Enhancing Education

Innovative tools meet the needs of exceptional learners

By Jim Thorp

A minute into a walkthrough at St. Michael Catholic School in St. Michael, support specialist Mae Paluck is already fielding requests for new tools in the “toolshed.” Filled with squishable fidgets like rubber balls and pencil grips, alternative seating options and elastic chair bands that enable students to perch and bounce their feet, the toolshed houses simple solutions to help students take charge of their behavior and learning.

“The theme of last summer’s CSCOE conference, ‘A Place at the Table,’ really spoke to us,” Paluck said. “We took the tools they provided and ran with them.”

“The availability of tools and flexibility of the teachers have allowed Christina to be successful.” – St. Michael parent Lynne Erickson

The conference was the first event where the Catholic Schools Center of Excellence (CSCOE) provided resources and professional development to help teachers meet the needs of exceptional learners — students who require additional tools for success, such as students with ADHD, autism, giftedness and English language learning. Offering tools and strategies to meet the needs of all students represents a key focus area for CSCOE. 

Thanks to a CSCOE grant, Paluck oversees a central library of tools, and she hopes to have a toolshed in every classroom so all students can access what they need, when and where they need it.

Jean Thompson, the skills and enrichment teacher at All Saints Catholic School in Lakeville, works with exceptional learners in kindergarten through second grade. At the CSCOE conference, she was motivated by the discussion of early intervention to overcome reading difficulties. With a CSCOE grant, Thompson is piloting an after-school program for one hour, four days a week with two second graders. 

“Based on what we’ve learned using the Sonday Program and the Orton-Gillingham method — a multisensory, highly phonetic approach to reading — you can rewire the brain,” she said. “After 10 weeks, we should begin to see this rewiring.”

Thompson hopes students will meet reading benchmarks onsite and avoid more intensive intervention at district facilities. 

St. Michael parent Lynne Erickson shares the goal of keeping students of all abilities in a  based learning environment. Her second grade daughter, Christina, has already benefited from the St. Michael’s toolshed. 

“It is important to us that our daughter gets a Catholic education,” Erickson said. “The availability of tools and flexibility of the teachers have allowed Christina to be successful.”

Christina has used a weighted blanket, standing workspace, noise-cancelling headphones and other resources to help manage her emotions. The second grader recognizes the need to identify which tools work for her before she needs them to help her learning process. 

“I like to try the new things to see if they help me when I feel upset,” she said. “If they help me, they might help the other kids too!”

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