Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Movin' on Up (to the high school)

Today was the 8th Grade Moving Up Day Ceremony, which was like Graduation v.0.5. The students processed to Pomp & Circumstance, received prestigious awards at the building, district, and state level, and received framed diplomas as they crossed the stage. It was a nice way to wrap up our students' last year of elementary school (remember my district does PreK-8, 9-12 buildings). Next year, they'll be low men and women on the totem pole again as they all scatter to one of the district's 13 high schools (or in the case of one young man, a private school).

As I sat in our auditorium watching the proceedings, I was a little sad that I didn't know the 8th grade class better. Going through my two degrees, I always thought that I would end up working at the middle school or high school level. I spent my summers of graduate school working at an enrichment/leadership summer program for students from my district. But, after interning at an elementary level and seeing all the great academic and behavioral interventions that can be done with the little ones, that's what took my interest and heart the most.

My interaction with our 8th graders was pretty much only crisis and/or peer mediation, and I did very little of it. We had someone on our team that knew the middle school classes well, so she did a lot of intervention with them, as did our guidance counselor. I wish that I had known all the kids who walked up to get awards, especially the multiple winners and the student going to one of the most prestigious private schools in the city. That's a huge feat for anyone, let alone someone leaving our low performing building!

Congratulations to our Class of 2011... best wishes as you go out into the world!

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Ice Cream Sandwich-y Goodbyes

We ended our social skills/anger management group this week. The boys requested ice cream sandwiches as a treat for our last group, so Ms. B and I brought ice cream and cookies and let them make their own. There's nothing like an 11-year old boy scarfing a quickly melting ice cream sandwich. Their sticky smiles were priceless!

Before we indulged, we did an activity, of course. Ms. B brought a glow in the dark wand and let each boy make a "wish" about something they'd like to improve about themselves. At first they were more excited by the light show coming out of the wand, but we got some good answers out of them, including improving academics and behavior. It was a nice, light way to end group.

Now that the fun is done, I have to buckle down for some SERIOUS TESTING. I was just asked to put in overtime and do 14 evaluations and/or reports by the end of the school year, with meetings to be held over the summer. That's on top of testing I need to finish for meetings to be held on the 21st, and our regularly scheduled summer cases. Phew! I smell a testival and typeathon coming on!

Monday, June 13, 2011

Peanut Butter, Jelly, and a Dollop?!

I missed the majority of the most recent group session because I was stuck in CSE meetings. Sad face.

I came up for the very end of group. The activity was for each boy to give explicit, step-by-step directions to a partner, instructing them in how to make a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. The objective was to practice listening skills and clear communication. The tough part was that they stood back to back, so the person giving instructions couldn't see what the person making the sandwich was doing. The person making the sandwich could only do what their instructor told them, and they had to be specific. For instance, if the person giving instructions said, "put peanut butter on the bread," but didn't tell how, I told them I'd stick my hand in and take peanut butter out... no one told me to use a knife! Or if someone said, "squish the two pieces of bread together," I said that I would've squished them into a ball, without regard to putting the PB & J together.

Ms. B said that the activity went well. She did the activity with two girls groups she runs, and C's Crew did the best. Once the boys were happily munching on their sandwiches, we asked them what was difficult about making the sandwiches. They said that following the directions was difficult, as was telling their partner exactly what they needed to do. It's easy to make a PB&J, but clearly telling someone how to do it was tricky.

Highlight of the activity: watching A make the sandwich. He was told to put a  "dollop" of peanut butter on the bread, and he became quite confuzzled. He quickly demanded to know, "What is a dollop?!?!" in a high-pitched voice. Hard not to laugh.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Accomplishment: Autism

As the school year is drawing to a close, I'm going to be doing a lot of looking back and making observations on my first year as a school psychologist (assuming I have time, since the end of the year is B-A-N-A-N-A-S right now). One case I want to highlight is A, one of the boys in my social skills/anger management group.

Mrs. C, A's teacher, came to me with concerns that A exhibits characteristics of an autistic spectrum disorder. These are signs that I noticed in the times I visited the classroom prior to beginning group, and have also documented a little bit in blogging about our sessions. Mrs. C's primary concerns were A's severe lack of social skills, resistance to changes in his environment, and his unusual reactions to his environment (i.e. smells, sounds, touches). She noted that these are really interfering with his ability to make friends and function fully within the room. In a 6:1+1 classroom of severely learning disabled and emotionally disturbed kids, A doesn't quite fit.

The Committee on Special Education began the reevaluation process, so that we could take a look at A's classification and program to determine if he needed something more or different to better meet his needs. I ran into a little roadblock because A is not currently diagnosed as autistic from a medical doctor, something I was worried would impede me from possibly classifying him as a student with autism. However, after talking to my psychologist colleagues, I got a resounding "YES," I could classify A as a student with autism, despite the fact that he does not have a diagnosis. One of the psychs summed it up best, "There is a medical model diagnosis and an educational model diagnosis. We are making educational classifications, not medical diagnoses."

In order to evaluate whether A may be educationally disabled due to an autistic spectrum disorder, I gave Mrs. C oodles of ratings scales to fill out to gain more information about A's behavior, including the Asperger Syndrome Diagnostic Scale (ASDS), the Childhood Autism Rating Scale (CARS), and the Vineland II Adaptive Behavior Scale. I also observed A within the classroom, which was easy because I see him for group every week. The rating scale results, Mrs. C's notes, and my observations all showed overwhelming evidence that A may have an autistic spectrum disorder.

I did a record review of A's previous evaluations and reports. What I found was both surprising and upsetting. The more I reviewed old documents, the more I realized that A has grown exponentially over the past five years. He started out nonverbal, violent, and what appeared to be very mentally delayed. Today, he scores with generally average intelligence and academic skills. However, I also found that for just as long, folks have noticed "oddities" that have been described as those similar to an autistic spectrum disorder. What frustrated me the most was A's most recent psychological evaluation. He was described very plainly as having autistic behaviors, but his classification was changed to Learning Disabled, despite him having fairly average skills across the board. Why had no one investigated the possibility of a classification of autism for A?

It seemed totally unfair to A that no one had stepped up to the plate. True, "autism" can spook the best psychologists, so it certainly spooks me (since I can in no way claim to be in the "best" category). It's like Mental Retardation or Emotional Disturbance: it sticks and it can be harsh. But, for all my reservations, it became extremely important to me to "do right" by A and get him services that would benefit him. Our district has a program at one of it's schools solely for high-functioning students with autism. It provides them with great social skills training, job training and transition help, and just real life skills in general. A's mom, Mrs. C, and I all thought this would be a great program for him.

At A's CSE meeting this week, I changed his classification from Learning Disabled to Autism. We're in the process now of getting paperwork together so A can attend the specialized program for students with autism next year (if all goes according to plan). Rock on.

In no way do I mean for this blog post to be self-serving or "tooting my own horn." For those that know me, I put others before myself constantly, maybe more than I should, and don't really want much in return. For me, it's for the kids, not any pats on the back I may get. So, I call this blog post "Accomplishment: Autism" because if I look back and find nothing else to be proud of after this year (unlikely), I can be happy knowing that A will be in the right setting for him next year with the right classification. That's what matters!

Thursday, June 2, 2011

When Outside Play Time Goes Awry

Group this week was complicated by high humidity and 80+ degree temperatures. My city is either one extreme or the other weather-wise, and both bring out the grumpy in folks. Our boys group was no exception.

Ms. B and I had planned to take the boys outside and play simple games (Red Light, Green Light; Simon Says; What Time is it Mr. Fox?) to practice following directions, listening, turn-taking, and good sportsmanship. The issues started as we were leaving the classroom. W said this to B, A refused to go outside, B left the group to go back to the classroom, W shuffled his feet and shut down... ad nauseum. The boys had a very hard time participating appropriately. I don't know if it was the heat, the excitement of nice weather and being outside, or being 11-years-old, but holy cow! We ended group early because Ms. B had to go to a meeting and because it just wasn't as productive as we'd like. Definitely less than ideal!

Next week should be better... practicing explicit listening skills and clear communication by having one partner instruct another on how to make a PB&J, step-by-step. Potential biggest hurdle: not having the kiddos eat their sandwiches.