Doctoral candidate explores learning disabilities

Courtesy of Siddiq Ahmed
Ahmed is studying how to improve the performance in school of struggling students.
Courtesy of Siddiq Ahmed
Ahmed is studying how to improve the performance in school of struggling students.

Zach Landau | Editor-in-Chief


Children with behavioral or emotional disorders often struggle in school, and with diagnoses like Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) on the rise, meeting these students’ needs is becoming more urgent for teachers.

That’s where Siddiq Ahmed, a third-year doctoral candidate at Duquesne, steps in. He has focused his work on students with developmental disabilities and positive behavior support. Ahmed has co-authored two papers, including one on social narrative strategies that can help children with ASD develop their social skills.

Now, among other projects, Ahmed is exploring how peer tutoring can improve struggling students’ performances in the classroom.

“One part of my research is a peer-tutoring strategy with students with Autism Spectrum Disorder and how we can improve their writing skills,” Ahmed said.

Before students begin working together, Ahmed observes where mistakes — such as grammatical and spelling errors — are being made. After specific criteria are defined, and students are given training on how to critique their classmates’ papers, the peer review begins.

“Then we give [the students with ASD] a task, and see,” Ahmed explained, “if the intervention works or not.”

Improvements are measured by a system that Ahmed developed where students are assessed before and after peer tutoring.

Ahmed started his research on this method of intervention in September 2017.

Peer tutoring offers opportunities for students to exercise and develop many different skills. Ashley Zehner, another doctoral candidate in the Duquesne School of Education, who concentrates on special education with a focus in behavior and autism, explained that having students work together allows for use of the classroom “effectively.”

“One of the main benefits is that you have a student who is typically developing and is succeeding in an area where another student may not be,” Zehner said. “You’re having them work together, and you can look at [the benefits] from many different aspects, such as bullying. Instead of putting someone down, they’re working with them to lift them up.”

Zehner touted the reciprocal benefits of peer tutoring, saying, “There’s so many pros that are from different aspects of development — social, interpersonal, intrapersonal — on top of academic, and that allows students to grow, which is very important.”

Students with special needs sometimes require different methods and structures in order to learn the same material as their classmates. As more students are diagnosed with disabilities, classroom teachers find themselves underprepared to meet some of their learning needs.

“Those children require special education programs, as well as qualified teachers with special training,” explained Khlood Salman, associate professor in the Duquesne School of Nursing and advisor to the Muslim Student Association and Saudi Student Association at Duquesne. “Research is very important in this area to explore the learning needs of these children.”

That research will hopefully help students transition and flourish successfully after graduation.

“[Students with special needs] need more attention, more intervention, to be independent in the future,” Ahmed said. “There are many success stories of individuals with autism … and they were successful. They became professors, they became engineers … I think intervention played a critical role with them.”

Ahmed is conducting his research at the Universal Academy of Pittsburgh, an Islamic private school whose mission, according to its website, is “to provide students with the opportunities to grow intellectually, socially and spiritually.” The school’s website states that it has a target enrollment of 130 students and teaches preschool through eighth grade.

The Academy provides an excellent place to implement research, according to Ahmed, because of its dedication to its students and the diversity it exhibits.

“They have students that are relevant to my studies — such as [those exhibiting] challenging behavior and students with autism — so we can help them be successful in their life,” Ahmed said.

Zehner echoed Ahmed’s opinions about the school, both having previously conducted research together at UAP.

“It was wonderful to see such an environment of diversity and inclusion,” Zehner said. “It was so nice to see the students be accepted for who they are and what they believed, but also, from there, be able to build on academically. They feel safe, they feel accepted, so now they can learn.”

Ahmed commends UAP for being receptive to researchers and faculty.

“I would like to thank the Universal Academy of Pittsburgh for offering our students in our program these opportunities,” Ahmed said. “And special thanks to the principal [Ahmed Abdelwahab] who always accommodates our practicum hours and our research. They welcome us every time.”

1 Comment

  1. I think this is a great focused program which adopted a such great scholar like Dr. Siddiq Ahmed. I was overwhelmed by Dr. Ahmed’s passion and hardworking in contributing humanely, emotional, psychological, behavioral and educational efforts to his community.

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