Saturday, May 2, 2015

Self Determination through Choices

Several of my students had IEP goals this year around sequencing events on their daily schedule. Sequencing is an important pre-reading and pre-numeracy goal, and working with the familiar concepts of the daily schedule is a logical way to teach that skill. Its a common goal for students in my class and my students mastered it. Along the way, two learner types emerged: the Memorizer and the Requester. The Memorizer attempts to memorize the sequence - bathroom is always first, then reading, and so on. That works fine if the daily schedule never changes (spoiler alert: it does!) and if you always start at the beginning and go all the way to the end (not helpful if you want to check your schedule after lunch, for example.) The Requester sees the list of activities to be sequenced as a menu to be chosen from and will pick the items s/he wants to do - potentially demonstrating a false negative for understanding the sequence.

This year, I had 2 Memorizers and 1 Requester. All of them were able to demonstrate mastery of the concept of sequencing. So at the end of April vacation, my paraprofessional and I decided to try something new. We decided to throw out the structured classroom schedule and let the students create it. We had already been doing this a little bit: morning snack was optional and at different times (one student needed breakfast first thing, one frequently skipped it, and one needed to eat around an inclusion class.) We simply wanted to take it one step further. The new classroom schedule that greeted the students looked like this:
Some activities, like therapies, lunch and inclusion classes, have set times. The rest are listed as choices. Students can make individual and group choices about what to do when.

We’ve only been at this a week, so a lot more work needs to be done to scaffold the language of choosing activities, especially the peer interactions of choosing group activities. My students do not yet have the language to ask peers to join them in an activity or to bargain. But I heard lots of question words being explored on communication devices. We did a lot of language modeling: using those question words and the time words of “first” and “then” (familiar to our students from their sequencing experience,) moving symbols around on the classroom and student schedules as students made choices and then modified them based on peer choices.
decorated manilla folder on a table sideways with 4 picture symbols vecroed in a line on top, two picture symbols are on a mostly empty strip of velcro on the bottom. In the middle it says "I can choose" on the bottom it says "when I do it" and "what I do"
Completed Picture Schedule
Empty Picture Schedule
Examples of student schedules before and after they are filled out.

My initial impression of this change is very positive. I felt like my students engaged in more instructional activities for more of the day. I will have to wait until I’ve had a few more weeks of data in order to see how much of that was our excitement to engage them in this new learning activity and how much was caused/supported by the change in classroom structure.

Two take-aways from the first week:
1. I may need to stack the deck a little bit or there are IEP goals we will never address. Right now I am taking this as feedback about areas of the curriculum that need to be addressed to make them more student-friendly. (e.g. Nobody picked math without prompting. However, the students did seem to like the new unit we started, so I’ll be curious to see how that affects their choices next week.)
2. Only one of my students looked to the classroom schedule when asked to choose what he wanted to put on his schedule, visibly having difficultly choosing something on his own. One of the Memorizers, this is my least physically independent student. More so than the other students in the class, this student is used to having his choices, not just made for him, but physically done to him. This is a poignant and important reminder about the importance of giving these students control over their lives, not just academically, but in every domain.

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