Today in the Inspirational Teacher Series we profile Emily Hastings-Speck. Emily has been teaching for 11 years currently in a special day class for children with Autism and Developmental Delays. She also writes a blog that I enjoy reading called the the Teacher in Room 10. I hope you enjoy her profile.
1. What is your name?
2. What is your education level and credentials?
I have an Honours BA, a B.Ed, and a Master’s Degree in Education. I am qualified in all 4 divisions (K-12), and have additional qualifications in French, ESL, Computers, Library and 2 levels of Special Ed.
3. What would you like a one-sentence description of yourself to say?
“Emily believes in the potential of all students to learn, and in their right to a safe, caring, appropriate education within the public system.”
4. Do you have a website?
I have a blog - http://theteacherin10.blogspot.ca/
5. How long have you been a Teacher?
6. What type of classroom do you teach (i.e. General Education, Special Day Class, etc)?
I currently teach in a Contained Class for students with a dual diagnosis of Autism and Developmental Delays, but have also taught contained GLD (General Learning Disabilities) and been the support teacher for mainstream students with IEP’s from Grade 1-5.
7. What Research based instruction methods do you use in your classroom for your students with a disability?
My classroom is highly based on the TEAACH system (http://www.teacch.com), which is also known as “structured teaching”, and provides clear beginning and endings to specific learning tasks, as well as systems of organizing and teaching the structures and skills to use within the system. I also dabble in a bit of Floortime http://www.icdl.com/dirFloortime/overview/index.shtml, based on my own reading and understanding of this method. We have also been using this year the reading methods developed by Patricia Olewein (there’s a pretty good explanation of it here: http://www-tep.ucsd.edu/about/Courses/EDS382/General_Handouts/Autism--Teaching%20Reading.pdf) to develop literacy skills, and it has been really successful for a couple of my students.
8. What other educational methods have you used that have been successful for your students with a disability?
Educational methods is a pretty broad term... I pretty much try anything I think might help my students connect, engage, learn a new skill or gain comfort in their school environment. We use iPads and Smartboards to engage the students in both communication and learning activities. We keep sensory needs at the very top of our list, with specific sensory activities for each child, as well as access to a Snoezelen room every day. We use a constant stream of visuals, first-then boards and timers to help our students manage their anxiety and transitions. We teach picture exchange, sign language and oral language for different kids as needed, and try to communicate in as many modes as possible whenever possible. We use peer modelling to teach new skills and build social opportunities whenever possible.
9. How do you create inclusion opportunities for your students with a disability?
My students attend all school events – assemblies, performances, playdays, special events & field trips. We have reading buddies once a week with two other classes, where students are read to by their peer buddies in a group setting. We have “Play Buddies” every day – groups of 2-3 student volunteers who come at various times throughout the day to interact, play games or just hang out with us. We go for outdoor play with at least one other class once a day, and out for recess with the whole school as often as possible.
At the beginning of the year, I presented to the staff at a staff meeting a poster of all our kids, their names, things they like and their favourite forms of interaction. These went up in every classroom, and then I scheduled visits with all the classes in the school to talk to them about my kids and allow them to ask questions. The kids asked amazing questions about my students’ likes and dislikes, their behaviour and why they might do certain things. I have my students pictures and names on our classroom door, so that they are not just “those kids in that class”. My class is never referred to as “the ASD class”, but rather “Room 10” or “Mrs. Hastings-Speck’s Class”, and the staff have been extremely supportive of this.
The expectation of inclusion has really created an amazing sense of community in our school, where my kids are greeted and spoken to in the halls by kids and adults, and are seen as a part of the school community. At our Holiday Concert in December, my class got up on stage and performed two songs, singing along and playing bells as they wanted. We practiced for weeks in the classroom, twice on the stage, and at the dress rehearsal in the afternoon, the entire school stood up and applauded when they finished. It was magical!
10. What behavior strategies and methods have worked for you in the classroom for students with a disability?
I really depends on each child, but usually in my room, the biggest thing is to remember that all behaviour is communication. Because my students are mostly non-verbal, it is often a guessing game to try and figure out what is causing their behaviour at any given time. For obvious ones, like task avoidance or not wanting to do something, we have found that visuals and timers have really helped to communicate expectations and what comes next, so that they can complete something and then move on to something more preferred. When it is less obvious, we usually look first at sensory issues, and try to resolve behaviours through pressure, rocking, swinging or another type of movement break. When we think behaviour may be attentional, we usually ignore it and re-direct, then praise or reinforce appropriate behaviour when they return to task. For all of them, a quiet, calm response is always the best course of action. We have also specifically taught several students how to cope with refusal (a big one!) by using “not right now” in both visual and verbal form, and offering another choice or letting them know WHEN something will be available. Social stories are very helpful for some of our students, particularly to explain things like cause-and-effect and strategies for coping with frustration and anger.
11. How do you involve parents in educating their children in and out of the classroom?
Parents are an invaluable resource. I meet with all my parents at the beginning of the year to set IEP goals when writing the IEP, and check in after each reporting period (either by phone or in person) about how they’re feeling about the goals, progress, etc, and if we need to tweak anything. I’ve had parents come in and observe things like picture exchange, sign language modelling, etc. so that we can have consistence at home and at school. Parents know their children best and are often able to make progress and familiarize students with materials or concepts at home, and vice versa – sometimes we are able to make progress at school on things that are more challenging at home, and we can help parents transfer useful methods or strategies to a home environment.
12. How do you communicate with the parents?
I write in each student’s agenda every day, letting parents know how their day has been, what they’ve done and asking questions or sending information. Parents often write back to share information or respond, and we use these to set up meetings, phone calls or visits. I sent home a monthly calendar with our special activities on it, as well as a bi-monthly newsletter with pictures and anecdotes from the room. If there is something complicated or unusual, I will always call parents at the end of the day to touch base or discuss, and parents know they are welcome to do the same whenever they need to. A couple of my students, who have a little bit of verbal ability, do their own “daily activity log” that they carry home each night, where they have stamped which activities they did that day, with a little note or detail about each. I encourage the parents to ask their students about their ay at school, using the logs as prompts to encourage communication.
13. How do you collect data to determine if a child has met their IEP Goals?
Each student’s goals are posted in the classroom for staff, as well as in the front of their tracking binder. Each student has their own tracking binder in which activities and tasks get recorded daily by whoever they work with that day, along with information about what kind of prompting was used, and observational notes. I am able to track through the binders student success rates with specific academic learning goals, as well as collect frequency data about requesting, behaviour and other qualitative information. For specific IEP items, I will sometimes run discrete trials of a skill, if it is appropriate for data collection, and use those to inform the meeting of IEP goals.
14. What is a typical day like in your classroom?
Typically, students will enter the room and follow morning routines – unpacking, adding items to a chart and making a choice of preferred activity to settle in. Once everyone has arrived, we do a 10 minute Circle Time, including welcome routines, calendar & weather activities, and songs. The students then move into individual work settings, either one-on-one or 2-on-1 (partially independent) to complete a set number of tasks, and then have a preferred activity. They have outdoor play at least 2X per day, as well as scheduled time in the Snoezelen Room and the Movement Room (a gross-motor play area) They have Play Buddies at least once each day, and at least one period with another teacher (Gym, Music or Art). In the afternoon, they do another individual work block, and we usually have some kind of group work block (usually related to a theme or upcoming event), where students are all working on the same activity with varying levels of support as needed. Throughout the week, we will also include Library, Cooking, Guitar Time (music therapy) and a visit with our therapy dog and his handler. We try to do a neighbourhood walk (either to the park or the grocery store) once a week, as well.
15. What is the most inspirational thing you have ever seen in the classroom?
Inspiration happens in the smallest of things every day in our room! This year alone, I’ve had a student go from “’puter” to “I want computer” to “I want help computer frozen” (spontaneously!) when requesting. My littlest one’s mother was beside herself trying to give him a bath and clip his nails (he hated both those things) and asked for our help. He now sits like an angel to let me clip his nails and we’ve discovered that while he still hates baths, he loves being spritzed with a spray bottle for a weekly (sometimes daily!) “shower”. When I went to visit one of my girls in her IBI program last month, her therapist asked me if I knew any reason why the child might be reading the word “the” – she had pointed it out twice that week spontaneously. Turns out the little reading program we had been working on at school was working beautifully! And the first time our therapy dog came to visit, I snapped a picture of my always-anxious “whirling dervish” lying perfectly still on the carpet beside the dog, staring into his eyes. The fact that my students manage to overcome their own internal struggles to connect and learn every day is inspiring to me.
16. What advice would you give other Teachers about teaching students with a disability?
Don’t underestimate them. Students with disabilities are like all other students – they need to be supported and challenged, and given opportunities to rise to the expectations you set for them. Believe that they are capable, even when the paperwork says they’re not. Teach them the way you would want them to be taught if they were your own child – with caring, compassion and courage.
17. What else would you like Parents and other Teachers to know that we haven’t already asked?
For other teachers: Knowing that we are welcome and included makes a world of difference. Sometimes, especially in a contained program, we’re not always aware of everything going on in other classes. An invitation to watch a music or drama performance, participate in an art activity or join you on a field trip goes a long, long way to modeling inclusion for your students, and for helping mine feel they are a part of the school community.
For parents: I love your children, and I don’t stop thinking about them at 3pm. They are always on my mind. I teach my class because I believe that all kids have a place in our public school system, and that families shouldn’t have to seek out expensive private programs to give their children a caring, challenging education that meets their specific needs, whatever those may be. Special Education should not be a dumping ground, a label or a curse – it should be a place (physical or theoretical) where kids get whatever support they need to be successful. Please know that as a teacher, I’m fighting for that just as hard as you are!