* Tools for Christopher: graphic organizers

Christopher, my ASD (Adorable Sweet Dude) nephew, continues to improve his writing skills.  When we started the writing process, I did all the work, despite our use of topics relating to his narrow range of interests.  Christopher did not know how to start, how to keep going, and how to finish.  He didn’t have a clue and became agitated unless I intervened.  No surprises there.  Here are some strategies which have helped him become a much more proficient and independent writer.

  • Graphic organizers are a powerful support for kids with writing struggles. I’ve created them using Google docs, primarily for its talk-to-text feature but also the ease of sharing with parents and other teachers.  Why are they so helpful?  They provide the organization, the skeleton, of the writing process.  With enough practice on each type of organizer, kids assimilate this way of thinking.  Christopher has not yet started to branch off from this “formulaic” writing, but I have no doubt that he will.
  • Talk-to-text (under Tools) requires consistent practice for developing proficiency.  Kids tend to speak too loudly, quickly, and without normal intonation.  Christopher and I do enjoy the odd phrases which pop up as he dictates his work, such as ‘Sea butterflies power’ for ‘These activities are….”  A side benefit of practicing with this tool is that Christopher has learned to articulate more clearly and monitor his volume.  (To use this effectively at school, he can’t sit there screaming at the computer!)  This tool also provides practice in rehearsing a complete sentence before writing, which has led my nephew to edit his ideas.  Cool.  He has also learned to speak (and read) in different “gears,” so that he doesn’t fly through texts with no understanding.  Third gear is TOO fast!  A side note: He has learned such control that he can tease me with  word-by-word phrasing, an impossibility when we first started.
  • Keyboarding is vital for students in today’s world.  To please me, Christopher now places both hands across the keys as he continues to type with one finger.  He needs to learn keyboarding, but with all his other deficits, I admit this is low on the list right now.  We can’t address everything  at once, or he’d be overwhelmed.

Here’s a sample graphic organizer that Christopher just used.  He completed it with about 20% support from me.

As he wrote his story from this organizer, Christopher enjoyed checking off the boxes.  By now, he is also about 80% independent at the writing stage.  Most of my intervention is keeping him on task and pointing out the descriptive words in his organizer.  I showed him how boring it is to start every sentence the same way, so it is now an internalized “rule” for him to consider alternate styles. He has become quite adept at varying sentence structure because he “hates to write boring sentences.”   What a terrific, hard-working kiddo!



* Extreme weather

Should teachers focus on natural weather-related disasters or try to steer clear of those topics?  What about kids who already obsess about thunderstorms or tornadoes?   Since weather and climate are taught from elementary school on, there’s no avoiding some discussion of extreme weather.  In fact, many fears can be allayed by effective units on this topic.  Tornado and earthquake drills are also a routine part of the school year.  What school library doesn’t include some of the popular “I Survived” series by Lauren Tarshish or other nonfiction accounts of disasters?  As hurricane Hermine rakes along the southeastern US right now, with schools canceling classes, I think it would be scarier for kids if adults avoided the topic altogether.


Having taught students who suffered from weather-related fears, here are some strategies I’ve found effective in helping kids manage both extreme weather and safety drills:

  • Work with parents to coordinate a consistent approach for dealing with fears about storms, etc.  Enlist the help of your school counselor.
  • Occasionally, students with serious weather phobias might need to work out of the class during weather-related discussions.  Again, this is something to be determined with the parents and mental health professionals.
  • Set limits on how much time can be devoted to weather discussions, especially during unstructured periods such as recess and lunch.
  • Use social stories for kids with strategies for managing scary thoughts, especially those on the autism spectrum.
  • Provide information and guide discussions using a matter-of-fact tone and limiting exposure to videos of disasters.
  • Emphasize effective precautions and scientific analysis of severe weather.
  • Provide distractions (books, stuffed animal, social story) during lengthy weather-related drills or warnings.

Many kids (and adults) are fascinated with extreme weather and natural disasters.  Take advantage of those interests by allowing students to engage in projects and writing on those topics.  There are many online STEM resources available to support classroom teachers.

Bottom line: Know your students.  If you have a group of potential storm chasers, expect questions and interest in wild weather.  If you have just one student who is terrified of severe weather, you might need to save those extreme weather discussions for times when the anxious student is out of the classroom.


* L is for listening

hearingListening in a large group is a crucial skill for students.  There’s a wide range of developmentally appropriate levels of listening.  Current research suggests that we have been guilty of bombarding the brain with much more than it can successfully process.  Why hasn’t that been more obvious?  I think these limits on listening have been partially camouflaged by compliant behavior; many kids look like they are paying attention.  The listening process can be supported by visual cues which extend the learner’s ability to track verbal information.  Teachers who help students make effective connections can also stretch that window of opportunity.  The timing of lengthy periods of verbal instruction is also a factor that influences how much the young brain can absorb.

Teacher behavior can short-circuit the listening process.  Teachers who maintain a constant flow of dialog, with directions lost in the midst of random comments, can make it difficult for students who want to listen.  Some directions are overly complicated and students may only catch the first or last steps.  Sometimes, teacher talking becomes a white noise that kids only “hear” when the volume goes up or their name is called.

Even the most proficient teachers are daunted by some kiddos with listening weaknesses.  Students with language processing issues, which can include a wide range of identified disabilities, may be trying to listen but find it too difficult.  For kids on the autism spectrum, written/visual information is usually more easily grasped.  Students with attention challenges are often distracted by “irrelevant” classroom sights and sounds; for this population, they may struggle to determine what is relevant.  (Check out the attention simulation on Understood.org for a glimpse of how this feels.)  Gifted kids may be inattentive due to boredom.  Twice exceptional kids may be anxiously preparing themselves for the next classroom challenge.

The most interesting non-listener I’ve ever taught (a student on the autism spectrum) simply could not “hear” the teacher in a group setting, despite numerous interventions.  He was bright and cooperative, but could not isolate the teacher’s voice, even in a quiet room.  Finally, using an earbud wirelessly connected to a teacher microphone (typically used by hearing impaired students), the teacher’s voice was amplified and this student learned to listen in 2nd grade.  It was a remarkable “aha!” experience for him.  And me!  Another autistic student needed a clipboard and graphic for recording specific components of a lesson, based upon his weaknesses in participating and listening to peers.  After a month or so, he no longer needed that visual support for listening in a large group.

I’m sure all of us can identify with kids who seem to be listening but have no clue what was said!

* C is for clutter

My A to Z Blogging Challenge happens to be another challenge: clutter!

Visual clutter is a distraction for many special needs kids.  For my students on the autism spectrum who were staring endlessly at something in the room, the best strategy was to ask what they found so irresistible.  This led to the eventual removal of everything in their line of sight.  Except me, of course.

Me:  What are you looking at?

Student:  That.

Me:  What?  (Turning around to hunt for THAT)

Student:  He is at 12:45.

Me:  12:45?  (Searching for ANYTHING that says 12:45)

Student:  On Tuesdays and Thursdays.

Me:  Oh.  (Removing a miniature schedule, resting on a ledge behind my chair, so I wouldn’t forget the lunch bunch schedule)  (Brightly)  OK!  Let’s focus on your writing assignment!

I have always been a cluttered teacher.  I know where stuff is, even if it’s buried a foot deep in teetering piles of paper debris.  The only time I reduced my clutter was when an overhead valve periodically spewed brown water all over my head and group table.  Even with that threat, clutter started to reproduce like bunnies, so I used a shower curtain at night to cover everything.  During the day, I continually scanned the valve for signs of growing moisture.  I was a bit distracted by that valve, but if I moved the table, I wouldn’t have easy access to the whiteboard.  And my students LOVED to work on the whiteboard and then stare at their remarkable efforts.

Me:  What are you looking at?

Students:  Nothing.

OK, I eventually moved the table.  Then I had to remove everything from that bulletin board behind me.

Donors Choose 2

A photo for my Donor’s Choose request.  Look at that bookcase!  I think I got my project fulfilled because everyone felt sorry for my students.


* A is for Anxiety

I’m kicking off my A to Z blogging challenge with anxiety.  Can I do it?   What will others think?  How can I pretend I am good at this or at least hide my inadequacies?   Will I be asked to explain what I mean?

anxiety.JPGThose are questions that special needs kids frequently ask themselves as they tackle school tasks, both academic and social.  Let’s examine the underlying issues.

  1.  Can I do it?  From an early age, kids with reading and math disabilities are typically aware of their limitations.  They do notice other kids reading “chapter” books or solving math problems with relative ease.  When given a novel assignment, these struggling students lack confidence.  This anxiety further limits their flexibility and problem-solving ability.   Early intervention is crucial!
  2.  What will others think?  The age at which this becomes a troubling question varies significantly among students.  Kids with a supportive family and opportunities to shine in other areas (at school or elsewhere) are more likely to withstand the blows accompanying a disability.  I’ve noticed kids seem hard-wired for the relative intensity of their responses, although a harsh environment (school or home) can bring out the worst in anyone.
  3.  How can I pretend I am good at this or at least hide my inadequacies?  I know kids who pretend to be many things other than disabled.  It’s common for some to prefer acting “bad” than looking “stupid.”  To quote 0ne dyslexic kid: “I act up so they won’t think I’m retarded.”   Some resort to crawling under tables or hiding in the bathroom.   Other kids become masters at copying classmates’ work or simply pretending to work.
  4.  Will I be asked to explain what I mean?  Many kids with learning challenges have language and social issues which affect their ability to explain themselves.  Some twice exceptional students have literal and divergent views of subjects which seem incomprehensible to both teachers and peers.  An inability to provide a “correct” answer can become a paralyzing fear, especially if students are required to respond in a whole group or public manner and are not given sufficient forewarning to compose their answers.

I’ve noticed that experienced bloggers often share tips for novices like me who are likely to worry about these same issues.   Are blogging stats comparable to end-of-grade tests?  Oh no!


* PBS and Design Squad Global

PBS and Design Squad Global have created outstanding STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) resources for parents, teachers, and kids.  This blockbuster site grew out of the PBS TV series, “Design Squad.”  The stated goal of the site is “to give kids a stronger understanding of the design process, and the connection between engineering and the things we all use in everyday life.”  This means a whole lot of fun, videos, and games!  The biggest dilemma is where to start!  There are resources (lesson, videos, and more) on electricity, force/energy, green, health, simple machines, sound/music, space/transportation., sports/games, structures, and technology/materials.

My interest in this site for special needs kids is threefold:

  1.  To provide role models and encouragement for kids through the excellent online video profiles and other visually organized materials, especially for those twice exceptional kids who feel stupid because of reading and writing weaknesses.  This site has hands-on, interactive, cool stuff which is likely to engage gifted kids.
  2. To offer multiple resources for engaging kids with a limited range of interests, such as those on the autism spectrum.  As I’ve posted before, giving this population a means of leadership/mentoring opportunities in a classroom setting is important.  The wide scope of these activities means that you could more easily find a connection to your student’s specialized interests.  The site includes a special module on training adults and kids to lead groups.
  3.  To provide an authentic experience for specialized instruction in reading, writing, and math.  It’s one thing to give students a writing prompt on their area of interest.  It’s even better to let them experiment and then use that process for a a specialized lesson on an area of weakness.  For example, I am using the watercraft experiment to improve a student’s grasp of main ideas and details.
  4. watercraft 2.JPG I am not requiring written responses for this “writing” project; any writing will be by dictation or talk to text.  This takes away the dreaded “when is the other shoe is going to fall?”  Kids think, “I am having fun now but the painful part is about to land on my head.”  Yes, it is hard for my student to sort through relevant information and derive a concise main idea.  But he does NOT have to write a paragraph about his fun experiment to learn that skill.  His work is mental, with plenty of visuals and first-hand experience.

You may enjoy the Design Squad monthly newsletter and it’s easy to unsubscribe if you don’t.

Let me know if you find other uses for the cool stuff on this site!

* Social Rules for Kids

If you are a parent or teacher looking for a guide to teaching social skills, Susan Diamond’s “Social Rules for Kids” is a terrific place to start.  Published by AAPC (Autism Asperger Publishing Company), this book covers skills related to talking and listening, making friends, school, bullying, and more.

One feature I particularly appreciate is the shortened social narrative style for each skill, combined with a rule-based approach.  For example, Rule #2 deals with “chit-chat” by simply explaining the benefits of chit-chat, what it is, how it looks/sounds, and a key idea to remember.  Because the social narrative aspect is shortened, each skill is covered on a single page.  That probably lessens anxiety for both kids and adults, while also making the book easier for kids to read.  If necessary, this abbreviated version could be expanded through role play and even longer narratives, using the book as a model.

The wide range of topics is excellent for high functioning kids.  Helping students walk away from cliquey groups and avoiding bragging are two skills which would benefit most kids in middle school, for a start.  And there are plenty of “survival” skills, such as “No Means No” and “Be Funny But Not Too SIlly.”

Come to think of it, this book would be helpful for ALL kids!  Please check out AAPC and sign up for their newsletter. They have awesome resources on all things autism!  You can follow them via Twitter and Facebook.  You may also enjoy Julie’s blogs as much as I have; they’re authentic, encouraging accounts of her life with an autistic daughter.

* Oh, So You’re Socially Awkward Too? By Deanna Willmon

Here’s a funny and bittersweet post by a mom whose daughter may be diagnosed with Asperger’s. It’s well-written and thoughtful. Do we all need to have marvelous social skills to survive? I don’t think so, or I’d be in trouble.

* 366 Days of Autism blog

366 days of autismI just happened upon a terrific blog called 366 Days of Autism.  Written by Nicole, a mother of an autistic middle schooler, this blog follows her son’s journey as they navigate school and social relationships.  Nicole writes that we could all be “on the spectrum,” but just deal differently with our “quirks.”  I also love this quote by Nicole:  My favorite phrase?, ‘My son is not disabled.  He is differently abled, by my standards I say perfectly abled.’

If you are searching for a well-written site with an abundance of valuable tips on life with an autistic child, this one is for you. “Day #261 Flowering Self-Esteem” is brilliant.  Everything I have read and seen is well worth the time.  Please check it out!

* N is for noises

music-148238_640Blogging A-Z: N is for noises.  I’ve worked with a number of kids who make atypical noises and movements.  Some of these kids are labeled with Autism Spectrum Disorder, others Tourette syndrome, and still others have no clear diagnosis.  Just quirky.  Whatever the cause, those unusual vocalizations and tics are a social challenge for kids and their families.  Sometimes medication has been effective, while other kids have had therapy for anxiety.

I have found that establishing a community of acceptance is one of the best responses to the noises, gurgles, repeated words, twitching, etc.  It may not be as easy to accomplish that in a large classroom, but the small group setting (such as pull- out support) is ideal for creating a safe place for these kids. These noises and movements are not something to “eliminate,” even as we hope they will fade away (and perhaps respond to medication).  For whatever neurological reason, noises are with us.  They should not be the focus of our relationships.  Neither are they an “elephant” in the room.  We can compare them to the wide range of habits we all might share, which range from repeatedly straightening hair or glasses, licking our lips, or even giggling when we’re nervous.  After we banish the “elephant,” a matter-of-fact response from the teacher establishes an important message of acceptance, as does a swift and firm response to any giggling or comments from peers.  Kids will quickly ignore random noises once an appropriate response has been modeled and reinforced.

Besides the importance of teaching kids to value one another, a safe classroom reduces the anxiety level of kids who make atypical utterances.  In fact, I can guarantee that noise levels will increase if a student has been teased, bullied, or reprimanded.  Some of my “noisy” kids have been the best liked, once they were seen for who they are, not for how they might occasionally sound.