Helping All Kids Understand…

Help Kids Embrace the Learning Needs of Others

One positive change I have noticed over the past 15 years is an increase in the awareness and compassion of students regarding the social, emotional and learning needs of their classmates.  I have seen incredible empathy, patience, and understanding from students as they walk with students who struggle. One reason for this is the increase of inclusion in the classroom.  Students with disabilities are now more than ever included in mainstream classrooms throughout our public schools, and students are used to it. This presents many opportunities for students to get up close and personal with others who have different needs than they do.  While these natural interactions are an effective way to increase understanding about one another, I have found that a little teaching in this area can go a long way, particularly in the early elementary grades.

Many teachers are uncertain how to best teach their class to better understand students with disabilities.  I have presented to many classrooms over the years around this topic and have used a slightly different approach than most.  Instead of identifying different disabilities by name, I focus on the different tools that students need to learn.

Tools in School

To be sure, all students need tools in school. That fact creates a great common starting point. As we look more closely, some students (particularly students with disabilities) need certain tools that not everyone needs.  The tools in school presentation (right) is merely a template or catalyst for discussion with students. It provides a framework of language and categories by which students can understand the needs of others.  Children easily identify with the tool theme and remain engaged as the presentation moves to identifying tools we all use in school.  (Click image above or below for presentation details.)

The ultimate point here is to build awareness and understanding in your students of the unique needs in the people around them, and the tools needed to meet those needs. Our students will inevitably meet others with disabilities in their classrooms, in college, in the community, and in the workplace. Some of our students will even go on to do groundbreaking work in supporting people with disabilities! The more they know now, the better equipped they will be to welcome, support, and learn from those around them for the rest of their lives.

Tools in School
Another version of the presentation using a well-known medium. Click for more details.

 

 

 

Charlie Appelstein

charlieaWe were privileged to have Charlie Appelstein as our opening day speaker this year.  Charlie was engaging, funny, and spoke passionately from research and many years of experience working with troubled youth.  No Such Thing as a Bad Kid was the title of his presentation, as is the title of his book (revised edition to be out soon).  If you ever get a chance to hear Charlie, do it.  Those of us working with challenged kids need to be refreshed and recharged now and again, and Charlie was up for the task.  I appreciate his candour, creativity, and connection (both with the audience and with the kids with whom he has worked).  His approach is relentlessly positive without diminishing the reality of the problems kids face.

Feel free to check out his website here and his book here.

Problem Solving Skills

Problem Solve

How do we help children develop problem solving skills?  Teach them. Give them a simple strategy they can remember.  Review it often.  Post it in a visible location, refer to it and demonstrate its use regularly.  Role play.  Review.  That is the aim in my latest social narrative.  Click on the image below for more.

OR, for an ink-saving, simpler option, click here:

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Spotlight Strategy: Social Narratives (Part 1)

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I have found that many parents and educators use social narratives more than any other strategy for social understanding. This is not surprising, as these narratives provide vital explanations of the social world for individuals who lack natural understanding in this area. Social narratives help people navigate the murky waters of the world around them.

Social Narratives communicate social and behavioral expectations through written means. They may also highlight the perspectives, feelings, and intentions of those involved in a social situation. The narratives often provide examples of social overtures and problem-solving in order to increase the learner’s understanding of appropriate responses in a particular situation. They can provide insight into a common social norm (e.g., personal space), or a highly individualized event (e.g., describing how an unexpected schedule change has occurred and everything will be OK). Think of social narratives as instruction manuals that provide codes for understanding the complexities of the social environment.

A social narrative outlining steps to talking with a peer.
An excerpt from a social narrative describing how to talk to a peer. Simple illustrations can be helpful for younger students. Click the image to preview the full narrative.

Social narratives can be easily and quickly written and can provide helpful clarification on any number of issues. They can be as short as one sentence (“Kids become upset and scared when I growl at them…”) or they can be more in-depth and comprised of multiple pages (see examples here or click on the image below).

An excerpt from a social narrative on asking for help. Click on the image to preview the full narrative.
An excerpt from a social narrative on asking for help. This narrative uses a popular medium of exchange.  Click on the image to preview the full narrative.

Are social narratives only to be used for children with autism or related disabilities?  Certainly not!  I have written social narratives for many children (including my own).  Think of social narratives as mini lessons on any given topic.  It is a teaching tool.  Children with social learning challenges need the narratives more frequently, but all students can benefit from them, given the wide range of social/emotional understanding among children.

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This social narrative increases predictability in order to reduce anxiety when something new happens.

Social narratives are to be presented to children in a proactive, teaching manner on a regular basis, just like other academic content is taught. They are designed for use in the classroom, in the home, or anywhere else a learning opportunity might present itself.  They are not merely a tool to use after a child has made a mistake, as I have often seen.  As with anything, teach the skill regularly if you want children to learn.

This relates to a broader issue, namely that social understanding is generally not taught like other academic content is taught. Some skills for social understanding may be addressed in general education classrooms on occasion (particularly in early elementary grades), but largely, there is an assumption that social understanding is naturally acquired as children grow. While this may be true for many children, I have found that adults often overestimate how much children understand socially, and underestimate the amount of intentional teaching that needs to be done. Parents and educators will serve children well to support social learning through the use of strategies such as social narratives.

(Click here and here to peruse or purchase social narratives that I have created and used with students).  

One thing I have Learned…

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Quite possibly the most important thing I have learned over almost 15 years of working with children with autism and other disabilities is…

Ready?

WRITE IT DOWN.

There it is. When you want the child to understand something (big or small), write it down. Write it on a dry erase board, a post it note, or scrap paper. Write it in a notebook. Type it in a Google doc and print it. Write it in an iPad. Whatever.

Imagine if you were suddenly picked up, put on a plane, flown to another country, then dropped off in the middle of a foreign city with nothing. No one speaks your language, and you feel completely lost. What do you do? What do you look for? You start to walk around the city, looking desperately for something familiar. Just before panic begins to set in, you see the visual sign for restrooms. “Yes! Now I know where the bathrooms are!” you say to yourself. Shortly after visiting the bathroom, your eyes fall upon a sign written in your language containing directions to an information office. You reach the information office, which contains pamphlets in your language explaining where you are, what the cultural expectations are, where you can stay, how to communicate with the locals, and how to get home. The relief is palpable. Your anxiety decreases as you finally breathe again. You have regained your bearings. You will survive.

A perfect analogy? No, but hopefully it gets the point across. At home and in school, we live in very verbal worlds. We think, If I say it, then they get it. How often we say, “I told him!” However, we must remember that for children with attention-related disabilities and social understanding challenges, verbal communication often does not register like it does for most of us. Many steps are involved for verbal communication to be fully understood and applied. First it must be heard correctly (understanding vocabulary, tone, context, voice inflection, meaning, etc.). Then the meaning must be understood and categorized in the brain, pulling in prior knowledge and experience. Finally, when understood properly, the information translates into behavior, all of this assuming that the child can follow through amidst the thoughts and feelings that currently inform his or her readiness.

When information is written down, it cuts through all the verbal noise around the child and eliminates some of the steps required with verbal communication. It is concrete. It can be viewed again and again. It is simple. It is one step or rule, not six things to sort out. It is the familiar language from our analogy above, reducing anxiety and increasing clarity and predictability. We may not even fully understand why visual communication works so well with these children. This is OK. We do know that individuals with autism have helped us learn that in most cases, when it is written down, it sticks. I have worked with many parents and children in instances when verbal commands are given repeatedly with no success, and as soon as it is written down, the child follows through.

One sentence directives, a 3-step list, pictures, social narratives, “first-then” visuals – they all get through to the child through visual means, helping them learn by presenting information in a clear, organized, simple fashion.  Below are some examples.

A short social narrative preparing a student for a substitute teacher the following day. Should be sent home for review with parents as well.
A short social narrative preparing a student for a substitute teacher the following day. Should be sent home for review with parents as well.
Simple pictures help younger students understand expectations.
Simple pictures help younger students understand expectations.
A schedule to maintain predictability.  Nothing fancy - it takes about 20 seconds to handwrite.
A schedule to maintain predictability. Nothing fancy, it takes about 20 seconds to handwrite.
A mini schedule to foster independence on an assignment.
A mini schedule to foster independence on an assignment.

For some reason, writing it down for students is something we often stop doing.  We must not slip back into our familiar “verbal mode” and neglect this important strategy!   Develop the habit now, and never look back.

Questions to Ponder at Year’s End

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It always amazes me. After another full year of teaching, problem solving, de-escalating, planning, evaluating, strategizing, meeting, and meeting again, the close of another school year has arrived. With all the exhaustion that accompanies this time of year, I hope that we (as educators and parents) can find some time and energy to reflect on the past school year. While regular examination of our work with children and students is best, sometimes the only time for proper reflection comes at the end of the year. The closure of it all (more like the abrupt stop) naturally summons thoughts and questions regarding what has been, what should have been, and what could be. Consider these questions as you look back over your year of supporting students (or your own children):

  • Did I implement strategies, systems, and supports with fidelity – that is, did I use visuals, social narratives, self-monitoring tools, and behavioral supports on a daily basis for at least six consecutive weeks before evaluating effectiveness and proposing any changes?
  • What did I spend too much time doing this year?
  • What would I spend more time doing if I could go back?
  • What is one important thing I learned this year?
  • What did I not get to that I had planned on?
  • What issue frustrated me this year? How will I be better prepared for facing similar situations next year?

It would likely serve us well to take a small part of our summer break to reflect on questions like these without the stress of school year demands to distract us. If you’re anything like me, better sooner than later (and write it down!).

Why a Blog?

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Welcome! I have been in public education for 15 years serving as a school social worker in Pinckney, Michigan. The thought of having a blog has been simmering in my mind for some time mainly as a way to foster growth by sharing and receiving ideas with the broader education and parent communities.  I have already had correspondence with teachers and parents around the globe regarding strategies for students with social learning challenges, and I figure a blog will give me more room to communicate with others around successful and needed strategies for learning.  I create and sell downloadable social learning strategies and I have learned a lot from those who have purchased my products (thank you!).  With a glut of educational information now available via the internet, my hope is that this blog will be a resource of effective learning strategies and ideas for both parents and educators around the globe.