Saturday, 21 January 2012

CJs SkatePark....Epic.

Friday was my second visit to Etobicoke's finest, CJ's SkatePark. If you didn't catch my first post, written about their Saturday Spec. Ed Skate Program, you can see it Here to get caught up.

Now that we're all caught up...

CJ's is a not for profit project created by a couple of die-hard skateboarders, who--I have been told, if you know anything about "old school skateboarding" are some well known names. The space used to be one small room, but since a recent move and renovation, calls 60 Horner Avenue home (a huge industrial space). The space is nothing short of expansive and immaculate. They really thought of everything when they made this space; meeting the needs of advanced skateboarders, and special needs kids small feat for a not for profit. Did I mention they have a "surgically clean air machine"?

So the guy making it all happen is Jay, and working with him is a team of incredibly and dare I say...also "die-hard" and maybe even "old school" skateboarders; in the mix are some instructors, who are lucky enough to spend full-time hours employed by this unbelievable place.

Not only is every single person there incredibly friendly and helpful, but they made my students feel like...the "regular kids" they are. Unlike any other field trip I have been on in the history of my teaching career, there was no gawking, no smirks, no inadvertent stares; we were embraced with open arms and encouraged to try everything at our own space. I made one request, "do you think we could lose the music, it's a bit echo-y in here and might be distracting and over stimulating"; before I even finished the explanation, the music was off and calm was restored.

Ok you get it, they are AWESOME...but what did we do?

When we arrived they greeted each kids, and provided us with helmets, knee-pads, wrist-pads and elbow pads. We got suited-up in their lounge area (an incredible space with couches, a big screen tv, and tons of colouring supplies..which we love..); we met our instructors and headed into the largest skate-park I have ever seen.

We transitioned well into the space, and started by sliding down the ramps on our knees; this helped our kids learn to brace for a fall if they happen to lose their balance on the board; it also helped prepare the kids for the feeling of motion. Once the little ramp was mastered, we moved to a bigger one, and a bigger one, and finally climbed a long staircase up to the 20 foot ramp. When we got to the top, our instructors set up foam blocks for the kids to crash-into as they slide down the huge slide. Once we got comfortable with the feeling of motion, they gave us skateboards!

There were no words for how much fun the kids had. We took a lunch break and then headed to play in the massive foam block pit. The foam block pit is exactly what it sounds like; a huge pool filled with foam blocks for the kids to run, crash and crawl through. If you think our small ball tent at school is a hit, times that by a million and that was the enjoyment that came from this foam pit. Just to clarify here....

This is our Fitness and Coordination teacher, and skateboarder, Andy falling into the foam pit after skateboarding down a 20 foot ramp and flipping into the blocks...Best...Gym Teacher....Ever...
After the foam pit, which we had to literally bargain with our kids to get them out of....we went to try skateboarding in "the bowl"; the bowl is mostly flat, with small ramps along the outside making a bowl shape.  Our kids slide down the bowl, and practiced managing balance on the board in various ways. Their staff were so patient, and so invested in our kids. They needed very little guidance, and were more than willing to engage in a child-centered way (i.e. following the lead of our kids).

The best part is, if we go back again we will have the same instructors that our kids now know and love. Thank you Phil and Greg for your effort and enthusiasm!  At CJ's they have really thought of everything, which leads me to believe that are some people on the inside of CJ's who really understand the nature and needs of kids with various ASDs and other communicative and/or social needs...for that, the whole community thanks-you.

All in all, a fun time was had by all and our kids left begging for us to take them back...and we have already booked our next visit.

Wednesday, 11 January 2012

Firemen, Sirens, Blinking lights OH MY!

January 11th marks the first, and second, fire drill in MM history. For most of our kiddos, it was their first fire-drill; they could not believe they were not only allowed, but rushed, outside in their INDOOR shoes. It is January outside people! Because we got the word that is was just a drill, we did actually get our jackets...though with an increased sense of urgency, mostly because of the noise-level in the hallways. 
Photo from FreeDigitalPhotos.Net

We rushed the class and ABA-ers outside into the park and tried not to show any signs of distress. It is not that there was any real threat of danger, we had heard through the grape vine that the alarm had been set off by accident by a contractor, but the sheer sound of the alarm bell echoing through the halls of our temporary set-up was enough to drive us, and our kids, a little nutty. 

I should probably explain, that for the next 3 days our school is invaded by contractors, so our gracious landlords have provided us with an open-concept luxury space to teach in, for the time being. The space itself is....basically a giant ballroom (complete with solid wood dance floor) is divided into small classroom areas; we call it our OPEN CONCEPT...REALLLLLY OPEN CONCEPT...temporary learning environment. It is pretty much brutal in terms of distraction, acoustics, and new stimuli to focus on, but it also provides a good chance to help coach our kids through newness, lack of routine and an interruption of schedule; a sort of exposure-therapy if you will. The bathroom are a good deal nicer than the ones we are used to and it was hilarious when one of the little boys exclaimed WOW I LIKE THIS BATHROOM as his eyes lit up. Anyway, I digress because all of our kids have actually coped super well

We got all of our kids outside, grabbed the necessary tools (a pair of noise-block headphones, our jackets and some tissue..all might I add, things we would not double-back for it was a real emergency) and started an early recess. All of us, every single staff member, was outside in the playground...that pretty much NEVER happens.

Eventually, about 30 minutes later, and after the arrival of not one but TWO woo-woos  fire trucks (sorry I get used to talking in child-speak) we got the go-ahead to return to the building. But, not before we had a nice long look at the fire trucks.... and firefighters! We LOVE firefighters at MM for many reasons...of course there is the obvious fact that they rescue people and put out fires, but we also think it is really neat that they  wear headphones like many of our friends do. 

As the afternoon went on, the alarm sounded again. I am sure we all thought the exact same thing ...are you flippin kidding me....But there was no kidding insight; it was another alarm going off and I was in a 1:1 with a client that needed some noise-blocking headphones like... yesterday. My dilemma was... I was in a room that was fairly sound-blocked; I could hear the alarm, but it was not echoing or bouncing off the walls like it does in the hallway. The headphones were at the other end of the building in class and between us was an atrium, in which the alarm literally reverberated up and down the halls like nails on a chalk board. It MUST be the acoustics of the building. The only way to sound protection was a very noisy journey....

So together we decided to make a run for it, hand in hand, while I lead walking briskly to prevent sensory overload in both of worked. We stayed calm, and we actually made it through. The alarm turned off before we even made it to our headphones, and we decided we had probably earned a snack break! Crisis averted! 

The Gathering Place! Check out our new sign; special thanks to our incredible graphic designer, and friend, Real! Links to come to his portfolio and how you can contact him for your own graphic design needs!

Friday, 6 January 2012

Drama Club Friday: Grocery Shopping
What kid likes going to the grocery store? Unless it happens to be your special interest/obsession, or unless you have a really cool parent who makes it  a scavenger/treasure hunt,  you are pretty much doomed to dread the tag-along-shop that most kids have to endure. When I was a kid it was the worst. As an adult, it's still the worst; BUT a girl's got to eat. 

Special needs kids don't always get this exposure, but I certainly think it's a worthwhile thing to start young with. It may not be fun (for you or them), but it can be engaging and will be one step towards  functional skill development, valuable life skills, social skills and the ability to self-regulate despite the lights, the noise, the smells, the sights, and so on. Everything CAN be a learning opportunity, but you knew that already if you're a teacher, or parent. 

Today we had a really great drama class. Our performance theme was At the Grocery Store; we started, as we always do, going over expectations and discussing the meaning of drama. We read the message on the board together; with some encouragement, we decoded the message which told us that if we did well today, we might get a treat. In my class, a treat is a always a "might" because as I explain, it's for sometimes. A treat is never a given.  

So then I introduced the scoring system, a line of 5 empty faces and one already drawn (a 6th) to demonstrate the currency. "If we (it's always we not you) follow our directions, and get 5 happy faces, we might get a treat. Do you like treats?" everyone smiled. I love to ask somewhat rhetorical questions, especially when the answer is makes everyone feel like are more in control than they really are :P and keeps everyone involved. It also allows me to check for comprehension; if someone is not saying, for example, that they like treats (or at least smiling, nodding, or what have you) I venture to say they are not listening too carefully, or missed something somewhere and I might want to backtrack to see where they fell off.

Where was I.....After a brief group meeting we got right into a warm up; I love musical warm ups (especially those from DREAM ENGLISH.COM) because it takes the pressure off the teacher to maintain to beat, while modeling actions, prompting and reinforcing.... So, the music was on and my students exclaimed "sing to us!"... so much for not carrying the beat. I left the music on, and sang along to the music the best I could, which still gave me the freedom to prompt/reinforce as needed....which is a lot :) We were all warmed up by the end; mission accomplished.

One aisle of our MM grocery store; I saved boxes for 6 months in anticipation of this activity!
Next we headed to the floor to make a grocery list (on all fours, on the floor because we all needed a little sensory cool down). I modeled how to make a grocery list and each child took turns deciding what to put on my master list and then their own lists. Some students copied my list verbatim while others got creative, sometimes with letters but usually with some kind of hieroglyphs. These lists were taken right to the grocery store where I coached each child through their first shop, checked them out as the cashier and then let them get creative as I moved on to the next student. Half way through the play period I brought in a pretend oven, some pans, a mirror and a few costumes. The kids were totally into it and were getting really creative writing ingredient lists, going to the grocery store, and taking turns being chef, cashier and shopper. If I brought it all in at once, it would be too much. I know my customer!

All the while I was actively prompting to follow our directions/rules; I do this by modeling the expectations. Let me back track..what were expectations upon which the tentatively promised treats rested upon?

  1. Be nice 2. Use your friends name to get their attention 3. Talk to each other! 

Another aisle in our grocery store
The first one is self explanatory; the second comes from a belief that kids need to be reminded to use their friends names before addressing them; if I say, "Alley ask Billy if he wants water" a child will usually repeat it without first ensuring that the child is listening/aware of the question being asked, etc. It helps promote a more reinforcing social experience, when you first call the person's name and then issue the request; you increase the likelihood of getting a response, therefore having a meaningful social exchange. Its especially important when you have friends with Autism Spectrum Disorders, because they may not be tuned into you unless you ask for their attention first. Finally, the last rule is to talk to each other;  the first class, and every subsequent class during our initial meeting, we discuss the definition of drama a component of which is "when people talk to each other" (we choose not to focus on mime because the goal is increased language and social interaction). 

I gave the five minute warning; then, I called everyone to carpet. We sang our goodbye song and class was finished. They got all 5 happy faces, and got a special treat. A Christmas chocolate...Might as well have been gold. It's the small things isn't it?! :) 

Tuesday, 3 January 2012

Think Think Think--Notes on Think Time

Working every day with kids, specifically those with co-morbid diagnoses from SPD to PDD, I appreciate more than ever the importance of understanding each child's need for think-time. Let's start by decoding the term--think time, to me, it  is the time between issuing a demand and receiving and/or prompting a response.

Think-time varies per person and I would say it is safe to assume that kids in general, have a longer think time than adults who are essentially, better trained. Think-time is the amount of time it takes for each individual to consider a demand and act accordingly; "I say give me 5" you consider the phrase, and offer your hand.

Think of learning a new language; though you speak your native tongue fluently and can easily respond to questions in English, when someone asks you a question in French, it is natural to require a bit more think-time to decode each message. If I said "Donner moi cinque" it might take you a bit longer to figure out that I am asking for a high 5.

It brings me right back to grade 8, my friends and I used to talk so quickly at a speed faster than light; there is no way an ESL student, for example, would be able to keep up....

So what's the point of mentioning this? All too frequently I see teachers, therapists, special education professionals and so on... requiring an immediate response from their spectrum kids; it puts A LOT of pressure on the child, which when verbal behaviour is already not preferred for the child, is a recipe for performance anxiety. I am all for increasing response time, but let's do it by increasing fluency not by demanding a lesser think-time. Let's shape the behaviour and the think-time, and start by acknowledging where the child is starting from (in terms of the think-time needed for various tasks when  variables are introduced into the a class of kids, the fluorescent lights, the smell of the play doh, the colour of the bulletin board). I am frustrated by seeing therapists/teachers fail to provide a sufficient think time to account for the fact that verbal language is not the native tongue of many of our selectively verbal kids (not to mention if the child is Apraxic).

Maybe it is that teachers/therapists put too much pressure on themselves; they internalize a child not responding to their demand as a poor performance on their part and over compensate by coming down a little strong; they want to dig their heels in, and require a demand so they prompt it. Sometimes, the patience card is the best; dig your heels in by not giving up, not by prompting. When all else fails, wait it out; I cannot say enough how detrimental poor prompting procedures can be; give the kid a minute to think, and stop staring at him you're making him nervous! ;)   I have seen and intervened on meltdowns resulting from insufficient think-time and over prompting and it is soooo preventable. Make it happen :)

Don't get me wrong I am ABA-ALL-THE-WAY and I think prompting is essential for errorrless learning, however, you must be skilled and you must account for ALL the variables including THINK-TIME!

In the words of one of my students,
"Peeez Out"