Helping Students and Staff Prepare for Transition or The Art of Letting Go

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I recently bade farewell to a class of students when they moved from the high school to a transitional facility for 18-21 year olds. Target behaviors on these students’ behavior plans included hitting, kicking, head-butting, bolting, dropping to the floor, and many others.

I love them but, in technical terms, this group of students that just moved to the transition service is a doozy.

Doozy; dooz -e ; noun; an extreme example of its kind; a challenging class that will make the teacher pull her hair out and wear running shoes to work every day; time to buy stock in Charles Shaw

I knew the group was going to be a challenge. The teachers at the transition facility told me they would be fine. We did our best to make sure the transition would be as seamless as possible.

I worked on IEP goals for students to work independently with fewer supports. I created a detailed presentation and spent an afternoon meeting with transitional staff to explain student needs and behavioral strategies. I wrote simple behavior plans that could be implemented in multiple settings.

We visited the transition facility with the students multiple times and paired it with favorite reinforcers. Facility management installed security locks on all of the doors to foil escape artists.

Transition staff visited the classroom and joined us on community trips with the hope of fading out high school staff and fading in new staff in the more familiar environment.

Well, the students moved on to the new facility at the beginning of this school year. They have been there for approximately 6 weeks. These students are now struggling (aggression, bolting, refusal, pacing, self-injurious self stim) and transition staff are reaching out to problem solve.

When I ask about antecedents to the behavior, I am getting answers as if the student is at fault. The student was angry because a staff member turned off his movie. Or, the student dropped to the floor and refused to move because she is stubborn and wants to do things her way. Staff are frustrated because they feel like they are putting out fires all day and are not seeing behavior as communication.

When I delve deeper into the root of the problems, the antecedents and setting events are occurring much earlier than the staff realize. Students do not have access to the foundational structural elements that they need to be successful.

All of the students that recently moved on required detailed schedules, picture mini-schedules, visually structured work systems and tasks, routines, pre-alerts for changes from the schedule/routine, and work to do at their level.

I offer all of this to my students in my classroom for two reasons: because the students require it in order to reduce their anxiety to manageable levels and because I require it to reduce MY anxiety to manageable levels. My students would agree with me that a good day is a day during which we all know what to expect, when to expect it, and how long we expect each thing to last.

Even in my personal life, I am a list-maker and follow a strict routine. If I brush my teeth before I get dressed for the day, I might as well go back to bed and try again later.

The structural & organizational elements of a student’s day are often the most important. I assumed that these things would be provided because I teach a specific population and all of my students need it. Transition services did not provide it because most of their clients do not need it and do well without them.

I had glazed over these needs in my presentation. Instead, I had focused on reactionary consequences to misbehavior as well as safety plans, feeding plans, etc.

As I help transition staff to repair the students’ routines and schedules for this school year, I am simultaneously looking ahead to future students’ transitions.

How can I help them transition more seamlessly? How can I make sure that the students will get what they require?

The part that makes me nervous is I can’t make sure of it. Students need to move on and they need to work with new staff members. What I can do is make sure that I create visuals that will be relevant moving forward and teach students to use them more independently. I can send over necessary materials to make it easier for new staff members to set up schedules, mini-schedules, etc. with the student.

I can show parents what works well and what doesn’t work well for their student in the classroom so they can use similar strategies at home and advocate for their student in the future. I can teach parents to set up schedules for their student on their personal devices or using icons.

I can create ‘integrity checklists’ for new staff members to use to make sure that the student has everything that he or she requires on a daily basis. If problems arise, staff members can refer to the integrity checklist to see what the student may have been missing.

I can teach students to productively manage their own down time and engage in appropriate leisure activities. I can teach students to ask for structural items if they are cognitively able to recognize that they are missing (ex. I need schedule).

There are some things I can do that are in my control. There are many other things that aren’t. I need to control what I can control. I need to help my students make as much progress as they possibly can before they move on to transitional services.

And then, when students move on, I need to help when I am asked but otherwise I need to let things go. I can’t and shouldn’t protect them for forever. Instead of protecting them, I have to teach them and their families to protect themselves.

For now, I am moving on. I have a new group of students who rely on me to prepare them for the future.

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Planned Ignoring in the Self-Contained Classroom

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In public high schools, the term ‘self-contained’ can be somewhat misleading. In my school, there are two other ‘self-contained’ special education classrooms and some assistants are shared with other classrooms. Typical peers come in and out to earn partial credit as classroom assistants or to volunteer time. Myriad related service staff pushes in to the classroom at various points to provide therapy and support.

All of these comings and goings are ultimately positive for students and, in some circumstances, integral to students’ success. However, fluctuation in people coming in and out of the classroom can make it difficult to implement a planned ignoring strategy.

There are multiple reasons to plan to ignore a student or a specific target behavior.

One reason may be to promote independence in a prompt-dependent student who insists on asking for help rather than moving on with his schedule on his own.

Another reason is to withdraw all attention from a student who is attempting to use inappropriate or negative (but safe) behavior in order to gain attention in order to bring that behavior to extinction.

A third reason may be to compel a student to use an appropriate communication strategy to gain the attention of a staff member or a peer rather than using less sophisticated strategies such as grunting or pointing.

Regardless of the reason, how do we use the planned ignoring strategy if the adults and typical peers in the classroom come in and out?

There certainly isn’t a perfect solution, but I have used several strategies with some success.


SEPARATION

If the student has grown prompt dependent and is seeking attention from others in order to get through a routine that he/she is capable of doing on his/her own, I find that the best strategy is to isolate the student COMPLETELY in order to complete that routine independently several times. It is KEY to make sure that the student is capable of completing it independently before you try this strategy.

(Sidenote: To ensure that a student is able to complete things independently, I usually use a blanket response to everything that the student asks me. Depending on the student, this might be a nod, ‘yes,’ ‘I like pizza,’ etc….whatever works! Just a non-directive, non-informational response. If the student is able to complete the routine with this useless feedback, then he is ready for the next step.)

A student is not independent with something unless he can do it with no one else around. It doesn’t matter if a student can complete his grooming routine—but only if you are sitting in the bathroom watching…that means he isn’t independent.

This is why you need to actively separate a student in this case from the rest of the group (other students, other staff members, etc.) in order to complete the routine several times. Some students may only need to complete it independently 2-3 times and others may need many more successful trials before they create a new ‘script’ in their brains and no longer seek those unnecessary prompts.

Think of it like this. Some students with autism learn things in long chains. If a student learns that some links in the chain are asking for help (even if not necessary) or making eye contact with a staff member, then he will find it difficult to move on without completing these links. Isolating the student makes it impossible for him to complete these links, and practicing the routine without these unnecessary links helps him build a new, more efficient and functional chain.

Once the student successfully builds his new ‘chain,’ he can rejoin the group to complete the same routine. Occasional isolation to reestablish the integrity of the chain may be beneficial to avoid creating additional unnecessary links.


SUPER SECRET SIGNAL

If a student has a behavior plan or a communication need that would require organized and consistent ignoring, create a signal that would be obvious to everyone as they enter the room. Remember when your college roommate would leave a scrunchie or a tie hanging on your doorknob so you wouldn’t barge in? It could be similar to that! A code word on a dry erase board on the door, a funny picture projecting on the Smartboard, or anything else that is easily noticeable will work well.

Make sure all staff and typical peers know the signal and what it means. You don’t need to be specific with typical peers if there are concerns of confidentiality, just let everyone know that the signal means you need to ignore that specific student so he can work on independence. As staff or peers enter the room, you can catch their eyes and gesture toward the ‘signal’ to remind them until staff learn to look for the signal when they enter the room.

As you begin to notice positive effects of the planned ignoring, share the data with paraprofessionals and support staff. They will appreciate the information and be more willing to implement behavioral strategies if they believe that the strategies work.


BE STRATEGIC WITH ANTECEDENTS

Perhaps a Functional Behavior Assessment (FBA) indicated that one of your students engages in inappropriate attention-seeking behavior when he has to practice money math. Budgeting, counting, and paying with money are necessary life skill and cannot be avoided if a student is to be as independent as possible as he moves in to adulthood.

Since you know the specific antecedent, you can plan your schedule to introduce the antecedent when it is most possible to ignore the attention-seeking behavior. You can avoid staff that have difficulty implementing a strategy of planned ignoring, avoid periods where a typical peer may be in the classroom, or anything else that may impede your ability to effectively ignore the student’s behavior.

In the classroom, you may want to introduce the money math as the rest of the students are leaving the classroom for lunch or a special class. If possible, keep an assistant back with you for assistance. You can begin work with the student on the non-preferred activity and ignore him when he starts to engage in attention-seeking behavior. Since everyone else is gone, you do not have to worry about others reinforcing the behavior with negative attention.

In this case, the student is certainly also trying to escape or avoid the non-preferred task. For this reason, I would have the assistant (working from behind the student) prompt the student to ask for help or whatever scaffolding he may need either before the student starts with the inappropriate behavior or, if that isn’t possible, as soon as he stops engaging in inappropriate behavior and his attention is diverted. You may also want to introduce teaching the student to ask for a break in order to appropriately escape from the activity for a short period of time.


These are just a few strategies to successfully implement the planned ignoring strategy within your self-contained classroom. It is crucial to make sure you only use planned ignoring for a specific purpose and for as short of a duration as possible. If overused or used inappropriately, it could be harmful and disrespectful to the student.

Additionally, be prepared for the behavior to get much worse before it gets better. After all, the student is trying to gain your attention in negative ways. If putting his feet up on the desk doesn’t get your attention, he may up the ante by putting his feet up while picking his nose. Or jumping up on his chair, taking off his shoes, throwing his schedule, etc…Students are very creative.

If you have a strong behavior plan that addresses the behavior’s function and you have a team that will consistently implement the plan, the student’s behavior will change. After all, students use behavior as a form of communication. A breakdown in behavior is a failure to communicate. If his communication strategy stops working, he will need to adapt. Make sure you are teaching appropriate strategies to gain attention that the student can use to replace his inappropriate repertoire!

The Problem of Prompt Dependency

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This has been an eye-opening week. On Tuesday, I had an autism consultant come in to my classroom to observe. My classroom is fairly unique in our district so we get observers quite often. This time, however, I knew the observer was an ‘expert.’ Cue the anxiety.

At first, I felt defensive. I know this is ridiculous—no classroom is perfect and of course she was going to find things we could improve on—but I started to defend things in my mind that she never questioned. I even found myself making excuses for the students! “He was sick yesterday,” I rationalized to the consultant, “So he is probably a little ‘off’.” Or “She usually does that herself, I don’t know what’s wrong today!”

Mid-morning, I consciously told myself to halt my defensive thoughts. I want to be a top teacher for students with autism and of course there is always more to learn. Instead, I began trying to imagine that I was in her shoes and looked at my classroom through the lens of an expert observer.

I saw an assistant nodding as a student looked to her for reassurance that he was performing the correct behavior. I saw another assistant pulling a chair out for a student to cue him that he needed to stand up. I was tapping a student’s AAC device to cue him to use it.

It hit me like a brick wall.

We were all prompting.

Our timer went off to signal the end of an activity. I heard a para announce that they heard the timer, I saw hands gently turning students toward their schedule books and saying “bye,” and I automatically responded to a student’s announcement that it was ‘Boys Bathroom Time!’ with a “Then go!”.

We had thought students were independently using their schedule books, but in reality we were prompting them every step of the way.

After I noticed how much we were all unconsciously prompting the students, I couldn’t get it out of my head. Yesterday I made mental notes whenever I saw prompting of any kind. After school, I approached my support staff and shared the observation I made with them. They were just as shocked as I was!

I described the types of prompts I was seeing and told several anecdotes. We resolved to be hyper vigilant about noticing the prompts we were using and the prompts that other people may be giving without even realizing.

We started this morning with our quest to reduce unnecessary prompts. Prompting is still necessary for our population, but we cut out the prompts for things that we knew students could do for themselves. Some students did very well with this and completed their morning schedule without much of a problem, albeit much more slowly.

Other students became very frustrated when we eliminated the subtle cues that told them it was ok to move on. One student went from staff member to staff member gesturing wildly in an attempt to get someone to tell him he should walk to the bathroom. He eventually left on his own to use the restroom in an angry huff. Another student stood for 25 minutes of desk work because no one said “sit down” or tapped his chair. Some didn’t get off of the bus when we arrived at the restaurant for our community outing. Another didn’t get in line and didn’t order anything, although he went from staff member to staff member using his AAC device to say “I like Coke.”

It is amazing how much our students can do independently. It is also amazing how much our students rely on our prompts, even the small prompts that we don’t realize we are giving! The greatest gift we can give our students with significant disabilities is the ability to be independent to the maximum extent possible.

In the near future, I plan to make detailed task analyses of what students do daily. From there, I will work with support staff to determine which steps students do independently and which steps they still need some prompting on.

Using this tool, we can make sure that we are holding students up to a high standard to do what they can independently while still providing students with the support they need to continue to develop skills. We can also use these task analyses to hold each other accountable to the proper prompting levels in the classroom.

Parents and teachers, how do you handle the ‘problem’ of over-prompting and prompt dependency? I would love to know your strategies!

Making a Master Schedule for a Self-Contained Structured Classroom

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If you have had a student with autism in your classroom, you know that visuals are an extremely important element for successful instruction. One of the most important visuals that I use in my classroom is the visual schedule. Students can access schedules at many different levels. I usually have the student use a schedule that is about one level ‘down’ from their academic level. The reason for this is that students need to be able to functionally understand their schedules regardless of their sensory or mental state. Even if a student is on the verge of a meltdown or in the midst of a script, they need to be able to understand their schedule. For example, an emerging reader should not use a text-only schedule.

I teach in a self-contained classroom in a high school. All of my students benefit from a highly structured environment and all require detailed schedules in order to maximize their independence and minimize their anxiety. The schedules benefit the paraprofessionals and me as well—if we are confused regarding where a student is or where a student should be, we can quickly glance at that student’s schedule.

The most difficult part of creating student schedules is creating a master schedule for all students! Before you start, I recommend making notes on each student about what they absolutely NEED to do and with what frequency. You should also have a good idea of how your days are going to look. For example, my classroom is organized around stations. After a homeroom period, students rotate through various stations including 1:1 table with me, reading group, computer, independent work, and domestic work

I start with creating the master schedule for all students. I use Microsoft Excel and list my student’s names along the top (I used letters for confidentiality purposes). Then, you need to think about your timing. Time intervals will be listed along the left side of the Excel spreadsheet. I have a block of time in the morning—from 7:45-10:30—and then a block of time in the afternoon—from 12:30-2:14 (darn those high school bell schedules). I know that students need to be in lunch during period 4 (10:36-11:26), in PE during period 5 (11:32-12:22), and in art during period 8 (2:20-3:10).

I also know that I want students to have at least 4 work stations in the morning and a group activity and 2 work stations in the afternoon. This is because I want to spend 1:1 time with each student every day and this year I have 6 students (I’m lucky, I know! This was more difficult when I had 8 students). Each student needs to use the bathroom mid-morning and mid-afternoon, and each student needs a sensory break mid-morning and mid-afternoon as well. Students will also need a snack and will need to complete a job in the afternoon.

master schedule 1

This is my schedule so far. You will notice that I have times filled in on the left side. I filled in required classes (Lunch, PE, one student in Choir, and Art), and then entered in activities that ALL students will be doing at the same time. For example, all students will have their breaks (choice time) concurrently, so I entered those in. I also entered in the amount of time that each activity will take. These times may change as you actually live your schedule for a few days. I have learned quickly that sometimes you can’t predict how long certain things will take with this population, particularly if you are expecting independence.

After I filled in the required classes and the activities that are done simultaneously by all students, I divided the remaining time slots to reflect what I wanted to accomplish as far as rotations and group work. Remember, I wanted four work stations in the morning, so I divided the remaining time by four. I wanted two work stations and an opportunity for a group activity in the afternoon, so I allotted time for the group activity and then divided the remaining time in half. I then inputted the work rotations. It is easiest to ‘partner’ students up and have their schedules mirror each other’s, but that isn’t necessary.

Here is what I have now:

Master schedule 2

You can see that student F has additional needs. I noted in the master schedule when he needed to spend time in the stander and when he should be out on the mat. This is a reminder for me as I make student schedules because I want to note it on the student’s individual schedule to cue paraprofessionals/nurses.

Phew! Now you are done with Monday. Only four more days to go J Don’t get discouraged, the other days will be much easier. You can copy and paste Monday, and edit as needed. It is important not to have students follow the exact same schedule every day. Students should use their schedule to navigate their school day and should not simply be able to memorize it. You also don’t want a student to memorize the order the rotation goes, so you want to mix that up as well. For example, computer should not always follow reading group and so on.

I always make a master schedule like this for EVERY day without including outside services. Eventually, the speech pathologist, OT, etc. may want to schedule time with your students and that is wonderful! You can add those things in to a copy of your Master schedule—but don’t delete your original! Related services can take a week or two to start up (in the best of circumstances) and it is not uncommon for a related service to be cancelled due to a meeting, illness, or something else outside of their control. If you plan to be self-reliant, you always have a back-up plan!

When you finish your week of Master schedules, the hardest part is over! You can now use your master schedule to individualize schedules for different students. I will write about student schedules, paraprofessional schedules, and job schedules another time.

Thank you for reading and please comment if you schedule differently or if you have any questions!

A Different Perspective

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When I received the email on Saturday, I have to admit that I was angry. I had communicated with the parents that their child had attempted to look down someone’s shirt in PE the day before. If you teach pubescent students with autism, you know this is normal exploratory behavior. Since the student responded when told ‘no’ and did not continue to try to sneak a peek, I didn’t think anything of it. Nevertheless, I thought parents should be aware of the behavior so I wrote it on the daily log I send home with each student.

On Saturday morning, my inbox had email messages from both parents expressing their frustration that I had not called or emailed to communicate about the behavior. In addition to that, everything else was suddenly ‘wrong.’ My request to sign the student up for a social media account in order to help her connect with typical peers in high school and beyond ‘could only hurt’ the student. The job that our vocational coordinator had worked so hard to secure for the student was inappropriate and might lead to others making fun. The tones of the email was accusatory and angry, and I could feel my temperature rising as I read on. We agreed that a meeting was an order and set up a meeting for this (Monday) morning.

I alerted my instructional coordinator that some disgruntled parents were coming in on Monday. Neither of us completely understood the real problem but she was supportive and concerned, particularly because she would not be able to join us on Monday morning. Our vocational coordinator was able to join me, however, so I felt confident with her ‘back-up’ that we could hold the meeting anyway.

Monday morning arrives. I teach a full morning, but the thought of the upcoming meeting was niggling away in my mind. I dreaded it but needed it to happen so I could move on! Time ticks by. I am in the office, and the students’ mother walks in. She has a stern expression and a tightly drawn mouth. I let her know we would meet in the conference room and we wait for the student’s father to arrive as well. Time CRAWLS. The student’s father arrives, sits down, and…

And…

I explain the behavior, as much as I know about it. I let them know that I use the daily sheets home as a means to communicate and they are free to call or email whenever they have any questions about anything! I tell them it is fairly typical of an adolescent with autism to be curious.

And…

Suddenly we are laughing. We go on to talk about how the student is using scripting more functionally and we share funny anecdotes. We discuss the trouble with the job site—the student’s mother admits that she panicked because she thought the job was in the mall and the student had once gotten lost for a full 20 minutes in the mall and the whole building had to go on lockdown. We discussed other potential jobsites and agreed on a few others what we should try.

And then it was over. Since the meeting, I thought about the time I wasted in anger and anxiety for the meeting to come. I think of the way they must have felt when they read that message on the student’s sheet—maybe they thought I was judging them for their child’s actions or that the peer had gotten really upset. Regarding the job site, maybe they thought the student wouldn’t provide the proper support and they were scared that the student could get lost again. Regardless of what was lost in those initial exchanges, it was regained again within moments of meeting face-to-face.

It is easy to be hard on someone via email. It is much harder to think the worst of someone when you are meeting in person. Parent-teacher conferences, casual conversations, and other interactions between teachers and parents are invaluable. The fear that I saw on the mother’s face as she described the sheer terror of losing her child in the mall for 20 minutes could not have been communicated via phone or email. Neither could the dad’s insistence that his child not use any Google products—although his reasons still sounded just a tad bit paranoid. (Sorry, Google, if you are reading this…and he claims YOU ARE.)

My biggest takeaway from this experience is that some things must be done in person. If you start to feel anxious or concerned about something, schedule a time that the parent can come in and sit down with them. Talk things through with them. Encourage them to come to parent-teacher conferences. Tell stories about what their child does in the classroom and let your appreciation for their child shine through. It may be easier to do things over the phone, but that definitely does not mean that digital communication is superior.

New Year, New Adventure

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I just completed my second week of our new school year! This is my sixth year of teaching, and this year is a little different from previous years. At this point last year, I had already chased a student at a full sprint around our large school building, gotten punched in the head for putting a Toy Story toy in a locker, and back-stepped a student multiple times to ‘remind’ him that we don’t leave the bathroom with our pants undone in high school. Public places are much more strict than students’ homes, and the transition can be confusing! Although the class has fewer behavioral ‘crises’ and high speed chases, it is still apparent that this year will be another adventure. 

This is an evaluation year and I am embarking on a journey to improve my performance in the elusive 4th Domain. If you are familiar with Charlotte Danielson’s framework for teaching, you know of the formidability I am referring to. Domain 4 has been responsible for keeping many a teacher in the proficient category rather than excellent. Domain 4 has caused educators to coach, volunteer, chaperone, present, attend, supervise, mentor, counsel, direct, assist, manage, sponsor, chair, build, support, compose, guide, produce, rinse, repeat. Domain 4 incorporates the professional responsibilities of an educator, including reflecting on teaching, maintaining accurate records, communicating with families, participating in the professional community, growing and developing professionally, and showing professionalism. 

Anyone who teaches special education knows that maintaining accurate records, growing and developing professionally, and communicating with parents are key to staying afloat as a special educator. Showing professionalism is occasionally a struggle, since we have to manage behaviors and fluids that other professionals in our building do not have to manage. It can be difficult to get motivated to get dressed up to spend half of the morning cleaning up fluids that are wet, warm, and do not belong to you. Nevertheless, dressing as a professional seems like a no-brainer to me in order to maintain the respect of my coworkers. 

A major part of Domain 4 that I know I must improve upon is the reflection on teaching portion.  In previous years, I have been busy forming a human wall to prevent a student from injuring herself. In previous years, I have been called repeatedly to less structured classes (lunch in the cafeteria, physical education, etc.) to calm students in mid-meltdown or pluck them out of the pool. In previous years, I have spent an incredible amount of time creating a classroom environment and structuring activities to maximize student engagement and minimize student misbehavior. I have been BUSY and formal self-reflection has fallen through the cracks. In my first few years of teaching, I spent heaps of time focusing on the planning and teaching part of teaching.

Now, with the benefit of experience and sodden with wisdom, I am ready to tackle my reflection.

{I tried to find a picture of a football player getting ready to tackle while looking in the mirror, but Google images doesn’t have everything. It would have been so perfect!}

That came out wrong…

I’m ready to blog!