Make Us Wait

If there is one thing that frustrates me (and I appreciate that it is done with kindness and good intentions), it’s students with SEN being consistently allowed to go first. Some would argue, skipping lines, or being asked questions first, or giving the student first choice over activities – is differentiation. I would respectfully have to disagree.

Our students need to learn to wait, to take turns, to share just the same as any other student in the room does. Sometimes they will get to go first; sometimes they will have to wait until last. And yes, I know that they find waiting hard, I know that it can result in challenging behaviours (especially the first few times), and I know the rest of the class don’t mind them being first – but that does not make it right.

So, how can you differentiate waiting? How can you make sure everyone does learn to wait without resulting in a meltdown? Simply put, you teach it, in exactly the same way as you would teach any other skill, one step at a time. Scaffolding your approach gradually so that the student is increasingly able to wait for longer periods of time.

In my class, everyone wants to answer first (or no one wants to answer at all – depending on the mood we’re in that day). I use a ‘thumbs up’ system, I talk to the student who I want to answer, whilst smiling at and putting my thumb up at the ones who are waiting. I show them that I’ve seen they are waiting nicely, that I’m proud of them for knowing the answer, and that I will get to them soon.

We go to the dining room early, so it’s less overwhelming and the queues are shorter, but we queue behind everyone else and wait our turn. If there’s a fun activity we all want to do (like choosing new Lego pieces for our stories, or getting up for party food) we choose on the basis of who is sitting nicely. Our students are motivated to do these activities; we can use them to our advantage to teach the skills they need to learn.

One day, in the not too distant future, our students will be adults – out in the world living their lives. They will not be cossetted in a school with a class that has known them since they were small; they will be surrounded by strangers who expect them to act with courtesy. We can give them the ability to succeed or we can take it away.

So please, next time your class is taking turns, think then think again. Let’s work on more than lesson content. Let’s prepare our students for the world…

How Do We Figure Out What Makes A Difference?

Although we still have a few days left, my mind is drifting to the next school year. I love the summer holidays; every year they are a chance for me to look at my students with fresh eyes, think about how far they have come and about the skills they still need to learn the following year.

Of course I do that at annual review time too, but it always seems different over the summer. Then, I am not doing it because someone else is saying this needs to be done, on set forms that someone else thinks are the right ones. Instead I am doing it purely for pleasure, to gain a better knowledge of my students, to inform my teaching and to ensure that they learn as much as possible.

I’m a bit (well ok maybe a lot) obsessive about it. It takes me a long time, but for me it’s worth it. I enter each year knowing exactly where they are at socially, linguistically and emotionally. I know their strengths and I know which areas may prevent them from learning as effectively as they could.

The forms I use are ones I’ve culled over the years from a variety of places; some are exactly as they were when I got them, whereas others I have made adaptations to so that they work better for us and our students. Firstly I do a strengths and skills inventory. I like to start by celebrating what they can do, what they’ve achieved and therefore can build on.

Then I look at what we need to work on, using a modified Underlying Characteristics Checklist. This really helps me to determine individual skills my students need to learn from 90 different learning related elements. They’re Autism specific, but in reality they work for students who find things challenging for many different reasons. Once I’ve identified the skills to work on, the exciting part begins.

The Ziggurat is my favourite form ever!!! And believe me, usually you practically have to drag me to paperwork. This form is different though; it makes you think about every aspect of your teaching and the child’s learning and how you can ensure progress. Plus added bonus (for me, not my other half) is that usually the things I decide to do involve laminating (not being the tidiest person in the world, I usually leave a trail of small plastic bits everywhere I go).

I love these forms because they allow me to break everything down into small parts, and small parts are great because they feel manageable. It takes away the feeling of ‘they just can’t do it’ and makes you think ‘yes, I know with help they can get this.’ And as a teacher wanting to make a difference, the feeling that you can do something to change things is a fantastic feeling.

So, if you fancy a challenge this summer, and have one or more students that you just can’t figure out how to move forward with, why not give this a go. I promise you, it really is worth it.

If you want to go full steam ahead there is lots more information and video tutoring about how to use these forms on the Comprehensive Programme Planning section of http://www.autisminternetmodules.org (It’s a fantastic website, with some brilliant free training on it).

But for those of you who need something a bit quicker, why not just take a look at the UCC and the Ziggurat. Jot down 5 or 6 skills your student needs to work on at the top (The UCC will help with this). Then think about two or three things you could put in place to help each level of need (the Ziggurat Model Pyramid will help you). Underneath each section write the skill that you think the things you’ve put in place will help. Hey presto, you have a plan of action.

I know it sounds scary, and I also know that paperwork is a pain. But this is a different kind of paperwork. This is paperwork that will get you somewhere. I promise. Go on, choose a student, give it a try….

The Most Powerful Word Of All

I’m known for my stubbornness. If I believe something is right then I will fight for it. My friends and family will tell you, that if I truly believe in something then changing my mind about it is very difficult. Perhaps it is this side of me, which makes it easy for me to understand how hard it can be for my students to back down when they feel that they are in the right.

We work hard with our students. We teach them that it’s ok to make mistakes. We show them how to fix those mistakes. We help them to rebuild friendships. We show them that sorry is the most powerful word of all.

To do that we have not only got to encourage them to say sorry when they make mistakes, but we have to be prepared to say it ourselves. I have lost count of the number of times I’ve been to my students and apologised. I’m human, I make mistakes and I want them to know that.

OK, you’re thinking, this is something I can do! It’s easy to apologise when we’ve done something wrong. But what if we haven’t? What if we’ve simply asked a student to work and been met with aggression. What then? How can we get the lesson and more importantly the relationship back on track?

Honestly? The reality is that sometimes even in situations like this an apology goes a long way. We don’t need to be sorry for what we’ve done – we can’t be – we know our student needs to work. We can however be sorry that we’ve upset the student and tell them that. In fact I must say to a student at least once a day ”I’m so sorry I upset you”. It’s a compromise, a recognition on my part that it’s hard to admit you’re wrong. But it gives my students a way out; the way out they need to get back on track. They will almost always apologise back, I will more often than not be forgiven; the work will usually be completed. For me it’s a small price to pay for an enormous gain.

This is differentiation everyone can do! It takes no time, no planning, no marking – just some understanding and a little bit of compromise. Go on; give it a go! I promise, sorry is the most powerful word of all!

Free Time Matters Too

Free time with my students means the world to me! But for many students with ASD unstructured times are the times they find most difficult. At these times there isn’t a designated plan of action, instead we expect them to navigate the complex social world around them, often without support. The student often arrives back in your classroom upset and frustrated, feeling as though the world is against them and desperate to do anything but settle down to work.

It doesn’t have to be that way though. Free time can be used to your advantage. It can be a positive thing. It’s one of the reasons that both I and many other members of my team don’t take a break and eat our lunch with our students. No one has asked us to do it; we just do it because it works best that way. My students will tell you that eating my lunch with them is my favourite part of the day – and what’s more they are right!

I love lunch times because it allows me to be with my students on their terms, to talk to them about their special interests, to find out what makes them tick. If I make time to listen to them, they are far more likely to want to work for me. For me it’s a win win situation!

If we are around we can help our students to navigate these social times successfully, but more than that we can equip them with the skills to be more independent in the future. We can practice conversations, get to know our students better, give our students independence when they can cope but be near enough to step in and prompt when they can’t. Surely this is what lunch time supervisors are for, I hear you cry. True, they are. But our students often need more skilled support from someone who knows them well, who can spot them when they are starting to get anxious not when they have entered full-blown meltdowns. Who know the right moment to whisper ‘will you play with me?’ in their ear, when they are standing looking longingly at another child, before the moment is over and they’ve walked away assuming that the other child doesn’t want to play with them.

At break times, I have students who will sit and chat, I have others who will play tig, others who need some alone time on a computer and others still who like nothing better than to help me with jobs. I have students who will only play if a member of staff plays too, and ones who want to be alone.

We know that one learning style doesn’t suit all of our students; we create lessons to help them succeed. So what makes us think that one type of break time suits all of our students? Some need time to run and play and let of steam – others need time to escape from the pressures of social interaction and lose themselves in technology. We need to be adaptable and provide our students with the opportunities for both.

So why not try something different next break time? Arrange some different activities, ask someone to help you with a job or just sit and chat. Give it a try; you’ll be pleasantly surprised. After all, if your teacher said ‘If you don’t do your work, then you won’t get your break’ and break was your least favourite time of day, what would you do?

Differentiation? On a Trip?

Today, as you can probably guess from the title, we escaped the classroom and headed out for some fun! Never have I welcomed such a smiley excited group of students into my room, the sun was shining, the uncomfortable school uniforms were nowhere to be seen and we only had one hour of real lessons all day. We were doing something MUCH more important – we were off to play on rope swings in a hay barn and eat in an American style diner.

I on the other hand, entered the day somewhat more wary; on the one hand nothing makes me happier than a chance to work on Social Skills for a day, on the other a day out of school always fills me with a sense of fear about what could go wrong. And let’s face it outside the predictable world of school there are 101 things that could go wrong!!

I needn’t have worried though, behaviour was exemplary, manners were perfect and great fun was had by all. We climbed on hay bales, crawled through tunnels and swung on rope swings. When it all got too much we had a quick 10 minute iPad downtime break, then we got up and ran around again. We even survived lunchtime without a meltdown, even though the food didn’t taste like we expected it to, no-one was impolite to the waiter, and everyone found something they could eat.

For me, it’s this, the differentiation we do outside the classroom that (despite the worrying I do about it) is the most important. I mean, don’t get me wrong I love it when my students do amazing work. But, even more than that I love it when they live amazing lives; when they make friends, are happy and truly enjoy social times together – that is when the true magic happens.

So, if you’ve got a trip planned here are my top five tips for taking students with ASD on an extended outing:

  • Plan where your students will sit on the coach (talk to them about it in advance, don’t just assume you know them well enough to decide)
  • Let your students know exactly what the plan for the day is (if possible write it down on portable schedule – so that you can update any changes as and when they happen)
  • Unless you are taking a packed lunch which has come from the student’s own home – do rehearse a plan with the student for what will happen if the food turns out not to look/ taste the way they expect.
  • Have a way of creating positive downtime into your day (we took two iPads and a 10 minute timer). Some students might find a full day of intense social activity just too much.
  • Praise them lots, days out are great fun but they are also really challenging, so if things are going well, notice it.

Go on, plan a trip, there’s just enough time to organise it…