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Autism Classroom Strategies: Interview with Teacher & Blogger Karina Handy

 

Meet Karina Handy, a special education teacher with years of experience working with students with autism. 

 Karina lives in Virginia and blogs about teaching at Autism Learning Spot, which is full of practical tips and teaching strategies.

We are excited to share our interview with her about the practices she has successfully implemented, her favorite classroom tools, and how she has enhanced the special education program at her school. We hope her journey as a special education teacher will inspire you!

 

What type of classroom do you teach in? How old are your students?

Currently, I am teaching in an Enhanced Autism classroom with eight students across kindergarten and 4th grade. We have a total of 35 students in five classrooms between kindergarten and 5th grade. Each teacher works with each of the 35 students at some point during the week.

What would you say is the general functioning level of your students?

Some of my students are just learning to use communication devices and have less to no independent skills. They need a lot of visual supports and are working on more basic math concepts as well as lower comprehension and reading levels.

Our students transition 6 - 20 times a day between classes and work with 8 - 18 adults. It provides practice generalizing expectations across adults and classrooms. The majority of our students are very social and interact with a variety of students. These are all things people say kids with autism struggle with and can’t do, but they can!

What has your professional journey looked like?

I majored in art therapy at George Mason University. Right out of college, I took a position working as a one-to-one for a student with Down syndrome in a private special education school. He was 16 years old and was in a vocational and life skills program. Even though on that first day together he must have fired me at least 50 times, I totally fell in love with working with him. I grew interested in the other students in the class with a variety of disabilities and realized I wanted to teach kids with intellectual disabilities and autism. This meant I had to go back to school to get a teaching license.

After transferring to an elementary school in Fairfax County, I became one of two teachers in a program for students with autism where the students were split by grade level. Our focus was on sight word reading and basic math without a structured program used in the classrooms. We eventually grew to three classrooms, however those with severe behaviors were getting all our attention while others who would sit quietly got less attention. We used a lot of good teaching strategies, but I felt like I was always putting out fires and the students were not making enough progress.

After a year, we decided to make some changes. The first change we made was to group students by ability rather than grade. We considered their communication, social, academic, and behavioral abilities. Next, we organized students into smaller groups based on their fine motor and social abilities. Every day for 20 minutes, students rotated to one of our classrooms to participate in a fine motor, gross motor, sensory, or social skills group that matched their skill level. This was meant to build in a break in the day and hopefully alleviate some of the behavioral issues. We made the targeted areas enjoyable with a variety of games, sensory bins, movement activities, and bugs and creatures for picking up with tweezers and scoops.

Thanks to these fun breaks in their day we did notice a drop in inappropriate behaviors and saw that the students looked forward to the transitions and changes in their day. We made sure the materials used during these rotations were not available at any other time, making the activities especially rewarding. Eventually, we even added a fifth rotation of crafts and cooking which they also loved.

Our final step was to take a good look at reading and math programs. We had been using Reading Mastery and Connecting Math with our higher-level learners and touch math strategies with all our students, but as Fairfax was starting to endorse more curricula for the low incidence populations, we were introduced to Early Literacy Skills Builder (ELSB) and Early Numeracy. Even though we had found these structured programs, it was difficult to implement each level in each classroom, and grouped students by skill level once again. As time went on, we grew to five classrooms and introduced more programs (Pathways to LiteracyEarly Reading Skills Builder (ERSB), Story Builder, and Edmark). We also did grade level groupings for science and social studies, and ability groupings for the social skills program, Teachtown, and for our self-contained specials. We had more and more students who could join the general education classrooms with support and had increased flexibility to adjust lessons based on individual student needs. We are constantly witnessing student progress and success across skills areas, which is amazing to be part of.

You have featured several Attainment products on your blog; what aspect/s do you feel worked especially well for your students within the lesson and within the classroom setting in general?

I love the programs from Attainment as I have seen my students make so much progress when using them. I find the programs to be easy to run for teachers. Students love the programs too and they see their own progress. The programs are interactive and fun, very child-friendly while targeting important reading and math skills. I like that each program can be adapted for non-verbal students as well as students with other deficits like fine motor or students with vision issues.

We currently use Pathways to Literacy, Early Literacy Skills Builder (ELSB), Early Reading Skills Builder (ERSB), Edmark, and Building with Stories for reading. We also use Early Numeracy and Early Science Curriculum.

Regarding implementation of the curricula, how was the process for you overall?

Using the materials in a classroom with students who weren’t all on the same program or on the same lesson was difficult to run with fidelity. Once we started cross-grouping and looking at other classrooms it became very easy. We also knew which students could be in larger groups, which needed smaller groups, and even which needed to be one-on-one.

How do you incorporate paraprofessionals within the lessons while you were using the curricula?

It depends on the group of students. We have two groups where the paraprofessionals are supporting the students in the group with behavioral feedback while the teacher runs the lesson. We have other groups where our paraprofessionals work on skills that we have introduced in lessons in their center rotations. We pick individual targets in which we see students struggle to incorporate those skill areas in centers. The paraprofessionals also support students while working on other areas from their IEP goals and areas that a student might be ready for outside the program (nouns, building sentences, spelling, graphing, computation, and so on).

What types of technology have you implemented and integrated within your classroom?

In addition to teaching a classroom, I am the Technology Outreach Program Support teacher at my school. I work closely with my assistive technology teacher and help teachers in our school to support students with different assistive technology tools.

We all use technology within our classrooms, some more than others. I have iPads in the classroom which I use to reinforce certain lessons with the use of specific apps. I also hook up one of the iPads to our projector for whole group lessons. This allows all the students to see what others are doing as they come up to the board to take turns. I also use it to introduce new apps so that we can try it as a group first.

To be more specific, I have incorporated the following into the classroom.

  • SmartBoard - We have two of these and the students love them!
  • Big buttons - Ideal for students needing support with communication
  • Clicker6 - Typing and writing skills
  • Alphasmart - Typing and writing skills
  • AAC Language Lab - Adapting books for learning to communicate and read out loud
  • Touch screen computers - Used with students who cannot use a mouse & keyboard
  • Software & Apps - Words for Life, GoTalk NOW, Teachtown, Lexia, and Pixwriter

I create materials for all of our students using Boardmaker for the Virginia Alternate Assessment Program as well other academic areas (especially adapting grade level science and social studies) and behavioral and emotional supports (token boards, social stories, behavior contracts).

How have your students responded to technology in the classroom?

They all love using technology and respond especially well to the iPads and the SmartBoards. All of our students interact with technology, it just depends what level of independence they have and how much support they need.

What advice do you have for other teachers in the field regarding implementing assistive curricula or technologies?

My advice is that it may seem overwhelming at first, but take on one thing at a time and build from there. I have seen that every time we have taken on another challenge, implemented another program, or made changes to our daily routines our students have met the challenge and handled it very nicely. The adults were the ones struggling with the change.

The key is to prepare them, give them the time to understand what is coming, give them support to be successful, and don’t quit because the first or second time didn’t go well. It takes time to establish a routine. Our kids are amazing and can do so much, so give them the chance to prove you wrong and they will! We took the time to slowly add in new programs, transitions, and interventions, that is why I think our program works so well.

Thank you, Karina! 

Do you have any suggestions from your experience working with children with autism or intellectual disabilities?  Please share them in the comments!

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