Thursday, October 19, 2017

The Importance of Play

While attending the Council for Exceptional Children’s Division of Early Childhood International Conference in Portland, I attended session after session on play. Why it is important, how to teach it, what to teach, and how to support families in playing with their children. One of the most fascinating sessions I attended was on Project Play, a research study out of Northeastern University.
In this project the researchers have been studying the different developmental stages of play with objects. They have found that how children manipulate objects during play develops in a series of stages, and that this development is clear whether or not a child has a disability. It is important, then, to support children in play where they are, and help them move to the next developmental play stage, without skipping over play stages, as children need to experience all the stages to move on. This work resonates with Stanley Greenspan’s work on DIR/Floortime, and I was fascinated to seem the similarities in the research findings.

The work also had me thinking about how we look at childhood and elementary school itself. This was my second early childhood conference of the year, and in each conference play has been honored as an essence of childhood. The field of early childhood understands the importance of play in a child’s development. But how are the rest of us doing when children move from early childhood to the middle years? We no longer honor play as an essence to healthy development, but see it as something that will give children a break from a hard day of work. Yet for many children, the play in itself may be exhausting, because play is where their real developmental work takes place.

The findings of Project Play stuck me as well, because once children enter elementary school we start talking about age appropriate play, and age appropriate toys.  Yet a child with developmental delays, who is following the developmental play trajectory, is going to miss out on steps in his development if he is forced to experience age appropriate toys and experiences. Instead, he needs developmentally appropriate play opportunities, with an adult who can carefully guide him up the developmental chain. Forcing a child to play with an age appropriate toy, or play an age appropriate game at recess, may make the child look like he is typically developing, but in fact is denying the child an opportunity to develop the missing skills. Of course, we don't want the child to stick out as different and subject them to bullying either, so we need to be mindful in how we choose to create developmental play opportunities for older children.

Object play is where children learn much of their visual-spatial processing skills, which prove to be essential when a child needs to be able to determine the beginning and ending of a word when reading, or to be able to manipulate numbers within a written math problem. Symbolic play, where items represent real-world items, like when a set of blocks becomes a fort, or a plastic doll becomes an animated person, supports children’s development of symbolic reasoning and ideas. In symbolic, dramatic joint play, we learn to accept another’s idea and add on to it in our play. We experience cognitive flexibility, and coping strategies. These are all skills that we need for healthy executive functioning skills, as well as being able to understand scientific reasoning, complex math problems, and comprehend literature.


But if we are forcing children to skip these play stages, or not giving them time to experience these play stages at all, what are we doing to their development? We can teach something that looks like dramatic play, but is it a full understanding of dramatic play that is also helping the child develop cognitive flexibility? Or is it simply that the child is following the set of play rules we put out for them, because this is how to make them look like their peers? 

Monday, September 25, 2017

Kindergarten Transition

Watching my daughter transition to kindergarten has been an eye opening experience, because for the first time I'm on the other side of the "my child looses it when she comes home" discussion. I've heard this from parents for years. I have stock replies.

"It's a long day, your child is working so hard, she needs a place where she can relax."

"Isn't it great that your child feels safe enough at home to let down with you?"

"That is exactly how you'd want it. You wouldn't want it the other way - your child losing it at school but being an angel at home."

I've said all these things, and now I've had them said to me.

On Friday evening I sat in the waiting room of my daughter's taekwondo studio with other mothers who were experiencing life in the first month of kindergarten. We shared our experiences over the last few weeks, and how we see the exhaustion in our children's face. Some had reports of behavior difficulties at school, while others are having the "I don't know who this child is" experience that my family is having.

I suppose we've come to accept this as right of passage. Your child goes to kindergarten, they suddenly have to sit still for a long time and they either don't and you get called by the teacher, or they do, and then come home and lose control of themselves.

But why have we made kindergarten so structured that our children have a difficult adjustment to it? If I'm hearing about this difficult transition from so many parents, and have heard about this for so long - why are we accepting it as a reality?

I don't want to lower academic standards, but shouldn't we be looking at some ways we can change the structure and expectations of kindergarten to make it less of a overwhelming milestone? Can we increase our down time during the day, create more student-led projects, offer more recess or outdoor activities, or just give children more general time to engage in unstructured learning?

I don't know the answer. As a parent, I see the benefits in that, but as a teacher, I'd feel like I was wasting my time. If my goal is to get to grade level by the end of the year, then I'd better get there. No moment wasted.

The thing is, my daughter's preschool day was longer than her kindergarten day. And in preschool she had a math, reading, and writing workshop. She had guided reading and learned to read. She wrote books. Her class did whole-group interactive writing. She had a word wall and she knew every word on it. She can tell you everything she learned about space, dinosaurs, and the digestive system. Her days were packed. But there was nap time, play time, and 2-3 recess periods, and lots and lots of art projects. It was somehow academic, but provided time for the kids to let down between instruction.

My family, like all the others, will get through this. Perhaps my daughter will be stronger for it (which I think is the story parents and teachers tell ourselves in this month of transition).

I work with many homeschool children, and I continue to be surprised by the amount of learning they do in such short periods of time. They aren't experiencing 20 minute mini lessons, followed by 40 minutes of work. But they are learning the same information, and producing the same work. Sure, it's one kid instead of 25, but still. Why are we still forcing the traditional method of sit and learn on our students, when we know other ways work? Are our five and six year olds really learning best from sitting quietly for 20 minutes?

Friday, September 1, 2017

Parenting Milestones

After 15 years of working in public elementary schools I finally achieved a new first.

I became a parent of a child in a public elementary school. My oldest started kindergarten this week. Now, she's been in daycare and preschool since she was 3 months old, so I was not expecting this to be anything different. On Friday she went to her full day preschool class, and on Monday she went to elementary school. She actually had a longer day at preschool, so in reality, this isn't that big a shift - right?

And yet - there is something very different about this experience. To put it in her words "Kindergarten is a big deal."

Frankly, I was surprised by myself. I'm a low key person, and have always been a fairly low-key parent. When I got a call from her in-home daycare provider letting me know that another child had bitten my two year old, my first reaction was "What did she do that made the other kid so angry?" My other daughter fell on the preschool playground last fall, busted her chin open, and didn't cry about it, so the preschool didn't think she was hurt. Turns out she needed stitches. I didn't get upset. I get it. Recess is tough. It's hard to keep up with kids. My kids are fine. I don't blame the teachers.

So who is this crazy, judgy kindergarten mom looking back at me in the mirror? I don't even know this woman who is inwardly grumbling about the class organizational system, the homework system, the way the class lines up, and the way they handle birthdays?  I don't know her, and I'd like her to go away.

We are so lucky. My daughter's kindergarten teacher is wonderful. The school follows the Responsive Classroom approach school-wide, and everything is early-childhood focused. There are toys in the room for choice time. This is a place where childhood is honored. All of those things are rare. And yet I am still catch myself being overly critical.

I think that perhaps I am secretly jealous of this young teacher and her adorable kindergarten class. Secretly I want to be setting up a kindergarten classroom, welcoming the children to their elementary school career, teaching those beginning of the year routine lessons, and building relationships with the class. I loved teaching in the beginning of the school year.

I'm like the disgruntled teenager who is so critical of the head cheerleader because secretly she wishes she had tried out for the squad, but didn't because it wasn't cool. I mean, I could totally have my own kindergarten classroom if I wanted to, I just don't want it really. I just want to think about wanting it.

Plus, I know too much. For every "criticism" I have, I can site a blog post, article, book, or research on why I'm right. But there are probably other blogs, articles, books, and research out there that argue the other way. And none of these things actually matter. It's like judging the cheerleader's red nail polish. Didn't she read that red was out this year? Come on!

I am so not this person.

So my goal is to find a balance. To not be so laid back that I don't get upset that no one thought that the blood gushing out of my daughter's chin was a problem. But not so uptight and critical that I'm labeled "that mom". (I totally already am. I know I've been red flagged already. So I'll just be that mom and not THAT mom.)

I'm going to make sure I'm there and present, but also that I accept that we are all different teachers and there is no one right way to teach.

Being critical is exhausting, and I don't have time to be tired over this!

My daughter LOVES kindergarten. Last night she said she was so lucky to have her teacher, and I agreed. Because I do. I know my daughter is in the right place for her.

Any other TeacherMoms out there who find the same surprising judgmental thoughts pop up?
I've always asked why do we judge one another so much in this profession, and this is an extension of that teacher-on-teacher judgement. Where does this come from?

Monday, August 14, 2017

Theory of Mind

The other day my three year old asked for a glass of milk. When I brought her the milk she burst into tears. "I wanted orange juice!" she cried. I groaned, and then logically tried to explain to her that she'd asked for milk. Milk! The words milk came out of your mouth- not orange juice. Why was this so hard to understand?

Then I had one of those strange moments where I suddenly realized what the problem was. "Let's play a game" I suggested. "See this toy car? I'm going to hide it right here under this pillow." Everyone in the room watched as I hid it. "OK, now, Daddy's going to leave the room." My husband looked perturbed. He was sitting quite comfortably in his chair, reading. "Up! Move! Out!" I demanded, and so he cooperated, more out of curiosity than anything else.

"OK, I explained to both my girls. "Now, we're going to hide the toy car again. Let's put it behind the couch. Now we'll bring Daddy back in." My five year old giggled at our trickiness. It seemed delightfully wrong to have hid the toy again from daddy.

"Where does Daddy think it is?" I asked, when my husband came back in. My five year old immediately pointed to the pillow, where we had originally hid it. My three year old however, ran to point behind the coach. "Daddy thinks it's here!" she announced, while her older sister groaned.

She doesn't have theory of mind yet! I realized. Of course she is upset that I didn't bring her orange juice. She still doesn't understand that we do not know the same information. She does not yet understand that my perspective is different from her perspective. If she KNOWS that the toy is hiding behind the couch, then daddy  must know that too.

We played the game a few times, and each time got the same results. The three year old had no idea that we were tricking the family member outside of the room.

Now, this is a great opportunity for getting the truth out of any situation as we know we can always ask her what is going on (until she develops theory of mind and then we'll have to resort to other lie detector test methods.) But it also explains a lot of that three-nager behavior we know so well.

It's so easy to forget that this confident little person who can speak in paragraphs, run, jump, leap, open small containers, and put on her own shoes is still not developmentally just like us. I mean, she looks like us, talks like us, and can fight with her five year old sister. She doesn't have a sign that says "I have no idea that you don't know what I'm thinking right now." But she doesn't. It's coming and pretty soon she'll understand that when she changes her mind and wants orange juice she actually has to ASK for orange juice. Or that she wants to go look at something on the other side of the store instead of just running and assuming I'll be behind her. Or when she started sobbing on the swing yesterday because her daddy wasn't pushing her high enough. She'd asked him to push her, but she hadn't high. Why was he ignoring her? It's got to be confusing to wonder why all these people aren't doing what you think they should do. While we're frustrated with her big emotional outbursts, our silly game served as an excellent reminder of the motivation behind some of her behavior. She's still figuring out the world, not just intentionally yelling at us (which is what it feels like sometimes).

This is also important to keep in mind with many of our high-functioning students with autism. They are slower to develop theory-of-mind as well, which creates conflicts for them in the classroom, as well as with peers in natural social situations. Not seeing someone else's perspective can make them targets, or put them in situations where they become easily frustrated. (Ever heard  a child say, "He's fat! Everyone knows that, why can't I say it?") This is when it's important to remember the question "Is it a can't or a won't" Is the child being intentionally mean (which is what we initially assume) or is it that he really does not see how his words hurt someone else? We can use this moment as a teaching opportunity to explain empathy, or we can punish the child, without explaining the problem, which won't help us or the child in the future.

In the meantime, while we patiently wait for my daughter to develop theory of mind, we'll keep occasionally testing her with our fun new game.

Monday, August 7, 2017

Drama Club Success!

On Friday afternoon, my daughter burst into tears as she watched us strike the set and turn the small stage back into our basement playroom. "But I want drama club to keep going!" she expressed through her tears. It's hard to be five and experience something fun ending.


But truthfully, I felt the same way. For the last two weeks I've hosted a drama club in my basement. It was just an hour a day, for two weeks, and was for a small group of early elementary school children. I designed it as a way to support children with their reading over the summer, but quickly realized just what a great opportunity it was to teach social skills as well.

I've always been a big fan of using readers' theater to support readers. In my last year as a full-time teacher the reading specialist and I started a drama club for fifth graders during their lunch time, so they could work on their reading and fluency. We were surprised by the amount of kids who joined the group. We never opened it to all of fifth grade, but kids heard about it and started showing up. Putting on shows is fun, and gives reading a purpose.

Reading scripts is a natural way to work on fluency. Kids are not always willing to re-read a passage with expression, especially if they struggled through it the first time. But when you give re-reading a purpose - like say, needing to read it like an actor would, well then, the motivation changes. Re-reading familiar text is essential when children are learning to read, and repeatedly practicing a play lets kids do this in a way that doesn't create boredom or monotony. 

When you involve kids in the planning of the play itself, you are working on their retelling and comprehension skills as well. An actor has to understand a character's emotions before he can take on the part, and so just encouraging the readers to think about how their character feels is a way to foster deeper thinking about the text. 

What's more, in order to block out the scenes, you must be able to sequence the events in order, know which character comes first, next, then, and last, and consider what a character's costume may look like. You even have to spend time thinking about the setting so that you can create the scenery. All in all, you can't put on a play if you aren't comprehending the story.

Then we get to the social skills aspect of drama club. Improv is an excellent way to work on social skills. Any improv game requires its participants to watch one another's body language, and flexibly respond to the stimulation at hand. We played games where we could only communicate with each other by using our eyes (forcing us to make eye contact), or where we needed to guess what someone was doing based off of their actions and emotions (forcing us to attend to body language). We spent a long time discussing different types of emotions, because you need to be able to identify and understand emotions in order to act them out.

What I realized during this club is that the mere act of being in a play requires a fair amount of social skills. We came up with a list of "what actors do", that included reading with fluency and expression, changing their voice to match their emotions, waiting their turn to speak, staying near the other actors and not walking away, and listening to the other actors speak so they know when it is their turn. It might just be me, but these aren't just skills actors need...

On our first session we identified our goal (to put on a great play) and used the Goal, Why, Plan, Do, Check method from the Unstuck and On Target curriculum to create a plan to stick to over the following two weeks. We referred back to this plan daily, and always stayed focused on our goal (we can't put on a great play if we're talking while someone else is practicing). 

We spent the first week selecting a play, and we read many different scripts I'd adopted from different children's books. This required the group to read new texts, and then re-read them in order to decide what they liked better. Before we voted, we created a chart of the different books so we could compare the problem and solution in each text (another essential retelling skill). Finally, the group voted on the book Peanut Butter and Cupcake. 

We spent the second week practicing our lines, painting costumes and scenery, and blocking out the play, and ended with a performance for our parents on Friday.

Like my daughter, I found myself disappointed that it was over on Friday afternoon. The ten sessions gave so many opportunities for reading and social skills practice, and I want to keep working with the great group of kids.

Wednesday, July 26, 2017

Early Childhood

I had a few days in mid-July where I was able to attend an early childhood conference. I cannot say enough positive comments about this conference, because it did not just reach out to preschool teachers, or special education teachers, or education professors, or PHD students. It brought together everyone who works in early childhood - from those administrators working in the Infant and Toddler offices who are on the front line of meeting with families to assess whether or not their child may have delays or a disability - to the Speech Language, Occupational Therapists, Physical Therapists, preschool teachers, special education preschool teachers, children's librarians, and parents. The message was clear - we are in this together, and we are looking at the whole child.

As I sat in session after session I began to realize how much our practices change when we get to elementary school. So much of early childhood is about what is best for the child. The session participants did not blink when a presenter suggested that it was totally OK for a child to be walking around during storytime. I heard this during MULTIPLE sessions (my own included, but other people said it as well). The ideas of meeting a child's sensory needs, supporting parents to make sure their wants and goals for their child are met, and asking "are we doing what is right for this child, not the process?" were not new ideas.

One session I attended (it had nothing to do with my work, but the one I'd wanted to go to was full and so I popped into the closest one), was intended for service providers completing the initial assessments for Infant and Toddler Connections. There was a very enriching discussion about the power of functional assessments and how standardized assessments are harmful for the child and family, as they don't give a full picture of the child's needs. And if we don't have a full picture of the child's needs, how do you fully help a child? (Good question friends. Let's ask that of the political decision makers who have gotten us to focus on end of year assessment data.) Or those of us doing these same process (finding children eligible for special education) in elementary school. The process somehow stops being about what's best for the child and starts to be about how to complete the legal paperwork and what accommodations a child might need to pass a standardized test.

In the keynote session, the presenter asked how we could possibly teach children to problem solve if we weren't encouraging open ended play, providing opportunities for exploratory skills, and honoring the importance of one on one interactions. When did problem solving stop at early childhood? When did we stop encouraging open ended exploration in favor of rote skills? Why does the importance of play stop in preschool?

Our children's brains don't suddenly respond differently when they enter those elementary school doors on the first day of kindergarten. Why do we act like they do?

There were so many moments during this conference that I wished I was in a room with elementary school teachers so that we could talk about how to take the same scientific findings and apply it to our third and fourth grade students who have trouble sitting down and learning rote skills.

Tuesday, July 25, 2017

An Open Letter to the Mom who was asked to take her kids out of ballet class

Dear Mom of Twins at Ballet Class,

You are amazing. You are amazing for many reasons, not the least of which is that you are the mother of twin preschoolers. Those of us who had just one child at a time have no idea what you've been through as you balanced the feeding, diapering, and sleeping needs of two babies at a time, and then two crawlers, two walkers, two new eaters, new talkers, and two active, bright eyed and excited little ones. I don't have twins myself, but my brothers are twins and I was five years old when they were born. Old enough to remember how hard it was to balance two babies. I have full, out-right respect for any mother of twins out there. You are amazing.

I wish I could erase what happened yesterday in ballet class, when the teacher looked over and asked you to remove your children from the class. I wish I'd stood up for you, and asked the teacher if she could be a better teacher, take more time to explain the instructions, and remind her that this is an introductory ballet class for three year olds and not for six year olds. 

Your children, at least, love ballet. Their energy and excitement in the class is because they want to do well. They are thrilled to be there, and want to do everything the teacher says.

My daughter, on the other hand, is miserable. She isn't running around the classroom only because she is angry she's not in gymnastics, or swimming, or any of the other fun classes we walk by to get to the ballet studio.The other kids? Half of them are not running because they are scared of the teacher, and the others are four and five and old enough to know that sitting quietly when you don't understand the directions is better than getting up and moving.

Your kids are the only ones who look happy in the class. The only ones enjoying it. Is it their fault that when the teacher says "No running!" they only heard 'running' and take off running? (Any preschool teacher can tell you that the only things kids remember is the last thing they hear. Always be direct with what you want.) Or when they are given verbal directions to skip (which is not an age appropriate skill for a three year old anyway) they resorted back to what they had done the last time they'd been in the circle? Your children were acting like three year olds. Three year olds who love looking at themselves in the classroom's full length mirrors, love moving to music, and don't understand why so much of ballet involves sitting quietly on the sidelines listening to the teacher.

I'm sorry the rest of us parents sat there silently, heads down, and did not come to your defense. I'm sorry that when I saw things going south the last few classes I didn't have a friendly chat with the instructor and offer her some ideas of how to get three year olds to listen. The rest of us just watched the disaster slowly unfold.

I know how that teacher felt too. I know what's it's like to feel like you have a large group of children who are out of control and whose parents are all sitting watching you, expecting you to be perfect. I know the self-talk that runs through a teacher's head when it feels like you've lost control. I know where she was coming from. It's a dark place of panic, where you don't know what else to do. I'm sure she felt like she had two choices - she could run from the room herself, or ask your kids to leave leave. (Leaving the room, taking a deep breath, and coming back composed may have been a better choice for her.) Acknowledging that your skill set does not include a particular age group is a hard task. I can tell she is a gifted teacher with older students. But three year olds are a whole other beast. They didn't coin the term 'three-nager' for nothing.

You are amazing. You didn't cry. You didn't argue. You didn't run from the room when your child begged to be allowed to stay. You didn't lose your temper with your kids or the teacher. You stayed strong. In that moment you modeled for all of our kids how to put your head up and stay strong when unfair moments come. You were a role model for those of us who fear the day it is our kid being asked to leave. 

I'm sorry it happened. I'm sorry I didn't help. I hope you will bring your delightful children back to class, and that they can continue loving ballet and making the class fun and exciting. 


Saturday, July 22, 2017

Most helpful?

During one of the sessions I attended at the Creating Connections for Shining Stars conference for Virginia Early Childhood practitioners, one slide caught my eye. Unfortunately, by the time the slide's message had sunk in, the presentation had moved on, and right as  snapped the picture they changed the slide, so I caught the next slide instead. 

The slide I'd wanted to capture was on the results of an older study - The Funds of Knowledge from 1992. Part of this study asked parents of children with special needs a variety of questions to gain an understanding of what parents understood about their child's needs, what was and wasn't helpful as their child was going through the diagnostic period, and who was the most helpful to them. This slide in particular reflected the results of who families found the most helpful - teachers
- and the least helpful - doctors.


Let that sink in for a minute. 

Teachers. 

At the top. 
Number 1. 
Most helpful. 

Our pay may not reflect this fact, nor the reaction we get when we tell people we are teachers. We may not get the same respect from society as we would if we were doctors. But families found us more helpful than the doctors. 




We're the ones holding the families hands, listening, talking, celebrating, and learning along with them. We have the benefit of not having a 15 minute window in which to diagnosis and provide treatment suggestions. 

We need to take a moment to realize how important we are, even if no one else realizes this. We need to understand our impact goes beyond the kids we teach, and touches the families. 

And next time we feel bad about ourselves that we aren't a pediatrician like cousin Eddie, or a lawyer like cousin Bobby, we need to stop and think about this slide. Because what we're doing, when we do it well, is bigger and has a longer lasting impact than everything else.

Friday, June 23, 2017

Still Face Experiment and Our iPhones?

During my first DIR/Floortime course we were introduced to the Still Face Experiment. In this research, a parent is asked to interact with their baby by responding to the baby's coos and gestures. The babies in the experiment use gestures, babbling, and their affect to interact with their parents. The beginning of the experiment reflects Stanley Greenspan's theory that a baby's first understanding of cause and effect is not at 9 months when they pull a bell on a string like Piaget theorized, but is instead much, much earlier when the child first learns he can interact with his parent through pre-verbal communication such as smiles and coos. It's here that not just communication is born, but also a child's sense of self. In these moments babies learn that everything from their gross motor movements to their babbles can have meaning.

In this video of the experiment, the baby points and the mom looks to where the baby points, honoring the baby's motor planning and intent to communicate. Then the parent is told not to respond to the baby's attempts to interact. I find myself becoming physically uncomfortable every time I watch this part of the video. The baby becomes desperate to interact with the mother, and tries everything until finally shrieking, crying, and turning away from the mother. At the end of the experiment the mother is able to comfort her child.

The first time I saw this I had an immediate sick feeling in my stomach. Not just for the baby in the video, but I saw uncomfortable parallels for my own child and my phone. Yes, the great iPhone. The very thing that kept me sane in those middle of the night feedings, and allowed me to form great bonds with friends across the country as we sent each other "Will this baby ever stop eating? I may never get up from this chair" texts. The phone gave me sanity during those infant days. But what about now? How often have I unknowingly reacted this experiment with my own children, honoring their communication attempts during play, and then suddenly stopping and going cold when I get a text, email, or even a Facebook post I "have to" respond to right away?

The behaviorist side of me thinks "It's good for children to learn to wait. Even from a young age children should know that mommy will go away for a minute and then come back. The world does not revolve around them." But watch the child in the video. Mom is there, but not. With our iPhones, it's just a thin rectangle suddenly in between mom and the child. How does the child know why the iPhone is suddenly more important than their coos?

How many of us are creating this experiment on a daily basis, over and over again, and not honoring our children's attempts to communicate because of this tiny little rectangle that constantly takes precedent over them? Our children have learned of course, that this is a part of daily life. That their parents are there, and then suddenly not there, and then there again, as we toggle back and forth between honoring their sense of agency and then ignoring them while we respond to our phones.

One blog notes that this experiment  while may see the Still Face experiment as a recreation of children growing up in neglectful situations and experiencing a loss of attachment, what it  also shows is an example of a child suffering from a loss of agency.   Our sense of agency is our understanding of how our movements, and actions have meaning in the world. In this experiment, for a brief moment, the baby's emotions, ideas, and thoughts are ignored, suddenly sending a confusing message about how the child is able to interact. Which is exactly what we do to our children when we interrupt their play to check our phones.

I don't mean to write this as a guilt trip for us all. I am hugely guilty of frequent phone checks, and even after wrestling with this question myself for a few months, I'm still guilty of it. But it does make me wonder. I'm trying to be more aware of honoring my children's thoughts and expressions in the moment, and if I can't respond to them I try to tell them exactly why "Hang on, I need to text Daddy and ask him to stop by the store" just so they know I'm ignoring them for a reason, and not just leaving them to flounder alone. I have no idea if that helps. But I suspect there is a connection between the Still Face experiment and how we constantly parent with a phone in our back pocket.


Tuesday, May 30, 2017

True Educational Leadership

In my fourteen years of teaching I've worked for four principals. One I try not to think about much, but I have been very lucky to work for the other three. I admire each of them as leaders, and know that much of my teaching has been shaped by their leadership.

My most recent principal announced he was leaving us a few weeks ago. I was stunned. He opened our school five years ago. He led us to becoming the first recipient of the National DuFour award. Through his leadership we ended up on the front page of Education Weekly. Educators from around the world travel to our school to observe us at work, in the structure he set up. The school has never existed without him.

Of all the principals I have worked for, he is the one who has impacted my educational philosophy the most. When I first came to our school I was not sure of how much I bought into the Professional Learning Community (PLC) theory. I was skeptical, made worse by the fact that I was on the intellectual disability team and as a new school we were struggling to figure out how to include my team into the PLC process. I've written before about how my opinion of the PLC process changed over time. I went from being skeptical to becoming a true believer. Now, it seems like a crime to have schools operate in any other way.

Beyond coming to be an advocate for the PLC process, my principal also pushed my thinking about education. He constantly challenged our special education team to think about what special education is. What is the purpose behind special education? Why do we put students into special education? What do we do with them once we put them there? Why does a child need a label? What do we do differently for a child once they are in the special education system? Every Wednesday, when we sat in special education eligibility meetings, he pushed us to answer these questions. I know there were times when he knew how I would answer, but he asked anyway. He never wanted us to blindly sign off on a child needing special education services unless we had fully considered the whole child, and whether or not he or she would truly benefit from these services. No child would get pushed through just because. He made our work harder, but he made our work better.

These questions changed how I thought about special education. They made me look beyond my own beliefs, and see that sometimes, despite our best intentions, we do lower our expectations for a child once they are in the special education system. That the IQ number does not always accurately reflect a child's ability, and that we keep pushing, despite what any test says.

In times of conflict, crisis, or uncertainty, he never took the party line. Not the county's party line, or even the school's. He did not care how anything has been done in the past, or how we did it last week. Every decision we ever brought to him he questioned, considered, and then had us justify our thinking. We cannot make lazy decisions, or ones based on institutional knowledge.

One of the rules at my school is that we are not allowed to use acronyms. I want you to spend the next day trying not to use any acronyms. That means you can't say the HOV lane. Take IEP, NOVA, LRE, FCPS, or any other familiar acronyms out of your vocabulary. It's harder than you think! His constant line is "clarity proceeds competence." If not everyone at the table knows what you are talking about, then communication has eroded and you have a problem. He pushes us to be as clear as possible in our language. While I appreciate the theory, it is hard, especially in special education. And frustrating, when you are already nervous in speaking in front of a group, and you utter an acronym by accident and then get called out.

But this practice makes us better. It catches us from using phrases in front of parents that they don't understand - or even phrases general education educators don't understand and are afraid to ask. This also creates a culture of feeling comfortable enough to ask for clarification when one is confused - even in a large meeting.

My principal has changed how I see education. He's challenged the idea of the effectiveness of the individual teacher, working in isolation. He's challenged the idea of why and how we educate children. He's changed my focus in how I see educational outcomes of students with disabilities. Every teacher believes they have high expectations for all children, but he's made me realize that when we say those simple words we often are just doing lip service. If we are truly honest we take away all excuses we may have for a child, we erase our knowledge of anything going on at home, and we truly look only at the child in front of us at that moment.

He taught me that high expectations mean high expectations for all. The goal for every child is to make a year to a year and a half's growth, no matter where they are currently performing or what is going on in their lives. Having an IEP or speaking another language is not an excuse for a child to not make that progress. And as teachers, we need to work together as a team to get the child there, in any way possible.

I've joked that my first four years at this school school was an equivalent in a graduate degree into the PLC process. I was skeptical of the process when I began there, and not even aware of how much I had to learn. After five years I am stunned at my own transformation as an educator. I went from skeptical to full-believer.

Working for him these last five years was an honor, and I cannot imagine where I would be now as an educator if I had not worked at his school. While I cannot image the school without his leadership, I know that how he challenged and changed our thinking will stay with the school even after he leaves. The field always needs someone to constantly push us to look beyond ourselves, and although I will miss him, I know his move is a benefit to the field of education itself.

Sunday, May 28, 2017

DIR/Floortime

It's official - I'm DIR/Floortime certified! 

Don't know what DIR/Floortime is? Until a few years ago, I didn't either. I was sitting in a meeting, listening to people discuss whether or not a child had autism, when the psychologist said - "Oh, he does, he just had DIR/Floortime when he was young."

What? What is that? I'd never heard of this intervention. How is it possible that 1) He received an intervention that worked so well that now a roomful of professionals cannot decide whether or not he has autism. 2) If this intervention is so effective, why have I not heard of it?

I immediately turned to my good friend Google, which introduced me to Dr. Stanley Greenspan, and directed me toward the certification path. The DIR stands for Developmental, Individual, Relationship. This therapy is a way to connect with children through considering their developmental needs, their individual differences, and their relationship to their environment. You connect to a child by following their lead, often through play, (or at least that is what I originally thought). While it is typically a therapy used with children with autism, it can also be used anyone.

I started reading Greenspan's work, and I took one on-line class over the summer a few years ago. I thought I understood the concept pretty well. It made sense to me, so this winter I decided to start the certification process.

The first class was short, and repeated much of the same information I'd read in Greenspan's books. I quickly enrolled in the second class, excited to get started. It was this class that allows for the basic certification. It is a pass/fail class, and when I enrolled I excitedly that it would be a simple way to get my certification. After all, I thought I had a good understanding of the therapy already.

I was wrong. So wrong. I understood the words used to describe Floortime, but I really had no idea what I was talking about - yet. This class, to be quite honest, kicked my butt.

Although I was very familiar with all of the words being used, I didn't actually know their definition through a Floortime lense. It was like being in a foreign country and thinking you understand the language, only to quickly learn you thought you asked to go to the bathroom and you were directed to the swimming pool.

From a meta-cognitive standpoint, it was a fascinating experience. The last time I struggled this much with learning something was my computer science course during college. But, being far more motivated to learn Floortime than I was HTML, I threw myself into this course. The more I realized how much I did not understood Floortime, the more I was determined to learn it, and do it well. I watched the videos my classmates presented and saw the progress kids made in the short, eight minute video clips. Then, I saw the sparks in some of the children I work with. When I started using Floortime techniques with them, I saw the shift. It was remarkable. Magic. Except not magic - science.

But to learn Floortime, I had to unlearn or at least shelve any behaviorist approaches I'd relied on before. In reflecting on my own teaching, I realized that much of what I do, much of what any of us do in the schools, is from a behaviorist model. In order to learn Floortime I had to stop myself from my previous work and start looking at children with new eyes. Behaviors or individual differences I had overlooked before because I didn't consider important, now are essential to understanding the child and how to interact. I find myself watching every child with "DIR eyes" as my mentor calls it.

Who knew that learning to play effectively would be so difficult? I had no idea when I started this process, and yet now I have a whole new understanding of just how powerful peek-a-boo is.

Now that I'm more comfortable with Floortime, I hope to be writing about it more, and hopefully I can explain it here. More importantly, I am ridiculously excited to be officially allowed to practice it. My struggle this winter and spring paid off.

Thursday, May 25, 2017

Age Appropriate Texts - Finding My People!

In the large vender hall of the CEC conference I spied the sign “No Baby Books for Teens” across the room. I quickly realized that I had found my people.


I’ve blogged about the difficulties of finding ageappropriate texts for years now. There is nothing more disheartening then having a fifth grader at a crucial turning point in making huge gains in reading – only to have nothing to hand him except a book with cartoon characters of a sweet turtle and a frog. I am constantly on the search for age appropriate guided reading books, and have become so frustrated with the dirth of materials available that I’d even started to write my own.
But here – in this large booth were racks of books written for high schoolers reading at lower levels. It made me tear up. Someone is listening.

Well, almost listening. I am still looking for books written for fifth graders who are reading on kindergarten to early first grade level. But people, I think we are moving in the right direction.
A Saddle Back rep found me signing happily as a thumbed through titles. I was impressed by the older looking text and pictures, along with the simple language. The rep explained to me that many of the books were written in pairs so that they each had one fiction and one nonfiction corresponding text.

Many of the books are written for high schoolers who just entered the country. The fiction books cover topics that new immigrants may struggle with (fitting in, adapting), while the nonfiction books may cover relevant topics like how to dress for the weather. This is a particular problem for students coming from warm climates who move to Minnesota. However, he said that he was getting feedback from teachers who teach high schoolers with intellectual disabilities. These teachers love the texts because they essentially become social stories that children with intellectual disabilities can read to themselves. These students also need direct instruction on how to dress for the weather each morning, even if they have lived in this climate their whole lives.

The rep sent me away with a few copies to try out with my students. He warned me that many of his texts are written with high schoolers in mind, and so they deal with high school appropriate concepts in first grade language. (This was a big warning to NOT use some of the texts with fifth graders). The texts he sent me with were fifth grade appropriate. I had one of my current clients read one and he loved it. The text was below his reading level, but it is rare he is able to experience reading something easy that is also interesting. It was a great opportunity for us to work on reading comprehension.

So often we just teach decoding to children with learning disabilities. We become so focused on their deficits that we forget the reason we read - to comprehend and gain meaning from those swiggly lines on the page. Without meaning there is no point behind reading.

Friday, April 28, 2017

Fidgets?

I gave up Facebook for awhile, and was surprised to see a great debate raging across my page when I logged back on this morning. This time it was not about Trump, immigration, or even sports - but fidgets. As the fidget companies are starting to market to more parents than teachers and occupational therapists, more and more kids are bringing them to school...  and driving their teachers crazy. I saw some posts about the need to ban them from schools because they have become so distracting.

Ack. I think we are all missing something here.

Fidgets absolutely have a place in school, and you can ban the current popular items, but students will always find something to fidget with if they are so inclined. Shoe laces, pencils, picking at their finger nails, their neighbor's hair. Fidgety fingers will move with or without a designated fidget.

BUT, giving a child a fidget should be purposeful. The idea behind one is that it will help a child concentrate, or help them stay regulated so that they are available for learning. If they are distracting a child then they probably are not doing their job.

So why use a fidget? I am a constant fidget-er myself. I mindlessly grab a paperclip before the start of any meeting, and then fidget it with it under the table. I've snapped pen tops on accident after too much fidgeting, or dropped my rings. The subtle movements help me concentrate on what is going on around me. Many kids (but not all) are like this. If they are constantly seeking tactile or proprioceptive (movement) input, fidgets can be a good way to give them this stimulation while letting them maintain focus in the classroom. If they are told not to fidget they will sit there just thinking about not fidgeting (or about what they'll do on the playground) instead of attending to our lesson.

Sometimes we need to use a fidget as a replacement behavior. A child may do something that is slightly self-harming like mindlessly pulling out his eye lashes, picking at a scab, or pulling off her fingernails. Or something that is disruptive to the classroom environment like pulling at a string on the classroom rug, mindlessly unscrewing his desk, or constantly touching the teacher's materials during a lesson. A fidget will give them the sensory need they are seeking, but in a safer or more socially acceptable way.

I hear a lot of "kids need to learn to not touch things instead of us pandering to their needs." OK, yes, we want our kids to grow up, have a job, and show socially acceptable behavior at that job. But many adults fidget in a socially acceptable way, and that is what we can teach our kids to do.

Once I started student teaching in college and had control over the behavior of 25 little people in front of me, I was suddenly driven crazy by all of the adult fidgeting that took place around me in my college classes. Pen clicking, shoe wiggling, paper shuffling, doodling...  I suddenly felt sorry for my professors who had to teach through it instead of doing what I would have done in my classroom - taking away the fidget object or just firmly telling someone to stop. But I had not even noticed the fidgeting before I started teaching. Look around your office and you'll notice all sorts of fidgeting behavior people have taken on in order to help themselves stay regulated and accomplish their tasks. How many people twist their rings while they talk to you? Run their hands through their hair? Play with their keys?

Everyone has different needs, and not ever child needs a fidget even if it is the newest fad. Part of being a teacher is carefully observing the child and recognizing what he or she will need to perform best in the classroom. Sometimes that is not a fidget, but having access to sitting in a different location, having some independent calming moments throughout the day, or even having a chance to watch glitter fall inside a sensory bottle so the child can stay regulated. Fidgets are not a one-size fits all item.

Teaching How to Use a Fidget:
If fidgets are in our classroom we must teach our children how to use them. Just as we would teach our children how to respectfully use the computer, our classroom books, or how to line up quietly, we need to show them how to and how not to use a fidget.

1. Show them the fidget and explain its purpose. "Some kids learn best when their fingers are busy. It helps them concentrate on what the teacher is saying and the work they need to do. I thought you might want to try it too, so I have this for you to try to see if it works."

2. Explicitly show them how to use it. "This tube has a ball in it.  You can push the ball back and forth while you listen to me talk. It needs to stay in your lap. You can keep your hands in your lap while you use this so no one else sees it. Isn't that cool? It's a secret between you and me. If you are using it the right way, no one else will even know. Make sure you keep your eyes on me even when you are using it. Show me how you can do that." Have the child show you exactly how she will use it.

3. Explicitly show them what will happen if they do not use it correctly. "Sometimes we all forget how to use things the right way. If I see the tube out of your lap I will take it away. If you are showing it to another child, I will take it away. If you are looking at the tube and not me, I will take it away."

4. Practice taking it away. "If I need to take it away from you I am not going to say anything. I am only going to look at you and put my hand out. Then you will give me the fidget. I will give it back to you later, when I think you are ready for it. Let's practice that." Have the child act out using it the wrong way and having you put your hand out so the child can give it to you. Do this multiple times so the child understands exactly what will happen when she does not use it correctly.

5. Don't hesitate to take it away (and give it back). When you first let the child use the fidget make sure you follow through on your boundaries. The minute it goes out of the child's lap, put your hand out and have the child give it to you. This way the child knows you were serious. A few minutes later, wordlessly give the fidget back to the child and let him try again.

6. Keep checking in with the child. Make sure you call on the child, or ask for group responses like thumbs up to see if the child is still attending to the lesson with the fidget. If he is not, take it away and let him try again another time.

What about when the whole class complains that they don't have one?

Ah, yes, the "- but that's not fair argument". I think there are a few ways to handle this. I've had classrooms where I just had a fidget basket out so that anyone could get what they need. I did the fidget introduction with the whole class and expected everyone to follow by the rules. It took a lot of practicing how to use and put away the fidgets, but also worked very, very well for maintaining classroom focus during lessons.

At other times I've done a quick lecture on understanding differences. "I went to college and studied how to help children learn. I know that everyone learns differently, and so I carefully watch each of you to see what will help you. At some point during the year I will do something differently for each of you than I will for anyone else."

Another teacher told me recently that during the first week of school she would show the class that she only had 4 band aids. "So, if you get a cut on your finger, I can't give you a band aid because that's not enough for the whole class. It wouldn't be fair to give  you a band aid for your cut and not share the band aids with everyone else." Inevitably a child says, "But that's not fair! They don't all need band aids! Only the kid with the cut needs one!" Which then prompts a great discussion on fairness.

You don't have to buy a fancy fidget!

My all-time favorite fidgets are not ones that I've spent money on. A strip of velcro under the desk often works magic for some children. The child can rub his hand back and forth on the velcro while working - and no one even knows they are doing it.

Is a child picking off their name tag? Put some packing tape under their desk and tell them to pick off the masking tape and not their name tag. Again, no one will even know what they are picking at, their needs are being met, and their name tag remains in tact.

Putting velcro on a craft stick that can be carried around in a pocket is also a simple feature to help with fidgeting behavior on the move. I've also put glitter glue on a craft stick, knowing that the child will most likely pick off the glue. That's fine, but it keeps their hands busy in the hallway and off of friends or the wall.

Ask a child to untangle your headphones. This is also a task that is mostly mindless, keeps their hands engaged, and lets them focus on the lesson. Plus, they think they are helping you. One year I had a basket of "jobs" that I'd keep for moments I needed them. Any tangled headphone, coins that needed to be sorted, or pencils that needed to be sharpened (with a silent sharpener) went in there. Since these are jobs more than fidgets I would check in with the child more frequently to make sure she was still attending to the lesson.

Think about natural fidgets. If you are OK with a child playing with his shoe laces (if he is still listening) then that is fine. It is the same as the fidget, and as long as he is still attending to your lesson, then the child just independently met his own needs. Our long term goal for our children is for them to be independent, and if a child can find a way to appropriately self-regulate then let's not stand in the way of that by forcing them to depend on a fidget when a more natural item would work just as well.

Teacher Reflection
A lot of the fidget debate comes down to looking at ourselves as teachers. I often find that I am more distracted by a child's fidgeting than the children around the child are. I have to check and ask myself "Is this about me or the kid?" If something drives me absolutely crazy then I need to work with the child to find a balance. What is the kid seeking through their fidgeting? How can I help them achieve that without also driving me (or others) crazy? Sometimes we can just ask the child. "I really don't like it when you play with my pointer during the lesson, but I notice you are always touching things. Maybe touching things helps you think. Hmmmm...  is there something else we can find that you can touch so that you are not touching my things?"
Sometimes when we give up a little bit of control we get more of what we want than we had before.

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?


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!!!!" )