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…

Teaching Like A Pirate? Really?

I have always thought I was a bit mad. I mean take one look in my classroom (or the blog), and you’re likely to see me running round pretending to be a goat, jumping of a cliff (my desk), throwing bits of sweet corn around, acting out a part or pretending we’re somewhere totally different than we really are. Yes, really. Behind the closed door of a classroom you can get away with all those things. What’s more the students love it. I mean sure, mine think I’m totally crazy. But as we say in our room; who would want to be ‘normal’ anyway? Normal is boring. It is dull. And in our room, it is definitely never dull.

Why? Because learning should be fun. And well, if it wasn’t fun, none of us would learn very much. The fact that all of the permanent unit staff have the capacity to be crazy is the very essence of what makes our students successful. It distracts them, makes them forget they are learning and therefore they become less anxious, less scared and more prepared to have a go, make mistakes and therefore to learn.

Today however, I found out a secret. Shhhhh listen very carefully and I’ll tell you in a whisper. I am not mad; I am a pirate.

You see after having loved ‘Learn Like a Pirate’ so much that I have worked every waking hour (and some sleeping ones) since I read it, because there are so many ideas buzzing round my head that I can’t wait to activate them, I decided I had better read the first of the pirate books ‘Teach Like A Pirate’. So in the last 24 hours I have. And well, hence my discovery. There are others out there as crazy as me. My methods are justified and validated, there are others out there spending hours researching their students’ interests and running crazily round their room to illustrate a point; what’s more anyone can learn them.

When teaching students with autism, there are so many things competing for their attention (the rustle of a tree in the wind, a favourite episode playing on loop in their mind, the sound of a word they like, the fear that they have failed before and might again) that if you want to keep that attention, you have to do everything in your power to keep it; to engage them; to enable them to learn.

‘Teach Like a Pirate’ teaches you how to do just that. What’s more it proves once again, that good autism teaching is good everyone teaching. This is a book written by a mainstream teacher for mainstream teachers. It’s full of checklists of hooks to get your students involved, ideas that can be incorporated into any lesson by any teacher. Ideas that are guaranteed to win over not only your students with autism but everyone.

It isn’t a book about differentiation. It’s a book about engagement. But it’s that engagement, that trust, that willingness to go beyond the boundaries that will take your differentiation to another level. So channel your inner craziness and use it, and if you’re not sure you have any (or enough) of your own craziness read Dave Burgess’ ‘Teach Like a Pirate’ and he’ll make you believe you can find it, however deeply you have it hidden.

Go on, what are you waiting for? Start differentiating like a pirate…. Arrgggh!

If In Doubt Make A List

I don’t know about you, but I love lists. In fact I would make a list for just about anything. I’m not sure if my love of lists emanates from my love of nice stationery (I mean after all I need somewhere to make my lists), from the fact that I have a terrible memory (and would therefore forget what I was supposed to be doing without one), or whether it’s simply because they give me a sense of direction and accomplishment when I tick them off. But whatever the reason, I wouldn’t be without them.

Lists however, aren’t just for teachers. They can be great for students too. Lists help them to organise their thoughts, plan work, give them a sense of what’s happening next and even to make sure that they’ve covered everything they need to in order to complete a task.

Lists can be useful for all students, but they’re particularly useful for students with autism. Many students with Autism have a weak central coherence which means it can be difficult for them to see the wider picture. This can mean that students focus in on a particular element of what you’ve said rather than on the whole task. Most students with autism also like structure and certainty. A list of what’s going to happen in the lesson or over the term can really help them to feel more confident and less anxious because they are able to predict what will happen next.

For students who haven’t used lists before you might need to model this approach first. You can start by writing checklists on the board for students to use when completing assignments, or by giving individualised post it note checklists to students on the front of their book. Whether it’s the steps of how to work out a mathematical equation or the things to include in an essay; pretty much everything we do has a list of steps we need to follow.

As students become used to the format even very young students will become increasingly confident at making their own lists. Students can therefore start to write down the steps themselves, allowing you to go and check the steps before the student starts working. It’s a really quick way of checking understanding and helps greatly to lesson the anxiety of students before starting work.

Of course, as lists won’t just help students with Autism, they can be used with the whole class. They will however make the biggest difference to those students in your class who struggle with organisation, short term memory, central coherence and self belief. They will provide those students with a much better chance of success in their final product and thus help to raise their self esteem.

Often however, those students most likely to benefit from lists are the ones most reluctant to use them. For those students, making lists cool can be a crucial step in the process. So why not use the notes section of smartphones? Or even better a free app called Trello which I found today courtesy of ‘Learn Like a Pirate’ which allows you to organise your lists into sections and even add pictures and websites to them to make them even more interesting.

So there you go, easy peasy. Differentiation really is as simple as making a list! So next time you set your students a new task, why not give it a try? What have you got to lose?

Show Me How

Most of my students are worried about making mistakes. And I don’t mean worried in the sense that their worry may cause them to write a word they are confident in spelling rather than a more challenging word they can’t. I’m talking about fear so paralysing that even putting a pen on a piece of paper can feel like a challenge that is to great.

For many it’s this anxiety which has meant they struggled too much in mainstream. It’s easier to act out and display difficult behaviours than to admit you’re too frightened to start. So when we set a piece of work we have to think carefully. We have to make the difficult feel simple. We have to take away the fear.

One of the ways we do this is through modelling. We do the whole class modelling of collating ideas, sharing them, writing on the board etc. But we also simply sit and do the work ourselves. We become fully involved in the lesson. Sometimes we even get stuck. There is nothing more enabling than helping the teacher or member of support staff working with you fix the problem. On the days you’re finding things hard it’s exactly the kick-start in motivation you need.

So whatever it is we’re doing, there are always spare copies or resources. It’s amazing how contagious writing can be, when the person sat next to you is obviously excited about what they’re doing; when they talk to you about their ideas; when they show you there’s nothing to be afraid of.

When fear comes into play, you can’t tackle the problem head on. You can’t tell a student to do the task. You can’t tell them it’s not scary. But you can show them. For those students who come to lesson with support this is easy to do, all you have to do is give out an extra sheet of paper and encourage the member of Support Staff that you’d love to see their work too.

For those that don’t have support it isn’t insurmountable. Think carefully about your seating plan. Place your confident excited writers near those who find it harder and encourage talking in the first ten minutes of the process. Encourage students to share their ideas as they start and even more so, encourage other students to magpie those ideas.

This one is really easy to implement; differentiation that’s as easy as handing out an extra sheet of paper. So go on, what are you waiting for make sure you’re stocked up for September…

Support The Support Staff

The job of secondary learning support assistants is incredibly difficult. How many of you would feel you could support a child in Maths, English, Science, Music, Art, French, ICT and more? I know I couldn’t, at least not without considerable help from the classroom teacher.

Although not all students with ASD get additional support in class, many do – at least for some part of their timetable. Teachers are given very limited training about how to work with them, and at least at first it can be nerve wracking to have an extra adult in the room. Learning Support Assistants are dedicated professionals who work incredibly hard to ensure success for the student(s) they work with and can often appear more expert at managing the child with SEN than the teacher feels that they are. As a consequence of these things many teachers leave the LSA to manage (and often teach) the student with very little input.

As teachers we need to be responsible for effecting a change. There are lots of ways that we as teachers can help support staff and therefore help the students. What’s more every single one of the support staff I work with would welcome more teacher input. So here I’ve tried to sum up the top five ways that you can be part of that change and make a difference. What’s more, it’s all really easily achievable:

  • Say hello to the member of support staff when they come into the room. It sets a tone of respect for the other students and shows the LSA that you value them being in your lesson.
  • Give LSAs materials that you are studying in advance, so they have more time to think how to support the student in the lesson.
  • Check in regularly with the student and their LSA, to make sure they both understand what you are teaching. It’s impossible for an LSA to be an expert in every subject they work in.
  • Reassure the LSA that your priority is that the student learns, not that they complete the task. Encourage them to let you know if they feel the task is too hard for the student to complete, rather than over prompting them. (This one is in bold because it’s the one that I know worries support staff the most)
  • Ask the LSA to write – either directly in the student’s book or on a post it note – the level of prompting they gave the student to complete the task. This will benefit the student because you can plan more effectively for them, but it will also benefit you because you will know what they can do and what they can’t.

The key is to remember the LSA is not the differentiation, nor is it their responsibility to differentiate the work. Students with SEN (even those who come to class with specialist support) are the responsibility of the teacher. Having an LSA in the room can be a massive asset both to you as a teacher and to the student being supported, but in order to maximise their impact we as teachers need to take responsibility. We need to enable LSAs to have the impact they want to have. We need to enable our students to be the best they can be.

So what are you waiting for? There’s a whole lot of ‘Hellos’ to be said…