Being A Good Communication Partner

image of a communication device screen with a message in the bar: "want stop tickle me tickle me"

Over the years, I’ve come to believe that changing our behavior is one of the most critical ways we support our emergent communicators. I’ve seen it happen more times than I can count… A child communicates successfully in one environment, only to struggle in another. A student has back-and-forth conversations with one staff member, but says nothing to another. We are quick to blame the student or — worse — to not believe the student, their family, or their staff about that student’s previous success. But when do we look at ourselves? What could we be doing that leads to this shut down, this quieting?

In the field of supporting people’s communication, we tend to hear a lot about “creating communication opportunities” and “engineering the environment”. The role of the communication partner is often seen as someone who blocks access to items in some way, and then prompts the student to request or comment about that item.

This is not being a great communication partner. For starters, few people would like to live a life in which access to everything we love came through gatekeepers. It is not fair. It is not respectful. It also doesn’t teach voice. Instead, it teaches that you can perform this specific action to say exactly what I want and get the item that I’ve selected. On top of this, it creates pressure and demand, two things that frequently make it more difficult for our students to access their language or motor skills.

I believe in our students. They have so much to say. And, most importantly, they have a right to say what they want, when they want, how they want. If you’ve made this mistake, if you weren’t taught to center autonomy, there’s still time to change.

Start by believing your students. This is not just the first rule, but it is the hands-down most important rule. When your students say something, that is their voice. Believe that they are saying something. Respond accordingly. Do not say, “I don’t think he meant that.” Do not say “she’s just playing around.” Do not ignore, walk away, pretend it didn’t happen. If there might be a mis-hit, because we all mis-speak sometimes — wait and see. Or ask — just don’t assume. Conversation is an art of co-creation, and we must respect our students as that co-creator. Even with our earliest and youngest communicators, who may babble and explore as they learn where words are… They benefit from us responding to their words. They learn the meaning and context of those words by hearing our response.

In my Spanish lessons, if I say the wrong word for what I mean, my teacher still responds. She works with me to figure it out. This is the basic building block of seeing me as a competent communicator, as someone who will be a fluent Spanish speaker one day. This is also why I keep trying. No shame. Our kids know whether we believe they have voice and autonomy, if we believe that they can be fluent communicators. They know whether it’s worth the effort. They also know when they will be doubted, misheard, misunderstood, and disbelieved. And they stop talking. If a student is not using their communication system in your environment, but used it elsewhere… Ask: What can I do differently? What did they do to support them? Do not just write it off as an exaggeration or that it did not happen. (That was a really, really long paragraph. But I cannot overstate this as a key difference between environments where kids are successful, and environments where they are not.)

Give plenty of wait time. Oh my gosh, guys, can we please just slow down? Have you tried to use a communication device to express your thoughts? Even when very familiar, it can take time. Auditory processing, anxiety, apraxia… There are a dozen reasons why our students need time, and zero reasons why we shouldn’t give it. Stop asking question after question. Stop assuming they can’t do it if it can’t be done within 5 seconds or 10 seconds. Stop assuming they can’t do it if it can’t be done on demand. Learn to observe. Watch for communication all day long. Comment, ask your question, or perform your action — and wait. Wait 15 seconds. Wait 30 seconds. Wait 2 minutes. Observe your student to see what their wait time is, and then wait. Count in your head if you need to. Learn to be okay with silence. Ask or observe if they prefer your attention — eagerly watching and directing your gaze to them — or if they prefer you to turn away, continue with an activity, or come back to them in a few minutes. There are a wide variety of needs. Our students will tell us what theirs are, if we’re listening.

Stop asking so many questions; comment and wonder. Think about the conversations you have with your friends, your loved ones, or even your speaking students. We comment. We draw attention. We describe our feelings, or theirs. We typically don’t engage in 20 questions every time we converse with our friends. Why do we do this when someone is nonspeaking? Why do we pepper them with questions? Why do we relegate them to the role of respondent, and never initiate? We can do the same with our AAC users. We can comment on their actions — describe what they are doing, describe our own actions, share our feelings, connect their words or actions to something else we know. If you don’t know, try wondering. Try offering choices. This allows you to be equal communication partners, but it also can decrease the anxiety and difficulty responding as the demand drops significantly. Students can respond when they are able and want to, instead of feeling pressured to respond when we want them to.

There are so many more ways to converse that don’t involve questions. Examples of adult commentary that pepper our snack times (not all at once), with key words highlighted: You look hungry. You have an apple for lunch. I love to have apples. I ate an apple last night. I wonder if you want your apple whole or cut. I wonder if you want your banana or apple first. Oh, it looks like you want the banana. I wonder if you need help to open that. Let me know if you need help. Your friend has a banana too! I had so much fun building with you before lunch. I wonder if we should build more or play music after lunch. You looked happy when you were building. I wonder what we could tell your mom about your building… It looked tall and red.

All the words, all the time, for all the reasons. This is just a reminder that our students need so much more than a few nouns. They need action words, describing words, complaints! They need to tell us how they feel, where they hurt, what they did last weekend. Even if they are not yet doing that now, they need to be able to grow into that. When we say “core words are too hard” and then don’t include them — we are creating a self-fulfilling prophecy. Every student has a right to as many words as they can access. They have a right to have those words available everywhere they go. And they need us to be modeling all of those words. We cannot just model requests or happy words. We should model “this sucks” and “I hate this” and “leave me alone”. We should model “stop” and “help” and “need” and “tell” and all kinds of words. We can model what it looks like to comment, to protest, to ask questions. (Yes, our students should be able to question us for once!) Communication autonomy cannot happen without access to lots of words (and a keyboard!) Too many times students have stopped using their communication systems or shown low interest simply because they could not say what they want to say. My students’ first words have been everything from “mad” and “stop bugging me” and “play” to “train” and “fruit snacks” and “hungry”. All the words.

Respect the power of their voice. This is honestly a repeat of the first one, but, yes, it’s that important. If our kids use their voice to tell us to stop, then we need to stop. If they tell us they need a break, then we need to give a break. We can compromise, we can negotiate, but we must listen. The quickest way to get a student to shut down is to act as if we do not care. My daughter once was asked if she liked a book. She clearly said “no” with both her voice and her body (tapping a “no” button). The teacher took her hand and said, “Yes, you do like it”. My daughter learned so many things that day. She learned that her opinion was both wrong and didn’t matter. She learned that other people could put words in her mouth and manipulate her body. She learned that it was not worth the effort. When I saw that video, I was no longer surprised that my daughter did not use her communication device in that class. Because why should she?

Go with the ebb and flow of communication. Communication growth spurts come and go. There are times when our students may be chatterboxes, and other times when they go silent. My daughter may not use her communication device for 3 months, but then use it to talk to me back and forth for 25 minutes. It could mean that she’s focusing her energy somewhere else. It could mean anxiety or illness or sensory processing or even just a temporary change in preference of communication form. It doesn’t mean everything is lost. It doesn’t mean that we stop doing any of the above things. It means that we are patient, that we stay with them, and that we respect whatever communication form they are able to access in those times.

Let’s commit to being better communication partners — though the highs and the lows. Let’s show our students that their voices matter to us. We want to hear them. Them. Not us. Not what we think should be said or done. But their truest voice. Because the world needs that voice. We need that voice. And they absolutely have a right to that voice.

Preschool Distance Learning

image of a woman in silhouette holding a talker up to model on webcam

Let me start with this: distance learning is made possible for our families because I run a preschool classroom, not a discrete trial instruction classroom. My focus is creating access to the rich literacy, math, and play-based experiences that are the foundation for a life-long love of learning. Is distance learning perfect? No. I would much rather have my students in my classroom every day, laughing and making memories together. Is it possible? Yes-ish, or at least as best we can, given the circumstances that we’re in.

Yes-ish: Because distance learning is inequitable. The end. Some families have easy access to internet and multiple devices. Some do not. Some families have time or a stay-at-home parent. Some do not. Some are more worried about health, job security, and food on the table. Understandable. Some students are able to sit and work for a little while. Others need direct adult support for every activity. Some know many words on their device, while others are very emergent communicators. A good classroom for our students is a classroom where universal design and accommodations create access. And not all of the elements needed transfer easily to distance learning.

Yes-ish: Because to try is better than not to try. When possible, I’ve done what I can to make distance learning more equitable. I use a platform that I know all of my families are able to access. I assist them to fill out the information needed to get technology support through the county. I use a combination of asynchronous and synchronous learning, a combination of hands-on and sit-down activities, so that each family is able to flex learning around their needs. But it’s not perfect. And any conversation about distance learning has to acknowledge that. It’s doing the best we can with the hand we’ve been given.

Our Distance Learning Plan

AAC System Support – We started a video-based parent training on AAC earlier this year, and finished out the training modules as schools went into closures. Every two weeks, I will send an activity template that encourages modeling and creating communication opportunities at a specific activity or routine. I also post a video explaining or modeling how to do this, pulling from videos I have of their own students when possible.

Sample Schedule – I sent a sample morning schedule home to families who may be struggling to figure out how to structure their day. I was torn about this, because I don’t want to put pressure or stress on families. But several families asked specifically for some guidance around this. The schedule alternates a more structured activity (e.g., reading a book together) with child-directed play. For example, breakfast – movement activity – literacy choice – play – snack – movement activity – math choice – play.

Activity Menus – This is my favorite. It’s my favorite because 1) it requires no technology or computer, 2) there’s built-in flexibility, and 3) this is where I can list ideas for hands-on activities. I am creating an activity menu every two weeks for families. There are five activity ideas each for literacy, math, sensory, and outside play. Yes, that means that half the menu is movement-oriented. It was a deliberate decision. Activity menus allow me to encourage and describe the more hands-on ways of learning that we love in early childhood in a way that isn’t otherwise easy to capture in a “packet”. All activities have been done previously at school. They typically range from 3-10 minutes in duration. They also can be repeated frequently.

Daily Prompt – Every day I post 1-2 prompts to See-Saw for a quick daily check-in with families. Some days, I connect it to the Activity Menu. For example, I shared pictures of home obstacle courses for inspiration on Friday. I’ve also connected it to communication, such as asking students to share what their favorite snack is using the picture communication board or their talkers. Finally, I’ve sent videos of read-alouds, modeling AAC while singing a favorite song on YouTube, and puppets practicing articulation. All quick and easy. The goal here is not to overwhelm families with a jam-packed schedule, but to provide a variety of opportunities. I want families to be able to design their day. Do they only have time for their child to watch video read-aloud while they fold clothes? Great, done. Do they need more things to fill their day, or are they worried about a specific academic skill? Great, we are building a whole library of prompts that you can go back and revisit anytime you want.

Manipulatives – Guys, if you could see the backpacks. When we first closed, I crammed everything I could. Puzzles. Bingo Dotters. Watercolor sets. Paintbrushes. In an ideal world, I would love to make a little “distance learning kit” that I could drop off at homes. Bubbles. Shaving cream. Water beads. Play-Doh. I would fill it with so much sensory. Preschoolers benefit so much from that sort of hands-on, get messy play. Rich sensory experiences provide communication opportunities, language development, science exploration, build math concepts, and strengthen motor skills — and fun. I’m not sure our society gets this, with how much we have to fight for developmentally appropriate practice. It’s something I am trying to stress with my “everything is optional” and “play is central” and “look, so much movement” activity boards. Because it’s true. Play is the work of childhood.

Office Hours – I’ve set virtual up office hours twice a week where I am available for parents to come, ask questions, share experiences, etc. I am pretty available on See-Saw via messaging, but wanted another option. I think sometimes families are afraid to bother me with requesting an appointment or time to talk, so I am hoping this eases their mind. I have them set up once for the morning and once for the evening so that families can choose the time that works best for them.

Virtual Circle Time – We have circle time twice a week right now. It’s filled with music, singing, and dancing — and, of course, lots of modeling on talkers. Even our stories are video stories. I wanted to make it super enticing and enchanting. I really didn’t want my families to have to spend time fighting their child to attend. I don’t even do that in real life… We use sensory regulation, children’s interests, and choice-making to entice children to circle. It’s just that there’s a lot less opportunity for hands-on action in virtual circle time. So we’re focusing on embedding literacy and counting concepts in our favorite songs and stories as we come together each week.

Visual Supports – I’ve offered home picture schedules, first/then boards, and other visual supports to families via digital access or mail.

image of a school bus outline with instructions below it: color your bus, match the letters, and add pictures of yourself or your family

Optional Activities – Finally, for families who want more, I am posting additional — but very optional — activities on See-Saw. I post a teaser each Monday on activities that are available, and students / families can choose to log-in to complete them or not. These tend to be more structured activities, but still short. There’s currently an activity for matching letters and one for creating your own school bus (including adding pictures of yourself or your family). They can be completed one per day, all in one day, randomly throughout the week. Some families have asked for the code to log-in. Some have not. It’s all good.

Throw in a ton of “this is optional” and “do what you need” and “I’m here for you” reminders… Then that basically sums up our current distance learning plan. I hope it sparks some imagination for you if you’ve been struggling with how to reach your littlest friends or your students with higher support needs. May you find the right combination of magic to support your families, whether they wish for a lot or a little.

On Quarantine School

First, notice that I did not say “on home school”.

Quarantine school is not home school. It is not school at home. It is an entirely different experience. We are all under stress. Our fight-flight-freeze systems are bouncing all over the place. It can be difficult to get materials. There was no ability to plan ahead, to map out a year, to explore different resources… There are no field trips. No homeschool meet-ups. It is just you, at home, living through this new experience, this hard experience, with your children.

Give yourself some grace. Whether that’s in comparison to your typical standards for yourself, to the schoolwork that is popping up in your email, or to some other standard you see online… Grace. So, so much grace. With that in mind, quarantine school — thankfully — is going fairly well for us. This is what works for us; I’d love to hear what works for your family.

This is a marathon. Social distancing, stay-at-home orders, school closures… Whatever you’re operating under, it’s not going to change anytime soon. We can’t burn ourselves out in the first two weeks. If making Pinterest-awesome activities every day brings you hope and inspiration, go for it! If it leaves you exhausted by Friday, don’t. Consider what’s going to work for your family over the next eight weeks, or the rest of the school year. How can you stay emotionally regulated across that time? How can you make sure you’re getting enough of that in your schedule? And same for your children — what do they need to stay regulated? How can you encourage or support those needs, whether’s aligning cars, hand-flapping, listening to so much Pitbull, or digging a hole in the yard?

Find the right balance between flexible and structure. My kids love routine. I love routine. My routines are what keep me strong and stable, especially when depression and anxiety are trying hard to flare. Do you have routines that you can use to glue your day together? Lunch, snack, or dinner routines? Going for a walk in the afternoon routine? We balance those routines with flexibility. Sometimes it’s too hot to go for a walk. Sometimes we are all exhausted from stress and need a mid-afternoon nap. This balance is going to be very different for each family. Some will need a lot more structure. When we first became parents, we had a schedule that was planned every 15-20 minutes. That’s what we needed right then. Now, it’s different.

Determine what’s most important. There’s a lot of things to weigh here. For some students or families, school — as a whole, all of it, the end — is not important right now. They are just trying to keep their heads above water. That’s okay. I promise. In other cases, school is important — but only part. For example, my son gets multiple hours of activities and lessons posted to his online account every week. We browsed it, felt that it was going to be stressful for him to complete and for us to accommodate / adapt, and decided not to do it. I realize not every family has this opportunity. Some schools are grading and marking attendance for distance learning. We’ve had the chance to say, right now, this isn’t going to work for him. We are doing other things that I feel are much more important (and accessible). It might be that you do some classes, but not others. It might be that you ask for a teacher to work with you on when things are due. With our family, we have prioritized reading & listening to stories, communicating with others, number sense activities, and movement. The movement, especially, has been important for mental health, as well as skill maintenance. Endorphins, baby!

It doesn’t have to be all day. It doesn’t have to be all at once. Home school, quarantine school, school at home… It doesn’t need to be 7:30 to 2, or whatever your typical school day schedule is. The 1:1 and small group environment within home allow for focused instruction in shorter bursts. If you are doing structured activities, you may only need to do 30-60 minutes total, especially for elementary school students. This can be done at once or split across the day, depending on the age and needs of your child. Our middle school daughter does better with shorter sessions split across the day. Our son prefers to just knock it all out in the early afternoon. I would only expect a toddler or preschooler to sit and attend for 5-10 minutes at a time, with up to 15 minutes for a kindergarten student.

Take advantage of the opportunities that exist at home — and have fun. This is such a stressful time. If there’s something that you’ve always wanted to do with your kids and you have time for it, DO it. Bake a cake. Have a car wash in the backyard. Go check out that isolated nature trail. Take a tour of an aquarium. Watch Mo Willems’ draw Elephant and Piggie. Follow one of your children’s passions until you’re way into the weeds, whether it’s about the aye aye or Pitbull. (Are you sensing a theme with the Pitbull around here?) If you’re working from home all day, back to back meetings, then maybe plan for 5 minutes after dinner to just connect with each of your kids. Find fun, whether it’s for one minute or hours. We need fun. We need it so, so badly. There’s so much learning that doesn’t happen in a book, on a worksheet, or even in one of the assigned projects. If doing these things puts school on the back burner, it’s okay. We don’t get to a ton of things I planned each week, because something pops up here or there. A Lego castle must be built. A beautiful day calls for a longer walk. Our kids are going to remember this time in their lives forever. And they aren’t going to remember if they made it to the next level of reading, or if they finally mastered multiplication. They are going to remember if they felt safe. They are going to remember if they felt connected. Do the things that bring that to you.

Remember – our kids are competent learners. The world tells us that this is not true. We are made to believe that every minute without structured intervention is a lost minute. We have doctors and therapists that recommend over 40 hours of instruction for 2 year olds. This fear is strong. But it’s going to be okay. Our kids do learn. They may learn different things. They may learn in different ways. They may learn at their own pace, in their own timing. But they will learn. They will learn from your baking, from your getting dressed routines, from your leisurely explorations of grass and butterflies and bumblebees on a sunny day. They can learn from your modeling on their communication device, from the choices you offer, from the problems you present for them to solve. They will learn from chances to play independently and from cleaning up afterwards. This time away from school? It’s going to be okay.

Later this week, I’ll share exactly what quarantine school looks like for my daughter with complex communication needs. It can be overwhelming for parents to figure out how to approach homeschool, quarantine school, or even just homework with our complex students. There just aren’t enough examples out there. My hope is that our schedule sparks some inspiration as we head into the coming weeks.

Note: We are doing the best we can to flip things to virtual learning that often just do not flip very well. An active, movement-based circle with changing activities to meet the changing attention spans of a 3 year old doesn’t translate well to Zoom. We can’t arrange our instructional assistants and their schedules to provide the just-right amount of prompting and proximity. This goes back to grace. We will have to collaborate a lot over the coming weeks as we try our best to find some sort of equity and accessibility in this new virtual world of learning. We know this is not ideal. We know this is not perfect. We want to be in school too.

Dear teachers, from your special education students’ family.

I am in my fifteenth year of working in special education, including one brief year as a coordinator. (I missed daily direct work with students far too much to stay.) But there is little that changed the trajectory of my career as much as becoming a mom to my two children did. Both of my children receive special education services — and at many different places on the “continuum of services” over the years. Sitting in their IEP meetings, building relationships with their schools, seeing the way my children were included (or not)… We teachers think we know. I thought I knew. But school and home are not the same. Parenting and teaching are not the same. There’s just so much that I want to say.

We are fighting because we have to. If we seem fierce, if we seem frustrated, if we seem like we’re always anxious about something… It’s because there’s always something to be anxious about. Other kids show up on the first day of school. They just show up. And now they have access to reading, writing, math, and friendship. They hear stories, read to their teachers, read with friends, and learn to spell words. They are taught number sense, reasoning, measurement, and so much more than counting and computation. They experiment! They go to lunch, recess, and resources with their peers. They are assumed to be capable of learning these things. My daughter didn’t get this until she was in sixth grade. My son once didn’t have some of his accommodations implemented for 4 months, despite repeated emails and meetings. On another occasion, the school implemented multiple behavior plan systems with him that were known to trigger fight/flight — despite multiple reminders that his very IEP stating “no behavior plans without team consent”. When we have a great teacher, we know. We know and we are so 100% on your side. We just want the best for our kids. I promise.

Open communication isn’t about helicopter parenting. The statistics are not great for our children and adults with disabilities. Seclusion, restraint, bullying, and flat out physical or verbal abuse are rampant. I understand that there is no way for a parent to know everything that happens every day with any child. I understand that many general education students come home and share minimally. It’s different. It’s so, so different. Our kids are hurt in places where they should be safe — often. We see these stories in the news. We may have lived these stories with our kids. And even when they are physically safe, our kids are left behind in other ways. They are taught separate curriculum, given meaningless grades, or meaningless tasks. My daughter spent several months clipping clothespins to the side of a box or sorting highlighters and pens in her fourth grade year. Their voice may go unheard, as a teacher says “you didn’t mean to say that”. (We have a video of our daughter once saying, “NO” when asked if she liked something. The teacher then hand over hand prompted her to say yes instead.) I understand this whole paragraph is very negative. I understand that if you’re a great teacher, you’re thinking — but not me! Not all of us! That’s wonderful. I’m glad. Show us. Show us that it’s not you. Show us every day, every week. Tell us what you’re teaching. Tell us about your daily schedule. Tell us when our child has a great day or a hard day. Show us some of the things our child is learning so that we can see their progress. Show us so that we can practice at home. Show us so that we can advocate for them in the future because we now know — they can.

Believe in our kids. Give me all the strength-based everything. Strength-based IEPs. Strength-based report cards. Strength-based notes home. Guys, we know our kids are behind. The doctors, therapists, education professionals, and even strangers of the world never fail to remind us. I get if you need to share what the math benchmark score is and where it should have been. But can you also tell me about the time my child was really kind to a kindergartener who was lost in the hallway? Can you tell me how they read a book independently for the first time? The time they made a new attempt at a word, stood for 20 seconds longer than usual? Or all the unconventional ways our children are leaders, go-getters, and bring value to their communities? Maybe they have skill with learning the routine, with trying to solve problems independently, with finding creative ways to self-soothe and self-regulate in a busy classroom. Every child has so many strengths. Let this part of your IEP be big and detailed and long. Let my child shine in your eyes. They will feel the way you see them. We will, too.

Be kind & listen. This probably seems like it doesn’t need to be said. But you cannot imagine the things our children have experienced, or the things that teachers and administrators have said to us. We’ve had administrators tell us that the community would be banging down the door to complain if our child was included for 30 minutes of instructional time a day in elementary school. This is a literal quote, recorded in a meeting. We’ve had home-school communication concerns dismissed as “but she didn’t hit herself that hard, so that’s why no one told you”. Listen when we have concerns. Empathize. Speak kindly about our kids and our family when you have concerns. I want to hear your concerns — just think about how you’re saying them. It’s so different to say: “He can’t be in that class! He’ll disrupt everyone!” and “I’m worried that his anxiety will really spike in this specific setting. He is making a lot of progress with XYZ supports. I really want him to feel calm, regulated, and ready to learn.” Or this: “She doesn’t know any of her alphabet,” versus “She loves to explore alphabet letters by picking them up and looking at them. She will occasionally say one of the letters, but it’s hard for her to consistently name them yet.” THEY. ARE. SO. DIFFERENT.

We are doing the best we can. This applies to the clothes our students wear, the lunches our students pack, the homework folder that doesn’t get checked, whatever it might be. I get that we sometimes might do things that are very frustrating. I am open and honest about how I AM TERRIBLE AT CHECKING THE HOMEWORK FOLDER. I suck at sending in lunch money and permission slips. I get this is a lot of work for you to remind me. I wish it wasn’t this way. Remember, we also are always juggling medical appointments, therapy visits, multiple special education teams, home physical therapy programs, etc — an enormous mental checklist — on top of all the regular ways that we just want to be a family. We just want to watch movies together, build Lego designs, and go to the park. We want to hang out with our kids and appreciate our time together. Sometimes that means that we suck at things. Thank you for being so kind and compassionate and understanding when that happens. Thanks for finding ways to work with us. (My daughter’s teacher now emails when she has a form to sign, or sticks a note in her lunchbox when she needs clothes. I SEE YOU AND I THANK YOU.)

We want our kids to have a sense of community & belonging. My kids have been almost everywhere on the continuum. They’ve been in general education with minimal supports. They’ve been in private day or hospital settings. They’ve been everywhere in between. I understand why the continuum exists. But we can still ensure our kids have a sense of belonging and community, wherever they are in the continuum. A sense of belonging comes from all the little things — having a place to hang your coat, a desk with your name, a chance to be the star of the week, even if you’re only in the classroom for short periods. It comes from teachers and administrators wanting our kids in their schools and shining a light on our kids’ talents, so that all children can appreciate the value that our kids bring to the table. It comes when other kids know your name, wave hello to you in the hall, and ask how you are doing. It’s being on the stage with your peers, not on the floor next to the stage. It’s being at the table with your friends for lunch, not separate and far away. It comes from being invited to participate in school-wide events, whether it’s PTA spirit nights, talent shows, grade level school performances, or field day. It’s about being more than an after thought.

We are a resource and can do great things together. As we grow as parents, we gain so much knowledge. We know what worked for our kids in previous classrooms. We know what helps them communicate. We know what this adapted sign, that vocal approximation, or this sign of frustration means. We have learned from all the teachers that we had before. We can help you problem solve. We can brainstorm. We can (*gasp*) help write IEPs as we share our children’s strengths, the needs we’ve seen over the years, the skills they’ve carried over or haven’t. We have so much value to add as an equal part of the team — if you’ll have us.

Comprehensive Literacy: Our Preschool Day

a pile of alphabet stamps and a red ink pad

I’m in a virtual book study exploring Koppenhaver & Erickson’s latest work, Comprehensive Literacy for All. I can’t wait to share the things I learn from the text and the discussion. One of the early elements that always leads to a lot of conversation is around the time piece. Erickson & Koppenhaver recommend a minimum of two hours of literacy instruction per day. This can be incredibly overwhelming when teachers are new to literacy instruction in the special education classroom, but we need to remember that it’s not necessarily one solid two hour block. And, even more importantly, it’s definitely NOT two hours of the drill or discrete trial instruction that many of our students have previously experienced with literacy. It is immersion in real reading, and real writing. It is authentic. It matters. 

Our preschool literacy instruction looks different than an elementary school literacy block, because we’re preschool. The primary occupation of preschoolers is to play, not to sit at a table or to complete numerous teacher-directed activities. That being said, it’s still very common in early childhood special education classrooms for literacy instruction to be reliant on rote memorization or occur significantly less than in a general education classroom — especially in special education classrooms that serve students with complex bodies or communication needs.

I get it… We aren’t really taught about emergent literacy, supporting literacy in students with complex needs, or meaningful literacy instructions in our special education programs. I’ve been in special education programs across 3 different universities in 2 different states, including programs that led to both general education and special education licensure. I’ve still self-taught most of what I understand about literacy. Our kids have the right to the same high quality tools, the same comprehensive approach that their peers access each day. As such, I thought it would be helpful to showcase the ways that we target literacy skills across the day. 

Of note, I teach in the most restrictive preschool public school placement in my county. All of my students use AAC systems and assistive technology tools to participate in various parts of their day. I mention this because no student is too anything for literacy instruction. Ever. 

Arrival

  • Personal Belongings: Students practice name recognition by locating their cubby to place their items. 
  • Sign In / Out: We also have had students “sign in” by moving their name, writing their name, or otherwise indicating that they are here. We do a similar activity at the end of the day. Signing one’s name is NOT a hand-over-hand act. It’s not about perfect letter formation. It’s about creating meaningful connections about print — what letters mean, why we write them, what our names are… It’s really important that it’s not just a disconnected routine, but that there is a purpose. I’ve used sign in to help students locate their cubbies, to sign up for an activity, or to help me do attendance. Students typically sign independently first (which could be one dot on a page). We then model how we would write their name. This is a great opportunity for use of alternative pencils. 
  • Schedules: We make our individual schedules with the students each morning. It not only gives us a chance to talk about each day, but to also showcase another purpose behind text and how it can convey meaning. Although our schedules do use pictures (as the goal is to be able to use them independently), we draw attention to the print and the letters. We also can showcase how we read from top to bottom. 

Transitions

  • Quick activities: We have recently incorporated activity cards into that transition “down time” where students are waiting. We started after seeing a similar activity in an Erikson math video. The use of a visual to reference, combined with communication devices, makes this a more accessible “transition filler” for students. We might look at letter cards and name them, find letter sounds on the keyboard, or think about words that start with certain sounds and letters. If students do not know, then we model and talk about it together. It is not repeated drill of a letter. It is not hand-over-hand “this is the right answer” errorless learning. It is a quick check in, a moment of connection, a chance to chat about letters, numbers, and provide a little structure to time that can be hard for our students to manage independently. 

Clean-Up

  • Clean-up Chart: During clean up time, students have assigned jobs. These jobs rotate every week. They can find their job by looking at our clean-up chart that is posted on our projection screen. We use names of students (not their photos) so that they are learning another way print can be meaningful and provide needed information. 

Circle Time Activities

  • Calendar / Message: We start with a 5 day, Monday through Friday calendar in our circle. As the year goes on, we are moving into the full month. But it was really important to me that calendar be something that didn’t just act as a vehicle for literacy and math, but made sense to their lives. I wanted it to feel important and manageable. Our calendar has a picture of what they will be doing in art, any special activities, etc… As a shared writing activity, we use that calendar to create a message about the day. 
  • Words of the Week: We have 2-3 core words every week that we highlight at every circle time. We look at the picture and the text at circle, while I model the words for each child. Some students like to model them for their peers. These words are typically connected to the songs that we are singing. 
  • Question of the Day: We read a question together, and then students respond by moving their names. The question is typically connected to daily routines, special activities, or our thematic content. We mostly ask preference / opinion questions as our students are very emergent communicators, but mix in some fact-based questions at times (e.g., “Which one of these is a dinosaur?”) The question is another opportunity to use their name for meaning, but we also connect the different answer choices to letters and print. For example, one question was, “What do you like to do outside?” We had run, walk, and climb. We talked about each option, modeled it on the talker, and modeled the sounds we hear at the beginning of each word. 
  • Voting: We love to vote! We vote on which songs we will sing, on which activities we should do for sensory, on what we should cook, and so much more. Voting, like question of the day, is a chance for students to make meaningful, real choices using their names and other print concepts. 
  • Songs: We always connect songs with their titles — and sometimes their written lyrics. I’ll also search for our songs on YouTube, while modeling sounding out the word, finding the right letter to enter, and using that search engine. Once again — it’s meaningful, it matters, it’s important to the students, but it also is a fantastic vehicle for building a lifelong literacy foundation. 
  • Signing Out: 
  • Literacy Concepts: I didn’t highlight the specific literacy skills for each activity, because they really have an endless number of possibilities. On some days, we focus on letter recognition and letter sounds. We might find the letters in our message, in the calendar, or in our schedule. At other times, we focus on tracking text left to right. Students take turns to track it with pen, pointer, etc. We’ve also clapped the syllables for different words, counted the number of words in out sentence, and practiced touching one word at a time. 

Art

  • Directions: We use visual supports for our art activities, which typically includes a model. I always write short directions to go along with the visual. The staff member leading that activity draws attention not just to the picture, but to the printed directions. Although preschoolers cannot independently read directions, that’s not the point. The point is to model all the different ways that print adds meaning to our lives. The point is that students need to see us reading, writing, and participating in literacy experiences for a wide variety of purposes.
  • Tell me about it… During and after art, we always encourage students to tell us about their artwork with their talkers. We try really hard to keep this open-ended, and so we might say, “I notice lots of…” and then describe colors, shapes, sizes, etc… We don’t want to tell them what their art is, but we do want to model the language used. We write down ANYTHING they dictate to us. ANYTHING. If that means I write, “one one one one one one one one one”, then that’s what I write. I ask questions. I wonder out loud. I show them how much it means to me that they are sharing their words with me. 
  • Signing: We always encourage students to sign their work! Similar to above, it’s not about hand over hand writing a name. It’s about saying, “This is mine! I did this!” Through repeated opportunity and modeling, we scaffold towards writing their name in more standard form over time — a process that all kids go through. 

iPad Center

  • Activities in the iPad center are super individualized to each student. We have apps that cover a wide variety of rich experiences. Students scribble, draw, and make stories in alphabet and story apps. They match and sort (which is a huge favorite in our room) in ways that include letters and words. The Endless Reader apps are also a fan favorite, especially when each letter makes its own sound. We do also have some interactive books on iPad, which can be a great gateway for students who are still discovering an interest in reading and listening to stories. 
purple background with blue car picture... black text reads "Car dfg out wear"

Literacy Center

  • Reading – We engage in shared reading activities in groups of 1-3 students. Students also have the ability to self-select books at any time during the day. We are pretty open to self-selection of books happening anytime, anywhere. Shared reading is a different type of experience than just reading the text to students, and I’ll elaborate more on that in another post. 
  • Writing – We engage in shared writing and independent writing several times a week. We use visual structures, assistive technology, and pictures to support students to write. Sometimes we create a story or write sentences together, such as when we each talked about where our monster liked to jump after singing “Five Little Monsters Jumping on the Bed”. At other times, students select images from their week or preferred things and write on their own. This is another process that I’m hoping to expand on in a blog post soon. Because this tends to be a little more teacher-directed, this doesn’t happen every day. With older students, we would likely rotate through this center daily — but we are still preschoolers. We are made to play! 
  • Play – The most important! We have letter toys, letter magnets, giant letters, letter blocks…. We have alphabet dinosaurs, acorns, and lollipops. We have so many alphabet puzzles, from inset piece to 48 piece floor puzzles. We play with song and sound and silly noises. We explore and experiment with letters. We have dry erase markers for coloring on the board. We pull out crayons and shaving cream and play-doh for making scribbles and letters. This is so much more important than any structured writing activity could be at this age!

Pretend Play / Blocks

  • This is probably where our incorporation of print activities is weakest. I have so many ideas on how to incorporate literacy, but it can be really difficult to implement them. For many of my students, pretend play and blocks tends to be more challenging for them (in comparison to visual activities, puzzles, gross motor, etc). When we add the literacy element, such as making a sign for a building, taking a lunch order, or looking in a cookbook, it can become too much or too teacher-directed. It turns from play to work. We are working to choose one embedded activity that we might include per unit. For example, we are adding cookbooks and menus to our kitchen center for the next few weeks. When we talked about sharks and fish, we had hanging charts that students could reference about sharks and fish. The use of these items is often primarily adult modeled at this time. 
  • However, we focus HEAVILY on providing aided language stimulation (adult modeling of student devices). This is an important part of literacy for our students, as the speaking and listening components are essential to being able to convey meaningful ideas through both spoken and written language. Each and every student in our classroom has access to a robust vocabulary AAC system, which means LOTS of words. We model request, comments, questions, protests, social engagement… Our goal is to model language on a device every single time we are talking and interacting with a student. 

Book Review: Favorite Disabled Characters

cover images of the books listed below
Middle Grades

Song for a Whale – Iris is a deaf tween and tech-genius, who feels isolated and unheard as the only deaf person at her school. After learning of a whale who also cannot hear, which isolates him from other whales, she decides to create a song that he can hear. Iris is fiercely determined to find a way to get her song to Blue 55. Throughout her journey, the novel explores the power of deaf community, sign language, and being heard.

"She talks to me the way people talk to you. Not too loud and too slow, the way they talk to me. She talks like I am a person." -Nicole Panteleakos, Planet Earth Is Blue

Planet Earth Is Blue – Nova is a nonspeaking young girl growing up in the 80s, interested in space, the stars, and the Challenger space mission. I love Nova’s insights into the people around her, as well as the way she holds fast to her own value — even when everyone around her needs a serious wake-up call. This book beautifully explores Nova’s talents and strengths, while highlighting the ways that systems meant to support, such as foster care special education, can dehumanize. Content warning: Nova’s teacher does engage in discrete trial teaching, forced eye contact and physical prompting. I wish the book had more strongly highlighted how wrong these are, but the author does show how painful these things can be from Nova’s perspective.

"It's funny to be a prisoner of yourself. Like you're being bullied by your own mind and you're afraid of it, but it's also you and it's extremely confusing." - Wesley King, OCDaniel

OCDaniel – I love both Daniel — who has OCD — and Sara — who is bipolar — in this book. Sara owns her mental illness and way of being in the world in a way that is rare to read. I wish more time was spent on their friendship, rather than on Daniel’s crush on Raya. The author based the novel on his own experiences, so Daniel’s feelings, obsessions, and rituals all feel true. With the way that “I’m so OCD” is thrown around so casually in our language, it is powerful to read a fictional story that features a true representation of OCD and anxiety. It also closes with Daniel realizing that he will need professional support and to tell his parents what’s happening with him, which is not something that happens commonly in middle grades or YA novels.

Rain Reign – Rose is autistic, intensely fascinated by homonyms, and best friends with her dog, Rain. She’s also the daughter of an absent, alcoholic father — which allows for the exploration of the ways that trauma impacts our lives. Ann M. Martin does a fairly good job of presenting Rose as a character with depth and determination, rather than as a caricature of autism — a rare find in a non-autistic author.

Out Of My Mind – I debated putting this book on here, but I love Melody’s personality so much. Melody is a nonspeaking elementary school student who gets her first communication device — also a story that is not frequently told. It explores the journey to be heard and seen by her classmates and teachers. However, the “locked-in” character with a genius level IQ and photograph memory can unintentionally play into ableism about intellectual disability. Her teachers begin to respect her and classmates become her friends only once they realize she is “smart”, rather than because she is a human being with inherent value.

Young Adult

A Curse So Dark & Lonely – Seriously, this is one of my favorite books ever. I stayed up until 3am finishing it on a school night — that’s real love and dedication. The protagonist, Harper, has cerebral palsy — but the book isn’t about her cerebral palsy. It’s about adventure, friendship, and discovering your strengths. She’s smart, brave, fiercely loyal, and also makes mistakes. It’s rare to read a work of fiction that features a disabled character without the entire theme of the book being about their disability.

Throne of Glass series – Later in the novels, Sarah J. Maas introduces Elide Lochan, a main character — including times when the story focuses solely on her and her story — who has a physical disability. Like Harper in ACSDAL, she doesn’t have to eliminate or “overcome” her disability in order to be fierce, clever, and brave. At times, they do use magic to support her (similar to crutches or a cane) or relieve her pain. But they never cure her, and she is perfect as she is.

Adult

The Kiss Quotient / Bride Test Series, Helena Hoang – These books feature autistic main characters in two well-written romance novels. Helena Huang is autistic, which means her characters have the richness and depth of real autistic people — rather than being stereotypes or caricatures. When I read Bride Test, I felt like I was finally reading a book where the lead and I had SO much in common. Note that both books contain detailed descriptions of sex and intimacy.

Note: I am increasingly reading protagonists and supporting characters who are autistic, deaf, or physically disabled. I’m also seeing an increase in characters with chronic illness. But I still rarely see 1 – main characters with disabilities in books that would otherwise not be about disability (fantasy, sci-fi, dystopian, etc), or 2 – main characters with intellectual disabilities. If you read books that fit either of these holes, please let me know about them!

On Tantrums

I often see on the web these days about how tantrums and meltdowns are different. I understand the importance of connecting meltdowns to sensory and emotional overwhelm, of teaching others to be compassionate and kind in these moments. 

My concern is not with how we characterize meltdowns. It’s important for people to understand meltdowns and how to best support the people in their lives. There is so much good writing out there about meltdowns, and I strongly encourage anyone with children in their lives to go read or watch it. 

My concern is with how we are characterizing tantrums. More and more often, this discrimination is used by the layperson to imply that there is an element of control involved in a tantrum. A willfulness. A “he just doesnt want to”.

I don’t buy this. It’s not possible for me to work from the philosophy of “kids do well if they can” and for me to see a tantrum as manipulative, or to say “well, she’ll learn to stop when she realizes I’m not giving her what she wants.”

Tantrums, like all other “challenging behavior”, happen when a child’s skills bump up against an environment orexpectation that surpasses their ability to cope. Basically: no, they do not have the skills. They are not in total control. They still need empathy, understanding, and support. They need support to re-regulate in the moment. They also need support to learn the long-term skills needed — and to navigate the triggering environments while they develop. Our job is to meet the need (which does not necessarily mean providing the child’s momentary goal, but does mean connecting with them and centering our relationship.)

Let’s take the classic example of the two year old who wants a lollipop in the store, but has been told no. The child begins to scream and kick the cart, yelling “I want my lollipop.” Yes, this is a tantrum. But — this is still a child who is missing the skills needed to cope with the environment and demands they are facing. This is a child who does not yet have the skill to cope with disappointment, who cannot yet safely express disappointment, who cannot yet negotiate for a compromise, who cannot picture when they will next get an item, who has difficulty shifting from one plan to another. 
This is not a child who “is in control” and “just didn’t get what they wanted”. We all face times where we don’t get what we want; how we face those times depends on those skills. And to complicate matters: our ability to use those skills and cope are always in flux. Outsiders may see a child mid-tantrum, while the mom knows that this is also a child who is overtired, who missed their nap, who is late for lunch, who is bothered by the lights of the store, who is dealing with big changes at home, and so on.

With all of that happening, isn’t it better to err on the side of “this is a kid who is doing the best they can”? What harm would come from that?

What does that mean in the moment? Regulation takes priority. Connection comes first. And we don’t let fear of “reinforcing the tantrum” keep us from connecting with the little person in front of us. What that looks like depends on the child. For some students, that means empathy and providing language to match what they might be feeling inside. For others, it may be silence or a deep squeeze or simply waiting out the storm in compassionate companionship. 

Teaching does not come first. Talking and lectures and conseuqences? They all don’t happen here. Because it doesn’t matter how many lagging skills there are, we cannot teach them in those moments of dysregulation. We can only teach when the person we are supporting feels calm, safe, integrated, and connected to their “upstairs brain”. 

And, yes, sometimes that means modifying our expectations. If a toddler regularly has a tantrum in the grocery store about a lollipop, then it might be that they are not quite ready for the grocery store. Maybe it means having the toddler have a grocery “job” so they feel connected to parents during the busy moments of checking out. Or maybe it means that we get our own bag of dum-dums that we carry and provide one upon entering — here’s your lollipop for our trip today. None of this is “giving in”. This isn’t “weakness”. This is meeting our kids where they are. This is providing the scaffolding that is required for our students to be successful. This is helping them get to the next step, one day, when they’re ready.

The best part? Our strong relationship, our many moments of co-regulation? That’s going to set them up for more success than any consequence, ignoring, or lecturing ever would have done. And you are going to feel so much better through the process than you’ll ever feel from leaving a child to cry, placing them in time-out, or otherwise disconnecting.

If you’re looking for more resources on connection first, I cannot recommend the work of Daniel Siegel and Tina Payne Bryson more highly. The first step in their Whole Brain Child is “connect, then redirect”.