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. 

On Assessment

image of rainbow letters on the floor -- telepubies -- an attempt to spell Teletubbies.

Assessment is important. It’s kind of weird to hear me say that, right? I often write about how assessment underestimates our kids, feeding into harmful cultural norms around disability supports and education. All of that is still very true. 

Yet I use ongoing assessment to drive my instruction. I sit down every week to review our data before designing my instructional plans or activities. I use it to know if my teaching is working; I use it to adapt and course-correct when my teaching is ineffective.

How? How do I make assessment work for my students?

The answer lies in both how we assess and what we assess. It lies in what we “count” as learning, what we “count” as demonstrating knowledge. It also lies in how we use those assessment tools. 

What are we assessing?

What we choose to assess is as important as why and how. Too many times, my daughter’s assessments have basically been about assessing her competence. They are normative tools that showcase all the ways she is not reaching neurotypical milestones. We already know she’s neurodiverse. We already know that she has her own route and map to her best life.

There are better ways. We can assess what skills are emerging, and develop plans for strengthening them. We can assess a student’s environment to see what is or is not working for them. We can work with our students to determine what goals they want to achieve, and assess how we are doing to reach those goals. We can focus on grade-level curriculum and standards. There’s so much more to teaching and assessing than a list of neurotypical skills in development. 

Why are we assessing?

image of an alphabet puzzle on the floor, half completed
student uses their alphabet knowledge to put together a floor puzzle

Assessment, for me, is almost entirely about what I can do to better support my students. It’s not about demonstrating what my students cannotdo, which is often the purpose of testing in special education. It is certainly not about setting up a prerequisite where students cannot access XYZ pieces of education until they prove themselves. If I have not yet determined which letters a student knows or does not know, that doesn’t mean that we won’t talk about letter sounds, engage in writing, or enjoy books together. Think about general education students. They don’t always master all of the material in one unit, but they aren’t held to learning that same unit over and over again all year. If you get a C on a geography test, they don’t make you keep practicing the same map as your sole activity each day before you can study early indigenous cultures. Instead, we spiral back through the material throughout the year, scaffolding and supporting students as we go.

And that is what I use assessment for — what do I need to scaffold? Where might I need to more accommodations? Is there something that I should draw attention to more explicitly, even as we move forward with our curriculum? Did I create meaningful experiences that allowed students to make deeper connections? Were students engaged? Did students have the opportunity to show their knowledge through a wide variety of means? Where might we need to include more assistive technology? This reflective process — a process where I adapt to meet the need of my students better — is what makes me who I am as a teacher. 

How are we assessing it?

This is the entire crux of when assessment works, and when it doesn’t. Our students have a million barriers that make it difficult for them to show their knowledge, talents, and skills in a typical setting — anxiety, apraxia, communication difficulties, sensory processing needs, on and on. I am not giving tests. This doesn’t just mean pen and paper tests, but also “testing” of knowledge. I am not sitting at a table with an array of picture cards, asking students to touch or point to something. I am not withholding items or “sanitizing the environment” to force a specific type of communication. And this is true of everything I assess: literacy, math, conceptual knowledge… It’s not about showing something when I want how I want. I don’t think that helps anyone. 

And I know there are those out there who will say, “but you need to be able to show a skill on XYZ.” I was in a webinar this summer where they said “well, even if it’s not a knowledge problem, it’s a performance problem.” I don’t think it is. I think it’s a “our culture is super ableist and expects things to look a specific way” problem. The answer to that problem isn’t to force our students to show up more neurotypical, or to withhold education until they can show skills the way we want them to.

The answer is to be flexible. 

The answer is to observe.

The answer is to listen. 

Assessment is about “capturing a moment”. It’s noticing the things that our students do during the day, the subtle and the dramatic. We take observation notes, photographs, and videos to create student portfolios that stand out stronger than any of our numerical data or graphs. We add student work: their writing, their buildings, their collaborative group creations. It’s messy. It happens during meaningful experiences, sensory-rich and hands-on. It happens when they are exploring alphabet letters, reading books with an adult, or running around on the playground after peers. The thing is: when we want to see learning, when we want to see our students’ competence… it’s everywhere. 

chalk letters on blacktop with a student hand on the D, while they begin tracing with their other hand
student dictated letters & then traced them afterwards

It’s the student whose eyes track the words as you read the title, even when they cannot get their hands to touch the words along with you. It’s in the student who looks at your feet every time you sing “if you’re happy and you know it, stomp your feet.” It’s the student playing with alphabet magnets and periodically naming them to themselves. It’s the moment that you’re passing out Play-Doh tools, saying “take one”, and a student grabs just the red roller. It’s when a student chooses the snack bag that is more filled. Or a student who plays with blocks by separating out all the little ones so that they can keep the bigger Legos only. How much can you learn about a student when, on a Friday, you say, “Today is…” but their favorite activity happens on Tuesday, so they yell out, “It’s not Friday!” All of these are moments where we learned something about what our student knows. They would be ignored, unseen, or discredited by some. And our students would slowly start to shut down, stuck in a world where they have to constantly prove something. 

It’s also about listening and observing the environment to notice what “gets in the way”. For example, a student may be able to locate their shoes in their cubby when the environment is quiet, but not during the “goodbye” song. This doesn’t meant that they cannot follow one step directions, or that they don’t know what ‘shoes’ means. It means that we need to consider accommodations to support the student to be successful. It means not asking students to shift attention rapidly (or when a favorite song is on). It means giving transition time. It means noting that this student uses context clues and routines to increase their independence, which we can use to support them across other activities as well. That’s what I mean when I say that assessment is about capturing knowledge and changing my teaching. It’s not about proof.

Because that’s the thing — I don’t need proof. I know my students learn. I know my students are creative thinkers, problem solvers, competent and capable. I never presume anything less. 

(P.S. – I recommend sharing and celebrating all those moments that you capture with students and their families. They will spend most of their educational career being told what they cannot do, unfortunately. Be different. Show them there’s a different lens.)

Why We Quit ABA, Part 2

For more stories, including autistic voices that must be heard, check here.

You can read part one of our story here.

When we quit ABA, it wasn’t just my daughter that quit ABA. I am a special education teacher in my fifteenth year of supporting autistic individuals. When you serve autistic students, there is a certain amount of pressure to pursue a BCBA. It’s not always formal pressure, though some districts are increasingly requiring it. It can come informally, through meetings where BCBAs discount your professional opinion or through the knowledge that parents in your communities are seeking out those initials. 

Because of that pressure, I started (and stopped) the coursework towards my BCBA twice. The first time, I made it through one class. I am not even sure if I took the final exam, or if I just took the W. The second time, I made it through three. I wanted to know the terms and the practices and the terminology that are being quoted as the best thing for my daughter and my students. I wanted to read the research for myself. 

I still quit. Two different programs. Permanently.

There are tools that are used within ABA that many really good teachers use — and probably used long before Skinner ever came along. For example, breaking things down into smaller pieces can be really helpful in determining where a learning breakdown is happening. Or “shaping”, where we celebrate kids’ good attempts at something long before they are perfect.

But I found that it was impossible to separate these tools from the culture. It was impossible to separate task analysis from a heavy reliance on physical prompting. It was impossible to separate shaping from an emphasis on verbal communication. It was impossible to ignore the research that included forced feeding programs, elimination of vocal stims, or provision of limited communication systems to students. It was heart-wrenching to be in classes with professors and people who likely thought the JRC was a good thing. It was impossible to ever choose presence with students over quantitative data. It was impossible to ignore the compliance-oriented research and strategies.

And it is pervasive. This harmful, harmful idea that autistic students cannot learn outside of this one way is pervasive.There is plenty of behavior modification talk in special education programs. There are still plenty of special education textbooks that write about discrete trial as the way to teach literacyThis pervasiveness is why I write — not just about quitting, but everything I write. To break down these harmful ways of thinking and teaching. To do better.

Three semesters of coursework on ABA specifically with autistic students, and how many times did I read about autism from the words of autistic people? Zero.

Three semesters and how much did we learn about AAC? One week, and limited to PECS.

Three semesters and how much did we talk about accommodating sensory needs? Zero.

These things are important to me. These things are what make me the teacher I am today. These are the things that I want my child’s teachers to know — what her experience of the world is like, how to support her communication, how to meet her sensory needs. These things are what make my classroom successful and my students happy to be there. 

This is why I write so much about the culture of our classrooms, because that’s what comes first. We need to know who we are as teachers, who we want to be.

I want to be a teacher who explores concepts with my students. I want to be a teacher that expands their schema and understanding of the world. I want them to learn about mud puddles and the way friction slows a ball going down a ramp. I want to immerse them in literature and letters and writing. I want my students to build deep understandings of number sense. I want their vocabulary to be built through rich sensory experiences, not time at the table, not pictures. I want them to fall in love with learning. 

These things are not easily measured. I won’t be able to create a list of 1,000 pictures that my students can name when asked (and I’m okay with that). These things are not taught by reading sight words or repeating math facts until we reach a set level of fluency. But these are the things I want to spend my time and money studying. I want to study how I can be a better communication partner to my students. I want to study what a literacy block can look like for my emergent literacy students, what accommodations and strategies will help them when they enter elementary school. I want to experiment with what sinks, what floats, and why we think that happens. I want to make messes. I want my time to be so fully immersed in being with my students, not in sitting behind a desk and graphing. 

I want to be a teacher who gives my students an education

It’s not easy to quit ABA. I mean, it’s super easy to quit in that my classes were against everything I stand for and frequently made me shake my fist at the sky. But it’s not easy to take the leap against something the whole world pushes. There is a fear that one day, I will no longer be allowed to teach my students. There is a fear that families will think our classroom is not good enough. 

I have thought long and hard about how I would respond to this fear. I believe in my students. I believe they are smart and capable and funny and talented. I believe that they have the same right to a full, well-rounded education as any other person that walks through the doors of school. Because, I promise you, if you give us the chance, you will not regret it. 

How We Do It: Visual Schedules

yellow clipboard with velcro picture symbols showing a student's day (circle time, art, tech, eat)

I tend to write about the philosophy behind my teaching and the culture more than the practical. This is because nothing else matters until our classroom cultures shift. Visual schedules are a fantastic example of what I mean.

There are plenty of people who use visual schedules as a compliance system. This is on your schedule. You must do this. Or they use visual schedules because someone once said they should, but they sort of just sit around and have little meaning for the students using them. If that’s how they are being used, then it’s not a student accommodation. It’s a teacher tool.

We use visual schedules to increase predictability, visual supports for conversation about our day, and to assist students to know where they are going and when they are going there. They are a support system. I understand this deeply because I need a schedule.

How do we do this?

yellow folder on top of a yellow clipboard

We design the schedule to be easily accessed.

I often see schedules on walls. I’ve made this mistake in the past. But it’s not very useful on a wall if you’re in the cafeteria, on the playground, or even on the other side of the room. Asking a student to leave a preferred activity to go across the room to check their schedule to come back across the room seems like a lot of response effort for a time that may already be challenging. Transitioning, shifting attention, and now moving too? We keep our schedules on our clipboards. The front has a folder for data, notes, or individual student items. The back is the schedule. We also bring the schedule to our students. Older students could carry their schedules with them by placing them in their binders or backpacks.

We design the schedule for understanding.

We currently use primarily picture symbols, but not only picture symbols. We have used songs, objects, photographs, and written text, all dependent on the child’s needs. We’ve also mixed them all up — maybe a student uses a picture schedule for all of their work activities, but uses a spoon to transition to meal time. We currently don’t use times on our schedule as we are in preschool but I’ve used them with older students. It’s not about the tool. It’s about matching the tool to the student needs. Ask your students: will this lead to more or less understanding? More or less frustration? If they cannot tell you with speech, watch their nonverbal language. We always want to decrease frustration.

We use visual systems to support their use for transitions.

image of a filing cabinet with an "art" picture attached to the side, with 8 velcro dots below

One thing that has invariably helps my students when learning routines and schedules is to have a match in another location. They don’t just have a random picture of a table that means “work time”. There is a matching picture on the actual work time table as well. If we’re using a space that serves multiple purposes, that picture is attached by velcro. I don’t like spaces to have multiple visible pictures showing; it gets confusing. We know what the schedule says because we can read text. If our students are not yet able to read, how do we make sure they understand? This matching system helps so much.

We refer to the schedule throughout the day.

The schedule is not just a decoration or a transition cue. It’s something we talk about throughout the day. We talk about changes to the schedule in our morning meetings. When students go to their backpacks during the day, we show them their schedule to help them know when we go home. If a student asks for a snack or iPad or some other item that we cannot access right now, we use the schedule to tell them when they can have it.

We don’t care about compliance.

Repeat after me: the schedule is not about compliance. It is about understanding. Not compliance. Not compliance. It has to be said so many times. One of our assistants is brilliant at being about cooperation instead of compliance, especially with schedules. When a student puts a picture schedule piece in the wrong place or on the floor, she says, “That’s one place you could try. But let me show you where I would put it.” If a student just won’t take their picture symbol to transition, then we say, “Oh I’d love to help you. Let me show you where we are going.” If a student needs to finish their current activity, because they’re mid-alphabet, we let them finish their current activity. If a student runs across the room to the next activity, ignoring their schedule, that’s fine. If they are already sitting and waiting at the table, that’s fine too. Because it’s not about “checking the schedule”. It’s about feeling safe, knowing what’s happening in your day, and having a way to help you get from place to place. That’s why we use them. That’s why we adapt them. That’s why they work.

My Teaching Goal (Spoiler: It’s not Fixing!)

a set of neon shapes in a neat line on a couch cushionEarlier today, I was looking through one of the many assessment tools that are available to me, and trying to decide what’s useful, what’s not, and how it will feed into instruction. One of the warnings on this tool, and many others, is that using different materials or question phrasing invalidates the standardization process.

Except, outside of eligibility where I begrudgingly complete standardized assessments, I don’t care.

A training I recently attended said that children who can do something with family but not under a standardized test condition may have the knowledge, but should still target the skill due to the “performance problem”.

Except, to me, it’s only a “performance problem” if the student in front of me sees it as such, if they believe their difficulty accessing this knowledge is interfering with their goals and quality of life. Even then, I look at accommodations before re-teaching. Otherwise — if it is just a matter of “I can’t show my skills in these test conditions”, it’s okay. If you can name a bunch of farm animals when playing with toys or singing with mom, but not during a standardized test? That’s fine. I’m going to write that you know your (farm animals, letters, addition, etc).

Because here’s the thing — I don’t see my job as fixing children. I think my students are harmed if the primary focus of education is to bring their curve or scores closer to a normative one. It’s also simply not possible for many students, at least not without the terrible toll that comes with masking.

This doesn’t mean presuming incompetence.

This doesn’t mean babysitting.

This doesn’t mean not doing anything.

We hold high expectations and believe in the capability, value, and leadership potential in every single student that enters our classroom. We teach to those high expectations. We look for alternate ways to capture that learning.

I see my job not as fixing, but as supporting. I am here to support each student to finding and sharing their voice. I am here to support engagement through accommodations and universal design. I am here to support learning by ensuring access to the fullness of a curriculum, including real reading and writing and making sense of numbers. I am here to create a world of opportunity for every student to have the best possible life, to create, to think critically, to experiment and explore and uncover.

And students don’t have to become “normal” or “typical” to do that. In fact, our world is made richer when we see and encourage all the ways there are to create and synthesize knowledge.

So, no, I don’t care if my assessment tool is standardized or if I totally skip any and all goals around eye contact (*intense side eye* — why does that even still exist???). Because I don’t need to fix my students. They are already worthy and valuable and wonderful — just as they are

The right to NOT talk.

image of an iPad screen with a grid of icons for voice output. the message bar reads: "I don't want to! Grumpy"We all have times where talking is not happening. We ignore questions. We don’t answer the phone. We flat out tell others that we don’t want to talk. Some of us have times where we simply cannot talk; I’ve had many conversations with my husband via text message. At other times, we may want to talk — just not about the subject at hand. Our partner may ask if we want hamburgers or grilled cheese for dinner, but we answer with complaints about something that happened earlier during work.

Yet, this is forgotten or completely thrown out the window when it comes to the students that we serve (and children, generally, in our compliance-driven society).

We ask students what they want (often within limits). If they begin talking about something else, then we take it as proof that they weren’t listening, that they don’t understand, or that they don’t have the ability to answer. They talk about Diego, because it’s their all-time favorite, and we say they “perseverate” or “only know one word”. They don’t use their talker on demand, and it’s written off as “inappropriate” or “not being used” or “they don’t know how to do it” or “too much”.

We need to ask ourselves: what is our goal? Is our goal for students to say what we want when they want? Or is our goal for student’s to have a voice? Because a voice means they get to say what they want when they want.

A voice means being able to talk about your passions, whether they are Diego or the alphabet or worms. A voice means being able to change the topic, interrupt, or ask for something that wasn’t on the menu.

A voice also means being able to NOT talk.

It means that I don’t have to answer your questions  — not when you want me to, and maybe not at all.

It means that I can go hours without talking, or days, or whatever, because it’s my voice and I can use it when and how I want it. I can be silent, and I won’t have people then try to take my voice away.

Autonomy isn’t autonomy if it’s only allowed at the convenience of adults and professionals in students’ lives. A voice isn’t a voice unless we grant the full range of freedom — freedom to use, but freedom to not use as well.

Silence is okay.

Silence doesn’t mean “doesn’t know”.

Silence doesn’t mean “doesn’t need”.

Silence certainly doesn’t mean “take my voice from me”.

Silence is just that — silence. And everyone has the right to it.

Dear teachers, we can do better.

I have had some heart-breaking meetings and phone calls with families. They almost always involve sharing experiences that they find normal, but completely wrench me open.

Example: Families surprised by compliments and celebrations of their child.

Oh, teachers and staff members, think about what you say before you say it. Think about what message you are giving to the children you serve when criticism is followed by criticism by another criticism. Please, please, please start sharing more of the good with families. Even more important: start sharing it with your students. No one should ever be surprised that there is good news. It can be small, it can be big, it can be anything, but it’s there. Tell them about the gifts and talents you see, about their hard work, about the gains they make each week. And I promise: every single child has them. Every single one.

Example: Families surprised by staff who speak directly to their child.

When you meet a child for the first time, say hello to them. When you ask “how are you?” and “what do you like?”, say it too them. Do they use an alternative communication system? You can still speak to them. Do they not have a communication system yet? You can still speak to them. How hard is it to say, “Good morning! I hope that you had a wonderful weekend!” directly to a child? It’s not. How hard is it to say, “You seem so sad. I’m sorry you’re having a hard time” directly to a child? It’s not. Do it.

Example: Families excited by discovering that all kids participate in class photographs, graduation, school plays, field days, music concerts, or electives. 

This is their school too. Special education students are not guests. They are community members. It shouldn’t be a fight to gain access to these things. They should be so automatic that no one would ever think of it being any other way. I get that there is a spectrum of options, that least restrictive environment means a lot of things. I have a son that has advocated for himself to have more or less time in a self-contained environment over the years. But his school has always, always ensured that he was in every PTA concert, that he was in every field day, that his picture was always with his general education classmates in the yearbook, that he was seen as a member of that community. When life was hard, that sense of belonging meant everything to him (and to us). It matters. Oh, how it matters.

Folx — these things should be foundational to our practice. These shouldn’t be things that families move across districts and states to find. These aren’t things that are hard to do, but they mean everything. They mean everything to the students we teach, who deserve respect and access to a robust education. They mean everything to their families, who need to see all that is possible. And they can mean everything for us, as we see our practice, our schools, and our communities transform to become places where all children are seen, welcomed, and celebrated.

We can do better.

Behavior as a Stress Reaction

image of a child completely tucked into an orange body sock, no head or arm or leg visible.
student response to looking at their daily schedule

Summer is coming to an end, which means that all of my preschool babies are getting tired. It’s a long school year when you’re 3 or 4 years old. They are so absolutely ready to swim and splash and have their days in the sun. Add transitions and life events and medical issues, and there’s been some visible signs of stress showing up in our day-to-day routines. Work avoidance. Difficulty sharing. Words that won’t come out right. And a million other little ways that they say: “I am done. D. O. N. E. Done.”

I myself have been under a larger amount of stress than is typical this year. I’ve been sick. I’ve had surgery. I’ve had a larger caseload than typical. Graduate school. Financial stress due to those medical bills and graduate school. One child leaving elementary school, one child in her last year of middle school.

My family sees the impacts.

Conversations of more than 3-4 exchanges — not happening. It’s not just that I cannot participate, but I don’t even want to be around them. It’s too much at once. I have reverted to having the vast majority of my longer conversations with my husband via text message, even when we are in the same room. Sensory input that I could typically ignore, like someone patting their legs or singing under their breath sounds like it’s on volume 200. I’ve eaten the same food for dinner for 4-5 nights in a row. My screen time? Way up!

There’s a couple of take-aways… It would be really easy to see me walking away from a conversation or asking people to stop talking as being mean or rude. At best, someone might think I’m lacking some skill or another. Maybe they would see my screen time use and think that I’m a disengaged parent. Basically: there’s a lot of judgements that people could make, and none of them would be right.

Because — none of the above. It’s a stress response. My tank is full. My tank is over-filling. All the neurons and skills that I had for coping with life’s bumps (such as too much sensory input) in more “acceptable” ways are gone. And so I revert to this. Younger children or people under more stress may revert to other things: hitting, screaming, scratching, falling on the floor, and so on.

The other piece: this happens at home. It doesn’t happen during my school day. It doesn’t happen when I’m in a super important meeting with a parent. It happens at home. That doesn’t mean that I’m “doing it on purpose” or that I could just pull it together. And how many times have we thought or said something like that? But the space we have for coping skills is always in flux, sometimes more, sometimes less. And sometimes we choose to use up more of our skills in one place, knowing our safe place will be there for us when our tank is empty.

I get that this is easy to forget. It’s not exactly something our culture prioritizes. But doesn’t it make all the difference?

I think of a student who may disembark the bus screaming. If we focus on “quiet mouth” (ugh!), what do we miss? What if they’re simply hungry and have no way to tell us? What about the student who falls on the floor every time someone comes near them? Do we just enter their space anyways? What if their sensory system is so on fire that the possibility of any sort of imminent touch is sending signals of pain through their body? We are so much better able to support these students if we look to minimize their stressors and support their over-flowing systems.

It comes down to this — can we just remember that our kids are doing the best that they can? Because I think that would change everything else we do, from the tones that we use to the plans that we make.

My own safe space is home. I see in my family the kind of classroom that I want to have. I see in my husband the kind of teacher that I want to be.

Flexible.

Kind.

Accommodating.

And always, always recognizing that I am doing my best.

Can’t we give our kids that same benefit of the doubt?

Things We Can Retire: “Developmental age”

First and foremost, let’s remember that words matter. It’s not semantics. Words set the foundation for how people view our children. They create a framework of expectations and support services. They need to be carefully chosen, words selected to affirm and uplift individual’s humanity and right to respect. It’s why we don’t use the r-word and why the autistic community chooses identity-first language. Words matter.

One of the phrases that has been popping up in my life a lot recently has been “developmental age” — as in “my child is developmentally X months / years old”. It’s usually an age significantly below their chronological one. Other versions are “caring for my child is like caring for an infant” or “my child is really a toddler”.

Oh, parents and teachers, can we please agree to stop this? It’s not helpful, at best, and limiting at its worst. And inaccurate — so, so inaccurate.

It’s not helpful. After all, what does “developmentally two” even tell us? I see this pop up in lots of groups when asking for advice — “My student is developmentally two, what do I do about (AAC / work activity / behavior)?” Except that hasn’t really told us anything… What does the student like? Dislike? What assistive technology are they already accessing? What are their visual and sensory support needs? What comes easily for them? What is more challenging? Our evaluations, our present levels of performance, our conversations about our kids all need to get a lot more specific (at least in private… I understand keeping things pretty generic in public forums).

It’s inaccurate AND limiting. Here’s the bottom line: we don’t know what these students know. The students who have these phrases thrown around about them are the students who are the most challenging to accurately assess. They may have complex communication needs, significant apraxia, difficulties with sensory regulation, all of the above, or something else entirely. At best, our assessments may tell us the minimum that they know. For example, if a student shows that they can identify 5 letters, we now know they can identify at least 5 letters. We don’t know that they don’t have the knowledge of the other 21 letters. There are dozens of reasons why they may not have been able to demonstrate their knowledge. This is especially important for professionals, who need to be clear about the limitations of these assessments instead of presenting them as the end-all, be-all. When we use these tools to set up boxes like “developmentally two”, then we create preconceptions and limit access. We limit access to real literacy instruction, because “two year olds can’t learn to read yet”! They’re “not ready”! We limit access to general education classes and peers. We have medical professionals that won’t hear a child’s complaints about pain, because it’s written off due to their “developmental age”. We limit their exploration of new activities and adventures, whether it’s a 10th grade science experiment or going to a Nicki Minaj concert. We cannot keep doing this to our students. They deserve access to the entire world, to all the things that every other child and adult access.

It’s not respectful. Oh, friends, think about this deeply… Would you want someone to refer to you as an infant, toddler, child, a pre-teen, long after you left those years? I personally love to watch Hannah Montana and Lizzie McGuire. I saw Moana and Frozen in theaters multiple times. There have been plenty of times that I needed help with a zipper or a fastener or a total meltdown. I need reminders that it’s time to take a shower. One of my favorite ways to calm my body is to swing on the playground. It is an almost irresistible temptation to be next to the swings every day on the playground, actually. But, because I can speak, because I can demonstrate academic knowledge in a way the world has deemed acceptable, no one would think to call me a child. Our kids deserve the same respect. They can like what they like. They can need what they need. That doesn’t change the need for respect; our language needs to reflect that respect. Our kids’ age is simply their age. A teen is a teen is a teen.

We’ve lived this in our family. We’ve lived our 3rd grade daughter being taught Pete The Cat for the fifth or sixth year in a row, because her school team limited her. Or when she changed schools and they decided that clipping clothespins onto a box was even better, because she was a “pre-learner” (another version of developmental age, except somehow even worse). We’ve lived people thinking she shouldn’t say she hates school or us, because OMG, she’s such a precious sweet angel, a toddler in a taller body. We’ve also lived her pain and frustration  (and boredom!) over it. Indeed –it’s amazing how much more engaged and chatty — how much happier — she became with professionals that saw her, just her, no limits, no ages, no prerequisites required. Her current teacher talks about ecosystems and the solar system and the American revolution. Her occupational therapist celebrates her interests while challenging her and targeting written expression and continually raising the bar. Her vision therapist tried hard to convince her school team to work on literacy and number skills. These are the people who get to see all of her, who fall in love with her, who get her. I want more of those people.

So, yes, let’s retire this phrase. Let’s do better by the children and adults that we so deeply love and care for. Teachers and other professionals need to especially listen up, because we set the tone for speaking about disability at every eligibility or well-child check-up. We are why parents use these words. They hear them over and over over, from doctors and psychologists and school evaluation teams. They are cemented. We are the ones who are creating these artificial limits, making parents think that literacy and number sense and autonomous communication are pipe dreams. Except they are only pipe dreams when we don’t provide the services (due to the false limits we’ve set). See the feedback loop we’ve created?

We can break the loop. We can lead the change. It starts with our language, and continues with our practice. Let’s not limit kids with our words, and let’s not limit them with their access. We can do better. Let’s do it.

 

What is play?

perfect lines of large alphabet letters in red, blue, and green, sitting on a blue rug
I have really strongly moved away from writing an IEP goal for “play”. What do I mean? I mean things like this:

  • Play functionally with X number of toys for X minutes
  • Engage in cooperative pretend play for X number of minutes
  • Appropriately play with XYZ toys

Basically, anything that includes “functional” and “appropriate” and dictates HOW a child should play. Because that’s not play.

Play is, by definition, self-directed and for the purpose of joy. It is not what someone else thinks we should be doing. It is not for some practical purpose. It is not limited to one (neurotypical) way of interacting with materials.

Lining up trains is play.

Stacking and knocking down blocks repeatedly is play.

Waving a ribbon is play.

Filling and dumping a cup of rice, creating L’s out of Legos to stack on the corners of tables, jumping on a trampoline, sitting by yourself to examine letters for extended periods, linking little cars and big cars by yarn, sticking glow sticks in any spot you can find… It’s all play.

What is the purpose of forcing a child’s play to become something other than it is? To become “normal” and “functional”? (Who defines functional, by the way?) What do we think we are teaching? And what is the child learning?

I don’t know that I can answer “what we think we’re teaching”. I’m really not sure. Because everything I think is important can be taught and experienced through the child’s own play: curiosity, exploration, creativity, shared enjoyment, communicating your likes and dislikes, learning about the world… Imitation, language, and academic skills can all be modeled and experienced without forcing the child to switch from play to work. Because play done in a specific way with specific materials is work. So I’m not sure what the answer to that is.

But I do know what the child is learning: that the things they find enjoyable are not okay. That there is one way of being in the world, and they do not know it. That being themselves is not okay.

Do I think that most professionals or families have the intent to teach this? No. Do I think most students and children are learning that anyways? Yes.

It comes back to this: we need to re-think what skills we are teaching and why. There are often other ways to get at what’s important, ways that don’t involve shutting down a child’s unique way of being in the world. Dig deeper. Ask yourself: what am I really trying to get at? What’s actually important in this moment? How can our classroom environment be changed to better accommodate this need? How can we teach peers and ourselves to better accommodate this need or celebrate this difference?

Different doesn’t mean wrong. Different doesn’t mean it must be changed. Different just means different.

 

 

 

This is part two in a series on selecting what’s important in our special education classrooms. Check out the first post here. Future posts will selecting target goals and teaching social skills as a form of code-switching.