Year-round Thankfulness Strategies to Help All Students Thrive

by Dr. Sara Totten

“Remember when you wanted what you currently have. Remember to be thankful for what you’ve worked hard to have right now.”

I have the above quote posted on my mirror at home as a daily reminder to give thanks for every day. I was 17 when I found out I was pregnant and left home not long after. I never imagined that as an adult I’d have a doctorate degree and be able to financially support not only myself, but also to help support my daughter in college. I remember WIC appointments, section eight housing applications, finding daycare that would take the voucher assistance I received and trying to balance school, work, and the amazing little girl I was blessed to start and end each day with.

Though I did well in school, I don’t remember feeling a strong sense of belonging–particularly as a pregnant high school senior–until I started college. I had a professor who was a single parent. I remember meeting with her and the many encouraging words she gifted to me: words about survival, success, and hope. In class, she shared the stories of the youth she had worked with at a correctional facility. She shared compassion and commitment to understand each youth’s story. And, she shared the hope she had for each youth’s healing.

What I was given was an educator that not only cared about my success in her class, but cared about me as an individual, as she had for so many others. She had the ability to understand the perspective of another, and demonstrate empathy without judgement, no matter the mistake or action encountered. And though she didn’t formally teach my college class Social Emotional Learning (SEL), she modeled the definition everyday.

As Social Emotional Learning (SEL) becomes a core component of school, I am reminded that SEL is not just about the instruction or content. In the November (2018) report for CASEL “Respected: Perspectives of Youth on High School and Social Emotional Learning,” 42% of youth self-identified having felt lonely at some point in their school career; 52% identified feeling comfortable (in the school environment) and taking risks in school, and about a quarter of students did not endorse feeling comfortable being themselves. In addition, student ratings of self-efficacy dropped significantly in middle and high school, particularly among females (West, Fricke, Pier, 2018).

Adults play a key role in improving student outcomes in both achievement and behavior through the relationships they create with students. Morris (2016) discussed the need for educators to hold an “unconditional belief that all students possess an ability to succeed…Schools are modeling this kind of love every day, when they believe that the children they teach are worth it. (p.61).” The statement is especially true for adult relationships with our most disenfranchised students.

As educators, we can implement thankfulness strategies to create environments and relationships where all students can thrive. I offer the following three tips for implementing Thankful to Thriving all year long:

1.Handwritten Thank You’s
Acknowledge something specific a student has done. I have handwritten thank you’s to students who haven’t always spoken up or shared their perspective, to encourage and appreciate them for being willing to share their voice. 

2. Recognize and Build Leadership
Invest time in learning about students’ strengths. I have seen students with some of the most challenging behavior show strong mentorship skills for younger students. I recently observed a 2nd grader who has had referrals for physical aggression shine as a mentor for a Kindergarten social skills group. I worked with another student a while back who was exhibiting some bullying behaviors, so we assigned him a younger student to support during lunch. Without direction, he began checking in with her at recess. He felt success and importance in his role and the bullying behaviors ceased.

3. Take Personal Interest
Learn names and correct pronunciations. Find out what students have a personal interest in and ask questions. I work with a food service director who stresses with her staff the importance of learning each student’s name and how valuable connection is to school culture. Asking students about their after school events, jobs, or other interest areas has gone a long way to build relationships. 


What we model matters; the relationships we build with staff, students, and families matter. I am thankful for every child and every adult that has ever shared their story with me. I am thankful for the opportunities that I have to give back what was provided to me. Most of all, I am thankful for the shared humanity we can all gift to one another every day, every year and having the opportunity to create environments where all students can thrive.


References

DePaoli, J.L, Atwell, M.N., Bridgeland, J.M., & Shriver, T.P. (2018). Respected: Perspectives of  youth on high school & social and emotional learning. A Report for CASEL.

Morris, M.W. (2016). Pushout: The criminalization of black girls in schools. The New Press: New York.

West, M.R., Fricke, H., Pier, L. (2018). Trends in student social-emotional learning: Evidence  from the CORE districts. Policy Analysis for California Education.


Dr. Sara Totten is currently the Director of Student Services for the DeForest Area School District, a suburb of Madison, Wisconsin. She earned her doctorate in educational leadership at Edgewood College in Madison studying principal perspectives of disproportionate placement of African American students in special education programs.

Sara is currently the interim president-elect and has previously served the Social and Awards and Legislative representative roles on the Wisconsin Council for Administrators of Special Services. She also serves on the Wisconsin School Administrators Alliance (SAA) and participated on the research and development committee to revise the SAA Evidence-Based Agenda this past year. In addition to her role as director, Sara has taught a number of courses for Lakeland University’s Master Counseling program.



5 Things a Student with Autism Wishes His Teachers Had Known

by James Sinclair

If students are like flowers, then students with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) are a unique and extraordinary part of the garden that is a school. At first, we may seem out of place – our differences stand out and you can’t take your eyes off us. However, you will quickly come to realize that what makes us special can ultimately better the bouquet.

From those who tried to force off my thorns, to those who simply left me to wilt, I definitely had my fair share of ill-prepared teachers while growing up as a student with Autism. After sitting down to write this article, I realized that there were many things I wished my teachers had known when I was in school. So here are 5 tips to help you help your students with ASD grow and thrive.

1. Don’t stifle our creativity 

Yes, people with ASD can be great at math. We can be awesome with programming and we might even be good at everything else your iPhone has an app for. But, we’re also more creative than we are often given credit for – as demonstrated by recent studies into ‘the paradox of creativity in autism’ (Best, Arora, et al.). Despite this, there is a huge misconception that all students with ASD are built for stats and science, and this can often result in many of them being steered away from subjects in which they might have excelled.

For myself, this occurred during school when I was removed from art classes due to becoming visibly distressed at the lack of precise definition in the lessons.  Instead of providing me individualized support and accommodation, I was excluded from this essential outlet to explore my creativity during the school day. As such, it wasn’t till I created my blog that I realized that not only could I be imaginative but, as it turns out, I wasn’t half bad at it. The lesson here isn’t that all children with ASD should become bloggers though; it’s that we shouldn’t be stereotyped into fields that are purely based on facts and figures.

2. Be definitive (but not too definitive)

People with ASD aren’t mind-readers and can struggle with interpreting and understanding actions. Of course, this isn’t any great secret, which is why many tips for teaching students with Autism will encourage you to be as definitive as possible when giving instructions.

Now, I’m not going to say this is bad (because it’s not), but it’s often the case that when many see the phrase “be definitive” they will rely on using examples to teach. This is a problem for people with ASD as, due to our practical minds, we will often only take the outcome away and overlook the nuance and process, limiting the creation of a holistic understanding that drives new knowledge acquisition.

Educators can avoid this shortfall by working at a 1-on-1 level with a student with ASD, coaching them through a task from start to finish. Ensuring that actions are understood over repeated is crucial here and, while it may seem time consuming at first, it’s no different from the old ‘teach a man to fish’ saying –  your options are either to give us your full attention and sit down with us once, or give us fleeting support and prepare to sit with us again and again.

3. Promote a growth mindset

Imagine that you’re asked to complete a puzzle with 8 pieces. When you finish, the examiner says “Well done. You’re really smart,” and then offers you the option of doing another 8-piece test or one with 16 pieces. According to multiple studies (Dweck, 2006), you’re more likely to go for the 8 piece again in order to avoid the possibility of embarrassing yourself in front of the examiner who gave you praise. On the other hand, if that examiner had said “Wow, that looked tough, but you got there in the end,” (or something along those lines), it’s more likely that you would take on the 16-piece puzzle.

This is the difference between a fixed mindset and a growth mindset – something which is incredibly important to consider when teaching people who are very literal, such as students with Autism.

This was certainly the case for me growing up. After I was told that I was a ‘math whiz’ in my early years, I stopped trying to learn new things and thought I would always remain the best (which gave me a nasty shock when I changed schools). Ensuring that people with ASD always know there is room to improve is instrumental in guaranteeing that we do so.

4. Don’t label us as “bad kids”

One of the classic misconceptions surrounding students with ASD is that when we have a meltdown and become disruptive, we are intentionally causing trouble for ourselves and those around us. This is well and truly, positively and precisely, unfathomably wrong (and I still don’t think I have stressed that enough).

In reality, a meltdown is when our minds have become overloaded/overwhelmed and, instead of knowing that this is the moment to take a break, our bodies instead shutdown and ‘reboot’ in our most natural state: the fight or flight mode. As most are aware, this can cause quite a disturbance and be very upsetting for all those around. However, it’s not more upsetting for anyone than the person with Autism themselves.

When this does happen, it shouldn’t be seen as an opportunity to punish or scold the actions of your student with ASD, but to step up, offer support, and identify intervention strategies for that student in the future.

Take a moment to consider if the meltdown was:

  • Caused from not understanding a question.
  • Due to learning too many different things at one time.
  • Triggered by something in the room causing a sensory disturbance and making it impossible to focus.

Either way, the one constant is that throwing us out of the classroom won’t help. That’s why, when dealing with a meltdown, always remember to tackle the cause and not just the response.

 5. Teach us to embrace Autism

I spent most of my early childhood keeping my Autism a secret, locked away with the fact that I often wore pyjamas under my school clothes and that I was still watching (and loving) Dora the Explorer until the age of 16. This need to hide the real me meant that I was far too busy disguising my Autism to learn, and it often resulted in me pretending to be sick or purposefully disconnecting from my peers.

Of course, teaching a child with Autism to avoid this by embracing their condition is not quite as simple as a motivational speech – after all, Autistic or not, what adolescent is 100% comfortable with their identity? But small tricks like giving students with Autism a safe space to recharge our batteries and lending an ear when we seem upset can often be enough to hold us over until we find our own way. Compared to the previous 4 tips, this may not seem like much. However, just like teaching students without ASD, teaching someone with Autism is about giving us the tools to succeed and then helping us find independence.

Though students with ASD often come to school possessing their own unique tools of success, they can often suppress them in pursuit of fitting in.  This means that to help a student with Autism reach their full potential, we need educators who will look beyond simple book learning; who will guide us while we learn to see our sometimes obsessive personalities as unparalleled concentration, our often irregular approaches as inventive problem-solving, and any and all of our other differences as the strengths they truly are.


References

  • Dweck, Carol S., Mindset: The New Psychology of Success. Random House, 2006.
  • Best, C., Arora, S., Porter, F. et al. J Autism Dev Disord (2015) 45: 4064. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10803-015-2518-2

James Sinclair is an avid autism advocate who, when he’s not playing the latest Pokémon game, is busy finding the positive in every diagnosis. As an advocate, James has had previous speaking opportunities at The British Parliament and at Cambridge University and his writing has been featured in Reader’s Digest, Metro Newspaper and his self-founded site: Autistic & Unapologetic.