"Take Homes" - A New Resource for Reaching Out to Parents!

I'm pretty excited about this! I have to say, this idea stemmed from a meeting with my OT (who is amazing) on Friday afternoon. We sat down to discuss the results of an assessment which had been sent home to parents in the beginning of the year regarding daily living and self help skills. Honestly, some of the parent ratings REALLY surprised me!

I know that after 12 years in the field of special education teaching students with autism, I should not be alarmed by a lack of naturally occurring generalization across settings and people, but after working with many of the students in my current class for the past 4 years and seeing how independent they have become, I was shocked to see low ratings in some of the areas where they truly excel in school.

This highlighted for me the need to increase the amount of communication, collaboration & training that I do with parents regarding ways to transfer skills to home. I wanted to share two ways I will begin to address this, in addition to (as always) providing parents with the opportunity for home visits, in which I conduct observations then provide individual training (for the student and family) & support.
1. This year we are introducing more regular & formal Parent Training's. I am excited to begin this and I'm now pretty certain of my first topic (implementing hygiene & self care schedules in the home)! These trainings will be for small groups of parents who have similar training needs. For this first one, I anticipate that MANY of my kids' families would benefit, so I may either invite them all in for one training or do 2 half day trainings and split parents into 2 groups depending on the type of response I get when I reach out.

2. This week, I am beginning to send home "Take Homes." These documents will serve to provide parents with detailed information based upon recent observations, changes in program, changes in behavior, etc.
My plan is to describe what led to sending this document home (e.g., During our recent community based instruction outing to the mall, I accompanied your student on the escalator and noticed this is a big challenge for him. (Student) was very hesitant to get on and off of the escalator and his delays nearly resulted in an injury. He was very anxious during the short trip on the escalator and was holding a staff member's hand for comfort. From my observation, his fear was related to the movement of the floor/stairs, not specifically the heights.)

Next, I want to provide some information about what to do in the home environment in order to support the student. If I am informing the parent of a newly mastered skill, I would explain how, when and where the skill can be used, what it looks like when the student performs the skill (what parents should expect to see), and what types of materials & other supports are needed to help the student perform the skill at home. Any additional guidelines & actual materials will be sent home on the day that the Take Home is sent home. If I am continuing with the example above, I would instead tell the parent what steps they can take to increase the student's comfort with using an escalator. This may include having the student watch slow motion videos of how to get on and off of an escalator, reading a social story, incorporating a model (one family member goes on first, he gets to watch, then goes on with a second support person), using reinforcement (naturalistic reinforcement would be best here... using an escalator to get to the food court or a highly preferred section of the store).

Once these are sent home I plan to give the families a week or so to review the material, then will reach out to discuss if they would like to come in for training or feel they need more information/support to help their child.

Here is a view of what the form will look like initially... I'm sure it'll change as I begin using it!:

We all know that life skills are the most important skills we can teach to independence. AND that the student's actual home environment is the most important place for them to demonstrate that independence! I wish I had begun to do more of this sooner but am very hopeful that I'm moving in the right direction.
I hope some of these ideas are helpful for your students as well!


This Week in 206: Using Weekly Themes & Goals to Provide Training & Support for Classroom Staff

Hey Guys! This is my second week back to school and I am excited to share my new approach to staff training this year. I tend to fall into the "we have no training time" trap and the extravagant plans I have for staff training fall to pieces as we scramble to put out fires in the little amount of time we do have set aside for meetings. This year, I am trying a new plan and I am VERY hopeful about it!

The first thing I did was set up a Staff Information Station on a whiteboard near staff cubbies. There I have posted inspirational quotes, schedules, calendars & staff reminders for classroom expectations & strategies (download my Staff Strategies Cheat Sheets here). 
This is what my Staff Information Station looked like during initial set up (It is now VERY full of information!).

The next step in my plan is doing weekly theme based trainings for staff. Every Monday (or preferably Friday afternoon's before leaving!) I set up our This Week in 206 board in order to let staff know in advance what our weekly goal is, the reason why it is important, a few quick tips or reminders for getting started with implementation and an inspirational quote or statement related to the theme. I will be posting our Weekly Themes each week in hopes that it is beneficial for your classes (and that it motivates me to keep at it!) 
This is our Week Two Theme (See more below)
This week we are focusing on Fading Prompts from our classroom routines. Many of our routines are similar to last year's (and the year before!) Have we added new activities? Yes! However, overall things follow a similar format and there are visual supports in place for students to help them learn new/modified routines. Our first week back involved a LOT of prompting. Now that we are seeing some student initiation and success it is time to start systematically fading out our supports so that our students do not become dependent on them. Leaving prompts in place when they are no longer needed can create confusion for the student (Is the staff "prompt" actually a part of the task? Is it the new cue to perform the task? Can I do it on my own? Do I need permission to perform this skill?) and often leads to prompt dependence (in my experience). 

Many of our classroom routines are taught as chains (a series of tasks, steps or skills which are linked together to perform the larger task). One common classroom routine which is taught as a chain is the Arrival Routine. This routine may include MANY steps - think... walk to classroom, greet teachers, greet peers, unpack backpack, put lunchbox away, put communication book away, put coat and backpack in cubby (or locker), write schedule, etc. When teaching chains, I often include some type of support which will remain in place after staff prompts have been eliminated and I typically use the Graduated Guidance prompting technique to use only as much prompting as needed. Graduated guidance is a prompting strategy used in Applied Behavior Analysis where staff prompting is increased and decreased immediately based upon moment to moment student performance. I often look at the data from the previous opportunity to see which steps the student seems to already understand as well as which ones he/she needs the most help with. This allows me to anticipate when I may need to move in with a prompt and when I can allow the student to attempt independence. This way I am making data based decisions to guide my prompting and ONLY PROMPTING WHEN NEEDED.

So, this is our goal for the week - removing staff prompting as much as possible (only prompting when & how much the student needs) while still closely monitoring and tracking progress and, of course, providing lots of positive reinforcement for independence and student initiation. 

I have said this so many times to my staff in the past and I think it is worthwhile to pass along to you as well: Our ultimate job is to ensure that our students do not need us to be here anymore! Independence is the most important achievement a student can make. Can we leave certain supports in place and have the student still be considered independent and successful? Yes! A visual schedule is a support the student can access without another person present. Hand over hand guidance or step by step verbal prompts (which are my biggest pet peeve and a whole other post for another day!) are socially mediated and so someone must be with the student, which does not allow for independence.

Trust yourselves and your students, monitor for readiness, mentally prepare yourselves and your staff for what it feels like to take a step back & let your students shine!

Have a great week everyone :)


Facilitating Communication from the Start: A Back to School Guide

{Guys... We are running an exciting Back to School Giveaway from Sept 1st to the 8th!  
Check out the details below. But FIRST, I wanted to chat with you a bit about getting back into language facilitation while you're getting settled in back at school this fall!}

If you've worked with students with Autism Spectrum Disorders, you know that verbal and non-verbal language, communication & social skills are at the top of the list of challenges they face (to varying degrees). Not having the skills or being able to generalize those skills in order to effectively communicate is not only frustrating and limiting to the functioning of your student out in the world, but it can also cause lots of other issues, including challenging behaviors. Needless to say, one of your biggest jobs as a teacher of students with autism is to support the language needs of your students. ALL LANGUAGE, ALL DAY, EVERY DAY is the new motto of our classroom & I hope I can persuade you to adopt a similar one.

As you're getting your classrooms ready & heading back to school (for those of you who are winding down your first month... I hope it's been a great one... sorry your summer was so short... it's never too late to bring in new strategies so keep reading!) it's the perfect time to start thinking about how you are teaching & eliciting from your students (with or without autism). 

Eliciting Language - What is it and why is it important?
Eliciting language is essentially setting up situations where the student will need to communicate in order to access something desired or needed. For example, if the student is working on writing his schedule and there are no pencils in the classroom, he will need to 1 - look around for a pencil, 2 - ask to borrow one if a classmate or teacher has one in view, 3 - ask someone for help (or better yet, use a "WH" Question to find the item). If it is lunchtime and the microwave isn't working, the student will need to find another way to heat up lunch, eat lunch cold OR ask someone to help! This is a big one - remind me to put this in my Sub Binder - make sure everyone knows that you don't immediately side step out of the way when a student with special needs enters your space and needs to pass through... Lots of people are polite. Lots of people "in the real world" will likely move aside for your student in the community too. However, some people may not notice they are approaching. Some people may not know what their intentions are. Some people may be intimidated when your student becomes a larger adult. I think we know where this is going, if your student is used to people always moving aside and never using the language skill of stating "excuse me" (and the social skill of waiting until the person moves out of the way) the likelihood that they will run into someone or become very frustrated when this expectation isn't fulfilled is pretty high. Set your kids up for success. Show them what they need to do. Make them practice. Even when you're in a rush. Even when you're having an important conversation with your supervisor in the doorway and it's lunch time. Even when... you get it. All language. All day. Every day. 
Note: This doesn't mean that every time the student needs to do a given activity you will purposefully put up a road block to elicit language, but it means that you will periodically use this instructional method to teach language skills within the context that they need to be used.

Another important strategy for teaching language skills and eliciting the use of those skills when they are needed is using visual cues. From communication choice boards to written scripts and/or text cues, visual language supports can be extremely beneficial to your students. Using pictures and words helps with comprehension so that your student is selecting the word(s) he/she intends to use. If you're setting up communication choice boards (check out this FREEBIE), you are providing your student with a limited and manageable array of choices to use when communicating. This can be set up for specific activities (e.g., the different words and phrases needed during a game are very different than math) or can span the whole day and be more generic (think basic needs - bathroom, break, water, etc.). When using visuals which are activity specific, put them where the activity takes place, or have the student bring them along with their other materials for that task. This "I Need to Go" Door Sign (included in the Back to School Resource Pack) is the newest visual I have put in place in my classroom & I'm super excited about it. I have LOTS of independent students in my class guys... they know what goes where, they know their routines, they can follow complex schedules, and yet standing at the door waiting for an adult to 1. Notice them and 2. Ask them what they need was at an ALL TIME HIGH in June. My plan is to have the language supports in place AND IN THE PLACE THEY'RE NEEDED in order for my students to begin initiating language use in order to access what they need. What we don't want to do is teach our students that the behavior that gets them access to what they need is running out of the room (at which point an adult intervenes & ultimately discovers the need & prompts the correct request then grants access) or being off task in the doorway for 10 minutes waiting to be "discovered" by an adult. No, we want the student to come to the step in the chain (whether the chain is bathroom use, unpacking and going to the locker, going to the lunchroom, etc.) where they need to communicate information with an adult and to make that communication happen so they see that their words have meaning & their words are what get them what they need.

Guys, language is power. Language is essential for success. Language is essential for a high quality of life. Help your kids get there! Please feel free to reach out to me at any time with ideas, questions, etc.


Here Are the Giveaway Details:
1. Like Smarty Symbols on Facebook
2. Comment below about what your biggest challenge is heading back to school
4. GOOD LUCK! There are some AWESOME prizes up for grabs :)

Next, hop on over to Autism Classroom News HERE for an awesome blog post about Steps to Building Classroom Teams!


Staff Training: Building Student Independence and Using Non-Verbal Prompting Strategies

Ever get to that point in the year where you see and hear WAYYYYY too much verbal prompting and over prompting in general? That's where I'm at right now. And with only 4 1/2 weeks left of school and a BILLION deadlines looming (and a few that passed...which I sadly did not meet) the last thing on my mind is stopping everything for some staff training. Well that attitude was clearly getting me no where and cringing is unfortunately not an effective method of delivering feedback SO I bit the bullet and wrote up some new guidelines which I have just started reviewing in my class.

Our first training took place this afternoon during our built in meeting time (we get 15 minutes every day which is both never enough and a total lifesaver) and it was mostly an introduction. We started off addressing issues related to independence for our kids, especially as they are growing older and the absolute necessity to get the most out of their last few years of intensive support and instruction. 

Here are some of the common issues I run into and I have seen others run into over the years:

  • Stopping yourself from wanting to help someone with a disability. I think this is hard for everyone. Parents and other family members included. This child has limitations, how can I just let them struggle. I actually think it is often NOT a conscious decision someone is making, but either way it happens. Addressing it head on, discussing how much MORE important it is to focus on independence for someone with a disability is truly essential.
  • Figuring out when students are asking for help and truly need it vs times when students are trying to get you to do things for them that they are perfectly capable of doing. Guess what, you probably have at least one kid in your class who cons you into cutting his food, tying her shoes, zipping his coat, etc. who actually 100% can do that on their own. Yet, language use is so important and so not responding to a request for help is tricky for all of us! Find the balance, learn to address the request while encouraging attempts (e.g., you try first, then I can help) whenever appropriate can be a good first step here.
  • Learning to take a passive role in a child's education. For many of us working in specialized programs, we get very used to the high levels of support our kids need. And we really don't know what to do with ourselves when they become independent. Learning to monitor is so important, be sure to focus on this with your staff!
  • I am the first to admit that I too struggle finding the line between trying to avoid and eliminate errors and prompting too soon, it is not easy. However, if you have seen the student demonstrate the skill in the past it is a bit easier and proving a slightly longer "attempt" window is appropriate.
I won't go through the whole training (you can download it below), but one thing I want to touch on is this: Re-frame the way you think about prompting. Don't become fearful of providing necessary assistance. Do ALWAYS think about how you will fade out and how quickly you can do so.

-Consider how different types of prompts impact independence – would you consider a student who needs someone to stand in the bathroom and tell them what to do for every step of showering themselves to be independent? What about a student who needed a laminated visual schedule in the shower? If neither is truly independent, which is the least intrusive?

Now... Non-verbal prompts. I think this goes hand in hand with allowing for and pushing for independence. Nothing makes me cringe more than hearing a verbal play by play of every step in a chain once the initial direction is already given. I've heard myself do it before and had to bite my tongue. We know NOT to do this and yet sometimes it just seems to be the simplest route. Here's my current frame of mind on the matter. If you're in a situation with a learner who: 1 - cannot read an impromptu written schedule for a new task, 2 - cannot imitate or follow a live staff/peer model, 3 - doesn't respond well to physical guidance or other prompts are not effective at avoiding errors AND 4 - the student can understand the language you are using, by all means, in the moment use verbal prompts and then before the next opportunity take some time to develop supports which allow the student to succeed without them. If all of those things aren't true, verbal prompts are not an appropriate method of instruction. This may seem extreme, however having seen how difficult it can be to fade out those prompts, I think we really need to consider what we are doing when we use them. Is it terrible to do occasionally? No, but it shouldn't be a long term instructional technique. And it shouldn't be your go to strategy all the time.

I include a LOT classroom specific examples in my trainings, as well as examples of times when I have done both the right and wrong thing. We really have to see value and relatable-ness (clearly not a word!) in the skills we as teachers are learning, this is the same for classroom support staff and therapists. Best of luck moving your staff in this direction and pushing for your students to be more independent. As always do not hesitate to email me with any questions: autism.theteenyears@gmail.com

You can download an editable version of the handout I made for my staff here.

What is Meaningful and Successful Participation in the Community? (A Brief Overview)

A few months back I had the chance to do some in district parent training on success in the community and promised to share the slides with you all (sorry for the delay!) so here it is! I may try at a future date to do a more in depth series on community instruction and building success. If there are any specific areas you are all looking for help with please reach out on the blog or email me at autism.theteenyears@gmail.com

The main areas covered in the training are: 
(Keep in mind this is a HUGE topic and I could literally talk about it for days. And days. So many areas were an overview and a lot of individual details and discussions came up during the training.)

1. Safety & Preparedness


2. Readiness Skills

3. Strategies for Success

4. Defining Success

5. Final Tips & Reminders

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