Peer Interactions and Social Closeness in Self-contained Classrooms

Much of life can pass us by when we are too hurried to pay attention to it. This is not only true for us, but also for the children we work with. Realizing that small moments of interactions can add to our toolkit to enhance meaning-making and social closeness between children can be a major game-changer!

document (Promoting Positive Social Interactions in an Inclusion Setting for Students with Learning Disabilities) by the National Association of Special Education Teachers focuses on the importance of promoting positive peer interactions: ”None of these (referring to positive and challenging experiences) will be more rewarding than helping children with special needs developing positive interaction with their peers.” Even though the same sentiment is frequently repeated in schools, I am often surprised at the gap that exists between intervention practices with students with severe communication difficulties and the idea that we need to promote interactions and friendships between peers. This gap is particularly evident in self-contained classrooms where students tend to have assigned seats and are engaged in one-on-one instruction for up to 95% of the school day.

When we address promoting peer interactions, the focus often lies on the type of behaviors (e.g., getting a friend’s attention, sharing objects, saying something nice to a friend ) that can promote peer interactions. Although these behaviors are important, it is equally important for us to be able to assist two children who show some affinity for each other to become friends. Teaching and promoting positive behaviors can facilitate the development of a culture of acceptance and tolerance in school; however, they do not necessarily promote the development of friendships between children. Becoming friends requires sustained interest between peers and the openness to become socially close to another. Hence, the development of friendships requires targeted observation and ideas that can be infused to enhance meaning-making between two children.

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In-classroom Learning with AAC Students: One Step at a Time

I recently observed a three-year-old girl who was going to start in-classroom learning after an extended time at home during COVID. She and her father were visiting her grandparents for the first time after an 18-month gap due to COVID. Even though they frequently interacted online via Zoom or FaceTime, the excitement and anticipation in seeing each other was significant. However, the little girl, on only a few occasions during the two-day visit, wanted to leave the loving embrace of her father. She was able to name all the letters and colors and sat down to do focused desk work for a surprising amount of time. She seemed happy to withdraw into her own world and engage in learning material; however, she was reluctant to interact with her grandparents.

This observation made me think of a book I have been reading by Krista Tippett, entitled, Becoming Wise. In the book, she interviews Ann Hamilton, an artist who makes the statement that we really must practice listening because our everyday spaces are not set up for listening. She expanded on this idea by pointing out that it is not only that we don’t have time and space to really listen, but that when we do listen, we tend to want to do so by using earphones to improve our own ability to focus on specific information. We don’t really listen or we are “plugged in”; and she explained that “It is very hard for me to wear headphones at all or sunglasses because then I feel like I’m not where I am, wherever that is” (Tippett, p. 88).

I couldn’t help thinking of how the use of earphones on my iPad has helped me to isolate myself from the environment in recent months. It was almost as if I needed the earphones to protect me from the outside world. Although it did help me to focus my attention on what I was working on, it clearly also functioned as a buffer against what was going on around me. It dawned on me that I too have become skilled in using this buffer to isolate me from outside world during COVID.

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Story Time with Erna #4: A Spider in the Pond? Understanding Concepts of Daily Living

Spider in the pond

This narrative is aimed at increasing children’s understanding of daily concepts by enhancing curiosity and engagement in everyday life events. It promotes close observation and inquiry based on what we see. Like before, I set the stage for the narrative by going through the concepts to ensure that children have some understanding of the main concepts in the narrative. The URLs are included to provide you with easy access to pictures and ideas to expand on your discussion with the children.

Preparation: Enhancing Conceptual Understanding

Here are some of the most important concepts highlighted in this short narrative. Although some of the concepts may be too difficult for some children, it is important to expose all children to all the concepts. Children learn by being exposed to new information and contexts even though each child will derive different meaning from the interaction. How children are able to participate in this activity is not as important as the experience they share with others in finding answers to the questions. The engagement in and enjoyment of the interaction is of primary importance.

  • Weather: For this blog I start off by setting the context in terms of the weather. I do this by contrasting different weather patterns: Indiana is cold, icy, wet, and snowy. South Africa is hot and dry, with little rain. Lack of rain often means that there is a water shortage.
  • Spider: Spiders have a body and legs and live on land, mostly in dry places. Pay particular attention to the physical resemblance, i.e., shape of a spider and its color to contrast with the spider in the pond.
  • Cracked ice: Looks like/not the same as/different from a real spider. Did the crack stay the same/change over time?
  • Feelings and experiences: Excited, curious. In addition to this narrative, the first story in the series also deals with playing a trick on someone.

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Using Core Words in the Classroom: Some Guidelines

As this is my first blog of the New Year, I want to wish you all a wonderful 2021. May we all soon see the end of covid! We will start off the year by talking about the use of core words in the classroom.

Teachers and therapist often ask me how much time they should spend on teaching a particular core word (or words) to their class before moving on to the next core word. Truth be told, this is a very difficult question to answer, as there are so many different factors impacting how long students take to learn a specific core word.

Traditionally we formulated our vocabulary goals by specifying that the child is able to use one language function at a time, e.g., requesting. We would use the words “I want” and encourage the student to indicate whatever s/he would like to choose. The focus is therefore on choice-making. The following video is a typical example of this kind of approach, where the focus is on getting the student to request specific objects to express needs and wants.

The principle of using core words to promote language and communication development, however, is based on a different premise.  Continue reading “Using Core Words in the Classroom: Some Guidelines”

Compliance and Engagement in Interaction with a Child Who Is Nonverbal

I recently followed an interaction between communication professionals on twitter in which they commented on the difference between compliance and engagement in interacting with young children. It made me acknowledge that Twitter can be used in really constructive ways: These short messages can make you think! Please see the postings as well as the comments on the postings below (Nov. 13 & 14, 2020).

Twitter Postings and Comments on Compliance and Engagement
(November 13 & 14, 2020)

Communication isn’t about pressing buttons to get things. Communication is about deepening connection, meaning-making and engagement. These things drive us to keep communicating (Alex de la Nuez).

Let’s not confuse compliance with engagement. Doing something I don’t necessarily want because someone tells me to do it is compliance. Doing something I want to do because you’ve inspired me to make my own choice is engagement. (Chris Bugaj).

Comments:

• True, true, but we all have to do things that we don’t find engaging. (Cathryn Robbins)

• True. Compliance also isn’t always learning. Following directions doesn’t necessarily mean content is being learned. This can be especially true for students with language delays. (Mollie Kropp)

These postings and comments highlight some important concepts in thinking about the differentiation between compliance and engagement. I briefly summarize the primary points below.

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Prioritizing Students’ Friendships in Pods and Classrooms

Children playing in fountain

If the Corona virus epidemic has taught us anything, it probably is the value of friends and family in negotiating our way through difficult periods. Talking to friends and catching up on Zoom allow us to share how we feel in our dark moments. Friendships empower us to face reality and to realize that we are still ok and sane!

Even though we can strengthen our existing friendships remotely, it is generally more difficult to develop new friendships online. Existing friendships are what we capitalize on in difficult times.

This Cornavirus time is, therefore, another wake-up call for us to seriously reflect on how to assist students with special needs to develop friendships. I was struck by a recent posting by a mother of a child with special needs. It vividly describes the plight of a boy who does not have friends. She wrote:

I’ve been doing this for 19 years, so I’m used to it. But really, no, not doing okay. I’m so depressed and sad for him. He is lonely and anxious and doesn’t understand why people don’t want to be with him. He’s lovable but they can only take him in doses. His sadness turns to rage, on me mostly. And I stand there with my invisible shield on and I take it. Because no one else can or will take it from him. I’m going to be there for him no matter what. And right now, during this…pandemic, I have to be here for him 24/7. Because he has nothing to do and because he’s so full of anxiety. It’s really hard. 

This mother’s cry for help is not uncommon, and it requires our attention. The posting highlights the boy’s isolation and lack of friendships. It also describes the parent’s desperation within this context. While some parents of typical students could probably identify with this mother, the extent of the challenges are different when you have a child with a significant disability.

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Blended Learning for Teachers, Parents, and Therapists: Integrated Lessons for Students with Severe Communication Difficulties

Mushrooms in garden

I remember when I first started to teach online in the late ’90s, I attended a training session on blended learning. The message was that online learning is not “just like classroom learning.” You cannot take what you do in face-to-face classroom teaching and simply put it “online.” You need to identifythe main purpose of the learning exposure, and then select the strategy best fit to achieve the goal. One has to integrate learning purpose and strategy from the get-go.

This integration requires that one has knowledge and understanding of the different types of online strategies, their strengths, and their limitations. There are no hard and fast rules for what strategies work best for students with severe communication difficulties. The secret to success is: one needs to be open-minded in observing each student’s pace of learning and adapt strategies to suit the student’s learning outcomes.

For example, the best way to introduce a story might be in a synchronous group online or classroom situation. However, tapping into the children’s understanding of the story could be more effectively done via an individual one-on-one session, whether online or face-to-face. Thereafter, parents can facilitate re-enactment of the story to consolidate information learned. If parents are uncomfortable with this level of participation, we need to adjust the strategies used. Continue reading “Blended Learning for Teachers, Parents, and Therapists: Integrated Lessons for Students with Severe Communication Difficulties”

Story-time with Erna #3: For Parents and Their Young Children—About Turtles in a Pond

Turtles in a pont

Paying Attention to Detail : Enhancing World Knowledge and Understanding of Concepts.

Today’s narrative is different from the previous two stories as it focuses attention on observations made while watching a pond with turtles. This type of observational narrative encourages children to focus attention on detail. Encouraging children to look more carefully at their environment builds on their world knowledge and understanding. What we see depends on how carefully we look and listen. Careful observation is not only the basis for acquiring knowledge, it is also related to understanding concepts and making sure that we have something to communicate about. Having something to share with another is at the basis of developing communication skills.

Background to the narrative

I have friends whose house is next to a big pond. If you stand in their sunroom, you can see the turtles and fish swim in the pond and sometimes you can even see a snake swim in the water. When I first saw the pond I couldn’t see anything in the pond. However, after a while, when I looked more carefully, I realized you can see a lot! My granny always said if you look too quickly you can’t see anything, however, if you look carefully, you will be surprised at what you see!. Today I am telling you about the turtles that live in my friends’ pond and if you look closely at the pictures, you will see what I saw! Continue reading “Story-time with Erna #3: For Parents and Their Young Children—About Turtles in a Pond”

Story-time with Erna #2: For Parents and Their Young Children during the Time of the Coronavirus

Woman reading story to her child

Pre-amble to the story: Talking about taking turns.

As soon as my granny sat down to tell us a story, she would ask:  “So, which story do you want to listen to?”. In response to this question my brother, Nico and I would start to shout out the stories we wanted to hear. Our shouting often became louder as we tried to persuade my granny to tell the story we wanted to hear.  Then, my granny would ask : ”Who picked the story last time?”.  My brother, Nico and I  would then quickly start to point at each other saying “You chose last time!”.  However, my granny was a wise woman and would remind us who selected the story last time  by saying something like  “ Let’s think about this. Erna, didn’t you choose the story about “How the Animals Chose their King?”  When granny said this, we all knew that Granny was well aware of whose turn it was and that we needed to quickly step in line before she changed her mind about the story! This was indeed Nico’s turn to choose the story.  I had to accept that this was his turn to choose. This time, however, Nico chose a really good story. See if you agree with me..

In my retelling of this story, I am again using the book  Famous South African Folk Tales by Pieter W Grobbelaar and Sean Verster.

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