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!