Practice makes perfect

I would love to be able to coach kids all day every day but the reality is that my role has limitations. Kids are in school for much of their day and with siblings or parents for way more hours than I could ever provide. I was recently writing a behavior plan to support a middle schooler to practice peer interactions and realized, I am happy to give away the strategies that I think will be helpful to encourage this practice.

Here you go!

  1. In a structured interaction with one peer and one coach (parent or other adult provider), the coach models verbal communication that encourages sharing and positive interaction such as “I” statements and statements that express curiosity about the other person.

  2. The coach models non-verbal communication that encourages sharing and positive interaction such as thumbs up, nodding, or face gaze.

  3. The coach notices when either peer is doing well with noticing things about her peer’s communication. If possible without disrupting the interaction, point out this success to them in the moment, such as “Jane you noticed that she needed a napkin. That was really kind of you to give her one.” Do this for both partners.

  4. When the coach notices a mistake or missed opportunity for either child, state what you observed in a neutral tone. Provide time and space for the child to create a repair or alternate communication. For example, if Sue goes to the kitchen for a napkin for herself but doesn’t bring one back for anyone else, simply state, “Neither of us have a napkin.” DO NOT provide a direct cue to Sue such as “you forgot a napkin for us, please bring one.” The reason for this is that almost always, kids can follow explicit directions. What they have trouble with is reading the situation to know what they should be doing in relation to the other person. By having the coach practice pointing out what they missed, they first strengthens their own ability to notice these things and then strengthen their responses to what they notices. They create their own solutions based on their experience and are more likely to use them without needing prompting in the future.

  5. Provide structured activities that encourage collaboration such as cooking (Jane gets the ingredients while the peer reads the recipe) , creating projects (Sue holds the objects while a peer tapes them together), or creating a performance (Jane plays piano, peer sings).

  6. Document the process of collaboration through photos or brief videos.

  7. At the end of the project, the coach takes 5 or so minutes to reflect on the process with the peers. Each person says one thing that they remember/enjoyed/found interesting about the process. Discuss any discrepancies in experience to point out the different perspectives represented.

  8. 2-3 days following the structured peer interaction, review the photos or video. Point out what you noticed that they did well in terms of communication and collaboration. If they had mistakes or missed opportunities, remind them that they did but that they resolved it. This resolution is key to encoding competence in the peer interactions.

Podcast: Conversations with Synergy Autism Center

Join Barbara and Pam as they discuss the notion that children are not being bad when they exhibit a challenging behavior. Through their usual weekly dialogue, they delve deeper into one specific case that Pam brings up where a child is being characterized as choosing to engage in difficult behaviors or is “being bad”. They talk through how they support families and school teams to move past that thinking to understand that behavior is communication.

The link to listen is here:

Circle the Wagons

We all encounter stressors but our ability to be resilient from those experiences varies greatly. This resilience is impacted by past history, memory, communication, and most importantly relationships.

I have known several clients who were really struggling with stress and anxiety. In particular, middle schoolers who were working so hard all day at school to understand content, negotiate the social climate, and self-regulate, only to come home and fall apart when a parent asked them to do a seemingly small thing like throw a snack wrapper away. In coaching these families, I have suggested that they pull way back on their expectations during these times of high stress from outside factors. My argument in favor of this has been that there is only so much one human being can manage and the fact that their tween is not responding well to simple requests is a signal that they are overwhelmed. The family’s job in that moment is to lower stress where they can and increase support, even for simple things. I call this “Circling the Wagons”. This goes a long way toward showing that child that they can count on their family to be there and help them build resilience from the other stressors they are experiencing. If the child doesn’t understand that they are being supported in this way, they feel that they have no safe harbor from the intense expectations of life and it adds to feelings of incompetence and distress.

Sometimes parents worry that if they lower expectations, it will be difficult to raise them later. My experience has been that when the stress is at a manageable level, a family can reintroduce chores and other responsibilities with less overall fallout. Dr. Ross Greene talks about how kids want to do well and this is no different.

If you find yourself with a stressed out kid, consider giving a little more support for small things, a little less nagging, and increase the message of “we are a team with you.”

Empowering Group Education

Engage:  Empowering Group Education

A group of five learners sit at a table with me.  I have materials set out for the learners to explore. There is no right or wrong way for the learners to use the materials, but there are established boundaries for the group and what is not acceptable to do with the materials. Outside of that, the goal here is for the learners to use the materials in front of them in any way that stays within the boundaries.  

This time, I have a jug of bubbles, a pitcher of water, straws, and a container for each learner as they sit around a table. Even though these learners have seen bubbles before, the goal for group exploration is for everyone to explore materials as creatively as they choose. Containers are in the middle of the table where each learner can reach them. I do not encourage or discourage the learners to participate, rather make it clear that they can take a container if they so choose. I demonstrate my idea for using the materials by pouring some bubbles into the container and using the straw to blow bubbles. I will monitor the amount of liquid that is used, not in an effort to avoid all mess, but rather so that I can help learners to understand the results of their actions if they spill or do not have enough water.  Learners have ample time and freedom to explore, however, I provide structure to avoid chaos and work to reiterate the boundaries of the group.

Some learners eagerly jump in and try adding different amounts of water and bubbles.  Some stir the bubbles to see how fast they have to go to make bubbles in the container.  Another watches the instructor and other peers to investigate how they are using materials but chooses not to actively participate. Yet another is copying my actions exactly and I am able to acknowledge this exploration but also invite them to try something that someone else is doing.  

I am happy to see that everyone is a part of the group in some way, even if it is just being an observer. I know that observation is a critical part of exploration. Some learners will watch something and quickly jump in while others need to watch things over and over again before feeling comfortable enough to explore.

I also know that bubbles and water is a very simple activity.  However, the active exploration and creativity that comes from the learners during this activity is often an overlooked foundational element. Many children with challenges don’t explore in this way naturally during their development.  These learners benefit from practicing authentic investigation of something new and if it were a more complicated task, they would lose that practice time.

Through Direct Coaching of social skills, learners develop an understanding of how their actions impact those people around them. What happens if someone takes something that is mine? What happens if I want something that someone else has? What happens if we run out of the item that I wanted?  What can I do if my first idea doesn’t work? What will other people be doing with the materials? These are all questions learners begin to ask themselves and the group, thus creating an authentic learning experience.


Opening the Box

ENGAGEAutism-Opening the Box

Imagine a ten-year-old learner with limited verbal capacity, physical challenges including tics and seizures, vision problems, and cognitive impairment.  Does this learner not deserve to discover that he can’t get a box open with his hands? That there may be a tool he can use? That using a plastic knife is not as effective as finding the scissors?  That the scissors may not be in the same place that he left them because another learner moved them? That he can look around the supply area for the scissors, find them, cut the tape off the box, and explore its contents?  Sure it would be very easy and much faster for the Instructor to swoop in and open the box for this Learner. If the contents of the box were the sole lesson to be learned, that would be the method to use. However, the search for an effective alternate to the first attempt, and the struggle of not having immediate success are critical to the development of self for each learner.  While this Learner was born with many challenges, it does not mean he is incapable of making discoveries and building a sense of himself as an independent entity in the world. Not to mention, he feels good about himself when he opens the box and gets to see what he worked so hard to unearth. His smile is a reminder that with genuine struggle there comes genuine pride of accomplishment. Nothing and no one else can do that for this Learner.

This sense of self is critical to the individual’s success in any group they participate in.  Without a sense of himself, this learner sits until told to stand, does not eat until fed, stares in to space when presented with materials, and doesn’t communicate his basic needs.  

Too often the focus on academics in schools is centered on having students regurgitate what they already know or sit clueless while information that is complicated or without foundation is presented with low or no expectations of understanding.  With the ten year old described above, if the Instructor focused on speaking in order to get the box open, knowing the color, shape, or number of items in the box, saying please or thank you to get the scissors, or any other of a list of skills that could be focused on, he would have lost this genuine opportunity to make a connection for himself.  This is not to say that colors, shapes, and numbers are not important to learn but too often the authentic moments are sacrificed in service of a list of skills that the learner doesn’t actually need to be a person functioning in the world. How often do you have a dinner party where you and your guests list all the colors on the table? Now think of how often you and those same guests have to figure out how to get the bottle of wine open when the wine opener breaks or the cork splits?  

The combination of specific practice with specific skills and the managed introduction of small challenges to the Learner is the foundation of Academic Coaching.