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?

Thursday, February 2, 2017

Oh, Curious G. I love you, but it's time to start listening.

Dear Man In The Yellow Hat,

You have a lovely, curious monkey we all love very much. And curiosity is a very good thing to have. But I must say, after years of reading your books, I have some concerns.

We'll ignore the horrors that take place in the first book when you poached him out of his natural habitat and brought him home (the book was written in a different time, so I suppose I'll give you a pass for that...)

But now, after you've lived with George for a long time, you may want to consider changing your parenting behavior.

Whenever you go to a new place with George, you immediately walk away to get something and say "Be good George." The rest of us know exactly what is going to happen next. Spoiler alert: George wants to be good, but he is too curious.

The minute you leave he quickly sneaks off and gets into some sort of trouble that impacts a significant number of people in your community. We know he doesn't mean any harm, but perhaps you might want to think about not letting him out of your sight. He could come with you to get the movie tickets. He could even help you count out the money. Now he's not getting into trouble, and you are having a meaningful learning experience!

Parenting classes might be beneficial at this point. George will never change his behavior and follow your directions unless you change yours. And sir, losing him once is OK. We've all been there. Twice? OK, it's hard to keep up with a monkey. But in every single book? You have a problem that you have the power to change.

In fact, in Curious George and the Fire Fighters, he even wanders off on a school trip, switches up all the fire fighter gear, and slows down the fire truck from getting to a real fire. But in the end it is all OK because he's cute. I fear he learned this pattern of behavior (don't listen, sneak away, do whatever you want, then be cute and all is forgiven) at home.

We love your monkey, we really do. But he's influencing our little monkeys. Toddler-hood is hard enough for us parents without George as a role model for our already anti-authority tykes. Let's unite in this crazy war called parenting. Let's join forces. You set some expectations for your monkey to listen, and I'll do the same for mine.

Thank you,

A Parent (AKA the mother of "Don't call me H! I am Curious George! Call me GEORGE!!  CALL ME GEORGE!!!!" )

Thursday, January 26, 2017


Yesterday, a mother shyly asked me what I thought of the new president. While I usually try not to share my political thoughts with parents, this time I shook my head. "I can't even talk about it," I said. "This all upsets me too much."

That was enough of an opening for her. She started to tell me about her reaction to all the changes, her thoughts and fears. How she couldn't believe the violent protests on inauguration day were happening here in America, but how she also could not believe what the new president was doing. "Why did people vote for him?" she asked.

While here legally, she feared somehow this status could change overnight without her knowing, and while her children were in school she'd be sent back to her unstable country. Her children would get off the bus to find no one home.

I wanted to say "of course that won't happen. Your children are safe. You are safe" But I couldn't. I don't know. I don't know what is a rational fear, and what is a momma-bear fear right now. I could only listen, and try to understand what it is like to turn on the television in fear you'll hear the new president signed an executive order kicking you out of where you've built your home.

She asked why. Why would we want to kick out people who are here working? Good people with families. People who are a part of the community. People who pay taxes and follow the rules. Bad people, yes, she said, please send them back. But why the rest of us?

She shared how bad things are in her country, and why people from countries like hers want to come here. Why they need to come here. What about the kids? she asked. What will happen to them? They are Americans. They were raised here. What do I do? she asked. What can we do?

As we talked, her five year old played on the floor with toys, pretending not to be listening. I can't imagine his thoughts in all of this, as the grown ups around him talk in hushed tones, fearing our president.

I had no words to share with her that would make it better. I cannot imagine living in fear of the unknown of what could happen next. Parenting is hard enough as it is, without wondering if today is the day your family will be sent back to a place where you cannot guarantee their safety. I cannot fathom the feeling of powerlessness and hopelessness these families must fear.

Politically, things seem to be happening so fast. I couldn't tell her she would be fine because I don't have the answers. I don't think I fully understand what is going on. Do any of us? Does anyone know the grand plan for immigration reform? Is there even a big picture plan?

I came home that night with a heavy heart, feeling powerless and unable to protect all of the families I've worked with over the years. I've met some incredible people who have risked so much to come to America. People who gave up professional jobs in their countries for a better future for their children. People with real skills and dreams who did not have a safe future in their own countries. These are the people we want in our communities. It has been an honor to teach their children and be a part of helping them achieve the American Dream.

A student's work from 14 years ago. "We came because of American Dreams"
After my own children were tucked safely in bed, I caught up on the news and saw the new plans for limiting refugees from many countries - Syria, Sudan, Somalia, Libya, Iraq, Iran, Syria, and Yemen. I've taught children from almost all of these countries. Children who I promise are going to do great things for our country. We are lucky to have many of these families here. I want my own children to grow up with these playmates.

I don't understand what is happening, but I fear these families are being used as pawns in a political game of power. A game that has somehow forgotten that immigrants and refugees are real people. These are our neighbors, our friends. They are our future doctors, teachers, and lawyers. We're stronger together.

Sunday, January 22, 2017

I gave up on finding age appropriate guided reading books - so I'm making my own

I've struggled for years with finding age appropriate guided reading books. Students in the intellectual disabilities program may be in the fifth grade and reading at a Developmental Reading Assessment (DRA) level 3, but making steady progress. Sadly, most of the time the only books to hand to them are filled with cute cartoon animals or pictures of younger children. Nothing is motivating about reading a book designed for a five year old when you are ten.

And yet, I've found that using guided reading with kids with intellectual disabilities is motivating and effective (when you have the right books).

So, after years of frustration I started writing my own. This fall I started writing ones for one of my private clients. These books followed the directions on Lego instructions, as after he was finished reading the book, he'd also built something from one of the classic Lego kits. Since Lego kits can be expensive, I've moved on to writing DRA level A-C books about Origami.

I'm testing out the Teachers Pay Teachers site and I've put up one of my Origami books for free. I'd love your feedback on it, and if you try it, let me know whether or not it is effective with your students!

Since they take me a fair bit of time to make each one, I'd love to see them used by lots of students. They will also be good for upper elementary students who are learning to read in English and are reading on a lower level than their peers.

Let me know what you think!