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.