Ready, Set, Go.

“Ready, Set…,” is one of many phrases we autism teachers call “fill-in-the-blank statements.” And in response to me with their best, language-building effort, the Littles will excitedly proclaim “Go!” I naturally use this phrase in the learning environment when we begin something new or face a new challenge. As I find myself putting together words for my very first blog post, I can hear my teacher voice saying, “Ready, SET…” 

Much like each school day, whether we are ready or not, here we go! Loving and working with kids on the Spectrum is a tear jerking, belly laughing, and heart exploding experience that most teachers, therapists, caregivers & parents would not trade for the world. I am #blessed enough to be one of those people, holding a title I carry with the greatest honor in my classroom and school, teacherthe autism teacher.

If it not for a very smart, funny, and supportive Instagram community found by way of @theautismteacher, I would likely not be brave enough to try this. As a neuro-typical human being beginning something new, I know I am bound to stumble through my initial efforts. This makes me think of the Littles, knowing they experience this very same feeling much more frequently than I as they are continually being pushed towards new challenges. & Sometimes all I can do is ensure them that I am there ready to love on ’em if and when they fall backwards.

If you’re inclined, join me on this wild ride as I share with you ideas for working with kids with exceptionalities. I am excited to share ways to: structure an environment and routines for kids on the Spectrum, cultivate a language-rich home/classroom, create meaningful opportunities that promote independence, & more! Of course they’ll be many funny anecdotes and creative work shared from the Littles that make my heart so full.


Side Note:

I call the children I teach or work with “Littles.” It’s a term of endearment as most of them are between the ages of 5 and 8 years old. I hope you always find me to use it with love, but I’m not perfect so please hold me accountable should I ever slip.

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5 New Years Resolutions for a Special Education Teacher

Emily-Contact-MeAround this time of year, I often set many lofty goals that aren’t achievable for me. This is why I typically take the stance of “I don’t believe in New Years resolutions.” However, the truth is that if there is anything we can do to shake up our thinking and push ourselves to be better, it’s worthwhile isn’t it? I am a major believer in  reflecting and seeking new ways to improve my teaching, classroom environment, relationships with students, and so on. There is always room for improvement. I hope you’ll join me after our too short and extremely necessary sleep coma winter break to contemplate how we can be better special educators in 2018.

ONE: First, Teacher. Then, Students.

Love yourself so you can give your students the love they need and deserve. On a personal level, this one is extremely difficult for me. However, I am at a point in my career where it is worthy of being at the top of the list. I have met many selfless special education teachers in my district and through the Instagram world that I know this resolution is relevant to. If you’re anything like me and struggle with perfectionism, it helps me to remember that the most important thing is always the kids. The truth is that they want to see your loving and smiling face when they get to school infinitely more than a perfectly prepared classroom.

  • Pick 1 day to stay late on a weekly/bi-weekly basis.
    • It does not pay off being the first teacher to arrive and the last teacher to leave school everyday.
  • Pack a lunch &/or snacks
    • Most days I pack snacks for my students and forget about myself! Not cool. You don’t need to be an amazing meal prepping chef to nourish your body while you’re at work.
  • Go to the adult bathroom.
    • It’s the very least we can do for ourselves, isn’t it? I often take the kid I am working with for a walk and drop them off in someone’s office (principal school psych, secretary, receptionist, guidance counselor, you name it…I’ve left a kid there) so I can go to the adult bathroom quickly.

TWO: Plan things to look forward to!

  • Field Trips
    • Who doesn’t love a field trip? Don’t forget about IN-SCHOOL field trips too though! I have my students work for trips to the library, office, art room, etc. ALL the time. It is highly motivating and it gets us out of the classroom for a bit. It is also extremely beneficial for your school as a whole to see your students out and about regularly.
  • Class Parties
    • It’s a running joke at my school that my class knows how to party better than any other. Yes, I do throw a fantastic party but I don’t just throw them for the decorations at the Target dollar spot….I do it because we (my students, my staff, and myself) ALL need things to work towards. Even if you start the day knowing that you JUST CAN’T that day and plan on putting on a movie at a certain point for your own personal sanity, fake it ’til you make it and call it a special movie party that the whole class can work for (ALWAYS keep a box of microwave popcorn in your room too). I do this more than I should…
  • General Education Opportunities
    • BE NOSEY and ask around about the fun stuff that general education teachers are planning for their kids. Hop in for the fun stuff as often as you can! It’s good for your kids, it’s good for their kids. You’d be surprised how supportive and inclusive they will be! Also, don’t forget to hop on their field trips when you can too…less planning/fundraising for you and all you’ll have to sort out is their transportation and supervision.
  • Class Visitors
    • Community helpers, high school or college students, other cool teachers from your school, librarians, family members, etc. It’s amazing to facilitate opportunities for your Littles to meet new people and hear their stories.
  • Reading Buddies
    • General education teachers would love to send some of their kids out of their room for 10-15 minutes to read to your kiddos. They would LOVE IT. Other teachers will try and get in on it too and before you know it, you will have weekly social skills lesson that you don’t even need to plan for.

THREE: Speak less & Show more.

This one is a year long practice for me and is more difficult for some than others. Often times in special education classrooms that have multiple adults working in them, WE are the loudest ones. We are setting the classroom environment up to be louder than we prefer because we just. can’t. stop. talking. It’s also important to note that the kiddos are ALL EARS when adults are talking.

We do a lot of explaining to staff and students via words but try these methods too:

  • For your students: use visuals, gestures, physical prompts, and sign language.
  • For your staff: write on whiteboards, Post It notes, or send text message if it’s appropriate, etc. when you need to communicate
  • Have staff do the same for you. They have lots of questions but we need to remind them to write it down and ask later because their questions are very important to us but can’t always be addressed immediately.

FOUR: Love THAT kid.

The squeaky wheel needs the most grease, doesn’t it? After a long winter break with few demands placed on our students, I like to be intentional about taking time to pair again (need a refresher on pairing? Read here). I take THAT kid, you know him/her and during their most difficult time of the day, I’ll surprise them by doing something fun instead of whatever the typical fight is. Try this! Do a fun activity together and love on them like crazy! Do this a few times and watch your relationship with that student change. The power struggle immediately weakens when they know that you love and respect them. It’s stressful to miss teaching time but you will gain a lot more academic time overall when you set aside meaningful pairing time upfront.

FIVE: Ask for forgiveness, Not permission.

Read this carefully because it’s the most important lesson you can learn as a special education teacher. You need to do what’s best for your kids. You know that or you wouldn’t be in this field. Don’t get weighed down by school or district red tape. Close the door and do what’s best for your babies. They will grow best that way and their families will love you and thank you for it. As a result, your school and district will thank you too…well, maybe I shouldn’t go as far as to say that, but they will certainly appreciate the fact that they don’t have to worry about your classroom and they will give you more freedom to do what you think is best. Believe it or not, this actually has worked for me.

Have a blessed new year full of sweet, silly, & groundbreaking moments with your Littles. They are so lucky to have you.

XO

Emily Beth

Want to chat?

Rock the Routine! How to avoid becoming a slave to the schedule.

It’s no secret that children with Autism love routine and repetition. It goes much farther than just a love of routine though, it’s a necessity for them and a part of who they are. In fact, it’s one of the two defining characteristics of Autism in the DSM 5 (Diagnostic Statistical Manual) stated as “restricted and repetitive patterns of behavior.” There is true, data proven positive results that come from a structured controlled home and school setting for kids with Autism. Anxiety levels go down when they know what to expect, independence is gained, and skills and language emerge. We do this methodically and with intention and as a result, they learn not only to function independently, but thrive in their controlled worlds.

So how do we move them out of their controlled worlds? How do we NOT become slaves to their schedule? 

We want our kids to be calm and happy and we’ve learned the best way to facilitate that is to structure their world as much as we can. This WOULD work if our world was a sanitized place where things did not change or break, where people did not react unexpectedly, where societal rules didn’t change for different settings…you get the idea. We have to prepare our kids for an ever-evolving world that is unpredictable and messy; one where we know that people can and will surprise us. This why we need to learn to do something I’m calling “Rock the Routine” just as methodically and intentionally as we do when we structure their worlds.

Rock the Routine: Who, What, Where, & When?

Who? The people who work closest with the child and with whom the child has the strongest rapport with.

This is where parents can really make a difference. Teachers have opportunities throughout the school day to practice rocking the routine but we are limited in how much we can facilitate change and introduce new environments. For best results, teachers should get parents and therapists on board with implementing this practice.

What? Our kids are visual learners so to teach anything new, we need to show them.

I have found the best way to introduce this concept in a clear way that is understandable to the child is through the use of a visual schedule. Create a visual way to introduce the concept of change to them. Once the child is familiar with utilizing their visual schedule, you will show them that you are making a change to the normal routine. You can do this by changing out the picture symbol or by covering it up. It’s important that the person controlling the child’s schedule does not hide changes from the child; let them know in advanced that a change is coming. At the beginning of the process, this may cause additional stress to the child knowing something different coming but very quickly they will learn to trust that you will let them know in advanced when there is a change and that they will return to their normal routine afterwards. Kids RESPECT and TRUST adults who speak honestly to them about what is happening.

If you are unable to make your own, here are some of my favorite visual schedule bundles available for purchase:

Especially Education’s Visual Schedule

Nicole Allison’s Visual Schedule

Mrs. D’s Corner Visual Schedule

Autism Adventures Visual Schedule

Where? At school, at home, in the community.

This could be as little of a change as doing instruction at a different table in the classroom or taking a spontaneous walk around the school. Parents should take kids out in the community as much as possible from a young age (use weighted vests, noise reduction headphones, and fidget toys to help with sensory needs). Teachers, I know you have limited places you can take your kids outside of the classroom. I have implemented structured walks that are slightly different from day to day and not always at the expected time as a fun way to introduce change.

(Below are structured walk schedules that I will do spontaneously during the school day, the visual component helps create structure within the change. You can find my structured walk schedules and icons here.)

school wide signs.jpgWhen? Don’t wait.

 

If you wait for them to reach mastery in their structured routine before you introduce changes to them, you will likely end up waiting forever. The world is fluid and moving constantly so the sooner the kids are able to grasp this concept in a way that’s meaningful to them, the sooner they will learn to cope with change in routine.

Take it slow. A little bit at a time. Show them that changes can be awesome! Don’t only introduce changes when it’s necessary, like an assembly or doctor’s appointment because then you are pairing changes with high anxiety experiences. Facilitate changes that are positive. For example, show them you are going to a place in school where someone is waiting for them with a toy or candy or have extra recess time at an unexpected time.

Rock the Routine peeps!

Send me feedback, questions, stories here!

Xo,

Emily Beth

 

4 Steps to Pairing like a Pro

You may have seen the tagline, “Reaching before teaching” written at the top of my blog. Reaching students on a personal level and building relationships with them should be at the foundation of any teaching philosophy. We’ve all heard people say, “kids don’t learn from people they don’t like (or trust).” For kids with Autism, this is magnified 10x.

In the Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) world, “reaching” means “pairing.” Pairing is developing a rapport with a child before true instruction takes place. Essentially, you are positioning yourself to be one of the most exciting parts if not THE most exciting part of a student coming to school. You symbolize the distribution of all kinds of positive reinforcement (verbal, tangible, & edible).

Teaching only reaches it’s full potential for effectiveness if successful pairing between a teacher and his/her student has occurred. When trust has not been built and it is unclear to the child how to meet that teacher’s expectations, anxiety builds and behaviors arise. It’s critical for the teacher, therapists, and adult support staff members working with the child to devote time at the beginning of the year pairing with the child. It will sometimes be necessary to go back to the pairing stage throughout the school year when new behaviors are revealed.

Print off this free, simplified visual guideline of 4 steps to Pairing like a ProIt comes in different colors, fonts, & sizes. It is also editable so that you may add in specific instructions for adults working with your kiddos!

 

  1. Joined Attention
    • Meet them where they are. Sit by them while they’re engaged in something they enjoy. Remember that their version of playing is different than yours and that is okay. Take the time to understand and appreciate their version. Let them hear and see your interest.
    • Have engaging activities available for them to choose from. Some examples of my go-to’s:
      • TOYS. Do they move, light up, make noise, or spin? That’s usually a good place to start.
      • SIMPLE SORTING. Most kids on the Spectrum enjoy simple, organizational tasks such as sorting manipulatives by color. *Note: This would not be a good place to start with a child who has not built those foundational skills yet.*
      • ACTIVE PLAY. Think adapted gym or recess activities when there are not a lot of other children around. Let them move freely.
      • SENSORY TIME. Keep to experiences that are familiar to them at this stage, for example: swinging, jumping, using their hands (sand, play-doh), crawling, etc.
      • TECHNOLOGY (with limitations). Be wary of this one because this is a social process. Be mindful of how they may disengage from you when technology is present. However, this may be the best option for kiddos that you have extreme difficulty finding common ground with.
      • MUSIC. Music videos are a good option for appropriate technology integration because you can dance or sing with the child and when the song is over, it’s over!
  2. Preferred Play & Inventory. 
    • Find out what they like best! Give them two different options of rewards you may use in the classroom and watch what they choose. Depending on your population, you could also set up a brief, unstructured playtime or snack time and see what they gravitate towards.
    • Log it. Especially if you have a large caseload, you should take time to write down what they chose. Preferences WILL change over time and that should always be encouraged. Our kids tend to fixate on a few particular items/themes/foods/etc. so when they show interest in something new, ROLL WITH IT!
    • Little demands should be placed on the child. This should be a very fun process for them! Reinforcers and your presentation of them should be very exciting as should your response to whatever they choose. This is their chance to teach you about themselves!
  3. Teacher’s Play. 
    • Show them a new toy or fun activity that has some guidelines to it. You are taking a step forward from joining them in “their play” and you are now inviting them to “your play.”
    • After playing the “teacher’s way,” (for a brief interval of time you designate appropriate for that learner) they will then earn a preferred reinforcer discovered via your preference inventory (step 2).
      • Having a “first, then” visual board with a picture of teacher’s toy/activity in the “First” section and the child’s preferred item in the “Then” section would be very helpful. This will help them understand your process and see that what they want is coming soon.
    • Consistency and follow through is VERY important for the trust building component of this stage. For example, if a child is about to earn a reinforcer and something comes up, do NOT forget about their reward. They will remember that you did not follow through with your promise and be less inclined to repeat your desired behavior in the future.
  4. Introduction to Expectations. 
    • Reinforce, reinforce, reinforce! Provide reinforcement for everything you see them doing right. Yes, everything. You want them to think, “wow, I really impress this person by just sitting up in a chair.”
    • Explicitly teach and demonstrate positive behavior choices.
      • Use examples and non-examples, social stories, visuals, role-play, etc.

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The most important part of the pairing process is to show children that while under your care, they are going to be safe, have their needs met, and have fun. You can prove this by being consistent, prepared, and by taking time to love on them at a pace that is comfortable for them.

Reach BEFORE you teach peeps!

Xo,

Emily Beth