Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Visual Supports - They are important

I have observed children with disabilities in many different environments across New Jersey. I have had the pleasure of observing many classes that used visual supports with great success. Some of did a great job of making visual supports that were meaningful and helped the students become more independent and successful in the environments. Other classrooms had visual supports that had no meaning to the students. The visual supports were just decorations around the room that become visual noise or distractions. It always amazes me when I go for an observation of students with language disabilities and there are no visual supports for the students. Regardless of the student’s disabilities, visual supports are what help make sense of our environment. As a typical individual, I use visual supports on a daily basis while I am driving (GPS, street signs, directions) or list (whom to call, what I need to purchase, and chores I have) and I have my blackberry to make sure I show up to appointments on time.

Visual supports help an individual focus on priorities and decrease the auditory distractions of words which turn into the Charlie Brown teacher WAWAWA WAHA WAH WAH. Visual supports allow us to feel confident in what is being asked and that the expectation are very clear. Children with disabilities often are asked to negotiate through a maze of expectations throughout the day. As humans we are verbal noise making machines, do this, go there, listen, look, stop, go, sit, stand, quiet this, quiet that and all between and over the conversations the adults are having of how traffic, what they had for breakfast, what they will do later what they did last night. If you ever get a chance to just sit back and listen, you would be shocked at the amount of verbal language being used all around students that struggle with expressive and verbal language. We want to be language models but often we are language samples of projectile vomit. Yes, I know very graphic but now you get the idea.

When I visit a classroom that has “show and tell” visuals or has no visual, I always want to ask the teacher “how does your students survive this environment?” because I have language and I want to shut down. I know that sounds harsh. However, when an individual does not understand language or interpret what you are saying increasing the number of words, saying it louder is not going to make it any better than it was before. The only solution is to help each other understand each other with supports that communicate the content of the message.

Utilizing visual supports for individuals that struggles with language helps the person plan and prepares for what will be happening. It gives the individual a point of reference so they can refer back if they feel unsure or need to double check the steps on a task they are doing. It helps them feel in control in a world that they have so little control. It decreases the anxiety over the anticipation of what comes next and what is expected of ME. Because in their world, everything is unexpected, uncomfortable and confusing without supports to explain it.

Visual supports do not have to be fancy. You do not need brand named software to create the visual supports. Visual supports have meaning because we GIVE them MEANING. As the teachers, therapist and parents we give meaning to the world that our children are part of. We label the world for them. Just like there are 100’s of ways to say Grandmother there are 100’s of ways to use symbols. As I said, we give meaning to the symbol. For example, a picture of hands, can mean quiet hands, hands on lap, hands at sides, hold hands, clean hands and so on.

Please remember that you can use real photos, drawings, images from clip art to make visual material for students. It doesn’t have to be expensive software to make it have meaning.

What to do:

  • Do not label furniture with their names unless you want the students to practice labeling. Label with expectation: Chair: Sit, Table: Work, Sink: Wash
  • Keep visuals at the students’ eye level. Think of visual strategies as marketing as they do in the grocery store. Everything that is yummy and not good for you is at eye level of the children. Go down the cereal aisle.
  • Have multiple copies of the symbols you are using. They will ripped they will get lost.
  • You have to teach the symbol and the meaning before you expect a student to understand to use it.
  • Need to have a change card so the students have some way of knowing that something unexpected is going to take place such as a change in routine, activity or therapist.
  • Laminate the picture with tape, contact paper or real lamination.

Resources for visual pre-made supports:

Software you can use that you already have:

  • Word processing tools: Word, Word Perfect, Works, Google docs
  • Spreadsheets: Excel,
  • PowerPoint
  • Paint

Software to use to make visual supports

Friday, March 5, 2010

Ergonomics in the classroom

Often when I visit a classroom, I look at the environment in which the student needs to function. One of the things that often amaze me is the number of students that are sitting at ill fitted desks and chairs. I know it is difficult in middle and high school to make sure the students have the proper height chair and desk but in the elementary school, there should be no problems since the students spend the majority of their time in the same class all day.

When most think of ergonomics, they think computers. When I think ergonomics, I think of the general environment. Our students are sitting at desks that are either too high or too short. I recently went to visit a classroom of a 3rd grade student. The concerns were that the student’s handwriting was difficult to read, student would fatigue and the student complained of arm pain. This student was on the petit side. When they pointed the student out to me, all I could do was shake my head. The students’ desk was two pegs higher than it needed to be for her. For this student to write she needed to lift her arms up onto the desk raising her shoulder. No wonder this student was complaining of arm pain and getting tired. This meant she had decrease control over the ability to use her pencil. This students chair when she sat back she could not put her feet to the ground so she was moving all over the place and sitting on her legs. The rule of the classroom is 6 feet on the ground. This student even if she wanted to could not accomplish this task. After explaining my observation to the case manger, we walked down to the building principal. I again explained the situation and asked if a maintenance person could visit the classroom. We had the students all line up against the wall, picked three students at a time and asked them to find a chair they liked and to sit in the chair. If it was a proper fit, the chairs were labeled with the student’s name. For the students that were in-between chair sizes we created different footrest (this was done over time). Then we had the student take the chair to their desk. The maintenance person, teacher and I lowered and made desk higher for the students. I returned to the classroom a week later to talk to the teacher about the concerns. The student’s handwriting was still difficult to read but you could read it, she was no longer complaining about pain and being tired. The teacher noticed that the students seemed to be more comfortable and not wiggling in their chairs as much.

Sometimes it is not a tool that is needed but the environment that needs to be adjusted to meet the needs of the individuals working in it. It takes just a few minutes to adjust chairs and desks throughout the year. There are benefits to making sure students have the proper environment to do their work.

How to check for proper height and fit:


Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Mindful of how we learn regardless of format

Today I sat through a webinar about Google Apps Education. Did the webinar meet my expectation? I must answer a big fat NO. I will not hold the presenters accountable for not meeting my expectations because there are two aspects to every presentation a person attends that impacts their view of meeting expectations. First, is the format in which the presentation takes place. It was a virtual presentation. The presenters were using a well known web conferences software. The presenters were comfortable with the software and able to use the features that were needed. However, this is the first webinar that I have sat through that the participants were not able to interact with the presenters or other participants. If you wanted to ask a question, you had to write it in the question box and hope they got to your question or felt it was important enough. The best analogy that I can think of: you go to the doctor’s office, you sign in and the receptionist tells you that the doctor will be right with you. Two hours later, you are still sitting there waiting while everyone that came in after you gets to see the doctor.

I think the second area is the concern of the participant especially in a webex presentation is understands how your learning style affects your ability to participate in the presentation. If I use the Gardner’s Multiple Intelligence, I am interpersonal. I enjoy interacting with others, I want to participate in sharing information and experiences. This presentation did not allow me to interact so I became disengaged to what the presenters were doing. I am also a kinesthetic learner. For me to feel part of the presentation I often need to physically be involved. For some presentation, this is not possible so I will try to take notes. This allows me to remember the information that is being shared.

This presentation made me sit down and evaluate my learning styles and why I did not feel my expectations were met. There was one big gorilla staring at me. It came down to format, material being covered and my ability for buy in.

Format is a format that I typically crave. I am not a brick and mortar person. I do not like sitting and hearing a lecture. I want to be able to work at my own pace. I want to be able to split my attention between tasks. The webex classes are typically perfect for me. If I zone out, I can always go back and re-listen and watch.

Materials there were no handouts, outlines or references that were sent to the participants. So unless you followed 100% on screen and could follow their flipping and moving between screens and jumping between presenters.

The buy in is always so important. Being a consultant, I do not have much say in the district technology plan or how technology will be used in the district. I would love the opportunity to be part of a district team one day helping integrate technology and AT into just technology for all learners. For right now, it is more a curiosity thing. Like a cat, I was killed.

The concept of the presentation is how this school district had their staff and students using Google Apps Education. It was a wonderful strategy that they started with saying it was just a calendar to their staff. There was a team behind the scene building the resources for the teachers. As the teachers became more proficient at using the calendar tool, the behind the scenes crew was adding information. There was no expectation beyond “it’s a calendar”. I love the concept and may try to implement it with some of my teachers and parents that I support. I think it has wonderful possibilities.

As for now, I have learned a valuable lesson; virtual presentations still need to be mindful of individual learning styles and we need to make sure that our audience feels connected to us regardless.