Let Me Fidget

If there is one thing that drives me crazy in a classroom, it’s students rocking on their chairs. The idea of one of them falling back and cracking their head open on the floor terrifies me, consequently it all too often becomes a battle of wills – my nagging to keep safe and my students’ need to move whilst learning.

Last year however, I didn’t nag once! (Well not about rocking on chairs anyway). My amazing colleague went on a fantastic course and came back armed with lots of wonderful ideas to meet the sensory needs of our students, and they’ve made a huge difference, both to my students’ ability to learn and my ability to stay sane. (Although admittedly there are those who would argue that I was never that sane to start with.)

Our most useful buys have been our weighted blankets and some chair wedges. The wedges were very cost effective at only around £10, and provide students with the same sensory input they get from rocking on a chair, yet allow all four of the chair’s legs to stay standing on the floor.

Another really successful idea was ‘The Fidget Jar’. The jar is simply an old sweet jar (if you ask nicely at a traditional sweet shop you may be able to persuade them to part with one) and in it are a selection of small fidget toys, from stretchy men to bead bracelets to stress balls. Small, inexpensive and mainly from the pound shop this little jar of tricks has saved many a meltdown. It isn’t a free for all, the jar has rules, students who want to use the loot have to ask if they can and explain why they think it would help them. They then have to fidget with it in a way that doesn’t distract other pupils, then at the end of the lesson they are responsible for returning the item to the jar.

It’s an idea that’s worked well both for those students who like to fidget and for those who find it difficult when others fidget near them. It has stopped a whole lot of battles, and if a student is doing something that’s inappropriate for the classroom or distracting to others, we can now deal with it in a much more positive way, by simply saying “I can see you really need to fidget right now, would you like to use something from the jar?” Students love the jar and see it is a treat, so are keen to follow the rules that using the jar involves. For us it’s been a win win; the students get to fidget and I don’t have to nag.

So, in the last few days of the holiday why not pop along to a pound shop and pick up a couple of fidgets? Make yourself a classroom fidget jar. What have you got to lose?

Group Work

One area students with autism can find particularly challenging is working in groups. As teenagers, the unwritten social rules in these circumstances combined with the expectations of the teacher is a complex tightrope to walk. This added to the natural honesty of most students with autism, and sensory difficulties that make dealing with a classroom full of noise a painful experience means that group work often ends up fraught. The good news is there are lots of easy ways to alleviate the stress caused by group work and ensure that students learn and that those with autism and their peers all benefit from the experience.

Here are my top 5:

  • Make your expectations clear; be overt about it where possible, breaking down what you want students to do or talk about into a checklist, this will give the group more structure and more predictability for the student with autism, allowing them to process their thoughts about future points rather than feeling anxious about what will be discussed next.
  • Provide students with a group work phases card (you can download an editable one here to help you get started). Using set phrase starters to help students express their ideas, will help remind all students to praise good ideas their peers give and challenge those ideas they disagree with respectfully. An added bonus of these cards for students with autism is the further structure they will provide to the experience.
  • If possible consider allowing the group containing the student with autism to work in a quieter area of the room or the building. There is nothing better than a room full of eager students all expressing their ideas, it’s a sound that very literally is music to my ears. Unfortunately many of my students disagree, high noise levels in the room are one of the biggest reasons that they find group work so difficult.
  • Look at technology for ways to allow those students who feel unable to participate verbally to give their ideas and join in with their peers (either when they are physically in the room, or from a totally different area). Microsoft 365’s OneNote Class NoteBook offers fantastic potential for this within its collaboration space, where multiple students can type their ideas into the same document from different laptops. I already know that this is going to prove an invaluable resource in my classroom this year for those for whom physical group work is just too challenging.
  • Have high expectations of everyone in the room, the better the behaviour in the room of the other students, the more predictable the atmosphere will be, and the more able to cope your students will feel.

There are so many skills our students learn from group work, let’s make sure that this year we enable them to do it. Let’s make this the part of our lessons students with autism look forward to rather than dread. With a few simple changes, I know we can do it!

The First Day

The first day of school is almost upon us. As a teacher I couldn’t be more excited. That first day is my favourite time of the whole year! I’ll be dressing up as a pirate to launch our new class theme, our room will have new decorations and there will be small gifts on my students’ desks to welcome them back. I didn’t do end of term gifts this year for either my LSAs or my students, I wanted to start the year with a buzz, so I’ve saved them for September.

Why? Because although the second of September is the most exciting day in my calendar; it’s the most difficult one for my students. Walking through the door on the first day of school can be a challenging prospect for any student, for a student with autism those fears are amplified multiple times. Whether it’s s a new school or a new teacher, both mean enormous change. There are new faces to contend with, new voices, new desks, new rules and new routines. The old predictable routine has ended and in its place is a scary ocean of possibilities where anything could happen.

As a teacher that ocean of possibilities is just what you can make the most of. Students expect change at this time of year; they are prepared for it, so if there are changes that need to be made to their routine or to the expectations that are set this is the best time to do it. The first day is critically important; consciously or subconsciously you will be setting the tone and routine for the rest of the year. So if there are things you allow on the first day (e.g. going to lunch early) that aren’t going to be allowed for the rest of the year, make sure you make it really clear so the student isn’t set up to fail on subsequent days.

In order to exploit that ocean of possibilities you need to know as much about the student as you possibly can. LSAs, previous teachers and parents are a wealth of information, the more you talk to them and listen to them the more prepared you will be. Find out which things the student loves, which they find hard and above all what helps them to feel better when they become overwhelmed. Many students with autism have a special interest, a topic they feel passionately about that they know in depth and these are a great way in with a nervous student on the first day. Whether it’s a picture of their favourite character on their coat hook for a younger student, or a chance to create a presentation about something that interests them for an older one; knowing about and understanding a student’s special interest is a great first step to building a relationship with them. A quick conversation about that special interest will also go a long way to help if the student starts to become upset during the day. Special interests have a calming effect and will really help the student to understand that you care.

If you really want to send a student with autism home happy after the first day, show them clearly that you are fair, always and unequivocally. My students love rules and they hate it when they are broken. So whatever the boundaries, rewards and consequences are in you class, make them clear. Students need to know you treat them fairly and everyone else fairly too.

If things go wrong , and they might, first days are hard, take time to explain what has gone wrong and why, explore ways things could be done differently next time. A student with autism won’t necessarily understand for instance which part of their behaviour was deemed ‘rude’, especially if they feel they were being truthful, or how they could put it right the time after. So be really explicit, e.g. “I know you don’t like it when you see people’s stomachs coming out of their T-Shirts but it made Sarah feel really sad when you called her fat. Next time do you think you could ask her if she would tuck her T-shirt in?” You have provided validation that it was ok for the student to be upset but also explained how they’ve upset their friend and what they could do better the time after. Social stories and comic strip conversations can also be really helpful for helping to students to understand what to do at tricky times.

As the day draws to a close make sure whatever has happened the student leaves knowing that you like them. Many students with autism are perfectionists and will dwell on what they did wrong so showing them that you value all the things they did right is really important. Smile at them as they leave, neutral expressions are often really hard for student with autism to understand and develop a way of keeping parents n the loop. Parents like students love praise, tell them the great things their child did well that day but also tell them what they found tricky. Parents want kindness but they also want reality, if they are in the loop they are in a much better position to support both their child and the school.

Above all, enjoy it! First days are what memories are made of. A child with autism is above all a child. Enjoy having them in your class and getting to know them. Because as I will be telling my students on the 2nd of September, this year is going to be the best one yet!

5 Point Scale

One of the most difficult things for a student who experiences meltdowns, is predicting when things are getting too stressful before they get to a point of no return. If they can learn to recognise the feelings of anxiety building, then they can learn how to remove themselves from a situation at the right point and therefore how to keep both themselves and others safe.

There are many ways we work with our students to help them to understand how they are feeling, but one of the easiest ways is by using the 5 point scale. The five point scale is exactly what its name says it is; a list of the numbers one to five, colour coded for easy recognition.

We use miniature ones taped with Velcro to student’s workstations, but it’s equally possible for students to carry them in their pockets. Miniature moveable arrows can be therefore moved by the student to show those around them how they are feeling. When a student is calm and able to continue, the arrow is at number one. When a student is able to continue, but may need extra reassurance, the arrow is at number two. If a student is becoming vey nervous and needs help the arrow is at number three.

In our class it’s this, the number three which is the most important. Number three is the point at which it’s possible to help a student to make a good choice; the point at which a student needs a break or some time out. For some that means a chance to talk about their worries, for others it means some alone time. Either way, it’s the right time for a student to ask for help and for a teacher to offer it.

By the time the arrow moves to number four and number five it’s often difficult for a student to think clearly and make the choices they would earlier down the scale. It’s therefore much harder at this point to keep them safe. Which is why point three of the scale is where we need to help students and get them to understand that they need help.

So, how can you do this easily in mainstream? Why not print off the mini five point scales and laminate them for on students’ tables? Encourage all your students to use them, not just those with autism. It will allow you to quickly assess who needs help now, (those on three or above) and those who are likely to need your help soon (those on a two), whilst meaning that students can carry on working rather than sitting with their hand up waiting for you to arrive. Go on, give it a go. What have you got to lose?

For much more detailed information and miniature 5 point scales check out this fantastic website: www.5pointscale.com

Time to Reboot

My greatest fear when my daughter was first diagnosed was that she would never have a friend. At three she showed very little interest in other children, unless you count screaming at the top of her lungs if there were too many of them, or being physically sick at the thought of going to nursery the next day. I wondered if other children would ever play with her, I wondered if she would ever care if they did or not. There were so many things I worried about in those days, but that fear was the greatest of them all.

We’ve had some utterly dreadful play dates; her screams could have probably been heard over the other side of town the time her friend decided to rearrange her play house, and I’m not sure the time she decided she wanted a sleepover with two friends and therefore had to rearrange things in her bedroom was much better.

We tried living in a cul-de-sac; lots of children nearby to play with we thought. Unfortunately you can’t pick your neighbours and much as she tried to fit in (and try and try she did) it didn’t happen the way we hoped. Most days ended with tears and meltdowns and more tears and more meltdowns.

We now live surrounded by sheep and cows, we have guinea pigs, and our days are calmer. She has a couple of very close friends, both of whom live about ten minutes drive away. They understand that there are things that can’t be moved when they come round to play, they don’t think less of her that sometimes she hides under her desk and cries if the work is too hard at school and they understand that when she tells them she wants them to go home, she doesn’t mean to be mean. They are friendships that I haven’t engineered, friendships her teachers haven’t engineered, friendships forged through shared interests, mutual respect and lots of caring on both sides.

I have come to realise over the years that I can’t engineer her friendships, I can’t make sure she has someone to play with every break time at school and that it’s ok that at times she needs to be alone. She likes other children now, as she has got older, they have become more predictable and also more interesting. But she also likes time on her own and that’s ok too. In fact the more children around at a given time, the more likely she is to spend some time alone.

So in school I teach friendship skills actively, I want my students to have the skills to make friends when they want to. But when it comes to break time I don’t force them to play together. It’s ok if they need some downtime on a computer. It’s ok if they want to chat to a member of staff about their special interest. It’s ok to play with their friends. It’s ok to want to be together and it’s ok to need some time alone.

So next time you see a child with autism playing on a computer at break time rather than interacting, stop for a moment and think. Are they happy? If they are maybe right now that’s what they need. A classroom full of other children can be a pretty intense place. Take time to talk to them and ask, before you engineer a friend for that break. Sometimes we all just need a little bit of time to reboot.

Making Mistakes

One of the things my students find hardest is when they themselves make mistakes. Almost all of my students are perfectionists; they have higher expectations of themselves than anyone else in the room. And there is nothing harder than failing to meet your own expectations.

We talk a lot about mistakes and why mistakes are a good thing in our room. Our praise is never higher than when someone has made a mistake but stays calm, unless that is, when they’ve made a mistake, had a meltdown and still been brave enough to go back and try again. But even with lots of encouragement and lots of praise mistakes are still hard.

I remember a while ago now going out to see a student in another setting whose teacher was incensed that that he had threatened to kill her. He hadn’t meant it. He was in fact a lovely boy. He had just become so distressed by the feedback in his book on a piece of work he had been proud of. The teacher had just done her job, she had followed the marking policy of the school. The student got the book back and he no longer saw his wonderful piece of work, he saw only his mistakes. There was lots of praise in there. But he couldn’t see beyond the mistakes. He ended up excluded from school, in large part because of an incident that could have been prevented. What we have to realise is that although many students dislike making mistakes, the intensity with which students with autism feel about it is often much greater.

A word they’ve put in a book that they haven’t meant to, a spelling mistake or a smudge of ink where it doesn’t belong. When we get our students, the fear of making these mistakes can be so huge that they refuse to write. It’s something we have to combat. The first step is to a give a student the confidence that whatever they do you will be proud. Hugely proud.

For a long time, I don’t put corrections in their books; I just put a whole heap of praise. We have spelling books so we can work on the words we need to, and I set targets so students know what to focus on. But I don’t correct. I don’t underline spelling mistakes or add in punctuation. I just tell them and show them I think they and their work are great.

As time goes on I can talk verbally through work with students, I can even add corrections; many will even go through and make corrections themselves. But it doesn’t happen overnight. It’s a slow process; a process of talking about mistakes, of giving continuous praise, of building trust, of making mistakes yourself, of empathising when things go wrong, of helping to put things right. Of showing students that making mistakes is part of learning, part being human.

We are of course teachers, we are bound in many cases by marking policies, by rules, by inspections. We worry that if we don’t put corrections in a student’s book then someone will want to know why. But above all we are there for the students. We need to look at their needs and assess whether what we are doing is helpful. Some students with autism will have gone through this stage, they will already understand by the time you get them that it’s ok to make mistakes. But there are also those who won’t.

So talk to students, talk to their parents and talk to their previous teachers. Develop a system that works for you and works for them; a system which leaves their self esteem in tact. Keep what you write in their books unfailingly positive. If there’s something they didn’t do that you need them to, pop it on a post-it note as a challenge and give it to them at the start of the next assignment. Log it, or take a photo of it so you have a record of the feedback you have given. Cover your bases, but make sure you cover their bases too.

This way of marking won’t take any longer than the standard way, it’ll just take a few extra post it notes. It’s guaranteed to save many meltdowns and much distress. What’s more it’ll really help in building good relationships. Go on, give it a go. What have you got to lose?

Ask Questions

One of the big things we do as a unit is talk to our students. We ask them about the things that upset them and we ask them about how to make it better. They have some amazing ideas!

Books and blogs have some great ideas; they give us lots of useful strategies we can use with students with Autism. But they only take us so far. The real key is knowing individual students and what works for them. Each student with autism is unique, an individual first and foremost.

So today’s post is a very short one. It’s also very simple. If you have a student with autism in your class take time to talk to them. Choose a time when they are calm (they’ll find it very difficult to talk to you if they’re anxious or have just had a meltdown) and ask them what works and just as importantly what doesn’t.

My guess is you’ll be very surprised by how effective the ideas they give you are, and the difference listening to them might make. Go on, give it a go. What have you got to lose?

Routines – Friend or Foe?

Today we went to the beach. The day ended in blazing sunshine, but as we arrived this morning the rain was coming down with attitude. My heart sank, as I remembered a previous rainy day at the beach.

You see we have a beach routine; not deliberately but by default. At the beach (in no particular order); we go on the donkeys, we play in the sand, we go on the trampolines and we play on the pier. On a rainy day none of these things are possible. On a rainy day the routine does not work. You have to adapt, go to a café, look round the shops and play on the pier. These are all things that on a normal day would be enjoyed, just not on a beach day. You see they are not what happens on the beach.

Routines can be a double edged sword. They are a big part of what enables our students (and in my case my daughter) to cope with the world, but if we are not careful they also become a trap. There are some things set routines are great for – how to set our your work in an exercise book, how to do a particular type of maths equation and how to keep clean are great examples of where routines work.

But in general we need to introduce our routines flexibly. We need to think about whether if we set up a firm routine it’s a routine that be guaranteed to happen in the same way every time. If it isn’t we need to assess whether the benefit of that routine outweighs the distress at those times it doesn’t happen. If the distress is likely to outweigh the benefit either avoid setting up the routine, or try to set things up flexibly from day one.

Obviously there are some things none of us have control over; the Christmas show messing up the timetable for instance or the swimming gala that replaces a student’s favourite lesson. But what we can control are the order of events within our lessons, the way tables are set up in our classrooms and where our students sit.

So, how are some simple ways we can we use what we can control to our advantage and to that of our students?

  • If the order you do activities in your lessons alter (which my guess is at least at some points they do) set this up with your students from day one. Tell them that although this week, they may be reading for the first ten minutes during English lessons, next week that will be different. You have given your students structure they know what to expect, but you have built in flexibility that this may change.
  • If you like to move your tables around in your room, warn students in the first lesson that this happens. Let them know why you do it, and when to expect it. If you can take photos of the different layouts you use; this will really help to reduce their anxiety about it.
  • If you change your seating plan around during the year, talk to your students about it when you first seat them. Let them know it happens and the approximate regularity with which this happens. Tell them you will give them at least a lesson’s notice before you do it, then they aren’t constantly anxious that they will be seated somewhere else when you arrive.
  • Think about any other routines that build up in your classroom but are subject to change. Talk to students about these as early as possible in the year. Enable your students through these short-term routines but ensure they understand they are flexible and subject to change.

So there you have it, more easy differentiation, yet differentiation that will make a big difference; differentiation that’s as easy as talking to your students. Go on, give it a try. What have you got to lose?

Factor In The Anxiety

For many of my students, it is their anxiety which is their biggest barrier to success. The difficulty with anxiety however is that is isn’t a constant, it ebbs and wanes; meaning that on some days my students can tackle the world and on others the smallest of tasks feels like climbing a mountain.

The inconsistency with which anxiety displays itself can make it difficult for mainstream staff to understand their needs. How can a student who bounded into class full of the joys of spring yesterday, be sat in the unit today unable to leave its sanctuary? How can a student who yesterday would have eaten anything and everything, today refuse to eat anything in case it has been contaminated with germs? From the outside, to the uninitiated it looks like our students are simply playing games. The reality however is somewhat different.

We need therefore to be flexible in our differentiation to have a toolkit which means that our scaffolding can be altered depending upon the anxiety levels of a student on a particular day. We cannot assume that a student who was able to work independently yesterday, will be able to do the same today.

Differentiation for these students can be about compassion as much as resources, about welcoming them when they can cope about not chastising them for when they can’t. About understanding, and showing them that you understand that they really are doing their best.

That doesn’t mean they don’t have to do the work. On the contrary they do. All of our unit students leave each week with all of their work completed. They are willing to catch it up in their own time (during breaks and lunches), because they haven’t been made to feel ashamed for the fact that they couldn’t do it the first time. Firm boundaries are needed, we have high expectations of all our students, but those boundaries need to be flexible. If we understand our students and preserve their self-esteem, we will help them to understand that we like them, that we respect them and that we care about them… especially at those times when they need it the most.

So next time a student with autism has missed a lesson or even a few, don’t quiz them or feel agitated that they weren’t there; just be glad they’re back, welcome them kindly, show them you understand.

I know it’s hard; you have exam pressures to think of and are accountable for progress. But in the long term, understanding will pay off, your students will work harder and they’ll come back sooner. Go on; give it a go? What have you got to lose?

Photocopier Traumas

Last year, the unit was a sea of paper. Giving out books is risky. For many of our students, their first reaction upon seeing a challenging piece of work or making a mistake is to rip up whatever they are doing. They work so hard and make so much progress that losing the history of that always seems too much of a risk.

I therefore usually resort to paper, which once complete gets stuck in books and marked. Even this though is not without its challenges. A blank piece of paper is frightening for lots of my students, so a printed sheet with their personal objective and a writing frame for those who need it seems to work better. That is until the photocopier decides to print something not quite properly! My students are masters of perfection and can be guaranteed to spot the evils of the dreaded machine if it dares not to print perfectly straight by even a millimetre. A smear of ink where it shouldn’t be, a line that doesn’t print as it should, a picture that isn’t quite the right colour can all cause trauma. The machine and I have words on a regular basis but somehow he doesn’t quite get the message, that when it comes to my students accuracy really does matter.

So this year I’ve sacked him. He simply isn’t worth the trauma. This year in Key Stage Three we are going virtually paperless. We’re going to save our work on the drive (do not get me started on memory sticks, they too are meltdown inducing temperamental pieces of kit; they are also far too easy to snap in half, throw out of windows and hide up your jumper), I’m going to plan it on the drive, differentiate it on the drive and mark it on the drive. The computer you see knows how to be accurate, its lines are always straight, the colours look like they should and it’s too big to stick up your jumper. It also is much loved; ripping up the computer would result in no computer to play on at break, even were it possible it simply would not be worth it.

Now going paperless isn’t for everyone, it wouldn’t for instance work for my year 11 students, they need to maintain their handwriting speed in preparation for their exams. It’s also something that because of resources won’t be possible for everyone – it certainly wouldn’t have been an option for us last year. So, what easy differentiation can everyone do?

It’s simple (maybe), be kind to the photocopier, be kind to yourself and be kind to your students. If there’s a student in your class with autism and you’ve photocopied a sheet check it over first. Make sure it’s as straight as you can humanly possibly achieve and that the ink is as even as possible. I know at times it’s easier said than done (believe me I really do know), but carefully scrutiny can save a multitude of meltdowns, it’s well worth the extra few seconds at the dreaded machine…