Sugar, Flour and Common Ground

I love to bake. I don’t have time to bake, but when I do have time, I love it. Sophie loves to watch cookie and cake decorating shows. Put the two together and we have found some common ground. I feel like a teacher or behaviorist so often when I am with Sophie that I wanted to find something fun for us to do together.

Sophie loves this chick on YouTube named Rosanna Pansino. She’s way too perky for my taste, but I can tolerate her for Sophie. Our first project was making birthday cookies for Isaac. Rosanna taught us how to make fondant from scratch.

FYI…making marshmallow fondant is not as easy as it looks. Quick tip (that Ro left out) – lather your hands in butter as you knead the fondant!

So…they didn’t look perfect, but we had fun doing a project together.

For my birthday, my bestie bought me a cake decorating kit. I couldn’t wait to test that bad boy out! I’m definitely a of a “go big or go home” kind of gal. We decided that Sophie would make me a one layer carrot cake (for my birthday) and I would make a two layer cake with daisies made out of fondant. Sophie is not super patient, so I made the cakes on a Wednesday evening while she was with her dad. My plan was to decorate them with her on Saturday morning.

I came home from work on Friday to find that temptation had taken over my daughter. She could not stop herself from trying a few bites of every cake.

After a few deep breaths, I reminded myself that the purpose of this project is for Sophie and I to have something “fun” to do together. I covered the cakes and slept before reacting!

The next day, I woke up early so I could practice working with fondant before Sophie awoke. It was a little therapeutic for me to sit quietly, creating daisies out of icing! When Sophie came in, she decided to make a giraffe for my cake (because the giraffe is my favorite animal).

Refusing to accept defeat, I went forward in creating my two-layer cake. It turned out beautifully…unless…

…one viewed the back side!

Our creations may not live up to Rosanna’s standards, but we have something fun to do together. We are working as a team and Sophie is making creations in which she can take pride. Despite all of the muck Sophie and I wade through, at our core, we have an amazing relationship. As she gets older, I want to make sure we have a solid foundation of common ground that we can come back to as life throws more curve balls our way. The dividends will pay off in the future…and for now…they taste really good!


Finding Our Way…

Sophie and I visited a therapist. I explained to her why we were there…the fires, the disappearing act, the erratic sleep behaviors…along with our everyday challenges. The look on the therapist’s face clued me in that this was not normal. My biggest take-away that day is that Sophie’s behavior is not normal and it SHOULD BE a big deal. During my entire adult life, I have worked with children who have significant behaviors. There are very few behaviors that actually shock me. I have trained myself not to react when a child displays certain behaviors because it reinforces their negative actions. Wake up, Toni…when it is your own child, you have the right…even the duty…to have a BIG REACTION!

Once I got some sleep, I did what all behaviorists do, I created a behavior intervention plan. Below, I describe my first intervention.

Since we moved into this house, Sophie’s bedroom has been an adorable attic room up some stairs off of my bedroom. She would play there, but rarely slept in her bed upstairs. Because her bedroom was upstairs…for me…out of sight was out of mind. In order to build more structure into Sophie’s life, I decided to switch her rooms.

When I went upstairs (for the first time in a while) I found complete chaos. Not only were Soph’s crafts strewn from one end of the room to the other, but I found a very sharp kitchen knife, a table that had been covered in syrup (how there were not a million ants on it, I will never know) and a mixing bowl full of a very sticky substance that I am assuming was her attempt to make slime. This was proof of the very reason I would switch her rooms. In order to help her build order in her mind, I would first build order in her environment.

When setting up Sophie’s bedroom, I used a technique I learned from Sarah Ward, a phenomenal SLP who focuses on Executive Functioning deficits. I made Soph’s bed and took a picture of it.

I took a picture of the clean floor and her dresser with all of the drawers pushed in. I took pictures of every area in her room.

Taking pictures, using Sophie’s own objects, allows her to have a concrete visual instead of attempting to create a visual in her mind. Now, when I say, “make your bed”, she can look at the picture to know exactly what I expect. When I say, “clean your room”, she has multiple pictures to show her what each area should look like.

I also gave away many of Sophie’s toys, crafts and other items she had not touched in months. In order to minimize the clatter in her mind, I minimized the clutter in her area.

Structuring Sophie’s bedroom and providing her a space with her favorite things has made a huge difference. Not only does she clean her room without a fight, many nights she completes the task before I ask! Once again, she wants to do what is expected, she just needs more support to make the expected happen!

There are many more interventions to put in place as we navigate down this road. Sophie’s behavior over the last few weeks reminded me that behavior is communication. Sophie was telling me that she needed more structure. She was telling me that her mind was rumbling like a tornado and she needed help to get back on track. I am so lucky to climb this mountain with such an amazing girl!

I Know Nothing!

I am waving the white flag. I surrender. I give up!

I have four degrees. I’ve worked with kids who have special needs my entire adult life. My daughter, however, has worn me down.

Over the past few months, I have found three different instances that Sophie has been playing with fire. FIRE. The first instance was last summer when I woke up in the night smelling smoke. Sophie was lighting candles on the CURVED arm of my sofa. Later that summer I found a pile of ashes on a table in my garage. After questioning, she told me that she burned a kleenex box. It just happened to be next to my lawn mower which was full of gas. We had a come to Jesus conversation and I thought the parameters I gave her were sufficient. I told her she could burn things in our fire pit when I was with her. Recently, I found another pile of ashes on my basement floor.

The final straw came a few days ago. Sophie rides to school with my neighbor. She walks to her house in the morning and waits there until school starts. On Monday, Sophie decided that she wanted to ride the bus. She was very tired and, honestly, I think she did not want to go to school. After a 30-minute argument, she finally walked to my neighbor’s house. As I backed out of my driveway, I saw Sophie walking back. I stopped and she hopped in the backseat. She was crying. She stated that she would go to school but only on the bus. I told her that I could not wait for the bus to come, as I had a meeting at work. My frustration was growing and any time Sophie feels my frustration increasing, she digs in her heels even harder. I finally told her that she could wait in our house and I would have our neighbor get her when it was time to go.

I was nearly to work when I received a call from my neighbor that she and her son were knocking on the door, but Sophie was not responding. I asked them to go inside and guided them where to look. I was told that Sophie was nowhere to be found. I told her to go ahead and go to school so her son would not be late and I called Sophie’s dad to look for her.

I turned my car around and was furiously driving back to my house. I called Sophie’s dad and told him all of the typical places Sophie hides. He told me he would call me back when he found her. At this point, I was crying; thinking the worst. Did someone go in the house and take Sophie? Did she decide to run away from home and someone picked her up? When do I call 911? What was she wearing? What were my last words to her? I was attempting not to hyperventilate while driving when Mark called and said she was not in the house.

It then hit me that, perhaps, she rode the bus to school. I called and found out that she was sitting in class. I pulled my car over and sobbed. For 20 minutes of my life I did not know if my daughter was safe or if I would ever see her again. During that 20 minutes, only the worst was going through my mind. I’m so grateful to God that she is safe.

A New Plan

We are trying new medication and will see a therapist today. In the past, I have written about teaching the pause. Sophie needs to learn how to pause before she acts. She is extremely smart. She knows the consequences of her actions. In the moment, though, she does not consider the big picture of her actions.

I share this because, behind this computer, it is easy for me to appear to have all of the answers. I am just a Mama who is terrified for the my daughter’s future. I am terrified that she’s going to hop in a car with the wrong stranger. That she is going to start a fire she cannot control. That as she gets older, she’ll try the vape and then the joint and then the beer and then the cocaine. The time is to teach the pause is NOW. The time to help her understand the enormity of her actions is NOW. The time to teach her curious spirit to explore within boundaries is NOW.

10 Behavior Support Ideas for General Education Teachers

1. Follow a consistent schedule and make the schedule visual.

  • A visual schedule does not need to be made of pictures. If your students are readers, use words to write your schedule. If something unexpected comes up, make sure your students who struggle with change have as much notice as possible. When something unexpected comes up, lean down and whisper to your student, “in five minutes we are going to go outside for science today. Is that cool?”. This allows the student time to process the situation.

2. Create an individual schedule for students who require more support.

  • Why are consistent schedules so important? Students who have issues with anxiety feel comforted by knowing what is coming next. Additionally; students with ADHD, those with poor executive functioning skills and students coming from chaotic homes need consistency and organization in order to function.

3. Be intentional about forming relationships.

  • Building relationships is the key to behavior management. In classrooms for students who have autism, teachers spend the first few days “pairing” with students. The teacher learns about the student’s favorite topics, their favorite reinforcements and pair themselves with those preferred topics and objects. Students who have little intrinsic motivation or those who are slow to trust need this same type of intentional relationship building. When a teacher invests in topics the student loves, the student will be more likely to invest in something the teacher asks of them.

4. Develop a system of reinforcement.

  • Until students develop intrinsic motivation to please an adult, extrinsic motivation must be used. Typically, whole class reinforcement is not powerful enough for certain students. Providing consistent, positive feedback is necessary for many students to know that they are doing what teachers want them to do. This can look different for every student, but these factors should be clear:
    • What do you want the student to do?
    • What do students get in return?
    • How long will students have to wait to get the reinforcement?
You can print pictures to fill in the blanks using velcro. Each time the student earns a picture give behavior specific praise, “nice job raising your hand.”
You can also laminate the behavior chart and use a dry erase marker to give check marks as the student earns his way to reinforcement.

5. Use visuals instead of words.

  • When a student is escalated, it is much easier for them to process visuals than words. Additionally, the words we use can escalate the situation further. Using simple visuals alleviates the need to talk while letting the student know what you expect of them.

6. Teach students how to ask for a break and how to take a break.

  • Many times we take for granted that students know how to ask for a break. Those who can self regulate might ask to get a drink or use the bathroom when feeling overwhelmed. Another student might tear up the math paper you put in front of him or crawl under the desk.
  • When you notice that math creates anxiety build in a break for that student before giving the assignment.
  • Create a break card and place it on your student’s desk. This card is blank on one side and has “break” on the other side. Teach the student that he can flip the card to break and leave the room without even speaking to you.
  • Predetermine where the student will go, how long he can be gone and what he will do while he is on the break.
  • Also predetermine a re-entry plan. If the student comes back in the classroom when the class is in the middle of an assignment, how will he get back on track?

7. Teach your entire class body regulation.

  • Whole class body regulation is easily implemented and benefits everyone.
  • If the class has a lot of energy, turn on a GoNoodle song and dance it out. Follow the upbeat song by a slow-paced song with calming movements that will help students get in a zone to learn.
  • Teach the Zones of Regulation by Leah Kuypers. This curriculum teachers students to recognize which “zone” their body is in.
    • Blue: Tired, bored, sad
    • Green: Right on track and ready to learn
    • Yellow: Escalating, anxiety increasing, uncomfortable
    • Red: Out of control
      • Students learn how to move from one zone to another in order to be in the best place to learn.
  • When the class is too energetic and unable to focus, practice a mindfulness. Some mindfulness apps for kids include:
    • Smiling Mind
    • Dreamy Kids
    • Well Beyond Meditation
    • Stop, Breathe and Think Kids
    • Insight Timer

8. Be intentional about teaching desired behaviors.

  • Students with poor executive functioning skills cannot visualize what is asked of them when a teacher says, “line up at the door with your hands at your side”.
  • Instead, take a picture of a students lined up at the door with hands at their sides. Project this picture on the screen and talk about details. Point out the direction of each student’s body, the distance between each student and what their hands and feet look like. Then practice lining up like the picture.
  • This can be applied to any activity in your classroom.

9. Use the premack principle of first ___________ then ___________.

  • Students with low motivation may need extra reinforcement in the moment to complete certain tasks. If a student is struggling to get through an entire sheet of math problems, ask the student to complete 5 problems, then give a choice of reinforcement. “First, 5 problems, then 5 minutes of iPad.”
  • The same principle can be applied to behavior. “First, sit through calendar with safe hands, then 5 minutes to color.”

10. Look for patterns in the student’s day.

  • When a student struggles with behavior, it is important to determine what occurs just before and just after a meltdown.
  • That which occurs just before an adverse behavior is the antecedent, this could cause a behavior.
  • That which occurs right after a behavior will either make the behavior subside or will maintain the behavior.
    • The link below gives you access to a behavior tracking sheet.

General Education Partners

Special education teachers must collaborate with general education teachers in order to program effectively for students. Collaboration and communication are key.

The purpose of special education is to provide specialized instruction to students in the area of his or her disability. Too many times the resource room is used as tutoring for the completion of work from the general education classroom. This work can and should be used to enhance this instruction, but should not be the only service students receive. For example, if a child is found to have a learning disability in the area of reading comprehension, specialized instruction in comprehension should be provided. If work from the general education classroom enhances this instruction, it should be incorporated, but it should not be the ONLY instruction the child receives from the special education teacher.

Collaboration between gen ed and special ed teachers is the only way to ensure this balance of instruction occurs. Special education teachers can facilitate this collaboration by beginning the school year with the following:

  1. Share information about each student with general education teachers including the classroom teacher and any elective teachers. This information must include accommodations and modifications. Gen ed teachers are responsible for implementing the accommodations and modifications. The special education teacher is a resource for questions and suggestions.
  2. Determine a schedule that aligns with minutes on the student’s IEP. What are the best times to pull the student out for instruction and what are the best times to push in for instructional support?
  3. Determine supports the student will need to transition from classroom to classroom. Can the student transition alone or does the student need adult assistance? Ensure that if a child enters back to the gen ed classroom at a time that is not conducive to the general education teacher stopping a lesson and looping the student in, that the student has materials to complete independently until he or she can join in the lesson.
  4. Discuss the role of paraprofessionals. If a paraprofessional will join the general education classroom to support students, what role will he or she play? What are some classroom norms of which the para should be aware? If the general education teacher has questions or concerns about the para, how should those be addressed?
  5. Discuss “what-if” scenarios. If a child has disruptive behavior, discuss the student’s behavior intervention plan. How should the teacher react to behavior? What is the plan if the teacher needs assistance? Does the gen ed teacher have the tools needed to support the student when special education staff is not present?
  6. Collaborate on programming. Determine what activities and materials from the general education classroom will be incorporated in the special education classroom. Share information with the gen ed teacher about specialized instruction that will occur in the special education classroom.
  7. Determine dates and times to collaborate as the year progresses. Apprise general education teachers that they are part of the student’s IEP team and if concerns arise, how to address those concerns with the IEP team.

Begin the year by opening the lines of communication. When general education teachers and special education teachers communicate and collaborate effectively, students reap the benefits.

So Impulsive!

A few months ago, I took Sophie to Casey’s to get brownie bites. I was in a hurry, trying to get to one of her brother’s games on time. Then…a disaster hit! There were no brownie bites at the store. I told Soph to choose something else because I didn’t want to be late to the game. She looked around the store. One minute…two minutes…three minutes. She saw everything they had to offer – twice. As the minutes went by, my patience faded. Sophie insisted we go to another Casey’s store. I told her she had ten seconds to make a choice. I started the countdown. Her demands that we go to another store became louder. I continued to count. Her frustration continued to build. Tears came with louder demands. I walked out of the store without buying her anything and as she finally followed me she was literally kicking and screaming.

This chart explains exactly what happened in Casey’s that day. Sophie has ADHD, which leaves her with little to no pause before she reacts. A thought enters her mind and she acts on it or she is triggered and this produces a big emotional response.

Reaction to stimuli occurs instantly and naturally in the brain of a person with ADHD. The best way to curb this instant reaction is to be proactive. In the story above, I could have prompted Sophie before going into the store by saying, “We are in a hurry so if this store doesn’t have brownie bites, let’s think of something else you can choose.” Proactively prompting with a timer is also helpful. I might say, “We are running behind so you will have three minutes to choose something. If you don’t choose something by the time the timer goes off, we will have to leave without a snack.” This only works if it is presented before the child begins to escalate. Waiting to insert an intervention until after escalation has begun, most often, does not work.

Teaching a pause before reacting is also a great intervention. This skill is part of executive functioning. Executive functioning skills include: paying attention, organizing and planning, initiating and focusing on tasks, regulating emotions and self-monitoring.

Smart but Scattered is a great resource with tons of tips to teach your child executive functioning skills. These skills help our kids learn how to pause before reacting.

Sophie continues to struggle with the pause and I continue to attempt to stay far enough ahead of her that I can be proactive. I know that if she is tired, her routine is off or she hasn’t had her medication; there is very little chance that she will have the ability to pause. I also know that her behavior is not personal and if she could control her behavior, she would.

Earlier this month, Soph became upset with me because I would not allow her to shoot off all of her fireworks at once. Instead of yelling, she refused to speak to me (which was nice for a change) and stormed off into the house. Later that night, I came out of the shower to find the heart below on my bed. She processed the situation by herself and took it upon herself to make amends. This is progress. Having the ability to recognize the problem may, one day, lead to her ability to prevent an issue from occurring at all!

What is Your Teacher Temperature?

It takes me 40 minutes to drive to work and I love it. I am obsessed with listening to podcasts. Ed Mylett is an entrepreneur who I listen to and love. He motivates people to become better. Better parents, better businessmen, better humans. This post is based off of his podcast, “Changing Your Identity.”

Every person has a thermostat and it is set where we feel comfortable. My hottest teacher temperature (when I was at the top of my teaching game) were my years in a classroom with students who have autism or intellectual disability. During those years, my teacher temperature was at least 95. I was on fire. I knew that I was doing exactly what I was meant to do. I loved problem-solving; working to figure out why students refused to enter the gym or how to teach students using methods outside of the box. I loved creating materials. I loved working with students and the relationships I had with their families.

Looking back, I know why my thermostat was set so high.

  • I was hungry to learn. I was taking classes, reading articles and talking to other professionals.
  • I was surrounded by amazing humans. The paraprofessionals and general education teachers who I worked with made me better. They questioned my methods and pushed me to create a better environment. They supported my interventions and believed in the work we were doing.
  • We had fun! Every day in my classroom wasn’t a blast, but most of the time, we had fun. We created a family and the kids felt safe and loved. We laughed…a lot.
  • I loved what I was doing and believed in the students and adults with whom I worked.

95 was comfortable. In fact, it felt great. My thermostat stayed at that level because I worked incredibly hard. When I became too tired to keep my temperature at a 95, I felt awful. I couldn’t keep up the pace I needed to feel successful in that classroom and my temperature dropped. I knew that to get back to a 95, I needed to make a change.

When we become comfortable at a certain temperature, changing that number is difficult. In our homes, when the thermostat is set at 72, but it is really hot outside, the temperature may rise to 75. The thermostat will work really hard until the temperature comes back down. Changing the setting on our thermostats requires persistent work to make a permanent change. Perhaps this is a change in grade level or subject area. It could mean moving from a teacher to a consultant. This could also be a change in routine, mindset, style or location. Maybe learning a new technique or curriculum could spark that change. Something that is for sure…being stagnant will move your temperature in the wrong direction. We must keep growing and pushing ourselves to be better humans.

I wonder how many teachers feel that their thermostat is set at 95. I know many of these teachers. They are the teachers who make their profession an art. They radiate the love they feel for kids. I’ve been taught by these teachers and my kids have been taught by these teachers. They are invaluable.

My question to you is, where is your thermostat set? What is your teaching temperature? Everyone gets stuck. Over the years, lesson plans stop changing and every new initiative is a hassle. If you are a teacher who feels stuck…if your thermostat has decreased throughout the years because your temperature dropped, I challenge you to do something to change it. Read a book. Find a Facebook group of teachers with similar interests to share ideas. Find new and inspired ways to run your classroom. Be determined that at the end of this school year, every child is going to be sad to leave your classroom. Increase your teacher temperature!

Finding Kansas

The DSM no long uses the term “Asperger’s syndrome” for students on the autism spectrum who may have more language or a high level of academic competency. The new term used is “high functioning autism.” I find this to be misleading. The ability to complete algebra in the 3rd grade does not make society easier to maneuver.

At times it seems that students with high functioning autism struggle more in the school setting than students with classic autism. Many public schools have programs with highly qualified teachers trained specifically to work with students who have classic autism. A student with high functioning autism is more likely enrolled in typical math and English classes. Teachers in these classes tend to have more training related to the subject area. Even many special education teachers who work in resource settings do not have the necessary training to work with a student who has high functioning autism.

In the book, Finding Kansas, Aaron Likens describes his life as a person with Asperger’s syndrome (high functioning autism). Aaron portrays his school experiences as miserable. He remembers talking to his kindergarten teacher about math during recess and being directed to play with the kids or he would lose his recess.

As he became older, social situations were completely beyond his understanding. With a perfect auditory memory, many tasks teachers asked of him seemed pointless, as he did not need to practice to learn math facts or state capitals. By the fourth grade Aaron was homeschooled and at age 16 he earned his GED; receiving the 3rd highest score in the state.

Aaron states that he was much more attached to objects than people. He comments that objects are predictable and will “do what I tell them to do.” People, on the other hand, are unpredictable. People do not follow a set of rules. People cannot be commanded to talk about subjects we like. We cannot predict if a person’s voice will be loud or soft.

Board games, however, do follow rules and provide consistency. Aaron describes his “game theory.” He states that he is a different person when he plays a game. “In the “real” world there are few set rules except laws, and all other rules are determined by the individual. But in a game those elements are tossed out. My overthinking and critical attitude toward others is bypassed, because within a game all participants are playing by the same rules.”

How many times have we (as teachers) had the student who gets incredibly frustrated because, “Joey isn’t following the rules”? For a student with high functioning autism, who is trying to diligently to follow the rules, watching another student break that rule is beyond frustrating! I also think of the craving for consistency and routine of students on the spectrum. With so much unpredictability in the “real world”, it makes sense that creating schedules, following routines and providing a clear beginning and end to activities allows for increased success.

In Finding Kansas, Aaron Likens provides insight into the mind of a person with high functioning autism. I think it is a must-read for parents of children with high-functioning autism and, teachers; general and special education and administrators.

Take Aways…

The most challenging students I have ever worked with are those with high-functioning autism. They were always two steps ahead, which meant I had to be three steps ahead…and it was exhausting!

Just because a student has many words does not mean the student has a lot of language skills. These students struggle to express needs and feelings. They struggle to tell a person how to make a situation better and many times, this frustration manifests in negative behavior.

Students with high functioning autism (HFA) benefit from using visuals. Many times teachers switch to words instead of pictures – which is fine in many cases. However, when a student is escalated, pictures provide a faster cue because the brain does not need to translate the written word into visual form.

Students with high functioning autism typically do not pick up on cues. Tell the child/student exactly what is expected. Using a consequence map (in my blog “One of My Favorite Behavior Tools”) is extremely helpful. This provides rules to social situations.

Sensory issues may be a major factor in behavior of students with HFA. Different stimuli affect a student differently depending on the day.

Don’t assume because a child was able to handle a situation one day that he/she can handle it again on a different day. What a student (or any human) can handle depends on the student’s bus ride and what was served in the cafeteria for breakfast and how loud the other students were in the hallway. Never assume a student who displays negative behavior does it because he or she wants to – there is always a deeper purpose behind the behavior.