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!

Saturday, July 29, 2017

Finding Inclusion in a Separate Day School

This has been a hard post to write. But, as an inclusion-minded special educator, I wanted to tell the story of why I have decided to take a teaching position at a separate day school for students with disabilities. It’s not what I expected when I started looking, but I believe I have made the right decision for myself and for my students.

During my job search, I visited some schools that, though amazing educational institutions, would not be accessible to me given my own disabilities. These were places where I know I would not have been successful teaching because my access needs would have gotten in the way: classrooms that were too large, socially set up, or in an environment that I found far too distracting to focus. I also visited places that met my access needs but where I could not envision providing instruction that adequately met the needs of the enrolled students due to the space, the ratios, the technology access, or a combination of factors. I found both of these challenges to be present across settings: public, collaborative, and private. 

Going beyond physical access, I knew I needed an environment that backs up its statements about building independence and self-advocacy with real action. I needed stay away from environments that prioritize the ideal of “safe and happy” over meaningful instruction. I found each of these types of environments across settings as well, but I found the ones that most shared my teaching values in the separate day school setting.

Separate day schools don’t provide the access to rigorous grade-level instructional environment that can be found in a public school setting (if you have a teacher with the knowledge and mindset to provide access to that instruction.) However, just being in a public school doesn’t imply access, and all of the classrooms I visited operated on an “integration” not an “inclusion” model. 

Over the past two years, I have developed an instructional model that incorporates global learning opportunities to give students access to connection and collaboration with students beyond their local school community. Using this model, I am able to provide access to the grade-level classroom without sacrificing the intensive instructional supports of the self-contained environment. You can’t get that combination in a traditional public school’s grade-level classroom.

I worried about the social nature of these small close-nit institutions. Places with a strong focus on social norms can be inaccessible or even dangerous for me. But I learned this past year to value the sense of community that can be found in these environments when they are staffed by professionals who share the same commitment I do to high quality instructional access and building independence and self advocacy.

The school and classroom where I accepted a position are both small. Smaller than I found almost anywhere else. (One of many reasons why I will never name the school I work at on my blog or social media.) The reason that they had an opening at all was because they found that the students in this class were not being successful in a larger class, so they broke it up to give the students who needed it a more intensive instructional environment. We spoke about the idea of teaching vs. helping (a frequent problem in severe/multiple disabilities.) Instead of the “and how do you address that” question, I was told the story of how the school had made that mindset shift and hired staff who believe in teaching. The school values of building independence and self-advocacy really came through in both word and action.

I went into this job search looking for a placement in a public middle school. But I also went into it with a very clear understanding of what my teaching values are and where I was and was not willing to compromise. I know how to recognize an environment where it will be accessible for me to be the best teacher I can be for my students. I found those values and that environment in a separate day school. I didn’t find it at any of the other schools I visited. So, despite (or maybe because of) my belief in an inclusive environment for all learners, I have taken a position in a separate day school. Inclusion, after all, is a mindset not a placement.

Thursday, July 13, 2017

Asking for Help

Asking for help is one of the first functional communication skills we teach, especially to students who exhibit challenging behavior due to frustration (at not being able to accomplish something independently) which is a lot of our students. It's also one of the skills we're least successful at teaching. I don't mean the kids don't learn it. They learn the sign/word/picture. What most of them don't learn is when and how to use it. They either never ask and we end up saying "ask for help if you need it" when we see them struggle, or they're constantly asking and we find ourselves in a never-ending cycle of "try it yourself first ..." It's clearly not a skill we're teaching very effectively.

It's something I've been aware of for a while now, and I've been trying to make an effort to model it in the classroom. But there's a qualitative difference between "Do you know where the stapler went?" and "Please help me tie my shoes." And, for obvious reasons, the more urgent situations in the classroom are not appropriate times for modeling.

As I see it there are 2 key skills that need to be taught along with requesting help. 
  1. Making an effort to do it on your own first. This means we need to make sure we are paying attention to partial successes (and failed efforts) as important and successful steps toward the larger goal.
  2. Multiple solutions to the problem. I believe that problem solving is, quite possibly, the most important skill that we can teach students, and this is a key part of it. Students need to have an understading that there is more than one approach to chose from and the mental flexibility to try a different approach if the first one is unsuccessful.

We do talk in my classroom a lot about how "help" doesn't mean I'm going to do it for you. But isn't that exactly what adults usually mean when we ask for help? Sometimes, certainly. If I ask for help because I can't get the glue open, I don't expect you to put your hand over mine and that we're going to push it open together. No, I expect to hand the glue to you, and you will open it for me. Because the expectation is that I have already tried and found my skills lacking, so now I'm asking you to give it a go. But sometimes that's exactly what I mean. When I helped my coworker email an attachment for the first time I sat down next to her and verbally walked her through each step. If I'd taken the mouse from her and done it myself, it wouldn't have helped either of us. I'm not sure, though, how one knows (except by social experience/nonverbal context) what kind of help is appropriate/expected in a given situation. And so I'm asking for your help. What is the distinction? And, more importantly, how can we teach it to our kids?

Thursday, July 6, 2017


I haven't blogged much (or at all) this spring. The school I was working at closed, and my attention was focused on my students: giving them the best last year we could have, finding them new placements, and supporting meaningful transitions. Plus, I had to find a job for next year. It didn't leave a lot of time for blogging or reflecting.

I started writing letters to my next-year's-self last year when I saw the idea on Twitter. Looking back this year it was really powerful to see what I was focused on/worried about, and how much of that is even on my radar a year later. I highly recommend it as a tool for every teacher. I'm starting a new journey this year. I'm really excited about it. As I start on this journey, I want to share with my future self and with all of your this nugget from my current-school's-teacher-self.

This year, you were forced to go back and reassess a lot of older skills that you'd abandoned or forgetten. The use of the cooldown book/room. Sensory and reinforcement strategies. Low tech teaching strategies in general. These are important teaching strategies to have in your arsenal. Some of the most fun and innovative teaching you have done over the last 4 years did not involve any more fancy technology than the students' communication systems (and maybe a camera to document the event.) It's not about the tools, it's about the learning. And more importantly, it's about what tools make the student most independent. For your class this year, that was absolutely low tech tools, which technology used primarily to document and share, not to create. You will need to remember these lessons as you take on a class that is currently doing a lot of DTT. Why are they doing DTT? because it is working for them! You need to keep an open mind about using the most effective strategies to teach your learners. Remember, you did a fair amount of DTT your first year at Your Current School too, because according to their previous teacher it was what was working for them. And then you moved away from it because you found other strategies more effective. You need to make sure you are using your data and not your prejudices.

Teach with your data and not your prejudices. It is good advice for all of us.