Tag Archives: Curriculum

What We Have Here … Is a Failure to Communicate

25 Jan

“Don’t be smart, Mister!” I scolded my then 8 year old Aspie son, after he back-talked me about something or other.  He looked at me, wide-eyed with confused uneasiness.  He knew from my tone of voice that I was angry with him, but he didn’t understand my words… (Don’t be smart?  Isn’t being smart a good thing?  What is wrong???)

As I watched his facial expression retreat from disrespect to confusion to worry, I realized that we were experiencing a breakdown in communication.  I stopped and considered my impulsive reprimand…  Ah ha!!!- Gregory was interpreting my words literally!  At face value, the idiomatic phrase “Don’t be smart” went contrary to my usual promptings, so naturally it didn’t make sense to him.

Like most Aspies, Gregory is naturally very literal and needs to be explicitly taught to recognize when an idiom or other figurative language is being used.  Once I explained that “Don’t be smart” is a figure of speech that means ‘Don’t be fresh’ (hmmm…ok, that’s another figure of speech….) or ‘Don’t be disrespectful’, then he understood.  My message got through  and he apologized for being rude.  My mission was accomplished with that particular communication ‘battle’, but I realized that we had yet to win the ‘war’…

The Hidden Curriculum – Part III – Figurative Language

As discussed in my blog series The Hidden Curriculum, Aspies and others with social-cognitive learning disabilities, can have great difficulty decoding hidden curriculum rules.  Figurative speech, and most especially idioms, fall into this category.

A life-long avid reader, I adore imaginative figurative language and admire writers who can incorporate it effectively into their writing to add color and interest.  Well written prose, with the help of ingenious figures of speech, can take a rather mundane concept and turn it into a memorable, thought-provoking ‘pearl of wisdom’.

As you may recall from your grade school English classes, figurative language contains images and comparisons.  The speaker describes something through the use of unusual comparisons, for effect, interest, and to make things clearer. Appealing to the imagination, figurative language provides new ways of looking at the world – adding richness and depth to our communication.

To refresh your memory, here are some common types of figurative language that we use on a daily basis:  (See how well you remember… I had to look a few of these up!)

As fun, creative and widely used as it is, figurative speech is not intended to be interpreted in a literal sense. And herein lays the problem….  It is common for young kids to take things too literally, but when this misunderstanding continues with age, it can create significant comprehension and therefore social issues.

Figures of Speech Game

To help Gregory develop his sense of figurative language, I created a “Figures of Speech” game that we played each night at dinner time.  I printed out hundreds of common idioms, such as “Quit horsing around”, “Roll with the punches”, and “Bite my head off”.  (An entire chapter is devoted to examples of Figurative Speech and Idioms in Brenda Myles’s wonderful book, The Hidden Curriculum, which formed the basis of my series on the subject.)  As we all sat around the table, one of the kids would read aloud a figure of speech from a little slip of paper and then everyone would try to guess what it meant.  Then I told them what it meant figuratively, including, whenever possible, how it originated.  We giggled about how silly it sounded when interpreted literally, so they could begin to recognize these types of phrases in daily life.

During the game, we would review sayings that we had already covered, to reinforce the learning process.  This time around, the kids usually guessed/expressed the figurative meaning correctly.  We also had lots of fun having everyone come up with other idioms, either from things they had heard or from their imagination.  We all enjoyed many laughs and the lessons got through, because nowadays, when Gregory hears an idiom on tv or reads one in a book, he’ll turn and inform me, “That’s a figure of speech!”

I am Tongue Tied

During a school book fair where I was volunteering, I came across a wonderfully silly kid’s book called  Even More Parts by Tedd Arnold (of Fly Guy fame.) Through the use of very cute cartoons, the author introduces all sorts of common idioms dealing with body parts – from head to toe!  Just imagine the literal illustrations of someone saying “I lost my head”, “I keep changing my mind” or “I am tongue tied” – hysterical!  I bought it immediately – what a fun way to ‘get’ figurative language!    I presented it to Gregory, who was instantly mesmerized by the cartoon pictures of a man who ‘sang his heart out’ (his red, beating heart falling onto the floor), and the boy who ‘went to pieces’ (his snap-together body parts strewn all along the sidewalk).  The book was a huge hit with all three of the kids, who giggled at the absurdity of the literal interpretations to these well known idioms, so I subsequently bought the complete set (Parts and More Parts!)  Kudos Mr. Arnold!

*  *  *  *  *  *  *

Today, as a result of our ‘Figures of Speech’ game, the Parts books and lots of general reading, Gregory has a well-developed sense of figurative language.  Even when he doesn’t understand exactly what an idiom means, he recognizes that the phase is not meant literally.  But even better yet, Gregory uses figures of speech himself – to add richness and creativity to his own speech and writing!

So, the next time your child becomes concerned for your safety because you are “just going to jump in the shower….”, you might want to consider a couple of these techniques too.  Comprehending idioms and figurative speech can pose real difficulties for those on the Spectrum who see the world through literal ‘glasses’, but with a little work and a lot of silliness, our kids don’t have to stay ‘out in left field’…

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The Hidden Curriculum

21 Sep

In the Autism/Aspergers world, I’m what is known as a neurotypical or NT, while my son is known as an Aspie or Aspergian.  Although some (like my older brother!) might argue that I am anything BUT ‘normal’, my brain does function fairly typically.  The brains of people with Autism and Aspergers however, do not, and this enables them to see the world in atypical ways.  As such, in my efforts to parent successfully, I’ve had to adjust my NT thinking, to try to see the world through my son’s eyes…with his Aspie brain and unique perspectives on life.  And this has taken some getting used to….

Without realizing it, neurotypical folks constantly, instantaneously and seamlessly survey the written rules or ‘hidden curriculum’ of every environment and every person [we] encounter, to make decisions about how to proceed successfully within a given context.[1]

The hidden curriculum refers to a set of rules or guidelines about social behavior that are often not directly taught.  It is assumed knowledge that helps lubricate the cogs of society and enables groups of people to live, work and interact together harmoniously.  These rules are wide-reaching and complex, covering a variety of topics from table manners to slang words, dating protocol to classroom etiquette…and much more.  Virtually every aspect of our daily lives is based upon a foundation of hidden curricula – widely-held assumed knowledge that we probably don’t even remember learning.

We don’t recall learning most of these rules, because “everybody just KNOWS that!”  We NTs are unconscious social navigators and learn naturally through observation and intuition.  We take it for granted that all relatively smart people should be able to acquire these skills in the same manner.  Unfortunately, for those with Aspie brains, these skills are not acquired naturally.  In spite of being potentially brilliant in other intellectual arenas, they have what is called social-cognitive learning disabilities when it comes to the hidden curriculum

An example of this lack of common understanding occurred recently in our home.  Gregory had been dared to do something stupid [my words!] by another boy, so he did it.  When I questioned Greg about why, he answered, “because he dared me…I had to.”  But, instead of reprimanding him for making a bad decision, I backed up and reconsidered.  “Greg, just because someone dares you to do something, doesn’t mean you HAVE to do it.  You can CHOOSE to accept the dare or not.”  Greg looked at me in amazement…”You can?”   He had totally misunderstood the social rule and believed that there was no option with a dare – no matter how stupid.  I shudder to think what might have happened if he still believed that ‘rule’ into his teenage years…Yikes!!!

So, this deficit can create significant problems.  The inability to develop adequate social skills and interpret social nuance of those around them brings life-long challenges to Aspies.  We, as NT adults in society, are willing to explain and excuse social ‘misbehaviors’ in very young children, but as they get older, kids and certainly adults are expected to know these unwritten, unspoken items of general understanding.  How do we react when someone breaks the ‘social code’?  We are shocked, upset, angry and perhaps even disgusted.  “How rude!” or “Weirdo” or “Can you believe this guy?” rings through our heads.  Because, breaking a hidden curriculum rule can make that person a social misfit or even a social outcast. 

What can we do to help those with social-cognitive deficits?  These individuals must learn the hidden curriculum by direct instruction versus intuition.  Parents and educators must become ‘social anthropologists’ to first determine various hidden curriculum items and then find ways to teach them.  This is not an easy task, because we assume everyone knows the assumed knowledge!  We literally don’t know what to teach them, because we don’t know what we know…

One of the primary ways to recognize an example of hidden curriculum is when an error occurs.  When a teenager addresses the principal as “Dude” or when a young man at the urinal drops his pants all the way to the floor.  When a girl texts using ALL CAPS and the receiver thinks she is shouting at her.  When a man in an office talks over his boss to correct the boss’s ‘error’.  When a woman talks loudly in church or during a movie….you name it  – There are rules for just about every interaction we have on a daily basis.  And when a rule is broken, people notice.

To make things even harder for Aspies, the hidden curriculum is not just vast, but it is complex and elusive as well.  The rules change across age, gender, who you are with, culture, environment, etc.  And to add another layer of complexity, most Aspies have difficulty generalizing, so what they have learned for one situation may or may not be carried over to a similar situation – the hidden curriculum rules must be explicitly taught for each scenario!

There are a variety of methods that may be used to help your child acquire unwritten social knowledge, many of which you can read about in available reference material.  One fabulous book, from which I gained my first insights into this area, is called The Hidden Curriculum by Brenda Smith Myles.  Here are a few methods from the book that I have employed successfully with my son:

1.  Safe Person

Identify one or more ‘safe people’ at home, school, camp, etc. who can help your child with Hidden Curriculum questions.  Your child should trust this person and be willing to ask about social questions.  This parent, teacher, mentor or close friend should understand the deficit and be willing and able to provide accurate, clear clarification to the meaning of words, phrases and situations.

2.  Social Narratives

Social narratives describe social cues and appropriate responses to social behavior and are useful in teaching a new social skill in advance of the situation.  Social narratives often use pictures or cartoons to promote self-awareness and self-management.  The most popular social narrative type is Social Stories by Carol Gray, which prescribes a specific framework for the narrative.

3.  Social Autopsies

The renown educator Richard Lavoie developed the concept of social autopsy to help students understand social mistakes – after the fact.  This method clarifies what exactly happened and then enables the child to see the cause/effect relationship between his behavior and people’s reaction to it.

4.  Direct Instruction

The direct instruction method is the one that I use most frequently in our daily lives, albeit informally.  Through direct instruction the teacher models (or states) correct behaviors and the students practices correct or alternative behavioral responses.  One great tool for direct instruction is the Hidden Curriculum One-A-Day Calendar for Kids by the Blackwell Family.  For each day of the calendar year, there is one specific need-to-know lesson.  In our home, we read the calendar item at dinner time and then use it as a jumping off point for discussion and explanation.

 

These days, I often explain situations and teach the unwritten rules of our daily lives.  I am never sure how much Greg has absorbed about the hidden curriculum on his own, so I explicitly try to help him “navigate body language and social mores in the uncharted areas between the words.”[2]  I guess I’ve been a bit over zealous lately however, because the other day Greg groaned and said, “Mom, can you please stop making everything into a lesson!”  Note taken!

Understanding the hidden curriculum is vital to the acquisition of good social skills, independence and a fulfilling life.  Most of us learn these rules naturally, but Aspies need a road map to our complex, elusive NT social world.  So please – let us all practice tolerance.  Let’s open our NT minds and try not to judge ‘misbehaviors’ too quickly…. That ‘rude’ person may just be an Aspie – seeing the world a little differently.


[1] Brenda Smith Myles, The Hidden Curriculum:  Practical Solutions for Understanding Unstated Rules in Social Situations (Autism Asperger Publishing Co., 2004), p. 1.

[2] Stephen M. Shore

Little Comedian

14 Sep

“Mom, do you want to hear a construction joke?” asks my then 9-year-old Aspie.  “Sure!” I say indulgently.  “Hmmm….I’m still working on it.” he says, with perfect deadpan delivery.  I pause a moment, waiting… and then burst out laughing!  I never saw that one coming….very funny!

Shortly after figuring out Greg’s diagnosis, I read that among the many challenges faced by Aspie’s, being too literal and social deficiencies are typical.  After giving these issues some thought, I decided to implement a Joke of the Day program.  My objectives were three-fold:  1) Send a little ‘love note’ for my son to find during his school day; 2) Use jokes to encourage him to think ‘outside the box’ and not see only the literal interpretation; and 3) Give him a tool to grease the wheels of social interaction with his peers.

So I went about pulling together all sorts of cute, simple, kid-appropriate jokes.  I typed them up, and then printed them out on slips of paper. (I made 2 copies, because I decided to include my older son in on the project too.  My daughter couldn’t read yet… much to her chagrin!)  Then, each morning I took one joke slip each, folded it up and put it into their lunch boxes.  Gregory and Daniel often wanted to check out the joke ahead of time, but I always made them wait until snack or lunchtime…building the anticipation, just like any great raconteur!  I suggested that after they read the joke themselves, they should try it out on their classmates.  And later over the dinner table, I would ask one of the boys to tell us the Joke of the Day.  This meant that they got to practice their joke telling skills and we could then explain it, if the ‘funny’ aspect wasn’t clear to their literal minds.  “Ohhhhh…I GET it!”

It started out a little slow, but within a couple of weeks, my boys were clamoring to see what the next Joke of the Day was.  As hoped, Greg started to tell the joke during snack to the kids around his desk.  I guess the laughs started getting attention, because before long, snack time found Gregory standing in front of his 3rd grade classroom, clearing his throat and waiting for quiet (luckily the teacher was supportive!)  It became part of the daily snack ritual for Greg to tell a joke to the entire class – to mutual groans or giggles – and the kids started asking him for it.   This was all great, until I forgot to include a joke one morning….doh!  (Greg gave me a firm ‘talking to’ that afternoon, let me tell you!)  Apparently, the class was very disappointed until Greg saved the day by resurrecting some ‘old material’ (thank goodness for his fabulous memory!)   He was able to offer his classmates their daily chuckle, in spite of my failing!

At the playground after school, I would smile to myself when I would hear one kid telling another kid my Joke of the Day!  Sometimes the joke didn’t quite make the translation….sort of like that old “Telephone Game”, but it did show my plan was working.  One mother even told me that her child was upset that she didn’t get a Joke of the Day in her lunchbox too!  Clearly we were on to something…

What I hadn’t anticipated was how well Greg took to it….he is a natural joke teller (who knew?)  His timing and delivery are spot on, and he frequently incorporates different voices, accents or inflections to add to the comedic value.  He is really very funny.  My little comedian was born! 

Greg doesn’t rely on my meager offerings anymore.  Now, he reads joke books all the time, gathering his own material, in order to regale his classmates and family members with impromptu ‘stand up’ on a daily basis.  He loves making people laugh and has gained a bit of fame and status among his peers for his comedic prowess.  Gregory has also expanded his repertoire to include not just jokes, but funny stories and tv show scenarios too (along with all the applicable voices, of course!)   These days, some boys actually vie to sit with him at lunch, because as the kids tell their mothers (who in turn tell me), “He is so funny!”

I’m thrilled that my informal ‘curriculum’ has proven so successful.  It has enabled Greg to expand his mindset to see alternate interpretations to a phrase or situation.  It has enabled him to lighten up and not take himself (or life!) too seriously.  It has laid a ground work for successful social interaction and it has given him a source of success and self-esteem.  Objectives met!

So with that, I’ll leave you with today’s Joke of the Day:  Did you hear the one about the clown fish?  Or is it a mollusk?  Oh darn….I forget…   Oh well, as my husband will tell you, I am the worst joke teller ever –  I’d best leave the funnies to my little comedian!

P.S.  If you would like a copy of my jokes to start a Joke of the Day program of your own, please let me know….I’m happy to share!  They are corny, but effective!

Back-to-School Basics

31 Aug

OK, I’m a nerd….I’ll admit it.  I’m one of those kids who loved school, adored books and even enjoyed a challenging homework assignment!  (Can’t you just see that big “L” on my forehead???)  For me as a child, the end of summer brought a mix of feelings.  On one hand, I adored the long, lazy, unstructured days spent playing with my friends.  On the other hand, the siren song of the new school year enticed me…all those new supplies, new school clothes, new books, new teacher and treasures of knowledge – vast potential awaiting me.   Even today, although I won’t be heading off to school myself in September, I feel that nostalgic excitement building.  Instead, I live vicariously through my children – planning, dreaming, imagining all the promise ahead for them.

But for Gregory, now heading into 5th grade, September brings with it, not excitement and anticipation, but dread and anxiety. Typically, Gregory has had a very difficult time adjusting to each new school year.  The new teacher, new room, new schedule, new class work – all requiring simultaneous adaptation – has often proven too much for him to cope with.  He would have melt-downs during school, followed by full-blown tantrums at home.  At school, it would be shredded projects, head-banging and crying jags.  At home we experienced slamming doors, projectile toys and even running away.  Obviously Greg’s limited and over-taxed coping mechanisms were insufficient to meet the burdens being placed upon them.

Over the years, we’ve learned a few ‘tricks’ that have helped his school year transitions. And while Greg’s transition into 4th grade was not without episodes, it was by far the smoothest to date.  I’m hoping that by applying some of the strategies that we’ve developed, this fall will be even better!

With that in mind, I wanted to share some of the tactics that we’ve employed previously with good results:

1.  Select the ‘right’ teacher.

The personality and teaching style of the teacher can have dramatic impact on the student.  While no one type of teacher is ‘right’ for every student, there most probably is a ‘right’ teacher for each child.

In Gregory’s case, the type of teacher that has been most positive is one who is nurturing, but has good control and structure within the class.  He/she is knowledgeable about Asperger’s Syndrome (and Greg’s need in particular), but maintains high expectations for success and achievement – both academically and socially.  And perhaps most importantly, Greg’s ideal teacher must maintain a calm, accepting, tolerant classroom, where the students support one another.

To help make sure your child gets the appropriate teacher assignment, start a dialogue with the guidance councilor, principal and current teacher the spring prior.  Discuss the types of teaching qualities to which your child responds best.  Include teacher assignment in the annual IEP meeting.  While our school administration will not necessarily make commitments or talk ‘specifics’ about teachers, the open discussion at least puts everyone on the same page about the needs of your child.  And face it, if your child transitions well and has fewer disruptive episodes, everyone benefits.

2.  Maintain skills over summer months.

Gregory is a perfectionist and finds it very stressful when he can’t do something or when he gets answers wrong.  To help combat this anxiety, I have Gregory (all three of my kids, actually) read nightly and do two workbook pages every weekday during the summer break.  They are free to read anything they would like, but I’ve utilized the Summer Bridge Activities workbook series by Michele D. Van Leeuwen for a several years now.  The material varies each day, but includes math, reading, writing, language and science over the course of the summer.  Since the work is based on the previous year’s curriculum, all the material is review, which makes the tasks fairly simple and the enables the child to feel successful.  And most importantly, this practice keeps the material fresh in the child’s mind, ready for the new school year.

3.  Meet teacher before school starts.

Last year for the first time, I arranged for Gregory and me to visit the school the week before school started.  It enabled us to meet his new teacher, see his new classroom (including which seat was his), see a list of other kids in his class, look through his new books, etc.  We included the guidance councilor in the meeting and took this opportunity to discuss some of Greg’s challenges and strategies.  The school was calm and quiet and Greg could stroll around at his leisure, taking it all in at his own pace.  He loved the experience and became more excited for the first day of school.  And when the first day arrived, Greg was already an ‘expert’ about his new class, entering with confidence instead of anxiety.

4.  Build positive excitement – but not too much!

Knowing how stressed Gregory can get about the new school year, I am careful to not talk about it too much ahead of time.  I might mention it in a round-about way, saying something like, “Look how much you’ve grown.  I can see you are ready for 5th grade.” I’ll also mention in passing the particular kids who will be in his class and maybe even some of the things he’ll be learning and doing (for example, the 5th graders put on a musical at the end of the year.)  I want Gregory to know that the new year is approaching (so as not to catch him off-guard) and that he has a lot to look forward to, but I don’t want to build it up too much.

5.  Maintain close communication with the teacher.

Since so much with Gregory is helping him manage his moods and emotions, during the first few critical weeks of school, I have almost daily communication with the teacher.  I will email the teacher to let her know if something at school that day was difficult or stressful for Gregory, so that she can head-off an issue the following day.  If he has a rough night or morning at home, I will also alert the teacher, so that she knows to handle him with kid gloves…at least until she senses his mood.

6.  Hold off on extra-curricular activities.

Knowing that Gregory’s senses and coping mechanisms are worked over-capacity at the start of the school year, I’ve learned not to have him start any other new activities after school for at least 6 weeks or so….and that includes play dates!  He needs the after school time to decompress from the stress of the day without any added pressures or performance expectations.  In fact, I usually encourage him to have some down-time (such as riding his bike, swinging or jumping on the trampoline) before even attempting homework.  In that mode, I also try to minimize any weekend activities or commitments during September to provide maximum down-time.

7.  Define safe havens at school and at home.

Even with the best laid plans and sensitive accommodations, Gregory will sometimes ‘lose it’.  His emotions will get too big for him to manage and he’ll have a melt-down.  We’ve arranged with the school, teacher and guidance councilor for a specific place to go when he feels the need to escape.  In our case, Greg’s ‘safe haven’ is the guidance councilor’s office, where hopefully she will also be available to aid him in calming down.  At home, Greg’s bedroom is his safe haven to escape from the intrusions of family life with two noisy siblings.  We’ve also equipped his room with a beanbag chair which provides added sensory input to help him calm down.

So, as September fast approaches, I can feel my excitement brewing.  I’m avidly anticipating back-to-school shopping for shoes, clothes and supplies.  I’m drooling over all the brochures that arrive in the mail daily, announcing great sales and a myriad of after-school activities.   As I drive past our local elementary school (at least 5 times every day!), I look over fondly, imaging my kids in their new classrooms, absorbing all those ‘treasures of knowledge’ that I so enjoyed.  And hopefully, with some planning and foresight, Gregory’s transition into 5th grade will be smooth sailing, and someday he’ll be able to think back upon his back-to-school days with fond nostalgia too.

 

Do you have any strategies that have helped ease your child’s back-to-school transitions?  If so, I’d love to hear them!

 

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