Category Archives: Advice to Educators

Create Your Own Tactile Schedule

Anne M. Zachry, M.A.

I have the opportunity to work directly with an adult special education student as part of his compensatory education program, which I am designing, implementing, and supervising. It’s an opportunity to try my own ideas based on the available assessment data and see how they work. This student has autism and vision impairment, so the tools that typically would be used to teach in light of his autism do not always work in light of his vision loss.

One of the most common teaching tools used with students who experience any number of developmental disorders is the visual schedule.  Visual schedules are used to take individual students or groups of students through a routine that is expected to play out over time in a specific order of events.  It can be a daily schedule, a weekly schedule, or an activity-specific schedule.

Tactile schedule for throwing a dinner party.

Visual schedules are also good for illustrating the steps in a task analysis. A task analysis is a process in which the individual steps of a task are broken down and taught in sequence. It is a method developed by and frequently used in Applied Behavioral Analysis (ABA).

A task analysis really has to be tailored to the ability of the individual who needs to understand it. I was creating a task analysis of the steps to throwing a dinner party. Throwing a dinner party was the best way for me to tie all of my student’s functional academic goals into a single activity. That way, I could concurrently instruct towards his goal throughout a given session.

I couldn’t put too many steps in the tactile schedule or it would be too much for my student to process at once and would incline him to develop more rigid rules about the activity than appropriate, but I could order the general tasks that had to be performed in sequence. Due to his autism, my student has a tendency to become ritualized to activities that are done the exact same way every time.

So, for example, we couldn’t cook spaghetti every time we met or he’d never generalize the cooking concepts to other foods. Therefore, the schedule, which is pictured here, simply says, “Cook food,” rather than specify which foods are to be cooked.

Continue reading

The Science of Rhymecology® as a Special Education Intervention

A colleague of mine from my graduate program in educational psychology, J. Walker, has developed a unique and powerful vehicle for reaching out to young people in the place of traditional psychological counseling, as well as developing students’ written expression skills. I had to write about it because I’ve been in love with the concept since the first time I heard J. describe it. It’s only now that I’ve known what I wanted to say about it.

What’s more, J. and I proofread each other’s papers for several classes in our graduate program. We got into each other’s heads regarding each other’s particular areas of professional focus and areas in which we each needed to research the peer-reviewed literature such that we were able to clearly recognize the overlaps between the work that KPS4Parents does and the outcomes that Rhymecology® is able to achieve. I understand the science of Rhymecology® because of that collegial collaboration.

Fully grounded in science, Rhymecology® demystifies the realities of the hip-hop/rap industry, promotes hip-hop/spoken word poetry as art rather than a fast track to riches, and helps kids express their thoughts, feelings, experiences, and ideas using a medium they appreciate, enjoy, and find engaging. Rather than forcing kids to adapt to treatment modalities or curriculum with which they cannot engage or relate, the treatment and curriculum is being brought to them via a vehicle they can more easily understand and use.

J. has conducted Rhymecology events with kids throughout Southern California, already. So far, the evidence indicates that children and youth are benefitting from Rhymecology®.

So, what is the underlying science of Rhymecology®? For those of us looking for replicable, evidence-based practices that achieve appropriate educational outcomes for children and youth challenged by learning problems, including social/emotional and behavioral challenges, this is a critical question.

To the degree that it is practicable to do so, special education must be delivered according to peer-reviewed research [34 CFR Sec. 300.320(a)(4)]. Rhymecology® achieves the end of a practicable, research-based intervention that can be incorporated into a student’s special education program in support of social-emotional, behavioral, and/or written expression goals, to the degree it is appropriate to the individual learning needs of a given special education student.

Rhymecology® is rooted in the sciences of human development, learning, and effective instruction. The researchers who significantly contributed to the underlying science behind Rhymecology® include Skinner, Pavlov, Bronfenbrenner, Vygotsky, and Piaget. Continue reading

The Approaching End of a Heartbreaking Era

Click here to listen to the podcast version of this blog post.


When the Education of All Handicapped Children’s Act (EAHCA) was enacted as PL94-142 in 1975, it was in the face of enormous opposition from school district administrators and their attorneys who were actively refusing to enroll children with disabilities in our nation’s public schools. Many have remained employed in public education, stewing in their own bile over their legal “loss” while begrudgingly enrolling students with special needs.

The EAHCA was reauthorized as the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) in 1990, which has, itself, been reauthorized twice since then, the last reauthorization being in 2004. Clearly, Congress has no intention of returning to a time when discriminating against those with disabilities was perfectly acceptable.

I don’t know how many of you have experienced an employment situation in which people have been required to do something that they opposed, but it’s been my experience that some people in this position are more likely to sabotage any attempts to do things differently to “prove” it was a bad idea than to willingly go with the program. Some people are just sore losers.

In short, you’re not likely to get buy-in from people who had to be Court-ordered or required by regulation to do the ethical and responsible thing. It says something, anyway, about a person’s character when he/she forgoes ethical solutions for whatever reasons and, therefore, requires enforceable regulations that dictate what his/her behavior should be. Some peoples’ characters create a situation in which the behaviors normally associated with common sense and ethics become subject to regulation.

This is not specific to special education or the legal practices that surround it. This is human nature. Somewhere out there in the world is the person who justified warning labels on suppositories that advise they are not meant for oral consumption. Some people’s functional skills in various aspects of life, for whatever reasons, are seriously limited.

People tend not to make improvements when forced to, particularly when they perceive the improvements as a threat to their familiar, comfortable, self-serving routines. This, too, is human nature.

The problem in special education is that, following the passage of the EAHCA, too many people with chips on their shoulders were left over the decades in positions of authority in public education, passing their “insight” onto the people they were responsible for training and stacking the deck against the success of special education. In other words, ever since the passage of the EAHCA in 1975, there have been career public education administrators undermining the effectiveness of special education in order to win an argument rather than educate children, the latter of which being what we actually pay them six-figure salaries at public expense to do.

Continue reading

Preventing SpEd Jargon from Impeding Agreements

Click here to listen to the podcast version of this post.

Source: Bob Cotter via Flickr

All too often in special education, those of us who have been working at it professionally for more than a few years have increased our vocabularies to include terms of art, acronyms, and legally significant phrases that mean a whole lot to us, but not a whole lot to professionals new to the field and parents. I find that a lot of my job as a lay advocate is translating SpEd-Speak into plain language.

It was actually during a case I’ve been working with a family that moved to the U.S. from Thailand that brought this point home for me. I found that by simplifying my language for the benefit of the translator, who knew nothing of special education, I made it lot easier for everyone else in the room to follow the logic of what I was saying. The meeting was also attended by the school district’s lawyer, who was actually pretty awesome once she realized what was going on. It was one of the most amicable and constructive IEP meetings in which I’ve participated in a while.

What I found worked best was to use simple language to communicate with most of the IEP team members, then sum up my point to counsel for the district in language she would appreciate in light of the regulations and the applicable science, if needed. In the end, what we figured out was that our 9th grade client qualified for special education as having autistic-like behaviors pursuant to 5 CCR Sec. 3030(g) and that his speech-language impairments for which he had originally been found eligible were features of his autistic-like tendencies as well as bilingualism coming from an Eastern tonal language to English.

I already knew from experience that throwing a bunch of jargon at people during a meeting where you’re trying to make things happen is not particularly constructive if any of them are unfamiliar with the lingo. Having non-English speaking clients only made the point more vivid. But, then I ran across an article in an old issue of Entrepreneur magazine that drove the point home even more, and, combined with my prior knowledge, inspired this blog post and corresponding podcast.

Click to Tweet: Throwing jargon around in IEP meetings is not constructive if the other people are unfamiliar with the lingo. #kps4parents

Continue reading

Mental Health Services for ASDs

Click here to listen to the podcast version of this post.

Sigmund Freud

Sigmund Freud (Source: Flickr)

Students with Autism Spectrum Disorders (“ASDs”), including Asperger’s Syndrome and Pervasive Developmental Disorder, Not Otherwise Specified (“PDD-NOS”), are often challenged by anxiety, which is an emotional health need. Many school districts contract with county mental health agencies or other providers for forms of individual psychotherapy services that may not be appropriate for some students with ASDs. Further, they may have no other service to offer to address ASD-related anxiety issues.

To add to the confusion, many county mental health agencies have recently re-identified themselves as county behavioral health agencies, yet they do not provide Applied Behavioral Analysis (“ABA”) or any other type of peer-reviewed behavioral intervention. ABA is supported by research to be effective in not only contending with undesired behaviors among persons with ASDs but also in providing explicit instruction to teach the skills these individuals lack.

Explicit instruction in social skills such as greetings, farewells, maintaining a topic of conversation chosen by another person, initiating conversations, and other aspects of human interaction have to taught to many children with ASDs as explicit, scripted procedures. Those procedures can then be generalized into real life by reinforcing them when they occur in natural settings and pointing out to the individual, in vivo, when he/she has engaged in the steps of the procedure so that he/she learns to recognize social contexts in which each script is to be applied.  Eventually, it becomes a learned, rehearsed strategy to deal with specific types of situations.

The degree to which persons with ASDs can master various scripted procedures, or even need this level of support, varies from individual to individual. The same for the degree to which someone with an ASD can generalize knowledge from one context to another, such as from the instructional setting to real life.  It’s called a spectrum disorder for a reason. The range of severity between mild and severe is quite broad and anyone can fall anywhere along it.

Traditional “talk therapy” that promotes developing one’s insight and insight into other people’s perspectives to sort out one’s issues is not necessarily appropriate for some individuals with ASDs. Because there are so many differences among people with ASDs, it’s not fair to say that no one with an ASD can benefit from traditional talk therapy. But, it is safe to say that there are a significant number of students with ASDs who truly cannot benefit from traditional talk therapy but still have emotional health needs that require mental health services as part of their special education programs.

The matter comes down to, “What form of mental health services are appropriate for students in special education who have ASDs and require mental health services in order to benefit from their IEPs?” Well, as with anything in special education, you can’t take a cookie-cutter approach and say one specific type of program will fix everything for everybody. For one thing, no such statement will ever be true; learners with disabilities, even within a population impacted by the same condition, are too diverse for one-size-fits-all programming. Federal law requires individualized programming for this very reason.

That said, there are certain approaches that are generally known to be more effective with students who have ASDs than others. These may work with many students with ASDs, but whether or not they will be effective with an individual student really depends on that student.  The following are possible methods by which effective mental health services can be delivered to some persons challenged by anxiety associated with ASDs.

Continue reading

Applying ABA to Non-Compliant LEAs

Positive Reinforcer ChartApplied Behavioral Analysis (“ABA”) has been around for decades, now. As one of the few scientifically research-based methodologies for providing instruction to individuals with autism, it has become regarded as an autism intervention. But ABA is not an autism-specific intervention at all. It is one approach to behavior modification that can be used with pretty much anybody.

Pure ABA has taken some criticism, and not necessarily without cause. Some practitioners have been overly reliant on Discrete Trial Training (“DTT”) to the point of training kids to be little robots without learning to understand or value?why social norms apply to them. The use of response-costs are also used inappropriately by far to many practitioners, particularly those who don’t really understand ABA. Response-costs are basically aversive consequences that are meted out when the individual engages in undesirable behavior.

From a purely scientific standpoint, response-costs can be delivered in a manner that facilitates the learning of more adaptive behavior. In our public schools, however, it far too often gets twisted into a justification to punish a kid for manifesting symptoms at school. (Of course, this presumes that there is any ABA being used in the school setting at all.)

Punishment is already epidemic and positive behavioral interventions are woefully lacking in our public schools. ?The idea of response-costs are far too appealing to school district administrators just looking for an excuse to punish a kid for displaying poor judgment or reacting to environmental antecedents because of a handicapping condition as though the kid is displaying willful defiance or misconduct.

These people don’t need any more ammunition to do the wrong thing. They can take the response-cost concept of pure ABA out of context and resort to reactive strategies in a knee-jerk fashion without putting forth the necessary effort to prevent the maladaptive behaviors and teach appropriate replacement behaviors in the first place.

In California where positive behavioral interventions are very regulated, there is at least some legal recourse for students who have been inappropriately subjected to reactive strategies, including response-costs, but the systems of accountability are far, far from perfect and way too many school districts still get away with harming children in the name of behavioral intervention.

But, like I said, ABA (including response-costs, when appropriate)?can be used effectively with anyone. I kind of look at our advocacy as behavioral intervention where the intent is to change the behavior of education agencies engaging in harmful, non-compliant behavior.

Continue reading