Wednesday, December 19, 2012

I made Giggles cry... and I’m kinda happy about it!

Now, before I get any of you gentle-souled parents and educators jumping on me about anger and patience and etc., let me just state for the record that part of me feels very badly about the story that follows.  I don’t often lose my temper with my students, and when I do, I feel terrible about it for days.  That being said, please, read on and try to see the bigger picture here... as horrible as it sounds, there really is reason to celebrate tears in this case...

For those who are regular followers of Room 10, you’ll know that Giggles is only with us Thursdays and Fridays – she spends rest of the week in IBI, which makes for a pretty disrupted pattern – 2 days at home, 3 days at IBI, two days at school, repeat... not great for consistency in routines, expectations, etc. Now Giggles has an interesting profile – she’s a kid that would likely be integrated in the mainstream, except that she has a really difficult time interacting appropriately – she grabs, headlocks and pinches people on a regular basis – not in an aggressive way, but because she really likes them and wants to interact.  She also likes to poke at eyes and grab at inappropriate areas... not exactly the kind of thing that they tend to put up with in a mainstream setting.  She also like to scream randomly to get a reaction – a hair-raising, ear-splitting scream that scares the bejeezus out of you if you’re not expecting it... which you never are, since she likes to do it at random quiet times... Thankfully, not too often.
Anyway, aside from the behaviour stuff, Giggles has an awesome receptive vocabulary, a great memory, and a real interest in other people.  She also has great gross-motor skills and is generally super-compliant  - except for when she has the sillies, hence the nickname. We’ve had a really hard time nailing down a  good strategy to help her control her impulses, mostly due to the fact that we only see her 2 days a week!
So last Friday, she was in fine form right from the get-go – full on sillies and giggling, and a few choice screams before we even started circle around 9am. Now usually, the scream gets either ignored completely or gets a quiet, right-in-the-eyes “Giggles, stop. No screaming. It hurts our ears” and that’s usually enough – we rarely hear more than 2 a day. This morning, however, neither seemed to be working, and when Mr. Intense strolled by and reached out during circle, heading for her hair, Giggles let out yet another blood-curdling shriek. Now, as he didn’t actually touch her, they both got a sharp “stop” and a quick re-direct. We carried on with circle, but less than a minute later, he was up again, and this time, he managed to actually get a handful of her hair. *Now, to be fair, she does have a sensitive scalp – I know this from having put her hair elastics back in multiple times every day, as she pulls them out as soon as no one is looking!  However, and I’m not exaggerating here, the scream that came out of her was so long, so loud and so high-pitched that I’m surprised the windows didn’t all shatter instantly.
All of what followed happened in an instant - Mouse and Little Guy both clapped their hands over their ears and started to cry, one of my TA’s grabbed Mr. Intense by the wrist and released his fingers from Giggles’ hair and I, sitting right in front of them both as it happened, and knowing that the TA’s were dealing with Intense, turned to Giggles and hollered right at her: “GIGGLES! STOP! NO SCREAMING!” And yes, let’s take a pause here to recognize the irony of me pretty much screaming at her to stop screaming. I didn’t say I was proud, I said I was happy... read on...
Following that one chaotic instant, I pulled my usual “Jekyll and Hyde” routine and immediately turned to the rest of the kids, smiled, and asked Sunshine what song she’d like to sing, intending to continue with circle. This worked, to some extent, in that she asked for “If you’re happy and you know it”, my TA’s and I started singing, Little Guy and Mouse stopped crying and Mr. Intense was so overwhelmed by the chaos that had ensued that he actually sat down and allowed a TA to lead him through the actions. But here’s where it gets interesting.  After the first verse, I turned to Giggles, intending to smile and pull her into the familiar routine, and found that as predicted, she was already singing along.  What I wasn’t prepared for was the very obvious signs on her face that she was actually fighting back tears as she sang, and when I continued to look at her, she tried to turn away and hide her face, eyes welling up more when I looked at her...
I was blown away – not by the tears themselves, because I’m sure the hair pull hurt like the dickens , and no doubt that was part of it, given her sensitive scalp.  What floored me, though, was her effort (and failure) to stay composed, and specifically, to avoid contact with me (presumably because I had just yelled at her).  This is a kid who never seems bothered by reprimands, giggles on through-redirection and is never, never sad or grumpy. Tired, yes, but sad and mad are pretty much only seen on her when we’re doing an emotion imitation activity, and even then, she’s pretty bad at those expressions and generally finds them hilarious.
And literally, in that split second, I felt two equal emotions – first, horrible guilt for having just yelled at her and obviously caused the distress, but second, flooding wonder and joy at what a TYPICAL reaction she had had. She and I are buddies, it’s no secret – she’ll usually listen to me over anyone, and we have regular “chats” about how awesome and smart I know she is. And here was this kid, reacting in EXACTLY the way a typical kid would after being yelled at by someone they love.
Not wanting to leave her in distress, we finished the song and I quickly motioned to one of my TA’s to finish circle, and told Giggles to come with me.  Still teary, she had clenched her hands and was obviously reluctant to go with me into the hallway, but she did, allowing me to lead her to our Movement Room next door, where we sat on the edge of the new play structure.  I smoothed her hair and hugged her around the shoulders and apologized for yelling at her, and told her that I knew it must have hurt to have her hair pulled. I also reminded her that it hurts our ears, and that she had made Little Guy and Mouse cry with her loud scream, and that she needed to use her words to tell Mr. Intense to go away (which she usually does quite readily). I could tell she was still not quite composed, so I suggested she use the slide, and then we jumped together on the trampolines until she finally started smiling again. After that we headed for a bathroom break and then back to class, where circle was over and everyone was busily engaged in their work blocks. We worked through her four activities and then did some shared reading, and by the time I sent her off to a preferred activity, she seemed to be back to her old self, albeit slightly less silly than she had been earlier.
Fridays being our busy days, I had almost forgotten about the incident by the end of the day, when I was sitting at my desk writing in their agendas.  Across the room, my TA’s were helping the kids get ready to go home, and Giggles, in typical fashion, was more interested in trying to do some sort of booty-bumping Bollywood dance and laughing than getting her coat on.  After several attempts from my TA’s to redirect her which elicited nothing but more laughter, I hollered across the room (NOT unkindly this time, just loud enough to be heard over the din) “Giggles! Coat ON!” She immediately looked my way, stopped bumping and grinding and proceeded to get her coat and boots on without any further silliness. By then, agendas were tucked away in the correct backpacks, and she happily took my hand and headed down the hall to the bus, where she said “good-bye” and “see you tomorrow!” before bounding up onto the bus.
The moral of the story? I’m not quite sure, to be honest.  I laughed when I saw this cartoon, but there’s some truth in it, too. Truth is, I’m not much of a yeller, and I’m not good at confrontation in general, and I certainly don’t use it as a regular tool with my students.  That being said, here’s the thing... my first year of teaching, my classroom was across the hall from two separate teachers who were both “yellers”.  They we’re always raising their voices with their students, and although I don’t think there was much actual mean-spiritedness to it, I’m not convinced it was terrifically effective, either.  I, on the other hand, was not a yeller.  I ruled my room through affection and respect – my kids knew I loved them and that I expected good behaviour from them, and because they liked me, they tried to meet those expectations.  That’s kind of my approach to classroom management in a nutshell, and I use much the same philosophy now in Room 10, in that I really believe the relationships with the kids are what are most fundamental to their ability to learn and thrive in the room. That being said, here’s the thing... when I taught mainstream, I could probably count on one hand the number of times I raised my voice to the class in an angry way. And when I did – THEY LISTENED. Because those kids knew that if I was mad enough about something to raise my voice, that they were in serious trouble, and had better smarten up, fast.  And in a very similar way, I think that’s what happened with Giggles today, too, for the first (and hopefully last!) time.
Am I going to take up yelling at my kids as a behaviour management technique? Hell, no! But today, for those few minutes, that moment of lost self-control on my part turned out to be a blessing in disguise, because it allowed me to see a side of Giggles that I had always suspected was there, but never could nail down – a typical kid hiding under that ASD, who was really genuinely upset that her beloved teacher had yelled at her, and who was able to show that emotion in such a visible, familiar way that it literally stopped me in my tracks.
I’m sorry for your tears, Giggles, and I’m sorry for your hurt. But kiddo, I love you too much not to admit that no matter what happens, I will always be a little glad to have seen you cry. xo

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Shut Up and Listen

I didn't intend to write tonight, but in surfing my amazing blog friends on Facebook, I came across an article someone else had posted about a recent C-Span feature in the US about federal responses to autism. Now, I don’t pay a whole lot of attention to US politics in general, but the principle of the article interested me – that two of the panelists in this tv feature had autism themselves, and the author’s take on it was that no one had really listened to what these men had to say about themselves and their community.
I’m not even going to attempt to get into the political murkiness of which organizations fund what and why, but I do know that as awesome as all the bio-medical and causation research is, it’s not helping my students, who need funding and supports for programs that will help them communicate, self-regulate, and participate in the world as much as they want to.

Now, I’m not complaining, either... Room 10’s little slice of life in the autism world is pretty beautifully supported in many ways – our complete sensory room, our community programs, our visiting therapy dog, and our amazing new gross-motor play structure (thank you grant funding and anonymous donor!) But none of that helps my buddies when they go home, and I know the wait lists for IBI, respite care, social groups, OT, PT and SLP support are long and often expensive. Maybe instead of focussing on a “cure”, we could at least SPLIT focus and spend as much on supporting kids and adults with autism in ways that they need now?

This is the author’s take on the uneven funding and focus:

How is it that we can say we "care" about autism and those who are autistic, yet not fund programs that will make their lives better? How is it we can use war terminology and ignore that these words make those who are on the spectrum feel badly about their very existence? Is this how we want our children to feel? Do we really want our own children to grow up believing they are fundamentally wrong, at fault and "broken"?
Let's just say, for the sake of argument, that our autistic children, whether they speak or not, whether they are in a special education classroom or are included with a regular classroom, most of them, if not all, can and do understand what is being said about them, but they cannot tell us or do not have the ability to communicate in a way that we, who are non-autistic, can understand or recognize. Can we at least imagine what that would be like if this were done to us? Can we try, just for a moment to have the empathy needed to imagine? Are we compassionate enough to pause, even if for a moment, and consider the implications of what we are saying and doing? Even if we cannot or do not want to think about all the autistic adults whom we do not know, can we think about our own child? Our children will be adults one day, do we really want them to feel as so many autistic adults do? Do we really want our children growing up feeling they are a "burden" to not just us, but to society? Is this the message we want to pass along? Because at this moment, that is exactly what we are doing.
Which not only explains eloquently why funding needs to be re-distributed, but also brings me to a pet peeve in general when it comes to my students – the assumption that they can’t or don’t understand or hear what is going on around them. This DRIVES ME INSANE. And I’m not even talking about big things, like discussing complicated world issues in front of them, using inappropriate language or talking about our private lives in a way that we would never dream of doing in front of NT kids. I’m talking about little things. For example, how things went in the washroom. I mean, really? 

Let’s just imagine, for a second, that a neuro-typical 8-year old with some kind of physical mobility issue needed help in the washroom regularly.  Would we really announce, arriving back in the classroom, “Ok, Junior here went. He had a big poop, and it seemed to really be hurting him, but he got it out and washed his hands nicely.” REALLY? How embarrassed would that 8-year old kid be to have that announced to everyone in the room?  THEN WHY ON EARTH DO WE DO THIS TO OUR KIDDOS WITH ASD??? Seems like nothing, but why is it that just because a kid is non-verbal, we assume they don’t understand or hear (or feel/react to) what is being said.

I will never for a second forget the words of CarlyFleishmann’s father, Arthur, in an interview he did about Carly learning to type.  He said the worst moment was the one in which he suddenly realized that for years, they had been talking about Carly in front of her as if she wasn’t there. It stuck with me, and it changes the things I say and do every day.

I try to remember to talk TO my kids, not about them.  And even when I do talk about them, I try to do in such a way as I would any kid – recognizing that they can hear and understand what I am saying, and speaking accordingly.  Honestly, if I could change one thing about Room 10, it would be some kind of magical filter that reminds adults that our kids CAN and DO understand, and to speak and behave accordingly. About the bathroom... about our personal lives... and most of all, as the author points out, when we are talking directly about autism, or behaviour, or ability. No one should have to constantly feel as though the way they are is some kind of problem that needs to be solved, or that everyone around them feels sorry for them, or their families. And maybe, just maybe, they’d be a whole lot more motivated to communicate with us if we would just shut up and listen.

Monday, November 19, 2012

“Sunshine is reading” – A true story!!

I’ve always been a reader.  I was a bookworm kid, a bookworm young adult, and even though I read less often now, it’s mostly because I’m an obsessive reader – once I begin something, I have a complete inability to walk away from it until it’s done, rendering me both oblivious and useless to the outside world for the better part of a couple days. I usually try to stick to either quick easy reads, or not read unless I’m on a long vacation (more than a weekend!) As a teacher, reading aloud to kids has always been one of my favourite parts of the job, and the three years I spent as teacher-librarian before taking on Room 10 were often a blissed-out blur of awesome picture books and rich nonfiction.
Don’t get me wrong – we read in Room 10.  Sunshine is completely obsessed with books and loves nothing better than being read aloud to, and we often read short, patterned books aloud as a group. But Room 10 has also reminded me what I had forgotten about reading on a very fundamental level – it is the key to unlocking the world, and doubly so for my kids, some of whom may never end up using verbal output as a functional mode of communication.

As I got to know my students better,  I was determined to find a method to teach them to read, especially Sunshine and Giggles, who have quite a lot of verbal function. I started here, with a method developed by Patricia Olewein and recommended to me my a beautiful and brilliant SLP that used to work with our school.  If you’re interested in the process I’ve been using, read on... If not, just skip to the end where I tell about the wonderful thing that happened today! J

Boiled down, the concept is fairly simple – cut out the complication of sounds and letters, and teach kids to recognize words as pictures, which plays on the tendency of kids with ASD to have visual memory (matching) as a relative strength.

Names blurred, but you get the idea! Grid 1 with pics, Grid 2 without.
Now, if a kid has strong affinities, that’s always a good place to start – with the names of favourite items or characters – nouns that are concrete and easily identified. For my girls, I decided to start with their classmates’ names.  They could both verbally identify their classmates both in person and in photographs, so it was an easy start – matching name cards with grids that had both pictures and words. (*Note to those attempting this – have MULTIPLE grids for each of these steps, and change them up, so that your kids don’t  simply memorize where the words go!*) Once they can do this accurately, move on to grids without the pictures – matching word to word, and making sure they can identify the words.  Now with my girls, they can identify the words verbally, but if a student is non-verbal, you can still move on to this step by having them match the words, then asking them to add a correct picture to ensure comprehension.

Once they had established the learning style with names, I added small high-frequency words that would be easy to practice in different contexts – I chose “my”, “is”, “the” and “this”.  The procedure was the same, but without pictures.  To be honest, I’m not sure how you would do this step with kids who are completely non-verbal, as it would be hard to move beyond word matching to recognition without a concrete visual to pair this with. For my gals, it consisted of having them match, and then giving a verbal model for them to repeat, until eventually they could match and tell me the word without me prompting it.

One of the little iPad stories...
Throughout this step, I paired the word grids with simple texts that made use of the words in context – Level A & B readers from our bookroom, printable books from online reading sites ( and are two of my faves), and simple books that I made up myself on our classroom computer or iPad (using a great app called Book Creator for iPad).  I would read these with the girls right after doing the grid activity, trying to build context for seeing these words being used to create meaning.

Finally, last week, I created an activity set to move on to the next step – sentence building. This is key for kids who, like Sunshine, are learning to use ACC such as Proloquo2Go, and are eventually going to want to build sentence spontaneously (hopefully!) The activity took the words they were already familiar with, and paired them with unfamiliar but known verbs and nouns, paired with pictures, to create meaningful communication. Too much jargon? Check out the picture – I put their names in a baggie with the words “is”, as well as some action words like “skating”, “reading”, and then used them to take turns building sentences. The other baggies has “this”, “is” “my” and “the”, as well as nouns like “book”, backpack”, “train”, etc.
Sentence building kit!

Fast forward to this afternoon.  Sunshine has been having a challenging day, but seems to be calm in her word period with me and ready to focus, so I grab the new activity and decided to give it a try.  New activities can go either way with Sunshine – either she’s really into them and loves the novelty, or she’s really not into them and it creates inevitable meltdown city. I crossed my fingers and dove in, laying out three little piles of words – names, “is”, and the action words.

“Let’s make some sentences for reading,” I instructed. “My turn”. I took her name from the pile and placed it in the holder, touching it and saying it, which she of course repeated. I then did the same with “is”, and then chose “reading” – her favourite.  After placing each one, I touched each word and repeated “*Sunshine* is reading.”

“Your turn!” Without missing a beat, she picked out a name and placed it in. I prompted her visually to add “is”, and then she quickly scanned the action words and picked “eating”. When she finished, I touched each word in turn, and she read back to me “*Mr. Intense* is eating”.

Insert HUGE reaction from me here – lots of praise and excitement – her fave - and then going back and forth, we quickly made 6 sentences. Then she read all of them back to me. More HUGE reaction.  Then she read all of them back to one of my TA’s to further excitement, and off we went for a celebratory wagon ride, with me doing my happy dance the whole time.  When our principal popped in later in the day to check in, I was telling her about our success when Sunshine came over to say hi, and when I asked her if she wanted to read to Mrs. Principal, she with almost no hesitation read back the two completely different sentences that I had created to show her the activity! Needless to say, it was a very happy day in Room 10 no matter what else happened today!

So that’s our reading magic – it may not work for everyone, but it’s sure working for us! 

Saturday, November 10, 2012

“It’s beautiful!” Yes little one, yes it is...

So after the rose-coloured outlook from my last post back in September (has it been that long?!), the other shoe has, of course, dropped.  After all, the magic of the first two weeks of school can’t last forever, right?
Here’s the thing... There is crap that happens in Room 10.  Frustrating, maddening crap. Every day. Materials get destroyed. Bathroom accidents that aren’t really accidents. Food dumped all over the floor every day. Screaming, flopping and tantrums. Endless hitting and hair pulling. Strategies that suddenly stop working. Crap. Crap that makes me want to quit my job and get a nice, quiet office job with predictable, quiet paperwork, where my only bruises would be from bumping into my own desk and I would never have to end my day wanting to crawl under my desk and cry... (Ok, maybe that last bit happens in desk jobs, too...)

HOWEVER, (and this is a big however) while I’m pretty sure that quiet desk job wouldn’t have nearly as much crap, I’m also 100% sure that it wouldn’t have all the amazing moments, as fleeting as they are, that happen in Room 10 every day. So I could write about the crap, or instead, I could tell you some of the wonderful.  And I don’t know about you, but I’m a sucker for a little wonderful in my day, so here goes...

First of all, this pic. We’ve been getting out a lit this fall, joining other classes for bi-weekly skating at the local arena, walking to the grocery store to get snacks and ingredients for cooking, and going to the local bowling alley for some fun and “heavy work”! It’s been a beautiful fall, and this shot was taken en route to the skating rink.  I know you can’t see their faces, but they’re all grinning, enjoying the day and the sunshine and the ride.  Also, that’s Mr. Intense and Miss Sunshine (my super-prompt dependent gal) together in that little wagon.  They are the most aggressive of my bunch, and the facts that they are cohabitating without injury, let alone enjoyment, is a miracle in itself. 

Several weeks ago, I was the first to venture to our designated washroom in the morning, and arrived to find the drawer units and garbage can all moved around.  Luckily, I was with my newest buddy, who didn’t care, so I just quietly moved things back as she did her business, puzzling.  It dawned on me pretty quickly that they had finally replaced the drywall along one side, which had been pretty grimy and damaged, and that there was now a nice, clean wall along one side – hence the displaced items.  She didn’t seem to notice, and as we headed back to Room 10, I promptly forgot about the wall.  Later that morning, I took Miss Sunshine down... and all went pretty regularly until we had finished washing our hands and got ready to leave.  As we turned to go, she pulled away from me and zoomed over to sniff the new wall, tilting her head to check it out (she’s also a smeller!). She’s pretty rigid, so it didn’t surprise me that she had noticed, and I said out loud “Yes, we got a new wall.” She thought about this for a second, and then turned to me and pronounced “It looks beautiful!” It was awesome – spontaneous, situationally appropriate and a completely new expression from her! In fact, despite the ongoing obsessive issues and dependency, Sunshine has had some really amazing steps this fall – she’s started to greet familiar people by name, is completing her independent workstation beautifully (most days), and is LOVING our bowling trips. Her very best moment came this week, though... I was at my desk filling out report card envelopes, filling and writing the kids’ names on each one while the kiddos had their Choice time (preferred activities) She wandered over to see what I was doing and proceeded to read each child’s name, correctly, as I wrote them! I was so very excited – out of context, without prompts! Officially time to start some sentence-building activities, methinks...

Mid-October, we went with the second grade classes to visit the local pumpkin patch.  Not only did the kids manage really well, but some of them even enjoyed parts of it! Despite it being a very cold, rainy day, the wagon ride was a hit, we had only one major meltdown (my Little Guy was terrified to walk across one of the fields for some reason and had to be carried!), and everyone made it home with a mini-pumpkin as a souvenir.  Each class also got a big pumpkin to take back, so the following week on Halloween, we figured we might as well make it into a class activity, not really sure how it would go, and check it out!  Two of them even helped to scoop it out, which was a huge shock, and everyone seemed to have a good time.  In fact, they’ve been doing really well with group activities this month.  Both my planning time teacher and my student CYW tried clay activities with them, and the HPE teacher had them make Vietnamese spring rolls with the other health class one day last week.  Not only were they delicious, but 4/5 kids actually ate them – HUGE score! I even managed to snap a pic of all five of them sitting, together, without support (at least for the few seconds it took to get the shot!) while making their edible playdoh... a rare and lovely moment captured for all time! (We substituted sunflower butter for the peanut butter and used chocolate chips to decorate.)

You know what else is awesome?  Getting STUFF for my kids.  I know money isn’t everything, but it sure as hell helps, and my poor principal has learned to lock up the school accounts when I appear at her door, because I’m constantly working to get stuff for my kiddos from any angle possible. In all honesty, she’s been very supportive, but it’s a bit of a running joke in the building that the PHE teacher, the Teacher-Librarian and I are the triumvirate of spending and always have a scheme up our sleeves.  So last winter, I got my teacher to sign off on a grant application for the S’Cool Life Fund – a proposal for about $3000 to put a softplay corner in my Movement Room (our gross-motor classroom next door). Steps, a slide and a covered trampoline... which doesn’t sound like a lot, for $3000, but so goes the world of educational supplies... Anyway, I had completely forgotten about it when my principal appeared as my door a few weeks ago, waving a phone message and a smile.  Lo and behold, we had gotten half of what we asked for, and they were going to be coming to our school assembly in November to present us our giant cheque! (I’ve secretly always wanted to hold one of those!) Of course, the grant didn’t cover the full amount of the setup, so we had to forgo the covered trampoline (we’ll just put our regular one over there – for now... ;), but after a promise of some extra $ from parent council and a sweet 25% discount from the fine folks at Flaghouse (they rock!), we should be getting our softplay corner within a few weeks!

Also in “stuff”... In our precious little Quiet Room (multi-sensory room, for those who are new here!), huge final steps!  The spotlight which has given us endless grief (4 burnt-out bulbs since last May, at $25 ea. to replace!) was finally replaced – I emailed Flaghouse to complain when it burn out yet again, and they immediately credited me the whole amount of the item, which I them used to buy a rotator motor for the disco ball and some new oil wheels for the projector (did I mention they’re awesome?!).  Instead, I found a new source for an LED spotlight, and bought that, which arrived in record time (within a week), got installed, and promptly transformed out little room into one mezmerizing, amazing disco party! *Shameless plug* I love the folks at Flaghouse, they’ve been wonderful to me, BUT didn’t have what I wanted in this case. Enter TFH Special Needs Toys... HOLY MOLY are they fantastic!  This was the second item I’ve ordered from them (last time it was the oil effect projector no one else could track down for me), and both times, the items arrived super-fast, in boxes covered in stickers and with a handwritten note inside.  Seriously, if you need anything, check them out (no, I have no affiliation – they’re just awesome!) – they have divisions in CAN, the US, the UK, and five other countries.  Anyway, Mr. Intense was fascinated with the installation process (drills, ladders and such), as sat still on a beanbag and watched while our custodian and the board maintenance guy worked their magic, and as soon as they wrapped up, all five kids and all four adults piled in and sat in blissed-out disco heaven for almost 30 minutes until the bell rang for snacktime.  It’s beyond awesome!

The new disco ball in action!
On top of the disco-mania and also in “stuff”, we had a visit this week from our superintendent.  Last time I saw her was in the midst of all the adult drama from last year, so it was a nice change to have a visit when things are going well!  She was touring the school as a whole, but I made sure to hang about as my principal showed off our Movement Room and bragged a little about the impending grant.  The Super mentioned that there was a ton of federal money being thrown around for sensory rooms, and that she would hook us up with the high school that had just gotten $60 000 to build one... what?!?! To which I replied – nicely, but with a touch of snark – that we had raised the $16 000 for ours all on our own, and weren’t they lucky, and maybe they could lend us a little bit to get the very last piece we’re missing in ours. She, with a smile, took the bait, and asked what was left, and I let her know about the $600 beanbag platform (chosen to replace the $2000 vibro-acoustic one that I figured I should give up on!) Less than 6 hours later, she had had her secretary transfer the funds to our school, with an email that read: “You do such great things for these special children. It takes patience, skill, and support to make wonderful things happen for these precious kids. The least I can do it find the funds for your beanbag chair. I know the kids will love it!” Woot, woot! Chalk that one up to having caught her in a good mood, but whatever it was, it means that our little room will be completely complete within a few weeks.  SO amazing to finally see closure on something that was such a huge project less than two years ago!

Finally, our last piece of wonderful happened yesterday – the school was having the annual Remembrance Day assembly, and we wanted to try and attend, as usual. We always wait until everyone else is there, so that my kiddos aren’t sitting and waiting too long, but by the time we arrived, the gym was packed to the brim with kids, staff and visiting parents of the close to 60 kids that were involved in the presentations. We split up – Two of my TA’s and my student CYW took Sunshine, Mr. Intense and the Little Guy somewhere toward the back near an entrance, while the other TA and I headed across to the far wall with Giggles (my big girl) and Mouse (my new gal who’s quiet as anything), and parked it on the floor with the other kids.  I literally had no idea where the rest were at the back, and miraculously, I didn’t find out until almost 45 minutes later, because all the kids were good as gold through the entire thing and barely made a peep! When it finally ended and the crowd began to thin, I spotted them in amongst the parents on the chairs at the back, the adults grinning madly and giving me thumbs-up for the kids’ stellar success during the assembly (which was beautiful!) In fact, I event had time to reflect in the quiet that maybe next year, I could get Giggles and Sunshine to participate in some aspect of it... I bet they could learn a poppy poem just as well as any of the kids! J

So yes, there is crap, but who needs to think about the crap once it’s over? I read a lot of awesome blogs by a lot of amazing people (check my Facebook page for some links to their fantasticness!), and each one is different.  Crap has its place – it’s useful for learning from your mistakes (or those of others in similar circumstances!), and for many folks in the Autism world, taking about the crap is a way to unload and find support and community and the knowledge that you’re not alone (especially those who are incredible autism mommies and daddies!) But I don’t want Room 10 to be famous for the crap – I know from reading that there are enough examples out there of how school can be a very unhappy, unfriendly place for kids on the spectrum (and others!) I’m gonna go on the assumption that my readers prefer to hear about the amazing, exciting things that can and do happen, and maybe bring some hope and support to people that school can be amazing – and there are tons of teachers and classrooms out there just like mine that are trying hard to make it so. 

So in the words of my Sunshine... “It’s beautiful!”

Monday, September 17, 2012

Acid Rain and Life in the Coccoon

It’s hard to believe that we’re already into our third week back to school here in Room 10 – there seems to have been so much packed into the last few weeks...

For those that are following here in Ontario (or elsewhere in Canada), it will come as no surprise that the beginning of the school year has been marked with a very dark cloud due to the provincial government’s passing of illegal, unconstitutional, and just plain WRONG legislation, forcing unprecedented cuts to our teacher sick days and pay grids, as well as the removal of our right to strike or challenge the legislation through arbitration or Labour Board investigations. In addition, the bill gives unilateral power to the Minister of Education to make changes to our contracts and to conditions within schools, which is a scary thought indeed if you’ve seen how little she clearly knows about what is good for kids and schools.

That being said, this blog is NOT about politics.  I explain the above only to illustrate how the beginning of our year has been so far... uncertain, frustrating, heartbreaking and more than a touch of angry and bitter.  When I’m not cocooned in Room 10, I’m usually coaching the skipping team, directing the school musical or helping run special events at the school, so the actions of the government and the consequent battle between supporting my students and fighting for my legal and democratic rights is a particularly heart-wrenching one, and one that is currently taking up a lot of time, energy and emotion. It’s a crappy way to start September, a month that is usually tinged with the rosy glow of excitement and the anticipation of what is to come in a fresh new year...

In Room 10, however, little changes, partly out of necessity for the energy and flow of the room, and partly because, as this stage, much of what we do is exempt from scrutiny, since all our “special activities” are part of our programming.  And it really had been a magical couple of weeks in our little cocoon!
We’re down a student this year – sitting at five – two of my buddies moved on to middle school (*tear*) and out of my hands, onto bigger and better things, and my one new student is a beautiful little girl who seems to be fitting in quite nicely.  We’re still getting a feel for her, and she for us, but so far, routines are getting easier and we’ve been having some great success with introducing a couple of new signs at snacktime. I’m not usually one for edibles as reinforcers, but if they’re part of a kids’ lunch anyway, I’ll take the communication opportunity where I can get it!

My returning ones all seemed to have a great start, too.  My “intense” guy was on his meds all summer, and aside from the first few days, when he was clearly seriously jet-lagged and disoriented after spending the summer “back home”, he is managing quite well, and showing some awesome receptive language skills and participating (most days!) in group activities quite willingly.

My returning gal has had a rough start... I can’t help but feel that she is incredibly frustrated all the time, and we’ve been seeing a ton of hitting, kicking and throwing/destroying behaviour. She is painfully prompt-dependent, and all our attempts to wean her off seem to end in someone getting abused or something getting trashed.  Luckily, mom is on board and seeing it at home as well, so I’m hoping a meeting this week will help us get some strategies in place. On the upside, mom spent all summer working on toilet-training, and she’s been doing pretty well at school so far. We’ve had a couple of accidents that were clearly willful, but today, we were waiting in the office for her to get picked up early for a dentist appointment, and she actually requested to go to the washroom – she closed the book we were reading and took my hands to get up, and when I asked her “Do you need the washroom?”, she actually said “I want washroom please”!!! Seriously, I know it sounds minor, but it is HUGE! She has never indicated a need to go to us, and even at home, mom says she will only ask mom. AMAZING breakthrough, followed of course by tons of excitement, praise and a mini-oreo! (I know, again with the edibles...)

My other gal is only with us 2 days a week because of IBI, so we haven’t seen her much, but last Thursday, I tried her for the first time on an independent work station – numbered tasks (that she knows how to do), that she had to complete on her own in order and without support from any of us.  This was a huge goal last year and one that we never even managed to get set up, with all the crazy, let alone test out.  The result? BRILLIANT!  She worked on her own for half an hour, didn’t get up, roam around , get silly, nothing.  She just did the tasks – it was amazing! Seriously, I cried, I was that happy. I have super-high hopes for her progress this year, and this was definitely a good sign of things to some.

My littlest guy had a good summer too – his family finally got some respite care for him, and it turned out to be one of my awesome supply staff who got the position.  He got to go out and about every week with someone who already knew him, and hid family got some much-needed time at home with him happily otherwise occupied – win-win.  She actually brought him in to visit me the week before school started, and not only did he let me cut his nails without a single tear (they clearly hadn’t been cut all summer!), but he spent much of the half-hour visit hugging me around the waist – SO out of character from what we had seen in him last year, when he hated to be in close contact, for the most part.

So individually, good, but the best part is that together, all is STILL good.  The change in personalities in the room (both students and staff) has been a wonderful combination.  I have a fantastic new TA who loves the kids, believes in them and is up for anything, a student CYW who is quick on her feet and eager, and most day, we have 1-on-1, because of being down a kid. Seriously – this is not the same room as last year! We’ve been doing alphabet lessons every day... last week was all “A”, this week is “B”, etc... We walked to the grocery store last week, bought apples, and made applesauce (“A”), and everyone survived behaved themselves and even had a good time.  Next week, I’m gonna get crazy and try a lesson on the Smartboard!

All this to say that despite the gloom, stress, frustration and anger, life in Room 10 is pretty damn good.  Some days, it’s downright joyful, and despite the rough start otherwise, I’m still very much looking forward to the year ahead, and the discoveries and adventures it will bring to our little cocoon.  Maybe we’ll even end up with butterflies at the end... ;)

Friday, July 13, 2012

“Why My Classroom Never Leaves Me” or “The Myth of Summer Vacation”

This is not a sob story about how people underestimate teachers and how we work hard and deserve two months off, yadda, yadda, yadda. I’m not going to pretend that summer isn’t a great perk – it totally is.  I’ve always enjoyed my summers – volunteering, travelling, spending time with my family, and yes, many summers, taking courses. (I consider this fun!) And when I had a mainstream classroom, or my library, summer was, for the most part, a brain break from school for at least 6 weeks.  Say goodbye in June, breathe a sigh of relief for the break from the early mornings, and then start getting excited again mid-August for the fresh new year.  I had forgotten one very important thing from when I last taught contained special ed... The brain break never happens.

Something about carrying the same children from year to year, combined with the amount of individualized programming that is required, makes it damn near impossible to shut school off, especially if you love your job... which I do. Now admittedly, We’ve only been off for a little under 2 weeks, and I’ve been happily flitting to and from downtown Toronto every day working on a Fringe Festival show, but in my free time, I have truly accomplished only 2 things so far – I saw one play, and I read one book. Which sounds pretty relaxing and enjoyable (and they were!), but the play I saw was “Rare”, and the book I read was “Carly’s Voice”

Here’s the listing for Rare. Here’s the Globe and Mail article.  And if you’re really feeling too lazy to click the links, let me sum it up in a nutshell: Rare is a collaboratively written piece of theatre conceived and performed by actors with Down’s Syndrome. It was brilliant. It just won Best of Fringe, so if you’re in the GTA, or anywhere within 500km, really, come and see it – it’s getting extra showtimes until August 2nd. I cried through the whole thing, and not because it was touching (which it was) or that it made me sad and angry (which it did), or because it made my heart soar, at times, right up on stage to stand beside the actors. I cried most often because sitting in the darkened theatre, I could imagine many of those thoughts, feelings, hopes and frustrations coming from my kids.  Different syndrome, but many of the same trappings imposed by the world around them – judgement, misunderstanding, patronization and underestimation.

The book? It’s here. I’ve written about Carly before, but finally getting my hands on this book was a blessing and a curse.  I devoured it, with silent images of my kids screaming at me from behind almost every page. This was similar to this child, that was exactly the behaviour I had seen from that one... It was like a self-help manual, an inspirational book of poetry and a guilt-ridden letter to myself, all in one pretty little package. Why hadn’t I thought of THAT strategy? What might have happened (or not happened!) if I had responded THAT way? It made me want to call up every one of my kids’ parents and say “Forget summer – send them back to me now! I think I can do so much better than I have been!” Of course, I didn’t, but I DID call up one of my TA’s (I gave them each a copy of the book as an end-of-year gift), and blabber excitedly to her about all the new ideas I had for next year.  Luckily, she was equally excited and didn’t think I was completely off my rocker...

I lied. I already read one other book this summer.  It was “The Golden Hat: Talking Back to Autism”, by Kate Winslet. Yup, that Kate Winslet. It’s not really a read, per se, but more of a coffee table book, chronicling her friendship with a woman named Margret and her son, Keli, after she was asked to narrate their documentary. It’s inspiring, and so is the mission of her foundation The Golden Hat Foundation.  Their mission meshes with the actors of Rare, and with what Carly and her father have to say – intelligence is not always easy to measure, demonstrate or see, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t there.

My luggage, all packed up for the cottage next week, includes notes and materials for a writing project about using i-technology in spec ed, a book by Dr. Stanley Greenspan, and my classroom iPad, which I’m planning to fiddle with and get the assisted communication app we have ready for next year. And a couple of novels, of course, in case I get through the rest. I’m not slogging them along, annoyed that I’m “working on my summer vacation” – I’m excited to dig into them, to see if I can uncover more information, more inspiration to carry me into next year. I’m finding more and more that loving this job is a bit like loving my own child... no matter how frustrating and overwhelming it gets at times, the joy, excitement and anticipation somehow makes you minimize the bad once it’s over, and leaves you remembering fondly the good, and looking forward to what comes next...

Happy summer to all!

Saturday, June 2, 2012

The Roller Coaster Rides On…

Room 10 has been on blogosphere hiatus… my apologies to the faithful followers who are wondering what’s going on with us! It has been a very difficult last month or so, and the unfortunate part (I’m learning) of being so open in a digital venue is that some things just can’t be blogged about in a professional context.  Telling stories related to the kids is the meat and potatoes of what I do here, but the reality is that not everything that happens in Room 10 is kid-related, and it makes it hard to paint an accurate picture of how things are going in the room when I’m limited by professional boundaries. Take from that what you will, but that’s all I can say…

Moving on…

Thursday  was an amazing day in Room 10.  Which is saying a lot, considering it is almost June, and a Thursday, which means all 6 kids in the room. Usually Thursdays and Fridays are a mad scramble to keep the kids engaged and happy, to keep this one away from that one, to keep this one from imitating the behaviour of that one, etc. Not this week. This Thursday was the kind of day that I pictured in my head when I asked for this assignment in the first place…

Everyone arrived happy, which is always a good start. Happy and calm… hands, feet and everything else to ourselves… One we got all the kids into the room and engaged in their preferred activities to start the day, I actually looked around the room and counted twice, just to make sure they were all there and that I wasn’t missing anyone, it was THAT calm. When we transitioned to Circle, everyone made it onto the carpet without protest, and not only sat through circle, but participated happily. Some added calendar pieces, some sang along and did actions to our little songs, and then when we broke off to go do work, same thing – smooth as silk.

On Thursdays, I try to make sure I work directly with one of my students who is only with us two days a week. Her other three days are spent in IBI – an intensive behaviour therapy program.  Because we see her so little, and because her weeks are so fragmented (3 days at IBI, 2 days at school, 2 days at home, repeat), it’s been really hard to track if we’re making any progress on learning goals, and to get a handle on managing behaviours and triggers, since there isn’t much consistence. I digress…

One of the programs I’ve been working on with a few of the kids is a reading method developed by Patricia Oelwein (originally for students with Down’s Syndrome).  There is a really great article describing the basics here, but the general idea is to build on the relative visual strengths of kids with ASD (matching) to teach them whole-word recognition, starting with personally significant words to build meaning and interest, and building to more generalized language over time. Ideally, attaching meaning to print will help them access language to read and communicate, even if they have limited or no verbal output.

For this particular student, I started with classmates’ names. She is very interested in others and has some verbal, and she loves to name all her classmates while pointing to their pictures throughout the room. I thought that would be a good place to start, and I knew that she was already attaching meaning to the pictures by naming them aloud. So we’ve been working for the last few months on a variety of matching activities using the names and pictures, as well as just the names themselves.

Thursday morning, I had chosen the name-matching card with pictures and without, giving her the immediate memory to work with, and she did a great job – matched every one and named them correctly on both trials. I was quite pleased with the whole thing, since this was something new I had been trying this year and I wasn’t really sure if it would work. In the afternoon work block, I took out the picture cards entirely, and gave her an activity with just the words – I knew she would be able to match them correctly, but would she actually read the names without the pictures for help?

Not only did she name each and every one without hesitation, but when I asked her to point to the different names, she got those all correct as well – incredible!

I’m not going to lie – part of the joy was incredible personal & professional gratification.  There are so few days in Room 10, especially lately, that I actually feel like a teacher – like I am actually helping students to learn tangible things that they might not have gotten to without my support.  Her success with this activity that I had chosen, created and worked on with her was immensely satisfying to me as a teacher.

The other part of the joy was the confirmation that this method could work – that this first small step in success was just the beginning of a world of language that would be so valuable to her in communicating her needs, wants and ideas. What greater learning could there possibly be in Room 10?

While we’re on success stories, there are all kinds of little tidbits that have happened recently – just as inspiring in their little moments as the reading one.  Sometimes it takes this time of year, when report cards and IEP updates are looming, to make me look at the big picture of our year and see the little successes that have added up to big progress in our little world.

One of my kids has tactile defensiveness – hates the pressure of anything on his fingertips, which, if you can imagine, makes it very hard to do all kinds of everyday things. Typing on a traditional keyboard was abandoned with him long ago, but he’s a whiz with a mouse and should finally have an iPad arriving in the next week or so – a year-long project to help him move to expressive language as well, since a touchscreen takes far less pressure to manipulate.  In the last few months, he has learned to open his own water bottle and pour his own water AND to do up his own jacket zipper – huge goals that both home and school have been working on for years – check. Now if only we could get him to wash his hands without a fight!

My littlest guy, who used to move when a door was opened and throw everything he could reach, is also making little miracles.  He’s a wiggly little guy and hates having anything done, and his poor mom asked us long ago for help with anything we could manage in regard to personal hygiene – I can’t imagine trying to give him a bath! The first time we tried to cut his nails back in the fall (after several serious scratching incidents), it was a full-on panic and took three adults helping.  Now he sits in my lap and barely protests while I clip them quickly every other week. This week, we gave him a haircut – right in the middle of our classroom!  The other kids were fascinated, his mother was thrilled, and he managed with barely a tear while I sang “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star” over and over again into his ear and one of my staff snipped away as quickly as possible.  His first IEP communication goal in September was to “Indicate interest by activating a cause-and-effect toy spontaneously”.  That’s it.  Today, he strings beads, plays with lego, puts together simple puzzles and even sometimes passes a ball back and forth – way beyond that simple goal of engagement he started from.

And my “challenge” – the one who was so aggressive that we had to rip out the sensory room, isolate him from other children, and were barely getting through our days? Here he is, sitting happily beside another student, watching a Dora video during free time. 

Side by Side
Finding the correct medication in the correct dosage has helped him self-regulate to the point where he’s not only not aggressive, but he can demonstrate skills we didn’t even know he had.  He follows multi-step instructions, matches and sorts, communicates through gestures and pictures.  He participates in classroom routines, plays with other kids with a ball or at the water table, went swimming with the other grade three classes 3 times this month, and is learning to use the iPad. Best of all, he laughs, smiles and is happy at school. Say what you want about medication, its advantages and disadvantages, but in his case, it has truly been life-changing.

As the roller-coaster of Room 10 continues to heave, thank goodness for this blog – a chance to slow the train down for just a few minutes, and remind myself why on earth I strapped in in the first place.  I suspect it’s easier as a spectator to see the learning and growth that happens in our room, where you’re not overwhelmed by being right in the thick of the dizzying ups and downs, but at least this way, I can look back and enjoy the ride afterwards, even if it’s tough to do in the moment. June awaits. Bring it on. Hands up, eyes open, and possibly screaming all the way down… J

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

The Teacher My Kids Deserve

I’ve been hemming and hawing about writing a post for the last few weeks, and truth be told, I’ve started a few and scrapped them. I’ve had more than one person tell me that a good blog is not necessarily about quantity, but about quality, so I’m always loath to write just because I feel I should, but rather prefer to wait for something to inspire me enough to write. Don’t get me wrong – there are amazing moments every day, but not always ones that carry enough oomph to get me to my computer after a long day of work, rehearsal, meetings and whatever else comes along... We’ve had some great and a lot of crappy in my room the last few weeks, a lot of which I can’t really blog about because it would involve venting heavily about other adults, and although managing adults is certainly a part of my job, it’s not what I consider the important part (that would be the kids!)

So here I was tonight, sitting in front of the computer and trying to will myself some inspiration, and along came Carly, once again.  I posted a video of Carly Fleischmann’s story last November as part of this post, but since then, Carly has been a constant source of inspiration for me every day.  I follow her on Facebook and Twitter, and it has been really fun in recent weeks to follow the excitement and hype of her newly-released book, Carly’sVoice. Her story is a constant reminder to me that my kids are in there, no matter how deeply their voices may be buried in their autism, and that they deserve every chance I can help give them to find their voices as she has.

Tonight, Carly was posting answers on Facebook to questions that readers had been asking her, and as I re-posted her answer to one of them, I suddenly got “the flash”... The post went as follows...

From Michele Johnson:
I have a 3yr old son diagnosed with autism last year. You are an inspiration and I admire you. I know everyone as a person is different but I wanted to ask you a question. At times when it seemed to others that you weren't aware of what was going on around you. Did you always feel the love and sup
port of family? Was there one person that made you feel that they understood you. 

Carly’s answer: I think I was lucky to be surrounded by many people who made me felt loved. My dad always talked to me like I was listening even if he wasn’t sure if I was. My mom fought for me time after time for support and founding. I also had Barb and Howie that Just made me know that I couldn’t stop fighting and be the best me I could be.

And my comment, as I re-posted it, was “Love this answer from Carly! A good reminder to always strive to be the person my kids deserve...

The person my kids deserve... that’s what I’ve really been struggling with these last few weeks. How do I juggle the paperwork, the politics, the people management and my own lack of knowledge and background in all things ASD, and still manage to be the person my kids deserve – the person, who, in Carly’s words, makes them feel loved, supported and lets them know that they can’t stop fighting to be the best them they can be? Now, let me be clear – my kids are loved at home. They are all blessed with loving, hardworking families who do their very best to support them as best they know how, and who support what I do in the classroom as much as they can. But they’re not at home during the day – they’re with me in Room 10.  6 ½ hours a day, 5 days a week. That’s a whole lot of time in an environment that’s NOT at home with their families, that places a huge variety of demands on them, changes constantly, and doesn’t necessarily cater to their sensory or emotional needs.

And that’s just the environment itself... add into that the very human element of me as the teacher (not to mention the other adults in the room). I’m no autism expert. I read, I research and I try to learn all I can, but the more I learn, the less I feel like I know. ABA, IBI, play therapy, theraplay, sensory, stim, diet, medication, behaviour, belief... Some days I feel a lot like that old expression – “jack of all trades but master of none”. I’m willing to try anything for my kids, but not willing to commit to any one thing, which sounds great, but let’s face it, makes for a management nightmare. I’m not a behaviourist, a psychologist, a therapist, or even an advocate parent with the ability to make decisions for my students – I’m only their teacher.  Heck, some days I don’t even get a chance to work directly with each student, depending on how our day goes. Some days I find myself asking my staff at the end of the day “How was so-and-so’s day?” And my kids certainly deserve better than that...

I’m not being negative – I recognize that great change has happened this year. The kids are in a bright, cheerful, learning environment every day. They participate in group activities, and some days, we even get everyone to participate willingly! The room is safer and calmer, and kids who need intensive support are getting, if not all that they need, certainly more of it. They have access to sensory activities, and a sensory space that they can relax and engage in (which is back up and running, for those that are still wondering what happened after my last post). They are engaged in concrete learning activities twice a day every day, and they have IEP’s that reflect accurately their strengths and needs. Paperwork has been filed for OT, PT and SLP, and someday they may even all get the support they need!

But what about that belief? That love? That feeling that, as Carly says, someone believes in them and wants them to be the best them they can be? What about that balance between meeting their needs and loving them, or the even trickier points where those two things intersect and sometimes even overlap? Therein lies the real challenge of Room 10.  It’s a balance that suspect will always be wobbly, no matter how long I’m in this job, and some days, I’m sure it will tip further away from the middle than I want it to. I guess the best that I can expect of myself is to keep trying, keep striving for that balance, and when an issue come us in shades of grey, to always err on the side of love and support of my kids, rather than logic and reason. Because that’s the teacher my kids deserve.

Thanks for the reminder, Carly... 

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Balancing "Fair"

We talk a lot in our equity circles about the idea of equity or fairness versus equality – not the same thing. Equal is not necessarily fair, and equality is about giving people what they need, not what is the same.  I used to tell something similar to the kids in my class  - you don’t always get the same as someone else, because each person should get what they need.

Question of the week is: when does what one person needs become more important than the needs of everyone else?

Actually, it’s the question of the year, but seems to have crystallized in the last few very rough weeks, as I struggle to find answers for myself about hierarchy of needs and how to make sure everyone is getting what they need and deserve.

One of my students is extreme – at best, charming and gentle, with some great basic communication skills. We very rarely have him at his best.  He is impulsive, aggressive, easily frustrated, stubborn and very smart. He hits us, lunges, scratches, grabs at clothing and jewellery, pulls hair, trashes materials and books, screams, flops, kicks, runs, grabs, throws. He pushes and hits other kids, pulls their hair, destroys their artwork and snacks and seeks out their reactions like pinching or screaming.

And we have tried everything – visuals, timers, rewards, structure, free play, movement, sensory input. We’ve tracked, recorded, looked at triggers and patterns (or lack thereof).

This isn’t a programming report, though, it’s a blog, so let me get to the point…

We are in crisis mode.  Almost a dozen accident reports, 2 WSIB claims, Kevlar protective clothing on all staff (aka riot gear). Adults are getting hurt trying to protect themselves and the other children. Every day new books and materials destroyed beyond repair. And programming? Don’t even talk to me about programming. All my big plans about great learning activities, independent tasks and individual attention are right out the window. The other kids are acting out because they’re not getting enough attention, and they’re modelling what they see, creating more chaos. The energy in the room is at 500% all the time.

I am acutely aware of the imbalance in the room, all day, every day. One child drawing the energy and attention of at least one, usually 2 and sometimes 3 staff 100% of the time. Although this may be what he needs, it is in NO WAY fair. It is unfair to the staff, who are putting their personal safety at risk working with him. And it is grossly unfair to the other students who are all in this program because they have high needs too, and tons of potential to learn that is not being met because of the drain in resources caused by this other child. It is unfair to them to have to feel unsafe and anxious at school all day because of the behaviour of this other child.

Let me be very clear – I love all my kids, including the “extreme” one.  I love him dearly, and my heart breaks for the frustration he must feel every single day, trapped within his own anxiety and impulsiveness and unable to show how very bright he is. But something’s gotta give!  I have 5 other children, also bright, also needing support and help to break through their barriers and learn, and they have the right to a safe and encouraging learning environment, which is about as far as we can get from what we’ve got right now. When do THEIR needs become part of the fairness equation?

Because my little buddy is basically not coping with anything in the school environment, we had been directed to use the Sensory Room as a time-out – a place to calm down before resuming regular activities.  The problem is, he has now learned that when he’s acting up, he gets escorted to the Sensory Room, and pitches a fit because he doesn’t want to be in there.  Yesterday, he forcibly tried to pull the bubble tube to the ground, and almost succeeded. Staff have to be in there with him, so that he doesn’t destroy the equipment, but are getting abused because he is so angry and out of control. So the solution, I’ve been told, is to take it all out, so that when he’s upset, he can be in there alone, with nothing to destroy, until he clams down.  Today I was told to dismantle the Sensory Room – “temporarily”.  Don’t place any demands. Abandon his programming. Basically “hold and secure” – keep everyone safe and don’t worry about any learning for him.

Don’t get me wrong – it get it.  I understand the need for safety for my staff and the other kids. I understand that there’s no other reasonable space where he can go that he won’t hurt himself or someone else.  But getting it doesn’t make me any less mad…

I’m mad because “hold and secure” should be for treatment facilities, not for schools. I asked for this assignment because I don’t believe that “hold and secure” has any place in a school, and that classrooms for special kids are still classrooms, where learning is always the goal, no matter what kind it is. If a kid needs all day “hold and secure”, then school is obviously not an appropriate setting for their needs, and there has to be something better available to them and their families.

I’m mad because I’ve spent a lot of time and energy trying to provide learning opportunities that meet my kids’ needs when traditional schooling doesn’t – a movement room with purpose, space and equipment, learning materials that encourage practical skills and independence, group activities that build interaction and social skills, and a sensory room to stimulate and calm in sensory-input ways that are not available any other way.

That room has cost almost $15 000 to outfit, raised through the generosity and involvement of hundreds of people and organizations, hours upon hours of organizing, planning, grant-writing and project-building. I just this week received the final piece I had ordered – a rotating colour-wheel to go with the giant disco ball that has yet to be hung – it was on backorder. I just this week finally got back in touch with a donor group who I’m hoping (fingers crossed) might help fund our very last piece for the room – a $2000 vibroacoustic beanbag mattress – after months of trying to reach them. I had just this week put together a flyer for the official grand opening – an invitation that was to go out to all the amazing people who have encouraged and supported this project, asking them to come see what we have created with their generosity during Education Week in April. I had just last week finally posted a video of it for everyone to see! And that’s only the adult aspect of it…

For one of my other students, it’s her favourite place in the school. She loves nothing better than to cover her face with the fibre-optics, or wrap around the bubble tube and listen to its hum. My littlest one has had his two biggest breakthroughs so far in that room – the “open door” episode (see the story here), and the controller on the bubble tube – it was the first item in the room that he would go to and activate independently, without any prompting, and he still likes to use it every day, changing the colours and listening for the familiar clicking sound.

Gone. Stripped. The fibre-optics tucked away in a filing cabinet. The bubble tube hauled out and moved to safety in the principal’s office, to be “visited” whenever we want. Until things get “under control”. Aside from the darkened projectors and stereo, tucked away high on the shelf, the room is once again bare except for the pillows. The other students don’t even know yet, and how do you explain that? “I’m sorry honey, but you know that space you loved, the one that met your sensory needs, calmed you and engaged you and was open to you whenever you needed a little downtime? It’s not there anymore.”

Maybe I should just tell them it’s fair.

Sensory Room - Video!!!

First of all, a huge THANK YOU to everyone who has supported, donated and cheered me on in creating this amazing space for my students - they continue to use it every single day, and several other students in the school have been accessing it as well - I've even had a few teachers come by for a quiet chat after school!  The "Quiet Room", as we call it, truly is the heart of our little room, and although it is still a work in progress, it is definitely getting there!

It's very difficulty to capture the room in pictures, so I tried shooting a little video of it to show you all how things are going... It's still a small space, so hard to get an overall sense of it, but it will give you a little taste. It can't capture the perfect temperature (thanks to MANY tweakings by our patient custodian!), the lovely lavender aromatherapy or lovely quiet backdrop to the birdsong and music.  We're still missing a few things - some of which are on backorder, and some of which we're still fundraising for, but ultimately, we have a working, useful and wonderful space that is benefiting the students in exactly the ways I had hoped, and there's no better feeling than that!


Friday, January 27, 2012

When the going gets tough...

Today was a rough day in Room 10.  One of those particularly hellish days where everyone seems a little off, and a little off for each kid ends up being a lot off as a group… I’ve had a number of fish tanks in my life over the years, and I can liken today to this… You know when you sprinkle the fish food on the surface, how sometimes at first, nothing happens? Then all of a sudden, one fish heads for those flaky little morsels, and suddenly it’s a writhing swarm of open mouths flailing all over each other in a seemingly unending tangle of crazy?

That was today.

Maybe it was the fact that I was at a workshop yesterday. Maybe it was the big fluffy snowfall this morning. Or the fact that it was Friday. Or the fact that it was assembly day and the routine was a little off-normal. Maybe all of these things together, who knows?  What I DO know is that by the end of the day, all I wanted to do was lock myself in the Sensory Room and have a good cry, throw myself off the padded walls for a bit, and maybe peruse the Want ads in the paper for a nice quiet office job.

I hate days like this, and thankfully, they are rare. I don’t hate them because of the stress, or the worry that someone is going to end up hurt or injured (which happened). I don’t hate them because of the precious, hard-gathered classroom items that get destroyed beyond repair (which also happened). I don’t even hate them because I end up tired, sore, and emotionally drained (which happens fairly regularly).  What I hate most about days like these is that I come out of them feeling like a terrible teacher, because I know that I could have done way more for my kids, as a teacher, than I was able to demonstrate today.

I want to enjoy my kids! Goodness knows I love them, each and every one, but I have to be honest, on days like today, sometimes I don’t like them very much. And I know that sounds horrible, I do. I don’t like ME, because of it, but I can’t help it. It’s very hard to like the child running in circles around the room, shoving other kids and laughing.  Or the one shrieking, refusing to eat and smacking people in the face. The other one shrieking and running around pulling hair, also laughing. The one darting around the room to grab and throw things, or the one dumping food on the floor because all the others are getting attention from misbehaving so why shouldn’t they get some, too? It’s maddening.  It’s infuriating. And it most certainly doesn’t bring to mind the words “like” or “enjoy” - even when you know in your head about communication and behaviour, sensory processing, and the myriad of other reasons for what is happening. You just CAN’T pay attention to everyone at once, and if you manage to get through the day in one piece, you end up like this – re-reading your post in horror, because you’re admitting all the things going on in your head, which on one hand, you really want to delete and write something positive, but on the other, you feel like give some perspective to all the good things that DO happen in Room 10.

It’s not always wonderful. Or magical. We have really bad days.  And I don't just mean the kids - I mean all of us.  One really bad days, I don’t usually blog.  I try to let go of days like today, not record them. Certainly not share them with the world. But there it is, and I refuse to delete it.

I guess the point I’m trying to make, though, is not that today was awful, but that in the end, it’s only a day. Not every day is like today. And really, if I’m being honest, even today had its moments of sparkle. This IS my blog, and try as I might, I can’t just leave it to the negativity of the day.  For myself, and for anyone reading this, I have to leave it with the same positivity that I depend on to project me into the next day (although I have to admit, a weekend to unwind doesn’t hurt either!) I LOVE my students, and sometimes loving them as much as I do and wanting so much for them makes for very hard days, when things don't go the way I know they could.

Here’s what was great today: I watched one of my students participate with the other second graders in a Lunar New Year parade at today’s assembly. I wish I had a picture of her face as she bounced around with them, banging her tambourine – it was exquisite! My big boy was requesting beautifully all day – asking for help with no hesitation when he needed it, finding the right words at the right time – great progress.  My littlest was a quivering ball of energy today – I swear he couldn’t have been more wired if Red Bull was running through his veins – but bless his little heart, he FINALLY handed me the picture exchange at snack time to ask for more Cheerios – twice. Finally, at the end of a very long day, after the kids, the after-school meeting, the inbox full of emails, and the paperwork gathered for this weekend’s “homework”, I was blessed to have a friend sit on the floor with me and laugh for half an hour, as we attempted to blow up my brand-new ball pit for our gross-motor “Wiggle Room”.  We failed miserably, leaving it half-inflated and sad, and shaking our heads at my “wisdom” in deciding that a giant inflatable pit full of plastic balls was a GOOD idea for the room after the craziness of the day. Stay tuned for how THIS turns out!

Happy Friday, everyone...  Thanks for helping me get out of the fish tank alive. J

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Jingle Bells and Joy...

The week before Christmas was a great week in Room 10.  Caveat: This is not a blanket statement. We still had tantrums, the room got trashed on more than one occasion, we had staff injuries, student injuries, several destroyed books (my pet peeve!) and a near-disastrous incident with a Christmas tree in the hallway. Despite all that, this week had moments that simply glowed, and although it’s taken me some time to get to it, I wanted to share them...
One very cool thing that has happened is that back in November, I spoke at our staff meeting about my class, introducing the kids to everyone.  It was something that was way overdue, but nice to finally get done.  Because we are out and about in the hallways, integrated with other classes for outdoor play and such, I wanted the rest of the staff to be aware of my kids’ triggers, behaviours and personalities, so that they could share with their students, partly to keep everyone safe from some of the aggressive behaviours, but mostly so that they could greet and interact with my kids when they had the chance. Following the meeting, one of our Grade Two teachers invited me up to talk to her kids about my class, and the kids were fascinated – they had lots of great questions about my students, and almost all of them volunteered to be Play Buddies. Their teacher set up a rotation of volunteers, 2-3 at a time, to come down to my room during activity times and interact with my students – a great opportunity for all the kids involved.  Some of them are more natural at it than others, of course, but all of our buddies have been open and wonderful, and some of my kids are really enjoying the attention and interaction from their new friends.

Also, my amazing husband has been coming in every week to do “Guitar Time” with my kids. It’s not an understatement to say that they LOVE this – many of my kids have an affinity for music, and they eagerly gather and sit on the carpet to “sing along” with The ABC Song, The Ants Go Marching and The Hokey Pokey.  It’s a 20 minute slice of guaranteed calm and fun in an unpredictable week, and I think my staff and I enjoy it as much as the kids do!

As December rolled around, I decided that I wanted my class to participate in the school holiday concert. As with most things this year, it was going to be a complete gamble.  A change in routine, an unfamiliar location (the gym stage), and an audience full of people – strange noises, smells, sights – it could be a perfect recipe for disaster for my kids. Besides, I was pretty sure none of my kids had ever participated in a school concert, but I was determined – Room 10 is a place of opportunity, and as far as I could see, participating in the concert was another great step.

My plan was to try and make the concert as stress-free for my kids as possible – to try and create some familiarity despite the changes required to pull it off.  I decided on Frosty the Snowman and Jingle Bells – most of my kids don’t celebrate Christmas, but I figured those were two “festive” choices that everyone could enjoy. We added them to our regular guitar time, invited some of our Play Buddies to come and sing with us, and borrowed a bin full of jingle bells from the music room so that the kids could play along, even if they weren’t singing.

I met with the music teacher, and we juggled around details – where to put us in the program, what we would need onstage. I sent notes home to the parents, explaining what we were planning. When my husband turned out to have a gig on the night of the concert, I panicked briefly, and then asked another teacher who plays guitar if he could fill in for us – no problem! The day before the concert, he came down on his recess to play through the songs with us, and the kids didn’t miss a beat. I was incredibly grateful.

The day of the concert, we had an afternoon dress rehearsal. It was supposed to be at 1pm.  Then at 1:20.  Finally at 1:45, it got started. We moved ourselves into the change room to wait for our turn, all of our staff on high alert – needlessly. The kids were brilliant – they waited patiently, interacting with the other kids who were there waiting, and when our turn came, everyone made it onstage without a hitch – no panic, no meltdowns.  We got ourselves settled, our buddies joined us, and off we went – Jingle Bells first, followed by Frosty.  There was not a blip. Every one of my kids was engaged – sitting nicely, playing their jingle bells and looking out into the crowd.  I saw our custodian in the audience wiping her eyes, and when the entire school joined in singing with us, it was a darn good thing they did, because I was suddenly so choked up I could barely see, let alone sing. It could not have gone any better.

When the evening rolled around, I held my breath.  Could it possibly go just as well twice? It could. All of the kids showed up on time. They participated beautifully. The audience sang along, and the parents were thrilled to have their kids participate. I truly could not have asked for more out of the experience for them, or for myself – it was a gamble that paid off in every way!

As one final update for 2011 (even though it’s already gone!), the Sensory Room is still moving along. That $600 blacklight installation? It happened.  I must have an angel on the shoulder of the principal of Special Programs, because I arrived one morning to find it up. And then it came down, because the “safety cover” on the light diffused the blacklight so that it didn’t work.  And then, after weeks of back-and-forth, it went back up, using my original $100 fixture, with a cage over top.  Which is what we had asked for in the first place. Sigh... Who cares? It’s up, it works, and the neon carpet tiles have been ordered to go with it – yay! Thanks to the expensive installation done by Special Ed, it now turns on an off via a switch located outside the room... I’m sure that will come in handy at some point!

Finally, in the last week of school, my principal came running to find me... more angels afoot!  One of the superintendents at the field office had heard me on CBC back in the spring, and instead of buying Christmas gifts for all his office people, he wanted to make a donation in their honour to our room. Mirror ball kit and Aromatherapy set – check and check! I strongly suspect his head secretary, who was our school secretary for many years, had something to do with this, and I shake my head yet again at the amazing good fortune I have to be surrounded by such love and support from so many people – it is truly overwhelming.  We are within $3000 of our end goal for the room, and 2012 is sure hold new adventures for Room 10... Happy New Year, and stay tuned!