Monday, September 28, 2009

Works for Me Monday: Parent Communication

Those of us who work with nonverbal students know just how important good communication between home and school is. One of the earliest lessons I learned as a teacher was the value of writing detailed notes home. As one parent put it, her child can't come home and tell her what happened at school that day. It's all well and good for the teacher/staff to write "good day" on the note, but what does that mean exactly? What did she learn? What made her happy? Did anything make her upset? Did she eat well? Take a nap? See a therapist? Make a new friend? Go out in the community?

Throughout my career I've used a number of different methods to communicate with the parents of my students. I've used SOP (summary of progress) notes on NCR paper (expensive and challenging to store), spiral notebooks, and, my current favorite, photocopied checklists (I adapted mine from one Kate Ahern posted to the Boardmaker yahoo group and later to ). My checklist, with full credit to Kate, is copied front and back. One side is School to Home and the other is Home to School. It contains boxes for information like mood, meal times, personal and medical care, reminders and "need-to-bring" lists, daily activities check list, and notes. Daily notes used to take me at least 30 minutes when I had to write everything out in the spirals. In addition, because of the repetitive nature of our business, I often felt like I was writing the same things over and over. With the checklist I have cut my note writing time in half and it's easy for parents to scan through for the essential information while still knowing what their child did that day at school. In addition, my paras are much more comfortable filling out the notes themselves and even related services providers have been seen to use them. We send our notes back and forth in three ring binders (the same used by the kids' peers in class). If there is a note I need to save for documentation I simply photocopy it.

My second favorite method of communicating with my parents is via text messaging. If I have a quick question they can quickly respond without disrupting their activities or playing phone tag. Often times they will get a reminder via text message that they might not see on the home note, or in those rare (ha ha ha ha) instances where I forget to note that a student needs personal supplies or snacks until after they leave for the day. Parents text me all the time with questions or for information too. And since I can print transcripts of my text messages I have documentation just in case of misunderstandings or difficult situations. Before texting a parent, however, it is a good idea to make sure it is OK as not all parents have text-friendly cell phone plans. It is also a good idea to let them know that it is OK to text you as well.

I know of other teachers who use Twitter (I'm way too wordy for Twitter--grin!), instant messaging, email, and blogs to communicate with their students' parents.

Checklist-style home notes and text messaging work for me when communicating with parents. What works for you?

Monday, September 14, 2009

Creature Discomforts

If you haven't seen it yet, go check out this site. Creature Discomforts is a disability advocacy group out of the UK. They have some awesome animated ads about living with disabilities. The website also has fun activities like games (some of which can be made switch accessible; I especially liked the Audio Only version of the Callum the Chameleon Game) and e-cards. Make sure to check out the behind-the-ads spots too.

Note: I know I've seen the games before on someone's blog but I read so many I can't remember who/where. So my apologies for not crediting you.

Monday, September 7, 2009

Leisure Skills

Michie commented and asked if I would explain more about what I mean by teaching leisure skills to my students. There are lots of schools of thought on that. Do we focus on "age appropriate" or "developmentally appropriate" ? How much time should we spend? Active or passive? Group or individual? I think these are decisions teachers have to make based on the individual needs of their students and their families.

For my families, having their kids develop a variety of interests is important. So is being able to engage in leisure activities independently (in other words, being able to play without adult involvement for short periods of time so mom or dad can fix dinner, take a shower, or just get a short sit-down break). I have kids who come to me with very few, if any, obvious interests; kids who are stuck in interests way below their chronological age (Bareny is for 3 year olds not 13 year olds); or who constantly demand attention and cannot spend even a second "alone." We spend a lot of time introducing our students to new experiences, developing more age typical interests, and encouraging independent play. Some activities are active (games; cause effect activities on the computer; using an adapted remote control, or in our case a voice output device since we can't find a remote to work with our TV, to change TV channels; using an adapted CD player on the computer; interacting with sensory devices and toys) and some are more passive (watching a DVD; listening to music or an audio book with an mp3 player). It is all dependent upon the needs and interests of the student.

We are fortunate to have a large library of audio books on mp3 that are written for a mid to late elementary level all the way to adult. Sometimes students listen to them independently and sometimes we put them on the surround sound system and listen as a whole class. Our mp3 players are probably the most popular piece of technology in classroom.

We are "aging up" some of our students' interests. I still have SpongeBob lovers but have learned that a number of middle schoolers are still avid fans of the show. We also expose the kids to the plethora of preteen and teen oriented shows (Wizards of Waverly Place seems to be a current favorite) as well as game shows, the History Channel, science shows, etc. Now, don't let that lead you to believe that we watch TV all the time, because we don't. It is just one of the options available to the students in between other activities. When it comes to choosing "age appropriate" or "age typical" activities, I usually bow to my peer experts. If they say it's OK, then it is. And you'd be amazed what the average 7th grader gets a kick out of!

Sensory toys and devices are another favorite activity. My 16 year old has an extensive "sensory diet" and requires frequent access to a variety of sensory activities in order to regulate his system. He is now fairly independent in choosing how to meet his own needs and moves between our swing, watching blinking lights, "squishing" in a bean bag chair, listening to music, and "sensory deprivation" in our bathroom with the lights off and a flashlight on (I know, I know, but it's his choice and he makes it VERY clear that's what he needs--he has even problem solved to drag his bean bag chair in there, around equipment, people, etc., and has to come to us to request his flashlight be turned on; we're mean and put dying batteries in it to increase interactions). I have other kids who use a Powerlink and a switch to interact with various light toys. And we use Active Learning with a lot of the kids which gives them choices of toys, positions, and equipment (we have a resonance board, a positioning bench, an ESSEFF board, and a HOPSA dress along with a huge inventory of sensory toys). I credit Active Learning with fostering independent play skills in several of my students who didn't have them before using these techniques.

For group leisure skills we play a lot of games. Uno is a top favorite as it is easily adaptable to the needs of each child and lets us apply our number, color, and matching skills. We also like the Scene It series of games, Sorry, Yahtzee, card games (Texas Hold 'Em is great!), and "noisy" games like Jenga. We go out into the community to participate in bowling and every quarter we meet up with our buddies from another special needs class to do a project or have a party together.

We also do lots of art projects, although I don't think most of my students view these as "leisure" opportunities. They sound more like "work" to them. :-) I have a couple of students who have started collecting key chains. They like to play with toys that make noise and key chains meet that need in addition to being age appropriate, a conversation starter, and available everywhere. They make nice reminders of trips and special events too.

We strive to make all the leisure activities we do as active as possible. Even watching TV or a video can be made more active by programming communication devices (we often use step-by-steps) with crazy comments and questions that promote interaction. Even when staff is too busy to be "hands on" available for every student, we can respond to communication attempts. I know my kids' parents are appreciative of the fact that they can step away from their child for a few minutes or that they are no longer stuck listening to endless replays of Barney or Blues Clues. And they love that there are ways to include their children in activities such as "family game night."

Works for Me Monday: Staffing Assignments and Scheduling

OK, I know I'm not the best at keeping up with my blog post schedule. In my defense it's a super busy time of year between 6 IEPs in 7 weeks (and anyone who works with kids with multiple challenges knows those things can be monsters, especially as the kids hit transition age) and some BIG things happening in my personal life, which I may post about in the future. In any case, this Works for Me Monday is about how I assign duties to my paras, which I thought would be an appropriate post for Labor Day.

Paras are essential to success in my classroom. I am fortunate to have 1:1 staffing (including myself) for my students. This makes it so much easier when someone has to be gone (I have one para on maternity leave at the moment; she will return just in time for a second para to leave for the same reason). We also have a complicated schedule with at least one student out in the community every day. I'm still trying to figure out how to work in out-of-the-room inclusion opportunities as we have a huge burden for state assessments, making it difficult to find the time in the kids' schedules.

I firmly believe in every staff member being able to work with every student. They all know they are expected to not only know and be able to meet the needs of each student but also be able to conduct all of the various programs. This benefits the students, who learn to work with a variety of people. As adults they will seldom if ever be in situations where they have the same staff for long periods of time. They need to learn now that it's OK to work with new people. For the staff, this policy prevents feelings of "ownership" for one student. Instead we are one big, mostly happy, family. And the staff can easily "trade off" when struggling with a difficult or frustrating teaching session.

Last year I ended up with an entirely new staff so I started doing what I called "Rotations." Each staff member was assigned a specific curricular area where they showed special skills or interest: Cognitive Skills, Assistive Technology Use, Physical Therapy/Adaptive PE, Sensory/Nielson's Active Learning, Computer. I set up the lesson plans and after Morning Meeting the kids rotated between staff members every 25-30 minutes, depending upon the day. This seemed to work well for us last year and we were able to accomplish quite a lot. The drawback was that my paras started to become so specialized it was difficult to fill in when someone was absent. In addition, they started to get bored doing the same tasks every single day. I tried switching things up but had one staff member who refused to give up her territory. In addition, it was difficult for me to make sure the kids were working on all their goals and to get around to each staff member to make sure they were correctly following programs.

Over the summer my middle/high school paras were pretty much on their own as I had to spend quite a lot of my time working the elementary students in our summer program. They revamped Rotations a bit and started all working on the same tasks at the same time so they could support each other. They still rotated kids around though. After talking with them we decided to leave that schedule in place this year. This has turned out to be a good decision since the state made significant changes in our requirements for assessments this year. We have added two new pieces to our curriculum: ALL and Unique (I'm still looking for a good early math skills curriculum; ideas anyone?). That means I need to take back the "leader" role in instruction and provide much more direct and hands-on support to the staff since most of these activities are new to them. So now we do math and reading every day (last year we focused on math on Mondays, Reading on Tuesdays, and Writing on Wednesdays; Thursdays were community and Friday was Sensory Fun/Therapy Day) with either science or social studies in the afternoon (depending upon the Unique unit). The students are basically in three groups by ability/interest and two staff members "specialize" in each student, although so far everyone is doing a good job of working with every student. The most challenging student to staff is my 16 year old who is out and about every day as there are some limitations on which staff can go with him. So this year, so far, my schedule looks more like this:

7:40-8:30 Arrival, ADLs, breakfast or peer time, positioning, leisure skills
8:30-9:00 Morning Meeting
9:00-10:30 Academics: Reading, Math, computer time, assistive technology use, ADLs as needed; also several of the kids do positioning programs and/or walking within these activities; 16 year old goes on walk about if schedule requires or does Life Skills/work bin tasks
10:30-11:00 Repositioning and stretches for everyone; ADLs as needed
11:00-12:00 Lunch preparation (3 do this) or meds and tube feedings (2 do this) paired with leisure choices or finishing earlier work
12:00-12:30 Break time for students and adults (kids work on independent leisure skills)
12:30-1:00 ADLs as needed and classroom chores
1:00-2:00 Afternoon group activity (science or social studies); 16 year old goes on walk about if scheduled or participates in group
2:00-2:30 Journals, ADLs, repositioning, get ready to go home
2:30-3:00 Departures
Monday is "Hear new concepts/words/numbers" where I introduce new material, the letter/sound of the week, the number/math concept of the week, etc. This is more focused on listening
Tuesday is "See new concepts/words/numbers" where I introduce visual/tactile vocabulary and we start asking the kids to identify and differentiate new knowledge from previous knowledge
Wednesday is "Use new concepts/words/numbers" where we start asking the kids to apply their knowledge by answering questions, doing simple writing tasks, cooking, art projects, etc.
Thursday is Community day for the whole class
Friday is Sensory/Therapy day with swimming for two kids in the afternoon; I also use Fridays to assess kids on how well they are doing with new and old concepts so I can determine where to start the next week (do we need to stick with what we are learning now or are we ready to move on)
I'm still working out the kinks in all this new-to-us stuff and figuring out where everything fits in. However, the overall consenus from both adults and kids is that we like the new challenges.

So, that's What Works for Me when making staffing assignments and setting my daily schedule. What works for you?