Teacher resources and professional development across the curriculum

Teacher professional development and classroom resources across the curriculum

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Attention and Autism

daydream iconWhen I create resources for teaching and learning, I keep in mind the different kinds of learners that are in any given classroom where a teacher uses the content or activity.  In that classroom will be students with a range of learning style preferences, talents, cognitive or physical challenges, and socio-economic backgrounds. Some of those students will have autism.

The Autism Society designates April as National Autism Awareness Month, prompting me to spend some time learning about autism spectrum disorder (ASD) and what parents and teachers can do to create optimal learning environments for children with autism.

I started by asking the mother of an autistic 7th grader what she wishes educators knew about the needs of students with autism. She told me that her daughter Nina can be resistant when asked to perform specific tasks, and that it’s important that teachers don’t interpret “I won’t” as “I can’t.” Her daughter succeeds when teachers offer alternative approaches to engaging Nina in the work at hand. It’s helpful to understand that “I won’t” may be a coping mechanism some students use in response to classroom distractions or feeling pressured. When students get something wrong the first time, it is helpful to give them time to rethink their responses and try again.

Nina’s mom told me that her daughter, like many people with autism, is stressed and loses focus in environments that are noisy or cluttered. Reducing physical and mental abstractions is critical for gaining and maintaining the attention of all students. Neuroscience & the Classroom, unit 4, “Different Minds, Different Learners,” section 5, What teachers can do, provides techniques teachers can readily employ to help all students decrease their stress and increase their focus on learning. Simple and practical solutions like using a warm tone of voice or eliminating stressful and unnecessary activities such as pop quizzes help. Headphones block distracting noise and technology tools help students manage routine tasks.

Finally, Nina’s mom pointed out that her daughter doesn’t know that she is “different” and she shouldn’t be treated as if she were. That is to say, Nina, like every other student in the classroom, has worth, talents to cultivate, challenges to overcome, and a future ahead of her. This point is beautifully made in the “Success Story” video in unit 4. In the video Dr. Stephen Shore describes how the “autism bomb” that was dropped on him when he was a toddler became, as he says, “an asset” that makes him a better professor and a better musician.

As educators we share the goal of understanding and responding to all our students’ strengths and challenges. Finding ways to limit distractions and stress is a big part of that. What techniques do you use to help your students give all of their attention to learning?

Think Like an Animal

Dr. Temple Grandin, Professor of Animal Science at Colorado State University, has the ability to think in pictures much like the cows for whom she designs more humane cattle facilities. Her holding pens are used all over the world, and her papers on animal behaviors help livestock owners reduce the stress of these animals. She has written several books about animal behaviors, including “Animals Make Us Human,” “Thinking in Pictures,” “Livestock Handling and Transport,” and “Genetics and the Behavior of Domestic Animals.”  Despite being born with autism and living with the challenges that go along with the brain disorder,  Dr. Grandin is a remarkable example of someone who has overcome her obstacles. She believes that the early interactions she had with her family, caregivers, and teachers helped her develop her strengths. Dr. Grandin’s Web site includes information about her life, works, and a Q&A about living with autism.

Autism causes difficulties in social interaction and communication, but is also associated with strengths in areas such as music, math, and art. On her site and in her interviews, Dr. Grandin cites early intervention and attention as the key to open doors for children with autism. Engage autistic children with the world around them, teach them how their brains work and what their strengths are, and they’ll have a better chance of learning how to adapt socially and academically.  By providing them examples of successful people like Dr. Grandin, we empower students to seek their own success stories.

Neuroscience & the Classroom, unit 4, “Different Minds, Different Learners,” section 5, What teachers can do, provides techniques teachers can use to help students decrease their stress and increase attention in the classroom.  Go to the video page for section 4 and hear Dr. Stephen Shore and Dr. Temple Grandin talkabout their abilities as individuals with autism.

Dr. Grandin is also featured in The Brain: Teaching Modules, module 29, “Autism.” This program provides both a historical perspective of autism and current beliefs about why autism occurs.

The World of Abnormal Psychology, program 11, “Behavior Disorders of Childhood,” looks at challenges and solutions for families who have children with behavior disorders. Autism is discussed specifically at 42:06.