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. I 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.
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.
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?