Monday, August 13, 2018

My Reading Thoughts, Summaries and Connections: The Social Animal by David Brooks - Chapter 7 (Norms)

Erica is introduced in Chapter 7. From my understanding, Erica and Harold will eventually connect and get married and then the book will follow the rest of their lives together. Erica does not come from as stable or as afluenct a background as Harold and so creates the opportunity in this chapter to dig into the impacts that social-economic status (SES) has on development and personality.

Erica comes from a mixed-racial family with her mother being Chinese and father being Mexican American. It also seems that her mother experiences mental health issuse that create osilating periods of stable middle-class living and unstable lower-class living. In the lower times, Erica takes on an adult role as it appears that her mother becomes entrenched in the world of addictions in these times. Her parents are not married but both parents and both are actively involved in her life in a sporatic way. This chapter gives a glimpse of her in her elementary years trying and failing to get into a charter school followed by another glimpse as she gets closer to high school when she once again pushes to get into a charter school. At this point she succeeds in getting in, although in an unorthodox way.

Weaved into the introduction of Erica, this chapter addresses several SES-based differences: parenting approaches, language exposure, stress hormone levels, impact on internal narratives...etc. The chapter also introduces the concept of "emergence" while explaining the theory of the charter school that is being developed in Erica's neighborhood. This is a topic that is always fascinating to me as it represents the need to always dig deeper than what we can first understand on the surface level. At one point in the chapter, the author makes reference to the fact that the brain itself is an emergent system and gives the example of how the idea of an apple is not contained in a single neuron but rather emerges out of the firing of a pattern between millions of neurons. This circled my thoughts back to Chapter 4 and the mention of how with continued exposure to concept the subtleties of the understanding improve. Thinking beyond something as concrete as an apple, it speaks to how as these connections grow and change, the physical structure of our brains actually also change. To me it really speaks to how you can look at some concept today and see it completely different from how you saw it last year or a few years ago (or sometimes even yesterday). It isn't just that you have gained more knowledge but that the physiological make up of your brain has changed in ways that have different neurons firing together around the concept. For me this speaks to the need to be intentional about trying to connect what is new to what we already know; to take the time to engage with new information that is coming to us... and even to take the time with old information because there are probably experiences between this exposure and the last exposure that change the way it makes sense.

Below I have included the visuals of what jumped out at me while reading this chapter. Clicking on each graphic should make it larger and easier to see.

Following the presentation of the idea that poverty is an emergent system, the author goes on to explain how the charter school felt they could then address poverty by surrounding the person living in poverty with a different culture so that they aborb the new habits of thought and behaviour.. and that you are conscious to keep surrounding them so they do not slip back into old familiar ways. As I read this, I found myself quite uncomfortable with the approach, particuarly given the informaiton shared earlier in the chapter about some of the child rearing approaches that we seem to be starting to realize are important like having time to play freely, being surrounded by extended family, playing with peers of different ages...etc. As I read this chapter I kept thinking back to a Ted Talk that I recentely watched about community builders that I'm going to share below. It seems to me that there has to be better ways than approaching it from building a "counter-culture". 

Saturday, August 11, 2018

My Reading Thoughts, Summaries and Connections: The Social Animal by David Brooks - Chapter 6 Part 1 (Learning)

This chapter is framed around Harold's senior year in high school. The content in the chapter is a bit overwhelming jumping from the social structures in high school to the adolescent brain to contemplating what learning is and stepping the reader through the steps of a discovery project. I wasn't sure how to organize it all and in the end I decided to do a summary but keep the idea of doing a second post on this chapter sometime in the future open. I would like to dig a bit more into all the inforamtion that was presented as the author stepped throught he project that Harold completed. I also feel that I need a bit of time to let that part of it marinate because it speaks to the kind of learning that I don't remember ever experiencing in school although I have experienced it many times since. I found myself thinking about and connecting into concepts related to the "Deeper Learning" movement a lot.

Another thing that jumped out in the explanation of the process was the amount of time that was used to gather and interact with information before moving on to a final product. I was fascinated with the idea of taking the time for the conscious and unconscious components to come together. In many ways, it reminded me of the process we went through in the Self-Reg Foundations course. There was thinking and learning happening throughout at the conscious level but there was also all this stuff happening below the surface at an unconscious level. As we carried through the program some of that unconscious stuff started to come up and connect to the conscious. We talked a lot about an "embodied" understanding.

Which brings me to the final insight about this chapter (for now) and that was that the personal component of the project that Harold did. Knowing a bit about how the brian works the making connection with the content part makes sense to me as it reflects the building of neural connections. It was great to see that the end goal though was not just to connect all the various pieces of informatin but but also connect to them to one's own life. That, to me, seems to be the piece that then leads to the statement that the learning experience ends up changing all future perceptions of the world. The idea makes me question even more what the purpose of education should be.

Below I have included the visuals of what jumped out at me while reading this chapter. I feel that I will, at some point in the future, come back and do a second post on this chapter but for now I'm going to move forward. Clicking on each graphic should make it larger and easier to see.

In closing to this post, I want to add a couple of thoughts about "imitation". The line "much of learning is throuh imitation" really jumped out at me while I read this chapter. All of the books that I have chosen to either go back to and re-read or read for the first time have a theme tied to what happens consciously and unconsciously in our brains. Imitation is one of those things that happens unconsciously a large portion of the time. It seems particularly when the imatition is tied to something that we view as a "negative behaviour". I see this often in how accepted an individual will be in any given setting. When the adults embrace that student for who they are and just seem to naturaly modify the environment to ensure everyone is actively involved you see the children doing the same. We often look for ways to teach to the cognitive part of the brain through "direct instruction" and although this is important, it seems it can be counter-productive if our actions are teaching the opposite. It seems to me that the old saying "actions speak louder than words" is so important and tied to this idea of our conscious and unconscious brains. So I end this with a great graphic that I recently stumbled across... 

Friday, August 10, 2018

My Reading Thoughts, Summaries and Connections: The Social Animal by David Brooks - Chapter 5 (Attachment)

This chapter was loaded with information and also sparked a lot of thoughts and connections for me. This post might be a bit all over the place as I try to sort through it all.

This chapter starts with a story of Harold and his mom (Julia) engaging in the process of trying to get Harold to do his homework during his grade 2 year. The following video shares the story... 

As I started to read this story I found myself immediately putting on my "Self-Reg glasses" and looking at the situations through these lenses. Self-Reg is a framework for understanding stress and managing tension and energy. One of the foundational premises of Self-Reg is that our many body systems are always working to maintain a state of balance. Stressors are simply those things that require our body to burn energy to return to a state of balance. We can organize those stressors into five domains - biological, emotion, cognitive, social and pro-social. When our systems get overstressed we are unable to do tasks that can quite easily do when not stressed. The story at the beginning of this chapter illusstrates an overload of stress as Harold starts his homework that is eventually resolved by his mother connecting with him and, in so doing, bringing down his stress level to the point where he is finally able to engage in his homework. Although Self-Reg is not mentioned at all in this story it is a story that I cannot separate from Self-Reg in my mind so when I made my notes I combined the two. 

The second half of this chapter goes on to explore attachment and attachment styles. It speaks to the impact different attachment patterns can have on one's life. Several times throughout this section, the author does state that although attachment forms working models that we operate from, trajectories are fluid so people are not bound by their original attachment style. This is an important, and hopeful, point. I've included the highlights of the different attachment styles in the summary visuals below.

During this chapter, I found myself coming back often to the orignal reason I started reading this book. It was tied to a Dr. Stuart Shanker lecture on resilience at the Self-Reg Summer Symposium (2018) that I listened in on through VoiceEd radio. In that lecture, Dr. Shanker made a statement about how some children come to school securely attached and then become insecurely attached and then others come insecurely attached and become securely attached. He questioned the why of this. I releived to hear him say this as it is something I have seen over and over again in my personal and work life. During the lecture, Stuart Shanker talked about the idea of "fragile secure attachment". Through his lecture he built toward a balanced red brain/blue brain definition of resilience and spoke of the impotance of the dyadic brain within that. It seems that we are coming to a time when we will no longer think of brains in isolation. There seems to be a move toward research that looks at how brains are interacting with each other rather than just how they are functioning in isolation. We are talking about behaivours that arise out of a network of brains interacting with the environment and with each other. We are no longer thinking of brains as passive recievers. The implications for this are exciting, particularly for education. I felt I needed to include even just a glimpse of this connection to what struck me from Dr. Stuart Shanker's lecture even though it might take some time for me to understand or articulate the magnitude of the thoughts (consious and unconsious) it sparked. 

Below I have included the visuals of what jumped out at me while reading this chapter. Clicking on each graphic should make it larger and easier to see. 

Monday, August 6, 2018

My Reading Thoughts, Summaries and Connections: The Social Animal by David Brooks - Chapter 4 (Mapping)

Chapter 4 of this book follows Harold through approximately the first five years of his life and examines how his thinking evolves over the course of that time. This chapter made me think a lot of the work that I do with students with complex needs as it explores how we create mental maps, the emergence of imagination and the development of narative skills and thinking. Although language is not mentioned, I found myself wondering often how important verbal conversation is to all of these developmental steps and what might be missing for the child that does not develop speech.

I found that commentatry in this chapter often made me think of a recent webinar that Erin Sheldon delivered to our Alberta Complex Needs Community of Practice that can be found on the Resources the Complex Communication Needs Population website. It is webinar number 13 on the list of webinars. In this webinar, Erin speaks of the link between language and cognitive development and highlights the conversations she had with her older daughter in helping them to build their conceptual knowledge. She then goes on to explain educational approaches that can be used with students who have complex communication needs to ensure that they are able to assist them in developing their conceptual knowledge. 

As I read through I also found myself thinking about how important it is to facilitate the devleopment of both imagination and narrative skills. These are often skills that do not get considered very much when working with students with complex communicatoin needs. Each fall, the Alberta Council for Inclusive Education hosts a provincial conference. This past year, Kathy Howery and I did a presentation on Mental Health and Students with Complex Communication Needs. The presentation was framed around research into the lived experience of using a communication device that Kathy had done for her Ph.D. One of the key take aways from the presentation was the importance of supporting students to develop narative skills so that they are able to tell their stories. Our lives are complex and being able to understand and tell our stories helps to make sense of the complexity.  Being able to understand and tell one's story also positions one to be able to understand and advocate for their needs. As I read, I put on my "to do list" a need to go back to the CCN Alphabet posts that I started sometime ago and at least do the N post, focusing in on narrative development.

Below I have included the visuals of what jumped out at me while reading this chapter. Clicking on each graphic should make it larger and easier to see.

Saturday, August 4, 2018

My Reading Thoughts, Summaries and Connections: The Social Animal by David Brooks - Chapter 3 (Mindsight)

As mentioned at the end of my last post, I am jumping up to Chapter 3 for this next post. In Chapter 3, one of the main characters, Harold, is introduced. The chapter covers information from conception through to his first months of life and examines how the brain is formed throught these times.

I have chosen the books on my list with the intention of looking at them through the Self-Reg lens. For several years now I have been on a journey to learn more about Self-Reg. At first the quest was tied to wanting to find an anwer to "behaviour management" but as time has gone on it has become about concepts so much larger - healthy development, human flourishing, creating an unconscious sense of safety, reducing barriers to learning through disarming the fear response, nurturing relationships, individual and collective resilience...etc. I believed when I started to dig that the digging would be finite; That at the end of it all I would have a neat cognitive package. Instead I discovered that there was so much that was happening under the surface of our consciousness. It connected to the part of me that has always been a problem solver; The part of me that has always wanted to dig down one layer deeper on the question of why.

As I read through this chapter, I was reminded again and again of the beginning of the Self-Reg Foundations Course and learning about secondary altriciality and the inter-brain.

Secondary altriciality in its most simplified explanation simply means that when a baby is born their brain is not fully developed. This equates to our babies being born completely dependent on others... really "fetuses outside of the womb". Because so little of the brain is developed a birth, it continues to develop beyond birth and how it develops is dependent upon the child-caregiver relationship. This chapter addesses some of what is critical to healthy brain development and although it doesn't directly reference the development of regulatory skills, it hints at it often. The chapter also references the many of the sensory experiences but does not step in to the process of the sensory systems integrating. Perhaps this will come up in the next chapter?

In reference to the inter-brain, because the baby's born is so underdeveloped in the first months of his/her life, the baby relies on the primary care-giver to serve as an external brain that will help to regulate the baby's physiological state. This chapter discusses a lot of the mechanisms that serve to connect the parent to the baby but doesn't reference much the attunement so the parent is able to read their baby's cues and help to regulate them until their brain develops the ability to self-regulate. It's interesting the interplay between it all - the baby being born with what it needs to draw the connection, the parent serving as an external brain, the caregivers shaping the baby's brain, the caregiver's brains changing themselves in response to the new relationship with the baby. It speaks to how deeply connected we all are and how our brains really do not function in isolation. It speaks to how every interaction serves to change our brain ever so slighting and then potentially drastically over time in relationship with someone.

From the teaching perspective, this chapter highlights several of the "roots of cognition". I am including a visual that I made some time ago when reading The Learning Tree by Dr. Stanley Greenspan here as this chapter triggered that connection for me. The idea of behind the learning tree is that often the challenges we see students having in education (those that are within the branches and leaves of the trees) are connected to something that needs to be strengthened either at the roots or up the trunk of the stem. The trunk of the stem represents the social-emotional learning continuum that is references in Floortime. I found the model helpful in that it makes you stop and think below the surface of what you are seeing. From working with students who often experirence bariers to learning it has me thinking about what happens when those roots are not fully developed and about how to ensure that we continue to work on the ones that may need more attention.

From time to time I might link to another book or lecture. If I do this visually, I will include a link picture like the one on the visual above. Below I have included the visuals of my what jumped out at me while reading this chapter. Clicking on each graphic should make it larger and easier to see. 

... And just because this video is too cute I'm going to include here in connection to the last information on in this chapter around how laughter is a comoponent of connecting as well as something that often comes forward in pattern finding moments. Enjoy!

Friday, August 3, 2018

My Reading Thoughts, Summaries and Connections: The Social Animal by David Brooks - Chapter 1 (Decision Making)

Set in the middle of a the story of a young couple's first date, Chapter 1 digs into the idea of "decision making" and shares research and thoughts on how we make decisions. The information reflects an understanding that the brain is built upon experiences and that those experiences impact any future decisions. It also speaks the importance of "emotion" in the decision making process. Emotion was not explicity defined but it seemed to reference mroe our bodily sensations (somatic markers) rather than what we traditional think of as emotions. The theme that I kept seeing over and over again is one of the importance of the brain-body connection.

I was also fascinated with the research that was referenced around examining the decision making process in people who have had brain injuries that impact that their emotional processing abilities. In these situations, the people were unable to make decisions even though they could engage in all the cognitive steps involved in the decision making process (listing the options, analyzing the options). The conclusion made was that without the unconscious referencing of "emotions" that we do in the decision making process, making decisions is not possible.

There was reference in this chapter to people rely on reason alone to make decisions engaging in self-destrcutive and dangerous behaviours. Emotion and the abiltiy to feel other people are important in making sound decisions. As someone who at times can be acused of being overly-emotional, this idea sits well with me.

My visual summary of Chapter 1 is below. There is much more than this in the actual chapter but this reflects the concepts that jumped out at me and the way that I see them connecting. Clicking on each graphic should make it larger and easier to see.

Note that my next post about this book will be on Chapter 3. Chapter 2 is simply a part of the story that the book is told within. It carries the story through the first months of the marriage of the parents of one of the main characters (Harold). 

Thursday, August 2, 2018

My Reading Thoughts, Summaries and Connections: The Social Animal by David Brooks - Introduction

I heard about this book while listening in on Dr. Stuart Shanker's talk on Resilience at the 2018 Self-Reg Summer Symposium. As it is quite challening for me to this symposium, I was thankful that VoiceEd Radio broadcast several of the speaker presentations as part of their Voices of Self-Reg series.

This talk was fascinating as it wrapped the Self-Reg lens around the concept of "resilience". I have found along this Self-Reg learning joruney that I circle back often and, in those times, concepts get reworked. The key message that I took out of this particular lecture was that our aim is the "blue-brain" (pre-frontal cortex, rational brain) and the "red-brain" (limbic system, social-emotinal brain) to be in balance. Much of my focus to this point had been on those times when the red-brain had taken over to a negative point of fight, flight or freeze. I was fascinated to hear that the blue-brain functioning alone would also result in a negative personality profile (i.e. narcisism).

The whole lecture left me wanting more and, as I so often do after hearing Dr. Stuart Shanker speak, I went back to the list of books he mentioned while he lectured to consider if any of those books could wet my thirst for more. The Social Animal by David Brooks is one of the books he mentioned during this talk and when I read the summary of it on Amazon I felt confident that reading it would allow me to digger deeper into what I had begun to think about while listening to this talk.

I am finding each chapter of the book full of things to think about. The book is frame by telling the story of two individuals from birth (actually before birth) through their entire lives. As the story unfolds the author adds in relevant information. The challenge for me is the same as everytime I read a book... how to pick out and summarize the relevant pieces right now. To do this, I am going to experiment with a version of "sketch-noting". I tried at first to do it with pencil and paper but found myself getting too caught up in trying to cretae a perfect drawing (which I am along ways away from). I will continue to play with that approach but for not I wanted to explore just summarizing with a combinations of visuals and words using technology. My summary of the introduction is below. Clicking on each graphic should make it larger and easier to see.

I found myself nodding my head a lot while I read this introduction as it reinforces so much of what I've been learning since first starting to dig into a deeper understanding of the brain. It really speaks ot how unique each of brains are and how they are shaped by things that we often completely unaware of. I was also fascinated by the idea of gaining a deeper understanding of what is required for "human flourishing". I'm looking forward to continuing to read, explore and share related to this book. 

Saturday, August 13, 2016

CCN Alphabet: Language of Control

To get this series going again, I have decided to jump around the alphabet instead of follow alphabetical order. I wanted to share that in case anyone is wondering what happened to the letters F through K. They will come. As I am completing posts, I am linking them in the original post in the series which can be found by clicking here.

The idea for this topic comes from the book Enhancing Communication for Individuals with Autism: A Guide to the Visual Immersion System by Howard C. Shane, Emily Laubscher, Raif W. Schlosser, Holly L. Fadie, James F. Sorce, Jennifer S. Abramson, Suzanne Flynn, and Kara Corley. The information on the Language of Control and the language functions that reflect the Language of Control comes from this book and the thoughts and ideas are a combination of some of the thoughts and ideas from this book as well as ideas from other sources and my experience. I also wanted to think through how to use core boards or the individual's core based language system with some of these ideas.

Often we tend toward using visual supports from a "behaviour management" perspective. It's important to not get too caught up in this as it can serve to inhibit spontaneous communication. Rather, but we should reframe this and look at visuals and language supports from a self-advocacy and opportunity for expressive and receptive language growth lens.

As outlined in the book mentioned above, the Language of Control is related to "control functions" that allow the individual to influence his or her surroundings by inspiring others to act. These functions are (1) protesting and refusal, (2) organization and transitions, (3) requesting, and (4) directives. These functions are controlled based rather than conversational in nature because their goal is to influence the behaviour of another rather than to initiate a conversation exchange.

Protesting and Refusal: According to this book, protest is a "behaviour that expresses objection or disapproval of an activity, event or person", while refusal is a "behaviour that expresses rejection of an object, activity, or event suggested or initiated by another person." Most children have a non-symbolic way of communicating protesting and refusal so the idea is to work toward a more symbolic (and often adaptive) way of protesting or refusing.

The language of protest and refusal is rooted in core words. The core words that are associated with protesting and refusal include "all done" or "finished", "stop", "no", "more", "help". "Take a break" is an important phrase that should be taught as well.

When working with students around the language of protesting and refusal we should (1) explicitly teach the words, (2) model the use of the words. and (3) ensure that the words are always easily available to the individual.

When we teach core vocabulary we need to do it "during meaningful interactions throughout the school day" (Project Core Website). At 12:15 of this Dynamic Learning Maps PD video there is a great demonstration around directly teaching core words to a group of students. I will be posting a separate post soon with some ideas around strategies for teaching the words included in the language of control. Modeling the use of the words is related to reading the individual's cues and modeling the language around it. Example: Modeling the capitalized words without expectation that the student will say them: "It looks like you DON'T LIKE that and that you are ALL DONE." Ensuring the words are easily available to the students means having their system there but it might also mean having these specific visuals available in different ways (i.e. having them tapped down to a work space or included right on a visual schedule).

Although protesting and refusal are primarily about expressive language, it is also important to be aware of the times when one cannot immediately honor an individual's protest or refusal as being able to cope with this requires receptive language skills. Visual supports such as first-then displays, timers and countdowns, a "surprise" visual, and social stories can be used to facilitate receptive language. To be effective, there may need to be some explicit teaching around these. Ideas related to that specific teaching will be included in the blog post mentioned above.

Organization and Transitions: This book defines organization as "the act of arranging elements into an orderly, functional structured whole" and transition as "the process of changing from one state, stage, activity or environment to another." Memory, attention, time management, problem solving, initiating, sequencing and prioritizing are all skills that are important to organization. Developing these skills cannot be done without also developing the receptive language understanding that is necessary for the skills. The visual supports that we put in place for the underlying skills can also serve as an opportunity to work on language development.

Specific things we should be thinking about when teaching organization and transitions includes completing multi-step directions, sorting and organizing materials, following a schedule, understanding and using measures of time, moving from a preferred activity to a non-preferred activity or vice versa, dealing with changes in familiar routines, dealing with a delay in receiving an anticipated item or activity and tolerating unexpected events.

Again, we need to think about the language that is important and ensure that we are teaching, modeling and making symbols available. We should consider (1) prepositional words like "in", "on", "away", "up", and (2) time-related words like "first", "then", "later", "wait"...etc., The action and descriptive words outlined in directives section below overlap in to the area of following schedules, sorting and organizing.

There are a lot of visual tools that can be used to support receptive understanding in this area. We need to be cautious that our primary goal with these tools is not that of compliance as that can have va very negative impact on language and communication growth.  These tools will be furthered explained in another post but they include things like visual schedules (including learner constructed schedules), first-then visuals, countdown boards, task or activity schedules, social stories, video modeling, and symbols like "surprise" or "wait".

Requesting: Requesting is defined as "expressing a desire for objects, activities, people, affection, attention, recurrence, assistance, information and/or clarification."

When thinking about requesting, we need to be cautious around believing that there is language understanding if an individual is using a scripted phrase like what would be used in PECs. A scripted phrase is no more meaningful than a single work and doesn't represent generative language. As this book points out, PECs focuses primarily on requesting but there is little opportunity for language development as it consists of mostly nouns, it uses carrier phrases rather than generative word-by-word language, and the individual words represented by the symbols are not actually taught.

As we expand requesting skills, it is important to also focus on descriptive language as having descriptive language allows an individual to request things that may not be represented in their system or are not directly in sight. This doesn't mean we make the individual describe everything they are requesting, but rather that we embed descriptive approaches naturally so that the individual is coming to an understanding of these words through seeing them modeled and used in natural contexts.

Directives: Directives is "explicit instructional language used to control the behaviour of another." Underlying a directive is an implicit understanding that a specific order or command will be carried out. In regards to the "language of control" we are looking at the ability of the individual to expressively give others directives. This does involve receptively understanding the language of directives.

This book outlines the most common directives as being either control based (sit down, quiet, no running), routine-based (get, open, put away, stand up), instructional (cut, circle, point), or play-based (roll, throw, blow, pop). There are many opportunities for teaching vocabulary and generative language (putting words together to create meaning) within directives. Understanding and using verbs, prepositions and descriptors is particularly important. Many of the most important words are included in core language lists. It's also important to recognize that not following directions may be related to receptive language (understanding of what these words mean as individual words and in combination with other words). Not following directions may also be related to things like attention, memory, or inability to organize multiple steps. or just being too overwhelmed/stressed in the moment to be able to follow the direction. When an individual has difficulty with following directions we need to step back and think about weather we are properly scaffolding.

This book offers suggestions around teaching directives by moving from video modeling of the directive to a static picture from the video to incorporating symbols and putting them together to represent the directive. As I read through it, I was thinking of some ways to modify it and embed it with teaching of core words and/or Predictable Chart Writing.

Another suggestion they offer related to play is to create topic displays that allow the user to manipulate symbols in to phrases or sentences. I could see the value in this but as I read through it I also thought about the need to move it over to modeling on a language system so that the words that were being used didn't just disappear when the activity was done. This is also got me thinking about incorporating the idea in teaching core words and/or Predictable Chart Writing.

You can advance these topic displays from simple statements to more advanced by adding in different elements. If used, they recommend using them around highly motivating activities. I'm including pictures of how a "Bubbles" topic display could be expanded over time. Note that there is a line on the side included to "comment" on the activity. As well, these displays can include a "sentence strip" at the top that is either color coded or not in which the symbols and be moved up to create a phrase or a sentence.

Final Thoughts: The communicative functions outlined here are far from the only communicative functions that individuals should be learning but they are important ones to learn in the middle of learning others. As mentioned at the beginning these ones are very restricted in regards to learning conversational skills. 

Ultimately, being explicit about teaching students the language of control positions them to active agents in their lives. It is also important and important step in social/emotional development that positions individuals to engage in organizing and problem solving as if one is unable to consistently exercise control over their own life they will become passive and helpless and are at an even greater risk for abuse.  

Monday, July 4, 2016

Pittsburgh AAC Language Seminar

Last week I traveled to Pittsburgh to attend a Pittsburgh AAC Language Seminar (PALSS) to learn more about core vocabulary, descriptive teaching, language development and the use of Minspeak language systems. The seminar itself was held in the Semantic Compaction Systems (SCS) office in Pittsburgh and all seminar attendants stayed in SCS guest houses. The days were filled with learning and the evenings with time to process, socialize and connect. It was both an incredibly learning and a wonderful social experience.

As with any learning experience, it will take me some time to piece together what all this new information means when converted in to practice. There was definitely a lot that applied specifically to Minspeak but there was also much that can be applied more generally to thinking about language development for students with complex communication needs.

The Goal is Language Acquisition

The emphasis throughout the seminar was about focusing on language acquistion when working with individuals with complex communication needs. We spent some time looking at Brown's stages of language development. We looked at how we can support students with complex communication needs to go through the same stages of language development as those without... moving from saying single words (juice, mine, again) to combining two words (more juice, that mine, go again) to adding in more clarity through development of syntax and morphology (more juice please, that's mine, let's go again).

We also looked at core language. This was not an new concept to me but it is always good to have it reinforced how important it is to focus in on a limited number of high frequency words that can be used to support communication in all environments.

I walked away from the seminar thinking about how important it is to be aware of language development when working with students who are at various stages of using AAC. A few ideas that I wrote down to explore, think about, revisit or refine include the following. There may be future blog posts on these.
  • Communication Circles and Out and About Groups - A couple of years ago I was doing a few communication circles. This year I didn't do any.  After going through the activities we did at this seminar, I'm thinking it's time to start them up again.
  • Recasting - We talk about modeling at a lot but in this seminar there was an explanation of both modeling and recasting. Recasting is about taking what the individual has said and saying it back a litter further along the language development continuum.
  • Using Icon Family Trees for Interventions - We spent a bit of time with this and I would like to further explore the idea as there are a lot of rich connections that could lend themselves to some fun language intervention activities. 
  • Literacy through Unity Curriculum - I want to get my hands on this :).
  • Use of materials from the AAC Language Lab based on stage of language development. I need to go back and revisit this. 

Promoting Success in the Classroom

I really appreciated that there was time dedicated in this seminar to what supporting a student who uses AAC looks like in reference to curriculum (program of studies). We spent some time looking at the Descriptive Teaching Model (DMT). With this approach, rather than programming key terms from different curriculum areas, the key terms are used as part of the question and then core vocabulary that is on the device is used to answer the questions. This was not entirely new to me as we have done a bit of it but going through and looking at it again reinforced for me the importance of tapping in the curriculum to support language development.

We also spent some time looking at Blooms Taxonomy and thinking through how we could answer questions or have discussions using core vocabulary at every level of Blooms. This was an important reminder to not limit communication to the  lowest levels of just recall as if you have core words,the vocabulary is there to do it all.

Motor and Cognitive Automaticity

We spent time doing hands on learning with Unity 84. What was most interesting with this is that towards the end of the seminar, we were asked to "sky talk" and say some of the things we had been learning throughout the two days. After only a small amount of time practicing, we were all able to go to the general area that was needed to say a variety of different words. Because we were using the same standard 84 icons that were always in the same spot to say all these words, we had learned the general or specific area of almost all the icons.

Although I understood the premise of having a minimum number of icons that you combine in different ways to make different words, it wasn't until we did the sky writing without the device there that I realized how much I was relying on both the repetitive motor planning and the associations of the symbols to the words to become automatic. It was also interesting to note that some will rely on both the association and the motor plan while others will just rely on the motor plan.

Note: The seminar, lodging and meals are free and there is support for travel as well. They are held monthly. I highly recommend the experience. Click here to find out more. 

Thursday, December 24, 2015

One Word 2016 - With

It's early. Just past 5:30 a.m. This has always been my favorite time of day. For the most part, the world is still quiet and asleep and it's easier to connect to one's thinking.

The beginning part of the 2015-16 school year brought with it many changes both personally and professionally. 

My son began high school. This is his last transition within the school system and it went incredibly smoothly. I'm seeing him continue to grow and blossom and am realizing how quickly he has grown up which just makes me cherishing the times that we are together all the more. At the same time, adulthood is looming and I'm thinking often now how I can support him to transitioning to an adult life that is his own.

My job hasn't really changed but it changes each year simply because the students I work with and the classrooms I work in change each year. This means each year, I see both a bigger picture and a more focused picture. There are exciting steps forward and frustrating new barriers that need to be figured out that present themselves on a regular basis. 

Each year for the past several years I have spent some time during Christmas break reflecting and looking forward... not so much because of the "new year" that is ahead of us but more because it seems to be the first time that since the beginning of September that I have time to step back, catch my breath and think a bit. It's a great time to analyze how things have gone in the first months and where they might go through the rest of the school year. Each year as I reflect on this, it seems, on some levels, that the vision becomes less and less defined... and on other levels that it becomes more focused. 

As my job has evolved and Mikey (my son) has grown up, I am coming to realize more and more that parenting, teaching and living are not actually about having a lock-step plan that I can be perfectly implemented. I thought that would make things predictable and that predictable equated to "safe". I thought that it was the kind thing to do to try to head off any problems and hurdles before they happened. I thought that it would make the path smoother. 

I'm not sure if I would have come to understand things differently if I had stayed in my own classroom where I could continue to set it all up before hand; Where I could design and script learning and life experiences in a way that I decided was "right". I no longer can do that as I am not the classroom teacher. In the middle of struggling with this and with questioning how I support Mikey moving forward in to adulthood, I began to more deeply understand the opportunity that is embedded in how things have evolved and changed. 

A few years ago when this journey of shifting away from a self-contained approach began, I believed we would see better social and academic outcomes for the students if they were included in general education classrooms and activities. I believed that the peer group that exists in the general education setting meant that there were opportunities and experiences in the general education classrooms that could not be created in self-contained settings. I believed that we would work harder at figuring out modifications, communication systems and assistive technology in a general education setting because it was necessary for participation in that setting whereas in in a self-contained setting you can just shift gears and do something different that the student can already participate in. All of this has proven to be true in the years that have passed... but there have been other things that have emerged through the process. 

Which brings me to my one word for 2016... and the word is simply "with". I have always believed it is critical to listen to the students that we are working with. I have always believed it was important for them to have a voice. I have always believed that the end goal was tied to such concepts as self-determination, autonomy, empowerment. But working with students in spaces that are "not my own" and the fact that my son will need to leave the sheltered world of school in a couple of years deepens my understanding of all of it. It helps me to see not only that we need to work with (rather than for or on or to) the student but also that all of us in the student's circles need to work with each other. 

Empowerment, self-determination, autonomy are not actually about independence. It's about community and relationship. Community and relationships create safety and the conditions for thriving. Being empowered isn't about who builds the path so much as it is about who directs the building of the path. Being empowered means that when things go in the wrong direction or roadblocks present themselves protective factors exist to get through, around or even to turn in another direction if that is what makes sense in the end. For anyone, disability or not, our strongest protective factor is the web of authentic equal and understanding connections to and around us. When we operate from a standpoint of working "with" we are building a web of connections. When we operate from a standpoint of doing "to" or "for" or working "on" we are building a top-down set of single, often unequal connections. 

So my word is "with" and this year to stay true to it, I'm aiming to blog about it on a regular basis :). 

Monday, July 27, 2015

CCN Alphabet: Engagement

What did you do in school today? is a document that summarizes the information on a multi-year research project on adolescent student engagement that was completed by Canadian Educational Association (CEA). In this document, engagement is defined as "the extent to which students identify with and value schooling outcomes, have a sense of belonging at school, participate in academic and non-academic activities, strive to meet the formal requirements of schooling and make a serious personal investment in learning. For the sake of the study, engagement was broken in down in to three components: (1) social engagement, (2) institutional engagement and (3) intellectual engagement.  To be fully engaged in school, a student must experience all three types of engagement. We need to be intentional about facilitating all three types of engagement for students with complex communication needs (CCN) as there are potential barriers that may be experienced in each area.

Engagement, in general, means participating actively and with understanding rather than being passive in a process. Being able to communicate (use of expressive language) and comprehend (use of receptive language) is a necessary condition for active participation in all three components mentioned above. Being able to understand and impact the context that the communication takes place in is another necessary condition for engagement.

More barriers to effective communication exist for people with complex communication needs than for those without. This means there is an increased risk for communication breakdowns. When communication break downs are not resolved, the result is often not feeling like one has control over the situation and this results in disengagement or passive involvement. We also have to question if break downs are often not resolved if that act of putting words into the world is actually communication at all.

One of the goals we often aim for when supporting people with disabilities is "active participation". Even "active participation" can boarder in to passive participation if it is about participating in an activity that is set up and directed by someone else. If we aim past participation toward connecting and contributing, we are aiming at something that is generative, collaborative and co-created. When we are contributing, what we produce is different as a result of our input. Isn't this more of what communication actually is? The challenge then is how do we work with students who have CCN to move along the continuum from presence to contribution.  If this is where we are aiming, supporting the development of communication using a robust language system is a necessity.

The three areas of engagement mentioned in the What did you do in school today? study can apply to any activity or setting.  When we focus on developing the combination of the communication skills needed for social, academic/institutional and intellectual engagement in any setting we need to do it in a way that these skills will not impact only that setting but can be transferred across settings. Below are a few more of my thoughts related to each of these domains of engagement in the school setting specifically but the same concepts can be taken and carried over to any setting.

Social Engagement relates to a sense of belonging and meaningful participation in school life. Students who are socially engaged participate in extra-curriculars and have positive relationships with peers and adults.

Developing the communication skills necessary for social engagement involves focusing on pragmatics - which involves the understanding of the social use of language. The Pragmatics Profile of Everyday Communication Skills in Children is a tool that can be used to focus the work of facilitating the development of the communication skills needed for social engagement. The advantage to using a tool like this is that it involves conversations with the people who are interacting on a regular basis in natural settings with the child/student. This means we can focus on what team members can do to make communication attempts more effective and satisfying... which ultimately will result in increased engagement and development of social communication skills.

Academic (Institutional) Engagement relates to participation in the formal requirements of schooling. Students demonstrate academic engagement through the completion of assignments, attending classes, completing work needed to accumulate credits needed for graduation...etc. The reason for re-framing to "institutional" rather than "academic engagement is that the concept of thinking about the formal requirements of participation could then be applied to other settings. While understanding and functioning successfully withing the context of the institution is important, it is only one small part of the picture. We need to be careful not to think about only this piece when aiming for "participation" or else we are really just sitting on a rocking horse...

The communication skills required for academic (institutional) engagement can at first appear to be rooted in rote repetition. It is important to think and facilitate beyond just repetitive routine communication as the communication skills required for academic (institutional) engagement must be applied to the many other institutional settings that one must function in to survive and thrive in our world. When thinking about facilitating the development of communication skills, we need to always remember that communication is generative and the skills that are learned should be transferable.

Developing the communication skills necessary for academic (institutional) engagement involves focusing on literacy skills as literacy allows for communication across space, people, time and medium. There will be more on literacy in other posts.  It also involves communication for the organizational tasks involved in thriving in institutional settings and the communication skills that are required for self-determined learning. The Bridge School in California has put their Self Determination Program up on their website. Their adapted self determination model focuses on the unique components and activities needed to support development of self-determination with AAC users.

Intellectual Engagement, for this study, is defined as "A serious emotional and cognitive investment in learning, using higher order thinking skills (such as analysis and evaluation) to increase understanding, solve complex problems, or construct new knowledge." Intellectual engagement requires thinking and thinking is the processing of language. When learners engage intellectually, they need to be intentional about connecting and using knowledge, experience, and strategies they have or are being exposed to.

The presumption of competence for people with complex communication needs is connected to the belief that these are students who can engage intellectually. All too often, this is a population that is not given the opportunity to engage intellectually due to some of the traditional beliefs about educational approaches for this population. This begs the question of how one could develop language if they aren't intellectually engaged. The way we design learning experiences matters when we are aiming for intellectual engagement and language development. We need to think in terms of frameworks that provide structure and some level of predictability but then within those frameworks, we must ensure variety and opportunities for interaction and generative communication. If we are pre-defining and scripting everything before it happens, this is not possible.

Sunday, July 26, 2015

Alberta Summer 2015 Course on Supporting Literacy for Students with Low Incidence Disabilities

Over four years ago, I received the book Children with Disabilities: Reading and Writing the Four Blocks Way as one of the resources for a provincial community of practice I was involved in. The book was the answer to this nagging feeling that there had to be a way to think about "real literacy" for the students that I was working with. So that year, with PODD training behind us and this book in hand, I began the process of shifting toward comprehensive literacy instruction with the students that I work with. Toward the end of that year, I traveled to Toronto to go to a week long course with the authors of the book, Karen Erickson and David Koppenhaver. I returned home and began the process of implementing  what I learned, but the fact that we were also shifting from self-contained to inclusive practices meant that there were times in the next couple of years where decisions about priorities had to be made. After two years of experimenting, I felt we were in a much better place to take a more systematic approach to things and so, last summer, I went to learn from Karen Erickson and David Koppenhaver again at Camp ALEC. I returned from that camp not only fired up about literacy, but also fired up about core vocabulary and ensuring that students have a language system that allows them to more deeply engage in literacy learning and life in general.

As this past year ended, I was feeling like we were now on the right path and then the opportunity to see Karen and David again, this time right here in Alberta, presented itself.  I have just returned now from spending another week learning from them and am once again excited to put what I've learned in to practice. I am sure that it will take me some time to fully process all that I've learned but for now I am just going to share my thoughts around the things that most resonated with me at this point immediately following the course.

It's All About Language and the Connecting Arrows
Last summer, when I was able to interact with proficient AAC users, I came to better understand the need to focus on language and communication as a larger part of the picture than what we had been doing. Last week the diagram that is presented very early on in each course and speaks to how speaking (AAC), listening, reading and writing develop in interaction with each other with language permeating every aspect of learning spoke more loudly to me. It was interesting that the statement was made that as time goes on, there is an increased understanding that "the arrows" are what is important about this diagram because that perfectly reflects what I've been discovering over the last few years of trying to put this in to practice. I also find it interesting how language sits as the heart of what thinking and learning are and that I was well in to my teaching career before I ever thought intentionally about language.

A Deeper Understanding of Emergent Literacy
The first course that I took was focused on conventional literacy and so when I returned, I started immediately to try to implement the conventional components with students who were actually at the emergent level. Through the next couple of years, I researched and modified to try to create programs that were more geared toward emergent learners.

Last summer, at Camp ALEC, it became much clearer to me what emergent and conventional programs should look like.  I have a couple of students though who would appear to be "conventional" because they know all of their letters and a whole lot of sight words and can even sometimes answer rote questions from 1970's reading programs. The problem is, these students do not engage in generative writing or just talking about books during shared reading. They are literally lost for words in these situations... either because they are just coming to be able to use their communication system in a generative way or because they have a history that doesn't include any exposure to this type of generative approach to learning.

The statement made this year that emergent literacy is connected to opportunities to actively engage and construct meaning over time with print really resonated with me and confirmed much of what I had been thinking through this past year as I backed up with some of these students to working on the emergent, rather than the conventional, literacy "to do every day" list that was shared during both this course and last year at Camp ALEC. I walked away with more clarity around the idea that for students at the emergent literacy level it is about us creating these opportunities for engagement so that all the foundational pieces can be in place before we focus in on the conventional level.

Universal Design for Learning and Students with Significant Disabilities
I have posted quite a bit in the past about UDL so really appreciated that there was time dedicated to speaking about what it means to  apply UDL concepts to planning for instruction for students who have significant disabilities. Ultimately, applying UDL concepts to this population of students works against the traditional behavioural approach that has been taken in special education and requires a paradigm shift.

UDL is founded on the idea of learner variability and an understanding that the learning process engages three different brain networks including the recognition network (the what of learning), the strategic network (the how of learning) and the affective network (the why of learning). To design learning that addresses learner variability means ensuring that there are multiple means of representation (recognition network), multiple means of expression (strategic network) and multiple means of engagement (affective network). Traditional approaches to teaching students with disabilities is not rooted in a multiple means approach as it is often about rote, repetitive learning of the single task that is currently being "mastered". This approach looks at the what of learning in isolation of the how and the why and often involves some type of extrinsic way of motivating students. The shift to thinking about repetition with variety to ensure multiple means of representation and expression and to focusing on engaging students by focusing on the functions of literacy can be a pretty big paradigm shift when looking at how education should work for this population of students.

Ultimately, I was just thrilled to be sitting in a room where UDL was being discussed with explicit focus on students who seem to often to be left out of the UDL discussion.

Supporting Communication
This is one that I came back from Camp ALEC last summer understanding much more deeply but the work that we did with core boards during the workshop last week got me even more excited. David and Karen have been doing work around developing core vocabulary boards that will be available to everyone that can be used as a bridge for those students who need a way to communicate but do not have a comprehensive language system. For a better explanation of this, check out the module on core vocabulary from the DLM Professional Development website. During the week, we used the core boards a few times to engage in different literacy activities and it was great to see just how much conversation could be generated with just the first 40 words. The bottom line is that being able to engage in conversation during literacy activities does not have to be restricted to answering yes/no to lists that have been generated. I went in having a pretty good feel for the power of core but being able to engage with it during the week has me even more excited about it as I could see how it can be used in creating back and forth interactions and in developing much needed skills related to being strategic with the words that are available.

One other important statement that was made during the stretch of time that we were playing with core in one of the activities is that it positions us as communication partners to really support the student and ask questions to understand what they are trying to say. This moves us away from the idea of not responding until something is said in some predefined format and toward authentic and meaningful communication.

Dynamic Learning Maps Professional Development Website 
I wanted to end this post by including a piece that I was very aware of before taking this course but came to better understand how it can be used in implementation during the course. So much of the information that David and Karen present at these workshops is now available to anyone online for free through the Dynamic Learning Maps Professional Development website. What a goldmine this is for people who were in the position I was in four years ago - feeling like there was so much more to what literacy instruction could be for these students but not really confident about how to make that happen. Now, all it takes is to go to the Dynamic Learning Maps Professional Development website and begin working through the modules they have there. The great thing from the implementation standpoint is that a person can work through the modules on their own or use the facilitate module resources to work in a group through the modules. This also opens up opportunities to go back and relearn the things that have been presented or have something to pass on to those who want to learn more about any component of a program that we are trying to implement.  It's such an amazing resource!