Learning by Doing: Cultivating Agency in Students with Disabilities

Written by Maria Bucon-Scales and Ace Parsi | 1 month ago

One of the challenges students can face within our current education system is being presented with curriculum that they struggle to connect with. Many of our education reform efforts fail because students are disengaged and end up dropping out of a system that does not meet their needs or prepare them for the future.

Brain science has proven that it’s critical for students to be able to apply what they’re learning in the classroom to relevant scenarios in their own lives.  And while this principle applies to all students, it is particularly important for students who have been traditionally disadvantaged in education, including students with disabilities. Students with disabilities are particularly marginalized in our current education system and often given tasks that are not only irrelevant to their own lives, but based on the false assumption that they are incapable of higher-order thinking. For them, applying what they’ve learned is a way to help affirm that—despite what they or others might assume about their abilities—their thinking and actions matter and they are capable of making a difference in society.

One important example of a pedagogical best practice to help students with disabilities succeed is learning and using self-advocacy skills and self-determination. Demonstrating self-advocacy skills and self-determination allows students to stand up for their needs and rights and empowers them to make proactive, positive change in their own lives.  Consider an example: If a student with a disability leaves their K-12 education without the opportunity to actively practice making choices about his life or advocating for his needs, how will he feel prepared when he is in college and must ask a faculty member or employer for an accommodation? Or when he must make decisions about his finances and living arrangements?

This is why Envision Education, based in Oakland, CA, is focused on explicitly developing skills of self-advocacy and student agency by providing students with the opportunities to engage in rigorous, relevant project-based learning. Envision Schools uses an inclusion model of education where all students, regardless of learning challenges, engage in the same classes and with the same content. This model allows our general education and special education teachers to collaborate in planning and implementation of lessons that are designed with a variety of student needs in mind. In our classes, students continuously reflect on their learning and growth as a way to learn the metacognitive skills they will need to advocate for themselves outside of the school building. Students practice their self-advocacy skills by leading bi-yearly conferences with their families where they explain their growth and progress towards both content and life skills. At the end of their 10th and 12th grade years, all students defend why they are ready to move on to 11th grade or ready to graduate. While we are still learning best practices to support all our students, Envision staff has and continues to engage in this challenging work to make sure teachers have the skills and mindsets to support all students.

Working to support all students and intentionally focusing on the skill of self-advocacy has positive, tangible results for students who come from marginalized communities. While 12 percent of our students have diagnosed disabilities, 99 percent of our students are accepted into college (80 percent of those into 4 year universities) and 90 percent persist in college to their second year. These are not just numbers—they are transformed lives.  And the reason that happens is that we think about success in a broader way, preparing our students, especially those first in their families to attend college, with the tools to succeed in college, career, and civic life.

Maria Bucon-Scales is the Curriculum Coordinator at Envision Education. Learn more at https://envisionschools.org/

Ace Parsi is the Personalized Learning Partnership Manager at NCLD

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