On Simplicity of a Good Teaching 2

Yesterday, Robert had a therapeutic riding lesson at Bridge Center.   During the previous lesson, Robert was doing what he always does.  His instructor, Kate, asked him to keep the reins higher, not on the horse’s back.  As always Robert listened.  He raised his hands a little higher and after a few seconds… lowered them to a previous position.  It is not that Robert did not listen.  He listened every time! He put his hands higher, then he… lowered them.

As I watched Robert, (still during the previous lesson) it occurred to me, that Robert didn’t understand for how long he had to hold the reins above the horse’s back.  He didn’t have measurable unit of time that would give him a clue.  I suggested to Kate, to ask Robert to hold the reins for as long as he counts to ten.  I am not sure, if this suggestion worked or not.  I simply forgot to ask after the lesson.  Yesterday, however, Kate, gave Robert much better instruction.  She told him to hold reins until he reaches the letter A displayed on the arena’s wall.

That was IT!.

She repeated  similar instruction:  hold your hands up until letter C, until letter B, until Robert held his hands properly almost all the time.  He was not only riding properly.  He also understood what the instructor’s words “hold the reins up” meant in the context of his riding.

Yet again I witnessed the version of the same approach to designing instruction:

1. Define the problem

The problem was that Robert kept the reins very low, with his hands touching horse’s back

2.Design instruction to address it, the same way you would form a scientific hypothesis.

Tell him and/or demonstrate to him  proper position of hands.

3.Check it in practice.

It worked only for a very short time just after the instructor gave Robert this direction. Then Robert lowered his hands  down.

4. If it doesn’t work make corrections, or redefine the problem.

Since the verbal instruction and  demonstration did not work, find a prompt that would be delivered to Robert during the prolonged period of time.  For instance counting how long the hands should be up.

5. Even when it works, think about improving it.

Providing more easy to follow visual cues such as in a request,  ” Hold your hands higher until you reach letter A.”

This is precisely the same structure of developing a proper instruction as the one I have just described while talking about the skiing lesson. That supports my believe that a good teaching is a simple but a thoughtful process.

On Simplicity of a Good Teaching


Last Sunday (March 24 ) Robert had another skiing lesson at NEHSA.  The instructors, Denise and Brian, tried to find a way for Robert to change the position of his legs from  “pizza” to “spaghetti”.  Robert skis very fast but his legs are locked in a wedge position. This arrangement allows him to feel more in control.  When, however, he has to go on a narrow and, as I was told, winding trail, Robert without any additional directions, brings his ski together to almost parallel position.  Unfortunately, Williamson Trail, is not often open.  The instructors tried to have Robert hold a stick by both hands in front of him.  For some reasons, this did not work very well.  During the morning part of the lesson, Robert zigzagged on left and right sides of orange cones.  During the afternoon lesson, the instructors devised another  plan. They went back on a relatively easy (for Robert)  wide trail and  skied on both sides of Robert, but as far away from him, as the trail allowed.  While skiing down, Robert had to travel  from Denise to Brian and back to give them “five”.  The need to make frequent turns required that Robert keeps his skis in parallel position.  His legs were still rather far from each other, but they were PARALLEL!

My husband, who followed them, took a short video on his phone.  I could see Robert gliding from one side of the slope to another. He must have felt happy. I would if I had  been there.   I don’t ski myself.  Because of my childhood polio, I  have never even entertained that possibility.  At NEHSA,  a vast army of experienced volunteers, and all sort of special equipment (including over 50 seating skis for skiers with many kinds of spinal injuries) it would be worth considering.  But…

When I talked to instructors after the lesson, I realized the simplicity of a good teaching:

1. Define the problem

The problem was that Robert kept his feet in a wedge position all the time

2.Design instruction to address it, the same way you would form a scientific hypothesis.

Tell him and/or demonstrate to him  a parallel position.

3.Check it in practice.

It worked only for a short time when Robert was required to walk, or only for a few seconds at the beginning of the ride.  As soon as Robert went down the slope, he went back to his favorite pose.

4. If it doesn’t work make corrections, or redefine the problem.

Since the verbal instruction and  demonstration did not work, find a prompt that would be delivered to Robert throughout the whole length of the trail like   the cones requiring zigzagging.

5. Even when it works, think about improving it.

Telling  Robert to give the instructors “five” was an improvement  comparing to zigzagging between cones.  It was more visible and concrete prompt. Paying attention to the positions of his instructors, and giving them “five” offered an additional benefit that addressed directly the core issues related to Robert’s form of autism.

Of course, at some point the prompts have to be changed or removed, but that is another story for another skiing season.

Tell Us a Happy Story or Keep Quiet

They do happen.  The happy events happen from time to time. There are some positive outcomes sometimes, somewhere.  They might be temporary or they might be permanent.  But they are rare despite  the relative proliferation of such stories in all sorts of media. Any story about “recovery” from autism, is multiplied in TV programs or internet sites so often, that the false picture is formed.  Nobody wants to hear about lost fights, about daily humiliations of not being able to assure that your child is taught properly and not discriminated against in many unsettling ways.  If you don’t have a positive story to say, too bad.  It is your fault.  You are getting what you expected.  Yes, it is your fault.  You did not have positive perspective in the first place!

Maybe not. I did not concentrate on positive or negative. I concentrated on simple survival and finding a path that would not cave in under the load I was caring.  Later, I tried to be pragmatic while navigating between  Scylla of all kinds of false treatments and Charybdis of of neglectful attitudes. So no, I did not have any positive perspective.  The matter of fact I did not have any perspective.

If I had any moments of optimism they were put to the test hundred times a week, not by my child, but by those who were paid  to help him.  If the people WHOSE OBLIGATIONS, WHOSE PAID JOBS  are to prepare a child with disability for the future don’t help,  it is still the fault of the parent.  It is the parent who doesn’t know how to work with the teachers, administrators, or agencies.  It is the parent who needs a “calm” advocate, it is the parent who has to be trained how to talk to school.  Luckily, the schools, the state agencies, and non-profit organizations can make a list of better parents.  Parents  who are satisfied and ready to say so. Parents who can easily write about their positive experiences,

So, if you want to be heard, share your positive perspective and  swallow your bitterness mixed with a depressing hopelessness.

However,  the success stories with “positive perspective” don’t make me more cheerful. I am glad they happened somewhere, sometimes to someone, but they cannot be replicated, and that leaves the feeling of failure mixed with a  piercing loneliness and alienation.

It has to be told, that writing unhappy story  is much harder than reporting on successes.  You don’t share the fact that you go through bankruptcy proceeding the same way, you inform about your lottery jackpot.

We under-report the hurt, humiliation, and confusion as if they did not have a right to be witnessed. But they should be known so they could be addressed, maybe even helped.

That is why, I will start writing a very short but multiple stories about events that  frequently drained my optimism about my son’s future.  I will write about those thousand tiny things that kill an elephant before they drain the last ounce of optimism I still, surprisingly, have.


This post was difficult to write.  Mainly because of an emotional knot. It is my strongest conviction that my son was never accepted in our town.  Not when he was 3 years old, not when he was 14, and not now. I partially understood the perspective of the people who rejected him.  I did not approve it but I did understand. The way I wanted to change the attitudes of others was by helping Robert to learn,  I rushed with teaching, hoping that as Robert learns and grows, his acceptance by others would follow.

This was not the case. Robert knows more, understands more, but as long as he is not understood and not given credit for what he had already learned, his knowledge is a heavy, but useless, load.

1. I remember my last conversation with his preschool teacher in the early summer of  1995.  I wanted Robert to participate in the summer special needs preschool program before another placement was found out. The teacher dismissed, almost laughingly, such an outrageous request.  Yes, she tolerated Robert for three months, just after he had left Early Intervention Program. She did her best, she paid close  attention to Robert every single day.  She was always with him  until, that is,  a new student arrived to the classroom a month and a half later.  From that moment on, it was an aide who was assigned to Robert.  Except, Robert did not understand it.  Ignoring a new teacher aide he followed the teacher so relentlessly and obnoxiously that she must have felt suffocated. So, no, she did not want Robert in her summer program. Robert stayed at home.

2. A few years later, Robert was driven twice a week from his Private School to the Public School in Southboro to be included, for an hour, in a typical first grade classroom. Under gentle prompting from the classroom teacher (Mrs. Sparrow, I believe) the students kept admiring Robert’s ability to read, the skill which seemed incompatible with Robert’s extremely limited language. The students learned about diversity and Robert just felt happy.  During the IEP meeting with a representative from our town, I suggested to include Robert in a first grade classroom in our town, with the assistance of the teacher from the Private School. Just for an hour or two a week. That would test waters for possible return to the public school later.  That ideas was, yet again, dismissed.  Robert could be included in Southboro but not in his own town.

3. In 2006 I begged my town to accept Robert just for two hours a day in town’s school.  I felt, he could make it.  After all, he was going with me everywhere I went: to banks, stores, libraries, museums, movies.  Only once, during those four months when Robert stayed at home, there was an incident. In the BIG Y grocery store , I wanted to return an item, as too expensive, after the cashier had scanned it already.  Robert never minded returning an item from a shopping cart but he DID mind returning it from a cash register.   He screamed, he hit his ears, he grabbed the item from the cashier and placed it in the shopping bag.  The cashier calmly reassured me that it was OK, they they did understand Robert’s behavior and that the next time would be better. They reminded me that during previous visit he was always helpful and calm.

Why was my son accepted in a grocery store but not in the school? I couldn’t understand.  Although I cannot divulge what was said during four mediation sessions with school,  the fact, that  it took four months, four sessions of mediation, and a letter to a former commissionaire of education in my state (To which he responded with a strong empathy.) before Robert could join the self contained classroom in the town’s high school for TWO hours a day, speaks for itself.

4.Months before that happened I had gotten a phone call from the previous Special Education Director joyfully suggesting to enroll Robert in a Specific  Private School in Boston area. I almost choked.  The day before this call, all the local news stations and all the local newspapers reported on a case of a SEVERE abuse in that particular school.  There was no way, the special education director would not have that information.  She not only knew that, but she knew that I knew that as well. For the following three years, she was supportive of Robert.  Yet, I never forget that call.

There is so much more to write, about what was said, implied, done, or not done to demonstrate how unwelcome Robert was in his own town, but I have to take a deep breath now and not get entangled in that invisible but sticky web that was spun around Robert to separate him from other students in his class.

During six and a half years since my son returned to public school there were a few people who tolerated my son, but only three of them really wanted him there.  The first was Robert’s aide, Mrs. Scott.
The second one was the school district current (in 2012/2013)special ed director.(she retired in June of 2013)
I was the third.

Mrs. Scott enjoyed working with Robert. Every day (EVERY DAY!), she greeted him with a big smile.   Robert felt welcomed, felt safe, and in the right place. She worked with him diligently.  She accompanied him to lunchroom and made him a center of the group. She seemed happy working with him even during his challenging behaviors, which she was mostly able to defuse.

I wanted Robert in a public school so he could follow a group of his peers, listened to their conversations even if he couldn’t participate. I wanted him to understand high school lives  of his peers, even if he couldn’t share their experiences. I was teaching Robert anything that he could use in his class.

The Special Education Director wanted Robert at the public school to save the town money by avoiding outside placement. But she also wanted to prove that the district was capable of accepting and providing services for students with complex needs.
But proving that was tricky if not impossible.

Mrs. Scott, the  Special Education Director and I, we all, had the same goal.  We all wanted  to keep Robert in school district and having him learn there. We all believed  that with some modifications there were opportunities  for learning.

Unfortunately, the potential was not utilized.  I could pin point to reasons, to neglect, to passive resistance to change, to many other things, but they all point to one general conclusion.  Robert was unwelcome.

Mrs. Scott retired and moved out of state.

I experienced more and more difficulties communicating with the school staff. Upon almost every visit I saw neglect and a lack of will to teach Robert or to even accept him as worth teaching. I was not able to change anything. I was growing bitter and disillusioned. Finally, for the last six months of 2012/2013, I had to force myself to even call the school when there was a need for that. I asked my husband to do that for me. Any way, I failed my son.

The special ed director, although much maligned upon her leaving, did attempt to  make Robert’s program appropriate to him and acceptable to me. She did buy a lot of new curricula materials. She did hired educational consultants to help the teachers understand Robert’s learning needs. But, although considered powerful if not aggressive, she was not a match for passive resistance coming from all sides -teachers, specialists, administrators, and school committee members.
Although, I did blame her for keeping Robert in the program that clearly didn’t work for him, I have to also give her credit for trying to make that program workable. She didn’t have enough money. She did not get a support necessary for smooth installment of changes. She was not a teacher. She was not a therapist. She was not a school committee member. She was not a superintendent. Despite presenting image to the contrary, she has much less power over Robert’s program than one teacher’s aide, who also happened to be a secretary for a School Committee with an access to some of the committee members. Instead the direcotr of Special education made almost everybody her enemy, and became vilified, when she went on retirement. Anyway, she failed my son.
A year after her retiring,in his last year at public school, my son remained as unwanted as he was brfore she arrived.
And the worst part is, nobody really understands the degree to which he or she kept rejecting Robert. After all,nobody lacked him in a iron cage. He was kept away by this thin, silky thread spun around him day after day. Thread hard to see and impossible to escape.

On Months, Seasons, and on Years of Teaching

Robert has known names of the months and names of the seasons for at least ten years. He learned, long ago,  the order in which months or seasons follow each other. But only lately, he has learned to associate warm clothes with winter and  bathing suits with summer.  Robert has learned also the  activities that come with different seasons. He knows that he skis in the winter but rakes leaves in the fall.

He makes, however,  many mistakes while trying to place different holidays in the months they are celebrated.

Most importantly, he still cannot relate the seasons to the correct months.

Four years ago, I tried to help him establish that relation by making season/month wheel. It was a large circle divided into four differently colored sections representing four seasons and into 12 sections separated by large, black lines representing months. (Two-thirds of March were the color of winter and one-third the color of spring. I treated similarly June,  September, and December.) When Robert had to place a given date in an appropriate season (as many of the problems in Saxon Math 4 asked him to do), I quickly directed him to that wheel.  He had problems especially around dates close to equinoxes or solstices.  I made many worksheets.  Some of them were based on the ideas from the Saxon Math, some were my own. I tried to demonstrate the pattern: two whole months in one season followed by the month split between two seasons, two whole months in one…Robert still did not make proper connection.  I moved on.

To other subjects, to next lessons.

During  some of those lessons, Robert learned to use his knuckles to state the number of the days in each month.

He has also learned that March is the third month of the year and that April is the fourth.  But he is not sure about August or December. I have tried to teach that for a few years by now in a simple way:

A. Robert wrote names of the months in order, then he wrote numbers next to them.  When he was asked to write a date using digits, he had to just look up at what he had done a minute before.

I did not go to the next step in teaching that skill and I did not reverse this order. What should I have done but did not do was to:

B.First, present Robert with a request to substitute numbers for names of the months and THEN prompt him (suggest to him more or less openly) to help himself by writing the list of months and numbers.

While in “A” , I  demonstrated to Robert the rule governing the substitution, in “B” Robert was learning a tool to solve the problem himself.

It is a huge difference!

Now, I am trying to repair that oversight.

During the last year, Robert understood the word “ago”  as going back and subtracting days, months, or years and the expression “from now”  as going forward and adding units of time.  Understanding “ago” and “from now” is a major achievement.  Those are pretty abstract concepts. It took me many months to understand that.

Today, as Robert tried to find out what day was four months ago, he reached for a season/month wheel all by himself:   He moved his finger counterclockwise on the wheel as he attempted to pronounce: “February, January, December, November”. When he started writing the date: “November 13, …” I stopped him. “Look Robert”, I showed him the month/season wheel, “Look, you crossed back to the previous year…”

Robert produced undecipherable sound and then wrote: “2012” to finish the date. I was not sure he remembered what I had told him a year or more ago, about moving to the previous year or to the following year every time  his fingers cross the border between January and December one way or another.

He did.  He remembered!

No, he still doesn’t know that July is a summer month.

We have many months, seasons, and years to practice , to learn, and to live.

Broken Down

I experienced a lot of difficulties lately writing this blog.  Yes, I am still teaching Robert at least 6 days a week, but I feel  unable to write about it.    Why?  No clear, simple answer. But…

I work on Robert’s language.  Yes, I do feel lost without specialist’s instruction.  I feel overwhelmed by my son’s  huge needs. I know, my English pronunciation  is incorrect, as I learned English myself when I was 32 years old without the help of any English teacher.  But I go on, because nobody else is.

Just yesterday we did:

1. The unit 14 from Problem Solving Activities.  (Great Ideas for Teaching, Inc.) Robert looked at the picture.  With some prompting he described the situation/problem and then assessed the  four possible solutions to the problem as either, good, OK or bad.  It was an exercise in finding proper words to express what he saw and thought.

2. Exercises to practice sound “f” from Speech Improvement Reproducible Masters. (Great Ideas for Teaching) Because of Robert’s  huge issues with pronunciation, clarity, and lengths of sounds such exercises usually help prepare him for saying a few syllables utterances.  Robert did not have a problem with the “f” sound but with cutting the last consonant in each CVC word and with shortening the long vowel in cv words.

3.  We did two stories from Fold and Say Auditory & Story Comprehension. (Super Duper Publication). After Robert listened to me reading him four sentences, he was supposed to answer three simple questions.  It was very hard for him.  It was easier when he read the story himself and then answered questions in writing.  Listening comprehension is still a big problem, as Robert’s understanding of verbal directions is mostly supported by the known environment.  Listening to the story is sort of abstract.

4. Robert followed verbal directions from Listening and Processing Auditory Directions. (Great Ideas for Teaching). He had to circle, color, or underline parts of one of the four pictures.  We did that five and four years ago.  After a long break, Robert needed some practice, but yesterday he was 100% correct.

5. We worked on a couple of pages from Teaching the Language of Time (Circuit Publication). They were devoted to the fact that some activities take place at the same time. ( While some people travel in the plane, children on the ground look up and observe the airplane.)

6. Robert practiced asking questions with the help of Teaching Kids of All Ages to Ask Questions.(Circuit Publication)  Robert already practiced with me asking the same questions orally.  He twice wrote them down on paper, pretending to ask one of his classmates.  Yesterday, we just practiced again asking his classmate the same  questions (What do you like to eat?  What do you like to drink?  where do you like to go on vacation? and so on).  Later, I suggested to Robert to ask his sister the same questions (one at a time).  So we made three trips to her room and Robert asked Amanda.  At first, he was a little uneasy, but after the third trip and question about vacation, he got it!  He was happy to ask and to get an answer. He was happy mainly, that she understood him and promptly answered.

7.To finish with an easy task I returned to No Glamour Sentence Structure (LinguiSystems). We repeated the first unit (we had already went through the book at least once). Robert quickly and without error said 20 sentences, each based on two pictures representing a subject and a predicate.  “The boy is running.”

Robert needs language as a mode of understanding the world around.  He needs to work on pronunciation, as he is still not understood. He needs language  as a tool for thinking.  He needs language as a communication tool.

When I study with Robert and see how VERY,VERY hard he works,  how dedicated he is to his speech improvement, how important it is for him, I feel only great powerful emotions.  I am reinforced or rewarded greatly for my work.

But when I try to write about  our work, our  small stumbles, or surprised progress, I am getting bitter.  As I write many other thoughts come to hunt me and poison me.  I realize how lonely we both are:  Robert and I.  How little he learns at school.  I know how much more Robert could learn with the help of his teacher, speech therapist, and his schoolmates if any of the things we work together were addressed in a small, vocal group. I know, and I become angry.  I tried to suppress my anger, and keep it at bay, but I am not able to do that without hurting myself.  I

I tried so hard to avoid criticism of the school, but as I write, I realize over and over that those skills would be much better addressed if the teaching was done at school, by trained professionals and not by a mother who not only does not have any training in teaching language but who, moreover,  speaks with a foreign accent. How much more would Robert learn and what a big difference that could be for his future.

That is why I am unable to write.


I don’t mean South and North Poles.  I mean the sweating heat of the tropical forest versus  the cool air of Alaska.  Or something like that.

Tropical Forest

Our house required major, emergency repairs.  Contractors came to remove two basement walls and replace them with  new ones.  For Robert that was a major disaster and he expressed clearly his position on  all the stages of the project. Although we, the parents, had predicted Robert’s reactions and tried to plan accordingly to avoid confrontations or disruptions, not everything went according to plan.

We told Robert about the need for a work in the basement.  He said, “OK, OK”.  Nonetheless, knowing better than to rely on Robert’s accepting attitudes, we decided that Robert would leave for Sunapee Mountain before the contractors arrive.  Unfortunately, we were a little late and the contractor was 5 minutes earlier. When Robert was pulling on his ski pants, the first contractor came.

No, Robert could not leave the house knowing that a stranger with tools would stay in Robert’s home doing some unimaginable things without being closely monitored by Robert. At first, Robert approached the situation tactfully.  He said, “Bye, bye.” giving a clear hint that the man should leave. But the man did not get it. Robert handled the man the jacket and his tools.  That did not work either.  So Robert opened the door wide and repeated, “Bye, bye “.  The contractor still did not leave.

I tried to persuade Robert to wait in the car for his dad to finish packing the ski gear.  But I knew I would not be able to do that.  Moreover, even if I did convince Robert to stay in the car, his whole trip  to the Sunapee would be negatively affected.

I knew that Robert was getting more and more upset and impatient.  He wanted to go skiing, but he could not leave knowing that a stranger was left in our house. I suspected he would try to push, contractor out.  As soon as Robert put his hands on a contractor’s jacket, not pushing him yet, but intending to, I knew that it was the time to give up.

Still, you cannot just give up after witnessing such escalating behavior.  So, I pretended that I finally understood Robert.  “Oh, Robert, you want Mr.  Contractor to go, don’t you?”

“Yes, yes, yes”, Robert repeated quickly and eagerly.

“Why didn’t you say so?.  OK, we will ask Mr. Contractor to leave.”  “Leave, leave, leave”,  Repeated Robert happy that he found another mode of persuasion. After all, for Robert, proper words are hard to come by and thus he appreciated my help in  retrieving  them for him.

I made an arrangement  with Chris, the contractor, to leave and come back a few minutes later.  Robert calmed down as soon as he saw the truck leaving the driveway.  He rushed to the car, and off he went.


At the Sunapee Mountain, Robert skied with his dad, the instructors, and the volunteers from NEHSA, New England Handicapped Sports Association.

“He is smiling all the way from the top (of the North Peak) to the bottom,” marveled Sandy, his instructor, after the whole day lesson.

“Yes, he is rather pleased”, confirmed, usually reserved, Robert’s dad.

At NEHSA you can sign up for a half a day lesson (two hours) or the whole day lesson (four hours with an hour-long lunch break between two halves.  The $60 pay for the lesson, ski equipment, and lift. After the lesson, the instructor writes a report so the next instructor would have a better understanding of Robert’s skills and issues that might arise.  I could go on about NEHSA for ever, as this organization helped Robert and me survive three years  when Robert’s dad worked in California and thus couldn’t take him skiing.  It is a wonderful, non-profit organization  you can learn more about at  nehsa.org