* NERDS book review

NERDS book 1

NERDS: National Espionage, Rescue, and Defense Society is a fast-paced, kids-as-spies thriller and spoof.  The main characters are, well, nerds, who have been recruited by a top secret government agency to combat villains by using nanobyte technology.  Jackson Jones, once a cool 5th grade jock and very much full of himself, plummets from social acclaim to nerd status when he is fitted with the most tortuous set of braces ever designed.  Amazingly, his braces become a secret weapon, but in the end, Jackson’s indomitable spirit, along with a newfound humility, save the day.  Almost.

The author, Michael Buckley, creates this wacky and hilarious story which is the first in a series of five books featuring the NERDS secret society.  Buckley’s characters are straight out of upper elementary or middle school, with lots of “ew!” moments.  Each nerd spy is outfitted with a weapon system built around his or her weakness, which is an interesting concept (see social skills application below).  Students will not be disappointed in the high tech features of this story.  It’s an action packed adventure that travels the globe, just like James Bond movies.  The entire book is written as a transmission of sorts and the reader must provide increasingly (gross) samples of DNA to receive the next level.  There’s no way to keep a straight face as a kid is hunting for ear wax to put on a sensor!  Eventually, the author is makes an all-out ploy for cash, which is just as funny as the rest of the book.

I was surprised that Buckley kills off some folks in this book.  When facing an evil genius bent on destroying the world, I guess there must be casualties.  The “violence” is tempered by humor; pinatas with missiles can really mess up a birthday party.  The book is a fast read, features astounding artificial intelligence, and suggests that Michael Buckley is one quick-witted but wacky guy.  Visit his website for more spy fun; kids can join the NERDS team by answering a set of questions and being assigned a code name.  Very cool.

Special education application:  This is a 5 star book with special appeal to kiddos with learning and social challenges.  The distress and humiliation of bullying is not glossed over, despite Jackson’s total denial that he ever bullied anyone.  In fact, the entire plot is predicated on the good, the bad, and the ugly of elementary and middle school social mores.  NERDS makes a great read aloud for social skills groups, with an abundance of topics to explore.


* Follow up on golden Jim

Jim with bananas


I’ve been asked why I would let a puppet slap and tease my students in a social skills group.  It’s all Jim’s fault.  As much as I have worked with him, Jim struggles to remember how to manage his strong feelings.  He teases relentlessly.  He still picks his nose.  The kids in the social skills groups do their best to help Jim because they find him rather likeable.  Don’t ask me why he’s so popular.  His voice grates on my nerves.  But the kids create role plays for him, suggest strategies for managing that nasty nose thing, and even get used to his teasing.  You’d be surprised how attached they can get to this fuzzy critter with his ENORMOUS hugs.  Sorry, Jim, but I’m just telling it like it is.  Oh, you also need to learn how to share.

* Social Rules for Kids

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

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

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

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

* AlphaBooks Blogging: J is for The Jacket

The Jacket by Andrew Clements is a story I’ve used with kids who have social skill weaknesses, especially around the issue of race and skin color.  Although it’s an older book (with odd technological references), the story line is simple and provides a starting point for introducing the concepts of racial stereotyping.  I’ve worked with a number of kids on the autism spectrum who’ve had rigid ideas about skin color.  Some of these kids hadn’t even recognized their own racial identity.  I recall more than one parent of an ASD student feeling mortified by their child’s unique and public ways of categorizing skin tones.  This book is also a good starting point for helping kids who have grown up with more “typical” racist stereotypes.

In The Jacket, Phil, a white boy, accuses a black student, Daniel, of stealing his jacket.  Phil had outgrown the jacket but passed it along to his brother. The jacket had been given to Daniel’s grandmother, who gave it to her grandson.  The conversations and relationships depicted in this book are straightforward.  The story line is also simple.  Phil eventually wonders if he would have reacted so angrily had he seen a white boy wearing a jacket that looked like his.  Phil must also confront his father’s racism, while Daniel deals with stereotypes of his own.  The story has a simplistic ending, but for kids who are just starting to address the effect of race and skin color on their social relationships, The Jacket has been a helpful tool.  It’s a quick read and provides vocabulary for discussing more complex issues.

Weirdness: The cover picture above is not from the original book, which features images of middle school kids, in keeping with the story line.

* G is for goofiness

eyes-33214_640Blogging A-Z: G is for goofiness.  We all need some goofiness every day, especially in school.  My favorite teachers have always been those who can laugh at themselves and with kids.  Most classes have some kids who are naturally goofy, which makes it easier to let goofiness out of the bag, at least for a moment.  Then there are those serendipitous events which allow everyone to giggle and relax.  And there are times when a teacher must contrive a goofy situation in order to survive the day.

Goofiness at school is a social skill worth teaching, although I’ve never met a social skills curriculum in which its included!  Goofiness is fairly difficult for some kids, who can’t turn off the goofy switch easily once they get going.  But teachers can help kids understand the limits, which are usually determined by the teacher and/or the effect on group dynamics.  I think it’s healthy to allow kids to nudge beyond those limits so they can eventually experience the joy of self-control.  Goofiness is also a great response to stress.  School is a tough place for many special needs kids, and laughter can serve as a release when words don’t come easily.

To demonstrate how SERIOUSLY I take goofiness, I will describe my tutoring sessions with one of the most anxious and rigid kids I’ve seen.  When we first started working, he sat like a statue.  He did not smile.  He was “Mr.Perfect.”  A 7-year-old boy who was Mr. Perfect?  If he had been at school, with a group of kids, I know it wouldn’t have taken so much effort to elicit goofiness.  Anyway, I put on quite a performance of slapstick errors, incongruities, and other temptations.  I gave him every opportunity to crack a smile.  In desperation, I revised my goal: I needed him to act up.  Forget goofiness.  I wanted him to misbehave.  I mean, where was the real kid who was struggling to follow directions at school?  After a long month, Mr. Perfect got frustrated with math and had a tantrum.  Woohoo!  That was the little crack in his “persona” that I needed.  His tantrum was a sure sign that he could benefit from goofiness.   He had gone from perfect to crying, with nothing in between.  We worked on his repertoire of many skills, including goofiness.  Now he’s still very compliant but knows how to have fun, can advocate for himself, and can talk about hard things.  Goofiness rules!

* Social skills: developing IEP goals

To follow up on yesterday’s post, the purpose of effective data collection is to provide a starting point for instruction, specifically, developing IEP goals.  IEP 1

Where do I begin?  Like the old adage, the squeaky wheel gets the oil.  Those behaviors which are most interfering with a child’s ability to function socially provide a starting point.  However, those “squeaky wheel” issues do not always belong entirely to a student.  They may be related to teacher behavior.  For instance, a teacher may not provide adequate warning for schedule changes or transitions from favorite activities.  They may misinterpret a student’s response as challenging their authority.  Teasing/bullying classmates can create extra “squeak” for kids who struggle with social interactions.  The classroom may be overloaded with visual and auditory distractions.  I remember one classroom with a constant musical soundtrack in the background.  (It drove me nuts.)   Parents may be uninvolved or have unreasonable expectations about the school environment, such as the amount of time a student may spend on his special interests.  Regardless of ownership, though, students must learn to cope with social and behavioral hazards.  I may be able to ward off some bullying and help a teacher better understand the way the student talks, but overall, that student must manage himself under stress.  (I have posted on this dilemma before.)

I ask myself two questions: What specific behaviors are interfering with my student’s learning?  What behaviors can I teach my student to promote improved relationships and coping strategies?

I must write measurable objectives that will make a meaningful difference in the lives of my students.  All that data I collected forms a present level of performance and guides this step.  I also need parent involvement, information, and feedback in order to write effective goals.

Here are some examples of goals.  I may want my students to:

  • work effectively with classmates in completing a small group project
  • interact with classmates at lunch through conversation
  • interact with classmates at recess by joining in adult-organized activities
  • transition from one activity to another at a rate commensurate with peers
  • respond to teasing and/or bullying by moving away and reporting to an adult
  • participate in group classroom discussions
  • ask for time to chill or take a break when feeling overwhelmed
  • refer to plans for dealing with unexpected schedule change
  • monitor rate of completed classroom assignments

For each of these, I must add sufficient information so everyone knows when that goal has been mastered.  For how many recesses must a student join in adult-organized activities?  With what prompts?  Each annual goal must be realistic and requires both classroom and special education support.  In my experience, the kids who make the most progress are those whose parents are also closely involved in the process.

* Keeping data on social skills: baselines

No matter what specific social skills you are addressing, data is crucial.

Baseline data tells you where a student is currently functioning.  In the past, when teachers made a special education referral, they might have said, “He’s aggressive,” or “He can’t get along with others.”  Now that many schools have Response to Intervention (RtI) in place, the descriptors of student behavior should be much more exact.  In my experience, that continues to vary considerably.  Observation is the key to determining precisely what behaviors are interfering with the student’s ability to learn.  Even for students who are currently placed in special education, ongoing observations provide valuable feedback on whether your interventions are effective.

Observation sounds like a science, right?  Not so.  Observations can be biased, vague, and meaningless.  Data collection should be repeated across time and settings.  In my experience, observers have differing strengths.  I know one school psychologist who is masterful at watching the “identified” kid and a random peer, marking off behavior for both in ten-second intervals on a range of behaviors.  Personally, I have strengths in capturing anecdotal detail, perhaps because I have spent so many years observing (and can write at an incredible speed).  I make use of peripheral vision so that the kid I’m observing is typically unaware of my copious notes on him or her.  I may deliberately interact with other students to lessen my target student’s possible self-consciousness.  I mark exact times down the left side of my papers.  An observation of 20-30 minutes is the minimum.  I also use checklists that I have adapted, to which I will attach my typed copy of the observations (which are otherwise illegible).  Here’s a sample checklist:observation checklist

I have found it difficult to maintain an adequate rate of classroom observations for kids who are already placed with me.  Because I have used lunch time and planning to serve students, groups must be canceled in order to observe.  Still, I have managed to watch kids through windows and by peeking around a teacher’s office.  That’s life, right?

What do I look for?  For kids with social skills issues, I am watching the interactions between the student, his peers, and the teacher.  Where is the student sitting or working?  What is he saying or doing?  What do others say or do around him?  What events are occurring in the classroom (or gym or recess)?  What is the tone of classroom?  Are kids loud, in constant motion, silent, working in groups, seated at tables, moving to centers?  The student is not operating in a vacuum.  In fact, I want to capture as much information about the the environment as possible.  With so many school settings and interpersonal variables, unless you have other compelling reasons, multiple observations are best.  Observations at lunch and recess are often the most difficult but worth the effort.  These are the environments in which kids with weak social skills are most likely to be stressed, bullied, and overwhelmed.  It’s a challenge to capture conversations on a playground and I may stick out like a sore thumb, since most assistants are supervising on the fringes of activity.  Still, it’s quite feasible to get a decent observation.  Kids get used to seeing me out there with a clipboard; I can take advantage of those who are curious by appearing to watch them instead.  binoculars

How is the baseline data presented?  Typically, a referring committee receives anecdotal information  by teachers (which is often a log of discipline issues) and checklists/recommendations from specialists.  Since I know that my ten-page, single-spaced observation is not likely going to be read by everyone (like a thousand word blog post!), I give a copy to parents ahead of time, along with a summary of key points and the adapted checklist.  To guide my own instruction, I make a list of those key points for evaluating current IEP objectives/benchmarks, as well as guiding the development of a new IEP.  I may also create a graph which provides a rough picture of how the student is progressing on annual goals.  The observation/s is a snapshot, not ever a complete picture of how the student performs, so those graphs must be combined and/or compared with measures of teacher and student feedback and performance in a small group setting.

* Stop and count?

stop-565609_640Stop and count to 10.  I remember an era of social skills instruction that focused on counting to help kids control their temper and modulate their responses to conflict.  I ditched that strategy because it never worked.  No one ever counted, and if they had, would they have been better off?  After reading Crucial Conversations (through chapter six), I’ve been thinking about the best ways to help kids step outside a crucial conversation and adjust their responses.

The first steps described in Crucial Conversations are already a part of my social skills instruction.  Identifying potential conflicts and working towards a mutually satisfactory outcome are not too difficult for most kids.  In fact, those skills form the basis for most of my role-playing and social skills narratives.  But the “Learn to Look” aspect (chapter 4) is exponentially more challenging.  Can kids learn to step back and analyze their feelings when they feel unsafe?  Can they do that for others as well?  And having noticed that other kids feel unsafe, will they avoid responding in kind?  I think so.  In fact, many kids already have some of these skills because their parents and teachers model them effectively.

What if teachers routinely modeled these skills?  Imagine I am teaching a small reading group.  I ask a student to share their personal connection to the text.  They respond by saying, “This was so boring!  Why did we have to read it?”  I can use think-aloud as a strategy for modeling the Crucial Conversations-type response.  My key word for potentially difficult conversations has been safety.  I nod and say, “I need to step back a moment and think about whether this discussion is safe for all of us.  What do I really want to happen here?  Should I get grumpy or can I find out more about what you mean?  I believe that you really want to do your best in reading, so I need to find out what your strong feelings are all about.  I’ve already told everyone that I want discussions to be safe for all of us.”  I would then ask my student, “Can you tell us more about what you mean?  I want to keep this discussion safe for all of us.”  This can’t be the kids’ first exposure to this strategy, but it will reinforce previous structured instruction on keeping discussions and interactions safe.

I like it.  What about you?

* Discovery Education for dealing with bullying and more

discovery educationWant a video that depicts common classroom bullying?  What about strategies to reduce bullying?  Check out Discovery Education, a for-profit organization that provides access to more than 170,000 digital resources on bullying and about every other topic you can imagine.  When I first started using online videos for social skills instruction, my school subscribed to United Streaming.  United Streaming and Discovery Education are now combined, with an impressive array of resources categorized by topic and curriculum standards.  This online resource can be purchased by school districts and also includes: teacher training; an emphasis on STEM curricula and careers; options for teacher-created materials (such as quizzes and writing prompts); and teacher-directed, individualized support for students who are unable to attend school.

One of my primary uses of this website has been for social skills instruction.  Although I have typically used my own students for developing videos, these online resources normalize a variety of social experiences for kids, as well as allowing me to work with students individually while others are productively engaged.  A quick search for ‘bullying’ produces 188 resources, many of which can be downloaded and edited for and by students.  Some of these materials were produced about 10 years ago, but depict scenarios which are still relevant today.

Discovery Education also provides free teacher, parent, and student resources, most of which are average or so-so in quality. Parent resources include articles on motivation, summer activities, free clip art, and homework help.  The best student resource is a math homework helper, but it would require good reading skills and like the parent resources, the page is cluttered with advertisements.  (Perhaps not if you use Firefox with Adblock Plus….)  On the other hand, here’s an example of their free animated clip art, one of hundreds available, and my first animated clip art on this blog!  ani-dance1

* Social skills: rubric for cafeteria

Again, in response to a request, here is a rubric for eating in the cafeteria.  Cafeterias tend to be large and noisy.  The following rubric would be useful for kids on the autism spectrum as well as kids with ADHD and social skills weaknesses.

You’ll notice that that the rubric can be used to determine whether kids are getting foods they like to eat.  Kids need adequate nutrition if they are to make it through a long school day.  I have found that some kids need support in asking for food they want, rather than simply accepting the tray handed to them.  Cafeteria workers are under time pressure; if a kid cannot easily be heard or make a quick decision, that child may not get what they want.  Parents and teachers can help with this, whether it is practice in speaking clearly, holding up an index card, or checking the menu choices before arriving at school.  Also, parents may need to know that their child is tossing the lunch prepared at home.  I am sometimes surprised that parents don’t know their child HATES peanut butter sandwiches.  If parents want to “train” a child to eat foods through their school lunch box, please think again.  Kids get so tired and irritable on an empty stomach.

As I’ve noted before, don’t just send a rubric along with a student, hoping it will work.  Each of the items must be discussed and rehearsed, while several of these will need role-playing.


rubric for cafeteria