Friday, May 30, 2014

Years 35 to 37: Elementary Learning Specialist for Central Valley Schools: Winding Down and Having Some Fun!

Everyday for the last several weeks, people are asking me, "How many days left? What's the countdown?" Truth be told, I have not been counting. Although today I am aware that I do have only 15 days to go!

Over the last several months, things have not slowed down, but instead seemed to have sped up! Observations, visits for parents, meetings, and professional development trainings; all have kept me busy. I am used to doing lots of observations and early in March, Tricia, the coordinator I work for asked me to go to Liberty Lake and do an observation of a young man I've observed several times over the last three years. I thought this was unusual because I don't have this school this year, but Tricia explained that since I've built a relationship with the school concerning this boy, they had asked for me to do it specifically. And so on this particular day, I willingly got my observation sheets and trotted off to Liberty Lake!

At the school I signed in and went down to the classroom. I immediately started taking data, counting time on task in 10 second intervals. I knew that the whole school was going to an assembly, and part of what I was to observe was how this boy made the transition and coped during the assembly. I dutifully followed the class to the gym and continued taking data. In the gym the children were all gathered and I seated myself somewhere near the class so that I could continue my observations. The whole school assembly was to give out some Meritorious Award Nominations. These awards are given for service above and beyond the normal duties of your position. Each school nominates candidates and then all of the candidates are put before the school board and one or two people are chosen to receive the final awards. So there I am, carefully taking data and only half listening to the school board members talking about the candidates being nominated from Liberty Lake. Then all of the sudden, I hear my name! I think, "Why did they say my name?" And then there was clapping and people saying, "Come on up Kathy!" I was completely taken by surprise! Well, it turns out that Kristn Date, the excellent resource room teacher, had nominated me as a candidate for the award! Wow! Unbelievable! And so I went forward to get it. I look out in the audience, and there is Marci and Nicole, taking pictures and videos! Tricky ladies! Here is a little bit of what Kristin wrote when she submitted my name for this award:
"Kathy is always willing to go the extra mile for both staff and students. Her many years as an educator and in administration have given her a wealth of knowledge! She seems to know the answer to almost everything in her field! She is a true asset to those around her. I was given the opportunity to work closely with Kathy several years ago. I always felt that she was there to support me. I never felt like a burden, even when I was asking the most basic questions or repeatedly asking the same questions. She never made me feel rushed or like she needed to be somewhere else. Even though, I'm sure many times she did need to get going. I felt like she was  'present' throughout all our interactions and meetings. She made my day with her funny anecdotes about the preschoolers from her past so I wouldn't feel like I was the only one who had ever had to deal with all the situations that aren't 'text book'. It has been a true pleasure to have her on my team! I will miss her terribly." Such kind words from a truly wonderful and gifted teacher! I was beyond moved.

And then on May 7th, we had our last elementary teachers' meeting of the year. All year, Tricia has been giving out "Above and Beyond Awards". These have been a little "tongue in cheek" and lots of fun! Nicole and I tried to offer suggestions for these awards, but truth be told, Tricia was a genius with these! Impressive! So after the last one was given out, she said, "Kathy, you need to come and stand here." What? I did and she presented me with my own award. My award was "The Queen of Special Education" but only until the end of the year. This award came complete with crown and wand! Tricia said, "This is a powerful wand and so we can only let you use it until the end of the year. However, you can wave it and say, 'Now all parents will be nice,' or 'We are all done with this!'" Ha, ha! Love this wonderful group of people!!

Two more posts remain in my year long blog. Next week I will share my retirement celebration with you all! And after that, I will talk about my final days. Thank you for joining me on this journey!

Saturday, May 17, 2014

Years 35 to 37: Elementary Learning Specialist for Central Valley Schools: The "Learning Zone"

Over the years, I've met and worked with many students with extreme ADHD. I'm not talking about students who were a little wiggly in their chairs, or needed more time to run at recess, I'm talking about students who might be eating, forget mid-bite, and end up with the food on their cheeks! Seriously; that's a concern!

When I worked at Spokane Schools the first time as a preschool teacher, I had the great fortune to meet Nancy Royse. Nancy was a physical therapist with a great understanding of our body's central nervous system. Nancy could take a look at students and assess what kinds of activity they might need to do in order to get their central nervous system into what she called "the learning zone". She maintained that if a student's "system" was running too high; no learning would take place. And if that system was running too low;
again, they would not be in the "zone" to learn.

Through Nancy I learned all about using the different sensory systems our body has in order to regulate and organize the central nervous system. We are not talking about just the usual five senses of seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting and touching. We are also talking about the vestibular (movement and balance) and the proprioceptive (muscle and joints) systems. These additional sensory systems can be instrumental in organizing a student and getting them into the zone.

So over the past at least 25 years, I've tried to pass on this information. Preschool teachers, self-contained special ed teachers, resource room teachers, and yes, even general ed teachers have all heard my spiel on  how to integrate sensory activities into their daily routine in order to get their students into the zone. "Heavy work" is the backbone of my talks. Using the big muscles in our bodies, the upper arm muscles or the thigh muscles of the legs; will really help kids "engines" that are running high.

Earlier this year, I had the opportunity to go into my favorite first grade teacher's room. She had a little guy that was having a lot of trouble attending. I came in to do a time on task data sample. In the 25 minutes I observed, this student was on task less than 2 minutes. Wow! How can you learn in that situation? How can anyone learn? And this was with medication! So we decided to add some planned heavy work into this boy's daily routine. And we also worked with him to recognize when he needed to do this work in order to be ready to learn. Pushups, wall sits, and wheelbarrow walking are the heavy work exercises that work best for him. He is getting extremely good at knowing when he needs this kind of help and tells his teacher. His ability to work and focus has increased dramatically and his grades have improved. The teacher is a believer!

I will be forever grateful to Nancy and the many other PTs and OTs I've worked with for helping me understand and spread the word about sensory systems and the importance of being in the "zone". If anyone is interested in more information about this, The Alert Program is a good resource. Check it out!

Saturday, May 10, 2014

Years 35 to 37: Elementary Learning Specialist for Central Valley Schools: Observations, Meditations, and the "Right Stuff"

Over the years as an education/learning specialist, one of my greatest pleasures has been to go into classrooms and do observations. I get to see all kinds of things doing this! But in the past three years in Central Valley, I've witnessed some amazing things!

One of the best things about this school district is its' dedication to offering programs to meet a variety of levels for children with special needs. We have self contained classrooms for children who have disabilities that may impact their social behaviors, sensory issues, communication needs, etc. We have classrooms for children who need extra help that may be more time than a resource room can offer, but doesn't need to fill a child's whole day. All students, regardless of the impact of their disabilities, get time in general education classrooms as well. This is such a gift!

But no school district is infallible. Often times students are placed in one classroom, but after observations and lots of thinking and working with teams, another placement is thought to be more appropriate. During my first year in the district, we had a young man in one of our behavior classrooms. He was struggling and not making much progress. Behaviors were constant and the team was frustrated. One of this boy's co-disorders is autism, and so we decided to try moving him to a classroom with a teacher very skilled in working with students on the autism spectrum.

Now this teacher is truly amazing! She has what I would call the "right stuff"! She is skilled in discrete trial training, ABA, and the use of PECS. All of her students use visual schedules like pros! They work not only on academic tasks, but also on daily living skills, social skills, and leisure activities. The structure and routine, the empathy and care; all of this worked to make the most remarkable difference in this boy! A year and a half later, I went to do some videoing of him to share with his middle school teacher. I could not believe this was the same child! And I got a chance to watch him in his school concert play a recorder solo. The music teacher at this building is also such a gift! And after he finished his solo, he took a deep bow! I had trouble keeping back the tears.

And it's not just some of our special education teachers with remarkable skills. There is a first grade team of teachers in one of my buildings that is just spectacular. I've had the opportunity to observe them on many occasions, and I always learn something new. One of the teachers in this building teaches so much through stories and by example and ties her teaching to the PACE character education that the district uses.

So a couple of years ago, this teacher asks me to come in and help her with a boy who seems to have some anxiety and challenges with social skills. This was my first visit to this class, and I am going to share a passage from my observation with you. I think you will see why I was, and still am, so impressed with her:

Mrs. S. calls the children to the carpet to explain the math lesson. As the children gather, she plays a CD with a counting song. The children join in counting by 2’s, 3’s, 4’s and 5’s. As Mrs. S. starts the lesson, she asks that the children put their thumbs up if they understand or know the answer to a question. At one point, B. has given a “thumbs up,” but doesn’t have the right answer. Mrs. S. redirects him and he gets the answer right. She gives him a lot of appropriate praise and says she is proud of his problem solving ability. Before the children return to their tables to do their math sheet, Mrs. S. dismisses the children by colors they are wearing. B. is listening, and when he hears the color blue, he jumps up and goes to his table to start work.
B. takes a pencil but the point breaks. He gets up and sharpens it and tells Mrs. S. She reinforces his good decision making skills. He goes back and starts work. He shares information with others at his table, and gives compliments. The peer helper from fifth grade, Cody, looks up at B. working and tells him that he can write his name on the board. B. looks surprised and says to Cody, “Did the teacher tell you that you could tell me that I can write my name on the board?” Cody says, “Yes. Mrs. S. said that if I notice people doing the right thing, I can tell them to write their names on the board.” B. gets up, goes to the board, and very carefully writes his name on it. After writing it, he stops by Mrs. S. and waits for her to see him. She turns to him and he says, “I got noticed!” She says, “Who noticed you?” He looks around the room and then points to Cody saying, “Him.” Mrs. S. says, “Mr. Cody noticed you? Why did he notice you?” B. thinks for a minute and then says tentatively, “I was writing on my math paper.” Mrs. S. says, “B., you are having a fabulous day. Will you give me a high-five?” and he does. It doesn't get any better than that.

I'm going to miss these classroom visits next year.

Saturday, May 3, 2014

Years 35 to 37: Elementary Learning Specialist for Central Valley School District: One More Post About Behavior!

Sometimes in this job, it's not just the students or the teachers exhibiting inappropriate behaviors! When you work with a variety of people, schools, students and parents; you are going to see behaviors from EVERYONE. And once in a while, that included me!

My second year in Central Valley, we were having a meeting with some pretty tough parents. These parents were angry and belligerent, and disagreed with everything we were suggesting for their child. We let them vent for several minutes and then I wanted to offer some suggestions in regard to future programming for their son. As I started to speak, the boy's father started making derogatory remarks and kept interrupting me. I could feel my blood pressure rising and soon I was on my feet getting ready to really give this guy a piece of my mind! Now this is not the kind of person you want to make angry as he is the type likely to take revenge. However, that was not on my mind at the moment. Thank goodness it was on Geri's! She reached over and pulled me back down to my chair. Then the administrator that is in charge of the elementary principals, stepped in and escorted this man out of the room and then the school, ducking an attempt by this man to punch him in the face on the way out! Unbelievable! I'm thankful to Geri as I could have been the person needing to duck the punch, and I'm not that fast!

But the flip side of this story is one from December 2012. All of us in the education field were touched and saddened by what happened in Connecticut that month. Those of us who work with the toughest children worry about them and for their futures every day. Then I got this message from one of the most amazing people I know. She works with students in one of our behavior classrooms and is on the "front line" of dealing with behaviors every single day. I've removed her name and the student's from this message she got, but thought it was too powerful not to share. 

Here is what it said:  "I received this Christmas Card from one of the students we have in our classroom at the end of the day. I didn't really have time to reflect at that moment as we were trying to send all students off on their winter break. I did however thank the student and gave him a big hug. When I got home and I  was putting things away, I looked at the card again, and I came to the conclusion that this is why I still do what I do. I realized that I don't receive things like this every day. Cards like this are few and far between. Usually, the message I get from most children with behaviors is that they are angry and I am just another adult trying to tell them what to do. However, the message I try to send after every behavior is that I will want to work with you again tomorrow. I have been saying this to all students for many years now and sometimes think they don't really hear me. In reality, my message is heard. And though I go through these periods of being frustrated with behaviors, other adults and myself, I can't imagine doing anything else at this time. And though there might come a time I change my mind, for the time being, this is why I still do what I do."

At times like that, I am so proud to be working in this field. It is such a privilege to know and work with people like this; and I will miss these fantastic educators when I retire. But like she said, this is why we do what we do.