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Reinforcement or Bribery?

Ever get tripped up by a parent or colleague asking you the question "isn't that bribery?"  You try to be quick on your feet but end up tongue tied and questioning yourself.  Read about the key differences between reinforcement and bribery.

Did I make you shudder?  Good, I hope so.  You may have encountered a parent or even a coworker that asks you that dreaded question when you explain the concept of reinforcement.  “Isn’t that bribery?”  It can leave even the most well versed and knowledgeable of us dumbfounded.  Maybe you even questioned to yourself, “is this bribery?”
If you happen to fall in the last category, I won’t judge you, I swear!  It’s one of those basic parts of ABA that people really get tripped up by when they first learn about it.  But do know that reinforcement and bribery are not the same.  At all.

The Two Big Differences:

Timing: Many times, bribes take place before or during a behavior.  You might ask a child “if I buy you ice cream, will you do your homework?”  Or, many will start verbally throwing up all types of reinforcers when they child is acting up.  “I’ll let you play the iPad if you stop ripping up your paper”.

Outcome: The textbook definition of reinforcement is: a consequence that increases the likelihood of that behavior occurring.  A reinforcer is only reinforcing if the behavior increases.  However, if you are bribing, it is likely the only behavior that is going to increase is the one that lead the student the strongarm you in to giving him that iPad!

 How do I make sure I am not accidentally bribing?

All of us have said the words “if (do some undesired behavior), then (something the student really loves)” in our time as special educators.  This is a very intentional thing called Premack Principal.  It is based on a theory that if you present a less desirable activity followed by a desirable activity, the undesired is more likely to be engaged in.  Use this BEFORE those behaviors so that you are not intentionally bribing!

Frankly, we all have behavior that is dictated by reinforcement.  We work because we want a paycheck.  We walk in to Target because we want to check out the Dollar Spot.  It’s okay for our students to be reinforced.  We just have to make sure we’re doing it the right way.

Prepping for Next Year: What You Can Do Now

It’s started.  The memes joking about how frazzled teachers are.  Except it’s not a joke and it’s too close for comfort.  Honestly, it is going to be rough getting through these last few weeks.  However, don’t abandon ship  just yet.  As tired as you are, chances are you are going to go in to another year with too much to do.  We always seem to forget how frantic the beginning of the year is, and as a result things might not be as organized, your work centers might not be as killer as you hoped.  Trust me: put a little extra work in now and you’ll be thankful you did.

Clean out and organize for next year

You’re going to have to figure out how to stuff everything in your closets anyway, so you might as well really sift through everything and get rid of what you really don’t need.  Be ruthless.  Between doing this to my own classroom along with doing this when moving in to my house, trust me, stuff just weighs you down.  You’re probably not going to use that calendar worksheet you made your first year teaching that, at the time, you thought was stellar.  Those baby toys you’re holding on to meanwhile you teach middle school?  Give them away to the kindergarten teacher.  After you have just the necessities left, organize it in a way that make sense to you.

Reflect on classroom setup, schedule, etc.

There are some things that are really hard to try to implement mid year, like centers or a work task system.  Now is a perfect to put plans in to place and prep so that it’s easier next year.  Want to finally make a really awesome work task system?  Get to making tasks and brainstorming what bookshelf and containers you can use.  Want to actually have a chance to train your paraprofessionals?  Start getting materials ready.

Refresh your materials

What materials could make your year better next year?  Now is an excellent time to ask yourself and write projects for Donors Choose.  The summer will give you a solid 2-3 months to gather donations with less urgency.  Even if that just means having a solid supply of lamination and Velcro, hey, no shame in your game.  Click here to read one of my first blog post with some tips of how I try to make the most of my Donor’s Choose projects.

Changing all together

You may even want to have a really serious conversation with yourself as to whether or not you want to stay in the same place altogether.  This could mean just changing positions in your grade or even changing school.  Really think about what is working for you and what isn’t.  You aren’t married to one type of classroom or one school.  On the flip slide, ask yourself if you ready to leave or do you still feel like you need more time to improve yourself In your current situation.

Nobody wants to think about next year when this year is not even finished, but doing so can save you a lot of time and effort next year.  

Ways to Up the Ante in Your Work Task System

My guess is every special ed teacher remembers that magical moment (or long stretch, because lets be honest this stuff takes a long time to put together) when they finally had a workable, abundant work tasks system in place.  Whether you were really zealous and put one in place your first year, or it took you a few years to get it together (like me), it was as awesome feeling to know you had an arsenal of tasks ready to go at a moment’s notice.  You knew that it would be a great area for your kids to work in independently, and if there weren’t quite at that point, the help of a trusted para would be there to gently prompt them through the routine. 
If you have been taking advantage of all that a good work tasks system has to offer, you have probably realized that eventually the system gets to be a little too easy.  This totally happened to me last year: my students were killer at working independently right off the bat, to the point I literally had to show them once how the routine went and they got it.  Of course, we want out students to be working independently, but we still want to do so at a level that is not going to leave them bored and underwhelmed.  Since adding the right amount of rigor for our students should always be at the forefront of our minds, I began to think about the ways I could make our work tasks more challenging.

If your kids are too advanced for the whole schedule with pieces thing, you can always write out a schedule for them to follow.  In my classroom, I have my students keep their independent work schedule in their binders, which they now know to retrieve when it is their time to work in the independent work station.  Using a list form is a little more complicated for them because that direct connection between the piece they’re using and the work tasks box is no long there.  They either have to adapt by taking the list with them, or have the working memory to remember the task they need and retrieve it.

If your students are readers, you can always identify the work tasks by a word or phrase.  I have several boxes that are labeled with the activity that is contained in them.  Even if you have students in your class that are not quite ready for that, you can still mix in word-labeled tasks with number/letter-labeled tasks.  I also like to leave my work tasks out of order.  It drives my one para crazy, but I actually like they fact it requires my students to visually scan for the box they are looking for instead of relying on the letter/numbers/words being bunched together.

You can build up students’ stamina by making the work tasks take longer or more challenging.  Do this by adding more pieces or adding extra steps.  We have several tasks that are more advanced academic tasks, such as measuring or answering questions about a menu.  Here is a task made from hardware.  I actually got the kit from a Donor’s Choose project.  The kit comes with all sorts of hardware pieces, along with instructions for different work tasks students can complete.  The work tasks range from simpler to more complicated.

I have had some nay sayers say that work task system seems to be more geared for higher support and/or younger students.  However, I think having the right type of work task system can work well in any autism classroom.  For my students this year, it was not so much about the work tasks involved and much more about the routine of working independently.  The routine works on so many executive functioning skills from planning, problem solving, and initiation.

How to Use Amazon Alexa in Your Autism Classroom

Our kids love technology like us teachers love the Target Dollar Spot, or wine on a Friday evening.  I love to say that the world of teaching autism changed with the invention of the iPad.  We can get some serious establishing operations out of technology with our guys.  Motivation is so key in teaching any type of behavior, whether that be academic or not.
I used to hate these types of new technology that would be released.  Initially, Alexa seemed so frivolous and like something that could be novel for a few minutes before I threw it in to a kitchen drawer.   However, Amazon Alexa piqued my interested when I was told all that it can do.  Tell me the weather while I’m on my way out the door to work?  Check!  Let me pick out which album I feel like listening to, all while I do my Saturday morning cleaning and I’m up to my elbows in bathroom cleaner?  Check!  Add every random items I need on to my Amazon shopping list that I would probably forget all about otherwise?  Check!
I began thinking about how it could be used in my classroom.  What if I could use that motivation to get my students to practice speaking and not even realize what I was trying to do?  If Alexa could get my students going like the other types of technology we use on a daily basis, it could open the doors to a new level of language.
Thankfully I was right!  Here are just some of the ways I have found Alexa useful.

Alexa is a tricky lady.  I can’t tell you how many times I have been at home and asked her to play Judas Priest and instead gotten something was was definitely not by the fathers of metal.  Aside from a Long Island accent that haunts me like a ghost, I think I speak somewhat clearly.  The fact that Alexa is super motivating really pushes my kids to speak clearly and slowly.  It was somewhat aggravating for some of my students with more advance speech needs.  However, once they hit the jackpot, they will keep asking her question after question.

It might seem like speaking to Alexa would be the opposite of social (because you’re really talking to a machine), but there are actually several games that can be played with others.  A favorite of my students is rock paper scissors.  You play against Alexa by calling out your choice (rock, paper, or scissors).  My students are motivated enough to work together and take turns to beat Alexa.

If you google “questions to ask Alexa”, you will stumble upon pages of websites with just that.  These website are great primers for getting students to ask Alexa questions.  Once they get in to the swing of things, they can start asking their own questions.  The fact you can ask about almost anything and everything creates some awesome opportunities too.

Alexa is also particular about the way you phrase your questions.  So many times my students have tried asking about a favorite movie or TV show, only to be responded with “sorry, I can’t find the answer to your question”.  She’s kind of merciless, so it makes phrasing my students questions correctly even more pressing for my kids.

There are two games I love for answering and answering questions: The Animal Game and The Guess the Animal Game.  They are essentially the same game, except that for the first you have Alexa guess that animals, and the last you are guessing the animal.  These games are also really great for practicing science vocabulary, as she is asking all sorts of questions about the types of diet, habitats, of the animals.

Alexa is an awesome tool for many executive functioning skills that can fall short with out guys.  You can set alarms, timers, and even add important items to your calendar.  It’s a great tool to get students practicing managing their time.

Sometimes we just need to leave our students to do independent work.  Alexa is really awesome for answering those simple questions.  Thanks to Alexa, they know a method of getting their questions answered if I am not available.  If they are not sure of an answer to an addition problem, ask Alexa.  If they’re editing their work and not sure if they spelled a work right, ask Alexa.  One way I have making sure my students are not getting too dependent on Alexa is by having them fill out this worksheet simultaneously while doing their work.  Depending on the student, I give them a goal the maximum amount of times they can ask Alexa a question.

Do you have experience with Alexa in or out of the classroom?  What are some of your favorite way to use it?

4 Things You've Wondered About Token Economies but were afraid to ask

Token economies: If you have even spent a day inside an autism classroom, it’s more than likely not your first rodeo using token economies.  Token economies are used so often because they are so versatile: you can target reinforcement of several behaviors at once, you can run them so that students are using them independently or in a dependent or interdependent fashion, and it allows for students to earn whichever type of reinforcement their little hearts desire.

However, I think the versatility and simplicity of token economies sometimes lends to us making some mistakes when using them.  You might be in the middle of working with a student, and all the sudden you’re at a lost for how to administering the token economy in the moment, or worse, it seems like the token economy is not working at all to change your student’s behavior.  You second guess yourself for a minute.

Well, I am here to clear the air about some of the things you might have silently asked yourself while using a token economy.

This is a great question that I don’t think people ask nearly enough.  It seems like common sense to most of us to just show a kid a token board and they’ll magically understand that they can earn stuff.  Not the case many times!  Yes, often you can get away with explaining the token economy, the schedule of reinforcement, and possible backup reinforcers.  However, there are some students that need somebody to actually TEACH them.  How to do so?
Tokens should be paired with tangible reinforcers at first.  To do this, a token should be delivered at the same time as the tangible reinforcer.  So for a while, you might have to hand over a cookie or give them a moment with an iPad and simultaneously slap a token on their token board.  It might be a nuisance to do this, especially since you are probably using a token board for the whole ease of it.  However, if tokens aren’t reinforcing to the student, there will be no point of even using them!

Nah, son.  Pretty much anything tangible can be used as tokens to exchange for backup reinforcers.  I have seen blocks, marbles, even simple tallies on a piece of paper.   If you think your guys might be too big for token boards, things like paperclips, poker chips, and other small items can work.  If you want to stick to a whole-class system, you can make it super functional and use (fake) money as tokens where students have to “pay” for their backup reinforcers.  If you want to up the ante and make it really fit life skills application, you can have your students use a balance that they have to use to keep track of their tokens.
If you have students that you can rely on to administer tokens to themselves, you can also put a self-monitoring system in place.  Not only does it take the onus of administering tokens to the learner, but it also teaches students to taken responsibility of making sure they are exhibiting desired behavior.  Read more about how I use self-monitoring.

The term “fading” seems simple enough, but there are some things to keeps in mind when fading a token economy.  First, you want to make sure you’re not doing it too abruptly.  Just because Johnny was able to earn tokens in 3 minute intervals on Monday does not mean they should be moved up to 5 minute intervals on Tuesday.  Make sure to wait to increase the intervals/ratios after the student has been earning consistently.  Take data so you are not second-guessing about whether the learner is ready or not.

I have seen token economies run like this.  However, do make sure that it’s made known to the student about which behaviors will cause them to lose tokens.  It’s not fair to threaten a student that they will lose a token because they are acting up without defining to them what “acting up” is.  Make sure that if there’s a system of punishment, they are made aware and it is ALWAYS paired with a system of reinforcement.

Have any other questions about token economies or anything else behavior related?  I have something in the works and I would LOVE to answer any and all questions related to behavior.  Click below and shoot me an email!

How to Encourage Your Students to Take Ownership of Their Learning with IEP Goal Tracking

Learning should not be a one-track conversation for students, and that includes our students with disabilities.  Imagine being at work and having no knowledge or input on what your yearly goals were?  How weird!  You wouldn’t even know what was expected of you, or in you were headed in the right direction.  This should be no exception for our students.  As a matter of fact, having the opportunity can really help with student's executive functioning skills  
Last year, I began to focus on having my students reflect on their learning.  I was pleasantly surprised at how much they could do, and how it motivated them to keep working towards their goals.
This is why I developed my IEP Goal Tracking and Self-reflection pack.  I knew our kids would be able to reflect, even if it was in a super simple, straight forward way.
There is a myriad of reasons our special education students should self-reflect on their learning: it helps them learn important executive functioning skills, makes them aware of what goals they are working on, and gives them ownership of their learning.  Read about how I help my students take control of their learning.

Here is how I set up my students’ IEP Goal Tracking binders:

First, I give it a cover.  Not the most important step, but a cute cover makes everything a little better.
There is a myriad of reasons our special education students should self-reflect on their learning: it helps them learn important executive functioning skills, makes them aware of what goals they are working on, and gives them ownership of their learning.  Read about how I help my students take control of their learning.

Second, I fill out an IEP Goal Sheet for each student’s goals.  It also allows you to list the objectives of each goal.  No lie, my students get ridiculously excited when they can check off that an objective had been met.
There is a myriad of reasons our special education students should self-reflect on their learning: it helps them learn important executive functioning skills, makes them aware of what goals they are working on, and gives them ownership of their learning.  Read about how I help my students take control of their learning.

Third, we fill out our data tracking sheet.  We use this to track our scores and how we were assessed.

There is a myriad of reasons our special education students should self-reflect on their learning: it helps them learn important executive functioning skills, makes them aware of what goals they are working on, and gives them ownership of their learning.  Read about how I help my students take control of their learning.

Next, we fill in our self-reflection sheet.  Students reflect on how they were assessed and how they feel about the direction they’re headed in in terms of meeting their goal.
One of my students took the liberty of adding some of his own reflection option, haha!

Lastly, we add a brand new data point to our data graph.  There are a few graphs included, since of course, not every graph is measured by percentage and not all our students have mastered translating a score in to a percentage.
There is a myriad of reasons our special education students should self-reflect on their learning: it helps them learn important executive functioning skills, makes them aware of what goals they are working on, and gives them ownership of their learning.  Read about how I help my students take control of their learning.
To reinforce the idea of reflecting on our learning, we use the Self-reflection exit tickets daily during Teacher Time to reflect on our understanding of what we learned that day.  I love seeing how honest my students are in their reflections.  Best of all?  These exit tickets are easy to attach to a permanent product or data sheet.
My result with implementing our IEP goal and self-reflection binders?  My students are taking ownership of their learning.  I have one student who has made the biggest impact personally.  This is a student that had so much trouble with failure.  In the beginning of the year, the mere thought of not knowing something to mastery was aversive to him.  I’m taking about negative self-talk, walking out of the room, and basically a total meltdown whenever he didn’t perform to the level he wanted.  He still has his moments, but being made aware of his goals and having a system to track them has seriously desensitized him to the idea of not knowing everything.

You can find my IEP Goal Tracking and Reflection kit in my Teachers Pay Teachers Store.  Click below to see it!

There is a myriad of reasons our special education students should self-reflect on their learning: it helps them learn important executive functioning skills, makes them aware of what goals they are working on, and gives them ownership of their learning.  Read about how I help my students take control of their learning.

Tips for Getting Through a Personal Crisis as a Special Educator

As special education teachers, we go through a lot emotionally to help our students. When personal crisis hits, it can be really hard to manage.

We experience some serious ish as special education teachers.  How many people can say thy have dealt with the things we deal with?  From aggression to changing diapers, there are some things most people could never imagine.  We may even have kids dealing with so much more than their special needs: like poverty or living in foster care.  It’s unfathomable how some of our neediest students have so much more going on than just disabilities, and we are witness to that.
As much as we might be exposed to when working in a field like this, most of us can manage dealing with these things.   We may absorb some of this, sure.  However, most of us are blessed to come home to our own families, a safe and comfortable place to call home, and the security of knowing we’ll be able to afford essentials. 
But just when you think things are going great, life outside of work can throw you a curve ball.  Life happens to us too.  Take it from me: this whole summer, all I could think about was new classroom work tasks, and how I would coordinate my classroom with my new Astrobrights paper.  A week before the start of school, my mom was diagnosed with cancer.  I’m so thankful to say we’re at the end of her treatment and she will be back to her usual self in a few months.  However, since the diagnosis, my mindset has shifted extremely.  School years previously, I didn’t bat an eye at spending money on printer ink or snacks for the classroom.  Now I limit my spending “just in case”.  Last year I didn’t think twice about taking a day to get personal business finished.  Now I ration my personal days carefully to make sure I’m available to take my mom to doctor's appointments.
I’m not going to lie, it can be overwhelming to deal with things like family illness or divorce when working with some of the neediest of needy kids.  However, over the past few months, I have learned some tips and tricks that help me cope.

Devote yourself to being present

Going in to this school year, this was the one goal I had for myself.  I never dealt with anything as close to this and I had no idea how I would handle it.  I knew, however, that my students deserved all of me when I was at work.  Whatever is going on outside of work, not bringing your whole effort during school hours will not change it.  Getting myself in to this type of mindset also helps because work can serve as a great distraction.  Being productive makes difficult times a little manageable.  There are days I wake up and there is nothing less I want to do than get up and spend the day at school.  However, once I am there, I am so happy to be engaging with my students and staff and I am seriously thankful I did get my butt there.  Life will still move forward even in times of personal difficulty.

Ask for help

Hopefully you all are as blessed as I am to work with exceptional staff.  One of the things that has lifted me up this year has been my paras.  On the first day of orientation, I let them know off the bat what was going on.  Don’t be afraid to make your classroom staff aware of what is going on.  I don’t mean to divulge in uncomfortable details or let conversation take over your classroom, but let them know.  Prepare them in advance in case you may have to take a day unexpectedly.  My paras know exactly what to do on the days I have had to be out to be with my mom.  I also made the point to my staff that seeing them work hard is going to make me want to give my best.   If they see I am having a tough time, they know to spring in to action in order to help us all do what needs to be done.

Get your ducks in a row

If you are in a situation like mine, you may find yourself in a position where you need to take more time off than you normally would like.  If there is that potential, make sure you you are well prepared.  See what the rules are about taking several days.  Discuss with your union rep about the process of FMLA.  Even if it's hopeful you won't be in the type of situation, it's still a good idea to get this stuff sorted out before it's an issue.  You should also be prepared with lessons and sub plans in the event you have to be out.  

It’s totally okay to not have money or time to spare

Time and money are valuable.  If you are going through a rough patch, you may be limited with both.  You are under no obligation that you MUST spend either your time or your money outside of work for work.  If you need money or time to make whatever you’re going through manageable, take care of yourself and your family first.  Your classroom will still run if you don’t spend all Sunday planning.  Your kids can have great learning experiences just because you didn’t shell out money for classroom materials.

Make sure your needs are being met

I know us special ed teachers are notoriously good at throwing the whole “put yourself first” thing to the wind.  During this time, though, you better take that advice.  You may be stretched thin, so it’s especially important to make sure you’re taking care of yourself: Get enough sleep, eat your veggies, and devote some time to making sure you can handle it all.  If you're stretched thin, you're even more apt to end up sick, so it is imperative to keep yourself healthy so you can keep taking care of it all.

If you're going through a tough time, please know I am routing for you.  It's not easy to have such an emotionally taxing job and be going through a tough time, but your kids, their parents, and I are thankful for you pushing through it!

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