Listening in a large group is a crucial skill for students. There’s a wide range of developmentally appropriate levels of listening. Current research suggests that we have been guilty of bombarding the brain with much more than it can successfully process. Why hasn’t that been more obvious? I think these limits on listening have been partially camouflaged by compliant behavior; many kids look like they are paying attention. The listening process can be supported by visual cues which extend the learner’s ability to track verbal information. Teachers who help students make effective connections can also stretch that window of opportunity. The timing of lengthy periods of verbal instruction is also a factor that influences how much the young brain can absorb.
Teacher behavior can short-circuit the listening process. Teachers who maintain a constant flow of dialog, with directions lost in the midst of random comments, can make it difficult for students who want to listen. Some directions are overly complicated and students may only catch the first or last steps. Sometimes, teacher talking becomes a white noise that kids only “hear” when the volume goes up or their name is called.
Even the most proficient teachers are daunted by some kiddos with listening weaknesses. Students with language processing issues, which can include a wide range of identified disabilities, may be trying to listen but find it too difficult. For kids on the autism spectrum, written/visual information is usually more easily grasped. Students with attention challenges are often distracted by “irrelevant” classroom sights and sounds; for this population, they may struggle to determine what is relevant. (Check out the attention simulation on Understood.org for a glimpse of how this feels.) Gifted kids may be inattentive due to boredom. Twice exceptional kids may be anxiously preparing themselves for the next classroom challenge.
The most interesting non-listener I’ve ever taught (a student on the autism spectrum) simply could not “hear” the teacher in a group setting, despite numerous interventions. He was bright and cooperative, but could not isolate the teacher’s voice, even in a quiet room. Finally, using an earbud wirelessly connected to a teacher microphone (typically used by hearing impaired students), the teacher’s voice was amplified and this student learned to listen in 2nd grade. It was a remarkable “aha!” experience for him. And me! Another autistic student needed a clipboard and graphic for recording specific components of a lesson, based upon his weaknesses in participating and listening to peers. After a month or so, he no longer needed that visual support for listening in a large group.
I’m sure all of us can identify with kids who seem to be listening but have no clue what was said!
When working with kids, one of the first things I establish is the importance of their honest feedback. I’m especially interested in creating a language to discuss the difficulty level of a lesson or specific task. A numbered rating scale, once defined and practiced, is a useful means of eliciting immediate feedback. While it’s also important to gauge understanding, I can usually assess that without as much direct student feedback. On the other hand, the levels of effort, discomfort or anxiety, and interest can be masked by compliance and a good working relationship.
Feedback on mental effort is especially crucial for twice exceptional students (2e). These are the kids whose giftedness camouflages the energy drain of a lesson. 2e kiddos also enjoy a scale with a broad range of possibilities, so 1 through 10 is often preferable to 1 through 5. It’s worth letting them take the time to adjust the numbers precisely (I got an 8.5 level of difficulty yesterday, which is pretty high). The harder part can be helping them verbalize what features of the task made it so onerous. Just as these students can struggle to differentiate main ideas and details, they may also paint the assignment with a broad brush. Follow-up questioning elicits those details which then change my instructional materials or techniques. Providing kids routine opportunities to evaluate instructional tasks not only validates their efforts but improves their ability to analyze and self-monitor their learning. For me, it’s equally vital for improving my own skills as a teacher. Win-win!
Inspiretheworld2day shares her story as a mom of a bright son with attention problems. She describes their tremendous joint effort and the cost to both of them. Sadly, she also struggles with a school that won’t provide her son’s 504 accommodations. Being a twice exceptional student can be twice as hard. Read on for more!
Blog post: Squirrel, pizza, dogs, text!
This evening, I had the bittersweet privilege of seeing a parent empower her son. Why bittersweet? Because her son, Tony, is being verbally bullied. He’s a funny and bright kid who has attracted the attention of a tormenting classmate. Why is Tony being bullied? He needs classroom modifications that draw some attention to his weaknesses. Tony is a twice exceptional student, anxious about his reading and writing disabilities. He also has speech difficulties, which appear to be the focus of the bullying. He’s the perfect target for someone who also feels insecure (not a native English speaker) but who acts out those feelings by victimizing others.
Tony and I reviewed how he’s been responding to this bullying. He has tried the “broken record” approach unsuccessfully (repeating the same response). The tormentor is not willing to engage in any playfulness or respond to humor. Tony suggested that the tormentor is bullying him to get attention, so Tony really wants to ignore him. I wondered out loud if Tony was successfully ignoring this guy and he assured me that he was. I asked him to describe how the taunting occurs. Here’s the most typical scenario: This guy asks to get up for some tissue, takes the long route past Tony’s desk, and taunts him about his “accent,” smiling all the while. Then he blows into the tissue, tosses it in the trash, and makes his way past Tony again, with even more taunting and grinning.
OK, it’s obvious that Tony is watching this guy’s every move. Tony is on red alert, waiting for the inevitable. I took the role of the tormentor and helped Tony see how he was responding in a way that pleases this guy. By this time, I have signaled Tony’s mom and she is processing the scene with us. It’s obvious that Tony has no idea how to ignore such a challenge to his safety.
Here’s the tip Tony’s mom gave him: Think about what you would like to tell this kid, but spell it on the roof of your mouth with your tongue. Once Tony got the gist of using his tongue to trace out letters, he was in another zone altogether. He “rejoined” us after he had spelled out a directive for that guy to leave him alone. Tony’s face lit up as he realized that he could tune out his surroundings while concentrating on spelling. This is an especially effective technique since Tony struggles with spelling. And perhaps his control over the muscles of his mouth will also improve as he silently spells!
There are a number of other ways to resolve this issue, including talking to the classroom teacher, but current circumstances make that a difficult choice. I’ll keep you posted on the results of this strategy. We’re feeling confident!
As mentioned in a previous post, special needs kids often excel in areas such as science and social studies. I do remember when those were the very subjects my students would miss in order to receive a double dose of reading and math or to attend a social skills group. Also, science and social studies may be textbook-boring, instead of the hands-on, energized subjects we might hope for. Putting those two dilemmas aside, science and social studies can provide terrific opportunities for leadership training with our twice exceptional and high-functioning autistic kids.
There are a number of ways to take advantage of these kids’ interests and skills in science and/or social studies. Here’s the shortened version: assign special needs kids as “teaching assistants” or “mentors” to small groups rotating through centers in a regular classroom. You’ll need a willing classroom teacher, schedule congruities, and a heads-up on science/social studies topics. With rehearsal in a social skills or other small group (even reading, writing, or math), you’ll provide rubric-based practice for your leaders-in-training. Depending upon your student’s maturity and skill levels, you could assign them to work with younger or same age peers. Here are some other important steps:
- Make sure your kids have opportunities to develop familiarity with that classroom teacher and room (visit during lunch or before school).
- Provide your student with the center topic, materials, and expectations (preferably assisted by the classroom teacher/assistant and reinforced by special ed teacher and perhaps parents).
- Have an adult nearby for at least the first rotation of students; a classroom or special ed assistant (prepared to use the same rubric as the student) would be perfect.
- Review the adult’s rubric and comments after the first center activities are complete. I set up a Wikispace for assistants to provide me immediate feedback.
- Plan on meeting with your student as soon as possible after their first session to elicit feedback and review the rubric.
This process is a bit labor-intensive on the front end, but soon settles into a routine. Voilà! Your special needs student becomes the resident expert, other kids now look up to him, and his confidence and skills have received a huge boost. The following rubric is a sample for this process and would need to be individualized for each student. The student’s “title” should reflect their role and aspirations. Their goal (number of stars) should also be defined and gradually increase over time.
In my previous post, I shared some of David Sousa’s findings related to elementary students struggling in math. These kids find themselves in a tangle of partially and incorrectly learned skills and procedures. They are uncertain about how to begin problem solving and which operations are appropriate. They are not fluent in math facts. These kids often become highly anxious about math, describing themselves as incapable of learning. They may act out in school or withdraw; either way, they define their situation as hopeless. When they attempt homework, they valiantly try to recall the procedures, but are mostly unsuccessful. These are the kids who cannot tell me what topic they are learning in math.
As in all areas of special education, the first step is gradually leading kids to an understanding of where they are, while building confidence and hope that relearning is within their ability. This is a difficult undertaking for both me and my student. Struggling math learners have a hodgepodge of knowledge. If they are identified in upper elementary grades, that tangle is enormous. I have found that the smartest students have the greatest tangles. Some of these students are twice exceptional, gifted with a disability. They have been able to stuff many partial facts and procedures into their memory and may have camouflaged their disability for a few years. Students with weaker memory may be easier to “retrain” because they have less to unlearn.
I described this process as “tricky” because of the emotional aspects associated with relearning. These smart kiddos have been told, “You can do it!” because their working memory gives them the appearance of deeper understanding. These bright kids often have strong metacognitive skills: they are aware that something is wrong and may have interpreted that as “stupidity.” Anxiety has now begun to seriously impact every math lesson. They become hyper-vigilant about their performance, expecting to make a mistake at every juncture and dreading tests.
Depending upon the student, I disclose enough information about their weaknesses to provide motivation but not so much that they want to run away! My goal is to infuse hope by demonstrating how much they HAVE learned. Systematic assessment is crucial to this process. Providing external motivation is often necessary, especially if they are phobic about math. They have not yet experienced the value and joy of truly learning math skills, so they need something to get them started.
In previous posts, I described the writing struggles of Tony, a twice exceptional student with a remarkable memory and tremendous anxiety about writing. In November, I started systematic instruction on adjectives, making use of the worksheet generators on Super Teacher Worksheets. I have created matching worksheets beginning with general adjectives which would match a variety of people (such as young, nervous, silly) and progressing to more specific adjectives. Here’s a sample:
In my last update at the beginning of December, Tony was able to generate between 3 and 14 adjectives about objects in three minutes. (He especially enjoys timed challenges.) His ability to describe people was a particular weakness, so our last few sessions have focused descriptions of characters.
During our last session, Tony’s responses demonstrated the effectiveness of our work. He generated as many as 28 adjectives to describe people, with an average of 24. He also did that in TWO minutes time, not three. You rock, Tony!
Schoolwork during the winter break? What? As one kid said to me, “Are you kidding?” If you’ve followed this blog, you know I am generally opposed to daily homework. But working during a school break, especially one that is two weeks long, has its benefits. Who could benefit from schoolwork during a break? And where would this work come from?
For kids who lag far behind their peers: These are usually kids with learning disabilities who need to invest strategically-timed effort to reduce that gap and retain skills. They are kids who are very much aware of their memory weaknesses and have the motivation to keep going. The work is individualized and includes much computer-based instruction. This plan works well for students if their parents have to leave them in the care of older siblings or other caregiver. Students in this category typically earn a reward for completing assignments. They may check in with me during the break.
For kids who need a consistent routine: I’ve created work packets for kids on the autism spectrum who do well with some “schoolwork” time during a break. These are the kids who are at loose ends without their usual school day (and their parents, may start to unravel, as well). The packets are filled with familiar drills, activities, and personal messages from me. In fact, in coordination with their parents, if the work comes from me, the kids will do it. Otherwise, all bets are off. The goal of these packets is not so much academic as it is functional. The packets typically include links to computer-based instruction as well. Not all ASD kids will respond well to this plan, especially those twice exceptional kids (see below), but it’s been very helpful for some.
Which kids do not benefit from schoolwork during a long break?
Kids who are burned out from school work. These are often the kids who are also anxious about their school performance. Twice exceptional kids typically fall in this group. The last thing they need is a reminder of dreaded school days. Instead, they should occupy their time with lots of physical activity and special interests. This population is already at risk for melting down before school ends, so they need to “forget” about school for a while.
One note: These guidelines are for a two-week break. The longer summer break has unique pros and cons for many special needs kids.
Megawords is a specialized reading program published by EPS School Specialty. EPS has long been my favorite supplier of quality materials for students with learning disabilities. Megawords is another winner. Created for students at a fourth grade reading level through high school, it provides systematic instruction in reading multisyllabic words. (Click here if you want to see how this program is aligned with current research for teaching reading.) If you are teaching a twice exceptional (2e) student with a strong vocabulary, Megawords can be effective at third grade as well.
The Megawords program is divided into 8 books, each focusing on specific skills in a logical order. Here’s a look at what’s taught:
To begin with, I recommend that you purchase the Assessment of Decoding and Encoding Skills. Although each Megawords book comes with ongoing assessment features, I like to get a really “big picture” before starting the program. The assessments will provide a solid basis for measuring growth as you teach with this series.
Each book follows a 6-step method of instruction:
Each step is designed for systematic and carefully sequenced instruction, moving from rules and word parts (syllables) to reading in context. The progression of skills is as good as any I’ve used. The in-book assessments are simple (reading and writing 5 words) and allow students to understand where they are and note their progress on accuracy and fluency graphs. Students are monitored by reading words in isolation and in passages. Based on research supporting the actual writing of words to improve retention, Megawords is heavy on writing. For my students with graphomotor issues (most of them), I will substitute verbal responses for about a third of the activities. I also supplement those “skipped” written lessons with activities I create on Quizlet.
Each Megawords book does take time to complete. Ideally, you would use it daily. I am using it with students I tutor only once a week but even at that rate, they are making good progress. Why would I use this program under those conditions? Because my students have not reached a level of automaticity with these skills, despite other extensive instruction in syllable types and other decoding practice. By definition, kids with identified disabilities are intervention-resistant. My 2e kids may memorize words and rules quickly, but forget them when we move to a new topic. Their recall and application of skills over time tends to lag considerably when compared to their short-term progress. Megawords ensures that they have over-learned skills, which is vital for this population.
Have you tried Megawords? What are your impressions of the program?