Monday, September 30, 2013

What is the learner objective?

When we started developing our student curriculum nearly seven years ago, Denise and I knew what we, as parents, wanted typically-developing peers to know about their classmates with autism, including our own sons.  Not long after we had done some field tests, we assembled a committee to review our newly-hatched programs and services.  One of the members encouraged us to identify learner objectives for our programs to clarify the content.

Boiling lessons down to learner objectives crystalizes your message, and should drive both the message and the medium for delivery.

2009, Alcon Entertainment
Warner Bros. Pictures
One of my favorite film-based examples of a teacher having a clear understanding of her learning objectives for a lesson is in The Blind Side.  As the true story goes, eventual pro football player Michael Oher struggled greatly in school.  At the private school he ended up graduating from, his Biology teacher opted to give his assessment orally versus requiring him to read the questions and write his answers.  The academic ability she found in her student by taking that alternate approach made a radical difference in both his educators' perception of his potential and in the way his education was crafted.

Students with autism spectrum disorder are notoriously difficult to assess by traditional means.  Standardized tests are often verbally-loaded, which poses a number of problems for most children with ASD.  For example ...

  • verbal processing delay: Many individuals with autism experience a measurable, many-second time delay in hearing words and being able to make sense of them.  In timed tests, this is especially debilitating when trying to assess understanding.
  • need for rephrasing of questions: Abstract language and concepts are difficult for people with autism, who are often black-and-white, concrete thinkers.  While rephrasing questions often helps students understand the intent, this is prohibited or carefully restricted on many standardized tests.
  • fine motor impairment: Whether it's a difficulty with writing in small spaces or an executive planning problem with getting thoughts from head to paper, writing words is often hard for people with autism.

And these don't even take into account communication and sensory perception differences.

In light of these, educators and families need to be clear about what their learner objectives are.  If the learner objective is to take a high-scoring standardized test, that's one thing.  But if the objective is to understand the factions of the Civil War, or the order of operations for algebra equations, or to identify and successfully manage one's emotions, then be sure the teaching and assessment methods are individualized to the learner.

The need for clarity around learner objectives, which is not restricted to academic pursuits, was recently driven home when the meltdown of a student with ASD was perceived and treated as if it were a behavior problem.  The student presented in the morning with a number of underlying stressors, which were not evident to educators because of his limited spoken language.  What sent him over the edge was a substitute teacher, who ended up receiving a communicative swipe.  Perceived by administrators as an aggressive act, the incident prompted a phone call to the parent, who was asked to take her son home as a disciplinary measure.

Thankfully for all parties, the parent had the tools to de-escalate her son* and debrief the many people who tried to respond, reminding them of her son's existing IEP and BIP, which were full of techniques that were used successfully in the past to prevent meltdowns and/or bring them to resolution.  (*Note: While the de-escalation techniques described in the article may work for some individuals, this is by no means a universal, exhaustive, and/or exclusively recommended list.) With the proper interventions, he was able to return to class successfully and complete his school day without further incident.

Here are the lessons the student could have learned from the initial mis-handling of the meltdown:
  • I must self-regulate emotionally, even in the absence of otherwise available assistance.
  • My non-verbal means of communication will be ignored, even punished when misperceived by adults around me.
  • I will be freed from school when I use out-of-control behavior as my last resort.

Here are recommended learner objectives:
  • To recognize feelings of upset and communicate those, whether verbally or otherwise, to people who can help in the ways established through my IEP/BIP.
  • To expect that feelings of upset will be handled by trained adults without escalating those unwanted feelings.
  • To return to class following times of emotional and/or physical dysregulation, confident that systems exist to encourage inclusive practices.

So take a good, honest look at what you're trying to teach your student with autism.  Are your learner objectives and teaching methods consistent with the lessons?  If not, how can you adapt them?  If so, please share your successes with others who require inspiration!

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Setting the Bar

I'm not an athlete.  My strength never did come from my muscles.  But I certainly do admire the way athletes challenge themselves.  It seems to me that the good ones don't so much compare themselves to other athletes, but to their own accomplishments.  Personal bests, training regimens, and individualized goals mix and mingle with creative coaches and hard work to create results.  I'm sure athletes have a brass ring they're reaching for -- an ultimate dream.  Perhaps they set their own bar (whether literally for their sport or figuratively).

I think about that bar when it comes to pole vaulting.  Where do you set it?  I'm guessing pretty low to begin, and then as your skill set improves, higher and higher.  In considering the way we as parents set bars, do we do the same thing?  Do we set the bar at a reasonable level first, then as our children grow in skill, do we move the bar, perhaps with their input, so they have a new, higher aim?

For some reason, likely sheer hope and optimism, it seems most parents set that bar quite high.  We have a picture when our children are placed in our arms of what their lives will be like.  Flashes of brilliance and talent colored by milestones and achievements.  Not a whole lot of consideration of how the skill set will be developed to get there -- the tools, supports, and resources that will be needed along the way.

Based on my own personal and professional experience, when parents of children with autism receive a diagnosis, oftentimes that bar gets knocked way down -- maybe even off the rails altogether.  And they start looking to others (doctors, educators, social workers, etc.) for where and how to set the "new" bar.  What will my child's life look like after high school?  Will he get a job?  Will he get married?  Will she be able to live independently?  Suddenly all the flashes of color become washed out to gray uncertainty; and I'm not sure why we even had those flashy colors to begin with.

None of us knows how our child's life will unravel -- whether they're typically-developing or have autism spectrum disorder.  We can look at statistics and try to come up with a framework for a bar.  But human beings are surprising, somewhat unpredictable creatures -- adept at creating and using tools.

So wrap your head around this: don't "set" the bar.  Rest it.  With those high hopes and optimism.  And methodically seek out those tools, supports, and resources -- the coaches, therapists, educators, friends, interventions, etc. -- to develop the skill set needed to get over the bar.  Then move it up, fully expecting you can raise it higher.

My son with autism is now 14.  Based on his input, we've now rested his bar at high school, an apprentice program, graduation, and a three-year college program, fully expecting him to be gainfully employed thereafter.  With the framework of his fledgling Postsecondary Transition Plan, we're working together as a team to help him smash personal bests.

So keep the cushy mat under them to protect them when they fall.  And make sure the training and the equipment they have are adequate for the attempt.  Keep celebrating achievements and learning from mistakes.  All in brilliant color.  Your student is worthy of nothing less.

Monday, September 9, 2013

A Season of Miracles?

If you've "Liked" Good Friend's Facebook page, then you probably saw the photo we posted on Sunday.  We were at Dylan's Run and snapped a picture of Potawatomi's vendor booth.  Here's the exciting explanation!

Good Friend, Inc., is in the running to be one of this year’s benefiting charities of Potawatomi Bingo Casino’s signature community program – Miracle on Canal Street. If we’re one of the 10 additional charities selected in December’s random drawing, we will use the grant to establish a "scholarship" program for qualifying Title I schools, and develop a "train-the-trainer" model for elementary school student service delivery.

Fresh off the miracles of our Kickstarter campaign and successful elementary film shoot, it makes sense to us to go for the trifecta! 

Miracle on Canal Street began 20 years ago as a way to carry on the Potawatomi tradition of nurturing younger generations so they grow to lead healthy, productive lives. Since 1994, Miracle has donated more than $12.5 million to support hundreds of local children’s charities.

Half of each $3 Miracle Bingo game played goes to the Miracle fund, which totaled nearly $1 million last year and was distributed to 30 charities in southeastern Wisconsin! You can give the gift of a promising future by playing the Miracle Bingo game now through December 12. 

Weekday bingo sessions are held four times a day and generally last two to four hours: Start times are 9:30 a.m., 1:00 p.m., 6:00 p.m. and 11:00 p.m. 

Wish us luck in the random drawing!


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