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Visual supports can help kids do more without adult support

A simple “visual schedule” with pictures of the four places in the classroom an autistic student goes each morning — to his cubby, the calendar, then the seat at his desk, and finally the carpet used for the morning circle — has increased the student’s independence.

A simple “visual schedule” with pictures of the four places in the classroom an autistic student goes each morning — to his cubby, the calendar, then the seat at his desk, and finally the carpet used for the morning circle — has increased the student’s independence.

Small, simple things can be great victories.

Some special education teachers in Ridgefield’s elementary schools have been exploring the use of “visual schedules” as supports to help students with disabilities do more on their own — steps toward the kind of personal autonomy taken for granted for most kids, but a distant goal for others with special needs.

“The end goal for these kids is to be as independent as possible, through as many settings as possible, to build their confidence and self esteem,” said Anthony Spinelli, a special education teacher at Barlow Mountain School.

Of 108 paraprofessional positions in the school system this year, some work in offices, others as playground monitors, but more than half — over 67 positions — work in special education. Of those, 46 attend students one-on-one and help them not only with school work but with the basics of navigating through a day at school — classrooms, hallways, routines.

“Our hope,” said Special Education Director Karen Berasi, “is children who have one-on-ones in elementary will develop enough independent skills to be able to perform within the middle school and high school environment with limited adult support.”

“What we’re already trying to do is build independence,” said Sally Monteagudo, a special education teacher at Ridgebury School.

Mr. Spinelli, Ms. Monteagudo and Jenifer Nelson, a special education teacher at Scotland School, gave presentations March 15 at the Connecticut Association of Behavioral Analysis’ ninth annual conference in Cromwell.

“Each one gave a different talk,” Ms. Berasi said. “The overall theme was use of visual supports for learning.

“They did a research review, looking at previous literature, they then took that research and they designed an intervention to apply to their own classroom, then they monitored the data…

“Then based on that data they’d make changes to the intervention to ensure their students’ success.”

The kids involved have anything “from autism to cognitive disabilities to multiple handicaps, meaning cognitive as well as physical disabilities,” she said.

“These are all students that have pretty much one-to-one paras, individualized para support,” Ms. Berasi said.

A “para” is a paraprofessional assistant, formerly called an “aide.”

The “visual schedules” or supports can help organize the demands of the school day and give the students a structure that allows them meet classroom expectations with less adult assistance.

Ms. Monteagudo works with about a dozen special education students in different classes at Ridgebury School. She created a visual support to help a student with autism get through the “morning work” routine  — often, work sheets, tailored to different students’ levels in various subjects.

“Morning work” helps students take new skills they’ve learned and build them to fluency through practice, then maintain the skills over time and eventually generalize and apply them in varied contexts.

“For my student it was basic addition, multiplication, spelling, telling time, cause-and-effect relationships,” Ms. Monteagudo said. “These are things we think, after they’re mastered: ‘He’s got them.’ But when we looked at the morning work he was not independent. He was still requiring a lot of adult support to complete them.”

Just the routine was hard.

“Kids come in, they unpack themselves, they go to the bin where morning work is, they take some out, they go to their desk, and they begin it, they work on it, they complete it, and they put it back in some different bin, or folder,” Ms. Monteagudo said.

“Even that routine he needed support in, just kind of navigating through that routine, because there are lots of steps involved.”

The visual support she created was nothing high tech.

“Just an index card, and it would say: ‘Multiplication Drill’ with a check box next to it; ‘Telling Time Drill’ with a check box next to it,” Ms. Monteagudo said.

“Kids love checking off the work that they’ve done.”

The number of items the student could complete during the 15 minutes of morning work went from 40 to 60 before using the visual support to between 100 and 110 once he was comfortable with it.

“Now he’s able to do a lot more with himself and it’s much more beneficial for him,” she said. “By using this visual schedule, we were able to kind of build that independence within him, so he wouldn’t need as much adult support, so it increased the amount of items he was able to complete.”

Ms. Monteagudo felt the success went beyond more items completed. The student responded to being able to do his work with less “adult prompting” along the way.

“To just see the level of engagement,” she said. “We couldn’t really quantify this or measure this as much: When you see a child who’s so prompt-dependent, adult- prompt-dependent, to be that engaged and be able to navigate, himself, for a 15-minute independent period and produce so much — I think everyone got excited, including him.”

Anthony Spinelli teaches in the RISE or Ridgefield Intensive Special Education Program at Barlow Mountain School. He has five kindergarten through third grade students.

He had a student who needed help with both morning and afternoon routines. A visual prompt card with pictures increased the student’s ability to function without constant adult help.

“It was designed to increase independence so the student could complete a morning routine and a clean-up routine. Again, this is a student who requires prompting through his whole day…

“There’s different levels of prompting: He required full hand-on-hand prompting, physically guiding the student to complete these routines,” Mr. Spinelli said.

The visual schedule for his morning routine now leads him through four steps that end with going to the “carpet” area where kids sit for morning circle time.

“There’s four pictures,” Mr. Spinelli said. “The first picture is of his cubby area, where he takes off his jacket and unpacks his back-pack. So the visual schedule, it cues him to go there. What he would do is he would bolt over to the calendar, because he loves numbers. So, the picture cued him to go to he cubby area first, then the second picture was go to the calendar. The third picture was to go to his seat and sit down. And the fourth picture as the carpet.

“He went from completely being physically guided through this same routine to now with this visual schedule doing it completely independently,” Mr. Spinelli said.

The approach can help parents at home.

“Independence beyond school is also a goal,” Ms. Monteagudo said.

“Huge,” Mr. Spinelli agreed.

“I helped a parent develop a visual schedule to help her child independently get dressed,” he said. “So instead of her basically have to hand on hand do it for him, she points to the next picture — like, put your shirt on — and then he knows what to do.

“Eventually, he could have that schedule by himself and complete the task independently, without the parent having to stand there.”

“Independence is part of daily living skills,” Ms. Berasi, the special education director said.

“This goes through the schools. At the high school level we have the ‘High RISE’ program, and at that level, students are using schedules to learn independent  banking, grocery shopping, cooking, and eventually our students in the 18-21 program, they learn some of these independent skills and it’s at a much higher level, to perform jobs. We have job sites, anywhere from Pamby Motors, Walgreens, students have worked in the Boehringer cafeteria, there’s up to 15 job sites.”

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