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Setting up your Immersed Classroom for Success!

It’s the most wonderful time of the year…classroom set up time, that is!

We asked long time Oakstone Academy kindergarten teacher, Courtney Soraghan, how she sets up her immersion classroom for success. Keep reading to see some of her tips. You can also check out this video to see it all in action- Courtney and co-teacher, Samantha Senalik, will walk you through setting up your classroom for success. It was recorded before COVID restrictions were in place, but with a little creativity, you should be able to make all of the tips fit the new in-person restrictions that are in place. Keep reading to find out how to set up your immersion classroom for success!

We use A LOT of visuals in my classroom. In my opinion, one of the most important visuals we use is our daily classroom schedule. This is posted each day and when we forget to change it, there is ALWAYS a student who reminds us- either by asking us nicely or…not so nicely. My classroom schedule pairs the picture of the activity with words. In older classrooms, I’ve seen schedules posted with the time that they will have the activity. Most of my kids don’t yet know how to tell time, so we don’t do that. Just like adults, students like to know what they are going to be doing throughout the day, and when they get to go home. 

Oftentimes I will have a student who needs an individual schedule to help them to get through the day. I often use an individual schedule for students who have difficulty transitioning appropriately between tasks. They could have trouble with transitioning for a variety of reasons- they did not complete the task, they are being asked to transition from a preferred task to a non-preferred, or they simply don’t want to move on. I have made sure that my individual schedule pieces are the same pictures that I use for my whole group schedule, so that there is not any confusion. Some students need an individual schedule that allows them to move completed tasks to the other side while others are fine with having their own schedule without moving parts once a task has been completed. I try to have my students who need individual schedules responsible for making their own schedule in the mornings. This doesn’t happen the first day or week, of course, but once they are used to having their own schedule, I find that my students like having the ownership of making their schedule. An individual schedule is also beneficial to those students who may leave the classroom for speech or OT, as this is not listed on the main classroom schedule. 

I’ve also had students who need their individual schedule broken down within a task. One example is breaking down the hour-long math block. I’ve had students who struggle in math to the point that they become frustrated so providing them a schedule of the tasks they are responsible for in math gives them a clear beginning and end. An individual math schedule may look like this: Days of School, Kid Counter, Book, Circle Activity, Seatwork, All Done. Having the “All Done” visual signals to them that, yes, I do have to do my math, but I also know that it will not last forever. I’ve done the same thing when a child comes in upset from drop off. I will write out all the steps to our Morning Circle routine in checklist form and have the student be responsible for checking off items. In most occasions, having this checklist helps the student to focus on what we are doing instead of what they were originally upset about. 

I also use visuals to break down academic tasks. One example is during math seatwork. I use a color card with some students who have trouble attending to task. I will circle the first couple of problems in blue, the next few in red, and the remaining in green. Students have a checklist with the same colors in the same order and check off when blue is done, when red is done, and when green is done. I have had a lot of success with this; so much so that sometimes a student will ask me for it when they know they are having a hard time. 

The goal is to have all students find success with the main classroom schedule, but breaking the schedule down for them can be very helpful to our students.

Another way that I use visuals in my classroom for self-regulation is having rings throughout the classroom that have icons like quiet voice, raise your hand, wait, stand up, eyes on teacher. You can almost always find me with a visual ring attached to my belt loop. These visual rings have the same pictures for each action, so that no matter which ring is being used, students recognize and understand what their expectation is. At first, the visual is always paired with words, so I say the words while showing them the picture. After the student knows what the expectation on the picture is, I will only show the picture. This is less invasive to the student and the classroom as a whole. If I’m saying, “quiet voice” out loud to a student, that can be distracting for the rest of the students sitting near the noisy student. 

I also use short social stories as visuals. I’ve had quite a few students who want to be called on first and every single time there is a question posed to the class. Oftentimes, if these students do not get called on first, they will act out in some kind of way (yelling, crying, throwing their body all over the floor, etc.) I have a little card, smaller than an index card that I use with students that lists out the directions for being called on (listen to teacher, raise hand, wait to be called on with a quiet voice). One step farther is a visual card that says “If the teacher does not call on me I will not yell. I will have a quiet voice.”

Another way that I help kids in my classroom with self-regulation is making sure everyone on my team is on the same page with regard to behavior expectations. If I am teaching, my co-teacher handles behavior the same way that I do. My students learn quickly that the consequence for an inappropriate behavior is the same every time. In most instances, if a student does something they aren’t supposed to, they are issued a warning. If they do it again, they go to the classroom sad spot. If they do it again, they move their clip accordingly. This is not to say that these steps are followed all the time. If a student has been in trouble for the same thing several times, they may go right to sad spot or they may go right to moving their clip. The main point is that everyone on my team knows the expectations for each student and holds them to it.

It is also important, especially for our students with autism, to establish routines. This can take up to a month at the beginning of the year, but it is well worth it. We practice the appropriate way to line up. If a student or two is not lining up appropriately, we all go back and try again. And we do that until we are all doing it correctly. It takes up a little bit of time at first, but saves a lot of time later. The same is true for appropriate hallway behavior. If we are having a hard time being appropriate in the hallway, then we all try again.

Seating placement is another way that I help set my students up for success. With my kindergarten classroom ratio usually being very close to 50% ASD: 50% peer models, I set up my seating chart so that not all of my friends on IEPs are at the same table. I first lay out name tags for my students with IEPs and then place my peer model students around accordingly. If I know I have an ASD student with limited language, I will place them by a peer student that I know talks a lot. If I have two students who I know can be explosive when upset by a challenging academic task, I will sit them at different tables. If I know I have two students who struggle in math, I will put them near each other so that the support staff in my classroom can sit with them together during math instruction. My seating arrangement changes a couple of times at the beginning of the year when I get to know everyone. Another resource I have always used are the teachers in the grade below. Once I have my seating arrangement made, I’ve asked them to come and take a peek and alert me to any possible conflicts they can see. 

I work hard at the beginning of the year to make sure that my classroom centers are spread out in a functional way. I have my blocks and trucks area far from my library. When students are asked to quietly look at books right next to where other students are not so quietly playing blocks and trucks, you can imagine that those book readers and going to scoot right on over to play with their classmates. If I can eliminate some of that, I will. Students have clear boundaries of where they are supposed to be when they are supposed to be there. I have bookshelves with toys on them that face only one way and use those as dividers for different stations in the classroom.

A note about data collection: Everyone knows that data needs to be collected, but not everyone knows how to use it. There is little point to collecting data if you aren’t going to use it or analyze it. Setting up your data binder before school starts can be life-changing. It is hard to play catch up once the kids start school and you are inundated with behaviors from students having the summer off or having not ever been in school. Yes, you may need to change some things as you get to know the student, but reading through their FBAs and IEPs beforehand gives you a great start. I am almost always collecting data in my classroom. Yes, I have to collect data for IEP goals, but I also collect data for behavior and academics. This past year, I found that a student was having behavior every Wednesday. There weren’t really any other days during the week (except for a few outliers with clear antecedents) that this student was becoming as aggressive, peeing his pants on purpose, and screaming. Collecting data allowed me to see that. I was able to make the connection to his inappropriate behaviors with him missing the end of the day routine every Wednesday due to going to speech. This student is one who relied heavily on an individual schedule and missing that last part of the day was extremely troubling to him. This student was upset from the second he came in every Wednesday. I talked to his speech pathologist and we were able to change his speech time to Fridays at a time that he did not miss our end of day routine and his behaviors on Wednesdays stopped. Collecting AND analyzing data is an important step to helping students become successful in an immersion classroom.

These are just a few ways to help your students start the year off on the right foot! Let us know if these work for you and other ways that you have set up your space for success! Don’t forget to check out this video to see all of this in action!

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Summer Slide

Happy Summer!

By now, many students are enjoying summer vacation. This time of year is often synonymous with no alarm clocks, a relaxed schedule, hanging out at the pool, and no school work. However, for kids on the spectrum, summer vacation can come with anxiety, spikes in problematic behaviors, and academic and social regression. Here we will give some ideas to help with what some call “The Summer Slide”.

 Students on the autism spectrum thrive on routine. For nine months out of the year, these students follow a predictable schedule. They are told when to get up, when to get dressed, when to get in the car or on the bus. Once at school, students have a fairly set schedule, without many questions as to what their days will look like. Sure, Tuesdays may be different from Monday due to a different Special class, or maybe there is an assembly, but besides those small changes, their days are fairly the same. Summertime often comes with a more relaxed schedule, which lends itself to less predictability. Summer is a time when parents often see behaviors that had all but disappeared rear their heads again. Here are a few ways to help an anxious student through the summertime uncertainty:

Make a schedule–This does not mean that your day has to be (or should be!) planned out to the minute. Giving your child a general overview of the day will be extremely helpful for most. More often than not, our students on the spectrum rely, at least to some extent, on visuals and visual cues. Depending on age and ability, this can be pictures of what will be happening during the day, a written list of the day’s activities, or simply talking through the day’s events in the morning and then reminding your child throughout the day. This is especially important if you know you are going somewhere or doing something that causes a higher level of anxiety for your child. Using language that their teachers use, such as First, Then statements can help, too!

Give some warning time before a transition- Just as important as having a schedule is letting your child know how much time they have left of something, especially when they are engaged in a highly preferred activity. Letting your child know they have five minutes left of a preferred activity may help with transitioning away from something they are engaged in. Setting a timer and then following through with the direction may be hard fought against at first, but remaining consistent will help your child know that when you say it is time to move on, that’s what they need to do.

Give your child choices- This might not mean what you think it means! Oftentimes, students on the autism spectrum are anxious because they do not have control of the situation. For instance, if your child is off schedule or is just grumpy and is having a hard time getting dressed in the morning, laying out two parent-approved outfits and letting them choose might get you farther than insisting they wear the blue shirt with red shorts. If you have two places to go and the order doesn’t matter, letting your child choose where to go first can lead to a smoother transition from home. Your child isn’t happy with the food on their plate? Giving the option of which to take a bite of first may get some of that food you just spent an hour making into their belly.

Now that we have looked at some ways that your child’s behavioral progress can remain steady over the summer, let’s think about all that academic progress they made over the year. Although we know that ASD is a social disorder, we also understand that it can impact learning. Many students with autism have to work significantly harder than their typically developing peers to retain the same information. Three months off from learning can lead to several months of academic regression (loss of skill). Here are some things you can do to help your student stay on track for the following school year:

Read, read, read!- Have your student read, read to them, and let them see you read. Most libraries offer a summer reading program, free of charge, for students and adults. Who doesn’t like to get prizes for reading? You could also start an in house book club where you read the same book your child is reading and discuss the book together. Asking your child wh- questions about what they have read or what you have read to them helps build on their comprehension skills. Don’t worry too much if your child wants to read books that seem too easy or only wants to read graphic novels. Any reading is good reading!

Check your student’s backpack- Anyone here guilty of hanging up the backpack on the last day of school and then forgetting about it (and the contents- including that last day of school lunch!) until the week before the next school year starts? If you are, you are not alone! A lot of teachers are now sending home packets of optional work that can be done throughout the summer to stay on top of skills learned over the course of the past year. Our teachers at Oakstone Academy are adept at sending home work that matches the academic ability of each student, rather than printing an “INSERT GRADE LEVEL HERE” packet and sending it home with everyone. As students get older, there may even be assigned work to complete for the next year. Checking for that now will save everyone a headache the night before school starts!

Practice writing over the summer- Have a preschool student who is just learning that what comes from the pencil has more meaning than just scribbles? Play tic-tac-toe to practice the pre-writing skills of straight and curved lines. Have a young learner who just recently learned to sound out words? Have them help write the grocery list. It may take longer, but they will have a sense of ownership and get some practice writing- and may not grumble as much when having to leave their video game to go with you to the grocery store. Older writers can write letters or emails to grandma and grandpa, keep a summer journal, or write a response about the book they are reading. If writing by hand is stressful, working on typing skills can really help. Typing.com is a great free resource to teach typing.

Without a doubt, one of the biggest deficits our students on the spectrum encounter is the social aspect of the disorder. When students are immersed in a social environment, like at Oakstone Academy, we see them make eye contact, take turns, communicate (either verbally or through a communication device), and make friends. With summer comes fewer opportunities for students to be immersed in a structured social setting, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t opportunities for them to continue to practice and hone those social skills they’ve worked so hard on throughout the school year. Here are some ideas to keep your child practice important social skills over the summer:

Go to the local park or playground- While we know this can be overwhelming for some parents of children on the spectrum, especially if their student is prone to negative behaviors when in unfamiliar settings, the playground is a great place to practice a plethora of social skills. At the playground, students can practice turn-taking, waiting, sharing, having conversations, making requests, the list goes on! If you are worried that your child will have a meltdown, go when there are less people or make it a playdate with a classmate. 

Go to story time at the library- Remember the library that offers a free summer reading program? It’s likely that they also offer different story times, free for families to come to. This is a great place to meet new friends and the story times are often structured so that they have the same schedule each time. They often start with a little movement activity, move on to the stories, and then some time to play at the end.

Join your school’s online parent group- Several school parent groups have social media pages where playdates are arranged. Parents of students on the spectrum and those with other special needs often report feeling isolated from other parents who don’t understand the struggles their students face. Who better to get together with than parents who get your child’s struggles? The kids can play and the parents can talk, without fear of judgement if a meltdown occurs.

Look into summer programming at your school- Many schools offer summer social activities. These programs are often more laid back than the regular school day, but still offer the structure your student thrives off of, while keeping your student engaged in social situations.

We hope these tips help you to avoid “The Summer Slide” and lead to a great summer with your student!

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Teacher Appreciation in the time of Remote Learning

It’s Teacher Appreciation Week during Remote Learning due to COVID-19, and many families have a new appreciation for their children’s teachers. We are seeing them rise to an unimagined challenge. Here at Autism Immersed, we want to share a tribute to our amazing immersion teachers of all grades. 

Teaching in Academic and Social Immersion classrooms is not for everyone, but for the people who thrive in this setting, they truly can’t imagine being anywhere else. Julie, a 16 year veteran of the model, comments that “My favorite part of teaching immersion is bearing witness to the very natural interactions that occur between our ASD students and their neurotypical peers.  I have seen students helping each other in so many ways, not just academically, but on an interpersonal level as well.” Many teachers echo this sentiment. As Monica, an elementary teacher, added “there is something special about seeing both the peers and kids on the spectrum benefit socially and academically from being in the same classroom.” Teachers who thrive in this model, like Courtney, enjoy a challenge: “one of my favorite parts is working through difficult behaviors so that my students with ASD can be fully immersed. I love to brainstorm different strategies that I can employ to help my students to self-monitor, control their behavior, and remain with the group.” 

From preschool through high school, the same refrain is heard. Teachers love the interactions, the opportunities, and the connection with students and their families, as well as opportunities to build and foster relationships between all types of students. As high school teacher Sara says, a special pleasure that comes from “teaching immersion is the conversations between all the students and seeing the friendships and enjoyment these students have with being around each other and getting to interact with each other and their teachers.” Preschool teacher Michelle adds, “Another one of my favorite parts of teaching immersion is working with young children and their whole family.  I enjoy being a supportive resource for not only my students but for their families as well.

Teachers are trying hard to provide high quality instruction during Remote Learning for all of their students. For immersion teachers, this includes keeping core components of their programming the same to provide consistency and predictability for all students, but especially those with ASD. Vince teaches high school finance and he emphasizes, “The key in distance learning is laying out the requirements and establishing the rules of the road so to speak.” Once routines are established and students feel comfortable, teachers turn to ways to make the curriculum engaging as they teach. Julie added, “I try to keep the content alive right now by having Google Meet sessions so we can ‘see’ each other. I am also trying to provide interesting and fun material for the students to learn from- i.e. who doesn’t like to take a camera ride through the digestive system?! Thank you Youtube!” Lizeth has found that it is crucial with Remote Learning to  “keep positive encouragement during live lessons and praise their work.” Even our youngest learners are staying engaged in school, thanks to committed and caring teachers. Michelle, who teaches toddlers in immersion commented, “I’m hosting a weekly Preschool 1 Meet and Greet on Google Meet so children have the opportunity to see each other while we all learn from home together.  Our young learners become so excited when they see their friends and teachers on the screen and those smiles are contagious!” No matter what the content, Immersion teachers seem united in one thing: we teach CHILDREN. 

These trying times are not without challenges for our immersion teachers. That being said, even their challenges reflect the love and commitment they have for students and families. “The immersion model is based on students with and without disabilities interacting. Since we can’t interact in person it has definitely been challenging to get the social interaction between the students. We are so lucky to have technology, Google classroom, and the internet during this time.” Monica shows how academics and social development are mutually included by our teachers as core components of the curriculum. One does not come without the other. Long time immersion teacher Kristen adds, “Though Google classroom is a tool to visually stay connected to the kids, I feel there is an element of excitement that is missing. I feel this element comes from the natural conversations and connections that are made in the classroom setting that are difficult to replicate in a virtual way.” Our teachers miss the in-person time spent with each child they teach. 

Our teachers also keep in mind how challenging this type of learning is for all students, but they also look at those challenges as temporary obstacles that need to be dealt with, not permanent barriers. Courtney sums things up for many of our teachers by saying, “As hard as this is, I keep reminding myself that our students with ASD have had to overcome challenges for their entire lives. This is just one more. If my students who thrive on predictability and routine can get through this unpredictable and non-routine time, then so can I. I am so incredibly proud of how my students are handling this situation.”  Similarly, we are incredibly proud of how our teachers have handled this as well. 

Jan Moore, a veteran speech therapist who has worked in immersion settings for 12 years, may have said it best: “the most gratifying part I heard from students themselves. They want to go back. The virtual community has worked, but they want it all now. They miss the classes, activities, and friendships. They miss lunch and recess and field trips. They might not have realized they loved their school before, but they know it now. Many students with ASD say they don’t really want friends…not so here. Virtual learning has worked in this time of staying at home, but it’s a temporary solution. Oakstone has done virtual learning well…but it does real life learning even better. To a speech therapist that loves to address social competency, this is beautiful. Congratulations Oakstone. This is a testimony of who you are. We are all grateful.”

We are all grateful for our teacher, therapists, classroom assistants and staff who are keeping the spirit of Academic and Social Immersion alive, even in the most trying times. We appreciate you every day.

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Remote Education: Immersion is Thriving!

Covid-19 can’t stop immersion!

Academic and Social Immersion is a successful model for teaching children with autism spectrum disorder and their neurotypical peers. We have the hard data that shows academic growth, behavioral improvements, and increased social engagement. But what happens when you remove the structure of a supportive school environment and the immediate support of teachers? What does a school disruption (like we have never seen before) mean for our students in an immersion model? Does the whole thing fall apart?

No. 

It absolutely does not fall apart. Immersion is thriving. 

How do I know? I listen to the parents, teachers, and students themselves. I can hear in the stories coming out of this remote learning environment that Academic and Social Immersion has worked its way into the hearts and minds of our community: teachers, parents, and most importantly children. Let me share a few of these stories with you. 

Many of our teachers have been hosting class via the ZOOM teleconferecing website. What thrills and amazes them is how many times the class “hijacks” the session to chat and be social. They miss each other and want to be together. If this was simply a case of a friend missing a friend, they could Facetime or something more private at home. What we are seeing time and again is the WHOLE class wanting to stay in touch and connected. THIS IS IMMERSION. 

Teachers have been trying to reach out and meet the needs of all students. Another student with ASD asked if the group could meet for lunch on ZOOM to just hang out. Their needs are less about help with a math problem or editing a paper and more about being connected with their group. THIS IS IMMERSION. 

A mother of a second grade peer commented that most of the second grade is hanging out virtually on the Messenger app. One student needs his mom to be his voice to help him interact. Her daughter and the rest of the class are “not bothered by this because they want him included. They are already oriented to the different ways people communicate.” The mother added, “they include everyone because the important thing is that they can see and hear one another–perhaps not in person, but in a familiar way. Everyone is important to the group.” THIS IS IMMERSION

Amy, the mom of one of our kindergarten students with ASD, shared the following: “Calin usually only acknowledges friends if they play his games on his terms, which is always physical play (chasing/running/wrestling). Otherwise he has no interest in what friends are doing.  He doesn’t seem to mind this, resulting in ‘no real friends’ at all, but it breaks my heart. Will there be a day he is sad that he has no friends? Will he ever ask for a play date or sleepover? Will he have a best friend like I did growing up? Is he liked? Do kids want to play him or are they annoyed by him? All these questions truly break my heart when I consider the possible answers.”  These feelings are very common among the parents of children with autism spectrum disorders. In wanting the best for our children, we want them to have the kinds of friendships and social experiences that we had and cherish. 

Recently, one of Calin’s classmates reached out to Calin via Facebook Messenger Kids, which many students are using to stay connected.  Amy continues, “Eleanor has called Calin several times prior and I would ask him if he would like to talk to her and he would say “no thanks, I’m fine” and run away.  But she kept calling, so I finally told him he HAD to talk to her. He begrudgingly sat down. They both said hello to each other with me prompting Calin to use her name.   Eleanor didn’t skip a beat and immediately started playing with filters on the messenger app that turn your face into something else like a cat/tiger/hamburger/etc.  He just laughed hysterically each time she changed her face and Eleanor would say “isn’t that funny, Calin?!” He would just laugh and laugh and ask her verbally for more. 

Then she asked him to play a game with her and proceeded to start the game. I was a nervous wreck, thinking “He’s never done this before. Will he understand and be able to participate? Will she get frustrated if he doesn’t want to play and hang up? Will he be mean and run away? Will she say to me, “why won’t he talk to me?” Will this end like similar situations with the kids we see at playgrounds?”  They went back and forth doing this with almost no prompting from me to wait his turn. (At the end of the game)… she finally selected the snake and lost. At first he teased her with that ‘nana nana boo boo’ that we all know. Nervously, I asked him to be nice and tell her good game, so he quickly shouted “good game!!” With a smile on her face, Eleanor immediately began another game with him. This time they both had faces like fish and had to use their mouths to catch as many fish as they could.  Again he interacted successfully the entire time. There were moments throughout that he would say “all done, no more talk” and push the phone in my direction. I would start to say something about politely saying goodbye to his friend, but Eleanor would just switch it up and catch his eye with a new game or funny face, and he would be sucked right back in laughing and playing with her again. Eventually he said he was done and actually got up and walked away, so I had him say goodbye and I thanked Eleanor and we hung up. I was almost in tears. ”  

Eleanor showed me that Calin IS liked and his friends DO want to play with him and they will gladly play the way that they know Calin can be successful in order to spend some time with him. Truly made heart so happy and grateful for our school community. 

 Calin is not the only one to benefit from this interaction. The love, patience, and understanding shown by Eleanor is a gift to Calin, but also a gift to herself. She has learned to accept and love people and to meet people where they are. Most importantly, she is being a good friend. THIS IS IMMERSION. 

These trying times may be filled with separations. They may be affecting how we learn and how we work and even how we spend time together. However, the power of being part of a social group and the drive to include everyone in your community because everyone is important is going strong in our children. THIS IS IMMERSION. 

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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.