January 23, 2012

The Friendship Track Visual Tool

One of my 5th grade students with Asperger's started the school year with the goal of making friends. I was pleased to see that he had been able to maintain the one friendship he made last year across the summer. This was a huge leap for him. At one of our first Social Thinking groups of the year, he set the goal of trying to expand his network of friends. The glitch for him is that he struggles to see the connection between moments when he shows "unexpected" social behaviors and the reactions of other students. As fabulous as Michelle Garcia Winner & Stephanie Madrigal's Superflex (c) curriculum is, he had outgrown it. I had to figure out a new way to help him see the connection. And so, the Friendship Track was born...

I found a simple Google image of a train track with switches that split off to multiple tracks. I added a yellow arrow (his favorite color) for the straight track. He and I defined the types of behaviors that other kids would feel were friendly and respectful.

Next, we defined behaviors that would cause other kids to not want to hang out with him (picking his nose, being bossy, turning his body away from the group when others were speaking to him, etc.)  and labeled it the orange track.

Finally, we defined behaviors that caused other kids to completely avoid him or be fearful of him (physical or verbal aggression, physically out of control behaviors, etc.). These were labeled the red track, which split off dramatically and headed off the cliff.

Through our conversation, I explained that when he used expected behaviors he was traveling down that straight path that created friendly thoughts and feelings in others. The yellow track was the shortest and fastest path to travel to the goal he had set of making friends. However, sometimes he engaged in behaviors that either annoyed his classmates -- like making noises in class or bossing them around.  Those behaviors would switch him onto the orange track. It was still possible to make his way back onto the yellow friendship track, but it would take some effort and a little time to change those feelings and thoughts in others. Finally, we focused on the effect of "big" behaviors like being verbally or physically aggressive or refusing to follow directions. When he engaged in those behaviors he sent himself onto the red track. It was still possible to eventually work his way back to the yellow track, but the visual of heading off the cliff made it very clear that it would take considerable time and effort to change the thoughts and feelings of others when he engaged in behaviors that alienated or scared his classmates.

I laminated a visual to remind the student of what kind of behaviors are seen on the different tracks and attached it to his binder. This semester I had him begin to rate himself after each class period regarding what track he traveled in his interactions with peers and teachers. He logs the information in his data collection system daily which goes home to his parents. This has helped him become more accountable for improving his relationships with others.
I've been pleased to see that this visual has been a powerful tool to help this student make the connection between his behavior and the effect it has on his social success. I also created mini train tracks as visuals for my Teaching Assistant and I to keep on our lanyards. We are able to quickly and subtly cue the student when he begins to engage in unexpected behavior. The visual helps him remember to "stay on track".
                           I hope you find this to be helpful  ~ Kelley

January 19, 2012

"Keep Your Brain in the Group"

It's January 19 and it's technically Winter. . .but as I write this, I am sitting on my back deck in sunny 70 degree weather while my two young boys dig in the dirt. One of the benefits of being a South Texas girl!

So, anyway.  . .After reading Kelley's post about "Whole Body Listening", I immediately thought of the next concept that we are CONSTATNLY trying to teach our students in new and meaningful ways. . ."Keep Your BRAIN In the Group".  Getting the other body parts to help you listen is a fairly concrete task:  body is still, mouth is closed/quiet, ears are listening (that one is automatic in most cases, right?). . .but the concept of "brain" in the group is one of the trickiest ones that I can get my students to understand, it is just such an abstract concept.  This, too, is an extention of the WBL concepts described in Michelle Garcia Winner's work, and this particular piece is found in her book called Think Social.

This curriculum is defintely our GO TOs for concepts and ideas, I would call it a part of our backbone!

During the days I spent with my previous co-teach partner (and wonderful special education teacher), Angela Cardenas, this visual was developed (originally it was hand-drawn stick figures and thought bubble, I only recently found an image to match it). . . .

This concept is one that is used constantly in my co-taught groups AND most of my other language therapy groups.  The concept of "topic maintenance" is not one that is reserved for any particular group of students, rather it is just a small part of the whole pragmatic communication skillset.  Now, we have expanded topic maintenance to include not only "speaking" on topic but also "thinking" on topic.  Also, I quickly learned that many of my students with language disorders had other needs, and difficulty maintaining attention is one the most common so I needed a quick reference to keep those kids in check!  When teaching this concept, I talk to the students help them to "think about what the speaker is saying" (create a picture in their mind) and "think about their own ideas and/or experiences that are similar to what the speaker is saying" (make connections using schema). 

As we continued to teach this concept, we could not ignore the fact that many brains were often "out" of the group, that was when the "brain check" was born!

When it seems that the group is moving in various indivdual directions (rather than in one group direction) we can stop and say "Brain Check!" and fill in each person's thought bubble.  If we find that someone's thoughts are "off topic", then we can quickly help get them back in the group.  Sometimes, all it takes is a "brain check" moment, and we are all back to thinking and speaking on topic.

I have also created this nifty handout to describe some ways to use these visual tools (some of which are described here), print this and add it to your toolbox if you wish!

Of course, it is just as easy to create these visuals "on the fly" by scribbling it out on a white board or blank piece of paper. . .We still do this, too!  But I also like to keep these posted in my therapy room and start my sessions by getting everyone's brain "IN" the group.


January 17, 2012

Whole Body Listening

I began brainstorming the list of topics that I'd like to blog about and the one that kept smacking me upside the head is that without Whole Body Listening we've got nuthin'!

I'm sure I'm not the only one who has had the experience of working with a small group (or even an individual student!) and struggling to keep a lesson from being hijacked by near constant blurting, wiggling, and off topic commentary. Sometimes getting through a thirty minute lesson can be as exhausting as a full workout! Too bad it doesn't burn as many calories...

The concept that saves my sanity on many-a-day is Whole Body Listening. No, this is not a new concept, but it is definitely one of the most valuable in my toolbox. This concept was originally published in Language, Speech, and Hearing Services in Schools by Susanne P. Truesdale. I use WBL in different ways depending on the age, maturity, and location of the student. 

In my classroom, I have a visual on the wall to remind students of what is expected when in group.

Sadly, I have no clue whom to credit for this visual. My cooperating teacher shared it with me when I was a student teacher. If you have knowledge of the original source, please tell me in the comments!

My Teaching Assistant and I use the same visual (copied, reduced, and laminated) on our lanyards to cue students within the inclusion classroom to use Whole Body Listening in all school settings. 

Another super cute Whole Body Listening visual for younger students is offered free by first grade teacher, Erica Bohrer from http://www.ericabohrer.blogspot.com. Check her out!

I also regularly use what we call Whole Body Listening Helpers in Social Thinking groups and academic resource groups. This idea was originally based on a technique described in Michelle Garcia Winner's Thinking About You, Thinking About Me. She described using small play-doh balls to represent each group member and "pinching" off a small piece of play-doh when the student's brain or body left the group. I originally tried this, but my students didn't really seem to care whether their play-doh was pinched. I had to up the ante. Hmm....what would they not want to lose? Oh, yeah! Legos! Legos are HIGH value in my world. I tried placing a Lego mini-figure on an index card. The rule was once the mini-figure was on the card then the kids couldn't touch it. As long as they kept their brain and body in the group then the mini-figure stayed. If their brain or body left the group, then I would take the figure off the card. The response was immediate and dramatic! They worked so much harder to stay focused in group and when their Lego guy left the group, they noticed immediately and corrected their behavior. Finally! A visual representation that was meaningful and effective!  

We've since branched out for some of the younger students who are more interested in animals. In the 1st/2nd grade Social Thinking group that Orlanda and I co-teach, we started feeling like we were getting whiplash from taking the WBL helpers off and putting them back on over and over again. We brainstormed again and decided to limit the amount of times the kids could lose their helpers and still be able to get a sticker on their chart at the end of group. Knowing how intensely distracted this particular group can be, we decided that they could have three chances per thirty minute group before they lost their opportunity to earn a sticker. We added three boxes to their index cards and put three animal WBL helpers in the boxes. When they lost a helper, it did not return. If they had at least 1 helper left at the end of group, they could put a sticker on their chart. If they managed to keep all three helpers, then they would earn double stickers. Whoa, buddy! That got their attention! Since putting this in place, we've seen a great increase in on-task behavior during group.

Finally, a couple of good books to use when teaching Whole Body Listening.

I love that several primary teachers at my school have invited me in to teach Whole Body Listening to their entire class. It makes me chuckle when I hear the teachers encourage their students to "Be a Larry!"

So, here's to all the Larry's in our lives! Please share with us how you use Whole Body Listening in your classrooms or treatment groups. We want to hear from you!


Truesdale, S. (1990). Whole-Body Listening: Developing Active Auditory Skills. Language, Speech, and Hearning Services in Schools, 21, 183-184.

January 16, 2012

Top Ten Reasons for the SLP to consider "Co-Teaching"

As a school-based SLP, the idea of "co-teaching" can take on many faces.  With this "top ten" list, I want to focus on the collaborative teaching method that I have embraced with several special education teachers in the last several years.  I am currently in my 10th year as a school-based SLP, and I have incorporated some form of collaborative teaching into my weekly therapy schedule the entire time.  In the beginning, I focused on going "in" to the early childhood intervention classrooms.  This seemed like the perfect place to start since almost every student in that class had some form of communication disorder that required speech therapy.  About 3 or 4 years later, a service was developed in our district that focused on providing specific, research/evidenced based interventions for students with Autism Spectrum Disorders.  It was at this point that I was able to take my co-teaching into another realm.  Since then, I have also become more equipped to provide speech therapy through an inclusion model in the general education classroom (but I'll save that list for another day.)
So, I suspect that many school-based SLPs must be shaking your heads at me right now, and wondering "how on earth could I fit in ONE more thing?!"  I also know that school-based SLPs constantly struggle to maintain high caseloads and multiple campuses (not to mention a large scope of practice.)  All I ask is that you take a minute to CONSIDER this list, you just might thank me for it later! 

10.  Sharing Materials--Let's keep it real here, I work in public education, budgets are tight, need I say more?

9. Sharing & Expanding Ideas--I can't say enough about how AMAZING it is to sit in a planning session with my co-teacher (Kelley) while we bounce lesson ideas off of each other.  Because we come from two very different perspectives on the students (mine: communication-based, hers: behavioral-based), the end result is usually something that neither one of us knew we had in us.  Also, I have to admit, after planning therapy for the other 90% of my caseload, my brain is often low on fuel!  I look forward to my planning sessions to get me on track and keep the creativity flowing.

8. Technology Access--Going back to the "budget" issue, I have almost always found that my teachers have access to many more technology tools than myself.  I think I do a pretty good job of making good use of what is available to me. . .but, WOW, what a whole different world it is when you can gain (and maintain) the attention of the entire "social thinking group" just by projecting our visual tools on a Big Screen.  School-based SLPs often joke about working in a "broom closet", and if this is true for you, consider a co-teach model for therapy with a partner on your campus, you just might see the light of day on occasion!

7. Two Brains each with Different "Smarts"--Ever hear the phrase "two heads are better than one"?  Well, if that doesn't say it all, consider this:  I am a speech/language pathologist and my focus is on communication (from every angle).  My co-teach partner is a special education teacher who specializes in working with students with Autism Spectrum Disorders (among other things).  Each of us have been through very different types of specialized training and each with a slightly different focus.  The students that we work with often have a culmination of needs that are intertwined and that can rarely be pinpointed in isolation.  By inter-weaving our areas of specialty in the way we set up and carry out our lessons, it allows us to focus on the "whole" child, and this often eases our ability to generalize their skills into the classroom setting and beyond.

6. Collaborative Goal Setting--We have found this to be crucial in our co-teaching.  By collaborating on our goals, we are able to make sure we address every aspect of the child's needs.  Also, with the students we share, I rarely have the need to develop "separate" speech therapy goals because our focus is on social/behavior skills, part of which involves communication.  And that leads us to reason number 5. . .

This feels so TRUE some days!

5. The "division of labor"-- The "labor" in any group therapy session is multifaceted: it involves carrying out the lesson or activity using a specific intervention strategy, scaffolding appropriately for each individual child's needs, completing ongoing assessments of their skill level (a.k.a. data collection), and planning the next session according to their responses.  Using co-teach, my partner and I are able to divide these responsibilities by taking turns with each aspect weekly.  Since we have set aside a weekly planning session (we do this during a 30 minute lunch once per week), we make sure that we are on the same page with the goals and activities for each session and each student.  During the group, while one of us is teaching, the other one is taking data.  In many cases, although the "lead" takes on the responsibility of scaffolding, the other one is quickly on hand with an added visual tool, nonverbal cue, or verbal cue if the session is taking a "turn in the wrong direction". With this set up, we both feel that we are able to take data more effectively and plan more effectively for our desired outcomes.  Oh, and let's not leave out those "rough days" when I'm running low on fuel and can't seem to muster the energy for leading another group session. . .but you'll have to keep reading for more on this. . .   

4. A Cure for Scheduling Woes--I know, the word "scheduling" is that word that makes almost every school-based SLP and special education teacher cringe.  I am no stranger to that feeling (even 10 years later!) This can be particularly challenging when we have students who have A LOT of IEP time spent outside of their classrooms.  I have found that "making" and "sticking" to a shared schedule for these students eases the stress of the special education teacher, the classroom teacher (who really wants to see their student as much as possible), and myself; and ultimately it helps us maintain the Least Restrictive Environment. Scheduling, in general, is a constant challenge and it requires many "heads" to make it work like a well-oiled machine, but that is a topic for a different day. . .

3. Frequent feedback sessions--Aside from our scheduled planning sessions, just being in the same room together on a frequent and consistent basis allows us to be in constant collaboration with each other.  Since my responsibilities as an SLP require me to be all around the school and on a schedule to see students in 15-45 mintue increments back-to-back on a daily basis, with no built in restroom breaks, and only a 15-20 minute "working" lunch break (occasionally), and days when I need to travel to another school; having our co-teach sessions scheduled weekly allows me to "catch up" and stay "in the know" on each student.  Also, the special education teacher often sees these students on a daily basis in some shape or form, and is the case manager for the student, so this allows me to have a consistent picture of the "whole child" (which we all know ultimately impacts how they are progressing in the therapy environment).

2. Access to "The Generator"--Okay, so in reason number 5, I mentioned those "rough days". . .I'm pretty sure I am not the ONLY one who has them. . .Anyway, sometimes there are days when I walk into the room knowing that its my day to lead the session, but somewhere along the way my motor has stalled out or I have lost power in my brain, I am able to give her a look and she knows to take over.  AND, since we planned the session together, she is ready to go! Oh, and let's not forget those days when I walk in to our group session ready for Kelley to lead the group, and I quickly learn that either A. she is out of the room dealing with an "incident" with another student or B. she has just dealt with a particularly trying incident with another student.  In either case, all she has to do is give me the same "look" and, voila! . . .the machine keeps running, thanks to the "generator".

And last, but not at all least. . .

1. Perspective. . .Pass it On--Aren't most challenges in life really just a matter of "perspective"? Being a part of this "dynamic duo" helps us keep each other "in check" on the reality of any given situation.  Whether it's a particular challenge with a student who is struggling to meet their goals or a parent that needs our extra attention, sometimes just having a partner with different eyes on the same situation offers a different outlook on the situation. And this kind of perspective is even more important to help us see the LIGHT in some situations!  For some reason, human nature holds our attention on the "challenge" or "what needs fixing", but having a co-teacher to communicate with helps keep everything in perspective.

Well, I hope that you find this list helpful when considering the idea of adopting a "collaborative teaching" model for your speech therapy sessions.  I know that there are many other aspects to finding a co-teaching partner to work with (yet another list for another day), but I hope that I have been able to take away some of the "fear" that might be keeping you from traveling down this path!


January 15, 2012

Welcome to our blog!

We are excited to collaborate on yet another adventure together! Let us start by introducing ourselves a little and let you (our readers) know why we have put together this blog. We have known each other professionally for the last four years, and in August 2010, our paths crossed again and we were given the opportunity to work side by side. As a special education teacher and a speech/language pathologist, we found ourselves working closely together on many student cases, so we took this chance to increase our Brain Power by treating our students using a collaborative teaching method. This was the beginning of our adventures together as "The Dynamic Duo"!

During our last year and half together we have had many planning sessions and conversations about ideas we have used.  Suddenly, the number of tools in our toolbox doubled and has continued to grow with the help of many other innovative individuals. We also have found that from this, we have had to "tweak" some ideas or have developed some of our own new tools and methods, and now, we want to give something back. So, this blog was born!

Our goal is to offer our readers some ideas and tools for working with a variety of students with various special needs, and we also hope go continue gathering ideas from you to share as well. With the growing needs of our students, we have embraced the idea of being life long learners so that we can continue to offer our students the best outcomes.

Join us on our adventure of discovering new strategies, tools, and techniques that are effective with these fascinating young people we work with daily. We look forward to sharing what we are learning in our own practice and learning from your ideas as well.

~Kelley & Orlanda