April 2018 -

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Ben Throop


Ideas of how to use visuals on vacation


     Summer has arrived and stretches out before us! Summers will soon be filled with camps, play dates, therapy groups, and vacations. This change in routine can be difficult for some children, especially when it comes to vacations, which tend to be even less structured. Before the suitcases are packed, here are a few ways to use visuals to help make a vacation go more smoothly.
1.       Make images of potential activities that will occur on the trip. Having picture cards of activities or events that will occur on the trip (ex: beach, restaurant, amusement park, hotel) will allow you to create a schedule for the day or week if needed. A schedule during vacation can be helpful to provide some level of predictability for a child. If the vacation is not scheduled with known activities, you can easily make a visual called “special activity” or “playtime” and use these broad visual cards as a way to schedule in spontaneity! This schedule can be brought along during the day or just glanced at with the child in the morning. It can also be helpful to allow the child to also help plan part of the schedule each day on vacation.
2.       Create a short how-to book on an activity or event that will occur that might be new or scary for the child. For some children, vacations can be a bit scary because of all the new experiences. If a child has never been on a plane or never been camping, creating a book that explains the activity is often helpful. In this book, use visuals and simple sentences to describe what will happen. It is also useful to explain what the child can or will do (ex: After you give the flight attendant your ticket, you will walk down a small tunnel to our plane). If the child is reading to him or herself, create the text so that the child can reread the book to themselves during the trip.
3.       Develop a portable, small vacation token board to reward good behavior during the trip With a portable token board, you are able to visually reward good behavior during the vacation. This can be especially important so that children are given feedback on what behaviors are appropriate and helpful on vacation that may or may not occur at home. Being on vacation also allows you to provide different reinforcing activities that are available only on vacation (ex: more time at beach, riding a special ride, going to a new restaurant, etc.).
4.       If the child is just beginning to talk or uses a picture communication system, make sure to print out images that are relevant to the trip If you have a child who fluently uses an augmentative system to communicate, it is very important to have images of relevant items or activities for the vacation. For example, at home it may not be important to have a picture of “sand bucket” or “pool” or “sunglasses” but on vacation they may be items that the child would need or request frequently.
5.       Have a generous handful of flashcards, arts & crafts, and books While on the plane, in the car, or even sitting at the beach, it can be very helpful to have activities on hand to keep children engaged. Visuals can be used as flashcard or cut and paste images in afternoon craft projects. For children who may be missing additional therapies or educational activities, having these on-the-go “work” folders or bags can provide a quick way to keep your child learning throughout the vacation.
With a little bit of preparation and the help of some visuals, this summer's vacation may be the most relaxing yet!


Asking for a break to decrease challenging behavior

Children are often frustrated by a difficult task or skill. This frustration can increase especially if the child has special needs or if the child is in an environment that is more demanding than they are equipped to deal with. This high level of potential frustration can lead to challenging behavior like screaming, hitting, or even throwing materials.

Rather than removing all difficult skills, it is more useful to the child to teach him or her a skill to express this frustration appropriately. If the child is not taught a way to express his or her frustration, the challenging behavior can get worse. Soon parents or teachers are at their wits end about what to do with this child. In this particular situation, assessment often reveal that the reason a child is continuing to engage in the behavior is due to a desire to escape the task. When a child is engaging in challenging behavior to escape a task, one of the first recommendations I have for the parent or educator is to teach the child to appropriately ask for a break.

By teaching a child to appropriately request for a break, you can give the child another skill (i.e. asking nicely for a break) that REPLACES the previously negative behavior (i.e. hitting to get out of work). This concept is incredibly important when working to decrease challenging behavior. Without providing the child with another behavior to put in its place that achieves same function, the child often returns to the previous behavior that allowed them to escape work.

One way to teach a child to request a break is to use a variety of visuals. Visuals can be effective due to the highly individualized nature of the materials. With visuals, you can make materials specifically intended for a child depending on how they communicate. Visual picture cards can be images, words, or the combination of both.
When first introducing this skill to a child, it is helpful to set up many situations throughout the day where the child can practice the skill. To begin, pick a skill that is relatively difficult for the child to complete without some level of frustration. If the child normally can work for 3 minutes on the task without getting frustrated, choose a shorter time period to begin. Start this time period and quickly prompt the child to ask for a break. I would recommend very short intervals to ensure that the child is successful. For example after 30 seconds prompt the child to ask for a break; even if they are NOT yet frustrated. This increases success with the task and allows the child to see the results of them using this new appropriate skill (they STILL get out of the task briefly to calm down and work in small increments). The interval of work can be increased once the child begins to engage in the task with greater confidence. 
Asking for a break can look different for various children. It can be a child giving an adult a visual, raising their hand to ask for a break, saying “I need a break” or signing. A break can simply be the child sitting without demands on their desk for a short period of time or it may be a time where the child can engage in some relaxing activity. As a general rule, it is helpful to keep the breaks short and without highly preferred activities. Overall, a break is meant to give the child an appropriate way to take a break from the difficult activity for a short period of time.
While teaching a child to request a break is an incredibly useful skill, it may not single-handedly decrease the challenging behavior to manageable levels. To do this, professionals often add in other parts to the behavior plan to get at all the functions of the challenging behavior. There are other recommendations that are often paired with teaching a child to request a break, such as putting in an additional reinforcement system (i.e. access to computer after task, stickers, snack, etc.).
Note: For more detailed suggestions for a particular child and behavior, it is most helpful to consult a behavior analyst or other qualified professional.


Teaching safety skills with visual cards and pictures


Safety knowledge is an important set of skills to teach young children. When teaching about safety I have found it helpful to separate safety skills into separate categories depending on the child’s age and functioning level. Usually, I divide my efforts between two primary groups: ‘Basic Identification of safe and dangerous’, and ‘Community safety’ (Strangers vs. familiar people and/or street signs). These two areas can cover many topics and are useful for an introduction into safety skills.

To teach a child to recognize and identify the concepts of safe and dangerous, I begin by having visual cards of basic items or events. These picture cards are often things that can be either safe or dangerous depending on their context. For example, a pretend kitchen center vs. a real oven in their kitchen or a boy wearing a helmet vs. a boy not wearing a helmet. I try to have a varied collection of these cards that visually demonstrate when an item is safe or dangerous. Once I have these cards, I ask the child to describe, sort, or identify the cards to see what he or she already knows about the subject. From this probe, I can then begin to decide where I need to begin teaching. When teaching safe vs. dangerous, it can be helpful to first teach children to sort the cards into piles (safe pile vs. dangerous pile), then tell you if a picture is safe or dangerous, and then finally tell you why it is safe or dangerous.

The strategies procedures used above (sort, identify, and then explain) can also be used to teach signs in the community. These skills can be practiced multiple times a day in the natural context when you are taking a walk or driving.
Stranger safety skills always seem to be a bit more difficult to teach; yet are so important! To teach a child to recognize and identify the concepts of stranger vs. familiar person, I collect images of people in that child’s environment who are familiar and images of people that the child does not know. I find the “create a new card” function in Mrs. Riley helpful to input these images so that I am able to make all the cards look the same. Ensuring similarity among the materials is a good idea in this program so that children are paying attention to the important cues (recognition of a person’s face) rather than learning the skill by attending to the unimportant cues (familiar people are photographs, unfamiliar are from a magazine, etc.). Similarly, in this program it can useful to use the visual cards to have the child sort, label, find, or explain why that person is a stranger (someone they don’t know) or a familiar person (someone they know).
I also find that with this program, if the child is older, it is especially important to engage in role play with the child. When role playing, I pretend to both the stranger and/or a familiar person. I remind the child of what he or she can do when a stranger comes up to them. I then approach the child and have the child react appropriately depending on who I pretend to be. For some children, it is important to even take this a step further and set up situations in the community. There are a growing number of programs in communities that are reaching out to teach this important skill! In these programs, trained adults are the ‘stranger’ (the child does not know them) and ‘tests’ the child in the community (as the parent watches from another viewpoint to see how their child reacts).  I highly recommend thorough teaching of these skills so that we can all keep children safe.
As with all skills, it is important to make sure the child can demonstrate his or her knowledge in their environment. You can test this by pointing out, asking questions, and having the child show you that he can actually apply his or her safety knowledge throughout the day.
You can see the example PageBuilder file "Safe vs. Dangerous" that I made below.

Link to File - Safe vs. Dangerous


Making a Storyboard to increase child engagement while reading a book


               When I was student teaching a few years ago, I had heard from a colleague about a tool called a “storyboard.” This tool was explained to me as a visual support to provide a child, or group of children, a way to interact and engage with the story being read. I was eager to try out the concept of such a tool since our preschool curriculum (“Read, Play, and Learn”, http://www.readplaylearn.com/) contained a strong emphasis on storybooks and play.
                The storyboard is simple. It is a small piece of foam core board made to fit in a child’s lap. On this board are two horizontal rows of Velcro. The Velcro holds pictures of important events or parts of the story that are sequenced in order from beginning to end, left to right. The number of pictures depends on the child’s functioning level and the story itself, but often ranges from 4-8 pictures. On the back of the board is a slim envelope that is large enough to hold all of the story pictures. When it is story time, this board (already sequenced with the pictures on the front) is given to the child. As the story is read, the child listens and looks at the book to see when the next picture on his board occurs. Once this event or picture occurs in the story, the child then removes the picture and slips it into the back “all done” envelope.
                I found this idea fascinating as it seemed like a great way to engage those children who had trouble attending to so much auditory information and text. In my mind were a few children in particular, who had the cognitive and motor ability to match the pictures to events in the story being read, yet struggled to pay attention for the full duration of the story when not individually engaged.
                I decided to try out this tool with one child first. I often saw him during story time looking around, playing with his shoes, and fading in and out of attentiveness during story time. I also knew that he was a strong visual learner. I took photos of and laminated key pictures in the story that I was going to read the next day.  The next day I gave him the story board and showed him how to use the first picture. He quickly understood. He independently “found” the remaining five pictures on the storyboard by himself, his eyes glued to the story, as I read the book to the class. I was very surprised to have seen such a quick increase in engagement. During subsequent days, I gave him a storyboard for every story time and he quickly began attending for the full duration of the activity. He would smile each time he “matched” or noticed that the page of my book matched the picture on his board. I noticed with each story, that he would take off the picture, put it in the envelope and look right back to the story, eager to find the next picture. Not only did his engagement increase, but he soon began to answer more questions about the story (especially with repeated readings) and to sequence the stories with higher accuracy. By the end of the week, he was now first to sit on his little carpet square, storyboard in hand, and ready!


Using Conversation Placemats to increase Social Interaction among Preschoolers


It can be difficult to find times within a preschool day to directly work on social skills. Schedules are often full of activities and setting up arbitrary situations can interrupt the natural context and decrease generalization. One already established routine that occurs in almost every preschool day is snack or lunch time. This routine is also a block of time that can work beautifully as a natural context for teachers to address communication and social skills for preschoolers.
In some classrooms, feeding times are already used to some extent, to address social and communicative goals. For example, many teachers and aides may already work on encouraging children to request specific food items or exchange utensils with other peers. Such skills can quickly and naturally be embedded into the routine without great disruption to the group. For some children, these skills are useful goals and at their current functioning level. However, for some preschoolers who still demonstrate delays yet are able to effectively request and exchange materials, emphasis on higher level social skills are needed. Such higher level social skills for preschool children may include basic conversational skills.
One method of working on conversational skills for children with varying skill levels is to use conversation placemats. Such an idea was first introduced and assessed in a research article titled “Increasing the Social Interactions of Preschool Children with Disabilities during Mealtimes: The Effects of an Interactive Placemat game” (Spohn, Timko, and Sainato, 1999). This is a wonderful article that outlines the rationale, procedures, and results from using such a visual strategy to increase social interaction within a small group in a preschool classroom.
In summary, a placemat is created for each child and they are told they are going to play “The Talking Game.” The placemat contains a collage of visual cues or pictures that could spark conversation or commenting from the targeted children. The first step is to have a child begin the game by taking a picture card to see who they will talk to in the group. They may talk to that peer about a picture on the placemat or another topic. If the child does not initiate a comment or question, the teacher or adult can then step in and prompt the child with a comment to say. Over time, the adult fades themselves out after the children are initiating to each other with greater independence.
After reading this article, I took the concept and modified the materials and procedures to address the needs of specific children I work with who I suspected would benefit from this type of intervention. As a behavior analyst working primarily in a 1:1 situation, I have used conversation placemats to initially teach commenting, asking questions, and initiating topics with myself or another adult. Once the child was able to use the skills with adults, I introduced the placemat with peers. Regardless of how you choose to use the placemats, the construction of the placemats is similar.
First begin by taking an 8x11 sheet of colored paper which will be the placemat. Using a program such as Mrs. Riley to create visuals, you then begin to select and print out pictures that are interesting and relevant to the child or group of children. These pictures are then cut out and glued to the 8x11 colored piece of paper in a collage fashion. It is helpful to laminate these placemats as they are used during feeding times and quickly get dirty otherwise! Once they are laminated, begin using them during naturally occurring routines such as snack to increase social interaction in a fun and effective way!
Spohn, J., Timko, T., Sainato, D. (1999). Increasing the Social Interactions of Preschool Children with Disabilities During Mealtimes: The Effects of an Interactive Placemat Game. Education and Treatment of Children, 22, 1-18.



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