Remote Learning: Making Use of Time at Home During School Closures, Part I

State-wide school closures for an extended amount of time due to a worldwide pandemic is truly unprecedented. Families, school systems, and entire communities are now in a position like we have never known before. Aside from the logistics involving everything from last-minute childcare to methods for providing meals to local FARMS (free and reduced-price meals system) populations, many folks are left wondering about the academic ramifications of these indefinite school closures. Similar to “summer slide,” when students are known to experience academic regression while out of school for the summer months, these sudden weeks without instruction could undoubtedly pose academic issues for students. Some districts are utilizing online platforms to deliver content digitally to students at home, while others are rushing to provide supplemental course packets that students can complete at their own pace during the extended closure. Whatever the case, families will want to ensure that certain steps are taken so that learning continues, even when school is not in session.

Set up a routine

Many students (and teachers) view this sudden shutdown as an excuse to go into vacation mode. Tempting as that is, stopping everything to “hibernate” at home is ill-advised, even during this time when we have been instructed to practice “social distancing.” Being stuck at home should not necessarily mean that children and teens grow accustomed to day-long Netflix binging in pajamas on the couch. Parents should set the expectation early on that some of this time out of school is still going to be used for learning. Some suggestions include the following:

 

  • Maintain the expectation that certain times of the day should be “screen-free,” meaning no smartphones, video games, television, iPads, or computer use.
  • As an alternative to technology, encourage kids to try a different hobby, like reading, journaling, coloring, yoga, knitting, baking, gardening, etc. Teen and adult coloring books, Legos, paint-by-number and toy model kits are all solid options for quiet, screen-free entertainment. In addition to revving one’s creativity, these activities help to develop fine motor skills, dexterity, patience, focus, and attention to detail.
  • Suggest that children help out with meal time and/or the cleanup after dinner. Seeing as everyone’s schedule has likely opened up, with regard to school, sports, and extracurricular activities, now is a great time to set up a routine for family meal times.
  • Imbed some physical activity into everyone’s daily routines as well. Obviously, the gym and fitness classes are ill-advised due to suggestions to practice “social distancing.” However, families can take evening strolls around the neighborhood, walk the dog each morning, jump on the trampoline, mow the lawn, etc.
  • To stave off the eventual boredom, families will want to think about organizing evening routines and activities as well. Maybe try Monday movie nights, take-out Tuesday, speed walking Wednesday, etc. The key is to have something to look forward to each day, especially since many fun events for kids, like field trips, weekend excursions, birthday gatherings, sleepovers, and team sports have been cancelled.

Word Choice and Why it Matters, Part II

As mentioned in part one, word choice plays a crucial role in a student’s ability to express himself clearly and specifically. It goes without saying that more is more when it comes to vocabulary. Aside from bringing back the word wall, teachers and parents can add subtle practices to everyday routines to help children and teens to develop their vocabulary skills and advance their word choice skills.

 

How was your day?

I have very vivid recollections of my parents asking me this routine question when they got home from work every day. My response was always equally bland: “good.” Instead of reciting this practically robotic exchange, parents can help children build their vocabulary by raising their expectations—meaning that we should no longer accept “good” as good enough.

 

Prompt your child to be more specific in her response by asking follow up questions. Discuss how “good” can mean any number of things—what, specifically, was good about the day? Did you read something inspiring? Did you have a pleasurable time during recess? Was your lunch scrumptious, or simply palatable? Was there anything particularly intriguing about your science lab? Each of these terms adds a level of specificity to your child’s claim, but you will likely need to provide examples of how to use these words in advance. Increasing the frequency in which you use these elevated vocabulary terms will greatly benefit your child’s understanding simply by exposure.

 

Similarly, if you find that your child’s day was “not good,” consider the following questions:

  • What aggravated you about school today?
  • Were you perturbed at anything in particular?
  • How can I help elevate your mood?
  • Ideally, what would you have changed about your day?

 

Again, be sure to provide context when using these terms so that your child begins to understand how they are being used and in which scenarios they are most applicable. The more you can relate the new words to familiar words, the easier it will be for the new vocabulary to move into your child’s lexicon.

 

Prefix/Suffix study

Studying Latin roots is not exactly standard in the elementary classrooms; however, prefixes and suffixes, when taught in connection with everyday language, can help with students’ abilities to decipher unfamiliar terms more seamlessly. For example, begin with something familiar, like the word subway.  A subway is a form of underground transportation—sub meaning under. If students know that consciousness involves one’s awareness, subconscious can be quickly understood to mean under or beneath one’s consciousness. If something is described as sub-par, par meaning the standard or average, students will be able to explain sub-par to mean below standard or below average. Similarly, subtext, quite literally and figuratively can mean below or beneath the text. Provide students with an example to help solidify their understanding. For example, “You DON’T need to study to get into that school.” The subtext, or unspoken message of that statement, is that that particular school is easy, low-risk, and not academically competitive. Again, for students to truly absorb the new vocabulary, they need repeated exposure, connections to existing or familiar terms, and clear context to ground their understanding.

Word Choice and Why it Matters: Part I

As an educator, I am always trying to convey the importance of word choice in students’ writing. Finding and using appropriate terms and phrases is critical—not only because it is almost always a significant component on an essay rubric, but because word choice in writing is a reflection of one’s ability to communicate precisely and effectively. Furthermore, a student with a knack for appropriate word choice in his writing is typically known to have a higher rate of expressive vocabulary. Regardless of a student’s future college major or career preference down the road, the more comfortable a student is with his ability to communicate, the more confident he will be when navigating the professional world.

 

Since there are such direct links between vocabulary and intellect, it strikes me as odd that there isn’t more of an emphasis on acquiring vocab skills in the primary, grade-level English classes these days. Of course, students will often be confronted with bolded or underlined terms in a class reading, accompanied by a brief definition in the footnotes, but this level of vocabulary exposure is hardly effective. Vocabulary taught in a vacuum, relating only to the current text in front of them, does nothing to provide students with a robust repertoire of word usage. Instead, these vaguely “brushed over” terms are taught briefly in isolation and then cast aside, rarely to be revisited.

There are strategies, not just for English classrooms, but for all subject areas, that can help students build vocabulary without the typical rote memorization that comes to mind from past decades.

 

Bring back the word wall

In elementary classrooms, we used to see brightly colored vocabulary words taped to the front wall, encouraging students to use these terms in conversation. This same level of visibility goes a long way in the secondary classrooms as well. The key for success is to present students with these terms and then connect them cross-curricularly. If foreshadowing is on the English classroom word wall, the teacher should make a point to relate this term to other, perhaps more familiar terms, like forecasting or hypothesizing in science, or indicate, imply, or symbolize in math or world history. The intent is to build connections to as many familiar terms as possible so that students better understand how this new word could be used to more precisely convey what they mean.

 

In addition to the word wall display, teachers should also instruct students to capture the new terms on paper, along with the related terms that they already know. Essentially, they are constructing a word web to illustrate subtle differences in terminology and how certain scenarios would utilize foreshadowing, while a similar scenario would be better suited by saying “hypothesizing.”

 

Color coding these word webs and word walls in the classroom can help students begin to categorize terminology as well. Perhaps science-related terms could be highlighted in green, while history/civics-related terms could be displayed in orange. Below is an example of how one word could translate through multiple contents: English class: adaptation; science class: evolution; math class: modification; history class: transformation.

 

Each of these terms is related to some sort of change from the original. An adaptation in English class means to take a classic work and rewrite it through a different lens. As students see the relationship between these terms, they are better able to distinguish the subtle differences and how each term would be more suitable to a certain scenario.

Modifying Test Questions

In special education, the term “modification” typically means something very different from the term “accommodation.” Both involve some form of adaptation to material or instruction in order to assist students with specific learning needs. Modifications, however, are elevated forms of assistance in that the learning goals for the student are actually changed or modified. However, the suggestions for modifications outlined below do not change the learning goal at all. Instead, these are simple suggestions that teachers can implement on assignments and assessments to allow students with special needs optimal opportunities to express their knowledge and/or skills.

  • Creating a word bank that students can use as a resource on an assessment helps to ensure that issues with memory recall, spelling, dyslexia, etc., do not interfere with the student’s ability to demonstrate his knowledge of vocabulary terms or concepts. A word bank also allows students the opportunity to cross off or eliminate answers as they progress through the questions, helping to visually limit answer options. This strategy is especially helpful for students with testing anxiety or executive functioning challenges.
  • Chunk fewer test questions per page to help minimize the text presented to students. Again, this strategy helps to keep testing nerves at bay since limited text per page is less intimidating. Fewer questions per page allows for greater white space and larger margins, which help to ensure that students do not inadvertently skip or overlook a question.
  • Provide definitions for concept terms that are not being tested to ensure that complex vocabulary, unrelated to what is actually being assessed, does not impede the student’s ability to answer the question at hand.
  • Reduce the number of answer options for multiple choice questions. This strategy helps to visually streamline the questions and help students narrow in on correct responses without the unnecessary distraction of numerous answer options. Instead of having an A, B, C, D, and E, consider limiting multiple choice answers to 3-4 options. The student is still demonstrating her knowledge of the content; the opportunity for error is just slightly reduced.
  • Use underlining, italics, or bold font to indicate an important term or crucial section of the passage. This visually draws attention to key concepts so that students can easily refer back to them in a lengthy text without getting overwhelmed by searching. Since many students struggle with short term recall, skimming while rereading, and isolating key details from superfluous information, the visual cues reduce the impact that these obstacles might present. In doing this, teachers are not providing answers—they are simply helping to highlight key points to clarify what the question is actually asking.
  • For written responses, teachers can help reduce stress on students by providing a grading rubric, which specifies how their written response will be evaluated. If spelling, grammar, and punctuation are not part of the learning objective, be sure to clarify that to students so that they do not get too hung up on perfect spelling. Keep the directions for the prompt or response simple and direct. Abstract or nuanced language can derail any student, but especially those with learning challenges.

Gender Distinctions on the Spectrum

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), boys are diagnosed with autism at a much higher rate than girls. In fact, for every four boys diagnosed, only one girl will be diagnosed. There are many theories as to why this is the case, but one claim that is agreed upon by experts is that girls’ symptoms tend to be much more subtle and are therefore disregarded or overlooked. Instead of seeing certain tendencies and behaviors as potential symptoms of autism, parents often consider these behaviors to be minor “quirks” which their daughter may outgrow. While every child is different and autism presents in a variety of ways regardless of gender, there are known commonalities that specifically present in girls on the autism spectrum.

For girls, autism symptoms tend to revolve more around communication and socialization, as opposed to boys, who often present with more obvious symptoms related to impulsivity and repetitive outbursts. Furthermore, typical gender norms indicate that girls are often more content to play by themselves or engage in sustained quiet time on their own, as opposed to boys who prefer camaraderie and peer play. That said, a boy who withdraws from peers and fails to meet standard social benchmarks would draw more attention than a girl with the same social impediments simply due to society’s expectations of gender norms. Again, this is why many experts believe that autism diagnoses in girls are delayed or sometimes overlooked completely.

Similarly, since girls tend to mature earlier than their male counterparts, their level of self-awareness and social cues tend to be further developed as well. Because of this, girls on the autism spectrum may be more inclined to study others’ behaviors and react accordingly, almost learning how to mask their social struggles by observing others. Meanwhile, boys may miss cues altogether and therefore receive a diagnosis earlier on.

An additional concern for girls with autism is the fact that they can be especially naive to the world around them. They may experience difficulties in social situations or misread social cues, which often leads to instances of bullying or harassment. This naïveté can make it difficult to discern another’s tone or intentions and can cause them to become even more isolated from their peer group. A girl on the autism spectrum may not realize that her interests are not shared by other girls, but will insist on driving the conversation or focus to her specific interest. Again, this can cause friction with peers since the child may not fully understand why others are rolling their eyes, ignoring her, or outright dismissing her.

Finally, girls with autism may experience specific “obsessions” just as boys do; however, with age, parents might notice that her interests do not evolve as would be expected. Often times, an obsession becomes more noticeable as the child gets older because the interest is markedly different from the typical girls her age. For instance, instead of developing an interest in nail polish or drawing, a girl with autism might obsess over toy horses or stickers even as she begins to go through puberty. These seemingly immature interests can also contribute to social issues at school, such as bullying or isolation by peers.

Management Strategies for Noncompliance

Strong-willed children bring character, fierce energy, and clear opinions into the classroom, which are all positive attributes that help to stimulate engagement and learning. However, when fervid determination crosses the threshold of acceptable behavior, teachers are often left in a sticky situation when deciding how to proceed with a defiant student.

Keep a level head

When given an instruction or directive, such as, “Please sit in your assigned seat,” students are generally expected to oblige or at least attempt to follow the request. You may be met with an eye-roll or exasperated retort, but 9 times out of 10, the request will be a non-issue. However, when a student is outright noncompliant, it is important that the teacher consider the potential catalyst of the defiant response. Often, this type of isolated obstinance, especially when it occurs out of nowhere, is a response to some unknown frustration or concern. The frustration may not even be related to this particular class or the directive. Because the trigger is typically unknown, teachers can assuage the emotions by considering how to de-escalate the situation before reacting. This is easier said than done, but suggestions might include:

  • Walk away to provide the student with a moment on his own to consider the request or directive; this also allows you to take a breath before asking again.
  • Provide the student with a reasonable alternative, such as sitting in his assigned seat or sitting up front away from other students.
  • Calmly rephrase the directive in a soft manner that is only audible to the individual child. Too often, non-compliance arises from a public power struggle, so a defiant student is less likely to comply when he feels as though he is performing as “the rebel” for an audience of peers.

Consider the individual personality involved

When confronted with what could be considered defiance or task-refusal, teachers should pause to consider whether the student is actively defying the command, or if there is a misunderstanding. For instance, a student who struggles with auditory processing may fail to respond immediately. On the outside, she may appear to be ignoring you, but in actuality, she is simply interpreting the request at a slower rate. Similarly, a student with ADHD may also need a few additional moments or some repetition to grasp the directive—this isn’t defiance. Students with autism may also present as noncompliant at times. Typically, this refusal is linked to a lapse in social cues and/or a need for further clarification. It is not unusual for students on the spectrum to require an explanation of why they are being asked to do something. Again, this is not meant as a defiant remark. The “why” question is quite literally asked as a means of gaining further explanation in order to meaningfully invest in the task.

 

Provide alternatives, but hold your ground

When a student has dug his heels in, another option is for the teacher to present opportunities for student choice. This doesn’t mean going back on your word. If a student is refusing to complete an assignment, provide him with the choice to complete it now or at lunch. If a student is hesitant to read aloud, give her the choice of which passage she’d prefer to read. A student who is demanding to go to the bathroom can go, but only after he’s completed the front of the worksheet. These options allow students to negotiate, but only on the teacher’s terms. In essence, you’re giving an inch without permitting the student to take a mile.

Combating School Refusal: Part II

In Part I, we discussed that school refusal involves more than stubborn non-compliance and cutting school to spend time with friends. School refusal stems from psychological stressors that, for whatever reason, are triggered by the school environment. While school refusal can be a result of many different factors from child to child, there are universally effective strategies that families can utilize.

Managing School Refusal

  • Ask your child why he or she is anxious about going to school. This conversation must come from a calm and understanding place—you cannot show frustration, anger, disappointment, or judgment when seeking to understand the underlying issues. Let children know that you support them by legitimizing their concerns, but that you need to know where their nerves are coming from in order to help. Ask whether this began with an isolated incident with a teacher or peer, or if the triggers are truly unknown.
  • Talk to the school about what is going on. School refusal becomes a bigger issue when teachers are left in the dark. When the school is aware of the underlying anxieties that a student might be dealing with, they will take extra precautions to make sure the student is handled with “kid gloves” during his or her time at school. The school can also help to manage the student’s workload if he or she is missing major assignments due to stress and anxiety about coming to school. On occasion, the school might recommend a half-day or partial schedule so that the student is receiving important instruction in small doses. The school can also work to arrange supports for parents who may be looking into an IEP or 504 plan to ensure accommodations are provided.
  • Plan for small successes and occasional setbacks when your child makes it to school. The anxieties will never dissipate overnight, so it is normal for a child to try to attend school, but then become overwhelmed and ask to go home. This is okay. As a parent, you want to make sure you’re acknowledging your child’s effort and bravery for attempting something that you know is difficult and scary. The process of re-entering school on a regular schedule isn’t going to be swift. Therefore, your best move is to celebrate the small steps and gently encourage them to move forward with their progress.
  • Consider hiring a tutor to help manage the workload that is accumulating due to your child’s frequent absences. The tutor can also, with your permission, act as a liaison between the school and home to ensure that academic goals are being met. The mounting workload can make students even more anxious because they know that, when they return to school, they’ll be confronted with a pile of work. This can make for a never-ending issue of avoiding school because of the stress of all the work from missing school in the first place. The tutor can work with your child in the comfort of your home and help to manage the assignments and tasks, while also providing 1:1 instruction for skills that are necessary for meeting grade-level objectives.

Combating School Refusal Fact vs. Fiction

Whining and groaning about going to school is bound to happen from time to time. Children will undoubtedly have a few instances when they beg to stay home from school for one reason or another. Other students may skip the parental piece altogether and skip school without adult permission. While both of these issues can be problematic, they do not fall under the more severe issue of school refusal.

Fact: Experts estimate that anywhere from 2-5% of school-age children develop this level of refusal because of deeper emotional issues at play. This non-compliant behavior can develop out of depression and/or anxiety, and sometimes a combination of both disorders.

Fiction: Some people believe that school refusal encompasses any case where a child refuses to attend school; however, it is more complicated than that. School refusal is not the same thing as truancy, where students decide to skip certain classes or ditch school altogether without their parents’ knowledge. A student who is routinely truant is avoiding school in favor of some other desired alternative. Whereas a student who is refusing to go to school is doing so out of emotional distress associated with being in school. Similarly, a child who feigns illness to avoid a math test, for instance, does not fall under the same category as a student who adamantly refuses to attend school because of unexplained dread or apprehension.

Fact: School refusal is a response to or an attempt to alleviate or avoid the trigger—school—by refusing to attend. For students with social anxiety, separation anxiety, generalized anxiety, or depressive disorders, the school environment can exacerbate symptoms and create added distress. Incidents of bullying, the desire to be the perfect student, negative peer influences, and other emotional trauma associated with the school environment can also contribute to school refusal, but it does not happen overnight. School refusal is often a last resort or “breaking point” for children who have been experiencing pent up anxiety and/or depression for an extended period of time. When other strategies and methods for managing stress have failed, their last resort is to avoid stressors altogether by staying home from school.

Fiction: Contrary to popular opinion, school refusal does not occur out of nowhere in one fell swoop. There are known behaviors or signs leading up to outright refusal that occur systematically beforehand. It is important for parents to recognize these patterns and intervene early:

  • Children may begin by intentionally oversleeping several days or weeks in a row to prolong their time at home before leaving for school.
  • They may make numerous trips to the nurse with complaints about chronic, unexplained pain or injuries that are not visible, such as headaches, nausea, fatigue, dizziness, muscle strains, or heart palpitations. Often times these ailments, while they may seem fictional or feigned, are actual physical responses to the anxiety that the child is experiencing—they are not necessarily “faking” the symptoms.
  • Children may also continuously call or text parents from school asking to be picked up for early dismissal. Often times they will claim that they are too sick to finish out the day. While this may be true on occasion, the likelihood is that the anxiety/depression has reached a threshold where the child feels that escaping from school will be the only solution.

Unfortunately, caving to these requests for partial school days will only create further issues with school avoidance. Intervention is required to address the core triggers and help these children to cope with their feelings of anxiety and depression within the school environment.

Look for strategies for intervening and managing behaviors related to school refusal in part II!

Setting Student-friendly Goals Using the IEP

Calling the average Individualized Education Program (IEP) document bulky would be an understatement. Even for educators, who are quite familiar with special education documentation, the length of the IEP can make it difficult to cull the student goals. Even more taxing is the task of deciphering the IEP goals in a way that can be clearly and concisely explained to parents and students. However, since IEP goals are aligned to state and grade-level standards, they offer families a sound starting point for making their own student-friendly, SMART goals.

What is a SMART goal?

SMART is an acronym, often used in educational environments, to help students through the process of goal setting. Using the acronym, students should make sure that goals are specific, measurable, achievable, results-oriented, and time-bound.

  • A specific goal is one that takes the student’s current functionality into account: Where is he currently in his academic achievements and where does he need to be? In answering these questions, we begin to hone in on the specific skills that the student is lacking with regard to grade-level standards.
  • A measurable goal is data-driven and accounts for planned check-in points. When progress is routinely measured, teachers and parents are able to establish patterns and employ new strategies if necessary. A measurable goal also means that success is definitive—a student either clearly meets the goal or does not, according to the data.
  • An achievable goal means that it is realistic to the student’s abilities and focuses on her most critical needs. It is important to ensure that meeting this goal is realistically within the student’s reach, otherwise, it sets her up for failure.
  • A goal that is results-oriented is just as it sounds—the focus is on the outcome. With a desired outcome driving the process, teachers, parents, and students are able to determine if certain strategies are helping to meet the desired outcome, or if they need to redirect their approach to learning.
  • Time-bound means that there is a definitive starting point and end point to achieve the goal. Often times, during an initial IEP meeting, the team will determine certain grade-level benchmarks and track achievement by quarter or semester throughout the school year.

Examples of IEP goals translated for students

By the end of the first semester, student will read grade-level text orally, accurately, and with appropriate rate and expression at 120 words per minute with 90% accuracy, as measured by biweekly recorded fluent checks. When reading aloud for biweekly practices, I will read words accurately and with fluidity for every 9/10 words. I will also read with inflection and adhere to punctuation, while maintaining a consistent pace.
By the end of quarter 1, student will identify the central idea and three supporting details in a nonfiction text with 90% accuracy in three out of four trials. When reading an article, I will identify the main idea and three pieces of evidence to support it.
By the end of the second semester, student will use context clues, suffix/prefix knowledge, and access to a dictionary when determining the meaning of unfamiliar words, with 90% accuracy in a grade level text. By the end of the school year, I will be able to identify 9 out of every 10 unknown words using context clues and a dictionary if necessary.
With nonverbal cues and fading adult support, student will initiate a task within 3 minutes of receiving it and with 2 or fewer prompts. I will begin a class activity or assignment as soon as I have it in front of me with less than 2 reminders from the teacher.

Math Anxiety

As much as my English-oriented brain would hate to admit it, math skills are crucial for functioning in the adult world. This means that, no matter one’s personal distaste for the subject, mastering basic math skills will become a necessity at some point. Those lucky left-brained thinkers, who tend to have more of a knack for computation, analytical thinking, and logical reasoning, relish in their ability to master mathematical concepts. However, psychology research states that nearly 20% of American adults suffer from high levels of math anxiety.

If math anxiety persists over time, adult tasks such as managing time, budgeting money, organizing itineraries, following directions/recipes, remodeling a space, and even shopping can prove difficult. Therefore, it is important that students learn early on about growth mindset and methods for improving their math skills.

Mindset

Math anxiety is often a result of continued negative experiences involving math or the use of related skills. A student who repeatedly struggles with calculations begins to internalize those difficulties and associate the struggle with their own perceived inability to perform. Almost like a self-fulfilling prophecy, these students may develop a fixed mindset about their math skills, meaning that they will believe that they will never be good at math.

Teachers and parents can combat a fixed mindset by discussing the damage that negative self-talk can do. A child who constantly says, “I’m bad at math,” “I’ll never understand this,” or, “It’s too hard for me,” is only solidifying this notion of failure. Instead, model phrases that promote a growth mindset when children are exhibiting math anxiety. Phrases include:

 

  • It’s challenging, but I can do it.
  • I’ll try again.
  • Effort never fails.
  • My mistakes help me understand that I need to try a different strategy.

 

Consider mixed grouping 

When working on math concepts in the classroom, one positive way to reduce math anxiety is to utilize mixed grouping, meaning each group should include a heterogeneous mix of students based on their math capabilities. Varying the groups this way allows students to support one another in a low-pressure, collaborative setting. The higher achieving students are given the opportunity to lead, explain, strategize, and encourage. Simultaneously, the lower achieving students are able to practice their skills with peers and watch how students are successfully approaching math problems. Additionally, students who require more support are given the opportunity to take their time and ask questions in a smaller setting, as opposed to putting themselves on the spot for the whole class.

Use hands-on approaches

Another way to combat math misery is to front load the concept with fun. For instance, if children are beginning to explore fractions, the concept can be abstract and daunting. To ease anxiety, break out the baking supplies and show children how fractions are visually represented. Measuring cups provide a hands-on method for working with fractions. If children want a super chocolatey, chocolate chip cookie, present them with ½ cup of chocolate chips and ¾ cup chocolate chips. Ask which fraction is greater? Finished baking? Slice a cookie into fourths and eat one of the fourths to demonstrate subtraction.