The Science of Rhymecology® as a Special Education Intervention

A colleague of mine from my graduate program in educational psychology, J. Walker, has developed a unique and powerful vehicle for reaching out to young people in the place of traditional psychological counseling, as well as developing students’ written expression skills. I had to write about it because I’ve been in love with the concept since the first time I heard J. describe it. It’s only now that I’ve known what I wanted to say about it.

What’s more, J. and I proofread each other’s papers for several classes in our graduate program. We got into each other’s heads regarding each other’s particular areas of professional focus and areas in which we each needed to research the peer-reviewed literature such that we were able to clearly recognize the overlaps between the work that KPS4Parents does and the outcomes that Rhymecology® is able to achieve. I understand the science of Rhymecology® because of that collegial collaboration.

Fully grounded in science, Rhymecology® demystifies the realities of the hip-hop/rap industry, promotes hip-hop/spoken word poetry as art rather than a fast track to riches, and helps kids express their thoughts, feelings, experiences, and ideas using a medium they appreciate, enjoy, and find engaging. Rather than forcing kids to adapt to treatment modalities or curriculum with which they cannot engage or relate, the treatment and curriculum is being brought to them via a vehicle they can more easily understand and use.

J. has conducted Rhymecology events with kids throughout Southern California, already. So far, the evidence indicates that children and youth are benefitting from Rhymecology®.

So, what is the underlying science of Rhymecology®? For those of us looking for replicable, evidence-based practices that achieve appropriate educational outcomes for children and youth challenged by learning problems, including social/emotional and behavioral challenges, this is a critical question.

To the degree that it is practicable to do so, special education must be delivered according to peer-reviewed research [34 CFR Sec. 300.320(a)(4)]. Rhymecology® achieves the end of a practicable, research-based intervention that can be incorporated into a student’s special education program in support of social-emotional, behavioral, and/or written expression goals, to the degree it is appropriate to the individual learning needs of a given special education student.

Rhymecology® is rooted in the sciences of human development, learning, and effective instruction. The researchers who significantly contributed to the underlying science behind Rhymecology® include Skinner, Pavlov, Bronfenbrenner, Vygotsky, and Piaget.

Pavlov and Skinner pioneered behavior analytic psychology, which looks strictly at observable behaviors and makes predictions according to ecological factors that trigger and/or reinforce specific behaviors in individuals. Hence, the value of the term “ecology” in the name of the solution J. has created. In analyzing behaviors, environment is everything.

Behavior, by definition, is an organism acting on its environments. Understanding the ecological factors of individual students’ respective environments is a critical aspect of any appropriate mental and emotional health treatment strategy. This leads into Bronfenbrenner’s bioecological model of development, which examines the various types of direct environmental influences in a developing individual’s life in addition to indirect influences from other environments and factors.

An appreciation for the influence of environment takes us into the work of Vygotsky, the father of scaffolding and the Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD). These concepts are interdependent upon each other.

Scaffolding is breaking down a learning process into the foundational concepts that underpin a legitimate understanding of the overarching concept being instructed, then beginning instruction at the point just beyond where the individual learner is already able to perform independently and adding to what he/she already knows towards the ultimate learning goal of the overarching concept. Each foundational step is built upon with the next foundational step in mastering the concept. For example, before learning to write letters, one must first learn how to make a deliberate mark on paper with a writing instrument.

The ZPD identifies an individual learner’s starting point with an instructional concept as well as how aggressive the learning objective should be. This requires an understanding of the student’s capacity to learn relative to his/her current fund of knowledge and skills, which, in special education, should be reasonably concluded from adequate assessment and classroom performance data.

Both scaffolding and ZPD are imperative to writing substantively appropriate measurable annual IEP goals. If you don’t know a student’s ZPD in a targeted area relative to the State’s standards, you can’t write an appropriately targeted goal. IEP goal outcomes are scaffolded towards State standards when they pursue outcomes that are not at grade level, but are underlying foundational concepts that must be mastered before the grade level standards can be mastered. For example, a high school student with significant developmental delay may be working on making purposeful marks on paper as a necessary foundational step towards a grade level writing standard, having his writing goal scaffolded towards the grade level standard.

Vygotsky also championed the arguments that support the value of direct instruction. Vygotsky saw that the guidance of a more competent other, either an adult or older child, increased learning outcomes for children.

By comparison, Piagetian theory promotes the idea of Constructivist learning, in which learners literally construct their own learning experiences through trial and error, being provided only with access to materials to guide their exploration. Piaget noted that humans were naturally curious and sought information about their environments as a matter of their natural development; in other words, as a result of their genetic programming. As such, given the proper materials, humans can figure out all kinds of things independently.

Vygotsky showed us, however, that direct instruction increases learning outcomes relative to purely constructivist activities. There is value in learning from someone else’s trial-and-error mistakes and successes rather than repeating them. We can acquire a greater fund of knowledge and skills if we each aren’t spending all our respective times trying to figure everything out from scratch, which means we have to share learning and knowledge with each other.

Rhymecology® takes the best of both worlds by providing guided instruction per Vygotsky up to a point, then turning kids loose with their word play to engage in their own Constructavist learning experiences and create their own hip-hop songs and/or spoken word poetry. In doing so, children and youth are encouraged to appropriately emote for the purpose of self-created art, inadvertently gaining therapeutic benefit while increasing their command of expressive written and spoken language. Quite frankly, it’s brilliant.

The use of Rhymecology® in special education would most likely be considered an instructional methodology decision rather than a service decision. Generally speaking, methodology is left up to the discretion of the education agency that is legally responsible for the proper development and implementation of a student’s IEP. IEPs describe learning outcomes in the form of measurable annual goals but do not generally dictate how the instruction will be specifically delivered. The education agency is accountable for the outcome described by the goal; how it gets the student there is totally up to the agency.

That said, nothing prevents an IEP team from identifying an appropriate methodology as educationally necessary in a student’s IEP if it truly is the case that the specified methodology is necessary to a FAPE for the student. Such is frequently the case when Applied Behavioral Analysis (ABA), which is a specific methodology, is specified in an IEP for a student with autism.

There is also nothing wrong with writing a diagnostic trial of a particular methodology into an IEP, whether it’s a new annual IEP or an amendment to an IEP already in force. This is probably the most appropriate recommended approach to attempting Rhymecology® as an IEP-related intervention.

A student’s IEP would need to have goals that target outcomes for which Rhymecology® would be an appropriate intervention in the first place before the use of Rhymecology® would be warranted. If a student seems like he/she might benefit from Rhymecology® but does not have IEP goals that would support its use, it may be that his/her IEP is deficient with respect to necessary goals in all areas of need. Goals may need to be added to his/her IEP that target the unmet areas of need that would be potentially supported by Rhymecology®.

Embedding Rhymecology® into a student’s individualized program can take many forms. I think J. is the best person to speak with about how that can be done on a case-by-case basis as informed by the IEP goals. With Skype and whatnot, locale really isn’t an issue. J. is located in Southern California, so education agencies in the Greater Los Angeles Area and just beyond may be able to coordinate in-person support.

J. conducts whole group workshop events, which could be embedded in a social skills group as a special guest speaker event or similarly brought into an SDC for kids with emotional disturbance and behavioral challenges, for example. One of the most brilliant aspects of Rhymecology® is its adaptability; it is geared towards individualized outcomes to begin with, which is giving each individual child and youth involved a singular voice of his/her own to say what he/she needs to say as effectively as possible. Isn’t that what we want for all our kids?

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