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A Shadow Teacher Stepping Out of the Shadow

By: Daniela Carovi Correa, Shadow Teacher Assistant, The Columbus School

A student with a special need must have the support of their teachers and classmates in order to learn how to be an active, respectful and responsible member of the community.

At The Columbus School, we are having a new experience with a student that has autism and needs support. We have been trying to encourage students to support our student in understanding the appropriate behavior and how to respond if an inappropriate behavior is displayed. An example from the beginning of the school year related to waiting your turn in line. As his shadow teacher, I was redirecting him to the end of the line, and other students responded: “don’t worry, he can be there”. In response, I said: “Thank you, but he needs to learn as all of us to respect the line and wait his turn”. This is one example of interaction where our autistic student as well as other students began to learn that all members of our community can display appropriate behaviors with support. As a shadow teacher, I not support the student assigned to me, but also support his classmates in learning how to interact with him and each other.

When working with a student on the Autism Spectrum there are many strategies you can use. However, I’d like to share three strategies that I have used with my student: token economy, using an agenda and getting to know the student.

Token Economy

One of the goals for our student is to reduce behaviors that can interrupt the class or distract them from their work. A component on the autism spectrum that our student displays is echolalia (the use of quotes from movies or from other people). This behavior is often displayed in a loud voice which interrupts class. In order to reduce this behavior, we began to use a token economy. At first some of my colleagues were in doubt as to if this behavior could be changed or modified. I decided to try it out and determine its impact.

The following guidelines were used for the token economy (see checklist in image below)

  1. Use a mark that indicates the appropriate behavior was displayed (we used a check mark because the student really likes check marks)

  2. 4 checks in one class = reward that the student really enjoys

  3. 1-3 checks = reward that the student enjoys but not as much as the 4 check reward

  4. After 3 weeks we began to take away the rewards and only use the checks

  5. After 6 weeks we stopped using check mark and only reminded the student of the appropriate behavior prior to class

Prior to the token economy, the student would use movie quotes in a loud voice about 9-10 times per class. After the implementation of the token economy the student has reduced this behavior and now displays it only at the beginning of class about 2-3 times. After reflecting on this intervention, I realized that by raising our expectations and requiring more of our student he rose to the expectation. 

As a Shadow Teacher it is important to design interventions that promote appropriate behaviors, empower the student and proactively prevent inappropriate behaviors. It is important to move from being reactive to inappropriate behaviors and saying things like: “you can’t do that” or “You have to do…” That is a stepping out of the shadow. Taking actions and designing interventions to promote the independence of the student.

With the support of the token economy, the student is now conscious about behaviors that were very difficult for them to control before they do not go out of the classroom during class, they have decreased the echolalia and ask for permission most of the time to take objects from others. It is very important when using this strategy, that the teacher does not use negative words and instead uses words like “avoid…” for each behavior instead of: “don’t say quotes…”

Using an Agenda

Another strategy that was implemented is an agenda for each class. As a result, before arriving to class it is very clear what the student is going to do, for example: the schedule of the class, which activity the student will do, how they will know that the activity has ended, in how many minutes each activity will be and a behavior goal for the class. I found this to be successful with our student because they could anticipate what will happen and therefore their stress was reduced as they knew what to expect. Students on the Autism Spectrum benefit from knowing what they expectations are and what will be expected of them. I make a Powerpoint presentation with time frames, colorful images related to the activities and cues for how the student will know when they are done. 

This strategy helps the student to keep in mind the remaining time, so when they become distracted I say : “x” minutes of the class have passed, so right know you have “x” minutes to finish the activity and immediately the student is redirected and puts great effort to concentrate on the activity.

Getting to Know your student

It is also very important to know their preferences and their dislikes when you are planning, for example, I know that my student really likes numbers and that’s why playing with the time in the cases he is not on task, works very well.

It is important for educational support teachers to be observers and be creative; we must take records about student’s behaviors, about their ups and downs and about the ways they respond and why they respond. We must be supportive in social situations and very responsible because we are a very important part in their lives, we spend a lot of time with them and therefore, we need to learn a lot about them and about all their different ways of responding to the world and understand why are they responding in that way. We also need to reflect each day about our student’s progress; if they are not responding in the best way, it is because we are missing something. It could be in any of the following areas were we need to improve: in planning, in routines, providing very specific information, understanding their special needs and the way they learn, or in understanding that they may be undergoing stress and need a strategy to manage their stress.

I’d like to stress that sharing my day with a student with a special need is amazing, they are very easy to love and it is true that we teach them, but it is also true that they teach us wonderful things. Just give yourself the opportunity to share some time with them. Our High School students here at The Columbus School have been saying the same: “we have learned from him/her and when he/she does not come to the school we miss him/her”.

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