Tomorrow is World Autism Awareness Day: a day that means a lot to me. While I have not taught students that have been identified with autism for many years now, I have taught many students in the past that have been, and my learning from these experiences continue to influence my current teaching practices. A few years ago, I rewrote one of my favourite texts, All I Really Need To Know, I Learned In Kindergarten, to share how teaching students with autism have made me a better teacher. I then updated this text the following year to share my new learning. As educators, every year we grow and change, and while re-reading this latest blog post this morning, I realized that my thinking continues to evolve. So here’s a further updated version of my take on All I Really Need To Know, I Learned In Kindergarten.
All I Really Need To Know About How To Be A Better Teacher, I Learned From Teaching Students With Autism: Version 3
All I really need to know about how to be a better teacher, I learned from teaching students with autism. Even though I don’t teach any students with autism this year, here are the things that I learned that continue to influence my teaching:
- Routines matters.
- Preparing for changes in routine, especially with the use of visuals, helps reduce stress.
- A visual schedule helps students better understand and take control of their day.
- Talk less.
- Use visuals more.
- Really watch and listen. Often it’s through these two things that we can identify likes and triggers.
- Have clear, consistent expectations. These expectations do not have to be the same for every student. Help children realize that we support what’s best for each child, even if “what’s best” is not the same for each of them.
- Respond to the students. Some days are harder than others. Accept this. Make changes to still make these hard days, successful ones. We’re not lowering expectations, but just responding to student needs.
- We all need independent work areas, but not necessarily the same spaces at the same time. Be accepting of these different needs.
- Take a deep breath. Use a quiet voice. It’s amazing how our volume influences the volume of others.
- Sing … a lot! If you feel the need to yell, try replacing that need with singing. It works. It often makes children smile and you feel better.
- Have high, but realistic, expectations for all students. All students need us to believe in them, and they need to know that we do.
- Work as a team. We can learn a lot from each other.
- Differentiate. It’s hard, but it’s possible. All students deserve the right to experience success.
- Teach compassion. Model and expect “kindness.”
- Demonstrate the importance of acceptance. Help students see that every child matters.
- Build relationships first. Show children that you care about them. Everybody needs to be loved.
- Reflect a lot. Try something, make changes, reflect on it, and try again.
- Work with parents. They know their children best. The insights that they can share will definitely help.
- Persevere. Embrace the saying, “Let’s start fresh.”
- What works for one child, may not work for another one. That’s okay. Try something different. Your first approach may work well on another day or with another child. Different is good.
- Read Stuart Shanker‘s books and explore The MEHRIT Centre’s website. I cannot tell you how much I have learned from him, and how I view behaviour differently now because of what he’s taught me. He’s helped me understand hidden stressors, and the need to examine self-regulation from the five domains.
- Be kind to yourself. We all make mistakes. Even when we know not to respond in a certain way, sometimes we do. Apologize. Start again. Kids understand. I know. They have forgiven me a lot.
- Avoid labels. Gifted. Learning disabled. Autistic. The list goes on. Regardless of the label, children are children first.
Everything you need to know about teaching and learning is in here: classroom management, differentiated instruction, self-regulation, and most of all, putting students first. I continue to be a better teacher because of what I’ve learned from teaching students with autism. On World Autism Awareness Day, let’s remember what makes all of our students unique and wonderful, and how sometimes, looking closely at the needs of one student may really benefit all of them and make us better at what we do.
What have you learned from working or parenting children with autism? I hope we can all learn more from each other, and then, maybe next year, I will update this post again.
Be prepared to consider every instructional decision through the lens of the most vulnerable learners and help every member of the school team think in a similar way. The school’s schedule, special events, “surprises”, etc. need to consider the most vulnerable students first. Thinking first reduces stress for everyone. Also, we all have good and bad days: have Plan B ready.
Wonderful additions, Jane! I could really connect with your line about “consider(ing) every instructional decision through the lens of the most vulnerable learners.” Last minute changes in plan may be fine for many students, but can be disastrous for some. Sometimes even small changes and a little additional preparation can make a huge difference. Thinking of our neediest students first have helped me a lot over the years and continue to help me out now.