Fostering New Interests and Nurturing Old Passions in Your Child with ASD

By Elizabeth Reeve, coauthor of The Survival Guide for Kids with Autism Spectrum Disorders (And Their Parents)

Fostering New Interests and Nurturing Old Passions in Your Child with ASDRaising a healthy child with a wide range of interests and the curiosity to learn new things is a challenge for all parents and caregivers. Children with an autism spectrum disorder (ASD) pose special problems for even the most energetic and creative parents. Children with ASD often have behaviors or characteristics that get in the way of successfully participating in or exploring new activities. For example, sensory issues may prevent activities that occur in places with loud noises or certain smells. Changes in routines may result in meltdowns or resistance that can be hard to manage for both parent and child.

Despite these difficulties, it is important to expand the world for our ASD children and give them opportunities to safely explore, experience, and, hopefully, enjoy a wide range of activities. Below are some tips to help you get started!

Use Obsessions as Rewards
If your ASD child has a specific interest or obsession (rock collecting, collector cards), use the obsession to reward attempts at other new or more difficult activities. You might consider making a chart of time spent in alternative activities that allows your child to earn time with a favorite obsession. For example, one hour spent at swimming lessons earns an equal amount of time spent with collector cards.

Limit Using Screen Time as an Incentive
While screen time can be a powerful motivator, consider limiting screen time as an incentive. Online games are very addictive for all children, and for children with ASD, the allure of the screen can be very powerful. Things can quickly escalate and get out of hand if children are constantly preoccupied with getting more screen time by doing other activities. Often, worries develop about whether they will be able to succeed in getting enough screen time each day. Instead of using screens as a reward, make a daily schedule that allows for specific times for children to choose activities, including the option for screen time. Keep that time set for the same amount each day to avoid screen time getting out of hand.

It Is Okay to Use Passions to Relax, Transition, and Decompress
If your child has a hobby, collection, or strong interest, it’s okay to use that passion as a distractor at stressful times. Coming home from school is a good time to let kids with ASD indulge in a favorite activity. Allow them time to sort through their card collections, watch (and rewatch) their favorite video, or do their favorite stimming activity. This allows a gentle way to move from the structure of school back to home. Of course, stopping this preferred activity may be difficult, so countdown timers and frequent reminders that time will soon be up may be needed.

Use One Skill to Advance Another
You may be tired of hearing the same lines of the same video over and over again, but there are ways to use that interest/obsession to teach a new skill. You could write out a favorite phrase or sentence from the video and use it to teach letters or sounds. A treasured picture can be reproduced and cut into pieces to make a puzzle for kids to reassemble. A preoccupation with maps is easily expanded into a geography lesson. Be creative!

Practice Change
In order for children to enjoy new activities, they need to be able to tolerate change and transitions, and this takes practice. Set aside time to purposely practice making changes. Only practice this when both you and your child have the energy to deal with the potential problems if things do not go as expected. For example, Monday morning on the way to work is not the time to get out the new lunch box for school. Instead, pack a picnic on the weekend and fill the lunch box with a special treat in order to help your child become more familiar with the new lunch box. Let the old lunch box take on a new purpose, perhaps as a container for a favorite toy. Practicing small changes in a thoughtful manner will make bigger changes more tolerable.

Expand a Passion
We all want our children to enjoy extracurricular activities at school or community events. Choose new activities by expanding on interests that children already enjoy. A passion for Legos at home is easily broadened by joining the Lego League at school. Your car enthusiast child may be able to volunteer at a local car club or be taken under the wing of a community member who enjoys restoring old vehicles. Do not be afraid to seek out organizations related to your child’s interest, and ask if they may be able to include your child in some meaningful way. Most communities are teeming with adults who have a passion they are willing to share. The local herpetology society would probably love to have your lizard-loving son or daughter attend a monthly meeting.

What About Sports?
If you have a busy child interested in physical activities, choose wisely when considering a team sport. Sports that depend on your child’s performance for the whole team’s success might be stressful for you and your child. The loud noise, sensory issues, and unpredictable physical contact of some sports may be overwhelming. Team sports such as soccer, hockey, baseball, or basketball may not be the best choices. Instead, look for activities that allow children to advance at their own speed while still belonging to a team. Consider skiing, tennis, track, or swimming as possible options. Your child will be able to interact with other team members without worrying that his or her individual performance will impact the outcome for everyone else.

What Else Should I Know?
Other roadblocks to your child’s success may exist. Make sure you communicate openly with coaches, teachers, or anyone involved in your child’s activities about special needs or concerns. Find out ahead of time if a helper or assistant is able to attend an event or a class with your child. Make sure you understand financial obligations before signing up for a class or team activity. Always start new events with a backup plan; in the event that things do not go as expected, you can leave or end the activity without difficulty.

Final Thoughts
As you work through the struggles with your child’s first day in karate or art class, just remember . . . we all struggle sometimes, too.

Elizabeth Reeve, M.D.Elizabeth Reeve, is a child psychiatrist in Minnesota, and her clinical work focuses primarily on children and adults with developmental disabilities. In addition to her research and patient care, Elizabeth is involved in teaching, speaks in the community to educate others in the field of developmental disabilities, and helps young adults with ASD transition into college and the workforce.

Survival Guide Kids with ASDsElizabeth Reeve is coauthor of The Survival Guide for Kids with Autism Spectrum Disorders (And Their Parents)


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3 Things Gifted Students Wish Their Teachers Knew

By Deb Douglas, author of The Power of Self-Advocacy for Gifted Learners: Teaching the 4 Essential Steps to Success

3 Things Gifted Students Wish Their Teachers KnewThis summer, I had the great joy of working with 40 gifted teens at S.O.A.R. (Summer Opportunity with Advanced Rigor) camp in the Wisconsin north woods. After getting to know one another a bit, I posed this question: “What bugs you most about being gifted?” There was dead silence. I waited for a minute or two, but no one wanted to say a word. “Is that a difficult question?” I asked. Again, no one responded.

Finally, one brave soul spoke up, “I think we’re just supposed to be glad we’re smart and not complain at all.” Turns out that’s the implicit (and sometimes explicit) message many gifted kids get from their teachers.

So we talked for a bit about why school might be frustrating for kids like them—students who already know much of what is being taught or who catch on quickly to new concepts. When assured that they had a right to feel exasperated at times, they were ready to share. And once the floodgates opened, their concerns came pouring out.

The following three statements summarize gifted teens’ frustrations, and each one is followed by real student complaints and suggestions that may help us minimize the frustration.

1. Schoolwork is usually too easy or too boring.

  • “I loved my math teacher last year, but when I finished my assignments early, she gave me more problems to solve. They weren’t really tougher problems, just more of the same, and that was boring.” —Antonio, grade 6
  • “What bugs me most is round-robin reading. It seems to go on and on and on because we have to wait for slow readers to struggle with their paragraphs. And then, because I can’t wait and usually read ahead, when it’s my turn, I have no idea what page we’re on and I get in trouble.” —Benay, grade 8
  • “I have a science lab set up in our basement, where I’ve been doing experiments since I was six. I couldn’t wait for science class in fifth grade. Turns out we just did step-by-step labs to understand the scientific process. I already knew it! Wish I could have done ‘real’ science.” —Colten, grade 6

What we can do:

  • Encourage students to speak with us privately when things are too easy or too difficult.
  • As soon as possible, get to know our students’ individual learner profiles (strengths, struggles, and preferences).
  • Create assignments that require higher-level thinking from all students.
  • Pretest and use curriculum compacting to allow students to move beyond work they have already mastered.
  • Offer different work (more complex, more abstract, deeper, wider) to students who finish regular assignments quickly and/or easily.
  • Provide easy access to supplemental materials that extend the curriculum.

2. Peers can be a problem.

  • “I know that other kids think I’m weird. Sometimes they call me nerd or brainiac. If I get really excited about something we’re learning, I see them smirking at each other. And if I get less than a perfect score on a test, they tease me. I just want to be myself, but I don’t fit in.” —Anna, grade 7
  • “My teacher asks me to teach other kids all the time. But I’m not a good teacher because it’s hard for me to explain what I know in simpler terms. That means the kid who doesn’t get it still doesn’t get it. Ms. Wilson says that you retain 90 percent of what you learn when you teach someone else, but I’ve already retained 100 percent of what she wants me to teach. I’d like to learn something new.” —Bui, grade 8
  • “I hate group work. The other kids expect me to do all the work or ask me for help when I’m trying to get my part of the project done. And if I don’t do the major part of it, we wind up with a mediocre project that gets a mediocre grade and they blame me. Sometimes I’d like to work with a whole group of kids who like to learn, work hard, and inspire each other.” —Carlos, grade 9

What we can do:

  • Encourage students to speak with us privately when they have concerns about their peer relationships.
  • Model and teach social skills in relating well to one another.
  • Allow neither elitist attitudes nor anti-gifted discrimination.
  • Assure students that discussion responses from divergent thinkers are valued, even when they appear off-target at first.
  • Use flexible grouping, including grouping by interest, ability, self-choice, or gender.
  • Monitor groups to ensure that every member contributes equally.

3. It’s hard to live up to everyone’s expectations, including my own.

  • “I was accelerated into calculus this year. There are some concepts that I’m really struggling to understand, but I don’t dare ask my teacher because he thinks I’m a math genius and should be able to figure things out for myself.” —Andreas, grade 9
  • “I think I may quit cross-country. I love running, but meets and daily practices take time away from studying and my parents will go crazy if I ever get anything lower than a 4.0.” —Britta, grade 8
  • “I’m struggling to finish my history project. My mom says it’s already good enough, but I know it could be even better. I was awake last night thinking of what else I want to add. Today I’m rewriting it (for the third time). I’ll probably have to turn it in late.” —Henry, grade 9

What we can do:

  • Encourage students to speak with us privately when they feel undue pressure to achieve.
  • Recognize that even gifted students need support when tackling new concepts.
  • De-emphasize grades and other extrinsic rewards.
  • Help students (and parents) value learning for its own sake.
  • Encourage intellectual and academic risk-taking.
  • Aid perfectionists in establishing realistic goals and priorities.

Partners in Progress
The best way to minimize gifted students’ frustration in our classrooms is to encourage them to partner with us in creating an environment that supports their needs. It’s not always quick or easy for us to recognize their needs, especially if we are secondary teachers with over a hundred students we see for only an hour a day. That’s why it’s crucial to lead gifted teens in reflecting on themselves as learners and then to give them voice and choice. It’s one of the first steps in encouraging their self-advocacy, a skill that will benefit them for the rest of their lives.

Deb Douglas Deb Douglas consults and advocates for gifted students, specializing in workshops that help students take charge of their educations. She is a frequent presenter at state and national conferences, and her original research on empowering gifted students to self-advocate has been published in The Roeper Review and Parenting for High Potential. Previously, she was the gifted education coordinator for the Manitowoc Public School District and president of the Wisconsin Association for Talented and Gifted. She lives in Madison, Wisconsin.
Follow Deb on Twitter: @debdouglas52

Power of Self-Advocacy for Gifted LearnersDeb Douglas is the author of The Power of Self-Advocacy for Gifted Learners: Teaching the 4 Essential Steps to Success


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Classroom Activities for Dealing with Everyday Feelings

By Liz Bergren

Classroom Activities for Dealing with Everyday FeelingsSocial-emotional learning (SEL) is becoming more and more necessary in mainstream curriculum. Not only is SEL valuable in its own right, it also can positively affect learning and achievement. According to an Education Week story about the “State of America’s Schools” report from Gallup, “School leaders should not neglect the social and emotional factors that help students thrive, and they should empower teachers so that they are more engaged and effective in the classroom. The right leadership and the engagement of teachers and students are all one very important ecosystem.”

The big concern, as we know, is that between classrooms overflowing with children and the pressure to meet state standards, little to no time is left for SEL. But there are times during the early childhood or elementary school day when SEL can take place without having to create full lesson plans or units. SEL can become an organic part of the day, not just something that gets squeezed in. SEL helps kids understand and handle their feelings, and it can lead to greater academic engagement.

Here are a few ideas.

1. Greeting Circle Activity
Many elementary classrooms start the day with circle time or a morning meeting. This is a perfect space and time to fit in something that increases engagement and connection among peers. The Greeting Circle is a quick exercise that promotes appropriate greeting, eye contact, friendly exchange, and relationship building. Organize students into an inside circle and an outside circle, facing each other. Starting with a greeting gesture that is comfortable for students, such as a handshake, high five, or fist bump, have them look their peers in the eye and greet them. Then have them talk for 15 to 30 seconds, depending on the age of your students (this activity may not be appropriate for kindergarten or first-grade students), about a topic of your choice. Some good examples for early in the school year might be, “What was the most fun thing you did over the summer?” “What are you most looking forward to in __ grade?” Have the inner circle rotate to the next person after the 15 to 30 seconds and repeat the discussions until everyone has had a chance to greet one another.

2. Read About Emotions
If a morning meeting or circle time is used for reading, share a story about everyday feelings to fit in SEL. A good idea might be to pick one emotion and read about it throughout the week. An appropriate emotion to discuss for the beginning of the school year might be worry because of the natural worries that may accompany starting with a new teacher, new classmates, and so on. A good resource is Feeling Worried! by Kay Barnham, in which the main character, Ava, continually gives advice and tips for how to help her friends with their worries—then seems to forget all the advice she gave when she deals with her own worry. This book uses relatable scenarios you can discuss with your students. Wemberly Worried by Kevin Henkes is another good book on the topic.

Both of these books can lead to a structured discussion or lesson. One way to build connection among peers and generate discussion is to have students share with the group their own common worries. At times, children can feel ashamed of what makes them worry; sharing common worries might help eliminate the “What’s wrong with me?” feeling.

3. Discuss and Collect Coping Strategies
Coping with difficult emotions is a skill that must be learned, modeled, taught, and practiced. When working with a storybook on feeling worried, for example, take the opportunity to discuss the coping strategies used or offered by a character in the book. When Ava offers advice to her peers in Feeling Worried!, this can be a good time to discuss what it means to cope with worry. After reading the book, it would be wise to use its language so students understand that while some emotions are difficult, they can be eased using certain strategies. In pairs or groups, students could brainstorm how they personally have eased their own worries. Students can collect their and other’s ideas in a “coping bank.” Create one using craft materials or using a worksheet with a vault or bank image.

4. Teach Calming Exercises
Managing anger requires self-control, which is very difficult for some children. During bouts of anger, our brains are physiologically wired differently, making logical and reasonable thought almost impossible. Teaching calming exercises and strategies when students are calm will be advantageous later when students find themselves in fits of anger for one reason or another. As with worry, many books and resources on the topic of anger are available for read-aloud moments. Angry Octopus: A Relaxation Story by Lori Lite, which introduces progressive muscle relaxation and deep breathing, is a good book for elementary students. Feeling Angry! by Katie Douglass is another great read-aloud book for addressing anger.

It’s also helpful to discuss the physical sensations of anger with children to help them understand anger’s impact on our bodies. Turning to strategies for coping with angry feelings is a good next step. Consider using a bulletin board or other open space in your classroom to make a mind map of anger coping strategies in order to provide a visual representation of self-regulation in the classroom and in life.

Emotional regulation is a crucial life skill that is not often taught in the home, especially if the adults in the child’s life struggle with their own emotional regulation. School is a perfect space to work it in, and it can fit into many areas of the school day through teachable moments or intentional time devoted to SEL. An empathic, positive, healthy classroom climate is often the end result of SEL and intentional relationship building among peers.

Liz BergrenLiz Bergren is Free Spirit’s education resource specialist. She is a former teacher with 15 years of classroom experience. In addition to being a teacher, she spent five years working for Park Nicollet’s Melrose Institute where she counseled and taught classes to patients who struggled with eating disorders. She has a B.A. in health and secondary education from the University of St. Thomas and an M.Ed. in family education from the University of Minnesota.


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Getting Along: How to Foster the Student-Teacher Relationship

By Allison Wedell Schumacher

Getting Along: How to Foster the Student-Teacher RelationshipEarly in my college career, I met a woman named Kristine. I’m not going to lie: She really didn’t appeal to me. But we had several classes together and seemed to travel in similar social circles, so I saw a lot of her. And what do you know: She grew on me. We became roommates. We were in each other’s weddings. Our children play together. I now can’t imagine life without her.

My relationship with Kristine taught me an important life lesson: We don’t always like everyone right away. Nor should we feel as if we have to. But with a little effort and an open mind, we can usually get along with the people we interact with every day. And at back-to-school time, that may be a lesson our children need to learn—especially about their teachers.

Of course you want your child to love his teacher—and both conventional wisdom and scientific studies tell us that kids who like their teachers tend to do better in school. But the student-teacher relationship doesn’t always get off to a smooth start.

So what do you do if your child doesn’t seem thrilled with the adult she spends the most time with besides you? I thought perhaps a teacher might have some good advice, so I talked with Janie Cantwell, an elementary school teacher with Seattle Public Schools.

Ms. Janie, as her students call her, has been teaching since 1988. Most recently, she was a K–5 resource room teacher, so she had students from all kinds of different classrooms. But to foster a bond with her students, Ms. Janie does what most teachers strive to do: create continuity. “My main focus is on incorporating the language, vocabulary, and routines that all classroom teachers in the building are using into my class structure, she says.” She also works hard to get to know her students, and they her. For example, everyone—even Ms. Janie—fills out an “All About Me” poster and presents it (or asks an adult to present it) to the rest of the class.

But despite these and other methods, Ms. Janie does have the occasional student whom she doesn’t hit it off with right away. “Most often, that trouble stems from either personality (since I’m an extrovert) or classroom structure,” she says. “I tend to start off with only two rules. We, as a class, build the rest together.” But rarely does the conflict last long.

If the struggle continues, however, Ms. Janie talks to the student’s family, again creating continuity. She finds that if she asks about the rules and customs in the home, that may help her and the student foster their relationship. “It doesn’t take very long for that to work itself out.”

Ms. Janie’s number one piece of advice for parents whose students aren’t getting along with their teachers is this: “Remind them that relationships take time, personal integrity, and commitment to develop.” The great thing about that reminder is that it applies to pretty much all of our relationships, not just the student-teacher ones.

She also encourages parents to “be themselves first” and try to see the situation objectively. Ms. Janie does the same, and she tries to let parents know which perspective she’s coming from at any given time: “I’ll say to them, ‘I’m talking from the lens of a parent, and I want you to know . . .’”

And if your child is struggling with his relationship with his teacher and the teacher hasn’t reached out to you, feel free to make the first move. Continuity works both ways, and Ms. Janie welcomes communication from parents seeking to establish a better home-to-school relationship.

As for pitfalls to avoid, Ms. Janie says one of the easiest traps to fall into is comparing one teacher to another. Remind your child that this year’s teacher is different from last year’s teacher, but highlight the new teacher’s strengths: “No, Mr. Greg doesn’t play the guitar like Ms. Dyanni, but I hear he does really great crafts in his classroom! Let’s remember to ask him about that on the first day of school.”

Ultimately, it’s open communication that will win the day. “I let the students and parents see me both in my strength and when I make a mistake, by naming it,” explains Ms. Janie. “I let them see my process of learning how to grow and change with it. Showing up as a lifelong learner is the best way I know to model how to be a learner, which is what I am teaching.”

Allison Wedell SchumacherAllison Wedell Schumacher is a freelance writer, editor, and mom whose diverse work focuses on child abuse prevention, bullying prevention, social-emotional learning, fitness, and theater/acting. She is the author of Shaking Hands with Shakespeare: A Teenager’s Guide to Reading and Performing the Bard (Simon & Schuster, 2004), and her work has been featured here and at babycenter.com, MomsRising.org, and Committee for Children. You can find her on LinkedIn.


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Enter to win Tessie Tames Her Tongue!

Tessie Tames Her Tongue GiveawayWe’re giving away copies of Tessie Tames Her Tongue to five lucky readers! Tessie’s constant talking gets her into trouble at home and school . . . until her counselor helps her learn to tame her tongue and listen as much as she talks.

To Enter: Leave a comment below describing how you help kids learn to listen.

For additional entries, leave a separate comment below for each of the following tasks that you complete:

Each comment counts as a separate entry—that’s four chances to win! Entries must be received by midnight, September 22, 2017.

Each winner will be contacted via email on or around September 25, 2017, and will need to respond within 72 hours to claim his or her prize or another winner will be chosen. This giveaway is in no way affiliated with, administered, or endorsed by Facebook, Twitter, or Pinterest. Winners must be U.S. residents, 18 years of age or older.


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