* Avoiding the Meltdown

In a previous post, I shared the meltdown countdown that Christopher experienced at a birthday party.   Christopher is on the autism spectrum (ASD) at a moderate-to-high level of functioning, depending upon the stressors in his environment.

My first step was to develop three social stories with photos and diagrams to prepare him for a systematic plan to deal with strong feelings.  He read all of these out loud to me.  If I felt that he was losing the meaning due to rapid or inaccurate reading, he reread that section.  He was also required to circle answer choices and scribe his own words.  Using an adult pen was quite a hit!

Social story #1, Strong Feelings, provided a framework for understanding that we all have strong feelings and how we deal with them is important.  I described his strong happy feelings (which look quite manic and lead him to grab and mishandle items) as well as his strong angry feelings (which lead to shrieking tantrums).   I also described the consequences of his being out of control, including how yucky he feels.  I had photos for all those feelings; Christopher preferred to put his hand over the one which showed his overwhelming sad feelings.  social story 1 image

Social story #2, Understanding Strong Feelings, provided a common language for talking about the intensity of his feelings.  I used a scale from 1 to 10, with 5 being a safe limit for him. The story also outlined what behaviors are associated with increasing levels of intensity (6-10).  He was able to select appropriate descriptors for each level, such as increased movement and talking.  He also demonstrated great insight about his inability to respond to verbal directions once he reaches a 7 or 8.  social story 2 image

Social story #3, Making My Plan for Dealing with Strong Feelings, engaged Christopher in the process of developing his actual plan.  I wrote that he would be expected to take his plan to a safe place, read it, and pick at least one strategy.  When he was finally calm, he could rejoin the group or activity.  Christopher was required to select from choices I included in the social story and/or add his own.  I had included only choices which required movement, since he becomes extremely active when upset.  Christopher wanted to include options such as playing his favorite video games or playing on my tablet.  I explained that he could access those types of activities once he calmly rejoined the group.  I also told him that I didn’t think my tablet was safe when he was at a level 9 or 10.  His eyes widened and he agreed.  He did say that listening to music on an iPod could be calming.  I added that to his list of possible calming actions.  Then I took photos of him roleplaying all 5 choices.  This photo is “curl into a ball, hug myself VERY tight, and count to 100.”  He counted by 10’s, so we will see how this works out in “real life!”social story 3

*Let me know if you are interested in reading the social stories*

Next step?  Share completed plan with Christopher and role play.  Stay tuned for details!

* Survival Tip #15 Remember the good old days

Milo was a kindergartner in my self-contained class for students with behavioral and emotional disorders.  He joined my class for the latter part of that school year after assaulting adults and peers in a regular classroom.  Milo was small for his age but quite muscular and agile.  His school readiness skills were in the basement.  He responded well to the structure of my room and was fine as long as he was in my line of sight.  All bets were off if I lost sight of him for a few seconds.  One of the first things I did was make a home visit; I wanted to see how Milo functioned out of school.  He was never home when I made my visits and no one ever knew where he was.  His mom took one look at me and told me how to handle him.  “You tell Milo the “Enforcer” is in that room and you won’t have any problems.”  I must have looked confused, so Milo’s mom explained that he believed she was always watching, Enforcer in hand.  The Enforcer was a giant stick, to be applied liberally if he acted up.  I had social services involved in the wink of an eye.  Of course, I never mentioned the Enforcer to Milo, but I did find myself searching for it occasionally.

I gave Milo my best effort.  It was hard to form a relationship with him, but he seemed to like me.  He probably had an attachment disorder along with a slew of his other diagnosed deficits.  Milo made no connections with his classmates (other than with his fists).  I had to restrain him a few times, but he would immediately calm down and make perfunctory apologies.  His academic performance did not improve much.  I worked hard to find ways to praise him (“Wow, I like the way you are breathing!” popped into my head once or twice).  After a couple of months, we came to the last day of school.  I watched Milo approach the room but he didn’t see me.  Uh-oh.  He flattened a fellow kindergartner with a vicious kick to the belly just outside our door.  When I asked him about it later, he didn’t even know the kid, nor had they interacted.  I wondered if he was sad about leaving my class; his mother was moving, apparently able to find him long enough to take him with her.

Fast forward about six years.  Same class, new kiddos.  One of the kids started crying during our class meeting, describing a neighborhood bully.  In a private conversation, it turned out that this bully was sexually assaulting him and other kids at gunpoint.  The bully’s name?  Milo.  Social services was contacted again and I told my student to run if he saw Milo.  A few years later, Milo was in juvie for sexual assault and other violent acts.  Then he graduated to adult jail.

Fast forward again about 10 years.  I was at our administrative offices, hanging up an art display created by my kids.  I was on a ladder, just about finished, when I looked down the long hallway.  I saw Milo walking in my direction.  He was an adult, but I could tell it was him (and he had once lived in that neighborhood).  “Oh, Lord,” I prayed, “Please don’t let him see me!  Don’t let him remember that I restrained him years ago!”  I turned my head away and held my breath.  And then I heard him say, “Mrs. Teachezwell!”  I looked down at him and saw a beautiful smile.  I could tell that he was overjoyed to see me.  I climbed down the ladder and we hugged for a couple of minutes.  I looked up at this tall, muscular guy, grabbed his shoulders and said, “Wow!  You are all grown up!”  (“And breathing!”)  He smiled.  Milo was genuinely glad to see me, former restraints or not.  I could not come up with much to say.  “How was prison?” “Assault anyone lately?”

I do think of him from time to time.  He was birthed in alcohol, drugs, and violence.  I remember worrying that he would kill his mom when he got bigger than the Enforcer.  Dear Milo.  I am glad that you remember the good old days.  prison-370534_640

* Survival tip #12: Roaches, critics, and climbers, oh my!

When I started teaching the BED class described in a previous post, everything was pretty much a disaster.  There were many reasons for this.

First, I was sweating bullets in a humid southern state after moving from chilly San Francisco.  The school was not air conditioned.  When I turned on the rustic fans, they spewed roaches across the room.  Naturally, that drew the kids’ attention (and mine) to the fans, which had previously been unnoticed.  Who knew that fans could also be used to launch a variety of classroom objects?  The fans stayed off.  I sweated through my pants’ waistline AND through a leather belt every day.

Second, my adorable assistant was completely opposed to my methods of behavior “management.”  He had been hired by the previous teacher, who left after a being stabbed in the head with a felt-tipped pen.  The assistant and I got along well, but were working at cross purposes.  I sent a student to time-out and that kid ended up playing in the assistant’s lap.  In fact, every direction I gave to one particular student was countermanded by my assistant.  My behavior “management” got so shaky that the child’s family removed that student from my class at the recommendation of his therapist, who considered me a walking disaster.

Third, I had no materials in the class except for a couple of random “touchy feely” games.  Knowing that these kids had already played those games to no avail, I was left with nothing.  I had to bring my own notebook paper and pencils.  I created worksheets for the kids every night, right after I cried into a glass of wine.

Fourth, I became quickly ostracized by the school staff.  Those teachers who had previously befriended me now considered me a pariah.  As I was standing in the main lobby of the school, the guidance counselor said loudly to some nearby teachers, “She’s not going to make it!”  So much for confidence building.

I was not a novice teacher, but I sure felt like it.  My assistant I parted ways amicably after two weeks or so (he visited my class years later, telling me how he had nearly burned alive when the kids in his group home locked him in the time-out room).  I had trouble finding an assistant, duh, so I was granted a series of substitute assistants.  I think that was worse than being alone. That first month was dreadful enough, but for some reason I had invited the head of the Parks and Rec department to visit our class to demonstrate rock climbing.  Why, oh why?  I have no idea.  We ended up outside the room, watching this huge guy fasten himself into a harness for climbing up to the roof.  I’m sure that wasn’t MY idea.  The kids were mesmerized as he tightened and clipped the gear around his “privates.”  One kid dared the others to try it, so the poor man ended up sweating bullets himself as he grappled all these kids (who were laughing hysterically) into the oversized harness and then hoisted them into the air.  The kids went wilder than I could have imagined, swinging like Tarzan in the harness, tearing up the hill to watch from better angles, and using colorful language to describe this remarkable experience.  They all rotated through time-outs in a very short period of time.  I couldn’t decide if it was better for me to monitor the time-outs or have my substitute assistant do that.  Ultimately, it didn’t matter.  The man literally ran off, never looking backward.  The sub turned to me and said, “I don’t know how you do this.”

* A question on social narratives

angry kidI’ve been asked to provide another example of a social narrative for dealing with bullying.  I write stories about bullying from two perspectives, of course: the one who bullies and the one who is bullied.  They are often the same kid: students who’ve been bullied are at risk for becoming someone who bullies others.  The following clip is from a series on how it feels to be called a bully, especially when you don’t realize how your remarks have affected others.  It’s painful to help a kid who has been targeted by others, feeling their shame and despair.  It’s equally hard to redirect a kid who was once that target and has now focused their anger on others.  In the series below, there’s no “perfect” ending.  Learning to deal with bullying, whether from the hands of others or from your own, is too often a part of special needs kids’ life experiences.  My hope is to take something ugly and work it for good.

Mike chapter 1

Any feedback on this?  

* Perceptions and prejudices

black and white kidsBlacks and whites, typical learners and special needs kids: How do they fare in school?  Often not so well.  I am going to share a couple of scenarios from my own experience.

1.  I worked with a high functioning autistic student who struggled at school.  Although he was on track academically, he had a miserable experience socially.  Trevor was the football fanatic I described in a recent post.  No matter the cost, he wanted to play football with his classmates.  One classmate often tripped him just when he was about to catch the ball or score.  Not only did Trevor get upset about losing, he was even more angered by the injustice of the situation.  I have seen this heightened sense of “right and wrong” in a number of ASD kids.  They have often learned social skills through demonstration of, and by following, sets of rules.  When those rules are not followed, and especially if these kids personally suffer from that inequity, they may respond catastrophically.  When words did not work, Trevor then physically threatened the other kid, although he never actually touched him.

The playground supervisor’s reaction was to warn and eventually blame Trevor.  From a distance, she could see Trevor’s “in your face” body language.  The other kid was backing away.  Trevor was benched, sent to the office, or sent to me.

The same dynamics occurred in his classroom.  Other kids were adept at pushing Trevor’s buttons with just a gesture or sound.  In his already heightened state of social anxiety, Trevor was a fuse just waiting to be lit.  I did not condone Trevor’s verbal outbursts.  He would yell, “Stop looking at me!” and interrupt the teacher while she was trying to focus the class on math.  I did understand his teacher’s frustration.  BUT I also wanted Trevor’s teacher and assistant to understand his perspective.  His outbursts were never random; they were always triggered by a perceived threat from others.  As the year progressed, he became increasingly unable to manage his responses.  He was caught in a vicious cycle: other kids could easily set him off, the adults were fearful of his outbursts, he was blamed for losing self control, and he was also terrified of his own temper.  We had some high points, such as when the teacher allowed Trevor to use a classroom space for calming down.  She also encouraged him to use his “plans” (pocket-sized books I created with strategies for calming).  But both those two options became “punishments.”  Trevor felt humiliated when the teacher demanded, “Get your book,” as other kids snickered.  That calming down space became a “time out” for him when the teacher wanted him out of sight, so instead of cooling off, Trevor became more frantic.  Eventually, I would be called to his classroom.  As soon as he saw me, he’d relax.  He was out of the traumatic environment and would be able to communicate his strong feelings safely.

2.  Here’s another scenario.  I worked with a young black boy who was not labeled at all.  However, he was considered the most disruptive kid in his class and the local school motto was “This kind should be with you.”  I added him to my groups of six kids (quite a bit easier than a group of 21?) and it took two weeks for him to be “socialized” and under voice command.  He was actually a delight to teach.  I had already started observing him in class, since I needed to reverse his decline there.  As soon as I walked in the door, a number of kids would scream out, “David!  Mrs. So-and-So is here for you!”  I shook my head, gave them a signal to be silent, and sat down to watch.  As I observed, I wondered why David had been selected as “the kind who should be with me.”  I was elbowed and splashed with water by students who thought it was amusing.  I watched as kids threw materials, pushed one another, and were generally out of control.  “My” David looked overwhelmed.  Eventually, he shrieked above the clamor and received the teacher’s routine lecture on following rules.

I have to admit that at one point, I also lost it in David’s classroom.  The kids were supposedly lining up for lunch.  David was doing fine, but the rest of the kids were pushing, yelling, laughing, and crashing.  All the while, their teacher was ineffectually talking about how they should act.  Without asking, I used my teacher voice, got them in line, and took them to the cafeteria myself.  I simply could not bear to see them act so outrageously.  David was the canary in the mine for that class.  Was his race a factor?  He was one of four black kids in the class.  I eventually ended up with one of the other black kids, too.

Have I effectively changed some of these perceptions and prejudices?  Yes, but that’s another post.  Stay tuned!

* Survival Tip #10: Don’t judge a book by its cover

surfer-532132__180Many, many years ago, I taught at a public school whose entire population consisted of students with emotional disorders.  My class was a group of psychotic adolescents.  It was a tough adjustment for me since I typically work with elementary-aged students who have a hope for their future.  These were kids for whom the future seemed dismal.  Most of them lived in group homes, having long been abandoned by parents who could not manage them.  I inherited a few routines I could have lived without.  One of them was a weekly “walking field trip” to the local library, which was about half a mile away.  I never enjoyed these visits.  Let me rephrase that.  I hated these trips.  For one thing, the kids were so unpredictable, one with uncontrolled seizures, that I always felt uneasy about corralling them safely to and from school.  Second, the school was in a neighborhood of retirees, so the library was full of elderly folks (about my current age, come to think of it!) who disliked our presence, to put it mildly.  They thought library patrons were to be completely silent and generally invisible.  I had high standards for my class, but with a special ed twist: my kids were to walk (not spin in wild circles), handle materials appropriately (no stealing or eating books), and treat others with respect (no biting, pinching, kicking, or kissing).  Some of my students continually talked to “beings” that no one else could see.  Other kids had syndromes or conditions which induced a wide variety of random shrieks and unusual sounds.  And these “kids” were in their late teens, so they close to being adults.  When we opened the library doors, you could hear the sounds of disapproval from the library habitués.  Even the librarians were wary of us, looking considerably happier when we walked out the door.  However, we did establish a kind of routine on our visits.  Each student had their preferred sections, music, and magazines.  Everyone was allowed to check out materials if they followed the basic rules; otherwise, it was three strikes and you’re out (no check-outs until the next week).

Everything changed when a new student named Derek joined our class.  I didn’t even realize he was a student when I first saw him.  Derek was almost 18 and stood much taller than me.  Derek looked like an exile from a southern California beach.  He was bronzed, well-built, had a charming smile, and looked like a stereotypical surfer dude.  He talked about sports (no, he did not surf) and acted perpetually shocked that he was in our class.  Basically, Derek was embarrassed to be seen with the other kids.  I had reviewed his records, which described him as quite violent, but he certainly did not appear that way in our class.  He isolated himself from the other students but was polite to “adults.”

Derek walked behind us on his first trip to the library, not wanting to be seen with the “weirdos,” as he called them.  I had reviewed the rules before we left and he was excited about finding some records.  Yes, this was the vinyl era.  When we entered the library, all the kids scattered to their favorite spots.  Derek took a moment to scan the surroundings, including the disgruntled elderly.  WIthin moments, Derek was screaming and shaking a fist at an older man.  I intervened, counted that as his first warning, and redirected Derek.  I stayed near him but he seemed to have settled down.  My assistant and I moved around to check on the others.  Then I heard another uproar from the music section.  Derek was fighting with a classmate over a set of headphones.  That was warning number two.  The third warning came after he clubbed a student who happened to be standing nearby.  Finally, it was time to leave (yea!) and my gang lined up to check out their materials.  Derek also got in line, clutching three albums defiantly.  I shook my head and he looked away.  I walked up close to him and softly reminded him that he could not check out anything on this visit.  I was enthusiastically confident he would do better next week.

Derek went ballistic.  The records went flying as he went for my throat.  My assistant and I struggled to contain him, a cursing, writhing, incredibly strong young man.  Gasping, and losing the battle, I asked a librarian to call the school.  Within moments, three other teachers arrived.  It took all five of us to get him out of the building.  Then he fastened himself onto the roof of the small car, which would have been funny if I had not been hyperventilating.  Eventually he was driven off, barely contained, while I staggered back to school with the rest of the group.  Everyone was shaken and fearful after Derek’s assault.  All I could think of was whether we would return to the library.

What do you think?  Did we go back to the library?  I guess that would be another survival tip:  Don’t take the surfer dude back to the library.  Well, he did end up returning to the library after a brief hiatus.  He acted like a wild man again, was transported back to school by car, and that was his last field trip to the library.  Not mine, unfortunately.

* Behavior modifiers: Garbage!

garbageI was in the middle of a fun social studies project with my students when it was announced that our school was up for accreditation.  We were going to be observed and evaluated!  Ooh!  I was teaching a self-contained class for kids with severe behavior and emotional disabilities; since I taught multiple grade levels, I always created content area projects with the entire group.  I had just purchased a really wonderful woodworking table with REAL tools.  We were creating a pilgrim village and already had a (Plains) Indian teepee off to one side.  Yes, my kids knew that wasn’t authentic, but it was the greatest place to read and hadn’t fallen on anyone yet.  The village was something else, though.  I brought a great number of huge hanging clothes boxes, along with oodles of scrap wood from a cabinet shop.  The kids created an amazing space, sawing and hammering wooden strips everywhere.  True, it didn’t look exactly like a village but you would be amazed at how they could all disappear like mice into the little nooks and crannies of that village.  Between the teepee and the village, we had filled up most of the room.  And it kept growing.  Well, the principal was doing his daily review of the place and reminded me that we were being observed.  He wondered if we were finished with all those boxes and wood yet.  The kids were alarmed.  Finished?  They had only just begun to experiment with the hand drills!  There was much more to be done!  The teepee hadn’t even been painted!  Oh, no!  We were not going to be done any time soon!  (We all spoke with exclamation points in my room.)  I hung a very large sign right over the ever-enlarging village which read: UNDER CONSTRUCTION.  Well, the accreditation came and went.  I never saw anyone in our room, but on the other hand, it was hard to see from one side to the other.  And hard to hear.  (The neighboring teachers were so indulgent!  I can’t imagine how that project sounded.)  The principal came by on his daily walk and said that all had gone well except for their observation of my room.  I know my face went red.  What had I done wrong?  The lady in charge had complained, “Why is that you are using the self-contained class as a place for garbage?  Isn’t that just the typical disregard for those special needs kids?”  The principal and I both turned to look at the village.  He raised his eyebrows and left without another word.

* Using analogies with kids

I have found that using analogies is an effective strategy for helping kids improve self-awareness and self-control, providing emotional validation, and enhancing communication with adults and peers.  These strategies are effective for kids who are on the autism spectrum, twice exceptional, and learning disabled.  With every analogy, a visual component is one of the most important features.  No artistic skill is needed, just paper and marker.  The goal of these analogies is to provide a common vocabulary and benchmark for current and future discussions of difficult topics.  Five of my favorites are listed below.sharpie

1.  Climbing a mountain

This picture often describes the plight of learning disabled kids who see a mountain of work, skills to master, and effort ahead of them.  The mountain is also an apt analogy for kids with social issues; they may feel that everyone else has already reached the top while they are stuck at the bottom.  For each kid, I adjust the slope of the mountain to reflect both where they are with regard to specific skills and how that part of the mountain “feels.”  I always include an encouraging view of how far they have come and emphasize that they are closer to a resting place or the summit than they realize.

2. Snowball

This analogy is reserved for kids at the edge of a crisis or debriefing after a melt-down.  I communicate that their actions or feelings could or have had a snowballing effect (and even the unhappiest kid usually smiles when I draw them as a flattened stick figure under a giant ball).  I suggest to kids that they can stop the process of rolling downhill, especially if they stop sooner rather than later.  On the other hand, kids who are flattened at the bottom can see that this is not the end of the world.  Snowballs do not destroy that little stick figure, even if it looks pitiful at the bottom.  No, I never mention avalanches.

3. Ladder

I’ve referred to this analogy in a post on understanding reading difficulties.  The ladder picture can be used to compare two sets of skills, with one ladder depicting the rungs that have yet to be climbed while the other ladder indicates strengths in another skill.  For instance, in social skills, one ladder might depict a kid’s weakness in maintaining conversations while the other ladder indicates his strength in playing sports with other kids.  The ladder analogy is useful in helping kids see that learning is a series of steps, not pole vaulting.  This image can reduce anxiety while demonstrating that the process can feel fairly natural.  Most kids are pleased to see that they are high on a ladder of success; some will even ask how many steps it will take to get to the same height on the parallel ladder.

4. Volcano

This is a dramatic analogy that captures the intensity and struggle of managing strong angry feelings.  (I do not mix metaphors for these angry kids, so we are not going to see pictures of snowballs anywhere.)  First, I normalize the volcanic experience by referencing the real world.  There is a layer of magma everywhere under the earth’s crust, meaning that we all have the capacity to blow up if the pressure is too great.  The “volcanic” kid is responding to pressure, so questions include “How high is your magma (or scientifically incorrect, hot lava) right now?” and “What caused the volcano to erupt?”  Effective use of a volcano picture identifies triggers, self-awareness, and incorporates ways to cool down when the pressure is great.  Angry kids are often scared of their feelings and scared about the reaction of others.  I have seen kids erupt but recover when they realize that they are going to survive, that we can capture the distress on paper, and that all is not lost.

5. Battery

This is one of my favorite analogies because it is easily understood by kids and accurately depicts what happens to them when tasks at school leave them drained.  The battery can represent mental or social energy, emotional reserves, ability to focus, and other typically depleted internal resources.  While a battery can be drained, it can also be recharged.  As with the other analogies, there is a sense of empowerment when kids learn what drains them and how to re-energize.  As brain research tells us, the emotional levels of stress do not automatically disappear when a kid has left the stressful situation.  The battery analogy can help with this problem, too.  Kids may be confused by their inability to put school “behind them.”  They may be as shocked as their parents by acting out behavior or other responses to long-term stress.  The battery analogy can prompt conversations about the benefits of certain activities, such as sports, music, art, and games which serve to recharge a depleted kid.  Kids may become better at self-advocacy when they can identify battery “killers.”  This analogy can validate their sense of depletion.  The battery analogy is also normalizing; instead of regarding themselves as weak or incompetent, they can identify specific activities that are especially draining for them, just as other kids are drained by different tasks.

* 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.

* ASD and behavior #1

In response to questions about shaping the behavior of high functioning students (identified with Autism Spectrum Disorder or ASD), this is the first post in a series on tips for teachers.  I am writing this from a resource teacher perspective but have worked in self-contained settings as well.  If you are a self-contained teacher, you’ll see (or I’ll occasionally note) where you need to adjust some aspects of this.  This post addresses two important issues that can improve a student’s experience at school: relationship building and figuring out where to start your interventions.

1. Relationship building:

I find this to be the easiest part, perhaps because of my years of experience. For one thing, I am confident that I can make a positive difference in this child’s life.  So I suggest that you start by imagining positive outcomes, if you do not have that experience.  It certainly won’t help if you convey apprehension and doubt.  Second, listen to the child’s family.  This is where I get a head start in building a working relationship with the child.  Make a home visit or at least meet with the parents ASAP.  You need to find out what this kid likes to do, because you will need to build on his interests.  (Yes, I have worked with girls who have ASD, but I’m choosing the male pronoun for now.)  Get specific information about his interests.  If he likes video games, become knowledgeable about the games and system he uses (X-Box? Play Station?).  This is a really important part of connecting with him.  Remember that school is going to be stressful and this information will help you reduce stress (more on that as we move along).

FInd out what kinds of strategies his parents have found effective and what does not work.  Find out about his personality, his ways of coping, what he finds hardest and easiest about group settings.  Take notes.  Get every detail, including any previous teacher names and schools.  (You may want to explicitly contrast this new experience with prior ones, especially if they were not successful.)  Make sure you have every form and document associated with his schooling, which you should have at school, but parents may have additional evaluations or related service reports.  If you can create a time for the student and his family to come to school prior to the start of your services, that is ideal.  Photograph the visit and also provide photographs for the family of his teachers and room (even if you do a tour of the school).  Also provide a daily class schedule to keep at home (this will most likely need to be updated).

If you and the family can access the internet (it’s not always a given), set up an educational Wikispace (free for teachers) to share information and provide the student with his own digital room.  With the parents’ permission, I have included allowed out-of-school therapists and others to access the main page so that we can share information as the year progresses.

It is helpful to observe the child in his classroom, but as either a resource teacher and classroom teacher, you may not have that option.

Now you are ready to meet with your student.  It’s important to communicate your intent: you want to learn more about him and how he learns, you will be a helper for him, and coming to see you is not punishment.  Spend some time exploring his interests during this meeting.  You’ll need to prepare for this.  If he is a Star Wars Lego fan, get a copy of one of the cool books on this topic.  Bookmark sites or pictures on the computer related to his interests.  Depending upon what I know so far, I may provide an overview of how I will help him.  This could include visiting his class, setting up lunch bunches with classmates, or having lunch with him.  I usually have students fill out a simple graph to rate their school experiences.  This is a good way to begin the use of rating scales, charts, and open discussions about all things related to school. Graph of student interestsI don’t expect the student to ask me any questions, although they may have some related to my room.  There’s a lot for them to absorb, so don’t overdo the talking.

Determining where to begin:

You will be responsible for interventions, accommodations, and modifications to make school a better experience for someone who may not easily fit into this environment.  Based upon your information-gathering with parents, as well as the present level of performance and goals on an IEP (if it’s well written), you should have a reasonable idea about what areas are potentially most difficult for him.  I have found the following to be typically problematic: relationships with teachers and classmates (especially at recess), dealing with frustration, managing transitions (within the class and to another space), working with specials teachers (such as PE), and managing the cafeteria.  Also, many of these kids have not worked well with teacher assistants. Then there are academic behaviors, some of which may be related to a specific disability and others related to “work habits.”  Some kids I’ve taught also have significantly disruptive behavior, including tantrums, running away, cursing, and defiance.

Please remember my underlying assumption:  all kids want to do well in school.  I have found that ASD kids are particularly eager to do well.  They know that school is important and that they are supposed to do their best.  It’s also crucial to see the environment from a ASD perspective, which I’ve found to include: overwhelming stimuli (especially talking and social interactions), confusing rules, boredom, anxiety-provoking interactions, and unpredictability.  My job is to lessen these stressors where possible.

The plan.  This is where I use all the previous info and create a plan for managing the overload of anxiety, anger, you name it.  I cannot expect my student to come up with a plan, but I do involve him in its development.  In fact, we spend our time together rehearsing the use of the plan, which usually includes reference to a social narrative.  When an ASD kid is starting to unravel, they do best with visual input or quiet, not talking things out.  The books for each plan include liberal use of staged student photographs as well as humor and references to their particular interests.  These narratives depict the struggles, but more importantly, their successful resolution.  Do they always work?  Of course not.  But overall, a rehearsed plan is an effective tool for helping a student cope without “losing it.”  Nothing is perfect and I expect to modify the plan as we go along.  I also have to “rescue” kids occasionally, but the idea behind the plan is to avoid the meltdowns.  I have described the plan using the singular form, but a kid may have several plans, one for each identified stressful situation.

Here’s a sample plan for one student who fell apart when his teacher was absent.  You will notice that the plan has been rehearsed.  The student has expressed satisfaction with the book on teacher absences (it includes talking to the teacher assistant, who is also on board with this strategy).  This has been a highly successful strategy; I never had to rescue a student once we had this rehearsed plan in place.

Plan for teacher absence

Here’s a plan I used with a student who was struggling socially.  He tended to get into arguments, especially towards the end of the day when he had run out of social energy.

Plam for when I am angry with others

We had established a chill area in his classroom, just out of sight of the other kids.  Ideally, it’s a place that is close enough so that he can return to the class independently when ready.  This plan was not as successful as the previous one because social pressure was much greater than dealing with the teacher’s absence.  But he did use the plan successfully; at the end of the day, his teacher would show him the number of times he did a great job of calming himself.

I do not try to work on everything at one time, but typically start by tackling the results of unmanageable frustration.  I am looking at the student’s behavior as a sign that something is wrong, just as a fever is an indicator of an underlying condition.  I do not assume that my student is screaming because his goal is to disrupt the room; instead, I view this as a sign that the current situation is not optimal for him.  He may not be able to identify the triggers, so my responsibility is to determine what they are.  However, first, I need to extricate him from a miserable situation before it gets worse.

The rescue.  Typically, I am called to manage the student when things have gone terribly awry.  If I already have a relationship, this part is not too difficult.  If the child is out of control, I encourage him, usually only with a small gesture, to follow me.  I might need to add some reassurance, “Hey, let’s take a break.”  I am not confrontative and I chat with other kids and the teacher, to keep my kid from feeling like we are all terrified of him.  (There have been many scenarios of this sort, but this has been the most typical.)  We leave the room and walk.  We take the long way to my room.  (For one student, who was a runner, walking outside brought immediate relief.  First, he knew that I was not scared of him running away, and second, he was out of the chaos of school noise.)  We eventually end up in my room and review the plan.

I often type their experience as they are describing it to me, and then type in questions, such as “How were you feeling then?” or “What happened next?” so that we are both looking at the document and not adding yet another social complexity to the situation.  Some kids can handle the face-to-face “let’s talk about what happened,” but many respond best to a written “conversation.”

To summarize, building a relationship with the ASD kid must come first, even if it’s in the midst of less than ideal circumstances.  Second, I do not start developing a behavior contract.  Instead, I develop a plan of action for when the student is overwhelmed and unable to recover without some intervention.  The goal of the plan is to support student-led resolution of crises, but I am (hopefully) always available when that doesn’t work.  I have never found that students misuse the plan to get out of work or spend time hanging out in my room.  They have the same desire for independence and success as the next kiddo.

Questions?  Any specific areas you would like me to address?