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Remote Education: Autism Immersed podcast

Season 2, Episode 4

Ideas for continuing education during the COVID-19 virus quaratine with a particular eye to educating children with autism spectrum disorder when they are away from their peers and teachers.

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Helpful Hints for Home #1

Working with children with autism spectrum disorder while at home

Thanks a lot, COVID-19!

Apparently the way to get our blog back up and running is to lock everyone in their homes!  Just kidding! Take care of yourselves: wash your hands, practice social distancing, and stay connected with those you love to help take care of each other. 

We at Autism Immersed have been up to some exciting changes in our products and services, but this COVID-19 health emergency has revealed some interesting and encouraging truths about our teachers and our students. In the challenges we are all facing and the separations we are enduring, we also are learning just how powerful the Academic and Social Immersion Model is, not only in educating children with Autism Spectrum Disorders and their neurotypical peers, but also in building a community of teachers, therapists, children, and families. With that in mind, this blog series (Helpful HInts for Home) will address a few different aspects of schooling from home as well as offer some tips to those of you working as well. Today, we would like to offer some general tips for schooling from home for our students with Autism Spectrum Disorders. Please don’t think you need to do everything on this list at once–that would be overwhelming. Pick an area that you think would enhance Distance Learning for your and for your child and start there. As always, your Oakstone Academy teachers are ready to support you if you need help or more ideas. Don’t be afriad to reach out!

Parents are by far the experts on their children, and this holds true for parents of children with autism spectrum disorder. That being said, those of us who teach children with autism spectrum disorders have a collection of best practices based on our experience successfully educating our students. While home will never be school (and should not be expected to be), using some of these tried and true strategies at home could make this interruption to our school routine less disruptive to your child’s education and keep things happier at home. 

#1: Structure

One tried and true practice in teaching students on the autism spectrum is to have a consistent structure available. Many behaviors that interfere with learning are a sign of anxiety or confusion with what is going on. In the classroom, structure is offered with schedules and routines. This same idea of structure can carry over to the home, though in a more manageable way for families. Some tips on adding structure and routine to your home environment include

  • Designate a spot at home for learning. This might be a desk or a dining room table. It should be a spot that has fewer distractions (television, toys). The mom who set up the work stations above knew her kids would need some space between them to accomplish their work. You can also have a schedule or daily rotation for use of preferred work areas/equipment.
  • Use a list to help track what tasks need to be done. This list can be written on paper or a dry erase board, drawn on notecards, or created online. Many of our Intervention Specialists are helping parents customize a to-do list, like the ones pictured here. Visuals are much more powerful than verbal instructions for children with ASD, as they are easier for them to process and takes away ambiguity. 
  • A weekly calendar could also help your child. They are used to certain tasks on certain days, with some “home days”. Marking off a calendar to show when they have school work and when they don’t can help children with ASD cope with the many changes this pandemic has brought into our lives. 
  • Using a Social Immersion Plan (SIP) about COVID-19 and the changes it has brought can help explain changes and reassure students, making a big difference in attitudes and anxiety. 
  • Set times to work on tasks. If work is done early, great! If work is not done, STOP ANYWAY. You can always have 1 item on your to-do list as “catch up time” to provide a time for your child to finish anything that was dragging too long. 
  • Don’t end your structure with just the tasks that are coming home from school to complete. Extend this to things like screen time, outdoor time, physical activity, and creative time. If you have 1 hour of structure and then 12 hours of a free for all, the structure will feel more difficult for your child. 
  • Give kids some choices about activities they would like to tackle first, giving them some degree of control over tasks and making them feel part of the structure of the day. 

#2 Expectations

High expectations are key to the success of children with autism spectrum disorder in the immersion classroom. Children rise to our belief in them. If you as the parent expect that this school at home is going to be a disaster, it probably will be. If you expect that it will be hard, but your child CAN do it, it probably will be as well. Ask your child to share some of the rules he or she follows at school and then use those as a basis to make some expectations for school time at home. 

  • Choose 3-5 general expectations to include. These could relate to physical behaviors, work completion, or attitudes. 
  • Phrase them in both the positive and negative forms for clarity. For example, “Use kind hands and words. NO fighting” could be one. “Try your best: don’t give up!” could be another.
  • Add a visual representation for each, whether it is a sketch, a piece of clip art, or even a drawing made by your child. 
  • Keep expectations realistic for the age of your child. Reach out to teachers or online resources to get some ideas for the amount of time or work your child should be able to complete. 
  • Make school an expectation of the day. While younger children may not have the same level of school work as the first grader or middle schooler, be sure the environment at home is consistent with learning. Having a younger sibling work on crafts, workbooks, or learning-oriented computer games will keep everyone in the family focused on learning.

#3 Accountability

Accountability goes hand in hand with high expectations for all children, but especially for children with ASD.  When most people hear the word “consequence,” they assume negative consequences. However, a consequence is simply something that results from an action. Consequences can be positive or negative. Consequences are what hold us accountable for our actions. If we provide structure and high expectations for our learners, we also have to follow through on those expectations. A few tips on accountability:

  • Don’t make threats or promises that you are unwilling or unable to follow through on. You aren’t going to throw away your television or cancel summer, so don’t threaten that. 
  • Set up small manageable positive consequences for finishing work. One parent is currently giving one point each for a wide variety of tasks, from schoolwork to household help to physical activity. These points can be cashed in for small treats (like dessert or extra TV) or saved over the week for a larger reward ($10-15 to spend on art supplies or a game on Amazon after a larger amount of points over the course of the week). Another family is building in time to video chat with friends as tasks get completed. 
  • Clear and consistent consequences take the personal out of finishing tasks. If a student complies, they get the positive consequences. If they don’t, they miss out on something they like. It’s not personal. It’s just the plan. 
  • Can we hear it for VISUALS again?? You don’t have to be an artist or graphic designer to create a quick chart with 3 boxes to represent tasks to be done and a 4th box to represent the item your child is working for. 

#4 Balance

Our students with ASD thrive in classrooms that offer varied and authentic learning experiences, balanced with social skills integration and social-emotional learning. “School from home” is not expected to be school. It is not even home school. It is its own thing that we are all learning how to do together. Your child is not going to be able to fill an 8 hour school day with learning tasks at home. That doesn’t mean it is wise or helpful to spend the balance of their time playing video games or watching Youtube videos. Many teachers plan their class time in thirds: a lesson for a third of the time, guided practice for a third, then independent practice for the final third. Consider adding a similar balance to home tasks: one third each of school work, relaxation time, and activities in the middle like physical fitness, art, and stories. Students have a wide range of types of assignments and activities at school that helps add variety. Some ways to add balance to your days ahead include

  • Make a list with your child of things they want to do. Right now the internet is full of fun ideas for those of us sheltering in place. This list could be checked off as children do different types of activities that they enjoy and try new things as well. 
  • Balance YouTube videos your kids enjoy with some that have educational merit. Museums, zoos, parks, and other educational resource centers have been sharing many virtual field trips online. 
  • Understand your child’s tolerance for boredom. Some students with ASD need their time fully scheduled to help them refrain from self-stimulatory behaviors (“stimming”), while others can fill time with toys, books, or games. 
  • Save technology time for the times it is helpful to you as a parent. Need to make a conference call for work? Ipad time! Need to bathe another child or work on dinner? Netflix. 
  • Using color coding or a visual schedule on a day can help your child see how much screen time is enough or too much. One easy way to do this is to divide a paper plate in 12 sections for the hours 8am-8pm. Have your child color sections according to a code (red for screen time, green for school work, yellow for playtime, etc.) so they can see how they are spending their time. They can do this with you before they start their day as a plan or as they do things throughout the day as a tracker. 

#5 Joy

We teachers love spending our time with your students. For us, this is a hard time becuase we miss your children and the joy that comes with seeing them understand something new or show off a developing skill. We also understand that this new normal is stressful for you and for them. Find ways to add joy and fun. Try to acknowledge and normalize the stress of this time. Find ways to be joyful and make memories. 

  • Encourage your child to help you make a “school at home”. What aspects of their school day and environment do they enjoy and want to replicate? How can work also mimic play?
  • Praise your child frequently. Remind them that this is new and hard and that you really just want their best effort. When praising, be concrete and specific. For example, “I love how you concentrated and finished your math worksheet.” is much more powerful than “Good job on math!” It pairs the praise with the action, which hopefully leads them to want to do well again. 
  • Have each family member name a good thing from your day. You could write this on a long list or add them to a jar as a record of the special moments this change brings. 
  • Enjoy this time of transition. Though this time is different and often stressful, it does allow us to pause and spend time with our families. 
  • Create memories such as making a dessert or afternoon snack that the family can enjoy.
  • Remember that this too shall pass and your kids will be back with their teachers soon! We can’t wait!

REMEMBER, don’t try to tackle everything here at once. Choose an idea or two to add to your time at home and see if it helps you. We are here to help you tackle whatever you need!

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PLAY PICS: Building play skills

With an emphasis on the benefits of inclusion and social immersion, parents and educators of students with autism are seeking effective ways for their children to continue skill acquisition and enhancement, while also exposing their children to typically developing peers.  But what does one do if a child who has access to an immersion environment doesn’t know how to play?

For most children, play is a naturally occurring phenomena that promotes their engagement and learning, independent performance, and social inclusion.  Children who are unable to participate in play experiences are at risk for future deficits and have greater difficulty adjusting to preschool environments where individual instruction is limited.  For children with autism, absent or restricted play skills might prevent opportunities for learning and successful participation in inclusive, general education classrooms.  Play Pics is a teaching tool to help students with autism spectrum disorder learn various basic play actions, expand their play repertoire, learn to self-monitor and recall play skills practiced, to improve initiation, play choice selection, and play variability.

Play Pics uses a research based strategy  formulated from Dr. Rebecca Morrison et al’s study, “Increasing Play Skills of Child With Autism Using Activity Schedules and Correspondence Training.”  (For full citation, see our PUBLICATIONS tab.) In this study, it was found that children with autism spectrum disorders benefit greatly from using picture schedules and visuals to promote independent performance and positive behavior changes when playing with toys.  Play Pics will help children develop play skills, make play choices, access more play areas in a classroom setting, increase their independent performance during playtime, and promote peer engagement. Play Pics also incorporates a self-monitoring card which promotes communication and language skills connected to play.

Play Pics are currently available for 5 common preschool toys: baby doll, ball, blocks, bus, and rocket. This dynamic and engaging strategy has been field tested, both in immersion preschool classrooms and at home. Our teachers and therapists find Play Pics to be a valuable tool to teach play skills. Our parents are experiencing success as well. Check out what a few parents have said about Play Pics:

“My son loves Play Pics [with a Ball]!  He has even started using the skills with his cousins and kids in our community!”

“I am so grateful for Play Pics [with a Bus]! Thank you guys for giving that to me to use with my son.  I have seen it help in many areas. He cleans up better now and follows directions more.”

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Strategy Spotlight: Catch them being good

Many of you familiar with the world of education or behavior management have heard the phrase “catch them being good” in some form or another. The philosophy behind this is simple. If you have behaviors, attitudes, or actions that you want to see more of in class, you identify and positively acknowledge them as you see them happening naturally in the daily life in your classroom. Research in Applied Behavior Analysis shows us that receiving positive reinforcement is the fastest way to promote and increase positive behavior. Receiving that reinforcement from a teacher will cement the skill in a student and encourage others to follow suit.

One of the strengths of the immersion program is the abundance of natural models of academic and social behaviors and skills available for students on the autism spectrum. In our immersion classrooms we often prompt students who ask for help with the phrase “Look at your friends” or with a gesture to their classmates. We may also choose to redirect 1-2 students who are off task by starting to praise or reward those who are on task. Students not receiving any type of reinforcement often will stop and look to see WHY their classmates are being singled out and then adjust their behavior to receive the same reinforcement.  

 

Here are some tips for catching students being good in an immersion classroom

  • Be specific in your reinforcement. Do not simply tell some students “Good job”. In an immersion classroom, you want to make it clear what is being rewarded or reinforced. Phrases like “good looking-eyes” with younger students or “thank you for having your homework ready” with older students serves not only to reward one group, but to remind the students who are still working towards the goal about your expectation or direction.

 

  • Vary your students receiving reinforcement.  If you are always praising the same student, other members of the class or group may believe that the PERSON and not the BEHAVIOR is what is being recognized.
  • Vary how many students you acknowledge. Ideally, you will want to reinforce the first few students to get everyone else moving towards compliance with the expectation or direction. You will not always be able to acknowledge every student who eventually shows the correct behavior, but you do want to make sure that your students who have a long road to go occasionally are being rewarded as well. Remember positive reinforcement builds positive skills, so make sure you are reinforcing those who are still developing the skills!
  • Use proximity. If you have one student in particular who is still developing a skill or behavior, praise and reinforce the students physically nearest that student who is still learning. That draws their attention more quickly.
  • Mix up your reinforcement. The preferred form reinforcement would be verbal praise or a positive gesture, as it is more natural. It is also easier to give, as you always have your smile and voice with you. That being said, don’t discount the power of the occasional sticker, stamp, or even a single M&M, Skittle, or cracker. In my experience, even high school students occasionally like a treat or sticker.
  • Do not engage with students who want to talk about your reinforcement.  Many of our students on the autism spectrum love to argue, look for loopholes, and rationalize things. Don’t allow students to engage you in a debate of your reinforcement choices. Simply reply with something like “I was looking for a couple of people who had their work ready. Now we are moving on. Maybe next time.” This reinforces the direction you were giving, the behavior you wanted to see, and the end of the conversation.
  • Reward good character, not just good academic behavior. Remember teaching good character is the goal of any behavior system. We don’t just want kids to comply with rules, but demonstrate kindness, respect, trustworthiness, and responsibility. Pairing character words with your compliment helps students understand the meaning of these bigger ideas. If you see a student struggling to remain calm in a stressful situation, you can comment, “Nice keeping your hands to yourself” to prompt and reinforce their progress. IF you see a student helping someone else, you can comment what a great citizen that student is being.
  • Catching kids being good benefits adults as well. It feels better to have positive interactions with students. It is more pleasant to compliment, smile, and reward than to reprimand, punish, or take privileges. As someone who works with children who are still learning and developing, it is a joy to be their cheerleader and booster!

Complimenting children on any aspect of play with you, work they are doing, or interactions they engage in should be employed quite a bit. It is easy to fall into playing or doing various other activities with children and forgetting to talk. But at school, we should constantly find ways to give the children positive attention and compliments. Even engaging in some activities is in itself a reason for complimenting the child. These nice, positive interactions with adults are very important to our little learners as well as our oldest students. They sense we are happy. They feel pride in their abilities. They know what is rewarded and what to strive for.  Overall, it engages the children in interactions where they get to feel good just by being there and that more than anything else promotes good behavior.

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Legal Developments Highlight Importance of Inclusion

Last year saw a number of important legal developments highlighting the importance of inclusion and evidence based curricula.

In August 2018, the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals, with jurisdiction over school districts in Ohio, Kentucky, Tennessee, and Michigan, ruled in the important IDEA case L.H. v. Hamilton County Department of Education, upholding the importance of inclusion under federal law.

In 2013, L.H. was attending Normal Park Elementary School in Hamilton County, Tennessee. He was in a general education classroom which contained students both with and without disabilities. Then the County determined that L.H. would be better off in a comprehensive development classroom (“CDC”) – one where he would be segregated from non-disabled students for much of the day. L.H.’s parents objected citing the IDEA’s requirement that every student has the right to a free appropriate public education in the least restrictive environment.

L.H.’s parents removed him from the setting and placed L.H. in a private Montessori school.  The Court held that the CDC was not an appropriate setting and ordered the County to reimburse L.H.’s parents for the cost of the private placement.  In reaching its decision the Court noted that the law prefers inclusion and that a student may only be segregated if (1) the student would not benefit from a general education environment; (2) the benefits of the general education setting would be far outweighed by the benefits of the special education setting; or (3) the student would be a disruptive force in a general education classroom.

More recently, in November 2018, the State of Ohio entered into a settlement resolving a class action lawsuit alleging that Ohio’s 11 largest districts failed to adequately serve students with disabilities.  Under the settlement, the districts have committed to improve literacy instruction, provide enhanced support to teachers serving students with disabilities, adopt evidence-based behavior support strategies, improve inclusion opportunities, and provide improved vocational services at the high-school level.  This settlement will be implemented over the next five years.

Schools and districts must recognize the importance of inclusion, supported by evidence-based strategies, in meeting their legal obligations. Experience tells us that the benefits of inclusion are significant and that with proper training behavior strategies can minimize disruptive behavior and make an inclusive setting the preferred environments for students with and without disabilities. Contact us at consulting@ccde.org to develop a training or consulting program that fits your needs.