Functional Skills Program Philosphy
Every teacher faces the same dilemma at some point - they are hired to teach in a setting where they have no hands on experience. This is even more difficult for special education classroom teachers - as there is usually no set curriculum and students who have a wide range of abilities and needs. Many of us also have had little formal education in working with students with special needs, especially low incidence students. It is a challenging situation!
In my mind using Applied Behavior Analysis and Skinner's Analysis of Verbal Behaviour is the only approach which makes sense for students with developmental disabilities. As Teaching Assistants (SEAs/TAs/EAs) learn how to do IT (Intensive Teaching/Discrete Trial Teaching) and integrate it into the classroom, students learned more and more. Students who had no functional language, started to mand (ask or request) for reinforcing items. All my students loved the time they had working on their Intensive Programs as long as we carefully monitored the demand/reinforcement level. Progress was slow but sure. Take a look at our classroom curriculum.
It was a huge amount of work and commitment but worth every penny and second of time.
Most students arrived in Grade 8 after spending their days in the hallways or little rooms with their Assistants. They often had histories of behaviour concerns which somehow disappear once they reached my class. ABA (Applied Behaviour Analysis) principles combined with a Verbal Behaviour approach work wonders. Students do need to learn how to work independently and with others. We had a recycling program which I was not thrilled about but was a good venue for students to learn to initiate, follow a routine, accept direction and finish a task. It was only one small part of their overall program and never took the place of academics. I am a huge believer in inclusion. I am also a firm believer that students first need to learn prerequisite skills before they can participate with their typical peers. The Functional Skills program was a good place to provide those skills. It would be even better if we could provide it from preschool until adulthood if needed.
Many of my students were in my classroom because their parents "shopped" around. Other high school Lifeskills classrooms in our district did not take the same approach as I do. I suggest that you spend the time to check out the high schools in your area, talk to other parents and be vocal in expressing both your concerns and desires. I certainly don't think that reaching high school should mean that we give up on communication and academics.
Everyone needs to remember that we can't have cookie cutter programs for our kids. Unfortunately there is no one answer that is going to be best for everyone. What we really need is a range of services that are available from total inclusion to specialized settings. It is important to work with parents on what they feel works best - and it could change from year to year depending on the student's age. What I do know is that unless everyone is on board nothing works very effectively.
Using Applied Verbal Behavior as a teaching method was the most important aspect of my class. Learn all you can about Carbone and Sundberg & Partington and use the ABBLS or the new VB-MAPP as your assessment tool. Make sure that every objective you have is observable and measurable and collect data to determine whether your methods are working.
I am really proud of the program, staff and students at Carson. None of the the students arrived with the skills they needed to be successful in an inclusive classroom setting, despite our District's best efforts at the elementary level. They made great gains due to:
- A structured classroom emphasizing school routines headed by a special education teacher, which teaches students how to work in a classroom without being dependent on an Support Worker.
- A Verbal Behaviour language/communication program where students' abilities are assessed using the ABLLS-R, which provides the individual objectives that drive our curriculum.
- A thematic approach to daily activities which provides the Natural Environment in which to generalize the skills learned in intensive teaching sessions (classes in PE, art, science etc.)
- A team of SEAs who report directly to the classroom teacher. The teacher is the team leader and provides supervision, direction and knowledge and is the expert (not the SEAs) on working with students with special needs as well as how and what to teach.
- Input of parents at whatever level they are comfortable with (including making financial donations).
- The support of a behaviour consultant with BCBA credentials.
For a short period of time the School District provided teachers with the support of a BCBA in our Verbal Behaviour group. It would have been very valuable for it to continue. I have now completed my Master of Education in Special Education and am now certified as a BCBA. I am one of a small number of Board Certified Behavior Analysts in the this province who are also members of the College of Teachers. I believe I am the only BCBA who is also providing direct instruction to students in the BC elementary/secondary school system.
I chose this educational path after I saw how valuable it was for individuals with "low functioning" autism who are not able to learn in traditional settings. The days brought challenges and delights.
Why Functional Skills?
The name Functional Skills Program seems more appropriate than Lifeskills. Somehow the term Lifeskills has become synonymous with an activity or day program where students spend their time lounging in the classroom; occasionally accompanying a classroom assistant to the store to buy food for cooking or riding the bus to the mall. Our students are entitled to a far better education than that and while reading Shakespeare may not be a priority - learning to read for pleasure and information IS. It does not take so many years for students with developmental disabilities to learn adult skills that we need to start teaching them while they are still children. Students with disabilities in high school should be receiving instruction in the least restrictive environment. If learning to cook is an IEP goal, they should be enrolled in a HomeEc class along with similar aged peers. If the IEP goal is to make a cup of tea, that might be best accomplished in the Functional Skills room. I quickly discovered that the stove, fridge and dishwasher were not frequently used for learning, however they were often used for convenience. By the end of my second year of teaching, the kitchen appliances were removed from my classroom and most students were enrolled in a HomeEc class with teacher assistant support.
I have been asked how I established my classroom layout, decided on curriculum, determined classroom management strategies and used various assessment and evaluation tools. Hopefully this account with pictures and resources that I have used will provide some inspiration. I know that I always do better when I can actually see a model. Remember that every situation is different and we should always modify and adapt to fit our own needs. The amount of time spent in this classroom varied depending on the student. This School District supports inclusion for all students - however not all students attended other classes. The number of students varied per class - the most in the classroom at any one time was 21 students and 12 staff. However most classes enrolled about 12 students. The school followed a rotating block schedule on an alternating two week cycle. We followed the same schedule.
Classroom Setup Step 1 - Take Everything Out!
| || |
Traditional wisdom when dealing with students who may have attentional, discrimination and sensory issue is that less is more. Special education classrooms have a tendency to collect everyone's cast off over the years - "Maybe the Lifeskills class can use our now outdated encyclopedias and coverless books." Throw out every puzzle that you cannot guarantee all the pieces. Take the coffee cups. coffee pots, and other articles that indicate your room might allow a less than academic approach to the staff room.
| || |
This classroom was large - about 30 x 30 with doors at either end, a large storage room and three big windows. It had high ceiling and a very dirty carpet until the end of the first year. There was a sink, fridge, stove and dishwasher. The classroom also came with a couch, chairs, a number of teacher/support staff desks, computers, many baking supplies etc. Papers covered every surface.
| || |
If an item in your room does not have an immediate purpose - get rid of it. Sensitivities to dust and molds and the very likely chance that there will be frequent spills means that floors should not be carpeted. Step 1 in organizing your new classroom is take everything out including illfitting curtains if possible. I found great floor length net curtains from IKEA that cost $7.98 each.