News from Across Virginia
The VCU ACE CoLA Summer Institute: Fulfilling and Refreshing!
Some of Virginia’s brightest and most dedicated special education leaders convened in Richmond on June 25-26 to learn, collaborate, discuss, celebrate and plan to improve educational services and practices for their students with ASD at the Third Annual Communities of Learning in ASD (CoLA). These busy days started with welcomes from the two collaborators in the development of the CoLA Summer Institute, VDOE Training and Technical Assistance Center at VCU’s Linda Oggel encouraged participants to engage to get the most from the experience, while VCU ACE’s Carol Schall reminded participants that this event was designed for the advanced learner to engage with the content at the level they wanted. After that welcome, the participants attended sessions in 3 different tracks. Track one was designed to assist educational leaders to consider the needs of children and youth with ASD related to the development of curriculum and instruction. This track included seminars on Self Determination, Reading and Math Literacy, and Career Education and Employment. Track two, focused on the social communication needs of children and youth with ASD and featured sessions on enhancing communication development for young children with ASD, social skills instruction in two different school divisions, and bridging the gap between home and school to increase generalization. Finally, track three provided three sessions related to training and teaming for school divisions looking for creative ways to increase the skills of their educators. In this track, participants explored a “hybrid” approach to professional development including training, professional learning communities, and coaching, classroom consulting models that lead to deeper learning, and heard the story of how a small school division in Virginia instituted change to improve services for their children and youth with ASD.
In addition to these engaging and enlightening sessions, participants also attended a poster session that was full of buzz and excitement over the excellent programs that were on display. These posters displayed excellent ideas for individual students, classrooms and school divisions to address the needs of students with ASD. School divisions from across the Commonwealth showed that they are meeting the challenge of educating children and youth with posters on social skills instruction through drama, the Spotsylvania Gateway Model of education, training paraprofessional educators to support students with ASD and staff training and coaching to improve preschool services for children and youth with ASD to name a few. For the first time, The CoLA team employed a panel of independent judges to award certificates to two of the many deserving posters on display. Clarke County Public School’s Poster entitled “Competent Learner Model” presented by Chrissy Welgan and Amanda Lambert were awarded the School Divisionwide Systems Change Poster Certificate while Tracey Scott’s poster displaying “Using the Expanding Expressions Tool (EET) to Develop Social Language Skills in Students with ASD” poster was awarded the Individual Classroom Excellence Poster Certificate.
The CoLA Summer Institute was topped off by an engaging and fun presentation from Erin Smydra, Specialist for Autism, Intellectual Disabilities, and Assistive Technology from the Virginia Department of Education (VDOE) on updates on policy and special education from the VDOE. Finally, each of the regional CoLA teams had the opportunity to meet and plan topics for the coming year’s regional CoLA meetings. Comments from the CoLA Summer Institute proclaimed it the best summer institute yet!
Creative Solutions for Significant Challenges: Integrating Social Skills Instruction into the School Day
Integrating social skills instruction into the school day is an important task that can pose some significant challenges. Quite often the need to provide social-communication support for students is overshadowed by the demand to spend more time on academic tasks. Elements such as scheduling a time for students to meet together or finding appropriate social peer partners can end up being difficult obstacles for teachers to overcome in their efforts to teach social skills to their students. Several divisions within the VCU-ACE initiative have realized these challenges and worked to find creative solutions for successful integration of social skills instruction.
One of these divisions is Newport News Public Schools. When they started on their journey with ACE, their discussion around social skills began within Professional Learning Communities. The teachers started looking at social skills from the perspective of autism and broke into groups to focus on planning for social skills groups throughout the day. One creative high school team noticed that a particular group of students was great in knowing lines of movies, so they decided to address social skills in a theater production. During an activity like this, the students would have opportunities to learn to match facial expressions with lines in the production, modulate their volume while speaking loudly, and cooperate together.
To pull this type of activity together, the team scheduled the theater group to meet every other day during one of the blocks during the school day. They set a goal of putting on a production for the teachers and parents. Through collaboration both within and outside of the school, they were able to get volunteers for set design, donations for food for the audience, and security and clean-up for the after school function.
As the initiative has continued, the students in the class have benefitted in quite a few ways. More positive and spontaneous interaction between the students has been noticed, both within the specific block for theater and outside of it. Additionally, the students have had the opportunity to get to know and make more friends throughout the student population.
Another division that has worked creatively to integrate social skills into the school day is Richmond City Public Schools. They created an extracurricular group for middle school students that met after school two times a week. One day was used to focus on target social skills, and the other to join peer models nominated by the staff in a general social activity. The group was volunteer-only and the division arranged for after-school transportation for the students. Their group adapted and followed the model outlined the Program for the Education and Enrichment of Relational Skills (PEERS). So far the program has been so successful that the division has expanded it to one more middle school and is looking for more!
Finally, in the Northern Neck Regional Program, a resourceful team found another way to bring together an after school social skills group at the primary level. The team started with volunteers in the first year and built a group that served students with autism and on grade level that met one time per week 12 times a year.
To begin, the team used a combination of a student self-assessment and the Autism Social Skills Profile developed by Scott Bellini to get a baseline of where their students were. Then they decided upon 8 skills to target within their program. As they worked to increase support for their program, they began to integrate math word problems that included social scenarios to discuss. As a result of pulling in the academics, they both increased the learning that the students could achieve and received increased buy-in from their administration. Due to this success, in the years that followed the team has moved from all volunteer to receiving stipends and a grant to fund their work. They have been able to expand the program to the middle school and increase the number of meetings per year for the students!
As was stated before, integrating social skills instruction into the school day can be quite a challenge. However, with a little creativity, collaboration, and dedication teams can overcome these challenges to find successful solutions. We applaud the difference that these divisions have made and look forward to hearing of many other, similar successful solutions throughout the Commonwealth!
Richmond Times-Dispatch Op/Ed: Wehman: Autism and (un)employment
April has been Autism Awareness Month, and I can only hope the annual observance does indeed chip away each year at the misunderstanding that surrounds people with autism — a condition the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported this month is identified in 1 in 68 children.
Various news stories, awareness campaigns and even the television show “Parenthood” have done well this month and year-round to tell authentic stories of autism, which often help people see that those among us living with autism should be included in our classrooms and social lives. However, that is simply not enough.
I have seen in more than 20 years of empirical research and anecdotal observance that people with autism can be valuable contributors to our society. They hold gifts that are not fully realized by the public — yet.
Employment, just one of many examples of this value, is an ideal opportunity for people with autism to not only show off their skills and talents, but also to become taxpaying members of society.
The sad truth about the country’s unemployment woes is that many businesses would love to hire, but they cannot find people with the right technology and engineering skills or the work ethic and capacity for providing precise detail.
Read this Op/Ed article by Dr. Paul Wehman at the TimesDispatch.com