* Christopher and me: long distance

My nephew, Christopher, now lives in Texas.  (If you are new to this blog, I tutored Christopher for the past 2 years.  He’s a moderate functioning kiddo on the autism spectrum.)  His new teacher seems really nice but has limited control over the classroom.  For kids on the spectrum, weak classroom management can be devastating.  In Christopher’s case, he relies heavily upon a well-structured class with clear boundaries.  Despite acting up significantly at home, Christopher is adamant that he will not tantrum at school.  My fear is that he will start to copy his classmates.  They may easily recover with a structured classroom, but my nephew can get stuck in a cycle of misbehavior.  At first, he thought it was slightly amusing that the teacher had numerous “talks” with kiddos, mostly because it wasn’t him.  Now he is struggling with the stress of misbehaving kids and probably the temptation to act up himself.

My contact with Christopher has been sporadic since school started.  We use Google hangouts but the time difference is challenging.  Most likely he needs a different classroom, but I’m trying to address the issues for him the best I can.  I’ve decided to write a series about “Bryan,” a composite identity with plenty of similarities to my nephew.  It’s in a Google doc so he can listen to it being read to him.  (I noted in an earlier post that Christopher’s comprehension is improved when he can both listen and see the words.)  I think the content will grab his attention and I have added some questions to which I can refer when we tutor online.

Brayn's story 1

Eventually I will use social stories to support Christopher, but given the stress of his move, I prefer to approach this laterally for now.  In my email with the story attached, I will tell Christopher that I know about a kiddo who dealt with ta similar problematic classroom.  (That is true, sadly.)  The “Bryan” stories will allow my nephew to evaluate the problem from a safe distance but close enough to make personal connections.  Christopher is sensitive to correction but wants to follow school rules, so I am hopeful this approach will help.

If you’d like to access the entire story, here’s a link.

* Christopher and me: defining success

Christopher failed the reading portion of the End of Grade (EOG) tests.

Christopher 1

I tutor my precious nephew, Christopher, a 4th grader on the AU spectrum.  He’s made terrific progress in the past year, with gains in vocabulary and reading comprehension.  But was it enough?  During a benchmark trial for the EOGs at school, Christopher melted down with tears and distress.  After 3 hours of testing, he had answered 7 out of 45 questions.

In our follow-up tutoring sessions, Christopher spoke angrily about the injustice of test questions that were meant to “trick” him.  He stated accurately that he could not read the test passages.  What to do?  If the EOGs were an accurate measure of his growth, I would have been very concerned.  In reality, Christopher’s gains are best measured against specific objectives on an IEP, not against grade level norms.  His reading performance remains well below that of his peers, but remarkably above where he was a year ago.  And we have long abandoned efforts for him to read orally; he cannot maintain focus, he benefits from seeing what he hears, and natural phrasing helps him use context for unfamiliar words.

Knowing that he would likely produce a test misadministration for himself and the other kids in his small testing group, I suggested- gulp- that he not attempt to read the passages but instead read the questions and scan for answers.  Using this strategy on grade level passages in our sessions, he scored about 50% accuracy.  That would have to do.  The alternatives were unacceptable.

Christopher called me every night in the week-long EOG countdown.  His determination to succeed in this rather hopeless endeavor was both encouraging and heartrending.  “What does ‘most likely’ mean, Aunt Katharine?”  “What are key words?”  I reaffirmed my conviction that he would do his best and that I was proud of him.  Christopher survived.  He did not lose the gains we had made, he does not know he “failed,” and he will continue to grow.  Going forward, audio books with a visual component will be the key for Christopher’s ongoing instruction in all academic areas.

I understand the need for standardized testing, but I value the effort Christopher has made, his desire to keep learning, and the confidence he has gained this year from measurable growth in his skills.  The 4th grade EOG does not define Christopher’s future.

* Catching up

I’m sorry that I’ve been hit or miss with my blog for awhile now.  Medical issues and work have derailed my best-laid plans.  Here are a few updates on my life.

This week, I spent quite a few hours programming Communicator 5 on a Tobii Dynavox I-12+ device.  The I-12 is a terrific stand-alone eye gaze device with a sturdy case (gorilla glass), amazing technology, and a Windows 10 operating system.  tobiidynavox-iseries-i12-1920x1080.jpg

Communicator 5 is Tobii’s intuitive program for augmentative and alternative communication (AAC).  With the handy, downloadable manual, it’s a snap to set up a cool homepage with lots of links.  Granted, I still have to fix a few flaws, but I’m pleased with how user-friendly this system is.  For kids who need a voice, Communicator 5 can be a game changer.

Speaking of games, my nephew Christopher has a new game plan: “Never let Aunt Katharine catch me for a hug after church.”  He loves the idea of hugs but he adores the chase even more!  I couldn’t wait to see his latest scheme today.  I was not disappointed.  The gang came piling out of Sunday School, asking me if I knew where to find Christopher.  None of us mentioned that there was a ghost lingering behind the chairs, eyes glistening with excitement.  After I caught him, his sister got into the act.  Sister Act?  Groan….

sister-act

My dearest widower took me on a date last night!  Woohoo!  We watched John Wick, Chapter 2.  Not for the faint of heart.  We had an interesting discussion at lunch with our son and his wife (happy birthday to her!) about whether John Wick portrays a parallel universe.  If so, I’m glad to be in ours!  Keanu Reeves brings gun-fu to a new level.

 

john-wick

Image from Film Music Reporter, where you can purchase the soundtrack.

I hope you have a great week!  I’m eager to catch up on the Color Your World blogging challenge, share some math ideas, and post a review of the second book in the Nick Hall series.

* The Lightning Club

This is a post on one of the most delightful social skills groups I have ever taught.  There were seven kids in the group.  I was desperate for an eighth student for partner activities, but we managed.  The kids were in fourth grade but all of them had been retained, so they were fifth grade age.  Three were labeled with behavior/ emotional disorders and four were high functioning autistic students.  It was one of those wonderful groups where we actually had a non-lunch time slot and it was at the end of the day.  That meant we weren’t rushing to cram down our food and I could squeeze every possible second out the session.

The kids were a joy to teach.  They were wildly enthusiastic about everything, including bossing each other, winning every game at any cost, and being in charge of everyone else’s business.  I much prefer a group with spunk, and these guys had it in spades.  They arrived like firecrackers.  I’d selected the bossiest student to remind the others,going class-to-class, that it was time for our group,  They assured me, panting and out of breath, that they had all walked down the hall.  Of course, they immediately tattled on each other for running   So we started off in fine spirits, with additional bickering about who got to sit on the edge of the table closest to me.  I smiled at the thought of all the skills they were going to learn.  (Eventually they learned to walk to my room 76% of the time.)

Because everyone in the group was so strong-willed, it took us weeks to decide on a name and theme for our “club.”  We ended up being The Lightning Club.  They thought it was a cool name; I thought it was prophetic.  What made this group so appealing?  I loved their honesty most of all.  Everything was out in the open, including their disputes and struggles in class and at home.  They would tell me that our role-playing had no effect at all on their classroom behavior.  In their respective classrooms, and with each other, they were social outcasts.  They had been at the same school since kindergarten and had grown to dislike one another as much as other kids disliked them.  When we started The Lightning Club, none of them would pick anyone else to be a partner, citing numerous old grudges and the “disgusting” behavior of their fellow Clubbers.lightning-bolt

I started us off with games.  I could only manage two games or groups at a time, because there were so many conflicts.  Everyone memorized “Play fair, Take turns, and Say nice things” pretty quickly.  The kids used checklists to monitor themselves, although they much preferred to monitor everyone else.  “Winning and Losing” was another challenge.  I would ask, “Do you want to win or do you want friends?”  The answer was “I want to win at all costs,” but I could identify with them, easily being the most competitive of all.  They rather enjoyed smearing me in games.

We worked our way through basic skills, spitting out “nice” words to each on command.  I videotaped everything and we watched edited versions, which they enjoyed a great deal.  We role-played a skill (which was nicely done in practice), then I set them loose and refereed the semi-chaos.  We laughed a lot, because I did let them demonstrate how NOT to make friends.  They were experts at NOT making friends, so we had plenty of fun with those skits.

We’d been together about a month when I initiated our altruistic phase.  I wanted them to experience the satisfaction of helping others.  Their suggestions?  All variations of me buying them stuff.  Ultimately, they decided to record a series of self-created puppet shows on social skills for younger kids.  I had dramatically described the difficulties these younger kids were having, so my wild group was quite eager to set the little ones on the right course.  The puppet shows were challenging.  Lightning Clubbers had to agree on a theme, fight over the more desirable puppets, and take turns being the bossy director.  I kept reminding them of our purpose, to help these poor little kids who had no friends.  It was a worthwhile project for a couple of reasons.  Their practice was more authentic than it had been when rehearsing for themselves and the videos were actually engaging to younger kids.

By winter break, The Lightning Club coalesced into a real community.  We settled into a natural rhythm of activities, often suggested by the kids, with opportunities to role-play, critique videotapes, and work through conflicts between group members.  Kids no longer had to be forced to think of positive comments for others.  Yes, there were days when keeping everyone separated was my best strategy.  Like a large family, we laughed and struggled together.  We had parties to celebrate almost everything.  When the kids decided to make gifts for one another, I felt like a contented mother hen with a brood of spunky chicks.

I wish I could say that the rest of their school year was as successful.  On the last day of school (a half day, at that), most of my group had been transported to me for an impromptu “session,” booted out of their rooms for disruptive behavior.  Their presence was bittersweet under the circumstances, but I was thrilled they could spend their last few hours at school under my wings.

* Christopher and me: what to read?

If you’re following this blog, you know I am tutoring my nephew, Christopher.  He’s A Sweet Dude (ASD) who flies into the house 4 times a week, calling out, “Aunt Katharine!  Aunt Katharine!”  When we started working together, I was a bit daunted by his weaknesses in language, social skills, reading comprehension, and writing.  But you would not believe his amazing progress!  He is a real trooper, working as hard as he can during long sessions after school.  Christopher writes 5 paragraph stories using graphic organizers, with over 80% of the work unaided by me.  That’s a huge reversal from his inability to write independently at all when we started.

Christopher’s progress in reading is equally strong.  While he still does not enjoy reading out loud, he understands that it helps him read more carefully; allows us to discuss unfamiliar vocabulary; and provides opportunities for analysis of characters and plot and making inferences and predictions.  I give him a “speeding ticket” when he races past punctuation, his eyes widening with delight as he gets ticketed.

How do I decide what books for him to read?  Like many kids on the autism spectrum, Christopher can identify words at grade level, but his comprehension lags well below that.  His preferred interests are video games, but given his eagerness for tutoring, I don’t need to stick with Mario Bros to keep his attention.  I look for books which are at his word-recognition level and will require him to learn needed skills.  Most importantly, I match the essence of him.  Christopher has a wacky sense of humor and loves anything gross, with shades of mischief and mayhem (yes, we are related!).  That brings to mind Roald Dahl, right?  We started with “The Twits” and have graduated to “James and the Giant Peach.”  These books provide a socially acceptable way to talk about nostrils and cabbage-shaped aunts and sad events to which he has strong personal connections.  Would you believe I have to force him to stop reading?   It’s all good.

James and the Giant Peach 2.jpg

 

 

* Christopher and me: tools for replacement behaviors

If you’re new to this series, Christopher is my nephew with ASD (Autism Spectrum Disorder, aka A Sweet Dude).  We work on academic and social skills, along with shaping his behavior towards more mature responses to frustration.

Here’s the big idea:  You cannot “modify” all maladaptive behavior out of existence.   And not all “maladaptive” behavior is actually maladaptive.  One example is finger sucking.

Finger sucking:  Christopher has been sucking his fingers since he was an infant.  It provides him a sense of comfort, and as he approaches his 11th birthday, is quite an ingrained habit.  His teeth protrude somewhat as a result of this habit and his saliva now covers most surfaces in our house.

Replacement behavior:  No matter what we do right now, Christopher is going to put something in his mouth.  A more age-appropriate replacement is sucking on the end of his pencil.  After purchasing pencil toppers from Therapy Shoppe and watching him chew them vigorously at times, it’s obvious that finger sucking provides needed sensory feedback.  His guardian adapted one of them to fit on a necklace since Christopher would run around with a pencil sticking out of his mouth.  The necklace is not quite as subtle, but significantly safer and readily accessible.

chew.JPG

The next challenge is supporting Christopher in his regular classroom.  He’s a sweetheart in a one-to-one setting but can drive teachers nuts in a large group.  Does he deliberately sabotage classroom environments?  Not at all.  He’s a rule-follower who does his best to please, while working towards his idea of school goals (primarily, survival).  His “disobedience” is a signal that he needs some modifications to his schedule and workload.  More to come!

* Christopher & me & Bowser makes three

If you’ve kept up with my blog, you know I’ve been tutoring my 9-year-old nephew, Christopher, this summer.  He’s on the autism spectrum (ASD, aka A Sweet Dude).  Christopher has many strengths, narrow range of interests, and has floundered in school.  Lacking appropriate early intervention, combined with a tumultuous family life, academics and social relationships have been challenging.

This is where Bowser comes in.   You can’t teach social skills in isolation.  And we need a fall guy, someone who cannot keep up with Christopher’s newly emerging language and reasoning skills.

bowser 2.JPG

As a powerful rascal and consequently a source of delight to powerless Christopher, Bowser provides me ample opportunity to develop a closer relationship to my nephew while exploring my nephew’s world of crime and punishment, idiosyncrasies, and failures.  Since he excels at video games, it would be natural for Christopher to gravitate to a Boss.  Bowser is the winner that Christopher wants to be, the embodiment of success and power in a predictable digital world.  Yeah, like lots of us, Christopher is a rule-bound judicial expert entangled with anxieties, competitiveness, and despair.

While Christopher is learning to replace finger sucking with pencil toppers (more in next post), Bowser engages in silly taunting, risk-taking, and surprisingly, academic support from his “protege.”   Christopher is learning skills that Bowser can use.  Bowser remains powerfully wild and ridiculous, but allows us to explore winning and losing, taking turns, answering complex questions, and exploring those gray areas of real life.

I imagine Christopher’s brain as one filled with a LOT of carefully filed information on video games, for instance, but little connection to real world problem solving.  He hasn’t grasped how the physical world operates and has a limited vocabulary outside his digital life.  He can identify social problems but gets stuck at sequencing and cause and effect levels.  My goal has been to broaden his connections, taking the jumbled information he already has and helping him to place it in “folders” for easier access.  Christopher’s idiosyncratic responses are diminishing as I prompt him to use categories for analyzing problems.  And Bowser?  He makes Christopher laugh with wildly improbable comments and behavior.  Bowser continues to rock and roll as Christopher makes sense of the world.

* Reading comprehension strategies for ASD kids

puzzle

At a recent IEP meeting, we discussed a reading profile of a student on the autism spectrum.  In my experience, there is often a wide gap between an ASD student’s vocabulary identification and reading comprehension.  How do we help remediate this gap?  Here are some strategies I’ve found effective:

  • Use reading material on topics of interest.  I have had to write my own materials at times, when a student has a particularly narrow range of interests.  The next best option is to find reading material that can be related to an area of interest.  Spend time exploring the student’s prior knowledge of that book/passage and provide/elicit possible questions the student may be able to answer after reading.
  • Teach students the differences between narrative and informational texts.  Provide graphics that outline these two formats.  Add question cards with single words or symbols to represent the types of questions associated with these texts.  Require students to make predictions at appropriate points in the text.  Provide visual cues to prompt these predictions as they read.
  • For teaching narrative features, use photos or illustrations of characters, the story problem, and problem resolution.  This could be organized like a trail or road, depending upon a student’s interests.  A Minecraft-style path may be engaging for lots of kids.
  • For teaching informational text features, an outline form or building block format is helpful.  Again, use a student’s interests to shape the graphic into an engaging tool.
  • Assess and teach specific skills related to reading comprehension.  Many of my ASD kids have had weaknesses in inference and prediction.  I have used “Tasks of Problem Solving” by LinguiSystems (now owned by PRO-ED) for both assessment and instruction.  (I’ll review this resource in another post).
  • Model and rehearse the process of summarizing short sections of text.  The challenge is to keep the dialog on task, not losing focus and momentum as small chunks are summarized.  Again, prepare visual cues that can be matched to the side of a paragraph.  Older students could create their own picture/word sticky notes, but when modeling this strategy, use pre-prepared images.  Verbal retelling is an instructional option, as well.  If that proves effective, students could record their verbal summaries independently on an app as they read.
  • Provide opportunities for students to share what they’ve read, especially in a leadership role.  They could be a mentor to younger kids or create a digital presentation to their class of what they’ve read.

To summarize, take advantage of your student’s strengths in using visual cues and their strong preferences for certain topics.  Identify specific areas of weakness in reading comprehension to address.  Teach strategies explicitly, providing a name and symbol for each one.  And enjoy!   Reading can be a passionate pursuit for our kids on the autism spectrum as it opens the door to more information and connections with others.

* U is for Useful Strategies

In previous posts, I mentioned the difficulties that Christopher is experiencing at school.  Here is some good news!  Thanks to the persistent efforts of Christopher’s guardian, these useful strategies are now in place for this sweetie on the autism spectrum.

  1. A small picture on his desk of the Lego he can earn by keeping his “behavior points” (a classwide management system).
  2. A picture easel on his desk with his dad smiling (“green zone”) and frowning (“red zone”).  I am second-guessing this one and would prefer words and symbols, not an actual face, but it seems to help.
  3. A picture of 2 cues for deep breathing (flower and candle) from a class on managing his stress levels.  He needs an adult to support his use of this strategy, but Christopher has positive associations with those images, so he is eager to cooperate.
  4. Stress breaks.  He walks down the hall with a whiz kid from his class.  I think these work best when they are added to a picture/written schedule so ASD kids know there’s a light at the end of the never-ending tunnel.

I think another useful strategy would be sensory breaks (and the hallway walking provides a little of that).  Some students benefit from weighted vests, blankets, or “huggy” bean bag chairs.  Other need to push or pull on something; it could be the wall, a pillow, or a custodial cart.  I found a rubber-coated, flexible something at a home improvement store and a student regularly went in the cubby area to stretch it.  Other useful strategies are discrete headphones to block out sounds, “swinging” time on the playground, and a clipboard (with prompts) to hold during group time.

Many ASD kids thrive with access to a personalized schedule at their work space.  If this is laminated or plastic covered, the teacher or assistant can easily mark adjustments BEFORE they occur.  For example, if the teacher realizes that there won’t be time for sharing or a project, that activity is crossed off in time for the student to process the change.

Finally, one of the most useful strategies for ASD kids is sticky notes.  A quick, short written prompt works much more effectively than 15 minutes of talking.  Who wouldn’t want to get a note saying GREAT COSTUME!?!!

Max skeleton 2

* Mayday! Mayday!

What happened to April?  Some wonderful and not-so-wonderful events.  Here are a few of them, thanks to Lizzi’s inspiration.  Her post this weekend is soooooo encouraging (coming to Murica!!) and mysterious!  Check it out!   I’m going to copy her without shame:

M:  Being sick has derailed me completely, especially with my paper work and blogging challenges.  Although I  have been low on energy since then, I am now healthy!  And my dearest widower comes alongside to nudge me to bed at a reasonable time.  Love the light at the end of this tunnel!

A:  Christopher enjoyed a birthday party yesterday once he got over the endless wait for presents.  Sadly, this dear one is struggling in school.  Falling apart struggling.  Too much talk, too few visuals, and no coherent plan.  He told me last night that he HATES changes in schedules.  We will have an IEP meeting and I will try to remember everything I read in “Crucial Conversations.”

Y:  I’ve been a teacher and mentor for a sweet teenager since he was in kindergarten.  How did he get to be an almost-man?   He teaches me all he knows about the NBA and Steph Curry, while I call for help with his algebra!  His life is a bit of a trainwreck right now.  I want to rescue him from his poverty, his relational challenges, and the temptations which nip at his heels.  I trust (and try to trust) that we have been placed together for a perfect reason.  His life is in better hands than mine.

D:  Remember our troubled back yard?   This year the score is Katharine 1, Deer 0!  Wow!  I am rocking that yard!  My babies, the periwinkle ground cover, are coated with deer repellant.  That leads me to…

A:  I just cut the entire back yard with scissors!  Anyone else do that recently?  See, if I use the lawnmower, even on a high setting, it chews up my baby periwinkles. I am now icing my back (and I don’t mean with cake frosting, either).  I may be on Vicodin before the night is over.  I don’t know why the grass looks greener on the other side of sunset.

Y:  My dearest widower is off my crutches, in PT, and doing so much better!   Yeah, he limps a bit, but I’m so happy that he’s no longer in agony.

!:  I hope to finish my April blogging challenges.  I can’t decide which I have enjoyed more, Color Your World with Crayola colors or the A-Z Blogging Challenge.  Probably the photography challenge.  I wanna be Cee when I grow up!