Kelly Scott Moroz, August 2011Bringing the Best Out of Special Needs Students in Times of School Budget Cuts

Cuts in the public sector school board have sparked panic for parents and teachers working with children with special needs. The funding has been lessened for teacher assistants, school psychologists responsible for assessment and treatment, and specialized individuals who work with specific populations. The current edition of Practical Child Psychology emphasizes the need for remaining public board psychologists and private psychologists to attempt to meet with teachers and other school personnel as soon as possible in the 2011-2012 school year; more than ever, practical planning and providing the rationale behind various simplified classroom interventions will be of necessity to promote a more productive and positive experience for all those involved. I suggest that three tangible intervention tools be relied upon, particularly during those instances of the day when more independent work is required, or in situations where problem behaviours tend to occur (e.g., circle time, physical education class). These tools include concrete timing devices, visual reminder lists and schedules, and simplified reward systems. In my experience, reliance on these few techniques tend to provide significant results, while at the same time requiring little time and energy on the part of the classroom teacher.

Timing devices: Many of the children who receive specialized or more individualized care at school tend to experience exaggerated challenges understanding the concept of time. Much more so than typical developing children, these students tend to find monotonous tasks extremely long and arduous, while pleasurable activities can seem to end too abruptly and unfairly to them. At our office, we are in favour of the use of concrete tools that signify the amount of time remaining in various tasks and activities. We are big on the use of the Time Timer line of clocks; these are the clocks that show a red pie decreasing in size as time limits approach. When using this type of device, many children report that they are less likely to give in to their distractibility tendencies, and more able to push through feelings of boredom as they notice that there is less time left than expected to complete the given task. As such, the use of this type of device often results in reducing tangential thinking and increasing the likelihood of holding the end product more often in mind. In conjunction with a clearly posted schedule of upcoming subjects and events, these types of timing devices tend to aid with the predictability of upcoming transitions, more often enabling students to clean up previous tasks, and be better prepared for upcoming ones. Some of these timing tools permit the opportunity to draw different timelines on the laminated face of the clock, which can be utilized to illustrate to children where they should be at during various components of more independent work (e.g., for more lengthy written work: brainstorming phase, writing component, editing phase).

Visuals charts and organizing aids: Many children with learning needs encounter challenges with their working memory; that is, holding information in mind while working through a task. For many of the children I see, it can feel like they experience amnesia for things heard or seen only moments earlier. Working memory challenges can hinder the ability to recall the steps necessary to complete more complicated math problems, remember spelling rules, or understand what they require in preparation for future subjects or activities. These children often report to me that they feel like they should be doing something, but they cannot remember what it is. In my experience, simply scribbling down a picture of a few multistep directives on a sticky note pad (that the child carries with him or her) magnificently increased the chances of the child’s follow through to task completion. Small laminated reminder lists placed strategically in various locations at home or school seem well worth the time spent designing them.

Simple reward systems: Without the use of a small but structured reward system, clocks, visuals, or any other means of bringing about greater success are significantly limited. I strongly believe that supporting parents in their home to establish a token economy system is crucial to later enhancing the success of the child at school. A token economy system is essentially a behavioural intervention whereby children accumulate concrete tokens, such as poker chips, to reward them for specific behaviours. The first step is to follow the lead of the child to set up a list of rewards. Arrange these rewards into daily (e.g., each point equates to 15 minutes of screen time), weekly (e.g., a Dairy Queen Blizzard costs 12 points), and more long-term types of rewards (e.g., a new video game costs 150 points). Next, create a few visual lists outlining expectations; this list will also outline how many points are obtained for each completed task. Points must be administered as immediately as possible following these desired behaviours. A smooth running token economy system is probably the most dramatic behavioural intervention when it comes to increasing compliance, cooperativeness, and agreeability in the home environment.

Next, a similar system conducted in an even more simplified manner should ensue in the school environment. I suggest that one single behaviour in need of improvement be rated at select times throughout the day, on a scale of one to five (e.g., rating the child’s performance during independent reading time, circle time, journaling, etc.). A sticky note or small laminated sheet with three to five rating lines on it (placed in the near vicinity of the child) will only require the child’s teacher to walk to this area and rate a number on one of the lines at the end of the rating period. This sticky then needs to be sent home with the child (e.g., stuck inside his or her agenda); upon returning home, parents are to add up the number of points and exchange them for tokens within the context of their home token economy.

In these times of school budget cuts, I believe that the follow-through on these few techniques could actually present as an opportunity to enhance independence and task completion more from a distance, with less over-the-shoulder type of support. The key for psychologists now will be to walk teachers through these interventions in as practical a way as possible. Depending on the comfort level of the teacher and school personnel in general, I recommend role playing these interventions in the actual classroom. This article in no way attempts to downplay the serious challenges that many parents, teachers, and students will now have to endure with the recent funding issues, however, it attempts to persuade psychologists to sell the simplicity and effectiveness of a few techniques that, in my opinion, provide the greatest results for the time and effort involved in implementation. As a psychologist, I usually urge parents to purchase and supply the teacher with a Time Timer clock and, with the help of their therapist, design a few laminated visual charts to be selectively placed in the child’s environment. I find that the greatest success is often achieved in situations whereby these techniques are put into place almost immediately as the school year commences.

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