Why Am I In Trouble? (Lego Style)

Now you know me; if in doubt use Lego! So this handy trick is one I love.

My students hate consequences, but much more than that, they hate consequences that they don’t think are fair. One easy way to prove fairness (total transparency is important); is by building Lego towers. This visual representation of what has happened will show students that their feelings are validated and also help them to understand why they have been given a consequence.

First, sit together with your student(s) and decide on a scale of zero to ten how many bricks breaking a rule deserves. Being grumpy for instance may get two bricks, swearing five bricks, insulting someone’s mum nine bricks, hitting someone ten bricks etc. The key is to involve the students in deciding; they need to know it’s fair.

After an incident, as a student is talking you can award the various perpetrators (including yourself or other staff members) bricks. As the towers grow, students will not only see that you are listening to them and taking their concerns seriously, but will also begin to see why they have a consequence (because they’ve been grumpy, sworn at someone, then gone on to hit them) whereas even though their friend started it (by being grumpy) they don’t have one.

This is really easy differentiation; differentiation which makes a big difference to students. It reduces anxiety and confrontation, and helps students to understand that they can rely on you to be fair. So next time a student is upset because they think you have treated them unfairly, why not get out your Lego and show them your thought process…

Lose The Glare

Many students with Autism have heightened senses. People often understand that loud classrooms can be difficult, but less people realise that sensory perception difficulties can affect other senses too; one that is often missed is how students can be affected visually. For some students these difficulties can make brightness hard for them to cope with, especially for extended periods of time.

So if you have a student who seems to struggle more when it’s bright, or someone who loves using ICT equipment but seems to get overwhelmed during the task, this is something worth checking out. Likewise if a student becomes disengaged when a sheet of white paper is put in front of them, this could well be worth checking out. You don’t need to do complicated tests, just have a quick chat with the student about why they are finding things tricky. Be open and honest, tell them you really want to help them, and ask how you can make things easier.

If together you decide that brightness is the problem, think about what you can do to reduce glare. The following strategies may help for some students:

  • Sitting the student away from windows,
  • Dim lights in the area of the classroom where the student sits.
  • Try photocopying worksheets on to a different colour of paper (talk to the student about which colours are best)
  • Turn down the brightness on computer screens and interactive whiteboards.
  • Think about trying coloured overlays.

This is easy differentiation. Differentiation that involves no preparation but that will make a big difference. Why not give it a try?

Special Interests

Every day I learn something new. More than that, I learn something absolutely so new that it was nowhere to be found on my lesson plan. It is in fact one of the most amazing things about my job.

My students are specialists. They often have in depth knowledge about particular topics that interest them; knowledge that they love to share. Knowledge that you can harness to engage them in learning about more or less anything you need to teach.

In fact, if I could give you one tip, and only one tip about working with students with autism, it would be to discover their special interest. Discovering a special interest and sharing it with a student with Autism, will very likely be your key to gaining a relationship with them and therefore being able to teach them effectively.

Many students with autism, have a passionate interest in a particular topic, or small range of topics. These are things they could happily engage in for long periods of time, topics they can talk about enthusiastically and incessantly. These can be age appropriate interests, but the degree to which students relate to them tends to be more intense than their peers. In fact studies suggest that students with autism often process these interests in the part of their brain that neurotypicals use to process people.

With my students these interests range from Thomas the Tank Engine to Minecraft, from Big Brother to Manga, from Elevators to Dolls. They are interests that become a part of our day, interests that we as members of staff go to great lengths to find out more about; the more we know the easier it is for us to reach our students, especially on difficult days.

Most pieces of work can, however tenuously, be linked to a special interest. The special interest is rarely the main focus of our lesson, but if we can somehow twist it in there, engagement is guaranteed. I’ve seen our Science teacher rate elements against a ‘hotest to notest’ list in the Big Brother house. I’ve seen support staff interweave an elevator into virtually any story I’ve ever set, and I’ve seen some very creative Pokémon maths.

You don’t need to create in depth worksheets linking the topic in; you just need to know enough about the interest to link it in with your discussion. It can be as simple as ‘So today we are going to be learning about the effects of wingspan on flying. Hey wouldn’t it be great if the creators of Batman had all this research at their fingertips?’ It’s all about thinking outside the box.

Good differentiation is all about knowing your students as individuals and being able to tap into what they care about. If we do this we increase engagement. If we increase engagement we make it easier for our students to learn. So next time you’re teaching something tricky, take a moment to think about how you can make it relate to the special interests of your students. What’s your hook?

Go on give it a go; this is an easy one. Chat to your students. Follow it with a little big of googling to discover the facts, then throw a line into your opening when you talk about the topic. What have you got to lose?

Notice The Small Things

Some days it’s not about making the huge things happen. They will happen one day. I believe that. All of my students are wonderful people, who will go on to live wonderful lives. They are capable of doing anything and being anything that they want to be. I know that, and I tell them often.

But some days, are difficult days. Some days it’s hard for them to just put one foot over the threshold and enter the building. Some days they are tired because they’ve lain awake all night the night before not being able to sleep. Some days they are upset because traffic on the way to school alters their routine. And some days they are worried that the work will just be too hard.

There are a million and one things that can cause disruption. Some of those things my students cope with, some are just too hard. And that’s why we have to recognise not only their academic achievements, or their ability to get through a day without a meltdown, or even their ability to be kind. Instead we have to focus on the tiny things, the here and now, this very minute.

So each day I am thankful for the small things. I am grateful when my students walk through the door each morning. I am happy when they get angry but manage to turn it back around. I am happy when someone looks at me when they ask for something. I’m happy when someone puts up their hand to answer a question. I’m happy when someone runs over to show me something they are proud of. Each day there are so many things my students do that make me proud. Each day I leave the building with the good far outweighing the negative things that have happened.

When differentiating for students who struggle to regulate their emotions, we need not only to change our actions but also to change the way we think. We need to have high expectations, but we also need recognise the small things are sometimes worth as much as the large ones. We need to be proud of our students every day, on the days when things go well, but even more so on the days when they go less well.

So next time a student’s behaviour challenges you. Try to notice each day the positive things they do. Noticing the small things won’t change the world, but it will change how you see it. And if we can change how we see things, it helps us to believe that we can change things for our students. And that belief is important. Give it a try, I promise it works…

M Is For Autism

Having loved the ‘Girls with Autism’ programme on ITV, I couldn’t resist buying the book ‘M Is For Autism’. I wasn’t disappointed. It’s a fantastic read. In fact, out of all the books on autism I’ve read over the last sixteen years, it’s probably the best.

The book is honest, it’s sincere, it’s beautifully written and illustrated, and more than anything it’s heartbreakingly real. M’s anxiety shines through the pages. The reader feels her pain and joy, and that of her mother.

If you’ve ever wondered how it feels to be autistic, or to have a child with autism, you should read this book. It will take you less than an hour, it’s a very short read. But the knowledge and understanding it will give you is priceless.

It’s a book that has the power to change the lives of students with autism. I will be teaching it in class this year; I’ll also be sharing it with my daughter. The biggest gift you can give to students with autism is to understand them. This book will help you do that.

So order yourself a new book, make a coffee and take an hour out. Enjoy the read. Then share your book. This is a book everyone needs to read. This book has the power to change things…

Let’s Get Writing

If there is one thing I am really passionate about, it’s enabling students to become independent writers. Giving them not only the skills but in the belief in themselves that they can do it.

It’s very easy with the most challenging students, to avoid challenges and the behaviours that come along with those challenges. No teacher and no parent wants to see students upset. However, we also have to ask ourselves what our purpose as teachers is? And if ultimately one of our purposes is to prepare students for real life after school, we have to ensure not only that those students who are cognitively able to read and write do so, but also that the are able to face challenges head on and deal with those challenges, believing that they can.

Over the past few years, in two different locations, I’ve encountered students who have come to me as non-writers. Some at 11 haven’t yet been able to form letters, some haven’t had the phonetic knowledge to create sounds and others have the skills but have simply refused to write in their previous placements. All of these students have learnt to write and learnt to write confidently. They have learnt to believe in themselves.

I don’t have a magic wand, but I do have a lot of perseverance. I believe strongly in the fact that it’s worth going through the tough times to come out the other side. I believe that all my students can do it. And most of all, I believe that a small amount of independent work is worth a page full of work that has been done by someone else.

Scribing can be really harmful. All too often it’s used as a way of covering material, a way of differentiating for students who have no way of keeping up. And I understand that, I understand the why. Content, especially in today’s exam driven world is important. But, we need also to look at the bigger picture. We need to ensure that students have the basics. We need to be flexible enough to stand up, be counted, and change the lesson objective for that child. We need to allow them time to write, to develop their skills. Whether that be through handwriting, or through the use of technology – we need to give our students independence. We need to give them belief in themselves.

So next time there is a student in your room who can’t keep up, stop a minute and think. What does this student really need? Do they really need all the facts of the industrial revolution recorded in their book in year seven? Do they really need to write a full page story? Or can you use this time to build their skills, build their independence and belief in themselves?

It’s only by doing this that we will see true progress. If we scribe for a student throughout year seven, we will still be doing so in year eleven. If we promote independence in year seven, who knows where that student will go…

Where To Sit?

For teenagers, navigating the complex world of social friendships is never easy. Neither a child nor an adult, it can be hard to know what to do. For teenagers with autism, those problems are exemplified. For many it’s a time of increased awareness of being different and a surge in anxiety. Not knowing where to sit or who to sit with when they walk through a door can be a huge issue.

Many of my students are particular about where they sit in the room. For some it’s important they sit near to the door, in case things get too much and they need some time out. Others like to sit near the teacher in case their member of support staff is absent, whilst I have others who are very sensitive to drafts so can’t be near the window. Some of my students like to bang the desk when they’re frustrated, whilst others hate loud noises. As you can imagine, my seating plan takes some time to compile! In fact, arranging where people need to sit in my room can be a bit like organising the seating plan at a wedding.

When students go into mainstream lessons, where they are seated can make or break how successful they are. So if you have a student with Autism in you class next year please try to give a thought to the following considerations:

  • Please sit the student with peers who you feel will be supportive.
  • Please don’t isolate the student by sitting them alone with a member of support staff.
  • Consider sitting the student near the door, students with autism may arrive to lessons a couple of minutes later than others to avoid the crowds on the corridor, it can be very overwhelming to walk through a seated class.
  • Talk to the inclusion team and/ or the student’s LSA to see if there are any particular considerations you need to take into account when seating this student.
  • Please give the student warning if you intend to change your room around, it can be very stressful for students to arrive and see desks in different places, and/ or see that they are going to have to sit in a different places than they expect.

This is differentiation we can all do, yet differentiation that will make a huge difference to the anxiety levels, and therefore ability to learn of students. Let’s make this the year our students are successful, let’s make sure our students are ready to learn…

Learn Like A Pirate

As an English teacher, I read a lot of books. I love books and I love it when my students love books. I own a kindle and all sorts of bookish capabilities on other electronic devices, but for me there’s nothing like a real paper copy of a really good book.

In the past 24 hours I have been blown away by one such book. I started reading ‘Learn Like a Pirate’ by Paul Solarz, and I can honestly say it is probably the best teaching book I have ever read. It will without a doubt change my classroom more than any other single influence since my NQT year (which was definitely longer ago than I like to remember).

The book gives a series of amazingly practical doable strategies for handing more control in the classroom to the students. Yes, I know it sounds a bit mad, but trust me, read it. You will be hooked.

There are some that would say a student run classroom would not work for my students. All my students have a diagnosis of Autism, most have challenging behaviours and some have traits of Pathological Demand Avoidance (PDD). Yet it is precisely for that reason, why I know this book will take our room to the next level. My students, more than any, need the opportunities to practice the 21st Century Skills that Paul Solarz talks of in his book, they need to be believed in and for us to physically show them just how much we believe in them. This is a book that provides both the structure and encouragement to help us to do just that.

It is a book that will help all teachers take differentiation to the next level. It is a book that recognises students’ differences and celebrates them. It is a book which promotes empathy, compassion and respect for each other. It’s a book that quite simply every teacher should read.

It isn’t a book full of woolly concepts and no substance. It’s a flexible action plan, that makes you believe both you and your students can do it. Go on buy yourself a book, what have you got to lose?

Ode To The Envelope

If there is one thing I love as much as Post-it notes, then it has to be envelopes. They are I feel, a seriously underrated teaching device! So, here are my top five reasons why we as teachers should worship (or at the very least use on a regular basis) the humble envelope:

1) Envelopes are a ready made way to make any lesson seem far more exciting than it really is! Put them on desks and you can be guaranteed interest, students will be literally desperate to open them and therefore by default already have a vested interest in whatever challenge is lurking inside. Packaging matters to students just like it does to us. Imagine going into your classroom to find a brightly coloured envelope on your desk. What would you want to do?

2) They are a perfect way of disguising your differentiation. Using colour coded envelopes means that you can ‘randomly’ assign tasks whilst in reality knowing exactly which students you are giving them to. Students feel like there is a variety of work being given out and therefore do not feel signalled out or different because of the task they have been given.

3) Chopping the top off them means that they can be made into fantastic pockets to stick into students’ books and filled with exciting notes, revision tips, targets etc. All of which are infinitely more exciting (and therefore more likely to be read) than a simple piece of paper stuck into a book.

4) They are a great way to make sure your carefully made resources stay firmly together. I love them for enticing students who profess not to like poetry to engage with it. Chop up lines of the poem (laminate), and put inside your envelope. Hand them out their envelopes and challenge them to rearrange in a way that makes sense.

5) Last but not least; they are an essential communication tool! There are some things in my room that we don’t reveal until the last minute. A cancelled swimming trip for instance causes a domino effect of meltdowns. So the parents are informed of the date in a sealed envelope, students know there is a trip planned for some point in the week, if there’s a problem with the pool – all can be resolved without any upset. Some secrets are best kept!

So there you have it, the perfect excuse to embark on a bit of stationery shopping over the holidays. I mean, come on, what more excuse do you need? They are practically essential…

Push Your Own Boundaries

If there is one thing in the classroom that terrifies me, it’s technology. It’s something I know I need to get better at; I mean apart from anything else, if I can master it the differentiation possibilities are endless. My students love anything technology related, it instantly motivates them and I have no doubt that when my lessons include it they produce better work and learn more.

So this summer, my self-set mission, is to improve my knowledge and work out creative ways to include more technology in my room. Yesterday, the perfect opportunity came along. Whilst I was sitting totally in my comfort zone at home cutting out pieces of paper for the interactive notebooks I’m making for my GCSE group, a suggestion was made to me by a fellow twitter user (well worth getting onto if you haven’t already – the teaching community on there is amazing). The suggestion: Why don’t you add QR codes? QR codes, I thought – what on earth are they?

Anyway it turned out the QR codes are those little picture links that you scan which take you directly to websites. After the initial ‘There is no way I can do that’ panic subsided, I followed the link sent, to http://ictevangelist.com an amazing blog full of wonderful tips, downloaded the recommended app QRAfter (only £1.49) and started to play.

Much to my delight, it was ridiculously easy. Pick a website, type the web address into the app, press a button and hey presto, you have a little picture link. The app emails the link directly to you, meaning you can immediately print it off. I’ve stuck mine directly into the interactive notebooks I’ve made, so they’ll lead straight to links about what it was like to be a cotton picker in 1930s America, and what racial segregation at the time of Maya Angelou’s childhood looked like. But, for larger classes you could just as easily print the link out and put it on a poster in the room.

We have access to two iPads in the unit and I’m going to download the scanner onto them (totally free of charge), but I’m thinking I may also let students use their own phones. The excitement in my KS4 group would be literally palpable if I TOLD them to get their phones out in a lesson. It would be a sure fire way of guaranteeing engagement, even in an early morning lesson.

This app is differentiation at its best. It allows you to incorporate visual content into your lesson. It promotes engagement from those students who find traditional methods of taking information on-board challenging. It even provides a way of allowing students who are unable to read and/ or write to access online video content independently.

This is technology that anyone can do. Trust me. If I can do it, you can. What are you waiting for? Give it a go today….