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Tuesday, 25 October 2011

ESL Learners and language delays

I LOVE working in the heart of North York;  we don't have to go too far to experience various regional cultures, it's charming and welcoming.

A social experience is always just down the hall, street, or down the block at the local grocer. Working with clients from diverse backgrounds is an obvious reality for most professionals in the Greater Toronto Area; as Torontonians we are diverse, and proud of it. In addition to being multi-cutural our city is also multi-lingual. I speak English and French, but that's it (and is barely the tip of the ice berg in terms of the languages spoken in T.O.).

When working with early learners with language delays, it is essential to examine the child's language skills relative to the primary language spoken in the family home; too often a child is scored too low because his first language is French and the assessment is conducted in English. A thorough practitioner would account for all of these details, and believe me it can be difficult. There are a tremendous number of variables which impact learning style and rate; before a meaningful program can begin an intensive assessment always occurs. The assessment results are held as the baseline upon which future progress is measure; as a result, it's important that as practitioners, we get it right (not over or under estimated any child's ability). The results of which are delivered to the parents in an individual support plan (ISP), which also must consider that English may not be the parent's first language. SO many variables, but it seems like the least we can do as practitioners.

A child with limited language requires systematic instruction tailored to the unique learner profile. Personally, when working with early learners that speak English as a second language,  I tend to focus mostly on pairing single words with gestures; I try to use the child's name a lot "Timmy come" while gesturing towards me; "Mikey play" while gesturing to the toys. Like always in my teaching, I strive for maximum spontaneous eye-contact and try to meet the child's sensory needs through various activities aimed at keeping the child calm and regulated (play dough, small patterning materials, glorb, shaving cream, corn starch, seeds and rice).

When the learner is more advanced, and assuming he or she still speaks English as a second language, I tend to  break down my sentences to short and clear phrases; I continue to pair gestures with words and use varied visuals to assist in the process of generalization. I like to focus on labeling programs to start, because it gets momentum going. I tend to stress the importance of annunciation (this often leads to phonics review) and depending on the child, may target any combination of social skills, math skills, reading skills, and conversational skills. Receptively language is another go-to goal whether or not the child has language delays. I find that a lot of the students that speak more than one language, while also possessing a language delay (however slight or severe), benefit from several components of ABA therapy including but limited to the domains listed above.

Friday, 21 October 2011

Making the most of teachable moments

Whenever we venture into the community for a field trip, I give special thought to my approach. I end up having lots of time to chat with my staff about encouraging those teachable moments, and also have a chance to interact with both staff and students in a truly hands-on and interactive way. Going into the community provides both teachable moments for my talented teaching professionals, and also my talented early learners; both of which help generalize skills taught in the school environment.

In the past 3 weeks we have attended a Fun Fair, the Ontario Science Center, and the Royal Ontario Museum. Some were more accommodating than others (not impressed that the ROM wanted to charge us to check coats when bag check was free); the Fun Fair even discounted our rate by 50% because our group had extra needs. All the places allowed our 1:1s to attend for free, and we only had to argue with the TTC once about it. All in all, it was a huge success and the community was warm and receptive to each teaching moment.

The Science Center was FULL of teachable moments, the most important of which was to focus on the requirement to communicate (for example to "go this way" or "come see this", "hold my hand"); with 1:1 support, this was more than possible for our kiddies. A lot kids get in the habit of not using their words, but the more motivating the ultimate destination or tangible, the more likelihood of you getting a desired response (i.e. using your words). Because there was SO MUCH to see, we got to practice this skill over and over as we viewed each unique exhibit; we probably practiced the skill over 50 times. How's that for repetition? GO TEAM! :)

During all of our community adventures, we practice an important social skill; we practice "waiting nicely" over and over and over again. Waiting in line, waiting for the bus, waiting for our turn, waiting for an activity to start, waiting for friends to finish, waiting for snack/lunch; during these moments, we practice different ways of engaging ourselves and actively plan for these skills to generalize into the class and community. We often sing waiting songs to remind us what we are doing; we choose one word like "waiting" and sing it over and over to a tune we all know (head and shoulders, London bridge, and so on); I find this activity helps prevent that feeling that some of our kids get when they are unsure of exactly what is happening (I imagine it is something like...."why aren't we moving, whats going on, I want to move...AH!"). Keeping focused on the waiting song also helps keep my little ones from getting lost in the sensory overload that could be impending at any moment when out in the community.

Out in the community there is also the opportunity to practice minding personal space, making eye-contact, receptive listening, quiet voices, calm bodies, walking feet, and using gentle hands to name but a few. Really, the list just goes on and on...there are so many opportunities to teach and generalize skills, you shouldn't have to search that hard to make skill development happen. There's also the obvious need to be reinforcing those spontaneous skills that emerge; anytime a skill happens in a new environment, that's a small victory and should be celebrated as such! Don't be afraid to throw a party, even if you are the Royal Ontario Museum.

On that note, I thought I would go into detail about some of the ways I have embarrassed myself and inspired my kids....all within the community.
1. The impromptu Hokey Pokey at the Fun Fair (some even joined in)
2. The Goodmorning Train sung while riding the TTC
3. The Hokey Pokey AGAIN on the sidewalk
4.Little Fish sung in front of the Aquarium

I may look silly, and I may bother some people, but for my kids this is just one way I support skill development and ensure that meaningful contextual learning occurs. If I sparked just one light bulb...I have done my job.

How do you support learning in the community?
Comments? Questions? I am all ears.

Saturday, 8 October 2011

We are not CURING we are TEACHING!

Everyday Magnificent Minds (Toronto, ON)  students take steps towards success and I become re-inspired by their infinite potential. A child with a generalization-deficit exclaims a phrase that was never explicitly taught; a child makes a genuine learning connection; a new untrained request/utterance is made and... meaningful change has just begun. 
Every day we witness those small steps that make learning possible; we understand how to successfully lay the foundation for learning, at any skill level. Occasionally More often than you'd think, a specific child will surpass his/her goals, and really soar above our expectations. Our kids on the spectrum are in a habit of impressing their teachers; and we're so proud. Raising the bar for our concept of progress and development, my team has created meaningful change in the lives of our kids, and it's directly because of their knowledge, their efforts, and their dedication to principles of Applied Behavioural Analysis. 
Surfing the web I came across this article, linked to the success of social skills interventions for children with Asperger's syndrome; I couldn't help but think nostalgically back to our own  2011 summer program, and consider the impact we had on our young learners. Just like the article reports, our kids are functioning better in a group, individually and exhibiting more verbal behaviour. We knew that our group therapy/learning programs would support generalization, and we have anecdotal/professional and research-based/peer-reviewed proof to support our cause. 
Though our summer intervention only runs between July and August, we remain dedicated to the teaching framework which propels learning and socialization all summer long. 


Our Enriched Group Learning program is rooted in the same basic principles of ABA, play-skill building, and a focus on the coping strategies which enable full participation in the natural environment. The success of the program is rooted in it's ability to propel skill generalization and ensure skill maintenance; this is half the battle for children on the spectrum, making our programs highly effective. Each parent has a unique set of aspirations and goals met, and it's this kind of progress that really inspires and instills hope. Note: We are not CURING children, we are TEACHING coping strategies and generalization skills.


With weekly Friendship Clubs we continue to support the social development of our learners into the fall and winter months; many of our summer camp friends join-us for weekly friendship clubs to continue building on social skills development. Split into two groups based on age (Junior and Senior), our kids develop pre-social skills, or beginner/intermediate social skills needed to thrive within the group dynamic. We teach skills like  conversations, making a phone call, ordering at a restaurant, and asking for more information; we target skills based on comprehensive needs assessments conducted at the beginning of each new academic semester. Our summer program went so well, we couldn't imagine not offering some version of it all year long; it's called Social Skill Sundays at Magnificent Minds, and it's TONS of fun.