* 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 & 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.

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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.

* N is for no, not now, never

Raise your hand if you like people to tell you NO when you really want something.  What if you ask very nicely?  What if you plead your case?  What if you whine and stomp your feet?  What if you won’t be their friend any more?  It doesn’t take much time around kids (and adults) before you learn that NO can bring out the worst in human nature.  The trouble is, NO can be endlessly confusing for some kids.

The fuzziness of NO is especially tricky for autistic kids.  NO can mean No, Not Now, Never, Maybe, I’ll Negotiate later, or OK If You Leave Me Alone. There are many factors which can change NO into something else:

  • Environment:  NO, you can’t run around and turn off all the lights at school, but if I’m in a good mood, you can do that at home.  NO, you cannot buy that Lego set, but since everyone in the mall can hear you screaming, I’ll buy one just this time.
  • Manipulation:  NO, you can’t eat another piece of candy, but when you look me in the eyes and smile, YES, I have changed my mind.
  • Guilt:  NO, you may not stay up to watch that show, but look how precious you can be, no matter what they say at school/ in the family/ in the neighborhood.
  • Energy:  NO, you may not watch that cartoon, but I am going to fall over if I don’t take a quick nap.
  • Social mores:  NO, you cannot kiss every girl in kindergarten, even though it was cute in preschool.

Is all lost?  NO!  Social mores are the best place to start because they aren’t based on your energy level, anxiety, or kid manipulation.  Start with two categories of NO: ALWAYS NO and SOMETIMES NO.  Aggression, bullying, teasing, victimization, and destruction of property are ALWAYS NO.  SOMETIMES, kids can ask for their preferred activities and objects and get them.  The fine art of negotiation is not lost on autistic kids, but many have to be taught how to ask, when to ask, and how to accept a NO.  Responding to NO appropriately can be rehearsed and included in rubrics for kids at home and school.  For kids with serious language/processing issues, you need to be sure that NO isn’t a substitute for HELP (like “This class environment is killing me”) or HURT (“I am going to throw up if I do that!”).


* S is for sanitary

germ-41367_640Blogging A-Z: S is for sanitary.  I don’t mean sanity, but the two can go together.

WARNING: This post contains graphic information of the sort that my husband refuses to read or discuss at dinner.  You may want to skip this one.  I know he will.

My two worst school-related illnesses were transmitted by one kid on the autism spectrum.  Here’s the background on “Adam.”  Because he was so socially impaired, Adam had never developed those valuable pre-kindergarten antibodies; he was never close enough to any student to share materials OR germs.  When he started kindergarten and learned to sit and work with a group, Adam caught everything.  Of course, he hadn’t learned to manage the bodily functions associated with these illnesses.  One day, he showed up in my room, looking quite pale, while I heard desperate calls on the intercom for a custodian to report to his classroom.  I wrote my first social story on “how to vomit into a toilet” for this kiddo.  After he had learned this valuable skill, I found myself practicing it as well.

On another occasion, Adam came to my room for social skills instruction with a chest cold that resembled TB.  As I looked at Adam’s face, with this brownish mucus oozing from his nose, my know-it-all self took charge.  I gave him a tissue and said, “Blow your nose.”  Adam obeyed promptly, spraying the table with the most disgusting slime I’d ever seen (except perhaps in the Alien movie series).  A couple of the less distracted kids actually saw this and were quite fascinated.  I regretted my assumption that Adam knew the relationship between a tissue and nose blowing.  That was the impetus for another social story and my acquisition of antibacterial wipes.

Adam had a tough time kicking that “bug” so he had much-needed practice in using tissues for nose-blowing.  Sadly, I had not anticipated sneezing.  I don’t know what to say in my defense.  For some reason, I was on a deadly slow learning curve with Adam.  I was up close and personal as I demonstrated how to get all that crud from his nose.  YOU know what’s coming, but I never anticipated that mother of all sneezes, which drenched and coated my eyelashes.  Within two days, I had bronchitis and was eventually hospitalized for pneumonia.

Adam taught me all I ever needed to know about: sanitary.

* Rubric for good sportsmanship

Here’s a sample rubric for good sportsmanship.  I do use that term, even with kindergartners, because I figure they might as well start off learning terminology that we’ll continue to use in the future.  When teaching kids how to join in a game, we do a lot of videotaped rehearsals and practice with puppets and peers.  Most of my kiddos hate to lose (me, too!) so I give them opportunities to win games and then gradually wean them off victory into the “real” world.  They enjoy hearing how I used to cheat my sister at Monopoly (“Oh, my teacher is human!”) and I emphasize candor as we navigate the winning and losing issues.  Obviously, some rubrics for good sportsmanship will have a greater focus on simply joining in, because some kids are at a loss during recess.  Other kids need more emphasis on playing fair or managing their feelings if they lose a game.  The best rubrics are individualized and supported by direct instruction. rubric good sportsmanship