Saturday, February 17, 2018

(Neuro)Divergent: The Classroom

It’s funny, I used to be called “the mean teacher” because I would insist on students doing everything they could independently, no matter how long it took, and not letting others “save” them. Because I insisted on teaching grade-level content to all my students, no matter their academic skill access level.

Now, I’ve changed schools. To the school that was closest aligned to my values that I could find in the state. And all of the sudden, I’ve developed a reputation as that teacher that is too permissive. You know the one, the one that lets her kids get away with everything and doesn’t actually teach? Yeah, that’s how I’m being perceived.

So what happened?

I could point to any number of things. I do have a really hard class this year. Certainly harder than I’ve had in a while. Groups don’t look very group-ish most of the time. And certainly, I’ve had more lessons fail than I had gotten used to. That’s only a problem when I’m okay with it and don’t learn from it. (And it’s the cause of my discomfort, not the school community perception.)

No, this reputation came about because I have found the hard edge of their tolerance for neurodiverisity. I knew it had to be there: schools are staffed by neurotypicals and even the respectful ones are limited by their perceptions of the world if they’re not listening to the voices of the neurodivergent community. And I noticed that from day one when I started at this school. It was far more respectful and understanding of the neurodivergent community than any place I had been before. But it was still an “us” and a “them” and the voices of the neurodivergent community were conspicuously missing from the conversation. (I left feedback saying as much on my evaluation. I doubt it made a difference.)

That’s what the perceived “permissiveness” is: I’m being too neurodiversity friendly. And, as often happens, it’s being perceived through neurotypical eyes as letting them get away with too much: because it makes them uncomfortable, because if they were me they would not let him do it. And so the “he needs to learn he can’t do that out in a job setting” argument gets invoked.

I literally got told that I’m really good at keeping kids calm and preventing them from getting upset so they can learn. And that that is a bad thing. Because they need to learn to handle being more uncomfortable. (Them being comfortable is making the staff around them uncomfortable.) We need to sacrifice their learning so they can accept more “appropriate boundaries.”

And to some degree, of course, they’re right. Because outside my neurodivergent-friendly classroom, the cold neurotypical world won’t accept them for who they are. And they will be forced to accept arbitrary social rules in the name of “appropriate boundaries” in order to be successful. And we all want them to be successful.

So, where do we go from here?

  • We use a more typical token or points system on are goal-directed-learning project. (Honestly, that was probably the next step in understanding how to reach our goal anyway. We needed to make it more concrete.)*

  • We set up clearer physical boundaries in the classroom. (I’ve already bought painters tape. Wish I could remember the name of the teacher I met on Twitter who gave me the idea a couple years ago! Thank you, Awesome Autism Teacher Who’s Name I Forget!)

  • I have some social skills curriculum to write. And some social stories. They need to come from me because they need to come from a neurodivergent perspective. (Unless someone else out there has already written one? I don’t need to reinvent the wheel!)

I’ve got my work cut out for me changing the perception of myself at my students at my new school. But I think it’s worth it. Because this school really does have the right idea and the right values. It’s why I chose to work there. 

Even when we have neurodiversity acceptance in our society I don’t think we’ll ever have neurodivergent-friendly classrooms the way we have neurotypical-friendly classrooms now. And that is what I was trying to create. And honestly, if I believe in inclusion, which I say I do, that shouldn’t be what I want. Our goal should be a neurodiveristy-friendly room. One that works for all of us, neurotypical and neurodivergent. They are right, I went too far to one side. It’s time to re-build the classroom that works for all of us, because that’s the classroom that is really going to prepare students for “the working world” after graduation.

*I know the research on reinforcers. I’ve read Punished by Rewards. I’ve read Mindset. But I work in a PBIS school that wants to increase its use of PBIS. That means using rewards. I have some ideas about how to make this work following the TTOG principles. I’d been trying it before everything fell apart in the last month or two and having some really awesome successes, even in the DTT context, that I hope to get to write up at some point.

Sunday, December 3, 2017

The Gift of Flexibility

The rules that make up our social structure can seem arbitrary when participation is not intuitive: Go here now but not later. Touch this but not that. Put this here but not there. When you look for an underlying logic in order to understand them, as many autistic children and adults do, it appears they change on a whim. “Go with the flow” requires recognizing and understanding, or at least being able to follow, the “flow” of society, which is based on social norms - the very skill that eludes so many people on the spectrum. It’s really no wonder so many cling to routine, structure, and sameness and get upset when it is violated. From that perspective, it’s actually surprising more folks on the spectrum don’t spend more time in “fight or flight” mode. It is a constant battle to figure out how to live in a world that often doesn't make very much sense.

Engaging with the norms and expectations of the school and classroom environment is particularly challenging for several of my students. In particular, they do not recognize the logic behind sitting and completing an academic task, moving to another area, and repeating the demand. Both sitting and moving are non-intuitive demands. Both have, historically, had intensive intervention aimed at compliance with these demands. 

They often demonstrate their lack of understanding by removing themselves from the demand to engage in preferred activities which are both highly interesting to the student and engage the teacher in an interaction, thereby drawing both of them away from the interaction they do not understand the logic behind. What concerned me was students who were getting bigger and older (I teach middle school) and more aggressive. And we were the cause. (Of the aggression, teenage boys are going to grow like weeds whether we want them to or not.)

I met with the team and we got programs put in place to get everyone’s hands off the students unless there was a real immediate safety risk (e.g. about to be hit by a car!)

We got lots of alternative seating in place. More than enough for every student in the room. Ball chairs. Bouncy chairs. Rocking chairs. We stopped telling students to sit and started asking them where they wanted to sit.

We got some pretty ridiculous answers at first. On the table? On the heater? On the floor?

We said okay. We did our academic work there.

Sometimes students didn’t want to sit. They stood or leaned.

We said okay. We did our academic work there too.

It wasn’t perfect. Kids were still on the move a lot. Transitions were not flawless. But what changed almost immediately? The day we made this change, the aggression that was starting to become a problem disappeared overnight. We’re getting just as much work done as we did when we were following the compliance-based program with one difference: everyone, kids and staff, are happier. We’ve been at this for a couple of weeks now and an unexpected thing has happened: the kids are starting to sit. They are sitting in chairs and without being asked. The logic is simple really:

Stop fighting the kids and they’ll stop fighting you. It’s the gift of flexibility.

Sunday, November 12, 2017

Starting to Explore Together

It’s way too easy to fall into a rut of un-reflective discrete trial training (DTT) use. The data is hard to argue with: students work their way methodically to mastery of each item, and when you’re talking about basic identification skills they do master item after item. For many students, they fall into the same rut. It’s comfortably predictable: “I point to this, I get what I want.” Is it any wonder that so many students (and their teachers) have trouble “going beyond” DTT practices? It’s a monster of their own creation.

And so, the question remains: how can we give students that predictable instructional environment without feeding that monster? How can we encourage them to grow as learners while supporting their need for security and sameness in a world that, often, doesn’t make any sense to them? 

The first answer is easy: let students stim. That’s a no-brainer. But the second isn’t that far behind: Build on the objects and properties that interest the student. Our students tend to notice and focus on properties no one else is paying attention to. It’s one of their strengths and it’s one of the reasons neurotypical teachers find them hard to reach. They’re busy focusing on how the object tastes or if it flies when the teacher wants them to count! Let students get to know all the properties of the objects you’re working on. (Yes, explore the textures, tastes, how far they fly, if they bounce, etc.) It might take longer to learn to count, but if you step into the learning, use your language learning strategies (e.g. aided language modeling), the student will actually come out ahead on the other side. More importantly, they will come out with their sense of self intact and validated. They will be ready to take on bigger and more complex learning challenges because they have the foundational skills and because they have the belief in themselves as learners. Even the best intended teacher-driven task memorization cannot accomplish that.

Saturday, September 23, 2017

Building Learning Habits

One of the earliest ways we build positive learning habits is by pairing learning with the activities the student would prefer to be doing. For some students, that’s a first/then activity board, for others, that’s using high interest manipulatives. For students with significant anxiety or trauma around learning, that means pairing instructional demands with preferred activities (non-contingent reinforcement). In my current classroom, I have students using all three strategies. 

Using edibles for reinforcement, even non-continently, isn’t my preferred instructional strategy. But it’s a stepping stone to building learning habits. I have a student who, when school started less than a month ago, would tantrum every time we said it was time to do anything he perceived as “work.” He spent much of the day trying to get snacks out of his snack bag. We began pairing snacks from his snack bag with actively participating in academic work. Multiple times this week, I observed him to come independently to the table when told it was time for an academic task and sit with his snack bag expectantly waiting for the task. He is beginning to develop a new mental model and expectation of what school means. He is developing learning habits.

The next step has traditionally been hard for many of my students. These are students who are able to join learning activities, but do not persist in task completion. If the task becomes challenging (or boring) these students will mentally (or physically) “check out.” They do not (yet) have the learning habit of “seeing it through” probably because nobody has ever explained to them what the goal is that they are trying to accomplish. Unfortunately though perhaps unsurprisingly, most interventions (that should be a red flag right there!) for students who struggle with this learning behavior is compliance-based. The answer to “why should I have to do/finish this should never be “because I said so.” Targeted instruction in my classroom is focusing on teaching students about their goals and how to measure their own progress (short and long term). Creating progress monitoring habits will help students to persist in task completion without relying on compliance or building staff dependency.

More than content, teachers strive to instill a love of learning in students, especially those who do not see themselves as learners or who have not had positive experiences with school in the past. We do that by building relationships with our students and creating a culture of trust and risk-taking. We do that by teaching and fostering positive learning habits. Learning is about much more than ABC and 123.

Saturday, September 9, 2017

What Is Behavior?

The operational definition for an educational context that I’ve always heard for “behavior” is: something you can observe the student doing.
When I googled the definition I got “The way in which one acts or conducts oneself, especially toward others” or “The way in which an animal or person acts in response to a particular situation or stimulus.”

Almost anything a student does is observable. It is the social context, as put forth in the first definition, that determines whether it is a behavior (conducting oneself in relation toward others.) 

To put that in a behavior tracking context: We can observe anyone breathing, but for most students there is no reason to track that as a behavior. For a student who is severely respiratory compromised, for whom continued ability to maintain consciousness (and therefore maintain any relationship with others) is a concern, it is a very appropriate behavior to track.

The problem comes, I think, not when we try to define the behavior (defining observable behavior is a skill, but is one that can be mastered with practice.) Where we struggle is in defining the social context. When the norm is typically developing age-peers, almost everything a student with high support needs does will be considered a behavior, because the things they do successfully and independently often look very different from their peers: indistinguishability does not allow for the beauty of neurodiversity. However, when the norm is peers with high support needs, we are often setting ourselves on a slippery slope of low expectations: “this is the best they can hope for so we just have to accept it.”

The justification I so often see for tracking indistinguishability behaviors (stimming, eye contact, etc) is that that kind of behavior will not be accepted “in the real world.” There are certainly neurodiverse individuals out there spending a lot of energy practicing indistinguishability behaviors in order to be successful “in the real world” right now. What would it take so they, and our students, didn’t have to?

In the classroom, we have near-complete control over the social context. And the social context that students learn in school is the one they will bring with them into the adult community and workplace. If we build a classroom community that values neurodiversity over indistinguishability, that is the social context that students will learn. It has worked for successful businesses like Google and Apple. It will work in our classrooms too. And it just might change the world for the better.

Saturday, September 2, 2017

The Limits That Make Us Soar

A former student of mine just transitioned into a new classroom. Her new teacher has set limits for her that make me uncomfortable from a philosophical and pedagogical perspective. Some of these are limits that I literally spent years working with staff to get them to understand why they were completely unacceptable in my classroom. It’s taking all of my willpower not to say something to her. But the thing of it is, that student is happy. She is happier than she was toward the end of her time in my classroom. She is happy and she is engaged in learning in a way that she and I had struggled with over that last year or so.

With a little perspective, it’s clear to see what has happened. In my quest to create a student-centered classroom, I lost too much of the structure and boundaries that make the classroom effective. If I’m honest with myself, I knew that. My data on student progress and student behavior over the second half of last year showed it pretty clearly.

It shouldn’t surprise me. I’ve known, as I’ve gone through this process, that I’ve consistently struggled to implement one of the most key pieces of a student-centered classroom: feedback. My students need to know what is expected of them, and how they are doing in meeting their goals and expectations. I need a way to show them. For progress on student goals, I’m thinking about creating visual goal monitoring pages in their program data books. Using picture supports, students can track by independence level or accuracy level increases (we take data on both) and can choose what they want to make public: progress, achievements, or nothing. I’ll try and post one to twitter when I get them made, hopefully next week, and will try to edit this post. (Blogger doesn’t seem to like image posting anymore.)

In order to provide more effective behavior feedback, I need to first re-examine for myself where the behavior limits should be in my room. The feedback I got from my students last year was that I didn’t give them enough limits, and that they found learning difficult in that environment.
What matters?
Student choice:
Students should be able to choose: where they work (learning station - may sometimes have to be restricted choice, depending on activity), who they are working with, which activity they are doing (from list of activities for that academic block)
Student safety (individual target behaviors)
Student task completion/participation
I can see how this could easily be represented to students using an interval data visual:
Activity Chosen
Staff Member
5 minute interval safety tokens +++++
5 minute interval participation tokens +++++
(Again, I’ll try to post an image-based one to twitter when I have it, Blogger doesn’t play nice.)

The similarity between the behavior feedback visual I’m proposing and a traditional token chart is not escaping me. In fact, during the difficult time we had last spring due to the weakening structure associated with the school closing, one of the things I did for one of my students was pull out a token board he hadn’t used in over a year. He needed the visual to know how much work he was expected to do in order to help him stay regulated. Many of the tools in the ABA toolkit are very useful tools. Tools, by themselves, are not positive or negative, it is how they are used. Behavior tools must always be used to support student choice, self-advocacy, and body autonomy not to create compliance or restrict a student’s natural expression/movement in the name of “normalizing” behavior. The line of teaching “socially appropriate” behavior is a very thin one and must be walked with extreme caution and much input from the Autistic Adult community. We do not always fully comprehend the power of the tools we use. We need to listen to those who have had those tools used on them, just as we look at the results and reviews of any other new curriculum and program that we wish to adopt into practice (or material we chose to use with our home and family.) But to quote Levar Burton “You don’t have to take my word for it…” (ask another Actually Autistic person!)

Thursday, August 24, 2017

Structured Feedback: #ObserveMe

As an educator, I value feedback, especially from other professionals who share my core teaching beliefs. I joined the faculty of my current school because of the mission based around student-centered teaching focusing on self-advocacy and meaningful independence for every student regardless of perceived intellectual ability. Because of negative experiences I’ve had with observers in my room at other schools, having visitors in my room makes me anxious. I feel judged. I automatically see the behaviors, the missing symbol supports, the student(s) not fully engaged in an academic activity at that exact moment: all the things I would have been criticized for at other placements. And I want to say, “I know all that! We’re working on it! Here’s what I *actually* want feedback on…” And that’s when I heard about #ObserveMe.

#ObserveMe was started by Robert Kaplinsky last year. (I think this is the original post here.) I first saw it on twitter. (Of course, it’s where I find everything new and cool in education!) The idea is simple: post a note on your classroom door inviting your colleagues in to observe and telling them what areas you would like feedback on. It feels to me like exactly the answer I’ve been looking for. The visuals I put on my door already tell someone entering a lot about what I value as a teacher: that’s intentional. My hope is that adding this sign will help to structure those interactions so I can finally get the feedback I am looking for to grow my practice.

The text of my #ObserveMe sign is below:

We are all learners in Room 1. Please come in and observe me. I would like constructive feedback on the following goals:

Student voice:
Are students making authentic choices?
Are we honoring all student communication (not just symbolic language)?

Instructional Process:
Are teacher demands clearly rooted in meaningful instructional context?
How could we change the instructional demand to increase learner independence?

Are we giving clear feedback to students that gives them a clear picture of the progress they are making toward their goal?
How can we make student goals and the path to achieve them more concrete and visual for our learners to understand?

Please #ObserveMe and help our learning community grow!