In this issue’s Teaching Assistance, educator Junior Koch teams up with Risa Takashima, an OT (occupational therapist), to teach an EFL class to adult students with special needs. Occupational therapists are trained health-care professionals who practice the art and science of harmonizing a client’s life and empowering them to achieve an acceptable level of sovereignty over a disability. According to an earlier study by Takashima and Saeki (2013, p. 70), “the occupational therapist can carry the role of coordinator in an interdisciplinary team for the clients with disabilities by understanding them.” In this essay, the authors explain how they formed an interdisciplinary team to observe and assess the teaching and learning that took place in their class. Although there are studies that combine occupational therapy and education, phonological development, and the teaching of languages to special-needs students, according to Koch, “we were unable to find anything involving team-teaching EFL with an OT and an ELT in the literature—this is a new concept.”
The Power of an Educator: Occupational Therapist Team
We are like our favourite heroes. Heroes have superpowers or extraordinary skills, which they use to fight evil and help people. However, no matter how powerful our heroes are, they sometimes find themselves overwhelmed—in other words, they become the ones in need of help. This theme carries a simple but important message: No matter how powerful we are, we often encounter situations that would be best tackled with a bit of teamwork. Fortunately, most superheroes are not alone. They have a special friend, or a partner, who comes to their aid in the direst situations—and together, they work as a team and try to make the world a better place.
Recently, we became an unlikely team. One of us is an educator, and the other is an occupational therapist. The two of us have known each other for several years and we often talk about our work experiences. We had talked about doing something together, but we were never able to find a practical situation which required a teacher and a therapist. Because of this, when an opportunity came to work with a group of guest special-needs students through the barrier-free university programme, we agreed that this was the kind of connection we needed, and we made our choice.
In addition, the students also made a choice—they chose to do this lesson. It was going to be a rare opportunity for them, and the teacher’s lack of knowledge about the students’ limitations shouldn’t get in the way of their experience. This was our suggestion and we were required to obtain approval from the administration as this was the first time this kind of request had been made. Because of this, we hoped our teamwork would be beneficial to the programme. We hoped to address the students’ limitations and consider their particular needs. Finally, by doing this together as teacher, therapist, and students, we believed we could all make new discoveries.
The instructions we received from the administrators were straightforward: they wanted a volunteer teacher to deliver one 90-minute English class to a group of six intellectually-challenged adult students. The students had chosen to take the English class from a choice of four disciplines—we expected they were probably going to be motivated and looking forward to it. Still, teaching intellectually-challenged students requires specific knowledge and training, but exposure to this form of teaching (be it through practice or training) by most EFL practitioners is often limited or nonexistent, and this can be especially difficult if the teacher takes a communicative approach in a student–centred lesson.
To address this limitation, an approach that let us think creatively outside of the traditional EFL box was taken. We brought elements from occupational therapy into the planning stage. Traditional ELT is about the development of language skills, while occupational therapy is about promoting health and wellbeing through occupation. Occupations are activities that are meaningful for people, and the goal of occupational therapists is to enable people to participate in meaningful everyday activities.
While there certainly have been attempts to combine education and occupational therapy, we were unable to find a situation with a therapist and a language teacher forming a team to deliver a lesson together. Occupational therapy and ELT have many differences, but they share one main trait: both disciplines are about the art and science of enabling people. In their own ways, both the occupational therapist and ELT focus on improving aspects of people’s lives. And one important link between the two disciplines is this: one’s language education can be their meaningful occupation.
One Lesson for Them…
Our final plan looked fairly traditional. Its structure followed the three-stage ESA model (Engage, Study, Activate), and our chosen materials and activities aimed to cover both productive and receptive skills. Within our plan, however, there were some elements that are usually not present in more orthodox forms of language teaching. Firstly, we became aware of how foreign language learning can be a negative experience for intellectually challenged students (Schwartz, 2015), and we wanted to avoid this. We considered notions from the Applied Behavioural Approach: i.e., taking short, clear, and isolated steps is crucial when teaching intellectually challenged students (Reynolds, Zupanick, & Dombeck, 2013). In addition, we followed strategies that are suggested by specialists when teaching special-needs students (Do2Learn, 2016). Finally, we concluded that we could engage students more if we promoted an environment that focused on the learners’ primary occupation: i.e., intrinsically motivated activities for pleasure and enjoyment.
We had planned to have the lesson delivered by a teacher, and nine supporters (who were volunteer undergraduate students) would monitor and help students when needed. The OT, in turn, would be present as an observer—only the teacher and supporters would have an active role. Yet, this was not what happened. As the lesson flowed, we encountered situations that made us realise we were a team in the class, too. These moments required more than the presence of a teacher and a supporter. For example, some students were unable to cope with the stimulating environment. The teacher and supporters’ instinctive response was to come to their aid—unbeknown to us, we were generating even more stimuli. The OT noticed this and went on to instruct the supporters rather than the students or the teacher. These short interventions were useful to train supporters to help students, and this reduced the amount of stimuli students received (e.g., through tidier desks, and fewer hands and faces around to distract attention). This approach not only allowed the supporters to understand their roles and help students more effectively, but also freed the teacher and OT to focus on their respective roles. Because of our teamwork, we started to transform the class into something less class-like. The language development goals of each activity became secondary and we used our resources to ensure the students were primarily having a positive experience with English.
… and One Lesson for Us
It would have been possible to achieve the lesson aims with a traditional setup—in this case, one teacher and some supporters. However, by working together, we found opportunities for improvement that would have otherwise been missed. Some issues that emerged in class wouldn’t have been addressed properly without this collaboration.
This story was told from our perspective as, unfortunately, there was no opportunity to talk with the volunteer undergraduate students who supported the students. We reflected on our experience from our two different perspectives—the teacher’s (the teaching and learning that took place) and the therapist’s (how these special-needs students engaged and participated in the lesson). We became more aware of some of our strengths and limitations, both as individuals, and as a team. Not only that, this experience also taught us that it is important to be curious. Without our mutual curiosity for each other’s fields, we would not have considered working together.
This was a single lesson in a particular setting with a rather unique team. Although this was a one-off opportunity, we expect to do it again in the future. Certain kinds of collaboration may sound unusual or odd, or even unnecessary, but we discovered synergy from the rare combination of language teaching and occupational therapy. Our experience makes us believe that we should never underestimate what a team can achieve, and no matter how strange an idea sounds, we believe that it should be explored. No matter how successful your exploration is, you will always learn something from it.
Do2learn. (2016). Intellectual disability strategies. Do2learn Resources. Retrieved from <http://do2learn.com/disabilities/CharacteristicsAndStrategies/Intellectu...
Reynolds, T., Zupanick, C. E., & Dombeck, M. (2013). Applied behavioural analysis and intellectual disabilities. Retrieved from <https://www.mentalhelp.net/articles/applied-behavioral-analysis-aba-and-...
Schwartz, R. L. (2015). Learning disabilities and foreign language learning. LD OnLine. Retrieved from <http://www.ldonline.org/article/6065/>
Takashima, R., & Saeki, K. (2013). Professional identities of occupational therapy practitioners in Japan. Health, 5, 64-71.
Risa Takashima is now with Hokkaido University.