Three panic-inducing words: “Find a Partner…”

This post is the first in a short series on helping students with disabilities work in pairs and small groups. Today’s focus: Reasons group work is difficult for students with special needs.

As teachers or volunteer leaders in schools or churches, we encourage students to collaborate and work together…it’s an important skill (and a necessary one!) However, students with hidden disabilities often struggle with this type of activity.For them, the three most frightening words uttered by teachers might  be “Find a partner.” They are all-too familiar with the feeling of being chosen last for a study group…or not being chosen at all.

Often, students with hidden disabilities lack the skills necessary to work effectively with a partner or small group. Reasons for this may include:

  • Poor impulse control.  Students may blurt out answers, talk about irrelevant topics or leave the group to work on something else.
  • Difficulties with taking turns.  Students might interrupt their peers or demand the first turn (and, if they don’t get it, they might become angry)
  • Social anxiety.  Working in a group can be so stressful that it causes physical symptoms, such as an upset stomach, racing heart, or sweating. Students who experience this might be unable to take part because they feel unwell.
  • Problems with expressive language. Sometimes, students have difficulty retrieving information at the same speed as their peers; they need extra “wait-time” to collect their thoughts.
  • Struggles with perspective-taking. Working in pairs or groups requires cooperation…and that means being able to understand another person’s perspective. This is a sophisticated skill that can be elusive for many students with hidden disabilities
  • Difficulty with task completion. When students work in groups, they often need to complete tasks at home. Students with hidden disabilities sometimes struggle with organization and task completion.
  • Low frustration tolerance. Sometimes, students with hidden disabilities are quick to become upset or angry when the group does not agree with their ideas, or when they perceive that the work is not going according to the “right”plan. When this happens, they may become frustrated and angry with their peers. They might also have difficulty regulating their emotions.
  • Uneven skill development. Sometimes, students with disabilities may be very capable in some academic areas, but have tremendous difficulty in others. When a group assignment requires them to perform in a less-developed skill set, they may be embarrassed and reluctant to participate.

The good news? These students CAN — and should–work in pairs and small groups. They just need explicit instruction in order to be successful. (and the truth is, EVERY student benefits from such instruction.) As teachers, we need to plan the students’ interactions just as carefully as we plan our own teaching.

Stay tuned! Next week, we’ll talk about how teachers and volunteers can smooth the way for great group work!

Your partner in planning~

2 thoughts on “Three panic-inducing words: “Find a Partner…”

  1. I think this is a great topic even for students without different abilities. As a former teacher I saw many “normal/average” students that were great academically but froze up in groups because they lacked some basic social skills. I found that when I graded the groups on an individual level, these particular students did well. I tried, quite hard, to NOT grade the group all together (i.e. sink or swim).

  2. Great topic Katie especially in the educational classroom setting. As kids progress from grade to grade there’s more of a requirement to work in pairs or small groups. Look forward to learning more about this…

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