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anxiety Inclusion parenting Special Education

Help Children With Autism Return to School

Anyone who sifts through social media will see an abundance of quotes and inspirational photos. I love the area of personal development and can’t get enough of podcasts, videos, articles and anything related to the area. One common thread running through all of them now is;

Control the controllables.”

Its a phrase that looks slick and is easy-to-remember. But what does it mean? How can we apply it at this very moment?

Children with autism are likely to be struggling with all the changes in routine and uncertainty of this pandemic. I wrote an article about the 9 essential questions that children with ASD like to know and as hard as we may have tried, it is impossible to give definitive answers to them as we ourselves can’t predict the future.

One thing we do know, however, is we will return to school. We don’t know when but we know we will. Talking to parents of children with autism, a common concern they have is about trying to get their children to return to school after the long lay off. How we try to smooth this transition is a definite controllable.

I suggest that schools prepare small stories for their children with autism (or any child they feel may struggle with a return to school) and aim to answer as many of the nine questions as possible. These include:

  1. Where do I have to be?
  2. Who will I be with?
  3. Where exactly in the place will I be?
  4. What will be happening there?
  5. How much will I have to do there?
  6. How will I know when I have finished?
  7. What will I be doing next?
  8. What is the expected behaviour?
  9. What if? (questions guided by the child and their concerns)

It should be relatively easy to find out where their classroom will be and who the teacher will be in the next few weeks. Their favourite school activities can be included. The month (or date) of return can be included. The times that school starts at and finishes at can be included. The story can be made in conjunction with the parents to answer questions worrying them and start a conversation about returning to school. With this made and distributed to parents, they can start to read it with their child in the weeks leading up to a return. Each page should contain photographs of the information to increase the impact. This is a controllable.

Although we can’t predict the future, we can prepare for it. This is a strategy to promote inclusion and hopefully, prevent issues arising before they have a chance and an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.

If you’re a teacher, you can begin this process now and have it ready in lots of time. If you’re a parent or know someone that would benefit from this strategy, you might consider suggesting it to the appropriate person.

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Categories
Inclusion Special Education

9 Essential Questions for Children with Autism

Children with autism need extra support to be included in day-to-day life. The social cues, rules and routines that neurotypical children pick up without explicit teaching do not come as easily to a child with ASD. Without the appropriate support, these children may look to be “misbehaving” or “difficult” when really, they just require a helping hand to get involved and be included.

There are nine key questions when preparing a child with autism for a new event or skill:

  1. Where do I have to be?
  2. Who will I be with?
  3. Where exactly in the place will I be?
  4. What will be happening there?
  5. How much will I have to do there?
  6. How will I know when I have finished?
  7. What will I be doing next?
  8. What is the expected behaviour?
  9. What if? (questions guided by the child and their concerns)

If you are going to a school assembly later in the day, an adult should sit down with the child and move through the nine questions to ensure that the child knows exactly what is going to happen, how it will happen and what is expected of them specifically. This can prevent issues before they arise and prevention is always better than cure.

Visual resources like timetables and social stories benefit children with autism massively as it can reduce their anxieties by providing clarity. Timetables (app recommendation here) are easy to prepare and implement but having every single social story ready is not always possible. A lot of preparation can be required preparing a story about the event or skill you are trying to teach. They are extremely worthwhile but how can you predict every change, social skill and event that will happen in a school year? You can’t and this is where MagnusCards come in.

MagnusCards is an app that has a wealth of scenarios and skills that answer a lot of the generic questions that will occur throughout a school day and home life. 

For example, if you want to teach a child how to come in from lunchtime, there is a 10 picture story on how to do this. Want to teach a child how to engage with pairwork in a class? There is a 7 picture story that can be used.

The events and skills range from school to social skills to personal care and safety along with much more. The pictures and text are not specific to your child’s school or home but the stories are readily accessible at your fingertips if you need them. 

I would recommend this app for three reasons. First of all, having a look through the app will help you predict what stories you could personalise, prepare and print in advance for your child. Secondly, when a change occurs or unforeseen event happens, you have a quick-and-easy visual aid to support the conversation you need to have to support a child with autism. Finally, if you see a child with autism acting inappropriately during lunchtime or somewhere unstructured, you can pull out the app and use a social story to incidentally teach an alternative way to behave in that scenario with clear, visual prompts. MagnusCards is an app that is simple, free and practical. These apps are always welcome in a teacher’s toolkit.

To download MagnusCards:

Android Version here.

Apple Version here.

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Categories
Homeschool Inclusion parenting Special Education

How Can We Help Children Missing Occupational Therapy?

Perhaps we are concerned about children who made great progress over the year and are now missing their physical education with their class, their active time on yard and their one-to-one time with a teacher or occupational therapist. We may worry that they may not be progressing and could even be regressing. How can we help maintain this progress and extend them where possible? Enable Ireland can help.

Enable Ireland provide services to children with disabilities and have expert teams that support them and their families through each stage of life.

With the current restrictions, their clinical experts and therapists have made a playlist of 44 videos that can provide a focus for anyone looking to improve movement, balance, core strength, flexibility or motor skills. The full list is available here but here are some popular areas which you can use as a parent or recommend as a teacher:

Wiggly Warm-Up

Lower Limb Stretching: Range Of Motion

Core Exercises For Junior Age Children

Core Strength: Jigsaw Challenge

Squish the Duck Challenge for Balance

Lower Limbs: Strengthening

Balance at Home

Pilates

Movement Regulation

Fine Motor Therapy At Home

Gross Motor Skills: Animal Walks

Wheelchair Exercises

With the great range of resources here, parents and teachers can consider the priority needs, age and personality of the child to select suitable activities that will ensure any progress achieved to this point can be maintained. 

Anyone who finds these resources useful should look at the Enable Ireland website for further guidance around the area of speech and language, social stories and more.

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Categories
Behaviour Management Special Education

What Toltec Wisdom Can Teach Us About Behaviour

Building relationships is a complex business. When we talk about teaching, behaviour and students, we are talking about a relationship. There are theoretical perspectives and strategies recommended to maximise the productivity of this relationship. Teachers may decide to take a behaviourist approach and incorporate rewards systems or may decide to take a more humanistic route and develop self-esteem. These approaches work for the majority of students when implemented effectively and the relationship between the two thrives.

When a relationship is unproductive, however, things get even more complex. Negative cycles of behaviour can emerge and patterns can stagnate. A repetitive format of the teacher intervening ineffectively and the student behaving undesirably appears fixed. Neither will change but only one party is being cited as difficult.

If a surgeon came out of a theatre and informed us that the operation was a success but the patient died, we might have a query about their rationale. Similarly, teachers (including myself) can get stuck in a rut of claiming their strategies and interventions are the “right” ones even though they are blatantly ineffective.

An effective behavioural strategy is one which causes the behavioural change it is seeking to achieve. Do I have to include that it also needs to be within obvious ethical parameters? Probably, as this is the internet.

There is a need to have a diverse range of strategies and theories to draw from when seeking to change a dysfunctional relationship into a functional one. Marrying yourself to one theory is comparable to only having a hammer in your toolbox. When all you have is a hammer, everything becomes a nail. You can descend into trying to fit the child into the strategy as opposed to fitting the strategy to the child. To demonstrate this point, we can take heed of the Toltecs.

The Six Images of A Relationship

According to Toltec wisdom, everyone has an outer image. This is the image we try to project to the world. We also have an inner image that we have of ourselves. Teachers have this outer and inner image. A student similarly has an outer image they try to project and an inner image that teachers and others cannot see. We then have to introduce the image that the teacher has of the student from their point of view and the student’s image of the teacher from their perspective. If you have managed to keep count, that is six different images involved in the relationship between teacher and student. Let’s not even start considering the rest of the class.

The first thing I love about this analogy is I find it relatable. I certainly have an image I try to project as a teacher. I try to project a level of confidence and certainty in my actions. I also have an inner image that differs greatly. My inner image has far more doubts than my outer image ever displays.

The second thing I love is the simplistic way that it conveys the complexity of a relationship. There are so many factors that remain unseen in a relationship between two people. How can we ever say with absolute certainty that we “know” a student and it’s not the intervention being used that is the issue, but the child? How can your favourite three strategies for supporting a child with complex social, emotional or behavioural needs ever be considered sufficient?

This interpretation of a relationship would jar with a fixed mindset that there is one or two theories or strategies for success. I’m sure if the Toltecs were in charge of behaviour policies in schools, they would recommend that schools and teachers strive to build their knowledge base with a diverse range of theories and strategies so when they meet a child that needs the support, there will be a deep well to draw from. A strategy’s use is defined by the behavioural change it causes. The more strategies we have, the greater the chance of success.

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Categories
Homeschool Inclusion Special Education

For the teacher stressed about inclusion

A double-bind message is a message that sends conflicting information. An example would be when a parent tells a fearful child verbally that there is nothing to fear while their facial expression and body language is full of concern. A second example is when a teacher or a parent is told that mental health, calm and happiness is the number one priority while also being given a mountain of work to complete. Two different messages that are very much in conflict with each other.

I do not think education should be ignored right now, I just believe education needs to be streamlined for everyone involved: teacher, parents and students. I have already written about Pareto’s Principle and the idea that 20% of our actions produce 80% of results. This means the other 80% of our actions produce very little and should be stripped away to free up time to practice self-care and care for others.

Anecdotally, I know that stresses on teachers are slowly increasing as schools find their feet and begin to realise what is possible. Just because we can, however, does not mean we should. 

Inclusion and differentiation are, of course, at the forefront of our mind as we look to meet the needs of our students that require it most. Instead of looking for complicated and time-consuming strategies, I suggest we primarily look to UNESCO’s document Learning for All: Guidelines on the Inclusion of learners with disabilities in open and distance learning and Pozzi’s article The Impact of m-Learning in School Contexts: An “Inclusive” Perspective which provides simple ways to include that fall into the 20% of our action achieving 80% of results category.

These two documents suggest we include using the following simple strategies:

  1. Awareness: Find out where the children need help to be included so you can adjust to their exact needs.
  2. Communicate: Facilitate regular contact with parents to see where strengths and needs are arising.
  3. Personalise:
    1. Allow children to complete work at their own pace.
    2. Reduce workload.
    3. Set up online reminders or calendars to begin or complete tasks.
    4. Pre-record explanations so it can be rewatched as necessary.
    5. Send specific positive praise to students to reinforce engagement and effort.

The caveat here is that there is no one-size-fits-all solution. I do believe with these simple strategies, however, that we can cast our net around a huge body of students and meet their needs without having any part of the chain bending over backwards. There will be students that need additional support but using the above simple strategies to address the needs of the many will free up teacher’s time to address the needs of the few with the more detailed support they need.

This is a marathon and not a sprint.

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Special Education Verbal Behaviour

Verbal Behaviour Theory: What is it and How can it help?

Photo Credit: shorturl.at/HMU48

I have attended three workshops over the past few days and committed to making a post on each workshop about the key facts and actionable steps that I considered important having digested the information that was relayed. To give a wider context, I have recently switched roles to teaching in a special class for teaching children with autism. So the three workshops are tied into improving my teaching in topics related to this. I will break down my first workshop on Verbal Behaviour into theory and practice trying to be as simplistic as possible to give you a general sense of what it is and whether you’d like to research it further.

Theory

The cliff notes around the theory were:

  • Language is learned in response to the environment. The elements that influence language learning are motivation, reinforcement, extinction and punishment.

N.B. Punishment is meant in the applied behaviour analysis sense as something which decreases a behaviour.

  • When thinking about language and communication, consider the antecedent, behaviour and consequence.

E.g The child sees a biscuit is the antecedent.

      The child says “biscuit” is the behaviour.

      The child gets the biscuit is the consequence.

In this instance, the behaviour (the child speaking) is likely to increase as they got reinforced through getting the biscuit. Consider the inverse of this, if a child takes your hand and drags you to the biscuit and you give it to them, this is the behaviour that will increase.

  • With language, we can consider form (grammar, syntax) and function (why they are speaking). When working with children with language delay or who are emerging speakers, function is equally – if not more – important than form so they can communicate needs and requests.
  • Skinner defined eight kinds of “verbal operant” which is in layman terms, forms of verbal behaviour, these are:
    1. Echoic – repeating back words, parroting
    2. Imitation – Repeating back actions, very important it is part of any verbal behaviour programme.
    3. Mand – Asking for what you want. Obviously, this is critical.
    4. Tact – Labelling what you see, hear, smell, taste and touch.
    5. Intraverbal – Conversation, finishing off a rhyme or song, giving a description etc.
    6. Receptive by feature, function and class aka RFFC – Allows children to respond to questions like “what has a tail?” or “What can you do with these items?”.
    7. Textual – Reading, this is social when learning and for pleasure when proficient.
    8. Transcription – Writing what is heard.

The key points for me on the theory were thinking about how language and the speed at which it is acquired is affected by motivation and reinforcement. Children will learn when they are motivated to or rewarded for it. This can be done through ensuring they need to speak or by rewarding them with a truly desirably object when they do. If you took nothing else from this post, this would be the one fact to ruminate on.

Practice:

There was so much information given in the workshop today but I boiled it down to four actionable steps which I will be taking with me as I progress:

  1. In a classroom where the goal is to increase the children’s ability to request an item they want using verbal behaviour, consider spending the first half an hour of the day working on this. Have items which the children like out of reach and visible around the room. Give the items to the children for a number of minutes when they use the word/point at the picture in their PECS book/sign the word or however they are communicating. This session starts the day off on a positive note if you are in a special class as the child and adult will find it easier to establish rapport.
  2. Manipulate the classroom environment as there are not enough scenarios in a day to motivate the children to request items. For example, give children a yogurt with no spoon. Start an art task with missing supplies. The idea here is that the children use the language to request the items. It was emphasised that the children are not ignored if they are struggling, they can be prompted to repeat the work after you if that is the level they are at, for example.
  3. Use shaping, reward the child for making successive attempts at getting closer to the desired result. It was recommended to have just a list of ten core words for this. If they want a bottle, for example, the first day they might say “BaBa”. On subsequent days, the child shouldn’t be reinforced by getting the bottle until they get to that same level or to a slight improvement. If they say “Ba”, this should not be reinforced. Prompting the child and encouraging repeating the word will help.
  4. Use the Verbal Behaviour Milestones Assessment and Placement Programme (VB-MAPP) to help assess and guide your teaching of verbal behaviour. This is an extremely comprehensive programme which will help you identify where the child is at and how to get them to the next stage with suggested tasks broken down step-by-step. I couldn’t even start to breakdown this programme in a few words but it is extremely impressive and is something I will definitely be recommending to teachers teaching children with autism or language delays.

Concluding Thoughts

Skinner’s theory on language and verbal behaviour is extremely interesting and easy to grasp. I really think the concepts are worthwhile and intriguing. The actionable steps that are borne from the theory are pretty simple to incorporate in the classroom and I will certainly be using the VB-MAPP to guide me in assessing the children’s current position and planning the way forward as it is so comprehensive.

A really worrying point was made today that language acquisition is being delayed in some children as they don’t get as much motivation and reinforcement for using language in the early developmental stages as children used to years ago.

The reason?

Adults are spending more time on their phones than attending to their child.

The last thing I would suggest reflecting on is if you have a child who is a selective mute or an emerging speaker, have you ever fulfilled the need of the child before they have to speak? When you see them struggle to reach something silently, do you walk over and hand it down? I know I have and with this workshop in mind, perhaps this kind of reaction borne out of kindness is actually hindering the child’s acquisition of language. Lots to consider!