Pedagogical Guide


Part 5
How to integrate different profiles of students

The inclusion of all types of learners, especially children who have Specific Learning Disorders (SLDs)[37] is essential for this innovative way of promoting STEAM education through Escape Rooms to work efficiently. In this part of the guide, we will have an overview of the different types of SLDs, the challenges they may encounter in an Escape Room, and potential ways to adapt the Escape Room to make it inclusive.

5.1 Determination of the target groups

To make an escape room inclusive, the first step is to determine the target group of the escape room. It is necessary to identify the peculiarities of the students to tailor the learning experience in a way that all pupils will be able to benefit from it. As we are developing educational Escape Rooms, we will focus on Specific Learning Disorders, but the adaptations advised for SLDs are usually useful for all pupils.

First, it is advised to determine if some participants have specific needs, and if so, which ones? Are there any particularly difficult tasks for them? What type of group is it: is it composed of people that have similar needs or is it a mixed group? How many are they? What is the age range? Once the information is compiled, you need to establish a list of the specific needs that need to be addressed for the escape room and how to reasonably adapt the materials or the experience.

5.1.1 Inclusion in Escape Rooms

The design itself of an Escape Room is often the source of challenges with inclusion. To understand these challenges, we will make a quick introduction to the different Specific Learning Disorders on which we will concentrate here so that it will be easier to identify the target group and the necessary adaptations.

It is important to understand that Specific Learning Disorders, or SLDs, are not stemming from a physical impairment, a motor disability, or mental retardation. They are also not due to an emotional disturbance, nor a disadvantage of economic, environmental, or cultural nature. Specific Learning Disorders have a neurobiological cause that affects the way the brain processes information and can disturb the cognitive development of a learning ability such as reading, writing, speaking, doing mathematics, or planning and coordinating motor tasks. To be more precise, the brain of a person having a Specific Learning Disorder functions differently when it comes to receiving, integrating, retaining, and expressing information, which can result in difficulties to process certain information or stimuli.

There are different types of SLDs and although all of them, as their name suggests, are specific, they can also overlap in some cases.

5.1.2 What are SLDs?

Dyslexia is the first and most common Specific Learning Disorder. It is a cognitive disorder that translates into difficulties in reading and language-based processing skills. Concretely, the brain takes longer than usual to identify and connect letters and words with other kinds of knowledge. This disorder can affect reading fluency, decoding, reading comprehension, memorization, writing, spelling, and sometimes speech. It is not rare to have it overlap with another Specific Learning Disorder, which is a phenomenon called co-occurrence.

Dysgraphia usually affects a person’s handwriting ability and fine motor skills. It can also come in the form of difficulties with spelling, spatial planning on paper, breaking the sentences down into words, composing writing, or thinking and writing at the same time, but can also show in overlapping letters, overlapping words, and inconsistent spacing.

Dyscalculia translates into difficulties to understand numbers and learn math facts. Memorizing and organizing numbers can be an obstacle and calculus or abstract mathematical operations a challenge. Telling and estimating time can also be difficult.

Dysphasia affects a person’s ability to speak and understand spoken words. This can translate into difficulties in “sequencing” sentences down into words. Sequencing sentences means to mentally divide the sentences they hear into a logical series of separate words. Indeed, for pupils with Dysphasia, spoken speech can sometimes sound like a foreign language in which they are unable to tell when one word ends and the next begins, even though they speak the language.

Dyspraxia is characterized by difficulties with fine motor skills such as hand-eye coordination for reading from one line to another or for writing for example. It translates into difficulties with movement and coordination, and consequently with language and speech. However, this last disorder is generally classified as a Developmental Coordination Disorder and not as a Specific Learning Disorder, but we will address it nevertheless, as it impacts the learning process and education as well.

The phenomenon of co-occurrence

Co-occurence of several disorders in the same pupil often creates an added difficulty. According to the 2014 publication of the French National Institute of Health and Medical Research (Inserm), 40% of children with one “Dys”, a Specific Learning Disorder, also have at least one additional accompanying Dys.

According to the European Dyslexia Association:

  • 50 % of persons with dyslexia are dyspraxic as well.
  • 40 % of persons with dyspraxia are either dyslexic or have attention disorders.
  • 85 % of persons with dysphasia are dyslexic as well.
  • 20 % of persons with dyslexia are having differences in attention with or without hyperactivity
  • 50 % of hyperactive children are dyslexic etc.

All these disorders have specific areas in which some tasks can be challenging. An Escape Room is a challenge already by nature, but it can reveal itself to be even harder for people with a Specific Learning Disorder. There are several elements that can be put in place for pupils with a Dys, and even people in general, to have a better experience.

In this next part, we will explore some things to avoid, and some things to emphasize to create a stimulating, inclusive experience for all pupils.

5.2 What to avoid / what to emphasize on

5.2.1 About Group Management

Let us set the scene

It is advisable to make a very clear and structured briefing and to explain how an Escape Room works beforehand. Having all the general and safety rules written in bullet points somewhere visible or even have them written somewhere inside the room itself will be of great help. (in an original way, consistent with the theme of course.)

It is also good to take the time to explain the purpose of an Escape Room, to remind pupils that different tasks will be necessary and that teamwork and good communication are essential if they want to escape the Room.

It is always better to avoid using red herrings with Dys-pupils. However, if you are using red herrings, it might be interesting to warn people that there might be some.

Keep it small

Keeping the groups small in the escape room improves inclusiveness as this reduces the number of people circulating. It will allow for easier movements in the room itself, but also engage all pupils to participate fully. Especially for dyslexic and dyspraxic children, it will be easier to navigate and to situate themselves in the space. Also, the stress levels that a crowded place can induce will be reduced, allowing for easier communication and better focus.

5.2.2 About Space Management

Keep it airy

It is recommended to have a space that is easy to navigate and uncluttered in the centre as much as possible. That way, players will be able to go from one corner to the other without bumping into props or other players causing a source of stress and/or injury.

Additionally, to prevent pupils from looking into places they have no business looking into, typically, the ceiling, inside walls, etc. it is advised to clearly mark “off-limits” places with stickers, or by arranging the room so that pupils only have access to a portion of it, using the benches to make a room inside the room for example.

Be consistent

Consistency will not only help pupils with SLD but is also essential to an escape room in general. It is important to use types of clues that are coherent with the theme and to have clear, logical transitions between the different challenges. This will help students avoid confusion and stay on track within the logic of the room. Some places will like to use red herrings, unnecessary information, or plain distractions; it is highly recommended to avoid all of these as much as possible when it comes to SLDs..

5.2.3 About the types of exercises

For pupils with SLD, one of the best strategies to adopt is to diversify the type of elements (codes, clues, riddles, enigmas, etc.) and their type of support (written, sound, light, drawings, maths, physical puzzles, etc.) as much as possible. Multisensory stimuli are key in this kind of exercise. However, multisensory stimulation does not equal overstimulation. It is important to avoid having an overload of different information going on at the same time. Diversification will also help with limiting the amount of written text and/or writing that needs to be done.

5.3 Adaptation of codes

Codes can reveal themselves to be particularly challenging in some cases for pupils with SLD. The first thing to take into account is: what kind of code to use?

5.3.1 Letter-based ciphers and codes.

The most famous ciphers and codes are letter-based and thus require writing and reading in a way that is even more complicated than usual. If used correctly, these ciphers and codes may be useful, but keep in mind that reading and writing are some of the main challenges for pupils with SLD and so are to be avoided as much as possible.

In the spectrum of letter-based codes, it is advised to use short codes, with the supporting material to decipher it. There is the code consisting of a page of a book, and a piece of paper with holes in it. Once on top of the book page, some letters are visible in the holes. This way of using a letter-based code is easier for people with SLDs as no real transcription or reading is going on.

You can also have a substitution cipher such as a cipher disk that gives you the corresponding letters or another interesting cipher would be the grid ciphers.

For example,[38]

Another original way to encrypt a code is to use a scytale. It is a pretty straightforward tool to find the code to a word-lock and should not be too difficult. To make a scytale, you need a tube of some sort, around which you will wrap a long strip of material with letters written on it. Once wrapped entirely, a word will appear on one side. [39]

5.3.2 Symbol-based ciphers and codes.

Not all codes use letters, there are a lot of codes using symbols, colours, or signals (light, sound). The most famous of those would probably be the morse code, which is interesting as it can be used with sounds or with light as well. The use of different mediums to code rather than writing is particularly interesting with pupils with SLD.

There are also others, such as classical symbols encrypted texts in which each letter is replaced by a symbol. Again, as with letter-based codes, this can be a challenge.

If you are using a code of some sort, it would be best to avoid spreading the pieces of the code everywhere and in different fonts or sizes if possible. Having to assemble two parts or three parts is alright as long as the parts can be assembled in a way that allows it to be read in one go.

If you use writing in any way inside the escape room, make sure to use a Dys-friendly font such as Arial or Century Gothic, and be careful about the text’s legibility and contrast. A font size between 12 and 14 is favoured whenever possible, with a line spacing of 1.5 in between the lines. Also, it is good to support the text with pictures, drawings, or paintings. Objects can also add to the experience. Typing on a keyboard instead of handwriting can help.

5.4 Adaptation of locks

The locks are one of the biggest obstacles for people with SLDs. Fine motor skills are often a challenge, which means that, depending on the lock, this may cause difficulties. However, thankfully, there is a wide variety of locks that can be found on the market that are easier to manipulate for pupils with SLDs.

Simple key locks, provided that they are not miniature locks, are generally fine. The general rule is to avoid locks that require fine motor skills as much as possible, either by finding the same lock but bigger or by finding a lock that is easy to use practically, even if finding the right combination is difficult.

Words locks can be a challenge. Both because they involve spelling a word and they require fine motor skills to use unless you find a lock that is big enough to easily manipulate and with few letters that are written in a Dys-friendly font.

Cryptexes, for example, may pose this problem, unless they are very big in size and the key to open it is a simple word. It is better to avoid small complex cryptexes such as the one in the picture.[40] There are tutorials on YouTube[41] to create a cardboard cryptex, as big and simple as needed. It is very practical as it is possible to use anything from letters to numbers, to symbols, etc.

Numerical locks, again, need to be big enough to not require fine motor skills and not too complicated. Pupils with dyscalculia may find those more challenging though. Another lock that may pose a challenge is the directional lock, especially for dyslexic pupils. As they have difficulties sorting their right from their left, a directional lock may prove difficult. Especially as it is tricky to reset and we never know how many steps it has. Directional locks are not advised in this case.

A mechanical process, if it is not too minute may be pertinent, as well as a logical puzzle.

In conclusion, as a rule, it is better to try to avoid micro manipulations and complicated or confusing patterns and words. It is better to use mechanical puzzles of general patterns. Logical clues and puzzles are also good tools to use with SLDs.

5.5 Adaptation of technological components

5.5.1 In General

One of the main challenges for students with SLD is the overflow of sensory stimuli. While it is very good for them to vary the type of stimulation and sensory information, everything at once will most probably be overwhelming and confusing.

For example, some will want to install an atmosphere of urgency with alarms, repeated instructions, stroboscopic red lights, maybe additional button light signals, etc. All of that at once and the added time pressure will most probably be too much for pupils with SLD. They will have more difficulties to discern the important information from the ambient noise and superfluous signals.

5.5.2 Other tech components

Some modern technology can be useful when introducing an escape room. To complement written and oral guidelines when introducing the theme or main character of the escape room, it is nice to have an introductory video. Other technological components such as timers or clocks can be used.

Time estimation is usually a challenge for pupils with SLD, especially for dyslexic and dyscalculic pupils. In that case, the traditional clock face of a watch can be difficult to read, and it would be better to use a clearer and more visual time indicator. It can range from a digital clock if the escape room is set in modern times, or an hourglass for older periods’ themes. The physical amount of sand helps to visualise if there is a lot of time left or not.

Instead of using a traditional clock, it can also be the level of something. For example: for more modern themes, the level of air left in the room for which there can be a digital indicator (fake of course). If the room is about finding the cure to a disease, for example, you may have a number of infected people after which there is no way back and an “infected people counter” as the time limit. Various websites are available online to create countdowns for free.

5.6 Interchangeable clues depending on the needs of the escapees

There are two types of clues that we can speak of. The first one consists of clues that the players will find all over the space in the escape room itself. The second type is the clues given by the Game Master whenever the players are stuck.

5.6.1 Clues for the game

The first thing to pay attention to is coherence. Clues need to fit seamlessly into the theme of the escape room to avoid disrupting the experience. Next, it is good to vary the kind of clues used. Everything in an escape room can be a clue, including something misplaced.

The number of chairs can be relevant, a missing book in a bookshelf, the pictures on the wall, the music that you may hear, etc. These types of clues may be more useful in the case of SLDs instead of using complicated written codes for example. Pupils with SLD tend to see the big picture more easily, so this type of clues is to be favoured as they will be able to hone in on them without trouble.

5.6.2 Clues from the game Master

In an Escape Room, one of the main features that allow an Escape Room or Game to go smoothly and be a great experience is the supervision of the escape room. Usually, it is done by a Game master, here, it will be handled by the teacher of course. If pupils with Dys are going to participate in the room, it is good to let the Game Master know in advance so that they may adapt to this information during the upervision. The whole challenge is to say enough so that they figure out the next step by themselves, without giving the answer. The help from the Game Master needs to be minimal, the point is to nudge the pupils in the right direction when they are really stuck. This balance can be hard to find but is essential to a good experience.

So, how to make the game master’s help inclusive? It depends on how the Escape Room is rigged and which theme it is. There can be a screen giving written instructions through a chat for example, in which case, the instructions for any written materials apply. If clues are necessarily written, the Game Master can advise the players before the game to pay attention to have someone signal the arrival of the message and ideally, to have a good reader read them out loud, so that people with troubles reading or slow readers can participate as well and as efficiently. The clues can also be given orally, through a radio, a microphone, etc. In that case, it is advised to avoid parasite noises or white noise at the same time.

5.7 The importance of complementarity

As we mentioned, the greatest strength of a group of players inside an escape room is probably their complementarity. Whenever players are inside the room, they should rely on the skills of all the people.

There should be good communication within the group and tasks should be distributed equally. Everyone is involved and it is ok when someone doesn’t find the solution to something, but it is important to share the information with the group. A lot of escape rooms rely on teamwork or cooperative locks and clues. That is key in the solving of an escape room and needs to be emphasised before entering the room.

People with SLD will maybe have some difficulties with some tasks, but they will have their own strengths as well and can then still participate fully without feeling left aside because they are unable to perform a specific task. As they would have their tasks to perform, everyone does their parts, and no one feels left out. Insisting on complementarity beforehand can also help pupils realise that to not excel in everything does not mean being bad and that teamwork prevails over individuality.

It is also interesting to explain to the pupils that roles can be attributed beforehand. You can have searchers, solvers, communicators, coordinators, etc. There can be a rotation of roles within the room as well. Usually, this occurs naturally, people do what is most comfortable for them. However, in the case of a group where everyone searches for clues but no one tries to solve them, and there is no communication between participants, the room will most likely not be escaped, even with all the clues discovered.

This complementary is the aspect that needs to be emphasised the most in an escape room with pupils with SLD. As we saw throughout this chapter, a lot of codes, locks, and clues will probably lead to additional challenges for pupils with SLD. By having a group that works as a team, those “weak points” can be compensated, and each member will bring their strengths to the group.

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