Saturday, October 15, 2016

Helping learners learn how they learn...or how I am turning my classroom into a sensory OT experiment

Many elementary teachers know that some kids truly need supports to learn.  These supports are frequently written into IEPs and 504 plans.  Many parents and OTs are the ones who get these supports written in, and good teachers incorporate the fidgets, lap weights, earphones, etc. into their classroom without a blink.  Other teachers can't get over the idea that "fair is not equal."

I'm not here to judge.

I am here to say that in every english - speaking classroom that I have taught in, there has been a huge sign saying "Fair is not equal."  I taught a series of lessons around this idea: that if Johnny needs (glasses, crutches, a cast on his arm), than it would be silly if everyone in the class also needed that support for it to be fair.  Or...more to the point, if Jane is allergic to chocolate, than to keep things fair, no one should be allowed to eat chocolate.

That's usually the point where kids nod and agree with me: how ridiculous.  Fair is not the same as equal.  They get it pretty quickly, especially once it's normalized.

Now, I can't do everything for everyone but I can do my best.  I can do my best to differentiate, to personalize, to make learning relevant and interesting, and to help kids learn what they need in order to learn.

You see, secretly I have had a lot of experience and training with behavior plans,  observations and tracking of behavior, identifying and data-keeping for IEPs and 504s, and that sort of thing.  I have been incredibly fortunate to work with amazing school psychologists and occupational therapists who have supported, mentored, and guided me as I tried to make my classroom equitable as well as a place for learning.  Those skills are not ones I have had to draw on too much since I moved to my current school.  Truly, I get to focus more on teaching and building relationships with kids, and less on behavior and/or meeting kids' basic needs.

I currently teach in a middle/high income independent (private, not parochial) school.  We do not have IEPs or 504s.  Some students have as many learning needs as in any of my public school classrooms, but our school doesn't have a strong culture, especially in the middle school, of trying to help kids meet those needs with more unusual accommodations.  That's not a criticism.  It just is.  Independent schools work differently.  We work as a staff to meet individual needs in different ways and we do have a culture of making traditional accommodations and modifications.  Both approaches are valid.
  But this year, I have been confronted by groups of kids who really struggle with impulse control.  To the point that in one class, I have gone to Plan B a bunch of times.This form is one of my favorites for this kind of formalized data keeping.  I can not recommend it highly enough.) I realized that I needed to go back to some of the strategies that I have used before.  Because there is no reason not to try.
 Seriously frustrating and boring for all!   After watching the kids for the first few weeks of school and thinking deeply about what their behaviors are telling me,  (

I spent a few hours re-reading notes from other accommodations, plans, and searching the web for DIY OT sensory kits.  I realized that many of my most challenging students are sensory seeking (chewing, touching, bouncing, etc.).

As I told them when I started discussing this in class, all those behaviors (not Behaviors!) are well within "normal" human range.  In fact, I am sensory seeky myself: I asked them if they had ever counted how many times I put on chapstick or check my pocket to make sure that it's there.  (One observant student pointed out that those behaviors happen about every 5 minutes.  I think she was being generous!)

I made a plan, a budget (which got a little out of hand...that's what happens when a sensory seeker goes to put together a sensory toolkit!), and a shopping list. I was going to get fidgets, make some lap weights, and whatever else I could find to make my classroom a sensory seeker's favorite place.

I hit up the thrift store, dollar store, winco for bulk rice and beans, and a party supply store just because it was near the dollar store. I ended up with a huge variety of squishy, hard, textured, and soft items.

Best scores:
coiled keychains for chewies (party store) + ziplock bags to keep them personalized
beads, pipe cleaners, popsicle sticks  for small fidgets
a bin and vertical magazine storage thing to store it all in
a great Frozen fleece sweater that was repurposed into lap weights - both non gendered and fuzzy!
a huge variety of squishy balls and critters from the dollar store
a variety of pet toys (soft, soothing), duster mitts (textured), and massage tools (hard, pointy), also from the dollar store
lengths of rubber from Amazon for chair fidgets

Homemade weighted lap belts-very popular! 
Tool check out system- very high tech
I knew I wanted some sort of accountability for students to use these "tools" so I also bought some clothespins, and wrote numbers on them (each kid has a number in my class) as well as"Tool check out".  When they check out a tool, they simply move their numbered clip to the correct bin.

I am introducing the tools slowly- and with great success.  The lap weights are the biggest hit so far, followed by some of the squishies and the chair fidgets.  I will follow up this post later...once the magic has worn off.
My biggest take away after two days with them are:
1) Students lit up when I asked them to try something (like a chewy, or a lap weight).  They knew what they needed- they just needed to be told it was ok to need it.  Seriously, the love was overwhelming.
2) I said that I was going to try this so all students could have a chance to learn the best way possible- and maybe other teachers would come on the journey with me if it worked out.  One student told me "well, you are way ahead of the rest of them.  Thanks!"  I reminded her that we are all on a different journey- this is mine, and I don't mind a little contained chaos.

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