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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.

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The myth of the Normal Rockwell holiday

December is the season for nostalgia and idealism. We love to watch old movies, flip through photo albums, and scroll through Pinterest for images of the ideal holiday. We may raise our hopes very high to create that perfect day (or week or month), filled with memories and cookies and family fun.

Then reality hits. For families who have a child with Autism Spectrum Disorder, that reality can hit particularly hard and cause many different conflicting feelings about the holiday and even our family.

Here are a few things to think about as you plan your holidays.

  • Cut back on activities. It is okay to say no to social engagements that are not conducive to your child.
  • If you do want to attend activities that might be challenging for your child, think about the activity and the environment. If your child will struggle, it is better to get a babysitter or allow your child to stay home. Do not feel guilty about this!
  • If you decide to take your child, make a plan and share it with your child. Decide how long you will stay, explain behavioral expectations, and take a visual to help the event go better.
  • Rethink your traditional expectations. Let go of the ones that don’t work for your family. Do not feel guilty about this either!
  • Pick and choose the traditions that you feel are most important.
  • Take time for yourself to refresh and to reduce stress. A walk in the park alone can be a great way to clear your head.
  • If you are thinking of visiting Santa, consider going to a “Sensitive Santa” or other location that is less stimulating to visit Santa. Use the Internet to help find Santa stops in locations that might be less stressful and more accepting of your child’s needs than the mall. No matter what people say, screaming Santa pictures are not that cute.
  • Try to feel okay about your new normal. If all of the family celebration photos on Facebook make you feel sad or upset, consider taking a social media break for December. Don’t compare your “behind the scenes” with everyone else’s highlight reel.
  • It is okay to feel some grief about not having that Norman Rockwell holiday, but remember, Norman Rockwell painted a moment in time. Who knows what was going on right before or right after those moments?
  • Remember that your holiday only needs to be perfect for your family, and you get to decide how to define that.
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You can’t get through it unless you get to it.

You can’t get through it unless you get to it.

This simple phrase is a staple in our approach to behavior. What does this mean? Certainly we are working to help our students extinguish their behaviors that are harmful or exclusionary. This long process can involve a lot of work, both for the student and the adult.

There are no short cuts.

It might not be fun.

But we can not stop at the point where it is uncomfortable. We all have developed new skills in our lives that were hard to do at first. We have mastered some skills through work and practice. It is the same for our students. They can learn. They will learn. We all want the process to be short-lived, but what we are changing may be deeply rooted for the student; often times, we see behavior because it has served a purpose for them. It may get them what they want. It may get them out of what they do not like. In some way, it has been effective for them.

When addressing behavioral hurdles, we need to meet the challenge head on. We want to clearly let the student know “This way that has worked for you in the past is not acceptable.” We are asking them to be socially appropriate. We are asking them to communicate a want or need in a way that does not include those previously learned ways, ways that we may have reinforced (consciously or unconsciously). What we don’t want to do is placate or give them what they want without communicating- in other words, hoping we keep them happy enough so that we never see behavior. This cannot be sustained by the adult and certainly has not taught the child a better skill.  While we may be able to keep a child happy and therefore avoid difficult behaviors, the world will not be as kind. The most loving thing we can do is prepare children to face disappointments and challenges and roadblocks, rather than try to shield them from the hard things. This is true whether your child is typically developing or is on the Autism Spectrum.

We believe in all children’s ability to learn a better way to express themselves and get what they want or need. We will teach them a better way to take a step forward. Real life expectations in the classroom lead to handling similar situations at home and in public in more socially appropriate way. So, with behavior, we set a high expectation and then help the student be appropriate within that framework- not with a separate expectation for a student with Autism. Sometimes, we see behavior getting worse before it gets better. This is expected as you are asking them to change not just an external behavior, but an internal understanding of how the world works.

You may need to find a team to help you. It is confusing to the child to pick and choose when certain behaviors are acceptable and when they are not. It is hard for the adult to try to go at it alone. Find support and use that support, whether it is for the child or for you. Consistency is the key, and a team approach helps you achieve that consistency.

Don’t give up.

Through all of the challenges thrown at your child and you or your student and you, remember your job. Help them know what is acceptable. See the challenging behavior they have and work to help them do better. Push through the times that are tough or uncomfortable. Believe that they can and believe that you are being helpful. We take the steps with them, but we always have a goal of them being able to take steps on their own.