Sunday, May 27, 2012

Faciltating work experiences for youth in transiton

The Way to Work: How to Facilitate Work Experienced for Youth in Transition by Richard Luecking

This book is packed with lots of information for the transition service provider. It is likely to a) overwhelm parents or b) frustrate them. It is very information dense, and thus may present challenges for those without a good foundation in the field. It may frustrate them because, as a professional, I have never seen the type of quality services described. Trained transition practitioners are not thick upon the field and school to work programs are not facilitated by the high academic demands and focus of a typical high school education.

For those of you who say that the five paragraph essay is a thing of the past, I give you this book. While each chapter is longer than five paragraphs, the author clearly follows the approach of: introduction with a thesis at the end that explains the big points of the chapter, body paragraphs with clear topic sentences and description, conclusion that restates the information of each point. It is straightforward, well-organized and clear enabling a reader to identify the key features even if interrupted mid-read.

The chapters give a learning lab opportunity at the end to do research and develop skills in the areas discussed. Clear charts and graphics emphasize and summarize information. Vignettes highlight programs that were and were not successful for students with disabilities, why they worked or didn't and suggestions for programing others. Forms to help engage in the various activities are found thorough out the book. These features are well developed and useful.

"Work is good." That is the theme of the text. Youth need jobs. Even individuals with significant physical or emotional disabilities can hold jobs. It is up to the transition professional to identify, develop skills, and support experiences that will lead the youth from school to work. Of critical importance is partnering with families. Families know their children, provide support and resources that make work experience possible, and have great impact on their children.

I thought the chapter on planning for work experiences which detailed developing a Positive Personal Profile (PPP) for each individual was particularly useful. This is critical because it helps identify strengths, skills, weaknesses, and interests that are used to match a job experience to an individual. Using "standard" or established work experiences is likely to fail with many people because it does not take into consideration the elements identified in the PPP. Although this means that transition professionals need to continue to develop relationships with new employers, to teach a variety skills and to work at diverse work sites, the goal of building successful relationships that the student can learn from and potentially achieve employment with requires this extra step.

The other critical reading step was the discussion on revealing the disability or not. The author strongly argues that this is a decision for the individual not the professional. Students need to be informed of the pros and cons of disclosure. They need to be in agreement about what elements are disclosed. They need to be on board with when disclosure occurs. While a wheelchair or blindness will likely be self-evident, it remains the student's choice regarding what to disclose. For "hidden" disabilities such as learning disabilities, autism or emotional disabilities, the choice may be more difficult. Students need to understand their disabilities, PPP and what supports they need to be successful. Lack of a willingness to disclose, does not mean a transition professional should not be involved. It does mean the involvement is more delicate to negotiate.

Transition professionals need to understand the difference between work and school. School is required to teach and work with everyone. Employers are not. There are significant legal limitations on what volunteers can be allowed to do. Katherine McCary, vice president of SunTrust Bank, is quoted as saying, "I am surprised to keep hearing that employers need to step up to the plate and do their part. It seems to me that people who say this do not understand business" (p. 207). School personnel need to understand the different objectives they have from employers and need to appreciate the employer point of view when they interact. Businesses are not philanthropic organizations; they operate to make money. If transition specialists want to be successful, they need to appreciate this and operate from a business viewpoint, not an educational viewpoint. This should be reflected in the expectations, dress and language the transition professional uses.

Early and often students need exposure to a variety of workplace environments to better understand both expectations and opportunities. Work experiences can motivate youth in school and provide a platform for teaching curriculum. Creative teaching and scheduling will need to be engaged in to meet the needs of students. As teachers, we need to embrace the world outside our classrooms and help our students learn the skills they need to be successful.

Educational professionals working with students at the secondary level will benefit from this book. Seeing some of the best practices can help them advocate for better practices for their students. It cannot be left just for students with significant needs- the high rate of unemployment among all individuals with disabilities demonstrates the folly of that approach. Nor can it only be the realm of the transition or outside agency. Teachers need to embrace this challenge to help our students become successful and independent adults.

Friday, May 25, 2012

Talking Together social stories book

Social stories were designed to help children with autism deal with social situations. For more information on social stories see Carol Gray's website, Talking Together by Natural Learning Concepts is a book containing two social stories. One on talking on the telephone and the other on responding appropriately.

By far the phone story is better because it is more specific. Undoubtedly, if a person needed the social story for talking on the telephone, someone would need to add details specific to the individual and his situation. Responding appropriately is too difficult to define with a single social story. The authors would have been better off writing a series of social stories on the later topic. The authors do a nice job of presenting an easy to read, social story with simple illustrations that enhance it. If someone is interested in learning how to write social stories, this book offers a good example that can springboard ideas specific to an individual. It is, however, not an inexpensive example source when the Gray Center website has examples that are free.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Post high school employment

The current unemployment rate for people with disabilities is 12.5%  but the participation in the labor force is is only 69.1% (US Department of Labor, 4/2012). For people with autism the rate of unemployment is higher. Unsurprisingly the more significant the disability, the higher the likelihood of unemployment or underemployment. What predicts successful employment best- having held a paying job in high school (Rabren, Dunn, and Chambers, 2002). The second correlation with post high school success is the child having done their own laundry in high school. What this means is if the student learns the skills necessary to hold a job in high school, they are likely to be employable. If they have the independent life skills to care for themselves, they are more likely to be employable.

As teachers we need to ensure that we are pushing for these things. A job, not because students need to work, but to learn workplace skills. Not laundry for itself, but laundry as a representation of independence. We need to help them get these jobs, learn to balance jobs and school and then push them to be independent at home.

US Department of Labor

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Executive Function part II: Sarah Ward

On May 14th I attended a workshop on executive function skills presented by Sarah Ward. Sarah is a dynamic fast talking speaker whose years of experience pepper stories throughout the workshop. She has loads of good strategies to use for kids at every age. Her website details much of her work. While she personally specializes in Traumatic Brain Injuries (TBI) and their impact on executive function, she has worked directly with and consulted with students on the autism spectrum, ADHD and LD.

Students with executive function difficulties often have trouble with transitions, self regulation, organization and integration of information and higher order reasoning. To deal with these issues, Sarah proposed two overarching goals: focus on features and teach "the same but different." Focus on features means to change our perspective from the detail we are talking about to the 50,000 ft level. It is not, "Fall is during September, October and November." It is, "Seasons are during specific months." The charts below show some examples of how to indicate things are the same but different. Their features are the same but their details are different. If we teach features, it increases memory and processing speed.


Baby shower
Pink and blue balloons
Balloons, streamers
Games or activities
Guess the baby’s birth weight
Musical chairs, magician, piƱata, presents
Cake, finger sandwiches
Birthday cake, pizza
Take away
Treat bag


100 Years War
Civil War
England and France both want Normandy
State rights v federal rights
England v. France
North v. South
Major events
Joan of Arc
Introduction of the long bow
Petition of Right

Attack on Fort Sumter
Battle of Gettysburg
Gettysburg Address
Emancipation Proclamation
Surrender at Appomattox
Assassination of Lincoln
France wins control of Normandy and its monarchy becomes stronger
England’s monarchy moves toward more democracy
South must be reintroduced to nation
100’s of thousands dead
Radical reconstruction

Although there were many wonderful strategies presented, the three big take aways I gathered were STOP, visualize the end and time management.


This strategy helps with:
self regulation- provides awareness of the space, people and activities; helps initiate action and understand emotions
organization- facilitates transitions with understanding and developing plans for what to do and how it needs to be done; helps with understanding time; and facilitates memory because information must be organized to be encoded
higher order reasoning- facilitates drawing conclusions, solving problems, prediction and evaluation

This strategy is for evaluating a room, developing room awareness. It can be a real room, a location like a sports field or a literary place from a story.

Space- Where is it? What is in it? Look at it. I think setting
Time- What time is it now and what is next? How long will this activity take? What is its pace? What is the typical sequence of events?
Objects- What materials are here and what need to be gathered?
People- Who is around and who do I need? What do I know about these people?

For example, if I arrive at school, the place is school. The time is morning, I need to go to my locker put things away, get things out and go to my first class/homeroom- math. I have about 10 minutes. My backpack, homework, books, coat, lockers, etc. are around. I need to have my math homework, book, notebook, calculator and a pencil. Kids are moving about, teachers are supervising, Mrs. Smith, my math teacher, is standing at her door, across from my locker, shaking her head as things fall out on the floor.

This strategy can be used to help kids transition from one activity to the next, identify awareness of the present and future activities, and help build a script of the activity to reduce anxiety and promote a plan.


This strategy helps with:
self-regulation- if we know where we are going, we can be prepared which helps self regulate;
organization- If we can identify what it should look like, we can better evaluate if we are there yet and then label the get ready and doing it steps.
higher-order reasoning- We need to draw conclusions, predict outcomes and evaluate both the process and the product

She spoke of multiple ways to incorporate and use this idea. Teaching Before --> Now --> Next in conjunction with STOP involves identifying what is going on now and what comes next. Then the what needs to come before can kick in. Using nonverbal methods to start with this pattern is essential. If kids can visualize what the final project will look like, they can then assess how they did. This can be used to break big tasks into manageable chunks and encourage both initiation and competition of tasks.

A person can taking sequencing a step further by integrating time awareness and management. Identifying the before, now and next (end) helps with expanding thoughts in both conversation and writing.

When students receive a long term assignment with multiple parts visualize the ends can help with breaking a task down so that it is not completely overwhelming.

Task to show the example:
Is the narrator insane or not insane? Reread the Tell Tale Heart’s killer’s confession and try to find evidence that you could use to prove that the murderer is or is not insane. Be as specific as possible. Write a full paragraph (4-5 full sentences) for each piece of evidence. In each paragraph, use a quote from the story (the murderer’s own words) to prove your point. Put the quote in quotation marks – “” – and then put the page number in parentheses -(): the period at the end of the sentence comes after the parentheses.

 This is intimidating to the student. If you create a visual representation it becomes easier to think about.

 Students can learn to sketch these visuals themselves from the task. Then check the rubric or question itself to see if it needs to be modified.


This strategy helps with:
self-regulation- identify our needs and respond to them- foods, sleep, etc...; sustain attention; awareness, initiation
organization- see the big picture and the key features; identify relevant and irrelevant issues; utilize the familiar to predict the novel; facilitates memory because information must be organized to be encoded
higher-order reasoning- We need to analyze our activities and day to determine what we need to spend time on and how much time is needed; Solve problems- all problem involve time on some level; Predict the outcome and handle unexpected outcomes reason and evaluate the progress

Running throughout the presentation was the concept of time. Sarah focused on the idea that children do not understand time, the passage of time, how long it takes to do something, and what time is available. This is exasperated by the prevalence of digital clocks. Showing the passage of time is easiest accomplished with a analog clock. She even recommends a working clock at eye level with the students. It can be written on (glass face- dry erase marker; plastic face- Vis a Vis marker) and colored to represent start time and end time. Students can be prompted to identify the midpoint of the time and the midpoint of the activity to allow for a self assessment of progress.  They can be shown the time it takes to do something by drawing on the clock face. A piece of this concept was identifying time robbers. We all have them: sharpening the pencil, chatting with a friend, lost materials,... The idea is to plan an organize materials time, follow it with a doing stage, and ending with it is done. In order to get to the end, you need to visualize what the end looks like and then start working toward it.

While planners have their place, students with executive function disorder often need more than a list of what needs to be done. Literally scheduling every day with the "normal" activities. Then every day, week, whatever interval is appropriate, the schedule can be looked at, modified to address the needs of day- assembly, appointment, long term assignment work,... These items need to blocked out on an time based schedule. Identify the free time for chill out activities, the set in stone must dos, the flexible homework times,... and teach the student to try and do it on his own.

Wednesday, May 9, 2012


I just finished Rigor Made Easy: Getting Started by Barbara R. Blackburn. The book is an easy read with lots of good information and examples of the application of her ideas. Throughout the book are "points to ponder" that encourage self-reflection. There does seem to be an over reliance on acrostics, but if that is the worst you can say about something, you've got it made.

Some things that were particularly thoughtful to me.

Barbara defines rigor using the concept that it is dependant on the environment. Teachers must create an environment in which each student is supported to achieve at expected high levels. Teachers create a rigorous place. Each student achieves at a high level. It is not doing more, it is doing different. When I hear this, I think about gifted learners. One of the commonly utilized, but poor ways of "meeting" the needs of gifted and high ability students is to assign extra pages to write or problems to solve, or pull them for class for something "fun" and when they return to class they need to make up the work. As we approach rigor, we need to be to avoid this pitfall.

Similarly, we cannot spend September and October and November reteaching what we did last year. Nor can we spend May and June reviewing the same stuff, the same way. Math cannot continue to be 5 lessons of review and 2-3 lessons of new material per unit. Coach G, a blogger who is a teacher trainer, addressed this issue in his blog:
We need to spiral the material up. Marzano addressed the idea in relation to vocabulary instruction by recommending teach the vocabulary, engage in activities with the vocabulary that deepen their understanding of the words, discuss the words, and review the vocabulary with games ( It is never a constant barrage of repeat after me, repeat after me, repeat after me. There are things kids needs to memorize: the alphabet, math facts, basic sight words, ... but even then we introduce, provide intense practice and then move on to practice that material while learning new material. When we take the introduce, do something with it, then combine it with other things approach, we add rigor.

A key point made by Barbara is that Common Core State Standards, in spite of their insistence that they are an inch wide and a mile deep, remain too broad to teach in their entirety, and require prioritization of standards. This begs the question, when are state departments of education and now national boards going to get it: too much content means surface coverage or holes.

So how do we implement rigor?

In regards to reading, we cannot just teach with "hard" readings or nonfiction. We need to balance independent reading at the child's independent reading level with challenging reading. Independent reading builds fluency. This is one of the critical skills of reading. Challenging reading on the other hand, allows them to develop strategies to approach difficult readings, an essential skill if they are going to be successful beyond high school. The material students read, therefore, must be at a variety of levels, perspectives and depths. I like introducing with low reading level material. It is less intimidating, helps build background knowledge and springboards vocabulary activities. Then they can approach more challenging material.  Bloom acknowledges that the foundation is knowledge but then you need to build on and with the information.

Activities that you do may be modified to increase rigor. Make grading reflect the rigor you want. When color, pictures and the placement of the heading are going to carry significant weight- it does not matter what the task is, rigor is not necessary for success. Switch the grading to be about the content, not the compliance, and you automatically add rigor. Take your fact based questions and ask students to do things with the facts- for example compare different sources of information and evaluate which is the best source, or identify the bias within them.

Discussion and questions are good ways to add rigor. High quality questions are important. I like the modified Socratic circle idea Barbara highlighted as grand conversations. In a group have one student speak. The next student must either comment on the first statement, question the first statement or make connections to the first statement. Giving them the guidelines helps build better discussions. This guideline could be used in whole class group discussion and anything down to partner work.

Engagement is critical to achievement. I am cautious about Barbara's statement that "the more creative you are with your activities the more engaged they are in learning" (p. 32). My concern stems from my son who is on the autism spectrum. He hates creative activities. They need to be carefully planned, scaffolded and if possible repeated so they are not novel. I know he is the exception, but we need to be aware that there are kids who are creative adverse.

Likewise I am wary about metacognition. Asking metacognition questions- how do you know, what did you do,... is a good way push up the level of rigor. NYS math tests require students to explain how they arrived at their answers. For some students, however, they do not know how to explain their thinking. They may have executive function disabilities, a common feature in ASD. These students need you to teach them how to explain their thinking. Things are intuitively obvious to them, an inappropriate answer for state tests. The comfort for some people is that in the business world, it is often not very important to explain how you got the answer, as long as the answer is the correct answer.

Some of the supports that Barbara encourages are the use of think alouds, modeling and video replay. Developing routines and procedures to support Independence is important. Ask three and then me is a common one. Acknowledge that students try to give you what they think you want, therefore, provide models and exemplars. Struggling students are the most likely to misinterpret your expectations, give them an leg up with a sample, all kids will benefit. Encourage an internal locus of control- your effort, not your genetic make up or the ease of the task led to success. Legitimizing failure is also important. It is expected and not the end but the beginning. Toward this end she supports the switching to a mastery grading system where the grade of Not Yet is given.

Supports need to be structured, personalized, beyond the "classwork" and timely. RTI seems to fit this bill perfectly. When students are not successful, they move up a tier to receive additional supports. Robyn Jackson talks about establishing red flags that trigger support. For example, a grade falling below an 80 might move homework from the optional column to the mandatory column, require the completion of a review packet before a test or require attendance at a tutoring sessions. Using red flags is a good way to implement interventions at the secondary level.

Barbara acknowledges that moving to incorporate more rigor is challenging in its own right. She recommends that teachers develop a vision letter. Describe three steps of how you want to try to add rigor; describe what you want your classroom to look like in  a year. Revisit the letter often: see how you are doing, remind yourself of what you want to change. Every long journey begins with one step.

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Executive function skills

I finished reading Executive Skills in Children and Adolescents by Dawson and Guare. This book is a dry and slow read. While the authors are knowledgeable, their style does not lend itself to easy reading. The beginning of the book gives a good overview that could be skimmed if someone has some background. The good parts are chapters 4-8 and the Appendix. The authors detail a number of specific strategies to use and have a variety of forms to assist with diagnosis, instruction and monitoring. It is long enough that photocopying is unrealistic.  
While there is a wide range of behaviors exhibited within the individual disability categories, common executive function weaknesses found in autism spectrum disabilities (ASD), traumatic brain injury (TBI) and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) are indicated on the chart below.

Response inhibition

Working memory
Emotional control

Sustained attention

Task initiation
Planning/ prioritization


Time management

Goal directed persistence



Of note is the idea that many students with learning disabilities have issues with executive function skills. Since these skills are developmental in nature, a range of abilities will be present across any group of people. With the prevalence of these weaknesses, it is important that general education teachers take the lead in establishing routines and teaching skills to address the needs of their classes. When students struggle, it is important to consider these "soft" skills as a possible source. Teaching, on-going coaching, reinforcing and generalizing are all important to developing executive function abilities.

The authors have also written Smart But Scattered which targets parents more than professionals.