Beecher with one of the children’s books she has
used to teach aspiring teachers at WSU.
PULLMAN – Teachers today are likely to have some preparation for students with special needs. But how, exactly, should a teacher respond when a boy constantly repeats himself?
Understanding his behavior is a good place to start. And a good place to find that understanding is in the pages of children’s books, said Constance Beecher, a special education expert and doctoral student at Washington State University.
 
“I use the simple, illustrated storytelling in those books as a ‘hook’ to engage my students in a lesson about research-based teaching strategies,” said Beecher, who teaches special education courses for the College of Education. “Plus, the children’s books will be tools they can use to discuss differences in their own elementary school classrooms.”
 
Beecher and her colleague Janine Darragh are authors of “Using Literature That Portrays Individuals with Autism with Pre-Service Teachers.” The article, which is available free online, appeared in the January issue of The Clearing House: A Journal of Educational Strategies, Issues and Ideas.
 
Adjusting to learning differences
Autism is a developmental disorder that affects social and communication skills. A growing number of children are being diagnosed and they fall within a wide spectrum of abilities and symptoms.

“A lot of these kids are included in regular classes at least part of the day,” said Beecher. “They can have behavior that is difficult and challenging for some teachers.

 
“For example, children with autism may constantly repeat things,” she said. “That’s because their brains are more ‘tuned in’ to the memory mechanism, so they rely on familiar routines and repetitive behavior.”
 
Once the teacher and other students understand that, Beecher said, they can accept that everyone has learning differences. If a student’s repetitions get too distracting, the teacher can use strategies such as redirecting his attention.
 
Article based on class observations
Beecher teaches a WSU course on the inclusion of children with disabilities in mainstream classrooms. The journal article is based on class observations in 2009, when she gave her students a two-page list of children’s books about people with autism.
“Many of them had never read a book in which a person with a disability was a main character,” said Beecher.
The book list was compiled by Darragh, who received her Ph.D. at WSU in 2010 and is an assistant professor at Whitworth University.
 
More meaningful and memorable
In their article, Darragh and Beecher discuss not only what teachers can learn from properly chosen children’s books, but also how they can use those books to help children learn about disabilities.

Beecher modeled that teaching method by reading aloud “Understanding Sam and Asperger Syndrome” by Clarabelle van Niekerk and Liezl Venter. Sam has a form of autism. He likes to giggle but has trouble making friends and is afraid of loud noises.

 
“During a lecture on autism I could say, ‘Remember in the book when Sam does this?’” Beecher said. “The references to the story made the lesson more meaningful and hopefully more memorable.”
Darragh’s doctoral dissertation focused on the use of young adult literature to portray disabilities. Her study group consisted of 230 eighth-graders. She couldn’t document a significant shift in attitudes among students who read the books, but did find that those with disabilities responded very well to seeing themselves represented in literature.
 
The authors’ list of recommended books appears at the end of their article. Darragh’s favorite? “Rules,” Cynthia Lord’s novel about a 12-year-old girl whose brother is autistic.