the school setting, thus setting them up for a regimen of being drugged. Stephen Camarata, for example, says that for a diagnosis of ADD to be legitimate, the student must display symptoms across all areas, not just in one setting. He also points out that the symptoms of boredom look like the symptoms of ADD. (See his book The Intuitive Parent) Teachers are particularly quick to “diagnose” ADD when a student may simply be expressing his boredom.

      I know from family experience that this can happen. When my nephew was in sixth grade, one of his teachers informed his parents (my brother and sister-in-law) that she was certain that he had ADD. She had been teaching for a number of years and said that she had “diagnosed” ADD in students before, stating that she had never been wrong. Guess what? She was wrong. So what was the problem? My nephew was all boy and led a quite active outdoor life: playing with his dogs, running up and down the hill between house and school to visit friends, wrestling with friends, making a bow and arrows to “hunt” baboons (he lived in Africa), etc. He had very little tolerance for boring teaching, and this teacher was simply boring him to death. Oh, and lest you think he was just not suited to the rigors of the classroom, when a teacher engaged him, he excelled. He played clarinet in the orchestra and then switched to bassoon, spending hours practicing; he became a regional finalist in chess tournaments; he could concentrate for long periods of time on whittling, sanding, etc. to produce his bow and arrows; he successfully and profitably ran the student store, learning important managerial, accounting, and other skills along the way. Between his junior and senior years in high school, he joined me for a two-week trip to Germany and Switzerland. We spent time in old buildings, museums, churches, etc. He listened as I talked about art, music, history, architecture, etc. And, he could tell me later in his own words what I had told him and make broader applications.

      Boredom looks like ADD.

      I believe that an overhaul of the school system could radically change the nature of students’ experiences and labeling. Class sizes need to be radically reduced. There is no way that I can keep 43 students engaged throughout the period every day, and high school students do not yet have the capacity to yield to the needs of the many; they’re all about the one (themselves). It would be great if I did not have to subvert an entire system in order to teach students in an engaging way. We genuinely need educational reform – just not the kind of “reform” that the political and economic elites are pushing.

      When turning my post under Kathrin Shichtman’s Report from the Field into a post for my blog, I came across a number of quotes. One seemed particularly apt: “If education is beaten by training, civilization dies.” (C.S. Lewis) Unfortunately, I think we are there.

  2. Robert said:

    …there is no way that I can keep 43 students engaged throughout the period every day….

    I feel based on my own experience that this is true for any class larger than 28 or so. 24 is a critical number as well. Smaller classes lack energy, larger ones are impossible to teach.

    And yet I would bet that a full 75% of the readers of this blog community fault themselves for not being able to reach those larger classes. They need to be told that they can’t, that no one can. The numbers are too high.

    Robert has been teaching for a long time and gets it and doesn’t blame himself. But so many younger teachers blame themselves when they can’t reach the big classes. That is such a shame.

  3. I think that with “Special Ed” students as with other populations interest is the driving force. We can’t hit the interest of every student all the time. I have one class that was informally called “The ADHD club” with one student believed to be on the spectrum, one has speech problems, 3 are novice ESL, 4 are novice high ESL. It’s a class of 11, there are 10 boys and 1 girl.

    In the beginning of the year, I was frustrated and couldn’t find a way to have them use their energy for good. TPR was messy and they touched each other too much and too inappropriate. OWI was OK for the first then there was no listening happening.

    I pointed to the rules. I waited them out. I had a conversation with them about expectations in the class. I asked them to write down why they thought these rules were important to me and how they would help them as well. Many of them wrote: “We shouldn’t laugh in class.” “I shouldn’t talk about butts” (their character was a super-butt) and I in turn wrote under it: “You should laugh in class. We can be silly together. Please don’t forget to listen, so we can work together”

    Now, just today this loud (and 11 kids can be surprisingly loud) class had just finished the first story. They all were able to answer questions about it when we did reading from the back. We did a little drawing dictation with sentences like “The butt plays soccer” “The finger has hair” “the boy scratched his head” There was laughter when I read them to them and then: they all worked in silence interspersed with giggles and the occasional GERMAN comment “The butt is quiet!” It was so amazing, I taped it.

    In this smaller setting I can reach them. Many of them are with specialists throughout the day. in a larger class I wouldn’t be able to reach them all. I couldn’t get to every student fast enough.

    I have seen my mentor successfully include a student, who has been in the life-skills classes when I first observed her classes. He loved German and like in Robert’s case, he wasn’t in any other mainstream classes. He thrived. (He is probably one of the reason why I was so taken by the method in the first place: Thanks Johan!)

    I have multiple autistic students in my class and like you said Ben, sometimes it’s not working, but it does more often than not. Sometimes the classes are just too big to include everyone successfully.

    You may not reach everyone, every time. But you reach more with CI than you will ever with any “traditional” approach. Perfection is an illusion.

    1. I see how your students are engaged and being playful with you, Kathrin. Thanks for describing a little of that for us. I wonder why you say that sometimes you have a hard time reaching your autistic students. I know people often say that autistic kids are very literal. Is that it? I recall a couple of autistic kids I’ve had that could play the game well with me but had a hard time processing the various responses from their peers. It’s like they had a hard time letting go of certain responses, wanting the direction of the story to go a particular way, wanting it so much that they couldn’t settle with the direction I would eventually take it. Like, they couldn’t just sit back on the CI train as it forked left on the tracks when they thought it could possibly fork right.

      With lots of private chats with those kids, they functioned alright. But, I would be curious to know more of your experience, Kathrin. Thanks!

      1. Thanks Sean. I didn’t mean just the autistic students. I think just in general some kids are harder to reach than others. Some have been made to feel like less for a long time and can’t look past those comments. I don’t think this is something that just applies for autistic students, sorry for the confusion. Sometimes it’s also the constellation of the class. My second graders this year for example. They are so focused on themselves that there is a constant fight for my attention. They don’t care to learn about their classmates. They will respond with “But what about me. When do we talk about me?” So that is very similar to what you described and non of them are autistic.

        We deal with hurdles to overcome all the time and since behaviors depend on so many factors and so many of them outside of the classroom that we have no influence on, the setting changes constantly and throws something else at us.

        I have had the learning support coordinator sent in the guidance counselor to one of my classes, because “I wanted to show her someone, who is doing it right.” My friend, who is finishing up her PHD is writing about inclusion in the foreign language classroom, because as of right now, very little is actually being done (especially in Germany) and I have given her some names of teachers who use TPRS to interview for her purposes. These teachers get it. I think this would be an amazing field to study as inclusion is such a hot topic and it could be a push for CI that our traditional counterparts can’t ignore.

        But I’m no expert, so much of what I do, I do because my gut says it’s right. I just think this might be the way to go to bring CI mainstream and for me to never hear a colleague say: “That kid is just not capable of learning another language”

        1. Awesome! Sounds like you are effecting serious change in your community. And if your school is anything like the schools I’ve worked at, those learning support coordinators, or case managers, or special ed teachers, hold much more clout in the building than the foreign language teachers

        2. “… my gut says it’s right”

          Our modern emphasis on “data” has made far too many teachers afraid to follow their instinct or do what their gut says is right. That is a shame. It’s also why I’m calling a book that I’m working on “The Intuitive Language Teacher”.

  4. …perfection is an illusion….

    So that when teachers, many of whom suffer from the illusion that their instruction must be perfect, find storytelling, in which perfection really is an illusion, then something has to give.

    We must all learn to teach each of our classes the best we can, but, as Kathrin points out, when it’s not perfect we need to learn to get off our own cases so much. When those screenstruck teens don’t show up fully for us in class, too many of us make the colossal mistake of thinking that we suck at this, that the story wasn’t funny, and that maybe we should go back to the textbook. We don’t suck at this. We just don’t. We’re doing something brand new. And our stories don’t have to be funny.


  5. I had a 504 meeting yesterday and the student’s mom said that of all of his teachers, I was the one that he could understand the best! He is used to people talking too fast to him and shaming him when he doesn’t know an answer. I’m so glad he feels safe and cared for in my classroom! A non-native language classroom!

    1. Would you like a little science to back this up?

      An article in The Wichita Eagle from 2008 discusses this.

      Studies give slightly varying rates, but the conclusion is the same: adults speak too rapidly for children – even high school students – to understand fully. And this is in the native language.

      The average adult speaks at about 170+ words per minute with many adults speaking faster than 200 words per minute in conversation or when feeling hurried. Oral reading speed is slightly slower, but not much.

      The average 5-7 year old understands at about 120 words per minute in his native language. Even high school students average about 140 words per minute in comprehension. That’s still only about 75% of what is being said. Imagine trying to understand a new math concept when you can comprehend only 75% of what is being said in your native language. The problem compounds for second language learners as well as foreign language learners.

      Mr. Rogers was loved by children in part because they could understand everything that he said: he spoke at about 124 words per minute.

      If all of this is true for students in their native language, imagine how much more difficult it is for students in a foreign or second language. When we learn to go SLOW-LI enough, our students can understand; they feel secure. Add to that an accepting and supportive attitude on the part of the teacher, and you have a combination that the student almost never encounters in the school setting. What a difference that can make in a student’s day, year, life.

      Hm, maybe all teachers should spend some time in Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood.

  6. As kids do come with their very unique backgrounds, I can tell you that I’ve had the most difficult time with, I would say, two groups of students 1) those who already feel inadequate in school and 2) those who are not able to manage the stressors afflicting them from outside school.

    The group 1 students: We can only imagine what it must feel like to Johnny to get a report card home every year since grade 1 that says Johnny did not meet expectations, let alone fails far short of expectations. Two times a year for 8 years before entering high school, Johnny gets this report card home. You can just feel the oppression of those report card as they get printed and mailed. Both Johnny and his parents give up. Unless Johnny had some amazing teacher(s) that helped Johnny feel worthwhile, like he has something to offer, and there are many amazing teachers like that out there, Johnny can not help but have this nagging feeling when sitting in our classrooms that he will not be able to perform to our expectations. So he finds other ways to engage his thinking, like through disrupting others. I’ve found the best way to help Johnny is to not give up on him no matter the number and variety of interventions you have to implement.

    The group 2 kids: Sometimes we find these students putting their heads down. Sometimes we see them with glossy eyes, drifting off on a series of thoughts racing through their minds that they can’t let go of. I remember a very helpful counselor at a school on the West Side who shared with us that some 20% of our students had voices speaking to them in their heads throughout the day. Voices like imaginary friends that soothed them. These kids need so much more counseling than our schools can give them. With these kids I think we have to take note of the little increments of progress we see; like Robert sharing how one of his students, in his last year of high school, for the first time in his life has been mainstreamed, was withdrawn at first but now leans forward in his chair with interest. Or maybe for another kid it’s that she had her head up for the entire class period. We have to lean on these signs of progress as a reason to celebrate those kids. By leaning on these signs of progress we can propel ourselves forward, together.

  7. Back in July I saw an article on CI Peek in which an elementary teacher shared her surprise and success with special needs students. She was afraid the would be intimidated by too much Spanish. But as she spent more and more time with them she saw that they were able to understand and accept more and more Spanish.

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