* Students as teachers

In a previous post, I described how our special needs kids can develop leadership by “mentoring” other students, taking advantage of our kids’ interests and skills to teach others.  I recently came across this article from The Reading Teacher (Vol. 67 Issue 8, 2014), written by Megan Kramer.  She describes her classroom as a place where students are “experts” and the powerful impact it has upon struggling learners.  From kids on the autism spectrum to those with dyslexia, all our students are experts in some area.  Let’s provide opportunities for them to shine!  If you’re a parent, suggest this idea to your child’s teacher.  As Megan notes, it is not difficult to set up and the rewards are huge.Expert classes

* Early Intervention? Yes!

business-163464_640Today’s News and Observer headlined a study by Duke University researchers suggesting that two North Carolina early intervention programs reduce the likelihood of 3rd grade special education placements by 32%.  That’s a compelling figure if accurate.  The researchers indicated that such intervention addressed some learning problems and attention disorders but not physical and severe disabilities.

Numerous studies have found that early intervention does make a difference.  As cited in an ERIC Digest:

After nearly 50 years of research, there is evidence–both quantitative (data-based) and qualitative (reports of parents and teachers)–that early intervention increases the developmental/educational gains for the child, improves the functioning of the family, and reaps long-term benefits for society. Early intervention has been shown to result in the child: (a) needing fewer special education and other habilitative services later in life; (b) being retained in grade less often; and (c) in some cases being indistinguishable from nonhandicapped classmates years after intervention.

Not only can we improve the lives of youngsters and their families, but we can reduce the financial cost of education as well.  Although not mentioned in the Duke study, my experience suggests that early intervention makes a remarkable difference in the lives of kids on the autism spectrum.  Many of my ASD students have shifted to a higher functioning level when provided effective social skills intervention in kindergarten and first grade.

Do you have a success story to share?

* The conversation–how and when to tell your child about Autism; our version

Read on for an wonderful post about talking to your child about his or her unique gifts and exceptional qualities. This mom’s son was diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome and she handled it with such grace and love. I hope you find it helpful.

Life With Legos

How and when to tell your child he or she is different and special is a huge topic of debate. I see it all the time on facebook pages. I generally respond- with a very condensed version of how we handled the conversation. I thought I had blogged about it, but apparently not. So here it is…..
The Brick was older, as ASD diagnoses go, when he was diagnosed. At five he got an ADHD diagnosis, and then at seven got a behavioral/mental health diagnosis. It wasn’t until just after his eighth birthday, and a year of us not being fully satisfied with the diagnosis and services, that he got an ASD/Asperger diagnosis.
As an SLP who worked with lots of little ones with Autism and Asperger I couldn’t believe I had missed it, but you know what they say; “If you’ve met one child with Autism, you’ve met one…

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* Should kids do schoolwork during a break?

calendar 2Schoolwork during the winter break?  What?  As one kid said to me, “Are you kidding?”  If you’ve followed this blog, you know I am generally opposed to daily homework.  But working during a school break, especially one that is two weeks long, has its benefits.  Who could benefit from schoolwork during a break?  And where would this work come from?

For kids who lag far behind their peers:  These are usually kids with learning disabilities who need to invest strategically-timed effort to reduce that gap and retain skills.  They are kids who are very much aware of their memory weaknesses and have the motivation to keep going.  The work is individualized and includes much computer-based instruction.  This plan works well for students if their parents have to leave them in the care of older siblings or other caregiver.  Students in this category typically earn a reward for completing assignments.  They may check in with me during the break.

For kids who need a consistent routine:  I’ve created work packets for kids on the autism spectrum who do well with some “schoolwork” time during a break.  These are the kids who are at loose ends without their usual school day (and their parents, may start to unravel, as well).  The packets are filled with familiar drills, activities, and personal messages from me.  In fact, in coordination with their parents, if the work comes from me, the kids will do it.  Otherwise, all bets are off.  The goal of these packets is not so much academic as it is functional.  The packets typically include links to computer-based instruction as well.  Not all ASD kids will respond well to this plan, especially those twice exceptional kids (see below), but it’s been very helpful for some.

Which kids do not benefit from schoolwork during a long break?

Kids who are burned out from school work.  These are often the kids who are also anxious about their school performance.  Twice exceptional kids typically fall in this group.  The last thing they need is a reminder of dreaded school days.  Instead, they should occupy their time with lots of physical activity and special interests.  This population is already at risk for melting down before school ends, so they need to “forget” about school for a while.

One note: These guidelines are for a two-week break.  The longer summer break has unique pros and cons for many special needs kids.

* Crucial Conversations #5: Master my story

danger 2Master My Stories.  This is the most complex chapter in Crucial Conversations to date.  The authors describe a “path” that leads to healthy actions, which requires that I first accurately describe my actions and the emotions underlying those actions.  After that, I must identify the “story” I am telling myself to justify those feelings, then analyze what I actually saw and heard.

Here’s an example from my life.  As a resource teacher, I was serving a student who was identified as having Autism Spectrum Disorder by a psychiatrist.  He had also experienced considerable psychological distress in his past, having been abandoned by his parents and subsequently adopted by his grandparents.  From the outset of my interventions with him, I successfully used strategies which are considered best practices for ASD kids.  He did relatively well for his first several years of school, but experienced gradually increasing anxiety related to relationships with others.  About this time, he was reevaluated and as a school-based committee, we had to decide on an appropriate label.  I became angry and defensive when it was suggested that he receive a label based on emotional disabilities instead of autism.  I heard secondhand that my principal was furious with me for arguing with the school psychologist in front of his family.

I had fallen into a trap described by the authors of Crucial Conversations.  I thought I felt angry; I did react defensively.  If I had been able to more accurately define my feelings, I would have seen fear and hurt.  Why?  I was telling myself a story something like this: “My work with this student is considered unsound.  My judgment is being unfairly criticized and a major assessment administered to this kid is just plain wrong.”  What evidence did I have to support my story?  Well, my work with him was praised and suggested that I had been on the right track.  The “gold standard” of ASD identification did not identify this student as autistic.  He did have a history of serious emotional problems.  The path I chose did not lead to any healthy conversations!  But I apologized to the school psychologist, who responded graciously.  We restarted our conversations and ended up with a primary label of Autism and a secondary label of Emotional Disturbance.  Live and learn!

* Writing Graphs

I use writing surveys when I want to start a dialog with students about writing; I will also periodically repeat the survey or create one that better matches the student after progress has been made.  Graphs are another effective way to help special needs students share feedback about the writing process.  For my students who are high functioning autistic, graphs are especially helpful when words are inadequate.  Twice exceptional students also find these graphs helpful in sharing strong feelings of inadequacy.

I often create a graph as I am working with a student.  Kids are used to this process with me and typically look forward to showing me EXACTLY how they feel and where things break down in the writing process.  The graph below  uses a scale of 0 to 10.  I let the student decide which represented the hardest level (in this case, 10).  This student also chose the colors to use.  Red indicated extreme difficulty, orange depicted a level below that, yellow was third in difficulty, and green meant things were mostly OK (although on an additional page, the student also used a single green line for “no problem at all.”  The “icons” I drew represent, in order from left to right, time pressure, generating ideas, understanding teacher directions, creating a web or plan, writing in complete sentences with punctuation, staying on topic, spelling, working memory, and rewriting a final copy.

writing graph 2As you can see, this student has significant problems with the pressure to complete a writing assignment on time, use correct spelling, and rewrite his rough draft.  The second page of his graph (not shown) indicated anxiety during writing was high. Once we reviewed the top three issues (with a solution of using a laptop or tablet for the writing process), we examined the areas in yellow and orange.  (By the way, I REALLY dislike the continual rewrites that students are forced to complete.  Much of the time, that step is required so the work looks good in the hallway.  Yuck.)

As we discussed these problems, I could tell that the above graph gave us relative information but did not adequately convey the struggles this kid was having while writing.  Here’s the follow-up graph.  As we talked about the writing process again, it was evident that idea generation and mapping were essentially the same for this student, so I crossed out that second box.  That left us with these areas of concern, from left to right: mapping/idea generation, remembering the directions, staying on track while writing (focus), and working memory.  The student changed the meaning of “staying on topic” to “staying focused” because his attention difficulties increased significantly while trying to generate ideas.  Notice that “understanding the teacher directions” and “staying on task/track” have now switched colors (from green to red in the former area).  This kid is having a really hard time in writing.  (That last icon is supposed to depict a brain and pencil, with drops of sweat- or blood?)

Writing survey 3

The next post will focus on some strategies to help this student with all these red zones.

* Writing surveys

For twice exceptional (2e), high functioning autism kids (ASD), and kids with attention disorders (such as ADHD), writing can be pure trauma.  The key to providing effective support is understanding where the writing process breaks down.  As I’ve mentioned before, careful assessment is vital.  Your student’s feelings and personal assessment should not be overlooked.  Apart from observation and analysis of student work, I use surveys and graphs to elicit feedback from kids.

The surveys always begin with a focus on positives, such as what kids enjoy and which academic subjects are easier.  I create a unique survey for each student, depending upon my assessment to date and their ability to answer questions.  I may already know the answers to some of the questions, but I am interested in the student’s perspective.   Here’s a sample:Survey

As students answer, they refer to the following chart:

survey 2

This chart helps kids keep the answers in mind, although I may probe further if their answers are unclear.  It also gives them something to look at besides trying to decipher what I am scribbling on my clipboard.  When I’m done, I can safely show them the actual survey, since my handwriting is illegible to all but me!

Next post: Writing Graphs

* Videotaping as teaching strategy

I have previously described the usefulness of videotaping to improve your instruction.  Here are my top 5 reasons for routinely videotaping students with Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD).

1.  Kids like it.  Videos seem to have an intrinsic “look at me” quality for kids (and adults?).  Most of the kids I’ve taught enjoy watching themselves and others on video, regardless of their disability.  I do remember one student who could not “find” himself on the videotape.  It took significant role-playing and instruction before he could point to an image of himself in a paused clip of video.  But most kids smile as soon as they appear on screen and often find other kids equally fascinating.  Their enjoyment creates a perfect opportunity for me to engage kids with minimal effort.

2.  It really works.  Video-Modeling, as it is officially called, is in the current list of best practices for kids labeled with ASD.  (Refer to the recently published document, Evidenced Based Practices for further information.) Specifically, I have seen kids learn conversational skills, improve eye contact with peers and adults, demonstrate appropriate behavior in a classroom and on the playground, and manage frustration.  This can be accomplished by recording both “live” incidents in classrooms and role-playing with peers.  My experience has led me to favor recordings of structured interactions and role-plays.  I don’t want to use a video to embarrass or shame a kid.  I also want to avoid too much rehearsal of inappropriate behavior, but a judicious use of that keeps kids interested and also defuses the “wow” factor of misbehavior.

3.  Kids can practice skills effectively.   The video is like a mirror, allowing kids to see themselves fairly accurately.  After filming, you can use a rubric or checklist with kids to determine the extent to which they exhibited desired behavior, how realistic it was, and whether they learned anything from that practice.  The last point has guided my instruction quite frequently.  Over time, high functioning kids can usually indicate whether some specific practice was of any use in “real life.”  If it’s not, then we scrap that approach and try something else.  For other kids, the rehearsal is everything.  Behaviors can become automatic through filmed practice.  Feedback from all the participants can also shape behavior.  Kids tell each other what they most liked about their classmates’ role playing.  Kids identify which areas were the most difficult and why.  The ability to pause and repeat segments enables me to help students focus on particular aspects of instruction.

4.  Kids can practice safely.  Good behavior management ensures that kids are respectful of one another.  If someone flubs their part or struggles with a skill, we practice ways to support one another.  In fact, videotaping the group discussions AFTER role-playing can help kids improve their ability to report/analyze their behavior, say kind things to one another, maintain eye contact, and use checklists effectively.

5.  Kids have evidence of growth.  It is quite entertaining and encouraging for most kids to review those early role-plays.  Their physical growth and maturity are fascinating to all, much less their obvious growth in skills.  Not every student will improve at the same rate, but simply being filmed without getting silly can be a huge step for some kids.  Individual conferences with kids can be useful in evaluating long-term growth.  While the rest of the group is completing a project or playing a game with their new and improved social skills, you can share specific segments which clearly indicate progress.  I have used videotaping in end-of-year social skills portfolios for kids, which can be transferred to DVD and taken home to share.  In their portfolios, kids will introduce themselves and talk about the skills they’ve practiced this year, in what areas they’ve grown, and what they see as their next challenge.

It is an honor to participate with kids in recording their skill development.  I am always delighted at how authentic and thoughtful they can become.  These kids are often natural actors and this opportunity to play a “character” has led a number of my students into drama clubs, chorus, and summer camps that focus on acting.  After all of the teacher-speak above, I should be honest: We all enjoy and remember the bloopers more than any of our serious moments.  How can you not laugh when someone burps loudly and still tries to keep a conversation going?