August 2018

Challenging Your Classroom Lessons

By Samantha McMorrow, Ph.D.
Taking on new challenges and striving to provide better interventions and lessons is the spark that keeps our school counseling practice energized. It is just this idea that allowed me to smile and say “sure” when the Intensive Resource teacher in our building suggested that her class start coming for weekly lessons with me as their own independent group in addition to some of the students receiving my lessons with their regular education classrooms. I am the only school counselor in a K–5 building. I had never worked with what our district labels intensive resource classrooms, where students have a variety of diagnoses or impairments including autism, Down syndrome, fetal alcohol spectrum disorder, or may qualify as cognitively impaired with an IQ below the average range.
 
The teacher and I identified two main objectives: social skill development and bringing the topic addressed in their regular education classroom lessons with me down to a level that the students could connect with personally. After the conversation I was excited – I had never done this type of work before and it would give me the opportunity to develop more as a school counselor.
 
The significance of the experience to come became much clearer when I started to plan our first lesson. I was familiar with several of the students from their regular education classrooms, but several others I had only interacted with in passing. I learned that some students’ physical limitations would exclude them from any sort of manipulative work, such as coloring, cutting, squishing playdough, or moving game pieces. Some students were not able to communicate, even so much as to give a preference. Others could manipulate tools and communicate effectively, but did not understand subtle social norms, while some had difficulty controlling emotions and staying safe around peers. Once I realized the complex nature of what I had agreed to do, I felt a little less excited and more overwhelmed.
 
We began this adventure with interactive social skill development apps projected on the whiteboard, which was familiar to the students. I examined my lessons and began deconstructing what I was doing with the other classrooms and how the lessons could be tailored to this group. I was surprised to find that I use verbal communication a lot! Whether it is me talking to students, students talking to me or students talking with each other, all of my lessons required language. This was true even at the kindergarten level and even though I had adjusted many lessons to allow for student participation without speaking.
 
Despite hours searching the Internet for a counseling curriculum for students with intensive needs, I was not able to locate any specific resources, so I turned to other professionals. The main point of the great advice I received was to break things down into very simple parts. This required a shift in my mindset.
 
In my regular lessons, we work on mindfulness skills and whatever other topic we are addressing. The opening of each lesson supports emotional regulation development, as students practice deep breathing and we link it with coping skills for emotional regulation. For my intensive needs students, my main shift was realizing that work on emotional regulation and mindfulness plus a lesson with other content would be too much. To develop lessons for this group, the first step was to pull back from the idea of integrating small and repetitive mini-lessons as part of the opening routine for starting classroom lessons, and only work on one very specific thing at a time while trying to make it as concrete as possible. For example, we began some very basic work on sitting all together on the rug in a group. The goal was to be able to appropriately sit with the group, thus no grabbing other students, rolling on the floor, leaving the area early, or any other unexpected behavior. I used verbal instructions, of course, but I also worked in role-playing, which I found the students loved. We set the expectations for the experiences solidly before beginning our practice, and then we practiced while I read a picture book to the group.
 
Clearly stating expectations is not new to me; in my regular education classroom lessons, I use a lot of CHAMPs approaches: 
Conversation: What is the expectation for communicating?
Help: How will students let the teacher know they need help?
Activity: What is the activity that the student is engaging in?
Movement: What kind of movement is acceptable during this activity?
Participation: What will it look like if the student is participating in the activity?
 
This method of breaking down expectations was developed by Randy Sprick and often is used with positive behavioral intervention and supports (PBIS) for school-wide expectations. Although I was used to breaking down expectations into small, understandable pieces, I needed ways other than talking to the students to communicate the expectations for learning.
 
The other major shift in my way of conceptualizing classroom lessons was that in regular education classrooms, I was using this explicit instruction of expectation to set up the framework for the learning that would happen after that, and now I needed to view the explicit instruction of expectation as the learning.
 
My challenge of delivering lessons to a group that had challenges of their own and that I had no previous experience working with was both daunting and exciting. This group of students gave me the opportunity to see my lessons with new eyes. They challenged me to reflect on my practice and strive for better ways of connecting students with the lessons, while also helping me form closer relationships with the students. When students from this classroom come with their regular education classrooms, they have an aide who helps them participate. This is great for the student but creates a barrier to me developing a connection. Having a whole classroom lesson just for the intensive resource class, even though they came with several aides, allowed me time and opportunity to engage more fully with the students and lay the foundation for stronger relationships.
 
Samantha McMorrow, Ph.D., is a practicing school counselor and a Licensed Professional Counselor and supervisor. She has national certification as a counselor, as well as certification in Alaska as a Chemical Dependency Counselor. Dr. McMorrow is an adjunct instructor for the University of Alaska Fairbanks in the Counseling Department. Contact her at sgmcmorrow@alaska.edu.