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An inclusive learning environment for children with communication problems

Schools are essential to children’s development and provide numerous options for growth. They also facilitate learning beyond the classroom and give children tools that support their social and emotional development. But each child is different and some children have communication problems. How can schools create an inclusive environment that caters to the needs of this group?

This article was previously published in the Leiden-Delft-Erasmus alliance magazine.

This is the subject of the research of Dr Adva Eichengreen in the ‘Focus on Emotions’ lab. This lab explores the emotional and social development of children with deafness, autism or developmental language disorders, and in particular the problems they experience with communication. The programme is led by Professor Carolien Rieffe from the Department of Developmental Psychology at Leiden University. Eichengreen has a two-year appointment within the scope of the Leiden-Delft-Erasmus Leading Fellows Postdoc programme (see below).

Building on her personal experience as a member of the deaf and hard-of-hearing community, Dr Eichengreen is involved in the academic community of Disability Studies, a field that researches disability from social and cultural perspectives. At Leiden University, she studies inclusive school environments, and her research focuses on the social inclusion of deaf and hard-of-hearing children in the school environment. Eichengreen says, ‘Our main working assumption is that emotional development always occurs within a context.’

Link between emotional development and social context

‘Deaf and hard-of-hearing children can feel lonely because they find it hard to join in activities or conversations with other children. They sometimes feel marginalised,’ Dr Eichengreen notes. ‘Research into children with communication problems has often focused on the traditional learning environment, but we don’t really know what happens in the playground at breaktime. That is what we’re now researching in our Focus on Emotions lab. Our main working assumption is that emotional development always happens in a social context. As interaction is crucial to children’s emotional development, we think it’s important to see how schools can improve this for children with communication difficulties.’

About the LEaDing Fellows programme

Together, Leiden University, TU Delft, Erasmus University Rotterdam, Leiden University Medical Center and Erasmus MC aim to attract academic talent through the LEaDing Fellows postdoc programme (partly funded by the EU’s Marie Sklodowska Curie COFUND programme).

The LEaDing Fellows programme offers a total of 90 postdocs a two-year appointment at one of the LDE institutions or medical centres. The programme promotes the career development of recent graduates by offering opportunities for international, cross-sectional and interdisciplinary research. It also fosters regional and international networks of academic and non-academic institutions.

Social inclusion at school

One question is, for example, how the physical and social environment can foster social inclusion and how playground design can influence this. To study this, Dr Eichengreen and her team use innovative sensor technology in playgrounds. These are unobtrusive and allow for the subtle detection of behavioural patterns of interaction. The study is a very interdisciplinary project, involving collaboration with experts in computer science and architecture from Delft University of Technology, Leiden University and the University of Twente.

Inclusive education in the post-corona era

The corona crisis has affected all aspects of our lives. We are living in changing times, and new approaches to fostering an inclusive environment should be considered. ‘I’m not sure to what extent accessibility aspects are considered in the instructions given to the public. For example, to what extent was remote teaching adapted to children with hearing loss who need to read subtitles in order to follow online communication? But I can imagine that structured online communication can be less stressful at times for children who find it difficult to be in more-direct interpersonal contact or to follow unstructured group conversations,’ says Dr Eichengreen. ‘Another example is the use of masks: are there any instructions relating to the needs of people who have to see facial expressions, or read lips in order to communicate, such as children and adults with hearing loss?

‘I think that the corona crisis has significantly changed our sociocultural norms, at least temporarily. All the new restrictions require flexibility in how we think and behave. Things that we could hardly have imagined suddenly became the norm – from what our workspace and workload should be like, to changing gender roles with both parents working from home. 

‘I hope that this flexibility will also impact inclusive education. We can see how all children can benefit: from studying in small groups or alternative learning methods, for example. The future direction of inclusive education is not about giving certain children “special” treatment but about accepting the heterogeneity of human needs. We have to take a respectful and flexible approach to everyone’s needs. I hope that this is how we as a society will grow from the corona crisis.’

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