Coding is for Everyone

PIcture of Kristina John-Gabriel Kristina John-Gabriel began teaching in HCPSS in 2000, becoming an instructional technology teacher in 2012. She recently received her Master of Education with a STEM focus, which has led to an increased interest in using computer programming (coding) with students in a variety of ways.


PIcture of Shari Beth Dardick LorchShari Beth Dardick Lorch, MS, OTR/L, began her career in occupational therapy in 1992 and joined the staff of HCPSS in 2006. Previously she was on staff with local hospitals, school systems, nursing homes and with the Maryland Department of Health and Mental Hygiene. She holds multiple degrees in occupational therapy and a certificate in educational leadership.

Here, John-Gabriel and Lorch blog about how teaching coding skills can support special needs students.

The Howard County Public School System (HCPSS) prioritizes college and career readiness for all students. Computer programming (coding) has been on the minds of many students and staff. There are advertisements online and local fliers offering opportunities for youngsters to partake in after-school and weekend classes to access these valuable skills.

At Running Brook Elementary School, a few of our staff were very excited about the Hour of Code and began to question how this could apply to our special needs population. We noted that a particular second grade student on the autism spectrum demonstrated accelerated skill in the area of technology. This student is nonverbal and has at times exhibited severe behavioral issues, which have required special education team support. Our team felt that with some modifications and IEP support we could create a coding program for him, which we could tie into his current classroom goals and objectives.

Early in the fall of the 2015-16 school year, team members led by our instructional technology teacher, Kristina John-Gabriel, began working with this 2nd grade student daily to determine how to best provide coding instruction. Code in essence became a life skill the student was learning and a way to meet his IEP goals. With no prior curriculum outside of Hour of Code, we also found there was leeway in regard to supports and programs that could be utilized and accessed for him. We could create and adapt our curriculum to his skill level. At this time John-Gabriel also attended a workshop to obtain further support.

John-Gabriel saw the student daily for 15 minutes each afternoon. Our team met continually, which included our occupational therapist, Shari Lorch. Lorch provided continued support to the student throughout the year providing specific modifications to our blossoming curriculum. During this time she also initiated the development of a pre-coding skills checklist tool to be used by occupational therapists to help support the identification of student needs and skill levels.

Curricularly, our team opted to start this journey by having our student play the board game Robot Turtles as a pre-coding tool. Using physical game pieces to create a block of code helped us to determine if our student understood basic commands needed to code at a higher, more abstract and virtual level.

Once this task was accomplished, John-Gabriel found that our student was able to start learning to use block code, which is similar to placing puzzle pieces that fit together but on a computer screen. Based on his ability and engagement here, our team then opted to try the computer program ScratchJr with this student. We noted that our student showed ability to sequence and troubleshoot, again supporting his IEP goals and objectives. Our focus was also increased attention and time on task, which was slower than what may be typical but we found was still successful.

We then moved on to the more difficult Scratch program. The Scratch program requires the transition from placing symbols together to create code (cause and effect) to placing words together to create code. Our team was not sure if our student would be able to make these advanced and more abstract connections, but our student persevered and surpassed this!

During the 2016-17 school year, we plan to work with our student to continue to promote and enhance his skill ability, including creating his own game. We also want him to continue to recognize and troubleshoot issues with his coding independently. We hope and plan to expand this program this year with other students who exhibit similar pre-coding skill abilities as determined by our team.

Through this endeavor, much was learned by the student and by our team. A relationship of trust and respect was built, which branched out into classroom learning. We are extremely proud of our student and our developing program. We are happy to share information on this up-and-coming area, which we are certain will lend itself to continued student success, hope and engagement.