Thursday, April 20, 2017

CEC 2017 - Yes I Can!

I'm currently sitting in my Boston hotel room, looking out at my view of the Prudential building, and trying to wrap my head around everything I took in today at the Council for Exceptional Children conference in Boston. I often leave conferences with a long list of topics I want to blog about, and sometimes never find time to get to those posts down. Hopefully there will be many more posts about the conference to come.

This afternoon I sat in a dark, windowless auditorium watching the rehearsal for the CEC's Yes, I Can Awards. Despite the dreary setting, I found myself moved to tears numerous times by the unbelievable successes these young adults have had. I had read many of their applications, but even so I was not prepared to be so moved by meeting them and their families in person.

The Yes, I Can Awards go to students with disabilities who have made remarkable gains in a given area, whether it is academics, community involvement, self-advocacy, arts, or technology. I've been on this committee for a few years, and am thrilled to finally be able to make it to the conference to watch the awards be announced in person. It turns out that reading their applications just did not do the students justice. I hope my own girls will be as motivated, poised, and confident when they are in high school and college as these students are. Despite everything else going on in their lives, these high school and college students have found a way to not only overcome their disabilities, but also to organize volunteer opportunities, start community groups, and raise money.

Perhaps what moved me the most was talking with their parents. It was like talking to any parent of a high school student. These parents were full of pride as they shared their child's accomplishments, and their child's hopes for the future. Yet these parents have an additional reason to be proud - their children are not just making remarkable gains in school or their community, but they fought long and hard to overcome their disabilities. My eyes teared up as I heard parents share how some of the children were in self-contained classes with teachers and administrators who told them they would never go to college or do anything with their life. Yet here they were - heading off to college, making remarkable grades, participating in sports and art, and breaking through the low expectations of those around them.

I found myself thinking about all of the young children I work with, whose parents are scared of the future, and unsure of what steps to take to help their child be successful. I wish I could take each of the parents I work with and introduce them to the parents of the Yes, I Can award recipients. The hard work, dedication, and relentless advocacy for the best education for their child worked. Two of the students on stage were far more poised and confident than I would have been on stage, despite having a disability that impacts their social interactions with others. It was incredible to see them shine with confidence up there.

If you are here at the convention, I guarantee you should not miss tomorrow morning's award ceremony.



Tuesday, April 11, 2017

Why should we teach social skills through play?

We have a play-based social skills group coming up. Interested? Learn more here.

Think about when you learned to drive. It was exciting and a bit scary, but you were confident that you could get behind the wheel and go. You'd been watching your parents drive for years, and even played driving video games. You were totally ready? Right?

Your parents told you to drive slowly, use your turn signals, and follow the road signs. And maybe you listened to everything they said - when they were watching. When they aren't watching? You explored the limits of your car and the road. 

Now as an adult, you are a better driver than you were at 17. What changed over time? Practice. Experience. Observing those around you and thinking about how you can drive to fit the social norms. Maybe having kids changed your driving because you truly cared about your special cargo. And most likely, somewhere around the way you got some real-life feedback, like getting a ticket, getting into a fender bender, or even a more serious car accident.

Just being told to go slow once - or even many times - did not work for all of us. If it did, our court systems wouldn't be so clogged with traffic court. Yet we often tell our kids something once and expect it to stick.

"Share." 
"Ask a friend if they want to play."
"Be kind."
"When you are angry take a deep breath to calm down!"

We give lots of verbal directions all day, but our verbal directions do not always translate into our children remembering to follow through in the moment. These verbal instructions are the equivalent of the Drivers Ed class before getting behind the wheel. I don't know about you, but I don't remember much of that class other than where I sat and how I figured out how to pass notes without the teacher looking.

It was not until I was behind the wheel that I started to get a sense of what all of that talk had meant, and even later when I put together why it was important to not drive fast or fiddle with the radio while driving. There are things we can identify intellectually as important, but it isn't until we experience them that we truly understand them.

Social skills are like this for our children. Some children may hear the Driver Ed teacher's warning about driving slowly and follow through, but many are going to need to experience it for themselves and need real-time coaching. Some children need direct instruction on what social skills are, how to share, how to greet others, and how to calm down when upset. But that direct instruction is just like our classroom Drivers' Ed time. Without the immediate practice afterwards, all that content is not going to stick. 

Our kids need more. Just like we did, they need real-time coaching to help them see when to apply these new skills. While driving they need someone to help them recognize when to hit the breaks, when to speed up, and which road signs to pay attention to, and which can be ignored. Sometimes they need to have the car pulled over to the side of the road for a quick re-grouping before getting right back onto the road.

Navigating social skills can be much harder than driving. Our road signs are color coded so we can easily figure out what those signs mean. Our facial expressions are not. No matter how much we talk to kids about emotions, some kids need real-time coaching to help recognize their peers' social cues, and how to navigate around them.

It can be hard to understand this distinction between the direct instruction and practice when it comes to our kids. We want them to learn something once we teach it to them, and we often think they know something because they can orally describe it. But we could orally describe driving a car from just watching our parents drive a car - that didn't mean we could take the keys and drive without crashing it.

My partner and I mulled over this problem for awhile, because although we loved the social skills group we did this past year, we felt like we were really just being the classroom driving instructors. We hadn't gotten kids out on the road yet. Yet we could see how happy and engaged the kids were with our craft projects - and where our classroom lessons could lend themselves to more.

So we came up with our Tinker Social Skills group. Each group will start with a quick social skills focus, before getting into the time for actual practice. The kids will be given the assignment of creating a model playground out of re-purposed materials like paper towel tubes, straws, strings, and boxes. This project is going to require them to form an idea in their head of what they'd like to create, and then come up with a plan to do it. This first step will work on their executive functioning skills, and we will be there to coach them through this. As they work they will be sure to face challenges when their plan does not turn out as expected. This too, will create great opportunities for us to coach them on how to recover from disappointment and develop a new plan. Because we will be working in a group, we will also have lots of opportunities to work on sharing materials and space. As the children show us they are ready for greater collaboration, we will assign open-ended partner projects to continue to challenge them.

And because none of us learned how to drive just from the behind-the-wheel period in Drivers' Ed, the end of each class will bring the parents back in so that the parents can learn what we did, the language we used, and ways to continue coaching their child through these social skills at home.





Monday, March 27, 2017

The Great Glue Shortage of 2017

Around the end of February I kept trying to buy white school glue, and it kept being sold out. At the first few stores I didn't think anything of it - maybe stores just don't stock it this time of year - but after awhile something definitely seemed up. How could it possibly not be in stock anywhere?
I knew something was up when I asked someone at CVS and he just shook his head. "The schools all have a big project right now" he said, "I can't keep it in stock. I'll put in an order for extra this week, just make sure you get here on Friday when the truck comes" 

I started to get suspicious. There are a lot of schools near this CVS and I know they don't all assign the same exact project, AND I know that we don't actually use that much glue that ALL of the stores in our area would be sold out.

I didn't want to wait a full week so I went to Amazon. Even there, the prices seemed unreasonably high and those sellers were all out of stock. None of them could give me two day shipping.

I mentioned my frustration to a friend who said, "Oh yeah, it's the Great Glue Crisis of 2017. Didn't you hear?"

She hadn't heard any more than that, but she swore she'd heard this on the radio. Seriously? Did something happen in the glue factories that caused a shortage? (My husband made jokes about problems with the supply of horses at this point.)

Google gave me the answer. Turns out there is a glue shortage, and it's for the exact reason I wanted the glue. 

Well, kind of. In the Unstuck and On Target Curriculum, one lesson directs you to make Silly Putty using glue and Borax. Silly Putty was discovered by accident when a scientist was trying to find a substitute for rubber, and so it's a great example of how to demonstrate flexible thinking. Even better, in the end of the project you have something to play with that is actually flexible. I'm doing the curriculum with some students, and I really wanted to make the Silly Putty. But apparently, so does every other kid in the area thanks to some YouTube trend of making slime right now.

Great. I'm caught up in a hot trend among 10 year olds. I just want my glue.

When I finally bought it, I grabbed 6 bottles. The man at the counter asked me why on earth I'd need six bottles of school glue and I stammered to give an answer. "Ummmm....  so, I really want to make slime... but not because it's popular. I wanted to do it before I knew it was popular. Really. I swear." He raised his eyebrows, obviously having no idea what I was talking about. Doesn't matter. Now I have my glue, and I can start creating my slime/silly putty/whatever you want to call it.

After making it with my daughters I turned it into a guided reading book with instructions on how to make it. Now it's a tool to teach how to be flexible AND gives us an opportunity for reading. Then we'll just write about it afterwards, and throw in some math practice with fractions and measurements and we've got a whole Slime mini-unit.

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Fostering Sibling Love

I held the book over my student's bed, trying to shift it so that she and her brother could both see the pictures. Finally, her younger brother sighed. "I can't see it!" he complained, and then climbed over his sister. His mom and I gasped, because she's fragile, and he's, well, he's a young boy who might not pay attention to his older sister's needs. Yet before we could protest he'd tucked himself in bed beside her so that their heads were close together and they could both see the pages.

She turned her head toward him slowly, and grinned. The smile spread across her entire face, reaching ear to ear, with her eyes lighting up in pure joy. A grin her family and I had never seen before. She looked from me to him and grinned again, her whole body radiating with excitement. I'm not sure my own children have been this excited on Christmas morning. I found tears in my eyes, as this was the most interaction I had ever witnessed from her. Seeing purposeful smiles from her is rare, and seeing her shift her eye gaze between two people is even rarer. Sometimes we notice smiles, but the smiles are fleeting, and it can often be difficult to identify what inspired them. In this case there was no question. Her eyes were full of love for her little brother curled up next to her.

She paid more attention during the lesson, responded to questions with the yes/no eye gaze board, tracked the read alouds with her eyes, and turned her head to hear sounds. She kept her eyes open the whole lesson, and only shut them when I asked her what she wanted to do next. "Do you want to read?" "No" her eyes looked at the "No" picture. I asked if she wanted to hear music. "No" she looked at No again. I asked if she wanted to sleep. "Yes" she selected, and quickly shut her eyes. I had never seen her this response to the yes/no cards before either.

The session almost seemed surreal. We had never seen her so interactive and alert, or so happy. Nothing I did - or could have painstakingly planned out - would have created that moment. It was her brother's natural inclination to just curl up with his sister that changed everything.

One of the aspects I love about my new work is that I get to work with kids in their homes. Unlike school, where everything is structured and organized, with a clear purpose, objective, and a beginning and ending time, homes are a different story. They are inherently messy (even when perfectly organized), and have blurred boundaries. This is the living room/play room/nap on the couch/video game room. The kitchen/homework/afternoon snack and card game room.  There are couches and arm chairs that encourage more relaxed sitting, and calming lighting, toys, and games. Our homes are where our life happens, and where we collapse after a long day. They are where we relax, cry, let our guard down, or take out the frustrations of the day.

Working with kids in the home also means I can involve siblings in the activities. Brothers and sisters are our first friends, and just including them can often be incredibly motivating. Siblings make our activities fun and engaging, and turn it from being school work to being a family game.

Almost more importantly, I love involving siblings when I am working with children with significant needs, because I know that down the line their siblings will often be the ones taking care of them as they become adults. I want to give the brothers and sisters great memories of playing together, since they often cannot independently play together on their own. I work to design lessons and activities that will engage the typically developing sibling as well, so that everyone will truly enjoy the experience.

I think back to my own memories of playing with my brothers, and of how my two girls play together in their own little world - us adults are just background noise. Many of our kids with special needs don't get these relationships spontaneously. There may be a physical disability impacting their relationship and making it hard to play with the same toys, a cognitive disability, or autism, which may make it difficult for one sibling to stay regulated enough to enjoy the other's company. It takes a bit more adult help to help create these shared experiences, yet once the experiences exist, those memories can last forever.

That smile. Today was such a reminder of how powerful those moments between the siblings can be, and how sometimes letting kids do what comes naturally is how we can get those moments.

Thursday, February 23, 2017

My New Favorite Toy - Color Changing Markers

I was elated when I stumbled upon color changing markers at the Dollar Tree last week. I've heard about people using the markers for behavior plans before, but I'd never purchased a set of markers myself. They are almost $7 on Amazon, and while that's not expensive, it's throwing away $7 if your student doesn't respond well to them. But finding them for a dollar? Totally another story.

Simple concept, right? You color with one marker, and then over it you use the magical white marker. The white marker immediately turns your original color into another color. OK, that's fun, but not life changing.

Here's where it gets fun. Instead of coloring with the solid color first, write on the paper with the white marker. You shouldn't be able to where you wrote. Then color over that spot with a colored marker. Magic. Pure magic. You think you are coloring with red, but *boom* a secret message is revealed in blue.

My two year old and I played with these for almost 45 straight minutes while her older sister was in a sports class. I'd use the white "magic" marker to write a mystery letter, and then she'd color over the spot to reveal the secret letter. It's marker peek-a-boo and highly engaging.

Think of the possibilities. Write the answers to a math worksheet in the invisible marker. Once the child has solved the problem he can color over the clear spot to reveal the answer and check to see if he is correct. Word wall words can be so fun to uncover and read. Letters, numbers - any rote skill that you're trying to make more engaging can be enhanced by letting your student make it magically appear on the paper simply by coloring over a white space.

Now, where these markers are really magical is with behavior plans.
Take your normal "You need to get 5 stickers and then you earn a break" behavior plan. Instead of stickers, let the student color in a box. Before the day starts, you can pre-set the plan by coloring in a few boxes with the clear color-changing marker. At some point, when your student goes to color in his block, he will magically reveal your hidden coloring. How much more exciting does that make the behavior plan? This is perfect for kids who easily get bored with your current plans. It's much more motivating to participate when you never know when you'll uncover your magic space. You can think of something fun for your student to do on the magic space - whether it means a class dance party, or a special high-five, add in an extra twist to make it that much more fun.

This also means you can play Behavior Bingo - every day your student can start with a blank bingo board (where you've already used the color-changing marker to color in 4 or 5 blocks in a row). When your student is caught being good, or has earned his token, he can color in one block on the bingo board. He's trying to make Bingo by uncovering your secret message.

Even more fun - play Behavior Battleship. Same idea as bingo, but instead of a bingo board where your student is only trying to find 4 spaces in a row, hide 4 battleships on the board and have your student earn chances to color in a square to try to find the ships.

I haven't found them at every Dollar Tree I've been too, so they don't all carry them. But if you find them, they are worth grabbing a few boxes and adding them to your creativity teaching tool box. Sometimes it's the little things that engage our kids the most.

Monday, February 20, 2017

What is Play-Based Tutoring?

The best way to describe what I do in my private business is "play-based tutoring". I hesitate to use the word tutoring because that conjures images of sitting in a library going over homework problems, and that's far from what we're doing. But it's also the best word I have right now to label my work.

Why is play-based tutoring important?
So many of the essential skills children need for school can be taught in isolation, through a drill and skill method. I've done this with many children, and I know it's effective for teaching that isolated skill. Yet children then learn that skill in isolation, and while they are learning that skill they are not working on any other essential developmental milestone. Those moments of learning often feel like work to the child, and create a gap between fun and school. 

Play-based learning allows children to learn a skill within the context of a broader context. This encourages meaningful generalization of the skill, as the child can understand where it fits in meaningfully within the broader context.

Play-based learning also encourages the development of the whole child. Essential skills like motor planning and visual-spatial thinking are embedded into the sessions. Those Facebook posts from Occupational Therapists about why our kids can't sit still? Play-based tutoring addresses that problem by teaching through problem solving and exploring.

The concepts behind Play-Based Tutoring isn't new. Much of my work is based off of Stanley Greenspan's DIR Floortime model. I'm currently taking classes on this model and have become a bit obsessed. Whenever I use the methods I see such great results. I'm becoming a convert to how essential motor planning along with the development of strong visual-spatial thinking is to our children's process. So many difficulties can be addressed if we encourage more movement, play, and problem solving.

The Process:
In this work, I talk with parents about where their child's development is, and what skills they'd like their child to develop. One aspect about my work that is different than work in schools is building the partnership and reliance on the parents. In schools we teachers are often are the experts, and the parents tend to play an outside role. In my work, the parents are the expert on their child. They know their child better than anyone else. 

Once the parent and I have set goals for the child, I start getting creative. How can I build on the child's interests and strengths to move up the child's development and foster new skills? The goals could be anything from maintaining joint attention and engaging in two-way communication, to increasing sight words and reading strategies, or developing skills to regulate emotions.

For many of my clients I use book kits. I take one book and through the book develop fun activities that encourage the child's new skills. We use physical objects like plastic animals or toy cars to act out the story, play additional games and sing songs that correspond with the story. Everything is connected and highly engaging, and while it looks like play, it is specifically designed to work on the child's targeted skills. 


For other children, I've taken other interests and worked to intertwine those interests with what we'd like them to learn. Academic skills are embedded into fun, engaging activities like building with legos, dominoes, playing games, or making origami creations. Legos are great for learning math concepts, and I've written simple books that give the directions for building with legos or folding an origami creation. 

I'm finding it hard to fully describe what I do, and the importance of it, but I often leave clients houses excited about their development, and I find myself constantly thinking about how to incorporate more play to further engage them and increase their abilities. I love what I do, and I love helping parents see easy ways to incorporate meaningful play into their daily lives.


Tuesday, February 7, 2017

The Fight Against DeVos is Not Over School Choice

I've seen a lot of tweets and Facebook posts today saying that the left is opposed to DeVos because of her position on school choice, and that those fighting her are really fighting the rights for families who want choice. I've seen anti-teacher union posts that accuse the teachers unions of creating this controversy to make it harder for the school choice movement.

This is not the case. This is not why educators are out protesting her.

If DeVos was a knowledgeable, experienced educator who understood the delicate ins and outs of the education system but was a strong supporter of school choice things would be different. The teachers unions may still oppose her, the left may still oppose her, but there would not be such a strong outcry from your average teachers.

When she was first announced as the president's pick, many of us were weary about her politics, but we weren't protesting. If she had come to her hearing with strong arguments with why school choice and states rights were important, then we would be having a different conversation right now.

She didn't. Instead, she showed a complete lack of understanding of public schools and IDEA. Her attempt at saying that allowing guns on campus should be decided by the states was laughable. Really, really laughable. (If you are pro-states rights then at least be prepared to defend it before your hearing so you aren't saying crazy things about grizzlies and guns. Have better examples.)

We are not protesting her politics, we are protesting her qualification for the job. She is not an educator, not has she shown any attempt at trying to understand the system. She hasn't made any case for how she can make our system stronger, choice or not.

She could have shown up and made a strong case over why school choice would be better for IDEA. I've heard that argument. She could have talked about how charter schools show a stronger understanding of growth vs proficiency. I've heard that argument. I might not agree, but I would respect that argument.

DeVos didn't make those arguments. She didn't fight for school choice. She didn't prove her extensive knowledge of the education system and how she could take the current system and change it for the better under school choice.

She barely showed up. I've read that's because she's too nice, or because she's from the midwest.

I'm a nice person, I have trouble speaking in public. Confirmation hearings would be most worst nightmare. But I'd prepare. I'd get people to teach me what I  needed to know. I'd know my arguments. I would practice in front of a mirror. It's not about being nice. It's about being qualified and prepared.

This opposition is not over school choice. It's over having a credible leader. It's over respecting the education of the children in this country and investing in our future. It's acknowledging how important education is to our country.

Her confirmation hearing should have been an embarrassment to the school choice movement. Don't those of you who support school choice want someone who understands schools?