The Classroom to Scream Together

In the spring of 1995, my son’s teacher from diagnostic program in a district preschool, her administrative supervisor, and I visited a collaborative program as a possible placement.  Our presence did not surprise anybody, as it was planned ahead of time.  Robert, energetic 3 years old, was with us, because I did not have anybody to babysit him.

It is hard to describe what was happening in the classroom.   Certainly, it did not help that Robert was running along the wall. I tried to keep him on my lap, but Houdini he had been since his birth, he wiggled from any of my holds.  Three of us, visitors, were sitting maybe 5-6 yards from the swing hanging from the ceiling. Next to the swing two adults were standing. As I learned later, they were speech therapist and occupational therapist.  The third adult, main classroom teacher, was standing next to a short, vibrating line of children waiting for their turn on a swing.  They wanted to have fun, not fully aware that it was a tricky way to provide sensory integration and speech therapy at the same time. It was believed that  placing a child on the swing  would lead to increased speech production through sensory input. I still have vivid images from this classroom, but no idea  what area of speech production was addressed. I did not hear anything because one of the students screamed all the time we were there.  Let me be clear, I did not mind the screaming.  It might come and go, and you cannot predict when it would happen.  I did not mind the screaming. I did mind however the fact that my son’s teacher from our school district turned to me and said, ” This classroom is a good match for Robert.  He screams just like that girl.”

I sat passively till the end of our scheduled observation.  I was frozen by realization how difficult would be to find a right program/teacher for Robert.  How little had been known about teaching children with special needs.  I was speechless.  At that time, I was still a nice, shy person, who made every effort to acknowledge  other people perspectives and avoid confronting them. I did not say anything.

Today, I would force myself to immediately reply, “Are you saying that this classroom is appropriate for Robert because he can have a companion in screaming?  I think that he needs a program where he will learn NOT to SCREAM.”

Luckily, Robert got a home program from PRIVATE SCHOOL and in one day he became a different student. Yes, it was  a skilfully delivered Applied Behavior Analysis  that made a difference by providing Robert with clear directions and clear understanding of what was expected of him. In one day, Robert became cooperative, ready to learn. He stayed in his seat for the most of the session and, ask for a break when he needed it. In just one day!

Meantime, Robert school district demonstrates the same sort of thinking expressed by the teacher in the spring of 1995, as if the venerable  institution of public learning represented by its workers, did not learn anything over 18 years that passed. Sadly, I suspect, that my son’s school district is not alone in digging itself in a deep trenches of stone age approach to special education.

Yesterday, I observed Robert during a speech therapy.  As it was a year before and then another year before, and a year before year all the way  to  the school year 2006/2007 the speech therapy has been delivered to students based on their perceived level of communication. Those who have more language, get more stimulation from their peers who also have more language. Those who have least language get much less stimulation from their peers. The students slow each other, they don’t have any peer models, that would motivate them and offer them templates for sentence production. Moreover, it might be that each of the students has different areas of strength and different areas of needs, but in this model the strengths cannot be brought up and enforced, and the needs are lost.

Let me be clear, I have never advocated for more capable children to sacrifice their higher aspirations to help those peers who don’t speak as well .  But I believe that it is possible to assemble groups in which every member  would benefit despite  being on so-called different language levels. When the intervention is based on good understanding of strengths and needs, it should be driven by specific goals.  When the “intervention” is based solely on “levels”, there is no moving forward.

The rule, “Let’s keep all the screamers together” is damaging for all the screamers.  After all, they do scream for different reasons and they all need to learn not to scream.

Lesson from Cormorants

Half through our walk around Boston’s Pleasure Bay, we took a short break to look at the Bay and Castle  Island.  Surprisingly, I did not  tell Robert what HE was seeing. Surprisingly, because usually I cannot help but to “enrich”  our walks with pointing or naming everything Robert should notice:  airplanes landing or taking off, motorboats, sailboats, and ferries; seagulls and cormorants;  people walking, running, biking, roller skating, swimming, children on the playground. There is so much to notice on Castle Island that it might be a great place to practice/teach/drill (?) joint attention.

The airplanes  flying over the bay almost every minute  offer the perfect opportunity for teaching pointing:

I stretched my arm. “Airplane”

I stretched Robert’s arm.  “Airplane”

Minute later, another plane.

I stretched my arm. “Airplane”

I stretched Robert’s arm.  “Airplane”

Again and again. I could repeat the sequence 30 times or more, but I usually took a long break after 5 times at the beginning of the stroll.  By the time we returned to our car, Robert and I pointed to airplanes maybe 5 more times. Over the few years Robert “noticed” seagulls and cormorants, dogs swimming and fetching sticks, blue blossoms of chicory and burrs of burdock plants.  I don’t think Robert mastered shared attention during those trips, but he certainly became more aware of his surroundings.

Later I used the trips to help Robert “remember” what he had seen on the Castle Island.  As we walked, I “helped” Robert noticing over and over three or four of the same things.

“What do people do at Pleasure Bay”

“People walk” “People run”.  People talk on the phones” , People swim”

Since many people walk, run, and talk on their phones, Robert had an ample opportunities to hear and repeat what the people did.  On the way home, in the car, we repeated a few times the phrases from our list.  At home, Robert wrote, what he remembered: “People walk, run, swim” A gesture, placing a hand by the ear, reminded Robert that the people also talk on their phones.

I have never planned teaching ahead of any of the trips.  The more someone has to learn, the more teaching opportunities the world presents.   I realized that when one day, Robert and I watched diving cormorants.  They floated on the water, dove for  quite a while only to  emerge in  different spots. What a great, alive illustration of concepts, “appear” and “disappear.”  A few weeks earlier, Robert encountered these two words in one of the vocabulary workbooks. I wasn’t sure if he grasped their meanings.  Diving cormorants showed Robert much better than I did what appearing and disappearing mean.

Almost every  excursion to Pleasure Bay was “enriched” by some sort of learning.

But yesterday, I did not tell Robert what HE noticed.  It was a beautiful day and sitting next to each other in silence was the best way to enjoy it.

And so we did.

As of September 14, 2013

Robert and I continued doing  the exercises that prepare for finding differences between 100 (or 60) and another number in memory. We still begin with writing the subtraction problems, for instance 100-38. Then, Robert rewrites the problem replacing one subtraction with two partial subtractions: 100-30-8. With this visual support, he doesn’t have problems finding the solutions. As we continue,  I ask him not to write, but to say aloud what he is supposed to do, “100 minus 30 is 70 minus 8 is 62.”  But he rushes through without saying the whole sentence, just the final answer.  That would be great if it did not lead to more errors down the line.  As long as he is required to say the whole sentence, the errors are rare.

After two pages of such exercises Robert returns to problems involving time and money. I thought that the introductory exercises would help Robert now.  This is not the case.  The first problem on the page, expressing 3;48 as 12 minutes before 4:00,  confuses him.  But with every problem, Robert becomes better. Unfortunately, tomorrow, the whole process will be replayed.  It will take a couple of weeks, before Robert solve correctly the first task on the page.

Today, we have finished the last chapter of Real Science 2.  A relatively easy book for Robert with not many new vocabulary words, but with many topics that apply to real life.

One of the advantages of teaching such topics to your own child  is that it allows you to  support reading of the text with those points of reference your child already has but only you are aware of their existence. During reading, I can remind Robert  those experiences that relate to the text. I can also bring the concepts from the book to add  to any non-learning activity and enrich the experience. For instance the meaning of a new word “friction” was literally felt  by Robert during our driving through a  road under construction.  The phrases, “less friction” and ” more friction” were  associated with car either gliding on the new surface or bumping during the ride over an uneven pavement.

For the last few days, Robert was practicing  pronouns with the help of pages from No Glomour Grammar 1 and 2.  It was rather relaxing activity for him. The emphasis was of course on proper usage and understandable pronunciation. The last one, was as always more difficult than the first one.

For Robert, the hardest were exercises in listening comprehension also from No Glomour series.  It was easier for Robert to answer four wh questions (who, what, where and when) as they related to two sentence long texts supported by  illustrations, then to answer one “WHEN” question as it applied to one sentence with a picture.

That one sentence was longer and more complicated than the two short sentences in the previous texts. From the picture, it is easy to deduce who did what and where, but it is much harder to “see” WHEN something took place. Moreover, the vocabulary  describing the time of events is larger and more diverse than vocabulary related to subjects, actions, and places. Not just “Monday, 8:15 PM, in the evening, last year”, but also “before or after something, while doing something else”  and so on. The answer to the “when” question can be found at the beginning, at the end, and in the middle of the sentence. Robert was able to seize such words as ” on Monday”, “in the morning”  but not “in the middle of the ride” and a few similar.  Whenever the phrase related to time (to WHEN) was harder to find, I asked Robert to read the text and find it himself as that was much easier for him than attend to my speech and finding the relevant part of a sentence.

As I watched Robert’s struggles with the questions, it occurred to me that although Robert’s  listening comprehension was always delayed (He did not have one receptive word until he was four and a half years old) the gap is getting wider. It has a lot to do with the fact that the people who talk to Robert utter fewer words than they would use with young children on a similar developmental level.  In doctors offices and restaurants, the nurses and  waitresses ask Robert only one question and when he doesn’t immediately answer, they turn to me waiting for my answer.   i don’t answer.  I translate which means I pose the same question to Robert. he answers me.  Of course, if the nurse or a doctor repeats the question to Robert, chances are he answers them.  But they very rarely do that.

Robert is pretty good at following directions.  When another person tells Robert what to do, he will comply.  When the other person demands a reply, he won’t  answer. Robert’s ability to follow directions is a result of a very strong emphasis that his private school and I put on this aspect of communication. I can only speculate, that if similar emphasis was placed on Robert’s intraverbal skills, he would listen more attentively and answer the questions much better.

Counting Coins

Chances are that when you ask the teacher (or administrator) leading the transition classroom what exactly the students are learning in “functional mathematics”,the response will be, “Counting coins.”

I don’t have anything against counting coins.  I think that counting by dimes, nickles, quarters, and pennies can teach many important math concepts.  Through counting by tens, fives,and twenty fives the students can get a better grasps on decimal system and get an important introduction to fractions (1/4. 1/2, 3/4) and decimals.

Counting coins, however, is not a functional skill. At least not AS functional as its dominance in many  transition programs indicates. In today’s world this skill can be utilized only while buying snacks or drinks in vending machines.  Since, however, most of those items are unhealthy, the skill of counting coins should not be practiced there. When Robert returns cans and bottles, the machines do all the counting for him.

Even if he were using cash and not his debit card to pay his bills, Robert should not concentrate on counting coins in the change received, but on counting dollars.  Counting the change in coins would only distract him from paying attention to bigger bills, and might lead (I don’t believe that this might really happen) to being cheated of much more then a few pennies.

It is possible, that at some point, in this world which day after day becomes less compassionate, Robert will be homeless.  He might beg for money.  He might look for coins on the pavements of sidewalks all over the city, maybe then the skill would come handy.  But as I learned, when Robert considers something very important, he learns quickly, often without ANY instruction from others.

Despite everything I have written above, the skill of counting coins will come handy today, as I plan to open Robert’s piggy bank and place all the coins in the appropriate rolls before taking them to the bank and exchange them for paper bills. That means that Robert will be practicing counting by ones, fives, tens, and 25s.  upon returning from the bank, he will do something much more valuable.  He will count his dollar bills.

The fact that in so many school programs and programs for adults with developmental disabilities, counting coins is the pillar of “functional academics” is really depressing. It demonstrates the  great disconnect between the real needs of the individuals with disabilities and the people who, in one way or another, are responsible for them. It sadly indicated that those people are not learning.

Not learning, because, there are teachers and the professionals invested in special education, who already came to understanding, that there are other math skills which are much more needed.  Much more functional.

The first and the most basic is to round the amount of money to the higher dollar amount.  This way, when Robert is buying something that costs $3.28 or $3.99, he knows that he should give at least $4.00 (or $5 or $10…)

The collaborative program, my son attended in 2005/2006 school year was teaching just that.  That was not,sadly, something any teacher in his public school TRANSITION program has ever done. For the last 3+ years they have been practicing counting coins. Over and over and over.

As I said, I don’t have anything against practicing counting coins from the mathematical point of view. But this is not a functional skill even in those situation when Robert has to use money instead of his debit card.

I realized that clearly when Robert was trying to buy his watermelon flavored frozen lemonade in Roger William Park and Zoo.  It cost $3.50. Robert had dollars and a few coins.  He did not know what to give to the vendor.

Luckily, I could give him some clues.  Robert learned quickly and during the next visit to the zoo he handed seller $4.00. Oh, well, he forgot to wait for the change, but that is another lesson and another story.

Time and Time Again Help Yourself

During teaching Robert to substitute  digital times with equivalent verbal phrases, I noticed that he  had difficulties finding  the number of minutes missing to the full hour.  He did not have difficulties with easy times: 10;55, 10:50, 10:45. But to replace 10:47 with an expression, “13 minutes before 11 o’clock”, he had to first find the difference 60-47. Finding the difference is not the problem for Robert.  Problem was that he did not know he had to find it in the first place.   Every time he encountered similar time, he was startled as he kept forgetting what to do.

So I kept reminding him, “Find the difference 60-47”. Then I switched to telling Robert, “Find the missing minutes.” Finely, my direction was, “Help yourself”.

I often use the phrase, “Help Yourself” as the last, the least (?) invasive but the most general prompt, hoping that by the time I use it, Robert would establish a  strong connection between this phrase and the step he needs to take.

I realized, however, that if Robert was able to calculate the difference 60-47  in his mind then the whole problem would become straightforward. As long as Robert doesn’t immediately see that 47 minutes are 13 minutes away from the full hour, he is  distracted  and not often sure what to do next.

Before zeroing on mental computation I  checked what Robert could and couldn’t do,  I noticed some strange results.  For instance, Robert didn’t have any problems subtracting one digit number from two digits one: 56-8, 22-5, and so on except finding those differences which seemed the easiest for me: 30-7, 100-5.

I also observed that when Robert  wrote the subtraction 60-47 vertically and I didn’t let him write anything else: no regrouping, no crossing, and no “borrowing” but asked him to LOOK at the numbers, IMAGINE what he should do, and, TELL me the answer, he could do that.

But when the subtraction was written horizontally, the same directions did not bring any results.

Yet, the problem with vertical subtraction was that without seeing the numbers Robert was unable to calculate their difference and there was no next step that would lead to solving problems mentally.  So I decided to apply the same method  I used a year ago with subtracting from 100. (As a preparation for counting the  change from a dollar.)

To transfer Robert’s ability from subtracting on paper to mental calculation I followed those steps:

I presented a model, 100-47=100-40-7.

Robert first mentally subtracted 100-40 and wrote the answer, 60, above the  minus sign. Then he mentally subtracted  7 from 60 and wrote =53 at the end of the expression.In the following problems he wrote the model himself.

During the next step, Robert still wrote, “100-40-7 but he was not allowed to write 60  above the first difference but he had to keep it in his mind and use it for the  second operation.

During the third step, Robert was not allowed to write 100-40-7  but he had to say, “Hundred take away forty is sixty.  Sixty take away 7 is fifty-three.”and write =53 at the end of the problem.

Now, I replaced 100 with 60, and Robert practiced finding the differences: 60-47, 60-32, 60-59 with the help of the expressions: 60-40-7, 60-30-2, 60-50-9 either written or said aloud.

Robert easily mastered the first and the second step but we are still working on the third.  It might be that Robert’s difficulties with saying long sequences of words affect his thinking performance. I will try to reduce the number of words. Maybe that will help.

Despite the fact that Robert still has some difficulties with mental computation, after a page of subtractions from 60 , we return to the page with digital times.  When Robert stumbles, I just tell him, “Help Yourself.” and he does.

On Homework

Yesterday, (Spetember 9, 2013) Robert brought homework from school.  Moreover, that was a homework he was fully capable of doing himself.

I consider an appropriate homework for children with special needs to be a very important tool fostering both academic and behavioral development. The homework connects school and home. It teaches students with special needs that they, too, have some responsibilities.  That they are like all other students. Homework conveys the idea  that what is learned at school, might affect the life beyond it, at present and in the future. A relatively easy homework for children with special needs can buster their self-esteem a lot.  Homework allows parents to understand better what their children are learning.  Is it too difficult?  Is it too easy?  How relevant are the curricula  to their children’s lives after school.

This last question, is the most troublesome as it doesn’t have simple answer. Both, parents and representatives of school (administrators, specialists, teachers) ask that question often. Too often in one context and not often enough in another.

This question is rarely asked in relation to the education of typical children although so many adults assert that they have forgotten more than a half of what they learned at school, and have never used huge chunk of what was taught to them.

If the value of education was reduced to what the person remembers all through his/her life or  what the person applies explicitly in his/her work, the answer to the question above might be simple.  But the effects of education are stretched beyond that.  It is the learning process itself that might be the most  beneficial to the person’s development. The processes of acquiring and assimilating information, the efforts to solve problems through deduction, induction, or trail and error approaches lead to the most important, although the hardest to asses gains in development.

A homework obligates the teacher to match his/her students abilities.  The range of those abilities in one, small special needs classroom might be quite wide and  might require the teacher to give different homework to each of the students. If he/she gives too easy assignment, the parents would be concerned asking   if their child is learning anything at all at school.  If the assignment is too difficult, the parent and the student will end up terribly frustrated as they would not know how to support their son’s or daughter’s attempts to complete the assignments.  They might just do homework themselves and vent their frustration on the child and/or the teacher.  (Parents of so-called “typical”  students are sometimes completing their children homework themselves, and they are also frustrated about that. I still remember the uproar over so-called ‘Everyday Mathematics”‘ curriculum, which had to go because the parents didn’t know how to help their children.)

It is clear that from the special education teacher’s perspective, homework not only requires a very good understanding of what students is or isn’t  capable of  doing, and a lot of work with students and his/her parents (to explain what to do and how to do it if the the  need for assistance arises) but it also can lead to frustration when the student doesn’t complete the assignment, and parents feel burdened and powerless.

From Robert’s perspective, however, there was a feeling of completing an important mission.  Although upon returning from school, he placed the most of his school papers on the table, as he usually does,  he brought  his math journal to me.  I asked as I always do, “Do you want to do it now or later?”

Robert as always rushed with a quick and almost automatic answer, “Later, later, later.”  Then he stopped, analyzing what he had just told me and taking time to retrieve the right word, said, “NOW”.
It has be added, that after I posted this blog, Robert never again brought any homework home. Very sad and very telling about the state of special education.

Not So Fast, Not So Easy

Robert did not learn much  last year at school. It is not a surprise.   Robert needs a very well designed instruction that the teachers are unwilling and incapable of providing. They don’t make necessary adjustments such as among others: using vocabulary Robert understands, providing enough opportunity for repetition of the skills in training, understanding his need to generalize to slightly different settings. Because Robert haven’t learned much from the last three teachers, each of them deduced that he was incapable of learning and started ignoring him, often withdrawing any instruction at all.  During one year, the main teacher not only removed Robert from the learning group, placing him at the separate desk with word searches as the main task repeated day after day, but she also forbade Robert’s aide to teach him.

In the end those three teachers were right.  Robert was incapable of learning at school. But the reason for that was that he was sentenced to be “taught” by people who  didn’t know how to teach him as they were not used to dealing with students with his educational profile and they were unwilling, despite assurances to the contrary-  to learn.

Teaching Robert is not a straight forward process.  It requires many repetitions and constant analysis of his responses. It demands specially designed worksheets that would decrease opportunities for errors and increase independence in solving problems. Because of Robert’s problems with short memory ( and working memory?), from one session  to the next, Robert forgets most of what he seemed to know already.  He cannot depend on what he remembers.  Very often the problem he could solve easily in the past, startles him and makes him incapable of continuing.

As Robert and I continue to practice changing digital representation of time  to the form that involves such words as ‘ before’ and ‘after’, I am often baffled by patterns of Robert knowing and unknowing the answers to the same question.  Of course, when I analyze closer I understand that “not knowing”  which come after the phase of “knowing” was really a result of “false knowing”. The quick glimpse at the last five days of our teaching/learning can clarify the difficulties in acquiring skills and point to the need for close observation and frequent adjustments.

First day.  Robert was using three worksheets which had respectively times 5, 10, and 15 minutes off the full hour.  by the end of each page, he seemed to grasp the pattern. Well, he seemed to know it.

Second day, Robert seemed at the same level.  He needed a lot of prompting with problems presented at the top of each age, and seemed almost independent by the time he reached the bottom.

Third day. Robert doesn’t have any problems with times 15 minutes off the hours (6:46, 6:15, 2:45, 5:15 etc) but times 10 minutes before the full hour (6:50, 2:50 )confuse him. He sets the analog clock to proper time,  but he doesn’t “see” that this is 10 minutes before full hour.  He “saw” that first and second day.  Why doesn’t he “see” that now?  I ask him to count minutes to the full hour. He counts to ten, but doesn’t make a connection.  Nonetheless, after  counting twice, he already recognizes the pattern and is independent till the end of the page. The problems return with times five minutes before full hours but yet again are gone by the end of the page.

Fourth day.  I prepared for Robert a page with exercises in which he has to find a missing addendum in equations where the sum of known number and a variable equals 60.  Except that instead of letter for a variable I am using an empty square:  40 + X =60,  Y+50+60, Z+55=60, and so on.  After practicing finding missing addenda we go back to the clock and similar exercises as those from day 1-3.

Day five.  We start with equations,  43+X=60, 58+z=60, 48+Z=60 and then return to Judy Clock.  Everything goes slower than before, but Robert is counting. Sometimes, he still needs support. Although he still utilizes patterns to help him with a fluency, he also is capable of writing an equation when he gets confused. If he baffled by an expression 4:47, he writes 47+X= 60 and finds that it is “13 minutes before 5 o’clock”.

Day six.  I anticipate that at the beginning of the session Robert will need to be reminded to help himself with an equation.  He might even be reminded what equation that should be.  In a few more days, such scaffolding would lead to independence.

Alas, if the skill is not used during next few weeks, it will disappear.

I don’t think such approach to teaching is possible in public school.  It would be possible in ABA driven Private School, such as the one that Robert attended in the past.  On the other hand, based on my experiences, it would take weeks if not months, before some adjustments to teaching could be done in such programs. still….

Thinking Before Teaching

I wonder, how much teachers think about teaching.  I dare to ask such harsh question not to criticize others, but to analyze what I know about my own teaching experience in the context of its usefulness to the students.  With typical student, teachers usually follow given curriculum and apply teaching methods that are currently en vogue and/or pushed by their administrators, and often, politicians. In United States textbooks for children are accompanied by a presentation books for teachers.  That let the teachers to follow general instruction written by authors of the textbook and relieves them of the obligation to plan lessons themselves. How many of the teachers, even new teachers, prepare  themselves for lessons by writing lessons plans?  Do they analyze individual student’s errors? Are they aware of learning idiosyncrasies of particular students.?   Are they able to plan ahead  ? Do those plans take into account the differences among pupils that would require targeted instruction, and vocabulary? How many teachers rethink their approach AFTER the lesson?   Do they rethink and reshuffle their methods?

Of course when Robert was in ABA oriented Private School, the teachers and their clinical supervisors (you would call them BCBA today, but they were much more than that) analyzed data from discrete trails and based on the numbers they made decisions about next steps. However,the emphasis on strong reinforcers embodied in ABA might have diminished the trust that  teaching methods also do influence the quality and pace of learning.

My teaching depended on haphazardly searched textbooks and workbooks.  I made intuitive assumptions about how their pages could be applied in teaching Robert. After choosing worksheets, I tried to adjust Robert’s way of learning to them.

But even I felt that there still was a gap between Robert’s abilities, often limited by his way of processing information, and the demands of the tasks.  So on the backs of one-sided copies of the worksheets I kept  writing simple exercises that would bridge that gap.  Those handwritten pages, as I see it now,  were really the most suitable and useful educational materials for Robert.  I have been writing them having Robert in mind thus they addressed difficulties Robert had in retaining or understanding new information. Many of them I wrote as a sequence of easy exercises that step by step lead to more advanced skills.  I knew what was difficult for Robert and how to go around it.  As i look at those pages now, I realize that they allowed for the easiest and most pleasant teaching/learning. However, I did not treat those pages  seriously.  I treated them like supplements, the afterthoughts, not as the main venue for learning.

The general curricula were necessary to set the  direction/goals, and stay focused, but without those “supplements” Robert would not learn.

I have to add, that those were not  practice pages – the whole page of multiplication facts, or division facts etc. I did not bother making those, as the internet and many workbooks are full of those.  I concentrated on writing simple pages with just a few related problems.  For instance in a top  of the page there were a few problems to change mixed fraction into improper fraction. In the next line there were a few problems to multiply proper fractions (less than 1), and finally in the bottom half there were a few problems (but written in larger numbers) that required multiplication of mixed fractions.

For last three days Robert was learning to  tell time using different expressions. He has been making  progress because I spent a little time planning his learning, I used what I know about both Robert’s skills and his difficulties in appropriating new information to design a few simple worksheets that together with Judy Clock would become tools for learning.  I organized problems in such a way, that would lead Robert to discover patterns, which would later enable him to answer similar questions faster and almost mechanically.

I wrote:





I asked Robert to set the time on a Judy clock to 3:00 then move the minute hand to3:55. That would help Robert avoid an error of setting the time to 2:55.  After looking at the clock, Robert was ready to write the time in words, ” It is five minute before 4:00.) He proceeded  down the page, following mechanically (with some stumbles) the same routine, until he got to 2:05 and with my help wrote:” It is five minutes after2:00.” As he went down the page with more times written down, he discovered ( through rereading his answers) the pattern.  Whenever he was able to answer without the support of Judy Clock, I let him. if he hesitated or made an error, I passed him the  Judy clock with words, “Help yourself.”

Robert has progressed but he is not independent yet.  If he had a test today he would fail.  In Vygotsky’s terminology, Robert is on a higher assisted performance level. Using ABA jargon, one might say that Robert needs some level of prompting. Since however, the  support I am  providing to Robert is of a flexible and variable form,  Vygotsky’s language is more suitable.

At present, Robert can do one, two or three tasks independently, then he looses focus, and he is lost.  Sometimes, he applies pattern that he had discovered himself, sometimes he forgets that pattern.  But when I say,”Help yourself.”  and give him Judy Clock , he immediately sets the minute and hour hands in proper positions and finds the answer.

I don’t know why  I did not put more thoughts in Robert’s teaching.  I knew why his old ABA programs worked when they did and why they failed when they did not lead to progress. I was well equipped to design programs  much more suitable for Robert than any ready-made curriculum. Why didn’t I ?

At first, I did not trust myself. I thought that teaching a child with autism had to be very different than teaching children without developmental disabilities. Later, i discovered that similar rules could be and should be applied but with stricter analysis of results and thoughtful self corrections.   I was also constantly put down by… educators. They ignored my teaching, as if it did not bring any results, as if Robert was not learning.  When they reluctantly noticed that Robert knows things he had learned with me, they dismissed that knowledge as not relevant. They implied that there was no point of Robert having such knowledge as it would be useless in the limited life, they envisioned for him.  They were amplifying Robert’s lack of skills, his difficulties learning new things  and ignoring what he knew.  Over and over they let me believe that educating a child with special needs doesn’t make any sense.  In so many ways, the teachers, some aides, and school  administrators were invested in undermining  Robert’s and my educational efforts.

So my educational efforts were going AGAINST the  philosophy and practice of special education in my school district.  I kept teaching.  I did not lost my motivation, but I ended up  confused and distracted.

As i see now, Robert paid the price.  We lost too much time on lukewarm  teaching  when for Robert’s survival the most sharp, intellectually challenging approach was necessary. Sadly, that is not something Robert’s public school is capable of providing.

Speech, Speech, and More Speech

I rethought the way I was teaching Robert about time.  Yesterday, I prepared for him three worksheets.  On each of them he was supposed to rewrite the time using words.  The first one  listed times that were five minutes off the whole hours: 3:55, 11:55, 7:05, and so on.  At the beginning I opted for Robert using words “to” (five minutes to 4) and “past”(five minutes past 4) . Soon, I realized that it would be much more useful for Robert to practice with ” before” and “after”.  Those were the words Robert was using on two other worksheets which had times that were  10 and 15 minutes off the full hours. “Before”, and “after” are much more universal than “to” and “past”.  Practicing them in this context might improve Robert’s understanding of those concepts.  Judy Clock allows to connect temporal understanding of “before” and “after”  with the spacial one. We will continue the same approach today.

We also practiced proper applications of “was” and “were”. The goal of the practice was to overcome Robert’s tendency to utilize ABAB pattern whenever there are only two possibilities. I noticed that when Robert knows something very well, his reliance on ABAB pattern decreases, but the smallest hesitation might lead to loosing focus and he returns to ABAB formula for his answers.

We worked on a  few sets of Fun decks card from Super Duper School Company.

1. What Mrs. Bee See?  Just five cards.  Robert was describing five scenes in 4-8 sentences.  I did not provide any verbal cues, just moved my finger over the characters and Robert followed with sentences. Today, I would encourage Robert to move his fingers over the picture.

2.Where? Questions. Robert read one question for me to answer, I read the next one for him.  The goal was to have Robert say a part of the question while NOT reading but looking at (even for a fleeting second) me when he was asking.

3.Auditory Memory for Riddles.  I divided cards into two stacks for Robert and myself. I read one riddle, Robert read another one.  Unlike with Where? cards, I did not see what card Robert was holding.  That was the whole point as it forced Robert to pronounce words clearly enough for me to understand.  It was very hard for him, and even harder for me.  He had to read three short sentences and very often I did not understand any of them.  Because making his speech understood was so difficult for Robert, whenever I understood him, I answered.  Robert knew all the answers to the riddles, so teaching them was not a purpose of this activity.

With the help of five pages from No-Glamour Listening Comprehension, Robert and I practiced just that, listening comprehension.  I made copies of those pages because I wanted to separate two sentences of the text from the picture. (I cut pages, gave pictures to Robert and I held the part with the text and four related questions.)  I did not want Robert to read.  I wanted him to listen.  I did not just read the sentences.  I went over the picture with Robert, pointing to the main character and repeating his name a couple of times, telling and retelling what the character was doing.  Only then I read the sentences and asked questions : Who, What (did), Where, and When. It was very difficult for Robert to answer two out of four questions.  So I made modification.  I asked Robert to repeat each sentence as soon as I read it.   He still needed more prompts.  One was to reread him a sentence while omitting a word that constituted the answer. For the question, “When did Ethan go to the doctor office?”  I read, ” Ethan went to the doctor’s office….. ”
Surprisingly, Robert  finished without hesitation, “Yesterday.”

Round and Round the Clock

Not once, while teaching Robert, I stumbled upon difficult to explain obstacles in passing information/skill to Robert.  Unfortunately, it often takes me (and others) long time to understand the nature of the problem before I could  design a method to address it.  In one of my previous posts I reported on Robert’s difficulties in memorizing addition facts.

I discovered that he was not able to remember (or pay attention to) three different numbers and two signs in the expression that makes an addition sentence.  For instance 3+8=11.  He was, however, able to remember (or pay attention to ) an addition sentence where the addenda were the same. For instance 7+7=14.  I wrote about this  in the post:

Alas,  I encounter such difficulties almost daily.

I am not always aware why Robert cannot understand what i am explaining him so simply and clearly.  Because that is what I believe I do.  I am often convinced that I explain or demonstrate a new fact/skill in the simplest possible way.   And because I don’t believe I can do it in any simper way, I repeat the same approach, the same drawing, the same words again and again with the same negative results.
Many times I have tried to explain to Robert that  if the minute hand on a clock makes a full circle that means that 60 minutes have passed.  Somehow there is a disconnection between my words and Robert’s understanding.

When I ask Robert to make a full circle with minute hand starting, for instance, at 3: 45, Robert stops the minute hand on any full hour.  It might be 4:00 or 5:00.

To make it more confusing, he knows that one hour after 3:45 is 4:45.  He just doesn’t connect that with a full movement around circumference.

My directions are not understood.  I explain(?) “You have to end at the same point you started”  “Just go around and stop at the same place.”  Robert pushes minute hand on a Judy clock well past mark for 45 minutes.

I give up explaining and return to counting elapsed time by subtracting times. As long, the two times are not on both sides of 12:00 Robert is fine.

It happened so many times, that I begun to consider it a problem in itself.  I feel that if Robert understands how to move a minute hand one hour from any time on the Judy Clock, he would also understand something else as Robert would gain a new thinking tool.

Today, I continued to work with Robert on time skills.  He counted elapsed time by subtracting the time the activity (  flight) begun from the time the activity ended.  He knew how to regroup minutes.  To subtract 3h 30min-1h 40min, he changed the expression to  2h 90min-1h 40min.  He did a few similar operations.  That went surprisingly well.

But again,Robert had problems moving minute hand for exactly one hour.  My words did not seem to carry any meaning.  “From here to here.”  “To the same place”  “You start here, and you end here.” “If you leave at 15 minutes mark, you have to return to 15 minute mark.”  I kept saying it one way, another way, many times, and Robert kept turning the minute hand up to full hour mark.

I am not sure yet, why my words are so confusing for Robert, but they are.

So i try a different approach.

I  drew a few clocks on a piece of paper.  I asked Robert to draw a circle that began at 45 minutes mark.  He ended at the same mark.  Now I asked him to make the same movement with a minute hand.  Robert passed 45 minute mark just for 5 minutes and stopped.  He realized that he went to far. We repeated the sequence. He drew a circle on a paper that started and ended at the same mark and then copied  that movement with a minute hand on a Judy clock stopping at 45 minutes mark.

I did not push for more.  One success is enough for today.  Tomorrow, we will repeat those sequences :drawing full circles on paper clocks, and moving minute hands on Judy Clock.  I will ask for that, not because I want Robert to have one more tool to count elapsed time.    I will ask Robert to do that, as a way to explain to him what it means when I say, ” Start and end at the same point /place” . It sounds so simple, but, as I learned already, the simplest words are the hardest to explain.