Hollingshead A, Williamson P, Carnahan C. Cognitive and emotional engagement for students with severe intellectual disability defined by the scholars with expertise in the field. Research and Practice for Persons with Severe Disabilities 2018; 43: 269-284.
This paper discusses engagement in learning for students with severe intellectual disabilities, and it presents concepts which are important for anyone who has contact with individuals who have significant disabilities.  Much has been written about behavioral, cognitive, and emotional components of engagement in learning for typically developing children and those with mild disabilities.  Learning outcomes have been found to be affected by all three aspects of engagement.  For students with severe disabilities, there have only been reports of behavioral components of engagement.  Further exploration of engagement is needed because the behavior of children may be deceptive.  It is suggested that some students who cannot interact with materials physically seem to be disengaged when they are processing what they hear and enjoying the activity.  Others students appear attentive without actually focusing on the lesson.
Beliefs affect teachers’ behavior toward students.  Pessimism and low expectations for those with severe intellectual disabilities can interfere with quality instruction.  A lack of recognition of an individual’s unique nonverbal responses may also prevent an observer from noticing signs of attention and learning.
The research question was, “How do scholars with expertise in the field of severe ID conceptualize cognitive and emotional engagement of students with severe ID?”  Twenty-three scholars with relevant expertise were interviewed using a series of 11 open-ended questions.  Data were analyzed through an approach that includes description and interpretation (transcendental  phenomenology).
Cognitive engagement refers to the ability to attend, express attention, and when possible respond in a manner that demonstrates what has been learned. A large range of responses was described for learners with severe intellectual disabilities.   Some students may be able to count out a specific amount of money in a class activity, then apply this learning when making a purchase in a store.   Evidence of engagement in others may extremely difficulty to  detect.  One scholar stated that just because we cannot measure cognitive engagement does not mean it is absent.  A child with a profound disability was reported to sleep most of the day.  He awoke and remained alert when he was brought to a general education class.
Active responding for a child may be limited to completing one step of a task.  For another student, cognitive engagement is demonstrated through using a head switch with a scanning augmentative communication device.  When a moving light arrives at the row containing a specific letter, the switch is activated;  it is pushed again to select the chosen letter.  This process must be repeated for each letter in the sentence being composed.  In contrast to this complex type of communication, some children respond primarily through eye gaze or by activating a switch.  It is reported that although augmentative communication can be an important factor in promoting engagement, this type of technology is neglected for many students who could benefit.
Emotional engagement is based on both enjoying an activity and intrinsic motivation to learn.  Self-directed learning leads to students being in charge of learning and results in more motivation than when children are performing while being prompted by others.  In order to enhance positive emotional responses, work needs to be reasonably challenging and based on a student’s interests.  A lack of observed emotional engagement may be the result of a lesson that is not meaningful to the child or to the educator not recognizing the child’s cues.
Comments: The concepts presented in this paper are important!  One student is clearly misclassified as having a severe intellectual disability, although he may test in that range because of significant limitations in fine motor coordination and speech.   He uses a scanning augmentative communication device to compose messages.  The comprehension of how to choose a letter, the patience to do so and select many letters to convey a message, and the literacy skills to do so require intelligence, persistence, and high motivation!
We can all help to advocate for augmentative communication services to develop functional communication.  Conclusions arrived at by someone who is pessimistic and not attuned to subtle cues are unlikely to reflect a person’s ability or potential accomplishments.  Emerging attempts to respond can be missed.  What appears to be limitations in alertness, may be the result of a lack of meaningful stimulation.   Some people are drowsy because of medication or after a seizure, and their responses may be recognized better during periods of increased alertness.  There are individuals who require more time to become comfortable with an unfamiliar person and who initially demonstrate limited responsiveness and interaction.
The more a professional interacts with someone and observes carefully,  the more likely it is that reactions and communication will be evident.      In addition to interacting, we can all encourage and help individuals to participate in a richer environment with more opportunities to interact.
Naomi Lorch, Ph.D., P.T.
Independent Practice