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

Sunday, March 2, 2014

A Tale of 2 Timers: App Reviews

Hi all--It's Chris from Autism Classroom News!  I was flipping through my iPhone yesterday and discovered a bunch of apps that I had forgotten about.  Last week I also realized that folks I was talking to didn't know about some of the apps for timers on your smart phone.  Let me start by saying I'm a BIG BIG BIG fan of timers. I love them so much, I made them #2 of the top 12 things needed in an autism classroom.  For just a sampling of how I use them, check out this post.    I love them but I'm very particular about them so I thought I would share 2 of them that I use that I really like and tell you the good and the bad.

One of the uses for timers for many students is to help them learn to wait.  Often I will give students a wait card (just a card that says wait and might have a symbol on it) and set a timer.  Visual timers are nice because the students can see the time counting down that they are expected to wait.  The Pyramid Educational Consultants that makes the Picture Exchange Communication System (PECS) have created an app for that.  It is called Wait 4 It.  It's available for iPod, iPhone, iPad mini and the iPad for $1.99.  You select a picture (there are 50 picture symbols or you can take or upload your own photo).  The sand timer counts down to the time you set and makes a noise when it reaches the end and the picture moves forward and larger.
Pros:  It's pretty easy to use. I love that you can choose a picture or upload your own.  It's visual for the students.  You can set minutes and seconds, so you can set it for short times if needed.  And finally, you can set it for minutes and seconds (I hate when you can only set minutes).

Cons: The timer only rings one time and I really wish it would continue so I can take it to all the children involved.  I have to remember to hit it twice to set it and hit it twice to start the timer, which once I figured it out wasn't that hard. And finally, of course that it only works on apple products, as far as I can tell.

The second timer I want to talk about is the Time Timer.  Many of you may be familiar with the visual timer Time Timer in stand alone timers we often use in our classrooms for kids with autism.  I love the app because I don't have to find it--because I always have my phone.

For anyone not familiar with the Time Timer, you can read and watch a video here of all their products.  The long and short of it is that it is a visual timer that has a colored dial that gets smaller as the time counts down.  The visual aspect of it has been great for students on the spectrum for years, and now they make a noise when time is up, which is awesome!  Otherwise, our kids just stayed on the computer (a common use for the visual timers is to show them how much time they have on the computer) and if when we weren't paying attention.  The iPhone and Android versions are $1.99 and the iPad version is $4.99.  Also, there is a desktop computer version that you can project on an interactive whiteboard or projector--it's $24.99.  You can get to all the relevant links here.  There are some great features of the app that I want to highlight.

There is a timer you can quick set by just sliding the dial around or you can pick from a slider.  You can only have whole minutes, however and if you are using short periods of time it's sometimes hard to see how much time is on the timer.  One of the great things about it is that it has the option to have multiple timers on a page.  They also seem to have fixed it so that the timer won't stop if your phone goes to sleep (an earlier version stopped if your screen turned off which ALWAYS happened to me).  There is a clock version that shows the actual time as well as versions that are more traditional with just the colors counting down (but you can pick the color).  You can also set up timers with names and set up timers to repeat themselves.  Finally another option is to set it so that it just vibrates, makes a sound, and that it keeps playing the sound until you stop it (a feature I love) or have it just ring one time.  In the picture to the right you can see some of the options you can set.

Pros:  You can have multiple timers with different colors and different sounds.  You can name the timers and choose the colors or type of timer.  You can set it to continue ringing.  You can choose the sound it makes (I recommend trying them out because the default sound is pretty soft), and you can set it to awake mode so it doesn't go to sleep.  It's available for Android and Apple devices.

Cons:  It's hard to see small amounts of time and you can't set seconds.  The sounds are a bit soft but you can solve that by choosing a loud obnoxious sound.

So, those are 2 tools I pull out and use for a variety of timer needs.  What timer apps or tools have you used?  Share them in the comments!

Until next time,

Saturday, March 1, 2014

The Importance of a Strong Home & School Connection

We just finished our second set of conferences for the year and we'll have one more round before the school year ends. This set of conferences really got me thinking about the importance of a strong connection between home and school.
I'd like to present a "case study" so to speak. I want to show you my own success and failure in the world of home and school connections and how they have directly affected the lives of three of my students. I have a co-teacher too, but we tend to divide our kids based on who we connect with the most. Two of these kids are "mine" and one is a kid we share because we love him to death! All three of these kids were considered behavioral concerns when the year started.

Student #1
This student is on the spectrum and in a school that is not specifically focused on spectrum disorders. Many of the teachers love the kid, but few understand him. He has been one of my favorites from the day I met him! Many teacher thought he was being a pain on purpose, when really he was just confused about the world and insanely blunt about his thoughts. He appears so high functioning that it's easy to confuse his disorder for rude/bad behavior. His family and I have a VERY strong connection and have little chats almost every day at pickup or drop off. They often ask questions and confirm that his behaviors at home are what we see at school. They let us know when he's had challenges such as not sleeping the night before a school day.

Since the year started, this student progressed from expressing none of his emotions or there causes at school to expressing himself all the time... perhaps even a little too much some days. Through my connection with his parents, I was able to learn and pass along the information that he likes to write to me when he's upset instead of talking to me. He has since done this at home all the time now! This kid couldn't even spell when he entered our class and he has created the motivation to learn so that he can't write down his thoughts and feelings to us. He has also started using phrases like "I feel ___ because ____." Yes, sometimes his feelings are slightly irrational, but now we know what caused them and can then provide reasonable explanations to him for social situations he doesn't understand. This has significantly reduced his crying and outbursts. He also has learned to preface things with "I'm not trying be rude, but I don't understand why ____." His parents and I have worked hard at explaining what things are deemed rude and he now knows how to ask in a way where we know he doesn't understand a situation and really wants to know about something but knows it may come across as a rude question or "talking back." He is making huge academic and social strides every day and is a happier child because of it! 

Student #2
This student has a learning difference and is very hyperactive. He is very socially smart and well beyond his years in many ways. He is one of the most popular and funny children in the room. In class we have set firm boundaries for him and strict consequences to limit silliness and other behaviors. We've also implemented more interventions than I can count for both his academic and sensory needs. Off the top of my head I can think of 5 different accommodations on/in his desk that we encourage him to use in addition to several brain/movement breaks. He knows the boundaries and expectations at school and is fully capable of following them successfully.

Our home/school connection has been inconsistent. We've made a strong effort and sent home countless update emails. We have had chats at pickup and drop off but they aren't always well received. If the student has a bad day the lead parent finds ways to excuse the behavior. This has since translated into the child making endless excuses for his behavior. He is so smart that he works the events into stories that sound completely rational, although often an inaccurate description of the actual events. The parents often believe the child over the teachers which has caused a huge disconnect between home and school. The family is often mad at events that "happened" at school when they aren't entirely accurate. It has been a struggle to make behavioral and academic progress with this student because his behavioral expectations are so different between home and school. The parents expectations for his behavior are far different and they do not set the same limits that we expect the child to follow at school. We find we spend more time defending our actions than working as a team with the family to find ways to IMPROVE the child's behavior. It has been a struggle to show them that despite his disability, he is fully capable of being a great kid with great behavior which will greatly improve his academics. He has made wonderful progress in many ways since the beginning of the year, but not nearly as much as we know he is capable of. 

Student #3
This child was by far the most challenging student in his class last year. There were debates about if he would last in our school because of his emotional outbursts. We set firm limits with appropriate rewards and consequences in our classroom for all of our students along with a corresponding behavior chart. This child THRIVES on our system. We have successfully eliminated major outbursts at school and greatly reduced minor outbursts which are now few and far between. 

We have the strongest home and school connection imaginable with the family! They are totally on board with our strategies and terminology we use at school. We work closely with their home behaviorist and we are always in the loop for they way things are progressing at home. We keep a firm and predictable set of standards for behavior at home and school. We are constantly emailing the family with both positive and challenging behaviors we see at school and they support us. The same is done in reverse when they have things happen at home. We are a universal front between home and school and this child is like a whole new person from last year. We've had countless specialists and staff members comment on how much this child had changed and improved. This is the epitome of a strong home & school connection and how the system can work when we are a team!

What challenges have you encountered when trying to create a home & school connection? What things have been successful for you?


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