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Laura and Behavior Issues: A Case Study in Accommodating a Learning Disability

Background
This case describes a fifth-year education student in the Early Childhood Education Program who has a learning disability and is registered with the office for student disabilities services. Professors were aware that Laura had a learning disability, but were not fully informed of the behavioral characteristics which can result from this condition. Professors complained about her disruptive behaviors including overly-emotional, dependent, and inappropriate behaviors in class and alienation of her peers. The specific behaviors professors noted as problematic included crying, silliness, not opening books or participating in hands-on activities, talking out of turn, disrupting and distracting the class by interrupting, and asking instructors to complete work for her.

These behaviors are indicative of her nonverbal learning disability (NLD). NLD is often called "right-hemisphere learning disorder" and frequently goes unrecognized as a disability by instructors. Instead, students with this impairment are often labeled "behavior problems" due to their inappropriate or unexpected conduct. NLD is known to have a neurological rather than emotional origin. Individuals with NLD may have impaired abilities to organize visual-spatial fields, accurately read nonverbal signals and cues (more than 50% nonverbal cues go unrecognized) in social and novel situations, and coordinate motor functions. For people with NLD, verbal communication (a strength) is important as it is difficult for them to process nonverbal information (e.g., facial expressions, reading between the lines).

Access
After much time and academic success in her academic program, the ability of this student to complete the final stages of her program was questioned. How could this student access the field placement that precedes teaching and is necessary for her program completion? Additional stress and challenges during her fifth year exacerbated her NLD symptoms. How could alienation of professors, supervisors, and students be avoided?

Solution
Effective remedial approaches or interventions for NLD include "spelling things out" verbally, and using a parts-to-whole teaching approach. Allowing the student to ask multiple questions (to satisfy the need to verbally process) within an acceptable structure was important. Immediate non-threatening verbal feedback regarding acceptable and unacceptable behavior was provided, with clear explanations of how the acceptable behavior positively impacted the outcome and, conversely, how inappropriate behavior had a negative impact on the outcome.

A team involving professors, the disability student service coordinator, and the student met periodically to create and monitor an access plan. The student met with the professor after each class to discuss what went well and what did not. The student was asked for her perceptions, which were then compared with the professor's and the situation was verbally analyzed step-by-step with the reasoning for the acceptable behavior clearly outlined. This process helped the student establish an inner warning system to catch inappropriate behavior before it occurred, thus building problem-solving skills for future use. For complicated messages and multi-stepped instructions, the student tape recorded the information.

Next, developing verbal compensatory strategies helped this student.
For example, professors established with the student a verbal cue (word or short phrase) and non-verbal gesture to signify that inappropriate behavior was occurring in the moment and needed to stop. This signal was then used during lecture or group work to notify the student, and helped her not only modify her behavior in the moment, but also develop an internal monitoring system. Along the same lines, a peer role model of appropriate behavior was assigned. The student then modeled the more appropriate behavior of the assigned student.

The team noticed improvement in the student's behavior in the class and in group work situations. The student also felt she was doing better. She earned a "B" grade for the semester.

Conclusion
This case illustrates:

  1. Cooperative work between professors, disability service coordinators, and the student. Without all parties conferring and sharing information and ideas, the student may have been closed out of an opportunity to complete her teaching program.

  2. Successful accommodations used for a student with an NLD including clear and immediate verbal feedback about specific behaviors, behavioral cues to modify behavior, use of a tape recorder for complicated verbal messages, peer role modeling, and a regular monitoring and feedback system.