Selecting skills: But why does it matter?

blue Thomas train leading a line of toys that includes a broom... a shoe-less foot is peeking in to the edge of the frame.When people enter my classroom, they are sometimes confused. There is a lot that looks different from a typical classroom. A quarter of our room is filled with things that one would typically see outside: ride-along trains, cars, slides. Half of my class spends their days without socks or shoes. If we are in a large group setting, students may be seated at the table. They may also be doing something else in the back of the room, pacing near to the large group, or coming back and forth from the table. Independent work happens on the floor, standing at the table, in rocking chairs, next to squeeze machines. Students engaged in child-directed play may be stacking, lining up items, or scripting. Not only that, but you’ll find classroom staff delighting in these things, expressing joy right alongside the students.

People see this and think that I am permissive and lenient, that I don’t believe in my students, or that I am not teaching them.

Yet — I get good outcomes. Scratch that — I get great outcomes. My students master their IEP goals. My students develop a ‘functional communication system’. Their self-injury, aggression, and meltdowns disappear over time. They learn to tell someone no, to be more independent, and build relationships in ways that honor and support their needs & desires. My families are very happy with the learning that happens in our room, sometimes the first big progress that a student has made. My students and families trust me, which is even more important.

And this doesn’t happen in spite of the environment, but because of the environment.

My classroom environment respects neurodiversity. My classroom expectations respect neurodiversity.

Whenever we set an expectation in my classroom, I ask myself: but why is this the expectation? When we choose a skill to target for instruction: but why are we selecting this skill? I don’t just accept my first answer, but dive deep into it. Where did this expectation come from? Is it necessary for safety? Is it necessary for learning? Is there an alternate way?

Let’s take a look at wearing shoes in the classroom. Why do we insist on this? Is it because this is what we are familiar with? This is what the neurotypical students do? What reason would we have for pushing shoes all day? Is it necessary for safety? No. Students put their shoes on to leave the classroom. They put their shoes on for the playground. But in the classroom, it is not necessary to wear shoes in order to be safe. Is it necessary for learning? No, and I would argue that it is actually counterproductive to learning. If you’ve ever had an unmet sensory need, you would know what I mean. It can be one of the most distressing and distracting experiences, causing pain and discomfort for the entire time that it is unmet. I want my students to learn. This means meeting their sensory needs.

Similarly, with large groups — why do we believe that students can only learn or learn best when seated together in a group at the table or the carpet? Can the student hear my instruction when they are pacing behind our group? Almost certainly, and possibly better than they can when seated. Can they add to the conversation or take their turn with the materials even though they had to leave for several minutes and then return?

I don’t insist on greetings and closings when entering and leaving the classroom, much less eye contact. I make sure that I greet each of my arriving students with warmth and affection in a way that works for their personalities and needs. But they don’t have to return that greeting. They don’t have to look me in the eye. They don’t have to say hello or good morning or good-bye. Once again — is it necessary for me to insist they greet us? Does it have to look a certain way? What purpose does that serve? Why do we do it? If the answer is, in any shape or form, “because that’s what neurotypical children do”, then we need to step back and ask ourselves if that’s enough for something to be necessary. It usually isn’t. Instead, we can create a classroom environment that allows for and recognizes a much wider display of “what something looks like”. We can recognize as valid and beautiful the many different forms there are to acknowledge someone’s presence (e.g., what a greeting is). We can recognize that some days, students may need time and space upon entering the room. We can recognize that people move through the world differently. It’s not only okay, but beautiful and essential.

It’s not that I don’t hold high expectations for my students. We engage in real reading, real work with letters, and real writing. We learn about numbers, geometry, and measurement. We explore patterns. We do science experiments. We create art. We participate in teacher-directed activities. We work really hard every single moment of the day on speaking and listening. We are safe with our bodies and our friends.

It’s that I recognize that our world is better when our world recognizes that validity and importance of different ways of being in the world. And that is why we do as well as we do.

 

This is part one in a series on selecting what’s important in our special education classrooms. Future posts will feature conversation on play, selecting target goals, and teaching social skills as a form of code-switching.

Our students need MORE, not less.

Students who receive special education services need more supports. The type of support they need varies — maybe they need instructional support, maybe lots of accommodations, maybe assistive technology… But, generally, an IEP is a layering on of the structures and supports that a student will need in order to access their education and make progress on their goals.

However, the reality sometimes is that our students end up with less, not more. It often doesn’t happen intentionally. It happens because we worry for our students. It happens because of outside pressure by organizations that promote discrete trial teaching. It happens for the same reasons that general education teachers “teach to the test” — because we want the best for our students.

Still, sometimes we aren’t providing the best. Sometimes we are unintentionally causing our students to fall further and further behind. It can be hard to hear that. It was for me. It still is. But, because we love our students, we have to hear it. And then we can be better, do better. Because we want to. For those students.

One of the mistakes that we make is that we remove the content — the math facts, the letter sounds, the historical timeline — from the context. We drill those addition facts every day, but we forget to spend the time we need just manipulating objects, exploring sets, and making sense of numbers. We practice sight words, but we don’t read chapter books aloud every day to our students. I know these things happen. My own children have experienced them. I’ve totally made the mistake of working on receptive language through pictures at a table, disconnected from what we are doing in blocks or pretend play.

But our students have the same right to a rich, meaningful curriculum. They deserve to learn the meaning of “wet” through puddle-splashing, sink or float experiments, and reading books about the weather — not just through a picture in an array of eight. They need to learn more than just facts about the Civil War. They need to read the newspapers, debate the pro’s and con’s to various Reconstruction policies, and see the way those choices still impact our country to this day. Does this mean that we leave our own students to flounder in a too big, too much classroom or curriculum? No. We still accommodate, we modify, we do what we need to do. We just always keep the context in mind. We keep the why of learning. We keep the love of learning. This is how our students build mental maps, expand their schema. This is how they learn to research, to think critically, to solve problems, and communicate their knowledge. Those things are important for all of our students, whether they use single words on a communication device or write beautiful essays by hand.

Another common mistake that I see is less time on instruction, less time engaged. Even the research comparing general education to special education finds that students are less engaged in special education classrooms. This remains true even when students are matched in their skill and need from one environment to the other. We need to ask ourselves: Are we providing access to all five components of literacy instruction? Are we teaching more than just math facts? What are our general education peers doing during their days? And how can we bring that same level of engagement?

Exhibit A: “Fun Friday”, anyone? Does this mean all Fun Friday activities are inherently wrong? Nope! I’ve seen some amazing Fun Friday activities, with rich instruction in literacy and mathematics, with dozens of opportunities for collaboration and communication. One teacher at my school has these amazingly planned cooking lessons that everyone in the school wishes they could do. But I’ve also seen students get coloring sheets in 5th grade, watch movies, and generally be involved in less education. If it doesn’t happen on Fun Friday, it might happen after lunch or after morning work time. I get that students need breaks. I get that students need time to move their bodies. But I also get that our students are struggling — and providing 20% less instructional time is not going to help them gain the skills they need.

There are other ways to meet those movement or social skill needs. We can read books and re-tell the story through acting, singing, and dancing. We can do more hands-on, moving around activities throughout the day. We can look for games, apps, and projects that build number sense, spatial relationships, and turn-taking between peers. I know we can because I see it happen. I’ve seen brilliant activities that connect math to real life in both general and special education. My son’s general education fifth grade class just hosted a market where everyone learned about economics through designing and selling products. There’s so much room for individualization in projects like these, so many ways to target IEP skills, provide a richness of context, and still have those super fun Fridays.

I’ve failed at this before. I know I will fail again. But failure here isn’t about shame or blame… It’s about thinking what we can do better. It’s looking at my schedule, realizing that I want my students to have more time in stories. I see what I can do. I change what I can. Because there’s always room for growth in this journey. Always. And I want to provide more, not less.

The Cost of “Normal”, or Why Acceptance Matters

I have debated writing this entry for a couple of weeks — for any number of reasons. It’s raw, deeply vulnerable. And in putting this rawness out into the world, I risk so much. I risk people telling me that I’m wrong, that I don’t know myself, that my lived experience doesn’t matter. It’s too high, too verbal, too wordy, too much this, or too much that. I risk the cuts that come a thousand times over in life, the ones that will surely come from people who think they know me… But have only known the masks I have worn early and often. I risk the anger of those who uphold stereotypes, who push ableism both subtle and obvious, who create little boxes that only further systems of oppression. 

And yet — it is an essential risk, a jump that I must take, this long and wordy essay, because I think there is also value here, for those open to receiving it. There has certainly been value to myself.

I have been different since… always. I was a toddler who read books, real books, who loved grammar and phonics rules more than toys, who recited lines from The Little Mermaid many times over, who needed my schedule to be exactly right, my 4:30pm He-Man and exactly 3 items for dinner. No more, no less, or it wasn’t dinner. The end. 

I became a child who cried for an entire day when she lost the school spelling bee, even though I was just six, because spelling, words, letters — they all mattered that much to me. I got in trouble for interrupting teachers, for correcting them, for not following the social rules of the classroom — on every. single. report. card. Grade 1 through 12. I ate little of the foods my family prepared, choking down a bite here or there, sticking mostly to deli meat and chicken nuggets, over and over. Not one single vegetable, not one, and not that many fruits then either. I remember crying if someone didn’t use separate knives for the peanut butter and jelly. I had to sit a certain way, in a certain seat, still do. Clothing bugged me. Hair bugged me. Shoes bugged me. Socks? That was NEVER going to happen. 

My reciprocal friendships were limited, one or two who always left when they found other friendships to be more satisfying. I had exactly one birthday party with multiple peers of my age in elementary school. And it ended with me on the outside, always on the outside, as they played truth & dare, as they pranked me, as they mocked me, at my own party. I don’t think I had a friendship last more than a couple months, maybe a year, until late middle school. I rarely went to others’ houses, not even family. I wanted to be at home, where things were comfortable and familiar and routine. My home, my grandparents’ home, and that was it. I remember attempting to stay at my great grandparents and having to be picked up because I could not sobbing over my need to be. at. home. 

I remember these instructions, over, and over, and over: stop spinning, stop rocking, stop making those random noises… stop incessant interrupting… stop the endless talking about my interests… dress differently, more “together”, more “girl”. Remember to shower. Remember to brush your teeth. Be more social. Do more things. One of my closer friends at the time was certain that there was something wrong with me, in the way that I needed to line things up, the way I needed things to be the same, to the point where she even said something to my family. Teachers, too. Counselors. Many over the years. But it was clear that I was not ADHD, the most common childhood diagnosis at the time. And so, I continued on, no diagnosis, just “quirky” and “odd” and “weird” — depending on who was doing the labeling.

But I am not angry at my family, my friends, my teachers. They did the best they could in a time when people didn’t understand. Indeed, they did better than most, in allowing me my endless escape into novels, buying more items for my Titanic collections, and encouraging all of the alone time in the woods and trees that I needed. They recorded my favorite shows on VHS so that I could watch them over and over. They helped me find the exact soft pants that I needed and bought multiple pairs. But these things are not enough, not when an entire culture — your entire school — is telling you constantly that you are weird, you are odd, you are not good enough. 

And so, like many others, I learned to fake it. I faked it hard in high school. Instead of being the girl who always reads and stays at home, I was the girl that was involved in everything. I was the girl who talked and talked to everyone. I studied other people. I talked myself through all the rules that my family uttered, through all the things I saw other people do. I reminded myself to look at people, to say hello to people, to laugh when everyone else is laughing. I wore the clothes that my mom picked out for me for as many days as I could (before returning to literal pajama pants and flip-flops). I pushed myself to go to youth groups, to go to football games, to sign up join do do do! 

And all of that fitting in, all of that masking — it came at a cost. A deep and treacherous cost. There is a depth of lonely aching, of being certain that there is something innately wrong with you. That you must be selfish, self-centered, egotistical, to not be able to understand all of these rules. That there is something wrong with your need to rock, to stim, to make noises. That you must be unlovable. There is an exhaustion that cuts to the very bones of your being when your day is spent pretending to be someone that you are not. It is an exhaustion that takes everything, everything from you, and leaves nothing but gaping holes. It is a cost that left me laying on the bathroom floor, too many nights to count, with tears streaming down my face. Silent, racking sobs. Gasping for air, gasping for life. I remember sitting there on that cold tile floor and wishing that I could die. Considering how I could die. Wondering what would happen if I were to die. Thinking that, whatever it was, it would be okay, because at least I wouldn’t be alive. And it was an entirely preventable depression, one that I’ve only recently learned to connect to all that painful masking. 

Because there are only two other times in my life that I felt that incredibly low. The second was in my early 20’s, when I joined a staff at a school that was filled with similar aged young women. Except I don’t have many shared interests with a neurotypical same-age woman, as if that wasn’t clear already. I didn’t want to go out for drinks, or dinner, or any of those things. I just wanted to talk about teaching. I wanted to belong, but I wanted to belong as me. And I didn’t. I couldn’t. My passion for the last 13 years has been my students, and everything classroom. I collect information about teaching the way others collect subway maps or Lego models; I wanted to talk about that information always. It was my everything. And I was mocked. I was told, again, that I only ever want to talk about one thing. So I tried to be different… To hide who I am. To go get a coffee. To small talk and chit-chat and have lunch with my colleagues. And instead of feeling as if I belonged, I felt misery. That aching, haunting feeling swept back into my life. 

Again, that third time — I took a job as a coordinator, thinking that this was a job where I was supposed to talk about my passion with others. Guess what? It’s not. Coordinating is all about social skills, small talk, and “leadership skills” that get staff buy-in. I fell apart. Every day, all of my spoons were used up by noon, between phone calls and favors and meetings and persuasion and trying so hard to be “normal” and social and follow all the rules that make good leaders.  I don’t think my husband had ever fully seen me that way, so lonely and lost. I hope that I never enter that place again. 

You may be wondering — how in the world does this relate to being a teaching unicorn?

Because you must understand the cost. You must understand that the cost of masking, of faking it, of being someone other than you are — the cost is nothing less than laying on that floor and wanting to die. It is nothing less than feeling as if you will never belong, as if you will never be loved, as if you are worth less than dirt. I’ve lived through trauma, through physical abuse, and none of that abuse brought me as low as those months of masking did. Every time. It is trauma. It is a trauma that cuts to the very essence of someone’s being. 

You must understand what you are asking your students when you ask them to be neurotypical, whether their neurodiversity stems from autism, intellectual disability, or mental illness.

You are asking them to give up everything.
To leave behind who they are. 

To leave behind everything that makes them who they are. 

To become empty in pursuit of “normal”.

It is never worth the cost. It doesn’t matter how great they get at masking, whether they pull off a 4.0 GPA and a smile while doing it. They will be dying on the inside. 

This is why the world must change, not our students, not ourselves. Because we are all worth of love and belonging. But we are worthy of that belonging right now, as we are. Every day, we make a choice. Will our teaching uphold systems of oppression, or will it teach our students that they belong? Will the subtle things we say — the things we think we say with love — support them or cut them? The goals that we select? The curriculum we use? The ways we teach? We are teaching so much more than a skill. We promote acceptance or we promote trauma. It is that simple. 

I know I’ve made mistakes. I’ve made the wrong choices. I am sure that I have accidentally bought that pain to my students over the last decade, and I mourn for any and every time I may have. I use that mourning to do better. Because I never, ever want to be the reason that a child cries alone on the bathroom floor. 

P.S. I do feel like I should add a little note of gratitude to one particular high school friend, who knows who she is, one of my only lasting friends, who always accepted me and my Harry Potter obsession exactly as I am, who always will.

Switch It Up: Meet Kids’ Needs to Solve “Behaviors”

We’ve had a couple of little “problem behaviors” pop up that have occurred across multiple students pop up in my class. Going into closets. Climbing on the counters. Dumping everything in the toilet. The instinct from grown-ups tends to be that whole “no means no” — repeat, day after day, ad nauseam. And we say, “Why aren’t they getting it?”

But we can look at it another way — these behaviors are the best tools that the students currently have to meet their needs. These students are telling us: I don’t yet have the skills to handle this exact situation on my own. I need supports; I need instruction. If we want the behaviors to cease, we can’t just say no. We need to create environments that support students to use the skills they have, while we teach the skills they don’t.

So that’s what we did this week.

Photo Mar 19, 2 51 48 PM (1)Situation 1: Climbing on the Counter

Above the counter are shelves — filled with all the things that we don’t allow free access to. Not because we are controlling and keep a “sanitized environment”, but things like Cheerios, Cheetos, glue, scissors… Things that just can’t be free access. They also tend to be things our preschoolers really, really want. Thus the climbing on the counter. All of our students have a way to ask for help or ask for those items. But in the moment, the impulse control, attention shift, and emerging communication skills just don’t line up for them to do so. Because they’re in preschool.

We added a Big Mac switch to the counter that says “I need help”. It’s LOUD. It’s easy — even our most emergent communicators can use it. Just leaning in to the counter as they think about climbing it often activates it, so that they can quickly learn the association. It also serves as a big visual support — a “STOP AND THINK” kind of moment. And it worked. Within just a few hours, multiple students were running to the button, asking for help, and then telling us what they need when we brought their talkers to them. Climbing fell off dramatically — and fast. So much faster than any “no means no” instruction could have done. Because we met the students need.

 

Situation #2 – Potty!

The toilet is a tempting playground. My own son went through the same phase; we hadPhoto Mar 19, 2 49 18 PM to call the plumber multiple times for all the things that were flushed down the toilet. It doesn’t matter that we have lots of sensory fun available throughout the room. It’s the TOILET. It flushes! It’s loud! It makes noise! The best way to help our students stay out of trouble is to help them stay out of the toilet.

We also have students who are just recently potty trained, who need to be able to run to the bathroom and gain access quickly. We needed to balance all of the competing needs.

Enter switch #2… It sits right above the door handle, and says “POTTY!” We can keep the door shut, because we are allowing students to have a quick and easy way to meet their need. Just like our counter switch, we positioned it for the easiest access for this particular group of kids. Like with help, they all have the ability to ask for potty on their talkers. But it’s hard. It’s new. We need a bridge until we get there, and this is it.

And once again, it works. We have students requesting the potty that I had under-estimated, that I had not been sure they were yet able to request. It’s not that I did’t think they ever could, but I wasn’t sure they were “ready yet”. But they have an awesome way of continually reminding me that “readiness” can be an arbitrary concept, one that is primarily used to limit them. Readiness is about accommodations as much as instruction. It’s about what I am doing  more than anything they are doing.

Meeting needs works. Again and again.

Special Education: What We Do

I think sometimes there are these vague mysteries around what a special education teacher does. That this job is about having patience. Or at least that is what we most often get told — that we must have lots of patience, or that “you must be an angel” (which usually also implies patience). I guess you need to have a lot of patience, though I’ll say I have a lot of patience for my amazing students and very little for the people who call me an angel.

Our job does not require being an angel. It does require skill, talent, and careful planning. Much of our culture underestimates what teachers do every day, so it comes as no surprise that special education is also underestimated. But I think we need to fight back against this. We need to fight back against this so that our profession — and our public schools — get the respect that they deserve. The funding they deserve. We need to clarify our roles so that people don’t enter the profession half-heartedly or willy-nilly.

All that being said, here’s a preview of what I do over the course of the week.

Teaching – This teaching time could be leading a whole group activity, supporting two students to engage in shared use of materials, or targeting individual goals in a 1:1 teaching session. It could be painting, building, counting, or reading with students. It’s not baby-sitting. It’s skillful implementation of all the other things on this list, dozens of things happening simultaneously. It is interacting, relationship-building, scaffolding. It’s not time at a desk. That doesn’t exist in my particular setting.

Important: I am with students from the moment that I arrive at school until the students are on the bus. Yes, all the moments. When I taught in another state, I did have a 50 minute prep period and a 50 minute lunch. However, not every city / district / state has those types of regulations built in. So, sometimes that means that educators are with children for every moment of the day. We still have the same amount of paperwork and responsibilities, which means we do them outside of school hours. .

Behavior Support – Special education teachers may be responsible for both class-wide systems and for designing individual support systems. I want to be clear – I’m not talking about color clip charts here. The greatest teachers are not relying on that type of system. I’m talking about systems for social-emotional skill regulation, sensory integration, and skill development. Rules, values, expectations. And the necessary instruction & accommodations to be able to meet them.

Staff Support – We coordinate schedules, instruction, and accommodations between any number of staff and therapy providers. We teach instructional staff about our students and their IEPs. We train assistants or paraprofessionals on implementation of a behavior plan or an accommodation. We model and provide cues on how to teach a target skill, as well as how to collect data on that skill. We provide training on evidence based practices, such as visual supports, prompting, or reinforcement. We do this on the job, after school hours, via email, via instructional plans, or any number of ways.

Lesson Plans – Guess what? We still align our instruction to the state standards. Like all teachers, we design units and daily activities to meet those standards. We use universal design and/or differentiate so all students can access the materials, whether or not they are “on grade level”. We then create individual plans to target IEP goals and objectives. Incidental teaching or direct instruction? What kind of materials will we need? How many opportunities daily? What kind of prompting? How will we ensure that this skill is generalized and usable by the student in their daily lives? How will this be assessed? How often? This IEP instruction does not replace the grade-level curriculum. Our students access both. It’s the law.

Assessment – There are so many levels of assessment. We assess our students at the beginning of the year, of a unit, of a new skill. We assess their ongoing skill gain on a daily, weekly, or monthly basis through “formative assessments”. We check in on the way they are mastering the grade-level material, sometimes with accommodations or modifications. We complete progress reports several times a year on whether they are making sufficient progress towards their IEP goals. We complete bigger assessments for IEPs and eligibilities and sometimes just because they’re needed. I personally take data on every student’s IEP goals every single day. I can’t wait until half of a month — or half f a quarter — has gone by to course correct. We graph that data at the end of every week. We review whether students are making progress towards their goals based on visual analysis every 2-4 weeks. We change our instruction based on that feedback. I don’t teach to the void, hoping my students pick up something that I drop. I use that data, whether it’s numbers or qualitative notes or digital portfolios, to change my teaching. Because there is almost always something that we can do better.

Accommodations – We ensure that students’ accommodations are implemented across their day, whether it’s in the classroom or in the gym or transitioning from the bus to the classroom. Accommodations can vary as much as the kids that we teach, but might include things like: visual schedules, visual directions, wait time, pre-teaching, additional time on tests, communication devices, modified seating, simplified directions, on and on and on. And if those accommodations require teacher-made materials? We are the ones who are making them.

Communication Systems – Sometimes our students need additional support to communicate. We work with speech therapists that serve our students to assess which systems might be best, trial these systems during the day, and then provide ongoing instruction and support. We might do programming of additional needed vocabulary words, provide parent training, or help instructional staff understand how to use them throughout the day. We always, always make sure our students have their talkers with them.

Note:  I feel like this is one of the paragraphs that needs a caveat — the unfortunate experience of many families is that this is missing. But it’s up to us to change that. We can do better. We can make sure every child has a voice. We can ensure that their voice is both available and respected. This is why it’s important to detail all the things that we get right. We can then challenge ourselves and our colleagues to continue to raise the bar. And hopefully inspire the wider world to see us as the processionals we are, who deserve professional wages and respect.

Materials – Oh my gosh, the materials. The lamination paper, the velcro, the color ink on my home printer. The clipboards, the data sheets, the manipulatives… We’ve got to find it, prep it, organize it, store it. Clean it!

Cleaning – Yep, we clean. We clean tables. We sweep floors. We bag up trash. We wash dishes and cups and silverware. We wipe down changing tables. We help clean up bodily fluids. We do what we need to ensure that our students have a clean and safe environment all day long.

Family Communication – We communicate with families in a wide variety of ways, depending on what our students need. My students are early communicators, and it can be difficult to reflect or share their day with their families. After school, I send videos, pictures, notes, and stories to families so that they can see what their student is doing each day. I respond to questions and emails that pop up throughout the week. Other people send home daily notes, write in agendas, send emails, or call. There’s a wide variety, but generally we need to touch base with families more often than some teachers due to the difficulty our students may have in sharing their days themselves.

Paperwork – Wow, paperwork! And there is so much more than just the IEP, ESY IEP, and eligibility paperwork. I’m just going to list some: IEP-at-a-glance sheets, caseload management forms, interpreter requests, releases of information, transportation requests, consultation requests, referrals for evaluations, consent for evaluations, therapy notes, data sheets, assistive technology need documentation, medical needs documentation, ESY planning forms, communication logs, reinforcer surveys or assessments, intervention records, and general classroom documentation needs.

Spending Money – I spent a lot of money on my classroom. People are generally shocked when they hear the amount that I spend each year. But when I started, my classroom had a couple of tables, bookshelves that blocked line of sight for preschoolers, and some chairs. We were given some cast-off toys from other preschools so that we could get started. And we did have a pretty awesome alphabet rug! Over the years, I’ve transformed our room into a thing of beauty, a place that we all want to be in every single day. We have a squeeze machine, a crash pad, giant building blocks, a rich and diverse library, toddler-size bookshelves, and so much more. It doesn’t come free, and our school budgets are constantly strapped. Education has not been a priority for our national system for far too long, especially public education. I donate when I can, what I can. I have friends who help out. And I’m not the only one — the average teacher spends $500 out of pocket every year. I buy books. I buy more books to replace the ripped and chewed books. I buy toys to replace the broken toys. I buy chewelry. I buy lamination paper, velcro, tear-resistant paper, clipboards, iPad apps, Chlorox wipes, and about a million more things.

School Stuff – And then there’s all the school stuff we have to do. Attendance, email, faculty meetings, department meetings, team meetings, school events, school spirit, collaboration with colleagues, beautifying the environment. Hanging artwork, writing about the skills we’ve taught, sharing lessons. It’s a beautiful thing when a school works together to create a space that is designed for kids. I’m lucky enough to be at such a school.

Research  / PD – Teachers generally have to do a certain number of hours to renew their certification, but most of us do more than that. We read books, find research articles, follow blogs, and generally find ways to continue up our game. I have colleagues who volunteer at DonorsChoose to help other teachers, or who turn-key important information from science and social studies conferences to the larger school community. I have friends who moderate Facebook groups that challenge practitioners to grow in our understanding of children with complex needs. Very few of us are not giving back to the teaching community or seeking out new knowledge on a regular basis.

Caring – I left this one for last, because we all know it’s the most important. Learning happens through relationship. Learning happens when kids feel safe and loved. The public trusts us with these precious souls for 8-9 hours every day. I know what a privilege and honor this is. I promise to never take it light.

Baaaaaaaby shark, or letting joy be joy.

Photo Jan 11, 11 02 00 PM.jpg

This is Baby Shark, with credit to Super Simple Songs for our classroom’s favorite of this viral sensation. My preschoolers loveeeeeeeeee Baby Shark. They also love Santa Shark. And Halloween Shark. If there’s a Valentine’s Shark, or a St Patrick’s Shark, or a Summer Shark? They will probably love all of those too. They dance with Baby Shark. They look for ways to make pools for Baby Shark. They sing and read and love on Baby Shark. And, really, we’re pretty huge fans of Super Simple Songs, period.

But, what is Baby Shark doing on my arm?

I love my job; it feels weird to refer to it as a job. I get paid, but that’s not why I look forward to every day. I wake up smiling because my job is pure joy. I get excited for Mondays, because I get to hang out with clever, creative, and awesome tiny humans every day. I wanted to symbolize everything that I love about preschool. But I also wanted to say more. I wanted to say: my preschoolers are beautiful and brilliant, as they are. We don’t need to change their fundamental way of being in the world. We don’t need to transform them. We just need to support them.

Thus, “respect the stim”. It’s brought up in autistic advocacy circles often, because too many — most, almost all — autistics have experienced the opposite. Shut down. Mocked. Forced to be someone other than themselves. Even my own family — who I adore, who have celebrated me, who have honored so much of my very being — spent many minutes asking me to PLEASE. STOP. ROCKING. Twenty years late, I remember it.

Respecting the stim means allowing.

Stims can be joyful. And they can be necessary. They are a powerful expression of someone’s very way of being in the world. If we catch ourselves telling a fellow human to stop, we need to ask ourselves why. For most of history, it’s because X has not been deemed “socially acceptable”. That’s not a good enough reason. If no one is being hurt, emotionally or physically, then why? Why does it need to stop? And if we’re truly worried about safety, can we find a safe way for our friend, family member, student, etc, to engage in what’s important to and for them? Can we work with them, instead of against?

Respecting the stim means celebrating.

Stims are creativity, joy, experimentation, expression, movement, regulation, and so much more. There are as many stims, ways of stimming, reasons for stimming as there are people who stim. I celebrate people — people who have the right to be their authentic selves. I look forward to a world where “quiet hands” doesn’t exist, where little girls rock to their heart’s delight, where teachers and parents can see the art that exists in a perfectly crafted line of alphabet blocks. It’s a world that feels very far away sometimes, but it’s also a world that you have the power to bring closer.

Respecting the stim means moving.

Some people’s bodies were made to move. And that’s okay. It’s okay if someone needs to pace the classroom while you read a story out loud. It’s okay if someone needs to jump up and down. It’s okay if someone wants to wave their fingers in front of their eyes when listening to your directions. It’s okay. I promise. Let bodies move the way they need to move. Learning can still happen (and often happen better).

Respecting the stim means not always teaching.

This seems to be the hardest one. There’s about a thousand books and articles out there about using children’s interests to teach. And I’m all about that, because aren’t we all better learners when we care about what’s happening?

But, sometimes interests just need to be interests. Joy just needs to be joy. Sometimes listening to “Baby Shark” just needs to be laughing and singing and making silly noises together. Sometimes you need to forget the lesson plan and throw some snowy silver glitter into the air. I mean, take a moment. Think of something you love dearly. What if someone else decided when and where and how much you could do that thing? Or if you could do that at all? What kind of world would that be? Who would you be? And what kind of relationship could you ever have with that person?

Don’t try to twist everything into a “teachable moment”. Just don’t.

 

This is what Baby Shark is to me: joy. Joy that is allowed — encouraged — to simply be. And it’s one of the greatest gifts my preschoolers have ever given me. To learn, by accepting them, what it means to accept myself. It means everything.

AAC: But where do we begin?

Photo May 15, 9 39 43 AM
“drink drink drink need need need” with LAMP on an iPad

But how can we introduce so much language when we do not yet recognize the child’s communicative attempts?

You use all that language to build a mutually understandable language.

Whhhaaaatt??

Yes. Lots of language. Even when they are not yet using any.

It starts with modeling (aided language input). And then we watch, carefully. Look for any signs that can be taught to the child’s entire team, or shaped into something recognizable and functional for that child. Notice their body language. Notice the sounds they make. Notice all the different ways that communication occurs, outside of words. Notice it even if it doesn’t fit the neurotypical model, because communication doesn’t need to fit into that box. It really, truly doesn’t. It doesn’t have to look the same, sound the same, be the same. It just needs to be something that allows this child to communicate the full range of their thoughts and feelings in a way that can be understood. Part of the work is on us — to do the understanding. 

From there, we build. That building might look different depending on where the child is, what the child is interested in, what body movements and vocalizations the child may have. But there’s a starting place for everyone. 

My student does not yet look at or notice me or the talker. 

That’s okay. I mean it. It really is okay. You can still start here. Join your student in the things that are fun for them, whatever they might be. And don’t do it to manipulate them into doing something else. Do it because it’s enjoyable for them and you want to share that experience. Be enthusiastic, be warm, be someone that your students love to be around. Model language here because all of us, every single one of us, like to talk about what we value, what we enjoy. 

And start to notice: are there words that seem to draw your student’s attention? Do they pause, look towards you, look towards the talker? Do they make more or less sounds when you say certain things? Assume these movements are intentional. As Kate Ahern says, “we teach intention by assuming intention.” Ascribe meaning and then act on it. If your student glanced at you for one split second when you modeled “go”, then make that car / swing / toy GO. If they start jumping up and down when you model “happy”, then comment on this: “Yes! You are HAPPY! When you smile, I think you are happy.” 

These body movements don’t need to be huge. They don’t need to be frequent. We just need to recognize them and show our students why it’s worth repeating. How many times, I wonder, have our students tried to communicate with us, but we didn’t hear them? We are showing them the power of words, yes, but we are also showing them that we are listening. We are finally listening. The thing is: when you start to look for these small signs — noticing, reinforcing, ascribing meaning, making it worthwhile — they are going to start showing up more and more and more. 

My student does not yet engage with the talker. 

Maybe this student is really observant. You see that they are often watching you model, but yet they haven’t initiated using the talker to communicate. 

First, I would troubleshoot to ensure that 1) the child is able to physically access the device, 2) the vocabulary available is powerful to this student, 3) that we have enough vocabulary available for the student, and 4) that we are doing engaging and fun activities, things where the student has a reason to communicate. 

Once you’re sure that these four hurdles have been met, then continue to treat as above. Accept any small action that could be a step towards initiating with the device down the road. I have a student where we are currently very excited about reaching for the device. We reinforce reaching for the device by confirming his selection, continuing the activity, responding as we are in a conversation. One day, he’ll start touching it — and then we will be just as excited about that. Reaching, touching it, activating any button, and so on… It’s all part of the journey, just as infants begin with noises and then “ma” and then “mama”.

My student babbles (sometimes labeled as “stims”) on the talker.

Let them. We so easily forget about how important babbling is for young children. They are stimming with their voices. They make repetitive noises. They say words because they sound funny. They blow raspberries and whisper and act ridiculous. It’s part of learning to speak. It’s also one of the most important ways that our students can learn where all the words are, especially if they are not yet readers. They need to be able to do this. 

Besides — children who love to babble on their talkers are giving you a really easy way to teach communicative intent. Respond to what they are saying. If they say “sleep”, pretend to go to sleep. If they say “mom”, talk about when you will see their mom. If they say “avocado banana ice cream pudding worms”, you say “Ew! That sounds yucky! I would much rather have chocolate pudding.” Provide context. Teach that when they say something, it matters to you. It’s part of an exchange. But you have to return their exchange for that to be true. How often are we the ones dropping the ball, writing off something as “he didn’t mean that”? Just act as if they do. It makes a difference.

My student presses buttons but doesn’t direct it to me. I wasn’t even nearby!

First off, let’s get this straight. You’re in the kitchen, and you spilll something. Your husband / wife / partner / child is in the living room. Have you ever just yelled out, “I need a towel!”

Yeah, exactly. 

Our kids have the right to just yell things out too. It’s actually one of the perks of high-tech AAC over sign language, low-tech, etc, when high-tech AAC is possible. They get to yell out from across the room. They get to, quite literally, be heard. 

If you’re worried that they won’t understand someone has to be able to hear them, that the message has to be received, I would just give that time. Keep receiving their messages. It’ll build. And there are ways to teach how to get attention with a device, whether high-tech or low-tech. We can work on that. Right now, in the beginning, we just want to teach our children that their voice matters. We want to respond to anything and everything. Not just for the vocabulary that we teach, the interaction that we strengthen, but so they know that they matter. That we will no longer intentionally or unintentionally ignore them. It’s important. It might be some of the most important work we do. 

 

Next week, we’ll build on this by discussing ways we can build communicative intent — and, really, communicative exchange — through multimodal means. We all communicate in many ways: gestures, facial expressions, words… We can support our students by ensuring they have multiple ways to express themselves as well. 

See previous posts in the communicative intent series here.