Covington School students gained an understanding of the struggles of fellow students with learning challenges Jan. 5 and 6 during Abilities Awareness Week.
“This program builds empathy in our students and helps them understand that we all have challenges and strengths,” said Covington Principal Wade Spenader.
By grade level, students gathered in the school’s multipurpose room and rotated through stations that challenged them to complete an experiential exercise to help them understand various learning and physical disabilities.
The physical therapy station encouraged students to use walkers, wheelchairs and canes. They practiced what it felt like to drop a book and pick it up while in a wheelchair.
“They experience just how uneasy that is,” said Ann Morgan, ability awareness coordinator and member of SELPA 1 CAC, a community advisory committee for special-education issues. “They experience the challenges and frustrations, so they understand what kids with special needs or learning challenges go through on a daily basis.”
To understand challenges with fine-motor skills, students attempted to button a shirt while wearing socks on their hands. While they buttoned up, a volunteer would tell them to “hurry up” to simulate the struggles and pressures that accompany trouble with fine-motor skills.
A new activity this year was the English language learner station, which simulated the struggles an English language learner might have, such as challenges making friends and connections in school. At the station, volunteers presented a passage from Shakespeare but only read portions of it to emphasize how it felt not to receive the entire message.
Another station featured a “social sense” activity, enabling students to experience how it feels to be without a social sense or social skills. Students sat extra close to one another to show what it felt like to violate someone’s personal space. They also worked on exercises exploring how it would feel not to understand facial expressions or to say inappropriate things.
“We are forcing the situation where we are making the kids feel uncomfortable,” Morgan said. “Then we have a deep-thought discussion about what this child might be going through and how hard it might be to function in school without a social sense.”
In another impactful activity, students learned what it was like to have an auditory processing problem. Students were instructed to complete a dot-to-dot activity while music played and the volume increased and instructions got muffled and hard to understand.
“It causes a lot of frustration because they can’t hear,” Morgan said. “There are a lot of kids who struggle to filter out background noises, and it gives them an idea of the struggle some students face every day in trying to learn without getting distracted.”
To illustrate how it feels to live with dyslexia, students were asked to trace a star while looking into a mirror. Students also tried to read a passage with the words mixed up and backward.
“Is this what drawing is like for you?” a student asked his teacher, who identified himself as dyslexic.
“This is how we process information,” the teacher explained. “Letters and words are flipped.”
At the end of each station, volunteers and students discussed how students with that particular disability might feel on a day-to-day basis.
“How can we help support those kids who have those challenges in the most respectful, accepting, kind and empathetic way?” Morgan asked.
Covington School volunteers manned each station, Morgan said, because the activities are important not just for students, but for parents and teachers as well.
“What I am really trying to do is build acceptance, but also inclusivity, because that is the most important thing to kids,” she said. “These are invisible challenges, and there are some big, deep feelings going on around not being able to do things as well as your peers.”
Morgan said she plans to offer the program at every school in the Los Altos School District this year.