The TA and the Non-Verbal Student

Children who are on the autism spectrum present special challenges for teachers and teaching assistants. Teaching non-verbal autistic children was daunting for me but I’m so glad I had the opportunity to serve and work with these amazing children.

When I was assigned to a self-contained classroom with non-verbal students I had no training at all! I knew little or nothing about autism. I had previously worked with one student who had Asperger’s syndrome but he was very, very high functioning. Now, here I was, confronted with students who had apparently no desire to communicate.

I was fortunate to work alongside a brilliant speech therapist who was also trained in autistic behaviors. She was very willing to teach all of the TA’s in the room and we were so willing to learn. Some of what she taught was “off the grid” stuff you might not find in ABA textbooks.

Respect the non-verbal child’s personhood: This was the first thing I learned about working with a non-verbal child. Our speech therapist did not teach this directly, rather, we learned by her example.  It is so easy to act as though non-verbal children are almost invisible and to talk about them in the third person. This may seem like such an obvious offense, but I have seen people talk derisively about the non-verbal child right in front of them.

“Wow! Look at his outfit today!” or “I wish his parents would clean his fingernails!”

Even if that child truly cannot understand you, it is still a violation of their personhood to talk about them while they’re near you. Always speak directly to the child or acknowledge to them that you are talking about them.

“You know I’m talking about you, Bud!” was a common phrase our speech therapist would use when we were talking about a student who was with us. Stop and think…If this child was fully verbal and neurotypical would you talk like this in front of her? If you knew she could repeat each of your words to her parents would you be saying this right in front of her?

In her book, Dancing with Max, Emily Colson recounts how her non-verbal, highly autistic son suddenly began talking around the age of ten. And when he did begin to talk, it was apparent that he remembered every detail of the previous eight years or so. He even remembered an abusive babysitter he had when he was just two years old!

Less is more: This really surprised me. Use as few words as possible when speaking to or working with a non-verbal student. In fact, I often watched our speech therapist go through entire sessions without speaking a single word! I believe that the title “speech therapist” is a misnomer. It really ought to be “communication therapist.” Autistic children have the most trouble understanding non-verbal communication anyway, (facial expressions, gestures, pointing, etc…) so we serve them better by exaggerating those forms of communication while minimizing language.

Autistic children often need a great deal more time to process what has been spoken to them. Less language gives them the time they need to process what has been said to them. When we quickly repeat directions or questions, that processing has to begin all over again and the child will quickly become overwhelmed and shut down.

When you present a non-verbal or low-verbal student with a direction, choice or question, you may have to wait 30 seconds or more to get an answer. For TA’s, this waiting can seem an eternity. I have had to sit tight and count to 30 many times. This also helps the non-verbal child to feel secure, knowing that he will be consistently given needed time to listen, process, and understand.

Remember that it is all about teaching the child to communicate, not just speak: I had one student who was required by the teacher to say, “rice please” while eating his (always rice based) lunch. I was instructed to give him one small bite only after he asked for it. This drove me wild. He was fully capable of eating on his own and having him repeat, “rice please” was completely unproductive and unnatural. Who says, “rice please” 30 times in a row? And, while we’re at it, eliminate “please” and “thank you.” It is abstract language that confuses the child. They might think that a cup of orange juice is called, “juice please.”

Surprise! Non-verbal children withdraw without lots of stimulation and proactive engagement. I loved surprising our non-verbal kids through playing hide-and-seek, or covering myself with a blanket and popping out. One student loved having me sneak up behind him while he was inside his stretchy body-sock. He knew I was going jump around him and say, “BOO!” and the anticipation just thrilled him! He would screech and laugh! I was delighted when he would get his body-sock and come to me looking for some play time. It was communication, initiated by him.

Wonderful!

Testing! Testing! One, Two, Three…

I found this alarming article in the news today. I’m so not surprised that things have gone this far. Really, really shocking but completely expected. Let me know your thoughts…

Albany, NY – The New York State Board of Regents unveiled their bold plan for opening charter schools across the state that will focus solely on testing.

The first of these, Examinare Academy, is slated to open in September of 2016. The test location will be in Fine, NY and will immediately house grades K-12. Its motto is “Tuum Optimum Modo Face (Just do your best).”

Governor Cuomo worked closely with the Board of Regents to move the concept off the drawing board and into reality. Construction on the ultra-high-tech building has already begun.

“We increased testing to six standardized tests per academic year in many school districts and, still, the scores remained low. We decided to attack the problem at the root and simply focus on testing. In this new charter school, students will only be tested. Our goal is to slash the time now wasted on instruction,” said Dorcas Pearson, assistant to the assistant of the NYS Board of Regents.

Examinare Academy will use the “immersion method” to help students excel at testing. Teachers will only speak in the language of testing. Students will only hear terms such as, “Just do your best work,” “Erase completely,” and “Use a number-2 pencil.”

“We completely expect test scores to be very low at first. But, as a student learns from their mistakes, they will learn how to answer each question correctly by the end of the year. After a year, our students will be smokin’ over Finland with their test scores,” said Pearson.

“It’s only logical that as long as we’re already testing students six times each year, why not just test them continually throughout the year? This helps to eliminate test-anxiety as well, since the student is subjected to testing every minute of every day.”

Parents will play an important role in raising test scores as well. Families will receive packets and software encouraging them to test their child daily on how well they perform basic tasks, such as making their bed, eating their dinner, playing happily, and completely their daily evening test for homework.

No Extra Charge

While TA’s are assigned to a classroom to support identified students, they often bring specific interests or talents that can benefit everyone. When a teacher welcomes the TA and invites him to be a fuller participant in the classroom, she and her students can really benefit from that TA’s peculiar skills.

“Value-Added” TA’s are becoming more necessary in classrooms as our society and family structures continue to change or break down. We are seeing many more children enter school with emotional baggage. More than ever we are seeing kiddos from broken families who struggle with anxiety, depression or poor impulse control. And, budget cuts have made TA’s who can multi-task more and more valuable to any teacher lucky enough to get one.

I know one TA who has extensive training in play-therapy. She is a certified Child Life Specialist. Though she is assigned to one or more specific students, she has been able to support many overwhelmed or ‘just plain sad’ kiddos in the lower elementary grades. I’ve worked with another TA who, along with her husband, took in many troubled foster children and adopted two of them. Her experience and insight is invaluable when a young student is in crisis. We all refer to her as “The Child Whisperer.” I’ve never known anyone who so readily and easily takes on the viewpoint of the hurting child.

Other TA’s in our district are highly skilled in music or art and bring those talents to happy and productive use in the classroom. One of our district’s best TA’s previously worked as a spokesperson for a state senator. He now runs the high-tech, sophisticated TV studio in our high school. Imagine having such experience in your high school’s AV center.

I’ve known many TA’s who have freely given to students in their schools. Needed coats, boots, even snacks appear. Lost-book fees are quietly paid. It’s not unheard of for TA’s to give up their own lunch times to work with students.

My particular passions are literature and writing. I’ve had a few teachers who have taken advantage of this and asked me to oversee one or more book groups. This is a rare privilege and shows a great deal of trust on the teacher’s part which I do not take for granted. When appropriate, I also offer commentary on English grammar, or talk about the Latin or Greek roots of common words. I’ve suggested books to be read and brought in samples of my own published writing for the children to read.

One time I brought in my pasta machine and made homemade noodles with first grade students. I taught a fourth-grade class how to make fake parchment paper and even allowed them to use my collection of fountain and quill pens with which to write as part of their history project. I’ve blown bubbles outdoors in below-zero weather with lots of students. Another time I invited in an electrical engineer to enhance our electrical circuits unit in fourth grade. He showed the students how to create electricity using a nail, wire and acid, and let them use his crank generator so they could actually feel electrical resistance.

I’ve even pulled in my family members. My husband, Jim, has the uncanny ability to draw a map of the U.S.A. perfectly to scale, including state boundaries and capitals, in any size, and on nearly any surface. He offers a terrific interactive lesson on geography. My son is an expert in WWII history and has done classroom presentations showing students how soldiers survived and handled day-to-day tasks on the battlefield. Another TA brings her orthodontist son in to give first graders a lesson on dental hygiene.

The list could go on and on. I doubt I could barely scratch the surface of the hidden talents and knowledge that many TA’s bring to their schools. Also, does anyone think about the unseen benefit of having a seasoned TA who can discreetly and professionally “cross-pollinate” between teachers? I have worked with many experienced teachers and have carried their best-practices into other classrooms where they’re picked up by other, often younger, teachers.

Sadly, the extreme pressure of high-stakes testing leaves many teachers feeling that they cannot set aside any time for TA’s to contribute. I really understand this and I think most other TA’s feel the same way. Yet another casualty of our federal education department’s misplaced emphasis on standardized testing.

Boundaries

TA’s are created when a person of reasonable intelligence, decent hygiene, and a more-than-average affinity for children applies to his or her local school district and is hired. In New York State she or he must have at least 18 college credits and pass a pretty simple test in literacy and math. After the FBI runs her fingerprints, she hits the ground running.

New TA’s receive no training, except for professional development seminars a few times each year. We learn this job by our wits alone. Other TA’s often come along side of us and give us fast and furious guidance.

One of the toughest parts of being a TA is figuring out what the classroom teacher’s expectations are for a TA. We are, after all, in their classroom. They’re the ones whose job is on the line. They’re the ones who have carefully worked out all the lesson plans. They’re the ones who have to answer for how well their students do or don’t perform. And, they have the big picture in mind. So, TA’s always have to remember that we are there primarily to support the students to whom we are assigned.

And, if you’re a parent, you should know that TA’s are only assigned to a classroom where one or more students have an IEP (Individualized Education Program) that prescribes a TA. The TA might be shared or one-on-one, but in either case that TA is there first and foremost for that student. If a teacher does not have a student who requires a TA, they simply are not assigned one.

But, I digress. Let’s return to those tricky teacher/TA dynamics.

First and foremost, when working with a new teacher, TA’s have to figure out where their boundaries lay.  When we are assigned to a teacher with whom we’ve never worked, this can take a few weeks and a lot of Xanax. No joke. For me, those are the toughest and most anxious weeks of the year. After 10 years of hard knocks, it is less so, but still very tough.

In a new classroom I’m wondering, what is this teacher’s style?  How involved does she want me to be in her classroom? Has he ever worked with a TA before? Is he comfortable having a TA in his room? If my assigned student is doing well and on-task, may I help other students or does she think that lies outside of my boundaries? May I participate in classroom discussion?

Boundaries. When a TA is assigned to a classroom, it’s all about boundaries. When those boundaries are invisible it takes quite a lot of gulping, groping, and testing to figure out exactly where they lay. I really appreciate teachers who just tell me right up front what they expect of me and how involved they would like to me to be in their classroom. Until and unless they do, I have to step back and wait and watch and listen.

Most years, I’ve been assigned to teachers who have readily and happily welcomed my help and input and I love that! It creates a healthy and cooperative atmosphere that even the children tune into. I have also been with teachers who insist that I focus only on my assigned student or students and who do not want me to have any input whatsoever.

I spent painful time in two classrooms where the students were not allowed to even ask me if they might use the bathroom or go to the nurse. But, kids are kids and they would often forget and ask me anyway. Even though I always humbly acquiesced to those teachers, I was often scolded, directly or indirectly, by them, in front of…yes…the students. I will be frank; this is humiliating, disrespectful, and it created an uncomfortable tension in the classroom that all the children picked up on. Though they were excellent teachers, I lost a lot of respect for both of them as people and colleagues.

Perhaps more than being scolded, I hate being ignored. Nothing says, “You don’t matter” more than being ignored by the classroom teacher. I’ve known teachers who have spent entire school years barely addressing their TA’s. I worked with one teacher who often hosted educational observers in her classroom. She would introduce every adult in the room with the exception of the TA’s. Wow. What a silly show of power and how rude.

I’ve worked with some powerfully good teachers; teachers who were confident enough to include everyone around them, including their TA’s.

I’m reminded of a quote from Pride and Prejudice: “What praise is more valuable than that of an intelligent servant?” When a skilled and seasoned TA speaks well of a classroom teacher, well that’s really something.

Lie like a rug

Today in kindergarten the Super Bowl was mentioned.  The teacher asked if any of the children had watched the Super Bowl game or been to a Super Bowl party. Most of the kids shouted, “Yes!” and began talking over each other, with “top that” stories of their Super Bowl Sunday. Not to be outdone, one boy shouted out, “I was AT the Super Bowl! Really, I was! I was there!”

Within seconds two other boys insisted that they, too, had actually attended the Super Bowl in Arizona. Yes. Sad but true, elementary students are notorious for lying about all sorts of things. Dear reader, even I, yes…I….told my share of whoppers in school.

My mother tells of the time I came home from kindergarten and excitedly told her about the lamb that a farmer had brought to our kindergarten class that day. I told Mother that the lamb wasn’t at all fluffy white like in the books. It was actually kind of gray and a little dirty.

At the PTA meeting that night, my mother stood and commended my teacher, Mrs. Kosler, for making arrangements to have a baby lamb brought into our classroom. Mrs. Kosler gave her a blank, confused looked, as did the principal and everyone else. There had been no lamb. The entire story was a product of my imagination. I have no memory of it now, but Mom was humiliated and furious.

Last week a fifth grader was reading a magazine article about the Antarctic. He looked at me and said, “I’ve been to the Antarctic!”  I looked him dead on and said, “No you haven’t.” He insisted that he had. I said, “No. You have not. You are mistaken.” After he insisted once again, I pressed for details. Turned out he had spent a weekend in Quebec City. Another student of mine had this “uncle” who seemed to travel everywhere and own everything. No matter what country was mentioned the teacher and I would hear him exclaim, “My uncle lives in _________!” As I recall, the list included Italy, Germany, Canada, Mexico, Equador, and Binghamton NY. His uncle was also the proud owner of several rare guitars, a mansion, a Porche, a Lamborghini and 18 koi.  Our teacher found this all very funny and it got to a point where he would assiduously avoid eye contact with me when this kid told a whopper because he knew he would start laughing out loud.

The biggest lie I ever heard from a student was about his own birthday. The school calendar recorded his birthday as April 7th.  Now, this boy really struggled with life in general. His parents seemed to have checked out long ago and he was left to himself a lot of the time. But he insisted to me that his birthday was not on the 7th. He insisted repeatedly that it was on the 8th. It was no big deal to me but I checked his records anyway. Sure enough, his birthday was April 7th. Well, I puzzled and puzzled about this and even discussed the matter with the school counselor. We wondered if perhaps he was avoiding his actual birthday because he worried that his mother wouldn’t bother with cupcakes for the class like every other child in the entire school brings in on their birthday. Sure enough, on Wednesday, April 7th  Tom arrives with no cupcakes. When his birthday is announced over the loud speaker that morning he angrily shouts to the class that it is NOT his birthday…his birthday, he demands, is tomorrow. I am heartbroken for him. I make a quick run to the store for birthday cupcakes. I insist that we celebrate his birthday in the classroom. We do, but he is not that happy about it.

The next morning, ‘lo and behold, doesn’t Tom walk in the classroom door with a big smile and 23 cupcakes. I’m gobsmacked. I cannot for the life of me figure out what this kid is up to, not to mention that I’m feeling quite foolish for blowing $15 on cupcakes. So, we celebrate Tom’s birthday again and head out for recess.

Then it’s time to line up for lunch. Our custom is to send birthday kids to the front of the lunch line. Tom proudly and joyously marches to the front of the line. That is when it hits me….

Thursday is Pizza Day. Tom actually lied to move his birthday forward one day so he could be first in line for pizza. I had been frantic and was out $15 all for a lie… and all for a slice of pizza. However, since I had told my share of fibs in school I had no moral grounds upon which to stand.

I let him go first. In a way, he had earned it.

Paradigm Shift

Martin Luther King, Jr. Day is coming up and that means that all our teachers are reading books to their students about the life of this great man. It is a wonderful thing to inspire children with stories about Dr. King but, sadly, the telling of his story also requires us to crack their shell of innocence by exposing them to the harsh reality of racism. Our kiddos, for the most part, lead comfortable lives and blissfully play and learn alongside friends of all races, unaware of prejudice and all the ugliness and hatred that go hand in hand with that.

Today, our kindergarten teacher read aloud a short, age-appropriate book about Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. to our little ones and I watched as these innocent babies realized, most for the first time, that such an outrageous thing as racism exists. I have witnessed this awakening before and it is simultaneously completely heartbreaking and thoroughly endearing.

Our kindergarten teacher has the gentlest voice you can imagine and she walked the children through this jarring book as softly as could be. The boys and girls were delighted when she read about the little boy, Martin, who loved to learn and play. But her voiced slowed and softened to a whisper when she read the page about the white mother who would not allow 6-year old Martin to play with her son anymore just because of Martin’s dark skin.

Well, to say that our little children were indignant and outraged would be a complete understatement. This was a true paradigm shift for them and they were irrepressible.

“That is SOOO STUPID!”  “What a MEAN mother!”  “She is a BULLY!”  “That’s just CRAZY!”

The teacher agreed, saying, “I know! Isn’t it just so silly? Can you believe that some people could think that way?” She went on to read about other injustices toward black people such as not being able to shop in the same stores as white people, or being forced to give up a seat on a bus to a white person.

I cannot do justice here to the visceral reaction of these precious boys and girls. Children this age don’t always know what to do with very strong feelings and they just wanted to burst aloud and shout and be heard! Some kiddos even got a little silly. Meanwhile, there was one small boy with dark skin sitting on the carpet, looking closely at the skin on his own arm as though seeing it for the very first time. This was clearly a paradigm shift for him as well, and I ached for him. The other children, in their complete innocence, made several references to their friend’s brown skin and how it “just didn’t matter” what color anyone was…we should all be able to play, and work, and eat together and just be friends! And when the teacher read about Martin believing that we should “love our enemies” the children (even those who were quarreling about a favorite spot on the carpet just moments earlier) loudly expressed hearty approval that we should “just love everybody!”

Well, the teacher kept reading this story about how Martin grew up and how he studied hard and how he became a minister. She read about how Rosa Parks was arrested and how the bus boycott began to change things a bit. As she read about Dr. King’s “I Have a Dream” speech the children just bubbled up with hope and relief and the little boy with the darker skin sat up straight and tall and proud as could be!

And then she read about Dr. King’s death.

The book did not elaborate on that event. For five and six year olds it’s enough to just lightly touch on it and move on, but the fact that someone had killed their dear friend Martin was not lost on these tender kids. And that little boy with the brown skin looked as though he could barely take in all this hard truth. Heartbreaking. And the children railed and protested with all the ferocity that kindergartners can muster – which is quite a lot – about the complete insanity and injustice and evil of it all. Endearing.

The children really pressed the teacher and me to tell them exactly how Martin Luther King, Jr. had been killed but it was too painful to tell them, not to mention inappropriate. It was bad enough that we had to tell them that he had been killed. How satisfying it would have been if the teacher could have read that, though quite old, Dr. King was still alive and well.

I always have mixed feelings when we introduce children to these hard truths about life. I’m always so grieved to watch them become more aware of just how fallen this world is that they live in and to see a little more of their innocence snuffed out. But I’m also filled with delight at their perfect indignation and their purest sense of how this world ought to be. Sometimes I wish we could just skip it all, pretend it never happened, and let the kids grow up unawares in the hope that prejudice would die out. But it could not be so.

The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked: who can know it?”      Jeremiah 17:9.

Lounge Lizards

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There is a lot to love about my job, but my favorite part of the day is my lunch time. There are few places I enjoy more than our staff lounge at lunch time.

Staff lounges in our district vary wildly. I worked in a school for a few years that had a marvelous lounge. It was large, bright, sunny, fully equipped, and very clean. Centrally located, and conveniently placed across the hall from my classroom, this lounge was the place to party from 10:30 a.m. to 1:00 p.m. every day. Every teacher and staffer ate together, split the newspaper, talked over each other, and brought in food to share. It is no coincidence that this school seemed to have the highest morale of all the buildings in the district.

Other buildings I’ve been to have lounges obviously designed to demoralize, discourage, and spread disease. Dark and dingy with a dripping, moldy air-conditioner, one district lounge is so disgustingly filthy that I have to carefully wrap a Kleenex around the salt shaker before I can pick it up. Teachers and staff enter this lounge feeling tired, hungry, and a bit run down, but leave in complete despair.

But what really goes on in a staff lounge? What do we talk about? Allow me to lift the veil of mystery on the inner-workings of the Teachers’ Lounge.

Food: The number one topic in the teacher’s lounge is food. We like to know what everyone else is eating and why. Lean Cuisines are stacked in the microwaves and Vera Bradley lunch bags clutter the table. While some of us search for a reasonably clean fork, someone else is talking about their diet.

Our Kids: That is, our own kids.  We love to talk about our kids and our families. Photos are passed around, and we talk about our pregnancies, babies, kids’ sports, plans for college, weddings, and new grandchildren. We might discuss our parents or our husbands or wives, and there is an overall, comforting familial concern for the well being of everyone.

News: Educators love to talk about how to fix the world. We also enjoy talking about bizarre news. I remember pointing out an article about a teacher in a neighboring district who was arrested for biting a student in the arm during an impromptu arm-wrestling match in his classroom. We wondered and puzzled about what series of small but poor decisions led to him to impulsively bite a student in the arm. I grabbed a very large sheet of paper and taped it to the wall. We spent all of our lunch time working on a possible flowchart of small, bad decisions and misjudgments that led to his arrest. It was a fun, stimulating, and collaborative effort that I thought showed great promise. However, our principal apparently disagreed as the flowchart disappeared when lunch was over.

TV: The Voice, Bachelorette, American Idol, Dancing With the Stars, even The Walking Dead are reviewed with great passion.

Students: Every once in while we might talk about a student. I recall one time when a teacher came into the staff lounge expressing all manner of shock and indignation. One of the second-grade girls had been telling her classmates that Justin Bieber and Selena Gomez were “having sex.” The teacher was completely flabbergasted and dismayed that this little child would even say such a thing. I completely sympathized as I knew that Selena had broken off with Justin months before. I helpfully pointed this out but the teacher just responded that I was “missing the point.” I merely explained what I had read in a tabloid in the supermarket check-out line just a week earlier but she was unimpressed. I even offered to tell the child that Selena Gomez had kicked Bieber to the curb but the teacher flatly refused, so I dropped it. Some people just don’t want to hear the truth.