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?

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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.

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?

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?