Sunday, November 16, 2014

Misunderstanding Functions of Working Memory

During the last seminar I attended of the IDA conference I had a profound “ah-ha!” moment! It was the session I wanted to attend and was so close to avoid signing up for in favor of an earlier flight home after a long week. I am so glad that I went!

I have a student who was my “project kid” last year, and is still in my class this year. For those who are not my regular readers… every year I pick a “project.” It is my mission to help the one kid in my class that always seemed to fall through the cracks before I got them. The kid that no teacher has found a way to bond with, or previous strategies just didn’t click for the student. Every year, I make it my unfaltering mission to help that kid!

Last year I helped “that kid” and he’s made tremendous gains, but he has a ways to go. As I sat in the last seminar I finally found the reason that I believe he fell through the cracks. This child has features of several disorders, but not the solid definition of any. He’s the kid that every single specialist or testing facilitator has said, “I’ve never met a kid like him!”

I attended Michele Berg’s lecture entitled “Working Memory and Dyslexia: An exploration of the relationship between reading skills and short term, long-term and working memory functions.” Less than 10 Minutes into the lecture about working memory, I was completely enthralled. Within 15 minutes, I mentally screamed “OH MY GOODNESS THAT’S JOSH!” (Pseudonym of course).

This got me thinking… how many other kids could we have missed? How many kids have a working memory disorder that is not clearly defined or noticed? I’ve reviewed Josh’s file and I know he has significant delays in this area, but it was by no means the most alarming of his test scores. Yet, every single concern we have had over Josh’s struggles has fallen into the exact realm of working memory outlined in in the presentation. I know and understand working memory, but never made the connection to the various areas it can affect. 

With this in mind, I have realized how little training teachers receive regarding working memory and its functions. There are things we often associate with other disorders that can be clustered together to show an overarching struggle with working memory. With this in mind, I created a graphic organizer to help show some of the overarching functions of working memory. Read on to see it examined more in depth.

Working memory is the ability to process information by putting it to use, and it is used when switching between short and long term memory. For example, it is not simply repeating words, but being able to hear a list of words and then place them in alphabetical order and do something with the information.
What is it?

Often students with working memory issues struggle with organization and executive functioning. This occurs when their brain struggles to process what they are doing in relation to things happening around them. They often forget in the middle of a task exactly what they should be focusing on. They struggle to tune out things happening around them and focus on the important information at hand. This often occurs when writing because they forget what they were writing in the middle of concentrating on spelling and forming a sentence. 

Students with working memory delays often lose concentration because it is too much information for the brain to process. The brain becomes overloaded and easily distracted. Students often daydream during classes or busy conversation because they cannot keep up with the discussion.

Remembering Tasks
Students who have trouble processing information, in turn have trouble recalling the information, even when they have been attending to the task. This may happen in reading when they read all the words, but cannot tell you what happened in the story. Their brain was unable to process the information it was taking in. Students may lose their train of thought and forget what they were talking about, even when they had a clear point in mind. 

Problem Solving
These students may struggle with complex reasoning because they cannot grasp a multi-step problem or situation. This can become especially clear during math problems with multiple steps where they lose track of what they have done. They will often lose track while counting as well. 

What can you do?
Rote Memory- While this isn't ideal, you can teach kids to memorize and allow things to become automatic

Mnemonics- You can teach kids strategies such as mnemonics to remember information. This is often most effective when relating it to an image rather than the first letter in a list of words

Associations- Students often remember information better if they can associate it to something simple and familiar. Teach kids to chunk together information they know and is related.

Reduce Workload- This does not mean to reduce the work a child does. It refers to reducing the amount of work the brain needs to do! For example, have a student sound out a word in chunks instead of the whole word at once. Example: Pester could be sounded out as "Pe...pes...pest...pester" which reduces the number of parts of a word the child needs to read at a time. The same can be done with sentence reading. 

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Demanding Dudley

Hello friends! I have a great article lined up for you about social skills in the classroom, but I'd like to start with a little taste of social skills books and their importance at school and at home.

I had the pleasure of reading a cute little story called Demanding Dudley by Deneen Renae, which is part of the new Wiblets series. The book can be purchase from Amazon by clicking on the image below.

As a special education teacher, I've learned stories are one of the best ways to engage students and teach valuable social skills lessons. I was happy to discover a new series to help teach these important skills.

I used this book in two different ways to test out the target audience for the series.

In the Classroom
This year my class is a group of 1st and 2nd grade students with mild/moderate learning disabilities (dyslexia, ADHD, etc.) and the students range in age from 6 to 8 years old. The book is a little bit lower of a level than I generally read to my students, so I chose to make the book part of a larger lesson. 

My students always benefit from reminders for expected behavior, so I jump at any chance I get to include them in lessons! I used Demanding Dudley to introduce the concept of a beginning, middle and end of a story in preparation for creating our own story outlines in the future. The students thought the book was funny because of the way the character acted in the story. They were able to identify the moral of the story by showing how Dudley behaved in the beginning, how mom taught him to make a better choice in the middle, and how Dudley made better choices in the end to get what he wanted.

While the kids enjoyed the story and it reinforced a good lesson, it was clear the book would be perfectly suited for a younger crowd, such as kindergarten for both the length and content.

At Home with Preschool Age Children
I am currently living with my niece and nephew who are 3 and 4 years old, respectively. This seems to be the ideal audience! 

After reading the story at school, I brought the book home. When the kids saw it they instantly wanted me to read it to them. The bright colors and lovable character grabbed their attention right away! The kids were fully engaged and even ignored the cartoon on the TV in front of them so they could hear the story. 

My little niece was talking to the book and liked the main character. Her older brother was able to compare the beginning of the story to the end and told me Dudley didn't get what he wanted until he asked nicely. This is a valuable lesson in our house because both children are at the perfect age to learn their manners. They have been taught this skill, but the story reinforced it in a fun way because they often forget to use their manners. 

The kids enjoyed the book so much that they asked to read it again as soon as I finished! After a second reading my 3 year old niece asked to "read it herself" and she pretend to read the words as she looked at all the pictures. 

I also visited the Wiblets website, which also grabbed their attention right away because of the bright and beautiful illustrations. My niece and nephew chose the color page and were eager to color a picture of the character they just heard about in the story.

This was such a fun and lovable story to read with them!

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

April is National Autism Awareness Month

April is National Autism Awareness Month (NAAM).  NAAM began when the Autism Society of America envisioned a week focused on the needs of the autism community and was formalized by Congress in 1984.  April 2 is World Autism Awareness Day was begun in 2007 and includes Autism Speaks’ Light It Up Blue campaign for autism.  The latest research, released last week, shows us that across the U.S., 1 in 68 children are diagnosed with autism.  The numbers vary significantly from state to state and this represents a 30% increase over the numbers released 2 years ago.  Autism is the fastest growing developmental disability and chances are that most of you reading have had some experience with autism professionally or personally or both.   Autism affects everyone—all genders, races, ethnic origins, and countries.  It also affects everyone around it beyond the individual. It affects the family (immediate and extended), the school, the workplace, the community, and our national economy.  Autism costs the nation $137 billion a year and that is expected to increase significantly in the future as the incidence rises and as the growing number of children diagnosed grow up.  For more facts about the impact autism can have on families and the community, check out this post.

Probably one of the most quoted sayings in the autism community has been attributed to Stephen Shore: 

One of the things that makes this population so challenging and wonderful simultaneously is that every one is different.  I have been practicing in autism for 25 years and just when I think I’ve seen every variation of autism, I find a new one.  Sometimes the difference is the characteristic of autism and how it manifests itself.  Sometimes the difference is how it impacts the family or those around them.  And sometimes it’s how it combines with other difficulties the person experiences. 

So, it’s hard to describe what autism is because of all its variations.  Autism is a spectrum disorder.  This means that it actually spans a number of spectrums.  Some children are gifted intellectually and some have an intellectual disability. Some individuals may have very severe autism while others’ may be mild.  This is complicated more by the fact that this severity and the impact on the person’s life may change over time.  So a child who displayed mild symptoms at a young age may show more severe issues when they get older.  Sometimes it’s because other problems, like mental illness, crop up, and sometimes it’s just because increased stress in their environment increases the exhibition of symptoms of autism.

However, there are elements that are common characteristics of the disorder, although they may look different for each individual.  To receive a diagnosis of autism spectrum disorder (which is the new classification and the diagnostic system no longer includes Asperger’s or Pervasive Developmental Disorder), an individual must display differences in communication skills, social skills, and restricted or repetitive behavior.  That does not mean that all individuals with autism are nonverbal or not social.  Instead, it means that some have difficulty communicating effectively, taking others’ perspectives, relating effectively to others,  or don’t know the unwritten social rules of interactions.  For more information on the signs and symptoms of autism and how it can look in different individuals, I highly recommend the Autism Internet Modules.  You will need to create a free login but there is a great amount of information available in all of their online learning modules including many strategies for helping students in the classroom.  In popular terms, think about it this way.  

Have you met Sheldon from the Big Bang Theory?  People, including the creators, commonly see him as an individual on the spectrum.  Have you met Max from Parenthood?  His character is identified as having Aspergers.  Have you met Ray from Rainman?  Have you met Temple Grandin? This is just some examples of people on the spectrum.

Over the course of this month, A Special Sparkle, as well as some of our personal blogs, will be sharing information and our experiences with autism.  We also have a number of special events going on. 

  •      I have a link up of TPT stores that are having sales on Wednesday and Thursday (4/2/14 & 4/3/14) that you can check out HERE.  Fifty percent of my proceeds from my sales this week will be donated to the Autism Society of America.  Not everyone's store will be on sale, but you can find great special education resources at the Special Sparkle bloggers' stores.
  •       There are Facebook cover pages and profile pics on my blog HERE that you can download to show support of the autism community on social media.
  •       There will be a linkup of free resources for teachers who work with students with autism across the spectrum.  You can find that as it develops HERE.  That linkup will stay on my blog through the year, so you can always check back to it to access free resources.
  •       Check out more resources about autism as well as ways to show support during National Autism Awareness Month at the Autism Society’s NAAM page.
  •       Light it Up Blue with Autism Speaks this month—and light up someone’s life.
And as we move through April and beyond, please share your stories of your experiences with autism in the comments, as well as resources and examples you want people to be aware of.   Autism brings with it many challenges, but we also need to recognize the gifts it brings in individuals who often are not caught up on pretense and who don’t always set limits on what they think they can achieve based on what others think as many who do not have autism might.  So with that thought, I want to leave you with a TED talk by Temple Grandin….Because the World Needs All Kinds of Minds.
             Until next time,

Monday, March 31, 2014

Teaching Kids with Dyslexia

When you go to school to become a special education teacher, you learn so much about the laws, IEP's, teaching reading, and generally ways to accommodate students with special needs. There is one slight problem with this system. Teachers are rarely taught specific strategies for specific disabilities.

With a change in schools, my students are now a mix of high functioning Autism Spectrum Disorder and students with dyslexia. Having a strong background in ASD, I've spent this year focusing on my skills for teaching with dyslexia in mind. It's made me realize just how little I was taught about dyslexia in my teacher training. I'd like to take some time to show you the things that have helped me to most when teaching kids with dyslexia.

Dyslexia is more than b's and d's
People often think of mixing b and d as a sign of dyslexia, but it's so much more than that. It's mixing p, q, g too. It's making 5's and 3's backward. It's writing "51" instead of "15" on a math test. It's writing a completely wrong sight word, but spelling it perfectly. It's switching one sight word for another when reading a story such as "on" for "or."

Dyslexia is Neurological
It's all in the brain! Did you know kids with dyslexia use the right side of their brain to read? Typically developing brains use the front and back of the left brain when reading. People with dyslexia use the front of the left brain, but not the back. They compensate by using the right side of the brain. 

The often see words as shapes or ideas. They may switch "house" for "home" because they mean the same thing and start with the same initial letters. Kids with dyslexia are often very visual learners. Some of my most severely dyslexic kids are the most artistic! Their drawings are unbelievable! Plus this makes it easier for them to memorize things by sight. 

The RULES of Reading
Students with dyslexia need to learn the explicit rules for reading and what causes letters to make different sounds. The English language is very confusing, and students with reading disabilities need to know exactly what causes letters to make so many sounds. Think of it as phonics instruction on steroids! I teach rules such as when to double l, s, f, and z at the end of words. I also teach my kids to scoop sentences into phrases to help them see the pausing and tone within stories. We mark up words to show their spelling patterns such as closed syllables and vowel-consonant-e. Three of the best programs are Wilson FUNdations, Wilson Reading System, and Slingerland. They all teach the rules, letter formation, and use multi-sensory strategies for reading instruction. 

Give Them Strategies
The best thing for a kid with dyslexia is to KNOW they have dyslexia. I know due to confidentiality this isn't always possible, but you can always tell a kid they learn differently. You can also make them very aware of their struggles and teach them strategies to overcome them. My kids all know they switch up their letters and I always cue kids to "check your letters!" or "check your b's and d's!!" during assignments and tests. This visual from Come Together Kids is by far my favorite!! The best thing is the kids can use it anywhere because they always have their hands, and they may not always have a letter chart. The kids use their fists to make a "bed" and a "pig" in the middle of class almost every day.

I've also developed this set of number and letter charts to help my kids know the difference between letters that go to the left and those that go toward the right.
Alphabet & Number Lines for Students with Dyslexia

What Can I do?? Where do I learn more?
1) READ! Overcoming Dyslexia is one of the most highly recommended books about dyslexia and is a must read! 

2) Change your font! There was a very smart set of researchers who discovered some fonts are easier to read for kids with dyslexia and he developed a font specifically for people with dyslexia called Dyslexie. I've had 2 adult friends with dyslexia test out the same paragraph with a traditional font versus Dyslexie and they told me there was a noticeable difference!

3) Change the paper! Students with dyslexia often struggle with visual-spacial awareness. Writing on the lines is exceptionally difficult. Brightlines makes paper with both color and raised lines. Students stay in the blue area for lower case letters, plus the lines are raised so they can feel when it's time to stop and not drop below the line. It comes in yellow too. 

4) Block out sound! Kids with dyslexia often have auditory processing struggles as well. Blocking out additional sounds can help kids focus during concentration tasks. My students know they can pull out headphones any time, as long as I'm not in the middle of direct instruction.

Saturday, March 29, 2014

Classroom Carryover Vocabulary

I'm back with another Classroom Carryover Post! Today's subject is vocabulary. Working on Vocabulary is one of the best ways to make a big difference in a student's ability to succeed in a classroom.

SLPs frequently work directly on vocabulary. Students with language delays often require direct support for skills such as comparing/contrasting, understanding categories, and synonyms/antonyms. 

Visual supports are a great way to support students with carryover of this skill. Teachers can display anchor charts or posters throughout their rooms. If you have students working on these skills during speech and language try embedding them into your daily instruction. During calendar time, ask your student to name 3 types of weather they observed today (sun, wind, cloudy, etc.). You can ask your student what the weather is today.  It's hot!  Great, now name the antonym for hot! I suggest picking a skills and attempting to find 2 opportunities per day to practice. 

SLPs directly target Tier 2 vocabulary. Students with language delays might demonstrate more difficulty to identify terms in the directions, word problems, etc. For example, there are many words for math terms like 'addition' and 'subtraction'. Teachers can support students by providing visuals or a verbal cue. If the class is working on word problems, write a quick list of terms on the board.  In a science class, a student might need clarification on words such 'compare' or 'analyze' in directions on a force and motion unit.  Review those terms with your student before expecting them to complete the assignment. By providing these accommodations for vocabulary,  teachers can ensure the student understand the vocabulary necessary to attempt to question.

How do you support vocabulary for your students?

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

10 Tips for Music, Art and Library (Specials) with Students with Special Needs

Hi everyone!  It's Chris from Autism Classroom News.  Did you know that March is Youth Art Month and Music in Our Schools Month?  So, in honor of that I thought I would share some tips that I have found useful for teachers who teach music, and art, and other special classes like library for classes of students with special needs. The strategies I'm going to share are effective for kids with autism, but they are also useful for all types of students with all types of needs.  Some of these strategies will be used more with students with significant disabilities, but some will work with students with less apparent disabilities.  And I have some resources to share as freebies as well.

1.  Give directions clearly

In polite society we often ask people if they will do something or if they want to do something for us rather than just telling them to do it.  For many kids with special needs, they will take this literally.  You are better off giving directions simply and directly.  Try saying "Sit on the green square" rather than "Do you want to have a seat?"  Try "Point to the bird" instead of "Do you know which one is the bird?"  If you want them to answer a question, then ask a question.  If you want them to  do something, tell them what it is directly and succinctly.

2.  Use visual supports for receptive language

In addition to being clear with directions, it often helps to add visuals for students who have difficulty with communication.  Keep in mind that even though a student seems to talk fine, they may still have difficulty understanding your communication.  Even our gifted students with autism often struggle with understanding others' language.

3. Use First-Then

Whether you present it with visuals or present it just verbally, it's helpful to present tasks that the student struggles with as first [the difficult task] then [something you like].  Presenting it visually helps to keep from it being a negotiation because they can't argue with the pictures.  You could use a written one instead of pictures for a child who reads.  Using it proactively makes it more likely the student will be successful.  You can download a first-then board of your own at my TPT store here.

4.  Make it Interactive

The more that you can create activities that are hands on and keep students engaged, the less challenging behavior you will see.  The picture here is of an interactive book with visuals that students can match.  I've also done this type of book by making copies of the book pages and giving the students pictures of the different characters to hold up when they get to that page.

5.  Consider using a schedule

This is a schedule for activities during library for a student.  This type of schedule, that lets the student know what will happen during class, increases the predictability.  We all like routine and predictability.  Having the class be more predictable and being able to anticipate when things will happen is comforting to most students and prevents challenging behavior.  It also makes it more likely that they can participate in activities more independently.  Making a schedule typically requires collaboration between special educators and the specials' teachers but that collaboration to create a visual schedule to match the lesson plan can be the difference between a 30-minute tantrum and a successful class.

6.  Give choices

When you are able, it helps to give the students choices.  Choices can be about what materials to use, which songs to sing, what order to complete activities in, or even who they want to sit by.  The choice can be presented verbally, but sometimes it really helps to present them visually as well.  This also makes it easier when something is no longer a choice.  For instance, in the music choice board below, when certain instruments have been chosen, they are no longer on the board as they are no longer available. You can download a set of visuals to make this music choice board for $1 here.

7.  Build in opportunities to communicate

Work with the special education teacher to develop visual supports for communication for those students who are either nonverbal or whose verbal skills are not always functional (i.e., they can sing the Kookabura song perfectly but they never ask for anything they need).  The art board here is available free and can be used to support a variety of art activity-based communication as a start.  If you have students who use iPads or speech generating devices, work with the speech pathologist and special educator to let them know what vocabulary would be helpful for your class for the student to participate in a meaningful way.  

8.  Give Wait Time

Many of our students need time to process the information they just heard.  Give a direction and then wait for 5 or 10 seconds before jumping in to help them or repeating the question.  If the first direction didn't work, try adding visuals the next time.  Sometimes it just takes a bit for the student to understand and then to formulate the answer.

9.  Reinforce

Whether you are reinforcing each time the student does something or reinforcing using something like the token board below, make sure to collaborate with the team to find out what specific behaviors you are working to reinforce.  The team should decide on what behaviors they specifically want to give tokens for and then everyone can be on the same page and the child is less confused.  Token systems are a good way to let a student know that he is doing the right thing, whether it's staying in his seat or doing the next step on his art project.  You can download a set of similar token boards in my TPT store for free here.

10.  Nurture their gifts

As the art teacher, or the music teacher or the librarian or whatever other related arts class you teach, you have the opportunity to recognize special talents in students beyond the academics and nurture those talents.  Many of our children with special needs have special affinities or interests related to your area.  Take the time to find those gifts and highlight them for the team.  Nurture those interests for them...they may be the beginning of a budding career as a musician, an artist, or a librarian. 

So most of all, enjoy getting to know our special students, as they have much to offer.  I hope this has provided some ideas that might be helpful for a group of educators who often don't have much training in working with students with special needs.  For more resources and ideas, you can check out my blog at Autism Classroom News or any of the other great posts from this blog that focuses specifically on special education.  

Until next time,

Saturday, March 15, 2014

GoNoodle... a Classroom Must!

A few weeks ago my class started our very own GoNoodle account and we are OBSESSED. We can't get enough of it! If you're new to GoNoodle, it's a website that is devoted to brain breaks and movement in the classroom. When I first joined, I was uneasy about when it would be okay to use it and how my kids would respond. We all know that sometimes when you turn on music and have the kids move around, you may be making the craziness worse. That is not the case with GoNoodle.

When you start an account you pick a mascot that will represent your class. As you choose exercises and complete minutes, you move on to new levels and your mascot gets bigger. The kids can't wait to see if we beat another level and they love watching McPufferson grow! It only takes 15 minutes to move on to a new level. When you reach the next level, the background changes too.

Before we started, I told them there were some rules that we had to follow.

  • Everyone has to participate or it won't work (teacher secrets hehe). 
  • You have to stand behind your chair.
  • You have to follow exactly what the brain break tells you to do (no jumping around when you should be doing Zumba!)
I was amazed that my kinder-firsts really follow along with the Zumba dances, the yoga poses and the different movements involved. It is a great way to get up out of our seats and have a brain break! There are a variety of videos on it so you can choose what best fits your class. Before we go to lunch every day, we have a "free dance" to the Happy song from Despicable Me 2, but before we start centers we do yoga to get us ready to focus.

At this time of year when we are all in desperate need of movement, GoNoodle is a total must. Last week a teacher at my school emailed everyone to apologize that her class may have sounded "rowdy" because they were trying to beat a level! I love it. 

GoNoodle will even send you a class pack of stickers with your mascots face on them! How fun is that?

Here are a few of the great breaks available! Go now and GoNoodle!

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Experiencing Dyslexia Simulation

This week I had the opportunity to experience, then facilitate a very realistic and impacting simulation about what it feels like to have dyslexia. It was beyond anything I ever thought it could be! By the end of the simulation several parents were close to tears as they discovered just how hard school was for their child with dyslexia.

NOTE: I have in NO WAY been asked to promote this product. These are my genuine opinions with no prompting from the company to promote them.

The Northern California Branch of the International Dyslexia Association has developed a dramatically realistic representation of what it is like to experience dyslexia with standard academic tasks that you'd see in any classroom.

This simulation is one they do each year as a form of parent education and this year I was asked to be a part of it. Before the parents came, we were each given an activity that we had to read/prepare and were expected to facilitate the parents as they went through the simulation. Then before the parents came for the seminar, all of us had the opportunity to experience all 6 simulation activities. Boy was it an eye opener!!

Obviously as a special education teacher I understand each of these struggles my students face, but it's quite different to sense them myself. Even as teachers, there were certain activities where people just gave up. They felt like they just couldn't do it. It's an emotional, frustrating, and eye opening experience.

There were 6 activities: 2 writing, 2 reading, and 2 listening. I wish I could pick a favorite, but they were all eye opening in their own special way.

My station was called "Write or Left" and required participants to write with their opposite hand to demonstrate the difficulties with writing and copying. Some parents got very distraught trying to complete the tasks. Some showed task avoidance, some cheated, and some were on the verge of tears.

I also observed some very interesting things! One woman was shockingly good at the task and I complemented her. She told me that she's naturally left-handed, but in school teachers forced her to become right-handed so she's now proficient in both. It's such a wild idea in modern times to assume you can force a natural phenomenon to change. However, I do know that this was common practice many years ago.

I also had 2 young girls (sisters) come with their parents. I believe they were in 3rd and 4th grade. When the dad and one of the girls came to my table I watched them both closely because clearly they brought their daughters for a purpose, not just to avoid getting a baby-sitter. One task was to copy a gibberish cursive-like doodle from memory on to the back of the paper. I saw the little girl trace it, then stare straight forward and trace it in the air without looking as she memorized the shape of the "word." I told her I was impressed and that it was the most creative and effective strategy I'd seen all night. She told me that she has dyslexia and it's the way she practices her spelling/vocabulary cards.

The dad's reaction was almost hard to watch. To see the look on his face as he realized just how hard everyday school tasks for his daughter... it was a combination of revelation and tears.

Another mother could hardly speak when I asked her follow up questions about what it felt like. She said she finally understood why her son does so many things he does, and why he's getting in trouble for things when he gives up and gets off task. She noted she now understands when he doesn't care when he doesn't finish an assignment, because he feels like he can never finish any assignment on time.

One mother said she'd been to every seminar possible about learning differences and dyslexia and that this was unlike any other! She was begging for us to hold another one so she could bring more people to experience it.


For more information please visit The Northern California Branch of the International Dyslexia Association

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