I’m privileged to welcome one of the most influential people on our education journey to the blog today. I first met Craig Smith at ASPECT, when he came out to undertake a transition visit for Gilbert after he started mainstream schooling. Since then, Craig has supported Gilbert in ASPECT sponsored after school activities, in his recent transition to high school and, along the way, has taught me so much about using positive strategies to educate our kids.
Craig has generously shared 5 strategies to positively support special needs students. These strategies are for both parents and teachers and are approaches that can be used for life, not just through the schooling years Thanks so much to Craig for sharing his knowledge and passion as part of the ‘5 Things’ series.
I have worked in autism education for nearly fifteen years now and have had the pleasure of working alongside many hundreds of wonderful families, unique young people and inspiring educators. I am always on the look out for the best strategies that support everybody, particularly to make sure that our young people enjoy a high quality of life and are successful in what they work towards.
A couple of years ago I decided to write a small book called ‘Kindness Savant Will Pixelate’ that would help me keep in mind some of the most important ideas that I found helped students at school and at home. I originally had only four ideas in mind, but because this wonderful blog is encouraging ‘5 things’ I am going to add a new, additional idea just for this blog.
5 Strategies to Positively Support Special Needs Students
Get to know our Children
I know it sounds obvious, but it really is the most crucial piece of advice I give to the educators I work with. Parents, you know your children very well, of course, and for you I would suggest that the most important thing you can do is to help the educators working with your child to know what you know. There are may tools that can help you put down on paper some of the key things about your child – one page profiles are one such tool, and Positive Partnerships have a wonderful planning matrix that can help you to articulate the characteristics and needs of your child in a way that helps to communicate these as part of a team with your school and therapists.
Recognise the value of Universal Designs
Universal Design is the design and composition of an environment so that it can be accessed, understood and used to the greatest extent possible by all people, regardless of their age, size, ability or disability. I think that special needs parents have a natural knack for understanding this – you understand the needs of your child and the parts of society that make it either harder or easier for your child to be successful in.
For example, if you are in a wheelchair, your ability to be independent and free in moving around a city is determined not by your own intentions, but rather by the accessible facilities around you. If there are curb cuts and ramps in the streets you’re navigating, you are much more free to move around than if they are not there. And you also start to realise that this does not just relate to disability, this relates to a spectrum of needs – perhaps you are pushing a pram, or pulling travel luggage behind you, and if there is a ramp instead of stairs you will be much more successful in moving around.
We want to create a society that does not put boundaries up for others, but rather makes things universal for everybody to access. You can find out more about universal design here: http://universaldesign.ie/What-is-Universal-Design/
And, if you are interested in how this relates to education and classrooms, you can find wonderful information in this here: http://www.cast.org/our-work/about-udl.html
The Edutainer and The Behaviour Detective
My advice to teachers is to be two things for your children – first, they need to be Edutainers. That is, they need to be teachers who know how to teach a topic in an engaging manner. They need to be able to grip the imagination of your child, to inspire them in the way they relate to the content being taught. An Edutainer can take basketball and a torch and close the blinds of the classroom and turn the basketball into a moon, orbiting around the sunlight of the torch, showing the class how it orbits around, day and night, in an engaging manner that excites the class and can make them laugh and learn in creative ways.
And, we need our teachers to be Behaviour Detectives. When our children demonstrate a challenging behaviour, we want our teachers to be able to ask why, and to recognise that all behaviour is a form of communication. What are our children trying to communicate through the behaviour they are showing us? What do we need to teach them in order to give them the skills they require to make happier and more productive choices? I try and share ideas on these approaches through my website – Autism Pedagogy.
Strengths and Interests
This is one of the most important ideas for me. We should always make time to focus and celebrate the things that are children are good at and are fascinated with. Sometimes these are one and the same – our children might be fascinated by dinosaurs, and as a result they become very good at understanding all about dinosaurs! Sometimes they are distinct – a child might have a special interest in Russian history, but their strength may be in working with numbers. I feel that more doors open up for our children when we understand their strengths and interests, and when we help our children to understand how to use these strengths and interests as they grow up.
I’ll give you an example – a student I used to work with loved dance music. It was his favourite thing in the world. Rather than asking him to leave his interest in music at home, we always made the opportunity to incorporate it into our lessons wherever possible. He could present his history assignment as a song, he could learn numbers while counting the rhythm of a beat, we always used what he was interested in to motivate his engagement in other areas. And, he flourished. When we focused on what he was good at, he kept getting better at it, and it extended to other areas of his life. Now he has graduated from school and is pursuing a degree and a profession in music.
Now too, more than ever before, there are organisations that help you to match the strengths and interests of your children to job opportunities out there – check out the recent ABC television program ‘Employable Me’ to see some inspiring examples of this: http://www.abc.net.au/tv/programs/employable-me-australia/
My final recommendation that I want you to know is that it is not only ok to laugh sometimes, but that it is crucial. In my classrooms, I always encouraged humour and laughter. One of my students ran into school a few years ago, one warm Summer’s morning. He came up very close to my face, staring intently at me with wide, excited eyes, and he started to speak with an attempted steadiness that tried to mask his excitement. “You’ll never believe what happened to me this morning. I. Have. Super. Powers. I can actually, really and truly, melt ice cubes just by staring at them with my eyes. It takes about thirty minutes, but it happens!” I thought this was one of the funniest things I had ever heard.
We can be weighed upon by heavy thoughts sometimes, and by the challenges that we face and that our children face, but we should always make room for laugher when we can. I actually feel that a sense of wacky, surreal humour can actually help our students break out of rigid expectations and patterns sometimes. There are pockets of research going on around the world into how laughing with our children and encouraging funny moments can have all sorts of mental health and quality of life benefits.
My parting advice – sit down with your child, learn about what they are fascinated in, have a laugh with them, cherish who they are and learn how to best communicate their uniqueness to those who have the pleasure of working with them. I take my hat off to every special needs parent out there – you are incredible, you are inspiring, and you help to make the world a better and more inclusive place for everybody.
Craig Smith is passionate about helping all children, families and communities achieve the best life outcomes. He is currently on secondment working for Positive Partnerships as National Coordinator of its new Website and Learning Management Systems. Previous to this Craig coordinated a school for children with autism and worked with schools, communities and education systems around the world to develop innovative learning strategies for all learners. He is the author of a number of popular textbooks and online courses that focus on engaging the strengths and interests of children, including the best selling ‘Minecraft in your Classroom’ and ‘Explore Everything with Pokemon Go’. Craig directs the educational collective, ‘The Universal Sandpit’ and is lead editor for ‘.birches’ journal.
You can follow Craig on these platforms:
This post is part of our new series “5 Things Special Needs Parents Should Know”. If you’d like to submit a guest post, or if you have a topic you’d like covered as part of this weekly series, send your idea to firstname.lastname@example.org